Thursday, April 30, 2015

Ethics for MOOCs: Imagination

I want to finish my series about rhizo-ethics before Dave Cormier posts another #rhizo15 challenge. We'll see.

Woermann and Cilliers' discussion of complex ethics in their article The ethics of complexity and the complexity of ethics (2012) insists that ethics in complex spaces requires a self-critical rationality and that this rationality is supported by four principles: provisionality, transgressivity, irony, and imagination, or creativity. Imagination engages us with the future, they say, whereas irony engages us with the present incongruity between what we expect and what is. They quote Peter Allen's Knowledge, Ignorance, and Learning article (caution: link downloads PDF): that creativity "is the motor of change, and the hidden dynamic that underlies the rise and fall of civilizations, peoples, and regions, and evolution both encourages and feeds on invention" (457). Imagination, then, points us toward a more sustainable future and provides the means to get there, and, they claim, "no one can contest the urgent need to move towards a more sustainable future" (457). It is this more sustainable future that seems to connect imagination to ethics for Woermann and Cilliers.

I have mostly enjoyed Woermann and Cilliers' argument, but I have problems with them just here. While I agree that it takes imagination and some creativity to move toward a better future, however one defines it, I do not agree that "no one can contest the urgent need to move towards a more sustainable future." While I would not contest our need to move beyond where we are now, I know many who believe that things are pretty good just as they are or that we should, in fact, move back to something in the past. Woermann and Cilliers' point touches precisely on the differences among those who want to preserve society as it is, return society to some better past, or move society forward to a better future. All these groups are well represented in the population. They are all well represented in education. I don't think the progressives are in the majority.

Still, despite these quibbles, I have learned from Woermann and Cilliers, and I do agree with them that imagination and creativity are important for ethically negotiating complex, open spaces.

First, imagination is the engine for creating options, choices, and new paths, an ability that so far has served humanity quite well. Indeed, it is the engine of evolution, of everything. The Universe is imaginative to the extreme. Some physicists hypothesize a Multi-verse, an infinity of universes in which every thing that can exist and can happen does. Maybe so, but even if there is only one Universe, this one, it is still rich enough in imagination and creativity for life, including The Beatles, to emerge. How wonderful is that!

This capacity for imagination—which is not limited to humans, by the way, but is available to flowers, rocks, and quarks as well—is a requirement for negotiating a space/time path through an open, complex universe. Or through a rhizo-MOOC. Imagination is required even if you are following a path pioneered by someone else. You have to imagine that you can get up and go there without falling off the edge of the Earth, so you draft in behind some trusted, lead bird, and once you are confident that the air won't fail beneath your wings, you can start charting your own path from this new position. This is learning. Even for the most daring and brilliant of us. We all start by drafting in someone's path. Without a John Clerk Maxwell charting a new path through electromagnetism, we would have had no Einstein. Maybe even no Beatles. Imagine!

This is a radical over-turning of our usual conception of ethics, which usually means conforming to the prescribed pattern of behavior. In complex spaces, proper behavior implies the imagination to change your paths and patterns—to believe and behave differently than before. And really, if you are not willing to chart new paths, or at least to consider new paths, then why go to school at all?

According to Woermann and Cilliers, Timothy Hargrave argues that imagination is not merely an individual capability, but a social one that, I say, is enhanced and amplified by the swarm. Hargrave says imagination and creativity emerges within "pluralistic processes in which multiple actors with opposing moral viewpoints interact, and [where] no single actor is in control" and within the "lived tensions between contradictory perspectives" (458). That sounds like a swarm to me. Again, this overturns our usual view of the purpose of ethics: to reduce conflict. Instead, complex ethics recognizes the inherent tensions within the multiplicity of a rhizo-swarm. Without this tension, no movement or change is possible. Ask the rocks along the San Andreas fault—without the tension among them, they could never move or change. In some ways, earthquakes are rocks learning to live together. Rock ethics. We can regret when their tensions spill over on us humans, but then, it should remind us of how much non-humans have suffered when our tensions spill over on them. Complex ethics are ecological—never limited to the contracting or conflicting entities.

How do we ethically cope with this tension in human behavior and beliefs? The conservative approach is to make everyone behave and believe the same way. The Way. Complex ethics takes a more imaginative approach based first on recognizing the existence of different ways of believing and behaving. It's amazing how stubborn we humans can be about conceding the existence of views other than our own. We are always surprised when we discover that another person drives to the store along a different highway than we take. Can't they see that this is the correct Way? Rhizo-ethics, then, can conceive of different beliefs and behaviors.

Then rhizo-ethics is tolerant, which as Woermann and Cilliers point out is not some wishy-washy, weak indulgence of strange belief and behavior. Rather, tolerance is an imaginative recognition of the possibilities of other beliefs and behaviors. Woermann and Cilliers rely on James Mensch's observation that "in Latin, tolerance has the sense of supporting or sustaining, rather than enduring or suffering" (459). They quote Edmund Husserl's definition that tolerance is when I affirm for the other "his ideals as his, as ideals which I must affirm in him, just as he must affirm my ideals – not, indeed, as his ideals of life but as the ideals of my being and life" (459). I want to add here that imagining other beliefs and behaviors is a call, even a challenge, to us to transgress or rethink our own beliefs and behaviors. Rhizo-ethics means the imagination to consider what different constellations in the sky might mean even if we keep to our own constellations. Mensch says that tolerance "can be understood as the attitude that actively sustains the maximum number of compatible possibilities of being human" (459).

Finally, I think an imaginative rhizo-ethics involves trust. We usually think of trust as interpersonal, but consider it first as ecological.  We must trust first that a minimum "requisite diversity" is "needed for a system to cope with its environment" (457) and that some excess diversity is "needed for long-term systems survival, since the ‘fat’ of excess knowledge and diversity is needed both for breaking out of our conceptual schema and for imagining, and thereby experimenting and innovating for the future" (458). We humans are here because of the excess diversity in some cyanobacteria that emerged a few billion years ago. That bacteria existed because of the excess diversity in some nucleotides that lead to RNA. Trust diversity. It has worked magnificently well ever since hot gases started clumping into stars and galaxies. Likewise, mistrust anyone who claims that they know what we all should believe and how we all should behave. They do not have our best interests at heart.

So rhizo-ethics says that the proper stance toward a complex, open space calls for imagination and creativity. We do not know The Way through, and at times, we must imagine a path where none exists. We must expect others to follow other paths, to already be on other trajectories with different subjectives in mind. We must expect different beliefs and behaviors and challenge ourselves to understand them, even if we do not accept them. We must expect that our own beliefs and behaviors are as strange to them and as difficult to understand. Ours is not the only way to model a useful, beautiful, and productive world. It may not even be a comparatively good way.

And Dave posted a new #rhizo15 challenge last night, so I didn't finish this in time (whatever that means), but it doesn't matter, as I think I have one more rhizo-ethics post to write anyway.

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