Following in the footsteps of TJ's Fugue Fugue, and my Mashup About Mashups, this article attempts a synthesis about synthesis. Although that's not quite true, it more or less lays out the parts of the synthesis and adds only minimal commentary connecting them, the rest being left up to the reader. I've been collecting these bits over a fairly long period of time, and I hope they provide a worthy meditation on why the growth of integrative (or synthetic) thinking is important in the 21st century.
“Hell is a place where nothing connects with nothing”. – T.S Eliot, commenting on Dante’s Inferno.
"Most educated people at the beginning of the twenty-first century consider themselves to be specialists,” writes Craig Eisendrath. “Yet what is needed for the task of understanding our culture’s evolution, and of framing a new cultural paradigm, is the generalist’s capacity to look at culture’s many dimensions and to put together ideas from disparate sources.”
The people I have come to call “ Evolutionaries” are generalists for this very reason. Their critical insights are a result of thinking as a generalist must think—with a passionate but broad curiosity that fans out across culture and sees connections, patterns, transitions, and trends where others only see discrete facts and details. An Evolutionary must be able to look at the movements of nature, culture, and cosmos as a whole, yet without denying the infinite detail that surrounds us.
My own experience resonates with what Carter’s saying, and that synthesizing project is a part of the zeitgeist of Beams and Struts. What frustrates me, however, is that talk about integral or integrative thinking is often reduced- by adherents and critics alike- to simply being about the work of Ken Wilber, when this epistemic impulse is far more widespread than Wilber’s own particular contribution to this ever growing drive.
For example, in a recent paper called The Rise of Neo-Integrative Worldviews, scholars Markus Molz and Roland Benedikter trace the growth of integrative worldviews over the past hundred years. They also provide important context for what’s increasingly driving the need for (and growth of) integrative thinking in our times:
[There’s been] a specific insight which has become more or less commonly accepted among decision-makers, opinion-leaders, scientists and analysts around the globe. This is the notion that no nation, no country, no culture and no political actor ‘can meet the world’s challenges alone’ any longer. No nation can face the problems we face in today’s world alone, because all problems are increasingly interconnected and multi-faceted. Indeed, all of them show different sides and ask different, sometimes opposing questions at the same time, and thus they are becoming far too complex to be solved from one or two perspectives alone…
The more Western societies of the present move slowly forward – willingly or unwillingly – towards a ‘planetary civilization’, the more their different stages of development necessarily evolve towards a greater interchange with each other and with less developed societies and are thus integrated at least to a certain extent, if they do not want to be fragmented at their centers (inter alia by uncontrolled amalgamation and hybridization) to the point at which they either implode or break apart. Thus they must necessarily become a pro-active part of a patchwork destined to constitute a diverse and pluralistic, but at least primordially inclusive, planetary culture…The more the demand for a worldview capable of bridging the ideological, cultural and institutional gaps between the different angles, facets and perspectives of the first planetary civilization arises, the more the challenges to build a newly integrative paradigm designed for the specific needs of our transitional age seem to be growing.
One of the hallmarks of the modern rational scientific mind is analysis and reductionism as a means of investigating, understanding (and controlling) the world around us. It’s a very powerful tool no doubt, but as a primary way to interact with the world it has shown itself to have serious limitations. The French philosopher Edgar Morin - a towering intellectual figure whose work is sadly under translated into English- has been very critical of this mindset and its planetary results. Morin is well versed in both systems theory and the sciences of complexity. In his 1999 text Homeland Earth: Manifesto for a New Millennium, he speaks to the issue:
One aspect of the planetary problem is that intellectual solutions, whether scientific or philosophical, to which we habitually appeal, are themselves the most urgent problems and the ones most difficult to resolve…The reductionist approach, which consists in relying on a single series of factors to regulate the totality of problems associated with the multiform crisis we are currently in the middle of, is less a solution than the problem itself….
Intelligence that is fragmented, compartmentalized, mechanistic, disjunctive, and reductionistic breaks the complexity of the world into disjointed pieces, splits up problems, separates that which is linked together, and renders unidimensional the multidimensional…The more problems are multidimensional, the less chance there is to grasp the crisis. The more problems become planetary, the more unthinkable they become. Incapable of seeing the planetary context in all its complexity, blind intelligence fosters unconsciousness and irresponsibility. It has become the bearer of death”. (1)
Klein’s Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary
analysis, n., separation of a whole into its component parts. –Gk. ‘a loosing, releasing’, fr. ‘to unloose, to release, set free’, fr. ‘up, on, throughout’ (see ana-), and ‘to unfasten, loosen, slacken’. See lysis.
integrate, tr. v., to form a whole. ---L. integratus, pp. of integrare, ‘to make whole, renew’, fr. integer. See integer and verbal suff. –ate.
integrity, n., wholeness, completeness; uprightness. ---F. integrite, fr. L. integritatem, acc. of integritas, ‘completeness, soundness, blamelessness’, fr. integer. See integer and –ity.
What reductionists confused was reduction and analysis. Of course we learn a great deal about any complex system by analyzing it. Indeed analysis is a most important and heuristic method in all branches of science, including biology. [But] this is what the reductionists usually overlooked, in order to understand a system one needs to know not only the properties of its components but also the nature of the interactions among these components. And it is precisely these interactions that are so important in living systems…
Nothing is as characteristic of biological processes as interactions at all levels…To repeat what I said before, rejecting the philosophy of reductionism is not an attack on analysis. No complex system can be understood except through careful analysis. However, the interactions of the components must be considered as much as the properties of the isolated components. And this is what the reductionists had neglected.
There are many places in Michael Pollan’s writings on food and the industrial food supply where he talks about the harm that reductionist thinking has wrought. In Omnivore’s Dilemma he comes to a highly synthetic conclusion:
Our personal health cannot be divorced from the health of the entire food web. We need to treat the whole problem of health in soil, plant, animal and man as one great subject.
There has been a mirroring of this analytic atomism in modern academics, with its emphasis on disciplines and specialization. However, Immanuel Wallerstein and others in the school of thought known as World-Systems Analysis have fundamentally challenged this organizational form with their concept of “undisciplinarity”:
Unidiscplinarity- This term should be clearly distinguished from multi- or trans-disciplinarity. The latter terms refer to the now-popular ideas that much research would be better done if the researcher(s) combined the skills of two or more disciplines. Unidisciplinarity refers to the belief that in the social sciences at least, there exists today no sufficient reason to distinguish the separate disciplines at all, and that instead all work should be considered part of a single discipline, sometimes called the historical social sciences. (2)
The way the power structure keeps the wit and cunning of the intelligentsia...from making trouble for the power structure (if the intelligentsia are too broadly informed, unwatched, and with time of their own in which to think) is to make each one a specialist with tools and an office or lab. That is exactly why bright people today have become streamlined into specialists.
Nobody is born a specialist. Every child is born with comprehensive interests, asking the most comprehensively logical and relevant questions... Conventionally educated grown-ups rarely know how to answer such questions. They're all too specialized. (3)
The American educator Ernest Boyer agreed with this assessment, and called for a new way forward:
In the coming century, there will be an urgent need for scholars who go beyond the isolated facts; who make connections across the disciplines; and who begin to discover a more coherent view of knowledge and a more integrated, more authentic view of life. (4)
Professor Robert Harrison did one of his Entitled Opinions radio-podcasts on the obscure 17th century Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher, an enormously integrative thinker whose work has seen a recent revival. Here’s Harrison near the end of the show:
Well I don’t know how deep the Kircher enthusiasm or cult goes in our times, but I think its an excellent sign if there is such a one, because we have after centuries of science and knowledge being under the regime of analysis, we’ve gotten to the kind of point where the synthetic drive has to start coming into play sooner or later, otherwise we’re going to get to that point where there’s going to be a whole breakdown of the very phenomena of understanding in the name of just amassing knowledge and information.
The ability to knit together information from disparate sources into a coherent whole is vital today…Sources of information are vast and disparate, and individuals crave coherence and integration. Nobel Prize-winning physicist Murray Gell-Mann has asserted that the mind most at a premium in the twenty-first century will be the mind that can synthesize well. (5)
There are several features of what Spiral Dynamics Integral calls “turquoise consciousness” that are worth considering in this context; a globally aware synthesizing mind seems to be central to this emerging worldview according to SDi. From the level one training manual, here are some general characteristics of this unfolding wave of consciousness:
Holistic conception of multiple realities; reliance on holistic consciousness; community beyond nationalities or partisanship; ecological interdependency and interconnections; multidimensional chunks of insight; self is seen as part of a larger, conscious whole; global networking seen as routine; blending, harmonizing, strong collective.
Conditions/problem = knows the earth needs a coordinated approach to new global problems.
Management systems = holistic blend of insights from anywhere, anytime coming together for purposes impacting Global Village and all life forms.
And lastly, as I said at the beginning of the article, this synthesizing project is a central aim here at Beams and Struts too. We’ve recently re-written our About Us section of the site, but the first iteration contained these words:
Beams and Struts is an experiment in collective intelligence. The modern knowledge quest has largely been characterized by specialization and analysis, issues broken down into their component parts and studied in isolation. The postmodern period has brought with it many advancements, but has also left a lot of fragmentation in its wake. It’s now time to find out how that vast body of post/modern knowledge hangs together. This is the age of integration and synthesis.
But we also followed that opening paragraph up with this all-important line:
Since no one person can possibly accomplish this project alone, we’ve gathered an assemblage to work together.
And so it is. A big rhizomatic network is forming, and humpty dumpty is slowly but surely being put back together again. There are movements toward synthesis/integration in academia, in business, in biology, in education, in the way we understand food production and human health, in institutional leaders, and in the general population with the growing popularity of TED talks, P2P production and the networks of websites and information sharing happening online. This is all arising in a planetary context desiring a new planetary wholeness, and it's a project that needs as many people as possible for it's success. Fragmentation, alienation and atomism are our modern inheritance- it's time to stop this unraveling and turn our gaze the other way, and sew the coat of Earth, self, society and Spirit back together again.