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Would You Like to Swing on a Star? Reflections on the Evolving Systems Project Year One

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Would You Like to Swing on a Star?

Reflections on the Evolving Systems Project Year One

Alice Lesnick, May 24, 2010


Q: When the cosmos talks to us in its own terms, what does it say?

A: Notice that I am bigger and stranger than anything you have yet imagined based on your experiences to date.  And the more you experience and imagine, the bigger and stranger I will get.

-- Evolving Systems Web Forum, 7/31/09


As a social scientist working across disciplines with colleagues in the Evolving Systems group, I have found my senses grow more alert and my thinking more flexible as I attend less exclusively to human relations. There is a generative paradox here in the affirmation of human engagement and the simultaneous de-centering of strictly human concerns. This paradox is something I’ve gained from being part of Evolving Systems, and in this reflection I hope to share what and how much it means to me.

One afternoon as conversation from an early core group meeting was ending, Bharath commented that “universal trust” was the only mode of encountering other people that made sense to him in a world of uncertain human motives and impacts. When we met to plan the session we later co-led, I asked him about this and the sense I’d gathered from him that he didn’t hold much with ascribing different levels of intelligence and authority to different people. He replied, “every individual is at the cutting edge of the universe.”

As a person’s experience and imagination change and grow, so does the universe. For the purposes of this reflection, I’ll call this “universal co-participation.” Human perception and reflection help create, not simply reflect, the world (cf: What would reaity look like outside the brain?). Universal co-participation by living things with various nervous systems bring about differences, gaps, conflicts, incommensurabilities, fragments, changes in scale, slippages, and questions --all crucial to the ongoing emergence of the universe. At the same time, differences between humans and the non-human world, while fundamental, are not final. In this way, the experience of each person, likely of each living thing, is important, both on account of its singularity and of what it has to offer various collectivities. Each life is expansion of the universe; each one a star from which it swings.

Given an essential, dynamic connection between the knower and the known, human experience is better understood as part of what the universe is, rather than as something sealed inside of, mirroring, or modeling the universe:

. . . the commonsensical separation of mind and body,( or mind and physical, or thought  and action) within popular theories is largely rejected within more recent discourses.  Rather than casting thought as a phenomenon that is about the world, thinking is recognized to be part of the universe. Although it might seem like a small shift in      conception, the implications of this notion are profound. Within theories that assume a separation between the world and the knower, the universe is seen to remain constant while conceptions change. For theories that reject this dichotomy, the universe is understood to change when a thought changes, because that thought is not merely in the       universe or about the universe. Rather, it is a dynamic part of an ever-changing reality. That is, learning is not seen as a “taking in” or a “theorizing about” a reality that is external to and separate from the learner. Rather, learning is a participation in the world, a co-evolution of knower and known that transforms both.

Davis, Sumara, & Luce-Kapler. (2000). Engaging Minds: Learning and Teaching in a Complex World. (Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum), pp. 63-4.

I am a teacher and student of Education, so I wonder about the import of the idea of universal co-participation to it.  If we take seriously the idea that every individual contributes to realizing and enlarging the universe, how might it shape our structures and processes of teaching and learning? The open-ended structure of the Evolving Systems group is a context for considering possible answers to the question of what education in the key of universal co-participation might look like, and the particular problems and opportunities it occasions (cf: A reason to talk together differently for a shared purpose).

One possible answer is that it is important to encourage people to be free to inquire into as many realms as possible, rather than to specialize too narrowly too soon.  For my part, through the biweekly Evolving Systems “Open Conversations” on the meaning and significance of chance, I have been exploring my strained relationship, and accustomed resistance, to studying formal systems, algorithmic/computational thinking, rocks, trees, planets and other things and forms of inquiry not expressed primarily via a distinctive human voice -- things that decenter human subjective experience. The opportunity to revisit these fields has helped me ask myself why I turned away from them earlier in my education. I wrote about this recently in an email to Paul:

A second set of issues has to do with the two cultures problem (cite).  In thinking about it today, I found the term "voice" to be useful in helping uncover my antipathy for math/seemingly "inhuman" things like it (and so my tendency to think of things like bridges as inhuman when in fact, as you pointed out yesterday, they are fully within the realm of (exclusively) human concerns. To stabilize my world as a child/adolescent, I depended on human voices, my own and those of others, and I hungered for them.  So: reading LOTS of voiced writing -- scholarly texts, literature, drama -- felt like a viable/life-supporting activity.  Engaging with things that aren't overtly humanly voiced -- math, rocks, trees, stars, frogs -- I think struck my unconscious as both a distraction from the voices I needed to keep living, and also maybe frightening because I couldn't easily "hear" them.  This connects to our exchange last summer about what the universe "says" to us when it "speaks" on its own terms.  I think I operated then from an unconscious belief that to engage with these unvoiced things could be very dangerous, and was only for people who were capable of safety and independence.  Does this make sense?

Pauls’ response:

Yeah, the "two cultures" connection makes a lot of sense.  Very helpful for my thinking at least.  "from an unconscious belief that to engage with these unvoiced things could be very dangerous, and was only for people who were capable of safety and independence."  The odd thing, of course, is that "dealing with unvoiced things" is probably the norm for human beings in general rather than something only "for people who were capable ...".  It’s only in modern complex cultures that "voiced" things come to seem primary and that one needs "safety and independence" from "voiced" things to explore "unvoiced" ones?

This exchange suggests the role of unconscious experience in inquiry and the connections between power, human identities, and learning/change.  In relation to Evolving Systems, it highlights the complexity and potency of individuals’ approaches to the world and to inquiry.  It underlines the importance of encouraging people to speak in their own manners and ways as we join in groups for shared investigations.

This connects with the early exchange from the Evolving Systems project from which the epigraph for this reflection is taken. For me, the exchange was revelatory, in part because of what it taught me about the value of human talk, of the drive to co-create meaning.  The exchange began with Anne’s writing about some recent encounters with nature and continued:

An indifferent cosmos and its advantages  (from Paul)

. . . The upshot of the story is not to demean humanity nor to trivialize human feelings but rather to suggest that a richer appreciation of our relation to a much larger cosmos largely indifferent to our concerns frees us to play a more creative role in that cosmos and in our own lives as well.  And perhaps that the "ego muted" is nothing more and nothing less than recognizing that the stories we create of the cosmos have tended to be largely stories of the cosmos in our own image.  Being more able to let the cosmos talk to us in its own terms helps free us from ourselves?  An interesting implication in the early stages of an exploration of the emergence of form, meaning, and esthetics?

question (from Alice)

When the cosmos talks to us in its own terms, what does it say? 

This is a great koan. But, (from Mark)

This is a great koan. But, like many koans, it's a seductive meditation because it's predicated on the impossible. Or so I think.

The cosmos is silent. Not silent the way that we can be, if we choose, that is, silent in relation to another (speaking) state. That which we call the cosmos, when we speak, has no language. We flatter ourselves by describing it and parsing it in our words, but it has no need of that game, no interest in it, no "understanding". We flatter ourselves (again) by pitying those without "understanding" and we can romanticize Nature and ascribe to her (her!) all kinds of reasons for her silence, characteristics, motives, traits...even a kind of knowing. Perhaps because, compared to us, she (she!) is so big where we are so small, so nurturing where we are cruel, and so cruel, it seems to us, where we are so "human".

All of this describing the natural world in words is a charlatan's game -- if we pretend that the koan has an *answer*. Whatever we want to name it, the cosmos, the world, Nature, the universe, reality, "it all", we need to recall that names themselves are merely for our convenience and for our (false) comfort. As Wittgenstein might have said, that which *is*, apart from our language, passes over us in silence.

There are, I think, rare and wondrous moments in which we can feel ourselves at one with this silence, and we are then, maybe, in the cosmos itself, unencumbered and unsupported by the language we use to separate ourselves from the silence.

humanity and the cosmos: silence and chatter (from Paull)

"Of that which we cannot speak we must remain silent" ... Wittgenstein

"The answer to the question 'What is the way the world is? What are the ways the world is?' is not a shush, but a chatter." ... Nelson Goodman

Yes, "rare and wondrous moments when we can feel ourselves at one with this silence" are to be valued as the closest we can get to "hearing" the cosmos at any given time.  But I wouldn't advise just waiting around for them.  They depend on hearing the chatter of art, science, day to day life, and on chattering onself.   See Reality: that of which we cannot speak? and  below ("If the cosmos could talk ...").

If human engagement (as self-expression, conversation, and reflection) with art, science, and daily life, are important to the coming about of moments of oneness the universe, then  silence and purity are not privileged modes of access to such moments. Once we accept the full range of human perception and reflection as constitutive of the universe, the question of what and how people know, and talk, becomes important to more than human concerns. This connects with the contribution of the Evolving Systems project to my growing understanding of the dynamics of what I’ve been calling “beleaguered knowing”. As the forum discussion following the September 09 meeting suggests (and records), experiences of disempowerment sometimes shape humans’ ways of knowing into postures of defensiveness, thus constraining both perception and reflection. Not worked through, these defenses limit future creativity.  I look forward to continuing to develop this concept in hopes it might be useful to other people and to future analysis. I suspect that beleaguered knowing is a feature not only of individuals but of institutions and other human systems.

In Paul’s words, “the ability to use what is available, both in oneself and in other people, to create new understandings and new meaning depends on a critical posture but requires, beyond that, an interesting blend of humility and ambition: a willingness to listen to both oneself and others and a belief that it is actually possible, individually and collectively, to create new understandings." I continue to imagine that love is an important source of the willingness and curiosity needed to contribute to the evolution of new understandings and hope to persuade others in the group to include love as among the chief focal concerns of the Evolving Systems project.  



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