WayFinding in a world of Evolving Strange Attractors

Narratives of Causation, Structures of Reasoning

You can’t connect the dots looking forward. You can only connect them looking backwards, so you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” ….Steve Jobs

History is complex – we search to understand not just ‘what’ happened but how and why stuff happened. Each account of history has to prioritize a way to organize the material in order to shape a narrative that will offer us a way to reason about our past.Trying to understand how the future can unfold – is even more complex. Questions arise that go beyond how change happens or even why change happens. We not only can’t know what WILL happen – we can’t know what CAN happen – because, as conditions change so does the range of possible choices also change.In conditions of accelerating change and change in the conditions of change (remember the emerging conditions of phase transitions?) the possibilities for choosing not only change but proliferate beyond our capacity for speculation. It not just what we do – but what we don’t do. In many cases we don’t even know what is ‘wantable’.

Largely, we have to engage ourselves in the unfolding future by developing a literacy of the possible. A literacy that can read between the lines of innumerable trajectories – between current and possible narratives that shape choice architectures. We must do this in order to proactively entangle our most positive intentions with emerging conditions.

For almost all of human history – no more than 10-15% of humans lived in situations of more than 2000 people. Individual lives were tremendously unstable (who knew what sickness, drought, event would bring their death) – but communities were much more stable (culture could endure the turbulence of change). One’s life remained similar to one’s parents, grandparent and ancestors. In the modern condition, individual lives are often more stable (lower infant mortality, access to social institutional assistance, improving medical knowledge and treatments, etc.) – but our communities are more fluid, turbulent, and unstable (changing economic priorities, increasing mobility, technological transformations, etc.).

For most of human history people were born, lived and died within a radius of 30 to 50 miles. This meant that people’s identity, community and culture were intensely local (this is also a pun – that when humans became urban which was an intensive condition of change – the experience of ‘local’ became increasingly more cosmopolitan). The transition from the hunter-gatherer-agricultural society (traditional society) to industrial and post-industrial society introduced multiple languages, cultural beliefs/values, and other conditions. As Marshall McLuhan noted the industrial society introduced the fact that all cultures were now multinational and all nations were now multicultural.This means that our environment through which we must ‘wayfind’ includes an increasing quantity and quality of narratives. There is a paradox that emerges with the ‘modern’ condition of increasing population size and density, with the corresponding shift to increasing portions of our populations living in urban versus rural conditions. A paradox associated with the introduction of technologies of mass broadcast communication, the printing press then later radio and television.

This paradox involves the emergence of a richer more complex sense of individuality in a condition of that simultaneously creates a ‘mass culture’.

With the development of the Industrial world ‘nations’ emerged that were not dependent on the concept of ‘empire’ (although empires continue). To create the ‘Imagined Community’ (a nation as a socially constructed community, imagined by the people who perceive themselves as part of that group), requires a certain technological capacity for ‘mass communication’ and mass monitoring of a population that has reached a certain level size and density. In a way Jean Jacque Rousseau’s notion that it was the ‘general will of the people that is the sovereign’ recognized this shift.

In this way we see that equal to and perhaps simultaneous with the introduction of ‘mass communication’ is the development and stewarding of a common narrative. The industrial society melded the narrative medias of religion and science.

In “Mind and Nature: A necessary unity” Gregory Bateson noted that – Science probes; it does not prove. Although, we often assert that some latest piece of research has proved some theory or hypothesis. To definitively prove something, we would have to verify all possible instances of a claim – for example to prove all swans were white one would have to show that all swans that have existed, currently exist and will exist are in fact white. This is impossible.

What science does do, however, is to assemble honest evidence that supports an honest claim that provides a more ‘reasonable’ explanation than any other and/or makes better, more precise predictions.

"even a fully deterministic system can be essentially unpredictable due to sensitivity to initial conditions" “even a fully deterministic system can be essentially unpredictable due to sensitivity to initial conditions”

How we frame our observations, shapes the way we attribute causation, and therefore structures how we reason to form theories and explanations. Most of the time we observe a correlation—first X happens and then Y happens, and we want to explain why. We try to fit our observations of the sequences of events into patterns (stories) that make sense of what we think is unfolding. The metaphors and frames we use to make sense of our observation also have an entailing logic that in turn provides a narrative structure. Science has become a dominant narrative structure.

Humans are driven to generate explanations for why things happened the way they did. That’s not to say that our explanations are unimportant – as Kurt Lewin says: “There is nothing more practical than a good theory”. Theories help us to determine what questions to ask. Theories are the way scientists create stories that link causes and effects into coherent wholes or systems. Understanding whole system is vital because the ‘causes’ derived as systemic properties are indirect and often very hard to track. The difficulty of understanding systemic causation is evident in the difficulty of people to grasp climate change. What a good story-as-theory can do is enable our mind to grasp complex causalities, in a way that is more like direct causation.

 Read the first issue