From: Journal of Humanistic Psychology
Vol 40, No.1, Winter2000,
pages 8-16 Sage Publications, Inc.
1 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.
2 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.
3 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
is happening to the human race is too complex,
we don't know
what we're talking about
carries significant implications
for how we perceive
ourselves as persons
how we conduct
6 Unavoidable sources of our ignorance include the following:
14 Living constructively with there circumstances depends on:
23 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.
24 What I'm going to propose
is that today,
the storyteller is blind.
25 There is no elephant.
26 The storyteller doesn't
what he or she is talking about.
Less metaphorically, I'll put it this way:
27 What is happening
to the human race,
in the large, is
28 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.
29 I'll take poverty as an example.
30 Think of the variety of factors that connect with poverty. If one were attempting to comprehend the factors seriously affecting poverty, one would have to attend to at least:
31 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:
32 how circumstances in the small
affect circumstances in the large
33 how circumstances in the large
affect circumstances in the small.
34 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.
35 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.
36 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.
37 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.
38 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
39 six contributors to our ignorance.
40 We have too much
and too little information
to reach knowledgeable consensus and interpretation
within the available time for action.
41 More information in the social realm generally leads to more uncertainty, not less.
42 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.
43 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.
44 Among the growing amount of information is that which increases our doubt about the integrity, validity, and reliability of the information we do have.
45 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."
46 Add, too, that information feedback seldom arrives at the time when it is needed for comparison with other information.
47 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.
- 48 Think, for example, of all the federal fund allocations for current social projects that are pegged to census information that is several years old.
- 49 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.
- 50 Or think of corporate or government revelations that are exposed years after the fact, too late for timely rectification,
51 the first ignorance
is inadequate information
to reach knowledgeable decisions
in the finite amount of time
available for taking action.
52 there is no shared set of value priorities.
53 We make much of the fact that we share
and we always say,
"well, basically humans want the same things."
54 Perhaps they do,
at; a survival level,
there is not a shared set of priorities
with regard to values across cultures
and often, as in the United States,
56 The priorities change with
57 Here are some examples in which value priorities differ depending on the person/group and circumstance:
- 58 short-term expedience versus long-term prudent behavior and vice versa,
- 59 group identity versus individual identity,
- 60 individual responsibility versus societal responsibility,
- 61 freedom versus equality,
- 62 local claims versus larger claims for commitment,
- 63 universal rights versus local rights (that, in the names of local rights, repudiate universal rights, e.g., fundamentalisms),
- 64 human rights versus national interests (e.g., economic competition or nationalist terrorism),
- 65 public interest versus privacy (the encryption conflict about health information,whether private or not),
- 66 first amendment limits (pornography, etc.), and
- 67 the potential gain of new knowledge versus its potential social costs.
68 Who sets the rules of the game,
69 and who decides who decides?
70 These are all issues
in which the priority of values
is in contention.
71 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
72 the dilemma of context.
73 How much do you
and/or I need to know
to feel responsible
for actions and interpretations?
74 How many layers of understanding
to have enough background
to deal with the foreground?
75 There are no agreed-on criteria or methodology for how deeply to probe.
76 (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:
77 Who are the legitimate participants
in the decision making
with regard to deciding
what constitutes a sufficient context?
78 And who says so?
79 Just to remind you, a few of the differing claims defining the appropriate context are
85 Choose any issue that's important
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?
86 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
87 our spoken language,
the language we hear,
cannot adequately map
that I'm talking about.
88 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.
89 (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.)
90 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,
91 our spoken/written language
doesn't allow us to talk
about these complexities
in ways that are
about the complexities.
92 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
there is an increasing, and
-- given the other contributions --
unavoidable absence of
94 By boundaries,
I mean boundaries that circumscribe:
96 Without boundaries,
we can't make sense of anything.
97 William James wrote of a boundaryless world as one of "blooming, buzzing confusion."
98 Boundaries are how we
discriminate and partition
99 to create meaning in
all those nonmaterial realms,
not just turf.
100 But, what is happening in this world,
for reasons I've been describing
(and others as well), is that
101 these boundaries
and their reliability
are increasingly eroded,
becoming more and more ambiguous.
102 All systems, including social systems, require boundaries to be coherent systems.
103 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.
104 But all that I've been emphasizing
reduces the agreed-on criteria
for boundary-defining feedback.
105 Here are some examples, just to remind you:
boundaries that are claimed for
public versus private,
biological ethics questions.
106 All of these are blurred, ambiguous areas, taken very seriously, that nevertheless
107 don't allow
the kind of linguistically and behaviorally discriminating
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
108 the self-amplifying,
acting out of the shadow
residing in each human:
109 our instincts,
our extrarational responses.
110 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.)
111 To be sure, this acting out allows for more creativity,
112 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.
113 There was a time -- a long time -- when this sort of shadow driven acting out did not well up to the current degree.
114 The elephant depends on constraints, on boundaries, to be an elephant.
115 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.)
116 These circumstances make human governance uniquely problematic.
117 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,
118 the processes of governance
can only become
less and less effective.
119 This, in
adds its own contributions
to the incomprehensibility of it all.
So much for six "ignorance-maintaining" characteristics.
120 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
121 our daily activities
are ineluctably embedded
in a larger context of ignorance
that we don't know what we're talking about.
122 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?
I find helpful in
responding to the fact of our ignorance.
123 (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.
124 The first is
125 to recognize
that given our neurology
and our shaping through evolutionary processes,
we are unavoidably seekers of meaning.
126 Recognizing that we are seekers of meaning, we also need
127 to recognize
we live in illusions:
socially and biologically created,
that are nevertheless personally necessary.
128 And, this necessity can evoke the best and the worst in us, as the long history of "true believers" amply evidences.
129 I'm not implying that we can live outside of these constraints, but
130 we need to be self-conscious
about the fact that
we do live in illusions
there is no way for humans to avoid this.
131 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.)
133 it seems
essential to acknowledge
vulnerability and finiteness,
134 both ours and our projects'.
135 This is because
we will be unavoidably
ignorant and uninformed
about the outcomes
-- the consequences of the consequences of what we do.
136 Third, as all the great spiritual traditions emphasize,
137 Seek to live in poverty.
138 Not material poverty
139 -- 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.
we must act
-- not acting is also acting --
regardless of our vulnerability and finiteness.
141 Thus, my fourth suggestion is that
142 a person or a group act
in the spirit of hope.
143 Hope, not optimism.
144 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,
145 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
146 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.
147 Fifth, this means one acts according to what I've been calling "tentative commitment."
148 Tentative Commitment
149 means you are willing
to look at the situation
to risk enough,
to contribute enough effort,
to hope enough,
to undertake your project.
150 And to recognize,
given our vulnerability,
our finiteness, and
our fundamental ignorance,
151 that we may well have it wrong.
152 We may have to back off.
153 We may have to change
not only how we're doing it but
whether we do it at all.
154 And then do so!
155 Tentative commitment
essential individual and group condition
for engaging a world
where we don't know what we are talking about.
156 Suggestion six, then, is
157 to be
is a moral and operational necessity.
158 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.
160 if you are context alert,
you can only be deeply understanding
of very few matters,
161 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.
162 This means there are only a few things that you can be "up on" at any given time.
164 this is a very serious,
challenge for effective participation
in the democratic process
-- whatever that might mean.
165 Number seven is that
166 one must be a learner/teacher,
167 a wary guide,
168 an explorer in the wilderness.
169 Be question askers all the time,
170 not answer givers.
171 Number eight echoes the great spiritual traditions (all of which recognize our essential ignorance): practice compassion. Given the circumstances I have described,
172 facing life
requires all the
we can bring to others and to ourselves.
173 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.
174 We all need help facing that reality,
and that help goes by the name of practicing compassion.
175 The blind must care for the blind.
176 Reprint requests: T. Greening, 1314 Westwood Blvd., Suite 205, Los Angeles, CA 90024.
177 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