Knowledge As an Emergent Phenomenon

Perhaps you’ve had the experience of perceiving deep meaning in a story told through a movie or book that resonated with events in your own life, or that dovetailed with things you’d already read or thought a great deal about. And perhaps you’ve also had it happen that someone else who’s seen the same movie or read the same book insists the meaning you perceive wasn’t in the original story at all, even though you feel certain you’ve had an important insight and that it did, indeed, come from something in the story. Such situations are often frustrating to people of the dominant culture, who argue on fan websites and in academic journals of cultural studies, art, and literature about a given writer’s or artist’s conscious intentions and personal history as part of ascertaining “the real meaning” a specific story or work of art conveys. But personal interaction with information that generates different meaning in the lives of different people is exactly what Indigenous people expect, even to the point that a certain movie might mean something very different to us when we encounter it again years after seeing and responding to it the first time (Adams, Wilson, Heavy Head, and Gordon 2015). You’ve probably had that experience, too.

The difference between the way Indigenous people and those of Western culture see this type of situation is rooted in our very different systems of epistemology. In the Indigenous epistemic system, Knowledge emerges from relationships between different ways of knowing, different people, different cultures, different experiences of many different kinds, and even interactions of which we may not be consciously aware (Wilson 2009). You can use what you understand about the processes of complexity theory to help you see that what matters in this case is the web of relationships between all these different things, which at some point reaches a state of complexity that triggers self-organization of all that information into something new — in this case, Knowledge — that emerges from the system. This Knowledge is not reducible to any of its component parts, which is why the meaning you “get” from a movie may not have been “put in there” by the screenwriter. Indigenous people often refer to the emergent nature of Knowledge by saying that Indigenous Knowledge is contextual. It emerges from a specific set of relationships and is only directly applicable in the context of those relationships.

Another way of understanding why someone can get meaning from a story that others might not perceive, or even that the author might not have consciously meant to express, is that Knowledge has agency (Norm Sheehan quoted by Shawn Wilson in Adams et al. 2015:15). Agency means that Knowledge exists on its own, apart from humans and other beings, and chooses to express or reveal itself as, and to whom, it decides. If this seems an unexpected characteristic of Knowledge to you, then it may help to know that one of the most important ideas to emerge from complexity theory is the realization that emergent phenomena — even ones such as thunderstorms that Western culture categorizes as non-living — exhibit agency, a conclusion that dismayed researchers who had been trying to use the process of complexity to explain and define the boundary between living and non-living things only to see that boundary vanish thanks to emergence (Keller 2005). Because of its agency, Knowledge can speak through a story in a way that people who are opened to that Knowledge, and ready to receive it, will perceive — whereas those who are not yet ready for this Knowledge will not perceive it at all (Wilson, in Adams et al. 2015).

Questions to facilitate your conceptual weaving process:

How does this view of Knowledge as emergent intersect with the kinds of behaviors Buffalo engage in on prairies?

How does this view of Knowledge as emergent intersect with the kinds of “ecosystem engineering” behaviors humans engage in?

Is it possible for Knowledge to engender behaviors that violate nature’s law? Why do you think this?

How does this view of Knowledge as emergent and having agency relate to or help you understand Oren Lyons’ call for people of Western culture to engage a Value Change for Survival?

How does this view of Knowledge and Oren Lyons’ call for a value change intersect with conflicting stakeholder values on the Mississippi River or at Oak Flat?

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