On Learning and Wisdom in Complex times

Clearly the top question in today’s world of uncertainty and randomness is ‘How do we learn fast enough to gain understanding, insights and wisdom to negotiate  our complex world and act in a ‘blink’?

To start our exploration we might start with the main schools of thoughts. However, be warned that this is just a whistle-stop tour illustrated by my not too well-formed ‘pencil sketches’ of the great rivers of human thoughts on learning. And I, for purely practical purposes, would stick to the Western flow of thoughts on learning since this has indeed come to dominate our present way of thinking about learning all across the world. For want of space and to keep this blog post within reasonable limits (that is not to bore people to death) I would have to keep out for the time being some of the great minds whose thoughts on thinking and learning are as important and significant as of those whom I mention. For example, I left out notable mathematicians and some philosophers like Heraclitus, Hegel, Marx, Kant and others, whom I would like to cover in later blog posts if my time and energy permit to do so.

I would start with Plato. He was a firm believer of the ‘big picture’ as we find him in his book ‘The Republic‘.  To him the ‘big picture’ is some sort of idealized form constructed by the human mind. So, he thought that all of us must go as close as possible to an ideal or an idealized form or an idealized idea. In order to do so we must know something beforehand to understand a big picture to build an idealized picture of the reality (Plato’s Theory of Form).  With that he defined the role of philosophers who must impart the knowledge of forms (or ideas), which is ‘real knowledge’ to the average person who he thought is deluded by changes sensed by his senses (allegory of the cave). In short, he was a suspicious of the knowledge gained from experiences.

However, his student Aristotle, thought differently. He thought that it was best to work up from basic facts and observations to form general principles. I would go on a limb to say that it was the start of the modern scientific way of viewing and learning more about the physical world through direct observation to form general principles that could be applied with repeatable accuracy. Hence such principles turned out to be a set of axiomatic set of principles that might be used to view the world around us.

Needless to say that these two schools of thought clashed with each other in our effort to find a way to learn better. For a long time, others who came behind Plato and Aristotle chose either of these schools as their learning framework.

For example, Descartes, toeing Plato’s line of thinking, tried to create a body of knowledge that would stay independent of experience. His idea was to make knowledge certain without tolerating ambiguity. That was ‘rationalism’ or better known as the domain of ‘bounded rationality’. It was useful at that time of human learning. The idea was to get away from the iron grip of churches who clung to the Platonic view. No wonder the early universities in Europe were founded by churches. Cambridge was possibly the first exception. Under the influence of the King it moved away from teaching canonical laws and Platonic school of learning to classics and mathematics founded on Aristotelian and Euclidean way of thinking.

It quietly slipped into the Aristotle’s way of scientific thinking backed by Euclidean geometry which exploded to a highly enriched state with the arrival of Newton. No wonder space was rigid in Newtonian science (Euclidean influence), which was revised by another great mind, Einstein. But that happened years later.

But what happened immediately was the meteoric rise of the crown. The king was able to rob political power from the church based on science and its inventions triggered by Newton and his contemporaries.

However, this was soon followed by the fecund period of Scottish Enlightenment led by personalities like David Hume and Adam Smith.  Perhaps it is not a coincidence to find Hume, Smith and Watt working in the same Edinburgh University as contemporaries. It was, as if, their ideas and thought processes rubbed off on each other.

Hume’s thinking differed from Plato and Aristotle. It was, so to say, a much more practical approach to things. He stressed upon the idea that we can only know what we can experience. So this marked a radical departure in the domain of ‘learning’ away from the world of Plato, Aristotle and Euclid.

I think it was “acceptance of the world as it is” ; not what it seemed through the ‘Theory of forms’ or Aristotle’s seeing the world through a set of a priori ‘axiomatic principles’. And this way of thinking was not without great impact. Fair to say that it ushered the scientific age paving the way for an astounding leap in engineering and science birthing industrial revolution that provided a welcome relief to the masses from the church’s feudalistic way of living off the land, which was ruthless, to say the least. This period also saw the coming of Darwin and Maxwell revolutionizing their fields of study and work, which had deeper implications in the modern age in terms of genetics, relativity and the birth of quantum mechanics.

However, that meant that science and scientists soon started ruling our thought processes and learning methods. The age of logic returned. And it had its profound imprints in the way we learned in schools, colleges and industries. There was a scientific temper to everything.

But scientists were also developing their own ‘blind spots’. The most famous example that stood out was that of Einstein coming from the Platonic school of thought. He was so enamored by his own idealized ‘big picture’ that he just could not see the new development of quantum mechanics coming. He simply refused to accept reality since it simply refused to match his ‘idealized form’ of reality. Hence the next phase of development in science was admirably led by Bohr and Heisenberg.

However, it was still the age of logic and it found its way in almost every sphere of human activity from mathematics to economic to management. The attempt was to build a system or a thought process through logic and logic alone.

But logic had its limits proved by Godel’s famous incompleteness theorems. So it wasn’t uncommon to find systems and models developed and built on logic often flounder and fail. Failure through contradictions was evidently built into logic.

All this time the field of uncertainty was developing in fits and starts well hidden from public view by people like Poincaré whose work was later admirably taken up by people like Edward Lorenz and Mandelbrot. This and the work of mathematicians like Markov, Weibull, Kolmogorov and others who firmly established the field of uncertainty, sensitive dependency on initial conditions and complexity. This was further reinforced by behavioral economists like Daniel Kahneman and others. Meanwhile, as Aristotelian logic was re-framed by Fisher and others into rigorous statistical inferences; Bayes and his disciples (most notable in modern times is Nate Silver) extended Hume’s philosophy of ‘experiential learning’ to mathematical beauties.

The field of complexity, ambiguity and adaptation soon began to dominate more practical fields of computers, genetics, biology, engineering, physics, mathematics and even management. From the age of rigid rationality, almost unerring logic & iron clad certainty we suddenly find ourselves in the age of irrationality, uncertainty, ambiguity and complexity.

That is a peculiar predicament. Only logic would no longer be useful. Those who would only like to stick to it would fail too often and fail too soon. Construction of the ‘big picture’ often leaves us in the quandary about how to act. Axiomatic principles are often more questioned than accepted as given. Acting only on experience might prove fatal and inadequate. Models are often proved wrong. And so on…

So what to do?

Undoubtedly this is a difficult age to live. But one thing is certain. There are no longer any fixed ways of looking at our world.

Fortunately, there is one common way of learning that runs through everything. This might be described as follows:

a) Pay attention (Notice)

b) Engage to learn (Engage)

c) Mull the choices we have (Mull).

d) Exchange our learning in ways others might get it (Exchange).

That is NEME, the basis of the discipline of Nemetics.

The discipline of Nemetics tends to answer three vital questions that help in this age of complexity.

a) What is going on? — NEME

b) What does it mean? – Design Kata

c) What might we do about it? – Rapidinnovation

Possibly that leads us to give us a way of living in these complex and turbulent times.

a) Strategy — Follow your aspirations but check the facts and re-purpose if need be.  (Feel)

b) Take failures of any system as the starting point of learning and leadership. Learn to face failures and fears through improvisation and innovation. (Think)

c) Learning is a personal responsibility. It is about personal mastery. Collaboratively learn through self-study, observations, thoughts of others, interactions with peers and mentors and feedback from your own work since learning, understanding and gaining insights might not possibly happen in one stroke.  In other words keep learning and improvising to pavé the way to arrive at wisdom. (Innovate through improvising).

Luckily all that can happen in a blink through perseverance and patience aided by the power of emergent complexity of our 800 MB human genome in a self organizing way that can beat the best super computer of the world.

That is what we can really rely on.

2 thoughts on “On Learning and Wisdom in Complex times

  1. Lakshmi Pathi

    I read this article early morning. It is so nice to start my day with great thoughts.
    abc in the conclusion of this article are like an arrow for more focused approach.
    Thank you for the well written article.


  2. I’m sorry you didn’t go more into some Asian schools of thought and learning, as Fritjof Capra famously pointed out that they make more sense in the context of quantum physics than the Platonic or Aristotelian lines do.

    As someone who has been living in France for 21 years, I can tell you that Descartes has done us a lot of harm with his classifications, and particularly, from an environmental point of view, the separation of humans from the “natural” world.


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