I recently said: Everything we do with intention is not systemic. I can’t really remember in what context I said it but I remember that I was surprised myself when hearing me say that. So here a bit of an exploration of this statement.
If we do something intentionally, we do it on purpose, consciously. I think. We do it because we expect a certain reaction. We turn the light switch so the light turns on. Or we add sugar to a cake so it gets sweet. These are banal examples of course, as they are fairly obvious. Yet we generally use the same way of thinking for more complex problems. We buy electric cars to reduce our carbon footprints. We do it with one particular causal connection in mind, but often ignore all the other causal connections that are also attached to that decision.
Of course I have to quote Gregory Bateson again here, who in different places wrote about consciousness and it’s inability to capture the complexity of complex living systems: “Purposive consciousness pulls out, from the total mind, sequences which do not have the loop structure which is characteristic of the whole systemic structure.” (Bateson 1972:440) (remember that for Bateson, the meaning of ‘mind’ is much broader than just what’s in our heads, we could say that every living system has mind-like characteristics). I know I have used this quote a lot, but it is so fascinating how often one can observe exactly this behaviour.
A few years ago, I talked to an academic from a well-known University who was leading a team in evaluating a massive USAID-funded programme in Uganda. She explained their methodology to me, how they plan to evaluate the systemic effects of the programme. It was an evaluation that was not only assessing what worked at the end of the programme, but was involved from the beginning in co-developing the programme’s systemic change framework. First of all, they developed massive causal loop maps of the system the programme was attempting to change (I think it was some or other agricultural value chain). From these maps, they chose the leverage points where the programme would focus its interventions. The way they chose them was because they wanted to see certain effects, like increased income for smallholder farmers. In order to evaluate whether an intervention worked, the evaluation team would then take the arc of the causal loop that led from the leverage point where the intervention happened to the target variable the programme was aiming at. Let’s say the leverage point is working capital and the target variable is ‘smallholder income’, then the team would take the arc of the causal loop that led from ‘more working capital for small holders’ to ‘higher smallholder income.’ The evaluation would then try to establish whether the income really increased and if the causal chain was indeed what was driving that increase. So they literally took a small arc from a larger circle, essentially ignoring or at least giving less priority to the loops in the system and to the other causal connections of that particular variable.
This story almost seems constructed as what they do is exactly what Batson warned about: that the purposive consciousness pulls out of the total system map (the loop diagram - and to be very clear: that is only a map, not even close to the actual system) sequences which do not have the loop structure characteristic for the overall system (i.e. results chains).
In other words: when we act intentionally (i.e., we do something because we want to achieve something), we act based on linear snippets pulled out of maps that themselves only crudely represent the actual system. This can hardly be called systemic.
But our intentional activities still have a systemic effect, right? Even if we might not consciously find the right causal link, something will happen in the system. Yet there is a large chance we get what will change wrong. So what we need to do is to use small, safe-to-fail experiments rather than large scale interventions from the beginning. Let’s experiment with aiding a few farmers with their working capital and see what happens before building a massive access to finance programme. And maybe we can do some other things apart from access to finance to see whether those have interesting effects, too. That’s where the whole idea of an experimental approach, that I myself often argue for, has come from. We might have an intention but because we don’t know the complexity of the system we need to experiment, we need to probe the system, see what changes, react, adjust, learn.
Yet the problem with intention lies deeper. Bateson warns (Bateson 1972b:145f):
What the unaided consciousness (unaided by art, dreams, and the like) can never appreciate is the systemic nature of mind.
In a word, the unaided consciousness must always involve man in the sort of stupidity of which evolution was guilty when she urged upon the dinosaurs the commonsense values of an armaments race. She inevitably realized her mistake a million years later and wiped them out.
Unaided consciousness must always tend toward hate; not only because it is good common sense to exterminate the other fellow, but for the more profound reason that, seeing only arcs of circuits, the individual is continually surprised and necessarily angered when his hardheaded policies return to plague the inventor.
If you use DDT to kill insects, you may succeed in reducing the insect population so far that the insectivores will starve. You will then have to use more DDT than before to kill the insects which the birds no longer eat. More probably, you will kill off the birds in the first round when they eat the poisoned insects. If the DDT kills off the dogs, you will have to have more police to keep down the burglars. The burglars will become better armed and more cunning … and so on.
That is the sort of world we live in—a world of circuit structures—and love can survive only if wisdom (i.e., a sense or recognition of the fact of circuitry) has an effective voice.
So what Bateson argues for, I think, is that we need to aid our intentionality by connecting it to a deeper, unconscious place like “art, dreams and the like” – and, I would add, to the body and it’s ability to connect to the unconscious (see the Paper Museum below, too). Something that increases the possibilities for people to access other realms of reasoning than the ones that are notoriously linear.
What does this all mean? I’m not sure. I’m still figuring it out.
Bateson, Gregory. 1972a. “Conscious Purpose versus Nature.” In_Steps to an Ecology of Mind_, by Gregory Bateson. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
———. 1972b. “Style, Grace, and Information in Primitive Art.” In_Steps to an Ecology of Mind_, by Gregory Bateson. Chicago and London: The University of Chicago Press.
Richard Kaerney on imagination:
… imagination as I understand it – but also as Aristotle and even Kant understood it (therefore both the classical and the modern interpretation of imagination) – is an indispensable bridge between the sensible (the body) and the intelligible (the mind).
Why have I added this to my Paper Museum? This links to my emails from last week and from the week before (and actually, to the above). It talks about imagination and it talks about it being something embodied. I’ll dig deeper into the article to find out more. This quote was actually mentioned by Philip Shepherd during last week’s training.
Reference: Gonçalo, Marcelo. 2017. “Narrative and Recognition in the Flesh: An Interview with Richard Kearney.” Philosophy & Social Criticism 43 (8): 777–92.https://doi.org/10.1177/0191453716688367.
The much over-used Obesity System Influence Diagram (Source)