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Pattern learning: Structuring around unknowing in a learning society

Global Strategies Project

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1. Ignorance and non-comprehension

In a learning society, in which no one can aspire to be informed of every item of significance, it is quite unrealistic to expect ignorance and non-comprehension to have a purely minor role, hopefully to be further diminished by development programmes and information technology. Whether it be between the preoccupations of disciplines, cultures, generations, levels of education, or temperamental preferences, non-comprehension must necessarily continue to play a major role in the ordering of society, if not a progressively increasing one. The inability to respond to the minimal educational needs of developing countries is a striking example of the problem, matched by recent evidence of the increasing ineffectiveness of the sophisticated education programmes in developed countries. There are practical limits to learning, some of which have been explored elsewhere in a critical review of the recent UNESCO-endorsed report to the Club of Rome No Limits to Learning (James W Botkin, 1979).

This is a reason for which the reviews of integration in the previous notes as advocated by Stamps, Rescher, Bohm, Dossey, and Rudhyar are insufficient, however valuable. They do not recognize the wider social structuring effects of a person's inability to comprehend some more "seductive" answer. It is assumed that with some minimum of explanation comprehension will necessarily result and the person will switch from Cartesian to non-Cartesian, from linear to non-linear, as providing the only "reasonable" mode of comprehension. It is assumed that people can be provided with the educational context within which this transition can be facilitated. This is not the case, perhaps fortunately. Available resources do not permit such education on more than a limited scale, but more importantly, people have other agendas to which their concepts of human and social development are linked. It is through this process that the variety of the psycho-social system is protected from homogenizing tendencies, however benevolently initiated.

2. Structuring effect of non-comprehension

The structuring effect on non-comprehension in complex organizations is most clearly seen through q-analysis as discussed by Ron Atkin (14.1). One interesting feature is the effect of the forces to which an individual is subject by exposure to something which is not fully comprehended, especially when the non-comprehension is not consciously recognized, or is disguised by satisfaction with a superficial explanation. In a sense, recalling Dossey's arguments, the comprehension of an individual creates the spacetime geometry within which he functions (in Atkin's terms), whereas his non-comprehension determines the nature of the forces to which he is subject within that geometry (again in Atkin's terms).

The difficulty in engendering a more healthy approach to non-comprehension, as a phenomenon in which everyone participates, is that it is still treated as something to be disguised or denied, whether to oneself or to others. Or, perhaps worse, it is treated as something that can be eliminated by some kind of educational "fix" (a course, a tape, a book, etc), or acknowledged with pride as something one does not need, or have time, to know.

3. Central "quality without a name"

It is for such reasons that Christopher Alexander, an architect/designer, is helpful in demonstrating that the central "quality without a name",which makes any context attractive to be in, can only be "tangentially" described in terms of a range of possible aspects: "There is a central quality which is the root criterion of life and spirit in a man, a town, a building, or a wilderness. This quality is objective and precise, but it cannot be named" (Ilya Prigogine, 1980).

He shows how the nature of this central quality is not encompassed by any of the following attributes, each with its special advocates: alive, whole, comfortable, free, exact, egoless, eternal (Christopher Alexander, 1979, p.2540).

For Alexander, in order to define this quality, it is necessary to recognize that every context is given its character by certain patterns of events that keep on happening there. By arguing that these patterns are always interlocked with certain geometric patternswhich structure any inhabited space, Alexander effectively provides a concretization of Atkin's insights relating to organization space (Christopher Alexander, 1977). Both are intimately linked to the process of development:

"The specific patterns out which a building or a town is made may be alive or dead. To the extent they are alive, they let our inner forces loose, and set us free: but when they are dead, they keep us locked in inner conflict. The more living patterns there are in a place...the more it comes to life as an entirety, the more it glows, the more it has that self-maintaining force which is the quality without a name" (Christopher Alexander, 1979).

It is interesting that by defining the central quality as nameless, Alexander frees it from the problems, encountered earlier, of the essential inadequacy of any particular language. The quality is "defined" as not comprehensible through any one such language. As such it is totally in sympathy with the nature of Bohm's holomovement, by which such "names" are engendered and re-enfolded." Using the spherical tensegrity model, each such language is characterized by (explicate) surface features or patterns of the tensegrity which encompass a central empty space without occupying it. Using the resonance model, each attribute is an alternative in the pattern of alternation, but the nameless core quality is represented by the resonance hybrid. In Atkin's terms, the central quality functions as a higher dimensional q-hole which engenders a pattern of communication amongst the perspectives or languages configures around it.

4. Leaving the common focus undefined

The "New Global Order" called for by the crisis of the times may be thought of as brought into being by recognition of the fundamental distinction between local, specific, surface features (centres, values, languages, groupings, etc) and the unoccupied common centre whose position is determined by the pattern of all such specialized features constellated around it. It is the very pattern of harmonies and dissonances between these local features which can then engender the space of which the unoccupied centre is the focal reference point. This can only occur if the mutual rejection of those most strongly opposed is contained, by allowing them appropriate separation, and is thus itself used to maintain the form of the pattern.

5. Encompassing quality

These considerations clarify ways of thinking about any "meta-answer" and show the essential role of non-comprehension in structuring the space for the nameless quality of life which development programmes try in their different ways to enhance. [The meta-answer is thus a resonance hybrid of answers based on particular conceptual languages or epistemologies]. Development of that quality of life calls for the dynamics of resonance between answers or frameworks despite the conceptual discontinuity that this involves. The languages used by different authors (in preceding notes, for example) clarify the strengths and weakness of particularly approaches in endeavouring to encompass this quality. In a sense the essential feature of this section is the search for ways to alternate between the insights of each such language and thus engender some understanding of the nature of the resonance hybrid they form.

6. Geometries of complementarity

In order to give more practical significance to these considerations, further work is required to show, in the light of the insights of Dossey and Atkin, what kinds of spacetime geometries a person (or a group) may create for himself through his mode of comprehension and through the "valencies" of the nodes in his pattern of communication. Much of relevance to such an investigation is implicit in Fuller's "geometry of thinking" (1975, 1979), and explicit in Atkin's work (1977, 1981). Atkin especially clarifies the structuring effect of interactions between groups "living on different geometries". Fuller clarifies the transformations between configurations.

Each such language must be recognized as limited. Recent solutions by R Kurzweiler to the difficult technical problems of pattern recognition in voice-activated computers illustrate very clearly the kind of thinking required. Eleven different expert systems each with different pattern recognition strengths and weaknesses are used. Their individual conclusions are then compared by a final expert system (programmed to take account of the biases of the individual systems) in order to arrive at the clearest pattern. Another way to think about this question is in terms of "conceptual gearboxes". Use of a single-answer mode of comprehension is similar to the use of the first gear on an automobile, with all its advantages and disadvantages. Modes of comprehension corresponding to alternation patterns between two, three, or more, such languages, are then similar to the use of second and higher gears. The problem is then one of improving the design of such gearboxes and learning how to use them. For the difficulty at the moment is that individually and collectively people tend to get "stuck" in a particular conceptual gear, and are unable to "shift" up or down according to the needs of the moment.

The disadvantage of the gearbox model is highlighted by a "woven basket" or "birdcage" model in the same paper. The structural features of a spherical tensegrity may be considered as indicating the different functions active in a viable whole. What remains to be determined is what degree of functional differentiation is appropriate under what circumstances. A viable pattern of functions bears a strong resemblance to a viable basketweave pattern with its counter-balancing properties integral to the structure - hence the notion of "functional basketweaving". In this sense it has yet to be recognized that the psycho-social world is "functionally round" rather than "flat" as many seem to assume. Considered as a "birdcage", the problem is to interweave functions in such a way as to construct an environment for the essential living quality (of Alexander) which cannot otherwise be "kept alive" by the gross and devitalizing concepts so widely employed by programme designers.

An even more dynamic model emerges from the possibility that conceptual processes can be usefully conceived as engaged in a "pumping action". A "conceptual pump" (as in the respiratory cycle) involves transformation of attention processes through a single category, to a polar category set, to an N-category set, and back again - corresponding to the movement from principles to details. (Buckminster Fuller argues strongly in support of the fundamental significance of a topological equivalent he describes, namely the vector equilibrium "jitterbug"). Problems in the pumping cycle can arise when the pump locks onto a set of a particular number, as is evident in many conceptual systems. Problems also arise when, for example, the single category set is projected onto some detailed feature of the environment, effectively reversing the action of the pump.

7. Dealing with uncertainty

John and David Keppel (1982) explore the situation of man at the interface between the entropic degradation of order and the development of new forms of order. For them new conceptual tools are required to respond to those aspects of the current social condition for which determinism has proved inadequate, if not dangerous in its efforts to maximize certainty and to marginalize uncertainty. They see the key as lying inn the logic of living systems with their inherent ability to deal with uncertainty to their own developmental advantage. There are principles involved in this logic which are valuable to any new ordering of society.

In such a framework the spread of control among diverse entities serves as a focus for the development of any such system. Error, imperfection and accident, with their implicit static bias, are in fact vital to learning within any living process, in contrast to their current status in societal management. Destruction of information in any form may well lead to the recovery of uncommitted potentiality for adaptive response to change. For the Keppels what persists are the broad principles according to which things in flux relate to each other.

Their study stresses the importance of the partnership of living beings as essential to regulatory feedback processes based on differences. Such symbiosis depends on the essential diversity or non-homogeneity of society. Reciprocal relations underlie all evolutionary processes and are essential to mental development, psychic balance and cultural advance.

Whilst the arguments are developed in some detail with specific suggestions for political initiatives in the United States, at both national and at local levels, the study does not - in its preliminary form - demonstrate the nature of the new conceptual and social patterns required. It is one thing to draw attention to the principles involved and to show how they work in nature. It is another to elaborate their implications at the level at which they enable new initiatives to be undertaken. They agree that evolution works by the adaptation of existing structures rather than by exact design of a new structure suited to the new order. But the question is what form to give to the "conceptual ley lines" to enable such adaptation to take place in a decentralized manner. Is it sufficient to assume that the logic of living uncertainty is an adequate guideline ? If not, how is this understanding to be "geared down" to facilitate the emergence of more appropriate patterns ? How is it to avoid being coopted as a newly fashionable cosmetic for unchanging strategies, as have so many previous guidelines over the past decades -cooperation, development, interdisciplinarity, networking, etc ?

8. Integrating countervailing functions

This difficulty calls for a means of building into the conceptual framework countervailing elements of a kind which correspond to the diversity-enhancing nature of the principles involved. Specifically the study does not take into account the dynamics resulting from opposition to those principles and the process of attempting to implement them. How are they to respond to their own negation ? How are they to "dance" with those of the opposition ? It is giving form to the nature of the dance which is the core of the problem of "coherence" which the authors identify as the only authoritative answer to the present chaos of problems and rival solutions. But in the authors' own terms, coherence must surely dance with incoherence in a developing society grounded on uncertainty.

9. Ignorance as the gateway to the future

Uncertainty is clearly closely related to "future possibility". Both are associated with "ignorance", a feature of the learning process discussed in previous notes. Society may have various attitudes towards all three. At the moment defensiveness prevails. Ignorance in particular is a social "evil". It must be "eliminated", despite the fact that it is "regenerated" with every baby born "ignorant", and with every scientific and cultural innovation about which people are as yet ignorant. It is also generated in government, military and commercial practices, even at the grass-roots level, through the need to avoid revealing the truth under certain conditions.

Specialists are necessarily educated to be ignorant of domains other than that with which they are specifically concerned. As with the generation of event-horizons by black holes, ignorance may be viewed as the orifice through which we enter time, or leave it. The problem is not to eliminate it, but rather to accept it (as every parent does, usually with pleasure) to recognize its positive functions, and to give it a central "place" in society rather than marginalizing it. Unless it is appropriately "contained", society is unable to relate effectively to the direction from which its own future development will emerge. Rejection of ignorance is a rejection of transformative development. All that then remains is non-transformative development in the light of pre-existing, "ignorance-free" programmes.


From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential

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