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Posts Tagged ‘stochastic’

There’s been an aspect of Bateson’s thinking that has been puzzling me. More exactly, and not for the first time, some time after reading a passage (or series of passages) by Bateson a small light-bulb switched on and revealed a door in my thinking to walk through. The fact that the fact of the door also reveals the hitherto unobserved fact that one is standing in a dead-end street .

In much of his writing, and in particular in Mind and Nature, he describes evolution and learning as the “two great stochastic processes”. Stochastic means “random”, but that also needs some explanation. Is evolution random? If stripped clean of the human notion of purpose or design, biological evolution might well be seen as being random. But in what sense is “learning” random?

Our default definition of learning, often cited in management education, seems to return always to the idea of an accumulation of acquisition of knowledge, with the individual (the learner) as a repository, a water-butt filling up. That’s probably an over-simplification, of course, because education now lives with nearly thirty years of developments in complexity theory and most people acknowledge that thinks are inter-linked. However, despite that experience how much do we really question underlying assumptions, and won’t we always prefer a nice, mechanistic explanation which looks like it could reasonably be classed among a set of “contributions to knowledge” (and another drip in the bucket)? As managers and as academics, we spend our time trying to filter out “noise” in order to define and refine our learning, but end up managing or researching in ever decreasing circles and cycles.

Nevertheless, I didn’t understand exactly how learning was stochastic, random, because I had been framing learning only in terms of myself.  I learn something when I meet a new or novel situation, and learning is simply a process of trial and error. The stimuli met by me, as a learner, I might then be tempted to imbue with the quality of randomness. But this results in an epistemological error since randomness is not a property of the stimulus, but rather of the relationship between myself and the stimulus.

What this means, therefore, is that “learning” is not a property within me.  It’s not just that learning cannot occur without a context, it is that learning forms the context, and the context is always of a higher logical level than the elements or parts that go to make it up.

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