Sunday, January 30, 2011

Performance vs Competence in CCK11

Mapping and tracing are both efforts by people to orient themselves within a given structure, say a class or a conversation. Whereas tracing attempts to assign an order to the structure, mapping seeks to uncover the order in the structure. In terms of MOOC CCK11, tracing attempts to impose an order on the class (roles, meeting times, duration, interactions, etc) and on the content (beginning, middle, end, etc), and when a tracing does not find the expected points, it becomes disoriented. Mapping, on the other hand, does not impose an order, but remains open to the possibility to any order or to no order at all (though the human mind is quite adept at imposing or creating order even in the absence of any apparent order). Tracing is an attempt to wrangle reality into sense, while mapping is an attempt to uncover the sense in reality.

This last distinction points to another reason why I am attracted to the conversation about Connectivism. Connectivism is still in the mapping phase of theory construction. It seems to me that most theories begin with a mapping phase that seeks to uncover the sense in reality. Moreover, this attempt to map some slice of reality is usually in reaction against some other theory that has calcified into dogma and seeks only to trace reality, or to wrangle reality into the sense of the theory. Mapping is often prompted when a Galileo at last notes enough points in reality that don't fit in the old theory without excessive wrangling and so begins to look at reality in a fresh way. To my mind, Connectivism is looking at reality in a fresh way. If eventually Connectivism becomes accepted theory, then it will likely go the way of most theories and itself become dogma, a tracing rather than a mapping (not a static map, but a dynamic tracing—a verb rather than a noun), a routine rather than a ritual. But that hasn't happened yet, so until it does, I will enjoy the ride.

It helps, then, to sharpen our distinction between mapping and tracing. Deleuze and Guattari note that "the map has to do with performance, whereas the tracing always involves an alleged 'competence'" (12,13). I find this so insightful and quite germane to education with its practice of assessment and grading. It reminds me of a story I once read about an education professor who visited a kindergarten class and asked the five-year-olds which of them could sing, dance, and draw. At each question, all the children enthusiastically raised their hands, certain that they could sing, dance, and draw. The professor then returned to his college classroom and asked the same questions. Of his adult students, only a few could sing, a different few could dance, and yet another two or three could draw. He concluded that the main function of modern education was to teach people what they couldn't do.

I appreciate the professor's point, but I think that Deleuze and Guattari can give us a more precise way of explaining what happens to students between kindergarten and graduate school. If we assume a sliding scale between performance and competence, then kindergarteners are focused almost totally on the performance end of the scale in total disregard of how well they sing, dance, or draw, while grad students are focused almost totally on the competence end paralyzed by assessments of how well they sing, dance, or draw. Kindergarteners are concerned only with exploring and mapping an activity through their performance, while grad students are concerned only with competently tracing a sanctioned activity.

In this MOOC, Downes and Siemens are refusing to grade the performances of most students, and this disregard for the traditional markers of competency confuse some of us. How do we know if we are doing it right, dancing right, learning what we are supposed to be learning? Most of us have lost the questions on the performance end of the scale that drive open-ended, free form inquiry, mapping, and play (though I suspect the members of this MOOC are perhaps more open to performance than most students; otherwise, they wouldn't be in this MOOC). I think that a big part of the lesson in MOOC CCK11 is to reawaken those questions of performance and play within the MOOC's members.

One might accuse me of totally favoring performance over competency, but I do not. However, I do have a profound distrust of the merely competent, which in my experience, informs too much of traditional education and all of the back-to-basics movement. I insist that education should be large enough for both performance and competence, and that the best education happens in the interplay between the two. For example, mastery of the guitar is a fine educational process that necessitates a nuanced balance between performance (play) and competency (work). A guitarist must work the guitar to attain competency with it, and this can require ten thousand hours of practice, hitting the same notes over and over, going through the same fingering patterns, reading the same musical scores. But the guitarist must also play the guitar to attain more than competency with it, and this builds upon the ten thousand hours and sustains the guitarist's drive to put in the ten thousand hours. Performance first informs competence, and then it transcends competence, but mere competence is never enough to make a guitarist. This is perhaps easy to see in a jazz guitarist who can improvise whoever he wants, but even a classical guitarist who is tightly constrained by working a musical score (competency) must also play that musical score (performance).

Associating performance with play and competence with work makes sense for most educators, I think, and it makes sense to me that traditional education has focused too much on the work of competency and not enough on the play of performance. Education has sadly overlooked the ludic element in our pedagogical mix, and MOOC CCK11 is a nice corrective to that pattern.

Saturday, January 29, 2011

Mapping Knowledge in CCK11

I want to talk more about what I find engaging about this MOOC: CCK11, even at the risk of sounding as if I'm sucking up, but it seems to me that a number of people have recognized that learning the MOOC way is in fact the main content/task of the course. As Tracy Parrish said in one of her early posts about CCK11: "It's amazing (and slightly sneaky) that what I'm learning about is how I'm learning about it." So I want to clarify for myself what is working for me. I may eventually get around to what isn't working. We'll see.

I have sensed some uneasiness within the MOOC with the refusal by Siemens and Downes to behave like traditional teachers. Many of the group want these teachers to tell us what to learn and how to learn it and to verify that we have, in fact, learned it. On their side, Siemens and Downes are always pushing us to become independent learners, to grab the mic in the Elluminate sessions. (ASIDE to S & D: the group's reluctance to take the mic may merely indicate that those who wish to talk are already doing so within the chat area and feel no real need to speak aloud on the mic. Those who are lurking don't want to talk in either space.) At any rate, Siemens' and Downes' refusal to act as traditional teachers makes sense to me especially in light of the concept of rhizomatic structures as outlined in Delueze and Guattari's A Thousand Plateaus (1987).

I see this MOOC as a rhizomatic structure (something like a network structure and my preferred term), and one of the characteristics of such structures, according to D and G, is mapping, or cartography, as differentiated from tracing. Unlike tracing, mapping "is entirely oriented toward an experimentation in contact with the real. The map does not reproduce an unconscious closed in upon itself; it constructs the unconscious. It fosters connections between fields" (12). As Chuen-Ferng Koh says in Internet: Towards a Holistic Ontology: “Rhizomatic links … are formed through mapping—or active construction based on flexible and functional experimentation, requiring and capitalizing on feedback. The map is not … a blueprint whose workability has to be taken on faith; the map is never fixed, but a changing flux of adaptation and negotiation.” Tracing begins with a conception that is not necessarily part of a structure such as a class and appliqués (formerly not a verb) that conception to the structure (a class, for instance). Mapping begins with a structure (such as a class), and through a process of flexible and functional experimentation and response to feedback, builds an image that becomes a living part of the class, shifting and growing as the class shifts and grows and as the attention of the map-maker becomes sharper, better informed, more capable.

Deleuze and Guattari use a quote from Carlos Casteneda's Don Juan to illustrate the difference between tracing and mapping. When the Yaqui shaman Don Juan teaches Carlos how to map a garden for cultivating his psychedelic herbs, he says: "Go first to your old plant and watch carefully the watercourse made by the rain. By now the rain must have carried the seeds far away. Watch the crevices made by the runoff, and from them determine the direction of the flow. Then find the plant that is growing at the farthest point from your plant. All the devil's weed plants that are growing in between are yours. Later … you can extend the size of your territory by following the watercourse from each point along the way" (The Teachings of Don Juan, 88). See? The shaman doesn't say trace out a space 100 feet by 100 feet, clear the soil, and trace rows in the dirt to plant your seeds. That's starting with a blueprint of a garden, fixing the garden before it ever grows. Rather, the shaman advises that Carlos start with one plant, an anchor, a point to which he can connect, and then map the various pathways from that point, constantly checking, marking, mapping until he discovers how large his garden is and what shape it has taken.

Tracy Parrish is making maps of this MOOC here and displaying other maps of other network structures here. This map making is an essential part of participating in a MOOC, and it is fundamentally distinguished from making a tracing, or a blueprint, of a class. Traditional education assumes a blueprint, and most us, particularly those of us who were the best students, have become quite adept at following the blueprint. I think Siemens and Downes are suggesting that we quit following blueprints and learn to map knowledge. More on this later.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Pipes of Knowing in CCK11

In his 2005 essay Connectivism: A learning theory for the digital age, George Siemens concludes with a bold assertion that "The pipe is more important than the content within the pipe." He goes on to clarify what he means, saying that "our ability to learn what we need for tomorrow is more important than what we know today. … As knowledge continues to grow and evolve, access to what is needed is more important than what the learner currently possesses." This is one of the most contentious statements in the essay. I work with college faculty to help them integrate electronic writing into their classes, and I use Connectivism as the pedagogical framework for our discussions. When we read this essay, most of my faculty balk at the idea that a conduit to new information is more important than the information they are giving their students today.

I, too, have worried with this statement, but I think I am beginning to come to terms with it, though perhaps not in the sense that Mr. Siemens suggests. In Edgar Morin's discussion of why we need to develop complex thought, he says that "the intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and … this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system [emphasis mine]. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment. This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically" (11). I think Morin's thoughts about the constitutive nature of connections is relevant to Connectivism.

Pipe is a somewhat unfortunate term as it suggests a mere conduit through which the thing of real value passes, be it water, gas, or knowledge, and this metaphor reinforces our notion that knowledge is a chunk of something that we teachers have and that passes through a pipe (lecture, discussion, textbook, demonstration, etc.) to the students who want that particular chunk. This is not quite right. The pipe does not transfer the knowledge, the pipe is the knowledge. Rather, let me change terms: the connection does not transfer the knowledge, the connection is the knowledge. The connection is constitutive of the knowledge. A connection is not a benign conduit through which knowledge passes undisturbed from Point A, the teacher, to Point B, the student.

How is this so? I think what we are learning about brain activity can help clarify this constitutive nature of connections. A single thought, a single chunk of knowledge, is not a little kernel existing somewhere in our heads; rather, it is a pattern of neurons all firing in unison. Each neuron — which could be called a pipe — transmits an electro-chemical signal to the other neurons in the pattern, but it is not a benign pipe through which a thought moves. It isn't really a pipe, either. Rather, each neuron is constitutive of the thought. All the connections (pipes) firing in harmony are constitutive of the thought, and without them all, then it's a different thought.

If we make a fractal leap up the scale from neurons in a brain to students in a classroom (an admittedly risky leap), then we see that the connections within the classroom are, in fact, constitutive of the learning. Without the connections, the pattern — firing from the teacher's brain to the whiteboard demonstration and then to the students' brains and back again — would be broken. No pattern of connections = no learning.

This patterning of connections helps to explain why different students learn different things from the same lesson. The different patterns of light, sound, energy, and everything else between each student and the white board and the incredibly different patterns in their respective brains creates different patterns of meaning for each student. Most patterns, or understandings, are just subtly different, while some are radically different. It should be amazing that any two students form the same knowledge, and it is not at all surprising that most of them don't. And as we also know from brain research, these knowledge patterns have to be reinforced again and again to gain any traction in our minds, but the patterns are never exactly the same. Actually, some recent research suggests that we learn better if we change places each time we study a particular lesson. The shift in pattern seems to help abstract the learning, or reinforce the general pattern.

The connection, then, isn't just more important than the knowledge. It is the knowledge.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Eating the CCK11 MOOC

My current MOOC, CCK11, is reminding me again why I have been so attracted to Connectivism — not because it is a fine theory of learning and knowledge, but because it is a fine conversation.

I have read some educationists who argue that Connectivism is not a new theory or not even a theory at all, and I am not informed enough about the various educational theories to weigh in on the debate, but what I can say with great authority is that Connectivism has provided me with a wonderfully rich and ample conversational space. I think I value conversation over theory anyway. Conversations tend to be more open systems; whereas, theories are too often closed systems. Of course, conversations with fundamentalists tend to be closed and some theories are quite open to complexity and chaos, but in my way of thinking, conversations are more open than theories.

I teach writing, and I write. Connectivism has created a conversation that has allowed me to explore with some very interesting people how writing to learn engages me with my world. Connectivism has set a fine table with lots of dishes, and I intend to feed here for as long as the feast lasts, or until I am satiated.

The feast metaphor suggests to me that learning in the Connectivist sense is much like eating. Learning is ingestion. Let's see where this goes.

If Paul Davies (The Cosmic Blueprint, 2004) and Edgar Morin (On Complexity, 2008) are correct, then the emergence and maintenance of life depends on the exchange of energy between an open, physical entity and its ecosystem. As Morin says, this exchange involves "not only energy and matter, but also organizational and informational resources" (10). A consequence of this notion of an open system is "that the intelligibility of the system has to be found, not only in the system itself, but also in its relationship with the environment, and that this relationship is not a simple dependence: it is constitutive of the system. Reality is therefore as much in the connection (relationship) as in the distinction between the open system and its environment. This connection is absolutely crucial epistemologically, methodologically, theoretically, and empirically" (11).

This connection between the open system (I, for instance, am an open system) and the environment is not a pipe, though that could be a useful metaphor. Rather, the connection is an engagement and an exchange. The connection is me eating my world and, in turn, being eaten by my world. My world and I exchange energy, matter, organizational patterns, and information. When that exchange stops, when I become a closed system, I die. For me to live means in a myriad of physical and mental ways for me to continuously eat at the table of life. When I quit eating, I die.

If either I or my Universe become closed systems, we both die. Fortunately, the Universe is an open system continuously engaging and exchanging energy, matter, pattern, and information among its various parts. Some physicists even postulate that this Universe may be exchanging energy, matter, pattern, and information with other Universes, perhaps through black holes, but that takes me far from any kind of expertise that I may have. I'm better to stick with the MOOC.

What makes this Connectivism MOOC such a rich conversational space is that it is still an open system. Its theory, if it has one, has not closed in on itself, petrified, and become pathological. Perhaps this is because it is still relatively new. Perhaps it is the nature of the theory itself. Whatever the cause, I find that my exchange with Connectivism gives me intellectual life.

Rather, it gives me the potential for life. It gives me an ecosystem that can sustain life, that can sustain an intellectual conversation, that open exchange of energy and information. To thrive in this space, I must myself remain an open system within an open ecosystem. If either I or Connectivism ever find the Truth, the Absolute Right Answer — thus becoming a closed, complete, static system with no possibility for more or new energy or information — then I die, or Connectivism dies, or we both do.

I have great faith that God has so ordered the Universe that the Absolute Right Answer does not exist, except in the most mundane and boring of spaces, those closed systems where the light is harsh, the conversation has died, and there's no more food. Thus far, the Universe has afforded me easy exit from such spaces. Connectivism has been one of those exits. Hallelujah.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Complex or Complicated?

I read an excellent post by Lindsay Jordan related to #CCK11, the MOOC that I'm currently engaging. Following a comment by George Siemens, Lindsay makes a fine distinction between complexity and complicated: an airplane is complicated; the weather is complex.

I think I would rather say, however, that an airplane is complicated and creating the airplane is complex — not because the original statement is incorrect, but because it might give the wrong impression that complexity is of natural origins while complicated is of human origins. Rather, an airplane is complicated because it is a mostly static collection and arrangement of parts; whereas, creating the airplane is complex because it is mostly a dynamic interplay of people, ideas, materials, and processes. A specific airplane is a machine, complicated perhaps, but not growing. Creating airplanes is a living process, complex and growing.

As Edgar Morin points out so eloquently in his book On Complexity, we make a huge mistake when we try to reduce the complex to the merely complicated, or worse yet, to the simple. Actually, complicated and simple differ only in degree, whereas complex differs in kind from both. In one sense, both simple and complicated refer to a collection of fewer or greater elements in a particular, static arrangement. Complex refers to a collection of elements in an "infinite play of inter-retroactions" (Morin, 6).

Static entities, such as machines whether complicated or simple, are knowable, and once known, they remain known. Complex entities are not knowable in this manner. Rather, we engage complexities through what Morin calls a dialogic principle: we must constantly dialogue with the complex, for it is constantly shifting, growing, becoming. The complex is always in the middle, passing from this state to that. It is never static, thus never known definitively. Only through our interactions and our various connectivities can we know the complex, and we must constantly fire along these connections to activate feedback loops that inform, shape, and tweak our knowing of the complex entity.

From my experience, this distinction in knowing between the merely complicated and the truly complex makes a useful distinction between training to master a complicated concept or skill and teaching to master a complex discipline. Both training and teaching are exceedingly useful, and each is pre-eminent in its own right; however, they should not be confused with one another. When we are learning the one and only right answer, then we are involved in training. When we are learning to probe open-ended questions with open-ended answers, then we are involved in teaching. Sometimes the same class can be a mix of training and teaching, but we teachers should know when we are doing the one or the other.

And as George Siemens has pointed out elsewhere, we should always keep in mind that the right answer is especially short-lived these days, as the half-life of knowledge is continuing to shrink. Less and less of reality is static (or changing so slowly that it is practically static), thus less and less of our knowledge can be static. Rather, we must be constantly updating what we know so that it matches well with what is.

Thursday, January 20, 2011

Digesting #CCK11 - Riffing off the eating meme

You have to start somewhere — the middle seems best.

Actually, it seems the only place to start with a MOOC. I am again taking a massive open online course, a MOOC, with George Siemens and Stephen Downes, and again, people are struggling to orient themselves to this kind of learning. I am becoming convinced that the best learning to emerge from these MOOCs is learning to deal with the MOOC itself, regardless of the content about which the MOOC is organized.

Engaging a MOOC shifts a participant immediately and radically away from the command-and-control structures of traditional education and into the connect-and-collaborate structures of rhizomatic learning spaces. This can be extremely disorienting the first time, a fact that both George and Stephen seem to recognize and are attempting to address with videos posted to the Home Page of CCK11. Their sometime collaborator Dave Cormier has also posted some videos to YouTube talking about how to orient oneself to a MOOC. I'll repost one of those videos here:

For me, the key idea is to approach a MOOC from your own position. This is radically different from the way we approach most college classes, which come to us whole and contained. When we engage a traditional college class, we enter an existing structure with fixed content, fixed authorities, fixed space, place, and times, fixed goals, fixed paths to those goals, and fixed assessments to determine how far along the path we managed to travel within the prescribed time. Good students are often those who have learned to quickly identify the fixed markers, determine the right answers, and give them to the teacher. We can succeed (make an A) in a traditional class without being very self-aware. Just jump through the hoops and move on.

MOOCs do not function this way. Very little is fixed, other than the general topic, and I have noticed that wandering from the topic is hardly ever discouraged in a MOOC. If a sub-group in a MOOC taps into a rich vein of discussion, then they are free to follow it wherever. This lack of fixed reference points is disorienting, especially to good students who have mastered the traditional classroom. We cannot succeed in a MOOC without being extremely self-aware. We must know who we are, what we are about, and what engages us. To use a spatial metaphor, we must know where we are so that we can begin to orient ourselves toward this massive new structure that has many destinations and few signs.

But it is more complicated than that. We must accept that our very presence and engagement itself changes the MOOC. The fact that I am in the MOOC (or you) makes the MOOC different. This is another radical difference between MOOCs and traditional classes. Most of us can remember countless college classes that were mostly oblivious to whether we ourselves were in attendance or not, a member of the class or not. In a MOOC, it always matters who is in and who isn't. In a MOOC, membership is everything.

To use an astronomical metaphor, a MOOC is like a solar system, each member of the system exerting its own more or less powerful gravitational pull on all the other members. Some of us may be Jupiters, some of us Mercurys, some of us just lurking asteroids, and I suppose George and Stephen are the Sun, but whenever any new element is added, then the entire system must shift to accommodate. And we are all constantly adding new elements in the form of blog posts, videos, comments, Elluminate sessions, and so  forth, so that our solar system is becoming increasingly crowded, rich, varied, and diverse — larger than any of us can contain, and with more texture than any of us can cover.

This is why Dave suggests that we first pick a few points in the system to anchor ourselves. The Home Page of the website is a good anchor. The Elluminate sessions are good anchors. The Daily Digest is an anchor. And most importantly, our own professional interests are good anchors.

Then from those anchors we scan and connect to other points that catch our interest, that resonate with energy that we can recognize and follow. We begin to create our own gravity with our posts, comments, videos, lists, SL groups, Tweets, etc. We find that we cluster, that we fall into synchronized orbits with similar objects that attract us. We pull other objects into our orbits. We make many connections, follow some and abandon others. We begin to focus, plowing an orbit through this system, an integral part of the whole while still following our own path.

It's this interplay between our own path and the paths of all the others that makes for a harmonious solar system and that makes for a harmonious MOOC.

You have to stop somewhere — the middle seems best.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Eating Barnes & Noble 3

You have to start somewhere — the middle seems best.

I do not find myself depressed about how little I know of this wonderful world. Rather, I am optimistic.

Should I discover that I indeed will live forever, then I have an eternity of discovery to anticipate. If not I but my species lives forever, then we have an eternity of discovery to anticipate. If neither I nor my species is eternal, then there is still more Universe to know than we have time to discover. However it falls out, there will be no end to new learning. For all the time we have, the Universe is ample. If we are mindful, then we will not be bored.

I first gained this insight from the Old Testament Book of Isaiah, Chapter 6, Verses 1-4:

In the year that King Uzziah died, I saw the Lord, high and exalted, seated on a throne; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him were seraphim, each with six wings: With two wings they covered their faces, with two they covered their feet, and with two they were flying. And they were calling to one another: 
“Holy, holy, holy is the LORD Almighty;
the whole earth is full of his glory.” 
At the sound of their voices the doorposts and thresholds shook and the temple was filled with smoke.

Whether one gives this a religious or a poetic interpretation, it seems clear to me that Isaiah is suggesting that the reality of the Universe is rich, complex, and varied enough to sustain the eternal contemplation of such advanced intellects as seraphim. It will more than sustain the investigation of humanity.

This is indeed very good news.

You have to stop somewhere — the middle seems best.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Eating Barnes & Noble 2

You have to start somewhere — the middle seems best.

I suppose I could be depressed about how much I don't know. I have worked hard all my life to increase and sharpen my store of knowledge. I have cultivated an inquisitive mind. I have from time-to-time impressed my peers with my cleverness and insight, but as soon as I push just beyond my first degree of separation, the light dims dramatically, shapes fade into shadows, and my ignorance opens to swallow me. As I move to the edge of my light and my eyes adjust to the dark, I see a vast chamber of tiny lights, a field of stars and galaxies of ideas and structures of thought that stretch away to infinity and mark the distance of my ignorance. The depth is infinite and unimaginable. My little circle of light is finite and preeminently imaginable. (Indeed, it appears to be composed entirely of imagination.)

This image captures nicely for me our human situation: I inhabit a tiny bubble of light floating in a vast abyss of near darkness, like the Earth in the cosmos, and even if I knew everything within my own little bubble, I would still know very little that there is to know. Even if I knew everything about this Earth, understood it all, I would still know very little of what there is to know about this Universe in which my Earth floats like the faintest abstraction of an elementary quark, a wisp of imagination that appears magically in a physicist's cloud chamber, performs its magic, and then disappears in foam.

This image of reality can be daunting, humbling, almost humiliating, and many seem unable to confront it. Intimidated by the vast darkness, people reduce reality to their little circle of light, their little Earth, to make sense of it. This reductionism takes at least two forms with which I am familiar — religion and science — and both forms reduce the complexity of the Universe to make it fit within the little bubbles of people's imaginations. In the long run, this reductionism has awful consequences for both the Universe and the people who engage in it.

I learned reductionist religion first. My father is a Christian Pentecostal minister, and I was raised knowing that history began some six thousand years ago when God the Father created the heavens and the earth. Man fell in the Garden of Eden and struggled until Jesus Christ redeemed the world on the Cross and gave us the one truth by which to live. Finally, I learned that all of history would soon end with the Second Coming of Christ in the Rapture of the Church and the initiation of the Great Tribulation, all as foretold by the  Book of Revelations in the Christian Bible. After the final Battle at Armageddon, where Christ defeats Satan, the Triune God will set up the New Jerusalem on Earth, and the Redeemed will live eternally in perfection with God. My church has reduced all of history and all the Universe to a single story, tellable in under five minutes. Of course, the details of the story vary from place to place, evangelist to evangelist, but the main story remains consistent. God has it all under control, and that is really all we need to know.

I learned reductionist science second. I went to college, and I learned that the Universe is knowable and that soon humanity will explain everything in terms of elementary particles and fields and the regular interactions of those particles and fields. It's called the Theory of Everything, or TOE (why otherwise bright scientists don't stub their toe on the irony of TOE is beyond me). Science has reduced all of history and all the Universe to a single theory, expressible in a single formula. Of course, the details of the story vary from place to place, scientist to scientist, but the main story remains consistent. Nature has it all under control of a few fundamental physical laws, and that is really all we need to know.

May God protect us from the unrelenting and overwhelming boredom of both of these theories.

Can you imagine an eternity after the denouement of either of these reductionist beliefs? And which would be worse? An eternity of playing harps, singing hymns, and reclining on cloud banks or an eternity of mopping up the tedious details of a Theory of Everything. Either way, there is nothing new to learn, nothing new to do, nothing new to discover. This little light of mine will have expanded to include all the Universe, and I'll understand it all by and by. The only advantage of reductionist science is that it, at least, promises no after-life. If the science fundamentalists are correct, then each of us shall find in the annihilation of death some relief from the Big TOE. Thank God. If the religious fundamentalists are correct, then there may be no relief.

The awful consequence of reductionism, then, is that it reduces an infinitely rich, varied, and fecund universe into a single story or formula that accounts for everything. This, of course, is also the great benefit of reductionism. It reduces the chaos to a single story or formula that can be understood by humans. Chance is eliminated, and we know what to do. We have clarity, certainty, and knowledge. We have power.

These are not false benefits, nor are they trivial. Fundamental religion provides an all-encompassing light that informs and guides the lives of billions. Fundamental science provides gadgets and insight that enrich and prolong the lives of billions. For billions, these benefits far outweigh any possible benefits that might arise from embracing the complexity of life. I can understand why fundamentalism wins so many converts

You have to stop somewhere — the middle seems best.

Sunday, January 9, 2011

Eating Barnes & Noble

You have to start somewhere — the middle seems best.

I was sitting recently in Barnes and Noble scanning some magazines, drinking coffee, but mostly thinking about how there may be only six degrees of separation between me and Angelina Jolie. Think about it: I know someone, who knows someone, who knows someone else, who knows someone else who actually knows someone else who knows — and can contact, that’s important — Angelina Jolie. Just six steps to heaven. That isn’t much distance to cover, and yet, here in Barnes and Noble, I don’t feel quite so connected to Ms. Jolie as this little formula seems to imply. Moreover, I am impressed at how quickly following this six degrees of separation plunges me into utter ignorance.

I, of course, know the first person of the five between Angie and me, but there’s a better than even chance that I don’t know the next, or second, person in the chain. The chances are really slim that I know any of the remaining links. I probably have never heard of these people and will likely never even know of them unless some freakish incident starts a traceable chain reaction leading me to Africa and Angelina. I remember reading somewhere an article that calculated the decreasing odds of knowing the friend of a friend of a friend and so on. I could google the article to provide you the reference, but I’m too depressed. The sweet honey of elation is turning to bile in my mouth. Six degrees, it seems, is sufficient for removing most everyone on Earth from the reach of this little light of mine.

I begin to wonder if this principle holds for most everything else, and the bile rises again. A few examples will suffice, I think.

I am sitting at a table-for-two in a Barnes and Noble in Macon, Georgia, in early 2011. The table has a round top made of some burnt orange, synthetic material mounted to a metal post, itself mounted into a thick, heavy, round metal foot. I can recognize this as a table, and I can use the technology to hold my coffee, my laptop, my magazines, my elbows, and my thoughts about six degrees of separation. If anyone were with me, I could use the table to create a conversational space and to mediate the interaction between myself and the other. I know tables fairly well, having used them all my life. With only one degree of separation between this table and me, I know it much like a friend, even though this particular table and I have only just met.

However, as soon as I introduce a second degree of separation, then my knowledge coarsens. Where did this table originate? Who made it? How did they make it? How did the table get here? I have basic concepts of how a factory might build tables and what that factory might look like and who might work there, I understand how the shipping industry in general works, I understand that corporations bid and buy great quantities of furnishings and other supplies, but these are general concepts which lack the tactile specificity of my knowledge of this particular round, red table. The factory that made this table is, in my mind, a stylized box with stick figure people. Place holders, really, for the reality of organization, production, and materials that I know must lie just behind this table.

If I move one more degree of separation with questions such as where did the raw materials used by the factory come from, then my knowledge becomes even coarser and details vanish altogether. What do I know of oil and steel? I have seen oil wells and petrochemical plants in south Texas and Louisiana, and I once spent a few weeks on a pipe-laying platform in the Gulf of Mexico. Oil comes out of the ground. That must sound stupid to a petrochemical engineer (someone with a formal education comparable to my own), and it must sound incredibly stupid to an oil derrick worker (usually someone with far less formal education than I have), but it's about the best I can do with oil. I think I once saw a steel mill outside Chattanooga, Tennessee, and one summer after high school, I worked in a plant that produced cooking oil. It was my job to puncture the caps and empty the bottles that quality control had deemed unfit to sell. I never learned to distinguish the good bottles from the bad, and anyway, I don’t think this is the right kind of oil for producing business furniture.

See? Just two degrees of separation, and I am in almost total darkness. I am reduced to mumbling to hide my ignorance.

But, I think, perhaps the problem is with tables and manufacturing. After all, I have no great experience, expertise, or training in that field. What about literature? I'm in Barnes & Noble, surrounded by great, less great, and not great literature, and I have worked and trained in this field for a long time.

From my table, I can see the mural above the coffee shop in the corner of this Barnes & Noble. The mural is a stylized scene of a quasi-Parisian café populated with great writers, mostly of the Twentieth-century: Nabokov, Parker, Hemingway, Singer, Faulkner, Miller, Capote, and Williams.

As with my round, red table, I begin on rather solid ground, in a clean, well-lighted place. I know all these authors' first names: Vladimir, Dorothy, Ernest, Isaac, William, Henry (or perhaps Arthur?), Truman, and Tennessee (or perhaps William Carlos?). I have read all of these people — some deeply, some superficially, but all of them and others besides. I have actually met only one of them, however: Isaac Bashevis Singer. I took a couple of creative writing classes with Prof. Singer at the University of Miami in 1981 and 82 when I was working on my doctorate. He has passed away now, but I remember a kindly grandfather figure who could clearly see beyond more than two degrees of separation. He had that genius, that strong a light. I don't seem to have that.

But I did not meet any of the other writers except through their poems and stories and through the countless things written about them, so I lack that tactile specificity that I have even with this round, red table. I have a better sense of their writings. I know well the spare elegance of Hemingway's prose and the labyrinthine elegance of Faulkner's, or the joy of a heart beating against a forest floor and the obsessive, deadly passion of a spinster for her poisoned lover. I have richer understanding in this space, but everywhere I look, I see more shadows than light. I have more questions than I have answers.

I am an old man sitting in a clean, well-lighted place, but the light does not extend far. Or rather, it extends just far enough to let me know how much darkness is out there.

You have to stop somewhere — the middle seems best.