VISTA Enterprise Network - Successful Implementation, World Class Support

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

. . . Part three: Begriff

Verstand's illusion about life: make wholes from parts.
Begriff thinking is not synthesis to Verstand's analysis. Both forms of thinking are capable of analysis and synthesis, but they do it in different ways that result in different products. Here is where the nature of the two forms of thought becomes clearest.

Verstand thinking is mechanistic, abstracting, and rules-based, so it performs analysis by breaking things into parts and rules, and it performs synthesis by following the rules for assembling the parts into "wholes" that are mechanisms. Verstand thinking is motivated by the profound belief that the truth is found in the building blocks of things - that all things are built out of building blocks - and that he who can identify these blocks and the rules for putting them together acquires God-like control over the realm of things those blocks are used to build. At its core, Verstand is a form of reductionism - the belief that truth and power are found by reducing things to irreducible components. Verstand is thus a form of atomism, a kind of logic, a kind of mathematical thinking, a mindset of scalpels and puzzles.

Monsters, not people, are made of parts.
There are many things Verstand thinking is good for; it works well with things that are made of parts, like cars, molecules, equations, and logical arguments. Unfortunately, it works poorly with living systems, as Victor Frankenstein discovered to everyone's horror. Sewing together the best available parts does not result in the best person - any more than interfacing together the best individual medical software packages results in the best medical system.

Living systems are not made of parts. A living organism is not made of parts. Although our language and thinking are so deeply contaminated that we think of our arm as a part that is connected to the rest of the body, that is thoroughly, profoundly false. Our arm did not begin separate for us - we were not assembled by adding arms to an armless torso - and it would do terrible violence to us to remove it. It is not a part. Nor is it connected to us - one connects parts to create a mechanical whole. Its relationship to us cannot be explained in terms of parts and connections - yet that is how we talk and think about even our own body.

Life's true structure: integrated centers.
If we can come to grips with how terrible a job Verstand thinking does of understanding even something as familiar to us as our own body, if we can escape that mode of thought long enough to consider what really is the relationship of our arm to the rest of us, then we can begin to comprehend what it is about living systems that Verstand is so blind to. Thinking effectively, successfully, pragmatically, powerfully about that nameless quality is what Begriff does so very well.

As Christopher Alexander writes in The Nature of Order, Volume One: The Phenomenon of Life, rather than being made up of parts, living systems are made up of centers. In a living system, although these centers are distinguishable and therefore nameable, they are not truly separable from each other. They cannot be separated because they are integrated into a whole - not in the way Verstand thinking would have it, in which they would begin as separate parts and then be snapped or woven together, but rather in a way that only living systems are capable of.

Life unfolds new centers, one after another.
The process of creating life is fundamentally different from the process of creating a mechanism. As Dr. Alexander writes in The Nature of Order, Volume Two: The Process of Creating Life, instead of being constructed from parts, living systems unfold new centers from existing centers. In mechanical construction, parts are visibly present before being attached together. In living construction, centers that are not visible or present develop, grow, and unfold as new levels of order from the order that was already present.

The clearest example of this is the way an acorn grows into an oak tree. The acorn does not contain a miniature oak that merely increases in size, nor does it contain the parts of an adult oak waiting to be assembled. It contains three things instead: (1) it is itself a center, (2) it contains rules for how new centers can be unfolded around the existing center to expand the strength of this initial center, and (3) it is alive, so that it interacts with the other centers around it in ways that permit both them and itself to thrive, so it can gain strength from the presence of the other centers it needs to live. The seed weaves itself into the ecosystem around it, draws upon its resources, and uses them to develop itself into a new center within the larger center. As it increases its own strength, so at the same time it contributes to the larger center around it.

Our arms and legs form as buds, new centers unfolding.
In the same way, your arms were neither present in miniature form in your initial fertilized egg, nor did the egg contain full-sized arms waiting to be bolted onto you. The arm is a center that unfolded from earlier centers that ultimately unfolded from the egg, all following the egg's rules for developing itself through the unfolding of new centers. Each of the centers of your body - your head, your arms, your legs, your fingers, your heart, and all the rest - is both a center in its own right and also a participant in the larger center that is all of you, and most of them are participants in other centers, too (your heart contributes to your circulatory system, but also to your torso, and also to your endoderm, and so on). This quality of being both a "part" and a "whole" at the same time is something the many cascades of centers in living systems all embody naturally, effortlessly, and essentially.

Not a machine, but an ecosystem.
Yet for all its ubiquity this is a quality that Verstand thinking cannot comprehend. This is not a mechanical, zero-sum game directly answerable to Newton's Third Law of Thermodynamics; through the subtle and sophisticated process of life, when one living thing increases its own life it also increases the life around itself. To paraphrase Gary Larson, all Verstand thinking can make of a sentence like this is "blah blah blah part blah blah blah," because the concept of wholes without parts, wholes that cannot be reduced to irreducible components - wholes that are not things - is inconceivable.

So, in truth, your arm is not a part connected to the rest of you. It is a living center integrated with the whole of you. Verstand cannot comprehend this, but Begriff can. Here's why.

Where Verstand trusts in parts and the rules for manipulating them, Begriff deals in wholes, in complete living systems and their behavior. This is why Begriff only accumulates around topics we have immersed ourselves in for long periods of time, to give the subjects time to re-form our minds to fit the complex truths about them. When you have a Begriff understanding of a subject, you don't need rules or parts most of the time to figure out what the subject will do; you just know, because you have experienced it in all its details for so long. How does this work?

All the world's a stage - to us. Mimesis powers Begriff.
The name of our species, Homo sapiens, is fundamentally false. We should be called Homo mimesis, because our true gift is mimicry. We are the world's greatest mimics. We evolved to be capable of so fully immersing ourselves in the behavior of our prey that we could become the prey, could anticipate its actions, its migrations, its needs, its feelings. Art, acting, music, singing, and so many other capabilities of our species owe their existence to the power to imitate, the drive to imitate. Memes and turns of phrase spread through our culture like wildfire until they get old and worn out because we can't stop ourselves from imitating what we see and hear. Earworms get stuck in our heads, playing over and over endlessly until we are driven to distraction because our mind naturally remembers and imitates anything that captures its interest.

In his mind, Einstein role-played light.
When one of us (Homo mimesis) immerses ourself in something - anything - for years and decades at a time, we come to know that subject intimately because our brain is recording and remembering everything about it, anticipating it, lavishing our memory on the details and behavior of it, until in our minds we have grown our subject as a living, holographic representation of it. That actors' capacity, that need, that reflex, is in each of us. The longer we spend with a subject, the more we become the subject.

I'm one of the three experts in the world (along with Wally Fort and Dr. Dave Wilson) on VISTA's Task Manager module. Part of what makes me great at troubleshooting Taskman is that I anthropomorphize him. I know what he will do, how he acts, what he wants, so equally strongly I know - in my gut - when his behavior is off-kilter, because that's not what he would do. But of course, I'm not really anthropomorphizing him - I've become him. In my mind, when I'm troubleshooting Taskman, I am Taskman. I know what I would do in his shoes, which is why my intuitive response is so visceral when he's misbehaving. So it is with most great masters of any subject. Whether they're consciously aware of it or not, in their mind (both thoughts and feelings) they have memorized the role of their subject and can role-play it through all its lines and permutations. They know the role so well, they not only know what would be in character for their subject, they also know what would be out of character.

Learning through mimesis (age 2).
This Begriff thinking, this experience-driven comprehension, can easily achieve precise modeling of the behavior of highly complex, sophisticated systems - can almost trivially do what Verstand cannot - because we are hard-wired to empathize with and mimic things. It's free, built-in processing for human beings. Unlike Verstand, which must be learned, we are born with powerful Begriff capabilities.

Begriff is the basis for much of the rapid learning and maturation by which the infant mind becomes the adult mind, physiological transformations aside. As we learn through education to shift from Begriff thinking to Verstand thinking, we lose our ability to learn rapidly and become increasingly rigid and brittle in our thinking. It is because of this abstractivizing mindset that we lose the ability to see past our own prejudices, because Verstand prefers abstract theories about things over the actual, concrete experience of them. This is why a generation of scientists had to die off before the theory of continental drift - which is so obvious that any child with a globe could see it in the shapes of the continents - could overcome the abstract prejudices against it. Rationalism - an overreliance on the power of reason alone, too independent of concrete, empirical evidence - is a dangerous faculty equally at home leading us away from the truth as toward it; Verstand is the thought process most involved in the pure exercise of reason unrestrained by concrete evidence.

Verstand sees parts. Begriff sees life.
When Begriff is informed by Verstand, we can learn to decompose a living whole into the living subsystems that make it up, rather than just its hypothetical parts or role-playing behaviors. Hardly anyone is competent to do this, to combine both forms of thinking to produce accurate results. Almost no one is born knowing how to do Verstand, and the process of education teaches us to suppress our naive Begriff in favor of Verstand rather than to inform our Begriff with Verstand. Educated or not, we end up being one form or the other of half-wit rather than integrating the two forms of thought to unleash their full potential.

Complex living systems of the kind Dr. Alexander writes about can only be created through living processes. Planning for such development processes cannot be done in the mechanistic ways that dominate modern architecture and project-management theory. And the organic planning methods needed will only ever be conceived and executed by those capable of informed Begriff thinking, by those capable of seeing the world in terms of complex organic systems rather than reductionist tinkertoy machines.