Towards a Spirituality of Complexity

Complexity theory has numerous key concepts with spiritual implications. Perhaps none is so important as the relationship between whole and part. As described by Koestler’s concept of holons, molecules are holons within tissues, tissues holons within organs, organs holons within bodily systems, the body within the human self, the self within the family, the family within the culture, the culture within global culture, humanity within the planetary ecosystem, etc. Logically we must reach the point of a universal holon, which alone is not contained by anything wider. In spiritual language this might be called the All or the One (God, Brahma, etc.). But it need not have a name with religious connotations. David Bohm, a physicist, calls it something like the ground of what is.

At each step in the progression, distinctive properties emerge, characteristic of the encompassing holon but not found in the lower ones―at least insofar as these are separate from the greater ones which encompass them. For example, mind is said to be an emergent property of body. Yet, though it can be argued that mind does not arise at the level of molecule, tissue, or organ (presumably arising at the level of neural system), there is no doubt that, within the integrated organism, mind exerts effects on all levels. That is, no part of the (at least properly functioning) human being can be truly independent of mind.

This invites us to ask, what properties might emerge at the level of humanity as a whole, or of global ecosystem (e.g. Gaia), or of universal All or One? Such properties, like mind itself, might not be readily perceptible in a physical manner.

Thus we come to the question of spirit and matter. Complexity, as a western science, tends to take a materialistic view. In this view, matter exists first. Thus, the parts come into being before the whole. When atoms combine into molecules, new properties emerge. (The properties of water are nothing like those of hydrogen or oxygen.) Similarly, tissues carry out more complex functions than molecules, organs than tissues, and so on. The crucial thing is that, as parts combine, wholes come into being, and with those wholes emergent properties arise.

Spirituality tends to view things the other way around. Creation doesn’t arise from nothing, or even from matter, but through the agency of a creator (who is often presumed to be omniscient, etc.). It may be that the higher qualities inherent in the creator emerge in the creation over time, but the creator, after all, transcends time. Time may be seen as merely the vehicle for the unfolding of divine wisdom, which precedes time (if such a notion even makes sense!). Note that Bohm takes a more spiritual view in his description of the implicate order, so that causality tends to emerge from the context of the greater whole, rather than from the more explicate, separate part (though the two are always in intimate relationship, with feedback from the explicate to implicate). This is probably the main reason why most physicists shy away from Bohm’s theory of the implicate order.

It is not clear that a practical understanding of complexity actually needs to choose between the two alternatives. After all, it is one thing to observe that things emerge, and quite another to say exactly how it is that they happen to do so. Describing is not explaining. For example, even those neuro-scientists who most fervently believe that mind emerges from brain are very hard pressed to say exactly how this comes about. Perhaps it is enough (or even better) to say that, in complex systems, parts tend to function within integrated wholes (those parts tends to be influenced by the wholes within which they subsist), and that wholes may arise from the conjoining of parts (and be influenced by the natures of the parts of which they are constituted). Instead of asking, “Do parts create wholes or do wholes create parts?” we might say that parts and wholes are mutually co-creative.

Of course, such an observation has spiritual implications. If we are parts within the universal All, does that mean that we are co-creators with God (or the universe, or whatever)? Perhaps so, especially given that many spiritual beliefs ascribe free will to human beings. Further, free will might be seen as a specific case, peculiar to rational beings, of a more universal characteristic of complex systems known as self-organization, or autopoiesis. In this way, even the lowliest level of entity (extending to the quarks, etc. of the quantum level) might possesses some degree of self-determination (and even of rudimentary consciousness, according to Varela and Maturana, as well as Bohm), or at least lack of total compulsion or determination. (Note that causality and determination are not the same. If a cause produces a probabilistic effect, that is non-deterministic. If a cause produces a necessary effect, that is deterministic.)

Again, we come upon theological implications. How does the above square with ideas of predestination? Thinkers such as Thomas Aquinas have held that predestination does not imply that God makes every choice. Rather, He is said to grant agency to nature to unfold according to its way of being, having created that way of being. And He grants free agency to human beings, even to the extent of allowing them to turn away from the Good. Of course, these thoughts only touch upon the complexities of theological debate, yet they allow us to conjecture that the implications of a spirituality of complexity may be in keeping with some forms of ideas such as predestination which, at first glance, would seem to run counter to them. That is, the idea that things are shaped by God (predestination) and by us (free will) squares well with a complex systems view that the whole shapes the parts and the parts shape the whole.

We could go into similar investigations with regard to all the world’s religions. Suffice it to say, however, that the attributes of the divine amongst most if not all of them would seem to be congruent with those of a spirituality of complexity. The Tao, for example, is said to be undefinable, yet to be the Way of all things. YHWH, God, Allah, Brahma, and Buddha Nature are likewise beyond our capacity to fully grasp, yet we are made in their image, are drops in their ocean, or find that our inmost nature is of their essence. As to how this might relate to complexity, perhaps we can say that, to the molecule, the tissue is a mystery, to the tissue the organ, etc. We cannot fully grasp, by means of the capacities of a lower holon, the emergent properties of a higher one. Yet in some way we can still know these properties because we are also formed by them (and so they are part of our basic nature), just as the influence of the mind extends even to the intracellular level of the organism.

Again, though the spiritual implications of complexity may largely square with the key ideas of most religions, we should be clear that they do not require any religious interpretation (or validation). Certainly Bohm presents his idea of the implicate order in an entirely scientific manner, beginning with an interpretation of quantum theory that differs from the Copenhagen interpretation of Bohr, Heisenberg, and others. Bohm was also a student of Einstein, who had similar misgivings about the Copenhagen interpretation. The root issue, for them (and for others, such as Gödel), was whether science can be ontological (describe what actually is) or only epistemological (that is, our knowing can never extend to the basic nature of things). This is a wonderful question! My point is just that it is a scientific question, which can be pursued entirely as such. Whether or not one wants to bring any religious beliefs to it hardly changes the nature of the scientific debate, and is purely a matter of personal predilection.

In the final analysis, the fundamental lesson of both spirituality and complexity may be that we are all connected―both to one another and within the greater whole. Every religion in some way states the golden rule. We are exhorted to love our neighbors as ourselves because, in a very real sense, our neighbors are ourselves, by virtue of the fact that we all partake of the essence of the same overarching holon(s). Agnostics and atheists also tend to espouse such an ethic, though it may be rooted in neo-Darwinian ideas. Either way, this is also a two-way street. Our responsibility must extend beyond ourselves, so we have a duty to choose the greater good, live in accord with the Tao, follow our Buddha Nature, etc. For, as co-creators, our intentions, choices, and actions are not insignificant within the universal unfolding. On the contrary, since everything is interrelated within the overarching context of the One or All, every action reverberates throughout the entire extent of the All. This brings us to the topic of an ethics of complexity.

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Towards an Ethics of Complexity

An ethics of complexity begins with the relationship of holon to surrounding whole. As a self-contained holon, we pursue a good that is particular to ourselves. As a holon amongst many, within an encompassing wholeness, we move to a dance that is orchestrated, so to speak, from above. The emphasis of most spiritual beliefs is on doing God’s will, abandoning ego, following the Tao, etc. Yet it is also held that our inmost self is Buddha Nature, the Tao, or the activating grace of God. Thus, it is presumed that our inmost selves can (and should) be wholly in harmony with the encompassing All or One. From a non-religious perspective, we are still rooted in a wider context, including human society and the natural environment. Thus, we should be responsible to one another and to our common planet.

This squares nicely with the understandings of complexity theory, which would seem to imply a kind of ecological ethic. That is, the shark, by eating smaller fishes, accomplishes two goods. One is “egotistic”―it feeds itself. The other is systemic―it keeps populations of smaller fish under control and even contributes to the survival of the fittest by culling the ones that are easiest to catch. It is important to note that, though populations of organisms within ecosystems undergo cycles of boom and bust, and the make-up of species within ecosystems transitions over time, there tends to be an inherent stability of the whole that is maintained, while at the same time the needs of each species and individual are largely met (or they soon cease to be!).

The lesson for us as human beings is that we don’t, in general, need to make a choice between serving God (or following the Tao, or being responsible social and planetary citizens) or serving our egotistical lower natures. However, it can be a trick to do both, simultaneously and well. And, if we find ourselves in a situation where only one can truly be met, the greater good would seem to lie with the greater whole.

The ideal situation, for example, would be to eat enough to satisfy our bodily needs. Not too much (gluttony), nor too little (starving and harming our body―God’s temple for the soul). We can follow the Middle Way. However, what if there is not enough food to go around? This is a situation humans have often experienced. Laurens van der Post tells of an encounter with the San or Bushmen of the Kalahari. In the midst of a drought, his expedition came across a party nearing the end of their endurance. Far behind them (but within reach of the expedition’s Land Rovers) were an old couple. They had insisted on being left behind, when it became apparent that, by slowing the progress of the whole party to the next waterhole, they were endangering everyone in the group. Such behavior is documented in many cultures. It certainly makes ecological sense.

However, a thorny issue arises. Would it have been ethical for the younger San to force the older ones to stay behind, or even to abandon them to their own fate by simply walking faster? This is where the ecological parallel fails us. To understand why, we need to recall the concept of emergence.

Distinctive properties emerge at higher levels of organization. The property of free will, for example, would seem to belong to beings possessing fully rational natures, but not to those without. This is why the law, for instance, does not penalize those (such as the mentally handicapped or very young children) who do not appreciate the consequences of their crimes. In that an ecosystem lacks reason, it cannot model an ethics that is applicable to reasoning beings. The critical feature here is free will. The old San couple chose to stay behind. They were not forced to, nor were they callously abandoned. On the contrary, they were thanked and revered for their sacrifice. Free will would seem to be a central feature of human ethics, in that we have to be responsible for our own choices, and for the extent to which these balance our egotistical needs with the good of the encompassing whole.

As noted previously, all religions—as well as most agnostic or atheistic belief systems—seem to adhere to some version of the golden rule. We are told to love our neighbors as ourselves. Again, we are led to a capacity that seems to be more developed in humans than in other animals―empathy. We have the ability to put ourselves in another’s place, to walk a mile in his or her moccasins. Thus, we differ from the shark in two ways. First, we understand when we are doing a systemic good (or ill). Second, we feel the consequences of our actions when we put ourselves in the place of another. Thus, our uniquely human capacity to be exquisitely aware of the whole is made possible by highly developed capacities of thinking and of feeling.

To “stand under” another human being is to see the world as he or she does. To “feel in” (empathy), “suffer with” (compassion), or “feel together” (sympathy), is to feel the world as another does. Only through these activities can we appreciate the systemic goods (or ills) we are doing (or contemplating), and weigh them against our personal goods. Thus, only through understanding and compassion can we make truly free decisions.

Free, in this sense, doesn’t so much mean without compulsion from God or some higher authority. More deeply, it means without compulsion from the tyranny of the ego, whose needs are trumpeted so incessantly and loudly. We have to exert effort (thus, free willing or exertion) to listen to the voices of reason and empathy. Therefore, the cultivation through regular practice of our capacities of understanding and compassion (what the Buddhists call mindfulness, Christians call caritas, etc.) would seem to be an ethical imperative. (Buddhism, by the way, is an atheistic religion.)

What might such a practice entail? The common denominator, across spiritual practices from many traditions, would seem to be attention, but of a deep and peaceful sort. We go through our days giving a great deal of attention to many things, but often in a superficial way. We are pulled in so many directions that we sometimes fail to take in, or make meaning of, what is right before us. Perhaps this is what is meant by needing to become “those who have ears to hear, and eyes to see.” Such deeper, richer, fuller attention can be practiced in many types of meditation, contemplation, and prayer. (Again, this need not be theistic, as in the case of Buddhism, or even religious, as in the case of secular mindfulness practices.) Through such inner practice, we become more able to attend to the others we encounter in our daily lives. Given the imperative to cultivate such attention in order to act ethically, some sort of regular inner practice (which would, in turn, support mindfulness in our interactions) seems essential.

Religions, despite their wide variety, tend to be fairly uniform in their ethical injunctions: don’t steal, don’t kill, don’t cheat and lie, etc. These all boil down to not harming others, to treating others as we would ourselves be treated. An ethics of complexity, in which the needs of the individual holon must be balanced and harmonized with those of the greater whole, comes to much the same conclusion. It does so by making us aware that our conscious choices must take into account seemingly disparate (and sometimes indeed conflicting) goods, on the levels of self and whole, in the same way that the shark’s unconscious choices harmonize self-interest with ecological benefit.

However, while sharks are ecologically ethical through unconscious instinct, our acts are only ethical when informed by the highest capacities of our consciousness. An ethics of complexity calls us to be fully awake to and aware of ourselves, of others, and of the interlinked complexities within every situation we face.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Communication, Information & Learning

Some of the best ways to influence systemic integration and harmonization involve communication (based on perception), information, and learning. One might say that, with communication, we are looking at how signals get sent (speaking) while, with perception, we are looking at how they are received (listening).

Perception

Think of the way our sense perceptions help us function. As we move, we continually receive feedback from our visual system, informing us of our position relative to where we are going. Are we getting close, or further? We do the same thing with things coming toward us. Will they hit us, or miss us? Bats and dolphins use sound in the same way. But we also perceive with more than our five senses. We have organs of balance, and our proprioception brings us awareness of our bodily movements—not relative to outer things but from within. We also have drives or impulses, such as hunger, thirst, sexual desire, fear, anger, and love. Such things seem very deeply rooted and instinctive.

Other perceptions, on the emotional level, are not quite so deeply rooted but are nonetheless highly influential. Emotional responses are generally either sympathetic or antipathetic. We either like something or dislike it. We are attracted or put off. Therefore emotions are critical to how we respond and behave. Such responses can be triggered by sense perceptions, such as smells, and are also associated with our deeper impulses. Finally, when we conceptualize, we may be said to be perceiving our own thoughts. The way in which thoughts arise is mysterious; perhaps the closest we get to directly experiencing this process is in meditation.

Many of our experiences of perception can be generalized to other complex systems. All such systems “perceive” in some manner(s). Since perception is so basic to the way complex systems function (the processes they engage in and the feedback involved in those processes), developing increased sensitivity can powerfully influence the way these systems work, and therefore their wellbeing.

Communication

Communication is the indispensable means of spreading information within the system. In human societies, we are continually giving one another negative feedback in accord with accepted social mores. If you walk down the street naked, you’ll get some stares and some shocked expressions. Much of the feedback we give is not even conscious, either to the giver or receiver. We communicate this feedback through pheromones, body language, facial expression, gesture, and tone of voice as well as the meaning of our words. Communication is also essential to positive or amplifying feedback. Teachers know that the class clown thrives off the laughter of his peers. The more they laugh, the more he’ll clown, and the more he clowns the more they’ll laugh.

We communicate on every level on which individuals perceive their wider environment. For people, this means at least through sense perception, impulse, emotion, and idea. Since communication is so key to all manner of processes and feedback, it’s extremely helpful to identify the types of communication your system uses, both internally and with the wider environment. Strengthening and improving the quality of communication can greatly assist the integration and harmonization of a complex system.

Flows of Information, Idea, Impulse, and Emotion in Human Systems

Flows in human systems are not limited to physical matter and energy. Flows of seeming intangibles such as information, impulse, emotion, and idea are no less real, and perhaps even more critical. Like the flows of energy and matter, these flows can be both helpful and destructive, so understanding (and sometimes regulating) them is essential for cultivating systemic wellbeing.

Information as facts or data is extremely important. Without enough (and accurate enough) information, we can’t choose those courses of action that will be most effective and beneficial. Within certain social contexts (and perhaps particularly in crowds), people make different―and sometimes morally inferior―choices than they otherwise would. The influence of peer pressure is widely appreciated.

For many, the hallmark of humanity is our capacity for abstract reasoning. In human systems, the slow change of biological evolution has been superseded by the rapid spread of discoveries and ideas. New ideas can lead to revolutionary changes in any area of human endeavor. However, the consequences of such change are usually not anticipated. Less than three centuries ago, at the beginning of the industrial revolution, few would have imagined that our use of fossil fuels would have altered the climate of the planet and imperiled our collective future. Attempting to dam the flow of ideas seems both hopeless and counterproductive. Therefore some means of optimizing the flow of ideas within human systems―with a view towards potential impacts―would appear to be essential.

While we tend to equate information with thinking, impulse and emotion are also conveyors of information. The word impulse can characterize a broad range of aspects of will, such as desire, urge, duty, or aspiration. In human social systems, these are regularly communicated and can spread infectiously, with either positive or negative effects. Flows of human impulses may be sluggish, chaotic, or toxic, so means of regulating them are essential for systemic health.

Emotions are also highly communicable, and can be helpful or destructive; sluggish (repressed) or chaotic and turbulent. Emotions are also important in decision-making. It is widely assumed that emotions cloud judgment and interfere with good decision-making. However, where the emotional center in the brain is damaged, decision-making becomes extremely arduous. With no good reason to prefer a blue pen to a black one, a person can remain paralyzed while trying to decide which one to use. The ramifications of any particular path of action may carry so many unknowns―even in apparently simple situations―that no best choice emerges from reason alone. Intuitions or hunches step in to guide our actions. Emotions are also extremely communicable, with either positive or negative effects. Thus, the healthy regulation of emotional flows in human systems is important.

Learning

What do we mean by learning? Complex systems “learn” (and adapt and evolve) in many ways. A micro-organism that is exposed to a toxic substance “learns” to avoid it. The explanation may be purely (or mostly) chemical, but clearly some type of learning has taken place. Our immune system “learns” to recognize and respond to invaders. This is a trial and error process—no understanding is involved.

Such learning is an aid to adaptation and evolution. A system in distress may grow more turbulent and start to explore diverse possibilities. Nobel laureate Barbara McClintock exposed corn plants to environmental stressors, such as drought. The plants started to “shuffle” their genetic material, as we would a deck of cards. Gene segments (which McClintock called “jumping genes”) literally moved from one place to another on the chromosome. This produced all sorts of new combinations, a few of which might help the plants to weather a drought. One or more of these beneficial adaptations could then spread through natural selection.

As people (and in the human social systems we inhabit) we do our own share of trial and error learning—“throwing a bunch of stuff on the wall to see what sticks.” Thomas Edison’s methodical experimentation with hundreds of types of light bulb filaments is perhaps a case in point. But, even in this example, Edison had no doubt ruled out thousands of highly unlikely substances beforehand. Just so, as human beings, we use our information and intelligence to make informed guesses that, in turn, help us learn and adapt more quickly and effectively.

But, for that matter, what do we mean by intelligence? Certainly we have become much more aware that people with high levels of social and emotional intelligence can be more effective leaders and decision-makers. Similarly, human organizations can be more or less “intelligent,” in a variety of ways. Access to quantifiable data is a good thing. The ability to evaluate it without bias is even better.

On the other hand, qualitative “data” (or information) is extremely useful. New office furniture may be affordable and durable. But, if it’s aesthetically unpleasing to employees and customers, is it really a good investment? As people—and as organizations—we must become adept at utilizing all the types of learning at our disposal, in order to adapt to changing conditions and continually grow and evolve. Complexity theory helps us to do so by understanding the importance of sensitive perception, effective communication amongst various parts of the system, the gathering of all types of information, and the employment of all modes of learning.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

 

 

Parts, Wholes & Feedback

Introduction

When you were a child, did you ever play the game of “Pooh Sticks,” where players drop a stick into a stream from the upstream side of a bridge, then race to the other side to see which stick has come out ahead? If so, you might remember that you can never tell for sure who’s going to win. What you wouldn’t have known are the reasons: that the sticks are interacting with the complex system of the river and that complex systems are inherently unpredictable.

Now let’s alter the game a little bit, so it illustrates what a complex system is. Imagine a bridge over a waterfall. Now imagine that you have 100 identical sticks, which you drop from the exact same position on the bridge, from the exact same height, with no wind blowing, and no other factors that would influence the outcome. Given that the currents in the stream go over the same rocks and drop down at the same angles, you might think that the sticks will all come out at exactly the same place below the waterfall, and that they’ll take the same amount of time to get there. In fact, they’ll come out in any number of places, taking more or less time to emerge. Furthermore, even under such strictly controlled conditions, it’s impossible to predict just where or when any particular stick will come out. What you can find, however, is probability: a 32% chance that a given stick will come out here, a 17% chance that it will come out over there; a 26% chance that it will take under 12 seconds to emerge on the other side of the bridge, a 29% chance that it will emerge between 12 and 18 seconds; and so on.

The game of Pooh Sticks takes place within a complex physical system. Though not all physical systems are complex, many are, such as the way a flag ripples in the breeze, or the rate at which drops of water drip from a leaky faucet. Each of these systems seems simple, yet involves numerous interacting objects and forces. And, though these are entirely physical, the behavior of the whole is more than the sum of its constituent parts. Furthermore, all living systems―all organisms and ecosystems―are complex. And the vast majority of human social systems are complex. Thus, complex systems are extremely important in our lives.

Every complex system, from a whirlpool to a bacterium to “you as an individual” or “the planet we all call home” follows certain laws. But, as with Pooh Sticks, the exact behavior of these systems (as we all experience in our daily lives; think about weather forecasts) can’t be known in advance. Such systems are constantly adapting and evolving in response to changing conditions both without and within. Complexity theory is the new science that describes the way complex systems work and the laws they follow.

As we begin to understand the complex systems in our lives more fully, the kinds of choices we make within those systems become more creative, effective, and beneficial.

Holism

A complex system is a whole that is more than the sum of its parts.

A machine may be complicated, but it is not complex. The way it functions is simply the manner in which the assembled parts work together in a prescribed and relatively invariant way (at least until something breaks, in which case you simply repair or replace the defective part). Complex systems don’t work that way.

Think of an ecosystem. Each organism, as well as the matter (rocks, water, air, etc.) and energy (sunlight, heat, chemical reactions, etc.) in the system, may be described as a part. But these parts are continually interacting with one another, their populations or amounts are fluctuating, and they are adapting and evolving. Each part of the system, as well as the system as a whole, is engaged in creative and transformative change. This change proceeds in two directions: The activities of the parts contribute to the nature of the whole, and the whole contributes to the development of the parts.

Take yourself as an example. As an individual, together with others, you contribute to your family, the social groups you’re a part of, and society as a whole. In turn, you are influenced and shaped by the groups (complex systems) around you.

Let’s look closely at an ecosystem as an example. Barrier reefs are built by coral polyps—tiny colonial animals that live symbiotically with one-celled marine algae. The algae, which grow through photosynthesis, live inside the corals, which draw nutrients from the algae. Coral polyps also capture tiny shrimp, plankton, and other small organisms in their tentacles. When the polyps die, they leave behind hard limestone structures. These structures separate open ocean from a sheltered lagoon, within which a wide variety of creatures—fish, sponges, jellyfish, anemones, crustaceans, turtles, sea snakes, snails, mollusks, and many others—make their homes. Some organisms, such as crabs and moray eels, live in crevices of the reef itself. For barrier reefs to form, numerous conditions (such as water depth, temperature, clarity, and purity) must be met. Growing over the course of many years, barrier reefs help to create complex, abundant, and highly diverse ecosystems.

In a barrier reef and its accompanying lagoon, what is (a) an example of the part contributing to the nature of the whole? What is (b) an example of the whole contributing to the parts? (Sometimes the two are difficult to distinguish!)

  • Top predators such as rays, eels, and small or juvenile sharks help keep the populations of many species of fish and other prey in check. (a)
  • Because of the richness of the ecosystem, the coral polyps benefit from the abundance of shrimp, plankton, and other small creatures. (b)
  • The waters of the lagoon are much calmer than those of nearby beaches with no coral barriers, providing a sheltered habitat for many species. (b)
  • Photosynthesizers such as algae, plankton, and anemones form the basis of a rich and complex food web. (a)
  • Because of the complex diversity of the ecosystem, populations of all species are less likely to experience cycles of extreme boom and bust. (b)
  • Crevices and narrow passageways within the reef provide safe refuge for myriad members of smaller species. (a and/or b!)

Wholes and Fragments

What looks like a whole system may really be a collection of fragments. Fragmented wholes come in two varieties:

  • A whole may split into parts, in such a way that the parts cease to function fruitfully together. Long before a divorce is finalized, even while the partners are still living in the same house, they may be living separate lives.
  • Parts that really don’t belong together may be artificially joined. We’ve all been the outsider at times, flung into a social group that has its own deep history and intricate web of unspoken understandings. In time we may become a true part of that group, but in the beginning it is painfully obvious that we don’t belong in the same way that the others do.

Members and Relationships

All systems are comprised of various parts, components, or members but complex systems are distinguished by the relationships amongst their members, which adapt and change over time. Even the members themselves tend to change over time. Generally speaking, relationships can be characterized according to three criteria:

  • Strength (stronger or weaker)
  • Equality (more or less equal)
  • Benefit (mutually beneficial or harmful, beneficial or harmful to one but not the other, or neutral to one or both)

Natural systems may exhibit all sorts of relationships, but even apparently adversarial ones (as between predator and prey) tend to be mutually beneficial and supportive to the balance and well-being of the whole.

Negative Feedback

Complex systems invariably exhibit feedback, whereby the effects of the system or one of its elements are communicated back, thereby altering the system or element itself. Both negative (damping or limiting) and positive (amplifying or encouraging) feedback are characteristic of complex systems.

The primary way in which complex systems maintain dynamic stability is through various types of negative feedback. Despite how it sounds, then, negative feedback is usually a good thing! The word negative just means that tendencies of the system to become extreme are held in check.

A thermostat is a mechanical system that employs negative feedback. It kicks the furnace on when the temperature gets too low, then shuts it off when the temperature rises too high, keeping the house within a zone of optimal comfort.

The key to this system of regulation is the thermostat’s ability to detect fluctuations in temperature. We find such sensitivity to both internal and external conditions in all complex systems. We also find that diversity in a system helps assure that there is enough constructive feedback to maintain the stability of the system.

Negative feedback is based on relationship. Our planet works to maintain the atmospheric balance between oxygen and carbon dioxide, which is dependent on the interrelated activities of plants and animals. Through complex systems of negative feedback loops, it recycles minerals and nutrients, maintains diversity, and enhances stability within ecosystems

An adequate level of diversity in turn helps assure that there is enough constructive feedback within the system to maintain a healthy balance. In ecosystems with low diversity, a comparatively few species are present or dominant. Their interrelationships may be very strong but, because they are few in number, the health of one species can be inordinately affected by a disease or event that significantly reduces the numbers of another. This means that the system as a whole is more prone to instability or even collapse.

In human communities it is also true that an adequate level of diversity helps assure sufficient constructive feedback within the system. As a general rule, adequate levels of diversity stimulate redundant feedback mechanisms, which in turn stabilize human cultures.

On the other hand, some exceptionally strong relationships such as marriages are quite limited in the number of their members. The stability of such a relational system derives from the strength of the relationships and the intensity of feedback between the members. It is also true that, as spouses come to know each other more and more deeply, the types of feedback they can offer one another become increasingly diverse. Thus, increased intimacy yields more diverse knowledge, which tends to contribute to systemic stability.

Positive Feedback

Positive feedback amplifies (rather than limits) systemic behaviors. Global warming is example of positive feedback. Higher temperatures melt icecaps, which lowers the earth’s albedo (the ability of white surfaces to reflect heat rather than absorb it, thereby keeping the planet cooler) and leads to higher temperatures, and so on in an escalating loop.

In human systems, positive feedback loops are sometimes termed vicious cycles. The sensitivity and listening that is characteristic of negative feedback is sadly missing in escalating arguments. I hurt your feelings, you hurt mine back, and soon we’re not speaking for days.

In human social systems, positive feedback loops also feed strife along racial, ethnic, and religious fault lines. These cycles of hurtful and inflammatory behavior are often characterized by a hostile and adversarial tone rather than respectful dialogue (sensitivity and listening) as the basis for mutual collaboration.

Thus, positive feedback (despite the name) often leads toward chaos and instability. However, positive feedback is not always bad. Virtuous cycles also exist. For example, a child takes its first wobbly steps into the arms of a smiling mother and is encouraged to try some more. Sometimes old systems must die or be destroyed so that new ones can take root.

Moreover, periods of turbulence can give complex systems the means to change and adapt. For example, a worsening drought causes corn plants to “shuffle” their genes, which helps them come up with drought-resistant combinations. Thus, positive feedback can be essential for survival.

Positive feedback can also be built into a system’s normal course of development. Adolescence, with its extensive physiological, hormonal, psychological, and neurological changes, is a time of positive feedback, full of turmoil and struggle. Yet adolescence is not an illness. It is a time of vast brain “re-wiring,” a necessary period of transformation on the path to maturity.

When systems have alternating periods of stability (usually longer) and chaos (usually more brief), they are displaying intermittence. We tend to be afraid of chaos; we try to avoid it. Yet, remembering nature’s frequent use of intermittence can help us see chaotic periods as opportunities for growth and change.

Sometimes such change can be dramatic. The butterfly effect, which says that a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can theoretically lead to a tornado in Texas, is no myth. Positive feedback is the mechanism that allows the butterfly effect to happen, allowing changes to ripple out incrementally, until they reach a tipping point and start to snowball.

The changes that spread in this fashion may be hurricanes or other disasters. But they may also bring about renewal and rejuvenation. By helping new innovations spread rapidly, positive feedback becomes the agent of creative, transformative change.

Qualitative Aspects of Feedback in Human Systems

In human systems the effects of feedback may depend as much on the way it is given as the fact that it is given. For instance, a mother will naturally want to provide negative feedback by curbing her young child’s impulse to run blindly into the street. She might grab the child roughly, slap him, and berate him for being so stupid. Or she might firmly but gently restrain him, pointing to the cars and explaining that he could be hurt if they hit him. Technically, either course of action qualifies as negative feedback that aims to accomplish a systemic good. It may even be that the first way elicits more compliant behavior. (Machiavelli certainly made a persuasive case for the use of fear, cruelty, and deception.) But the qualities of the two methods make all the difference in the world to the child, and to the nature of the child’s continuing relationship with his mother.

People’s interactions are almost always qualitative, whether in terms of information, impulse, emotion, or idea. We commonly speak of the quality of information. The better it is, the better able we are to achieve a good outcome. Flow of information is a component of both negative and positive feedback.

Our desires, urges, and other impulses vary widely in quality. If you hit me, my first desire may be to strike back. Alternatively, I may understand why you did it, experience forgiveness, and desire to heal the rift between us. These two courses of negative feedback (attempting to address your egregious behavior) allow for starkly differing possibilities to unfold. Impulses such as hopes and aspirations are also key to many instances of positive feedback. Our achievements lead us closer to our goals, which in turn spurs us to redouble our efforts.

Our communication is almost always laden with emotional content. Consider the example of correcting the child running into the street (negative feedback). In the first case he experiences a tidal wave of anger, in the second a gentle swell of caring and concern. A leader can use our instinctive fear of the “Other” to keep us from seeing “aliens” as people who are much like ourselves. In a worst-case scenario, this may engender a spiraling cycle of positive feedback culminating in a campaign of genocide. Or she can appeal to our innate sense of generosity by encouraging us to welcome immigrants as valuable additions to our communities, which kindles a more beneficent cycle, in which the immigrants respond in kind. This in turn leads to increasing levels of mutual appreciation amongst diverse fellow citizens. Of course, it is possible that we will arrive at technically similar immigration policies through appeals to either fear or generosity. However, the way we get there makes a huge difference, because it feeds different emotional qualities that continue to resonate within our communities.

In the realm of ideas, we often experience “aha” moments. It’s not hard, then, to see the difference between a plausible concept and the ideal solution. When we come up with the latter, we can use positive feedback loops to spread helpful innovations. New ideas can also function as correctives (negative feedback) to previous conceptions that were incomplete or erroneous.

Feedback in human systems is always imbued with the qualitative aspects of our nature. Which aspects we choose to engender and communicate will play a critical role in the utility of the feedback we engage in.

If you enjoyed reading this, you might enjoy working with me on personal or organizational development. Explore this website to find further information on my approaches. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Areas of Special Expertise

Nonprofits and Public Benefit Corporations: I have considerable experience with a variety of nonprofits, as well as a great interest in public benefit corporations. Furthermore, I see tremendous potential in the development of collaborations between nonprofits and benefit corporations, in pursuit of common social and environmental goals. (For example, a benefit corporation interested in promoting a certain type of education could donate to a nonprofit school that is dedicated to this type of education. In turn, the school could encourage its families and students to patronize the benefit corporation.)

Education: I have extensive experience in the field of education, having served as a teacher, administrator, and board member with numerous schools. I have also worked with numerous public charter and district schools, as Co-Director of the Center for School Change. I am also a longtime instructor and senior fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Spirituality and Healing. My areas of greatest interest and expertise are:

  • Waldorf Education
  • Camphill Schools & Villages
  • Classical Education
  • Charter Schools
  • Small Colleges and Folk High Schools
  • Complex Systems Education
  • Teacher Mentoring & Evaluation
  • Curriculum Development
  • School Governance & Administration
  • Personalized Learning

Writing: If your organization is in need of temporary or ongoing writing services, I am experienced and accomplished in the following areas:

  • Grant Writing
  • Research
  • Marketing & Publicity
  • Editing

Tutoring & Test Preparation: I also work directly with students, in areas in which I have specific expertise (primarily in the humanities), or to help students prepare for upcoming tests, such as SATs and ACTs.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Leadership, Coaching & Mentoring in Organizations

My approach to leadership is described here.”  You don’t have to be in a position of authority to exercise leadership. Even if you are, it takes more than authority to make you a good leader. In organizations, I can work either with particular individuals to develop their leadership capacities, or work with groups (or whole organizations) to develop system-wide approaches to organizational effectiveness and diffused leadership.

Diffused leadership (see also Helpful Hierarchy)

Diffused leadership is context-dependent. It allows different people (or small groups) to flow in and out of leadership roles, in response to the needs of the current situation. But, even as an individual (or group) takes on a leadership role, diffused leadership recognizes that others in the group (or other groups) continue to have leadership responsibilities. Effective use of diffused leadership requires clarity about what sorts of decisions lie within the spheres of autonomy of various individuals (or groups), and what sorts require broader input or consensus.

Effective use of diffused leadership also requires very conscious differentiation between input and decision-making. Generally speaking, maximizing the input from a broad spectrum of stakeholders leads to better-informed decision-making. But only when the number of stakeholders is relatively small should all stakeholders be involved in overall decision-making. In large organizations, it’s best to delegate decision-making authority to manageable but inclusive groups, working in a transparent manner within clearly delineated areas of responsibility.  

Work with individuals and/or groups within an organization

I can work with both individuals and groups as a coach or a mentor—the latter only within areas in which I have considerable expertise. Such work can focus on leadership but it can also focus on other desired areas of growth and development.

Each person, group, and situation is unique, so I make arrangements to do leadership, coaching, and mentoring work only after an initial conversation with those concerned. In the event that those seeking my services are not the same as those who will be receiving those services, I only accept an engagement after meeting with both groups, to assure that both are receptive to the services I can offer.

Common types of services

(1) I can teach you (or small groups) the concepts and principles of epigenetics, complexity, etc., to enable you to better navigate the path ahead (that is, to find and unfold your organizational τέλος).

(2) I can work with you to carefully observe and describe the habits and behaviors of your organizational system. This can happen more narrowly or widely:

  • More narrowly, I can work just with one or more recognized leaders of the organization (and/or leaders of one or more groups within the organization). 
  • More widely, I can provide staff trainings, facilitate staff meetings, etc. 

Such activities involve me working with you and your staff to better understand the dynamics of your organizational system, but the observations of the system in action come mostly from you and your staff. (After all, you know it best.)

(3) I can also work within your organization. To enable me to observe your system more directly, you can embed me within your organization (in one or more roles) for an extended period of time. (Since I’m used to “seeing systems,” I may notice things that you and your staff might not.)

All of the above can be carried out in any combination, over shorter or longer periods of time, for the hours you specify. You decide what you want, and when.

My objectives

I have three main aims (which are always interrelated) and one ultimate goal:

  • Build healthy systems. I’ll help you better align the sub-systems within your organization.
  • Work smarter, not harder. I’ll help you increase the effectiveness and timeliness of your responses to the things the world throws at you (factors and forces outside of your organization).
  • Maximize the collective intelligence of your system. In your organization, the whole should be greater than the sum of the parts. If that’s not happening, things are out of alignment, and you’re not actualizing your organizational potential.
  • My ultimate goal is to put myself out of business—at least as far as you’re concerned. Whether it takes shorter or longer, my goal is to fully equip you to continually integrate the complex systems within your organization, to find and unfold its τέλος.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Beyond Change Management

Current organizational theory recognizes that change is inevitable, and so must be managed. This, however, makes change sound like an illness rather than a creative process. The two aspects of Shiva (lack of change and chaotic change) can certainly be dire, but change enables complex systems to adapt and evolve. We know that dehydration and over-hydration can both kill you. But water is the stuff of life! So is change.

Therefore I offer a process of finding organizational τέλος that is similar to that described in “Life Transitions & Search for Meaning.” It involves the following aspects of complex systems:

  • Organizational History
  • Phases of Development (Strange Attractors & Bifurcation Points)
  • Emergent Properties
  • Balancing Brahma, Vishnu & Shiva
  • Balancing Stasis & Chaos
  • Embracing Uncertainty
  • Unfolding Your Organizational τέλος

The categories above apply equally to both individuals and organizations (indeed, any complex system). Therefore, this process is extremely helpful when your organization is facing a significant transition, or when changing external conditions call for an adaptive response. However, to assure sufficient time to go through this process thoughtfully, it may be even more beneficial to begin it during a period of stability.

In either case, I’ll help you do more than manage change—I’ll lead you through a process in which change will be understood and implemented within the context of your organizational τέλος.

To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Helpful Hierarchy

Self-organizing systems are, by definition, “complex.” As they become increasingly complex (as living organisms and human societies have done over time), they tend to encompass lower and higher (as well as overlapping and intermeshing) levels, sometimes called holons. The organization of holons, in both nature and human society, can either be “flat” or hierarchical. The neural nets of simple animals such as sponges are flat. In a sponge, all cells are similar and no cell, or group of cells, exerts “leadership” over the whole organism.

In human organizations, flat leadership structures are often seen as better and fairer, because everyone is equal. And they can indeed work well, as among a small group of friends. However, once an organization becomes fairly complex, with numerous members and differentiated roles, flat structures can be extremely cumbersome. If everyone has to participate in every decision (there being only one decision-making body, comprised of all the members), relationships can also grow contentious.

In contrast, hierarchy can be highly efficient. Higher, more complex animals have central nervous systems rather than neural nets. In these, some type of brain serves to collect information from all bodily sub-systems and to coordinate their activities for optimal wellbeing—of both part and whole.

If only things were so simple in human organizations! Here hierarchy has a tendency to be abused, as human egotism leads to those “in charge” making self-serving decisions that actually harm the common good. Such authoritarian models are top-down. As a consequence, they tend to be extremely ill-informed, being averse to input and information from lower levels. They also resist shared decision-making amongst holons. A non-egotistical hierarchy requires top-down, bottom-up, and lateral communication flows, making it extremely sensitive and nimble.

This realization has been incorporated into the training of astronauts. In an emergency, the usual military-style command structure may not work so well. Yes, the captain can give the orders, but he or she may not know best how to respond to a given crisis. For the survival of all, it may be better for someone else on the crew to give directions, or for several members to collaborate. Conversely, a large number of accidents on Korean airlines have been traced to the reticence of the co-pilot to speak up (in Confucian societies, subordinates aren’t supposed to do this)—even when the captain is obviously acting erratically or unreasonably.

Highly complex systems require collective intelligence, in which the knowledge and perspectives of all those who are affected by a decision are brought into the decision-making process (sometimes directly; sometimes indirectly, through representation on decision-making bodies). Such leadership can also be rotated flexibly. Again, this does not mean that everyone makes every decision. Hierarchy is still required. But it does mean that decision-making is more collaborative and diffused. Such a system is flexible enough to respond to continually changing circumstances and well-informed enough to do so wisely.

I can help you to better incorporate helpful hierarchy into your own organizational processes. To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.

Beyond Bureaucracy

Bureaucracy is a modern societal illness, described early on by Max Weber. Its pernicious effect is dehumanization. Yes, it can enhance efficiency—in mechanical systems. For complex systems, it is constrictive and counterproductive. Yet it’s crept into every aspect of our organizational ethos—so much so that we feel we’ve gone off course when the prison alarms sound, just because we’ve finally blasted a hole in bureaucracy’s prison gates!

When you write a job description, that’s bureaucracy. Why? Because your objective is not to hire the best person, but to hire the candidate whose skill-set fits best with your criteria. However, we don’t interact with our fellow skill-sets, but with real, multi-dimensional people—or at least we should.

But, without job descriptions, wouldn’t all be chaos? Certainly the alternative has its own set of challenges (though it’s also far more rewarding), both for employees and organizations. Simply put, instead of detailed responsibilities for each particular role, you describe the type of work your department or organization does. In selecting the best candidate, you look at the whole person. Creative, well-rounded people can be trained into unfamiliar roles. You can also reconfigure the roles that colleagues play in order to maximize each person’s strengths (and level of fulfillment).

If you’re in a family, and a new baby is born, the whole system changes. That baby requires a great deal of initial investment. But the growing child then contributes to the family in many (often unexpected) ways. These ways change with each new stage of development. Bureaucracy eschews the unexpected and strangles innovation.

But workplaces have to be efficient, and families aren’t efficient at all—right? If not, it’s curious that cultural evolution has favored their development, and that of the tribe. Families and tribes aren’t generally in the habit of firing people—at least not healthy families and tribes. But they do enculturate people, help them to grow and learn, and guide them toward activities and behaviors that enhance the common good while being personally rewarding.

The problem with bureaucracy is that it’s a mechanistic model sprung from a mechanistic age. But complex systems are in a continual process of self-organization. The appropriate arrangements amongst members at one stage of development aren’t the best ones for a later stage. Bureaucracies consider members to be static building blocks that should always be arranged in a certain way. But static roles, ensconced within a frozen organizational framework, will always produce the same result. But the same won’t work, because people (and organizations) grow and change—which should be a good thing! Bureaucracy may be effective for awhile, but it’s hardly adaptive.

And complex systems must adapt. They must breathe organically. They must be alive and present in the moment. Does that sound like your workplace? Does it sound like a place where you (and others) would enjoy working? If that’s what you’re after, I’ll help you get there. Not just because your organization will be a better place in which to work, but because it will also be more successful—and, dare I say it?—more effective at actualizing its potential.

The example of job descriptions, given above, simply illustrates a more general point. Once you start looking at your organization as a complex system, you’ll find bureaucratic troglodytes (mechanistic paradigms) lurking under every stone. The good thing is that they’re quite happy to be liberated. Still, changing systems overnight is rarely a good idea—it leads to the chaotic aspect of Shiva.

I can help you pursue a path of organizational change that moves at the right pace and in the right direction (towards your organizational τέλος). To SCHEDULE A FREE CONSULTATION, at which we will discuss how I might best serve your needs, go to Contact and call and/or email.