Tuesday, July 22, 2008

How to Think about the Future

Creating -- Not Fixing

I want to think about how we think about the future. Not for the purpose of philosophical musing, and certainly not to fine-tune predicting abilities, but rather simply to think about how the time ahead of us can be created in beautiful and life-honouring ways.

The Future and Causality

The future is often imagined as a chain of causality, sequences of happenings or decisions leading to predetermined and predicted ends. The future becomes a simplified and graspable product shaped within the factories of human decisions, and distributed in accordance with the flows of prior investments.

Often this causality follows apocalyptic lines of thinking where ill conceived and the foolish thought and action produce an assured end result of overwhelming disaster. And there is an obligation for those who are in possession of this apocalyptic vision that their lived-time must be occupied with the production of clear and vigorous prophetic warnings.

At other times we are invited to see causality as optimistic, we see chains of right decisions leading to the profitable yields of smart investments. Such an optimistic causality suggest that the future is created by wise choices, efficient and effective actions, and the timely application of appropriate resources. This optimism is not available for all, it is saved for those who clearly act in accordance with the principles of optimistic causality, it leaves open the possibility that unwise decisions might be made, resulting in loss.

Gregory Bateson and Causality

It is this emphasis on causality which Gregory Bateson expressed such dissatisfaction with. He invited his readers to think of the future not as a chain of causality but as movements of whole ecologies, innumerable shiftings amidst vast networks of relationship. And he suggested that in the midst of such multifarious worlds a particular outcome cannot be formed by simple lines of causality, rather (in a mode of thinking that takes some serious thought) a particular outcome occurs because other options were restrained from occurring. That is, things happen as they do because other alternatives were held back. Bateson suggests that the question upon us should not be what caused an event, but rather what other alternatives could possibly have occurred and what influences might have stopped these alternatives from occurring. Such questions of restraint, according to Bateson, keep us within the complexities and abundances in which life moves.

Stephen Jay Gould describes a scenario which I find illustrates Bateson’s theory of restraints. Gould found himself repeatedly challenged by those who claimed life's clear progression in time from the simple to the complex, implies an intelligent causative force guiding the direction of all life in nature. Gould responds by reminding his readers that life originated with single-cell organisms, the most simple of life-forms possible. In life's early stages there was only one direction for it to evolve, and that was in the direction of increased complexity. Life evolved in this direction because other alternatives were were clearly restrained from occurring. Evolution toward more complex life forms was the only option in town. However, as life diversified, with the addition of further complexity, uncountable different possibilities emerged for the evolutionary directions of life. And every single evolutionary process has been subject to its own unique assemblage of innumerable restraining influences.

The Return of Religious Causality

It is interesting to note that the secular world, a seemingly non-religious world, even anti-religious world is actually very much a Christian world in its views of causality. It still follows upon causal narratives which are biblical in flow, in language, and in pure zeal. The supposed secular world creates futures filled with apocalyptic visions, redemptive possibilities, harsh judgments and punitive responses.

Environmental Causality

Some of the approaches taken by the environmental movement are obvious example of such an apocalyptic outlook on the future. I talk of the environmental movement merely as an illustration of these views -- I certainly feel most connected to many of the concerns and desires the movement puts forward. The environmental movement is certainly not alone, overwhelmingly the contemporary world follows such religious views of causality.

Environmental science repeatedly puts forward a clear apocalyptic and fall/redemption voice. It shows us the results of our wrong actions, the yields of our poor investments, all which lead to a judgment, a potential final judgment, which could be the destruction of life as we know it. Our environmental sins invite a form of environmental damnation, an environmental hell. At the same time, we are given the possible option of redemption. We are informed that if we engage in the correct acts, including various sacrifices and punishments, we may be able to escape at least some of the coming judgment. Sin/Redemption, that age-old line of religious causation is alive and well and operating in full confidence.

No one was more concerned for environmental concerns than Gregory Bateson, and few have put as much thought into our human response to such a dilemma. Yet these causal chains as described above, weather scientific, religious, industrial or therapeutic were not seen by Bateson as a way out of our difficulties, on the contrary, he proposed that such thinking repeated initiates and accentuates environmental difficulties. By understanding life as if it were simply a product of causal chains, and then by intervening in life as if our actions would implement a redemptive causal chain, is, according to Bateson, the very form of thinking and acting which disrupts and endangers complex environmental systems in the first place.

Therapeutic Causality

It is not just the world of environmental science and action which follows such causal thinking, what I call the “therapeutic” also is firmly in tune with such modes of thought and action.

The “therapeutic” suggests that there is something wrong, broken, sinful (in a non-religious way) about people, their bodies and their relationships. In response to this a certain secular liturgical process must be implemented to respond to these wrongs.

First, with the assistance of experts, the brokenness must be faced and acknowledged. Assessment processes identify a pathology; base it in life, body and/or relationship; and describe it in obscure language. The movements of this pathology must be examined, and its history must be traced in accordance with lines of professionalized apocalyptic causality. These liturgical process generate truths which must be accepted and are embedded in therapeutic authority.

Once assessment has been completed, then actions are created which are intended on fixing the problem and addressing the history of pathology. However, during this process blame is further distributed, moving from the body and the family and toward those persons assigned to assist in healing such difficulties. And, this blame often spreads with great speed. It is inevitable, for problems are not things destined to being fixed. Yet those assigned to do the fixing seem to be destined to bear portions of the responsibility for this intransigence of the problem.

On Rhizome Lines

The world moves according to other lines...

A new complexity emerges... for, in spite of not being able to fix problems, these workers often find themselves connected to something powerful. For while in the midst of their work, and through the connections they have built with those they work with and the communities these people are connected with, they discover that human lives do move and change (and not just the lives of those they are working with). However, these changes come into life in the same way that Bateson described, amidst networks of relationship, in response to the many restraining influences of life. And, they also see that human lives move in response to goods and gifts that circulate within their realms.

And, often they come to understand that while surrounded by gifts on all corners, people create life, they do not fix it!

When these workers were able to respond to the rhizome connections in their work worlds, they found that they become integral parts of these realms, and they often saw that, in spite of the many challenges, life often moves in beautiful and desirable ways.

Outside of presumed lines of causality, the world is filled with uncountable, unpredictable, yet often unnoticed changes. Life is constantly responding to life, and the resultant movements extend far beyond our understandings. Whether we are wishing to respond to the environment, the complicated realms of nature, or we are responding to life in our communal realms, we find amidst this rhizome abundance that a newness is constantly introduced to us. And creativity, the very gift we so need at this time in history, insists upon our response. And we rejoice, for we now realize that we do not fix worlds... but we do create them.

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