Order, disorder, reorder

It’s almost a simplistic metaphor, but … picture three boxes: order, disorder, reorder. … [I]f you read the great myths of the world and the great religions, that’s the normal path of transformation.

–Richard Rohr

The words above are taken from a recent On Being podcast, where the host Krista Tippett interviewed the American Franciscan friar Richard Rohr. I’m not one for listening to religious programming, given my leanings towards the non-dogmatic and agnostic Middle Way, but I’ve found that this weekly series hosts a variety of guests with a range of beliefs, from diverse backgrounds and traditions. Krista Tippett, as host, guides the discussions in such a way that the conversations are always mature, nuanced, and tolerant of ambiguity – truly conversations rather than sycophantic platform-building or antagonistic arguments. Furthermore Richard Rohr described himself as being “on the edge of the inside” of traditional Catholicism, pushing at the boundary of Christianity in a very liberal, mystical way.

1024px-Richard_Rohr_02While I was listening yesterday to the episode featuring Richard Rohr (and I recommend listening to the full ‘unedited’ version of the conversation rather than the 50-minute ‘produced’ show) many interesting facets revealed themselves, but I was particularly intrigued to hear about his “three box” metaphor for the path of adult spiritual development. I understand that in his 2012 book Falling Upward he further explores the idea of the two halves of life, intending to show that those who have fallen, failed, or gone down in their spiritual progress are the only ones who understand ‘up’. However, I’ve not read that book(!) and what I’m going to discuss here is based on what I heard during a part of the interview with Krista Tippett.

As it is rather lengthy, I’ve split this discussion into three separate blog posts: in this, the first, I discuss the synthetic metaphorical three box model in the context of a well-known a modern myth. In the next (second) post I will consider how Rohr’s three box model might be usefully applied to political polarisation in society. In the third and final blog post I will frame my own ‘spiritual’ development in terms of Rohr’s model.

A modern myth – Toy Story
Now, I’m not sure to what extent the Disney/Pixar film Toy Story counts as a great myth of the world, but it’s a story that’s familiar to anyone in the Western world who has grown up – or has had children grow up – in the past 30 years. I have a soft spot for it, having it watched it first (somewhat guiltily) in the cinema as an 18-year old, and more recently on DVD with my son and his cousins. I’m going to use the plot of Toy Story as an example of this “three box” metaphor for the path of transformation – and note that I’m using the term ‘myth’ its original sense as a story richly imbued with archetypical meaning, and not meaning a widely-believed falsehood.

Toy_StoryAnyway, in Toy Story the character Woody, the old-fashioned pull-string cowboy doll, starts off in the metaphorical “order box” as Andy’s favourite toy, de facto leader of all Andy’s toys, and comfortable with his position in this microcosm. He is forced into the “disorder box” by the arrival of Buzz Lightyear, the astronaut action figure, who upsets the social order and brings out feelings and behaviour in Woody that he’s not had to deal with before. This disorder is a product of circumstances beyond Woody’s control: he wouldn’t have deliberately chosen to break with the status quo as he was so comfortable within it. His sense of self-esteem is closely linked with his role as Andy’s favourite plaything.

However, through the messy process of being taken out of his comfort zone and learning through novel experiences, Woody eventually is able to move into the metaphorical “re-order” box by integrating his conflicting desires and meaning, establishing a new equilibrium where he and Buzz can cooperate in their roles as Andy’s ‘favourite toys’. However, and more importantly, Buzz and Woody also enjoy the new meaning and richness that comes from their relationship with each other, a relationship that has value beyond their existence as playthings for a child.

By the end of the film Woody has developed a new perspective on his existence, one that encompasses the need for constructed order and the inevitability of uncomfortable disorder – he knows that suffering is part of the deal, and is better embraced than pushed away. Not only is Woody now wiser, but his new worldview better addresses the changing conditions, as Andy is growing up (as seen in the sequels, particularly Toy Story 3) and will no longer ‘need’ Woody, depriving him of his original raison d’etre when he was comfortably housed in the “order” box.

Note that, alongside Woody’s development, Buzz follows a parallel path of transformation. His original existence – where he truly believed himself to be a space ranger crash-landed on a hostile alien planet – may have been delusional, but it was well and truly ordered. He had a sense of who he was, what his mission was, and was confident in his superiority and rightness. Only when his delusion was eroded by continued contact with the ‘real’ world did he have to face up to disorder. Buzz’s fall from order was harsh, but he made progress through the disorder and – by uniting with Woody against common enemies – he was able to reorder his worldview into something more mature mature, integrating his love of himself with his newfound love for others (as opposed to his earlier ‘duty’ to others).

At the close of this first installment in the series I invite you to participate using the comments section below. If you can see how this model can be further extended to Toy Story, or other myths, please go ahead and share your thoughts. If you can see limitation of this model in this context of analysing mythic narratives then please also jump in. In the second installment I will move on to consider how the order-reorder-disorder model might shed some light on the problem of political polarisation in society, and in the third and final installment I’ll be viewing my own spiritual biography through the lens of this model. I hope that you will join me there…

Featured image of US mailboxes in the snow courtesy of
Photograph of Richard Rohr by Svobodat [License: CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons
The Toy Story image is a low resolution version of the Disney-copyright poster, used for illustration only under ‘fair use’

About Jim Champion

As a student Jim specialised in theoretical physics, up to PhD level, and then trained as a secondary school teacher in Birmingham. In 2004 he returned to Hampshire to teach physics. He first encountered the Middle Way Society in 2015, and has been practicing The Middle Way ever since.

10 thoughts on “Order, disorder, reorder

  1. If you think in terms of the desires and beliefs that maintain the order, the model you’re talking about is also the dialectical one (thesis, antithesis, synthesis) and the process of integration as illustrated in the two mules story, which you can see on video here: The dialectical structure is found in all sorts of places, and maps a basic experience of development and maturation: but it can also be easily appropriated for other ends. For example, Plato used it to support rationalist dogma, and Marx used it to support a dogmatic determinist view of history in which the Communist society was portrayed as the inevitable result of human progress. To avoid this sort of abuse, I think it has to be stressed that the model is investigatory and experiential. It shows a way in which we can make progress in any specific situation, rather than being a top-down model used to rationalise things we already believe.

    I’ve also been impressed by what I’ve seen of Richard Rohr, but I guess the danger inherent in any use of the dialectical model by someone still participating in an institution as rigid as the Catholic church is that it will get appropriated in a similar fashion. What starts off as a road to experiential development and insight may become co-opted for dogmatic ends if not interpreted with great care.

    Another great user of the dialectical model is Karl Popper. I don’t know whether you have plans to discuss his role! For him it was a useful way of mapping scientific method: you have a theory (thesis/ order), falsification (antithesis/ disorder) and then theory helpfully revised in the light of the falsification (synthesis/ new order). This pattern is the one I’ve often referred to as a ‘negative feedback loop’, though I’m beginning to think it might be better to call it an ‘open feedback loop’. Popper was one of my early inspirations in developing Middle Way Philosophy, because the open feedback loop makes it clear how we can make progress primarily by avoiding ignorance or evil that we can identify in experience, rather than either being stuck in a relativist world where no progress is possible, or dogmatically deducing our new beliefs from some assumed ‘truth’ that may well not be.

    1. Thanks for your input on this… and yes the mules get a mention later.

      On the theme of feedback loops, I’ve just discovered this superb bit of web programming where you can easily make simple models of complex systems with all sorts of loops, positive and negative, to investigate emergent phenomena etc.:

      1. That’s a great resource, Jim! Thanks for putting me onto it.

        I have had an intense argument with a scientist (who’d better remain nameless) who insisted that I was using the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ feedback loop wrongly. That’s one reason why I’m thinking it might be better to start using ‘closed’ and ‘open’ feedback loops. But what do you think? Is my earlier terminology confusing?

        1. Short answer: the terminology itself is confused, so there will probably always be someone prepared to argue with you. Might be best to try out different terminology.

          Longer answer: I vaguely remembered some controversy about this, and had a look on wikipedia, and helpfully there are some quotes there explaining that in the early days of electronic amplifiers the terms ‘positive’ and ‘negative’ were used in contrary ways by different groups.

          Some used the labels positive and negative to refer to the sign of the feedback (i.e. whether it was adding to or subtracting from the amplifier input). Others used the labels positive and negative to refer to the effect of the feedback on the amplifiers gain (i.e. positive was used when the gain increased, negative was used when the gain was reduced). The confusion arises because when the feedback has a negative sign it has a positive effect on the gain (and vice versa). As far as I’m aware the conventional usage these days is that ‘positive feedback’ refers to feedback that is in phase with the input.

          An example from the history of nuclear disasters: the design of the reactor that went disastrously wrong at Chernobyl in 1986 had a serious safety flaw. If the water coolant in the reactor core ever got hot enough to boil, then the presence of bubbles of steam in the liquid coolant would result in an increase in the rate of nuclear fission in the fuel rods. Which would, all other things being equal, result in an increase in temperature, which would create more steam bubbles, which would increase the rate of reaction, which would increase the temperature… until some other factor limited the increase in temperature. Technically it is known as a ‘positive void coefficient’, and I think it was peculiar to this particular design of Soviet nuclear reactor. This ‘positive feedback’ loop (that got started due to another failure in the reactor) was only terminated when the increased pressure in the reactor ruptured the containment vessel.

          The point I’m getting to is that in this scenario the feedback was positive (the increased temperature increased the rate of reaction, which increased the temperature further…) and the effect of the feedback was that the temperature of the reactor core increased away from the stable operating temperature at an ever increasing rate. The appearance of positive feedback in the system has the effect of destabilising the system. This is not consistent with your use of the term ‘positive feedback loop’, where, for example, someone has a theory that they see confirmed in practice, and thus they keep believing in that theory. In your use the theory is stable and the positive feedback (the confirmation from experience) acts to keep the theory stable.

          You can hopefully see how this transfers to ‘negative feedback’ situations. An example from biology is the way that our bodies are able to maintain our blood temperature at a constant 37 degrees C. If our blood temperature increases then blood vessels in the skin dilate so that we lose more heat to our surroundings, bringing blood temperature back down to the normal temperature. If the blood temperature decreases then the blood vessels in the skin constrict so that we lose less heat to our surroundings, bringing the blood temperature back up. This is referred to as ‘negative feedback’ because a change to the temperature results in an action that causes the opposite change in temperature.

          This is not consistent with your usage of ‘negative feedback loop’ where, for example, a theory is falsified in practice and so the theory is adjusted to make it more adequate. The loop you are talking about is driving the theory further and further from the original theory – which is more like the Chernobyl reactor situation than the blood temperature situation described above.

  2. Thanks, Jim. Yes, I looked on Wikipedia and other places myself a little while ago (at the time of this controversy) and found a similar confusingly mixed picture. I think my usage is mainly influenced by Dewey and Popper, and the idea of a ‘negative’ (i.e. disruptive) element actually adding to adaptability. You’re right that a positive (closed) feedback loop is stable in relation to the person’s beliefs, but it is also unstable in relation to the wider system because it prevents the person adapting: they’re stuck in a chain of habit that was better adapted to some previous context but not the new one. The negative (open) feedback loop, on the other hand, is adaptive, as it is in you example of blood temperature regulation. What’s disruptive to the individual may be adaptive for the system and vice-versa. So it makes sense that from that point of view philosophers and scientists may have apparently contradictory views about what it means – though I don’t think they’re contradictory when examined more closely.

    1. I’m trying to think of what might be a more satisfactory terminology for the two classes of situation that you want to be able to talk about in an unconfusing way.

      The ‘closed loop’ is exactly that, for example a theory is believed, practice confirms the theory, the theory continues to be believed without requiring any modification. It just goes round and round the same track.

      In my mind’s eye the ‘open loop’ is a spiral (I want to say ‘upwards spiral’). For example, a theory is believed, practice shows that the theory is inadequate, the theory is modified to make it more adequate, the modified theory is believed…

      In practice the ‘upwards’ progress would occur in fits and starts, cycling round in a closed loop while practice provides confirmation, but moving ‘up’ when practice provides disconfirmation and the theory can be appropriately modified. There’s also the possibility of moving ‘down’ or ‘sideways’ if the modified theory then goes on to be disconfirmed by some new aspect of practice?

      I’ve still not got a better bit of terminology. I’ll sleep on it I think.

  3. Yes, the idea of a spiral is reminiscent of the Buddhist terminology for this used by Sangharakshita, who talks in terms of the Wheel and the Spiral. There’s a whole book explaining Buddhism in terms of that model derived from Sangharakshita by his follower Subhuti, called ‘The Buddhist Vision’ The drawback with the Buddhist treatment, of course, is that it’s embedded in Buddhist metaphysics (nirvana as the ultimate goal and samsara as the state of human life). The specific analyses of the 12 links on the wheel and the corresponding stages on the spiral also tend to become rigidified as the final account of the matter, rather than being treated just as possible illustrations of the two types of feedback loop.

  4. A term Stephen Batchelor sometimes uses which I quite like is “a feed forward loop” that might imply progress, synthesis, integration etc.

  5. I was thinking of something along the lines of: progressive feedback loop & restricted feedback loop, which the Batchelor quote also implies.

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