Out of Control into Participation

Brian Goodwin
Schumacher College, ENG


For nearly 500 years, western science has provided our culture with a remarkably successful procedure for gaining reliable knowledge of the natural world that can be used to produce a great range of artifacts and technologies whereby we can control natural processes. However, the dialectic of science has now brought us face to face with a world that is intrinsically uncontrollable, for reasons that remain scientifically intelligible. In a fundamental sense, this is the end of a deeply pervasive cultural attitude of control that has dominated most of our institutions, including those of government and the corporate sector. We have reached a moment of truth in which rationality itself points to a necessary new praxis, a different way of being in the world from that which we have cultivated and practiced for centuries.

This is deeply challenging; but there is a bridge of continuity across what appears to be a sudden cultural abyss, from conventional western scientific practice to a new mode of informed and extended rationality. Complexity theory points to a path across the chasm, although it does not itself provide the bridge. In this article, I shall examine the nature and implications of this pointer, and how we can follow it into a new world. The specific properties of that world are, however, necessarily still largely out of sight. I begin with a brief description of the assumptions within western science that give it both its power and its limitations.


When Galileo started the great adventure of modern science with his systematic study of the motion of falling and projected bodies, cylinders rolling down inclined planes, and the movements of the moons of Jupiter, he was guided by a deep and powerful organizing idea: natural phenomena can be described by mathematics. He wasn't the first to explore this ordering principle of nature. Egyptian, Greek, and Arab natural philosophers had all contributed substantially to the realization that processes involving the operation of levers, musical intervals, and harmony, and particularly the movements of the heavenly bodies, are governed by number, ratio, and geometry, so that there is a distinctly rational aspect to natural processes.

What Galileo did was to define the methodology of science in terms of the study of number and measure. Those properties of the natural world that can be measured and expressed in terms of mathematical relationships define the domain of scientific inquiry. These measurable quantities, such as mass, position, velocity, momentum, and so on, are the “primary qualities” of phenomena, as the philosopher John Locke defined them. They originate from our experience of weight and force in natural processes. Other experiences that we may have, such as the perfume and texture of a fruit or a flower, feelings associated with their color, or the joy that we may feel at the beauty of a landscape or a sunset, which have no quantitative measure, are outside the legitimate domain of scientific inquiry. Modern science is thus defined as the systematic study of quantities and excludes “secondary” qualities (experience of color, odor, texture, beauty of form, etc., which are often referred to as qualia).

As a strategy for exploring an aspect of reality—the quantifiable and the mathematizable—the restriction of modern science to primary qualities is perfectly reasonable. It has also turned out to be remarkably successful. The diversity of aspects of the natural world that fall under the spell of number, measure, and mathematics is astonishing, ranging from light, magnetism, and chemical reactions to the laws of biological inheritance. But the impulse to mathematize nature takes scientific description well beyond what is perceived as the “common-sense” behavior of clocks, magnets, and chemical processes to the strange but self-consistent world of quantum mechanics. Here, causality functions differently from mechanical interactions. Quantum elements do not behave as independent entities whose properties can be varied in arbitrary ways.

The quantum realm is governed by principles of intimate entanglement and coordination between its components, giving rise to coherent holistic order that extends over any distance.

Mathematics also gives us new insights into the curious logic of the weather, showing us why it is unpredictable but intelligible. The discovery of deterministic chaos in dynamical systems allows us to reconcile these two apparently contradictory properties. As is now widely known, sensitivity to initial conditions means that any error in specifying these for weather calculations, and rounding errors that inevitably accompany computation, will grow exponentially so that errors rapidly overwhelm the calculation and long-term prediction fails. This is the property of natural processes governed by deterministic chaos (Gleick, 1987), which is now recognized to be a natural or generic pattern of behavior for most nonlinear systems. It has been identified in the dynamics of our hearts and brains, in the behavior of social insects, and in many other biological processes (Goodwin, 1994; Kelso, 1995).


There is another source of unpredictability in natural processes that has become the focus of a recently developed field of research called the sciences of complexity (Kauffman, 1993, 1995; Cohen & Stewart, 1994). Here, the problem is to understand how unexpected properties arise from the interactions of the component elements of a complex system, which can be physical, chemical, biological, or social. These are called emergent properties because the system as a whole displays behavior that is unpredictable from an observation of the interactions of its component parts.

For instance, colonies of social insects such as bees, wasps, termites, and ants achieve remarkable feats of organization and coordinated action that go so far beyond the capacities of the individuals that the colony is often described as a superorganism, an emergent whole with properties of its own. Termites construct their beautifully intricate colonial dwellings through processes that look anything but organized. Yet, out of the activities of termite construction gangs that form and disperse in apparently disorganized patterns, there emerge coherently structured pillared halls and passageways, complete with air conditioning, that accommodate thousands of inhabitants (O'Toole et al., 1999). Nature is full of creative surprises, and the sciences of complexity explore, by means of observation, mathematical modeling, and computer simulation, how this creativity of natural process can be understood even if it cannot be predicted or controlled. However, an important feature of emergent properties is that they are always consistent with, although not necessarily reducible to, the properties of the components of the system. Nature doesn't suddenly produce something out of nothing, so there are no miracles (Sol & Goodwin, 2000).

Western science has now arrived at a dramatic turning point. Scientific knowledge was intended to reveal the laws of nature, which we could then use for prediction and control of natural processes. This knowledge has given us a remarkable range of very useful technologies, and this process will continue for those limited aspects of nature that conform to mechanical causality. But what has been revealed by science itself is that much, probably most, of nature cannot be predicted and controlled. We can now understand why the complex systems on which the quality of our lives depends, such as the weather, ecological systems, communities, organizations, economies, and health, are out of our control except in very limited ways. But we have to interact with the complex systems that surround us because we are a part of them. What is the appropriate relationship to nature in view of our new understanding?


One of the main constraints on conventional science that limits the ability to gain insight into the realm of complex phenomena is the restriction of data to quantifiable, measurable aspects of natural processes. There is no intrinsic reason that this constraint should be accepted. What is required in a science is some methodology whereby practicing subjects come to agreement on their observations and experiences. This is the basis of quantitative measurement: acceptance of a method whereby different practitioners can reach intersubjective consensus on their results. Where there is no consensus, there is no “objective” scientific truth.

Why should this not be extended to the observation and experience of “secondary” qualities? In fact, this extension is practiced in many areas, an example being the healing professions, whether conventional western medical practice or complementary therapeutic traditions. The presenting subject's experience of pain and its qualities is certainly used in diagnostic practice, as are many other qualities such as color and texture of skin, posture, tone of voice, etc. Paying close attention to these, as well as to quantitative data such as temperature, pulse, and blood pressure, is a significant part of the art of diagnosis. Conventional wisdom accepts that these skills can only be acquired through practice and experience, which hones the intuitive faculty to perceive reliably the underlying condition that is the cause of change from health to disease. Health is an emergent property that cannot be reduced to the sum of quantitative data about different aspects of the body. Its perception requires the healer to pay attention to qualities as well as quantities, and to make use of the intuition (noninferential perception of wholes) in coming to a holistic judgment about the condition presented.

Conventional scientists begin to get very nervous when this type of procedure is described as science. They are suspicious of intuition, and they mistrust qualitative observation. As far as intuition is concerned, they need have no anxieties: it is a universally recognized subjective component of scientific discovery. It is the intuitive faculty that makes sense of diverse data and brings them into a coherent pattern of meaning and intelligibility, although of course the analytical intellect is also involved in sorting out the logic of the intuitive insight. What is not practiced in science is the systematic cultivation of the intuitive faculty, the capacity to recognize the coherent wholes that emerge from related parts. However, the study of emergent properties in the science of complexity clearly requires the use of intuition to a high degree. It is what is required to perceive the subtle order that characterizes the holistic properties of complex systems—ecosystems, communities, organizations, health.

Furthermore, these emergent properties are closely associated with “secondary” qualities. The health of an ecosystem is reflected in the quality of birdsong as well as in the (quantitative) diversity of species. However, scientists are trained to pay attention only to quantities. As people and as naturalists they are aware of qualities, which are often the primary indicators of change. But as scientists they factor them out of their consciousness. This restriction is based on a convention that has worked extremely well for “simple” systems, but it has severe limitations in the face of complexity. It is time for a move into a science of qualities.

A science of qualities is not new in the western tradition. This is the science that was practiced by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. Regarded for many years as an aberration because of an apparent conflict with Newtonian science, Goethe's studies have been largely ignored within mainstream science. However, it is now evident that Goethe's approach to natural processes is not so much in direct conflict with the dominant science of quantities as different in emphasis from it (cf. Bortoft, 1996). In Goethe's study of color, for example, which is where he ran into trouble for challenging Newton's color theory, an explicit goal is not simply to understand the conditions under which various colors emerge, but also to relate this to the experience we have of different colors, i.e., their qualia. The assumption is that our feelings in response to natural processes are not arbitrary, but can be used as reliable indicators of the nature of the real processes in which we participate. Qualities include the realm of the normative, our assessment of the rightness or wrongness, appropriateness or inappropriateness, of particular actions in relation to our knowledge.

A science of emergent qualities involves a break with the positivist tradition that separates facts and values and re-establishes a foundation for a naturalistic ethics (Collier, 1994). The essential argument here is that, if we believe that our knowledge is reliable and relates to a real world, it guides our behavior toward that world. This is clearly true for conventional scientific knowledge, such as understanding the properties of gold and using it appropriately in technology. It also holds for qualities: if we believe that it is in the nature of children to play, we will provide opportunities for them to do so in order that they can have a good quality of life. This principle extends logically to treatment of other species and to nature in general, within an epistemology that includes qualitative evaluation as an intrinsic aspect of reliable knowing.


Participation now enters as a fundamental ingredient in the human experience of any phenomenon, which arises out of the encounter between two real processes that are distinct but not separable: the human process of becoming and that of the “other,” whatever this may be, to which the human is attending. In this encounter where the phenomenon arises, feelings and intuitions are not arbitrary, idiosyncratic accompaniments, but direct indicators of the nature of the mutual process that occurs in the encounter. By paying attention to these, we gain insight into the emergent reality in which we participate.

Of course, there are idiosyncratic, personal components of the insight, just as there are idiosyncratic elements of the integrating theories that come with flashes of intuitive insight to individual scientists. These need to be distinguished from the more lasting and universal aspects of the insight, which is where the process of intersubjective testing comes in to find consensus among a group of practitioners (cf. Wemelsfelder et al., 2000). The same type of process is required to evaluate the insights gained from paying attention to qualities of experience in order to understand the subtle order of complex systems.

The sensitivity of these systems to initial conditions, to change in their parts or their interactions, means that we must be finely tuned to the process we seek to influence beneficially in order to monitor our effects, as in any healing process. These are basic ingredients of a science of qualities. In a sense, they are no more than a statement of what holistic practitioners have been engaged in. However, it is time to develop such a science systematically as an extension of quantitative science in a direction that is appropriate to the needs of our age.


The sciences of complexity provide us with an extremely suggestive set of metaphors, which give useful indications of the properties needed in a new scientific praxis that could apply to human organizations as well as to relations with the natural world (Reason & Goodwin, 2000; Stacey et al., 2000). Moving away from control, letting go, living on the edge of chaos where emergent order arises that can provide adaptive solutions to problems: these indicate precisely where we want to be to deal creatively with unexpected change. Why not simply use the insights of complexity theory to take human organizations to the edge of chaos so that they can operate more effectively? There are two reasons that this can't be done within our current science of control.

The first has already been described: the restriction of “reliable” knowledge to quantitative variables and their coherent mathematical relationships, so that qualia cannot contribute to “objective knowledge.” The “agents” described in complex adaptive systems have no qualitative experience and so cannot behave like humans except in a very restrictive, mechanical sense. The other reason is the assumption that the scientist must stand outside of and apart from the “system” in order to examine and influence it. But we are inside the systems that are causing us problems, part of their intrinsic relationships. We cannot manipulate these complex processes, taking them to a desired state, because they operate in terms of principles of self-organization and we are part of the self, along with all the other participants in the process in which we are engaged. However, we can feel or intuit change as well as measure whatever may help us in assessing what is happening. This is of course how we live our lives in relation to our fellows, so we have plenty of practice at it. Once basic needs (of food, shelter, and clothing) are met, quantities play a relatively small part in achieving a fulfilled life, which depends on quality of relationships. Ways of systematically developing an appropriate praxis within self-organizing communities that facilitate the emergence of appropriate order have been explored and developed within several different traditions, prominent among them being cooperative inquiry or participatory action research (Heron & Reason, 1997; Reason, 1998). Science is not ahead in these developments; it is behind.

Our scientific and technological culture has emphasized quantities of everything as the measure of achievement and fulfilment, and in doing so has progressively isolated individuals from one another and from nature. Quantification and control of nature, once acting through technology as a liberating force for humanity, have now reached the point of enslaving everything they touch, particularly life itself through patents that turn organisms and their parts into salable commodities and humans into perfectable machines. The “bottom line” of profit as the constantly scrutinized criterion of success in the unregulated marketplace is a major quantity that enslaves the corporate sector and prevents the transition of most companies to a condition of freedom and creativity.

In physiology it is becoming recognized that such inflexibility of goal, a kind of rigid homeostasis, is a clear sign of danger: a constant high heart rate warns of proneness to sudden cardiac arrest. Such order indicates that the body has lost its flexibility and responsiveness to change and has fallen into a condition of disease. Health, on the other hand, carries with it a signature of unpredictable variability in physiological variables, but variability within limits as in a strange attractor. Indeed, it appears that health is characterized precisely by a balance between order and chaos in the body's functions, which takes us back to the insights of complexity theory: creative living occurs on the edge of chaos.

This suggests that present business practice, with its rigid focus on maintaining constant high profits, has resulted in severe proneness to the economic equivalent of sudden cardiac arrest, as observed in the increasing rate of company failures. Again we have a suggestive metaphor, but no prescription from complexity theory for healing the patient. There isn't one within the current scientific paradigm, for the reasons given above: it still works within the tradition of separation of the investigator/manipulator/leader from the system and restricts itself to quantities, whereas we humans live most of our lives in terms of qualities and relationships, as does the rest of living nature. Leadership in the new context means facilitating processes and procedures that encourage high quality of experience in the group. This then results in a robust creativity and health such that profits look after themselves, remaining within reasonable bounds but varying unpredictably in the short term.

There are very powerful economic and political forces that act against such transformation, maintaining a culture of fear in organizations due to the threat of loss of market share if high profitability is not maintained. It therefore requires a remarkable act of courage to get to the point of engaging financial analysts and shareholders in a conversation about the goals and purposes of trade that could transform the objective of business to good quality of life for all. Financial analysts are, of course, simply reflecting to CEOs how the “market” expects them to behave. But the collusion between analysts, managers, and shareholders is actually what maintains the dangerous condition of high profits that is a primary symptom of the current economic and environmental disease from which we suffer.

A better quality of life can only be realized if all the members of our planetary society are included in the new contract, for this is what participation means. It makes no sense trying to achieve a good quality of life for humans at the expense of the rest of nature, as we are now learning the hard way through the destructive effects of environmental pollution, unhealthy industrialized food, turbulent climate change, and species extinctions. These were all foreseen as dangerous results of our actions by the few who read the signs and understood mutual dependence through complex networks.

A science of qualities extends the science of quantities to include the different ways of knowing that we can use to understand the complex webs of relationship within which we are embedded at every moment of our lives. Focus on quality of life by the cultivation of the antennae needed to participate responsibly in these webs is not new. We do it naturally all the time, and all human cultures have developed these qualities of participation to a greater or lesser degree. We have chosen to do so to a lesser degree in our culture and there is a growing consensus that it is time to recover our balance.


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