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Loopiness: conflict, humanness, and the universe

Paul Grobstein's picture

I've been thinking a lot this summer not only about my own story of myself but also about some general ways of thinking about ... selves, interpersonal relations, inquiry, humanity, and our relation to the universe.  Central to all is has been the notion of "looping," a recurrent and infinitely extended process in which existing structures and forms interact with each other and with an underlying persistent randomness to generate new structures and forms.    

The vagueness of "structures and forms" is deliberate, as is that of "interact with".  What makes looping "central to all this" is the hunch that, as per Evolving Systems: Background , looping provides a useful way to think not only about cosmic and biological evolution but also about the evolution of culture and cultures as well as of smaller human groups (tribes, families, etc) and of individual lives.  So "structures and forms" could mean inanimate physical entities, like the solar system or continents, physical living entities (trees, frogs, people), and the products of physical living entities (libraries, art objects, individual and group identities and stories, including history).  And "interact with" could mean via gravitation or other non-animate, non-human forces, as well as competing or cooperating in animate and human realms.

I don't, of course, want to argue that the specifics of both "structures and forms" and "interact with" are irrelevant to any particular inquiry, nor to inquiry in general.  I do though think that recognizing the commonality of looping can be useful both in general and in particular inquiries in at least three ways.  The first is that it focuses attention on the present as the somewhat indeterminate product of the past and the future as the somewhat indeterminate product of the present.  To put it differently, it suggests that in all fields of inquiry one should stop trying to look into the past for a plan, intention, or set of first principles that will fully account for the present and should equally stop trying to make sense of the present in terms of some ideal state which will be achieved in the future.  The cosmos, living things, cultures, and individual human beings are all "in progress" in ways that reflect but are not determined by the past, and with future trajectories that are influenced but not determined by the present.

A second way a recognition of looping can be commonly useful is in emphasizing the importance of "interact with," in contrast to the more commonly used concepts of "cause" and "effect."  Interactions are most typically bi-directional.  While it is sometimes useful for particular purposes to pretend that one thing is a cause and another an effect (the earth orbits the sun), in general things are simultaneously both cause and effect (the earth and the sun both orbit a common center of mass).  Similarly, living organisms can sometimes usefully be thought of as being shaped by their interactions with a surrounding environment but they are also quite significant shapers of that environment.  And individuals are certainly influenced by the culture they grow up in but, its important to bear in mind, they are also the agents and shapers of such cultures.  Bidirectional interactions not only blur simple relations between cause and effect but themselves bring new properties into being (as for example homeostatic characteristics in negative feedback loops). 

A third way in which a recognition of looping can be commonly useful is by offering a new perspective on "conflict."  Two material objects cannot occupy the same location in space.  When circumstances are such as to potentially create a conflict in this regard, it is rare that one object "defeats" the other.  There is most typically no "winner" and no "loser."  Instead the objects both take up new locations in a configuration that had not previously existed and in which the position of each object has been influenced by the other.  "Niche displacement" is, in at least some ways, a parallel phenomenon in biological evolution: in a heterogenous environment groups of organisms that might "compete" for a particular resource diverge in ways that allow each to make use of different resources.  Here again, the bidirectional interaction leads both to new adaptations and new forms of interaction.  One sees lots of examples of this in the human and cultural realm as well ("Go west, young man").  The upshot is that seeing  looping as a general phenomenon opens the possibility of dealing with particular instances of conflict neither fatalistically ("there are always winners and losers") nor as something to be avoided but rather as a valuable contributor to an ongoing exploration of new possibilities.

In suggesting that "looping" is a common feature of the human, the non-human animate, and the inanimate worlds, I am very much not suggesting either that the human reduces to the inanimate nor that the inanimate should be anthropomorphized.  The specifics of what is involved in the looping and the nature of the interactions is quite different in different cases and these idiosyncratic features certainly need to be taken into account in particular cases.  "Conflict" between two rocks is clearly different from conflict between two trees and different still than conflict between two human beings, two ethnic groups, or two nations.  What I am suggesting though is that the commonality is also significant, both in and of itself and in helping to develop new directions of exploration in particular cases.

To make this more concrete, let's look a little more closely at "conflict."  Many humans, when observing a bidirectional interaction between a smaller and a much larger object will experience a sense of sympathy for the smaller and a feeling that because its location has been more perturbed than the larger object's, it has "lost" and the "larger" has won.  It is harder for many humans to make the observations and describe it simply as a bidirectional interaction out of which something new has arisen.  The same is true for the interaction between crab grass and one's cultivated lawn, between a tree and vegetation growing beneath it, or, more dramatically, between an animal predator and its prey.  And the same is, of course, also true for the interaction between a despot and his/her subjects.  Each is, though, like the interaction between smaller and larger objects, minimally describable as a bidirectional interaction out of which something new has arisen, something that would not have been but for the original elements and their bidirectional interaction.

What makes it hard for many people to see this common minimal description is the human tendency to anthropomorphize, to presume that things we are observing would be having the same internal feelings we might have if we and/or other human beings were ourselves in such a situation.  The closer the situation is to a human one, the harder it is to see the common minimal description.  And this all makes perfectly good sense.  Our brains are drawing on our histories, genetic, individual, and cultural, to prepare us to deal with a new situation.  Since much of what we are drawing on is our experiences as human beings and much of what we are dealing with is other human beings, it is neither surprising nor inappropriate to find ourselves often anthropomorphizing. 

On the other hand, many of us have as well experiences that cause us to suspect that there are significant differences between rocks and people and perhaps even, if we think about it, to doubt that rocks have internal feelings at all and to at least wonder about grasses, trees, and so forth.    To the extent we do so, we are more inclined to accept the common minimal description in many cases but .... the human ones?  Is the relation between the despot and his/her subjects actually to be seen as nothing more than a creative looping?  This would be the reductionist position. 

Interestingly, we now find conflict in ourselves ... conflict between an anthropomorphic and a reductionist position.  To which we might respond in a characteristic human way, by presuming that one or the other alternative needs to win and the other to lose.  Given our discussion to this point, however, there is an intriguing alternative possibility.  Perhaps both the anthropomorphic and the reductionist position have some validity, each in a different context?  And perhaps there within us a bidirectional interaction out of which new things might emerge, things that would not have arisen but for the prior existence of the interacting things which will necessarily be contributors to the new thing?

Let's follow that route a bit.  If we entertain simultaneously the reductionist and anthropomorphic positions without trying to eliminate either, we have the wherewithal to see and deal somewhat differently with rocks, trees, and other people.  And it opens a variety of new questions:  what are the possible differences between rocks and humans and how could we explore them?  How could it be that humans have rock like properties but also additional properties that distinguish them from rocks?  Which other entities have those properties and which don't?  Could one have intermediate amounts of relevant properties?  Do all humans have those properties all the time or are they present in different humans in different amounts at different times? 

From these questions, and additional observations motivated by them, might well come something new, not just a willingness to keep apparently incompatible perspectives (anthropomorphism and reductionism) in play ("a foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds") but perhaps as well a new story about the universe and one's place in it.  One such story might have a Taoist cast to it, acknowledging that indeed people, trees, and rocks are all different but suggesting that they share common features as well and are all elements of larger unfolding patterns.  Among the common elements is "conflict," understood not in the specifically human sense in which we usually use the term, but rather in the common minimal sense of looping, of bidirectional interaction from which new things emerge, a process in which we and rocks and trees are all involved and which in turn yields larger unfolding patterns to which we contribute but cannot control. 

And that in turn might open new ways of thinking about ourselves, ways informed not only by our experiences with other humans but also by new appreciations of our relations to both the animate non-human and the inanimate.  We now have the option of seeing conflict in the inanimate world without presuming it is causing suffering of the kind we sometimes experience in the human realm.  Indeed, we can see it more as creating new things rather than destroying old ones both in the inanimate and the non-human animate world.  And we now have the option of conceiving conflict within ourselves and experiencing it too as generative rather than necessarily painful and destructive.  Could we perhaps extend this to interactions with other human beings?  Could we approach human differences generally with the presumption that there is something new to be made from those differences rather than that one or the other conflicting element has to be defeated?

This is all very fine, you might say, but its fantasy and you need to face reality: humans are ... human.  We do have feelings about what other people are feeling and we do have conflicts in which we deliberately try to destroy one another.  Yes, that is indeed our experience with other human beings.  And one can, I think, make a pretty strong argument that the two human phenomena are related.  Our inclination to try and infer other peoples' feelings underpins much of the richness, subtlety, and successes of our interpersonal relationships.  But it can and does equally leads to misunderstandings, resentments, and ... the kind of conflict in which people seek not to evolve together but to destroy one another. 

Must it be always be so?  Maybe its not actually "human nature" but an exaggerated sense of the importance of a particular part of what it is to be human that leads to our inhumanity in dealing not only with each other but with other living organisms and with the inanimate world as well?  Maybe "fantasy" and "reality" also are apparently incompatible things out of which can be made something new: a more balanced "human nature" that acknowledges human feelings and their value but recognizes as well that their significance can be overemphasized, that there are other important considerations not only in the non-human world but in the human one as well? That it seems to me is one of the most intriguing questions that arises from the looping perspective, and one that offers particularly promising openings for generating new structures and forms, both for humans and for the continuing evolution of the larger universe of which we are a part.  If we think  of conflict as the potential for change then we can keep both "reality" and "fantasy" and reasonably expect something new to arise from them.


alesnick's picture

looping and feeling

 I am really intrigued by the idea that "human feelings" have "value" but "their significance can be overemphasized" and its connection to the view of conflict as looping.  Okay, so: from a perspective in which human feelings are primary and dominant, interhuman conflict must always devolve into war.  The same capacity that leads us to take one another's perspectives leads us to credit each other's subjectivity with too much . . . authority, too much significance?  And it reduces conflict to a zero-sum game?  A space in which one outlook must be vanquished, because each is a deep threat to the other.  

In contrast, if we de-center human feelings -- not ignore them, but not make them the hub of everything (all of our perceptions, judgments, and attention?) -- then we can more easily experience conflict, and the change it occasions, as loopy -- as a natural flow of dynamism that does not follow the tragic economy of "if, then."  

This reminds me of the poem by Czeslaw Milosz, "Love," in which Milosz writes, "Love means to learn to see yourself from a distance, because you are one thing among many."  So: it's not to deny oneself or one's feelings, or those of others, but it's not always to organize attention, perception, and inquiry around them, either.  Feelings are crucial, but crucially not always central -- they need to be put in play, and let to spin out, like tops, away from center, back again, diffusing and coalescing, in relation to and simply in the same world with, lots of other things.  Otherwise we grow isolated within the solely human world, an emblem of which is the daytime talk show with people screaming at each other about their personal lives as if they take up the whole universe.  

Here too scale seems like a crucial issue -- scales of time, of attention, of emotion.

Paul Grobstein's picture

more on loopiness, conflict, and how to deal with it

"The trick is to focus not on what people can't agree on, nor on what they can agree on, but rather on issues/questions/problems that have the potential to generate ways of thinking that no one has thought before. "
from Conversation, discourse, exchange, open-ended transactional inquiry

Interesting conversation last night, in the context both of Loopiness: conflict, humanness, and the universe and an earlier set of thoughts, as above.  The conversation started with reactions to "In the Loop" and ranged through Robert Moses and Jane Jacobs to health care and Obama and Taoism.  Among the intriguing ideas touched on were

  • Humans get preccupied with winning and losing in interactions with each other, to the detriment in the long run of most humans
  • Social engineers seriously underestimate the problem of "unintended consequences" and need to learn to stop doing that
  • Insisting on big solutions to big problems creates more problems than it solves.  The fears, conflicts, and antipathies it tends to create not only get in the way of implementing big solutions but, even more importantly, get in the way of the sorts of small changes that would occur and, in the long run, add up to big changes.
  • There is never only one way to get over time to an objective.  Any of a number of small changes can be the foundation for further small changes that in turn lay the ground work for further small changes all of which over time can achieve an objective.
  • The trick is to keep an eye on an objective and not let it become something one either succeeds or fails at in the short run.  To adjust the path along the way need be neither capitulation nor compromise.  Exchange/negotiation is the route to effective small change and, in turn, to recognizing the central role of emergence in large change.