Thursday, August 13, 2015

Three Levels of Thinking

Perhaps you have heard the saying, “There are two kinds of people—those who divide people into two kinds and those who don’t.” I guess I’m one of those who don’t, at least this week. I’ve been thinking lately that there are really three types of people, and this division results from looking at the way people think.
Most people think at the personal level. They think about themselves, their friends and family, their daily activities, their goals and plans, their strengths and weaknesses, their likes and dislikes, their hopes and dreams, their aches and pains, their responsibilities and frivolities. And this is about the extent of their thinking.
A much smaller group of people, on the other hand, are able to think organizationally. They see larger connections between people and broader ethical considerations that arise from interactions within organizations. They want to know what makes organizations tick, what sorts of organizational cultures, rules, and structures lead to the most productive outcomes. Often these people gravitate toward management, but not always. Some managers are totally clueless about how to structure the relationships between people in order to achieve positive results.
A very, very few people, on the other other hand, are able to think systemically. These people try to comprehend complex interactions in society that involve far more factors than are at play within organizations. In fact, systems generally revolve around the interactions of multiple organizations. There are a variety of systems that govern our lives—political, economic, legal, theological, governmental, and commercial, to name a handful. Of course all of the great worldly philosophers belong to this group—people like Adam Smith, Karl Marx, John Maynard Keynes, Joseph Schumpeter, and Thorstein Veblen.
One of the most fascinating systemic thinkers in recent years has been Robert Pirsig, author of the profoundly important Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values and its eventual sequel, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals, which appeared seventeen years after Zen. I recall reading Pirsig’s first book as an assignment for an MBA class I took from Omar Kader. It went right over my head without pausing to leave an impression. Several years later, I reread Zen while I was researching issues I addressed in my own book Economic Insanity: How Growth-Driven Capitalism Is Devouring the American Dream. If you look at my copy of Zen today, there are pencil notes in the margins everywhere. I decided it was the most brilliant book I had ever read. Something obviously changed in me during the intervening years, since the book hadn’t changed at all.
I suppose I need to read both books again, since my memory is too cluttered up to remember enough details of either tome. Maybe when I retire. For now, though, let me share a couple of Pirsig’s more memorable observations that relate to systemic thinking. After describing a motorcycle as a set of interrelated structures and functions, Pirsig writes,
These structures are normally interrelated in patterns and paths so complex and so enormous no one person can understand more than a small part of them in his lifetime. The overall name of these interrelated structures . . . is system. The motorcycle is a system. A real system.
To speak of certain government and establishment institutions as “the system” is to speak correctly, since these organizations are founded upon the same structural conceptual relationships as a motorcycle. They are sustained by structural relationships even when they have lost all other meaning and purpose. People arrive at a factory and perform a totally meaningless task from eight to five without question because the structure demands that it be that way. There’s no villain, no “mean guy” who wants them to live meaningless lives, it’s just that the structure, the system demands it and no one is willing to take on the formidable task of changing the structure just because it is meaningless.
But to tear down a factory or to revolt against a government or to avoid repair of a motorcycle because it is a system is to attack effects rather than causes; and as long as the attack is upon effects only, no change is possible. The true system, the real system, is our present construction of systematic thought itself, rationality itself, and if a factory is torn down but the rationality which produced it is left standing, then that rationality will simply produce another factory. If a revolution destroys a systematic government, but the systematic patterns of thought that produced that government are left intact, then those patterns will repeat themselves in the succeeding government. There’s so much talk about the system. And so little understanding.1
Have you ever wondered why nothing much changes in Washington, DC, regardless of which party is in control? The answer probably has something to do with the fact that very few politicians are systemic thinkers. It is possible, though, to impair a system without understanding it. A good example is Reaganomics, which is still producing undesirable consequences more than three decades after its unfortunate implementation.
I have serious concerns about one of our two major political parties. The GOP seems to be trying to invent a new system of government, but it is a system based upon a dangerously skewed view of reality and a set of principles that may be ideologically pure but are so detached from logic that they simply cannot produce a system that works as it needs to. It’s like designing a motorcycle, to borrow Pirsig’s metaphor, that has no brakes and an engine that’s missing a piston or two.
Well, back to Pirsig. He follows up these ideas in Zen with an different but compelling metaphor in Lila. Speaking of his own alter ego, young Phædrus, he writes:
What was he running from? He didn’t know then. It seemed like he’d been running all his life.
It used to fill his dreams, night after night. When he was little it was a giant octopus that he’d seen in a cartoon movie. . . . Later it was a huge, shadowy, faceless giant who was coming to kill him. He would wake up afraid and then slowly realize that the giant wasn’t real. . . .
. . . These manhole covers always fascinated him. Many intersections seemed to have nearly a dozen of them, some new and rough, others worn smooth and shiny from so many tires rolling over them. . . .
He’d seen drawings of how the manholes led down to staggeringly complex underground networks of systems that made this whole island happen: electric power networks, telephone networks, water pipe networks, gas line networks, sewage networks, subway tunnels, TV cables, and who knows how many special-purpose networks he had never even heard of, like the nerves and arteries and muscle fibers of a giant organism.
The Giant of his dreams.
It was spooky how it all worked with an intelligence of its own that was way beyond the intelligence of any person. He would never know how to fix one of these systems of wire and tubes down below the ground that ran it all. Yet there was someone who did. And there was a system for finding that person if he was needed, and a system for finding that system that would find him. The cohesive force that held all these systems together: that was the Giant.
When he was young Phædrus used to think about cows and pigs and chickens and how they never knew that the nice farmer who provided food and shelter was doing so only so that he could sell them to be killed and eaten. They would “oink” or “cluck,” and he would come with food, so they probably thought he was some sort of servant.
He also used to wonder if there was a higher farmer that did the same thing to people, a different kind of organism that they saw every day and thought of as beneficial, providing food and shelter and protection from enemies, but an organism that secretly was raising them and using their accumulated energy for its own independent purposes. Later he saw there was: this Giant. People look upon the social patterns of the Giant in the same way cows and horses look upon a farmer; different from themselves, incomprehensible, but benevolent and appealing. Yet the social pattern of the city devours their lives for its own purposes just as surely as farmers devour the flesh of farm animals. A higher organism feeding upon a lower one and accomplishing more by doing so than the lower organism can accomplish alone. . . .
If “man” invented societies and cities, why are all societies and cities so repressive of “man”? Why would “man” want to invent internally contradictory standards and arbitrary social institutions for the purpose of giving himself a bad time? This “man” who goes around inventing societies to repress himself seems real as long as you deal with him in the abstract, but he evaporates as you get more specific. . . .
The Giant began to materialize out of Phædrus’s Dynamic dreams when he was in college. A professor of chemistry had mentioned at his fraternity that a large chemical firm as offering excellent jobs for graduates of the school and almost every member of the fraternity thought it was wonderful news . . .
So here was this Giant, this nameless, faceless system reaching for him, ready to devour him and digest him. It would use his energy to grow stronger and stronger throughout his life while he grew older and weaker until, when he was no longer of much use, it would excrete him and find another younger person full of energy to take his place and do the same thing all over again.2
Now that kind of puts you in your place, doesn’t it? We sometimes think we know it all, but can we even control the system we have allowed to form in our midst. I don’t claim we created it. Far from it. We allowed it to create itself, and now it is in control.
I once read that there is no person on earth who possesses all the knowledge necessary to produce a simple number 2 pencil. This sounds absurd until you start to think about it. Personally, I have no clue how to produce any part of the pencil except perhaps a hexagonal shaft of wood, and even there I would probably produce something crude and unusable. So, if no one on earth has the knowledge to produce a pencil, it isn’t a stretch at all to assume that no one on earth has all the knowledge necessary to create a just, harmonious, creative, prosperous, and safe society. Economic and governmental systems are so much more complex than a pencil. And yet we have scores of people spouting platitudes about the economy and making bizarre claims about government who have never come close to thinking systemically. This is a frightening prospect. Even more frightening is the fact that most American voters are even more uninformed and less inclined to try to understand the larger picture than these two-bit power-seekers.
The Founders of this country and the Framers of the Constitution were some of the best minds this world has ever seen. Some really fine systemic thinkers among them. But even so, they had no way of anticipating some of the aspects of modern society that we have to deal with—such as medical technology, the Internet, automatic weapons, mind-altering chemicals, financial derivatives, and sex-change operations. I hate to say this, but as wonderful as the Constitution is, it is in some regards woefully outdated. It needs to be either rewritten or amended significantly to deal with issues in modern society that Madison and his pals could never have foreseen.
But where in our superficial society do we have systemic thinkers who are up to the task? Perhaps there are a few. I could name a handful. But we are so divided by blind ideology and so sedated by shallow bromides that we don’t have the attention span necessary to listen to and understand their reasoning. Most Americans don’t read a book in a year. Our minds are not trained to think and analyze and arrive at reasonable conclusions. We fall instead for bluster and get upset by anyone who attempts to rearrange our prejudices.
The question that arises for me from Pirsig’s long ruminations on systems is whether humankind, a lower organism, can control the higher system and bend it to serve human needs. My answer would be, not unless more of us become concerned enough to learn how to think systemically, or at least to listen carefully to those already know how.
1. Robert M. Pirsig, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance: An Inquiry into Values (New York: Bantam, 1975), 87–88.
2. Robert M. Pirsig, Lila: An Inquiry into Morals (New York: Bantam, 1992), 247–51.


  1. Why would the Constitution need to be amended? Just let the states exercise sovereignty and experiment.

    1. My first answer would be that we are too bound together in so many ways that state sovereignty is nothing but a conservative talking point. Allowing the states to "experiment" in areas such as health care or gun control would be disastrous. We've tipped too far in that direction already. Our European friends think we just past cuckoo when it comes to these two issues, and they have a far superior track record, so we ought to maybe listen to them. Some things work well on a state-by-state basis, but far more are national issues.

  2. I agree with the generality of your essay but unsurprisingly there is room to find your political application woefully deficient

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  5. It is not a system, if the control is very centralised compared with the size