Reddit thread: permaculture, systems thinking, magic, and spirituality

“Lots of important things are not quantifiable . . .”

Unknown-1In light of the recent spirituality vs. science debate I’d like to introduce a complex systems perspective from theoretical biologist Stuart Kauffman.

January 10, 2013


submitted 2 days ago by Erinaceous
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[–]Erinaceous[S] 11 points 1 day ago

I think i was more referring to the popular ideas of reductionist science that get thrown around in some threads here (most notably the one /u/reverenfrad4 linked to). there seems to be a persistent belief that spirituality has no place in permaculture. however if you listen to any Mollison lecture he very often privileges spiritual ways of knowing over reductionist science because in some respects the traditional ways of thinking produced sustainable societies or highly sophisticated ways of managing complexity. Mostly we should treat other ways of knowing with humility.

To me the opposition between science and spirituality is pretty stupid. I have enough complex systems training to know the limits of reductionist methods. They can help with permaculture but science is probably never going to be able to make prediction useful to applied work in a complex systems with 200+ interacting species. In nonlinear systems you can’t make any predictions with more than 7 dimensions. Even when you do dimensional reduction you can only make contingent predictions based on a linear analogy to a small portion of the time series or if stable attractors can be found (ie. Lyaponov exponents or Markov chains ). I mean if you want to model these systems scientifically go for it but it’s going to take decades of applied research to even model a basic guild interaction with mycelium, soil and weather. So what we do in permaculture is experimentation based on general heuristics. If people want to base that on a scientific paradigm of causality that’s fine but they should acknowledge the limits of that. If people want to base those heuristics on a spiritual paradigm of nonhuman agents with willful intention (ie. spirits) then they should be very careful not to fall into well know traps in that world view but it would also be ignorant for us not to acknowledge a certain validity to that approach. This is especially true since science is only just beginning to grapple with systems that are defined by agents acting with willful intent (game theory, strategic interactions, Baysian probability, etc). Moreover, we shouldn’t think that science produces more sustainable systems because of an intrinsic feature of predictive capacity of highly simplified systems (ie. industrial agriculture where the system is constantly being perturbed back from complexity to a simplified system of few highly concentrated inputs and monocrop and highly disordered outputs). When we deal with applied complexity we may very well find that the shorthand magical thinking methods of spiritually based societies produced better outcomes.

Here’s an example. Archaeologists knew that the cult of Demeter, goddess of grains and agriculture, had temples surrounded by sacred groves. The penalty for harvesting in these sacred groves was death. Spirituality was a serious business. However no one could find the actual sites of these temples; they weren’t close to settlements or to fields. Then someone got the bright idea to look at watershed maps. When they did they found that these sacred groves were exactly where they should be if you wanted to control erosion and flooding. If someone were to cut down these sacred groves the agriculture downstream would have to deal with instabilities caused by flooding and drought. Up until a few years ago science would tell you that cutting down sacred groves was fine and the cult of Demeter were a bunch of superstitious buffoons getting in the way of progress. But it turns out that spirituality preserved the ecosystems services over hundreds if not thousands of years. Is our current paradigm of reductionist utilitarianism (probably best exemplified and defined by the discipline of economics) doing such a good job of preserving ecosystem services?

After all magical thinking defines all of the hunter gather societies we know of and these societies are probably the most sustainable human societies that have ever existed. Did magical thinking cause this sustainability or did sustainability produce magical thinking (magic being defined as causing change to occur in conformity with will)? When you see the ecosystem as a collection of powerful and willful spirits or as a mechanical assembly of predictable instrumental parts does it change how you interact with it? If you think that acts of disturbance will return to you threefold (“If we throw mother nature out the window, she comes back in the door with a pitchfork.”) do you undertake them frivolously or with great care?

[–]afoldude 1 point 2 hours ago

Goethe was onto this shit way back:)

[–]reverendfrag4 2 points 1 day ago

Did magical thinking cause this sustainability or did sustainability produce magical thinking

…or are they entirely unrelated, as is most probable?

[–]Erinaceous[S] 7 points 1 day ago

most hunter gather societies have a large class of sacred and profane activities and places. very often these are connected to what and how resources can be appropriated from the environment and how interactions with people and animals can take place. it’s difficult in that context to say that the spiritual values (ie. morals and values connected to a spiritual tradition) don’t impact the sustainable use of the surrounding ecosystem. very often plants, animals and other beings are attributed with will and agency in taking revenge for taboo or inappropriate harvesting (ie. magical thinking) so care is taken to avoid angering the forest spirits.

[–]reverendfrag4 -2 points 1 day ago

OK. That’s awesome, if true, but has nothing to do with modern farming methodology.

If you can’t quantify it, it’s probably bullshit.

[–]Erinaceous[S] 7 points 1 day ago

Sort of an afterthought i had while i was out but we might want to think about Fukuoka in this context. So Fukuoka’s yields were quantified and his rice yields were comparable or better that surrounding farms using intensive methods. Thing is after Fukuoka died no one was able to replicate his yields even on the same property. So the casual factor seems to be Fukuoka acting as an agent and making well timed structural interventions into the system. That is to say Fukuoka’s acts of will in conjunction the natural systems produced quantitatively higher yields.

So there’s two things to learn from this.

  1. Quantifiable data tells us nothing about how Fukuoka (ie. the timed structural interventions that produced more work from less energy) got higher yields so we can’t replicate it.
  2. Fukuoka fits my initial definition of magic (causing change to occur in conformity with will) so we could be equally right in saying Fukuoka is wizard, Fukuoka is scientist using careful observation and experimentation, Fukuoka is lucky and an outlier. Each of those claims is epistemologically true but they are ontologically different. Ontological questions are questions of metaphysics so there’s not much that data can tell us about them. They are questions we have to carefully think through.

Lastly people need to stop saying that permaculture is about modern farming methodology at the exclusion of everything else. Ecological agroforestry is just the easy part of permaculture. There was and is always a larger vision.

[–]illPoff 2 points 1 day ago

Its official – I love you. Or at least your mind. Thanks for sharing this video, as well as the commentary.

[–]hoserman16 2 points 2 hours ago

I second the appreciation.

I think I was involved in that thread.

I get frustrated when people get annoyed by the woo woo, putting themselves on a pedestal for being coldly rational and only acknowledging what is measurable, quantifiable, tangible, etc. I’m not really a woo woo person myself but claiming science knows all seems as silly to me as saying God knows all but I was reduced to ranting and mocking in order to get this across.

I’m still only understanding this stuff on an intuitive level and its great to see stuff that I’m still working out in my mind articulated well in your posts. Its a relief. As I read your posts, in my head I’m like “that’s what I wanted to say!”

[–]Erinaceous[S] 2 points 1 day ago*

So getting back to the complexity stuff. Getting good quantifiable data sets is hard and it’s important but what do you do with data? You need a theory. Science involves a balance of induction, deduction, and abduction. Data and quantifiable numbers really only helps with induction. But induction doesn’t tell you much about structure because it relies on generalities. Something that is generally true over a large sample might be untrue or exceptional in a small sample where different conditions and histories apply. So you have to be careful with quantifiable data.

Most of permaculture proceeds by abduction. Complexity usually involves building a model based on theory (deduction) observing what the model does and building a hypothesis (abduction) and taking those results to data to compare (induction). In permaculture we basically have shit all for scientific data and generalities because every food forest is different. We can compare gross generalities like yield per acre but that doesn’t tell us anything about structure (ie. how are the plants interacting). We could survey every permaculture farm and do an inventory of species and proximate interactions but that’s a huge undertaking and we still wouldn’t have much to work with since we’d just have a huge dataset but few theories of interaction. So really the best method is careful observation and hypothesis (abduction) and then testing through repetition. It’s not very quantifiable but it’s practical.

The other issue is you can only quantify what you can measure and much of science has proceeded by only valuing what can be measured and disregarding or dismissing what is unmeasurable. Part of how science has changed in the past 30 years is because advances in computation have allowed us to compute (ie. model) analogies to real world systems and then use those to fill in the gaps where measurement doesn’t tell us anything useful. So really it’s just a bunch of mathematized metaphors compared with statistics that are driving science these days.

Magical thinking is really only different from this in attribution. If we cut down the forest the spirits will be angry and will deny us rain vs. if we cut down the forest it will affect the hydrological cycle and produce less cumulative rainfall. Both are hypothesis driven by observation. It’s better when you have data (the gods are angry and have denied us 75 mm of rain this month) but it doesn’t always help your theory.

[–]Fignot 1 point 1 day ago

Lots of important things aren’t quantifiable. Not everything has a direct material and/or measurable product. Quantifying everything is an idea rooted in science and capitalism and necessarily misses certain marks.

Psychology for instance can be considered a soft-science because it’s mostly based on feelings and ideas with not a very large amount of quantifiable data.

Therefore it doesn’t fit in well with the hard-science, quantify and reproduce everything in double blind studies perspective.

I love science. It’s one of my greatest passions. But it can’t look at everything, at least not right now.

When dealing with gardens you bring in a psychological aspect. Aestetics, quantity, quality, variety, location, accessibility, difficulty, cost, and perhaps even interpersonal relationships. All of these things effect how people feel about the garden. And it’s not all easily quantifiable on all levels from all aspects. At least not right now.

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