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Diversity, Health and Creativity

An International Centre for Ecological Studies

Diversity, Health and Creativity:
Lessons for Living from New Science

by Brian Goodwin


As the 21st Century begins to unfold, we have before us the disturbing spectacle of a world that is unravelling at many of its seams. The nature/culture division is resulting in an unprecedented rate of habitat, species and language destruction world-wide; the quantity/quality separation in science has resulted in massively increased quantities of consumer goods but progressively reduced quality of life for all; the control/participation conflict is splitting society into an ever-smaller ratio of wealthy and powerful to poor and dispossessed. These divisions and their consequences present deep difficulties for humanity and the planet that won’t be healed by single solutions, by talk of a new world order. They require a change that goes to the heart of the matter: putting together again the fragmented parts of the divided world we have created through separations that were once useful and sensible but which are no longer appropriate. This is not easy. However, there is a spontaneous dialectic within nature and culture that provides the impulse for synthesis and healing, for making whole, and this is already bringing about some deep changes in our understanding of our relationships with one another and with the natural world. In this article I shall explore a dialectical change that has been taking place within Western science that gives some indication of a direction for transformation relevant to our present critical situation. Then I look at the practical implications of this transformation for learning and action.

I. Lessons from Chaos and Complexity Theory

A basic assumption in science is that if we can describe a process in perfectly well-defined terms, such as the motion of a projectile or the propagation of electromagnetic waves in space, then we can predict where a particular projectile will land or how long it takes for a laser beam to bounce off the face of the moon and return to earth. One of the important tools for this kind of scientific prediction is of course mathematics, which expresses the necessary relationships between forces and processes that bring about orderly movement and change in nature. By the 20th century, the success of Western science in predicting and controlling natural processes had given Western culture an extraordinary degree of confidence in its ability to understand and to manipulate the world. This was expressed through technologies that allowed us to dig great holes in the earth and extract metals that could be used to manufacture all manner of useful tools and devices to fashion nature according to our desires and to communicate with each other whenever and wherever we pleased; to fly around the world at high speed in order to carry on trade and to experience other cultures and peoples; to selectively control the biological processes in the body so as to correct damage and prevent disease, extending human life expectancy by many years. These and other benefits of Western science were taken to imply that all we needed to do was to continue to explore nature in the same systematic way to unlock any and all the secrets we wished to penetrate and exploit.

However, nature always has tricks up her sleeve that make humans think twice about their assumptions, even though the message may take a while to sink in. A rude awakening in science occurred in the 1970s when it began to dawn, first on mathematicians and then on scientists, that a basic assumption they had been making about determinism and prediction in nature might be fundamentally wrong. It emerged that there are processes in nature, such as the weather, that can be accurately described mathematically and are therefore deteministic, but which are nevetheless unpredictable in practice. Deterministic chaos burst on an unsuspecting scientific world, providing the revelation that a process can be simultaneously unpredictable and intelligible. Previously it had been thought that only random, purely contingent processes are unpredictable and unintelligible in the sense that their causal structure has no order; it is intrinsically disorderly. Now it emerged that well-defined causal processes can behave in ways unpredictable to an observer. The reason is a property of deteministic chaos called ‘sensitivity to initial conditions’ (Gleick, 1987; Lorentz, 1963, 1991; Stewart, 1989). The slightest difference in the initial states of such systems results in rapid divergence of state between them. This means that you can predict (i.e.,compute) the behaviour of a chaotic system only if you have exactly precise knowledge of its initial state. Such knowledge is in practice not possible for natural processes such as the weather. Hence the weather is a process that is perfectly intelligible (causal structure well-defined) but it is unpredictable for observers who do not have perfect knowledge of the initial state used to compute the weather, which by definition they cannot have.

Chaos Everywhere

If this is true for the weather, then could it also be true for other aspects of nature? It turns out that this is indeed the case. Deterministic chaos is an aspect of the behaviour of many natural processs, including planetary motion, which had always served as the paradigm of orderly motion in the natural world. The movements of Jupiter, Saturn and Uranus are now known to include chaotic behaviour (Murray and Holman, 2001). Most mathematical equations that describe processes with three degrees of freedom or more have the possibility of being chaotic. So chaos is now recognised as an aspect of the natural world, which means that there are processes that we simply cannot predict and control even though we can describe their causal behaviour. Therefore our scientific objective of predicting and controlling more and more aspects of nature, including ecosystems, organisms, and physiological processes that underlie health, are intrinsically limited. Indeed, our very understanding of the dynamics of health has been transformed by the insights from deterministic chaos.

Chaos and Health

Detailed studies of the dynamic behaviour of the heart have revealed that the healthy heart has a chaotic component. Close examination of electrocardiograms of healthy individuals compared to those with various types of heart disorder (cardiac arrhythmias, proneness to sudden cardiac arrest, congestive heart failure) shows that the normal sensitivity of the heart to the unpredictable demands made on it by the body depends upon dynamic behaviour in which the heart never gets locked into a well-defined pattern of order (Ivanov et al, 1996; Poon and Merrill,1997). Too much order is a sign of danger and the healthy heart lives ‘on the edge of chaos’, to use a suggestive phrase that has arisen from the study of complex dynamic systems. This is a manifestation of dynamic diversity. The best strategy when faced with unpredictability appears to be to include a degree of chaos, of unpredictability, in your behaviour. Then you are never locked into routine and you can respond to the unexpected. We recognise this as obvious good sense in our own lives and for behaviour within organisations and institutions. How widespread this strategy is in living processes is now under active investigation. However, there is a further aspect to the behaviour of complex natural systems that has been revealed as highly relevant to their capacity to respond creatively to unforeseen demands. This takes us into the revelations of complexity theory which complement and extend the insights from deterministic chaos about natural processes and their unpredictable creativity.

Emergent Phenomena in Nature

In the course of conventional science, there are occasional moments when it is recognised that nature is behaving in ways that are deeply puzzling to our expectations. An example of this in physics is superconductivity in metals, where the electrical resistance of the metal vanishes below a critical temperature and an electric current will propagate around a loop of the metal indefinitely – a kind of perpetual motion! An example from chemistry is the Beloussov-Zhabotinsky reaction, in which a particular mixture of chemicals spontaneously produces spatial patterns, both concentric circles and spirals, that propagate through the medium. Since these phenomena are well-defined in their behaviour, and repeatable, it is assumed that they can be understood logically. What is often required in these cases is an extension of the principles that operate in more familiar situations. Superconductivity required the introduction of a new type of interaction or coupling between electrons, while the Beloussov-Zhabotinsky phenomenon required the recognition that chemical reactions could be spontaneously periodic, even when the reagents are mixed uniformly in a dish. In every such case, the phenomenon was not predictable from what was then assumed or known, and hese had to be modified to explain the behaviour.

Biology is full of such unexpected phenomena. We are still asking the question: how did life arise on our planet? We see that living beings modify conditions on earth in dramatic ways, often so as to stabilise conditions such as temperature or the oxygen content of the atmosphere or the concentration of salts in the oceans (Lovelock, 1991; Margulis, 1999). But the everyday phenomena of life such as the shapes of organisms or the patterns of their behaviour are also properties that emerge from complex interactions of their parts in ways we do not understand. This is where complexity theory is extending the type of insight we have into the dynamics that gives rise to novel forms in evolution.

II. Evolution and Emergence

Evolutionary biologists have been struggling with questions of the origins of appropriate novelty in organisms since it was accepted that species have emerged through natural processes and are not created by a divine, all-powerful being. Darwin assumed that the primary problem in explaining the origin of species is how it is that living organisms are so well adapted to their habitats: worms to the soil, fish to the seas, birds to the air. His answer, as everyone knows, is that there are small, spontaneous, hereditary variations within the members of any species that result in diversity of properties. Those variants that are most suited to the habitat in which the species lives are then selected or stabilised as the fittest adaptations, allowing members with these properties to leave more offspring and so to predominate. Particular species are simply those organisms that are sufficiently well differentiated in their adaptations to be recognised as distinct types, due to the accumulation of a sufficient number of distinguishing adaptations. This is the sense in which species are considered to be created by natural selection: they are a result of an accumulation of adaptations each of which is selected for its fitness, enhancing the capacity to survive in a habitat and to leave offspring. Simple and powerful as it is to account for the adaptive aspects of organisms, this explanatory framework has its limitations.

It is useful to look at the type of explanation that is accepted for an emergent property in biology. The example that I shall use for this is the emergence of a coherent rhythm in the brood chamber of certain species of ant from interactions between workers whose individual behaviour is chaotic in the technical sense of the term. The question is: how does a regular periodic rhythm arise from the interactions of chaotic individuals?

It was established from studies by Franks et al (1990) that the workers in an ant colony of the genus Leptothorax, tending the queen and the young in the brood chamber, exhibited a well-defined rhythm in their activity- inactivity cycles. Roughly speaking, the workers took a rest for about 10 minutes every half hour. The first assumption was that each ant is intrinsically periodic in its activity- inactivity cycle and in the brood chamber these cycles become synchronised through interactions so that the whole exhibits a regular periodic cycle. Such synchronisation is well-known in the flashing of fireflies or the coming into oestrus (fertility) of female monkeys with the full moon. However, when Cole (1991) examined the behaviour of individual ants from colonies of a species closely related to that studied by Franks et al (1990), which also exhibited rhythmic behaviour in the brood chamber, he found that their activity-inactivity cycles were technically chaotic: they exhibited deterministic chaos, without any sign of a regular rhythm. How, then, does a regular periodicity emerge from the interaction of chaotic individuals?

This problem was studied by Soléâ et al (1993) by constructing a computer model of the interaction of ants in a brood chamber. Each individual model ant was described in its activity- inactivity behaviour as chaotic, in accordance with the experimental evidence, and the model ants interacted with each other by excitation, again in accordance with observation: if an active ant interacts with an active or an inactive ant, both cases result in increased activity. The model was constructed as a kind of mobile neural network, ants playing the role of excitable neurons that can move around on a grid that represents the brood chamber. It was not possible to predict the outcome of the model, since there was no reason to assume that chaotic individuals interacting by excitation will develop a coherent rhythm. However, that is precisley what occurred. Furthermore, the model also conformed to observations that were not built into the model: a regular periodicity emerges in the ant colony only when the density of ants exceeds a critical level, as observed by Cole (1991) in his experimental studies. The periodicity emerges quite suddenly above the critical density; in physical terms, it has the characteristics of a phase transition. It is now possible to reflect on what kind of explanation of the emergent property this model gives us.

The emergent periodicity in the brood chamber cannot be reduced to the behaviour of the individual ants and their interactions in any specific causal sense. That is, knowing about individual ant behaviour and the nature of their interactions is not sufficient to predict the periodic behaviour of the whole colony. Nevertheless, this periodicity is a consistent property of the model, above a critical density of ants. Here is a case of consistency without causal reduction, which is found in many cases of emergence in complex systems. It may well be that mathematical theorems will be discovered that allow one to make predictions about such systems. However, these were not known at the time the model was constructed. What the model makes clear is the necessary properties for such an emergent process. The mathematical functions used in the model describe these properties without explaining what their consequences are. This is typical of scientific procedure: models often describe without giving causal explanations of the phenomena.

Such models are very useful in clarifying various aspects of emergent properties in complex evolving systems. In particular, we can ask what role natural selection might play in the emergence of rhythmic activity or workers in the brood chamber. To explore this, we need to ask what function rhythmic activity has for the colony and how it serves its survival. Franks suggested what this might be. He and others have observed that if an active ant encounters an embryo or a larva that is already getting attention from other workers, the active worker will go to another member of the brood. Therefore if workers in the brood chamber are active at the same time, they probably distribute their care over the brood and the queen so that there is little duplication of attention. If their activity patterns were chaotic, then some embryos or larvae might get more, and others less, attention than others, simply by accident of how the workers are distributed in the brood chamber. Solé has shown that when this is modelled by computer simulation of colony activity, periodic patterns do indeed produce better care than chaotic patterns. So we have a possible explanation of why rhythmic cycles of activity in the brood chamber are beneficial and may be selected: they enhance the survival chances of the young by virtue of good care when they are developing, and so increase the fitness of the colony. This is probably why these activity cycles are commonly observed in such colonies.

However, it is clear that natural selection in no sense explains the origin of the rhythmic activity pattern in the brood chamber. The possible function of the rhythm played no role in designing the model, which provides an understanding of how rhythmic activity patterns can emerge in an ant colony with the properties observed. Modelling the ant colony as a complex system provided a demonstration of the possibility of rhythmic behaviour in the brood chamber. Furthermore, it showed that the density required for rhythmic activity was quite low (about 20% of maximum density), as observed experimentally, and the rhythm arises for a wide range of excitability of the ants. This is what is required for a phenomenon to arise in evolution: it must occur fairly readily and it must be robust in the sense that there should be a considerable range of values in the model over which the phenomenon arises. This corresponds to a wide range of genotypes in which the property can arise. In addition, the fact that the rhythm arises suddenly as a phase transition in the colony means that it is not selected gradually, with progressively increasing definition, as the gradualist view of evolution would have it. Not all biological properties arise as phase transitions, but complexity theory is demonstrating that this is a common feature of the way biological organisation emerges (cf Soléâ and Goodwin, 2000).

It is these spontaneous, robust emergent properties that Kauffman (1993, 1995) called ‘order for free’ in evolution: the sudden occurrence of an aspect of organismic morphology or behaviour, made possible by the occurrence of conditions in complex systems that allow for the property to be generated. These conditions arise by a random search of possibilities resulting from spontaneous diversification within organisms of both genes and of dynamic possibilities through the presence of chaotic activity, as we have seen in connection with health, and now in ants; and diversification of environmental conditions outside the organism. The diversification of conditions within the organisms and in its environment is what Darwin assumed to generate hereditary variety within populations and habitat variety to which they can adapt. Natural selection can explain the differential distribution among species of various structures that have arisen in evolution, for example why humans have more digits on their limbs than herbivores such as horses or deer, due to their different modes of adaptation and use. Humans have many unspecialised digits which they use for all kinds of manipulations and tool use, while horses and deer have a reduced number of extended digits that enhance their running abilities, allowing them to escape predators. However, these observations do not provide an explanation of how digits can be made during the development of the organism. The properties of organisms on which natural selection acts must be generated before being selected, and it is the task of scientific explanation to provide an understanding of how these can arise in organisms and communities in the first place, which natural selection cannot do. (see Webster and Goodwin, 1996, for an extended discussion of these principles of explanation in biology).

Complexity theory extends scientific explanation to processes with emergent properties that cannot be predicted from the properties of the components and their interactions. This provides evolution theory with an understanding of the origins of various properties as creative expressions of living beings. The model of chaotic ants interacting through excitable interactions provides a demonstration of how rhythmic activity can arise from chaotic activity above a critical level of colony density. It is a mode of behaviour readily accessible to ants as they explore the diversity of possibilities open to them during their evolution. Once it emerges, natural selection can increase its frequency in colonies because of its contribution to colony fitness.

These so-called ‘emergent’ phenomena we cannot predict from current assumptions but we assume that one day we will make them intelligible. In science we learn to tell consistent, logical stories about those aspects of the world that we choose to examine. However, that does not mean that we are then in a position to predict and control it. Nature is always full of unexpected surprises, and always will be. As Goldstein, (1999) has expressed it: ‘In effect, there seems to be no end of emergents. Therefore, the unpredictability of emergents will always stay one step ahead of the ground won by prediction….As a result, it seems that emergence is now here to stay’. Complex systems such as organisms and ecosystems will forever remain outside our capacity to control, for the simple reason that the consequence of change in any component part can have unpredictable results. This means that the introduction of a new species into an ecosystem or the introduction of a new gene into an organism can have unforeseen consequences. Complexity theory tells us that this is an inevitable property of such systems. This puts paid to Western scientific claims to be able to predict and control any aspect of nature on which we wish to focus our attention. First deterministic chaos, then emergent phenomena. Nature, it seems, is orderly and predictable in certain respects, but is also intrinsically unpredictable and creative.

This is something that we have known all along; it has just taken science some time to reach the point where it can acknowledge that it made some incorrect assumptions. Since science is fundamentally self-correcting, these errors must necessarily come to light and be corrected sooner or later. Nevertheless, resistance to change in the face of evidence is sometimes very fierce and the consequences of assumptions outliving their usefulness can be dangerous. One of the most basic assumptions, which is still tenaciously held, is particularly relevant to our present critical state. This has to do with the distinction between quantity and quality, which I shall now examine.

Separating Quantities from Qualities

It was assumed at the inception of Western science in the 16th century, with the systematic studies of Galileo on cylinders rolling down inclined planes, falling and projected bodies, and the motion of the moons of Jupiter, that the only reliable knowledge we can have of the natural world is of measurable quantities such as mass, position, velocity, acceleration, and so on. The role of science was to discover the logical, mathematical relationships between these variables that underlie regular behaviour in nature. Qualities such as experience of colour, of odour, or a sense of beauty at the spectacle of the planets or the elegance of the equations that describe their motion are ‘subjective’ and cannot be used as reliable indicators of natural process. The distinction was later made by the philosopher John Locke between what he called ‘primary qualities’ of nature, which are measurable and objective, and ‘secondary qualities’, which cannot be measured and are subjective. Scientific study is restricted to a systematic study of the former. This was a very sensible and useful assumption to make in order to examine one aspect of nature, its orderliness and predictability, in a systematic and logical way.

However, it is clear that this distinction presents us with a problem which at first was not very serious but which has become more and more acute as Western science has proceeded to extend its domain of inquiry to more and more aspects of nature. We live our human lives primarily in terms of qualities, not quantities. Our relations with each other depend deeply on our experience of one another, whether we have relationships of trust or suspicion, whether we believe that someone is truthful or honorable or is unreliable. We extend this type of qualitative judgement to our relationships with domestic animals such as sheep-dogs or horses or oxen. People who depend on the natural world for their livelihoods make very extensive use of ‘subjective’ judgements in deciding on, say, the quality of soil for producing different crops or the quality and balance of an ecosystem to determine which and how many animals to hunt or wild plants to harvest. There are quantitative aspects to these evaluations, but no sharp separation between quantity and quality in assessing the properties of the complex systems on which our lives depend.

III. From Control to Participation

Chaos and complexity theory make it clear why this must be the case. We now know that we cannot use quantities and mathematical relationships to predict the behaviour of complex systems, both because they are likely to have the property of sensitivity to initial conditions and because the behaviour of the whole may be an unpredictable emergent property of the relationships between its parts. These properties are revealed by their qualities as much as by their quantities. A farmer assesses the quality of his soil in terms such as ‘friability’, its texture and feel in the hand. At market purchases are made not simply on the basis of the age and weight of an animal but in terms of its ‘conformation’ and the quality of its movement and behaviour. In the context of medical treatment and therapy, the health of an individual is assessed not simply in terms of temperature, blood pressure and blood composition (including cell counts of different type) but in terms of complexion, posture and tone of voice. These are indicators of the condition of the whole being. Quantities and qualities together are used to assess relevant properties of people, of other animals, of landscapes and of ecosystems. These are all complex systems which we now understand are not controllable or predictable or manipulable, except in limited degrees. But our lives depend on them. So how are we to relate to them? Traditional wisdom, and now science, tells us that, since we cannot control them, we must learn to participate in their processes using all our skills of quantitative and qualitative observation to assess the effects of our actions and the impact we are making on them. Instead of assuming that scientific knowledge allows us to get ever more control of nature, we must now accept that good quality of life depends upon relating to complex natural systems with sensitivity and attentiveness, and cultivating skills that conventional science has tended to demote to the realm of merely subjective judgement. What is now needed is an extension of science to include qualties.

A Science of Qualities

The term ‘a science of qualities’ sounds like a contradiction to Western scientific ears, since qualities were banished from science four centuries ago. However all scientific assumptions are tentative and should not outlive their usefulness. We are now witnessing the consequences of ignoring qualities in science in the loss of habitat, species, health and quality of life generally. A strictly quantitative approach to nature has given us the ability to produce vast quantities of consumer goods and wealth, but has resulted in the destruction of the quality of life of more and more species and people the world over. How can we use the insights of science itself to transform this situation dialectically? We can examine the validity of the assumption about qualities and see if it is necessary for scientific knowledge of the world.

The essence of scientific procedure is the exploration of the world using methods that have been agreed by a group of people who constitute a community of inquirers. In this community there are no authorities; anyone can challenge accepted theories, hypotheses, models, assumptions and procedures, and introduce others that produce consistent results and make sense of observations. If someone challenges a deeply-held conviction, it is to be expected that there will be a lot of resistance to change. Thomas Kuhn (1960) explored this in connection with what he called normal versus revolutionary episodes in science, times of resistance and periods of change. He pointed out that for change to occur, it was necessary for there to be crucial anomalies between accepted theories and observation, and that an alternative interpretation of the phenomena (a new ‘paradigm’) must be proposed that allowed scientists to examine them from a different perspective. How does the current situation in science appear with respect to a change of assumption about the status of qualities in relation to the study of natural phenomena? There is no doubt that this is a big one, so the alternative to procedures using only quantities and their relationships must be pretty convincing, and urgent.

There are many examples of current scientific studies that attempt to bring qualities into the accepted procedures of science. Qualitative research is found in many studies of health-care that transcend the conventional ‘medical model’ of disease. These allow personal reporting on well-being as evidence for the efficacy of complementary therapies, not just the usual double-blind trials based on quantitative measures of response to treatment. However, there is still considerable resistance to these procedures on the grounds that there is no test of consistency between the reporting of different individuals about their state of health. Scientific procedures seek evidence that the evaluations of different individuals about a particular quality of experience are consistent. This evidence is now available from research on the capacity of people to assess consistently and consensually observed qualities.

Extending ‘Objectivity’ to Qualities

In conventional science, what is called ‘objectivity’ is actually consensus between different subjects on a measured property of some natural process, such as the position or the velocity of a planet during its motion. Different subjects reach agreement about such properties by using previously agreed methods of observation and measurement. This process involves consensus, which allows for disagreement but seeks accord. A group in Scotland carrying out research into the capacity of people to reliably assess the quality of experience of farm animals has now shown how consensus can be assessed among people who are evaluating qualities.

The procedure developed was based on methods of evaluating the quality of food and drink, which is routinely used. A group of 18 people, with no particular experience with farm animals, was shown a series of videos of 20 individual pigs behaving under standard conditions: a pen with straw, familiar to the pigs, into which a person enters and the pig can then relate to this person in any way it chooses. The people watching the video are asked to write down, independently of each other, terms which they think describe the quality of experience expressed by the pigs. These are freely chosen by the viewers and include terms such as nervous, laid-back, pushy, aggressive, playful, cool, and so on – whatever comes into the viewer’s mind as an appropriate descriptor of the pig’s behaviour and expresses its subjective experience, as we would use for other humans. Each person then lists all the terms they have used for all the pigs, with a line of the same length beside each term, and copies this list so that there is one for each pig. The videos are then shown again and the observers, again independently of each other, put a tick on the line beside each descriptor to indicate how much of this quality they think describes the experience of the pig during the interaction with the person in the pen. This data is then used to carry out a statistical evaluation of the extent to which observers agree on the quality of experience expressed by each pig. The analysis is designed to look for clustering of the points in the multidimensional space which describes the results of the evaluations, and to compare this with the frequency of clustering that would occur with randomly-assigned points for the pigs.

The results of this study (Wemelsfelder et al, 2000) are quite striking. There is a high level of clustering for the experimental data, showing that there is a large degree of consensus between different individuals in their evaluations. Furthermore, the different terms used by different individuals tend to form coherent descriptors of the pigs, with words such as nervous, tense, and withdrawn tending to fall near one another on a principle coordinate display of the results, while terms such as pushy, aggressive and boisterous are located toward another pole of this semantic space. This shows that there is consistency of judgement regarding quality of experience observed in this experiment. Wemelsfelder (2001) argues that this provides evidence that observers are seeing a property of the pigs themselves, rather than simply projecting their own feelings onto the pigs, just as the subjective experience of weight is taken as a property of the object experienced, not simply an idiosyncratic projection of the observer onto the object. Furthermore, the observed quality of experience of the pig relates to the whole animal and the way it relates to its world. This capacity we have of direct knowing about the qualities of the whole is often described as intuition, non-inferential perception. A basis is thus provided for extending the procedure of scientific consensus of observed properties of natural processes from analysis of quantities, relating to the properties of parts, to the intuition of qualities, which refer to the properties of the whole. Furthermore, these studies show that the use of qualities to assess differences between individual pigs is more discriminating than the use of quantities to describe behaviour (number of steps forward, backward, frequency of grunts, etc). Qualities capture essential aspects of the whole expressed in behaviour that quantities cannot describe.

In one sense these results are not news to anyone who works with animals or with nature. Only scientists and philosophers are likely to challenge the implications of these conclusions, and for good reason. They will require considerably more evidence that the procedure for reaching consensus on qualities provides a sound foundation for including in scientific judgement about natural processes what has for so long been regarded as the purely subjective domain of human feelings. However, the consequences of failing to include qualitative evaluations into the assessment of the changes we are making to the natural environment and to cultures are ever more pressing and dangerous. We are experiencing global crises in health, in community relations, in agriculture, in habitat, species and cultural destruction, and in climate change, all as a result of the way we have chosen to see these aspects of culture and nature from a scientific and technological perspective. The separations that we have made between nature and culture, between quantity and quality, and between control and participation, are now causing serious problems. This raises deep issues about the way we are educating ourselves, the assumptions we are making about ourselves and our place in the world. How are we to transcend these separations and enter into a more participatory relationship with the other members of our planetary society?

IV. Developing a Participatory Culture

The success of Western Science in obtaining reliable knowledge of natural processes and achieving control over them has had a profound impact on the social sciences, and in particular on theories of organisational management. People involved in the study of structure and relationships in the corporate sector have used scientific models to suggest how scientific ways of understanding nature can be used to understand and organise businesses. The assumption here is that models of natural process can be applied to human organisations.

One of the continuing difficulties is to explain the relationship between the individuals who work in the enterprise and the organisation as a whole. There is a tension between the freedom of the individuals and their responsibility to the business itself. This is often mediated by the ‘leaders’, one of whose responsibilities is to embody the principles of the organisation, which they are expected to articulate in a ‘vision statement’. A difficult question is then: what is the status of the whole organisation within which individuals act, and what is their appropriate behaviour toward it? Is the organisation a thing with continuity of order, like a living organism, or is it more like a flock of birds that can form and dissolve? If so, then what are the rules that define the organisation, where do they come from and how do they produce some degree of coherence in its behaviour? Since these are questions that are asked in the sciences of complexity, it is natural to see if these new developments can provide some kind of insight into the problems of understanding human organisations.

Organisations as Complex Systems

It is taken for granted that for scientific observation it is necessary for the observer to detach him-or herself from what is being observed so as to achieve ‘objective’ reporting. When this is applied to organisations, they are given the status of ‘systems’ which exist over and above its members as a structure with its own principles of order that can be understood and worked with. Complexity theory uses the same approach. Complex systems such as organisms, ecosystems and flocks of birds may well have unexpected properties of coherence, but the job of the scientist is to observe these properties and to construct a model that provides insight into the origin of the behaviour in the dynamic interaction of the parts. It was assumed that this could then provide the possibility of discovering aspects of its order. Such an approach would allow both an understanding of organisations and provide a basis for controlling their behaviour. This is how many people have used complexity theory to inform management policy. It is assumed that the humans who work in an organisation are agents who follow certain rules of behaviour and relationship, as in a model, and from these rules the properties of the whole emerge as a different level of order according to necessary principles of emergence as described and modelled by complexity theory. This new level of order defines the whole as a system.

Using this approach, management consultants and theorists such as Peter Senge (1990) have attempted to define the organisation as something that transcends the people who constitute it, with ethical values that demand the allegiance of its members. These values are discovered in a learning organisation by a continuous search for the principles that inspire the members, who freely choose collectively some expression of values that are taken to be real and emergent in the organisation – that is, they exist independently of, and transcend, the values of the individuals in the organisation. The members are then required to submit to these principles that have emerged by some undefined process, usually expressed through the leaders who can observe the system and so identify its emergent properties. The leaders act rather like scientists observing a complex natural process which they are trying to understand. A result of this way of thinking about human organisations is often a sense of disempowerment by the members who have not articulated the emergent principles but are expected to submit to them. When they ask where these principles come from, they are told that they were discovered as a property of the organisation that exists as a thing over and above its members. This reification of the organisation is achieved by the definition of the principles and values of the organisation. However, if these are seen as static idealisations then we have what the social theorist G.H.Mead (1934, 1936, 1938) called ‘cult values’. These freeze the organisation into a static structure which is often maintained by a visionary leader. Mead reflected on both fascist and communist movements of the 20th century as examples of this, and he connects this tendency to the prevalence of scientific thinking which sees the system as transcendent over its members. There is clearly the possibility of serious mystification and loss of freedom here. We need to see if thinking about human organisations as systems in the scientific sense is legitimate (see Griffin, 2002, for a thorough discussion of these issues).

Human Freedom and Responsibility

There is a difficulty in applying complexity theory to human organisations. This arises from the fact that humans exercise freedom and judgement; they do not simply follow prescribed rules of relationship and behaviour. As a result, human organisations cannot be described as systems that are organised in particular ways. They cannot, in fact, be defined as systems at all (see Stacey, Griffin and Shaw, 2001, for a critique of systems theory applied to social relations). This is because it is not possible for humans to step outside the organisations within which they act and observe them. They are participants, not agents that follow prescribed rules (cf Reason, 1998; Reason and Goodwin, 1999). As participants, they are constantly assessing the value and legitimacy of the organisation to themselves and others as free, responsible beings. In exercising their freedom and responsibility, they change their rules of conduct towards different people within the organisation. Complexity theory has barely begun to address the issues presented by such responsible, evaluating agents. In fact it cannot do so unless judgements, evaluations and values are included within the realm of scientific knowledge.

This takes us back to the issues raised in extending scientific practice to include qualities as well as quantities. If this is possible, then complexity theory or some development of it can be extended to human organisations. If not, then we cannot have a science of social relations. Of course there are many different ways in which useful theories of social processes can be developed and applied, but if they are to be consistent with our understanding of humans as beings who exercise responsible choice then they must include some account of the nature of such beings, the status of qualities and values in their behaviour, and the appropriate practices that accompany these.

There are two aspects to these issues. One concerns the status and the origin of a sense of qualities and values in humans. This connects with ideas about human evolution and the question: how is it that human beings have evolved with the capacity to experience qualities and values, to have feelings about them? The other is the ways in which humans use these in practical action in the world, and the skills that can be developed in cultivating a sense of how best to realise a life of quality as well as sufficient quantities of materials to satisfy needs. The first question concerns origins and nature; the second concerns the development of ways of knowing and doing that allow the full realisation of human potential ; i.e., education and practice. Let us explore the first and return to the second question of education for practical action later.

V. Where Do Qualities Come From?

How can we account for the evolutionary origins of feelings and the experience of qualities in humans? Darwin considered that emotions arose during evolution and were selected because they confer an adaptive advantage on those organisms that have them. Fear adds to the capacity to escape from danger, while maternal love enhances the quality of care provided to growing and developing young. However, we have just seen that the possible adaptive advantage of a property does not account for its evolutionary origins. It is necessary to provide an account of how the property in question is possible, how it can arise within a particular type of organism or system. In all examples of scientific explanations of emergent properties that we have considered, the phenomenon that is explained can be seen to arise from related properties of the components of the system. In the ant colony, individual ants have intervals of activity and inactivity. This pattern is not periodic, but it does involve movement and rest. It is not difficult to accept that particular conditions of interaction can produce periodic behaviour of the colony. Although unexpected, this does not involve something coming from nothing. The model suggests how there is consistency between levels of process, the patterns of movement in individual ants and that which emerges in the colony, despite an inability to predict the phenomenon. Science can cope with this kind of novelty, can make sense of it by demonstrating consistency between levels of action in the colony, even if there is no causal closure that allows the phenomenon to be predicted. However, if some property arises that cannot be understood in terms of constituent processes of similar quality, like the hardness of teeth and the hardness of calcium phosphate crystals of which they are made, or periodic movement in an ant colony from chaotic movement of individuals, then we get something like a miracle, at which scientific understanding boggles.

Now consider the case of feelings. It is often assumed that feelings emerge as an aspect of the experience of organisms with sufficiently complex nervous systems. But the components of the nervous system, neurons, are themselves made up of lipids and proteins and ions which, organised structurally and dynamically in a particular way, result in action potentials and propagating electrical currents. None of these components of the nervous system could be said to have any property that relates to subjective feeling, to personal experience of process. So to assume that feelings emerge from such complex systems implies that suddenly, at some point in evolution, a totally new property emerges that cannot be understood in terms of some similar quality that belongs to the components of the system from which the property emerges.

This dilemma has led many scientists and philosophers to take the view that emotions and feelings in organisms are not real in the sense that claws and teeth and hearts are real. Feelings are illusory, epiphenomena invented by natural selection because they aid survival. However, scientifically this is really a cop-out, an abandonment of the task of scientific explanation, just as the assumption that natural selection explains how emergent properties of organisms arise fails to recognise the need to provide a scientific explanation of how these properties are possible under the circumstances from which they arise. The study of emergent properties in complex systems forces the issue about the origin of experience of qualities that is an undeniable aspect of evolution, unless we deny the reality of our own experience. This is a price that most people are unwilling to pay, quite rightly; for denying what is our everyday experience is to be deeply alienated from the reality of our lives. This denial has been seen by some as a source of deep confusion and moral uncertainty in our scientifically-influenced culture. The philosopher A.N.Whitehead (1925, 1929), who was deeply preoccupied with the origins of qualities and feelings and how the Western scientific approach tended to produce alienation and confusion about the reality of ethical responsibility, said: ‘A scientific realism based on mechanism, is conjoined with an unwavering belief in the world of men and the higher animals as being composed of self-determining organisms. This radical inconsistency at the basis of modern thought accounts for much that is half-hearted and wavering in our civilisation. It would not be going too far to say that it distracts thought. It enfeebles it, by reason of the inconsistency lurking in the background’ (Whitehead, 1925).

The alternative to denying the causal reality of feelings and emotions is to seek to explain them as real emergent properties of organisms during their evolution. There is now a very active debate among scientists and others interested in the evolution of human consciousness concerning this issue of the origins and status of qualities of experience (cf. Griffin, 1998, Silberstein, 1998). Many others are keenly interested in ways of making sense of experience from a scientific perspective. Among the recent developments in this field are contributions from workers in robotics and artificial intelligence/artificial life and developments of these ideas. These are clarifying why it is that distinctive feelings are associated with experience of qualities in terms of the specific forms of activity that are involved in generating these experiences. They provide some indication of how the distinctive behaviour of organisms in making sense of their environments could be involved in the generation of feelings.

The Primacy of Movement and Intention in Perception

There has been a long tradition in Western science that has regarded sense perception as essentially a passive recording of properties of the outside world on the specialised sites of reception in the organism. Vision, for example, has been understood as a process similar to the action of a camera in recording a visual image. The external scene enters the eye via the lens and the retina and is transmitted faithfully to the visual cortex of the brain, where it is recorded as an internal representation of aspects of the outside world in neural activity (cf Lindberg, 1976).

However, this approach to perception has been challenged by those who have recognised that organisms are agents that actively engage with their environments during sense perception; they are not passive receivers of sense impressions (see, e.g., Gibson, 1979). Recently this perspective has been significantly developed in connection with what is called ‘skill theory’ (Clark, 2000). Clark argues that different modes of sensory perception such as seeing, hearing, touching, etc., involve specific skills whereby the organism engages with its environment in particular ways. For example, in seeing colour the organism scans an object using particular eye movements and also changes its relation with the object in order to test aspects of invariance in the experience. The colour red has particular properties that change as the incident light on the object, from the sky (blueish) or from an artificial light (yellowish), is altered during examination of the object by a subject. Furthermore, colour experience does not change when the subject covers her ears, but does when she blinks. And the particular distribution of red-sensitive cells in the retina has an effect on the experience of red as she moves her eyes. In attending to a sound, an organism uses different modes of discrimination, such as turning the head to identify the direction from which it comes or paying attention to the changes of pitch (frequency) in the sound, as in birdsong.

The distinctive forms of action in which an organism engages while actively exploring different sensory stimuli provide the basis, according to Clark (2000), whereby the modality experienced, whether colour or sound or touch, can be identified. He describes this as ‘unmediated or non-inferential access to modality’, which he regards as the basis of phenomenal experience. ‘The fact that she has direct unmediated access to certain distinctive physical or functional features of the visual encoding will force upon the agent the idea that there is a special sensational quality present’ (Clark, 2000). Thus it is the active participation of the organism in experiencing the world in different ways that gives rise to direct knowing that is the distinctive quality of subjective experience : what it feels like to see or hear or touch. Feelings in organisms arise from the exercise of particular skills in exploring the world. This suggests how to investigate the activities that are associated with different feelings.

Myin and O’Regan (2002) have extended and transformed Clark’s ideas in interesting and suggestive ways. In doing so, they have made important connections with the philosophical tradition of phenomenology presented by, for example, Heidegger (1927), Husserl (...)Merleau-Ponty (1945), and Dreyfus (1996). Myin and O’Regan point out that skill theory presents a specific break from traditional cognitive science, which emphasises neurophysiological processes as the basis of consciousness, including sensory awareness and associated feelings. However, there is nothing in these neural activities that allow us to identify the distinctive qualities of different types of experience, since they are all basically the same, reducing to electrical changes and ion fluxes in neurons and other types of brain cell. This is where neural reductionism fails to provide any basis for understanding and explaining basic aspects of the reality we know, just as genetic reductionism and natural selection fail to explain the phenomena of biology (cf. Goodwin, 1994; Webster and Goodwin, 1996). Skill theory puts the emphasis in perception and experience on engagement with the outer world rather than on inner experience associated with neural activity. In so doing, it provides a basis for understanding how different modalities of experience are generated by organisms as active agents in exploring the world, and why we see the world ‘out there’ and not inside us, where the representations are supposed to be.

What Myin and O’Regan (2002) add to Clark’s skill theory is another crucial aspect of the way organisms engage with the world. This has to do with intentionality. In order to exercise a particular skill, an organism must pay attention to the world in a particular way. This way of engagement is guided by the knowledge that is embodied in the exercise of a particular skill, which has been acquired through practice and experience. This knowledge is implicit. Humans, for example, cannot describe the knowledge they have that allows them to walk or to run, or the difference between them, though we do have distinctive feelings associated with these modalities of movement. The process of becoming aware of one’s motion or perception depends on two factors: the intention to deploy a skill of a particular kind, and its implementation. It is the intention that allows the organisms to engage with the world in a specific manner, so that it pays attention to a subset of the countless stimuli available to it at any moment. Without intention, the organisms would be overwhelmed by the diverse possibilities presented to it. Diversity represents the possibility for appropriate, creative action, but attention needs to be focussed on particular ways of making sense of the world. Without intention, we can see, hear, and do nothing.

Myin and O’Regan (2002) argue that their extension of Clark’s skill theory to a ‘sensorimotor contingency theory’ allows us to understand some fundamental aspects of experience that have been identified as ‘the hard problem’ associated with the experience of qualities such as redness or softness or beauty (Chalmers1996). In particular, there are two aspects of this experience that seem difficult to account for, one of which is ‘ineffability’ and the other ‘subjectivity’. Ineffability is the property that you can never adequately describe what you are experiencing, what you are paying attention to or are aware of. However, since it is not possible to describe all the knowledge that underlies the exercise of a particular skill, it is the implicit knowledge that is the source of ineffability.

Subjectivity describes the fact that experience is for a subject. Since becoming perceptually aware of something means interacting with it, devoting one’s skills to exploring it, the active perceiver is necessarily the centre of the experience. As a result, we have a foundation here for a science of qualities that recognises organisms as intentional agents with direct experience and knowledge of the qualities of what it is paying attention to in the world. This provides us with an approach to the study of feelings and experience through a detailed examination of the ways in which organisms engage with the world. The pig study is fully compatible with these insights: people have direct access to the quality of experience reflected in the behaviour of another organism by virtue of shared modes of perception between humans and pigs. How far this can be extended to other species of organism, especially rather remote species such as ants or plants and our capacity to evaluate their quality of life, can now be more systematically explored.

The Emergence of Feelings

We can now return to the question how feelings are possible in living organisms. So far we have explored the conditions under which experiences with particular qualities arise, which involve active, intentional agents engaged in probing their world in specific ways that require the exercise of skills. Can we say more about the processes that accompany the experience of feelings? That is, can we identify some form of activity within organisms that strictly correlates with subjective experience? The point of this exercise is to get some idea of what activities are necessary and sufficient for the experience of feeling so that we have some indication of what kind of organised process is required in organisms (or artefacts like computers or robots) for subjective experience to arise. Intentions and skills are certainly necessary as generators of specific modalities or qualities of experience. This may be as far as we can go in defining the generative basis of qualities in terms of the activity of a complex self-organised process: the organism engages in an organised process of exploration of its environment. However, is there a further set of activities within the organism that can be identified as necessary accompaniments to this, giving us insight into the processes that generate experience?

At this point we make contact again with scientific reductionism, giving us a direction in which we can move with this inquiry. However, this is not a reduction of an organism’s intention and skilled engagement with its surroundings to a different level of process, but an attempt to get some sense of the universality of experience throughout the living realm. How complex must an organism be to have feelings? In general, it is assumed that it has to be pretty complex, especially with respect to its neural organisation. Now I shall describe a proposition that suggests that this may not be the case. Relatively simple organisms may have feelings, in this view.

The starting point of this view is that subjective experiences and their corresponding objective properties are two fundamentally different manifestations of the same underlying reality. One is not more basic and real than the other, as Western scientists have tended to argue. Then subjectivity may be an aspect of any level of organisation of process in nature, but different expressions of subjectivity in nature will arise in different types of organised process. This would then be just like different qualities of ‘hardness’ or ‘fluidity’ being expressed by different forms of organisation of matter and energy. I shall explore now one approach that connects directly with the principles of complexity and emergence that have informed this essay from the beginning.

Some initial focus on this question comes from the recognition that there does seem to be a direct correlation between the activities of nerve cells and the emergence of what we call consciousness, including feelings. What aspect of neural activity is involved in the expression of the type of agency that is connected with experience? An answer to this at the moment can only be a suggestion for further exploration. However, a plausible proposal has been made by Romijn (2002) that takes the investigation in very interesting directions that are consistent with a significant tradition of thinking in this field.

Neural activity is accompanied by electrical action potentials that propagate along neurons and changes in the resting potential of cell bodies. These produce transient changes in electric and magnetic fields that are distributed throughout the neural networks. The quantum mechanical description of these fields of force, which involve attraction or repulsion of the type observed between electrically charged objects of different or of like charge, respectively, or magnetic poles (‘north’ and ‘south’) of opposite or like sign, is in terms of virtual photons. These travel between the electric or magnetic poles along trajectories that are described as lines of force, producing repulsive or attractive forces depending on whether the sources of the virtual photons have the same or different signs. These ephemeral photons have been described as joining the sources together in a manner similar to the way in which two tennis players are joined together by the continuous exchange of the tennis ball.

The virtual photons can undergo dynamic processes of organisation into coherent states of varying degrees of order, just as occur in all elementary particles of physics. Coherent states of real photons are familiar from lasers, which manifest high degrees of order so that the photons don’t scatter and dissipate energy as in ordinary light, allowing us to bounce a laser beam off the surface of the moon and record its passage back to earth. Similarly, virtual photons can become coherent in their activities. Romijn (2002) suggests that it is the degree of coherence of virtual photons in neural systems that is correlated with different levels of subjective awareness. Subjectivity and objectivity are then related to different aspects of order and organisation in the same underlying reality. Now all matter constantly emits and absorbs virtual photons. According to the above suggestion, subjectivity can emerge wherever these virtual photons become coherently organised in particular ways. It may be that the requisite order emerges only in complex nervous systems. However, it is evident that this is not necessary and different degrees of subjectivity could emerge in systems with different degrees of order. Certainly for the type of attentional engagement with the natural world that occurs in humans and pigs and birds a high degree of sensory-motor coordination is required to generate different modalities of experience, assuming that we can extend the human situation in this way to other animals. However, it now becomes possible to see how there could be an emergence of distinct forms of subjective experience at many different levels of order in the biological realm, and possibly throughout nature when particular conditions of organisation are satisfied. The particular order that is connected with subjective experience involves active agents with intentionality that engage with the world in particular ways, generating coherent fields of virtual photons in their neural systems that result from specific forms of excitation of the neural networks. Different types of agent engage in the world in specific ways, making them distinct in their modes of being and the type of experience available to them; but there is also a shared or universal aspect to their experience which may be embodied in the coherent states of their virtual photons

Such an extension of subjectivity to basic aspects of nature has been described as pan-psychism or pan-sentience, following the line of reasoning of philosophers such as Whitehead (1929) and Hartshorne (1968) (see Griffin, 1998). It transforms the nature of the world in which we live, since what we call ‘matter’ is no longer ‘dead’ but has the potential for experience at any level of appropriate organisation. However, it remains a territory of extreme disagreement and dispute, and is generally rejected by the scientific and philosophical establishment, which continues to be split by the paralysing dilemma of living with and by feelings but being uncertain of their reality.

To Live is to Know; To Be Human Is To Love

All organisms have skills that allow them to engage with their environments and to ‘make a living’ in species-specific ways. In ‘The Tree of Knowledge’, Maturana and Varela (1986) present a perspective on evolution which argues that every species of organism has specific knowledge of its environment, and that it constitutes the environment that it knows through the intentional and appropriate exercise of these skills. Their proposition is that to live is to know, so that living organisms are characterised by their ways of being in the world. Since much knowledge is implicit and embodied, this perspective takes us well away from the Cartesian separation of a sensitive, thoughtful mind from its mechanical, automatic body, to a unity of mind and body that joins thought and action, quantity and quality of experience, nature and culture. This is compatible with Darwinism, but it goes much further in providing a basis for understanding organisms as sentient beings that create and know their worlds by exercise of intention and skill in which feelings are genuinely emergent aspects of nature, as described above. Biology has worked hard at reducing the living condition to mechanical processes at the molecular and genetic level which, together with natural selection, are taken to provide a basis for explaining all the phenomena of evolution. This has been immensely fruitful and valuable as far as it goes, but we can now see the serious limitations of this account.

At the end of their book, Maturana and Varela (1987) say of human culture: ‘We have only the world that we can bring forth with others, and only love helps bring it forth’. So for them, to live as a human is not simply to know and to feel but to love. ‘This is the biological foundation of social phenomena: without love, without acceptance of others living beside us, there is no social process and, therefore, no humanness’ (Maturana and Varela, 1987). This quality of living in relationship is often regarded as the ultimate expression of human potential. The process of human culture is then guided by this quality of living and relating as the full expression of responsible freedom. The present that we know and experience is continuously being formed by our values, which we use to construct our future, to bring into existence the world in which we live as active, feeling agents. Love holds open all the diverse possibilities for participation and creative action by the members of the community, whatever it may be. No one is isolated or invalidated. Diversity of perspective is acknowledged and valued and conflict provides energy for transformation and resolution.

Nevertheless, there are always necessary bounds to action that are negotiated by consensus, creating the constraints that are part of the spur to appropriate creativity.

VI. Implications for Education and Action

I have described a new world that is emerging from the dialectical movement of Western science and culture that transforms the focus for understanding our world and action in it from control to participation. This has many consequences regarding education and engagement in sustainable living, inviting us to heal the inappropriate divisions that we have made by developing a more unified learning process in which the practical, experiential engagement with the reality we discover and create is cultivated in ways that conform to our new insights. Among these developments are a holistic science that recognises both quantities and qualities as aspects of reality and cultivates appropriate ways of knowing about them. What are these ways of knowing and how are they to be cultivated?

There is a striking contrast between the ways in which agricultural cultures such as our own relate to nature and the patterns of relationship that prevail in hunter-gatherer societies which have been dramatically described by Hugh Brody in ‘The Other Side of Eden’ (2001). He contrasts the holistic, participatory, contained relationship that is cultivated by the Inuit with their land of ice and snow, animals and spirits, with the scientific, controlling, expansionist properties of agricultural-industrialised Western cultures to nature as other with land ownership, continuous development and colonial exploitation.

‘Those who are agriculturalists, humans who live by remodelling the land, are the peoples whose story is some version of Genesis. We live outside any one garden that can meet our needs and growing population, so we must roam the earth looking to create or re-create some place that will provide a more or less adequate source of food and security. We are doomed to defend this place against enemies of all kinds: we know that just as we have conquered, others can displace us. This mixture of agriculture and warfare is the system within which farms and towns and nation-states and colonial expansion have an inner and shared coherence.

But Genesis is not a universal truth about the human condition. Inuit children do not grow up with the curses of exile. Hunter-gatherers constitute a profound challenge to the underlying messages that emerge from the stories of Genesis. They do not make any intensive efforts to reshape their environment. They rely, instead, on knowing how to find, use and sustain that which is already there’.

‘The hunter-gatherer mind is humanity’s most sophisticated combination of detailed knowledge and intuition. It is where direct experience and metaphor unite in a joint concern to know and use the truth. The agricultural mind is a result of specialised, intense development of specific systems of intellectual order, with many kinds of analytical category and exacting use of deductive reasoning. The hunter-gatherer seeks a relationship with all parts of the world that will be in both personal and material balance. The spirits are the evidence and the metaphors for this relationship. If they are treated well, and are known in the right way, and are therefore at peace with human beings, then people will find the things they need.

The farmer has the task of controlling and shaping the world, making it yield the produce upon which agricultural life depends. If this is done well, then crops will grow. Discovery by discovery, change by change, field by field, control is increased and produce is more secure. The dichotomies of good and evil, right and wrong express this farming project: control comes with separating manipulable resources from the rest of the environment and working with determination and consistency against all that might undermine this endeavour’.

‘It is no coincidence that in so many aspects of the world, including regions where different indigenous systems live alongside one another, agriculturalists despise hunter-gatherers for being ‘primitive’ and hunter-gatherers complain that farmers are belligerent. In the colonial era of the past five hundred years, ‘developed’ agricultural societies have launched themselves with particular ferocity against all other peoples, and have, in particular, sought new land in vast territories occupied by hunter-gatherers’.

However, Brody’s message is not of inevitable conflict between these different ways of being in the world, with doom to hunter-gatherer cultures, but the possibility of agriculturalists-industrialists learning how to relate to nature in less destructive ways than they have in the past and valuing the lessons that hunter-gatherers can teach, ‘lessons that go to the core of who we are’.

‘Anthropological accuracy requires… a great deal of caution about the hunter: farmer dichotomy. In reality, there is a possible spectrum of economic systems – with hunter-gatherers at one end, farmers at the other, and many kinds of mixture in between – rather than two exclusive categories, some pair of opposites that between them include all possible human societies. In this respect, the hunter-gatherer: farmer divide is itself a form of myth’. This clearly recognises the value of resolving this ancient conflict through a process of embracing diverse possibilities and each side learning what is of value from the other. At the moment, however, most learning must come from the agriculturalists to recover a mode of participation which is essential for sustainable living on our shrinking planet.

Brody (2002) is currently working with the =Khomani San people of Botswana in Africa, the well-known Bushmen of the Kalahari, helping with a land use mapping project that show the places where the =Khomani had lived, hunted and gathered traditionally, and their relationship to these lands. In the 1930s the Kalahari Gemsbok Park was created in Botswana which forced the Bushmen to leave their lands to animals, tourists and park officials. They were made landless, an experience familiar to many hunter-gatherer societies around the world from America to Australia as Western culture engaged in colonial expansion. The result is transformation of these people with their own contained territories, resources, customs, beliefs and languages into persons who have lost their rights, their language, and their sense of purpose and meaning in the world. It has been estimated that Western ‘development’ policies during the past century have resulted in some 1,000 North American languages reaching the edge of extinction in the last 30 years, while no more then 100 of the original 700 or so languages spoken by Australian Aboriginal societies have survived, many of which have fewer than 20 speakers. This destruction of cultural diversity exceeds the rate of destruction of species diversity as our monoculture expands unilaterally according to its rhetoric of progress and development that is part of our policy of control and exploitation. The evidence is now undeniable that people who have lived in isolated, traditional societies usually experience far more losses than gains when their distinctive ways of being in the world are absorbed into a homogenised culture. Inevitably the quality of their lives, which arises out of their specific ways of knowing and constituting the world, is grossly diminished. We need to learn to celebrate diversity in all its forms.

Learning to Participate

There are traditions in Western culture that provide ways of balancing different ways of knowing and acting so that both the universal and the particular are acknowledged as aspects of an intelligible creativity in which we participate. I shall point to one of these in particular which provides a basis for working towards an integrated learning process that applies to all components of our culture. The reason I select this is not that it is intrinsically superior to other models available, but simply that it addresses head-on the conflict between analysis and intuition, between quantity and quality, between the sciences and the arts, that have resulted in deep divisions in our culture and have tended to be absent from traditional societies. The tradition which I will now explore comes from the work and writing of Wolfgang von Goethe in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, and the stream of thinking and doing that stems from him. This provides us with an historical focus from which to develop a case for resolution of conflict in the new synthesis that is already emerging within our cultural tradition. Goethe is best known for his works of literary genius, which made him the Shakespeare of the German language. His novels, plays, and poetry all transformed the very form of expression of creative insight and romantic experience in the European literary tradition. He also engaged in much practical organisation and activity in Weimar, where he was responsible for roads, mines, and land use, as well as engaging in the usual round of political and diplomatic activities in which his responsibilities involved him. However, none of these expressions of his creative and practical genius were as important as his scientific work, in his opinion. The Western scientific tradition has failed to recognise the significance of his contributions, which is hardly surprising. Goethe fell into conflict with the icon of western science, Sir Isaac Newton, over his theory of colour. Goethe was effectively cast into the outer darkness of scientific respectability as a result, regarded as a poetic genius but a thoroughly bad scientist.

More recent assessments of Goethe’s scientific contributions have recognised that he was not so much in conflict with Newton and scientific method as developing a different approach to the systematic understanding of nature. Instead of focussing exclusively on the universal and the general aspects of natural process as the essence of scientific knowledge, expressed in terms of ‘laws of nature’ described in mathematics, he emphasised engagement with phenomena in all their diversity, both quantitative and qualitative, thereby gaining insight into the way in which underlying generative processes always result in particularities of expression. Through deep engagement with natural processes in their full diversity, he claimed that the general is revealed through the phenomena, not abstracted from them. Whereas scientific procedure sought unity in diversity by abstracting out particularities, Goethe insisted that general principles are directly experienced through the diversity of their expression in natural phenomena, revealing multiplicity in unity. ‘There exists a delicate form of empiricism, which unites in its innermost with the object, making itself identical with it and thus becoming theory itself. Yet, this amplification of mental-spiritual capacity belongs to a highly educated time’ (Goethe Aphorisms, translated by Daniel Wahl, MSc student in Holistic Science, Schumacher College, 2001-2002). This emphasises the role of the intuition in grasping and experiencing the underlying unity of natural process, of direct or non-inferential knowing, much more than it is in conventional science. The qualities of the whole are as important in this process as the properties of the parts, which are held together as a transformational unity (cf. Bortoft, 1993).

In his study of colour, this approach led Goethe to a recognition of the interaction of light and dark as the underlying generative process involved in colour production. Through a series of systematic experiments with a prism and the juxtaposition of light and dark surfaces he demonstrated a holistic circle of the colours, adding magenta to the usual colour spectrum to complete the circle between violet and red. These observations are not in conflict with Newton’s; they are simply more comprehensive, including observations that Newton did not make in producing his linear spectrum of colours. Anyone can carry out the experiments with a prism to make these observations, as described in the work-book by Proskauer (1986).

Goethe also included the experience of particular colours as part of the process of understanding their nature. He saw phenomena as arising from the encounter between an active agent and the particular process of nature to which the agent is attending. Blue has particular feelings associated with it that are distinct from those associated with red, and he regarded these as significant in the understanding both the process involved in generating colour and in its use, as in painting. For example, the process that generates red is a darkening of the light, as occurs when the sun descends to the horizon and sets in the evening, the sun being darkened by the earth’s atmosphere. The experience of red reflects this darkening process, sometimes oppressive, sometimes intensifying and passionate. Blue, on the other hand, arises from a lightening of the dark, as occurs when reflected light from the earth’s atmosphere lightens the darkness of space as we gaze up into the heavens on a clear day. The experience of blue reflects this lightening process, often described as peaceful or calm or giving a sense of relief and enlightenment. The whole process of experiencing and knowing involves a direct engagement between an active, intentional agent and whatever natural process is being attended to. The recent studies I mentioned above on the way in which skill theory describes our experience of colour through particular modes of engagement with our environment are fully consistent with this perspective of understanding. For Goethe, knowing involves intention and action resulting in both analytical (‘objective’) and intuitive (‘subjective’) knowledge. ‘None of the human faculties should be excluded from scientific activity. The depths of intuition, a sure awareness of the present, mathematical profundity, physical exactitude, the heights of creative reason and sharpness of understanding, together with a versatile, ardent imagination and a loving delight in the world of the senses – they are all essential for a lively and productive apprehension of the moment’ (Naydler, 1996). Goethe was one of the first phenomenologists, anticipating the work of Husserl (1960) and Merleau-Ponty (1945/1976) in the 20th Century.

Reuniting the arts and the sciences

This perspective is now firmly on the scientific agenda, but it needs to be systematically developed in the learning process. Clearly one of the most dramatic results of this refocussing is a closing of the gap between the modes of knowing and creative expression in the arts and the sciences. Their separation was one of the consequences of the emergence of science in 17th Century Europe as a distinct way of knowing nature through analysis, measurement and mathematics, while the arts were seen as as a more expressive, intuitive mode of understanding and description of the experienced world. Goethe himself worked in both areas and experienced the unity of understanding that comes from engagement with phenomena in ways that involved the development of what he called ‘organs of perception’ that had to be cultivated through the practical work of exploring phenomena systematically. Kant considered that humans do not have a capacity for direct perception and understanding of the coherence of wholes, an intuitive way of knowing that is reliable or can be made reliable through practice. Therefore they have to work with their analytical ability and their capacity to reason in discovering both the ‘laws of nature’ and the principles of human action, the domain of ethics and responsibility. The paradox that Kant had to resolve was the strict determinism of natural law, the absence of freedom in nature, with the freedom of choice in the human realm, which he accepted as fundamental. He recognised the dilemma that has re-emerged in contemporary science in accounting for feelings and emotions in humans while attempting to explain them scientifically as emergent properties of the evolutionary process. He resolved this in a distinctive manner, by distinguishing between the deterministic laws that humans discover in nature and the laws of human reason that allow them to explore the realm of ethics as if they were discovering laws that govern human actions (ethical principles).

This distinction was challenged by Goethe, who saw nature and humans as part of the same process, as does evolutionary science. Goethe’s solution was to propose the intuition as an organ of perception that could perceive the ways in which different aspects of nature, distinguished by analytical reason, belong together in coherent wholes, holding together both their particularities and their unity in dynamic, transformational process. The arts and the sciences are equally involved in this education for holistic living and participation. Their separation has given us a split between a ‘real’ world of quantities and power and an ‘illusory’ world of qualities and feelings. Scientists control the real world while artists are the arbiters of the individual, idiosyncratic world of the imagination. This separation has anaesthetised us to the ugliness and destruction in the built and the natural environments which accompany progress and technological development. The arts have retreated to inner worlds that tend to detach us from, rather than bring us into balance with, the creativity of nature on which the quality of our lives depends.

Living for Now, Not the Future

It seems that we need a new enlightenment in which the arts and the sciences are joined, as they were before the Renaissance separated them along the cleavage lines of thought and feeling: the former giving us a rational, mechanical, predictable world; the latter the subjective, idiosyncratic, unpredictable novelty of individual expression. Both of these apparently opposite movements are oriented towards the future. Science constantly promises to explain what is currently unknown, and its technological applications promise a better future for humanity. The arts promise unending novelty and entertainment. The preoccupation is with a future that never arrives, anaesthetising us from the reality of the present.

Sooner or later, however, we had to wake up from this dream of a ‘messianic age’ (for it is a dream with a Judaeo-Christian origin, however heretical it has become in its materialist form) and see the mess that has resulted from our neglect. This is now very visible to all, but we are still caught in the dreams of the future: new technologies that will allow us to go on living in the same way but without the mess; new art that will explore and reveal ever more intimate aspects of ourselves and of our relationships with each other. The deeper truth of creativity is that, while it does produce novelty, it has another dimension that is more significant: it needs to be appropriate to context, to now. This is where we need to cultivate our sensitivities, to feel our way from here to a healthy, whole, healed future by a path that is at present invisible but is revealed as we walk it. This is the path of what is sometimes called ‘right action’. To get to a future in which things are better, the only reliable way to go is by fully tuning in to the present so that the future arrives as an unexpected revelation from engaged action now, not from prediction and planning. Of course we need to try to predict and to plan; but any course of action needs to be held lightly, continuously assessed for its practical and its qualitative consequences and altered when it fails to improve quality of life and living. Furthermore, this continuous monitoring and assessment needs to be carried out by local communities, not by centralised ‘experts’.

This is going to be quite a difficult lesson for our future-addicted culture. But it is the lesson that is coming from all quarters: from developments in complexity and creativity in science; from movements in the arts to reconnect with total context, built and natural environments alike; and from action in civil society in reponse to the perceived mess of our farms, our countryside, our cities, our economic system, our environment and the planet. An integrated educational system that puts all these components together in learning for participatory living is already on its way, as an appropriate creative response to the present situation. We just need to stay in touch with this, connected and responsive, and not get lost in another invented future. Paying attention to the lessons we can learn from the rich diversity of creatures and cultures that have resolved these issues in different ways on our remarkable planet can help us realise this transformation.


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Brian Goodwin is a course tutor on the MSc in Holistic Science at Schumacher College. He is author of How The Leopard Changed Its Spots (Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1994), and coauthor with Gerry Webster of Form and Transformation: Generative and Relational Principles in Biology (Cambridge, 1997), and co-author with Richard Solé of Signs of Life: How Complexity pervades Biology (Basic Books, 2002).

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