What is collective thinking for transformational change?

Page 5c WICSLFTC_ SS116010160

(District Heating Plant, Vienna, Austria (Friedensreich Hundertwasser))

Traditionally, we humans have been trapped in our thinking by long-established divisions between parts and wholes, stability and change, individuals and society, and creative and rational thinking. Nevertheless, there have been thinkers over the centuries who have challenged this compartmentalised way of looking at the world – the transformational thinkers.

Drawing on them, we can reformulate our thinking so that we use the relationships between parts and wholes, stability and change, individuals and society, and creative and rational thinking to form a third space, and, in that space, find the drivers for transformational change.

Examples of the transformational thinkers

Charles Darwin and the concept of evolutionary change

Before Charles Darwin, humans were thought to have appeared about 2,000 years earlier, and the belief was that the world would end 6,000 years later. Interplanetary space was a mysterious place called heaven, where no living human could go.

Darwin challenged this idea that the non-living and living parts had not changed since time began. He established that the living world is in a constant state of change, as a result of close and continuous interactions between the living and physical environments. To the educated members of his society, it must have seemed that the ground had shifted under their feet. Darwin went on to include human emotions among the changing life forms, shocking his readers even more. The implication was the human evolution is not over; it is an ongoing process for both body and mind, and who knows where it might end?

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin and the human capacity for transformational change

Pierre de Teilhard de Chardin, the French priest, theologian and scientist, started out as an apprentice to the ideas of Charles Darwin, fascinated by the shaping of all living things by the constant pressures of natural selection. He came to extend Darwin’s ideas, because he broke new ground with his conclusion that biological and social evolution generated a third consideration, with the arrival of the capacity for humans to reflection on their own thinking.

Teilhard de Chardin’s proposition was that all human beings have a purpose and an ideal. They have the ability to reflect on, and change, that purpose and that idea. Therefore, the processes driving changes in human behaviour and physiology differ from those for any other species. The human capacity for influencing transformational change includes the interactions among the physical changes driving biological selection on the one hand, and the thinking processes driving social change on the other.

Calling the sphere where the different ways of thinking came together the noosphere, the way in which they interacted collective thinking, and postulating a synthesis, point Omega, where the collective minds could come together to learn from one another, Teilhard de Chardin took a massive conceptual leap. Being a Jesuit priest, he also believed that at point Omega that human thinking becomes one with an all-knowing God, a belief not unlike those of the Buddhist enlightenments and most unlike those of the scientific Enlightenment.

James Lovelock and the idea of the earth as a rapidly changing, self-organising system influenced by human ideas

The first photograph of earth from space in 1968, revealing a living planet, led to another major change in the way we think about the world. For the first time, we realised that not only did the earth shape living things and living things also shape the earth. The interactions between those two dynamic systems shape the earth as if it was a single organism.

As a research chemist, James Lovelock demonstrated that large masses of single-celled organisms in the oceans regulated the chemical mixture of the water in the oceans and the gases in the atmosphere. When there was a change in the mixture, these organisms brought it back into balance– the planet was adjusting itself. He went on to discover the same effect of self-organisation through the living processes that made up the planet.

Lovelock then showed that the earth’s feedback systems encompassed the entire planet. He came to recognise that the planet’s living and non-living systems made up a self-organising whole; and, further, that this is strongly influenced by the actions of one species: the human.

As recognition of the complexity and dynamism of the world’s feedback systems increased, so did interest in chaos theory. The original 1963 paper on the butterfly wing flapping in Brazil causing a typhoon in Texas has become symbolic of all self-organising systems.

Lovelock attracted ridicule when he named this system Gaia, after the Greek goddess of the earth. However, his ideas helped unleash the counterculture of the late 1960s and 1970s, and the licence it gave for social experimentation and technical innovations is influential still. In addition, he foresaw that a new set of ethical principles would be needed to govern the human interactions in this new environment.

Norbert Wiener and the cybernetic mind

Although the colonisation of cyberspace is only 30 years old, Norbert Wiener foretold its existence and its future 70 years ago. Wiener saw the personal computer as an extension of the mind, not as a replacement for the brain, and predicted the vast reach of the electronic networks enabled by Facebook and Twitter.

Although he originally trained as a mathematician, Wiener refused to see the mind as limited to any one way of thinking. He soon turned to biology, philosophy, physics and journalism. He concluded that communications was the unifying and controlling force in all the non-living and living processes of the planet. Most importantly, he claimed that the human species, having evolved the powerful communications system in cyberspace, was so powerful that its thinking had become a third dimension to add to the non-living, living and interactive dimensions of the planet.

Wiener believed that the personal computer had the potential to extend the capacity of the human brain to make creative leaps into new ideas and rich syntheses of diverse information. This far-reaching perspective allowed the creative development of the relational information systems of Google, Facebook and Twitter.

Wiener’s vision of all communication – physical, biological, social and mental – as double feedback control systems led to his initiation of the field of cybernetics. He defined cybernetics as the study of governing systems, from the simple control of an air-conditioning system, the command systems of a space vehicle and the numerous varieties of democratic government. This vision led directly to the new fields of robotics and neuroscience, and the World Wide Web.

Are you interested in finding out more about collective transformational thinking?

Further reading:

Transformational Change Book CoverIn The Human Capacity for Transformational Change, Valerie A. Brown and John A. Harris explore the intellectual origins of transformational thinking.