“Exploratory” Truth

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

Much in how culturally mature truth becomes new has less to do with specific choices—even wise ones—than how we go about making choices, with truth as a process. We aren’t used to thinking of truth as a process. We are more apt to think of truth as almost as process’s opposite—if not fixed and absolute, at least the end-product of our inquiries. Seen from a culturally mature perspective, truth becomes at once process and product. Cultural Maturity makes it inescapable that what constitutes right choice is ultimately a moving target. It also makes clear that what is most important to know is often dynamic and permeated by uncertainty in ways that the more cut-and-dried truths of times past were not.

One result is that culturally mature decision-making becomes necessarily more exploratory and experimental than what it replaces. I often use exploratory metaphors in my therapy practice—for helping people confront both questions of basic life direction and more specific life decisions (with regard to profession, relationships, where to live, values to hold). Such metaphors help people shape their lives in ways that best honor their unique identity and contribution. In a sense such questions have always been exploratory. But in the past, cultural dictates—for both good and ill—have dramatically restricted options.

For people of more rational bent, I might talk about such inquiry as like the best of scientific experiments. Well-done experiments engage the experimenter in a sequence of creative responsibilities. The first is for asking  a good question, one worthy of the experimenter’s time and focus. Next comes responsibility for crafting experiments and developing hypotheses that might shed new light on that question. Finally comes responsibility for obtaining the most accurate and useful results.

Making good choices in a well-lived life tends to be messier than this. But when external guideposts are limited, we necessarily engage in a similar kind of progression. We start by selecting a worthy creative starting point (if the question concerns work, selecting an endeavor that excites and could prove fulfilling; if it concerns love, choosing someone who we feel caring for and who could be good for us). And we experiment. We learn and we try things out. And we listen for what brings fulfillment. In the process, we learn about ourselves (and, with love, the other person). And we examine the unique shapes choices can take (how we might approach work, or how to engage love in ways that best reflect two people’s unique natures and their growing connection).

When approaching life experimentally, we need to be exceedingly honest with regard to what works and what does not. Like good science, a creatively-lived life is only in a limited way about getting the answers we want. With both, the most irresponsible thing one can do is alter data so as to better fit our hopes. The task is to seek out what is creatively true. It is through this that we make choices that are right and choices that matter.

Science metaphors are likely to get blank stares—or worse—from people of more emotional or intuitive bent. But the metaphor of the artist’s creative process works equally well. I might talk about composing a piece of music or how a painter applies his or her craft. The artist’s first responsibility is to discover a worthy creative impulse—a possibility one is deeply drawn to. Next comes trying out different ways to give that impulse expression. Lastly, there is the task of discerning what works and what does not. Artistic expression is about listening for what is beautiful and exploring different ways to make that beauty manifest. Like with good science, eloquent artistry requires incorruptible self-honesty—fudging the results gets us nowhere. And in a similar sense, we cannot know ahead of time exactly where that honesty will lead.

People can object to such use of experimental/exploratory metaphors. For example, some can find them initially a bit heady, too analytical. This is particularly common if the topic is something like love. My response is that engaging love (or life more generally) consciously as a process does require careful discernment—though something ultimately more than analytical discernment. Culturally mature decision-making require bringing nuanced perspective to all kinds of questions for which simple being, faith, or subjective passion have been the more appropriate kind of engagement in times past.

In an opposite sort of objection, a person might claim that experimental imagery is just too imprecise—too “loosy-goosy.” Again, using love as an example, a person might argue that it leaves out the most important ingredient in relationship—commitment. But in fact approaching love as a creative process in the end implies greater attention to commitment. Certainly, commitment can be one of the most powerful tools we have for making relationship’s creative life possible and sustainable. More, the absence of clear guidelines in a culturally mature reality gives articulating commitment and determining its forms ever-greater importance. Even if the commitment choices we make are very traditional, they need a deeper level of personal commitment to sustain them. What the exploratory metaphor adds to traditional notions of commitment is a better appreciation for how the rules for success in love—and the meaning of commitment—change when we no longer have the luxury of established goals and procedures. The same applies to decision-making of all sorts.

Exploratory language can be applied just as usefully to descision-making of a more collective sort. The question of how we best manage the often-contradictory potentials of modern invention makes good example. Because many of our most important advances, along with promising good, also present significant risk, responsible management will be critical. But responsibility in the sense of just doing the right thing can be of only limited help. Often it is not at all clear—except to those of dogmatic persuasion—just what doing the right thing would mean. Evaluation commonly involves complexly interwoven causal factors, and there is always the possibility of wild-card events. In the words of Freeman Dyson, “If we had a way to label our toys good and bad, it would be easy to regulate technology wisely. But we can rarely see far enough ahead to know which road leads to damnation.”

Faced with such uncertainty, how do we best respond? Some people reflexively call for extreme caution. Others may assert that free and open discovery is the only hope we have. And looming over choices with regard to specific technologies is the question of whether responsibly managing human invention and its consequences is really even possible. The drive to be tool makers may be simply unstoppable, impervious to self-reflection.

An experimental/creative frame provides at least the beginning of a way beyond the apparent impasse. Such perspective begins by pointing out that management as we customarily think of it may not provide the right image. In the end we can’t really control invention any more than we can once and for all control the outcome of love, the creation of a work of art, or the results of scientific experimentation—and we would not want to. Such perspective continues by emphasizing that a lack of final control does not save us from responsibility, indeed quite the opposite. We may not yet know how to most effectively carry out such shared creative decision-making, but we can be sure our wellbeing will more and more depend on it. Looking back a hundred years from now, if we are at all successful at devising social structures and mechanisms for making such choices, we will surely regard them as some of our times’ greatest achievements.

This exploratory kind of responsibility demands more of us. Certainly it requires that we leave behind narrow assumptions and allegiances. Ideology throws us into a polarized world where the needed creativity becomes very difficult. But with Cultural Maturity, not only does this more exploratory kind of responsibility become something we are capable of, increasingly we see that it is the only kind that can work. It is what is ultimately possible. And when we consciously move beyond absolutist beliefs and think in more dynamic and encompassing ways, not only do we better make headway, wholly unexpected solutions commonly present themselves.

An example. The specter of global climate change has for many people reopened the debate over whether nuclear power has a place in our energy future. To engage the question of nuclear power creatively, we need to start by teasing our whether our own particular responses might have more to do ideology than considered reflection.  People of more liberal or environmental persuasion might reflexively respond “no” to the question—with the immediacy of the response giving away its ideological roots. Adherents to an equally ideological technological gospel might just as reflexively answer “yes”—seeing the question as a chance to again champion a favorite cause. Culturally mature responsibility, being more systemic, is also more pragmatic. It requires that we step back and carefully measure the risks and the uncertainties against the rewards. In the process it is also more creative.

Insights from a think tank on nuclear waste disposal convened in 1992 by the Institute for creative Development highlight how such more mature perspective can reveal unexpected possibilities. The question of how to deal with nuclear waste commonly reduces to an either/or with neither answer of much help. We can store it so we are absolutely sure it will do no harm for hundreds of thousands of years into the future (which is impossible), or we can pretend it is not a problem (when it very much is a problem). The think tank members proposed that a better solution might be to store it in a retrievable form for a few thousand years—which we can do with current technologies—and figure out what to do with it at that point. This might initially seem like just kicking the can down the road, but in fact it represents a creative solution. By the time we retrieve the waste, the more dangerous parts of the radiation will have dissipated. And we will most likely also have come up with good uses for the remaining radioactive material. The group’s solution does not at all answer the question of whether increased use of nuclear power makes sense. But it illustrates well the kind of thinking that a post-ideological, more creative sort of truth-seeking and responsibility makes possible.

An exploratory framing of choice and truth translates readily to the more encompassing task of addressing our human future as a whole. Part of the responsibility we hold for the future lies with appreciating how absolutely the future defies final prediction. Notions like Cultural Maturity and the ideas of Creative Systems Theory can serve as crude maps, bu tsuch maps provide only general direction. In ages past, this amount of uncertainty would have been too much to tolerate. Like children with their parents, we found it better to leave the future to more reliable agents. In contrast, nothing more defines the tasks of our time—and the excitement of our time—than the need to take ownership in the exploratory creation of a human future beyond what we can yet imagine.

I’ve used two terms—experimental and creative—with subtly but significantly different implications. The difference is important. The word exploratory adequately describes the basic postmodern task of making our way without familiar guideposts. The word creative implies underlying generativity and pattern that the less committal term experimental does not. Creative Systems Theory proposes that creative is the more precise term—and that it must be. It argues that if the truths we draw on are not ultimately creative it would not be possible to effectively make our way—at any time, but certainly now. We shall see how the concept of Cultural Maturity makes sense only within an explicitly creative understanding of human nature and the human endeavor mm