Posts Tagged ‘parables’

It seems to me that, although there might be an objective reality, we will probably never know it.  Our world, let alone the universe, is simply too complex & weird to understand completely.

So, while there might be something called “the Truth” with a capital “T”, in reality, all we can ever know are “truths” with a lower-case “t”.

It seems like nobody really knows what the hell is going on right now.  We might think we know, but in actuality, all we know is some small subset of reality.  We see the world in what Robert Anton Wilson called reality tunnels.

The way I think about this idea that we’re all seeing a different subset of reality, is with reference to the parable of the blind monks trying to describe what they don’t know is an elephant.

About the parable, Wikipedia says:

The story of the blind men and an elephant originated in India from where it is widely diffused. It has been used to illustrate a range of truths and fallacies. At various times it has provided insight into the relativity, opaqueness or inexpressible nature of truth, the behaviour of experts in fields where there is a deficit or inaccessibility of information, the need for communication, and respect for different perspectives.

As the blind monks illustrate, we all have our own reality tunnels through which we see the world.  Depending on our lens (i.e. ones position vis-a-vis the elephant), we might think what we’re touching is a tree trunk, or a rope, or a fan, but if you’re only seeing your reality through that one lens (of touch), it’s easy to miss that it’s an elephant.  To the able-eyed observer – someone who sees the situation from a different dimension – it wouldn’t be an issue to identify the object as an elephant.

The trick is to recognize that, like a digital SLR camera, there are multiple lenses, filters, and hence, reality tunnels through which we can view the world.  Having multiple perspectives from which we can describe and approach a situation allows us to get a more holistic sense of what’s actually going on.

Given how many pundits & gurus have been proven dead wrong over the years due to their rigid views, a good analyst nowadays knows to look at phenomenon from a variety of different angles.  By taking a multi-dimensional & evolutionary view, and by studying the different forces that influence a system, one gets a much better sense of how a system operates than would applying rigid organizational plan and operation philosophies.

If only the machine minds of the world could broaden their thinking about causality & the nature of reality – perhaps we could then see the elephant in the room.

As a Christmas gift, I received a set of video lectures by The Teaching Company entitled “Chaos.”  The course, presented by a well known educator on the subject, Professor Steven Strogatz, explores the history, science and implications of chaos theory.  I feel confident in saying that chaos theory is still not nearly as appreciated as it probably should be, given how fundamental of a breakthrough in scientific perspective it represents.

I am very much still learning it’s principles, but from what I’ve learned so far I believe that it’s an extremely fascinating & useful lens through which to comprehend, cope with & adapt to the bewilderingly complex & constantly evolving world around us.

Besides the science and math principles which the course explores, Professor Strogatz also provides some examples of chaos theory in literature & art.  Anybody who has ever seen a fractal (i.e. self-similar spatial patterns – often very beautifully coloured) – knows at least something about chaos theory.

Below I share a well known parable of chaos (and a picture of the famous fractal known as the Mandlebrot set).

For want of a nail the shoe was lost.
For want of a shoe the horse was lost.
For want of a horse the rider was lost.
For want of a rider the battle was lost.
For want of a battle the kingdom was lost.
And all for the want of a horseshoe nail.


From wikipedia:

This proverb has been around in many variations for centuries (see historical references below), and describes a situation where permitting some small undesirable situation will allow gradual and inexorable worsening. The rhyme is thus a good illustration of the “butterfly effect“, and ideas presented in chaos theory, involving sensitive dependence on initial conditions; the initial condition being the presence or absence of the horseshoe nail.[1] At a more literal level, it summarizes the importance of military logistics throughout the history of human warfare.

An important thing to note is that these chains of causality are only seen in hindsight. Nobody ever lamented, upon seeing his unshod horse, that the kingdom would eventually fall because of it.[1]

A big lesson I’ve taken away from my study of chaos theory so far is that complex systems in a state of criticality (i.e. those that have a lot of converging forces reaching/overshooting limits in sync) have a high sensitivity to small fluctuations in certain key system components.  As such, minor changes in starting conditions can have disproportionately large consequences.  As the the bolded parts of the Wikipedia explanation above indicates, the dependence of a system on initial conditions and the inability for us to see causality except in hindsight, leads us to a situation whereby turbulence is more or less baked into the cake.

If we are to accept that breakdown is an inherent feature of complex systems, then I think that the questions we should be asking are the same as those being asked by the brilliant Canadian intellectual & complexity theorist Thomas Homer-Dixon.   Paraphrasing, Homer-Dixon asks “how do we turn the breakdown of our societies into renewal?  how do we transform catastrophe into genesis? – how do we foster the notion of catagenesis? how do we exploit the opportunities created by the coming massive non-linearities?”

My current scenario for the next 3-5 years envisions some kind of a “tipping point” event on during that time horizon.  Figuring out if it’s going to be a financial/monetary/economic tipping point (my best bet), or an energy tipping point, or an ecological tipping point or some other kind of tipping point is not the main issue as I see it.  The main issue, as I see it right now, is the recognition of and increasingly likelihood that our hyper-complexified & hyper-efficient globe-spanning system of trade & communications will hit a major non-linearity and be almost completely transformed in a very short time frame.

My concerns has to do with how we act upon these non-linear events & trajectories.  These “chaotic shifts” present opportunities for creative responses just as much as they present opportunities for ideologues with antiquated ideas to seize power.  Catastrophe can just be catastrophe – it doesn’t necessarily have to lead to creative & adaptive responses.  The big idea is that when a system is on the verge of chaos, the slightest nudge to that system can send it through either a favourable phase transition or an unfavourable phase transition – but ultimately ending up in a new state of complexity & organization (often at a lower level of complexity – but I’m open to this idea being wrong).

As I see it, the capacity & opportunity for new models to emerge is greatest during major phase transitions.  These new models may be new business/economic/monetary models, they could be new agricultural & energy models, or they could be sociocultural models – among other possibilities.  I think new models will be increasingly called upon as adaptive strategies for managing the rapid pace of change & non-linearity.

I still hold out hope that there are ideas, technologies, and social arrangements available to us today that can be used to bootstrap a new and post-modern way of living.  I can only hope that as things continue to “shift” (ever-faster), more and more people will seek and find ways of adapting to these changes in a creative & productive manner.  The alternatives don’t appeal much to me – so I’m gonna keep working towards the positive stuff….whatever that means.



Additional Resources:

Chaos Theory (wikipedia)