A paper for presentation during the Ninth Annual International Conference of the Society for Chaos Theory in Psychology and the Life Sciences in Berkeley, California, July 23-26, 1999
This paper is based on the believe that people have an intuitive ‘chaos’ understanding of the world in which they live. This understanding is comparable to non-linear science. “The two productions of knowledge differ only in their argumentation premises, methodology, and consequently in their distinct manners – both valid – of reading the world.” (1)
Educationalist Paulo Freire found that by teaching illiterate people using a theory and action based on love, they learned to read and write by overcoming the cause – powerlessness. I have harnessed Freire’s approach in developing a non-linear science of empowerment based on people’s intuitive ‘chaos’ understanding. The aim is to help people to overcome their fears and lack of confidence.
Keywords: chaos, consciousness, empowerment, environment, love, metaphor, non-linear science.
“The deepest error of modern biology is the entrenched belief that organisms interact only with other organisms and only adapt to their material environment. This is as wrong as believing that the people of a village interact with their neighbours but merely adapt to the material conditions of their cottages. In real life, both organisms and people change their environment as well as adapting to it.” (2)
In ideal terms people are equal to other organisms in the ability to change the environment. We are different from other organisms, from animals, by virtue of our consciousness. We are different from other people for the same basic reason. The problem is that the environment in which we live is organised according to need, not love. Consequently we can easily grow up in an environment colonised by contradictory values. For example Darwin in his ‘Descent of Man’ attempts to confront the contradicatory values of Victorian England by arguing that human evolution is based on love. (3)
All people have the ability to change their environment, but not equally. While ‘most people’ appear to simply adapt in order to survive, conversely: “The educated individual is the adapted person, because she or he is better ‘fit’ for the world.” Both have been colonised by the values of the powerful, argues Freire, utlising psychiatrist Franz Fanon’s observations of the effects of French colonisation in Algeria. (4)
Understanding is Survival
The idea that there could be a people’s knowledge substantially equivalent to educated knowledge is acknowledged by Edwin Lazlo in terms of “the growing convergence between the mystical worldview (predominantly, but by no means exclusively Eastern) and the emerging paradigm of reality among scientists at the cutting edge of contemporary knowledge”. (5) It is rare to find anyone arguing this kind of equivalence in the West, and for good reason, the colonisation of consciousness by the values of need and knowledge has had longer to run: “European mathematics is mathematics: all other mathematics is anthropology. That explains why this other mathematics belongs to what has been called ethnoscience.” (6) Consequently people’s collective silence is correlated with stupidity, when it is first and foremost an adaptive response to an environment where people perceive they do not have a ‘voice’.
Labov made this point in his study, The Logic of Nonstandard English, in refuting educational psychologists who argued that Black speech patterns were unable of logically (logic=linear=standard) expressing abstract concepts. He examines a statement about the non-existence of heaven by a boy called Larry to illustrate his point:
“’Cause you see. doesn’ nobody really know that it’s a God,y’know, ‘cause I mean I have seen black gods, pink gods, white gods. all color gods, and don’t nobody know it really a God. An’ when they be sayin’ if you good, you goin’ t’heaven, tha’s bullshit, ‘cause you ain’t goin’ to no heaven, ‘cause it ain’t no heaven for you to go to.
1 Everyone has a different idea of what God is like.
2 Therefore nobody really knows God exists.
3 If there is a heaven, it was made by God.
4 If God doesn’t exist he couldn’t have made heaven.
5 Therefore heaven doesn’t exist.
6 You can’t go to somewhere that doesn’t exist.
That is an example of non-linear understanding in expressing an abstract concept. If you need more proof of people’s intuitive understanding of chaos, of its equivalence to knowledge, how about in survival? An example of what I’m trying to say is provided by a study of drug users from the late 1970’s New York, and their response to the emergence of a fatal new illness:
“In the period from 1976 to the early 1980’s, seroprevalence in New York rose from zero to about 50%…The epidemic then entered a period of dynamic stabilization…Although mathematical models have suggested network saturation may have been an important part of the stabilization process (Blower, 1991), the sociometric analysis of drug injectors’ networks conducted during the research for this volume suggest that the extent of network saturation may have been quite limited.
“Behaviour change probably made a major contribution to the stabilization of seroprevalence. In spite of a popular image that would suggest that either “slavery to their addiction” or “hedonistic, selfish personalities that ignore risks and social responsibility,” drug injectors in New York (and indeed, throughout the world) have acted both to protect themselves and others against the AIDS epidemic. Thus, by 1984, before there were any programs other than the mass media to inform them about AIDS or to help to protect themselves, drug injectors in New York were engaged in widespread risk reduction…Furthermore, observations on the street confirmed this by showing that drug dealers were competing with others for business by offering free sterile syringes along with their drugs as AIDS-prevention techniques.” (7)
Photo by Stuart Glendinning Hall
Understanding unpredictability is key to survival. “Case study after case study of the human rather than the chemical level reveals our capacity – by no means 100% reliable, but to a higher degree than present chaos theory dictates – to predict the future in situations of extreme instability.” (8)Dr Friedman (see business card above) survived the 9/11 attack, as he was late to work that day. So I found out was Chris Reed’s brother-in-law. It can pay to be late, clearly.
Before the advent of meteorology people’s understanding of the unpredictable behaviour of weather was key to the success of their harvest, and hence their survival. Fifty years ago a panel of US scientists was set up to examine the validity of 153 traditional weather sayings: “The panel found that at least 80 of them were sound. The early weather forecasters had come to the same conclusions about what they saw in the sky as have today’s experts with modern knowledge and scientific principles to help them.” (9) Typically people’s understanding is expressed in metaphor – a powerful tool in simply communicating the principle that simple laws can result in complex results for example.
“For want of a nail, the shoe was lost; For want of a shoe, the horse was lost; For want of a horse, the rider was lost; For want of a rider, the battle was lost; For want of a battle, the kingdom was lost!” (10)
As an example of how non-linear empowerment would work in practice I provide the following simple model I designed where the goal is to supporting community group leaders:
Non-linear empowerment for self- help/community-run services
1 Strengthen community group leaders by empowering them with greater self-confidence.
2 Support and strengthen community group leaders by enabling them to use those new found skills and confidence to help empower individuals greater self-confidence regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, age etc.
3 Promote greater individual participation in groups at all levels as a result of individual empowerment.
4 Enable groups to participate more widely in their communities, encouraging further individual self-empowerment with the support of group leaders.
5 Support efforts to change communities’ perceptions/actions regarding people with experience of mental distress, and in encouraging reflection on their own experience.
I believe Paulo Freire’s pedagogic model based on love is useful here, as he emphasises the importance of ‘student’ and ‘teacher’ working on an equal level – despite their obvious differences in power. To paraphrase Freire, both must be ‘co-intentional’, as both are subjects in the task of unveiling reality.
(1)Paulo Freire, ‘Pedagogy of Hope’, chap 6. Or to put it in more intuitive language: “These peasants know more than we do.”
(5)E. Lazlo, The Whispering Pond, Foreward. “Perhaps the most significant development in recent times… is the growing convergence between the mystical worldview (predominantly, but by no means exclusively Eastern) and the emerging paradigm of reality among scientists at the cutting edge of contemporary knowledge .”
(9)Weather Wise, Reader’s Digest publication, 1980. Folk sayings even recognise the dangers of correlation: “The moon and the weather may change together, But change of the moon does not change the weather,” in W.G.Willis Watson, ‘Calendar of Somerset Customs, Superstitions, Weather Lore & Popular Sayings’’, 1920.
(10)James Gleick, ‘Chaos: Making a New Science.’
There is a brief analysis of some of the concepts in this paper in Abdul Karim Bangura’s review of George Gheverghese Joseph’s book ‘The Crest of the Peacock: Non-European Roots of Mathematics’.