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The San Francisco Planning Meeting for the Second Enlightenment

The First Planning Meeting for the Second Enlightenment was held on the Creative Spirit Yacht at Sausalito in California on 8 and 9 September 2011.  It was co-organized by The Universe Institute and Symplicitus.

The meeting was an intentional attempt to devise strategies to accelerate the spread of a higher form of cognition across the planet.  This initiative was a response to the fact that our current ways of thinking are manifestly incapable of solving the complex environmental, social, economic and political problems that are besetting the planet.

This higher form of cognition was referred to by the meeting as meta-systemic or dialectical thinking.  It is the cognitive capacity to understand complex systems and processes, and to use this understanding to manage complexity effectively.  Our current level of abstract/rational thought is unable to do this.  It can represent mentally only those limited aspects of reality that are relatively mechanistic.  Abstract/rational thinking is largely incapable of representing complex patterns and processes, transforming systems, emergence and complex relationships.

The First or European Enlightenment was driven by the spread of abstract/rational cognition.  The Second Enlightenment will be driven by the spread of meta-systemic/dialectical thinking.
The key issues that were addressed by the meeting were:  what new ways of thinking will enable humanity to understand and manage the complex challenges that we are facing?  Is it possible to train people in these new ways of thinking?  If it is, what strategies will spread the higher forms of thinking to sufficient people across the planet in time to make a real difference before global crises undermine human civilization?

The full agenda for the meeting is included below on this page.  Background notes that I prepared for the meeting about the development and transmission of higher cognition are reproduced below the agenda.
As demanded by its ambitious and challenging goals, the meeting brought together a small group of extraordinary people with a diversity of talents and backgrounds.  These included extensive experience and achievements in spiritual development (across a variety of traditions), adult development (both social-emotional and cognitive), dialectical thinking, evolution science, business consultancy, leadership development, evolutionary evangelism, Integral theory and practice, biology, ecology, natural resource management, marketing and public relations, psychotherapy, government policy development, and cult busting.
Further details about the participants and their backgrounds are here.
The full effects of the Planning Meeting will take time to emerge.  However, an immediate outcome had been to stimulate productive cross-fertilization and on-going exchanges between two existing approaches to training and promoting meta-systemic/dialectical thinking.  These are the approaches developed by Otto Laske in the United States (see the Interdevelopmental Institute website here) and by John Stewart and Victoria Wilding in Australia (see the Symplicitus website here).

Subsequently, John Stewart and Victoria Wilding developed and implemented a 10 week program specifically designed to train meta-systemic cognition and higher social/emotional development.  A description of the program from the perspective of a participant was published in the January/February 2014 issue of the Integral Leadership Review.  The article written by Mark Roddam can be accessed in full here  An outline of the 10 week course and copies of materials used in the program can be found here

A key new initiative that arose out of the Planning Meeting is being driven by Lawrence Wollersheim, Vid Veda and Malena Gamboa. This initiative is directed at developing tools for 'Dialectical Living'.

John Stewart
Core Member of the Evolution, Complexity and Cognition Research Group, The Free University of Brussels

Agenda for The San Francisco Planning Meeting for the Second Enlightenment

The Purpose of the meeting:

To develop strategies and techniques to produce a global shift to meta-systemic/dialectical cognition.


1)     What is meta-systemic/dialectical cognition?  Issues that will be explored under this item include:

       How does it differ from analytical cognition, systems thinking and multi-perspectivalism?

       In what ways can it provide a superior understanding of reality?  What is its significance at this time in human evolution?

       What models have been developed to operationalize it?

       What models have been developed to understand the development of meta-systemic/dialectical cognition?

 2)     What techniques/trainings/educational approaches can best transmit meta-systemic/dialectical cognition?  Issues to be explored under this item include:

       What approaches have been used in the past?

       What are their strengths and what are their limitations?

       What general models have been developed that can explain the strengths and weaknesses of these previous approaches?

       What do these general models tell us about designing more effective approaches?

       What do they tell us about ‘training the trainers’?

       What do they tell us about designing online approaches?

 3)     What can be done to promote the spread of meta-systemic/dialectical cognition across the planet?  Issues to be discussed include:

       How can it be transmitted so that its growth is autocatalytic and it spreads exponentially?

       To what extent can it be packaged and targeted so that is funded and ‘pumped up’ by existing processes within society such as economic markets? For example:

o      How can it be targeted and packaged to serve the interests of business;

o      What approaches will best tap demand from ‘developmentally attuned’ individuals.

o      How can it be integrated into the educational system?

       How can innovation and evolution of the approach be facilitated? Is there a role for quality control?

o      To what extent should information about the process be made freely available?

       How can the approach be shielded from negative reactions?

 4)     What action should this meeting put in train to begin the implementation of the strategies it has developed?

Background notes for the  San Francisco Planning meeting - the development and transmission of higher cognition: 

The major focus of the meeting is to consider the development of strategies and techniques to produce a global shift to systemic cognition.

       Systemic cognition is the capacity to understand and manage complex systems and processes.

       Analytical/rational thinking is incapable of adequately understanding complex phenomena

o      Analytical cognition spread with the European Enlightenment and now dominates.

o      It can represent mentally only those limited aspects of reality that are relatively mechanistic.

o      It is incapable of representing complex patterns and processes, non-linearities, transforming systems, emergence and complex relationships.

           Cognition that is unable to represent or model something is incapable of understanding or managing it, or even of ‘seeing’ it.

o      Systemic cognition continues to use analytical/rational cognition for understanding mechanistic aspects of reality.  But it also models and represents those many aspects of reality that are more complex and fluid.

           It represents and models complex patterns, transforming systems, non-linear processes etc.  The use of these representations is experienced as intuitions and insights.

The spread of systemic cognition is of critical importance because:

       Systemic cognition is essential if an individual is to be able to fully understand the large-scale evolutionary processes that have shaped humanity and other life on this planet and that will determine our future.  It is therefore a pre-condition for fully ‘getting’ the evolutionary worldview and for experiencing the transformative epiphanies that accompany this;

       The global crises and challenges that are confronting humanity cannot be understood and cannot be solved without a cognitive capacity that enables the management of complex systems and processes.  Analytical/rational cognition cannot do this;

       True systemic cognition is currently almost non-existent. Most ‘systems thinking’ is done with mental/rational representations and cognition.  Post-modern cognition (‘green’ in SD terms) is incapable of rigorously understanding complex phenomenon, and people at this level are commonly anti-cognitive.

       It seems unlikely that systemic cognition will develop quickly enough to meet global challenges unless it is spread intentionally and consciously.

o          What is needed is a New Enlightenment.  It will be similar to the first Enlightenment in that it will be driven by a shift to higher cognition.

       But this time the shift will be from the analytical/rational thought of the first enlightenment to systemic cognition. 

       And the shift will be developed and spread intentionally and consciously.

Currently there are no widely-accepted approaches to training and developing higher mind and systemic cognition.

       The Integral Movement and spiritual progressives tend to focus on the development of consciousness, not the development of higher cognition.  Since these movements are almost universally ‘green’, cognition tends to be part of their shadow.

       Most members of these movements do not have the cognitive development to see that effective responses to global challenges require a higher level of cognition, not just higher consciousness.

o          The failure of the Integral Movement and spiritual progressives to make any significant contribution to resolving major crises such as global warming is due to their cognitive limitations.

o          The ‘missing piece’ that is limiting these movements is systemic cognition.

As outlined in his book Measuring hidden Dimensions of Human Systems, Otto Laske has developed courses and supporting materials aimed at training and developing systemic cognition.  The book includes an extraordinarily valuable Manual of Dialectical Thought Forms that builds on the work of Michael Basseches and others.

       The Manual identifies the classes of things that we have to represent in our thinking if we are to adequately represent and understand complex phenomena and processes.

o      It shows us the things that analytical/rational thought is unable to represent and understand effectively.

o      It identifies the sorts of processes to which we must direct our attention if we are to build adequate mental models of complex systems.

Although Laske’s work shows us where we have to direct our attention to think dialectically and systemically, it does not include practices that train the ability to freely move attention to where it is required.

       It is here that the ‘consciousness movement’ can contribute significantly to programs that aim to train and transmit dialectical/systemic cognition.

The use of the kinds of attention-training practices promoted by the world’s spiritual and contemplative traditions can greatly accelerate the development of higher mind.

       These practices train the capacity to dis-embed from lower forms of cognition, freeing attention and consciousness to access and build higher cognitive structures.

John Stewart will bring to the discussion an approach to training higher cognition that is being developed in Australia with Victoria Wilding of Symplicitus:

       This approach broadly combines Laske’s approach with practices appropriated from the spiritual traditions.  These ‘spiritual’ practices train the ability to:

o          Dis-embed from analytical/rational thinking;

o          See analytical/rational thought ‘from the outside’ as an object that can be contemplated and evaluated

           Eventually systemic cognition itself can be seen as an object that can be contemplated, evaluated and improved;

o          Gain conscious and intentional control over attention so that it can be moved freely around the aspects of complex phenomena that are not represented effectively by analytical/rational thinking; and

o          Access and develop non thought-based cognitive resources, including pattern recognition capacities and intuition.

       These capacities enable the individual to:

o          Identify the critical aspects of complex phenomenon that are not represented adequately by analytical/rational thought; and

o          Build new cognitive representations that include what is left out by analytical thinking.

       This enables the construction of new mental models that are not solely thought-based and that can adequately represent complex systems and phenomenon as they evolve and transform through time.

The Evolutionary Manifesto

The Evolutionary Manifesto is a 34 page overview of the evolutionary worldview presented in Evolution's Arrow.  The Manifesto uses this science-based worldview to address the big existential questions that face humanity: Where do we come from?  What are we? Where are we going to? What should we do with our lives?

For a Kindle Book that combines The Evolutionary Manifesto with its companion article Strategies for Advancing Evolution go to the book's page at Amazon here  (US$1.99)

An easy-to-print and easy-to-circulate PDF version of the Manifesto is here.

The Meaning of Life

The paper I delivered as a keynote speaker at the first International Conference on the Evolution and Development of the Universe in Paris in October 2008 is 'in press' for publication in the journal Foundations of Science.  A pre-print of the full paper (The Meaning of Life in a Developing Universe) is here  

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