[pcp-discuss:] The Missing Elephant

From: Norman K. McPhail (norm@SOCAL.WANET.COM)
Date: Mon Sep 11 2000 - 21:54:07 BST

  • Next message: PRof. Gary Boyd: "Re: [pcp-discuss:] The Missing Elephant"


    [A version of this article appeared in Journal of
    Humanistic Psychology, January, 2000. Copyright 2000 Sage
    Publications, Inc. Don Michael is the author
    of Learning_to_Plan_and_Planning_to_Learn, the formative
    book on organizational behavior, which he wrote in 1973
    before there was a field of Organizational Behavior.

    I'd like to hear the "scientific," "systems" and cyberneutic response to
    the points made in this article.


        "I'd like to share some of my current thinking about the
         predicament of being human -- the dark side, as well as the
         bright. This is my thinking in process; I have not reached
         any conclusions. Your willingness to consider these ideas,
         and your critical response to them, will help me with
         further mulling.

        "I'll begin with a Sufi story we're all familiar with. It's
         the story of the blind persons and the elephant. Recall
         that persons who were blind were each coming up with a
         different definition of what was 'out there' depending on
         what part of the elephant they were touching. Notice that
         the story depends on a storyteller, someone who can see
         that there is an elephant. What I'm going to propose today
         is that the storyteller is blind. There is no elephant.
         The storyteller doesn't know what he or she is talking

        "Less metaphorically, I'll put it this way: What is
         happening to the human race, in the large, is too complex,
         too interconnected and too dynamic to comprehend. There is
         no agreed upon interpretation that provides an enduring
         basis for coherent action based on an understanding of the
         enfolding context.

        "Consider. Take any subject that preoccupies us. Attend
         to all the factors that might substantially affect its
         current condition, where it might go, what might be done
         about it, and how to go about doing so.

        "I'll take, as an example, poverty. Think of the variety of
         factors that connect with poverty that we must comprehend
         if we are attempting to understand everything that
         seriously impacts poverty. One would have to attend to at
         least: technology, environment, greed, crime, drugs,
         family, media manipulation, correction, education,
         governments, market economy, information flows, ethics,
         ideology, personalities and events. All of these infuse
         any topic that we pay attention to and try to do something
         about. But, clearly we can't attend to all of these (and
         others) because each has its own multifaceted realm to be

        "Poverty is just one of endless examples. What we're faced
         with, essentially, is the micro/macro question: How
         circumstances in the small affect circumstances in the
         large and how circumstances in the large affect
         circumstances in the small. And we don't know --
         'butterfly effects' and chaos theory, notwithstanding --
         how the micro/macro interchange operates in specific human
         situations. And for reasons I shall come to, I don't think
         we can know. In effect, we don't comprehend the kind of
         beast that holds the parts together and how they're held
         together for the human condition we call poverty. There
         isn't any elephant there.

        "Having said this, let me emphasize before we go any
         farther, that I'm in no sense belittling our daily efforts
         to engage issues like poverty, or other aspects of the
         human condition. I wouldn't be taking your time if I felt
         that what many of us are about was futile. Instead I hope
         to add a deeper appreciation of the existential challenge
         we face, the poignancy of our efforts, and the admiration
         they merit as we try to deal with our circumstances.

        "If we could acknowledge that we don't know what we're
         talking about when we try to deal with any of the larger
         human issues we face, this acknowledgement would have very
         significant implications. These implications would cover
         how we perceive ourselves as persons and how we act to help
         the human condition, including ourselves. I'll come to them

        "But first, I want to offer some observations in support of
         my proposal that we don't know what we're talking about in
         the large, by describing six contributors to our ignorance
         -- six characteristics that seem to be to be the source of
         the storyteller's blindness. I call them 'ignorance

        "One more prefatory remark: I intend my observations to be
         as non-judgmental as I can make them. I believe I am
         describing characteristics of the human world that simply
         *are*, analogous to the laws of nature. I am trying to be
         an observer, not an evaluator. However, the very nature of
         my language and what I choose to emphasize conveys values,
         hence judgments, often unknown to me.

        "The first of the six is that we have too much and too
         little information to reach knowledgeable consensus and
         interpretation within the available time for action. More
         information in the social realm generally leads to more
         uncertainty, not less. (Consider, for example, the status
         of the world economy. We need more information to
         understand the information we have.) So the time it takes
         to reach agreement on the interpretation increases. During
         that time the information increases as well. We need more
         information to interpret the information we have and on and

        "Among the information we have is that which increases our
         doubt about the integrity and sufficiency of the
         information we do have. There's enough information,
         nevertheless, (or too little in many cases) to generate
         multiple interpretations of that information, which then
         adds another layer of information and interpretation that's
         required to use that information.

        "Related and central, information feedback and feed forward
         very seldom is available at the time appropriate to use it.
         It arrives either too soon or too late, if at all. So there
         is too much or too little information at the wrong time.
         So, the first ignorance generator is too much or too little
         information to reach knowledgeable decisions in a finite
         amount of time available for taking action.

        "Second, there is no shared set of value priorities. We
         make much of the fact that we share values - it is a truism
         that humans want the same basic things. Perhaps, at a
         survival level, they do. Perhaps, but certainly beyond
         that there is no shared set of priorities with regard to
         values. Priorities change with circumstance, time, and

        "Here are some examples where value priorities differ
         depending on the group and circumstance: Short term
         expedience versus long term prudent behavior and vice
         versa. Group identity versus individual identity.
         Individual responsibility versus societal responsibility.
         Freedom versus equality. Local claims versus larger claims
         for commitment. Universal rights versus local rights that
         can repudiate universal rights (fundamentalism, for
         example). Human rights versus national interest (e.g.,
         economic competition or nationalist terrorism). Public
         interest versus privacy (encryption versus crime-fighting).
         First amendment limits (pornography, etc.). One potential
         gain versus it potential social costs. Who sets the rules
         of the game and who decides who decides? These are all
         issues in which the priorities of values are in contention.
         There's no reliable set of priorities in place that can be
         used to interpret the larger issues. A third contribution
         to this lack of comprehension is what has been called the
         dilemma of context. How much do you need to know in order
         to feel responsible for actions and interpretations? How
         many layers of understanding are necessary to have enough
         background to deal with the foreground? There are no
         agreed-on criteria or methodology for how deeply to probe.

        "(I should have said at the beginning that these 6 factors
         are interconnected, interactive, so that the question of
         how much context is necessary in a situation to decide what
         to do about that situation very much depends on what values
         are held by participants in that decision making. And that
         raises another intractable context question: who are the
         legitimate participants in the decision making with regard
         to what constitutes the context? And who says so?)

        "The obvious example we're all living with at this time has
         to do with what domains of context are applicable to the
         Clinton impeachment inquiry. Just to remind you of a few:
         The dramatis personae, their motives, the world of the
         media, cultural differences in public responses, political
         styles and susceptibility to rhetoric, the legitimacy of
         public opinion as a basis for evaluating the situation.,
         the intentions of the Constitutional founders, and so on.

        "You can choose any issue that's important to you and ask
         yourself, 'How much do I/we need to know about x to have
         adequate context for thought and action?' And then, for x,
         you can use that list of topics I enumerated in the poverty
         example. This is an unresolved realm. And it is unsolved
         for me as well in the very act of giving this talk.

        "A fourth item. Our spoken language, the language we hear,
         can not adequately map the complexity that I'm talking
         about. Our language, because we hear it or we read it, is
         linear. So, one thought follows another. Our language can
         not adequately engage multiple factors simultaneously.
         (Perhaps poetry can, but we haven't yet figured out how to
         use poetry to make policy, or to resolve issues of context,
         or to value priorities, or the like. And perhaps some forms
         of visual language can, because they can be presented
         simultaneously in three dimensions.) Our noun/verb
         structure emphasizes, items, events, static-ness, [i.e.,
         is-ness]---e.g., we say, 'this is a microphone', rather
         than engaging it as a multitude of processes in time and

        "Nor can our language adequately map in our minds the on-
         going circularity of cause and effect -- producing causes,
         producing effects. Nor can it map the sustaining of a
         system as a system, by virtue of the in-built circular
         feedback that holds its boundaries together. In other
         words, our spoken, written language doesn't allow us to
         talk about these complexities in ways that are inherently
         informative about the complexities. In fact, it compounds
         these complexities because in its linearity, language
         unavoidably distorts a world of simultaneous multiple
         circular processes.

        " The fifth contribution to our inability to know what we
         are talking about is that there is an increasing, and given
         the other factors, an unavoidable absence of reliable
         boundaries. By boundaries, I mean boundaries that
         circumscribe turf, relationships, concepts, identity,
         property, gender, time, and more. Without boundaries, we
         can't make sense of anything. William James, wrote of a
         boundary- less world as one of 'booming, buzzing
         confusion.' Boundaries are about how we discriminate, how
         we partition experience in order to create meaning in all
         those non- material realms, not just turf. But what is
         happening in this world, for reasons I've been describing
         (and others as well), is that these boundaries and their
         reliability are increasingly eroded and disintegrated.
         They are becoming more and more ambiguous. All systems,
         including social systems, require boundaries in order to be
         coherent systems. The feedback that is determined by the
         boundaries of a system allows that system to be self-
         sustaining. If there are no boundaries, there is no
         feedback, no self-sustaining quality and no system. In
         other words, no 'elephant'.

        "Everything I've been saying so far reduces the agreed upon
         criteria for boundary- defining feedback. Here are some
         examples of blurred boundaries: political correctness,
         identity, public versus private, intellectual property,
         biological ethics. These are increasingly ambiguous areas,
         taken very seriously, that, nevertheless, don't allow the
         kind of linguistically and behaviorally discriminating
         boundary defining I think necessary to begin to comprehend
         the incomprehensible complexity that we humans live in.

        "The sixth contributor to our inability to know what we are
         talking about is the self- amplifying, unpredictable acting
         out of the shadow residing in each human; our instincts,
         our extra-rational responses. These could be considered a
         consequence of the other contributors to our ignorance --
         though each of them is also a consequence of all the
         others. (Or so I think.) To be sure, these allow for more
         creativity, but often in this complex world, they also
         serve up violence, oppression, selfishness, extreme
         positions of all stripes. They are the source of an
         upwelling of the non-rational, the non-reasonable that is
         so increasingly characteristic of all the world, not just
         the United States.

        "There was a time -- a long time -- when this sort of
         shadow-driven acting out was more restrained. The elephant
         depends on constraints, on boundaries, to be an elephant.
         In the past, ritual, repression, and suppression served to
         constrain such acting out or to quash it entirely. One's
         social and economic survival depended on playing by many
         explicit and implicit rules. Boundaries were stronger.
         (Think of the up welling of violence after the collapse of
         the Soviet Empire.) These circumstances make human
         governance uniquely problematic. By governance, I mean
         those shared practices by which a society's members act
         reliably toward each other. Government is one such way such
         practices are established via laws etc. Shared child
         socialization practices and formal religions are others.
         For the reasons I am proposing here the processes of
         governance can only become less and less effective. This in
         turn increases unreliably and adds it's own contributions
         to the incomprehensibility of it all.

        "So much for the six 'ignorance generators'. Perhaps they
         are variations on one theme and surely others could be
         added. But I hope these are enough to make a presumptive
         case that our daily activities are ineluctably embedded in
         a larger context of ignorance--- that we don't know what
         we're talking about.

        "So, what to do, how to go on being engaged in a human world
         we don't understand--and, if I'm on to something, we won't

        "Here are eight ways I find helpful that respond to the fact
         of our ignorance. Perhaps they may be helpful for you. I
         hope so! (In spite of speaking assertively, I hope it's
         clear that I include myself among those who don't know what
         they're talking about!) These aren't in any particular
         order, though I think the sequence they are in adds a
         certain coherence .

        "The first is to recognize that, given our neurology, our
         shaping through evolutionary processes, we are,
         unavoidably, seekers of meaning. Recognizing that we are
         seekers of meaning, we also need to recognize that,
         unavoidably, we live in illusions, socially and
         biologically created constructed worlds, nevertheless
         personally necessary. I'm not implying that we can live
         outside of these constraints, but we need to be self
         conscious about the fact that we do live in illusions and
         there is no way for humans, to avoid this. So, each of us
         needs to be self-conscious about our deep need for there to
         be an elephant and for someone to tell us there really is
         an elephant. ( Lots of authors and publisher thrive on that

        "Second, it seems essential to acknowledge, our
         vulnerability, our finiteness. This starts with our selves
         and extends to our projects. Thus we will be unavoidably
         ignorant, uninformed about the outcomes --the consequences
         of the consequences of what we do.

        "Third, as all the great religious traditions emphasize, we
         should seek to live in poverty. Not material poverty but
         rather to be poor in pride and arrogance and in the
         conviction that I/we know what is right and wrong, what
         must be done, and how to do it. Nevertheless we must act -
         - not acting is also to act -- regardless of our
         vulnerability and finiteness.

        "Thus, my fourth suggestion: that one or a group acts in the
         spirit of hope. Hope, not optimism. Here I draw on the
         insight of Rollo May. As he put it, optimism and pessimism
         are conditions of the stomach, of the gut. Their purpose is
         to make us feel good or bad. Whereas hope has to do with
         looking directly at the circumstances we're dealing with,
         at the challenges we must accept as finite, at vulnerable
         beings and activities, recognizing the limits of our very
         interpretation of what we're committing ourselves to, and
         still go on because one hopes that one can make a
         difference in the face of all that stands in the way of
         making a difference.

        "Fifth, this means one acts according to what I've been
         calling 'tentative commitment'. Tentative commitment means
         you' are willing to look at the situation carefully enough,
         to risk enough, to contribute enough effort, to hope enough,
         to undertake your project. And to recognize, given our
         vulnerability our finiteness, our fundamental ignorance --
         we may well have it wrong. We may have to back off. We
         may have to change not only how we're doing it, but doing
         it at all. And then do so! Tentative commitment becomes an
         essential individual and group condition for engaging a
         world where we don't know what we are talking about.

        "Suggestion six, then, is to be 'context alert' as a moral,
         and operational necessity. Among other things, this carries
         a very radical implication, given the current hype about
         the information society that promises to put us in touch
         with practically infinite amounts of information. That is,
         if you are context alert you can only be deeply
         understanding of very few things. Because it takes time to
         and effort to dig and to check and to deal with other
         people who have different value priorities . This means
         there are only a few things that you can be up on at any
         given time. But this is a very serious unsolved, indeed
         unformulated, challenge for effective participation in the
         democratic process--whatever that might mean..

        "Number seven: One must be a learner/teacher, a guide in the
         wilderness. Be question-askers all the time, not answer

        "Number eight again echoes the great religious traditions
         (all of which recognized our essential ignorance): practice
         compassion. Given the circumstances I have described,
         facing life requires all the compassion we can bring to
         others, as well as to ourselves. Be as self-conscious as
         possible, as much of the time as possible, and thereby
         recognize that we all live in illusion, we all live in
         ignorance, we all search for and need meaning. We all need
         help facing that reality and that help goes by the name of
         practicing compassion.

        "The blind must care for the blind."

    Posting to pcp-discuss@lanl.gov from "Norman K. McPhail" <norm@socal.wanet.com>

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