Introduction: Maybe it's true insight. Maybe it's apophenia.

Introduction: Maybe it's true insight. Maybe it's apophenia.
Photo by NeONBRAND / Unsplash

Humans are very good at finding patterns, whether they truly exist or not.  The work I am sharing through this site started from a theory of patterns in people and cultures:  Clare W. Graves's emergent cyclical levels of existence (a.k.a. E-C theory or ECLET), which is more often seen in the leadership consulting-oriented form known as Spiral Dynamics (SD) or Spiral Dynamics Integral (SDi).  I saw value in E-C theory, particularly in the cyclic patterns of emergence at its core, and I wanted to highlight them and create some distance from the controversies and trademark issues around SD/SDi.

More recently, Nora Bateson's now-infamous post on stage theories as colonialist bullshit has motivated me to question the theory more deeply in the overall context of the history of developmental theory, including its early association with eugenics.  But back in the summer of 2020, I was just trying to find a more effective and inviting visualization of E-C theory.

So I came up with a new diagram, the details and meaning of which I will explain in another post.  The important thing for now is that some of the patterns represented here, such as having six points in the cycle that alternate in a certain way, came directly from E-C theory.  However, other parts came from observations, anecdotes, speculation, and quite frankly a rather intense period during which the diagram demanded more work until every line, vertex, shape, and gradient had meaning.

Apophenia, Wikipedia tells us, is "the tendency to perceive meaningful connections between unrelated things."  So while an epiphany is a true point of insight into something, and apophany is a false one.  It seems meaningful, but the apparent patterns might not be there at all, or might be present but in truth meaningless.  If an apophany becomes the basis of something applied to humans, a lot of damage can be done.

Given my "methodology" in developing this visualization (researching more about the theory, and then staring at the geometry and tinkering with it to represent whatever I found until it felt correct), I was definitely concerned that my lovely diagram was more apophany than epiphany.

A major limitation when working with E-C theory, which is also one of the main reasons it is not prominent in mainstream academia, is that during a period of ill health and frustration, Graves threw out all of his raw data.  He had never published it in detail, wanting to amass the strongest case possible before sharing more than the basics of his system.

I deal with this by working with Gravesian theory as philosophy rather than psychology or sociology, and I want to be absolutely clear that my work with the diagram is not science.  I have never claimed otherwise.  I think it produces some ideas that would be interesting directions for scientific research, but the underlying theory is scientifically shaky, and this work is not about shoring it up.  It's about using Graves's work as a starting point for further philosophizing.

But since this is not science, and the data for the underlying theory is lost, there's no way to validate extensions such as the additional patterns I highlight.  And for that matter, as we will see with the "colonialist bullshit" topic in future posts, science can have its own problems.

As it turned out, most of what I found and visualized with this project has resonated with a lot of people over the last year or so.  So I'm pretty confident that there is something that the diagram is making visible, and that it has some sort of practical application for facilitating further insight.  It seems likely that there's an epiphany or two in there after all.

But I chose the name "apophany / epiphany" for this site to remind myself that hunting for patterns is dangerous work.  Both because of apophenia, and because of the legacy of colonialist thinking.  In the absence of a formal validation methodology (which is beyond my current capabilities given the scale required), it's important to continually examine assumptions and watch for places where the application of a model like this constrains, rather than illuminates, reality.

Illuminated rocky cavern
Photo by Ksenia Kudelkina / Unsplash

The writing I will publish through this site will include detailed explanation of various aspects of the visualization, as well as further exploration of the patterns and of possible applications.  I am particularly interested in using these insights to design social rituals to further connection and understanding.  This is the sort of illumination and facilitation that I hope comes out of my work.  On the other hand, I am not interested in applications such as leadership consulting, which I will happily leave to Spiral Dynamics.

I will also write about decolonizing Gravesian theory, what that might mean, and why it would be desirable.  Along the way, I will be correlating, comparing, and contrasting with other systems that may or may not be stage theories in the typical sense.  Jean Gebser's structures of consciousness will be one, as well as various ideas from Tyson Yunkaporta's Sand Talk and hopefully other indigenous ways of being.  Plus commentary on the use of similar stage theories elsewhere, such as Hanzi Freinacht's political metamodernism.

There will be substantial free content on the site, although how frequently I'll publish such things I'm not yet sure.  Even signing up for a free subscription encourages me to write more!  In the immediate future, I am planning to publish free articles explaining the diagram in detail, and on colonialist thinking in Gravesian theory, and how I think my approach can (eventually) escape that legacy.  Those articles should set the tone for the site.

Paying subscribers will get much more frequent writing, much of which will be more or less off the top of my head.  These posts will assume some level of familiarity with the material at hand.  I expect to put a lot of what I have in the past written as social media posts and comments here, so that it does not vanish off into someone else's monetizing void.  That will likely involve at least one post a week, and probably more (at least after I get the front-loaded free posts out of the way).  I have an enormous backlog of things that I've never written down in any sort of coherent form.  My ambition is to eventually write a book, so this site will serve as ways to get drafts of varying levels of polish in front of readers for feedback.

Thank you for reading this far!  Please consider subscribing (there are both free and paid options) if you find this at all interesting.  There will be more free content in the near future as I work to get the fundamentals all published.  I had been meaning to set up a site for quite some time, and the colonialism discussion dovetails with my existing interests so well that it was finally time to make this happen!