“Ecological Anthropology and Cybernetics”

A couple of days ago I looked at the wikipedia entry for Gregory Bateson.

I discovered that he has already been through the same process that I am going through — trying to uncover the extent to which our problems are caused by our worldview — and he came to some conclusions!

It seems sensible to review what he has already done.

Here, with some notes in grey, is an extract from the section headed “Ecological Anthropology and Cybernetics”:

“Bateson also viewed that all three systems of the individual, society and ecosystem were all together a part of one supreme cybernetic system that controls everything instead of just interacting systems.[16] This supreme cybernetic system is beyond the self of the individual and could be equated to what many people refer to as God, though Bateson referred to it as Mind.[16]

[OK: A person is part of society, which is part of the natural world, and together the three layers form one big system.]

“While Mind is a cybernetic system, it can only be distinguished as a whole and not parts. …

[OK. We can’t understand the whole of ‘Mind’ by looking at the parts, any more than a red blood cell could understand the whole of ‘Human Being’ by looking at a white blood cell, or a skin cell, or a bone cell, or even a heart, lung, or pancreas. It only makes sense when seen as a whole.]

“He saw the root of system collapses as a result of Occidental or Western epistemology. [aka The way we think the world works.]


“According to Bateson consciousness is the bridge between the cybernetic networks of individual, society and ecology, and the mismatch between the systems due to improper understanding will result in the degradation of the entire supreme cybernetic system or Mind. Bateson saw consciousness as developed through Occidental epistemology was at direct odds with Mind.

[Consciousness is a ‘bridge’ between the three layers. Misunderstanding about the way the world works will lead to behaviour that creates feedback that degrades the entire system.
The misunderstandings could presumably be to do with any layer of the system: how individuals work, how society works, and how ecology works. Mistakes in understanding any of these three could create unintended consequences, whether an angry retort, a democracy protest, or the die-off of a coral reef.]

“At the heart of the matter is scientific hubris. Bateson argues that Occidental epistemology perpetuates a system of understanding which is purpose or means-to-an-end driven.[16] Purpose controls attention and narrows perception, thus limiting what comes into consciousness and therefore limiting the amount of wisdom that can be generated from the perception.

[Because western thinking (like this blog) is purpose-driven, we tend to ignore information that seems irrelevant, according to our current worldview. That stops us from learning new information about how the world really works.
We see this in all walks of life — the ‘old guard’ tend to resist change; the ‘young Turks’ have grown up in a different world from the previous generation and have a and want to try things that fit with their (new) understanding of how the world works.]

Additionally Occidental epistemology propagates the false notion of that man exists outside Mind and this leads man to believe in what Bateson calls the philosophy of control based upon false knowledge.[16]

[We tend think of ourselves as existing outside nature. We talk about ‘the environment’ as something bigger and separate from us, unchanging. But we are altering environmental processes.
Like the car driver sitting in the traffic jam, “You are not stuck in traffic — you are traffic.”
 We are not in the environment, we are the environment.]

“Bateson presents Occidental epistemology as a method of thinking that leads to a mindset in which man exerts an autocratic rule over all cybernetic systems.[16] In exerting his autocratic rule man changes the environment to suit him and in doing so he unbalances the natural cybernetic system of controlled competition and mutual dependency.

[OK. Climate Change, acid rain, death of the oceans, etc.]

“The purpose driven accumulation of knowledge ignores the supreme cybernetic system and leads to the eventual breakdown of the entire system. Bateson claims that man will never be able to control the whole system because it does not operate in a linear fashion and if man creates his own rules for the system, he opens himself up to becoming a slave to the self-made system due to the non-linear nature of cybernetics.

Businesses are probably one of the most purpose-driven entities we have. And yet events like the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and the Fukushima nuclear disaster in Japan show (in different ways) that the whole system is non-linear.
Additionally, ad hoc strategies, which only become clear after the event, have long been recognised as some of the most successful.
The Soviet Union showed that centralised planning does not work.

One key self-made system that is currently struggling is the eurozone. The entire worldwide financial system is another.
Derivatives, which allegedly triggered the collapses, concentrate systemic risk in fewer places, increasing the risk for all by making the system as a whole less stable.]

“Lastly, man’s technological prowess combined with his scientific hubris gives him to potential to irrevocably damage and destroy the supreme cybernetic system, instead of just disrupting the system temporally until the system can self-correct.[16]

[This sounds exactly like climate change to me. And also shows why technological fixes are not the answer.]

“Bateson argues for a position of humility and acceptance of the natural cybernetic system instead of scientific arrogance as a solution.[16] He believes that humility can come about by abandoning the view of operating through consciousness alone. Consciousness is only one way in which to obtain knowledge and without complete knowledge of the entire cybernetic system disaster is inevitable. The limited conscious must be combined with the unconscious in complete synthesis. Only when thought and emotion are combined in whole is man able to obtain complete knowledge. He believed that religion and art are some of the few areas in which a man is acting as a whole individual in complete consciousness. By acting with this greater wisdom of the supreme cybernetic system as a whole man can change his relationship to Mind from one of schism, in which he is endlessly tied up in constant competition, to one of complementarity. Bateson argues for a culture that promotes the most general wisdom and is able to flexibly change within the supreme cybernetic system.[16]

[Bateson argues that the solution is to combine conscious knowledge with unconscious, emotional truths.
That is likely to be a hard message to ‘sell’ to anybody trapped in their conscious mind.
The shift, however, from competition to complementarity/cooperation might be easier to explain.]

I find myself ending this post not knowing what sense to make of it, or how to move forward. Which is probably exactly the right place to be.

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