BIG FUN AT DANCING EDGES

A long excerpt from a book-length Ph.D. dissertation evokes the scope of Robert Stuart Houghton’s theorizing about education. A Chaotic Paradigm: An Alternative World View of the Foundations of Educational Inquiry. It’s gist is this: there is an implicit potential able to emerge and realize substantial effects were learning to be concerned with the actual nature of an ‘implicitly able’ human system. This is my language, (one can tell, it’s oblique!) and way of highlighting the idea that interesting innovations are products of unstability and discontinuity.

Certain curriculum scholars have also identified and discussed the value of these concepts of holism and self-organization (Doll, 1986; Romberg, 1984; Romberg et al, 1987; Sawada and Caley, 1985) for building a new educational paradigm. These scholars in turn were following the tracks laid out by general system theorists (Ackoff, 1974; Bertalanffy, 1968) and later the nonlinear system theory of Prigogine (1977, 1980, 1984).

They have used the concepts of self-organizationist writers like Prigogine in a variety of ways. They make their points about holism and self-organization clearly and in detail. However, the concept of unpredictability receives much less explanation and emphasis. Just how this unpredictability comes about is not clear and curious linkages indicate a need for further thought. For example, integrating holism and self-organization with a multi-causal model that is to be judged by its “predictive power” (Romberg et al, 1987) takes a stand that chaos theory would open to question.

Various reconceptualist camps have put these axioms to their own purposes in various ways. As issues in determinism are central to my theme, the variations and conflicts with regard to determinism will receive further discussion. Keeping in mind that the idiosyncratic nature of the reconceptualists makes establishing agreement on any issue complex, Popkewitz’s position will be used to represent the general position of the critical theorists and the position of Lincoln and Guba will represent the general position of the naturalists. The overall position taken here is that the explanations of determinism from both theoretical camps suffer equally from inadequacy and/or contradiction.

Popkewitz (1984) takes positions that assume both deterministic and indeterministic frames of reference. An indeterministic view seems required for his dialectical contention that systems of belief continually arrive and fade from power beyond anyones ability to control. This supports a political agenda which seeks to undermine faith in domineering political systems. Further, corrective possibilities are “not contained in the common belief that science provides specific guides for the organization of the present and future. Science, as in any form of knowledge, is not able to provide such positive guidance” (p.193). But a deterministic and top-down hierarchical view is necessary to believe that change can be directed and controlled: “The function of critical theory is to understand the relations among value, interest, and action and, to paraphrase Marx, to change the world, not to describe it” (p.45). Though this change is not open to creation, but “rather, the possibilities of the intellectual are in taking a negative stance towards our social conditions” (p.193) that is to articulate problematic issues such as race, gender and poverty and to act to refute them. The critical theorists appear to need a model that bridges or explains a fairly wide gap between their indeterminism and their determinism.

Lincoln and Guba (1985) appear to take a simpler position. Nature is indeterministic. One can only describe and appraise. This is not to say that action would not change things, but rather that any particular action provides no guarantee that any predicted outcomes will occur. Aspects of their writing categorically reject results suggestive of deterministic human events. But their reference or evidence is inadequate to the degree to which they emphatically reject determinism. Further, they also must face internal inconsistencies.

Lincoln and Guba’s primary reference is Werner Heisenberg’s indeterminacy principle:

This principle tells us that (1) at a subatomic level the future state of a particle is in principle not predictable, and (2) the act of experimentation to find its state will itself determine the observed state…. It means that ambiguity about the future is a condition of nature. (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p.54)

There are two problems with this idea. First, the logic has a fault. It is a long way from subatomic particles and the quantum effect to Western culture. By their own theory, particles self-organize and the number of self-organizing scales between the quantum level and U.S. classroom culture is enormous. There is no part of their theory that would explain why the classroom scale or other scales could not organize in a fashion facilitating deterministic analysis. This is not to say that such a theory is impossible, but rather they do not provide such. Second, one would surmise that the field of atomic particle physics would have died after Heisenberg’s ideas became widely known, yet this is hardly the case, for the resulting quantum mechanics became “…one of the most successful theories in the history of science. It has made accurate prediction about a host of atomic, optical and solid state phenomena” (Briggs & Peat, 1989, p.28). The reason for its power is simple enough. Even though results of 1 or a few particles could not be determined exactly, the actions of large numbers of particles did respond deterministically and could be and were treated statistically through Boltzmann’s 1870 innovative introduction of probability to physics. Unfortunately for the naturalist argument, at its base, quantum mechanics is a deterministic view based on linear mathematics (Shimony, 1989). But it is important to note that considerable indeterminism is part and parcel of this linear perspective. A major contention of this thesis is that in some classes of deterministic system behavior, probability theory can effectively counter this indeterminism and in others it cannot.

Finally, like the critical theorists, naturalists are reluctant to completely give up the role of the intellectual in controlling events, hence after considerable determinism and cause-effect bashing “…indeterminism is now the basic belief that determinism once was” (p.113)), they conclude that “we believe it is possible to shape affairs in a desired direction, albeit with a good deal of uncertainty” (Lincoln & Guba, 1985, p.151). The account of the naturalists then also contains both contradictory and inadequate foundational elements with regards to the concept of determinism.

There is, then, in this writing of the reconceptualists a strong intuitive sense that human events are unpredictable and indeterministic, but there is no adequate underlying theory to explain it or justify their paradoxical interest in retaining bits of deterministic value structures.

Chaos and Determinism

In contrast to the reconceptualists discussed above, the forthcoming analysis supports acceptance of determinism as a governing fact of nature. But, it instead provides new challenges to human ability to track deterministic systems. That is, there is a new more rigorous challenge to human determinism, (the ability of humans to determine). From the reconceptualist viewpoint, this could also be seen as a rigorous approach to indeterminism (Ekeland, 1988). Of the many roots to the development of these new concepts, the primary strand to be considered here, is a recent arrival on the scientific scene, the scientific concept of chaos (Crutchfield, Farmer, Packard & Shaw, 1986). Not only does the research of this field promise a better account, but this research suggests the advantageous role of chaotic system behavior, chaotic dynamics as an essential component of healthy living systems.

Chaos has become a scientific term for systems that diverge exponentially with time. (Chapter three will be devoted to explaining this topic.) In brief, in repetitions of a system where as few as two variables mutually interact at a sufficient depth of interaction, the outcomes of the system diverge. Such systems are extremely sensitive to changes in variables so that differences several decimal places beyond human perception at critical points of interaction are sufficient to place the prediction of the system beyond human capacity to follow.

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