Surfing Uncertainty

For this week’s reading reflection, I read Surfing Uncertainty by Andy Clark, a Professor of Philosophy at University of Edinburgh. I was first introduced to Clark’s work in 2018 when I had the pleasure to attend the HowtheLightGetsIn festival at Hay on Wye with Dave Snowden and the rest of the Cognitive Edge and Cynefin Centre crew. Clark presents a compelling case for an action-oriented predictive processing model of the brain that fits nicely with the “naturalized sensemaking” theory that grounds SenseMaker. My general goal for this text was not to gain a complete understanding of the embodied mind or the science behind it, but to uncover a few nuggets that would contribute to complexity-informed conflict resolution practice. Although the first half of the book was incredibly technical neuroscience, the later chapters (beginning with Chapter 6: Beyond Fantasy) provide connections between the mind and systems-level change. In this blog I’ll present a simplified account of Clark’s premise and explore some key terms and applications to conflict resolution. 

Clark’s story of the mind begins with an explanation of the brain as a prediction machine that continually processes incoming sensory input (i.e. sight or sound) by contextualizing it against prior experience and expectation. Unexpected sensory inputs are considered ‘errors’ which then alter layers ‘higher up in the hierarchy.’ This predictive processing model helps balance between maximizing accuracy and minimizing complexity of mental models to conserve the energy required for processing all of the incoming information.[1] Clark outlines three elements of predictive processing: evidence, prior knowledge, estimations of uncertainty.[2]

Clark augments this basic predictive processing model by incorporating action and the environment as scaffolding to support the brains predictions. Clark summaries ‘action-oriented predictive processing’ as the: 

“Combined mechanism by which perceptual and motor systems conspire to reduce prediction error using the twin strategies of altering predictions to fit the world, and altering the world to fit the predictions.”[3]

In Clark’s view, the brain does not try and achieve “some kind of action-neutral image of an objective realm,” but “delivers a grip upon affordances: the possibilities for action and intervention that the environment makes available to a given agent.”[4] The human brain, even at the most basic sensory levels, never attempts to achieve an ‘objective truth’ or reality. The only thing that matters is helping the human organism recognize the “environmental opportunities for organism-salient action and intervention” and creating a balance between the brain’s predictive model and the external environment. [5]

This notion calls into question a common theory of change held by conflict resolution practitioners: that if people had a more accurate (or objective) understanding of the ‘true nature’ or ‘root cause’ of a conflict, then they will be more likely to take action that contributes to peace. This theory has a long lineage that includes John Burton’s problem-solving workshops, dialogue approaches, and more recent efforts like Ricigliano’s SAT (structural, attitudinal, transactional) systems mapping approach. If Clark’s vision of the brain is correct, then conflict analysis should focus on generating novelty, surprise (error signals that change mental models), or scaffolds for action.

For the complex and structural conflicts that we face- like climate change or racism, complete understanding is illusive and by definition impossible. However, we do know that problems of this scale can be addressed by ‘parallel peacebuilding’ or ‘fractal engagement’ where people take action at their own level in a coherent way. The actions people take can be small. In some cases it might be talking to someone across party lines, starting a community garden, or hosting an event. Each action elicits a response from the external world that then can alter expectations (even at an unconscious level). The key is that people don’t need to have an elaborate theory of change to make the world more peaceful- they just need to know what they can do in the environment they are in. International organizations and donors that support peacebuilding work sink money into comprehensive systems maps because they can take action at the systems level. However, systems maps and dynamical flows mean nothing to the majority of people that have a much more constrained action repertoire. Surfing Uncertainty provides an explanation for this dynamic from a neuroscience perspective that can ground practice. 


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Systems maps might obscure more than they show. Here is “The Face of Polarization” that I did for a class project with my colleague Sausan Ghosheh.

Implications for Practice

If we hold the following assumptions true,

  1. Conflicts occur in complex human systems where the nature of cause and effect can never truly be known,
  2. The human brain is fundamentally action-oriented and works to ‘get a grip’ on reality to take advantage of affordances, and
  3. Conflict analysis and resolution practitioners are subject to resource constraints that limit both their ‘action-repertoire’ for research and intervention

Then complexity-informed conflict resolution practitioners should

  1. Stop wasting time on systems mapping unless elements are bounded and ordered systems (i.e. financial flows). Deal with the complex domain in a way that dynamically supports action and decision-making rather than a top-level view that is “right” in it’s totality.
  2. Design all conflict analysis processes around identifying affordances or surprises (anything else introduces noise and no change)
  3. Try bottom-up action first and see if understanding at multiple levels in the system comes later

In a way, the complexity-informed conflict resolution approach should be isomorphic to Clark’s action-oriented predictive processing model to be effective. The more coherent approaches are with the fundamental workings of the brain, the more successful they can be. 

Next Steps

In my dissertation, I’m planning to do a chapter on “naturalized sensemaking” that incorporates work like Clark’s as the foundation and philosophy behind the complexity informed method that I’m testing with SenseMaker. By diving deeper into this literature, I’m hoping to pull out more assumptions or ‘first principles’ that will determine my decision-making practice along the way. As I’m documenting my process, I’m going to try and note how decisions are coherent with this knowledge from the natural sciences. 

Another challenge of this book is that I’m beginning to recognize that I see SenseMaker primarily as a practice mechanism rather than a tool for research (per se). Perhaps a better research question would be: Does SenseMaker help the complexity-informed conflict resolution practitioner get a ‘good enough grip’ on a conflict context to enable action at multiple levels in the systems?”

[1] Andy Clark, Surfing Uncertainty: Prediction, Action, and the Embodied Mind (Oxford ; New York: Oxford University Press, 2016). 255.

[2] Clark. 250.

[3] Clark. 122.

[4] Clark. 171.

[5] Clark. 133.