United We Stand or Divide and Conquer?
Have characteristically Cartesian claims caused a cacophony of cartographic and cognitive complications?
As I was preparing for my talk at Harvard last month, I was finishing a book called The Patterning Instinct by Jeremy Lent. He explores how culture shapes values, and those values shape history. Hat tip to Kasey Klimes over at rhizome r&d for the recommendation.
Lent uncovers the history and evolution of dominant Western culture through the lens of evolutionary biology and neuroscience and the role patterns play in cognitive and cultural development. He then compares it the lesser examined evolution of Eastern, mostly Chinese, culture, philosophy, and scientific history.
He found discrepancies in dominant Western thought, and how it sometimes is incongruent with select examples of more recent advances in science. Especially the degree to which the world is increasingly understood as a nested array of interdependent and indeterminate complex systems.
Quantum physics, complexity Science, and other various branches of the physical and social sciences, are revealing evidence of a pervasive interconnectedness that can often get lost or overlooked in some more traditional methods and beliefs of dominant Western science and culture.
“Divide and conquer” is one such example of how we routinely attempt to simplify to resolve problems. And yet, it seems divisions are what may be contributing to our global problems. Lent’s book made me wonder how much Western thinking and culture may be keeping us from solving our most perplexing problems. What happened to ‘united we stand, divided we fall?’
As interactors, you’re special individuals self-selected to be a part of an evolutionary journey. You’re also members of an attentive community so I welcome your participation.
Please leave your comments below or email me directly.
Now let’s go…
Descartes once said,
"Divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it."
The breaking down of problems does simplify challenges. At the same time, I wonder if divisions can also introduce challenges. Consider the division of today’s global crises into economic, social, and environmental problems. It’s feasible to divide these even further but is it necessary to resolve them? What if instead of resolution division and partitioning is contributing to our ruin?
We’re good at division. Economic inequality divides the wealthy from the poor, political polarization has unraveled civil discourse, increased hostility, and a growing distrust of democratic institutions. Climate change exposes these divisions and imbalances as those more vulnerable to its effects suffer more than those most responsible for its existence.
This is all amidst an age group divide. Rising housing costs, stagnant wages, and reduced opportunities make it harder for younger people to avoid financial precarity let alone secure family wealth. The gulf between the ‘haves’ and ‘have nots’ is widening.
Cultural polarization also divides communities along cultural and religious lines leading to a rise in hate crimes and extremist movements. Age can reveal differing attitudes towards social issues further solidifying divisions leading to more hostility and distrust. Divisions regarding the role of technology in society can also divide along age lines, but also wealth.
Digital divides can exacerbate social and economic inequalities, as the pandemic quickly revealed. We also witnessed how those without access to technology disproportionately struggled to access education, healthcare, jobs, and other essential services.
Fear and distrust in technology is currently directed at AI. As with seemingly every fast-approaching technological innovation in human history, many fear it while many revere it. Jeremy Lent notes that advances in artificial intelligence are particularly encouraging for futurists who see AI as furthering the quest to disembodied intelligence.
Transhumanists imagine a fusing of machines with physiology – the brain supplanted by a connected web of universal artificial intelligence. In the words of a leading advocate and enthusiast, Ray Kurzweil,
this transformation would upgrade “the frailties of these Version 1.0 bodies we have.”
Sounds like a modern-day Frankenstein to me.
Lent also reminds us that futurist visions can also look more like the science fiction classic, The Matrix. Human bodies are relegated to biological livestock consumed for energy so a global matrix of software can run a simulated existence – a virtual world, a meta-universe, or metaverse. Sound familiar? Most of today’s technology CEOs from Musk to Zuck subscribe to various forms of these visions of the future and they’re not alone.
A crude modern-day demonstration of this separation exists with remote work. While physically present in one place, people interact virtually with 2D representations of other humans to perform collaborative cognitive operations – information work. I spent my career helping to develop software tools to enable this mode of working.
Now imagine instead of looking at a computer screen people are wearing a headset or special glasses, as often envisioned by leading tech firms. These attempts, in varying degrees, separate the functions of the mind from the body. Our mind can exist in a virtual world while our body remains planted in the physical world.
The idea of separating mind and body is not new. These ideas are rooted in ancient Greek philosophical notions that the mind can be separated from the body. It then permeated Christian religions which influenced Western cultures leading to yet another example of division in our present-day society. These philosophies separate the brain – a seemingly computer-like organ – from the physical reality of our biological physiology.
Plato viewed the mind as divine, and the body as a polluted swamp. Purity and truth existed only in the mind. He believed the earth to be perfectly round and light rays perfectly parallel. The physical world was constructed with combinations of pure geometry. For him, this reality only exists in mathematical abstractions present in the mind. But for Plato, what is in the mind is what is true. He believed the eye, the physical senses, were not to be trusted. They deceive. He was so adamant in this geometric virtual existence that he had these words carved in stone above the entrance to his academy: “Let no one unacquainted with geometry enter here.”
DIVIDED WE STAND
Aristotle later rejected this strict dualistic separation. While he is interpreted to believe the mind indeed operates differently than most organs in the body, including processing the immaterial in the form of cognition, the mind and body are nonetheless more uniformly connected.
This Aristotelian view was picked up in the middle-ages by the influential Christian theologian Thomas Aguinas. He treated intellect, and the soul, as independent but unified physical forms. While separate entities, he believed separation would starve the soul and the intellect of the necessary memories contained in the brain. The mind was for reason and free will while the physical body was but a vessel.
But as the Enlightenment unfolded, it was Plato’s ideas that took hold. His dualistic beliefs were prominently elevated by the mathematician and philosopher, René Descartes. His form of dualism came in the existence of two substances: mind and matter. A person only exists – they only matter – because they can think. Hence is famous phrase, “I think therefore I am.”
Descartes rejected the notion that the universe is comprised of atoms. He was a mechanist, believing the body to be like a machine made of specially formulated parts predetermined and preassembled by a God. He believed the body’s parts – the pumps, pullies, and gears, were controlled by processing unit in the brain – a power gifted by a Christian God – the pineal gland. We now know this part of the brain is primarily responsible for producing the sleep regulating hormone, melatonin.
This idea of the brain as the ‘central processing unit’ serves as the prevailing metaphor of conventional Western thought to this day. Just as Descartes’ theories emerged out of Christian theology, Greek philosophy, and modern mechanistic technological advances, by extension, so too do today’s intellectual and scientific influencers.
Descartes’ influence was surely substantiated, and perhaps – like Plato – influenced, by his contributions to mathematics. Moreover, his Cartesian coordinate system provided mathematical language and visualization that further enabled deduction, detection, and delineation. It made it easier to draw borders and boundaries; to bisect and bifurcate with the exacting detail and believability that can come with mathematics. The certitude of mathematics can sometimes delude us into conflating the certainty of a truth with the truth. Plato was right, the senses, via the brain, can deceive. But so can math.
Descartes mechanistic view of the world, together with the language of mathematics, meant the universe could now be calculated and communicated with extreme precision. This gave his beliefs and philosophies an added tinge of proof – of the truth. His work helped to unite an understanding of the world by mechanistically dividing the universe “into as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve it.”
The proliferation of printing presses in the 17th century helped to spread and perpetuate his perspective. It was the Cartesian coordinates that helped project the complex three-dimensional world onto a simple two-dimensional surface accelerating the craft of cartography and European global exploration. Soon, those with the means and power to draw maps did so.
European powers could now easily and abstractly divide land, in their mind, conquering invaded lands into as “many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve.” They could control how they believed people should interact with each other, economies, and their natural surroundings.
These Cartesian maps, plans, and projections continue to legally manifest and define so much of how we think, live, and exist in the world. Our modern society has been shaped by various forms of rigid Platonic and Cartesian concepts steeped in a desire to separate the mind from body, pure from putrid, place from space, physical from virtual, us from them, and what we think from what we feel. And it all churns on at various scales of governments and societies with seemingly little regard for how these separations may be deceiving, limiting, or destroying us.
I wonder how this way of thinking contributes to the litany of divisions around us – economic divides, political divides, digital divides, gender divides, race divides, cultural divides, urban-rural divides, transportation divides, age divides, education divides, and more. We’re primed to divide, categorize, clump, group, sort, filter, slice, and dice who we are, where we live, and thus how we interact with each other and the physical world.
In the sixth century, another Greek philosopher, Æsop, shared a parable on division. An old man pointed to a tied bundle of sticks and ordered his eldest son to break it in half. The boy picked up the bundle and strained to crack it but failed. His younger brothers, hoping to show him up, also tried and failed. The old man then instructed the boys to untie the bundles and each take a stick. “Now, break”, he said, and the sons triumphantly broke each stick. The moral of the story is union gives strength, or as it’s commonly transposed today: united we stand, divided we fall.
It's easy to imagine this as an origin of an intellectual path to Descartes’ interpretation and desire to divide into “as many parts as is feasible and necessary to resolve.” But is the universe really a bundle of sticks tied by a string? Are our worlds constructed as machines made of discrete, discernable, and dissectible parts with a CPU as a brain? Perhaps the metaphor has led us astray. Perhaps Descartes did error.
Through it all, I worry we underappreciate, ignore, or deny that all of it, including our minds and bodies, are connected in ways that are not so easily divisible. Descartes, and later Isaac Newton, believed all problems could be subdivided into tiny bits of matter whose behavior could be described by physics in the language of mathematics. These are all important and necessary tools to understanding the world, but as Nobel-award winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann once said,
“Imagine how difficult physics would be if electrons could think.”
The uncertainty of human behavior, our free will, our human interactions, are unaccounted for in Cartesian and Newtonian forms of scientific inquiry – including physics. So are issues surrounding values and beliefs. Our behavior does not neatly contain the determinism Platonic, Cartesian, and Newtonian theories require. It’s this observed complex uncertain behavior of systems, compounded by interactions, that led to discoveries in quantum mechanics, relativity theory, non-linear dynamics, and other fields of complexity science.
What would our world be, what could it be, should we shift our thinking to reflect a closer approximation of how the world, and our minds and bodies, may actually work? Instead of focusing on divisions, what if we investigated the connections, the interactions, the overlaps? The crises we face today tend to be framed categorically as economic, sociological, and environmental problems. In a fit of Cartesian inquiry, we tend to “divide each difficulty into as many parts as is feasible and necessary”.
Of course, subdivision can be useful, as can the Cartesian mathematics to describe it. Simple components, the results of subdivisions, exist – and are most informative – not in isolation but as part of systems of systems. An ant is most interesting, not just an ant but as an ant in a colony. Humans are best understood not alone but as members of a family, a city, or a society.
Mainstream science continues to struggle with how best to account for the interaction of these components and their complex, nonlinear, and unpredictable nature. Individual components are still largely studied in isolation, divided from their reliant systems. And yet, the actions and interactions of component parts are greater, different, and potentially more impactful than their cumulative sum.
It’s hard to predict, let alone control, the outcomes of these complex systems. After all, these components, including humans, are not centrally controlled. Our limbs are not controlled by the puppeteering pineal gland nor by a distinct ‘central processing unit’ encased in a Body v.1. There is no central control of our bodies, brains, cities, or societies. Even our free will is not to be trusted.
What if we better scrutinized the emergent behaviors resulting from the countless interconnected outcomes of our world that can’t be understood by looking at individual clusters, components, or categories alone? Making better sense of this remains the ongoing work of complexity science.
This fundamental shift in thinking, and in science, remains contentious. Even Descartes had his detractors. I often wonder what course humanity may have taken had Enlightenment philosophers, theologians, scientists, and mathematicians more interested in connections than divisions had won favor.
Such is the case in ancient Chinese philosophy and science. Those of us most influenced by Western thought may want to better understand the prominent thinkers that came long before the Enlightened Europeans. For example, it was the nineth-twelfth century Song dynasty polymaths and philosophers, like Shen Kuo, who invented the first compass, mapped the seas and stars, and helped to unleash geologic, geographic, chemical, meteorological, and astronomical discoveries. All while the Europeans were just coming out of Medieval times. One unsourced Wikipedia entry even claims Kuo was the first to hypothesize about gradual climate change.
We in the West can sometimes be accused of being over-confident and reluctant to admit when we may have been deceived. We shouldn’t be surprised when AI systems like ChatGPT echo back the same over-confident and sometime deceptive words we’ve fed it. It’s a bi-product of attitudes and beliefs that just may be contributing to our many differences and divisions.
But I’ll give Descartes the last word. It was he who said, “It is only prudent never to place complete confidence in that by which we have even once been deceived.” And, “If you would be a real seeker after truth, it is necessary that at least once in your life you doubt, as far as possible, all things.”
I doubt it’s possible to divide our way out of the problems we face. My bet in on understanding the dynamics of the component parts. Let’s better understand, communicate, and represent what it is that emerges from the interactions of the divided parts. And we’ll need AI, and Cartesian and Newtonian computations, to help us know what it is we’re seeing and where it is we might be going. After all, we’re all nothing more than collections of systems bound by natural laws determined to adapt, change, and evolve into something beyond our knowing.
Discourse on Method. René Descartes. 1637.
Complex Adaptive Systems: An Introduction to Computational Models of Social Life. Miller, J., & Page, S. 2007.