Sunday, March 10, 2019

A New narrative for a Flourishing-Creative World and a Generative Future

There must be no barriers for freedom of inquiry. There is no place for dogma in science. The scientist is free, and must be free to ask any question, to doubt any assertion, to seek for any evidence, to correct any errors. —
J. Robert Oppenheimer, The Open Mind, p. 114 (1955)

Adaptation to change is the secret of life; without it, life will become extinct. The marvellous way life adapts, evolves and continues is the result of an elaborate and painful process.
THE HUMAN QUALITY by Aurelio Peccei


‘Whether you can observe a thing or not depends on the theory which you use. It is the theory which decides what can be observed.’

Albert Einstein 1926


Everything nowadays is ultra, everything is being transcended continually in thought as well as in action. No one knows himself any longer; no one can grasp the element in which he lives and works or the material that he handles. Pure simplicity is out of the question; of simplifiers we have enough. Young people are stirred up much too early in life and then carried away in the whirl of the times. Wealth and rapidity are what the world admires…. Railways, quick mails, steamships and every possible kind of rapid communication are what the educated world seeks but it only over-educates itself and thereby persists in its mediocrity. It is moreover, the result of universalization that a mediocre culture become common [culture]....

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe - 1825, Goethe’s Letters to Zelter.


For everyone who is concerned about the planet as our birthplace and future home, the narrative of sustainability has served to awaken and educate people to our responsibility to care for the planet.

But is a narrative of sustainability adequate for the complex challenges that face us in the 21st Century?

For many people this question will seem to be nonsense. How could sustainability be inadequate? Certainly it provides a positive frame for assessing human action. It is a frame that has taken a long time to become established in the popular mind. One that many also feel is a positive counterforce to traditional narrative of dominance and to the neo-liberal imperative of continual growth.

I want to suggest however, that the narrative of sustainability is inadequate for a number of reasons. I suggest that it cannot motivate people toward a more unified effort, a coherent collective mind, nor can it adequately guide us to create conditions for life to flourish in an evolving future.

I will offer a brief exploration of why we we need to consider an better narrative - a better meme to catalyse a more inclusive, diverse, deeper, positive and more coherent effort to address not only the current challenges we face - such as climate change, but also the inevitable known and unknown other challenges that will arise in our future on earth and maybe even elsewhere.

A key insight this discussion build on is
there is no solution for the challenges that face us (every solution inevitably enact a new field of problems) - thus there must always be a continual solutioning. Each step we make, changes the conditions of/for the next step - each solution inevitably creates new challenges.

As Stuart Kauffman notes - life and the biosphere creates the conditions of its own becoming. Life literally constructs itself.

Sustainability
It’s impossible to look at positive, productive visions of the future without seeing the context of despair out of which they arise or into which they sink.
Nick Montfort - The Future - p.149
Wikipedia offers this definition of sustainability:
The name sustainability is derived from the Latin sustinere (tenere, to hold; sub, under). Sustain can mean "maintain", "support", or "endure".
...the most widely quoted definition of sustainability as a part of the concept sustainable development, that of the Brundtland Commission of the United Nations on March 20, 1987: "sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs".
….The organizing principle for sustainability is sustainable development, which includes the four interconnected domains: ecology, economics, politics and culture.

A key concept in the Wikipedia definition is maintain and endure. The qualification of endurance, appeals to surviving. But there’s a nuance that arises as of consequence of its common usage that pertain to keeping the same system going - which seems to refer to ongoing survival.
But also key is meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs - which doesn’t have to imply that future needs won’t change or have to be met in the way we meet our needs today. In this way survival, may not necessarily mean sustaining the same systems, but rather requires an ongoing integration of adaptive change.
Applying the concept to human action, sustainable development is generally seen as being built on three interdependent and overlapping pillars of economic and social development and environmental protection. These pillars have served as the fundamental touchstones for developing many types of standards. A fourth pillar involves the longer term thinking necessary to ensure our future on the planet. Other considerations include the need to balance local and global efforts and concerns.
Fundamental in the concept of sustainability, is a focus to not destroy or degrade the natural environment. But a questions remains challenging - perhaps impossible to know in any short term (in a human generation) - how do we grasp inevitable change?

A key metric guiding some efforts to quantify concepts of sustainability is the ‘carrying capacity of our eco-systems’. Beyond respect for nature, other metrics also beg to be integrated into the concept, including: measures related to human rights, economic-social justice, and stewarding cultures of peace.
Concepts of sustainability are applicable to every human domain including agriculture, architecture, economics, and social systems among others.
The substantive aims of sustainability concepts are unquestionably positive - why can I even begin to question the concept as inadequate?
Although almost everyone acknowledges the profound evolutionary changes of the past - there is a sense that if it weren’t for human intervention, the state of the earth would remain relatively static for millions of years in the future. Within the frame of sustainability are logical entailments that include the sense of conserving the past as a heritage for the future.
Of course, from a human perspective, this seems eminently reasonable. In many ways, the concept evokes an image of an equilibrium of conditions that maintains a sort of ongoing status quo - by keeping fundamental change at bay.
Our first step toward making the possible real is to imagine it. The causal power of imagination “is nowhere in physics,”

Sustainability as Economics
Sustainability is a robust concept in the realm of business and other human endeavors related to the balance of expenses and profits - all businesses ultimately seek to sustain a margin of profit over their expenses over the longest time possible. While many business can incur occasional loses. This economic model is applicable to the family as well.
The rise of neoliberal economics and globalization has entailed that national economies now must operate ‘within’ the economy. Previously the ‘state’ contained the economy - but as the metaphor of the state as family became conventional wisdom - the state became simply an actor contained/constrained by the global economy. The entailing metaphorical reasoning meant that nations now had to ‘balance’ their budgets, eliminate deficits pursue cost efficiencies - or become ‘unsustainable’.
In this way, one of the most common sense meanings of sustainability has blended both an economic and ecological concept. Such that sustainability evokes a frame - to keep things as they are - to have things endure as they are, maybe forever.
But evolution - by definition is a state of continual change.
The anthropological evidence suggests that humans emerged within an evolutionary condition of climate change and survived during a prehistory that was overwhelmingly glacial. The pressures of harsh and changing environments were part of the conditions that favored or supported selection of capacities to adapt quickly - a key human feature.
It is also a fact that Climate Change is not the only challenge we face, and it will certainly not be our last great challenge-threat. It has been argued that human induced climate change is a symptom of a deeper problem of population growth and cultural pathologies.
In the 20th Century alone, the challenges humanity has faced include: the War to end all wars, a global pandemic, a Great Depression. Another World War, then a cold war that brought us to the edge of Nuclear Armageddon, a looming Population Bomb & potential Ice Age, global acid rain, an expanding atmospheric ozone hole, and finally topped off with a deeply uncertain Y2K.
The challenges are far from over - as the 21st century nears the end of its second decade - we have what may be a ‘Moore’s Law acceleration of ever more disruptive technology (with benefits and harms) - requiring fundamentally new social economic theories to handle accelerating change and near zero-marginal cost goods and services including a massive disruptive shift of a new energy geopolitics arising from a potentially ubiquitous cheap energy from renewables. Massive urbanization, historically unprecedented reversal of the age pyramid in many developed economies, massive economic inequality, and massive population dislocations.
Other uncertainties (of when but not if)- include inevitable surprises such as potential cataclysms of coronal mass ejections (CME) and large asteroids impacting the earth. There are more known challenges - but even more importantly are the challenges looming that are unknowable…. Until they strike. Not one of these challenges involve sustainability some sort of previous stability. Surviving and evolving is surely the key to ‘enduring’ through continual change.

Complexity, Evolution, Flourishing
The 21st Century has been called the century of complexity. Our collective minds are finally beginning to grasp some deeper implications of evolution, ecology, relativity, quantum reality, chaos. We begin to grapple with the profound uncertainty of a future that can’t be predicted and the nature of limits of what can be known or modeled. Science is expanding beyond the reductionism of a Newtonian worldview - let me quote Stuart Kauffman’s “Humanity in a Creative Universe”:
...with Newton we have come to believe we live in a world that is knowable, hence ‘solvable’. We can optimize, find the best solution, but typically do so only to prestated problems and opportunities. …. This not real life for the evolution of the biosphere, our economy, culture and history, where we often cannot know and cannot even prestate the opportunities and harms for becoming that will arise. Not only do we not know what will happen, we often do not even know what can happen. If we cannot prestate what can happen, we cannot know what can happen and thus cannot reason about it. But we must live forward anyway, and reason….
Kauffman goes on to state:
The becoming of the biosphere is beyond law, … reductive materialism as a whole must fail, for the biosphere, lawless, is part of the universe and cannot be governed by a final theory, Furthermore, the becoming of the biosphere is more mysterious than we have thought, for it demonstrably creates the very possibilities into which it becomes, and it does so without selection’s ‘acting’ to achieve those possibilities. … Not everything that is real, can be predicted or known ahead of time.
Kauffman paraphrases Hericlitus in noting that the biosphere creates the conditions of it own becoming. Each step made not only changes the conditions for the next step but enables new unpredictable possibilities, affordances and/or potential exaptations.
Another quote from the scientist who ‘changed the tree of life’ Carl Woese.
It is difficult to imagine that the discipline which defined biology in the last century—that taught us so much and provided such benefit to the ambient society—is fundamentally flawed. But that is the case. Molecular biology expressly established itself within the (classical) Newtonian worldview. As such, its perspective was fundamentally reductionist. In other words, all things were explainable, completely and solely, as the sum of their various parts—which also meant that they could (in principle) be predicted a priori.
In this Newtonian world, the study of biology becomes a highly derived sub-discipline of the basic science of physics—in effect, an engineering enterprise; there is nothing “fundamental” about it. Biology becomes a study of machines made of assemblages of parts and the interactions among them, an exercise in describing, but not explaining, things as they are.
However, it is intuitively obvious that the essence of biology lies not in things as they are, but in things coming into existence. Biology is a study, not in being, but in becoming. …. A discipline whose perspective is that of classical 19th century physics is inherently incapable of dealings with the problems of a nonlinear world, which is non-reductionist, non-deterministic (acausal), and works in terms of fields and emergent properties, not a static world of particles with linear relationships among them.
From the science of Chaos, we have learned about the ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ - the butterfly effect - where the flapping of a butterfly in Singapore initiates perturbations that compound (like interest) to become instrumental in forming a tornado in Texas. Just based on this knowledge of chaos science (other domains such as complexity and emergence add to uncertainty and unpredictability) we understand that we cannot predict the future because we can never know how small a difference will make a difference - nor how large a difference won’t make a difference at all. Thus - the power of modeling is not in the predictive capabilities - but rather in helping us understand interdependencies within frameworks of efficient causality.
But a more radical insight from Chaos science is that just as we can’t predict the future - neither can we predict the past -since we can never know the complete initial conditions nor all the butterflies that contributed to an initial condition.
Ways of Reasoning
Humans excel at pattern recognition - we connect dots to create pictures and narratives - use these as metaphors to help ourselves make sense of the world - to make it seem more intelligible. In constructing a causal chain of events - we can never know the ‘sensitivities of the past’s initial conditions’. The cascading dominoes of efficient causation is often a robust metaphor that gives us ‘good enough’ narratives to make sense of the past - to give us ways of making our world and experience intelligible - and to learn how to do things. Science is full of contested ideas of ‘why things happen as they do’. The chief strength of science is it capacity to test our knowledge in way that enable us to ‘do’ things - regardless of whether we know why.  
Metaphors are not simply a way to decorate knowledge - they fundamentally shape how we reason (e.g. see anything by George Lakoff - frames, metaphors, narratives). Metaphors enable the cross-domain mapping of knowledge - without which we could not encounter anything new and grasp it in some way - we must lever something we are familiar with in order to shift it into ‘knowability’ (Wow it tastes like orange and looks like an apple).
Once a metaphors seizes a collective hold on culture they become unconscious shaping how we see the world. If make two identical copies of a list of data about crime and label one copy “Crime is a Beast” and the other copy “Crime is a Disease” and give each list to a different group of people asking them to consider what to do about crime - each group will tend to reason differently.
The ‘crime-as-a-beast’ group will tend to consider capturing, gaging, killing the criminal, etc. The ‘crime-as-a-disease’ group will tend to consider how to prevent crime, inoculate society against the spread of crime, etc.
Once a metaphor has taken hold of the way we reason it can’t be unseated just with facts. Only another metaphor (or frame) can unseat it. Therefore we must be mindful of the metaphors we use, of how we use them and of increasing our repertoire of metaphors (and frames) in order to make how we reason about the world and our experiences more robust, more useful.
As Kauffman and others are pointing out - the metaphors of efficient causation are approaching their limits in the 21st Century. We now must develop frames and metaphors to enable complementary ways of reasoning more consistent with aspects such patterns of interconnectedness, entanglement, inclusivity, unpredictability, uncertainty, impermanence, hope, optimism, creativity and science as honest accounts of evidence - rather than as sources of uncontested truth.
A key metaphor that is imbued in many accounts of the world is growth. Economists present unlimited growth and ecologist talk about a finite world. Both accounts are flawed.
The key idea in evolution is survival; yet living organisms, by definition, are dying all the time; they live by dying, which is metabolism.
Biological "survival" is a grand, breathtaking, and accurate metaphor, but only a metaphor. Nothing of a gene is surviving in material reality when it reproduces; what "survives" is a piece of abstract information, the sequence [pattern] of nucleotides on the DNA chain [none of the same atoms or molecules]. My liver dies and resurrects itself every few days. It is no more "surviving" than a flame.
A billion-year-old chunk of granite would, if it could, laugh at the lunatic claims of an organism to be "surviving" by hatching eggs, or by eating and excreting. …Yet... there is as much limestone, built from the corpses of living organisms, as there is granite.
A mere phantom – a pattern of information – can move mountains.
And if so abstract, so spiritual a thing as that pattern can masterfully determine the structure of large chunks of matter and the whole surface of our planet, why should not the even more abstract and metaphysical entities of goodness, freedom, spirit, soul, divinity and beauty? And has not the success of the epic-composing societies borne out this strange fact in the realm of human history?
- Frederick Turner - Epic: Form, Content, and History - paraphrased
Quoted by David Brin in his Book – Existence
The earth is not a closed system - the earth is an open system receiving vast amounts of energy for as long as it and our sun exist. What this means if that the earth is not as finite as most think. We understand now that matter is a form of energy and vice versa - living systems create matter from energy and can also derive energy from matter. Thus there is more matter on earth than there was 3 billion years ago. If a living system stops growing - then it is dying.
In fact death is a measure of metabolism and metabolism is harnessed not so much to preserve a past as it is to creatively generate novel futures in response-ability to environmental-context change.
What Turner insightfully points out is that there is no life without metabolism - without death - and death is transformation. Does the caterpillar die in the cocoon? In the Galapagos did the original species of finch die?
Ecologies grow in niche density and diversity but also transform as ever larger contexts of change. And Moore becomes different (pun intended). Without metabolism-as-death there is no life and there is no evolution - no possibilities of transformation and novelty.

Metabolism enables living systems to have the capabilities of adaptation and exaptation - to reveal and seize affordances, adjacent possibles  - to creatively generate novelty. Evolving life is an eternal process of niche construction that in turn changes the conditions of the ecological context - where every output is an input to an existing niche or opportunity for a new niche - enabling the growth of the living systems. In the same way a human can grow their whole lifetime until the moment of death and metabolic transformation.  
There is no point at which evolution would stop ‘growing’, unless it was no longer ‘alive’. Evolution is the process of not simply adapting - but creatively generating new complexities - levels of complexity and the possibilities of emergence of life forms. This is growth - with no end in sight. Even if we reduce the problem to economic growth - in order to successfully meet the challenges of climate change - we will have to continue to ‘grow’ many capacities - human, social, political, and technological (in fact the technologies to ‘grow’ matter will become increasingly vital).
Marshall McLuhan offered made many brilliant probes about the advent of the electronic age. I’ve assembled a few of that were made at various time but on the same theme.
When Sputnik went around the planet in 1957 the earth became enclosed in a man-made environment and became thereby an “art” form. The globe became a theatre enclosed in a proscenium arch of satellites. From that time the “audience” or the population of the planet became actors in a new sort of theatre. Mallarmé had thought that “the world exists to end in a book.” It turned out otherwise. It has taken on the character of theatre or playhouse. Since Sputnik the entire world has become a single sound-light show. Even the business world has now taken over the concept of “performance” as a salient criterion.
“Roles, Masks and Performances” New Literary History 2:3 1971
When we put satellites around the planet Darwinian nature ended. The earth became an art form subject to the same programming as media networks and their environments. The entire evolutionary process shifted, at the moment of Sputnik, from biology to technology. Evolution became not an involuntary response of organisms to new conditions, but part of the consensus of human consciousness. Such a revolution is enormously greater and more confusing to past attitudes than anything that can confront a mere culture or civilization.

FROM CLICHÉ TO ARCHETYPE, 1970
The planet is now the content of the new spaces created by the new technology. Instead of being an environment in time, the earth itself has become a probe in space. That is, the planet has become an anti-environment, an art form, an extension of consciousness, yielding new perception of the new man-made environment.
Marshall McLuhan Unbound, p.10. 2005

McLuhan challenged us with probes to re-imagine the impact of the electric and the digital environment and our future. They signal a primal change in the conditions of change - in human’s changing relationship with themselves, their planet, their galaxy.  

The Earth is an Art Project
Art is primarily a human domain of aesthetics - although most would also agree no single aesthetic framework plays a defining role. For earth to become an art project - we must confront an ecology of aesthetic values that will guide human action in shaping the future of our world and our existence.
But in an honest account we must also accept that all domains of human effort and knowledge are shaped by aesthetics frameworks - of one sort or another. Even hard science is guided by various frameworks of aesthetic values - such as Occam’s Razor, rules of logic, standards of evidence, etc.
Science and art are co-creators in the endeavors of human knowledge - each is necessary to the other.
Science is the exploration of the world and our experience to gain knowledge of ourselves and our world. Science can’t provide the answers of why, but does expand our knowledge as ‘know-how’. We don’t know why gravity exists,  but we have theories that describe how it arises and how it works - these theories give us know-how to deal with gravity to expand human capability.
The Arts (liberal and creative) reflect human searching of creative possibilities and meanings - in order to pose the questions of why - to reveal the light and its shadows - elaborating implications inherent in our applications of our knowledge of ourselves and our world. McLuhan proposed that the fundamental role the artist played was to create ‘anti-environments’ that would reveal the invisible ground of the environment we take for granted. The artist’s role is to create an ‘anti-water’ environment that enables the fish to understand its taken for granted world of water.
The arts require know-how as much as science does - the frontiers of both the arts and the science inevitably involve the tinkering with new instruments, new measures, new tools (conceptual and material). Both embody their knowledge in these instruments and tools. Both fundamentally rely on the type of knowledge referred to by the Greeks as Techne - a form of embodied - tacit knowledge - which is also the root of our word Technology. Thus Techne = embodied knowledge = technology.
Once we grasp that technology is embodied knowledge, we can now grasp that language and culture are also forms of technology. To abstract humans as separate from technology is to engage in a form of psychological denial of our own knowledge. As McLuhan noted, “Technology is the most human thing about us”.
Both science and art seek to provide us with knowledge of our world and use a sort of  conscious understanding of the aesthetics of our assumptions.
McLuhan’s probe, is a challenge not just to re-imagine the aesthetic framework but to bring to light - to bring to a new consciousness what values will inform our framework of understanding and more importantly to ask how we will value our values?
What does it mean for the earth to now be now contained within a human-made container and to be transformed into a co-creator of it's own becoming?
The next posting will explore this idea as an emerging narrative of our future.