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Human Values Project (Explanations)

Comments: Values as attractors

Human Values Project


1. Chaos theory

In the spirit of the previous notes, it is useful to speculate on the possible relevance of the most recent leap in understanding of the principles by which many natural and social phenomena are governed, namely chaos theory. It is widely accepted that the importance of values lies in the manner in which they govern the seemingly chaotic behaviour of individuals and groups. It is quite clear that the greatest difficulty is experienced in determining what values are and what form their existence takes.

Chaos theory has been faced with a similar challenge in determining what governs and constrains seemingly chaotic patterns of behaviour, especially in natural phenomena. Over time the behaviour of a complex system becomes constrained so that any action is increasingly influenced by such invisible attractors. It might be argued that values perform exactly that function in relation to the behaviour of individuals and groups. Their nature is as difficult to visualize as that of the strange attractors of chaos theory, which in no way denies the importance of the function that they perform. The search for a universal system of values, and an adequate way of representing them, might be usefully explored. How might it be possible to map the axiological landscape on which such attractors are located? How do competing attractions of "constructive" and "destructive" values emerge?

2. Strange attractors

Human values can usefully be understood and experienced as attractors. How "strange" they are considered as attractors depends on the appreciation of the distinction between the four different classes of values derived from an interpretation of complexity studies. In one sense, all values may be seen as attracting in a strange manner -- especially when simplistic understanding is avoided.

Emphasis has been placed on the manner in which each class of values can be perceived as: appropriate (p), inappropriate (n), inappropriately appropriate (pn), and appropriately inappropriate (np). Such distinctions are important for understanding and patterning the dynamics between advocates of particular classes of values. It may prove useful to explore the recursive symmetry between this four-fold pattern of distinctions and that between the value classes. This could be used as a basis for generating more articulated patterns of values which respect the integrative dynamics between the values actually labelled. A software package could for example be used to explore value sets produced "to measure" according to the challenge to which the user wishes to be exposed (Judge, 1992).

3. Coevolution of classes of values

The need for the coevolution of different classes of values has been emphasized. Each class performs a vital function, even if from a superficial perspective it appears outmoded. In terms of an ecological metaphor, the shark is an ancient species that has evolved little in recent eras. It nevertheless continues to play a vital role in marine ecosystems -- despite human efforts to demonize it. (It would be a mistake to hope to replace it by a genetically tailored species to fit human preconceptions.)

4. Dysfunctional demonizing

A major concern here has been with dysfunctional demonizing. This is due to limited ability to handle the four-fold aspects of each class of values -- which through recursive symmetry handicaps ability to manage the relationship between the classes. However functional demonizing provides necessary protection for each class. It is one thing to cultivate tolerance but if it is accompanied by fanatical intolerance of intolerance then this regressive dynamic needs to be appropriately positioned within the pattern of value classes in order that it can be appropriately counter-balanced.

From this perspective any "demonizing" can be functional to protect essential variety. It becomes dysfunctional and "satanic" only when the coevolutionary context, as suggested by the patternof classes, is lost. As Gregory Bateson stated: "Destroy the pattern which connects and you destroy all quality".

The relevance of chaos theory to social coherence will be determined by the ability to factor in such phenomena as arrogance, self-righteousness, and prestige, which have been so fundamental to the dynamics between those skilled in this emerging discipline. These phenomena bedevil all psycho-social dynamics relevant to governance, but this discipline has particular skills to handle the self-reflexive challenge. Psychoanalysts, especially those of Jungian persuasion, would argue that it is these shadowy phenomena that conceal import truths for the emergence of appropriate forms of social coherence.

5. Towards an enantiomorphic polity

The cultural historian William Irwin Thompson has approached these issues from a quite different direction and has articulated most intriguing possibilities. For him: "Values are not objects, they are relationships. When you overlay one pattern with another, a third pattern emerges, a moiré pattern" (Thompson, p. 38). He argues that: "Truth cannot be expressed in an ideology, for Truth is that which overlights the conflict of opposed ideologies....The Truth cannot be known in an ideology, but it can be embodied in an ecology; anything less does violence to human nature and to human culture."(p. 36).

For Thompson: "In a polity that has the shape of opposites, an enantiomorphic polity, the prophetic wisdom of William Blake's 'In opposition is true friendship' will be finally understood and not just poetically....If one does have an appreciation of the phenomenology of opposites, in which we become what we hate, then a politics of compassion, as contrasted with a politics of violent conflict, begins to become a cultural possibility." (p. 37-39)

Linking directly to the concerns of this paper, Thompson quotes an articulation of this enantiomorphic polity from E F Shumacher's final work: "The pairs of opposites, of which freedom and order and growth and decay are the most basic, put tension into the world, a tension that sharpens man's sensitivity and increases his self-awareness. No real understanding is possible without awareness of these pairs of opposites which permeate everything man does...Justice is a denial of mercy, and mercy a denial of justice. Only a higher force can reconcile these opposites: wisdom. The problem cannot be solved, but wisdom can transcend it. Similarly societies need stability and change, tradition and innovation, public interest and private interest, planning and laissez-faire policies, order and freedom, growth and decay. Everywhere society's health depends on the simultaneous pursuit of mutually opposed activities or aims. The adoption of a final solution means a kind of death sentence for man's humanity and spells either cruelty or dissolution, generally both." (Schumacher, p. 127)

Thompson quotes complementary arguments from Henri Atlan's synthesis of information theory and biology: "So then it would suffice to look at organization as an uninterrupted process of disorganization-organization, and not as a state, so that order and disorder, the organized and the contingent, construction and destruction, life and death, are no longer so distinct...These processes where the unity of the opposites -- such a unity is not realized as a new state, a synthesis of the thesis and the antithesis, it is the movement of the process itself which constitutes the 'synthesis' -- these processes cannot exist except that the errors are a priori true errors, that order at any given moment is truly disturbed by disorder, that destruction (though not totally realized) is still real, that the irruption of the event is a veritable irruption (a catastrophe or a miracle or both). In other words, these processes which appear to us as one of the foundations of living beings, the result of a sort of collaboration between what one customarily calls life and death, can only exist precisely when it is not a question of cooperation but always radical opposition and negation." (Atlan, p. 57)

From Encyclopedia of World Problems and Human Potential