Union of Intelligible Associations
Union of Intelligible Associations

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Human Values Project (Explanations)

Complexity: Values as attractors

Human Values Project


1. Values and complexity

Many have commented on the chaos of the times and the increasing impotence of institutions and disciplines in their response to it -- Bosnia is but the most blatant example. A major characteristic of the period is the role attributed to human values in guiding behaviour at all levels of society -- to the extent that even the most cynical commercial interests are obliged to recognize values held by the most "other-oriented" market sectors. And yet despite the plethora of studies on values it would seem that we are no closer to understanding their nature or in agreeing on their variety.

The 1990s suggest a need to embrace chaos in some fashion, and chaos theory provides a fashionable set of insights that take us beyond those of past decades. This paper is concerned with exploring some ways of understanding human values in the light of such insights -- and what this could mean for both social innovation and social coherence in the immediate future.

There appears to have been little attention to human values in the study of complexity. Of the many eminent contributors to the United Nations University symposium on complexity, only two make significant mention of values. Peter Allen (1984) focuses on the ability to construct "collective values" to take into account the different perceptions of policy makers of the possible future evolution of a system. Pentti Malaska (1984), in a concluding comment, raises the much more fundamental issue of the extent to which we can consider values as being rigid and unalterable. "To what extent are they alterable and to what degree a matter of choice? Do we possess this type of value capacity?....If we accept that a capacity for changing values exists, we can more easily discuss moving over to a new society where things other than material values and the fulfilment of tangible needs are the major objectives."

2. Values as "attractors"

One of the key insights of chaos theory is that of strange attractors. Is there a sense in which human values can be usefully understood as strange attractors?

A prime characteristic of a strange attractor is that it is defined as the focus of a pattern of seemingly chaotic behaviour. But it is the pattern that signals the presence of that focus which cannot be identified in any other way. Like strange attractors, human values do not manifest in any tangible manner but rather through interpretations of the way behaviour is governed. But the intangible attractor may indeed be a matter of direct subjective experience under appropriate conditions of human development -- as practitioners of some spiritual traditions would claim.

There is certainly a sense in which behaviour can be understood as "meandering around" in such a way as to define attractor poles. Whilst there may be extremes, often of the most regrettable kind, behaviour is eventually pulled back into an orbit around one or more attractors. Some forms of behaviour may thus exhibit highly eccentric orbits, but the pull towards the attractor remains fundamental -- even if it may be barely sensed at its most extreme points by those involved.

There is also a sense in which behaviour may be described as trapped by particular attractors. However it may also drift in such a way as to be temporarily captured by another. From this perspective behaviour may be seen as swinging between and around attractors. Chaos theory may offer insights into the laws governing such behaviour.

There are also ways in which behaviour in society appears in some way to be "pulled forward" as a whole by the value complex and away from the disvalue complex. There may however be many doubts as to the nature of such "progress" and whether there is some Omega Point as a kind of psycho-social equivalent to the ultimate reversal of the cosmic Big Bang. Thus for Rupert Sheldrake: "The final unified attractor and the primal unified stateof the Big Bang have a symmetrical relationship" (Abraham, et al, p. 11)

3. "Strangeness" in value-governed behaviour

Maximization of behaviour in response to one value is subject to a well-known phenomenon of reversal -- named in classical Greek drama as enantiodromia (Thompson, 1985). In this sense no particular value is completely satisfactory to an individual or a social group -- especially when experienced in its purest form. Paradoxical attractions to other values emerge quite unexpectedly. Much has been made of this in romantic literature and many have experienced the communication problems between the sexes. Equivalent surprises in socio-political systems are also not lacking.

What in fact makes values valuable? As with dietary variation, it is as though there was a need to vary the pattern of behaviour by which development is nourished -- even to the point of pursuing the illusory greenness of more distant fields. Within this metaphor, there are those who yearn for a single complete foodstuff (a form of mana from heaven or the ultimate food-pill). Others speak in terms of a regular diet of certain basic foodstuffs (carbohydrates, protein, etc) required for human health -- with passionate claims for particular diets. But when it comes to taste, the preferences pursued vary enormously -- irrespective of the value to health. As such, the sociology of diet producers and consumers offers useful insights into the sociology of value producers and consumers. A number of computer studies of complexity are based on the supply of "foodstuffs" in ecosystems of artificial lifeforms. These could be adapted as a basis for studying values.

The current search for a sustainable pattern of "sustainable development" poses many dilemmas concerning the balance to be struck between the attractions of different values -- for many of which there are calls for maximization. For example, the key figure in the Brundtland Commission, responsible for the concept of sustainability, has agreed to reopen whaling from Norway in response to the appeals from local whaling communities whose cultural and economic heritage is endangered. There is an incredible naivety to the assumption that the values embodied in the different chapters of Agenda 21, approved by the Earth Summit (1992), can be successfully balanced by treating each in isolation, or as the subject of bi-sectoral horsetrading deals. Any integrative perspective is significantly lacking -- especially after exclusion of the overpopulation issue (Judge, 1992).

Even in the much simpler situations of one-on-one psychotherapy, where integrative perspectives are assumed by both therapist and client, rationally agreed initiatives may prove relatively futile and unproductive. As a result one school of psychotherapy favours "paradoxical" strategies to trigger more appropriate modes of behaviour. The client may be encouraged to engage in precisely that form of behaviour that is recognized to be dysfunctional and opposed to the values that he purportedly seeks to cultivate.

Many values, which at first sight seem completely positive, can induce behaviour that is recognized as dysfunctional -- to a degree that compensating behaviours based on incompatible or opposing values are called for. This paradoxical feature is well-recognized in oriental cultures, notably Taoist, for which positive qualities contain negative elements, just as negative qualities contain essential positive elements.

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential