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The “Ecumenical Method” for Thought- or, How to Start in the Middle

Oftentimes we cannot start from the beginning, for we do not yet know where that lies. At the same time, if we start from the end then we have done very little work indeed, and are not likely to convince another, or even ourselves, in our arguments. Instead, what we often take to is summarising the beginning- taking a few points that seem reasonable enough at face value, and continuing from there, looking at subsequent levels and stages with greater rigour and criticism. When we have a choice, we do this by outsourcing these other questions to other people, leaving them to delve into their depths so they can emerge with some convincing treasures. From there, we take what they have given us and use it for the next stages, both preparing a tool for the later endeavours, and providing feedback for the prior stages.

Insofar as the tools we have acquired in the more abstract of realms serve us well, then there is very little need to unravel what we have built, and investigate too deeply how it was built. But when problems begin to arise, and no degree of ingenuity with the tools at hand seems to produce a saving result, then it is time to return to those darker depths, and step out of our mundane and sensible, into the contrived and abstract. This means picking up those questions which only seem to busy the unbusied, and worry the unworried. It means looking once again at our “good enough” assumptions, and making them better.

That process of betterment may simply be a practical one- stop using what we have assumed so far, and experiment with different worldviews. Such a process can, and likely often does, happen in a non-conscious way: not through the decision of individuals to change their paradigms, but through the relative success of those who are different from the norm, and the imitation of them by those who seek success or survival[1]. This is an exchange of one trait for another, and only works insofar as the population at hand has both diversity, and adaptability. The diversity provides the seed of difference; the adaptability provides the possibility of imitation.

But there is also another way. Just as we humans have taken the process of evolution and adaptation into our hands in physical matters, not waiting to grow sharpened claws but developing rakes and ploughs, not waiting to develop faster legs but taming horses, not waiting to become semi-termite creatures but building houses; so too may we take control of this process on the conceptual stage, that internal realm which rules both the space of practical possibilities to which we are open, and the ways in which we can organise ourselves.

The first layer of this comes from understanding the ideas and concepts necessary for the age at hand, and predicting how this will play out in a society at large. Whether it be technological, logistic, economical or other changes, the world is a place of constant flux, and so tuning into these individual shifts can allow us to shift together, avoiding the process of elimination and promotion inherent in the more natural-selection form. With such thought, the deaths of entire families is less necessary for us to understand the importance of certain medicine; the collapse of communities is no longer the precondition for a shift to new economic production.

Yet this is just the first layer, and becomes lost in the sea of discussion and prediction. On the individual level, things are neither simple nor clear; but they are much more so than on a broader scale. Each individual idea, theory, belief, system coalesces into the whole, and the intended effect gets subsumed into a real impact- an extreme belief is sometimes balanced by the other side, sometimes taken to extremes to spite opposition. A suggested reform sometimes reinvigorates an entire system, and sometimes generates vicious cycles that were not foreseen. And sometimes, the overwhelming success of a single idea during a time it was well adapted for, generates such dominance that it blocks the kind of innovation necessary for future adaptation.

The second level, then, is not only to recognise this game of adaptation and bring our participation from random chance into conscious tactics, but to recognise the form of adaptability, and to strategise on this meta-level. While the base is random moves on a chessboard, and the first level is rational response to an opponent’s moves, the second level is actual strategy. It is a recognition of the rules of the game, and a construction of attitudes, reactions and goals in line with the network of possibilities generated by these rules.

This is an understanding that goes beyond the simple facts that diversity provides an arsenal of weapons against a universe of possibilities, or that organisation allows for a better response to large-scale threats. It is an attempt to systematise such basic tenets, to generate a meta-strategy most likely to give rise to the strategies needed when the chips are down. It is a project not to build the next great idea, or the next clever trick. It is instead the philosophy that will allow such great ideas to be systematically generated, so that instead of surrendering our adaptability to the natural cycle of destruction and rebirth, instead of accepting the necessity of tragedy, to take more of this process into our control. To do so is not only kinder to those in the future, but eventually necessary- there is no guarantee that the next “necessary” tragedy will see anyone survive it.

This is not a new project, by any means. Respect for the wisdom of elders, investment into research and deep thought, enforced education- these are all a recognition that certain institutions provide a source of such abstract creativity, that their value lies not in their direct, recognisable practice, but in their generation of new modes through which practice can be transformed. But these are oftentimes held as values– held through their proven benefit in practice, and transferred through faith and custom, but not systematised in their understanding, not adopted as conclusions or part of a strategy- not in their long-term functions, at least[2].

It is a systematisation of these long-term functions, the understanding of not what specific institutions, procedural or conceptual, tend to generate proper innovation, but what innovation itself is, and what the process of its adaptation means, that is the project here. It is the construction of the discipline which can then explain the generative abilities of these different values and institutions, rather than simply recommend them from practice.

What such a project needs, then, becomes immediately apparent- it needs a base impartiality towards any values at hand, trying its best to abstract from them as far as is possible; but also a measure of distinguishing these values and methods, so that it can indeed tell us how and why certain things are successful, while others aren’t. That is, it must be objective without being trivial.

There are two tools, two attitudes which will help us in this task. The first is formalism– not as a commitment, but as a lens. Instead of taking ideas as values to be defeated or championed, competitors on a battlefield, it is to abstract from them, opting to organise these competitors and describe the ways in which they form and interact. This means that when there is disagreement, the objective answer is not one that is more true or more factual than the other “subjective” answers, which people only believe because they are “less rational” etc. Objectivity instead must not compete– it must only draw the map of where the competing parties lie[3].

But what will define the features of such a map? This is where the second element of functionalism[4] comes into play. Functionalism, broadly understood, is a viewpoint from which institutions, ideas, and values are not taken as wholesale good or bad, measured against an undefined and definite moral scale. Instead, it is a way of breaking such things down into the various functions they perform for various other parts of a total system- the positive or negative feedback, the promotion, the repression, the impeding or easing of other vectors. Such a functionalist account does not say that a policy is good or bad– rather, it describes how it will serve various functions, benefiting what parties, allowing for what new actions, spelling the doom of what types of practice[5].

In the conceptual realm, these two together will allow us not only to describe the space in which adaptation occurs, but also how we can adapt, replacing certain ideas with others that are expected to fulfil the same functions. With such an approach, we can begin our task of moving from replacing ideas that don’t work with ones that do, to ideas that maintain the benefits of past models, while fulfilling the functions for which they are insufficient.

But these two attitudes remain nondescript until joined with our overall goal, which is to provide a framework for conceptual diversity and adaptation. Per this goal, we must not turn down a certain coherent[6] argument when we reach a point of contention, though we must be able to move forward where it blocks our path. In a seeming impasse, then, our options are threefold- dissolve the question, dissolve the contradiction, or construct a compromise. The first abstracts to the framework that generates the disagreement, and engages with this to test whether the question at hand is only assumed to be significant due to a prior confusion. The second engages with the options given, and breaking down the functions asks whether the distinction is a necessary categorical one, or just one of degrees or focus[7]. The last recognises the exclusivity of the options, and the validity of the question, but asks if still there is no point of which both sides can admit, and can be taken as an “at least” answer to the question.

Putting these parts together, then, we can call what we have built here the ecumenical approach. This is in contradistinction to a doctrinal approach– one which holds certain bases to be true, and develops a contained, comprehensive system of thought and values that emerges from such a base[8]. It is not the development of a comprehensive doctrine, but a non-trivial forum in which such doctrines can be sensibly included. As such, it tries to answer as many questions as it can that will allow movement into practice without limiting the reasons for such practice to certain doctrinal commitments. This both allows for unification in practice without uniformalisation of thought, and for the maintenance of a diversity that can bleed into different practical strategies.

Both the benefit and difference here is clear. Where successful, the ecumenical approach can move forward from the questions that supposedly “have no clear answer”, so that our only option is not to act in assumption of one of the answers. We can move through the formal space we construct in such a way as to arrive at practice, while still being aware of the problems and options at the base- problems and options which may emerge in the future. Where we find ourselves stuck at an impasse in practice, we can rest assured of the realm of possibilities waiting at the expansion of different foundations, without fearing that such a shift will send shockwaves throughout the whole system we have built- not shockwaves that we cannot deal with, at least.

This, then- the ecumenical method- is the mindframe with which we will approach the subsequent questions in this project. As such, rather than being a core “tenet” of any kind, it will constitute how we must think on this way. It is neither particularly original, nor particularly intricate- it is, however, the kind of inquiry, and the kind of inquisitor this project will engage with. This means that though it may not come up again, it is still necessary to keep in mind that arguments made hereon, are made by this measure, and so should be judged as such.

[1] Though this process of transition does include a conscious decision, and can indeed fall into the class of the “first layer” discussed above, it is also true that a conscious decision that is nevertheless unconscious of the processes at hand can be responsible for it. That is, an individual can imitate certain strategies not out of an understanding of how they feed into systems and situations, but through a desire for the outcomes they produce through these processes. Thus, just as the individual who already held these ideas as beliefs before an environmental shift, so too will these people jump on the bandwagon in a way that is not conscious of the reason for its success.

[2] It is undeniable that tools such as education, or values such as respect for elders, can be utilised in a cynical or even systematised way. For the first, the function they serve is different- these values already exist, and the cynic finds new uses for them which serve their own goals. It is their function as aids in survival and flourishing that concern me. For the latter, systematisation does not necessitate a deconstruction of the concepts it adopts, in that, the value of education or filial piety can be taken wholesale, as a given, and placed into a broader structure- or even justified within a system, though with reference to other preconceived values, which themselves are adopted as described above.

[3] To be sure, even this kind of objectivity becomes contentious on a different scale- draw a map of political borders, and that betrays a certain focus; draw one with detailed terrain, and it betrays another. It is also undeniable that such biases feed up and down into different scales as well. There are certain degrees of focus, however, that cannot be realistically overcome in any coherent project, those rules underlying the use of language or argumentative logic, for example. In some ways, then, this project is a recursive, continuous one- but it is hoped that its present level of abstraction will permit of use in the current scales in which we both operate, and those which we are likely to be able to expand to in the near future- this concept of scales will be explored further on. 

[4] As with formalism, this is not an -ism of commitment, but one of description. There have been criticisms levelled against functionalist understandings of institutions and legal systems for their rationalising and apologist tendencies, insisting that even the most self-serving of state action must have some kind of “function” that is beneficial for society, or largely performative of the state’s intended role, whatever that may be. Whether these criticisms are fair or not, this notion of functionalism stands more in line with Durkheim’s attitude in The Rules of Sociology.

[5] The idea of “functions” here is relatively undefined, but a reconstruction of the entities which will perform or generate functions to fulfil will flesh this idea out further. For now, the idea of functions can be compared to that of values– not as a contrast, but as an expansion of this. If something has value, or is “right”, this is in reference to a certain perspective from which its realisation is seen as beneficial, or imperative. If these perspectives are accepted as extant points, rather than a self-evident base, then we come to a broad plane where pressures are exerted from different directions. At this point, it should be apparent that what is needed to complete this picture is the “points” that exert pressure, and the nature of that pressure- these will be developed in the next part.

[6] This one word can serve the purpose of shifting all the difficulties that are supposedly avoided here under the rug, though this is not my intention. In some respects, it hearkens back to the third footnote above, as such coherence rests on the degrees of focus or assumption that have not, and perhaps cannot, be abandoned here. On another level, however, their incoherence can mean that the process of “taking them seriously” or dismissing them is dissolved from their perspective, and so such distinctions too do not apply to them. Thus, as they do not demand the same as others, there is less trouble in not affording it to them.  

[7] An example of this can be certain forms of the “nature vs. nurture” debate. In part, the question was wrong: it is not nature or nurture that is important. Recognising this, some still ask about degrees– at this point too, the result is not a dichotomy, where one side is categorically arguing for nature while the other is exclusively backing nurture; rather, each stress one side, and such stress is based off of ideas of how emphasis can serve a function. So long as the function is not our goal, such interval divisions do not necessitate a theoretical commitment on either end.

[8] A note on the historical emergence of such doctrines- it is not necessary that, as hinted here, a certain foundation must start a doctrine. It is likely true that this is in fact rarely the case. Rather, values held through custom, trial, or exchange extend in both directions, generating justified conclusions and justifications of the first beliefs.

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