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Gentle Action and Global Solutions


We are faced by problems of great complexity. The environment, society and even life on earth, is under threat and, as a result, the human race is struggling with feelings of anger, frustration and helplessness. Something, we urge, must be done; some action must be taken. Tomorrow will be too late.

Yet it is these very feelings and reactions that have become part of the problem. The urge to change and control, to analyze, priorize, plan and act are all aspects of the same old pattern that, in the first place, drove us to the edge of this crisis. What is needed is a radical change in human consciousness, in organizations and governments if we are to survive into the second half of the 21st century.

Civilizations and peoples at all historical periods, and all over the world, have made mistakes and behaved in unintelligent ways. (By intelligence I do not simply mean a sort of cleverness and an accumulation of knowledge. Rather wisdom, unprejudiced perception, clarity of mind, creativity and understanding are required.)

While mistakes have been made in the past it is only today that our technology, weapons and global means of travel and communication are capable of magnifying our errors to the point that not only human life but also the ecology of the whole planet may be destroyed.

In the West, science and technology have made great strides over the last two hundred years which have led to improvements in medicine, materials, processes, travel and communications. But each advance has its accompanying drawbacks and unforeseen implications. They have become associated with an attitude of fragmentation and what has been termed ‘reductionism.’ While this worldview may have already been present in the psyche of the West, it has certainly been underlined by the triumphs of technology and the world view of classical physics.

In spite of the many ecological, social and national problems that have surfaced in the last decades there still exists a strong belief that technology will be able to solve our problems, that issues can be analyzed in their particular domains, and solutions can be proposed and implemented. We believe that it is possible for our politicians and organizations to create adequate policies in response to the problems that face us and that the implications of a particular policy or course of action can be predicted in a objective way.

The Mechanistic Approach

Let us first examine the Newtonian approach that has dominated physics for the last two hundred years. I would argue that, despite the insights of quantum theory with its emphasis on the undivided wholeness of nature, the worldview of classical physics still permeates and dominates out thinking. This extends far beyond the practice of physics and brings with it the belief that nature can be isolated, predicted, dominated and controlled.

While chemists, biologists and sociologists deal with complex systems; physics has been upheld as the model of what good science should be. It was often claimed that biology can be placed on a foundation of chemistry and that chemistry can be derived from physics. In short, a particular worldview prevailed in which, it was believed, nature could be analyzed into relatively well-defined systems. These systems were described by linear equations and precise boundary conditions. They were closed systems and existed close to equilibrium.

Of course real systems are never that simple but it was always possible to assume that deviations from equilibrium were small and that any effects from the external environment could be considered as perturbations.

All this led to the reductionist, fragmentary worldview mentioned above. It is not so much that such simple systems are necessarily found in nature but that the worldview, and the physics that went with it, operates as a filter, or pair of spectacles, through which the world is seen. Armed with these spectacles scientists tend to view the world in terms of simple systems, boundaries, well defined dynamics, stabilities, and small deviations from stability, and so on.

I would argue that this worldview has had a profound influence on the way we deal with nature, society and ourselves. Probably the blame cannot ultimately be placed on science itself since that this particular view somehow evolved out of our Western civilization—other peoples certainly have quite different views of nature. But the triumphs of science and technology have given it considerable credibility.

The upshot of this worldview is that when society faces a problem the natural reaction is to isolate and analyze, to place a boundary around the problem and to discuss it in terms that are relatively mechanistic. All problems are believed to have solutions. Action can be taken to resolve or correct a problem. Each issue, each crisis demands a plan, it calls for policies and systems of management that can be established for the future.

This Newtonian approach, whose philosophy has been applied to problems that lie beyond the scope of physics can be characterized as a) mechanistic b) local reality.

  • Mechanistic

By ‘mechanistic’ I mean having a simple range of fixed responses. Mechanical systems could be said to be relatively repetitive and habitual. Indeed, one can say that inertia is the habit of the physical world to persist in the same state. While mechanical systems can become quite complicated, nevertheless they can always be analyzed into simpler components that have a limited range of dynamics. In particular, these systems are characterized by linear differential equations, they are predictable, and knowledge of one particular case is helpful in describing others. Mechanical systems do not hold many surprises.

  • Local Reality

By ‘local reality’ I mean that such systems can be divided into relatively autonomous sub-systems. And that sub-systems can be well-defined in space and time. They are localized and their linkages to the outer world can be described in terms of interactions—forces and fields. (This can be contrasted to the non-local nature of quantum theory.)

This century has seen a number of scientific revolutions that have tended to shatter the simple pictures presented by mechanistic, local, linear systems. These include:

I. Systems theory
Systems theory has been applied to physical, biological, economic and social systems. It deals with open, dynamical systems and with a much wider range of dynamical behavior. It has considerably enriched our understanding of nature by offering descriptions that are more organic than mechanistic.

Yet systems theory is nevertheless based upon the assumptions of ‘local reality.’ For example, that a complex system can be broken down into a series of ‘boxes’ that are linked by interactions, signals and feed-back loops. While the interior of these boxes may be quite complex, it is still assumed that they possess in some sense a local reality and that such concepts as ‘signal’ and ‘interaction’ are well defined. I would argue that, in general, these assumptions might not be valid when it comes to the sorts of problems that face our planet.

II. Quantum Theory
In Bohr’s Copenhagen Interpretation—the commonly accepted interpretation of the quantum theory—the emphasis is placed upon the wholeness of phenomena and upon the unanalyzable nature of observation. Bohr’s conception that the observer and the observed are one, echoes the beliefs of the East that ‘the observer is the observed, the thinker is the thought.’

In emphasizing the essential wholeness of nature, the whole notion of boundaries and analysis comes under question. Likewise, the idea of a signal or an interaction is no longer well-defined, for systems cannot be subdivided into well-defined sub-wholes. Of course quantum theory only applies to the atomic world, yet there is evidence to suggest that the brain and immune system function at a molecular quantum level. I would also argue that the idea of non-locality, to be introduced below, has a universal application that extends into the whole question of consciousness and society.

An essential feature of quantum theory, that is alien to the classical world, is the idea of ‘non-locality.’ In the Newtonian universe objects can be clear cut and localized in space and time; interactions and correlations with other objects take place only through signals and interactions. In quantum theory, as is illustrated by Bell’s Theorem, the essential notion is that of non-locality. Systems are correlated in ways that do not involve mechanical, physical interactions and that lie outside the familiar categories of space and time. Non-locality is also connected with the impossibility of localizing a quantum system and assigning to it some intrinsic properties.

The basic idea of non-locality is fundamental to collective phenomena such as plasmas, superconductivity, superfluidity, and the sorts of collective states that Herbert Fröhlich has postulated in living systems. In such cases the wave function is defined over macroscopic distances and cannot be further broken down or analyzed spatially.

It is this same idea of non-locality that I would like to raise to a more general principle by arguing that it is inherent in the functioning of human consciousness, in the nature of language, society and living systems. This idea of non-locality is essential to the concept of ‘Gentle Action’ that I am attempting to develop.

III. Chaos Theory
Relatively recently new concepts have entered the physical, biological and social sciences which threaten to overturn the mechanistic and ‘local reality’ concepts of the past new centuries. Ilya Prigogine has explored the implications of open systems that are not at equilibrium. The development of high-speed computers, along with new techniques in mathematics has enabled the implications of non-linearity to be explored. New topics like chaos theory and fractals have also emerged.

Suddenly physics, chemistry, biology, sociology, economics are dealing with systems far more complex and subtle than had ever before been attempted. Already we can classify some of their characteristics. (These are listed in ‘Counting the Cost’ from ‘The Brundtland Report and the Cost of Inaction,’ Royal Society of Canada and the Institute of Public Policy, Ottawa 1989). On the one hand such systems may exhibit chaotic behavior and infinite complexity, on the other they may contain regions of stability, or simple oscillations. While such systems can also display mechanical behavior, this now arises out of their underlying, more general dynamics. Just as Newtonian physics emerged out of relativity as a special case, so too mechanism and linearity emerge out of non-linearity as a special case. It could be thought of as a whirlpool in the river, which is relatively impervious to small fluctuations in the speed of the river yet subsists upon the general flow of the river.

Such systems may be quite stable over large ranges of external disturbance, for they are open systems fed from the environment. Yet at some critical point they can suddenly jump into entirely different forms of behavior—bifurcation points and catastrophic jumps. Systems may enter regions of stable or violent oscillations, or even chaotic motions. Systems may be stable or they may be extraordinarily sensitive to their boundary conditions so that so-called vanishingly small changes in the environment may suddenly overwhelm the system.

All this spells an essential limitation to the traditional worldview. Yet, these new techniques are nothing more than a new pair of spectacles through which to observe the world. They may be more sophisticated than those used up to now, but nevertheless they are simply ‘ways of seeing.’ But, at least they tell us that the natural world is far more complex that we have assumed so far. They suggest that it is not always possible to analyze, describe and put boundaries around a system. They tell us that systems may be so sensitive and so complex that their future cannot be predicted and that the implications of any outcome, or corrective action applied to them, may be totally unexpected.

IV. Human Values
All these issues, together with the implications that are to be drawn from them, are discussed in the paper ‘Non-Linear Dynamics (Chaos Theory) and its Implications for Policy Planning.’ This paper also opens up the human dimension of the problems that face us. These are not the abstract, objective problems of the laboratory. They are complex human problems that must be considered within the whole context of our values. Yet a closer examination shows us that these values are often implicit, unstated and hidden from us. Our perceptions, policies and actions are value driven; yet we may be ignorant of the very values which motivate us.

The above analysis leads us to the following propositions. That, despite the scientific revolutions of past decades, we remain dominated by an outmoded worldview, one which still sees nature in an essentially fragmented and mechanistic way. One which tends to be objective while driven by unstated motives and values. One that believes that problems can be isolated, analyzed and resolved through plans, policies and actions. Yet all evidence points to the contrary, that the solutions we propose often lead, in unexpected ways, to a ‘cure’ that may be worse than the original ailment.

How then can the human race, operating in limited ways and functioning though limited organizations hope to solve the complex and subtle problems that face it. These problems are the result of our past mistakes and our ignorance of the complexity of natural and social systems. They contain mistakes and errors that have entrained and entangled over decades and centuries. Any approach made from within our current framework of consciousness is, at best, stop gap and, at worse, can lead to ever more serious disasters. It is time to question our confidence in the unrestricted application of technology and draw upon what I believe to be the limitless nature of our human creativity. A new consciousness is required and with it a transformation of organizations, institutions and governments.

V. Creative Suspension
The idea of ‘creative suspension’ is given the paper ‘Comment on Chaos’ from Creativity Research Journal (1, 131, (1989). See in this section of the Library.) In essence it argues that human institutions attempt to resolve a variety of problems that face them. These are done though a form of internal modeling—though analysis, description and so on. But these institutions are relatively mechanical and simplistic in their operation, they have fixed internal structures, rigid goals and internal values that are retained long after the organization may themselves have changed its basic goals. Such organizations have a strong sense of self-preservation, which adds to their inflexibility and rigidity. They may possess simplistic and limited lines of communication and feedback and they do not allow their human members to make use of their inherent creativity. Often members of an organization are paralyzed by fear, ambition, the desire for recognition and reward, by self-preservation and a conflict between their own values and those of the organization.

How then can a simplistic, rigid organization model a natural or social system that is infinitely faster, more flexible and subtle? The clear answer is that it cannot, its policies, plans and predictions are limited, simplistic and fragmentary. The policies, it implies may produce unpredicted side effects, the cure may generate a cascade of even greater problems.

The solution, as suggested in the paper, is a form of ‘creative suspension,’ a dissolution of the fixed responses and structures of the organization that allows essential human creativity to emerge. Of course the organization and its rigidities can also stand as a metaphor for the individual and his or her fixed and neurotic responses to life. In either case a ‘creative and watchful’ suspension acts to expose and dissolve inherent mechanistic responses and allows a faster, subtler, more creative organism to unfold.

VI. Gentle Action
At the end of that paper I suggested that a new form of creative action may grow out of ‘creative suspension’ But what would be the nature of this action that can successfully deal with the subtle and complex problems that face our planet? I suggest that this is a form of ‘Gentle Action,’ something very different from the actions and solutions that have been posed in the past. Past actions tend to be fragmentary, strong, reactive, imposed within limited domains and can lead to unpredictable results. When applied to sensitive systems they may overwhelm the system’s inherent dynamics, when applied to rigid systems they may have little effect.

By contrast ‘Gentle Action’ is the intelligent, coordinated application of very small effects that apply to the system as a whole. Gentle Action is non-mechanical and non-local. It arises out of the very essence of the system itself. It the action that arises out of a watchful suspension, rather than an attempt at domination and control. Since this idea is still in the stage of unfolding it is easiest to deal in terms of metaphors and examples.

Clearly the idea of ‘Gentle Action’ is appropriate to systems that are highly sensitive to their boundary conditions. Such systems have complex dynamics and any attempt to impose control via some local application of force will result in unpredictable effects. However, such systems can be tuned and adjusted by means of vanishingly small changes in their boundary conditions. The whole key to such gentle change, however, lies in the intelligent and global co-ordination of effects.

It is often said that one cannot change the laws of nature and, in particular, that all our efforts are dominated by the Second Law of Thermodynamics This tells us that any attempt to do work or bring about change must result in some dissipation of useful energy in the form of heat. Or, to put it another way, all spontaneous processes result in an increase in entropy. But while one cannot change a law of nature it is, indeed, possible to modify boundary conditions and reverse this local increase in entropy—living systems from cells to cities do it all the time.

Take, as an example, a stone thrown into a pond. Its ripples spread outward until they make vanishingly small fluctuations at the edge of the pond. (In a similar way light spreads across the universe.) One does not normally see the reverse action—the coming in and amplification of ripples to form a concentrated disturbance at the center of the pond. The reason is that a global co-ordination of very tiny fluctuations beginning at the edge of the pond would be required—defying of the laws of probability and entropy. But, given such Gentle Action, the intelligent, non-local coordination of vanishingly small effects, the rings of disturbance will inevitably move in towards the center of the pond. Entropy will be defied and a very large effect will be the result of the intelligent coordination of many vanishingly small perturbations.

Something similar may happen with the operation of memory in the brain. Memory is non-localized. While it may be processed through the hippocampus it is certainly not localized there, or in any other region of the brain. Bite into an orange and electrical activity, initially distributed all over the brain’s surface appears to focus, move out again, and refocus into the speech areas. The word ‘orange’ is uttered. Although no good theory of memory has stood the test of time one could throw out a guess that memory involves the non-local co-ordination of vanishingly small polarizations that are distributed all over the brain. Change these correlations by a vanishingly small amount and some other memory is evoked. Memory, and other aspects of brain function, may therefore be based upon a form of non-local, Gentle Action.

Language too exists in a non-local way. Analysis of meaning in a conversation and dialogue (see ‘Language and Science’ by Ford and Peat in Foundations of Physics 18,1232, 1988) cannot be properly described as a ‘flow of information’ between physically distinct systems. Rather it is a creative process that emerges out of the system as a whole. Meaning is not localized in space and time but is of a non-local nature. (A proper discussion of this point would take us far beyond the scope of the present article).

Other metaphors for Gentle Action could be given. This one is from David Bohm. The movement of a ship in response to information on its radar system—it is not the brute force of its engines that determines the course of the ship but the more subtle energy inherent in the electronic signals. So intelligent information gives form to, or in-forms, the overall energy that powers the ship.

In a similar way, I am suggesting, a form of Gentle Action must be applied to the various problems that face us. Poverty, violence, conflict, the failure of economic theories, the debt between North and South, distribution of foods, destruction of the rain forests, energy intensive industries, climatic change, destruction of species…and many other problems are all entangled with each other. No one can be separated from the others or can be considered in an objective way that does not take into account human values and psychology. What is required is a highly intelligent and coordinated action, a human response that is based in creativity, wisdom, intelligence and knowledge. One that emerges out of a state of ‘watchful suspension.’ Science and Technology will play their role within this action, but they will not dominate it.

Such Gentle Action is global and ‘holistic.’ It arises out of the very nature of the system or systems themselves. Rather than attempting to control or change nature it is a process of intelligent fine-tuning, based upon the assumption that qualitative change can be brought about by small, non-local manipulations of boundary conditions.

Clearly such action goes beyond any simple model, plan or policy. The application of Gentle Action is a continuous process and involves a constant watchfulness, a form of self-knowledge and sensitivity to society and the whole planet. Once this response becomes a policy or plan then it becomes internally rigid, mechanical and useless. It must grow out of a deep respect for nature and out of values that are not corrupted by all the desires for control, dominance, security and acquisition that have cursed civilization for thousands of years. Its reward may be a chance to save our planet and to live in ways that are more harmonious and rewarding.