‘Think different’ to prevent extinction: the value of Gregory Bateson’s Cybernetic Epistemology and Posthumanism for a secular dharma

The creature that wins against its environment destroys itself.

Gregory Bateson (Steps to an Ecology of Mind, p. 493.)

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Introduction

By putting aside the supernatural elements (e.g. rebirth) and metaphysical beliefs of traditional forms of Buddhism,  a secular approach to the dharma highlights the key insights of the historical Buddha, Gotama, which contribute to the flourishing of sentient beings and our ecosystem in this life. One of his insights was the notion that human beings are interconnected to and interdependent with the web of causes and conditions which constitute the natural world. Gotama showed us how our tendency to view ourselves mistakenly as a separate and isolated self, focused on getting what we want or avoiding what we don’t want, not only is a false conception but leads to suffering for ourselves and others. To reduce suffering, we must recognize what Thich Nhat Hanh called our ‘interbeing’, our intrinsic relationship with all other beings and forms of the natural world. On the level of human relationships, this means seeing our commonalty with other human beings and acting with kindness and compassion toward others.

The need to see ourselves as interconnected and interdependent with the web of causes and conditions is particularly relevant now as we face existential challenges that must be collectively resolved, including climate change and social inequality. While Gotama’s insights are an important starting point in this context, other important perspectives have been put forward which align with a secular dharma. In this article I will discuss Gregory Bateson’s ‘cybernetic’ epistemology and posthumanism as key resources in altering fundamentally our view of our place in the universe.  

Gregory Bateson (1904-1980) left a stark warning to humanity; either change how we think or face extinction. He warned that three drivers are leading us to catastrophe: our reliance on ever-developing technology, population increase and the way we think. Bateson offered what he termed a cybernetic epistemology as an alternative way of thinking, and I will offer some thoughts about how this might be made more accessible to help us find a route out of the panmorphic crisis described by Simon (2021) of multiple threats to our existence.

As part of the discussion, I will outline the concepts of conscious purpose, dualistic thinking, and other Batesonian ideas, including his understanding of ‘mind’, with the objective of encouraging the changes to our thinking that Bateson hoped we might make. I will connect with more recent posthumanist writers who have been directly or indirectly influenced by Bateson and identify common areas of concern, and I suggest that much posthumanist discourse is remarkably similar to Bateson’s cybernetic epistemology.

Revisiting ’The Roots of Ecological Crisis’

Bateson explained that due to the way we think (our dualistic thinking and conscious purpose), we are destroying the very ecology of which we are a part. We are nature, along with the rest of the planet and its other inhabitants. He frequently warned of ecological crisis in his writing, yet we still are trapped in the ways of thinking that have led to imminent disaster for our species and many others. In a 1970 paper entitled “The Roots of Ecological Crisis” (included in Steps to an Ecology of Mind, Bateson, 1972),  Bateson identified three root causes of the many current threats to our survival. These are comprised of technological progress, population increase and what he described as errors in the thinking and attitudes of Occidental culture (Bateson frequently used the terms ‘Occidental’ and ‘Oriental’ to refer to what might be broadly termed ‘Western’ and ‘Eastern’ thinking styles, and most readers will be familiar with the profound differences). All three of these factors interact together; population increase provokes further technological progress, and this mix of growth and progress creates anxiety which sets us in opposition to our environment. Simultaneously, technology enables further population growth and reinforces our arrogance (or hubris) towards the natural environment.

Bateson hoped that reversing any of these three drivers towards extinction might create change, but rather than making suggestions regarding limiting population growth or technology, he believed that changing the way we think about ourselves and our relationship to nature (wisdom instead of hubris) might offer a route to ensure the survival of our species.

Hubris: Conscious purpose and dualistic thinking

There are two broad themes that Bateson identified regarding the way humans think, and of course, these are interconnected. He described them as ‘conscious purpose’ and ‘dualistic thinking’. These combine to create what Bateson frequently calls ‘hubris’, which is essentially pride and over-confidence, even arrogance, in one’s thinking. The concept of conscious purpose is reasonably self-explanatory; it is to seek solutions to situations without considering broader systemic implications. An example Bateson used was that of DDT (Dichlorodiphenyltrichloroethane), an insecticide developed with the virtuous intention of controlling mosquitoes that spread malaria but brought unforeseen long-term ecological consequences impacting other creatures, including humans. This kind of purposive or instrumental thinking is rife in current Western culture and is not helped by political systems where politicians have an eye on the next election and seek quick (and popular) answers to what often are complex problems.

Dualistic thinking is typified by the French philosopher Rene Descartes’ (in)famous splitting of mind and body – and Bateson comments:

If we continue to operate in terms of a Cartesian dualism of mind versus matter, we shall probably also continue to see the world in terms of God versus man; elite versus people; chosen race versus others; nation versus nation; and man versus environment. It is doubtful whether a species having both an advanced technology and this strange way of looking at its world can endure.

Bateson (1972), p. 343.

Thinking non-dualistically means thinking in wholes and understanding that everything is connected. We tend to draw boundaries and frames around things, including ‘systems’, but these are merely conceptual tools that help us make sense of the world; tools which are undoubtedly useful, but double-edged in that they can contribute to the ’othering‘ of groups of people and creatures, or mask connections and relationships.

Similar to the Buddha’s injunction to his followers to avoid attachment to views and arrogance in debates, the kind of wisdom that Bateson asks us to develop is to become more humble and to accept that we cannot know everything; as the biologist, J.B.S. Haldane (1927, p.176) wrote, “Now, my own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose”. This wisdom means understanding that we are part of a dynamic environment that we affect and, in turn, affects us, sometimes in ways that may not immediately be apparent.

Yet, watching or reading the news or looking on social media, it is painfully evident that the attributes of wisdom and humility are scarce in public discourse. It is painful to witness the dualistic ‘othering’ of people based upon difference; migrants, people of colour, gender, religion and so on, or the ‘safe’ certainty (Mason 1993) of pundits who seek to blame others for complex and nuanced issues.

Our culture of consumerism and the acquisition of possessions, often disposable or with built-in obsolescence, our focus on the individual rather than communities, our overuse of the planet’s limited resources for profit and the accumulation of wealth are all symptomatic of the thinking about which Bateson warned us. Globally, we do not relate or connect with others in ways that enable all to flourish. Instead, we engage in the oppression and exploitation of humans and non-humans alike.  I believe that capitalism, particularly the version known as neoliberalism, which sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations, is a destructive and toxic extension of dualistic thinking and conscious purpose.

Immanent mind: Towards posthumanism

Unlike many other ecological writers, Bateson was clear that ‘mind’ is not limited to humans and that Cartesian duality has not only disconnected us from understanding this but set us against the environment and each other:

If you put God outside and set him vis-à-vis his creation and if you have the idea that you are created in his image, you will logically and naturally see yourself as outside and against the things around you. And as you arrogate all mind to yourself, you will see the world around you as mindless and therefore as not entitled to moral or ethical consideration. The environment will be yours to exploit . . . If this is your estimate of your relation to nature and you have an advanced technology, your likelihood of survival will be that of a snowball in hell. You will die either of the toxic by-products of your own hate, or, simply, of over population and over-grazing.

Bateson (1972), p. 468.

A colony of ants, the forest in which the colony lives, the continent they exist upon, and the Earth itself are all mental systems containing individual minds within them. Bateson defines mind as ‘an aggregate of interacting parts or components’ (Bateson, 1979, p. 92) which is immanent to a system. Therefore mind emerges from the communication of information across systems, and Bateson applies this definition of mind to practices of information processing that take place outside of the body. The concept of a bounded mind in the human, or even the notion that mind is solely a human feature, is thus flawed:

The individual mind is immanent but not only in the body. It is immanent also in pathways and  messages outside the body; and there is a larger Mind of which the individual mind is only a sub-system. This larger Mind is comparable to God and is perhaps what some people mean by “God,” but it is still immanent in the total interconnected social system and planetary ecology.

Bateson (1972), p. 468.

Rosi Braidotti, a posthumanist thinker influenced by Spinoza and Deleuze and Guattari,  echoes Bateson’s view of mind in her suggestion that:

…it is important to remember that this “Life” that the posthuman subject is immanent to, is no longer “bios”, but “zoe”. Where bios is anthropocentric, zoe is non-anthropocentric and even non-anthropomorphic. Moreover, in the posthuman convergence, zoe embraces geologically and technologically bound egalitarianism, acknowledging that thinking and the capacity to produce knowledge is not the exclusive prerogative of humans alone, but is distributed across all living matter and throughout self-organizing technological networks.

Braidotti (2019), pp. 50-51.

The idea of immanence is central to posthumanism, which emerged from Deleuze and Guattari’s philosophy as ‘a multiplicity of immanent ideas that seek to reset our perspectives in order for us to come to terms with our relations and our interconnections and thereby be more humble about ourselves’ (Daigle & McDonald, 2022, p.1).

Think different: Systemic wisdom and posthumanism

Bateson said, ‘I think that cybernetics is the biggest bite out of the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge that mankind has taken in the last 2000 years’ (1972, p .481), and Steve Jobs, influenced by Bateson (via Stewart Brand and the Whole Earth Catalog), used this idea to create the famous Apple logo. Apple also used the term ‘Think different’ as an advertising slogan. How ironic that Apple became linked to pollution, and poor working conditions and that their technology became known for built-in obsolescence, although the company is now making efforts to become more sustainable and eco-friendly. Perhaps they really are beginning to think different, but this is only a start in the changes we need to see.

Despite being an atheist, Bateson believed that religion was a symbolic way in which we could interact with the complexity and vast systems of the world in better ways. We could be humble, appreciating that we cannot know everything. We could be in awe of the wonder of the natural world and marvel at how mind is apparent in the systems that comprise the world, and this is sacred. As Charlton notes:

The central concept originated by Gregory Bateson is his understanding of all the systems of the living world as being mental in kind. Each system, claims Bateson, is a mind. Such systems vary from the very small, perhaps bacterial, genetic, or cellular, to the very large: a coral reef and its inhabitants, a forest ecosystem, the mind of a nation, or the whole process of biological evolution. All these systems are interrelated and nested within larger mental systems so that there is an ultimate interconnected whole, which is “the sacred.”

Charlton (2008), p. 29.

Bateson’s notion of the sacred here does not simply refer to physical nature, e.g., mountains, forests, seas and animals. Instead, it is the integrated fabric of mental process that envelopes all our lives (Bateson & Bateson, 1987, p 200).

To begin to perceive the ultimate, interconnected whole is to appreciate what Bateson started to understand as sacred, not something with which to tinker. He asked us to have the humility to know that we never will be able to fully comprehend the totality of the universe, of the complex relationships between living and non-living entities. We are part of a sacred whole; we are part of the environment, and what we do to the environment will also impact upon us, sometimes in ways we could never have predicted. This is not just systemic thinking; it also very much aligns with posthumanist thought, as Karen Barad tells us:

Posthumanism, as I intend it here, is not calibrated to the human; on the contrary, it is about taking issue with human exceptionalism while being accountable for the role we play in the differential constitution and differential positioning of the human among other creatures (both living and nonliving)…Posthumanism doesn’t presume the separateness of any-‘thing,’ let alone the alleged spatial, ontological, and epistemological distinction that sets humans apart.

Barad (2007), p. 139.

Posthumanism challenges the same assumption that somehow humanity is separate from the rest of the universe as did Bateson.  At this point, it is worth remembering Bateson was not alone in his revolutionary ecological thinking in the mid-20th century. Influenced by Gandhi and Spinoza, the Norwegian philosopher Arne Næss felt that there must be a shift away from human-centred anthropocentrism to ecocentrism, a ‘Deep Ecology’ in which every living thing is seen as having inherent value. He argued that humans are part of nature rather than superior and apart from it and, therefore, must protect all life on Earth as they would protect their family or self (Næss, 2008). Naess contrasted Deep Ecology with Shallow Ecology, which centres on human beings as somehow more important than any other creatures or entities. Electric cars, greenwashing and so on might be thought of as Shallow Ecology. Another important contribution of Næss (1989) was the concept of Ecosophy, which (in my understanding) is an ecologically aware personal epistemology that sees all living creatures and entities as being of value. In effect, Ecosophy is Deep Ecology articulated in our thoughts and behaviour and is remarkably similar to Bateson’s cybernetic epistemology.

Concluding thoughts

I have argued that dualistic, purposive thinking has led humanity to multiple crises. To live sustainably, to survive, we need to adopt a more cybernetic or systemic way of thinking about ourselves, others and the world. At the same time, I am mindful of Bateson’s ethical position, best illustrated by Jay Haley, who wrote in a personal letter to David Lipsett, one of Bateson’s biographers that:

“[Bateson] didn’t like power. He didn’t even like the word …anybody who said, “I’m going to change this person”. If they said, “I will offer this person some ideas, and if they change, it’s up to them,” then Gregory would have no trouble with them. But if you take responsibility for changing people, then you would have a problem …Any influence outside the person’s range is odious to him. Any indirect manipulation is [also] out of the question” Lipset (1982), p. 226.

Lipset (1982), p. 226.

Any thought of manipulating people to think differently, to embrace a non-dualistic epistemology  – even to save lives – would be antithetical to the kind of epistemology Bateson proposed. This leaves us with the problem of identifying how we might invite, rather than coerce, others to think differently and thus promote cybernetic thinking that might lead to actions that help avert catastrophe. There are no easy answers to this problem. 

However, the urgency of the societal changes required to prevent catastrophe leaves me with more questions. To engender systemic change in a congruently systemic way (non-coercive, neutral and so on) will require time, and little time is left. Is it enough to educate others, or could we think about implementing ecological, non-dualistic epistemology locally in our own lives and practices? Following in Bateson’s footsteps and considering his view of the immanence of mind, perhaps it is through both our thoughts and actions that we can make a difference. I hope so.


References

Barad, Karen (2007). Meeting the universe halfway. Durham NC: Duke University Press.

Bateson, Gregory (1972). Steps to an Ecology of Mind. San Francisco, CA: Chandler Pub. Co.

Bateson, Gregory (1979). Mind and Nature: A Necessary Unity. New York: EP Dutton.

Bateson, Gregory and Bateson, Mary Catherine (1987). Angels Fear: Towards an Epistemology of the Sacred. New York: Bantam Books.

Braidotti, Rosi (2019). Posthuman Knowledge. Cambridge: Polity Press.

Charlton, Noel (2008). Understanding Gregory Bateson: Mind, Beauty and the Sacred Earth. New York: SUNY Press.

Daigle, Christine and McDonald, Terrance (2022). Posthumanisms through Deleuze and Guattari. In Daigle, Christine and McDonald, Terrance (Eds) From Deleuze and Guattari to Posthumanism: Philosophies of Immanence. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Haldane, John Burdon Sanderson (1927). Possible Worlds and Other Papers. London: Chatto and Windus.

Lipset, David (1980). Gregory Bateson: The Legacy of a Scientist. Boston: Beacon Press

Mason, Barry (1993). Towards positions of safe uncertainty. Human Systems: The Journal of Systemic Consultation & Management,  4(3-4), 189-200.

Næss, Arne (1989). Ecology, community and lifestyle. Translated and edited by David Rothenberg. Cambridge University Press.

Næss, Arne (2008). Ecology of Wisdom: Writings by Arne Naess. Edited by Alan Drengson and Bill Devall. Berkeley, CA: Counterpoint.

Palmer, Hugh (2022). “Think different” to save our species. Reconnecting with Gregory Bateson’s Cybernetic Epistemology and connecting with Posthumanism. Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice, 5(2), 14-27. https://doi.org/10.28963/5.2.3

Simon, Gail (2021). Panmorphic Crisis: Cultural Rupture and Systemic Change. Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice, 4(1), 87–101. https://doi.org/10.28963/4.1.7


This is a shortened and revised version of the paper published in Murmurations: Journal of Transformative Systemic Practice at https://murmurations.cloud/ojs/index.php/murmurations/article/view/163/93.


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