10 June 2015

Searching for Transcendence at the Hinge of History

In this article, the second in our academic series, scientist Stuart Kauffman and co-authors Caryn Devins, Roger Koppl and Teppo Felin present their views on moving forward with the Sustainable Development Goals.

The Hinge of History

Perhaps we are too brave to begin boldly by saying that we are, to use historian Thomas Cahill’s evocative phrase, at a “hinge of history.”  Our thirty or more civilizations around the globe are weaving together in untold and untellable ways.  We can, for the first time in history, truly afford sufficient wealth for all, even if opportunities and wealth are now grotesquely maldistributed.  We can, for the first time in history, dare to consider what a global interwoven set of civilizations might become, whose highest values are our living experience.  We must begin to think together, all of us, beyond our huge but more immediate issues. 

The UN has articulated a set of Sustainable Development Goals, which include action on climate change and poverty eradication.  These are urgent issues.  Modern economic growth has lifted billions from grinding poverty and early death.  And yet science has raised significant concerns over the environmental consequences of our current systems governing industrial production.  It is possible that we are unleashing the largest extinction event since perhaps the Permian, thereby destroying the accumulated living wisdom of thousands of species with no thought that we almost surely cannot recreate what we are losing.  How do we know that this vast, co-sustaining ecosystem that is all of the life on our planet may not partially, or completely, collapse? We have no idea. 

Yet surely our hinge of history may be the most staggering opportunity the globe faces.  If we do not talk about it, we cannot shape it.  Yet we must do so through growth and transcendence rather than control and design, as we will explain further.  

In this regard, one riveting period, the Axial Age, named by Karl Jaspers, from about 800 to 200 BCE demands renewed attention (see Bellah and Joas’s The Axial Age and Its Consequences, 2012).  In this period, 1000 years after writing was invented, the first enormous empires, Egypt, Mesopotamia, China, and the Indus Valley, exploded, with the capacity to accumulate wealth from the onset of agriculture.  In this brief 600 year period across many cultures — Buddhism, Daoism, Confuscianism, the great Hebrew prophets, Jeremiah, Isiah, Amos, Plato and Aristotle — all sought “transcendence” in different ways.  For Confucius, ethical government, for the Buddha, enlightenment, for Plato, the good, the true and the beautiful.  All rose above early religions centered on the material welfare of the people — good hunting, good rains — to seek something higher, something transcendent.  We are heritors to the Axial Age, which in the West gave rise to an arc of history beginning, perhaps, with Graeco-Hebraic civilization, then the dominance of the Christian Church, then the Renaissance with its soaring individuality, then Newton and the laws of physics, then the Enlightenment, then the Industrial Age, then modernity and post-modernity.

But are we satisfied with our era of modernity and post-modernity when it sometimes seems that our personal human dignity is threatened by global systems serving special interests more effectively than the commonweal?  Have we become so many cogs in a great wheel that turns not for us?

Thus, the widest framing of our issues is what this hinge of history may afford us.  But we cannot say what we will become, as we can at best unleash it and hope to wisely guide what we cannot predict.  Though the pull of the present is powerful and entrenched, we must examine these issues together.  We dare to hope this United Nations site may be a place for such broad discussions.   

Against Design      
The UN Sustainable Development Goals seek nothing less than to resolve the most currently visible, intractable of human failures, from extreme poverty to climate change and political corruption.  By the same token, these goals strive for certain pinnacles of human achievement, in the eyes of modernity.  Such ambition may be dismissed as hopelessly idealistic, but it is laudable and necessary to aim high if we have any hope of solving the profound problems we face.  

We believe, however, that goal-setting can either be enormously productive or a sure path to failure. We would like to share some lessons as to how these goals may be used most appropriately to effect true, lasting change in our beautiful, troubled world. 

We argue that the UN goals are best viewed not as fixed objectives, but powerful intentions to guide our actions in the present.  To explain why requires a diversion into the abstract, from which we will return to offer some suggestions. In essence, we contend that it is impossible to design policies to implement fixed goals due to the inherent creativity of humanity and nature.  Our evolving purposes will inevitably escape their moorings.  Rather, we are more likely to reach success by seeking new opportunities in the existing evolving international and economic landscapes, and creatively wielding those opportunities to generate new possibilities not otherwise anticipated.  In short, rather than creating a mold and seeking to fit the world within it, we argue that the mold should adapt to the unfixed world that we, often unknowingly, co-create.  Instead of centralized, command-and-control policies, we advocate bottom up experimentation and evolutionary learning based on effective use of existing information, and our joint co-inventions, which are often not predictable in advance.  In conflict situations, and in devastatingly poor regions, the envisioning of novel opportunities that may create unforeseen, “win-win” situations may lead to renewed hope and unexpected resolution.  Witness Silicon Valley and the IT revolution — their becoming was unprestatable.   

The notion that effective policies can be designed to achieve fixed goals — the reigning methodology of 20th century policy — is an illusion.  The “design” mentality begins with identifying a perceived problem and choosing a fixed outcome that, properly implemented, the designer believes will solve the problem.  The UN goals can potentially be seen in this light — a designer would say, for example, that world hunger is a problem and we therefore must ensure that every person in the world has a minimum quantity of food.  Next, the designer would design and execute a particular policy to achieve that outcome, such as a particular food donation program as an example, expecting a stable relationship between the design and the outcome.  The design would be seen as a sort of architectural blueprint, designed to alter social institutions in specific desired ways.

The problem with this approach, as we have seen with the large-scale failures of so many policies in the 20th century, is that society is not a machine that can be engineered in predictable or foreseeable ways.  These “engineered” institutions do not sufficiently account for the evolutionary, creative nature of change.  To see this, consider two cases: Alan Turing’s mathematical idea of an algorithm enabled, but did not cause, the main frame computer, which with the chip enabled, but did not cause, the personal computer, which enabled word processing, which enabled file sharing, which enabled the world wide web, which enabled online commerce, browsers, and Facebook.  No one could have foreseen these latter opportunities when the Turing machine was invented.  

As another example, unexpected loopholes can be found in any law, which open opportunities for new strategies with payoffs that were unforeseen to the law’s designers.  In turn, these new strategies require new laws, which again contain new loopholes.  We cannot “design” this sprawling process of co-creation, but we must live it together wisely, accepting that we often do not know what we are creating.   

Not only do we not know what will happen, we often do not even know what can happen.  Rather, we are drawn, “sucked” into the very opportunities we create, even though we typically do not know what we unleash.  Thus, we see that the faith in reason, the highest virtue of the Enlightenment, fails us in this instance, for reason cannot tell us what we enable.      

Thus we question the idea that institutions operate in mechanical and predictable ways, like clocks we wind up and let go.  In physical law-governed systems, all possible states of the system exist in a stable phase space, and all possible paths of the system are predetermined by entailing laws of physics.  Much of modern economic theory builds on similar assumptions, where perfectly equilibrating markets and perfectly rational agents somehow exhaust all possibilities and sources of novelty.

But human and living, evolving natural systems are not governed by entailing laws.  This is because the full range of relevant functional variables that may affect the system’s evolution cannot be determined, let alone ascertained through any kind of logical reasoning. Without knowing all relevant variables, it is impossible to execute designs based on an accurate model of reality.  This is known as the frame problem. 

Because the space of possible outcomes of a given action is not fully known, it is impossible to predict with certainty what the reaction will be.  Instead, actions enable adjacent possible niches, which become tools that politicians, regulators, business and others use in order to fulfill their own purposes. In the aggregate, this process creates new systemic behaviors that may ultimately subvert the action’s initial purpose.  

In other words, the fallacy of design is that the “frame” of the problem — the full set of relevant considerations (or uses and functions of existing assets and resources) — is assumed to already be known.  For example, the United States Constitution was designed to balance competing factors.  Federalism balanced the need for centralized decision-making with dispersal of power to safeguard liberty.  Separation of powers was designed to divide power so that each branch would check the others.  The Bill of Rights was intended to further protect unalienable individual rights.  The constitutions of other nations have balanced these principles in distinctive ways, but all share a common faith, from Locke among others, in design.  Yet in this era of deep governance crises, social unrest, and calls for new constitutional conventions, we should question the adequacy of any constitutional design.  

We argue that all institutions, even the most fundamental, evolve so as to drift, even dislodge, from their original premises and purposes.  Attempts to engineer these institutions will always fall apart in the long run.  Rather, the concept of design itself is, like a desert mirage, a persuasive and comforting illusion.  We can draw up blue prints to the smallest specification, but we cannot control the execution of our plans as they take on unanticipated new life within the adaptive networks that respond to them.  

The futility of design implies a crisis of economic planning.  How should governments design policies to achieve the UN Development Goals if design is an illusion?  The stakes are too high for nihilistic or fatalistic responses.  And the stakes are too high to blithely apply old-fashioned command and control models.  At the same time, it is not satisfactory to abdicate collective action in the hope that “markets” can somehow achieve results that, while present in some cases, are not yet realized globally.  In particular, we doubt that “privatization” should be viewed as our central tool in the pursuit of global development.  We must somehow think and act beyond markets and states.  

We must seek economic models that leverage the adaptive decision making of every actor in the system.  We want each person’s own inner force of will to be moved toward improvements and progress.  Governments cannot hope to somehow direct the individual will of each individual citizen.  But they can modify existing institutions to lean slowly in the direction of positive change.

But we have many overlapping institutions such that the institutional mix varies not only from nation to nation, but within nations as well.  The precise institutional mix is always a local phenomenon.  We should think of the UN development goals, then, as first and foremost guideposts for institutional adaptation at the local level.  Improved health in one location may mean increasing caloric intake, while in another it means reduced caloric intake, and in a third it means indoor plumbing.  It is important, therefore, to engage local knowledge and leverage local institutions to achieve our global ends.  

Local governance of irrigation systems, for example, is essential to “ensure availability and sustainable management of water and sanitation for all.”  To cite a concrete and illustrative case, Lam (1998) found that Nepalese farmers were able to manage water resources effectively in part because of local governance mechanisms of their own making, which included annual meetings and frequent informal communications between farmers.  Ostrom (2010) finds that in general, “farmer-managed systems are likely to grow more rice, distribute water more equitably, and keep their systems in better repair” that systems designed and imposed by a central government.  And yet such systems are far from “privatized.”  They are simultaneously voluntary, collective, and local.  Similarly, women in urban markets in Ghana have formed small business collectives known as susu.  “Trust and reputation are the essential elements in all of [these] informal arrangements, as this reinforces a system of reciprocal behavior” (Chamlee-Wright, 1997, p. 140).  Attempts to move these women to officially sanctioned markets and stalls backfired by rupturing the trust relations of the susu  (pp. 150-151).  Here again, voluntary, collective, and local seems to work best.  Beware of formulas, however.  The formula “voluntary, collective, local” admonishes us to start from where we are, to build on local institutions, to build on existing institutions.  But it is of limited value in the design, for example, of spectrum auctions.  Let us start from where we are, then, but avoid Procrustean solutions for human problems.

Ours, then, is a vision of global change through adaptive institutional change at all levels, but first and foremost at the local level.  It is not a vision of design or command and control or engineering and rational forecasts.  It is a vision of enablement. We enable global change by enabling local governance.   

So, given that conventional top-down, command-and-control policies are not the way to achieve the UN goals, how do we prevent these laudable ideas from languishing?  Perhaps we may gain insight from the eminent philosopher Alfred North Whitehead, particularly in his views of time, process, and the power of intention.  In his book Process and Reality, Whitehead argued that the universe exists not as individuated substances, but rather entities existing as processes of becoming through time.  However we may judge Whitehead’s overall philosophy, we should take seriously his criticism of reductionism.  The reductionist materialism that has dominated the philosophy of science since Newton, a paradigm which sees the universe in terms of cold, machine-like components existing in isolation, overlooks the layers of interconnected processes that drive the continuity of change.  

In Whitehead’s view, the influence of the past tends to be material, and constitutes the framework from which the present and future evolve.  Although Whitehead did not use this term, we argue consistent with his theory that the past provides “actual situations” that become “enabling constraints,” which at once restrain and encourage the development of the future.  In other words, the enabling constraints from the past ensure that we cannot mold the world from scratch, but that we can build on what exists to create novel possibilities. 

Whitehead argued optimistically that the future exerts its influence on the present, in the form of intention.  Our intentions can act as basins of attraction that literally draw in the actions of the present, like balls rolling down the walls of a deep tub. We must recognize, however, that our intentions, and the realities they enable, can often create a widely divergent pattern of becoming, much like the evolving biosphere, political systems, and the economy.  The balls may roll in differing directions, and may clash and collide along the way.  Diverse purposes and limited resources yield conflicts that always demand some form of fairness.  Here we hope that finding new opportunities can be the source of hope and novel resolutions of these conflicts.  

We cannot predict or prestate how our intentions may come to fruition, but through the strength of intention, invention and compassion, we can bend the curve of the present.  

What do intentions mean in the context of the UN goals for sustainability?  We argue that rather than specific targets to be achieved through designed policies, these goals should be seen as values to guide human innovation.  As individuals, institutions and societies exploit opportunities in the adjacent possible, they can do so with an internal guiding purpose — the values embodied in the UN goals.  Thus, rather than adopt rigid policies doomed to failure as realities shift, these entities may adapt their strategies according to new information.  At the same time, we belong to diverse social groups with diverse goals that often come into conflict.  We think there is no set moral answer to the resolution of these conflicts, even based on fairness, for we will always debate what is “fair” and our reflections on this are ever-evolving, from Hammurabi to now.    
Putting this all together, we argue that we cannot design policies for specific goals.  But we can exert our collective intention to influence the world.  As in the Axial Age, we can transcend from our obsession with material well-being to human and spiritual values that may become the centerpiece of civilization.  Such transcendence will require not logical reason and social engineering, but the embrace of spiritual values and the common conscience of humanity, which have been all but lost in modernity.  

If individuals, institutions and societies are empowered to take action in their own sphere to effectuate these human values, despite inevitable conflicts of purposes, and with enduring hope to co-create solutions to bridge these conflicts, each action may accumulate with others in a forever evolving, unknowable becoming.  At this global hinge of history, to do so requires enlightenment at a societal, even world, scale.  The UN can serve as a crucial enabler of this process.  

By Stuart Kauffman, Caryn Devins, Roger Koppl and Teppo Felin


Chamlee-Wright, Emily (1997) The Cultural Foundations of Economic Development: Urban Female Entrepreneurship in Ghana. London and New York: Routledge.
Lam, Wai Fung (1998) Governing Irrigation Systems in Nepal: Institutions, Infrastructure, and Collective Action, Oakland, CA: ICS Press.
Ostrom, Elinor (2010) “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” American Economic Review, 100(3): 641-72.