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Reflections from a recovering ardent reductionist:

data and systems science, and toward other ways of knowing

Knowledge does not come in discrete packages of data points; knowledge is a process, not a single entity.

 

In the modern practice of science, data is represented as simply data points, run through this systems of abstractions in modern ontology—that is, some real-world phenomenon can be detailed and known by studying data points and modeling it, for example, reducing and siloing everything—this way of processing the world assumes everything can be known without personal intimate understanding of it. In complex socio-ecological systems, an experimental understanding of how things work based on data points provides an incomplete understanding because it does not consider the real limitations of understanding complex systems—the innumerable other entities and forces that act within and on a system. This reductionist way of discovering the world has provided a profound approach for humanity to come to know truths of reality through a the deep lens of reason and rationality. The limitations of this approach are difficult to meet through recent pushes toward interdisciplinary and trans-disciplinary efforts, because these disciplines are all couched within the same systems which ultimately seek to control natural systems (with positive aims or otherwise).

 

Like all functions of society, science is practiced within the larger modern systems. These systems are upheld structures that privilege exponential growth, and in a very real sense, the moral lens has become a purely economic one, as it is the seat from which decisions are made politically and individually (at large). Economic gain comes from the direct loss to natural and social systems, from the breakdown and exploitation of nature, humans, and societies that have been colonized. All activities, science included, are  subject to the same limitations to action understanding as the rest of the system. We see challenge, come up with ways to define that challenge and an approach that might become a solution, and then we attempt to assert our control once again onto complex systems and change them.

 

For many challenges humanity has faced and is facing, this is a perfectly reasonable approach. But it is based on reason, and not experiential knowledge. To begin to understand the limitations to the modern approach, it is crucial to first see that this is only one approach, and the approach itself stems directly from the ontology, or way of thinking, from which the seemingly insurmountable global problems of humanity are arising, with ecological collapse and climate change. The way we name challenges and solutions has become part of the problems that we are trying to solve.

 

A different ontology would take a different approach to understanding. Rather than double-down on an approach of controlling, asserting humanity on incredible complex interrelated systems, from an abstracted understanding. A different approach would be to loosen some lever points from focusing on an academic understanding of the minutia of a system and ensure that this focus found itself in understanding how the subject of academic study is couched within holistic systems. The understanding of holistic systems comes from an experiential knowledge of those systems that persist through the vast scope of time through which complex, natural systems change. Western science couches challenges, approaches, and solutions to understand phenomena based on the history of work in a particular field of study—science cannot exist in a vacuum. However, a tenant of practicing western science is to do so as objective observers, with an abstracted understanding and an explicit attempt to decouple from embedded experience. A different approach would be to action information from western science in the sociocultural-ecological practices that have come from a “wider than human mind” (Bateson) experiential knowledge of natural systems. In holistic systems, perhaps the lever of social organization must be pulled to balance the system, accommodating space for healing an ecosystem. In a holistic system, an important question might be: what is out of balance that created a challenge, and how might the very way that collectively, we interact socially, or conceive of wealth, for example, becomes a direct cause of an environmental imbalance.

 

A holistic, experiential understanding of complex systems is an understanding of humanity as embedded in those systems, not separate from them. Humans are but one actor in the grand play of life. From this perspective, human agendas and pursuits would be decentralized and life itself would become of central concern. Mindsets and motivations of controlling living systems would instead be mindsets of reciprocity and human responsibility toward living systems, of which we are only a small part. This approach is active participation within systems, observing the truth of their functions and human belonging within them. This approach is the opposite of deriving understanding as abstracted, and an explicit attempt to decouple from embedded experience.

 

The difference is, what do you do with the information you’ve gathered? Instead of controlling and asserting force on systems, is it possible to orient the way we use the information to instead advocate for systems change? In the practice of science, we seek objective truths. It is crucial now that objective truths about climate change, ecological collapse, the Sixth Mass Extinction event in the history of life on Earth (and the only one caused by the actions of one species), be also presented with objective truths that the only tenable solutions are outside of current global systems driven by sociopolitical realities and economic forces.

 

There are indeed other courses of action. There are other systems that can offer radically different approaches if we truly wish to action science, to create meaningful change in our times from the work we do as scientists.

This is healing through community and connection. It has been a journey for me to discover that I deeply need this community on my journey of becoming, as we all do. I so welcome you to be in community with me.

 

So, let's connect. Let us remember, in connection and community with humans and all kin.

As life itself depends on biodiversity, we need diversity of meaning-making. 

The language we use needs diversity, even within one language. Because even if words will always be inadequate to convey the complexities of being, words can heighten our awareness to the salience and sacredness of all in life. 

Create new words. Generate new stories. We live in a time where we must cultivate radical imaginations, envisioning new worlds. We can’t revitalize the old, but can create the new.

Michael Polanyi (said to be a scientist against scientism) suggested that the tools of practical reason and true objectivity that accommodate scientific discoveries are the same tools that can be used to cultivate deeper contextual understandings from other ways of knowing. My experiences have taught me that a gateway to real, emergent understandings about our context in the world is getting out of our minds and into our bodies, in an expanded ability to perceive. 

 

My experiences have taught me that a gateway to real, emergent understandings about our context in the world is getting out of our minds and into our bodies, integrating tacit and embodied knowing. These emergent understandings expand our contact with reality through participation with the “wider-than-human mind” sensations in our bodies navigating us toward discoveries in a wider-than-human mind, in an expanded ability to perceive.  

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