Pattern not part

Reading Donella Meadow’s Thinking in Systems changed my mind. But not enough. I’ve found great value in making a deliberate effort to see:

  • The components of a system
  • The relationships between the components of a system
  • The collective purpose of a system

I’ve also benefitted from thinking about the leverage different intervention points within a system provide. Starting with the most feeble intervention point and finishing with the most powerful:

9. Constants, parameters, numbers (subsidies, taxes, standards)
8. Regulating negative feedback loops
7. Driving positive feedback loops
6. Material flows and nodes of material intersection
5. Information flows
4. The rules of the system (incentives, punishments, constraints)
3. The distribution of power over the rules of the system
2. The goals of the system
1. The mindset or paradigm out of which the system—its goals, power structure, rules, its culture—arises.

Some months after reading Meadow’s book, I learned that “systems thinking” as a discipline could be interpreted as just one quadrant of a larger framework: the lower-right quadrant (“Its”, exterior-collective) posited in Ken Wilber’s Integral Theory. (Note: I’ll stick with an exterior-collective example for now, but I suspect that what follows applies to the other systems contained within the other three quadrants of the Integral Theory framework.)

Just starting to notice these things is powerful and transformative. Priming perception is, after all, a nearly effortless way to influence action, learning and decision making. Yet I’ve still been missing something: motion. 

Obviously, a complex system is not static. A complex system’s components grow in number, decrease in number, and themselves evolve. A complex’s system’s relationship solidify and disintegrate, become more implicit and become more explicit, multiply and divide, thrum with the distribution of information or sit inert and quiet, like an old and overgrown bridleway. A complex system’s purpose is continuously being influenced by its environment and exercising its own sense of agency—staying true to itself or adapting to the new reality. So saying, “motion is an inherent attribute of a complex system,” wouldn’t be wrong. But it wouldn’t be right, either.

I’ve been reading Thomas Nail’s Being and Motion. Its central thesis is that motion is ontologically primary; being is motion, and motion is the source of other concepts that have been or are considered to be ontologically primary: space, eternity, force and time. 

I’m inclined to buy in to that thesis. I’m not a physicist—as the rest of this sentence will reveal—but it seems that at the smallest, human-perceivable scale there is only a limited accuracy with which we can describe the values associated with a quantum particle. The motion of reality continually confounds our attempts to measure it at the smallest scale, and the largest scales are nested constructions of that same thing we cannot grasp.

As we scale up—from particles to atoms to molecules to cells to tissues to organs to organ systems to bodies to buildings to planets to solar systems to stars to galaxies to the universe as a whole—the persistent motion of being doesn’t go away. We just stop noticing it. 

Just because something is of a sufficiently large scale for us to perceive it as a static entity doesn’t mean it is a static entity. What appears to us as a static entity is actually the persistence of a particular pattern of motion. In Nail’s terms, every thing—organic or inorganic, small or large, existing for an infinitesimal moment or for millions of years —comes from the motion of flows forming folds and creating fields. Things that are developing, things that are persisting, things that are disintegrating; they all come from—they are—the motion of being.

We began with complex systems. These are derived from the motion of being and exhibit motion-like attributes. Complex systems do not automagically decide to converge and then start to exhibit motion. The convergence, persistence and degradation of a complex system is a direct consequence of the motion of being. This realisation—ripped from and provoked by reading Being and Motion—must have some practical consequences. I am trying to figure them out, mostly by focusing on three questions:

  • If being is motion, how does that affect our perception?
  • If being is motion, how does that affect our decision making?
  • If being is motion, how does that affect our ability to learn?

An example for the first question could be personal. If being is motion, then our emotions and thoughts are nothing more than particular patterns of motion with enough salience to trigger our perception or experience of them. This gives any single or sequence of thought or emotion a flavour of flux, of fragility. That is not to deny their intensity, nor their significance. But knowing that emotions and thoughts are particular configurations of motion makes experiences like depression, anxiety, grief, jealousy or low self-esteem—even fear or pain—seem less intimidating. It also makes thoughts and emotions related to contentment, aliveness, satisfaction, joy and love seem that much more valuable.

An example for the second question could be an arbitrary decision made in a professional setting. The decision could be a simple “A or B?”, or it could be deciding when to initiate a difficult conversation with an internal or external stakeholder. Being is motion seems to have a more subtle impact in these scenarios. I can’t easily untangle it, yet.

I have a live example for the third question. I’m still reading Being and Motion, but I’ve also re-picked up Mark Burgess’ Smart Spacetime after abandoning it a while back. The blurb:

“This is a book about physics, it’s about computers, artificial intelligence, and many other topics on surface. It’s about everything that has to do with information. It draws on examples from every avenue of life, and pulls apart preconceptions that have been programmed into us from childhood. It re-examines ideas like distance,time, and speed, and asks if we really know what those things are. If they are really so fundamental and universal concepts then can we also see them and use them in computers, or in the growing of a plant? Conversely, can we see phenomena we know from computers in physics? We can learn a lot by comparing the way we describe physics with the way we describe computers—and that throws up a radical view: the concept ofvirtualization, and what it might mean for physics.”

Reading Burgess talk about space and time and information without mention of the motion of being feels a little like re-reading a murder mystery; I know something the characters don’t. Seeing Burgess talk of space and time and information and not broach motion gives me the feeling that I have a critical insight that the author doesn’t. I know this is—to put it politely—a farcical feeling to have; I am a definite noob in Burgess’ domain. And I also mentioned the temporariness of feelings above. But the feeling is still there. We’ll see what happens to it…

For each of those three questions, I think the meta answer is that realising being is motion compels me to think about patterns of motion instead of parts of a complex system or the relationships between wholes. The revelation of motion as being has itself moved my own thoughts and refactored my own questions. I’m at the halfway point of Being and Motion—roughly—but I’m reminded of the feelings brought about by other salient books in my past; Antifragile, Impro, The Girard Reader, Primo Levi’s works, Never Let Go to name a few. There seems to be a distinct difference between being before and being after these books—the motion of being was once unknown to me, and now I can’t un-know it.