the expert novice

I don’t know whether it was during the reading of the five-thousandth or five-thousandth and first magazine article telling me directly or indirectly how to live my life that I realized for the first time we live in an age of experts – if you haven’t already noticed (and for the longest time I hadn’t), they seem to be everywhere giving advice on nearly everything.  At about this same time, which is now a few years ago, I came to a second realization.  I realized that if, starting tomorrow, everyone on earth suddenly began paying attention to the experts and living by the fruits of their expertise, we wouldn’t have immediate world-wide utopia, in fact, we’d still have more or less the same world we have now.  We’d still have those fracking and those fighting fracking.  We’d still have genetically modified foods and those fighting genetic modification.  We’d still have blah, blah, blah, and those fighting the terrible blah, blah, blah.  Unfortunately, merely ignoring the experts wouldn’t improve the situation either, a situation I’m assuming most thoughtful people feel needs improving.  So, with the same urgency as the writer of a manifesto or like someone who has contemplated the unflattering judgments of our age by future historians, I believe more than ever that the time has come for us to finally wake up and pay a new kind of attention to the experts.  We should do this because, whether we like it or not, these experts are the embodiments of our best thinking, and when we pay attention to them, we are indirectly (and therefore more objectively) paying attention to ourselves.  This is true whether these experts be those touting neuro-science as a way to develop protocols for clearing our minds of confusion and fear or those telling us how to save the environment or raise children or even those who instruct us on how to place our tongue firmly in cheek – indeed, for my purposes, nearly any kind of expert, serious or otherwise, will do.   I hope that when we really start to pay a new kind of attention to them, unbiased, open-minded attention, many of us will be surprised to discover that we’re more fascinated and dismayed than convinced and reassured by what they have to offer.

On the one hand, I hope we’ll be fascinated by their continuing proliferation and penetration into every aspect of life, and by the nature of their expertise, its genesis and its practice and maintenance, while on the other hand, I hope we’ll be dismayed by the too often abstract or limited nature of the results of their expertise, as well as by our culture’s seemingly undying faith in the efficacy of those results.  And we’ll notice, I continue to hope, that even in those instances when we question the results, it’s the results we question, not the underlying logic or worldview.  In my experience, when one penetrates to the level of worldview, one discovers that almost all of the many experts are of one particular type.  In saying this, I’m conscious of adopting the precarious position of an expert on experts.  So mindful that I may be dubbed a hypocrite, though not I think by the historians of the future, I’ll carry on and say that this one type of expert invariably has an expertise that grinds a lens beautifully engineered for its particular narrow task and then, just as invariably, this expertise sees the world almost exclusively through this lens, and in so doing, prunes the world of much of its variety.  Perhaps the quintessential example from the 20th Century of this type of expert, the type we hear every week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation: Science Friday,” is Francis Crick, one of the discoverers of DNA and a name you will most likely recognize.  Based on his extensive genetic research spanning decades, he came to certain conclusions, reductive in the extreme, about the human being and the nature of consciousness; he called these conclusions “the astonishing hypothesis.”  Ironically, he addresses each one of us personally when presenting his impersonal, mechanical model: “you, your joys and your sorrows, your memories and ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.”  Here, Crick takes two different but simultaneously occurring phenomena and, without considering other ways they might be related, links them as materialists have done since the Scientific Revolution: simple physiological cause begets infinitely various psychological (not to mention spiritual) effect.  Like a baleen whale, Crick’s mind expertly captures millions and billions of tiny zooplankton and then believes it has somehow eaten all of the ocean’s fauna.  And for this type of expert, this capturing of only a sliver of reality is not for the most part extensive, that is, having to do with what’s out there, but intensive, that is, having to do with how we conceptualize what’s out there.

Before I clarify this distinction with an example, let me say a little about what I think your mind might be going through as you’re reading this essay.  If you are anything like me, you are effortlessly making judgments about what you are reading.  If you begin to reflect on these judgments, not on their content, which is what we mostly do, but on how they arise in your consciousness, you’ll notice that they first of all, arise automatically, and that second of all, are some admixture of cognitive and emotional elements.  So, for instance, when I used the term “manifesto” near the beginning of this essay (or manifesto), you perhaps immediately thought to yourself: “Who the hell takes manifestos seriously anymore – this writer must be completely out of touch with our time and a bit too attached to his own perspective.”  Or when I proposed there are experts to show us how to be tongue-in-cheek, you may have thought: “This guy is undermining his point with lame and distracting jokes.”  For the moment, I just want you to briefly pay attention to these judgments as they arise. And to keep yourself from getting too caught up in them, I suggest you document them briefly in the margins, and then continue on with your reading.

Now I will attempt to clarify the distinction I made about how experts capture only a sliver of reality.  I said that it was not for the most part extensive or having to do with what’s out there, but intensive or having to do with how we conceptualize what’s out there.  Imagine, then, you are looking at a blackboard or piece of paper on which you have drawn a cube with twelve lines so as to feign three dimensions – as you are already marking up the margins of this essay, you could draw one there.  This cube is called a reversible cube.  Why?  Well, when you first glance at it, one of the two sides that are most perpendicular to your line of sight will appear to be closer to you.  However, if you continue to look at the cube, these two sides will eventually reverse their positions before your very eyes, the side that had appeared more distant suddenly appearing closer.  Clearly, the cube out there on the blackboard or page has not magically re-oriented itself; instead, something within your seeing has shifted.  You’ll notice that you can, with a little work, reverse the cube at will.  What this little experiment seems to say about perception is that our mind or way of seeing impacts and to some degree determines what we see.  In other words, we participate in our perception – it is not merely a passive activity.  This reversible cube, like all gestalt figures, has a particular ambivalent form that slows down this participation just enough so that we become aware of it.  However, if you begin to pay attention to how you perceive other things, you will begin to notice, at first only subtly, your participation in how you represent these things to yourself.  The philosopher and historian of consciousness, Owen Barfield, calls this subtle participation “figuration.”

Now imagine we have an expert whose expertise focuses on this twelve-line cube that feigns three dimensions on a two-dimensional surface.  He thinks he knows all the important properties of this twelve-line cube; he can draw it accurately on various surfaces and provide you with all of its important proportions and measurements – his figuration gives him this one clear perspective.  However, imagine also that he is only able to perceive one of its orientations, that he cannot flip it or reverse it.  He’s an expert with limited expertise.  His cube exists fully out there, or so it seems to him, but he lacks the wherewithal to make it flip.  He can only see, so to speak, simple physiological cause begets infinitely various psychological effect.  From now on, I’ll refer to this wherewithal as imagination.  This expert without a functional imagination is something like what 19th Century philosophers called a naïve realist. A naïve realist believes the world exists fully formed out there without our perceiving or thinking participating at all in its coming into being for us – there is no such thing as figuration.  For the naïve realist, flipping the cube by definition is impossible or simply a parlor trick, an optical illusion that has no bearing in reality.  It is my experience that almost all experts are naïve realists, and it is precisely with these experts overwhelming and uncritical acceptance of the naïve realistic worldview that I take issue, primarily because I think it is one of the root causes of what ails humanity in the 21st Century, as grandiose as that may sound.  Feel free now to mark up the margins here if you need to.

Rather than begin by making a list of what ails humanity – many others have done that and done it well, and anyway, I imagine you have your own extensive list – I will try to explain in a more focused way why I think an uncritical acceptance of the naïve realistic worldview is a problem.   First of all, the fact is that the over-whelming majority of us are naïve realists and not because we’re stupid, but because it is the contemporary habit of mind.  Let me again illustrate my point with another example, once again a kind of experiment in attention, though this one you might immediately dismiss as unscientific, whimsical, and arbitrary.  So be it; just write your judgments down in the margins and carry on.  This time, instead of imagining a reversible cube, go to your bedroom and lie on your bed and look up at the ceiling with its randomly textured surface; let your eyes wander over its surface – you might have done this as a child.  At some point, if you look long enough, you’ll quite suddenly see – where before you saw nothing – an image or figure in the texture, as you would, say, in a fluffy cloud on a spring day; in my case, because I’ve been thinking about baleen whales, I see the head of a whale.  This example is clearly much like the example with the reversible cube in that it involves semi-conscious figuration; however, in this example, I don’t want you to focus on how you see the head of the whale or whatever it is you see, but on whether you are now able to un-see it, so to speak.  If you are like most people, you will find it difficult to look at the place where you saw whatever it is you saw in the way that you saw it before you saw whatever it is you saw.  In other, less torturous English, you can’t seem to return the ceiling to the pristine state it maintained before you saw the equivalent of my whale head.  For all intents and purposes, the whale head has become a habit of mind and we soon forget or, more accurately, don’t consciously experience, as naïve realists, that we participated in its coming into being.  It just exists out there like a tree or fire hydrant.  Environmental myopia and over-eating or any of our human shortcomings are no less habits of mind than said tree or fire hydrant, though their consequences are obviously more immediately of concern.

Near the end of his autobiography, Charles Darwin describes the consequences of habits of mind for him, though without completely believing his own reasoning.  He writes that after the age of thirty, reading poetry became an experience “so intolerably dull that it nauseated” him.  Before thirty, however, he assures us that he had enjoyed the work of a variety of poets, mentioning Shakespeare and Milton as well as many of the English Romantics.  Darwin then spends a good paragraph wondering sadly why he has lost what he calls his “higher aesthetic tastes.”  He describes how his “mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts,” but he is unsure why this particular disposition of mind, or what I’m calling a habit of mind, has made the enjoyment of poetry impossible.  He concludes the paragraph by stating that “the loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness, and may possibly be injurious to the intellect, and more probably to the moral character, by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”

What Darwin calls “higher aesthetic tastes” I am calling the imagination, the capacity to see both sides of the reversible cube, the capacity to un-see the head of the whale, the capacity to break a habit of mind, the capacity to have an experience of knowing that transcends naïve realism.  Darwin had enough imagination to guess at – I would say correctly – the consequences of his expertise: diminished happiness, a damaged intellect and moral character, as well as a weakened emotional life.  Unfortunately, he didn’t have enough imagination at the end of his life to do anything about it.  I think all of us, experts and non-experts alike, suffer now as Darwin once suffered, though perhaps it’s even worse for us because we are, in our habits of mind, the inheritors and not the creators of his legacy.  The point of this essay is not, however, to promote hopelessness in the face of habits of mind and naïve realism, they can do that quite well on their own.  The point is to show that like any habit, habits of mind can be broken, that we don’t just have to be old Darwins, that we can also be our own individual selves who, against steep odds, can develop a rich enough imagination to do something about healing ourselves (and here I include our consciousness) and the world, which are in fact, though naïve realism would have us believe otherwise, two halves of the same reality, not some non-overlapping magisteria.  For those of you who say “what unprecedented odds,” I say just take a stroll around a mall or surf the web, two human-made environments designed, by experts in Darwinian thinking, to appeal to our various un-free behaviors, which is about all they really think we are if they’re faithful to their science.  Indeed, in the minds of advertisers, we are either “targets” or “waste.”  You can also do your own experiment and reflect on how your capacity to reflect is affected by these two types of environments.  Are they engineered to create a citizenry of humane, creative, and self-aware people?  Are they engineered to appeal to us as free human beings?  I don’t think anyone would think so.

I’ll step off my soapbox now – though some might think I step immediately onto another – to propose a solution, and to my mind the best sort of solution always remains enough in solution, so to speak, to remain dynamic and therefore more broadly applicable.  I don’t propose the abandonment of experts, but a new kind of expert, one that I call the expert novice.  This expert novice promotes engagement and action based on her own direct experience in all the realms of her life, not just in one particular realm.  Individual and direct experiencing becomes the expertise.  Growing more and more conscious of and beginning to participate in the act of figuration as I defined it earlier also becomes the expertise.  The expert novice seeks to make this expertise more flexible, penetrating, and ethical by developing the capacity to perceive and think holistically, artistically, and non-dualistically, which is to say, imaginatively.  The goal of the expert novice is to, and here I paraphrase the philosopher Jesaiah Ben-Aharon, more fully actualize the virtual.  The virtual, for Ben-Aharon, is the spiritual sphere (don’t think of religion here, but of a region that’s both created and discovered by higher levels of thinking) imminent in the physical.  The expert novice seeks to access this sphere by means of the imagination as I’ve described it.  Whereas the traditional expert replaces lived experience with dopamine receptors, molecules, autism spectrums, and other abstract models that we as a culture overlay on the world, the expert novice directly and concretely researches the actual experiences of joy and sorrow, social isolation, indeed, all human experiences and their multivalent expressions.  With rigor, not dilettantism, the expert novice struggles to see through the general laws that blind us to the infinite unique attributes of the world.  This is a science of participation, not separation, of wholes, not abstractions, of experience, not hierarchical models of experience or what I’ve earlier referred to as habits of mind.  The expert novice paddles his canoe in the estuary where concepts and perceptions intermingle in full reality, a full reality that is better thought of as a verb in the present progressive tense.

It of course will come as no surprise to anyone who fancies himself an expert that I am not an expert in the traditional sense, though I have, in my academic life, fallen in love with my own fair share of mental models, the ones of physical anthropology and evolution, most specifically.  Their simplicity first drew me to them, but it later made me doubt how they could fully explain the totality of my experiences, not to mention all human experience.  Thus began my search to better understand this totality, not to mention, expand it and deepen it.  Like the historian of consciousness, Jean Gebser, I’m not seeking to replace one way of thinking with another, but to expand the human being’s ways of knowing reality.  Like a novice, I am hoping to cultivate humility, openness, and the ability to learn.  Like an expert, I’m looking to do it systematically, rigorously, and responsibly.

At the moment, it appears to me, and a growing number of others, that the world is withering on the branches of our knowledge because, just as our interior condition affects the wellbeing of people around us, so the nature of our knowledge affects the wellbeing of nature.  When we treat nature or another human being like some convergent test with one true answer that can be committed to memory for all time, we get a static reality reduced to the point of death – really, an unreality, a habit of mind.  Because of our habits of mind, it’s clear we don’t know how to think in a living way or as we currently like to say, ecologically, and I include in this “we” all ecologists who unconsciously cling to naïve realism, particularly those who imagine the world better off without human beings, as if human beings were some inflamed organ like the appendix (which we are now beginning to realize has important functions) and not the stage on which full reality makes its appearance.  For my own all-to-frequent habits of mind, I also include myself.  Thinking ecologically demands we become more conscious of how our minds and the world are one dynamic and integrated system, and when I say minds, I mean our whole inner life, including our life of feeling and volition.  Without a life of feeling, Ahab, for instance, sees only a whale like the ones I’ve mentioned, not Moby Dick, and we get a not-very-interesting novel: no drama, no morality.  What I mean to say is that our life of feeling is an essential part of this system, this ecology; it gives it value.  We can’t imagine human experience without it.  But instead of being slaves to our feelings, like Ahab, we must do what the poet and philosopher, Robert Hamerling, insists we can’t do.  Perhaps he was right for his time, the 19th Century, when he proclaimed that we can’t want as we will, but that’s exactly what we need to learn how to do today.  How do we do this?  How do we systematically change how we feel about someone or some thing?  Confucius recommended we expand our knowledge and be sincere in our thoughts.  To achieve this change more consciously (which is necessary in our age), I would add that we expand our knowledge not haphazardly, but in areas where we have no interest or even for which we have a natural dislike.  Instead of looking in journals of psychology or sociology to discover whether the experts think Confucius’s advice is sound, I suggest you test his advice as the expert novice would, that is, by personally following the advice and then, by means of direct experience, studying the affects in your soul (I use this term to denote the inner life in all its richness and variety).

The time is more than ripe to question our habits of thinking, our habits of feeling, and our habits of doing – no experience however strange and unprecedented, to echo Rainer Maria Rilke in his Letters to a Young Poet, can any longer be reflexively dismissed without doing damage to the human being – growth demands that we enter these experiences, and be awake.  In fact, it demands we cultivate these experiences, though not like some hallucination, but rather like some elucidation.   We have too long touched merely the surface of things, and we have done so with such a tentative, unconscious, and fearful touch that everything under the finger feels as it always has, whether the plastic, wood, and steel of a manikin or another human being.  We must now feel more deeply and more diversely and with all our senses.  And when I say that, I mean our feeling must take on the quality of cognition and our cognition the quality of feeling.  This, to me, is the beginning work of the expert novice.  This, to me, demands we come into our own lives with fresh eyes and an open heart and say to our old selves again and again: why are you thinking this, why are you feeling this, why are you doing this?  Then the real work of the expert novice, which is the building of a new self and world out of intent, not content, begins.

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