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We Need Think Less Like Engineers And More Like Gardeners

2023 August 6
by Greg Satell

In February, 1919, the famous philosopher Bertrand Russell received a card from his former student, Ludwig Wittgenstein, who was at that time in an Italian prison camp. “I’ve written a book which will be published as soon as I get home,” he would say in subsequent correspondence. “I think I’ve solved our problems finally.”

The “problems” he spoke of had to do with a foundational crisis in mathematics and logic that defied the efforts of the world’s greatest minds. The book, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, was an attempt to engineer a perfectly logical language from first principles. It would become enormously influential, leading to the Vienna Circle and the logical positivist movement of the 1920s.

Yet Wittgenstein would later disown the idea and it was, in the end, found to be unworkable. There are limits to what we can engineer. The world is a messy place. Rules inevitably have exceptions, which is why every system will always crash. That’s why we need to think less like engineers making machines and more like gardeners that grow and nurture ecosystems.

The Death of the Secular Gods

The problems Russell and Wittgenstein were working on were part of a larger paradigm shift. By the late 19th century, many intellectuals had begun to question ideas passed down from the ancient Greeks, such as Aristotle’s Logic, Euclid’s geometry and the miasma theory in medicine, overturning two thousand years of conventional wisdom.

It’s hard to overstate the seismic shift that this represented. Aristotle’s use of the syllogism, in which conclusions necessarily followed premises, Euclid’s postulate that parallel lines never intersect and Hippocrates theory that bad air causes disease, were considered to be the basic foundations upon which western thought was predicated.

Yet as human knowledge advanced, people began to see flaws in these precepts. Strange paradoxes called Aristotle’s logic into question. Mathematicians like Gauss, Lobachevsky, Bolyai and Riemann began to imagine curved spaces in which parallel lines did, in fact, intersect and scientists such as Robert Koch, Joseph Lister and Louis Pasteur established the germ theory of disease.

These would be, practically speaking, incredibly positive developments. The rise of non-Euclidean geometry made Einstein’s general theory of relativity possible and the germ theory of disease paved the way for antibiotics and much longer lifespans. Yet they created an unwarranted optimism about what the human mind could achieve.

A New Religion

In the early 20th century, science and technology emerged as a rising force in western society. The new wonders of electricity, automobiles and telecommunication were quickly shaping how people lived, worked and thought. Physicists like Einstein and Bohr became celebrities. It seemed that there was nothing that scientific precision couldn’t achieve.

It was against this backdrop that Moritz Schlick formed the Vienna Circle, which became the center of the logical positivist movement and throughout the 20’s and 30’s. At its core was Wittgenstein’s theory of atomic facts, the idea that the world could be reduced to a set of statements that could be verified as being true or false—no opinions or speculation allowed. Those statements, in turn, would be governed by a set of logical algorithms which would determine the validity of any argument.

Yet even as this logical movement was growing, the foundational crisis in logic continued. To solve the problem, David Hilbert the greatest mathematician of the era,  proposed a program to solve the crisis that rested on three pillars. First, mathematics needed to be shown to be complete in that it worked for all statements. Second, mathematics needed to be shown to be consistent, no contradictions or paradoxes allowed. Finally, all statements need to be computable, meaning they yielded a clear answer.

Then things took a surprising turn. A young logician named Kurt Gödel would prove that every logical system is flawed with contradictions. Alan Turing would show that all numbers are not computable. The Einstein-Bohr debates would be resolved in Bohr’s favor, destroying Einstein’s vision of an objective physical reality and leaving us with an uncertain universe.

The Rise Of Faux Scientists

The verdict was in. Facts could never be absolutely verifiable, but would stand until they could be falsified. We could, after thorough testing, increase our confidence, but never be completely sure. Ironically, the demise of logic led directly to the era of digital computing and a new, technological age. Just as we learned that systems would always be fallible, the machines we built became unimaginably powerful.

At the same time, human agency was increasingly called into question. It was, after all, subjective judgements that led to the Great Depression of the 1930s and the enormous wars that followed it. As the Baby Boomers came of age in the 1960s, it seemed like everything was up for debate. All of the fuzziness and uncertainty of relying on human judgment increasingly seemed impractical.

Much like Wittgenstein and the Vienna Circle, a number of thinkers sought to engineer systems that would harness natural forces to create better outcomes. The Austrian School of economics eschewed government regulation in favor of consumer preferences. Neorealism in foreign relations argued that competition and conflict could govern that international order.

Yet unlike the original logical positivists, these ideas wouldn’t stay confined to academia, but would seep into the affairs of everyday people. The consumer welfare standard insisted that market price signals, not government bureaucrats, would decide if a transaction should be permitted, while the principle of shareholder value demanded that the stock market, not managers, should govern business decisions.

The results are clear. Too little antitrust regulation has increased concentration in the vast majority of American industries and strangled competition, which has decreased business dynamism and lowered productivity. Our economy has become markedly less productive, less competitive and less dynamic. Purchasing power for most people has stagnated. By just about every metric, we’re worse off.

We Need To Manage Ecosystems, Not Machines

We like to think of ourselves as rational actors, weighing each piece of evidence before making a decision. Yet our brains don’t work like that. We build up our perspectives through synapses in our brain and through our social networks, which form complex webs of influence. Once we adopt a point of view, we rarely adapt it to new evidence.

Engineers believe in laws that can be understood and put to specific use, so they build machines to perform specific tasks. Gardeners believe in complexity and emergence. They don’t design their garden as much as tend to it, nurture it and support its surrounding ecosystem. They don’t expect the same results every time, but understand they will need to adjust their approach as they go.

We need to think less like engineers and more like gardeners. For most important purposes, we manage ecosystems, not machines. We need to think more in terms of networks that grow and less in terms of nodes whose behavior we can predict and control. Our success or failure depends less on individual entities than the connections between them.

In a world driven by networks and ecosystems, we can no longer treat strategy as if it were a game of chess, planning out each move with near perfect precision and foresight. The task of leadership is  to make decisions with full knowledge that many will be wrong and that you will need to make them right.

There’s no system to do that for us, no impersonal forces that will point the way. In the end, we have to put trust in ourselves. There isn’t anyone else.

Greg Satell is a transformation & change expert, international keynote speaker, and bestselling author of Cascades: How to Create a Movement that Drives Transformational Change. His previous effort, Mapping Innovation, was selected as one of the best business books of 2017. You can learn more about Greg on his website, and follow him on Twitter @DigitalTonto

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