The posts on this blog were mostly considered emails written to people interested in a particular approach to addressing the problems facing humanity and our relationship to the planet. If you are interested in what you read - please leave a comment...

July 22, 2007

Second letter to Dave Pollard

Sent to Dave Pollard September 2006 - in reply to his response to the inaugural posting on this blog.

With regard to capacity for conceptualising complexity - I agree that indigenous cultures seem to have developed ways of engaging sustainably with complex systems (although I think we need also to be careful of the cultural 'noble savage' stereotype' - there appear to be many examples where indigenous cultures did not live sustainably - the extinction of most of the large mammals is often laid at the door of human hunters - it is perhaps that surviving indigenous cultures live in demanding environments hostile to western industrialised societies, and are extant only because they can manage to live sustainably within these fragile ecosystems. So the lesson I draw is that humans CAN successfully live in this way, but not that ALL indigenous cultures did/do so).

Importantly for us, though, these indigenous cultures are not rationalised cultures - they cannot be translated into logical systems without traducing and transforming them - usually fatally. Equally importantly, rationalism is a one way street - there is no way back to a pre-rational culture (short of the paranoid fantasy of a near total holocaust, the survivors blasted back to the stone age, etc. etc. - exactly what we are here discussing ways to avoid!).
So, as rational beings, rationally discovering that we live in a world that is finally, irreducibly complex, also seeing that some non-rationalised cultures seem able to cope with that complexity, and finally having it forcibly borne in on us that our current methods of brute simplification are rapidly rendering the world less habitable, how ARE we to proceed?

It has to be accepted that complexity is fundamentally non-rationalisable.

At the same time it becomes obviously irrational to refuse to deal with the non-rational.

This irrationality, I believe, is what has led us to the current mess (from our previous mess - there was no golden age) - the Enlightenment was a heroic effort to rationalise a culture which had become too powerful to continue to operate in a non-rational fashion. It was hard enough to drag the pre-Enlightenment world to accept that there were parts of existence where rational behaviour could produce predictably beneficial results, and hard enough to nail those parts down, without dealing with the vast majority of the world which seemed beyond rational analysis. I don't believe that, at the time, there was any intention to ignore the irrational - after all, it encompassed almost all experience - situations where rational thought and behaviour worked were limited and precious. However, the power that flowed to those who took material advantage of the outcomes of certain sorts of rational endeavour (military, economic and industrial applications) was impressive (and not infrequently oppressive), and the idea that 'knowledge is power' was born.

Knowledge defined precisely as rationalised knowledge.

So that, by the late nineteenth century, there was a growing belief that rationality was all-important, and thus that situations which would not submit to rational analysis were, at best, unimportant. This line of thought reached its philosophical culmination with the Logical Positivists and in Wittgenstein's 'Tractactus Logico-Philosphicus', with its contention that "What we cannot speak of, we must pass over in silence" - an explicit call to ignore anything that could not be logically expressed.

Two dangerous, dominating myths arose from this pervasive mode of thought; first, the perfectibility of human society (communism, fascism, eugenics), and second, the dominion of "homo-technologiens" over nature.

These myths, allied to the real, non-rational power of innate human urges (paradoxically less manageable under a rational worldview, being seen as fundamentally irrational, therefore not to be seriously addressed, than under a religious worldview - making understandable the impetus of religious fundamentalism) drove the history of the 20th century.

We cannot address complexity in the same ways that indigenous peoples seem to be able to, and neither can we address it with reductive rationalism.

At the same time we cannot renounce rationality, without simultaneously jettisoning all the accompanying metaphysics which are the fundamentals of what we are pleased to call a civilisation.

It becomes apparent that rational methods will have to be found with which to address irreducible non-rationality, without destructive simplification. The realm of the non-rational is effectively infinite - we can encroach ever deeper into it with rationalising methods, to generally useful effect: as long as we continually remind ourselves that the exploration will never be over, we may manage to retain a safe level of humility (this I believe is where a modern, sustaining spirituality must be located).

We need to develop rational tools to engage with the irrational. They need to offer us the effectiveness that we are used to in dealing with the artificially simplified systems that our culture uses, with the minimum misrepresentation possible. They need to include test, analysis and feedback mechanisms as fundamental parts of their application.

If we are successful , the effectiveness of these new methods will help us live better on the planet, and will engender new and more sustainable myths, which might keep us going until we next realise what a terrible mess we're in.

Thank you for your blog, which is so obviously the result of a heroic and sustained attempt to get to grips with all of this, and which begins to codify what these new methods might be, what they must address, and how they might be incorporated into ways of living.

I do believe that Christopher Alexander, without meaning to, has invented a framework for such a method, but that's another screed.


Dil Green

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