Re: [pcp-discuss:] The Missing Elephant

From: Igor Tsigelny (
Date: Tue Sep 12 2000 - 22:46:43 BST

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    Hi Norman,

    I recalled that you are also in San Diego.
    Maybe we can meet and talk sometimes here :)
    I cannot force myself to do that written discussions.
    I am a publisher and would like to form my plan for 2002.
    I would like to include there cybernetics and systems books.
    Maybe you would be able to help.

    Igor Tsigelny

    ----- Original Message -----
    From: Norman K. McPhail <norm@SOCAL.WANET.COM>
    To: <>
    Sent: Monday, September 11, 2000 1:54 PM
    Subject: [pcp-discuss:] The Missing Elephant

    > Michael
    > [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.
    > NKM]
    > "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
    > about.
    > "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
    > comprehended.
    > "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
    > later.
    > "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
    > generators.'
    > "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
    > on.
    > "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
    > group.
    > "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
    > space.
    > "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
    > understand?
    > "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
    > need)
    > "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
    > givers.
    > "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 from "Norman K. McPhail"

    Posting to from "Igor Tsigelny" <>

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