Inside the Box

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Alice falling down the rabbit hole

Third time unlucky for the PM as of late this afternoon. Politics is broken. Spectacularly, irretrievably broken. In my lifetime, I have never seen such a meltdown of an order that for centuries looked unassailable. Democratic structures have ossified, their certainties have withered on the vine. The bipartite House, where Prime Ministers Questions – the tribal, gladiatorial sideshow of irrelevance and acrimony has never looked so utterly bereft of all reason. The very structure of the Chamber invites hostility and frequently behaviour close to hooliganism.

No wonder Europe is laughing at us.

The Leave campaign was won by strategy, statistics and the ever-present willingness to follow the leader who shouts loudest and the most repetitively with promises of money, freedom and the right to choose. Remainers had no defence against it, so, rightly or wrongly, here we are on Brexit Day 1 – there are going to be several more – so we’d all better get used to peering over the cliff edge.

What a post-Brexit Britain is going to look like in five years is a matter for fiction writers, believers in fairytales and snake oil salesmen. The absolute truth is, as the events of the last few weeks have taught us, is that we have no idea what we are doing, don’t know the right questions to ask and the whole uncertain stew is being stirred with a massive spoonful of hubris from those who actually think that they do.

We have brought this upon ourselves because we have neglected an essential ingredient, doubt. Doubt revisits partial solutions. Without it, we lose the ability  to reimagine, to set apparent certainties aside. We forget, like the dodo, how to fly and thus extinction beckons.

I have been (almost) certain for years that our education system, which  is the pathway to producing the marionettes who pretend to govern us, is not just flawed, but not fit for purpose. Our philosophical ground rules are built on a quicksand of false merit, useless degrees are awarded by half-educated academics in towers made, not of ivory, but of straw, who fill students’ heads with the same tired ideas in the same cracked pots.

The Nobel-winning physicist, Murray Gell Mann, one of the architects of the Standard Model of particle physics and namer of the ‘quark’, has described a need for an ‘Odyssean’ philosophy that can synthesise mathematics and the natural sciences with the social sciences, and the humanities and arts, into necessarily crude, trans-disciplinary, integrative thinking about complex systems. This is ‘inside the box’ thinking, bouncing all kinds of different ideas off its multifaceted walls.

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‘Today the network of relationships linking the human race to itself and to the rest of the biosphere is so complex that all aspects affect all others to an extraordinary degree. Someone should be studying the whole system, however crudely that has to be done, because no gluing together of partial studies of a complex nonlinear system can give a good idea of the behaviour of the whole…

‘Those who study complex adaptive systems are beginning to find some general principles that underlie all such systems, and seeking out those principles requires intensive discussions and collaborations among specialists in a great many fields. Of course the careful and inspired study of each specialty remains as vital as ever. But integration of those specialities is urgently needed as well. Important contributions are made by the handful of scholars and scientists who are transforming themselves from specialists into students of simplicity and complexity or of complex adaptive systems in general…

‘[There is] the distinction (made famous by Nietzsche) between “Apollonians”, who favour logic, the analytical approach, and a dispassionate weighing of the evidence, and “Dionysians”’, who lean more toward intuition, synthesis, and passion. But some of us seem to belong to another category: the “Odysseans”, who combine the two predilections in their quest for connections among ideas… We need to celebrate the contribution of those who dare take what I call “a crude look at the whole”…

This isn’t arrogance – a crude look at the whole means that one is both sitting in the helicopter as it hovers and looks, often unsuccessfully for links, connections, meaning in the chaos and also being part of the chaos itself, on the ground. As a species, we are in love with linearity; time marches inexorably forward, second by predictable second, governing everything we do and think about, from breakfast to train timetables. Great ideas, however, don’t flow out of linear progressions. They are squeezed into existence out of great wells of doubt, uncertainty and a willingness to admit we were wrong and start over. Tinkering with the edges doesn’t work any more. If only we could bring ourselves out of a zero-sum mentality, embrace, celebrate and reward integrative thinking and trans-disciplinary collaboration. Dominic Cummings, the sloganeer whose ‘take back control’ mantra, endlessly repeated like ‘four legs good, two legs bad’ from Animal Farm wrote: “Who knows what would happen to a political culture if a party embraced a new paradigm of education and science without neglecting the arts as its defining mission and therefore changed the nature of the people running it and the way they make decisions and priorities”. Italics mine.

Who knows indeed.

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