To The Heart Of Living Systems

How do we know anything? It seems a simple question doesn’t it? And yet as soon as you dwell on it for more than an instant it begins to open up the whole complex weave of how living systems work. For some it is an age old question, that touches on religion and consciousness. For others the field of ‘brain science’ that is now one of the most rapidly expanding areas of our knowledge offers new insights. Now we are able to map what is happening in our brains and bodies as we respond to stimuli.

To ask how we become aware of what is happening in a living system is to enquire into the consciousness of that system. The system’s capacity to take intentional action is linked to its level of consciousness. Or to put it simply it is linked to what it knows about itself. Cognition is therefore a critical characteristic of a living system and forms one of our ‘Big Five’ characteristics.

If you ask a question of people in any human system, it could be a commercial system, a governmental system or a social system like a club or family, their answer to the question will depend on who they are and the nature of their connection with that system. If you ask the question ‘how does this system work?’ you can get some fascinatingly informative responses. If you ask an Apple employee how their system works, they might tell you about the stores, their production chain, the sales and marketing processes or maybe the employment conditions they work under. But what about the app developers, third party people who have no employment contract with Apple but are essential to making the company successful? And what of the users, you and me, people whose data grows the system and whose usage patterns are defined by the technology yet also define it. Assuming we can agree what the living system that is ‘Apple’ (as opposed to the listed company that is Apple) actually is, then where we sit in that complex web of relationships will determine what we see and what we know about how the system works.

As soon as a living system gains any level of scale, processing all these different perspectives becomes more than any single individual (and certainly any computer! can possibly manage. All of these perspective can be right from the vantage point of the person holding them, yet all are only partial (in both senses of the word) and can be in flat contradiction of each other. A cold analytic certainty is gone and what is left is irreducible uncertainty.

But although we cannot know anything as an absolute, that doesn't mean that we don’t know anything at all. In fact, and quite obviously, it is the opposite. Once we give up a polarising form of knowledge where we posit one end of a scale against another, we can start to explore the range and wealth of knowledge that is available to us. To do this requires us to seek a variety of perspectives from very different vantage points. It also requires us to have the capacity to hold those differences together in such a way that some new and more important meaning can emerge. Too often in large organisations that is too hard; there is no room for heretics who challenge existing orthodoxies. There is no space in reasonable dialogue for the local activists who reject the commercial advantages of building a new airport. When we stifle these voices rather than hold the difference, our quality of cognition necessarily drops.

And it is also more tricky than that. Our rational minds like to hold onto a viewpoint that we are objective observers of the world around us and that we me make true and impartial sense of what we see. In fact, this is not the case. Even when we see something, only around 20% of our processing is on the visual information. At the same time our brain is taking the input it ‘sees’ and comparing it with all similar versions it has retained from our experience to determine what the input means. Most of the sense making is internal and defined by the past. In other words, we do not know what we see, instead we see what we already know. Our carefully formed, beliefs, emotions and prejudices are determining how we view the external world around us much more than our calm detached objectivity. This is neither good nor bad, it is simply the nature of how living things make sense of the world around them.

This makes cognition in a living system a complex, emotional and collective process. To ‘know’ we are in a system, how it works and therefore begin to make choices as to how we might grow change within it is not easy. It requires us to be able to seek, value and make room for different perspectives to emerge. Yet to do so challenges the orthodoxy of that the system. Our frame of reference determines what we do and to do better, asks us to broaden the frame.

© John Atkinson (2016)

The Big Five


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