Chaos, Complexity, and Care

flocking geese

Last night after finishing the online class I am teaching, I had a breakthrough in the way I think and speak about flourishing and sustainability. Mostly about flourishing because, as I wrote a few posts ago, I do not think that “sustainability” is the right word to use when speaking about our present dilemma, the deteriorating state of the world. There is little present that we should even attempt to sustain because the existing institutions are virtually all broken and the beliefs on which they have become established no longer bring the good life to both humans and the globe. Sustainability, no matter how hard others and I try to get it straight, refers back to the maintenance of the modernist view of technological progress and economic growth as getting us ever closer to perfection. This is clearly the wrong vision and model for the constitution of society, as demonstrated by the deteriorating state of humans and the Planet. I have said this over and over in this blog and in my writing. Sustainability, in spite of how it is being used to indicate saving us and the Planet, has exactly the opposite effect, making matters worse over the long run.

I have tried the use of the compound word, sustainability-as-flourishing as a way to shift the vision, but the conventional sense of sustainability overwhelms the image of flourishing. That is too bad because I have spent some years pushing this concept. The compound phrase does not and probably cannot (given its semantical roots) provide an image of the kind of world we want to come into being. (see my September 19th post). The image of keeping something in place is too strong. Flourishing by itself can provide an image of a desirable future, but then needs to be connected to the present state of the world to create the “creative tension” needed to move people into appropriate action. Action implies conscious intention as contrasted with routine behavior like walking. Edmund Husserl, the father of phenomenology wrote,

In every action we know the goal in advance in the form of an anticipation that is “empty,” in the sense of vague, and lacking its proper “filling-in,” which will come with fulfillment. Nevertheless we strive toward such a goal and seek by our action to bring it step by step to concrete realization. (Husserl, E., Formale und tranzendentale Logik, Halle, Niemeyer, 1929.)

That which has become culturally routine behavior lacks an image of the future and is based on behavioral norms that perhaps once worked in bringing society closer to its implicit vision, but now are producing more and more negative unintended consequences and less and less movement towards the underlying ends.

Flourishing represents a specific image of the desired future, a fuzzy image to be sure, but a concrete notion. Flourishing, like beauty or pornography, appears in the perceptions of the observer. W. E. Gallie would call flourishing an “essentially contested concept.” But that poses no fundamental problem to its use as a vision of the future, as long as there is rough alignment of those to choose to act to enable its emergence.

While the word flourishing may be applied to isolated individuals, the vision it carries will not be realized until flourishing emerges broadly throughout the world. Not only is flourishing an essentially contested concept, it is an emergent property of the complex global system. Given the complex nature of the planet and the interconnectedness of all beings, the whole system must find a state where flourishing appears everywhere. Said another way, flourishing is always only a possibility. In almost all of my work, I have defined sustainability as the possibility of flourishing. Now, I have separated the subject and predicate of this sentence. I no longer equate sustainability to the possibility of flourishing. Flourishing first must emerge and then and only then can we speak meaningfully about sustaining it. So for those seeking a flourishing world, we should not talk about our vision in terms of sustainability but directly as a flourishing world. Our challenge remains no matter how we speak. We must augment, perhaps replace, the belief structure of the modern culture that dominates Western society. This leads me to the next step.

What are the new beliefs. I have written much on this subject. The first is to accept the world as complex and to recognize our dreams of the good life are emergent properties. We cannot bring us that vision to life as the output of some economic, technological machine. This is how we run our societies today. One cannot produce beauty, liberty, flourishing… by some production process. We have been making this mistake since the rise of science and the adoption of the ideas of the Enlightenment thinkers. These beliefs have certainly produced wealth and lifted many human beings out of misery, but are failing to maintain intact our life support system and still have left many people without hope of flourishing.

The second, familiar to those who follow my work, is to replace the model of the human as an insatiably needy, self-interested creature with an ontologically grounded concept of a human being, acting out of care. Care here is not the affective care of psychology and poetry, but a reference to actions that reflect one’s understanding that life consists of paying attention to the world and acting to maintain all the connections so they support the life of the system. Without the structure of care that underlies our humanness, we would merely be creatures like all other life, acting only out of an innate focus on some sense of need and protection. Care adds meaning to life. Our ability to give meaning to life and to coordinate our actions with others comes from our unique capability, language. As Heidegger said, “Language is the house of being.” A little thought about how language arose leads one to early times when human life involved little more than existing by paying attention to the surrounding world and acting to maintain some sort of homeostatic relationship with it. This is what is meant by care, attending to world in which we exist. In today’s complicated world, care covers more ground that that of our ancestors, but the process is exactly the same. Care requires an acceptance that everything encountered in the world has the same ontological basis for existing, and so care is generally reciprocal and empathetic. Caring for non-humans is no different although how we act toward them may be different.

My constant source, Humberto Maturana, might call our caring actions as coming from the emotion of love, but not the affective kind. He defines love as an emotional domain of behaviors and bodily dispositions in which another (being) arises as a legitimate other in coexistence with oneself. He uses a different set of words, but I would say he is speaking about care. For those interested in following this up, click on this link. His writing is hard to get through but worth it, as he is presenting a picture of life and human action so different from the conventional that he resorts to very complicated sentences.

So, here is a basic definition of care. Now where does flourishing come in. I have to put the two new beliefs together to get there, complexity and care. Flourishing is, as I write, an emergent property of a system. It is the appearance of order from a chaotic state, a state that I believe describes today’s world: lots of individuals and organizations going their own ways; like a flock of birds flying in random directions. But like magic, the flock can order itself and produce the familiar sight of birds in highly coordinated flight patterns. They create order out of chaos by applying a set of rules: fly close together, but not too close, and steer toward the average position of your neighbors. It is truly magic; order appears from chaos.

I believe the same situation applies to our societies. We produce chaos with the present rules of cultural behavior. One can easily see that individualistic and selfish rules would prevent an emergent order to appear. No emergent quality is likely to show up. Now, imagine what might happen if all interactions would be based on care. The attractive element operating in flocking would tend to create order. Human cultural behavior is much more complicated than that of birds in flight or swimming fish. and care as the rule instead of the opposite may not be enough. Given the mess we are in it is worth trying. Maybe start on a small scale. Many cultures, even pieces of our own, have tried something like this, with success until larger external and failures to follow the rules forces do them in. I see no other choice for us. Start caring or watch the world collapse. Whether that happens slowly or quickly I cannot predict, but it will happen. All the fixes we try to head it off will ultimately be fruitless.