No Limits to Learn
by
Desmond Berghofer, Ph.D.

 
 

I have chosen to call this essay by the same title of an important but not fully appreciated book written over twenty years ago. It was published in 1979 by the Club of Rome as one of its reports on the future of the human condition. No Limits to Learning (1) drew attention to the problem that became manifest in the second half of the 20th century and that continues to plague us today, namely, "the distance between growing complexity and our capacity to cope with it." The authors of No Limits to Learning called this the "human gap."

More recently, the human gap has been described by the former astronaut and founder of the Institute of Noetic Sciences, Edgar Mitchell, as "the crisis of both existence and knowing; too much existence and not enough knowing." Mitchell in his book, The Way of the Explorer (2), gives an account of his personal journey in which he has sought to link the two worlds of science and materialism, on the one hand, and spirituality and mysticism, on the other.


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A Crisis of Learning
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The authors of both books, written twenty years apart, converge on the same point: that humanity has created a crisis of discovering and using knowledge, primarily scientific and technological, at a rate much faster than our personal and social knowledge systems can cope with. As a result, we are tumbling in a free fall down a chasm of extinction. However, because this is a crisis of learning, we have the ability to arrest our fall, which is a learning problem, and clamber back to the top of the chasm. We can then get to the other side, where a future of unfolding opportunity and true social progress awaits us, through more enlightened learning.

The requirement, therefore, for humanity to recover from its existential predicament is for us to more fully embrace the potential we have for learning. However, we must distinguish between two kinds of learning: what the authors of the Club of Rome report call "maintenance learning" and "innovative learning." The first is the learning of technique and practical application; the second is the learning of anticipation combined with participatory dialogue. Our crisis results from our success with the first form of learning and our failure at the second.


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A Learning Universe
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The title "No Limits to Learning" is instructive because it draws attention to the defining quality of the universe. We live in a cosmos where there are no limits to learning, even if, at the present, humanity is suffering from a deficit in one kind of learning. Even to say "we live" is to acknowledge the fundamental ability of the universe to learn. Where did life come from? It emerged, at least on Earth, out of a previously inanimate world of matter through a process of what I will call in this essay "creative learning." I will have more to say about that later, but for the moment I want to emphasize that we human beings are here on Earth because the universe is a learning universe. We now have the opportunity to embrace our role as the vehicle through which the universe continues to learn, or to pass into oblivion and allow the learning process to continue without us.

Let me say at the outset that I do not personally subscribe to the extinction scenario. However, I acknowledge it as a possibility among many probabilities. I could not say this with justification if I had lived in a previous time and were not witness to the overwhelming evidence that humanity is currently on a course of non-sustainability in our economic and industrial systems. The only reason I can embrace an optimistic scenario for the future of humanity is to have hope-hope that within the next one or two decades we will truly begin to see the turnaround that the authors of No Limits to Learning called for more than twenty years ago.

However, hope is only a necessary condition for survival of human civilization. It is not a sufficient condition. We have to go beyond hope to action, and the action we must take is to shift the emphasis on learning towards participatory involvement of people everywhere with the active creation of sustainable communities.


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An Issue of Worldview
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Our ability to embrace a different kind of learning is fundamentally enmeshed with the view we hold of reality. We are currently hurtling along a non-sustainable trajectory because of a worldview holding dominance in all major cultures. This is a worldview in which we see ourselves as living in a subject-object universe where we as the subjects are distinct and separate from an objective universe.

This worldview is a confirmation of the well known dualism expressed by Rene Descartes-"I think, therefore I am"-which has become solidified as a separation of mind and matter. It led science, the most powerful way of knowing ever invented by the human mind, to pursue a path of studying objective reality, while at the same time saying that the mind itself was not a legitimate field of study because it is immaterial and unmeasurable.

In this way we got ourselves into the paradox of focusing on material reality using a faculty that we said was not part of reality. The result at the beginning of the 21st century is an extreme preoccupation with material consumption and a fierce competition with one another for material resources, which plays out in theatres of economic, political and military aggression.

All this is an outcome of focusing on one predominant way of knowing, scientific and technological, and believing in a worldview that sees other people and all material objects, including nature, as separate from ourselves and therefore subject to our manipulation as we decide.


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The Reason for Hope
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As we witness the cumulative destructiveness of this human behaviour worldwide, what is the reason for anyone to be hopeful about the future of humanity? The reason is that science, the chief source of fuel for the material worldview, is changing its understanding of what constitutes reality. I say "science" in the general sense while recognizing within that category there are innumerable scientists who are by no means in agreement with each other about a lot of things.

The source of this general shift in understanding is the science of quantum mechanics, now more than 70 years old, which shows that all matter exists both as material particles and also as non-material waves spread out across the universe. This is very difficult to understand-Einstein called it "spooky"-but it gets even spookier when we find that the non-material wave form only changes to the "solid" particle form when an observer makes an act of observation using non-material consciousness. Scientists call this collapsing the wave function; but whatever you call it, it reveals an amazing truth: the material universe depends for its existence on the action of consciousness. We don't notice this at the macro level of ordinary existence, but nevertheless that is what is happening at the subatomic level.

Far from being separate from the material world, as the classical science of Descartes and Newton postulated for 300 years, consciousness is now understood to be an integral part of reality and inseparable from matter. So what kind of a world or universe do we live in? One that is definitely perceived as solid but which is grounded in consciousness.


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Consciousness is Primary
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The revelations of quantum mechanics have led scientists like Dr. Amit Goswami (3) to postulate that "consciousness is the ground of all being" and that "consciousness ultimately creates reality, because the choice of what is actualized, event to event, is always up to consciousness." In other words, "if consciousness is the ground of all being, then matter exists as possibilities within consciousness."

Elements of this line of thinking have appeared in pop culture over the last few decades in notions like "You are what you think about" and "Your thoughts create your reality." These statements are true as far as they go, but we have to go deeper than pop culture to understand that the new science is saying something truly profound. To quote Amit Goswami again: "Consciousness can and does imbue reality with its creative purpose." This statement means that science now has a spiritual foundation, for it sees itself as based on the notion of eternal spirit. Science asserts that the universe arose out of Universal Consciousness. Scientists call this a field of quantum potential, or the zero-point field. It is the eternal ocean of spirit, outside of space and time, with no beginning and no end in which all matter, including our human bodies and brains, continue to resonate.

Edgar Mitchell argues that once we understand this we can no longer keep matter and mind separate in our thinking: "Matter, which has been considered the real reality, is at its bottom nothing but empty space containing energy-a mental abstraction; and mind, which has been considered undependable ethereal stuff, is our only source of discovering 'reality.' Together they point to nature as being but a single reality, yet one with two related aspects: physicality and mentality-or, in other words, existence and knowing."


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Existence and Knowing
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If existence and knowing are like two sides of the same coin, it follows that existence is continually unfolding through the process of knowing (and knowing is continually unfolding through the development of existence). This brings us back to the notion that we live in a universe whose reality is ever changing through a process of learning. Therefore, humanity is the key player in determining the future of reality, because it is through the consciousness of our minds that present and future reality is defined.

We have come in this line of thinking to an integration of science and spirituality. But it is no longer a science that believes in a mechanical universe running without purpose, nor a spirituality that believes in some omnipotent, omniscient external divine being who is ordering things. Rather it is an integrated worldview that sees that we live in a universe filled with purpose contained in Universal Consciousness. It is a learning universe which humanity, through our process of knowing, is unfolding towards higher and higher states of purposefulness and meaning.


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Hope and Challenge
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In this understanding lies our hope for the future. Knowing this, we can be certain that if we strive to enhance our capacity to know in an integrated way we will continue as the vehicle for the unfolding of the universe. But there is an "if" in that statement. As was said at the outset, we are currently experiencing a crisis of knowing. The vast majority of people on the planet are choosing to limit their conscious involvement to material acquisition and self-serving exploitation of nature and other human beings. We do not have a critical mass who have reached the understanding described above. The cumulative result is that we are destroying the physical world around us through over-consumption and extinction of other species.

The challenge, therefore, for those who understand the new reality, the new science and the new spirituality is to strategically concentrate our efforts to extend the process of this kind of knowing into every facet of human endeavour on the planet. This means shifting the overwhelming preoccupation with maintenance learning to a new emphasis on creative learning.


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Creative Learning
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Much of the learning that goes on in the world is trial and error. It takes place in a fixed context. Amit Goswami likens it to conditioning, for it conditions the system to respond in the learned way. The authors of No Limits to Learning call it maintenance learning and describe it as "the acquisition of fixed outlooks, methods and rules for dealing with known and recurring situations. . . It is the type of learning designed to maintain an existing system or an established way of life. Maintenance learning is, and will continue to be, indispensable to the functioning and stability of every society."

However, this kind of learning is only a necessary and not a sufficient condition for long-term survival. Throughout history we can see how societies and civilizations were sustained for hundreds, even thousands, of years by maintenance learning, but eventually the ground shifted underneath them as new consciousness and a different kind of learning swept in. This is creative learning. It is the ability to see a new context.

It was creative learning that ushered in the age of classical science 300 years ago leading eventually to industrialization and the transformation of the way humanity lives on the planet. That creative shift became locked in through maintenance learning, strengthening and preserving the industrial system through to the end of the 20th century. However, what was once creative and liberating has become destructive, and we are now searching for the next creative breakthrough.

The seeds of that shift lie in the new understanding of reality revealed by quantum mechanics and described above. The new worldview casts aside the belief that mind and matter are separate. It integrates science with spirituality. It asserts the primary role of consciousness as the determinant of reality. It gives us fresh hope that we can bridge the human gap between complexity and our ability to cope with it.

But only if we embrace creative learning across cultures in what Robert Muller (4) has called the "birth of a global civilization." The success of the still dominant worldview of old science and old industrialism in giving a significant proportion of the world's population a high standard of material living, makes it a very difficult system to shift.

The overriding concern at the start of the 21st century is that the seductiveness of the materialist paradigm will prevent the breakthrough of creative learning and that we will continue down the destructive path until we are brought up short by massive shock at the global and species level. Avoidance of the full force of this learning by shock by embracing creative learning must now become the major preoccupation of humanity around the world.


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Vision, Imagination and Intentionality
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Embedded in consciousness is the quality of imagination, the ability to see beyond current reality to a new and different condition. This is the quality of mind that allows us to vision or to create a virtual reality. Coupled with another quality of mind, intentionality, imagination gives consciousness the power to transform reality. Intentionality is volition, the act of willing. If we vision or imagine a different future state and bring our intention to bear on creating that new state, then consciousness has an extraordinary ability to create that new condition or state. This is the foundation of creative learning, but it is not the whole story.


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Anticipation
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Another aspect of creative learning is anticipation. This is sometimes confused with creativity but it is not the same thing. Anticipation derives from the ability to imagine as described above; however the imagining is not done in a creative context, but rather as an orientation that prepares for possible contingencies and considers long-range future alternatives. It uses techniques like forecasting, extrapolation of trends, simulations, scenario writing and model building. The purpose of anticipation is to avert unwarranted or potentially catastrophic events, to shield oneself and society from the trauma of learning by shock.


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Participation
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Participation is yet another feature of creative learning. We live in a participatory universe. Science has revealed that successful ecosystems emerge through a process of cooperation and positive feedback. Anthropologist, Riane Eisler (5) uncovered evidence that prior to what she describes as the current dominator societies controlled by men, there existed for thousands of years successful societies based on participation and equal sharing of responsibility by men and women.

In current times the demands of participation are being reasserted. The authors of No Limits to Learning describe our age as an age of rights. "Groups of every definition are asserting themselves around the world and rejecting a marginal position or subordinated status with respect to power centers." However, participation in its finest form is more than a demand for a voice in decision-making. It is an attitude of mind, characterized by a value for cooperation, dialogue and empathy. It is an essential fourth plank along with imagination, intentionality and anticipation in the process of creative learning.



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Ethics and Values
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One more critical aspect of creative learning is the embracing of the structure of morality that humanity has laboriously put together over millennia. Given what has been said above about the role of consciousness in the development of the universe, we might ask the question whether the gentle attributes of love, goodness, kindness and service to others are really embedded in the structure of the universe. The fact that they are virtues advocated by many spiritual traditions for at least three millennia indicates they are of universal origin.

However, while me may recognize the universality of the virtues we must also acknowledge that their practice in cultures around the world lags far behind their expression in the spiritual traditions. Though this appears to be a contradiction, or at least an inconsistency, it is yet another indication that evolution is coming under conscious control. To the extent that people have learned to treat one another decently and live in democratic societies with aspirations for justice and equity, we have made progress. To the extent that totalitarian regimes continue to operate with ruthless authority, that ethnic groups commit horrific atrocities against each other, that the powerful and privileged of the world exploit the underprivileged, that we continue to live in markedly inequitable situations within and between nations-to the extent that these and more ethical failures are manifestly with us, we still have a long way to go.

On this point Edgar Mitchell makes four important observations on how the worldview and model of reality described throughout this essay can have positive impact. The first is that "in a connected volitional universe, what we do to others we do to ourselves." If the truth of that sinks into conscious awareness of sufficient people, conditions will change. Mitchell's second point is that we have genuine evidence of moral development from history confirming a learning model of societies improving through success and failure slowly but repeatedly through the centuries.

The third point is that the new model of conscious evolution through intentionality places the emphasis on responsibility rather than on fear and retribution, which has not been a particularly successful deterrent to immoral behaviour throughout history. Only enlightened self-interest seems to consistently produce morality.

Mitchell's fourth point comes out of his own personal experience of what he calls samadhi, which reflects the human mind's ability to experience a sense of oneness with the universe. "All positive or good feelings by whatever label are a nuance, a shadow or shade of the ecstasy of the samadhi experience, which is itself a primordial sensation indicative of successful outcomes." These good feelings are an indicator of successful thought and behaviour. As such they indicate that advantage in life comes to those who do good.

From all of the above we can assert that the teaching, learning and practice of ethical or moral behaviour is another plank in the platform of creative learning. It is that part of the learning that enables us to imagine and choose a desirable future condition and that gives us the resolve to persevere to accomplish it.


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Conclusion
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We have not come to the end of the story for what remains is critical analysis of how to weave the creative learning model into the fabric of a continuous learning society. This entails deliberate thought and conscious design of learning experiences for the very young through to our senior citizens. It will ultimately require a complete overhaul of what we currently call public education, which is more accurately described as an exercise in schooling to carry on maintenance learning. And it will go beyond formal education into the heart of all of our institutions, which currently hold us back from realizing the benefits of creative alternatives to current practice. All this must be carried out simultaneously around the world to give birth to a global civilization.

Such an examination lies beyond the scope of this essay. Much good advice on this aspect can be found in the 20-year old work by the authors of No Limits to Learning. Readers are encouraged to locate a copy of the book and pursue it further.

The purpose of this essay was to extend the thinking in No Limits to Learning and to bring it up to date by grounding it in the new reality, new science and new spirituality of the 21st century. From what has been said here, I believe we have reason to be hopeful about the future, but it is hope that can be justified only by willingness to embrace the enormous challenge of learning that is now demanded of us.

We have every good reason to believe that the human mind is capable of substantially higher levels of learning and performance than we have traditionally demanded of it. The presence in our midst of people with exceptional abilities along with the contributions of exceptional people from history should encourage us to look to our own learning and engage in intentional participation using every means of direct and electronic communication with our fellow human beings around the globe.

In the words of the poet Christopher Frye "events are soul-sized now." We must awaken from our Sleep of Prisoners to take the "longest stride of soul man ever took." The metaphor is couched in what may be obsolete religious imagery and exclusionary language, but it makes the point none the less effectively. This is the time when all existence seems to be holding its breath in anticipation that we will awaken our capacity for knowing and reach out to secure our destiny.

 

References

1. James W. Botkin, Mahdi Elmandjra, Mircea Malitza, No Limits to Learning: Bridging the Human Gap (New York: Pergamon Press, 1979).
2. Edgar Mitchell, The Way of the Explorer, Revised Edition (Buenos Aires: Richter Artes Graficas, 2001)
3. Amit Goswami, The Visionary Window: A Quantum Physicist's Guide to Enlightenment. (Wheaton, Illinois: Quest Books, 2000)
4. Rober Muller, The Birth of a Global Civilization. (Anacortes, Washington: World Happiness and Cooperation, 1991
5. Riane Eisler, The Chalice and the Blade (San Francisco: Harper and Row, 1987)

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Desmond Berghofer, Ph.D.
Dr Desmond Berghofer (International Advisory Board Member)
Desmond Berghofer Ph.D is an educator, author and consultant on leadership and the creative management of change. From 1977-88 he was Assistant Deputy Minister of Advanced Education with the Government of Alberta. He is the author of the Millenium Manifesto. He has represented Canada internationally through the Council of Ministers of Education, Canada and (UNESCO). He is Chairman of the International Foundation of Learning and Co-founder of the Institute for Ethical Leadership and President of Creative Learning International.

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