A Mouse is Edgier than a Musk Ox

I have so many notes, I’m not quite sure how much I’m going to write up Charles Foster ‘s Annual Mike Jackson lecture at Hull University on Tuesday 19th March “What is a Human?”. Suffice to say its scope was unsettlingly beyond expectations for our systems studies context. Excellent none-the-less. So I will, as usual, cherry-pick relationships to my own work and on-line dialogue following Dave Snowden’s delivery of last year’s lecture – linked most recently here in preparation for this year’s lecture.

[If you want a more generally summary of the event, beyond the ongoing dialogue here, try this excellent LinkedIn post from Andy Wilkins.]

Coincidence to be listening this morning to BBC Radio 4 “In Our Time” on “Julian the Apostate”. I didn’t get as much dialogue with Dave as I’d hoped on Tuesday, but muttering his disagreement from the back during the lecture and in brief exchanges afterwards, his criticism was that he was hearing another attempt to resurrect neo-Platonism. Very much like Julian the Apostate, adopting Plotinus take on Plato in valuing traditional myth or mystical theology distinct from requiring any theist religion.

Dave is technically right, not only in the sense that all philosophy is footnotes to Plato, but in that Foster’s thesis is indeed a plea to see humans in the cosmos in terms of traditional myth and mystical theology, the stories of who we are and how we came to be. Surprisingly, but quite explicitly and directly, answering his lecture’s title “What is a human?” with very little use of 20th/21st C “Systems Thinking” language. Indeed very explicitly calling it simply “Thinking”, is there any other authentic kind? And indeed plenty of references from the texts of the Abrahamic monotheisms, using the languages of god and the sacred, without invoking God as a supernatural causal agent. Not the usual business school, systems science and methodology fare. Quite literally, anthropology. (In my own words, back in 1991, our human self-organisation subject is “Anthropology by any other name”.)

But, criticising it pejoratively because it is neo-Platonic, is exactly the issue that short-lived Julian the Apostate himself suffered between his supporters and his enemies. A polarisation for or against “the very idea” without leaving space to address any subtlety and nuance in understanding the actual arguments. The latter requires “proper dialogue” beyond “critical thinking”. An epistemology beyond science.

A Mouse is Edgier than a Musk Ox” is a reference to Foster’s conception that smaller organisms are much more connected to their environment, much greater surface to volume ratio, much “edgier” – live life closer to their environmental edges (McGilchrist uses a small bird). Much closer to the one individual  within the unified cosmos. Here Foster’s argument comes at least partly from his own chosen experience of spending time living as a beast in direct contact with nature (most famously as a Badger in the woods.) More like the upper-Palaeolithic “hunter-gatherer” than our post-neolithic enlightened, objectified, “homo-economicus”. A world of relationships with and within the world rather than linguistic, symbolic models of the world.

Reference sources too many to mention, but Petrarch on Augustine. Jonathan Sacks story on Wittgenstein / Anscombe / Hart and the dangers of philosophy. Sam Harris and Steven Pinker critiqued in caricature for their naïve follow-the-science / show-me-the-numbers line.

Many references to Iain McGilchrist’s work, not just his hemispheric hypothesis, but the whole attention to the world and others as a moral act, and the priority of relations over relata (objects, the things related).

Foster only mentioned Rabbi Sacks the once (above) but his whole thrust reminded me of my only encounter with Sacks – that whatever processes, methods, models we end up using to capture, communicate, maintain and evolve human values, and the human culture that values them, it will be a religion by any other name, a completely natural one, without any supernatural god(s). Sacred Naturalism perhaps.

I think I get now why Dave Snowden sticks to his “Complexity Sciences” view rather that systems sciences or systems thinking. If everything is a system (which it is in systems thinking) then the word “system” is practically redundant. It’s just thinking as Foster suggested at the start. Hope of progressive dialogue with Dave Snowden, as per my previous post, is in his Anthro-Complexity prefix. The anthropological complexity of those human cultural values and behaviours are more than (orthodox) science. As Amanda Gregory – head of the Centre for Systems Studies – suggested in her introduction, the subject of those studies is ecosystems of thinking and understanding, not just “systems sciences”.

Neither S in CSS stands simply for science. As Mike Jackson reminded us in last year’s lecture, it’s more than that.


Post Notes:

Slightly baffled by a remark on the steps leaving the event, from someone who I know has seen my own research proposal, that surely all the left-right brain stuff was debunked last century? McGilchrist’s thinking is mentioned in that proposal – as well as in last year’s write-up and much dialogue since. Penny dropped? That the brain is deeply divided – by evolutionary design – is a fact to be understood, not an excuse for a polarising dichotomy, left vs right, science vs bullshit. #GoodFences 

And, just to capture a comment from Mark Hammonds the previous day, summarising “scientism” in one of our dialogues about how to explain that “something more than science” to typical scientific sceptic types. A dialogue prompted by a quote from Bronowski “Science is a very human form of knowledge” incidentally:

It is always a difficult position to get across, that is it simultaneously true that

1. Science is a human creation and an expression of human creativity.

2. It does increase our objective knowledge of the external world.

3. But it is bounded by those phenomena it includes and those it excludes.

4. The things it excludes are perfectly legitimate areas of enquiry, as philosophers are well aware. These include consciousness, ethics, logic and metaphysics.

‘Scientism’ is the ideology that 3 & 4 are false. Paul Feyerabend characterised this view as ‘Extra Scientiam nulla salus’, which is a pretty good line.

And interesting to see versions of the Latin in a play on the Christian religious doctrine, translating “scientiam” as the Church of Reason, exactly as Pirsig did. The relevance to this post? Incidentally and coincidentally, Bronowski taught at Hull, see last year’s review.)


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