“We can’t solve problems using the same thinking we used when we created them.”
So, what sort of thinking do we need? Many suggest that we could do with “thinking outside the box.” The Internet is awash with how to be more creative in our thinking, or how to use lateral thinking, or how to discover new ways to do something.
I found little reference, if indeed any, to what the box is. What is this box that we are exhorted to think outside of? What is it constructed of? What constraints to thinking does our cultural upbringing and education burden us with? In fact, Einstein (who was quoted earlier) also noted that “We are boxed in by the boundary conditions of our thinking.”
Let us think of a box – just a very simple one. It has six sides. To think outside those six sides requires breaking through one or more of those sides, or perhaps removing a side or two completely. Here is a way to think of each of those six sides as representing six Einsteinian boundary conditions (or constraints) to our western-styled thinking system.
This blog piece will briefly explore three of those sides (constraints.) The other three will be explored in Part 2.
Side 1 (Materialism): This side of the box is the side that tells us the world is material. There is no reality beyond the material. Matter is the fundamental foundation of all of nature.
This constraint implies that everything can be explained by the material interactions between matter. Even consciousness is viewed this way, as simply being the outcome of complex interactions between neurons. And neurons themselves? Well, of course, they are simply nerve cells (matter) that receive input from our environment and transmit messages to our muscles.
Materialism as a philosophical construct began in the 5th and 6th centuries BCE in ancient Indian philosophy and amongst the Greek Atomists. In more modern times Thomas Hobbes (16th-17th centuries) set about constructing his social and political system around a mechanistic approach to life. In his view humanity and society were simply interacting parts – much like the parts of a giant machine. It is Hobbes who consigned humanity to a life that is “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.”
Marx and Engels took this material approach to the state of humanity to postulate their historical materialism. And we know where that lead. Capitalism, it must be said, is founded on the same materialism, only it set off on a different path to that of socialism. Both, however, have constrained our thinking within a materialist and mechanical framework for most of the past three hundred or more years.
In many ways our thinking is still constrained by this Hobbesian idea.
Materialism leads to a mechanistic view of life, the Universe, and everything. Then, trapped by that view, technological fixes become the default solution to any and all problems. Yet, in many ways, our reliance on techno-fixes has been a major source for many of the problems we face. We remain thinking inside this particular side of the box.
Fortunately, a shift is beginning. Quantum physics was perhaps the first of the “sciences” to push against this side of the box. Erwin Schrödinger, working in the first half of the 20th century noted that “…consciousness cannot be accounted for in physical terms.” His contemporary, Werner Heisenberg, took issue with the very fundamental material world, when he stated simply, “Atoms are not things.”
Side 1 of the box must not constrain our thinking.
Side 2 (Objectivity): Objectivity tells us that truth can be independently arrived at, without the influence of our own selves. We can observe without influencing what is observed. Our emotions, perceptions, intuitions, and other internal biases have no bearing on whatever it is that we are observing. We can be completely objective. Or, so the boundary condition tells us.
The Scientific method is grounded on the idea of objectivity. Science tells us that we can undertake experiments, observe the outcome, and make conclusions from that, all the while remaining detached, independent, and objective. Whilst the scientific method has much to offer and has allowed us to better understand aspects of nature, objectivity is beginning to be shown as a deception.
In the social world it is possible to notice this lack of objectivity. Imagine you are walking down the street and someone approaches you with a clipboard and asks you some questions. How do you answer? With consideration, thoughtfulness, from a position of what is expected of you? Now, imagine you are meeting friends in your favourite café a few minutes later and you relate this interaction. How do you now answer those same questions? Differently? More honestly, dismissively? It depends upon who is observing us, doesn’t it?
Side 2 of the box needs to be broken through.
Side 3 (Linearity): Effect always follows cause. A causes B which then causes C. C cannot possibly cause A. Linearity is exactly as it sounds: a straight line from point A to point B.
The Enlightenment of Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries entrenched linear cause and effect ideas. The logical system this approach enabled suggested that the world was subject to a very stable order; an order that could be identified and then manipulated.
However, many cultures have known for centuries that things are not that simple. Buddhism, for example, describes a dependent arising (or dependent origination) whereby all phenomena are in continual state of continuous and inter-dependent interaction. This dependent arising means it is almost impossible to tell which phenomenon is causing another phenomenon to emerge. It is also impossible to attribute causality to any one particular phenomenon.
Within western science we are beginning to see this mutuality become more readily understood via theories such as Complexity Theory, Chaos Theory, and Emergence. The straight (linear) lines of the box are being questioned.
Side 3 of the box is crumbling.
Part 2 of this blog-piece (next week) will explore the other three sides of the box. 1. Separation, 2. Control and 3. Mind as the sole source of thinking.
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