The Yin and the Yang of it…
If there is an entry in the Guinness Book of Records for achieving the highest number of different ways of exploring the same topic (‘self’ and ‘nature’ and how they relate), it feels as if I should be down there somewhere, on the list of ‘honourable mentions’.
I am not looking for a ‘prize’ but I would like to review where I’ve been to share my impression that investigative inquiry involves a ‘cocktail’ effect where, as you stir in each new bit of ‘evidence’, the concoctions that ‘result’ depend on the order in which the ingredients have been combined. For example if you start with a ‘natural mix of ingredients’ (as in the body), add herb A and follow it with pharmaceutical B, you get a deadly mix, but if you stir in herb C between herb A and pharmaceutical B, the cocktail is innocuous. We could call this ‘the law of non-commutativity’ of combining evidence in exploratory inquiry.
A + B + C ≠ A + C + B
examples: a solution B when added to A may convert the solution from a base to an acid, but not if C is added before B, or, Romeo finds Juliette dead and so he kills himself before opening the note that says that Juliette has taken a potion that makes her look dead. (combining the same ingredients in a different succession takes one through different cocktail effects),
In other words, the same evidence leads different people to different conclusions depending on how they combine the same evidence.
So, in the course of this inquiry into S&N, one runs into a lot of different concoctions, all based on the same evidence.
People who prefer particular ‘concoctions’ tend to ‘order’ the evidence in such a way that it produces the desired concoction.
Prosecutor: Jean Valjean, did you or did you not steal the loaf of bread? (‘Yes, but…’) Then there is no reason to waste the court’s time any further; stealing is a crime that must be punished.
Defense: Judge, I would ask you to consider, in this case, that ‘the law’ always follows justice, justice being the natural ways, moral and ethical, from which the generalizations called ‘laws’ are continually being precipitated, revised and extended. In the name of ‘justice’, I accuse the heads of state of having rigged the legislative process so as to produce imbalances to favour the few, imbalances and injustice that the actions of Jean Valjean aimed to redress (under his breath; ‘the day will soon arrive when these same heads of state are no longer in place’.)
Judge: ‘Sir, you are out of order!’ This is a ‘court of law’, not a ‘court of justice’.
The problem here lies in different levels of ‘truth’. The utility of ‘laws’ derives from their ability to generalize phenomena so that we can deal with many different (necessarily particular) phenomenal unfoldings with one set of laws. This liberates us from having to go back to the drawing boards and solve each problem from scratch. Laws therefore strip away the frilly detailed particulars and uniquenesses of our actual experience; they are used ‘to correct our experience’ as Poincaré notes, re-rendering our complex experience in terms of simple ‘truths’.
‘Is it true that you stole a loaf of bread?’ – ‘Yes’
‘Is it true, as Descartes argued, that; “A state is much better ruled when, having but very few laws, these are most strictly observed.” – ‘Perhaps’
‘Is it true we live in a state which is, by agreement or by default, ruled by law?’ – ‘Yes’
‘Is it then true that there should be no hesitation, once lawbreaking has been established, to proceed with punishment?’ – ‘No’
One starts with a few simple laws that hope to be able to explain and address all manner of complex phenomena. As ‘cases’ crop up, it is recognized that the law that is to be applied has been reduced to a level of simplicity that cannot address some situations, thus a new set of laws is introduced by revision and/or addition. If the law is too simple to grapple with the complex particulars of an actual situation, some argue that it should be applied anyhow; i.e. that until revisions are formally incorporated, the law should be applied ‘as-is’.
The problem here is very basic. Laws are formulated in terms of ‘what things do’ while ‘the condition of our living space’ is what we are really interested in. If the condition of our living space was ‘really’ determined by ‘what things do’, law-based understanding and administration would work far better than it does.
The problem is, that the transformation of our living space cannot be predicted in terms of ‘what things do’. Everything we do has transformative influence on the space we are included in. This crops up all over the place in S&N investigations. Marshall McLuhan articulated this by the phrase ‘the medium is the message’ (don’t focus on content such as ‘what people are doing’, open up your understanding to how our living space is being transformed as we do what we do).
“In terms of the ways in which the machine altered our relations to one another and to ourselves, it mattered not in the least whether it turned out cornflakes or Cadillacs.” . . . Marshall McLuhan, ‘Understanding Media’
Meanwhile, in spite of this very basic premise about S&N, and its emergence in so many different realms of investigation, it continues to be pretty much ignored in our acculturated habitual way of conducting ourselves.
In physics, it cropped up in the understanding that ‘Space is not Euclidian’ (Einstein). He described the missing quality of space in our normal ‘Euclidian’ view of space a ‘reciprocal disposition. If there is a swarm of ants on the surface of a sphere (a sphere has no fixed reference points), the sense of where an individual is, or where he is going, can only be referenced to the continually changing (spatial-relational) configuration of the collective. When we ‘watch what some ants are doing’ this no longer makes any sense because in order for this to be meaningful, we would need a fixed reference frame to reference their locations and movements to, but all we have is the continually transforming spatial relations of the collective. If we focus on one group of ants and start describing ‘what they are doing’ we are conveniently ignoring that, in the larger picture, they cannot do anything without transforming the space, the collective spatial-relations, they are included in. You can put a cornflakes factory in a town in the country and talk about ‘it’ in great detail, as if it were a thing in itself, marking the commencement of construction, its completion, its staffing, the beginning of its production etc. but all the while, the living space in which it is situated is undergoing huge transformation that cannot be ‘separated’ from the dynamics of the factory that we are focusing in on and describing.
Whether we are talking about ants on the surface of a sphere or a factory in a rural town, we cannot escape the fact that if focus on ‘content’ (what particular things are doing) we are missing out on ‘the transformation of the medium they are included in’. The transformation of the medium is the ‘real message’, not the dynamics of the content (not ‘what things are doing’).
This same understanding crops up in philosophical essays such ‘The Zen of Motorcycle Maintenance’ (Robert Pirsig). When the normally creative english student get’s writers block re the assignment to describe the history of the United States, it turns out that this is because there are an infinity of events that happened over time and the job of causally connecting them and making sense of it is so overwhelming that she cannot even get started on it. Phaedrus, Pirsig’s protagonist, slowly changes the perspective, reducing it to the state (Montana), then to the town (Boseman), then to a street in the town (main street), then to a brick in the wall of the old Opera House on main street. She comes back with a great essay from the perspective of how changes in that space imply the changing history of the United Space, that is more than what the prof asked for. This change in perspective is like bringing a God-like observer in the sky who has been looking down and voyeurizing ‘what things do’ in the space below him, and converting him into ‘the spirit of the Earth’ who is observing what is coming and going WITHIN his realm. This is a conversion from a narrative ‘voice of voyeur observation’ of what things have been doing’ to the narrative ‘voice of experience’ of how ‘this place of ours has been changing’ (how little ones have kept coming into this place and old ones have been going out and how the transformation of this place speaks of their continuing influence).
So, these two perspectives always emerge in philosophical discussions, but there is no doubt that, as a culture (the western culture which dominates the globe), the message that we tend to ‘hear’ and that we ‘respond to’ is the content-based message; i.e. ‘what things do’. As a result, we focus on what we are going to produce out of the context of how our living space will be transformed in the process. We have designed the governments of sovereign states and the corporation with this content-focus built into their architectures.
So much for the ‘world’ or ‘nature’, how about the ‘self’?
Two different views of the ‘self’ crop up where our perspective is (a) the medium of our living space and how it is undergoing transformation, and (b) the content which is in terms of the ‘things’ in our living space and ‘what they they are doing’ (creating/producing etc.); i.e;
(a) “Life is what happens to you while you’re busy making other plans.”
(b) “You can create the future of your dreams. This may seem far fetched for most people, but what they do not seem to realize is that their present is the future they created by their past actions or inaction. You are where you are today because of the decisions and actions you took yesterday.” [sometimes expressed; ‘if you don’t have a plan, you’re part of someone else’s plan’]
How to ‘carry your ‘self’’ in these two situations is very different;
(a) In the first case, it is as if you are in the flow of crowded freeway or in the diversity of traffic in the streets of Calcutta. It is too complex to understand the unfolding dynamic you are included in, in terms of ‘what things are doing’ so, instead, you let your behaviour be orchestrated by transformation of space, by putting your movements in the service of always restoring and sustaining harmony in the continuing flow.
(b) In the second case, your view is that what is happening is determined by ‘what people are doing’ and that everyone is working on planning and bringing about their own personally-desired future. Since what unfolds is the sum total of the efforts of all of the individuals and groups that are planning to bring about the ‘future of their dream’s, there are only two choices; i.e. you plan your own future or you do not.. Here’s where the fundamental principle of planning emerges; ‘In the case where you do not plan your own future, you must then be part of someone else’s plan’ That is, if you are not a ‘big wheel’ mover and shaker, you will be the little cog in the machinery that is being turned backwards as it furnishes power to the big wheel so that it can move forward in its desired direction.’. That is you see your ‘self’ as a purposive system (after Aristotle’s imputing of an ‘intrinsic final cause’ drive inhabiting things in nature) competing with other purposive systems [the ‘Darwinist’ view of world and self].
Most of switch back and forth between these views of S&N unconsciously if not consciously. The man who ‘drives friendly’ as in (a), in the flow of the busy freeway, may be the hard-driving head, as in (b) of a corporation who is determined to ‘make thing happen’ as in the plan published in their annual report.
Ok, let’s go back to the ‘law of non-commutativity’ of combining evidence.
‘Justice’ includes the ‘law’ but is not limited to it; i.e. ‘justice’ is natural law and other understandings from which ‘the law’ is precipitated. Justice could be likened to ‘harmony and peace’, a condition of our living space that we would like to achieve and sustain. Adhering to the law does not in itself determine harmonious flow in our living space (or in the flow of the freeway). If someone breaks the law (e.g. by attempting to bluntly change into our lane where we have the right-of-way) then, if we are letting our movements be orchestrated by the sustaining of harmony, we may get out of their way and infringe on another car’s right of way (‘break the law’) in the process. Meanwhile, the little girl whose bicycle had hit a rock so that she fell from the sidewalk into the curb lane would have been killed if everyone had ‘followed the rules’. Law-based (control-of what-things-do-oriented) systems are not ‘fault tolerant’ in more ways than one.
The laws of our ‘justice system’, because they seek to control ‘what things do’ rather than orienting the condition of spatial relations, allows the spatial-relational conditions of our living space to ‘flap in the breeze’ (to move into states of imbalance).
New and revised laws governing ‘what things do’ are not going to solve the problem. The problem derives from what McLuhan and Pirsig and many others have brought up, that ‘what things do’ gives an over-simplified view of reality. In order to sustain harmony within a busy flow, the better part of our actions are our ‘non-actions’, that which we do not do in order to sustain harmony, when we let our foot off the gas so that the guy in the lane to the right of us can get out of being trapped in the slow-moving right lane will have the space to move out into the faster lane.
Here, the evidence of ‘what we do’ is insufficient. We are managing the shape of space, the opening of possibility-to-do on a first priority basis so that ‘what things do’ becomes secondary. In fact, it is not that ‘we’ are managing it in the classic sense of management; we are doing what Mach’s principle state; we are conditioning the dynamics of space at the same time the dynamics of space are conditioning our dynamics. The dynamics of space derive from moving under one another’s simultaneous mutual influence. Where three or more players are involved, this cannot be solved to extract ‘what each individual’ does that ‘resuls’ in the movement that results (the classic ‘three body problem’). The spatial openings that enable ‘what things do’ are composed not only of what things do but coordinated not-doing’ (one slowing down and another speeding up to open up possibility-to-do that allows passage of a third).
There is no way to explain our individual behaviour in terms of a purposive system in this case since we have given over the helm of our behaviour to ‘space’; i.e. to sustaining harmonious flow in the common spatial dynamic we share inclusion in, that unfolds in a manner that we cannot control so that we have to continually revise our plans. We are in this sense like the ants on the surface of a sphere, ‘what we do’ is a relative thing since as we move we transform the reference space that is the sole provider of meaning of ‘what we do’. ‘We’ as a collective open up to accommodate the movements of ourselves. For every assertive movement there is an accommodating opening of possibility to move, and as we know from our driving experience, the opening of possibility, in other words ‘the condition of the space we share inclusion in’, is the accommodating (receptively here, resistantly there) enabler of ‘what we do’.
This is an old argument which goes back to Aristotle’s difference with Plato over the relative primacy of ‘extrinsic final cause’ (spatial-relations sourced behaviour shaping influence) and ‘intrinsic final cause’ (internal purpose directed behaviour shaping influence). Plato preferred ‘extrinsic final cause’ while Aristotle preferred ‘intrinsic final cause’ and popularized it so well that it prevails today in our modern western culture.
In the case of Jean Valjean versus the Crown, Jean is coming from ‘the unjust/imbalanced condition of the living space’ while Javert is coming from a system of law that seeks to control ‘what things do’. This is an eternal argument within our western society; i.e. should we work on improving the conditions of our living space so as to bring about a more just society, or should we work on improving the control-based management of ‘what things do’ (the law and order enforcement system)?
Here’s where the ‘law of non-commutativity’ of combining evidence comes into play.
The improvement of the law-and-order-system of control over what people do (A) leads to the incarcerating of more criminals for longer periods (B) which leads to fewer crimes being committed by those criminals. Scientists used to add the phrase ‘ceteris paribus’ (all other things being the same) to such statements.
But there is another item of evidence which we may never get to if we draw conclusions based on A + B + C, in the same way that it is a moot point as to what would happen if the patient who took the herb A followed by the drug B would also take herb C since he is dead after taking A followed by B. Had he taken A followed by C he would be alive to take B.
Our conclusion-based actions are like cocktails. The concluding that ‘crime reduction, B, follows from ‘improvement of law and order enforcement, A, makes a moot point out of the additional pieces of evidence that ‘the conditions of our living space influence the development of youth into criminals’, C, and ‘increasing the severity of our law-and-order enforcement system changes the conditions in our living space, D. (e.g. putting more ‘dads’ in prison means more mothers prone to prostitution, alcohol/drugs and organized crime and more unguided youths fending for themselves with no-one assuming any developmental responsibility.)
The conclusion from the (evidence combining) concoction A + B is very different from the conclusion from the concoction, D + C + A + B. In this latter concoction we not only have to address the removal of criminals from society, but we have to do so in a manner that does not transform the conditions of our living space in such a manner as to increase the engendering of new criminals.
Here again is an affirmation that orienting our understanding and actions to the dynamics of space is more realistic than orienting our understanding and actions to ‘what things do’. Hidden therein is ‘what things don’t do’; i.e. the shaping influence of nonlocal spatial relational dynamics on their behaviour (actions that cannot be tied to ‘internal purpose’).
It is not surprising, since our western system of government manages ‘order’ in society using law-and-order enforcement systems (i.e. control of ‘what people do’ –based systems), that ‘single issues’ are debated. Pro and con arguments are invited for such issues as ‘should we improve/intensify our law-and-order enforcement system?’ as if it ‘made sense’ to debate this as a single issue.
The notion that this ‘makes sense’ comes from the belief that what unfolds in the world derives from ‘what things do’; i.e. from ‘what we do’.
But as McLuhan observes, what matters is not the brand of law enforcement machinery that we implant in our communities, but how that transforms our relations with one another and with the dynamics of the living space we share inclusion in.
The ‘hole’ in the argument that ‘reducing criminals reduces crimes’ is easy to see. It is the same hole that pervades classical science which reduces complex phenomena to component parts and to the behaviour of the parts; i.e. to ‘independent variables’ within an equation. It ignores the interdependencies amongst the parts, hence ‘Y’ (crime) is some function of ‘X’ (criminals). A simple linear relation would be Y = nX (the number of crimes is proportional to the number of criminals). But what if variable we haven’t even thought of come into play? That is why there is this disclaimer in science’ ‘ceteris paribus’ (all other things being the same). There are thousands of pharmaceutical drugs that people can take. These are described in terms of ‘what drugs do’ or ‘what effects they produce’. The problem with this is that the body is a dynamic space like the community we plunk a Cadillac or cornflakes factory into and the transformation of the spatial dynamic is the ‘bigger view’ of what is going on which is not encompassed by observing ‘what things do’. Putting a car factory into a horse transportation based community plays hell with the blacksmith and horse-stabling trades which are health-supporting strands in the living web of activities that we call ‘community’. So, what else will a ‘Selective-Serotonin-Reuptake-Inhibitor’ do to the ‘web-of-relationships’ that constitute the spatial dynamic, besides ‘alleviating depression and anxiety’? How realistic is it to understand dynamics in terms of ‘what things do’?
That is, we miss it when we follow ‘things’ and ‘what they do’ with our camera lens, … the dynamic space they are in gets blurred as we drag the viewfield around to follow them. As the population of criminals and police both grow, the condition of the living space (the dynamics of the web of relationships) is no longer what it used to be. The ‘ceteris paribus’ does not ‘hold’.
Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI and their crony collective of supporters, the bourgeoisie, that supported them, were not likely to let go of the simple ‘logical concoction’ supporting the ‘truth’ that ‘crimes are proportional to criminals on the loose’. What’s missing? The balance of non-police and non-criminals is reducing. In the long term, the entire community could be split into two factions; ‘the good guys’ and ‘the bad guys’ and we wouldn’t have to worry about elusive questions such as ‘how does the condition of our living space contribute the transforming of youth into criminals?’ Why not simply; ‘there are good people and bad people’ (superior types and inferior types)?. Why not; ‘criminals are born and not made?’ (it’s in their genes). In this case, the finger can’t be pointed at ‘conditions’ in the living space, nor does there have to be any expensive ‘rehabilitation programs’; e.g. Carla Faye Tucker’s execution does not have to be stayed.
In its current rendering, our society has fully embraced the ‘control-of-what-things-do’ orientation. It is built into our democratic system of government thanks to the notion of ‘sovereign state’ which controls ‘the territory’ and the behaviour of all that reside within it, using a ‘law and order enforcement system’. The same ‘control –of-what-things-do’ orientation has been architected into the ‘corporation’ using a ‘carrot-and-stick’ power drive. While these systems continue to compete in the ‘plan or be planned for’ thinking tradition so as to become the ‘big wheels’ which get to move forward in ‘their’ desired direction thanks to the backward-turning cogs of others, the dynamic condition of our common living space undergoes transformation.
The ‘medium’ (the condition of our living space dynamic) is the ‘message’ but we are focused on the ‘what things do’ content as we try to understand what is going on, and we are attempting to control and manage ‘what things do’ as we try to ‘create the future of our dreams.’
The ‘logical concoctions’ that we propose and debate are typically of the ‘single issue’ type where we assume that ‘if we do this’ the result will be ‘that’, ‘ceteris paribus’ (e.g. if we increase law enforcement, crime will decrease).
The worse that things get (the greater the deterioration of the quality of our living space dynamic) the more we argue over ‘what should be done about it’. In other words, we miss the point, that the ‘medium is the message’, not the content (i.e. not ‘what things do’).
The naturally evolved ‘pioneering community’ did not ‘have a what-things-do’ plan as a go-by. They let their individual and collective behaviours be orchestrated by the dynamics of the living space they shared inclusion in. Their dynamics can be seen in the same light as wildgeese flying in formation. When their dynamics move into resonance with the dynamics of the space they are included, in, this resonance serves to guide their continuing actions. This is where Plato with his extrinsic final cause was correct and Aristotle with his intrinsic final cause was wrong (sort of).
Aristotle was right in that we can indeed structure our society on the ‘yang’ assumption of purposive systems and thus ‘manage’ on the basis of ‘what things do’. This ‘yang’ approach is what western society has built into their social dynamics ordering systems in government and commerce. Plato is right in that, in nature, the unfolding is shaped by ‘extrinsic cause’ from the outside-in. This ‘yin’ influence wherein the dynamics of our living space ‘shape what happens’ by opening up and closing down spatial ‘possibility-to-do’ is ‘on target’; .e.g. if the only paid work that opens up for mothers who have hungry babes to feed is ‘prostitution’, they will ‘go there’. And since our society keys to ‘what things do’ and Aristotelian thought sees the ‘local organism’ as a purposive system powered by intrinsic final cause, these mothers will be held fully and solely responsible for their ‘unlawful acts’. Those who are using extrinsic final cause as an over-riding spatially modulating envelope to shape ‘what things do’ will do so with impunity in a system that sees only the one side of dynamics, the ‘what things do’ side.
One would have to conclude that the one-sided focus on ‘what things do’ (intrinsic final cause) while ignoring ‘how space is transforming) (extrinsic final cause) is ‘over-simplification’ that is getting us into a lot of trouble. Yes, it makes logical sense, but ‘logical sense’ is not ‘the wisdom that is immanent in nature’.
The ‘purposive’ ‘struggle for survival’ of an organism does not explain how he got there in the first place. What we do know is that once he ‘is there’ he depends on an elaborate web of exchanges with others, far more than ‘predator-prey’ relations (e.g. the photoplankton are nourished by sunbeams and the plankton are nourished by plankton and fish are nourished by plankton and man is nourished by fish, thus man is a member of and supported by a complex web of interdependent relations.)
So, is the first thing he does when he emerges into being to sit around the negotiating table with his contemporaries and negotiate the complex webs of exchanges without which he could not survive. Or is it more likely the web of spatial relations opens up a ‘niche’ which makes his emergence possible? Darwin’s theory that one thing developed out of another by accident in the process of repeated replication demands a high level of credulity, which is starting to ‘collapse’.
Our human ego which has us believe that we are purposive systems who can ‘create the future of our dreams’ is holding the whole ‘house of cards’ together, but perhaps not for long.
So, as far as my S&N explorations have been going, That’s the ‘yin and the yang of it’.
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