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Thinking In Terms Of Generative Processes

March 11, 2012

This weekend I’ve been reflecting on a limitation of the mind which does a lot of harm to all of us.  Our mind tends to mostly think in terms of either concrete particulars or abstract categories, almost always ignoring or ignorant of the generative processes which went into creating the thing in question.  In other words, we’re blind to the large scale flow of time and the connections between everything, not being able to see what’s really going on around us.  Let me give you some examples.

Go outside for a walk through the park.  You probably know what grass is, what trees are, what flowers are, what a park bench is, and the layout of the park.  What you probably don’t know is all the generative processes and history that went into everything there.  Has the world the always had grass?  Has grass always been the same as it is today?  Have we always had trees?  Have trees always been of the same types we have today?  Have flowers always been the same as they are today? The Earth is old, billions of years old, but we’re living only within a snapshot of time, blind to everything that’s gone on before us.

You probably know that trees grow from small seeds, as do the flowers there, and the grass.  Why is that?  That’s because you’ve seen trees growing.  You live a very short time, but you’ve been able to see trees start from small sticks jutting out of the ground until, later in your life, they are huge oaks.  You’ve seen little shards of grass protrude from the dirt and grow into lush green grass within a very short time.

But the length of time we live is insignificant in the large scale of things.  Even if you’ve studied all the written recorded history of mankind, that only goes back, at most, twenty to thirty thousand years.  Life goes back billions of years, multi-cellular life back to some five to six-hundred millions years.  That span of time is pretty much incomprehensible.

Though I’ve been acquiring a large library of books on biology here at my house, I haven’t yet had the time to go through them all and chart this generative process of life myself.  There are all these different species and classes of life and you can trace their developments all the way back to the first single celled organisms.  What a fascinating journey.  I’ve spent some two years studying it so far, but I have so much to go.  I know the general lineage of how man evolved, and have looked into how our nervous system formed, particularly our brain, but life is so much more than just us.

This concept doesn’t just apply to life either.  Think of everything around you.  Think of the evolution of technology and how it’s changing our lives.  Just ponder your state of ignorance and how little you know.  Even simple things.  I look at my bed, and though I know what a bed is, I don’t know how they’re made, who makes them, nor the different manufacturing techniques that have been used to make beds.  The same goes for my computer, my dishwasher, my stove, my air conditioner, and everything else around me.  I barely know anything about anything.  But even though I don’t know much about these things, there is a long developmental progression which has been going on for ages, and will continue to go on after I’m long gone.  This “knowledge” is scattered across the minds of people all over the world.  But as for me individually, I’m a creature near completely blind, knowing next to nothing about the reality of my world.

Some of these generative processes have been going on for millions, if not billions of years.  We’re all a part of them, whether you know it or not.

Just yesterday I was reading a book by David Bohm.  One of the main themes I see in all his work is that we rarely think in terms of generative processes.  We tend to think in terms of what is.  It’s easier.  It’s hard enough just to learn about our world as it is now, much less have knowledge as to all that’s happened before us, along with all the large scale developmental trends.  We instead think in terms of the “now”.  We think knowledge is facts, and charts, and numbers, and things written in books.  We don’t think of it as a living process driving us and controlling our perceptions, our fears, our thoughts, and our actions.  His thinking is so unique, though I’ve tried studying his books over and over, each time I reread them I learn something new.  His mind was on a different plane.

Take all our political problems.  He proposes a rather ingenious thought experiment.

I read a science fiction story a long time ago – in the Thirties – where a scientist invented a machine that would remove people’s memories altogether, immediately, all over the world. Hitler was talking and he suddenly forgot he was Hitler. People had to rediscover how to do everything. It shows that all those political problems were in the form of knowledge. These people knew they were Nazis and they knew what they had to do. Other people know they are communists and this and that. So because of what people know, not only abstractly but concretely, they’re faced with all these problems. It seems silly to have problems based on what you know. That is, knowledge includes not only information but misinformation; it also includes confused information and it includes nonsense. It’s mixed with all sorts of useful and correct things. Even an idea which is correct in one context becomes nonsense in another. You can’t so easily fix it.

So, you could say that knowledge is not just something in the library that you can look up any time you want. It’s not just sitting there waiting for you to refer to it. That’s one picture of knowledge – that it is entirely abstract, sitting there in the computer waiting for you to use it, and then you choose to use it when you want to and give it up when you don’t want to. But that doesn’t work, you see. If you know this fellow is your enemy, you can’t give it up. If you know you’re in danger, you can’t give it up. Suppose we take people getting angry at each other. You can see that knowledge is involved, because somebody can say, “I was just sitting here peacefully and he attacked me,” or, “He’s always doing this; he does it to annoy me.” That knowledge will produce anger, right? From there on, your thought is no longer clear, because once the anger has been created, then your thought is directed toward justifying the anger. You’ll only look at the evidence that justifies your side and not the other side – or you’ll even invent evidence. Also, you may finally say, “I shouldn’t be angry,” but that’s rather silly, because one part of your knowledge says, “I should be angry,” and the other part says, “I mustn’t be angry,”  and you can’t stop it, right? Why can’t I just wipe out the knowledge that says I should be angry? Then I don’t have to fight with the other knowledge that says I shouldn’t be angry. But when you carry on this  fight, you just get more confused and worn out. The brain cells perhaps start to break down.

– David Bohm, Knowledge As Endarkenment

I’ve spent a large portion of my life studying the mind, and though I’ve read most all of the philosophers of the Enlightenment, Hume, Locke, Descartes, and others, I’ve never, ever, thought of knowledge in this way.  This idea of knowledge as its own existence, independent of us, self-correcting itself, self-generating itself, flowing through us as a temporary medium, and completely building our world, is completely new to me.  I just realized that my view of the world has been way too human centered.  I’ve always drawn a distinction between knowledge and information.  There’s what “is” on the one hand, and on the other we have an imperfect model of that reality stored in people’s brains, normally simplified and missing information.  But the thing is, existence is driven by that knowledge.  I never considered that flow.  The change.  I’ve been too limited in time.  In a very real sense, the world is what we know.  I’m not talking about some subjective sense, I’m talking about all of us collectively.  The world is what we know.  But how did we come to know what we know?  What processes generated that knowledge?

Think of how this applies to defining who and what we are.  Think of the thought experiment where our memories were wiped.  Do you think we would become the same people we are now if all of our memories were erased?  Would you have the same friends?  The same political views?  The same religious views?  Would you be loyal to same people?  I don’t think you would.  With all of our knowledge lost, we’d revert back to a very primitive time and our civilization would crumble very rapidly.  Most people would starve to death because nobody would know what’s going on.  The whole process of history and discovery would have to begin anew.  It all stands on this foundation of “knowledge”.  That’s what I mean when I talk about knowledge being a process which runs us and our lives.  We’re not just our physical bodies, we’re also this “knowledge” which has been passed down through generation after generation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about how this knowledge gives us the power to control reality.  Over the past year or so, I’ve came to a conclusion that the more knowledge you have, the less relevant the “truth” becomes.  Knowledge is something more than a classification and description of the world.  It has a life of its own and its more proactive, more involved in the direction the world goes. It shapes reality.  It doesn’t sit by passively and watch, or wait for some human to look it up in a book.  It’s a generative process.  It’s part of something bigger.  Once knowledge reaches a certain point, how things “are” is irrelevant because you’re smart enough to change the world into the image you want it.  Knowledge seems to remove the world’s power over you.  It rids the world of resistance.  Things that were once difficult become easy.  There is no such thing as absolute difficulty.  Difficulty always depends on your approach, and the approach you take always depends on your level of knowledge.  A problem may be really difficult to solve one way, but if you approach it another way, it’s simple.   If you don’t like how things are, with the right knowledge you have the power to change it.  But what about the beginning stages, before you’ve acquired the knowledge?

Is there something intrinsic to our early stages of development which forced us to acquire knowledge?  When we were roaming the plains hunting animals, what was it that lead us to where we are today?  What was inside of us that craved knowledge?  What do we get out of it?  Was it curiosity?  Was it a pleasure in finding things out?  Was it a necessity for survival?  Does it give us some sort of survival advantage over other species?  What generative process was at work, molding us from those tribal nomads to our current stage of civilization?  Or even taking it further back, what was going on in animals that gave us the capability to think, learn, and acquire knowledge?  What is it exactly?  Looking at it from this bird’s eye perspective, what is it?

I feel a bit taken back saying all of this.  I just gave you a thought experiment that basically proved that knowledge is what holds our entire world together and without it civilization would crumble.  Then again, I barely even know what “knowledge” is.  I have no idea how to define it, or even indicate what sort of generative process it is.

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