Flocking and Flourishing

flock

During my on-line class based on my books last night, I experienced a flash if insight. The class was about complexity; one of the two foundational beliefs I argue is needed to create a new culture of flourishing. One of the overheads I use is a video of a Nova program on emergence. They use bird flocking, fish schooling, and human crowd behavior as examples of self-organization or emergence. What has been chaotic movement becomes orderly in just a moment.

The secret to understand such behavior is to identify a set of simple rules that each individual is following that produce the observed order. For flocking the following rules appear to be the right ones. In the absence of asking the birds directly, these rules were developed by computer simulation. Here they are:

  • Separation: Steer to avoid colliding with your neighbors
  • Alignment: Steer in the same direction as your neighbors.
  • Cohesion: Steer toward the center of your neighbors.

There is no top-down control as in an orchestra. Everything is due to local knowledge. For me the important feature is that simple rules can produce orderly, emergent behavior. After the slide lecture, I engaged in discussion about the topics we covered. It dawned on me that I have been using this same idea, but was unaware that I was doing it. I have been arguing that the foundational rules of our modern culture are at the root of the ills we are experiencing and are preventing us from achieving our human potential, which I label flourishing. If we change the rules we can change the cultural patterns, a culture being somewhat analogous to a flock of birds.

I can picture our present society as a collection of birds flying in all directions, but for lack of a set of rules that would bring order. We do have some such rules. The most basic of rules we live by is a variant of Adam Smith’s invisible hand as he described it in his classic, The Wealth of Nations. It is very similar in nature to the rules for flocking. It does what these rules do; it orders the economy, as if by magic. It aligns, in theory, the interests of those that produce goods and those that desire goods so as to produce the most efficient systemic output. Imagine two flocks of bird-like creatures flying in neat formations toward a meeting place called the market.

Nice picture, but it doesn’t work quite like that. There are several other rules at play. I will continue to use the flocking rules as a model. We have a separation rule in the individualistic norm of our current society. It tells each of us to do our own thing. The problem with that is we lack a cohesion rule. Instead of steering towards the center, we protect our own territory. Several Enlightenment thinkers saw that the absence of cohesion rules would leave human settlements in a “state of nature” wherein individuals would battle over resources. The social contract and its rules for surrendering sovereignty provided rules that brought order and overcame the tendency to fly apart. We even have had alignment rules that for a time headed us in the same direction. The coherence of the US during the two World Wars is a case.

Except for the invisible hand rule that continues to order the market, more or less, these other rules have lost their power and we seem to be moving more like a random or chaotic system that a flock of birds. Now I am not arguing that we should resemble a formation of geese, but I am asserting that the present chaotic structure of society prevents the emergence of exactly those qualities we we seek: justice, well-being, equality, happiness, and, as I would have it: flourishing as embodying all the others. The reductionist basis of science as the way to truth is, in essence, a rule that promotes incoherence because it paints the world as a set of discrete parts such that we act as if we are separate from the it and from each other. If we are to flourish, the entire world of humans and non-humans must come into alignment and maintain some resultant order.

I have been advocated two rules to replace these for some time, but have failed to visualize them in the context of precisely the way I describe the world: a complex system with the possibility of generating the emergent property of flourishing. So how would it work in this sense. If humans operated on the basis of a rule called “care for the world you exist within,” it would steer them in the same direction as their neighbors (alignment). Holding the universe as a highly interconnected complex system would create rules to hold the whole system together (cohesion). Some of our existent social rules, like rights of privacy, would maintain distance (separation). As today’s society begin to apply these new rules, the random, chaotic patterns will give way to order, and along with it the possibility of flourishing. Emergent properties, like flourishing, are always only possibilities because we cannot predict the outcomes of such systems. But we do know that chaotic systems cannot produce such qualities.

I realize this is a very rough model, but I believe it can work as the route to design a new, flourishing world. I will be working with this to flesh out these very preliminary thoughts. In closing this post, I have to note that I am not the first to have a similar idea. Part of the scheme I am proposing was proposed over 250 years ago by none other than Adam Smith, but not the Adam Smith of The Wealth of Nations. The same person, but coming from an earlier major work of his, The Theory of Moral Sentiments.

Let me try to summarize the first parts of the book in a sentence or two. Smith believes that moral systems should rest on a basic principle that people act out of a sense of what is going on with others. He calls this sense, sympathy; it is more like what we call, empathy. In a moral society composed of empathetic individuals (I will use the modern word), an invisible hand will guide them so as “to advance the interest of the society”. (I need to use the original to get the full sense of Smith’s meaning.)

They are led by an invisible hand to make nearly the same distribution of the necessaries of life, which would have been made, had the earth been divided into equal portions among all its inhabitants, and thus without intending it, without knowing it, advance the interest of the society, and afford means to the multiplication of the species. When Providence divided the earth among a few lordly masters, it neither forgot nor abandoned those who seemed to have been left out in the partition. These last too enjoy their share of all that it produces. In what constitutes the real happiness of human life, they are in no respect inferior to those who would seem so much above them. In ease of body and peace of mind, all the different ranks of life are nearly upon a level, and the beggar, who suns himself by the side of the highway, possesses that security which kings are fighting for.

At this point in his life, Smith believed that “sympathy” (empathy) was the central human “sentiment,” not self interest. Empathy is a inherent aspect of caring. To care for the other, one needs a sense of what is going on over there. Any action motivated by empathetic sentiments is constitutive of “care.” Interesting to ponder what our society might look like if The Wealth of Nations had gotten lost on the way to the publisher.

For those that want to read a little more, here is a discussion of sympathy from the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy’s article on The Theory of Moral Sentiments. I include this because Smith’s language is quite cumbersome to a modern eye.

Smith begins the book with an account of sympathy, which he describes as arising when we imagine how we would feel in the circumstances of others. …This is somewhat different from Hume’s account, on which sympathy normally consists in feeling what others actually feel in their circumstances—Hume’s may be called a “contagion” account of sympathy, while Smith’s is a “projective” account —and it opens up the possibility that our feelings on another person’s behalf may often not match the feelings she herself has. Indeed to some extent they will never match, since imagining oneself in a set of circumstances will always lack the intensity of actually experiencing those circumstances . This difference is of great importance to Smith, since he maintains that sharing the feelings of others as closely as possible is one of our main drives in life. We make constant efforts to adjust our feelings, as spectators, to those of the people “principally concerned” in a set of circumstances (importantly, these include people acted upon as well as agents), and to adjust our feelings as people principally concerned to a level with which sympathetic spectators can go along . It is this process of mutual emotional adjustment that gives rise to virtue: the “awful” virtues of self-restraint, insofar we keep ourselves, as people principally concerned, from feeling, or at least expressing, the full flood of our grief or joy, and the “amiable” virtues of compassion and humanity, insofar as we strive, as spectators, to participate in the joys and sufferings of others.

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