Organizing Dialogue, Experience and Knowledge for Complex Problem-Solving

Adventures in Looking

April 23rd, 2013

Quoting Adam Gopnik.

Quoting Adam Gopnik.

Adam Gopnik just wrote a piece entitled, “A Point of View: Science, Magic and Madness,” in which he compares Galileo’s scientific method with a “half-bright” contemporary of that era, John Dee. Gopnik provides descriptions that articulate the experimental framework of a Learning Lab for Resiliency.™ (More on LLRs in upcoming blogentries.)

I read Gopnik’s piece this past Sunday morning, having flagged it from a Tweet I’d seen a few days previously; it was published on April 12, 2013. As it happened, that same morning I saw and read an article posted to Facebook critiquing institutionalized classism and racism, noticing only after I had read it that it was a blog entry from a blog called That Way Madness Lies. The specific blogentry was written on April 20, 2013; the blog was initiated nearly a year previously, on April 12, 2012.

Madness, you may have noticed, occurs in both titles. That word (“madness”) was chosen by two authors roughly a year apart in time but came to my awareness within a particular 48-hours. Mere coincidence, of course. Unless one approaches it as a puzzle of time/timing, language, and existence. Before I give you the rest of the ‘data’ that caught my attention, let me explain a bit of the theory that suggests such ‘coincidences’ are simultaneously the very stuff of the scientific method, the foundation for faith, and the source of madness.

Simultaneity and Heteroglossia

Here are some definitions:

  • Simultaneity is a feature of experience and heteroglossia is a feature of language.
  • Simultaneity deals with time; heteroglossia deals with with difference.

Regarding simultaneity, when things happen at the same time, they co-occur: existing synchronically. When things occur at different times, they are asynchronous. One of the most obvious social effects of the internet age is in interpersonal communication. Historically, you could only have synchronic communication if you were physically together. The revolutions of alphabets for writing and the printing press were that they enabled asynchronous communication. Nowadays we have a variety of methods for communicating when we are not physically co-present with each other: some of these are synchronic (such as live chat) and some are asynchronic (like email or comments to a blog or in a discussion board in an online classroom or reddit , etcetera).

Regarding heteroglossia, whatever is heard (or seen, if you are Deaf and use a signed language) is open to interpretation. I’m ready to explore the hypothesis that the most common reason why people misunderstand each other is because everyone is using different reference points to determine meaning. Sometimes it is obvious that people have different reference points; sometimes it is not at all clear. Even with many overlaps in experience, worldview, and culture each person still generates their own sense of what things mean: this is the evidence of heteroglossia. The motivation for exploring heteroglossia is to cultivate social skills for tapping the latent creativity inherent in the realities of simultaneity.

Meaning-making combines myth and reason

The two ‘stories’ named above were not written at exactly the same time, although if you stretch the relevant timespan to an historical or evolutionary scale then one could (from that perspective) argue that they happened during the same period of time. Statistics could determine the significance relative to the timespan, that is, whether it matters to decide that these events happened ‘at essentially the same time’ or ‘at qualitatively different times.’ While for me–as an individual living human–I can clearly mark the different times; from the levels of society and culture there are no doubt multitudes of humans also encountering and experiencing “madness,” “science,” and “magic” (a.k.a. “religion”) at this very time, concurrently with me. Aren’t you?

The link of “madness” between the the poles of “science” and “magic” triangulates in timespace with a conversation I was already involved in before I encountered those random bits of public discourse. That conversation unfolded in a short thread on Facebook (April 19, 2013) after I posted a quote from French philosopher Henri Bergson. April 19th was two days after the Boston Marathon bombing and the city was under a shelter-in-place order. Status updates and posts in my Facebook feed that day were dominated with concerns, reactions, and responses among friends, family members, ideologues and activists. My contribution was inspired from a commentary on Bergson by F.C.T. Moore called Thinking Backwards. 

“If intelligence now threatens to disrupt social cohesion in certain ways, and society must continue, it is necessary to have a counterweight to intelligence at these points.”

Quoting Bergson in Deux Sources, p. 124 (1932/1988)
Translated from the original French by Moore, p. 136 (1996)

A Facebook friend asked for more context, seeking “clues regarding the meaning of intelligence.” I responded:

Moore re-presents Bergson, who uses “reason” synonymously with “intelligence.” In the quote above, the counterweight is religion or magic. Bergson’s basic argument is that reason alone is problematic because it tends to individualism and selfishness. He was (and still is) outside the mainstream because he refused to believe that so-called “primitive” states of consciousness are evolutionarily delayed. In other words he rejected western civilization & modernity’s claim to higher consciousness. My lens is the concept of “durance” (in French, dureé) as a temporal aspect of consciousness, so I’m not an expert on how his philosophy differed from others, just summarizing here and extrapolating a bit. I don’t think he was championing magical thinking or religion, just arguing that collectivity, that is, the social, demands a system of beliefs that mitigates an excess of reason. The usual opposition with intelligence, then, is instinct. Bergson is interesting because he refused to demonize either.

Bergson’s numerous publications span the years 1889-1938. His thinking is intriguing because he was able to use language to identify and describe contradictions within the intellectual elite during his lifetime.


One of my neighbors.

One of my neighbors.

So what? I encountered two published references to madness during the same time period in which I’ve been exploring Bergson’s notion of durance. Making the juxtaposition meaningful is heteroglossic – you will most likely draw different conclusions from me putting them into relation with each other. Perhaps, however, public expressions linking science, magic, and madness are evidence of the zeitgeist. The stimuli are twofold (at least):

  1. evidence of climate change appears in disrupted, random, and unusual weather, and
  2. random violence seeps into the supposedly safe inner reaches of the developed first world.

Unavoidably and inexorably humans who are alert and aware are beginning to sense that there might be a challenge to species survival. Considering the science and the economics realistically is depressing: one must deliberately choose to resist denial–this requires an exercise of agency with your own consciousness. No matter who you are or where you live, surviving climate change is a function of time.

Making myth to enable a human future

Durance is the aspect of consciousness that allows us to imagine any kind of future at all. Generally, nearly everyone I know assumes the future will continue more or less the same as the past. But what if we can no longer take the future for granted? “We are inherently incapable of considering, much less empathizing with, our grandchildren’s grandchildren,” writes Guy McPherson in Walking Away From Empire. This failure to imagine five generations into the future was not always the case. Anna Sofaer, an archealogist studying ancient astronomy, writes about “the people of Chaco, a culture that thrived in the arid San Juan Basin from A.D. 850 to 1130″ who managed to build, over several generations, “magnificent multistoried buildings” that align with the seasonal cycles of the solar system.

It is common, unfortunately, among established astronomers, to insult this architectural and technological achievement of an entire culture as ”religion” instead of “science,” or to impugn the researchers for making stuff up. That attitude goes beyond skepticism, instead it shows the greatest hubris–it assumes that one’s own intelligence is greater than the intelligence of others. Drawing on Bergson, reason clearly supports such an attitude of superiority. Such blatant ethnocentrism discounts the magic of a society that successfully sent a message over one thousand years into the future. We can argue the details of their message, but let’s not get lost in heteroglossic debate over what they might or might not have meant or intended to mean. Instead, notice the whole.

Very large individual buildings in the Chaco Canyon system align with the annual solstices and equinoxes. Markings have proven to also track the complicated 18-year lunar cycle; an achievement not yet documented in any other site in the world. Most of these were apparently not lived in or used in any kind of daily way, the only explanation that makes any rational sense is that they were constructed as works of art to express the ceremonial center of a cultural way of living as a human being. ”Scholars have commented extensively on the impractical and enigmatic aspects of Chacoan buildings, describing them as ‘overbuilt and overembellished’ and proposing that they were built primarily for public image and ritual expression (Lekson 1998; Stein and Lekson 1992)” (in Sofaer, 2008).

A study by The Solstice Project in the mid-1980s “revealed that, in addition to the individual buildings, considering that some of these roads seem to go nowhere, experts suggest that they can be linked–especially the Great North Road–to astronomical observations, solstice marking, and agricultural cycles.” In other words, “the thirty-five mile Great North Road was built as a cosmographic expression.” These were a people whose beliefs were so important to them that they devoted massive resources over spans of lifetimes in order to communicate those beliefs to their grandchildren 45 generations later.

If one accepts the evidence (that is, if one behaves as a scientist), there can be no mistaking the relevance of positioning and orientation in the Chaco Canyon’s global-scale artwork. Humans are a part of something so much larger than ourselves there are no adequate common labels for it, only heteroglossic efforts in literature (the humanities and philosophy); mathematics (which infuses contemporary knowledge in all the natural and physical sciences and reaches, more recently, into the social sciences too); religion; and myth.

What stories did the Chacoans tell each other about the meaning of their labor? How might those stories differ from the ones we tell each other about the meaning of our jobs today? What new stories can we begin to tell about the meaning of work? What stories can we tell each other about work that has meaning?

Stories full of science, and madness, and magic.


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