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Published in Network Review: journal of the Scientific and Medical Network, 61, August 1996, pp. 32-33
Increasingly I find that I have more to learn from how I respond to information of a higher quality rather than from the information content itself. By "higher quality" I mean integrative knowledge suggesting higher orderings from unforeseen perspectives. In particular the musings below are evoked by readings of recent issues of Network (of the Scientific and Medical Network). But I experience the same challenges with other journals and books with whose content I would wish to be associated.
The learning challenge has something analogous to that faced by a person of modest appetite exposed to a vast buffet. What to consume -- quantity, variety, combinations? Whether to consume more -- when is enough? Why am I tempted to consume more -- what am I gaining? Is curiosity reason enough? Am I gaining wisdom calories and facing a challenge of conceptual obesity? Just what am I to do with the N+1th piece of insight I encounter?
The consumption metaphor may well be less than appropriate. I have tried using musical metaphors -- with each contribution to a journal as a note, an instrument, or a piece of music. I am then the listener attempting to hear the composition to which these all contribute -- the music of the spheres. Each journal issue is then a symphony --could I but stretch to integrate its apparently disparate elements. Are the contributors really influenced by each others contributions to enhance the quality of the whole? What is the music they are making together?
But I remain dissatisifed. There are jarring notes. Moving from one proposed new "model" or "perspective" to another -- each with its special claims to unique insight -- often leaves a bad taste. How can I integrate so much special pleading and implicit denigration of alternative perspectives? I am increasingly wary of efforts at a grand unifying theory that carry the implication that "Bloggs Theory of Everything" could fruitfully govern our awareness for the rest of time -- a sort of conceptual Thousand Year Reich. What would I do if everybody agreed that Bloggs was "right"? Where does it leave my own future learning challenges and contributions to society? Will I have to spend the remainder of my life learning to understand Bloggs Theory? Or should I be desperately aspiring to produce "Judge's Theory of Everything" and seek to impose it uponthe world? Should we all seek to sign bricks in the cathedral we are engaged in constructing?
Horror of horrors, maybe my conceptual eye has an iris that opens and closes in response to degrees of integration that I cannot absorb -- filtering out the wisdom I would claim to desire. Orrin Klapp has explored this possibility in Opening and Closing: strategies of information adaptation in society (1978). Maybe this explains my reluctance to subscribe to all the good journals and books I can locate -- and what about all those home-pages on the Web I could peruse for free? And all those schools of spiritual wisdom? Am I really avoiding what is is most important to my own growth?
Also I question the appropriateness of my response to some of the contributions. Should I find some boring or irrelevant? What is that saying about my sensitivity? Am I really envious concerning reports of a particular initiative in areas in which I like to believe I have competence and experience? Territoriality and status rear their ugly heads. But what do they mean in relation to integrative, interdisciplinary discourse? If I am part of some community with a shared agenda, what do such dynamics imply?
Then there are statements or contributions with which I strongly disagree or find inadequate. Should I rush to communicate my protest? To whom? In whose interests? What would it accomplish? Is it an appropriate use of my energy and how am I to make decisions about that? From where does this impulse come?
At another extreme, what is all this saying about my capacity to dialogue with persons of greater insight than myself? Would I be able to detect their wisdom in the first place -- given the iris effect? What would I want to say to them and why? Do I really want to ask "questions" and receive "answers"? Or is there some other play it would be good to play? Is my response consistent with how I respond to others who seek insight from me?
But maybe I could not detect the subtleties of a dialogue which would be mutually enriching? As with the SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence) projects, it is possible that the key factor inhibiting communication is that humanity is perceived as abysmally boring by other intelligences -- what tolerance dolphins may be exhibiting! Not only are we at the bottom of a gravity well, but possibly also at the bottom of a boredom well! Such concerns certainly determine my participation in conferences and my avoidance of yet another "presentation". Great are the joys of non-directive communication.
So I am forced to look for richer metaphors through which to frame the process of interacting with information of higher quality. Ecological metaphors offer interesting scope. Whether perusing a journal or attending a conference, I can endeavour to cultivate my surroundings like a garden. Plants and animals do not have to reflect some absolute criteria of elegance, coordination or integration -- it is their integration into the ecosystem which is vital. As the gardener of my universe, I can allow them to have their behavioural peculiarities - including tendencies to territoriality and arrogant self-righteousness.
The Zen of Gardening allows me, gracefully, to allow the garden to do its own thing to a very high degree -- and the more I can comprehend how it is doing so the better. I give form to that ecosystem in my own consciousness. My only challenge is then to discover exactly what I am doing there and whether there is any situation in which I should intervene -- and how to do so, if I am able. This is surely the ultimate Sufi art -- could I but understand it.
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