Modern reductionist methods are well adapted to dealing with complicated (as opposed to complex) systems. In a complicated system like an automobile or a computer, though there may be many variables, the variables are more of less independent. If the system isn’t working, you can troubleshoot it by isolating and testing the variables one by one. You can also generate predictable macroscopic effects through controlling one or a limited number of variables. Complicated systems are therefore amenable to a piecemeal approach to problem-solving. The whole is equal to the sum of the parts and causal relationships are generally linear. To understand and manage a large, complicated system, you divide it up into lots of pieces and assign a team to work on each piece. The entire structure of academia reflects this approach, with its divisions into relatively autonomous disciplines and sub-disciplines.
The top-down control-based approach that works for complicated systems fails miserably to manage complex systems. In a complex system, variables are dependent, causal relationships are non-linear, and a small change to one element of the system can dramatically alter the whole. No part can be understood in isolation, but only with reference to an extended web of relationships to other parts. In complex systems, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts; therefore any reductionist analysis of the system will fail to understand it, and attempts to isolate and alter variables will generate unintended and unpredictable consequences.
Bodies, ecosystems, genomes, societies, and the planet are complex systems. It is tempting to view them otherwise – as extremely complicated machines – because then we can apply our familiar methods of top-down problem-solving and feel like we are in control of the situation. The epitome of this illusion is war thinking, and it extends to every technology of control, from border walls to antibiotic drugs to concrete waterways. Each ends up generating awful unintended consequences, usually including the very opposite of what it was attempting to control (immigration, disease, flooding).
Any narrative, like the Standard Narrative of climate change, is a lens that illuminates some things and obscures others. it obscures, unfortunately, some of the very things we need to pay attention to most if planet Earth is going to heal. In the geochemical view, such things as topsoil erosion, pesticides, aquifer depletion, biodiversity loss, conservation of whales or elephants, toxic and radioactive waste, and so on were once seen (and in many cases still are seen) as relatively inconsequential to climate change. Such oversights are understandable if we see Earth as a fantastically complicated machine. If we see Earth as alive, then we know that of course destroying its living tissue will render it unable to deal with fluctuations of atmospheric components.
Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
If the sceptical “right” and doomsaying “left” are both trapped in reality-tunnelling confirmation bias, perhaps we should flee to the centre: the standard climate change narrative. This is comfortable territory, staked out by our society’s primary epistemic authority, science.
The problem is, the dynamics that afflict the two extremes afflict the middle as well. Over the last few years, a growing chorus of insider critics have been exposing serious flaws in scientific funding, publishing, and research, leading some to go as far as to say, “Science is broken.”
The dysfunctions they describe include:
- Various kinds of fraud: some deliberate, but mostly unconscious and systemic
- Irreproducibility of results and lack of incentive to attempt replication
- Misuse of statistics, such as “P-hacking” – the mining of research data to extract a post hoc “hypothesis” for publication
- Severe flaws in the system of peer review; for example, its propensity to enforce existing paradigms, to be hostile to anything that challenges the views of the reviewers whose careers are invested in those views
- Difficulty in obtaining funding for unorthodox research hypotheses
- Publication bias that favours positive results over negative results, and suppresses research that won’t benefit a researcher’s career
The system encourages the endless elaboration of existing theories about which there is consensus, but if one of these is wrong, there are nearly insuperable barriers to its ever being overturned. These go far beyond classic Kuhnian resistance to paradigm shift – critics call it “paradigm protection.” Former NIH director and Nobel laureate Harold Varmus describes it this way:
The system now favours those who can guarantee results rather than those with potentially path-breaking ideas that, by definition, cannot promise success. Young investigators are discouraged from departing too far from their postdoctoral work, when they should instead be posing new questions and inventing new approaches. Seasoned investigators are inclined to stick to their tried-and-true formulas for success rather than explore new fields.
It is easy to see how these dynamics might impact climate science, a politically charged field that receives billions of dollars of government funding. Sceptics’ websites contain laments by climate researchers who are afraid to attempt publication of results that contradict climate orthodoxy because they do not want to be ostracised as a “denier”; professors telling of discouraging graduate students from investigating inconsistencies in the data; and anecdotes about reputable scientists who lost funding and professional appointments after they issued mild criticism of official positions.
The dissident climatologist Judith Curry raises questions about the genesis of the scientific consensus around climate change:
The skewed scientific “consensus” does indeed act to reinforce itself, through a range of professional incentives: ease of publishing results, particularly in high impact journals; success in funding; recognition from peers in terms of awards, promotions, etc; media attention and publicity for research; appeal of the simplistic narrative that climate science can “save the world”; and a seat at the big policy tables.
All of this adds up to a kind of collective confirmation bias within science, the same cognitive handicap that so obviously afflicts many climate sceptics. In other words, confirmation bias is not limited to those outside the establishment. it is institutionalised within it as well, despite the system of peer review that is supposed to eliminate it.
In most controversies that pit a powerful orthodoxy against a marginalised heterodoxy, the establishment makes liberal use of scare quotes and derisive epithets like “denier,” “conspiracy theorist,” or “pseudo-scientist” to exercise psychological pressure on the undecided layperson, who does not want to be thought a fool. These tactics invoke in-group/out-group social dynamics, leading one to suspect that the same dynamics might prevail within the scientific establishment to enforce group-think and discourage dissent.
Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
Today, a neutered mainstream version of [liberalism] settles for an anodyne ideal of equality, shifting the occupants of our power structures around but leaving the structures themselves intact. They seem not to realise that these structures necessitate inequality, whether delineated by race, gender , or some other distinction. An exploitative system requires people to be exploited. Racial prejudice, male chauvinism, nationalism, etc, enable and justify such a system, but eliminating these forms of bigotry won’t change the underlying dynamics. Someone else will be exploited instead.
I visit this issue for two reasons. First, I want to make clear that social justice must be more than the usual grab bag of identity politics issues. The kind of social healing we need requires the massive overhaul, probably the total reformation, of our systems of medicine, education, birth, death, law, money, and government. Second, the same pattern of reaching for superficial changes that don’t disturb the underlying system afflicts environmentalism just as much as it does social justice. So, just as a company can hire black, female, and LGBTQ executives at headquarters to administer a supply chain that exploits dark-skinned people in overseas factories and believe itself to be progressive, so also can it offset its carbon emissions by paying into a reforestation fund, all the while sourcing environmentally toxic products, and still call itself green.
The point is not to condemn the green rationalisations of corporations (or you or me); it is to illuminate the mindset of fundamentalism that enables those rationalisations. Fundamentalism of all kinds is a disengagement from the complexity of the real world, and I am afraid it is ascendant in many realms, not only religion. I even see it in various theories of alternative medicine, in the form of the Great Revelation of the One True Cause of all disease. Fundamentalism offers certainty, a lockdown of thought into a few prescribed pathways. The rush to The Cause, the retreat to unquestioned axioms taken on faith, does not serve us in a time of the disintegration of so much of what we thought we knew.
The quality of complex systems collides with our culture’s general approach to problem-solving, which is first to identify the cause, the culprit, the germ, the pest, the bad guy, the disease, the wrong idea, or the bad personal quality, and second to dominate, defeat, or destroy that culprit. Reductionist thinking pervades the entire political spectrum, or certainly mainstream liberalism and conservatism. When no proximate cause is obvious, we tend to feel uncomfortable, often to the extent of finding some reasonable candidate for “the cause” and going to war against that.
Perhaps what we are facing in the multiple crises converging upon us is a breakdown in our basic problem-solving strategy, which itself rests on the deeper narratives of the Story of Separation.
Charles Eisenstein, Climate: A New Story
Thinking cuts furrows into the soil of being. (Heidegger)
Where can I find a man who has forgotten words, so I can talk with him? (Zhuangzi)
To say we have gone further down the rabbit hole the past few years is to measure the present against some vision of normality. It certainly seems as though there is some level of absurdity underpinning events within the modern global culture. Metrics tell us we have never been better off, whilst other metrics tell us we are on the brink of catastrophe. It is within this context that I have been trying to make some sense of what the hell is going on, for some time now but with an earnest over the past few years. This has lead me down several rabbit holes, forcing me to confront my own vision of normality. This year I have read several profound books which have helped me further clarify what I think might describe how things have come to be the way they are. It is not a case of what we think, but how. This is such a simple statement to make, but a much harder one to fully comprehend the significance of.
I started this year by reading Iain McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary and everything fell into place. Building on and clarifying an intuition that had been growing, this book set the tone for what I would read and think about this year. McGilchrist says, “certainty is the greatest of all illusions: whatever kind of fundamentalism it may underwrite, that of religion or of science, it is what the ancients meant by hubris. The only certainty, it seems to me, is that those who believe they are certainly right are certainly wrong,” adding that, “none of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.” And this, it seems to me, is where we are at today. Politics aside, no one seems to have illustrated this global predicament more this year than Jordan Peterson. I read Maps of Meaning after The Master and his Emissary, at the suggestion that Peterson’s ideas mapped somewhat onto McGilchrist’s. It is perhaps this that has occupied my academic enquiry the most this year.
The other two books that most occupied me this year were Charles Eisenstein’s Sacred Economics and George Lakoff and Mark Johnson’s Philosophy in the Flesh. Whilst quite different to McGilchrist and Peterson, I have found a common thread underpinning these four books, illuminated along the way by returning to Heraclitus, and a new (to me) philosophical translation of the Daodejing by Roger T. Ames and David L. Hall. The implications of this leave no aspect of ourselves and our relationships with each other and our environment untouched, and an appreciation of which could lead the way to a more harmonious way of life. Eisenstein says:
Under the sway of dualism, we have essentially sought to divide the world into two parts, one infinite and the other finite, and then to live wholly in the latter which, because it is finite, is amenable to control. Our lordship over nature is at heart an egregious self-deception, because its first step is to attempt nature’s precipitous reduction, which is equally a reduction of life, a reduction of experience, a reduction of feeling, and a reduction of being: a true Faustian exchange of the infinite for the finite. This reduction comes in many guises and goes by many names. It is the domestication of the wild; it is the measuring and quantification of nature; it is the conversion of cultural, natural, social, and spiritual wealth into money. Because it is a reduction of life, violence is its inevitable accompaniment; hence the rising crescendo of violence that has bled our civilisation for thousands of years and approaches its feverish apogee as we conclude the present wholesale destruction of entire species, oceans, ecosystems, languages, cultures, and peoples.
What follows is my analysis of a way of thinking that has been influenced this year by these books. A few disclaimers: I have done my best to eschew the ‘poeticism’ of my previous years in review and write as clearly and succinctly as possible. It is of course impossible and pointless for me to summarise large academic texts, so I would refer you to the books themselves for the full extrapolation. Rather, I have taken sections from each to build up a picture of how various seemingly different ideas are implicitly interlinked. Despite my intentions, this is not an academic essay and therefore I am well aware that, whilst I have tried hard not to, I may seem to contradict myself in places and to use some terminology confusingly. My hope is that, if you are interested in thinking about the world, you may want to engage with these ideas in constructive discussion. I certainly would not confess to having things figured out, but I feel comfortable, perhaps for the first time in my life, with my narrative.
Adam John Miller
20th December 2018
Up until now, we have sought to make the infinite finite, and thereby debased art, love, knowledge, science, and beauty all. We have sold them out. When commercial application guides science, we end up not with science but with its counterfeit: pseudoscience in service of profit. When art bows to money, we get “art” instead of art, a self-conscious self-caricature. Similar perversions result when knowledge is subordinated to power, when beauty is used to sell product, and when wealth tries to buy love or love is turned toward gaining wealth. But the age of the sellout is over.
The long ascent of the monetised realm is drawing to a close, and its role in our work and our lives is changing so as to upend long-held intuitions, fears, and limitations. Since the time of the ancient Greeks, money has been, increasingly, both a universal means and a universal end, the object of limitless desire. No longer. Its retreat has begun, and we will devote more and more of our energy to those areas that money cannot reach. The growth of leisure, or, more accurately, the growth of labor done for love, goes hand in hand with the degrowth of the money economy.
Questions immediately arise in the reader. Despite the foregoing, you may have even caught yourself thinking, “But doesn’t an artist deserve to be compensated for his work?” The intuitions of separation run so deeply! So let us rephrase it: “Doesn’t the giver of great gifts deserve to receive great gifts in return?” The answer, insofar as “deserves” means anything at all, is yes. In a sacred economy, this will happen through the mechanism of gratitude rather than compulsion. The attitude of the seller says, “I will give you this gift-but only if you pay me for it, only if you give me what I think it is worth.” (Yet no matter what the price, the seller will always feel shortchanged.) The attitude of the giver, in contrast, says, “I will give you this gift — and I trust you to give me what you think is appropriate.” If you give a great gift, and no gratitude results, then perhaps that is a sign that you have given it to the wrong person. The spirit of the Gift responds to needs. To generate gratitude is not the goal of giving; it is a sign, an indicator, that the gift was given well, that it met a need. That is another reason I disagree with certain spiritual teachings that say a person of true generosity will not desire to receive anything, even gratitude, in return.
The situation is this: some of our needs are vastly overfulfilled while others go tragically unmet. We in the richest societies have too many calories even as we starve for beautiful, fresh food; we have overlarge houses but lack spaces that truly embody our individuality and connectedness; media surround us everywhere while we starve for authentic communication. We are offered entertainment every second of the day but lack the chance to play. In the ubiquitous realm of money, we hunger for all that is intimate, personal, and unique. We know more about the lives of Michael Jackson, Princess Diana, and Lindsay Lohan than we do about our own neighbours, with the result that we really don’t know anyone, and are barely known by anyone either.
The things we need the most are the things we have become most afraid of, such as adventure, intimacy, and authentic communication. We avert our eyes and stick to comfortable topics. We hold it as a virtue to be private, to be discreet, so that no one sees our dirty laundry. Life has become a private affair. We are uncomfortable with intimacy and connection, which are among the greatest of our unmet needs today. To be truly seen and heard, to be truly known, is a deep human need. Our hunger for it is so omnipresent, so much a part of our experience of life, that we no more know what it is we are missing than a fish knows it is wet. We need way more intimacy than nearly anyone considers normal. Always hungry for it, we seek solace and sustenance in the closest available substitutes: television, shopping, pornography, conspicuous consumption — anything to ease the hurt, to feel connected, or to project an image by which we might be seen and known, or at least see and know ourselves.
Clearly, the transition to a sacred economy accompanies a transition in our psychology. Community, which in today’s parlance usually means proximity or a mere network, is a much deeper kind of connection than that: it is a sharing of one’s being, an expansion of one’s self. To be in community is to be in personal, interdependent relationship, and it comes with a price: our illusion of independence, our freedom from obligation. You can’t have it both ways. If you want community, you must be willing to be obligated, dependent, tied, attached. You will give and receive gifts that you cannot just buy somewhere. You will not be able to easily find another source. You need each other.
Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics: Money, Gift and Society in the Age of Transition.
More information including the whole book available under Creative Commons license here.