Ten questions and answers about my understanding of
‘inclusionality’ - a way of seeing beyond human ideological conflict to the
restoration of our natural neighbourhood
1. Alan, you've developed what many people might regard as a revolutionary way of understanding nature and human nature, especially considering where you're coming from as a biological scientist. What on Earth has possessed you to think like this?
Well, I suppose that at the very heart of my soul is a feeling that I am indeed possessed, not by some evil demon, but by the Life and Love of Nature, which I can regard both as Divine Creativity and as Evolution, Everywhere, without contradiction. Creativity is amongst us, not beyond us.
I therefore feel myself to be not apart from Nature but a fluid expression OF Nature, a flow of creative possibility - at least on a good day! This feeling brings with it an extraordinary sense of empathy for all life. I love to use and communicate this empathy in my work as a biological scientist, artist and educator as I imagine myself inside the variably extensible, permeable and transient skin of the life forms I study in order to appreciate the world from their viewpoint. I commonly ask students to ‘imagine you’re a fungus, like I often do’ and they giggle delightfully. But my request is serious as well as humorous - because I think that only through this kind of empathy is it possible to gain real depth of understanding of our natural human neighbourhood. I have found it to open up huge vistas of opportunity for new kinds of research enquiry, which, amongst other things have led me to depart radically from orthodox Darwinian explanations of biological evolution.
This feeling of possession BY Nature is very different, of course, from the desire for ownership of and dominion over Nature that has been characteristic of much human thought and ambition for thousands of years, perhaps traceable to an original Fall from Grace. Even today, as we face the potentially catastrophic implications of this desire in environmental, social and psychological crisis, we tend to ask not ‘How can we help the World to Save Us?’ but ‘How can we help ourselves to save the World?’ We, by which I mean many of us, still imagine that somehow we’re high performance automatons fully in charge of and therefore fully responsible for our own destiny, as if we’re each independently driven by some internal command centre, regardless of our dynamic situation. That, for me, is the kind of thinking that gets us into a global mess, not what gets us out of it.
2. How can what you call ‘inclusionality’ help us out of global crisis?
First I should perhaps emphasize that you really don’t need to be incredibly clever or sophisticated academically to understand inclusionality. In fact, being too academic, as people often say that I am, can be a real obstacle to understanding and communication.
Inclusionality is in many ways a very obvious, very simple, common sense awareness, which corresponds with our everyday experience of life and our relationships with one another and the world about us. It is also consistent with modern scientific findings implicit in relativity, quantum mechanics and non-linear theory. All it amounts to in physical terms is envisaging all form as flow-form, a fluid dynamic inclusion - not an occupier - of space, which cannot be completely defined in an unfrozen world. In other words, life isn’t permanently fixed in discrete boxes and neither is love.
What proves difficult is seeing this natural simplicity through all the clutter of abstract logic, detailed information, academic scholarship, technological wizardry, financial game-playing and environmentally unsustainable activity that many of us have come to take for granted as inescapable and even desirable ingredients of modern civilization. Even more difficult is to see how this simplicity lies at the heart of the complex and unpredictable manifestations of natural dynamic geometry. It involves seeing the implicit spaceyness or holeyness of the WOOD both through and via its explicit and diverse manifestations, the TREES. This spaceyness is what may be described in various cultures and belief systems as ‘Holy Ghost’, ‘Tao’, ‘Brahman’, ‘Buddha Nature’, ‘Maasauu’, ‘Wankan-Tanka’, ‘Tirawa’ and ‘Kwoth’. It is the receptive Mother aspect of Nature, which provides possibility for creative transformation, communication and relationship. It is like the solvent, water, in a solution of salt. When the solvent is removed, the solute, salt, remains as a dry precipitate.
The rationalistic logic upon which modern civilization has largely been founded has had the effect of removing the solvent Spirit from the solution of Nature, by isolating matter from space and regarding the latter as ‘nothing’, an immaterial emptiness devoid of meaning. What is abstracted by this logic is the desiccated material objects that many of us imagine is ‘all there is’ to life and our individual, independent, free-willed selves, deprived of the receptive solvent that pools us together in co-creative relationship. No wonder we find ourselves leading deeply de-spirited, conflicted and paradoxical lives, utterly unable to understand or heal the damage that we inflict upon one another and our living space.
So, to put it very briefly, inclusionality can help by restoring loving receptive spirit to our lives. Hence we can dissolve and overturn the very basis for human hubris and enmity that resides in the either/or logic of opposition, and work empathically - receptively and responsively rather than actively and reactively - together on a programme of renewal, undistracted by the compulsion to conflict amongst ourselves. Just imagine the possibilities of investing the resources that we currently allocate to war and counter-terror, instead to the restoration of our natural neighbourhood!
3. Many people might think that your talk of empathy, shared responsibility and possession BY Nature is foolhardy talk, the kind of irrationally subjective, sentimental projection of human feelings onto Nature that objective reasoning and the Scientific Revolution helped us to escape from. Couldn’t the acceptance of inclusionality make a drama out of a crisis and knock us back into the Stone Age, if not Oblivion?
Well, I have to say that what I think really is foolhardy is to delude ourselves into thinking that we have more control over our destiny and ability to predict the future than is realistic in a complex, ever-changing world without fixed boundaries. This delusion is a product of objectivity, not subjectivity. It comes from thinking that nature is divisible into fully definable material units that can be singled out from one another, measured and counted out of the context of their natural, fluid dynamic relationships. The naturalist poet, William Wordsworth, recognised this delusion when in challenge to Erasmus Darwin - Charles Darwin’s grandfather - he said that ‘in nature everything is distinct, yet nothing defined into absolute, independent singleness’. Sadly, however, the significance of this challenge seemingly went unrecognized. And so the delusion that ‘life is a struggle for existence amongst absolute, independent singlenesses, in which winners and losers are discriminated through the external force of natural selection’ became deeply entrenched in the modern mind. It was an easy concept for this mind to grasp, enthralled as it already was by Isaac Newton’s mechanical Laws of Motion based on the logic of the excluded middle, rooted in Aristotle’s philosophy, whereby everything either is or is not.
This ‘to be or not to be’, ‘something or nothing’ logic, which leads us ‘to take arms against a sea of troubles and by opposing end them’ is, I think, at the root of human conflict and human tragedy, as Shakespeare’s Hamlet might testify. It makes us think more simplistically, not more simply, about natural dynamics - in effect to collapse the natural world of relational flow-form into a concrete world of fixed form securely contained within the 3-dimensional Box of Euclid’s abstract geometry of widthless lines and depthless planes. This simplistically straightforward way of thinking cannot adequately represent what it means to inhabit, as we do, the ever-transforming curved surface of a more or less spherical Earth, which in turn inhabits the curved energy-space of the Universe. But we, many of us, continue to act as though it does, whilst using profoundly inadequate mathematical, scientific and philosophical tools of enquiry. And so, in many ways, we force ourselves to bear the suffering that comes from alienation, living out our lives within a concretely constructed reality that we impose brutally upon the fluid geometry of Nature. I think we can escape this alienation by allowing ourselves to develop and express a more empathic, inclusional understanding of our natural neighbourhood.
But here I must emphasize that the kind of empathy I am talking about is very different from the kind of subjective sentimentality and projection of human emotions that some may imagine. It is about imaginatively letting go of our individual and collective human agendas in order to experience how it feels to be in the place of another. Of course, what we imagine may be quite inappropriate, but as long as we’re aware of and ready to experiment with this possibility, what opens up is a much greater receptivity to others. I see this receptivity or openness as what has been largely ignored or even rejected by objective logic. I see it as no more and no less than Love.
So, no, I don’t think that the restoration of life and love to our forms of reasoning and enquiry will deliver us back to the Stone Age. I think it will liberate us from the Concrete Age. I think it is vital.
4. Is inclusionality your own idea and have you found that many people agree with you?
No and not yet.
It couldn’t be my own idea, because proprietorship is the first notion to dissolve when we accept ourselves as expressions, not owners of Nature. I express inclusionality: she’s not my baby - if anything I’m hers. Moreover, there are many mystics, shamans, sages and prophets, even a few philosophers and scientists, who I think have endeavoured to express something similar, although their efforts have generally been ignored, misunderstood, rejected or rationalized. And I didn’t develop and couldn’t have developed the idea of inclusionality in isolation – my form of expression of this awareness emerged in co-creative conversation with a small sharing circle of others, most notably my friend and regular correspondent, Ted Lumley. Where there is originality in my expression, this arises from my uniquely situated identity as a local inclusion of everywhere, what I call a ‘complex self’ with inner, outer and intermediary aspects, like a river system whose stream both shapes and is shaped by landscape through its shifting banks and valley sides. This originality includes the label – nothing more, nothing less – of ‘inclusionality’, which I made up with others’ prompting and acceptance, as an indicator of departure from the division of nature into factions and fractions implicit in the word ‘rationality’.
I have encountered much opposition to and incomprehension of my expression of inclusionality, which has obstructed my ability to communicate with a wide audience. Nonetheless there are some encouraging signs of a gathering momentum. In spite of several efforts to close me down, I have managed to run a final year undergraduate course about inclusionality, called ‘Life, Environment and People’, for six years, to growing numbers of biology, natural science, psychology and management students at the University of Bath. The course includes an invitation to use of artwork to express and challenge scientific ideas in a critical and creative way. With few exceptions, the students have loved and deeply understood it, finding it to have a transforming influence on their lives and career choices. I am beginning to get papers published in journals and books, and have written or almost written two books of my own, not yet properly published. Four PhD theses based on inclusionality have now been accepted in the University of Bath. I have found great receptivity for inclusional thinking in an international educational movement inspired by my colleague, Jack Whitehead’s ‘Living Action Research Theory’.
5. If you admit that inclusional thinkers are in a tiny minority at this time, an exception to the rule, isn’t it too much, even rather arrogant, to expect people to follow you? Aren’t you yourself too exceptional or eccentric a kind of person to make sense to the common man?
Actually, I am no exception to the rule that everyone’s personal situation and life experience is exceptional because no one can inhabit exactly the same locality and so view the world in exactly the same way as any other. What seems to be unusual is my recognition that this exceptionality is not only what shapes the uniqueness of my individual view, but also what all of us have in common, the source of difference or distinct identity through which we can evolve together in a spirit of co-creative neighbourhood.
For many people these differences appear to be what gets in the way of our community feeling, making them feel obliged to conform with some single, objective view of truth that all can be led by and compete to express in spite of their subjectivity. But this pressure to conform can actually be a source of the great over-simplification that devalues our individual experiences and diminishes our ability to contribute to the common good. We miss out on the sense of belonging that comes with love and respect for our differences and in our distress strive instead to join one group or another in which we pretend to be all the same whilst discriminating between ‘you’ and ‘me’, ‘us’ and ‘them’ and ‘here’ and ‘there’. We divide ourselves up into warring factions rather than loving partners cognizant of one another’s unique and complementary perspectives.
What the way of thinking that I am expressing offers to the common man is the liberty to be uncommon, indeed exceptional, and through that exceptionality discover what we really have in common with one another and nature. At the very heart of inclusionality is an awareness of exceptionality and how by pooling exceptionalities together we make exceptional teams and communities, capable of highly innovative solutions to problems through our co-creative agreement to differ. Sooner or later, I feel this awareness has to catch on, so that we can become a majority of non-conformists working together through love and respect for what both distinguishes and unites us in both individual and collective enterprise.
As to the question of whether I expect people to follow me, the short answer is no, but I hope people may be inspired by and able to learn from my mistakes and accomplishments. I merely want to express my understanding as well as I can and offer this to others in a spirit of common passion.
But this question does allow me to make a distinction between rationalistic and inclusional ways of providing guidance to or for others. Rationalistic leadership is based on the imposition of powerful authority and is the predominant form of human governance that we see today, arising from the logic of opposition. It cannot provide true democracy in the sense of governance for all by all. Rule by elites, even elites elected by majorities, are forms of oppression, not democracy. Inclusional craftsmanship, by contrast, is about the acquisition and communication of skillful practice through learning and creativity within the context of natural neighbourhood as a true democracy, where every learner is simultaneously an educator and vice versa through shared experience. Such opening up of creative possibility for one another is what I like to participate in.
6. Is there anything unusual in your personal background or life experience that has led you to inclusionality?
I guess my story emerged from my early childhood in Africa. During this phase of my life, when I didn’t go to school much and roamed a large semi-wild garden full of delights and dangers, I developed an intense love and respect for the natural world. And I saw my humanity as being OF this world, not apart from it.
When, back in Britain, I did eventually attend school and university, the disparity between what I found myself expected to learn and what I felt from my childhood experience could not have been more strident. I sensed a terrible collision between my compassionate feelings and the dogmatic views of human and non-human nature that I was being presented with in science, mathematics, history and religious education lessons. I remember coming home from school one day and writing, ‘the world has cancer and the cancer cell is man’, an indication of my dismay about the imperialistic thinking of what I sometimes call ‘the Vampire Archetype’, which declares independence from its host space whilst draining it of vitality.
This collision led to a deep internal conflict between my head, which wanted to excel intellectually and conform with the expectations of my family and peer group, and my heart, which wanted simply to live, love and be loved. Eventually it led to breakdown - or breakthrough - when at what many regard as the zenith of my academic career. I was diagnosed with the quality known as ‘obsessive-compulsive disorder’ (OCD), for which the standard treatment is ‘anti-empathy’ drugs like Prozac and cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT). This lifelong quality - I refuse to call it a disorder, unless it be openly creative disorder - has led me to search desperately for a kind of understanding that would dissolve what I sometimes call ‘the clot between head and heart’ by including love in logic: in other words, inclusionality.
7. What would a world of inclusional thinkers look like – would there be less pain and nastiness – for you can’t deny that Nature can be nastily violent as well as lovingly receptive, can you?
It might not LOOK very different from what we see today, although I suspect there would be less intrusive architecture, agriculture and industry and fewer centres of over-population. But I’m sure it would FEEL different - far more supportive, forgiving, companionable, encouraging and above all, FAR MORE RELAXED, pleasurable and joyful.
That is not to say that there would be no suffering, but rather a far greater resilience in our ability both individually and collectively to withstand and grow in creative depth of understanding through suffering. Suffering is altogether much harder to bear in an uncompassionate society, intent on competitive performance and finding, blaming, punishing and eliminating whatever it views as not good enough, regardless of the fact that no form or behaviour can be independent of the cultural context in which it is expressed. Also, to be empathic and aware of one’s frailties in such a society is liable to be deeply painful and unsettling. It’s sure to have us rushing for whatever anti-empathy device or pretence we can find by way of serotonin re-uptake inhibitors, positive thinking, behavioural therapy and a multitude of addictions, obsessions and compulsions.
Undoubtedly there are violent, destructive and aggressive aspects of Nature, but to view these as a sea of troubles that opposes us and must be defeated rather than navigated or calmed can only aggravate nastiness. We end up in vicious cycles, fighting fear with fear, anger with anger, rather than finding creative ways to transform our situation, recognizing that what we perceive as fearful may also be vital to evolutionary process and loving receptivity. Loving receptive-responsiveness does not defy or deny nastiness; it transforms it through understanding where it comes from.
8. What’s stopping us from accepting our inclusional nature and how can this be remedied?
Most fundamentally, I suspect it’s the fear of darkness. I liken this to the fear of the unseen, mysterious solvent that a solute might feel as the solid certainty of its boundaries are loosened and seemingly threatened with annihilation. We’re like dry salt crystals desperately seeking solution but scared of water. We can’t open ourselves up to the possibility of loving, receptive-responsive transformation and so remain stuck in a concrete mindset.
Correspondingly, faced with the uncertain certainty of expiration from our bodily boundaries, we, many of us, can become profoundly attached to whatever barriers we can build or imagine that will ensure our absolute independence as free agencies and/or collective security. We encapsulate our egos in survival structures and confuse this suspended animation or dormancy with real life, resenting and opposing whatever appears to threaten our solid façades. We become obsessed with the need for completeness and closure, and reinforce this obsession with the objective logic of the excluded middle that defies connection between inside and out.
We cannot see beyond or through the false dichotomy of ‘either you are with me or you are against me’. We devize a paradoxical mathematics, which treats matter as ‘something’, which counts, and space as ‘nothing’, which counts as zero. We regard ‘positive’ as ‘good’ and ‘negative’ as ‘bad’, through confusing the receptivity of spatial solvent with a subtractivity that removes rather than vitalizes solid solute, and in this way create the paradoxical ‘double negative’ of false positivism. We fail to see the symbolism of the ‘plus’ or ‘cross’ sign as ‘I’, ‘ego’, transfigured with the space of loving receptivity and so made responsive to its natural neighbourhood as a vital aspect of itself. Hence ‘positive’ could be regarded as a dynamic inclusion of, not an abstraction from space.
We continue to treat ‘light’ and ‘darkness’, as discrete electromagnetic and gravitational fields rather than vital inclusions of one another in the dynamical oneness or bothness of energy-space. And we try to lock life and love outside of our dislocated individual bodily selves.
How can all this be remedied? Perhaps by accepting and learning to love darkness, what Carl Jung called our Shadow Archetype, recognizing that its receptivity is vital to life, love and evolutionary creativity. Only by mentally alienating ourselves from darkness and regarding it as fearful void do we imagine it to be evil and in this way terrorize ourselves.
9. Are you calling for a revolution?
Yes, but not in the mechanical sense of the turning of a wheel or the overturning and replacement of one form of governance or understanding by another. I am calling for a revolution in the sense of a re-evolution, an evolution that includes loving receptivity in its thinking and framing of reality. I am calling for a transformation from the solid fixtures and oppositions of the logic of the excluded middle, to the fluid dynamic receptive-responsiveness of the logic of the included middle, with space incorporated. I feel this transformation is vital if we are to bring our sense of human place in Nature back into more realistic proportion and navigate the psychological, social and environmental troubles that we have made for ourselves through fearfully disregarding the enormity of our immaterial aspect.
10 Where can the re-evolution begin?
Here and now! In fact I might question whether a revolution really can have a beginning, for that idea is itself based on a linear view of history referenced to an abstract time frame. But perhaps, for now, that’s another story to be explored in far more depth than is possible here.
Meanwhile, let’s liberate our minds from the mechanistic, confrontational and competitive thinking that binds us in old patterns of being, thinking and acting. Let’s transform our scientific, mathematical, artistic, philosophical, governmental, social, religious and educational practices so as to be more attuned with one another and the re-cycling processes of Nature. Let’s recall what Leonardo Da Vinci once said: ‘Human subtlety will never devise an invention more beautiful, more simple or more direct than does Nature, because in her inventions, nothing is lacking and nothing is superfluous.’
Let’s accept our transient no thingness and work imaginatively, common-spiritedly and respectfully together within our natural neighbourhood as our flow-forms emerge and subside!
We might just transform global crisis into a story with a happy non-ending!