Evolving humanity: towards a "third way"

Paul Grobstein's picture

Rationality and social wisdom/cohesion clearly play important roles in inquiry, in education, and in human affairs generally.  But there are problems with relying on either alone, and with the two in combination as well. Since its inception, the Evolving Systems project has been exploring these problems and ways of moving beyond them.  The following exchange between Bharath and Paul reflects an ongoing joint effort to conceive a "third way" to think about inquiry, education, and human affairs generally, one that might better integrate rationality and social wisdom/cohesiveness by setting them in a broader context of evolution, of ongoing change and growth.

Separate entries of the exchange can be linked to individually using the URL's associated with the linked numbers of each.  Evolution of the abstract discussed here reflected as well exchanges with Alice documented here.  For the current incarnation of the abstract itself, see here

 

Paul to Bharath 18 December 2009 (1)

Like your "Vulnerability, Heaven, and Reason", a LOT.  Thanks. Is indeed a way to move toward a "third way."  Have been myself playing with an abstract for this summer's metanexus meeting, along what I think are similar if quite differently expressed lines.  Have a look, let me know what you think?

The Brain as a Story Creator and Story Reviser:
The Loop Between Empiricism and Meaning
(version 1)

Contemporary inquiries into the brain are beginning to offer new ways to think about what it is to be human, ways that bridge rather than set in opposition matter and spirit, rationality and feeling, experience and meaning.  A central feature of such new directions is a recognition that human understandings are "stories," creations of the brain that are continuously subject to revision by it.  Story creation and revision reflects not only empirical observations and logical processes but also other kinds of experiences and creative activities, including feelings, intuitions, and actions based on faith, as well as the stories of others.  Rather than originating in any fixed meaning or following any fixed methodology, the creation and revision of stories itself continually creates and revises both meaning and methodology as central elements in the process.

In this presentation, I will provide a brief introduction to the kinds of observations that underlie the notion of the brain as a story creator and reviser, and discuss implications of this notion for thinking about human life, both individual and social.  The notion suggests that we should, both individually and in our social institutions, give up the aspirations of achieving definitive and/or universal stories, as well as the inclination to dismiss stories (both our own and those of others) on the grounds that they fail tests of certainty and/or universality.  We should instead encourage the continuing development of alternative stories, valuing existing and future ones alike based on their potential contributions to the evolution of stories as yet unconceived.

From this perspective, to be human is to be a participant in the ongoing process of creating and revising individual and collective stories, of creating and reshaping meaning for oneself, for the human communities of which one is a part, and for the cosmos, both animate and inanimate.  There is every reason to suspect that the future will bring new and as yet unsuspected visions of what it is to be human.  For the moment, though, contemporary understandings of the brain as story teller and story reviser offer the possibility of more humane and more richly integrated individual and social lives based on a recognition that the significance of all understandings, however arrived at, is their potential to contribute to understandings yet to be conceived.

 

Bharath to Paul 30 December 2009 (2)

I like your description, especially the focus on the bridge beyond the opposition of matter and spirit. Unsure though to what extent it helps with the issue we concluded with the other day, namely, whether there is a third way beyond truth and social hope.

 

Paul to Bharath 31 December 2009 (3)

Glad you like it.  Was thinking of a "third way" in the context of individuals, classroom, conversation groups, socio-cultural organization, ie a principle that could provide aspirational direction in multiple contexts.  That principle is, in your terms, "growth"?  What I am thinking of is a way to make that somewhat more concrete and more general, so it reflects not only individual but also collective processes (including "village" ones).  To wit, growth is facilitated by "a recognition that the significance of all understandings, however arrived at, is their potential to contribute to understandings yet to be conceived."  Aspire not, individually and collectively, to completing the growth process but rather to contributing to it.  Argue not, individually and collectively, about the relative merits of existing understandings but value them all in terms of their contributions, existing and/or potential, to new understandings, to new stories (of individuals, of villages, of humanity).  Something like that might be a third way?  One in which "social hope" derives as much from individual differences as from commonalities?

 

Bharath to Paul 31 December 2009 (4)

"Growth is facilitated by a recognition that the significance of all understandings, however arrived at, is their potential to contribute to understandings yet to be conceived.  Aspire not, individually and collectively, to completing the growth process but rather to contributing to it.  Argue not, individually and collectively, about the relative merits of existing understandings but value them all in terms of their contributions, existing and/or potential, to new understandings, to new stories (of individuals, of villages, of humanity)."

Beautifully said. And inspiring. I like it a lot.

 

Paul to Bharath 5 January 2010 (5)

Glad you like it.  And much appreciate your contributions to it, both in conversations leading up to the draft I sent you and in your helpful reactions to it.  Check out a revision below based on the latter?

Evolving Humanity:
The Brain as a Story Creator and Story Reviser
(version 2)

Contemporary inquiries into the brain are beginning to offer new ways to think about what it is to be human, ways that bridge rather than set in opposition matter and spirit, rationality and feeling, experience and meaning.  A central feature of such new directions is a recognition that human understandings are "stories," creations of the brain that are and will always be continuously subject to revision by it.  Story creation and revision reflects not only empirical observations and logical processes but also other kinds of experiences and creative activities, including feelings, intuitions, and actions based on faith, as well as the stories of others.  Rather than originating in any fixed meaning, following any fixed methodology, or directed toward any fixed objective, the creation and revision of stories itself continually creates and revises meaning, methodology, and objectives as central elements in a process of continuing evolution.

In this presentation, I will provide a brief introduction to the kinds of observations that underlie the notion of the brain as a story creator and reviser, and discuss implications of this notion for thinking about human life, both individual and social.  The notion suggests that we should, both individually and in our social institutions, give up the aspirations of achieving definitive and/or universal stories, as well as the inclination to dismiss stories (both our own and those of others) on the grounds that they fail tests of certainty and/or universality.  We should instead encourage the continuing development of alternative stories, valuing existing and future ones alike based not only on their past and present usefulness but also on their potential contributions to the evolution of stories as yet unconceived.

From this perspective, to be human is to be a participant in the ongoing evolutionary process of creating and revising individual and collective stories, of creating and reshaping meaning, methodology, and objectives for oneself, for the human communities of which one is a part, and for the cosmos, both animate and inanimate.  There is every reason to suspect that the future will bring new and as yet unsuspected visions of what it is to be human.  For the moment, though, contemporary understandings of the brain as story teller and story reviser offer the possibility of more humane and more richly integrated individual and social lives based on a recognition that the significance of all understandings, however arrived at, is in their potential to contribute to understandings yet to be conceived.  Aspire not, individually and collectively, to completing the evolutionary process but rather to contributing to it.  Argue not, individually and collectively, about the relative merits of existing understandings but value them all in terms of their contributions, existing and/or potential, to new understandings, to new stories.

 

Bharath to Paul 7 January 2010 (6)

Like the revisions. There is a point which occurs to me, but this is not in terms of changing the abstract. It is more meta.

It seems to me that in the abstract there are two different things happening. One is the idea of all thoughts and experiences being stories and the social and personal ramifications for this; call this "the story claim". The other is the idea that the story claim is implied by inquiries into the brain; call this "the science claim".

I wonder if the science claim is really needed to defend the story claim. Perhaps it only gets in the way, and this in two ways. First, it presupposes a contentious interpretation of neuroscience and cognitive science; I take it many fellow scientists would balk at the idea that studies of the brain show that everything is a story. This gives what you are saying perhaps a tinge of false advertising, since the science you are using to back up your claim is itself multiply interpretable. Second, even bypassing this point and supposing there was unanimity among scientists, should that make anyone believe the story claim because scientists have determined it? It seems to me no. In fact, this seems to me counter-productive. The point of the story claim is to forgo the special ability of a few specialists to speak about the truth for all people. And yet putting the story claim in the context of the science claim seems to do something like this. It reads as, "listen to what science has discovered".

Here is what I think is happening. You believe the story claim in virtue of your general experiences and thought as a person--as a philosopher in the broad and wonderful sense, as an enlightenment thinker who doesn't make hard and fast distinctions between ordinary life, literature, science, etc.  Some of your reasons for believing the story claim do come from neuroscience no doubt; like the examples you gave in your presentation to the evolving systems group. But I don't think these reasons were the definitive ones. Rather, your general thoughts as a person affects how you interpret those examples, and this is why you and another scientist might disagree about what conclusions follow from those examples. That is to say, it is your general experiences as a person--not as a professional scientist--which in fact ground your belief in the story claim. Let us call these general experiences and what they imply "the reflective claim", since they are what one comes to just in virtue of being a reflective person.

So, it seems to me, the real grounding of the story claim is the reflective claim and not the science claim. That is, one speaks best about the story claim when one speaks as a thoughtful person and not as a scientist. But why do we not normally do this? Why are we so intent on substituting the stance of the thoughtful person with that of a professional scientist, or a philosopher, or a artist, etc.?

It is because in our current culture we don't have mechanisms in place through which we can value each others thoughts simply as reflective persons. If I now want to be heard by people beyond my immediate friends and family, I have to speak as a professional philosopher, as someone who is saying what he is saying because it comes from the expertise he has gained. There is the sense of, "if you are not speaking as an expert, why should I listen to you?" In fact, this even affects how our family and friends listen to us because even they might buy into this picture of expertise, and that means that even when talking to them one has to put on the pose of the expert if one is to be heard. Interestingly, one is not heard simply as a person, but as a philosopher or not a philosopher, as a scientist or not a scientist, and so on. This brings out another big difference between you (and me, I agree with you) and Rorty. For Rorty unabashedly spoke as a philosophical and literary expert. He didn't expect an ordinary person on the street to buy what he is saying, since they need the proper education of Dewey, Heidegger, et al. to see the points he is making; and his life task was to make such education possible so that the revolution can happen. That is a sense in which he never got out of the stance of the professional academic; he spoke always as a professional and an expert, and he spoke in that tone of proheticness which we associate with intellectual and spiritual experts.

What I am saying doesn't mean of course that what one picks up in one's profession should be irrelevant. I don't think the science claim is irrelevant to the story claim. I just think that the science claim only indirectly affects the story claim. In the following way: the science claim provides some support to the reflective claims, which are really the basis of the story claim. This means that when one makes use of the scientific "data" it is as a lay person making use of it as one among many other reasons, and not as the space from which one talks.

And this I think is what is hard now in our culture and world, and I doubt it has been different in the past: it is to speak simply as a person and not as an expert. This means that it is better to be not heard than to be heard as an expert. It is better to speak as a reflective person, as a person with no more expertise than the person next to me, than to speak from the space of expertise. Because it is only the space of a reflective person which unites us together, whereas the space of expertise reenforces the boundaries between people.

 

Paul to Bharath 11 January 2009 (7)

Many thanks for the further meta thoughts re the abstract.  They address in a very useful way an issue I've been struggling with for years.  And I think they significantly advance the ongoing evolving systems conversation about what kind of conversation we want to be having: "it is only the space of a reflective person that unites us together."

In the case at hand you're right, of course, that the abstract can be read as deriving a "story claim" from a "science claim," and hence as asserting some distinctive "ability of a few specialists to speak about the truth for all people."  And I further very much agree with you that such a reading creates serious problems on at least two levels.  Indeed the "story claim" is demonstrably not a "science claim," if by the latter one means "a consensus story among scientists"; it is (as are in fact all "science claims") a reading/story based on a particular set of observations that I have in common with some but not all people familiar with those observations.  More importantly, perhaps, a "science claim," in the sense of an assertion by specialists of a "truth for all people" would itself be inconsistent with the "story claim," since the latter challenges the possible existence of the former (whether asserted by scientists or any other authority).

All this is perhaps worth walking through in some detail because there is a problem here that, as I said, I've been wrestling with for years, thought, partly through earlier conversations of ours, I was getting better at, and now think has more facets to it than I had earlier imagined.  And its a situation that I'm pretty sure generalizes importantly beyond the case at hand. 

I have, I think, been reasonably clear over the years about the relation between "story claims" and "science claims" and my commitment to the former over the latter, as per

"I hope it is clear to the reader that, in accord with the overall message of this essay, it is not my aspiration to reach "conclusions" in the sense in which term is frequently understood. I have, from what I hope is a clearly described set of observations, painted a picture. I assert that it is indeed a picture that can legitimately be painted from the observations. I do not assert, as I've tried to make clear and as follows from the argument/painting itself, that it is the only such picture. To put it differently, I do not assert that the argument has any exclusive claim to being "true" nor the picture any exclusive claim to being "real". Instead, I assert that the picture is an admissible summary of the observations (and that a large number of otherwise entertainable pictures aren't), that it is viewable by anyone inclined to try and see it for what it is (subject to the limitations of my skill as a painter), and, most importantly, that it is of potential use, to myself and others, in helping to define available options for further paintings." .... Getting It Less Wrong, the Brain's Way: Science, Pragmatism, and Multiplism, 2003 (at this point I was using painting rather than story telling as a metaphor but the issue was the same).

"I trust it is obvious to all that what I have presented in this article is not the ‘truth’ about science. What I have offered is a candidate story about science, a story that summarizes my own scientific practices, and those of many of my scientific colleagues and ancestors. As I read it over, however, I can’t help but notice also the extent to which it derives in significant ways from aspects of my particular personality and of the particular cultural context in which I work ... As with all scientific stories, the ultimate test of the value of this one is not in the past but in the future, not in whether it is right given the observations, but in what new things happen, what new observations are made, and what new stories develop because of it." ... Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revision, 2005

"I think what will be needed is actually a more thorough-going reconsideration of the academic enterprise so as to encourage and support those whose inclinations are to make a career of listening to diverse stories in order to generate new ones ... [those who have] a willingness and ability ... to hear the stories of others, not as alternatives or competitors to one’s own but rather as the essential grist for one’s own story revisions and the further evolution of collective stories" ... Interdisciplinarity, Transdisciplinarity, and Beyond, 2007 

In short,  I think I am pretty clearly on record as making "reflective claims" (I like this idea a lot) rather than "scientific claims" and yet the issue of my relation to the latter keeps coming up, not only in our conversations but in other contexts as well (cf http://serendip.brynmawr.edu/exchange/evolsys/22sept09).  Yes, of course, this may have to do with a need for me further hone my rhetoric to bring it better into line with my intentions (so far as I actually know them) but I think, as you do, there is more involved here.

My sense from my personal experience is that whether one is heard making "scientific" as opposed to reflective" claims has, not unreasonably, as much to do with the audience as it does with the speaker, and with a confusion between individual identities and social ones.  Given that I have a social identity as a "scientist," people tend to interpret things I say as "scientific claims" whether that is actually inherent or not in either my presentation or my intention.   And to respond to them at least as much in terms of their reactions, positive or negative, to the scientific social identity as to whatever individual identity and associated "reflective claim" is being expressed.   Such responses to social identities, whether positive or negative, are as much an impediment to "the space of a reflective person which unites us together" as is speaking from a position of authority, out of a social rather than individual identity.  We need not only to learn to better speak in terms of "reflective claims" by individuals but also to better listen to others in those same terms. 

Perhaps this gloss from my personal experience can help with some of the larger issues your raise at the end of your note?  "what is hard now in our culture and world ... is to speak simply as a person and not as an expert ... we don't have mechanisms in place through which we can value each others thoughts simply as reflective persons."

I think an important part of the problem here is the question, as you suggest others would voice it, "if you are not speaking as an expert, why should I listen to you?"  And an associated inner voice asking the same question ... "why in that case should anybody listen to me?"  I think the questions can be productively answered, in a way that would allow everyone to more easily both speak and be heard "simply as reflective persons," if we are better able to make not only a distinction between individual and social identities but also one between between "expertise" and "authority."

I'd like to argue that, irrespective of our particular social identities, we all have "expertise" associated inevitably with our individual identities.  Each of us has distinctive observations, experiences, and perspectives, whether gained from participation in socially identified activities or not, that make us not only unique but of potential value to others who don't have our particular array of observations, experiences, and perspectives.  In this sense, "expertise" is not a characteristic of a subset of people having some particular set of experiences or perspectives, it is a characteristic of all people simply by virtue of living a unique life.  Moreover, "expertise" is not equivalent to "authority."  Indeed it essentially constitutes a claim that there is no "authority," that we are all, all the time, functioning as "reflective persons" and should both hear and be heard as such.  What is said is never "the truth for all people" but instead needs always to be tested for its value to particular people.  We all have our own stories to tell, stories that reflect, at best, the totality of our observations/experience/perspectives to date, and whose value to any given person depends on the degree to which one or another of the observations/experiences/perspectives brings something new to the evolution of their story. 

Among the appealing features (to me at least) of this way of phrasing things is that it encourages scientists, and philosophers, and historians, and artists, and craftsmen, and etc to conceive and tell more integrated stories of themselves, rather than feeling that they must parcel their stories into "professional" as opposed to "personal" ones.  And this, in turn, might, it seems to me, have some healthy effects on "social identities" as well.  Yes, of course, there is a "truth for all people" aspect to the social identity of science (as there is of philosophy, history, art, etc etc), and I (as well as you, I think) would like to see that done away with.  The suggestion though that "it is better to be not heard than to be heard as an expert" seems to me to be throwing out the baby with the bath water.  My experiences as a scientist, yours as a philosopher, another person's as a historian, etc etc are too important to others to be kept silent.  Perhaps one could replace "expert" with "authority": "it is better not to be heard than to be heard as an authority".  But perhaps better still would be to decline to adopt the mantle of authority and to encourage everyone to rely not on authority but rather on their own expertise?  For this what is needed is not silence but rather a willingness to put one's stories into play, in as complete a form as possible, so that they can be used and challenged by others.  The way the world is is, as per Nelson Goodman, "not a shush but a chatter"? 

What do you think?  Could we modify "Because it is only the space of a reflective person which unites us together, whereas the space of expertise reenforces the boundaries between people" so it reads

"it is only the space of a reflective person which unites us together; the space of authority reenforces the boundaries between people; the space of individual expertise gives us reason to dissolve such boundaries" ?

 

Comments

alesnick's picture

"community" as thoughtful people together?

I respect and appreciate this exchange very much.
When people speak to one another, it seems to me we often move, quite quickly, up and down a scale towards more thoughtfulness, vulnerability, and open engagement with difficulty and joy, and then towards more defensiveness, pretense, and the pressing of one another into service/subjugation through social stories of hierarchy, winning and losing, and scarcity (competition for limited resources).  Up and down, up and down.  I'm interested in how different forms of social organization, different participant structures, facilitate each way of speaking, and inhibit each.  Interpersonal relationships that create spaces for individuals to explore their thoughts and experiences can be generative of reflection, and of a move beyond beleaguered knowing, or defensive speaking.  I think people can also bring this consciousness into broader social arenas and support its emergence in other people.  This dialogue has that effect on me!

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