The soul in the machine: Thinking about thinking

Modern science is incomplete and even an imprecise tool to understand the world and the complicated problems that need solving. Instead of scientific thinking, we need systems thinking

Arun Maira

[Models of complex systems are founded on some assumptions about reality—assumptions which may be inaccurate. Thus, mathematised scientific models become inaccurate abstractions. They are able to explain only some parts of complex reality, not the whole. Image from Unsplash]

The Ukraine war in 2022 revealed the fragility of the global economy and weakness of global governance institutions. The size of the global economy has grown nineteen-fold in the last century propelled by technological advances and expansion of global supply chains.

It is tragic that those who promoted the new technologies and the globalization of finance and trade, and who control the rules of the game supposedly for the benefit of all, are now disrupting the global system causing harm to the most vulnerable people.

The solutions the world needs to create a more resilient and equitable global order will require new paradigms of science, economics, and governance.

Why? Because we rely on a “scientific approach” for solutions because most of us believe science is precise, that a scientific lens allows us to map, measure and understand completely. In the first section of this essay, I explain the limits of science and why it, in fact, does not accurately map the reality of the broader world.

In the second section, I discuss why humanity needs greater wisdom to determine what technologies should be used for and to restrain the unintended consequences of scientific ideas. Epistemic questions about what we know and how we know it must be leavened with ontological questions about who we are, and ethical questions about the purpose of our existence, to bring wisdom into science and governance.


Part One: The incompleteness of modern science

An epistemic, ethical, and existential crisis

“Where does that path go to?” he asked.
“Go there and see”, I replied,
It goes only to the forest”.
“And to you”, I whispered.

I had startled him by appearing out of the forest where he could not see any path onto the mountain road on which he was walking with his companion. The narrow mountain road from my home in the hills towards a temple in a forest clearing had been paved and was now busy with cars for whom walkers had to give way. Walking along it, I had spotted a barely visible path disappearing into the dense pine forest beside the road. Seeking peace of mind, I had wandered down the tiny path till it ended in a small clearing with a boulder on which I sat and listened to the sound of the breeze in the pines. I had shut my eyes and felt the breeze on my skin and my breath coming in and out of my nostrils.

When I felt my mind come to rest, I worried that I would lose sight of the time. I had many matters to attend to at home.

I heard the cars on the road, but their sounds became part of an orchestra along with the songs of birds in the trees, some bass, some treble, with no other significance. My mind was transported into a vast and empty world in which ‘I’ had no thoughts. A world that was completely different and far away from the world in which my body sat. When I opened my eyes after what felt a long time and looked at my watch, I was surprised that, according to my watch, my trip to the other world and back had taken less than five minutes.

The nature of Time and Space

Often my mind is impatient at traffic lights that do not change in a minute, or with waiters who do not serve my order within ten. What a waste of my time I fret. I marvelled that, contrarily, what had felt like an eternity in my moment of meditation was only a brief elapse of time according to my watch. The way my watch measures the passage of time is not the way my mind feels it.

When I opened my eyes, I saw the trees and bushes around me. Not as trees and bushes, but only as forms and colours in an impressionist picture. I wondered what distance would mean in this different view of space and objects in it. Distance is a measurement of the gap between the boundaries of two objects. To measure the distance between them their boundaries must be clear. Therefore, to measure distance as a scientist would, I must be able to see a tree as a tree and not trees blended into a forest.

Distance is a measurement of the gap between two objects in space. Objective measurement of time is the measurement of the interval between two events. How does one define the precise boundaries of an “event” in one’s life, or in history? When did my moment of meditation begin that afternoon? When I had shut my eyes? Or when I settled on the boulder? Or when I had stepped onto the path to turn my mind away from the hubbub of traffic?

The substance of history cannot be mapped by tracking events over time. India was declared independent by the British at midnight on 15th August 1947 according to the calendar and clock. The “India” that was declared independent was a new entity with new boundaries defined on a cartographer’s map. What the real “India” is in relation to those boundaries, and when did the minds of Indians become independent (and have they?), are questions sociologists and historians will continue to debate.

Measured reality and experienced reality

Albert Einstein was the greatest scientist of the last century with claims to be the greatest scientist ever. By converting time into another dimension of space, Einstein’s general theory provided an internally consistent mathematical framework to scientifically explain all objective phenomena in the universe.

The philosopher Henri Bergson said Einstein erred in converting time into just another dimension of space in his theories of relativity. The quality of time, Bergson insisted, is the experience of the intervals between events, unlike the time measured by clocks, on which Einstein’s theories (and experiments that proved his theories) were based, which is the gap between events. My little experiment in the forest proved that Bergson was right.

(For an excellent account of the differences between Bergson’s and Einstein’s worldviews read The Physicist and the Philosopher: Einstein, Bergson, and the Debate That Changed Our Understanding of Time by Jimena Canales.)

Kurt Godel, winner of the Albert Einstein Award in 1951 (and Einstein’s friend in Princeton) also disagreed with Einstein’s interpretation of time. Godel is considered one of the most significant logicians in history (sometimes ranked alongside Aristotle).

Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem showed that no mathematical system can use its own logic to prove its own accuracy and universal validity. Godel established that models of complex systems establish their accuracy by their internal consistency, even though they do not accurately map the reality of the broader world around them. They are founded on some assumptions about reality to make their models internally consistent: assumptions which may be inaccurate. Thus, mathematised scientific models become inaccurate abstractions. They are always inherently ‘incomplete’: able to explain only some parts of complex reality, not the whole. 

Bergson, the philosopher, was concerned with the purpose of human existence. He showed the limitations of Einstein’s view of time from the view of an observer outside Einstein’s scientific framework. Godel was a logician. He used the logic of Einstein’s own system to prove that, when pushed to its limits, it would predict results that defied human experience. He showed that Einstein’s model proved that an observer could, theoretically, travel backwards in time: that he could return once again to a moment in the past. When he arrived at where he was, he would not be the same person he was. For him to perceive the world again as it was then, his own subsequent evolution would have to be reversed too. Therefore, he can never experience the old moment in the same way again. 

Every stage builds upon its immediately preceding stage in an ongoing process of evolution. There are no shortcuts. History cannot move from stage A to stage D without going through the changes evolved in stages B and C. Each stage creates the conditions required for the next stage. Moreover, many forces combine to create each stage. There is no simple cause and effect relationship between any single variable and the complex outcome in the next stage. Therefore, reversing a complex process accurately, in which many factors are entangled, is even more difficult than the forward process of evolution.

"The 'scientific' time in the theory of relativity is not real, experienced time."

Godel the mathematician proved that the theory of relativity when pushed to its limits shows that clock time is reversible. But real, experienced, time—the philosopher’s time—cannot be reversed. Therefore, the “scientific” time in the theory of relativity is not real time. (For further reading: A World Without Time: The Forgotten Legacy of Godel and Einstein, by Palle Yourgrau).

Bergson and Godel probed into scientific theories—one from the outside, the other from the inside—and both affirmed the limitations of scientific measurements. Such limitations were revealed by the quantum physicist Werner Heisenberg also.

"If you want to measure one aspect of a system more accurately you must forego accuracy in your knowledge of other parts of it. Therefore, to comprehend reality, it is better to know a little of many aspects of it than a lot about any part of it"

Heisenberg’s Principle of Uncertainty says you cannot accurately measure the position of a particle and its momentum at the same time. If you want to measure one aspect of a system more accurately you must forego accuracy in your knowledge of other parts of it. Therefore, to comprehend reality, it is better to know a little of many aspects of it than a lot about any part of it. This fundamental principle of “systems thinking” has been violated in the scientific revolution accompanying the European Enlightenment. Since then, science has separated from philosophy; sciences have been broken into silos of specialisation; economics has drifted away from social realities; and knowledge from wisdom.

Einstein’s equation, e=mc2, says that mass and energy are basically the same thing and are convertible into each other. The maths of the quantities in the equation hides differences in the qualities of mass and energy. So it is with time and space in Einstein’s relativity also. Fundamental differences between the nature of insights and knowledge obtained through lived experience, and ‘scientific’ knowledge from measurement and mathematics, are elided over for the convenience of mathematical computation.

Other ways of communicating and knowing

The third symbol in Einstein’s equation “c” is a constant—the speed of light. The theory of relativity needed some constant to anchor everything else with. The speed of light provided the constant required to establish the theory’s internal, mathematical consistency.

The theory says that not only is the speed of light constant but that nothing can travel faster than the speed of light. Here is where metaphysical speculations become interesting. Could it be that so far scientists have not discovered anything that does not travel faster than the speed of light?

Quantum mechanics opened chinks in Einstein’s theories. Even physicists have not yet explained the mystery of electron spin. Their experiments show that pairs of electrons with opposite spins mutually arise. And that, no matter how far they become separated in space over time, when one electron’s spin changes, the other’s will automatically change to maintain their symmetry. The simultaneous change in both cannot be explained by the traverse of any signal between them. Because even light, the fastest medium possible according to physics, is too slow to cover the distance between them.

Modern science, and the technologies it has spawned, are based on a fundamental assumption that there are direct cause-and-effect relationships between events. One causes the other. According to this view one of the electrons must have changed its spin first (for whatever reason) and then sent a signal to the other. Since no physical signal (through radio waves or light) can reach the other in time to explain the simultaneity in their change, one must look for other explanations.

One could be that both receive a signal at the same time from another source equidistant from them. This explanation would preserve the axiom that nothing can travel faster than light. However, this leads to metaphysical (and theological) speculations about why this external source of signals would want to maintain the symmetry in the independent electrons’ spins.

Another speculation could be “psychic” forces that travel much faster than light. If two persons sit ten kilometres apart, the objective distance between them is always ten kilometres, no matter who the two persons are and how close they feel to each other in their ways of thinking. However, the same idea could emerge in two minds when they are confronted by a similar situation, even though they are not communicating with each other across space, and whether separated by a metre or ten kilometres.

Evolution of knowledge

The process of evolution, whether of biological forms or of ideas, follows a different logic of cause and effect than the linear relationships between causes and effects in the physical sciences. New forms evolve from a set of conditions, and new ideas emerge when conditions are ripe for them to emerge. The necessary conditions are combinations of diverse forces. Moreover, the conditions are necessary for the outcome, but they are not its cause.

In biological evolution, the conditions for emergence of new species are combinations of a variety of ecological factors—the competition and balance amongst species, changes in climatic conditions, etc. When ecological conditions change similarly on two mountains a few kilometres apart covered with the same species of trees, the trees on both mountains, without communicating with each other, may become similarly stunted.

New ideas emerge in societies from combinations of several ecological and social conditions. New technologies, like the design of the wheel or systems of irrigation, have emerged in many parts of the world that were not in communication with each other then. If they appeared first in one part of the world and later in the other, one cannot conclude that the latter learned the idea from the former. Precedence does not always imply causality. Similar ideas have emerged independently in different parts of the world whenever conditions were right for them.


Part Two: Two journeys

An inner journey to become; an outer journey to achieve

Descartes said, “I think,
Therefore I am”.

Shutting out Seeing
Switching off Hearing
Simply Breathing
And Feeling.

I feel who
I am.

Humanity is going through an existential crisis. Powerful modern technologies are “dual use” technologies. Humanity needs greater wisdom to determine what they should be used for and to restrain the unintended consequences of scientific ideas.

Scientific advances and economic growth, while producing improvements in the material conditions of humans around the world, albeit unevenly, have also brought humanity to an edge. Civilised human beings are straining to prevent the itch to use deadly weapons produced by technological advances to settle disputes, between individuals (the US gun laws), and between nations (chemical and nuclear weapons). The internet and social media, wonderful productions of late twentieth century technology, with great promise to bring the world together, have inadvertently become weapons for mass disruption.

"Climate change, another crisis created by growth of the material sizes of economies, is threatening the existence of human life on the planet... Nature will evolve new forms of life more fit for new climatic conditions"

Francis Bacon lauded the emergence of scientific thinking with the European Enlightenment. With science, he said, Man had acquired the means to master unruly Nature. Climate change, another crisis created by human activity and growth of the material sizes of economies, is threatening the existence of human life on the planet. Unless humans develop more wisdom, human beings may disappear like dinosaurs. Nature will evolve new forms of life more fit for new climatic conditions.

Economists with new theories came to prominence during the twentieth century: Marx and Keynes (and communism and socialism) in the earlier part of the century, and the Chicago School (and global capitalism) in the later part of the century. Twentieth century ideas of the management of economies have created systemic problems for which humanity needs new solutions in the twenty-first century.

Economic models are proofs of Godel’s Incompleteness Theorem: they may be internally consistent, but they are incomplete representations of reality. Twentieth century economics was built on assumptions that enabled mathematical modelling of economic forces. One assumption is that the economy is a large machine whose productivity and output must be increased by improving the efficiency of use of all its inputs including human efforts. Another assumption is that human beings are purely rational and self-interested in all decisions they take. Mathematical modelling is eased by stripping out fuzzy human emotions. This assumption—though over-simplified and wrong—converts human beings into mechanical bits in the model, whose responses to stimuli can be predicted, like the “either off or on” responses of units within a digital computer.

A new science for global governance

Bergson lost the debate with Einstein. STEM (science, technology, engineering, and maths) swept into education systems. New technologies, such as nuclear energy and digital computers, with dual uses—for good or ill—were unleashed in the twentieth century. Bergson observed that, “Humanity groans, half crushed by the weight of the progress it has made…the ever-growing body awaits the addition of a soul, and the machine requires a mystic faith.”

Humanity is not realising the “promise of the commons” which all human beings share with each other and with all other species. The governance of the commons is guided by Garrett Hardin’s theory of the “tragedy of the commons” which states that resources will be used most efficiently when they are converted into private property. Capitalist economies spur selfishness and competition within economies. Private property rights are a foundational principle of capitalism, applied to ownership of land and environmental resources. It was even applied to ownership of human beings as labour in slave economies.

In modern times, the practice of legal property rights was extended to knowledge resources also, with frameworks of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR). IPR converts knowledge generated within communities and a part of their commons, as well as knowledge generated by collaboration amongst many stakeholders (e.g., new medicines, new digital technologies), into privately owned assets of corporations and individuals who legally prevent others from using them, as happened with Covid vaccines which were not equitably accessible to billions of global citizens in less wealthy countries.

"The Tragedy of the Commons overtook the Promise of the Commons. Local farmers, fishermen, and herders, compelled to join the global agricultural machine, lost control of their own knowledge and their economies."

Colonialism followed by economic and cultural globalisation has committed epistemicide—the killing of other ways of knowing. Western scientific systems over-powered native knowledge systems rooted in local traditions in harmony with their natural environment. Seeds of resilient native crops, evolved to fit local ecologies, were replaced with scientifically improved, patented seeds. Traditional ways of collaboratively managing common pasture lands and water systems were replaced with shareholder-owned corporate models on the principle of private property rights. The Tragedy of the Commons overtook the Promise of the Commons. Local farmers, fishermen, and herders, compelled to join the global agricultural machine, lost control of their own knowledge and their economies.

Economists are struggling to break out of the paradigm in which economics science has become embedded. An economy is an organism, not a machine. It develops innovations; it changes its form as it grows. The science of biological evolution and concepts of “complex adaptive systems” provide better insights for reforming economics science than the general equilibrium model on which it is based.

Biological concepts of complex adaptive systems bring economics out of its mechanist rut. However, they are not sufficient for making economics useful for guiding the governance of human societies. Changes in human societies are driven by human aspirations. Changes are made consciously and intentionally to produce desired outcomes, unlike evolutions of animal species that are guided by an invisible mind.

Bergson felt that Einstein had failed to explain the human experience of time in his model of how the universe works. A human society is not a mechanical system, nor merely a complex adaptive system. It is a complex self-adaptive system, with intentions to change itself. Therefore, the nature of the human mind must be included within the model of the system. (I explain the differences between complex adaptive systems and complex self-adaptive systems in another essay, A New Science for Global Governance, along with ideas for reformation of global governance systems. (

Sitting quietly, my unruly mind, driven by Maslowian ambitions and governed by incomplete Cartesian theories, tries to harmonise with Nature’s resilient forms.

Policymakers want to over-power the natural, “informal” sector of economies with scientific, industrial forms. Like Nature, the informal sector has a form which the scientific-industrial mind cannot read. The informal economy, like Nature, finds its innovative ways to convert diverse forms of mass into different forms of energy. Industrial managers try to force the informal sector’s dynamic process of innovation into a scientific-industrial form, governed by Intellectual Property Rights, stock market valuations, etc., to plug it into the formal, industrial economy that they understand and rule.

Nature organises its internal markets for exchange of material and energy amongst its diverse parts in a model that economists, with their mathematical models, have been unable to map. The scientific-economic paradigm for controlling unruly Nature, that Bacon heralded, has brought the world to an edge. Economists and scientists want to stop climate change by creating carbon markets of carbon and fixing carbon prices. They will not be able to. Because as Einstein admitted, trying to solve systemic problems with the same thinking that caused them is madness.

King Canute commanded the ocean to turn back. The ocean drowned him. The mind of an industrial “design thinker” lies outside the system he wants to improve. On the other hand, the mind of a natural “systems thinker” is a part of the system she wants to understand. She flows with the water and does not try to master it. Her journey is a process of her own becoming, while she, humbly, and in harmony with her community and environment, aspires to improve the condition of the system around her.

Scientific design thinkers want to improve a system objectively: natural systems thinkers learn to be in the system.

An outer journey and an inner journey: To Have or to Be

“Where does that path go to?” he had asked. My reply that it had no destination seemed odd to him. Walking must have a purpose he thought. Otherwise, it is a waste of precious time: because time is money for successful people. One walked to get somewhere when one could not drive. Or one walked to get exercise, as he was, while his smartwatch measured the distance he covered, the steps he took, and the calories his body burned.

I had gone off the well-trodden road a very short time and I had covered a very short distance down the path to nowhere. Yet, in that short distance and time, my mind had made a paradigm shift into another world view.

We travel through life on two journeys. An outer journey of our egos amongst others’ egos, and an inner journey of discovery of who we are.

We measure our progress on the outer journey by how much we have compared with others: the sizes of our homes; the importance of our titles; the power we have over others; and the numbers of zeros in the monetary wealth in our name—millionaires and billionaires.

Maslow described a hierarchy of human needs. In his hierarchy, he placed material needs at the bottom and the distinctive need of humans amongst all animal species—for self-actualization—at the top. He implied that humans could attain the highest level only after their lower-level material needs are satisfied. Economic theories focus on means of fulfilling material needs: they leave out the unquantifiable needs of the spirit.

Economists struggle to define how much is enough to satisfy lower-level needs. Poor people in rich countries have much more than middle class people in poor countries. “Poverty lines” rise with human aspirations. Rich people feel poor when they have less than others.

“Competition” to have more and “consume” more is good for economic growth, economists say. But it spurs humans into rat races; and it destroys the soul of societies. We must pause and reflect else we destroy our world, and our humanity too, while growing trillion-dollar economies and racing each other to the top. 

The longer the distance I cover in my outer journeys racing to the top, the further away I run from the “peace that passeth all understanding”. Which I seemed to find only when I paused.

Descartes was wrong. I am: therefore I think. Not the other way around. Thinking cannot reveal who I am. When I shut my eyes, felt my breath, and stopped thinking, ontological questions about who I am, and the nature of the world came to my mind. 

Epistemic questions also arose, of how we know, and what we know. From my new perspective, I could see the incompleteness of the modern scientific paradigm for finding solutions that are globally equitable and sustainable.

As I walked back to join the man with his companion on the road, ethical questions also arose in my mind, about the purpose of my existence, and my responsibility for the care of the system that nurtures us. Perhaps that was the purpose of my walk into the forest.

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About the author

Arun Maira
Arun Maira

Former Chairman, BCG India &

Member, Planning Commission

Former Member, Planning Commission of India
Former Chairman, Boston Consulting Group, India
Chairman, HelpAge International

Any discussion on policy, the future of India, and indeed the world, is enriched with Arun Maira’s views, and not just because he was a member of the Planning Commission of India for five years till June 2014. Arun is one of those rare people who have held leadership positions in both, the private as well as the public sector, bringing a unique perspective on how civil society, the government, and the private sector can work more closely to improve the world for everyone. He has led three rounds of participative and comprehensive scenario building for the future of India: in 1999 (with the Confederation of Indian Industry), 2005 (with the World Economic Forum), and 2011 (with the Planning Commission).

In his career spanning five decades, Arun has led several organisations, including the Boston Consulting Group in India, where he was chairman for eight years till 2008. He was also the chairman of Axis Bank Foundation and Save the Children, India. He was a board member of the India Brand Equity Foundation, the Indian Institute of Corporate Affairs, and the UN Global Compact, and WWF India.

In the early part of his career, he spent 25 years in the Tata group at various important positions. He was also a member of the Board of Tata Motors (then called TELCO). After leaving the Tatas, Arun joined Arthur D Little Inc (ADL), the international management consultancy, in the US, where he advised companies across sectors and geographies on their growth strategies and handling transformational change.

Recognising his astute understanding of both macro as well as micro policy issues, Arun has been involved in several government committees and organisations, including the National Innovation Council. He has been on the board of several companies as well as educational institutions and has chaired several national committees of the Confederation of Indian Industries.

In 2009, Arun was appointed as a member of the Planning Commission (now replaced by the NITI Aayog), which is led by the Prime Minister of India. At this minister-level position, he led the development of strategies for the country on issues relating to industrialisation and urbanisation. He also advised the Commission on its future role.

With his vast experience and expertise, Arun is indeed a thought leader. He is invited to speak at various forums and has written several books that capture his insights.

His most recent book, A Billion Fireflies: Critical Conversations to Shape a New Post-Pandemic World and Transforming Systems: Why the World Needs a New Ethical Toolkit before that, talk about how systemic problems of social inequality and environmental unsustainability are becoming intolerable. Prevalent precepts of good business management and best practices in government as well as civil society organisations are failing the needs of humanity. This calls for a whole new toolkit founded on systems thinking, ethical reasoning and deep listening. And that civil society, government and private companies need to work together to encourage a variety of local systems solutions for deep-rooted issues that impact different communities differently.

His previous books include An Upstart in Government: Journeys of Change and Learning (2016); Redesigning the Aeroplane While Flying: Reforming Institutions (2014)Remaking India: One Country, One DestinyTransforming Capitalism: Improving the World for EveryoneShaping the Future: Aspirational Leadership in India and Beyond; and Listening for Well-Being: Conversations with People Not Like Us (2017).

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