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SOME OBSERVATIONS WITH REGARD T0 A MISSING ELEPHANT

From: Journal of Humanistic Psychology Vol 40, No.1, Winter2000,
pages 8-16 Sage Publications, Inc.

View comments on this itemAdd your comment on this item1 DONALD N. MICHAEL is a social psychologist with a background in the natural sciences. Before his tenure at the University of Michigan, he spent many years in Washington, in various positions in and out of government. His current professional interests have to with understanding better the role of unconscious needs and motives (genetically and culturally sourced) in the behavior of leaders, decision makers, and organization members and their interplay with the social construction of reality. He is a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Psychological Association, the Society for the Psychological Study of Social issues, and the world Academy of Art and Science; he is also a member of the Club of Rome. His book, On Learning To Plan And Planning To Learn, was republished in 1997 with a new introduction.

Add your comment on this item2 AUTHOR'S NOTE: This is an edited transcript, somewhat augmented of a talk given on the occasion of the conferral of an honorary doctorate in humane letters by Saybrook Graduate School, San Francisco, October 21, 1998. Other variations have been disseminated via informal publications; IONS: Noetic Sciences Review, Aug-Nov, 1999; and The ABN Report, Vol. 7, No. 2, March 1999, published by Prospect Media in St. Leonards, Australia.

Add your comment on this item3 This special formatted version is experimental. I would appreciate any feedback on the utility of such formatting, and any specific suggestions to improve it. I will give my reasons for this formatting elsewhere. -- Larry Victor

   


Summary

Add your comment on this item4 What is happening to the human race is too complex,
interconnected,
and
dynamic
to comprehend.

View comments on this itemAdd your comment on this item5 Acknowledging that
we don't know
what we're talking about

carries significant implications
for how we perceive
ourselves as persons
and
how we conduct
 our activities.

*****

Add your comment on this item6 Unavoidable sources of our ignorance include the following:

  • Add your comment on this item7 (a) too much and too little information to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation within the time available for action;
  • Add your comment on this item8 (b) no shared set of value priorities;
  • Add your comment on this item9 (c) no agreement on how much context is necessary to be responsible for actions and interpretations;
  • Add your comment on this item10 (d) spoken/written language cannot adequately map the complexity;
  • Add your comment on this item11 (e) absence of reliable boundaries;
  • Add your comment on this item12 (f) self-amplifying, unpredictable acting-out of the shadow; and
  • Add your comment on this item13 (g) governance becomes uniquely problematic.

 

Add your comment on this item14 Living constructively with there circumstances depends on:

  • Add your comment on this item15 (a) recognizing that we seek meaning, although, unavoidably, we live in illusions;
  • Add your comment on this item16 (b) acknowledging the vulnerability and finiteness of ourselves and our projects;
  • Add your comment on this item17 (c) lacking pride and arrogance in the conviction that we know what must be done and how to do it;
  • Add your comment on this item18 (d) acting in the spirit of hope, not optimism
  • Add your comment on this item19 (e) acting in the spirit of "tentative commitment";
  • Add your comment on this item20 (f) being "context alert";
  • Add your comment on this item21 (g) being a learner/teacher, and
  • Add your comment on this item22 (h) practicing compassion for all who must live and act under these conditions.

 

Add your comment on this item23 I begin with a Sufi story we're all familiar with. It's the story of the blind persons and the elephant. Recall that persons who were blind were each coming up with a different definition of what was "out there," depending and what part of the elephant they were touching. Notice that the story depends on the fact that there is a storyteller who can see that there is an elephant, different parts of which the blind people are fumbling around with.

Add your comment on this item24 What I'm going to propose is that today,
the storyteller is blind.

Add your comment on this item25  There is no elephant.

Add your comment on this item26 The storyteller doesn't know
what he or she is talking about.

Less metaphorically, I'll put it this way:

Add your comment on this item27 What is happening
         to t
he human race,
                  in the large,     is

  too complex
         too interconnected
  too dynamic
to comprehend.

Add your comment on this item28 There is no agreed-on interpretation
that provides an enduring basis
for coherent action
based on an understanding
of the enfolding context.


Take any subject that preoccupies us. Attend to all the factors that arguably might seriously affect its current condition, where it might go what might be done about it, and how to go about doing so.

Add your comment on this item29 I'll take poverty as an example.

Add your comment on this item31 All of these and more infuse any topic that we pay attention to and try to do something about. But, clearly, we can't attend to all of these (and others) because each has its own complex mix of interdependencies to be attended to.

Poverty is one of an endless series of examples. What we're faced with, essentially, is the micro/macro question:

Add your comment on this item32 how circumstances in the small
affect circumstances in the large

and

Add your comment on this item33 how circumstances in the large
affect circumstances in the small.

Add your comment on this item34 And we don't know -- chaos theory, "butterfly effects," and complex adaptive systems not withstanding -- how the micro/macro, interchange operates in specific human situations. And for reasons I shall come to, I don't think we can know. In effect, we don't comprehend -- can't comprehend -- the kind of beast that holds the parts together: in this example, how they're held together for the human condition we call poverty. There isn't any elephant there.

Add your comment on this item35  Having asserted this, let me emphasize that I'm in no sense belittling our daily efforts to engage issues like poverty or other aspects of the human condition. Rather, I hope to add a deeper appreciation of the existential challenge we face, the poignancy of our efforts, and the admiration they merit as we try to deal with our circumstances.

Add your comment on this item36  Indeed, it seems to me that if we could acknowledge that we don't know what we're talking about in the large when we try to deal with any of the human issues we face, that acknowledgment would have very significant implications for how we perceive ourselves as persons and how we conduct our activities intended to help the human condition, including ourselves, I'll came to those implications presently.

Add your comment on this item37  But first, I want to offer some observations in support of my proposal that we don't know what we're talking about in the large by describing six characteristics that seem to be to be the source of the storyteller's blindness.

Add your comment on this item38 One more preparatory remark follows: I intend my observations to be as nonjudgmental as I can, I believe I am describing characteristics of the human world that simply are, I am trying to be an observer, not an evaluator. However, the very nature of my language and what I select from this complexity to emphasize convey values, hence judgments, often unknown to me.


Let me state the
first
of

Add your comment on this item39 six contributors to our ignorance.

Add your comment on this item40 We have too much and too little information
to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation
within the available time for action.

Add your comment on this item41 More information in the social realm generally leads to more uncertainty, not less.

Add your comment on this item42 Usually, more information tells us that we need still more information to interpret what information we do have, whether it pertains to toxic substances, ecological protection, economic projections, welfare policy, social impacts of global warming, or the consequences of changes in procedures for public or private decision making.

Add your comment on this item43 Therefore, the time it takes to reach agreement on the interpretation increases. During that time, the information increases as well. We need more information to interpret the information we have, and on and on.

Add your comment on this item44  Among the growing amount of information is that which increases our doubt about the integrity, validity, and reliability of the information we do have.

Add your comment on this item45 There is enough information, nevertheless, to generate multiple interpretations of that information, which then adds another layer of information and interpretation that's required to use that information. And more information often stimulates the creation of more options. As a result, still more information is generated, including more information about the information, and so on around and around the self-amplifying "information loop."

Add your comment on this item46  Add, too, that information feedback seldom arrives at the time when it is needed for comparison with other information.

Add your comment on this item47 Usually, if it arrives at all, it is too late to adjust the action or interpretation close to the time that initiated the feedback in the first place.

  • Add your comment on this item48 Think, for example, of all the federal fund allocations for current social projects that are pegged to census information that is several years old.
  • Add your comment on this item49 Or how long it takes to accumulate the evidence (feedback) and navigate the procedures before a judicial decision is made with regard to damage done years earlier.
  • Add your comment on this item50 Or think of corporate or government revelations that are exposed years after the fact, too late for timely rectification,

So,

Add your comment on this item51 the first ignorance generator
is inadequate information
to reach knowledgeable decisions
in the finite amount of time
available for taking action.


Second,

Add your comment on this item52 there is no shared set of value priorities.

Add your comment on this item53 We make much of the fact that we share values,
and we always say,
"well, basically humans want the same things."

Add your comment on this item54  Perhaps they do,
at; a survival level,
but,beyond that,

Add your comment on this item55 
there is not a shared set of priorities
with regard to values across cultures
and often, as in the United States,
within cultures.

Add your comment on this item56 The priorities change with
circumstance,
time, and
engaged persons.

*******

Add your comment on this item57 Here are some examples in which value priorities differ depending on the person/group and circumstance:

  • Add your comment on this item58 short-term expedience versus long-term prudent behavior and vice versa,
  • Add your comment on this item59 group identity versus individual identity,
  • Add your comment on this item60 individual responsibility versus societal responsibility,
  • Add your comment on this item61 freedom versus equality,
  • Add your comment on this item62 local claims versus larger claims for commitment,
  • Add your comment on this item63 universal rights versus local rights (that, in the names of local rights, repudiate universal rights, e.g., fundamentalisms),
  • Add your comment on this item64 human rights versus national interests (e.g., economic competition or nationalist terrorism),
  • Add your comment on this item65 public interest versus privacy (the encryption conflict about health information,whether private or not),
  • Add your comment on this item66 first amendment limits (pornography, etc.), and
  • Add your comment on this item67 the potential gain of new knowledge versus its potential social costs.

 

Add your comment on this item68 Who sets the rules of the game,

Add your comment on this item69 and who decides who decides?

Add your comment on this item70 These are all issues
in which the priority of values
is in contention.

Add your comment on this item71 There's no reliable set of priorities
in place that can be used decisively
to choose among actions toward larger issues.


A third contribution to this lack of comprehension
is what has been called

Add your comment on this item72  the dilemma of context.

Add your comment on this item73  How much do you and/or I need to know
to feel responsible
for actions and interpretations?

Add your comment on this item74 How many layers of understanding are necessary
to have enough background
to deal with the foreground?

Add your comment on this item75 There are no agreed-on criteria or methodology for how deeply to probe.

Add your comment on this item76 (I could have observed at the beginning of my enumeration that these six factors are interdependent, interactive.) So, for example, the question of how much context is necessary in a situation to decide what to do about that situation very much depends on what values are held by participants in that decision making.

And that raises another intractable context question:

Add your comment on this item77 Who are the legitimate participants
in the decision making
with regard to deciding
what constitutes a sufficient context?

Add your comment on this item78 And who says so?

Add your comment on this item79  Just to remind you, a few of the differing claims defining the appropriate context are

Add your comment on this item85  Choose any issue that's important to you
and ask how much information
I and/or we need
in order that you or I can say
that I and/or we
have adequate context
for thought and action?

Add your comment on this item86 This is an unresolved realm. It is unsolved for me as well in the very act of giving this talk.


A fourth item is that

Add your comment on this item87 our spoken language,
the language we hear,
cannot adequately map
the complexity
that I'm talking about.

Add your comment on this item88 Our language, because we hear it or we read it, is linear. So, one thought follows another. Our language cannot adequately engage multiple interacting factors simultaneously.

Add your comment on this item89 (Some poetry can, but we haven't yet figured out how to use poetry for policy making or for resolving issues of context value priorities, or the like. And, perhaps some forms of visual language can help because it can be simultaneously presented in three dimensions.)

Add your comment on this item90  Our Noun/verb structure emphasizes items, events, and stasis (i.e., is-ness, e.g., we say "this is a microphone") rather than engaging it as a multitude of processes in time and space that circular feedbacks that maintain boundary relationships.

In other words,

Add your comment on this item91 our spoken/written language
doesn't allow us to talk
about these complexities
in ways that are
inherently informative
about the complexities.

Add your comment on this item92 In fact, it compounds these complexities because it unavoidably distorts our efforts to perceive a world of simultaneous, multiple, circular processes.


The fifth contribution
to our inability to know
what we are talking about is that

Add your comment on this item93 
there is an increasing, and
-- given the other contributions --
unavoidable absence of
reliable boundaries.

Add your comment on this item94 By boundaries,
I mean boundaries that circumscribe:

Add your comment on this item95 turf,
relationships,
concepts,
identity,
property,
gender,
time, and
more.

Add your comment on this item96 Without boundaries,
we can't make sense of anything.

Add your comment on this item97 William James wrote of a boundaryless world as one of "blooming, buzzing confusion."

Add your comment on this item98 Boundaries are how we
discriminate and partition
experience

Add your comment on this item99 to create meaning in
all those nonmaterial realms,
not just turf.

Add your comment on this item100 But, what is happening in this world,
for reasons I've been describing
(and others as well), is that

Add your comment on this item101 these boundaries
and their reliability
are increasingly eroded,
disintegrated, and
becoming more and more ambiguous.

Add your comment on this item102 All systems, including social systems, require boundaries to be coherent systems.

Add your comment on this item103 It's the feedback that is determined by those boundaries in the system that allows a system to be self-sustaining. If there are no boundaries and no feedback, there is no self-sustaining quality that we call a system or that in the old story was called an elephant.

Add your comment on this item104 But all that I've been emphasizing
reduces the agreed-on criteria
for boundary-defining feedback.

Add your comment on this item105  Here are some examples, just to remind you:
boundaries that are claimed for

political correctness,
identity,
public versus private,
intellectual property,
biological ethics questions.

Add your comment on this item106 All of these are blurred, ambiguous areas, taken very seriously, that nevertheless

Add your comment on this item107 don't allow
the kind of linguistically and behaviorally discriminating
boundary defining
I think necessary
to begin to comprehend
the incomprehensibility of the complexity
that we humans live in.


The sixth contributor
to our inability to know what we are talking about is

Add your comment on this item108 the self-amplifying,
unpredictable
acting out of the shadow
residing in each human:

Add your comment on this item109 our instincts,
our extrarational responses.

Add your comment on this item110 This situation could be considered a consequence of the other contributors to our ignorance -- though each of them is also a consequence of all the others. (Or so I think.)

Add your comment on this item111 To be sure, this acting out allows for more creativity,

Add your comment on this item112 but, often, in this complex world, it also is in the service of violence, oppression, selfishness, extreme positions of all stripes -- that whole upwelling of the nonrational, the nonreasonable that is so increasingly characteristic of all the world, not just the United States.

Add your comment on this item113  There was a time -- a long time -- when this sort of shadow driven acting out did not well up to the current degree.

Add your comment on this item114 The elephant depends on constraints, on boundaries, to be an elephant.

Add your comment on this item115 In the past, ritual, repression, and suppression served to constrain such acting out or to quash it entirely. One's social and economic survival depended on playing by many explicit and implicit rules (boundaries). (Think of the upwelling of violence after the collapse of the Soviet Empire.)

Add your comment on this item116  These circumstances make human governance uniquely problematic.

Add your comment on this item117 By governance, I mean those shared practices by which a society's members act reliably toward each other. Government is one such way such practices are established via laws and so on. Shared child socialization practices and formal religions are others.

For the reasons I am proposing here,

Add your comment on this item118 the processes of governance
can only become
less and less effective.

Add your comment on this item119 This, in turn,
increases unreliability
and
adds its own contributions
to the incomprehensibility of it all.


So much for six "ignorance-maintaining" characteristics.

Add your comment on this item120 Perhaps they are variations on one theme, and surely others could be added, but I hope these are enough to make a presumptive case that

View comments on this itemAdd your comment on this item121 our daily activities
are ineluctably embedded
in a larger context of ignorance
--
that we don't know what we're talking about.

Add your comment on this item122  So, what to do,
how to go about being engaged
in a human world we don't understand
-- and, if I'm on to something --
we won't understand?


Here are
eight ways
I find helpful in
responding to the fact of our ignorance.

Add your comment on this item123 (In spite of writing assertively, I hope it's clear that I include myself among those who don't know what they're talking about!) These aren't in any particular order, though I think the sequence they are in adds a certain coherence.


Add your comment on this item124  The first is

Add your comment on this item125 to recognize
that given our neurology
and our shaping through evolutionary processes,
we are unavoidably seekers of meaning.

Add your comment on this item126 Recognizing that we are seekers of meaning, we also need

Add your comment on this item127 to recognize
that unavoidably,
we live in illusions:
socially and biologically created,
constructed worlds
that are nevertheless personally necessary.

Add your comment on this item128 And, this necessity can evoke the best and the worst in us, as the long history of "true believers" amply evidences.

Add your comment on this item129 I'm not implying that we can live outside of these constraints, but

Add your comment on this item130 we need to be self-conscious
about the fact that
we do live in illusions
and that
there is no way for humans to avoid this.

Add your comment on this item131 So, each of us needs to be self-conscious about our deep need that there be an elephant or for someone to tell us there really is an elephant. (Lots of authors and publishers thrive on that need.)


Add your comment on this item132  Second,

Add your comment on this item133 it seems
essential to acknowledge
vulnerability and finiteness,

Add your comment on this item134 both ours and our projects'.

Add your comment on this item135 This is because
we will be unavoidably
ignorant and uninformed
about the outcomes

-- the consequences of the consequences of what we do.


Add your comment on this item136  Third, as all the great spiritual traditions emphasize,

Add your comment on this item137 Seek to live in poverty.

Add your comment on this item138 Not material poverty

Add your comment on this item139 -- rather be poor in pride and arrogance
and be poor in the conviction that
I and/or we know what is right and wrong,
what must be done,
and how to do it.

Add your comment on this item140 Nevertheless,
we must act
-- not acting is also acting --
regardless of our vulnerability and finiteness.


Add your comment on this item141  Thus, my fourth suggestion is that

Add your comment on this item142 a person or a group act
in the spirit of hope.

Add your comment on this item143 Hope, not optimism.

Add your comment on this item144 Here I draw on the insight of Rollo May. As he put it, optimism and pessimism are conditions of the stomach, of the gut. Their purpose is to make us feel good or bad. However,

Add your comment on this item145 hope has to do with looking directly at the circumstances we're dealing with, at the challenges we must accept as finite and vulnerable beings and activities, and recognizing the limits of our very interpretation of what we're committing ourselves to, and still

Add your comment on this item146 go on because
one hopes that one can make a difference
in the face of all that stands in the way
of making a difference.


Add your comment on this item147  Fifth, this means one acts according to what I've been calling "tentative commitment."

Add your comment on this item148 Tentative Commitment

Add your comment on this item149 means you are willing
to look at the situation
carefully enough,
to risk enough,
to contribute enough effort,
to hope enough,
to undertake your project.

Add your comment on this item150 And to recognize,
given our vulnerability,
our finiteness, and
our fundamental ignorance,

Add your comment on this item151 that we may well have it wrong.

Add your comment on this item152 We may have to back off.

Add your comment on this item153 We may have to change
not only how we're doing it but
whether we do it at all.

Add your comment on this item154 And then do so!

Add your comment on this item155 Tentative commitment
becomes an
essential individual and group condition
for engaging a world
where we don't know what we are talking about.


Add your comment on this item156  Suggestion six, then, is

Add your comment on this item157 to be
"context alert"
is a moral and operational necessity.

Add your comment on this item158 Among other things, this carries a very radical implication, given the current hype about the information society that promises to put us in touch with practically infinite amounts of information.

Add your comment on this item159 However,

Add your comment on this item160 if you are context alert,
you can only be deeply understanding
of very few matters,

Add your comment on this item161 because it takes time and effort
to dig and check and deal
with other people who have different
value priorities, contexts, boundaries, and so on.

Add your comment on this item162 This means there are only a few things that you can be "up on" at any given time.

Add your comment on this item163  But,

Add your comment on this item164 this is a very serious,
unsolved,
indeed unformulated,
challenge for effective participation
in the democratic process

-- whatever that might mean.


Add your comment on this item165  Number seven is that

Add your comment on this item166 one must be a learner/teacher,

Add your comment on this item167 a wary guide,

Add your comment on this item168 an explorer in the wilderness.

Add your comment on this item169 Be question askers all the time,

Add your comment on this item170 not answer givers.


Add your comment on this item171  Number eight echoes the great spiritual traditions (all of which recognize our essential ignorance): practice compassion. Given the circumstances I have described,

Add your comment on this item172 facing life
requires all the

compassion

we can bring to others and to ourselves.

Add your comment on this item173 Be as self-conscious as possible,
as much of the time as possible,
and thereby recognize
that we all live in illusion,
we all live in ignorance,
and we all search for and need meaning.

Add your comment on this item174 We all need help facing that reality,
and that help goes by the name of practicing compassion.


Add your comment on this item175  The blind must care for the blind.


Add your comment on this item176 Reprint requests: T. Greening, 1314 Westwood Blvd., Suite 205, Los Angeles, CA 90024.

View comments on item 177Add your comment on this item177 This article was first copied from the journal at the UofA library, re-copied to single pages, scanned and OCRed, edited in WORD, inputted into DreamWeaver3 and FTPed to my website. This whole process took many hours - but the message is worth it. I did not get Donald Michael's permission to post it on my website. - Larry Victor