Learning to Learn

Capacities for complexity
My model of capacities needed to cope with complexity

Nobel chemist and pioneer complexity expert Ilya Prigogine is cited by my friend Andrew Campbell as saying that nature has no secrets — everything we want or need to know in the world is waiting to be discovered. That means it is waiting for us to be ready to learn it, which presupposes that we have:

  • Capacity to understand: That’s not just a function of brain capacity, but also the ability to pay attention and to be open to new ideas and possibilities, and to imagine;
  • Need to understand: Either an urgent adaptive/survival need, or intellectual curiosity to discover; and
  • Tools to understand: The toolkit with which we were endowed by nature is comparatively poor (consider our relatively feeble eyesight, dim sense of smell, slow speed and inability to fly), but we have compensated for it with our ingenuity, especially at biomimicry — inventing new tools that mimic the best nature provides.

We have a need to understand — the challenges we face as a society have never been greater. And although our man-made tools are fragile and clumsy by nature’s standards, they give us what we need.

What we are lacking, I think, is capacity. Despite (or perhaps because of) our large brains we are inattentive, prone to erroneous prejudgement, distrustful of our intuitions and our subconscious knowledge, and we suffer from dreadful and growing imaginative poverty. We are seemingly unable to grasp complex issues and concepts well — we are so left-brain heavy that we over-analyze and over-simplify, and we are driven (I suspect because of our increasingly poor learning habits) to create mechanistic, complicated explanations for organic, complex phenomena. Then, when these explanations fail, we add further levels of complication, until we have thirteen-dimensional universes with vibrating strings.

We try to deduce when we should induce. We analyze when we should be synthesizing. We look for root causes when we should be looking for patterns. We try to impose order when we should let it emerge and study why it emerged as it did. We try to change and control our environments when we should change ourselves to adapt to them.

So what we should do now is build our capacity to understand — capacity of attentiveness, openness, imagination, intuition, subconscious awareness, appreciation of complexity, ability to learn and intuit and induce and synthesize and see patterns and adapt and let come and let go. And then show others in our communities why this capacity is so important and help engender it in them, too.

Then we will be ready, together, to discover what nature has been waiting to show us and tell us. No grand unifying theory of everything — just an understanding of how the world really works, and why our current way of living is unsustainable, unhealthy and unnatural. And what to do tomake it better.

Category: Let-Self-Change
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4 Responses to Learning to Learn

  1. Jay Cross says:

    Dave, I am with you about 90% on this one. Humans are short-sighted, check. We must change our ways or we are cooked, check. However, I don’t think what got us to this point is going to get us out of it. That makes me skeptical of anything that can be expressed as a flow chart.

  2. Steve Gluck says:

    Your solutions: “capacity of attentiveness, openness, imagination, intuition, subconscious awareness, appreciation of complexity, ability to learn and intuit and induce and synthesize and see patterns and adapt and let come and let go” all take place in your head. That is, in fact the problem; that most people (particularly urbanites) never fully experience life. Life is a physical experience. The intellectual, emotional and spiritual are empty without full participation in the natural physical world. The classroom, laboratory, office, theater, church, theme park, ball park and virtual world offer nothing when it comes to “Life-Experience”.S.

  3. Dave Pollard says:

    Jay: The flowchart is an artifact of some earlier writing, just to attract attention and get you thinking — it’s not a methodology. Steve: Agree that just ‘becoming capable’ and not doing anything with it is sterile. My point is that most of us go off and do things without the capacities needed to do them effectively, powerfully, responsibly, sustainably, insightfully.

  4. Ed Diril says:

    It is not as if people aren’t doing what you suggest. They are already doing it! We all have some kind of an understanding of how the world works and we are doing the best we can to fit in. Of course, some people have a very distorted model and their actions are helping noone.The reason why people only change when they are ready is because their mental models do not allow them to see past what they can see. I don’t know if there are any magical ways to make people see something they don’t already see. Faith (believing that something is possible) is an important ingredient. So is caring (curiosity, devotion, love). But you can neither force someone to have faith in something, nor can you make people love something they don’t already love. Most of this is habitual behavior of course, so our best bet is to reach the young people who are the most malleable. For adults, it is very very hard to do.I agree with you that we’ve been doing too much “linear thinking”. We probably don’t understand enough of how complex, nonlinear, parallel systems function. However, denying, ignoring or cussing at science and technology is not the answer either IMHO. Obviously every technology has its limitations. Some don’t scale, and some shouldn’t scale. However, understanding how reality works is an important part of knowing who we are and what we are capable of. And it is also our gift.Besides, nature uses (or is a result of) “technology” as well. It developed in a way to take advantage of what’s available in a nondestructive way. We do have a lot to learn from it in terms of how to live nondestructively. Humanity is just another organism. It has grown rather large and doesn’t seem to have the means to sustain itself without destroying its environment. I am not sure if we are going to make it in the long run, but you may be oversimplifying the issue by overlooking these factors.

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