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Posted  | Reviewed by Vanessa Lancaster
How we think about consciousness awareness is key to how we understand psychological process and psychological well-being. I’ve encountered a number of articles lately that put forward explanations of the workings of conscious awareness that are more dynamic than traditional formulations–each case making the claim that the picture that they present is fundamentally new.
In my recent book Creative Systems Theory: A Comprehensive Theory of Purpose, Change, and Interrelationship in Human Systems, I describe how the theory proposes a particularly nuanced such explanation over 40 years ago, one arguably more sophisticated and precise.
The book uses the free-will-versus-determinism debate as a way in. As commonly conceived, it fundamentally challenges usual understanding. You would not be reading this post, and I would not have written it, if we did not believe in free will in some form. Yet basic cause and effect, at least as classical science conceives of it, describes a deterministic world. Free will and determinism each seem self-evident but limited to the assumptions of the modern age, though they imply mutually exclusive realities.
Creative systems theory’s new picture follows from how what the theory calls integrative meta-perspective (the kind of conceptual vantage that produces what the theory calls culturally mature understanding) alters how we think about conscious awareness.
A simple way to think about the free-will-versus-determinism debate and how it might be reconciled turns to the recognition that modern-age beliefs about both will and determination have been directly tied to how we have viewed the relationship between mind and body. In modern times we’ve conceived of mind and body as separate. We’ve also seen each functioning according to basic rules of cause and effect. In this world, awareness is “captain of the cellular ship”–free and unfettered. And the body, as anatomy and physiology, functions according to basic engineering principles. Free will and determinism each have their own separate, rationally understandable realities.
Cultural maturity’s cognitive changes reveal a picture that is more of a whole, more expressly systemic. It is also a picture in which mind and body each come to function according to more dynamic principles.
With an integrative meta-perspective, we come to appreciate that while awareness helps facilitate possibility, by itself it doesn’t determine it. And we leave behind thinking of the life of the body only in mechanistic terms. We find a more expressly creative reality all the way around, one that fundamentally alters the free-will-versus-determinism debate.
The fact that a larger reality might exist is more a part of our daily experience than we might imagine. Certainly, this is true for conscious awareness. Few truths become more obvious when practicing the craft of the psychotherapist, for example, than how different the reality of conscious awareness is from how the conscious mind tends to view itself. The fact that conscious awareness is limited in what it can grasp is exactly as it should be. Much of our functioning works best without volition’s interference. (Recall Kipling’s centipede, who walks gracefully with its hundred legs until praised for her exquisite memory.)
In a similar way, a more systemic kind of understanding is coming to permeate the best of thinking about the body. As we learn more deeply about the complex workings of the endocrine system, for example, or about connections between the gut and cognitive functioning, we find not a mechanical body but a living body. And when we look more psychologically, we find a body that is, in important ways, intelligent.
A simple thought experiment helps make the result when we think more systemically about the body more concrete: Imagine a gifted running back in football making his way down the field, rapidly cutting this way and that. The running back’s cuts take place more quickly and in ways that are more nuanced than could ever happen by consciously choosing them one at a time. The conscious aspects of intelligence simply aren’t built to function that rapidly or complexly. Does this mean, then, that the running back is not choosing? And, more specifically, does it then mean that because his body moves before he “chooses,” what we witness is nothing more than mechanical reflex following the rules of a deterministic world?
Such interpretations leave us with a less-than-convincing picture. At the least, they leave us with bothersome questions. Are the outcomes of games then predetermined–or perhaps random? Either way, we are left wondering why we would attend a football game–and perhaps feeling a bit duped. I think the problem lies with the fact that our explanations really don’t hold up. Clearly, in the running back’s movements, we witness something that is not just vital but intelligent and profoundly so.
With the recognition that the greater portion of our psychological functioning happens well outside of awareness, conscious awareness–and with it will–comes to have a new, at once more humble, and ultimately profound, role. Rather than willfully determining our actions, it serves as a facilitator and catalyst for intelligence’s richly creative workings. Integrative meta-perspective reveals that while thinking of free will as free and willful in the unfettered sense implied by our Modern Age may once have benefitted us, today, it gets in the way of fully appreciating choice’s ultimately more powerful and creative contribution.
With regard to the body, integrative meta-perspective in a similar way offers a more interesting and ultimately powerful picture. We come to see the body not as a separate deterministic machine but as an integral part of who we are as living–and specifically human–beings. A creative frame makes this result more explicit. We recognize how body sensibilities represent a critical, multilayered aspect of intelligence’s larger workings. We also better appreciate the rich complexities of its contribution to those workings.
Charles M. Johnston, MD, is a psychiatrist, writer, and futurist. He is the author of numerous books and articles on the future and how we can best prepare to meet it.
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Knowing what you value will help you build the most meaningful life possible.