Leading Comments: The Hubris of No Doubt

Leading Comments / June 2007

Have you ever read Richard Feynman’s essay “The Value of Science?” It is published in a little book of short pieces by him: The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, edited by Jeffrey Edwards (New York: Basic Books: 1999). There is much about the spirit of this man that I admire and much of it is about his valuing of not knowing. Sounds strange to say that, but when he reflects on the relationship between science and the human condition, he asks, “Why can’t we conquer ourselves?” Isn’t this question at the heart of much of what we are doing in integral, developmental and transdisciplinary approaches to leading, developing leaders and building leadership models and theory?

If leadership is, indeed, about significant change (and I believe there is a growing consensus about this, but there is still room for doubt) then it is about addressing the ecological and human condition. It is about engaging the relationship between individual and context, on the one hand, and the value of being and doing in the world. It is about wondering how “perfectly normal people” like the Stanford students in Phillip Zimbardo’s prisoner experiment in the 1970s can behave in the cruel, insensitive ways they did. It is about wondering how a “perfectly normal person” like Adolph Eichman can participate in the deaths of millions of Jews. It is about wondering how thousands upon thousands of ”perfectly normal people” can perpetuate the destruction of the environment and of each other through pollution and war. It is even about wondering how such destruction might be serving other ends in the evolution of being in the universe!

Feynman reflects on a statement by a tour guide at a Buddhist monastery in Hawaii: “To every man is given the key to the gates of heaven; the same key opens the gates of hell.” Here is a hint about why we cannot conquer ourselves: “Because we find that even great forces and abilities do not seem to carry with them clear instruction on how to use them.” On first blush, this suggests to me that being “Green” with its relativistic comfort zone might be a tenable position. After all, there are no certainties, so all instructions have value, no? Well, fortunately we have integral and spiral perspectives that teach us that this is one response, not the only one, and that we live in a world of considerable diversity. However, we hope that there are “healthy” ways to be different, no matter what the level of development, and there are healthy ways to deal with others who are different from us.

Feynman argues for a scientific perspective. In the face of “the enormous monstrosities created by false belief that philosophers have realized the apparently infinite and wondrous capacities of human beings. The dream is to find the open channel.” The key is to acknowledge, even honor, the fact that we do not know. And Feynman notes, “But, in admitting this, we have probably found the open channel.” He concludes: “It is our responsibility as scientists, knowing the great progress and great value of a satisfactory philosophy of ignorance, the great progress that is the fruit of freedom of thought, to proclaim the value of this freedom, to teach how doubt is not to be feared but welcomed and discussed, and to demand this freedom as our duty to all coming generations.”

As leaders in the practice, development and theory of leadership, about creating real change, can anything less be true for us? What would be required for us to join with Feynman in challenging the hubris of certainty and engaging our journey with wonder, holding doubt close as our companion to creativity and discovery?

> Russ Volckmann