Tuesday, 6 October 2015

Individual versus collective? Stop being so 20th Century.

There was a fantastic article in the Guardian on Sunday, the 9th of August. ‘The mistake we all make, and the simple experiment that reveals it’ may sound like Buzzfeed click-bait, but it was actually a fascinating and hugely important argument by Richard Nisbett about the difference between individualistic and holistic thinking.  The trick, sorry, experiment, in question featured this picture:

“One of my favourite experiments, conducted by the social psychologist Takahiko Masuda, asks Japanese and American college students to rate the expression of the central figure in a cartoon where he is surrounded by other faces [see the Observer Magazine’s own version on page 21). Japanese students rate the central figure as less happy when he’s surrounded by sad figures (or angry figures) than when he’s surrounded by happier figures. The Americans were much less affected by the emotion of the surrounding figures. (The experiment was also carried out with sad or angry figures in the centre and with happy, sad, or angry faces in the background, with similar results.)”
Although I hadn’t heard about these studies, I am not at all surprised by the findings. It has been clear to me for a long time that much of Western philosophy and culture struggles with the object/context relationship regarding self and identity, and that Eastern philosophy is far more compatible with complexity theory for not having this issue.
“Easterners tend to have a holistic perspective on the world. They see objects (including people) in their contexts, they’re inclined to attribute behaviour to situational factors, and they attend closely to relationships between people and between objects. Westerners have a more analytic perspective. They attend to the object, notice its attributes, categorise the object on the basis of those attributes and think about the object in terms of the rules that they assume apply to objects of that particular category.”
This is the unintended path dependency that underlies so much of what is wrong about the West, in this new, 21st Century context. It is also the one criticism I have for following a scientific skepticism way of thinking, and the reason I left that community. Reductionism can be (arguably always) arbitrary in complex systems when describing emergent characteristics. This can create unfalsifiable interpretations of the same phenomena that, even if pointing in the same direction, give the illusion of incompatibility to those who speak different cultural languages, or who have drawn different arbitrary divides. This is also why the 21st century belongs not to the West.
When a cultural artifact is so engrained into a society that it has actually changed the way we think, it is incredibly hard to adjust quickly. We have thousands of years of cultural capital all around us founded on this lack, even rejection, of holistic thinking.
I suspect that it is far easier to add science to holism, than it is to add holism to science.
This is because for science, you have set rules – trust the evidence. use the scientific method for everything. For complexity, as with social science, the evidence is always interpretable, and so a whole new way of thinking is required, one that does not have the certainty of evidence showing clear cause and effect.
As the world continues in a whirl of exponentially scientific advance, the East will have thousands of years of their own cultural capital to draw upon to understand it, tradition that is inherently compatible with the networked, complex, world we are creating. To not view the whole in the 21st century will be seen as backward, heretical, dangerous. A deficiency, a virus the Earth will be figuratively trying to sweat out.
We’ve done the reductionist swing to the individual for hundreds of years now. It has gone too far. Now we need to slow the compartmentalisation, the specialisation, and the arbitrary barriers (IP, borders, money) that deny us emergence of new ways of living. We need to understand that *we* are the system, the system is us, both important, both needed to be included.
Not extreme capitalism that denies the system. Not extreme socialism that denies the individual. That is the 20th Century talking. We need to collectively decide what works best, where and when, free from ideologies demands for hegemony, free from ancient institutions that have lost all trace of imagination. And I think we will need Latin America and Asia to lead the way.

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