Adam Blatner

Words and Images from the Mind of Adam Blatner

Exploring More Paradigm Shifts

Originally posted on April 23, 2011

Reading some Whitehead and other philosophies, I’m impressed again with how the paradigms are changing in some ways I didn’t talk about previously. We learn, but in contrast to the general tone or world-view in the past, we learn also that the learning is un-ending. There is almost nothing of significance that is learned definitively. The proper attitude is: “I wonder what else?”

Several world-view shifts feed into this. I mentioned the continuing discovery of vast realms beyond what we knew—in greater size and more sub-microscopic, in energy and speed, faster and slower, and so forth; and also that there is far greater complexity in these realms, both patterns of divergence, sub-types, and yet integrations. Another trend not mentioned is what the contemporary philosopher Ken Wilber calls holarchy. We live as systems composed of sub-systems composed of sub-systems, etc.—and in turn belong to larger systems that belong to larger systems, etc. Whitehead was alluding to this in general, and the idea reinforces the implication that we can never know the whole of anything! What to do?

The answer also fits with systems theory, in a way—the concept of cybernetics relies on the use of evoked feedback to make ongoing adjustments. Ideally, interpersonally, this is the nature of encounter. What shifts is a deeper attitude that has the individual in a state of “comfortable provisionality.” It’s okay not to have a final answer, a fixed policy. Even arrangements that work are recognized as only doing so provisionally—meaning that as circumstances change, new rules are needed. Re-negotiation is expected rather than being something that intrudes and is forced upon on in a moment of crisis. There’s more of a norm of back-and-forth-ing.

Our schools don’t teach this yet: There’s still a tradition of demanding “right answers,” and unfortunately that gives kids the unintended message that there are right answers. But in fact, other than for trivial matters, this is not so. Everything is being negotiated, re-worked—including the meanings of words, the boundaries of territories, the names of countries, as well as basic theory in science. What needs to be taught instead is a more fluid attitude of the joy of exploration, and not just finding out, but also re-creating, adding one’s own interpretations and creative elaborations. (Here art and science begin to mix, or art and poetry and philosophy.)

Another factor that was alluded to before has been the growing awareness that a corollary of high degrees of complexity—such as the human mind—is uniqueness, individuality. The implication here is to draw that inevitable quirkiness forward, wonder what this combination of talents and interest will be producing. Again, that requires a major shift in education from the metaphor of filling a vessel to the metaphor of kindling a flame.

The awareness of the holarchic or systems-nature of mind and nature is that we interact with it in a correspondingly curious and respectful way. This requires a shift away (in part) from the rough and often cruel modes of experimentation—interrogating nature—and weaving in a measure of ethics, especially about the use of “experimental animals.” Will it inhibit scientific progress? Maybe. I’m not even sure I’m insisting on this point in any absolute fashion, but so far it has become over-used in a shallow, commercialized form. (In other words, I’m opening my mind to the claims of those advocating a degree of empathy and ethics regarding animals—people who a generation earlier were discounted as cranks.)

In the realms of social studies, anthropology, inter-cultural considerations, also, there needs to be more dialogue rather than the assumption—presumption—that the investigator knows the right questions to ask. What is given up is the assumption that experts know all of the relevant variables; what is opened is an attitude that is the opposite—perhaps there are levels of discourse, frames of reference, aspects that have not yet been considered. What would come of a culture that shifted more in this direction? Certainly, less self-righteousness, less fanaticism, less willingness to use intimidation or even violence to support one’s opinions.

In summary, I’m suggesting that another implication of current trends in world-view, in response to a broadening of our perspectives and a growing understanding that we may not yet know about the existence or full nature of yet other levels of influence on things, is an attitude of greater tentativeness, more receptivity to being surprised, a greater agility and flexibility of mind. (Many of the methods I’ve been advocating and developing, incidentally, are those that expand this flexibility through the development of imagination and the capacity to improvise.)

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