This post adds to the last few entries. Recently, I had a short comment rejected by the GTN network on the grounds that it did not contribute to their general discussion of how to use the resources of the many communities involved to initiate action. Their call included this sentence, “The time has come for embarking on a new phase that shifts emphasis from the realm of ideas to the realm of action.” My argument was primarily that their call to action was premature because they had not properly identified the targets that they should be aiming at, nor have they identified the root cause(s) of the problems they would like to solve. It’s like the criticism of management consultants scrambling an old aphorism into “Ready, Fire, Aim.”
A new word, polycrisis, is being bandied about to describe the simultaneous emergence of catastrophes, like climate change, war in Ukraine, inflation, pandemic . . . It may be a new word, but such events have been well characterized by many authors in the past. Ackoff called them “messes.” Rittel and Webber used “wicked problems.” Merton thought of them as “unintended consequences.” Dealing with these, according to these authors and others, requires special methods that aim at and impact the root causes of whatever is to be remedied.
Ackoff is particularly clear about this. He differentiates between resolving or solving and dissolving. The first two refer to the frameworks brought to bear on problems by some discipline. Economists have their way to guide them, engineers have theirs, scientists theirs, psychologists theirs, and so on. Each discipline is defined by the presuppositions built in to its structure of beliefs, methodologies, tools and authority. Each is, in fact, an institution with its normal way of doing things. Importantly, each has a basic set of ontologies, beliefs about the meaning of things and relationships. Resolvers look for similarities to past situations as the context for action. Solvers turn to theory and analysis.
Dissolvers are different. They focus on the whole system. Ackoff calls this path, “the design approach’” and adds, “The designer makes use of the methods, techniques, and tools of both the clinician and researcher, and much more; but he uses them synthetically rather than analytically. He tries to dissolve problems by changing the characteristics of the larger system containing the problem. He looks for dissolutions in the containing whole rather than solutions in the contained parts. (my emphasis)”
Another way of describing this approach is as a form of pragmatic inquiry. The designer, in these terms, is the epitome of a pragmatist, looking to capture some understanding of the essence of the system by careful observation, and designing some action that seems like it will change the system as desired. C. S. Peirce) named the associated cognitive process “Abduction, [consisting] in studying facts and devising a theory to explain them.” Further, “It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea. Abduction makes sense of the world as a whole, not as a piece of it, constructed according to the fixed belief structure of any discipline.
Polycrises must be addressed pragmatically if any real progress is to be made, but not by individuals as may be the case in a business setting. Large teams, with different lens and mindsets are essential to match the complexity of these messes, but with a critical caveat. The members of the team MUST suspend their disciplinary beliefs, in essence becoming part of a single cognitive process capable of abduction, that is, the development of an understanding of what is going on out there and of possible ways to interact with the system.
But this is much easier said than done. Disciplines form a large part of individual identity. Their belief structures hide in the brain and have become so embedded that they are lost from view. The more masterful an individual has been over a career, the more likely she will act out of a sense of authority relative to others. Such authority obviously gets in the way of a pragmatic exercise. I see this in the background of this thread on the GTN network and on previous discussions. They are primarily very smart people putting their oars in the water, but pulling and tugging in a non-coordinated way.
Ackoff, Rittel and Webber, and others came up with their insights without the benefit of a recent model of the brain that very strongly supports their findings. I will not provide details of that model, the bi-hemispherical brain, developed by Iain McGilchrist in this post, There are many posts that flesh it out available in the Archive of this website. The point to be made is that the dissolver of Ackoff corresponds to an actor with the right hemisphere in charge whereas his other actors, conversely, line up with a dominant left hemisphere.
All this so far is really prelude to my main message to the GTN and other people and groups desiring to change the world to remedy, mitigate, or avoid polycrises and their components. You are blinded by your disciplinary presuppositions and cannot see the roots of the very problems you want to remedy. The components of these polycrises, by and large, are unintended consequences of normal behaviors, which are, in turn, grounded in a set of basic ontological beliefs, that is, beliefs about how the world works. If these beliefs provided a true understanding of the world, we would have no way out and could only deal with the symptoms and proximate causes. But that is not the case.
Modernity’s basic ontology follows from Descartes’ claims that the mind mirrors reality and that the universe is machine like. He is not quite right. The left-brain does, indeed, contain a mechanistic model of the world, but one made up from bits and pieces—facts and theories—abstracted from past experience. Its world will normally have common features with the real, external world, but, inevitably, will omit parts of it. Actions that are controlled by this side may, consequently, fail to do what they were supposed to do and may also, produce unintended consequences that have significant impacts on the real world. In the case of big problems “may” becomes “almost always” because the model held by the left hemisphere is sure to depart from the real situation. Such actions are seen to be instrumental in nature.
The right hemisphere attends to the world very differently. It captures a snapshot of the contemporary situation, a gestalt, assigns meaning to it and, if something about it calls for action, creates (imagines) a plan to be executed. It may/will call on the left for assistance, but will attempt to fit whatever to does to the immediate world’s, not the left’s virtual (re-presented), version. When dealing with people, such actions under the right’s aegis are seen to be empathetic and caring; the same is true of acts directed toward other kinds of targets.
Human beings are always of two minds, one of which ultimately dominates. The character of our actions over time, when seen through a sociological lens, depends on which one tends to be in charge. Modernity is strongly left-brained and our normal behaviors in important institutions reflect its unrealistic hold on the world. Resultant actions, on the whole, reflect its artificial reality, and lack a sense of the aliveness and highly interconnected nature of the world, including the embeddedness of the actors in that world. Actions tend to dominate, seeing the world out there as little more than resources to be used to get whatever it (the left brain) wants.
It should be obvious that, sooner or later, this stance will create breakdown and suffering in the real world. And so it has. It should also be obvious that, as long as the left hemisphere remains in charge, present breakdowns will persist and new ones are likely to arise. In Ackoff’s words, neither resolving nor solving will work. Polycrises may change course a bit, but will persist, and new ones are likely to emerge. In causal terms, these failures arise because at both the individual and societal levels we are operating with models (belief systems) of the world that do not correspond to it closely enough so that the outcomes from our actions match our intentions. Further, the mismatch is a fixed feature of the left-hemisphere, no matter how much “knowledge,” the name given to the storehouse of facts and beliefs, it contains. More science is not the solution.
The right hemisphere is better at getting a handle on the world (understanding it) as a whole, organic, alive, ever-changing system. It unscrambles the implicitness of the whole by using its imaginative powers, building on its ability to use metaphor to reduce the unfamiliar to the familiar, something the analytic functions of the left cannot do. Whereas the left side acts like a scientist, finding truth in the lab or in thought, the right is more like a pragmatist, discovering truth out in the world. The actions it controls are fitted more closely to the world as it is, not as it has been re-presented in the left hemisphere. They are closer, consequently, to the truth, the practical match of our linguistic representation of reality, and have a better chance of satisfying our intentions.
C. S. Peirce named this cognitive process of the right hemisphere “Abduction, [consisting] in studying facts and devising a theory to explain them.” Further, “It is the only logical operation which introduces any new idea.” Abduction is the process on which he devised pragmatism, or, as he called it, “pragmaticism.” Abduction or discovery makes sense of the world. With its capacity for metaphor, the right can break out of the fetters of the past (re-presented in the left hemisphere) and create new understanding that can be used to dissolve existing problems. Right-brain controlled actions, because they appear to fit the immediate situation, exhibit care for it. The actor is seen to be caring, focused on the external world, not on some inner source as left-brain acts show up.
McGilchrist argues that right-hemisphere dominance is the primal state. It characterized the way our early hominid ancestors behaved. Without modern languages, the left had limited capacity to abstract and generalize. Heidegger’s phenomenology comes up with the same conclusion that the unique feature of humans is care—right-brain dominated actions. McGilchrist argues further that the right-left balance has shifted over time and among different cultures, but that modern cultures are strongly left-brain dominated. This distortion can be traced to the evolution of literacy and numeracy and the related institutions that evolved—importantly, science as the means to discover truth about the world.
The right hemisphere does a better job than the left in making sense of the present, but lacks the left’s ability to predict the future, albeit inexactly. Both will always be needed. And this leads us to the roots of our present concerns. Modern cultures are strongly dominated by the left hemisphere, both in individuals and the metaphorical collective brain. The left is largely responsible for what is normal in the major institutions that constitute modern societies. Further, our political scene has become corrupted by the dominating power of dogma in the form of “alternate facts,” statements about the world that have no basis in reality. But they do create an associated false reality in the left-hemisphere of those to retain them as ‘truths.” The results should be clear. Actions driven by the dogmatic left-hemisphere create chaos and large unintended consequences. For example, covid deniers and anti-vaxxers added to the burden caused by the virus.
I discovered a new (really very old) phrase that describes this form of dogmatism: ipse dixit. The phrase is attributed originally to the followers of Pythagoras, meaning “an assertion made without proof, resting entirely on the authority of the speaker.” It is harmless, even helpful, to assert that the square on the hypotenuse is equal to sum of the squares on the sides of a right triangle, but produces the opposite outcome when applied to assertions made about the world without ground or proof.
So far this is a long, winding (sorry about that) argument that our serious crises will persist until we get the right-hemisphere back into its role as master. Alternate facts will continue to flow from the reality-free media and elsewhere, but, perhaps, it will fall on somewhat more critical ears. The right-hemisphere, the pragmatic side, does a good job trying to weed out assertions and beliefs that do not fit. That’s the central feature of pragmatic inquiry, matching a set of beliefs to the world, based on how well they fit as measured by practical outcomes. Science is too detached from the world to perform this function for all but relatively uncomplicated situations. But what is needed is not some superficial playing around as some have claimed that that is all acting pragmatically is. Forms of serious inquiry performed by those who are committed to actually dealing with the crises are critical. Unfortunately, our political system, today, lacks enough seriousness and commitment.
1. Ackoff, R. L. (1981). The art and science of mess management. Interfaces, 11(1), 20–26.
2. Rittel, H. W. J., & Webber, M. M. (1973). Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning. Policy Sciences, 4, 155-169.
3. Merton, R. K. (1936). The unanticipated consequences of purposive social action. American Sociological Review, 1(6), 894-904.
4. Peirce, C. S. (1878). How to Make Our Ideas Clear. Popular Science Monthly, 12, 286-302.
5. McGilchrist, I. (2012). The master and his emissary: The divided brain and the making of the western world (Reprint ed.). Yale University Press.
6. Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and Time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper and Row.