|The Idea: It’s going to take a new, more expansive kind of thinking, by many people with different points of view working in collaboration, to solve the world’s most intractable problems. Here are some thoughts how we could achieve that kind of ‘synthetic’ thinking.
This morning, as I slowly awoke, I had an ‘aha!’ moment. I will tell you about it soon. I think I finally know what I was meant to do. Even more than writing, though writing is a small part of it. It came to me when I was combining things — goals, ideas, and perceptions. And then I suddenly saw the big picture, how all the pieces fit. It’s an amazing experience, and one that we should all have more often, and learn how to make happen.
Let’s take an example. On Monday I posted a conversation with myself about how to save the world, showing two very different approaches. It was genuine, not written for effect — I have these arguments with myself all the time, which is why this blog sometimes comes across a bit schizophrenic. What was interesting was that quite a few readers, in the comments thread, via e-mail and even over at Grist, seemed anxious to take sides — which argument, the green or the beige, made more sense, and what was wrong with the other side? Which side was the real Dave’s view? The debate was not a rhetorical device. It was an example of our constant struggle to decide between, or reconcile, different goals, choices, conceptions or perceptions. But it seems to be a proclivity of Western thinking that we always try first to decide, to dismiss, to discount one of two dissonant ideas as inferior, and accept the other as the right one, the better one, the lesser of two evils. The result is polarized thinking, and in the West it has become something of a cultural disease. Most of Lakoff’s work on frames is about trying to reframe debate, change the perspective of the opposing side, so that the right (or more accurately left) point of view comes out on top, looks better. Why is there no effort instead to understand the ‘opposing’ view, not as a means of capitulating to it or becoming vulnerable to it or defeating it, but rather as a basis for finding a third point of view that encompasses both.
The words we use for this process betray our distaste for it: accommodation, compromise, reconciliation. There is a latent aggressiveness and intolerance in our disinterest in finding more holistic answers: “Those guys aren’t looking for a win-win answer so why should we?”
To the Eastern mind this must appear bizarre, militaristic, even self-defeating. As citizens and as consumers we are inundated with alternatives and choices, and forced to ‘choose one’: Coke or Pepsi, Toyota or Ford, Windows or Mac or Linux, Democrat or Republican, public or private, Red or Blue or Green, Black or White. Your choice determines which community you belong to, whether you’re with us or against us, good or evil, winner or loser, patriot or traitor, friend or foe. Even those who talk about peace want it on their terms: No peace without justice, no peace without security, no peace without freedom. No surprise that there is no peace.
Synthesis is the outcome of the merging of two or more things: in Hegelian philosophy it is the emergence of the combination of thesis and antithesis. Synthesis is not compromise, it is transcendence, a higher conception than either the thought or its contradiction. “The combining of separate elements to form a coherent whole”. The great discoveries of human history and science have often come from synthesis of previous ideas, conceptions and points of view thought by lesser thinkers to be irreconcilable. What made Einstein such a brilliant thinker was his ability to synthesize, transcend, come up with unified theories. Yet in common parlance, the terms synthesis and synthetic are most often used to mean artificial, not real.
Synergy is “the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects, cooperative interaction among groups that creates an enhanced combined effect.” It is used to describe the supposed positive effects of the merger of two corporations, two corporate cultures — yet 85% of all such mergers actually destroy value rather than creating it, leaving morale and productivity worse off than before, and usually resulting in the ‘acquirer’ involuntarily imposing their culture on the ‘losing’ one. So the prevailing response to calls for, or assertions of, synergy has become one of cynicism and raised eyebrows.
Integration is “combining into a complete and harmonious whole”. But for those that aren’t in mathematics or semiconductor construction, we most often think of the term as the forced desegregation of US school-children, or the absorption (and disappearance) of one thing into another.
Holistic means considering the inseparable nature and interrelationship of all of the elements of a system. In the West, our normal approach to dealing with systems is the opposite: Piecemeal — the doctor specialist treating just one symptom or part of the body, the traffic and planning departments deciding what roads to build in isolation from impact on other communities, and corporations completely disregarding ‘external’ costs (degradation and reduction of the commons, social and environmental damage, non-renewability of their assets) and long-term impacts to focus narrowly on only the costs that appear on the income statement and the impacts in the next fiscal quarter. Holistic approaches are openly ridiculed by specialists and self-styled pragmatists as impractical, idealistic, and unscientific.
Not surprisingly, we tend to use these four terms incorrectly or disparagingly when we use them at all. And our adulation for specialists and the way we teach our children reinforce this narrowness, this denigration of and antipathy towards the big picture and the long view.
Why do we do this? And more importantly, what can we do to rectify it? How can we teach ourselves, and our children, how and why to think synergistically and holistically, and to synthesize and integrate ideas and information?
My guess as to why we do this is that Western ‘scientific’ man has come to loathe uncertainty, mystery and imprecision. The whole notion of complexity and chaos theory triggers revulsion in many people: “What do you mean we can only use systems thinking in complicated systems, not in complex ones?” “Who says most of our systems are complex and therefore largely unknowable, and the best we can do is look for meaningful patterns that, at best, modestly improve the probability that our predictions for the future will be accurate?” The whole Gaia theory, which perceives the world to be a single, complex, self-managing organism was scorned for a generation until more and more evidence emerged that it was a better model of reality than the parochial theories it synthesized. We hate not knowing, and we love simple answers and simple choices — from political leaders, from the hawkers of commercial brands, from preachers in the pulpits, and from the education system (when we are young) and the media (as we get older) that lay out those answers and choices for us.
My sense is that there is no easy answer to this, as much as we might want one, and as much as some advocates of various theologies and ideologies will push them forward as answers, as holy grails to ascend to a “higher level of consciousness”. Programmer Dale Asberry has pointed me to the intriguing but opaque Reciprocality site which suggests most of us have been indoctrinated to unlearn how to see the big picture, because living in an artificial and limited world is easier and keeps us in line. It says some people are just naturally able to see the bigger picture. I’m neither that optimistic (I don’t know anyone that sees synergistic solutions easily) nor pessimistic (I believe anyone should be able to learn or re-learn how to do it).
I believe we will probably have to teach, and learn from, each other to become better at this. True collaboration is a synergistic process, so it makes sense to me that holistic, synergistic thinking is probably best learned by collaboration with others. I am sure that there is a synthesis of the two opposing views in my conversation with myself Monday on how to save the world, for example, but I am skeptical that any one person (other than perhaps an Einstein) is likely to be able to come up with that synthesis. If we’re going to learn how to do this, we’re going to have to learn together. That means lots of practice.
I also believe state of mind is important in this process. My ‘aha’ synthesis this morning was a semi-conscious application of the 7-step mantra that Cyndy at MouseMusings and I developed, though I wouldn’t presume to believe it would work for others:
What do you think? If we’re going to save the world and stuff we’re going to have to follow Einstein’s advice: “We can’t solve problems by using the same kind of thinking we used when we created them.” I sense that thinking that bridges, unifies, synthesizes conflicting points of view might be the kind of thinking that Einstein used to solve problems. If it’s good enough for him, it’s good enough for me.
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Preparing for Civilization's End:
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Why Economic Collapse Will Precede Climate Collapse
Being Adaptable: A Reminder List
A Culture of Fear
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A Future Without Us
Dean Walker Interview (video)
The Mushroom at the End of the World
What Would It Take To Live Sustainably?
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Complexity and Collapse
Save the World Reading List
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Giving Up on Environmentalism
The Dark & Gathering Sameness of the World
The End of Philosophy
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The Language of Our Eyes
Cultural Acedia: When We Can No Longer Care
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A Harvest of Myths
The Qualities of a Great Story
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Not Ready to Do What's Needed
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No Use to the World Broken
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Does Language Restrict What We Can Think?
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If I Only Had 37 Days
The Only Life We Know
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Nothing On Offer Here
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