"Royal Society of NSW – relevance in the 21st century"
Dr Donald Hector FRSN
President of the Royal Society of New South Wales
Date: Wednesday 6th April
Venue: Union University and Schools Club, 25 Bent St, Sydney
Donald Hector was President of the Royal Society of NSW for four years from 2012 to 2016. This is an excerpt from his Presidential Address delivered immediately following the AGM. The full address will be published in the Journal and Proceedings.
Dr Hector noted the success introduction of Fellowships of the Society and the appointment since then of well over 100 Fellows. He also referred to the importance of extending the Society's activities across all its disciplines of science, art, literature and philosophy. Of particular significance is the relationship that is developing with Australia's four learned Academies. At the Forum held at Government House in September 2015, all the issues that were identified as the major challenges facing the world today are highly-complex, socio-techno-economic problems. How may the Society contribute to their solution? Dr Hector set the stage with a historical perspective and then explored issues around philosophy and cognitive psychology that are important in framing these problems and identifying solutions to them.
The way in which we define and attempt to solve problems today originates in the philosophy of ancient Greece. It was rediscovered in the 14th century and was a major influence on the development Renaissance. Its importance can be seen in two great paintings of the Renaissance, Raphael's works Knowledge of Causes (or The School of Athens) and Disputation over the Most Holy Sacrament. The first is a representation of natural truth as acquired through reason (arithmetic, astronomy, rhetoric, the arts, music and poetry; the second shows the relationship between God and man. Taken together, the two juxtaposed paintings represent the thinking and belief-system of that era and upon which the Renaissance developed. The point is that art can give great insight into human thought.
The model of the world that evolved in the Renaissance and continued until the early 20th century was a mechanistic one – the great philosophers of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment considered the universe to be like a clock. It behaves linearly, with any disturbance producing an effect in proportion to the disturbance. The Padua method, developed in the Renaissance, of breaking a problem into its component parts and finding a solution by reassembling solutions to the components work well. But by the 20th century biology, ecology in a number of other challenges were not well explained by the mechanistic model and systems theory evolved.
Systems are non-linear – a tiny disturbance in one part can result in a large disturbance in another. They are unstable – they can flip. The outcome for the whole system cannot be found by adding the responses of component subsystems together – every part influences every other. In the last half-century, with the increasing population and complexity of the world, a new type of problem emerged – "wicked problems”. In these, there are masses of data but no clear way to analyse it. Human stakeholders hold apparently irreconcilable differences in beliefs and values and are willing to exploit power imbalances coercively to achieve their own ends.
At the time of the Renaissance, there was a clear relationship between the value-system represented by religion and a thirst for knowledge, as represented in Raphael's painting but today, in the Western world at least, value-systems are far less clear. Science follows a rationalist philosophy – seeking truth through rational analysis, recognising that social influences affect the outcome. Economics and politics are utilitarian – attempting to maximise public good or benefit. The legal system is deontological or duty-based. But there is no overarching value-system as there was during the Renaissance. The conflict between today's value-systems is further complicated by the limitations in human thinking.
No two individuals see a problem in exactly the same way – we all look at things through "lenses” that distort our view of reality according to our perceptions and experience. We form images of problem situations that are heavily influenced by our philosophical framework and belief-system. Our immediate response to problems is intuitive but this is subject to bias. A more measured analytical approach – rational thought – is able to be learnt but we must remain aware that we can make mistakes. These two thought processes have been described as two different systems but that misunderstands the fundamental nature of cognition – they are a single system responding to different stimuli and this system exhibits all of the non-linear and unexpected characteristics that one would expect. In order to make sense of the enormous complexity we encounter, we use narrative to confabulate to make sense of things that we do not understand to make them conform to our notions of reality.
Recognising the limitations imposed by our value-systems and our cognition, we can use our capacity for rational analysis to gain much greater insight into problems that were previously unassailable. We can imagine what futures might look like. Because we can recognise that various stakeholders in situations will approach the problem from different perspectives, we can accept this as fundamental to the human condition and that should facilitate understanding. The big challenge is to embrace the complexity of the problem – particularly the sociological dimensions – to overcome the inherent bias that we all hold to find common ground, rather than focus on the differences. Most importantly, we can write narratives. Drawing upon our diverse experience, these narratives can engage people with a wide range of worldviews and draw them along with us.
The Royal Society of NSW is uniquely placed to provide leadership in this type of complex analysis. The wisdom of the founders in defining such a broad remit of human knowledge – science, art, literature and philosophy – was truly prescient and recognised the ever-increasing complexity of modern life. But we need to change if we are to maximise our impact. Historically, the Society has focused largely on the sciences. Only recently, have we extended into the other areas of human knowledge encompassed by our charter. We need to attract Fellows and Members from all fields of human knowledge, if we are to engage in the representation and solution of the highly complex problems that exist in the world today. We need more writers, artists, sociologists, musicians and historians. Only then, will we be able to completely engage with the community. That is not to say that we should abandon our scientific heritage – quite the opposite, most of the problems that the world faces today have enormous technological challenges. But these solutions will not be found in science and technology alone – they will require the engagement of non-scientists in terms they can understand.