[This short blog is a second entrée to Chapter 4: “Crystal Balls, Flying Cars and Robots” in my new Oxford book The Future: A Very Short Introduction.] “In this brilliant and concise overview [of The Future,] part of the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series, [Jennifer Gidley] gives readers multiple insights into the field and … Continue reading
Review of “Postformal Education” in “RoSE: Research on Steiner Education”
BOOK REVIEW by Normal Skillen, Teacher Educator, South Africa, published in “RoSE: Research on Steiner Education” Volume 8 Number 1: 115-117.
“Unless we resolve to rehumanise education so its core purpose becomes once again to develop whole human beings who care, who … respect life, who exercise wisdom and who have the courage to voice their truths to those who would corrupt our futures, then we should forget about the whole idea of education altogether.” Jennifer Gidley “Postformal Education”
So says Jennifer Gidley in the summary epilogue to this remarkable book. This quotation, quite apart from its passionate advocacy of educational reform, gives ample expression to the breadth of the author’s frame of reference. Here is someone who is aware of the noble heritage of education and is equally full of enthusiasm for the tremendous future potential it harbours. We can also hear that this is a radical voice.
The book delivers on all these counts. Anyone who opens it will be entering a multi-perspectival mindscape, a sweeping panorama of the postformal in all its guises. This could quickly become an academic labyrinth, were it not for the guiding intelligence of the author.
Rarely have I come across a book with such a copious scope of reference. The range of material that Jennifer Gidley has marshalled and organised into this book is positively breathtaking, sometimes totally overwhelming.
There are sections where she plies the reader with reference after reference, perspective on perspective, until the mind (or, at any rate, this mind) reels with alternatives. But she also has an extraordinary facility for pulling all these threads together and setting them in an ordered context.
This contrast between such far-reaching breadth of multi-perspectival detail and the need to know what it means in practical terms and where it is going sets up a tension that persists all the way through. This is the tension between map and territory. Now, we all know that “the map is not the territory”, and so – with her years of hands-on experience – does Jennifer Gidley, but her urgent awareness of all the avenues that are currently opening up in education has led her to devote quite a bit of this book to a mapping exercise. Considering the multi-dimensional implications of post-formal thinking, this decision on her part is fully justified. In doing so she manages to clarify the main features of post-formal consciousness, and makes it abundantly clear just how future-oriented they are. She also shows how they are characteristic of certain modern thinkers who have not hitherto enjoyed much attention, let alone high regard, in the context of traditional formal academic thinking. There are three of these in particular whom she places at the philosophical heart of all her deliberations. They are Rudolf Steiner, Jean Gebser and Ken Wilber. I will return to this point later.
As it proceeds, the book alternates between pure mapping and entering various theoretical and practical territories. Mapping pre-dominates in the early chapters, gradually giving way to more and more “territory”, and this is an exhilarating process, even if occasionally one expects to be entering a concrete territory and finds oneself still in a map. But I don’t wish to press this analogy too far.
If you are looking for a book which gives as thorough a survey of the global educational landscape as could be wished for, you need look no further. Jennifer Gidley can point you in whatever direction you wish to go, but she also takes you on her own direction.
It is actually impossible for a review to do justice to the way she does this. The scope of her research is awe-inspiring, and she has a highly developed ability to perceive trends and relationships where others have remained in the dark. One such example is her discovery that there are parallels between the work of post-Piagetian developmental psychologists (i.e. those who have gone beyond Piaget’s characterization of “formal operations” into “post-formal operations”) and that of researchers, theorists and practitioners of pedagogies which imply and prepare for the development of post-formal consciousness. Not only did she discover these parallels, but also uncovered the fact that these two fields of endeavour are largely unaware of each other. So in this book she has brought these two fields together, viewed them in the light of each other, and, in true Goethean style, an intensification (“Steigerung”) has occurred, which has provided the main substance of her philosophy of education. If the book succeeds only in making these psychologists and educational theorists aware of their common ground, then it will have done its job, but, in keeping with this Goethean intensification, Ms. Gidley takes things a lot further.
Through a long, exceedingly complex but well-presented sequence of interactive mapping of the features of post-formal consciousness onto the evolutionary themes (an exposition of the part played by the evolution of consciousness in the development of ancient and modern education is another main thread of this book) emerging from multiple strains of developmental psychology she arrives at four main principles, which form the core of her post-formal philosophy of education.
Part III of the book (the mapping/surveying having been accomplished largely in the first two parts) is then devoted to an exposition of these four principles. Here the “territory” finally comes into its own, and the power they have as emblems of possible educational futures is considerably enhanced by the fact that they are not just “the author’s ideas”, but have emerged organically out of the vast educational, psychological and philosophical terrain considered in the earlier parts of the book. The four chapters in which this exposition is presented constitute a comprehensive picture of what modern, future-oriented, creative and imaginatively experiential education could be like. Particularly striking is the fact that many of the features thus described have long been intrinsic to Waldorf education; for instance, the emphasis upon nurturing the “pedagogical voice”.
This points to another of Jennifer Gidley’s sterling accomplishments in this book – this returns us to the three thinkers mentioned earlier. She has succeeded here in considerably enhancing the claim of Waldorf education to be included as an integral part of modern educational discourse. She has also brought its founder firmly into the ambit of post-formal thinkers, showing his direct kinship with the work of Jean Gebser, Ken Wilber and many others. Although post-formalism, as she herself acknowledges, is still largely “ex-academy”, at least this is a step in the right direction.
Trans-disciplinarity is a key element of postformal consciousness, and obviously this is not without its problems. For instance, in speaking of the evolution of consciousness, as she does very extensively throughout the book, it is not always clear what this means. Are we talking about the evolutionary emergence of the faculty of cognition from non-cognitive antecedents, or are we talking about the gradual individualisation of universal Mind? I suspect that what Ken Wilber thinks about this would be very different from what it meant for Rudolf Steiner. But then, being able to hold and encompass the tension of contrasting worldviews is another leading aspect of post-formal thinking.
Given the vast scope of her sphere of reference and the fact that the evolution of consciousness and the post-formal principle of trans-disciplinarity are such important features of her whole epistemological framework, it is rather puzzling that one name, Owen Barfield, figures only very marginally in the book’s deliberations, and another, Henri Bortoft, not at all. Both these authors could be said to have written manuals of post-formal thinking, and there are quite a number of places in the text where a reference to either or both of these authors would have greatly enriched the context. This is not meant as a criticism or a complaint, I merely wished to register my perplexity at their absence in contexts where they would seem to belong.
Now I must mention one small gripe. In negotiating the trans-disciplinary boundaries as Jennifer Gidley has so skilfully done in this book, there is a strong tendency to be drawn to creative neologisms – my lap-top, for instance, does not accept “postformal” and “transdisciplinarity” as proper words – for you are continually entering realms where there are no readily available terms. Most of them, like the two examples I’ve just mentioned, work very well, but one or two cross the line from creativity into syntactic impossibility. One such is the use (following Gadamer) of the word “language” as a transitive verb. This is a bridge too far (Gadamer notwithstanding), and although it might seem like a pedantic quibble, I feel it is an ever-present danger to be aware of. It is really a momentary failure of critical and poetic sensibility caused, no doubt, by the constant tension of navigating the disciplinary borderlands. Having experienced such a usage one feels one might turn the page and find the author extolling the virtues of “edu-tainment”, in which case my next act would be to slam the book shut.
Thankfully, however, this is a momentary phenomenon, and the book is much more likely to be characterised by the brilliance of its formulations. Ms. Gidley writes very lucid prose, which rises at times to considerable heights of eloquence. She can turn up the radical heat when she needs to, and characterise with lyrical evocation when the context requires it.
To sum up, if you are trying to work creatively in education and you want to know who your allies are in the fight against the “audit culture” of modern factory-style education, then you need to read this book. There seems to be no corner of modern alternative educational thinking that Jennifer Gidley has not delved into.
Furthermore, she has organized all the various strains of modern philosophy, psychology and educational thinking into a large contextual framework, which gives direction, but—in true post-formal style—stops short of any definitive closure. Through all this also what sounds very strongly is her insight into and passionate respect for the integrity of the child. This book deserves to be read widely by teachers, educational academics and especially by policy-makers. Should educational policy change towards a more desirable direction, this book will no doubt have made its contribution.
To read more open access articles from this issue of RoSE Journal click here. Articles in are published in English, German and Spanish.
BOOK REVIEW by Gabrielle Donnelly, Acadia University, Nova Scotia in “Journal of Transformative Education” 15(4): 377-379. A Journal of the American Association for Adult and Continuing Education (AAACE).
Postformal Education skillfully navigates the urgency and challenges embedded in these times, as well as the tremendous possibilities present within education, offering a vision for a new educational philosophy to awaken creativity, care, and agency.
The book provides a robust and substantive dialogue among leading thinkers and theories on cultural evolution, integral theories, developmental psychology, postformal reasoning qualities, postformal pedagogies, and educational futures, drawing upon Ken Wilber, Rudolf Steiner, Sri Aurobindo, Jean Gebser, Joe Kincheloe, Robert Kegan, Edgar Morin, and many others…
The book will appeal to educational philosophers and researchers, educators and teachers, developmental and educational psychologists, educational administrators, and anyone else with interest in transformative educational theories designed for the 21st century.
[Gidley] joins the chorus of voices calling for a planet-wide call to action to transform education and makes a distinct, inspiring, and significant contribution.
TO READ THE FULL BOOK REVIEW GO TO THIS LINK
[*This article was first published in the September 2017 issue of Paradigm Explorer: The Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network (Established 1973). The article was drawn from the author’s original work in her book: The Future: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017), especially from Chapters 4 & 5.]
We are at a critical point today in research into human futures. Two divergent streams show up in the human futures conversations. Which direction we choose will also decide the fate of earth futures in the sense of Earth’s dual role as home for humans, and habitat for life. I choose to deliberately oversimplify here to make a vital point.
The two approaches I discuss here are informed by Oliver Markley and Willis Harman’s two contrasting future images of human development: ‘evolutionary transformational’ and ‘technological extrapolationist’ in Changing Images of Man (Markley & Harman, 1982). This has historical precedents in two types of utopian human futures distinguished by Fred Polak in The Image of the Future (Polak, 1973) and C. P. Snow’s ‘Two Cultures’ (the humanities and the sciences) (Snow, 1959).
What I call ‘human-centred futures’ is humanitarian, philosophical, and ecological. It is based on a view of humans as kind, fair, consciously evolving, peaceful agents of change with a responsibility to maintain the ecological balance between humans, Earth, and cosmos. This is an active path of conscious evolution involving ongoing psychological, socio-cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual development, and a commitment to the betterment of earthly conditions for all humanity through education, cultural diversity, greater economic and resource parity, and respect for future generations.
By contrast, what I call ‘technotopian futures’ is dehumanising, scientistic, and atomistic. It is based on a mechanistic, behaviourist model of the human being, with a thin cybernetic view of intelligence. The transhumanist ambition to create future techno-humans is anti-human and anti-evolutionary. It involves technological, biological, and genetic enhancement of humans and artificial machine ‘intelligence’. Some technotopians have transcendental dreams of abandoning Earth to build a fantasised techno-heaven on Mars or in satellite cities in outer space.
Interestingly, this contest for the control of human futures has been waged intermittently since at least the European Enlightenment. Over a fifty-year time span in the second half of the 18th century, a power struggle for human futures emerged, between human-centred values and the dehumanisation of the Industrial Revolution.
The German philosophical stream included the idealists and romantics, such as Herder, Novalis, Goethe, Hegel, and Schelling. They took their lineage from Leibniz and his 17th-century integral, spiritually-based evolutionary work. These German philosophers, along with romantic poets such as Blake, Wordsworth and Coleridge (who helped introduce German idealism to Britain) seeded a spiritual-evolutionary humanism that underpins the human-centred futures approach (Gidley, 2007).
The French philosophical influence included La Mettrie’s mechanistic man and René Descartes’s early 17th-century split between mind and body, forming the basis of French (or Cartesian) Rationalism. These French philosophers, La Mettrie and Descartes, along with the theorists of progress such as Turgot and de Condorcet, were secular humanists. Secular humanism is one lineage of technotopian futures. Scientific positivism is another (Gidley, 2017).
Transhumanism, Posthumanism and the Superman Trope
Transhumanism in the popular sense today is inextricably linked with technological enhancement or extensions of human capacities through technology. This is a technological appropriation of the original idea of transhumanism, which began as a philosophical concept grounded in the evolutionary humanism of Teilhard de Chardin, Julian Huxley, and others in the mid-20th century, as we shall see below.
In 2005, the Oxford Martin School at the University of Oxford founded The Future of Humanity Institute and appointed Swedish philosopher Nick Bostrom as its Chair. Bostrom makes a further distinction between secular humanism, concerned with human progress and improvement through education and cultural refinement, and transhumanism, involving ‘direct application of medicine and technology to overcome some of our basic biological limits.’
Bostrom’s transhumanism can enhance human performance through existing technologies, such as genetic engineering and information technologies, as well as emerging technologies, such as molecular nanotechnology and intelligence. It does not entail technological optimism, in that he regularly points to the risks of potential harm, including the ‘extreme possibility of intelligent life becoming extinct’ (Bostrom, 2014). In support of Bostrom’s concerns, renowned theoretical physicist Stephen Hawking, and billionaire entrepreneur and engineer Elon Musk have issued serious warnings about the potential existential threats to humanity that advances in ‘artificial super-intelligence’ (ASI) may release.
Not all transhumanists are in agreement, nor do they all share Bostrom’s, Hawking’s and Musk’s circumspect views. In David Pearce’s book The Hedonistic Imperative he argues for a biological programme involving genetic engineering and nanotechnology that will ‘eliminate all forms of cruelty, suffering, and malaise’ (Pearce, 1995/2015). Like the shadow side of the ‘progress narrative’ that has been used as an ideology to support racism and ethnic genocide, this sounds frighteningly like a reinvention of Comte and Spencer’s 19th century Social Darwinism. Along similar lines Byron Reese claims in his book Infinite Progress that the Internet and technology will end ‘Ignorance, Disease, Poverty, Hunger and War’ and we will colonise outer space with a billion other planets each populated with a billion people (Reese, 2013). What happens in the meantime to Earth seems of little concern to them.
One of the most extreme forms of transhumanism is posthumanism: a concept connected with the high-tech movement to create so-called machine super-intelligence. Because posthumanism requires technological intervention, posthumans are essentially a new, or hybrid, species, including the cyborg and the android. The movie character Terminator is a cyborg.
The most vocal of high-tech transhumanists have ambitions that seem to have grown out of the superman trope so dominant in early to mid-20th-century North America. Their version of transhumanism includes the idea that human functioning can be technologically enhanced exponentially, until the eventual convergence of human and machine into the singularity (another term for posthumanism). To popularise this concept Google engineer Ray Kurzweil co-founded the Singularity University in Silicon Valley in 2009. While the espoused mission of Singularity University is to use accelerating technologies to address ‘humanity’s hardest problems’, Kurzweil’s own vision is pure science fiction. In another twist, there is a striking resemblance between the Singularity University logo (below left) and the Superman logo (below right).
When unleashing accelerating technologies, we need to ask ourselves, how should we distinguish between authentic projects to aid humanity, and highly resourced messianic hubris? A key insight is that propositions put forward by techno-transhumanists are based on an ideology of technological determinism. This means that the development of society and its cultural values are driven by that society’s technology, not by humanity itself.
In an interesting counter-intuitive development, Bostrom points out that since the 1950s there have been periods of hype and high expectations about the prospect of AI (1950s, 1970s, 1980s, 1990s) each followed by a period of setback and disappointment that he calls an ‘AI winter’. The surge of hype and enthusiasm about the coming singularity surrounding Kurzweil’s naïve and simplistic beliefs about replicating human consciousness may be about to experience a fifth AI winter.
The Dehumanization Critique
The strongest critiques of the overextension of technology involve claims of dehumanisation, and these arguments are not new. Canadian philosopher of the electronic age Marshall McLuhan cautioned decades ago against too much human extension into technology. McLuhan famously claimed that every media extension of man is an amputation. Once we have a car, we don’t walk to the shops anymore; once we have a computer hard-drive we don’t have to remember things; and with personal GPS on our cell phones no one can find their way without it. In these instances, we are already surrendering human faculties that we have developed over millennia. It is likely that further extending human faculties through techno- and bio-enhancement will lead to arrested development in the natural evolution of higher human faculties.
From the perspective of psychology of intelligence the term artificial intelligence is an oxymoron. Intelligence, by nature, cannot be artificial and its inestimable complexity defies any notion of artificiality. We need the courage to name the notion of ‘machine intelligence’ for what it really is: anthropomorphism. Until AI researchers can define what they mean by intelligence, and explain how it relates to consciousness, the term artificial intelligence must remain a word without universal meaning. At best, so-called artificial intelligence can mean little more than machine capability, which will always be limited by the design and programming of its inventors. As for machine super-intelligence it is difficult not to read this as Silicon Valley hubris.
Furthermore, much of the transhumanist discourse of the 21st century reflects a historical and sociological naïveté. Other than Bostrom, transhumanist writers seem oblivious to the 3,000-year history of humanity’s attempts to predict, control, and understand the future (Gidley, 2017). Although many transhumanists sit squarely within a cornucopian narrative, they seem unaware of the alternating historical waves of techno-utopianism (or Cornucopianism) and techno-dystopianism (or Malthusianism). This is especially evident in their appropriation and hijacking of the term ‘transhumanism’ with little apparent knowledge or regard for its origins.
Origins of a Humanistic Transhumanism
In 1950, Pierre Teilhard de Chardin (1881–1955) published the essay From the Pre-Human to the Ultra-Human: The Phases of a Living Planet, in which he speaks of ‘some sort of Trans-Human at the ultimate heart of things’. Teilhard de Chardin’s Ultra-Human and Trans-Human were evolutionary concepts linked with spiritual/human futures. These concepts inspired his friend Sir Julian Huxley to write about transhumanism, which he did in 1957 as follows [Huxley’s italics]:
The human species can, if it wishes, transcend itself—not just sporadically, an individual here in one way, an individual there in another way—but in its entirety, as humanity. We need a name for this new belief. Perhaps transhumanism will serve: man remaining man, but transcending himself, by realising new possibilities of and for his human nature (Huxley, 1957).
Ironically, this quote is used by techno-transhumanists to attribute to Huxley the coining of the term transhumanism. And yet, their use of the term is in direct contradiction to Huxley’s use. Huxley, a biologist and humanitarian, was the first Director-General of UNESCO in 1946, and the first President of the British Humanist Association. His transhumanism was more humanistic and spiritual than technological, inspired by Teilhard de Chardin’s spiritually evolved human. These two collaborators promoted the idea of conscious evolution, which originated with the German romantic philosopher Schelling.
The evolutionary ideas that were in discussion the century before Darwin were focused on consciousness and theories of human progress as a cultural, aesthetic, and spiritual ideal. Late 18th-century German philosophers foreshadowed the 20th-century human potential and positive psychology movements. To support their evolutionary ideals for society they created a universal education system, the aim of which was to develop the whole person (Bildung in German) (Gidley, 2016).
After Darwin, two notable European philosophers began to explore the impact of Darwinian evolution on human futures, in other ways than Spencer’s social Darwinism. Friedrich Nietzsche’s ideas about the higher person (Übermensch) were informed by Darwin’s biological evolution, the German idealist writings on evolution of consciousness, and were deeply connected to his ideas on freedom.
French philosopher Henri Bergson’s contribution to the superhuman discourse first appeared in Creative Evolution (Bergson, 1907/1944). Like Nietzsche, Bergson saw the superman arising out of the human being, in much the same way that humans have arisen from animals. In parallel with the efforts of Nietzsche and Bergson, Rudolf Steiner articulated his own ideas on evolving human-centred futures, with concepts such as spirit self and spirit man (between 1904 and 1925) (Steiner, 1926/1966). During the same period Indian political activist Sri Aurobindo wrote about the Overman who was a type of consciously evolving future human being (Aurobindo, 1914/2000). Both Steiner and Sri Aurobindo founded education systems after the German bildung style of holistic human development.
Consciously Evolving Human-Centred Futures
There are three major bodies of research offering counterpoints to the techno-transhumanist claim that superhuman powers can only be reached through technological, biological, or genetic enhancement. Extensive research shows that humans have far greater capacities across many domains than we realise. In brief, these themes are the future of the body, cultural evolution and futures of thinking.
Michael Murphy’s book The Future of the Body documents ‘superhuman powers’ unrelated to technological or biological enhancement (Murphy, 1992). For forty years Murphy, founder of Esalen Institute, has been researching what he calls a Natural History of Supernormal Attributes. He has developed an archive of 10,000 studies of individual humans, throughout history, who have demonstrated supernormal experiences across twelve groups of attributes. In almost 800 pages Murphy documents the supernormal capacities of Catholic mystics, Sufi ecstatics, Hindi-Buddhist siddhis, martial arts practitioners, and elite athletes. Murphy concludes that these extreme examples are the ‘developing limbs and organs of our evolving human nature’. We also know from the examples of savants, extreme sport and adventure, and narratives of mystics and saints from the vast literature from the perennial philosophies, that we humans have always extended ourselves—often using little more than the power of our minds.
Regarding cultural evolution, numerous 20th century scholars and writers have put forward ideas about human cultural futures. Ervin László links evolution of consciousness with global planetary shifts (László, 2006). Richard Tarnas in The Passion of the Western Mind traces socio-cultural developments over the last 2,000 years, pointing to emergent changes (Tarnas, 1991). Jürgen Habermas suggests a similar developmental pattern in his book Communication and the Evolution of Society (Habermas, 1979). In the late 1990s Duane Elgin and Coleen LeDrew undertook a forty-three-nation World Values Survey, including Scandinavia, Switzerland, Britain, Canada, and the United States. They concluded, ‘a new global culture and consciousness have taken root and are beginning to grow in the world’. They called it the postmodern shift and described it as having two qualities: an ecological perspective and a self-reflexive ability (Elgin & LeDrew, 1997).
In relation to futures of thinking, adult developmental psychologists have built on positive psychology, and the human potential movement beginning with Abraham Maslow’s book Further Reaches of Human Nature (Maslow, 1971). In combination with transpersonal psychology the research is rich with extended views of human futures in cognitive, emotional, and spiritual domains. For four decades, adult developmental psychology researchers such as Michael Commons, Jan Sinnott, and Lawrence Kohlberg have been researching the systematic, pluralistic, complex, and integrated thinking of mature adults (Commons & Ross, 2008; Kohlberg, 1990; Sinnott, 1998). They call this mature thought ‘postformal reasoning’ and their research provides valuable insights into higher modes of reasoning that are central to the discourse on futures of thinking. Features they identify include complex paradoxical thinking, creativity and imagination, relativism and pluralism, self-reflection and ability to dialogue, and intuition. Ken Wilber’s integral psychology research complements his cultural history research to build a significantly enhanced image of the potential for consciously evolving human futures (Wilber, 2000).
I apply these findings to education in my book Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures (Gidley, 2016).
Can AI ever cross the Consciousness Threshold?
Given the breadth and subtlety of postformal reasoning, how likely is it that machines could ever acquire such higher functioning human features? The technotopians discussing artificial superhuman intelligence carefully avoid the consciousness question. Bostrom explains that all the machine intelligence systems currently in use operate in a very narrow range of human cognitive capacity (weak AI). Even at its most ambitious, it is limited to trying to replicate ‘abstract reasoning and general problem-solving skills’ (strong AI). In spite of all the hype around AI and ASI, the Machine Intelligence Research Institute (MIRI)’s own website states that even ‘human-equivalent general intelligence is still largely relegated to the science fiction shelf.’ Regardless of who writes about posthumanism, and whether they are Oxford philosophers, MIT scientists, or Google engineers, they do not yet appear to be aware that there are higher forms of human reasoning than their own. Nor do they have the scientific and technological means to deliver on their high-budget fantasies. Machine super-intelligence is not only an oxymoron, but a science fiction concept.
Even if techno-developers were to succeed in replicating general intelligence (strong AI), it would only function at the level of Piaget’s formal operations. Yet adult developmental psychologists have shown that mature, high-functioning adults are capable of very complex, imaginative, integrative, paradoxical, spiritual, intuitive wisdom—just to name a few of the qualities we humans can consciously evolve. These complex postformal logics go far beyond the binary logic used in coding and programming machines, and it seems also far beyond the conceptual parameters of the AI programmers themselves. I find no evidence in the literature that anyone working with AI is aware of either the limits of formal reasoning or the vast potential of higher stages of postformal reasoning. In short, ASI proponents are entrapped in their thin cybernetic view of intelligence. As such they are oblivious to the research on evolution of consciousness, metaphysics of mind, multiple intelligences, philosophy and psychology of consciousness, transpersonal psychology and wisdom studies, all providing ample evidence that human intelligence is highly complex and evolving.
When all of this research is taken together it indicates that we humans are already capable of far greater powers of mind, emotion, body, and spirit than previously imagined. If we seriously want to develop superhuman intelligence and powers in the 21st century and beyond we have a choice. We can continue to invest heavily in naïve technotopian dreams of creating machines that can operate better than humans. Or we can invest more of our consciousness, energy, and resources on educating and consciously evolving human futures with all the wisdom that would entail.
About Professor Jennifer M. Gidley PhD
Author, psychologist, educator and futurist, Jennifer is a global thought leader and advocate for human-centred futures in an era of hi-tech hype and hubris. She is Adjunct Professor at the Institute for Sustainable Futures, UTS, Sydney and author of The Future: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford, 2017) and Postformal Education: A Philosophy for Complex Futures (Springer, 2016). As former President of the World Futures Studies Federation (2009-2017), a UNESCO and UN ECOSOC partner and global peak body for futures studies, Jennifer led a network of hundreds of the world’s leading futures scholars and researchers from over 60 countries for eight years.
[To check references please go to original article in Paradigm Explorer, p. 15-18]
The Future: A Very Short Introduction by Jennifer M. Gidley (OUP, 2017)
BOOK REVIEW by David Lorimer, Editor of the Network Review: Journal of the Scientific and Medical Network (2017) No. 123, Issue 1: 54-55.
In this brilliant and concise overview – part of the OUP Very Short Introduction series – [Jennifer Gidley] gives readers multiple insights into the field and ways of thinking about the future… This book not only raises the issues in a highly readable manner, but also raises awareness, and as such I can recommend it unreservedly.
Jennifer Gidley is President of the World Futures Studies Federation, and is also an educator and psychologist. In this brilliant and concise overview – part of the OUP Very Short Introduction series – she gives readers multiple insights into the field and ways of thinking about the future. She defines futures studies as ‘the art and science of taking responsibility for the long- term consequences of our decisions and our actions today.’ She is careful to emphasise that the future is not just something that happens, nor is it inevitable, but we co-create it through our thoughts and actions within both a cultural and global or planetary context.
The notion of the future is closely tied to the way we think about time. The French word means what is to come (a-venir) while the English word first appears in the 14th century. Gidley traces the origins of linear time to the emergence of philosophy in Greece, while prior societies lived in a more embedded, cyclical sense of time. Taming time is equated with measurement and control and is represented by the emergence of calendars and clocks as well as predictions. Early predictions were prophetic or oracular as we sought to grapple with uncertainty with a measure of both hope and fear. Coming up to date, we find that the US Department of Defence coined a new term in the 1990s: VUCA, which stands for volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous – terms we can certainly recognise today, and which are also reflected in scientific developments. The author looks at the thinking of Roger and Francis Bacon and the emergence of a mechanistic and engineering metaphor, which still dominates science today and which is associated with control and precision. However, both Newton and Francis Bacon embodied the tension between modern and hermetic science, and the author correctly notes that Bacon was both the father of empiricism and leader of the Rosicrucian movement in England.
More scientific predictions emerged with HG Wells and JBS Haldane about a hundred years ago, then with Aldous Huxley’s dystopic A Brave New World. Forecasting becomes more scientific, but there is a danger of simply extrapolating current trends and discounting the unexpected. The German physicist, economist and sociologist Rolf Kreibich warns us about a singular future approach based on ‘the scientific- technological-industrial expansion of all aspects of life’, which he sees as a tunnel vision and which Gidley contrasts with a more participatory and integral approach. She considers the implications of the development of robotics, which is partly being driven by the military and aims to bridge the human-machine divide.
This brings her onto transhumanism, which is ‘inextricably linked with technological advancement or extension of human capacities through technology.’ (p. 92) It is a systematic attempt to overcome some of our biological limits, but it is important to realise that it is based on an ideology of technological determinism and a mechanistic view of consciousness and the human being. These people envisage a new, hybrid species and the creation of a technotopia through techno-fixes. However, as Lewis Mumford was already writing in the 1940s, there is a danger of dehumanisation in this post-human vision that many of its proponents regard as an inevitable development. Cleverness has to be balanced by emotional intelligence and the expression of moral and aesthetic values.
Chapter 5 is in my view the key of the book, focusing as it does on technotopian or human-centred futures as diverging streams already identified by the futurist Willis Harman in the 1980s.
He saw two broad possibilities: evolutionary transformational or technological extrapolationist – the latter, as I already mentioned, is based on a mechanistic, behaviourist model of the human being, while the ethos within the Network favours a more human-centred model also promoted by holistic medicine, organic agriculture and publications like Resurgence. Gidley explains the varieties of transhumanism, including Teilhard de Chardin, Sir Julian Huxley, Nietzsche, Bergson and Steiner, all with different visions. She then looks at conscious human-centred futures as a counterpoint and based on the evolution of consciousness in a transpersonal direction.
Here again, she is exceptionally well informed and points out that we have a choice of either continuing to invest heavily in ‘technotopian dreams of creating machines that can operate better than humans. Or we can invest more of our consciousness and resources on educating and consciously evolving human futures with all the wisdom that would entail.’ (p. 115)
The final chapter reflects on grand global futures challenges, especially urbanisation, education and climate. Her tables on pp. 119-20 summarise both the challenges and alternative possible responses under various headings such as governance, economic, health, energy, leadership, technology and conflict. As Al Gore notes, many of these challenges are the consequences of short-term economic thinking and the reckless use of our planet’s resources. However, we can contribute to co- creating an ecological and regenerative future rather than continuing extraction and exploitation. The French philosopher Edgar Morin, like Gregory Bateson, put his finger on the educational challenge: ‘one of the greatest problems we face today is how to adjust our way of thinking to meet the challenge of an increasingly complex, rapidly changing, unpredictable world. We must rethink our way of organising knowledge.’ (p. 131) In this sense, it becomes very clear that our ‘old fragmented, mechanistic, and materialistic ways of thinking are not capable of dealing with the growing complexity of global environmental, economic and societal change.’ The situation is not helped by the dominance of linear analysis in our universities, so that young people are coming into the world with inadequate ways of thinking.
However, as the author points out in her conclusion, ‘we all have the capacity to create our desired features, for more than most of us realise’ and we can work collaboratively for positive change and towards the future we prefer.
It seems to me that there needs to be much more public discussion and reflection about the nature of the future that we are creating together in a technological, economic, ecological, cultural and personal sense – and especially of the tensions between the technotopic and human-centred visions. This book not only raises the issues in a highly readable manner, but also raises awareness, and as such I can recommend it unreservedly.