Culture, Learning and Living
“Life’s essence should always be clearly noticeable behind the love, or the music, or the work.” Walter Heisenberg
For the last five years I have been studying quantum mechanics, complexity theory and information theory. I have not fully mastered any of these subjects, but recently I noticed that I can use the principles from each of them with purpose. From quantum mechanics, I use the uncertain or random nature of particles to inform my understanding of thinking and mental frameworks. Quantum mechanics also makes clear the combinatorial components that make up reality from the level of the cell, to the systems and organisms. This hierarchy is also the foundation of the self-organizing, adaptive nature of complex adaptive systems. Complex adaptive systems explain all natural and manmade systems and are always characterized by emergence, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Quantum mechanics and complexity provide the foundational concepts to understand matter and energy and information theory provides the foundational concepts for the third input to reality — information. Effectively, reality can be understood in terms of matter, energy and information. With this body of thought sufficiently integrated, I am moving on to understand culture. I enjoy the discovery part of learning so I rarely read the definitive texts early in my exploration. Keep that in mind as I share my early thoughts on culture, which is the purpose of this article.
Over ten years ago I began studying learning at MIT, when I joined an EdTech project at the MIT Media Lab — One Laptop per Child. From my earliest university days, I have always instinctively known that you start a new project by learning the fundamental concepts. The Media Lab since the days of Marvin Minsky and Seymour Papert has advocated for a theory of learning based on the teachings of Jean Piaget. This self-directed, exploratory style of learning turned out years later to be perfectly consistent with complexity. Complexity validates Piaget and Piaget validates complexity? I still read on learning and cognition, in the hope in part that l will perfect my university teaching. About two years ago I read an article that offered three basic methods of learning — analytical, kinesthetic and cultural. As a lifelong advocate for logic, mathematics and statistics, the analytical was easy for me to accept. Piaget’s theory of learning through discovery and how very young children learn by touching and manipulating objects made kinesthetics obvious. What brought me up short was culture. After a bit of thought, I realized that culture informed our beliefs, values, religion, art and theory of reality. But, what really was the role of culture in learning. What was the foundational principles of culture as a means to learn. And, these foundational principles have to be consistent with quantum mechanics, complexity and information theory, which explain matter, energy and information.
“Culture is often described as the combination of a body of knowledge, a body of belief, and a body of behavior.” I think culture might simply be defined as the science, philosophy and art that binds a group of people together. The Dunbar number, 150, defines the normal limit of an individual’s social horizon or personal interactions. It is derived from a fractal-like hierarchy of relationships that grow by a factor of three — 5, 15, 50, 150. The question to ask is what foundational functionality provided through evolution permits the groups at each level to form. I believe there are only two requirements for a group to form — trust and sharing. These two factors were sufficient 100,000 years ago when our first ancestors populated Africa. As the noted physicist Arthur Eddington pointed out, scarcity is the default setting for humanity. Therefore, our starting position back then should be as simple as possible. Trust is the bedrock principle or psychological faculty that addresses the fundamental 0–1 question — friend or foe — and is critical to survival. Trust is necessary to start sharing amongst the 5, 15, 50, 150. Studies by anthropologists show that sharing is a fundamental practice amongst every indigenous group studied. This sharing allows collaboration and exchange, which enhances the likelihood of survivability and reproduction.
What all people share is tangible — matter, energy and information. For example, matter is food; energy might be a horse; information might be art, music or a story. Art makes the abstract science and philosophy tangible. Art clarifies the emotional. Art is the basis for design, which eventually gave us engineering. Music serves a similar purpose, as Schopenhauer taught us, to make the emotions tangible. A recent study by Patrick Savage shows that all music falls into four categories: 1) love songs, 2) lullabies, 3) healing songs, 4) dance songs. Savage believes that music is the product of “underlying psychological faculties”. Perhaps the faculty is to convert the abstract to the tangible. Very useful for better community relations. Very useful to communicate values and equally important to increase the likelihood the message will be remembered. Fundamentally, very useful to increase the effective group size to 150 from 5.
As the effective group size increases, we get increased benefits in collaboration and reproduction. In both cases, “collaboration” increases diversity and diversity improves collaboration in sort of an autocatalytic way. Improved collaboration leads to better mating outcomes as the gene pool naturally expands. As the collaboration increases with group size, competition also increases for mates. This competition prompted the appearance in the gene pool of our ability for other emotions, which became a differentiating factor. Lao Tzu teaches us that compassion is the most profound emotion. On a spectrum of emotions with sympathy the simplest and empathy more profound, compassion is the highest order because compassion involves the giving or sharing of something tangible. Interesting that the emotion combined with sharing is the most respected emotion for Lao Tzu. A similar analysis would show that love is also combined with sharing of the tangible to nurture the relationship with child, mate or family. Of course, the random nature of reality, as quantum mechanics shows us, makes these efforts at love a lot more challenging than my writing might make it appear. And it is in this randomness of love where we escape the mechanical view of science and math and find the learning which makes life so rich.
In this richness we also find the uniqueness of the individual and the potential conflict that arises with the collectivism of the community that was programmed into us from the earliest times. Some scholars speculate that early technologies such as agriculture permitted an abundance which made discretionary allocation an alternative for the first time. Some mates in the community suddenly became enriched and much more attractive. Self-interest was born. New technologies fostered additional forms of abundance and discretionary sharing flourished. Money replaced the barter system as the basis of exchange and value and information took on new roles in a community driven by ever increasing self-interest. Today some argue for a return to collectivism through systems such as socialism or communism as a remedy for self-interest. I might invoke Lao Tzu as an alternative. Compassionate giving within our communities could redistribute fairly. Failing that we could adjust the tax rates. Many commentators see an increase in the importance of cities in the 21st century and a reduction in federal power. Perhaps cities can be a path to a collectivism that preserves the positive benefits of individual initiative while tempering self-interest through a more local collectivism. Such an approach might preserve the current capitalist system and avoid the draconian alternatives.
To understand better this more local collectivism, perhaps we need only look to the work of Nobel Laureate in economics Elinor Ostrom. Ostrom devoted her life and research to understanding how communities manage shared resources to avoid the “tragedy of the commons”. She studied the management of natural resources and the effect of economic programs on these resources. Her research showed that a holistic approach, combined with a responsible monitoring, reporting and intervention system, could lead to a proper balance between costs and benefits and the natural and the manmade. Ostrom effectively advocated for a return to the more fundamental, cooperative approaches that Eddington would have immediately recognized in his simple characterization of humanity.
I think part of the future for humanity is to return to a more simple, less self-interested lifestyle. As Plato said, “The greatest wealth is to live content with little.” Lao Tzu would have agreed.
 West, G. Scale — The Universal Law of Growth, Innovation, Sustainability …, Penguin Press, Pg. 306 (Kindle) (2017)
 Savage, P. Universals. The Sage International Encyclopedia of Music and Culture Sage Publications, Inc., Thousand Oaks, CA (2019)