The concept of “future” has always been a daunting challenge to human thinking and action. No matter how hard we try to propel ourselves into the future, it always stays a step ahead. Like Sisyphus’s persistent attempts to reach the top of the mountain, we can never get to the future, no matter hard we try. Human existence is limited to the present. These statements are not intended to deny the existence of the concepts of past, present, or future, but only to situate human existence.
We are alive only in the present. The past is the record of our own previous moments and also those of collective memory. The future is the vision used to guide our actions in the present. Philosopher and sociologist, Alfred Schutz wrote, “Our actions are conscious if we have previously mapped them out ‘in future perfect tense.’” Future is the name we give to the immaterial image located somewhere in our brain, or like the past, to a vision more explicitly described in our individual and collective conversations. Our present aliveness is so precious that we use the same word metaphorically when we are not there. We talk about being alive in the pages of our letters or in the memories of others, but such memories are only vestiges of the past. We are not there.
It is very hard to accept the ephemeral nature of human existence. Our brains tell us we live a long life, but, in actuality, we are alive only at any given moment. The idea of authenticity, central to my notion of flourishing, arises from the same concern over time in the work of Martin Heidegger. Heidegger claims that the authentic “self,” and its characteristic mode of being (owning one’s actions) are the consequence or outcome of the anxiety that comes when one faces his or her mortality. I see the connection also in terms of time. Authenticity arises when the actor understands that there will be no more conversions of futures into presents. The tracing of one’s lifelong existence will be nothing but a memory of the past existing in the brains of all those who wish to retain some connection to the one who has passed away.
The point of this philosophical diversion is that we cannot expect our actions to turn out the way our expectations (images of the future) predicted they would. Complex systems do not behave in the exact ways our models, both those in our heads and those out there in public, would predict. No matter how much we talk about agency or free will, the outcome of anything we do will be determined by the real world. Alfred North Whitehead called this mistaken expectation of success: the “fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” Gregory Bateson explained the discrepancy between our expectations and the real outcomes as arising from the “difference between how nature works and how people think.”
Bateson was using “nature” metaphorically to describe the real world out there, comprising humans, other life, and the inanimate universe. He was also speaking about the whole, intact, contextual system, or, at least, a big enough chunk of the universe to incorporate all of the interrelated parts involved in converting actions to their worldly outcomes. And therein lies the reason for our many personal and collective disappointments.
The core of modernity rests on abstracted knowledge about separate parts of the real world, explicated by applying scientific procedures to those parts, lifted out of their context in the immediate surrounding world of the actions. That body of the knowledge is stored in the collected annals of the scientific establishment, both natural and social, and in the heads of those who have committed some parts of it into their memories.
The closer our collective or individual abstract worldview approaches the real world, the more likely our intentions will be delivered, or, expressed in another way, the more likely the future we had envisioned as the putative result of our actions will become the present. The connection between intentional action, unique to our species, and time is the basis of Heidegger’s magnum opus, Being and Time, and Schutz’s quote, above.
But I am much more concerned with this connection than just my interest in philosophy. My interest is its relevance to flourishing, or, better perhaps, the emergence of flourishing. Even more broadly, what I am about to write is highly relevant with respect to just about everything about the modern way of thinking. Most simply stated, we can act on the basis of either one of two dichotomous grounds: a abstract world constructed from the past or a living one we generate by our observations of the present.
This dichotomy is not the usual way we think about our models of the world, but it is quite accurate both in practice and in theory, according to the divided brain cognitive model of Iain McGilchrist that I have written about in this blog earlier. In his model, the left-brain re-presents a model of the world drawn from prior abstracted pieces as the basis for action in the present. It contains rules about natural processes and, also, the body of institutional rules that have accumulated from the time of one’s birth. The first includes natural laws like Newton’s concept of gravity as knowledge that objects fall down when released from any constraint. The second are the rules of the games we play formally, as in chess, or the rules that constitute and govern behavior within the institutions in which we spend our lives, like business, family, church, school, and so on.
Since this inner world is not the same as the one actually existing at the time of our intentions, the actions taken will deviate from the expected outcome by some unpredictable amount. If the error is trivial, we may accept it and move on, but, if not, we may recalculate, like our GPS does for us, and act again (and again and again) until we are satisfied. The same situation holds for action in a public arena, except that the size of the world is larger, for example, approaching the whole Earth System when we are contemplating policies to intervene in global warming. This is the case always facing our lawmakers and executives when planning to intervene or actually interact with the real world, that is, virtually all the time.
So it should not be a surprise to find us, individually and collectively, in a pickle about the present state of the world. We have become so certain that our knowledge of the world is true, that is, a genuine match for reality, that we generally immediately shift attention away from the present concern once the decision to act or plan has been made. This is most relevant to policy making, especially when the policy or rule-making entity is different from the executive parts of the organization, as is the usual case. When the executive begins to implement the policy or strategy, the planning or legislative function has moved on to some other issue. Unlike the individual who can adjust when the outcome fails to match the intention, the organizational actor is expected to continue to play by the same, existing set of rules.
If and when these actors notice the deviations of the outcomes from the expectations, and decide to do something about it, the planners and rule-makers will almost always have a new set of issues overflowing their plates and are likely to ignore or delay paying attention to the situation others have observed. If either the executive or rule-maker is asked to account for the failures, the reason will almost always focus on mischief by somebody else or on some technological fix that has failed to work as it was designed to do. But all their excuses miss the critical point: such failures can be traced to the very way we think about the world, and the ensuing way we develop our design and operational models that serve as the grounds for action.
All this is prelude to a second way of “seeing” the world and building the grounds for action. According to McGilchrist, the right brain hemisphere “sees” the present world, that is the actual world outside view of the actor. That world is never an exact replica of the real world, but is constructed from a context-rich apprehension of the focal objects and the surrounding interconnected system. If appropriate, humans that appear have names attached and are recognized as individuals, not merely as categorical beings. The same is true for other objects that appear. Each situation seen by the right brain is unique. For descriptive or analytic purposes, let me call this the pragmatic view, as opposed to the Cartesian view of the left-brain.
When the pragmatic view is present, the actor can immediately sense the degree to which the intention has been satisfied. If the answer is yes, the action will shift to another intention. If not, the actor can make adjustments and repeat the action, observing how the outcome moves toward the desired objective, until he or she is satisfied and can move to another arena. No predetermined rules are needed or desirable because the complexity of most real settings makes it difficult to identify the roots causes of the deviations. Over time, however, the actors can learn which kinds of actions tend to move the system toward the desired end state. When other humans are involved in the system, the default position should be that it is complex because human actors are inherently unpredictability. Similarly, if the system is very large and involves large parts of the natural system, it should be taken as complex.
The same process applies to collective actions. Deviations from the desired objective should be continuous addressed by adjustments that move the system toward the desired objective. Of course, this process requires concerned observers and the necessary data with which to plot the directionality of movement and assist in determining what kind of adjustments may be effective.
Politically, I find much of the reversal in standing policies in the Trump administration highly ironic. Conservatism is a fundamentally pragmatic system of change. It argues that small changes, based on “prudent” understanding of the status quo, are the way to achieve desiderata in government (and other complex organizations). Prudent is Edmund Burke’s (the “Father” of Conservatism) own word for a form of understanding gained by observing the (present) state of the world, and eschewing knowledge based on some abstract or theoretical notion. In my words, he was arguing for right-brain thinking (pragmatic) instead of the prevailing modern left-brain mode (Cartesian).
In this regard, the recent order to dissolve the Council overseeing the oceans and previously one looking over climate change eliminated what little resources for pragmatic observation and action were available for prudent action. I saw the same kind of destruction of the ability to act pragmatically when President Reagan was inaugurated. I had been running the New England River Basin Commission in President Carter’s administration. Among the new President’s first moves were orders to dissolve virtually every federal agency with any systemic planning or data-gathering function. His letter firing me also admonished me not to take it personally. The opportunity for learning how the real world was working was greatly diminished.
The famed Toyota Production System is the epitome of the pragmatic worldview. Whatever problems crop up in achieving Toyota’s goal of perfect quality are addressed by gathering a group of concerned members of their organization to observe the present state of the system, seek root causes, and take action accordingly. The basic inquiry/act cycle is continued until the problem(s) have been successfully resolved. The learning that accompanies the process is pragmatic in nature, and is not generally reduced to some abstraction or analytic format.
Of course, as the scope of the system grows larger, the problems become more diffuse and the ability to observe and learn from the system less and less practical. But this should not be used as a reason to abandon or eschew pragmatic inquiry and action even in systems as large as the United States or the whole Earth System when addressing concerns like climate change.
The role of political parties is strongly affected by which worldview is taken: the Cartesian (modern) or the pragmatic. Pragmatism argues that all governmental policy and that of many smaller institutions should be “conservative,” in a process sense, but not necessarily in the sense of normative views, such as underlie liberal, libertarian, or conservative (as it is generally used) labels. To avoid the confusion that confounds and obfuscates the underlying normative views, it would be helpful to acknowledge the orthogonality of the process and normative features of different political parties.
Finally, to explain the title, pragmatic change is almost always slow. It is rare to make the right adjustment in the first round. To rebuild, pragmatically, the Earth System and its big sub-systems, like the US political economy, will take a long time, maybe even until the Seventh Generation, the same time frame often invoked as the duration of analysis for the future impact of actions taken today. The big difference is that the businesses and other institutions that call for such a long-term view are operating in the Cartesian mode and fail to follow-up with any effort to observe whether we have moved closer to our target. The deteriorating trend of large parts of the Earth System makes it clear that efforts under the rubric of the Seventh Generation have yet to affect the present trajectory in any significant way.