“All our knowledge has its origins in our perceptions.” – Leonardo Da Vinci
I had the pleasure of hearing my friend Nora Bateson speak last week at The Players Club in New York City where she held a reading and conversation around her recently published book, Small Arcs of Larger Circles: Framing Through Other Patterns.
If that title slows you down a bit, well, I think that’s the point. The book is a collection of essays and poems, and the conversation with Nora included personal stories of growing up in the Bateson household (Nora’s father was the pre-eminent systems scientist and anthropologist Gregory Bateson, whose first marriage was to Margaret Mead. Nora’s grandfather William, was a biologist who coined the term genetics.)
Collectively, the passages in Nora’s book draw us into a state of heightened curiosity that leads us to question how we perceive reality, ultimately enabling us to better understand our world and the challenges accelerating all around us. She invites us to probe the profound difference between our now four-hundred-year-old reductionist way of thinking (which is rooted in the Scientific Revolution), and the demands and mystery of a more accurate, complex living systems view of the world. Critical to the understanding of this more accurate world view is Nora’s enigmatic assertion, itself an invitation to the most important conversation we could be having:
“The opposite of complexity is not simplicity; it is reductionism,” she mused.
In the context of our interconnected 21st century social, political, economic and ecological challenges, the critical distinction between complexity and reductionism is far from a trivial one. It is, in fact, a life or death insight.
It is precisely because these indivisible challenges are rooted in complexity that our continually applying reductionist thinking to them has led to disastrous consequences. Overcoming them depends on our shedding our unconscious reliance on reductionist thinking and adopting a more holistic way of looking at our world. In other words, our failure to comprehend complexity itself, in an increasingly complex, interconnected world that seems to be spiraling out of control, may well turn out to have life or death consequences for many of us, and even civilization itself as we’ve come to know it in the Modern Age.
Admittedly, reductionism – breaking down what is complicated into its component parts so they can be analyzed and understood – has made immeasurable contributions to the progress of human civilization. The laptop I’m typing on and the man on the moon are achievements made possible through the reductionist method. But as Wes Jackson says, “there’s nothing wrong with the reductionist method so long as you don’t confuse the method with the way the world actually works.”
Holistic thinker Allan Savory once illuminated for me that complexity is profoundly different than what’s complicated. An iPhone or an airplane is complicated. With time and ingenuity, it can be perfected and then mass produced, the same every time. We humans have become experts in making what’s complicated, thanks to our now well-honed expertise in reductionist reasoning and problem solving.
But complexity is a different animal altogether. A nation is complex. A city is complex. A business is complex. A rainforest is complex. War is complex. So too a marriage, a family, and our human self – our physical body, as well as our collective body/mind/spirit. The complexity of a living system is distinguished by the ever-changing context that surrounds it and affects it, with feedback loops and consequences impossible to fully comprehend in advance. Our political economy, in the context of culture and place, is such a complex living system.
Bateson explains that living systems that survive over time are characterized by mutually supportive learning networks that continuously communicate and interact across multiple contexts and variables in the system. Yet we pretend to believe we can manage complexity as we manage what’s merely complicated, with our rules and protocols, and our key performance indicators designed through reductionist logic. In today’s America — a complex system if there ever was one — the danger is compounded by leaders who seem to think they can govern without reference to accurate information, better known as “facts,” without which trust-based communication is impossible.
Trust issues aside, our challenges run even deeper. Bateson writes, “The education system that reaches around the globe is a mess… The violence of breaking the world into bits and never putting it back together again substantiates the kind of blindness in which we have separated ecology from economy, and psychology from politics.” I would add another reductionist “violence”— the separation of what used to be called “political economy” into politics and economics. From the professional silos in which business and finance, governance and the law operate today, we literally can’t “see” the patterns that define the interconnections of complexity accurately enough to have a chance to manage them in a way that the times demand. In truth, our aim should be to constructively guide and flow with the complexity that defines modern reality, since complexity can’t really be “managed” in the sense of asserting control. How many presidents, CEOs, or regulators, or any of “the people running the world” understand that?
Gregory Bateson famously wrote: “Break the pattern that connects and you necessarily destroy all unity.” Yet we don’t even see the patterns, much less honor the resulting unity as the essence of our health, even our survival. Instead, in our ignorance, we break such patterns all the time, for example, the carbon cycle, which has resulted in the climate change that we now view as a “problem” to solve. In reality, it is the unforeseen but direct consequence of our failure to perceive, understand, and humbly work within complexity.
We humans have evolved into problem solvers using the reductionist method, a direct outgrowth of the Scientific Revolution. It’s now baked into our DNA, limitations included. A Second Scientific Revolution is underway, one that integrates the reductionist method with the patterns of connection that define our integral reality. Our life depends on it.
That’s worth slowing down a bit to ponder.