Beyond thinking: using feeling and imagination to make sense of the world

Understanding complex systems is hard; why not expand your toolkit?

Georgia Iacovou
Moral Imaginations


Hello readers — I’m Georgia, Writer-in-Residence at Moral Imaginations, here to help you make sense of the work they are doing.

Source: Michele K. Short/Netflix. Why not hug a computer?

In this piece I will be covering Phoebe’s recent talk at The Stoa, and serving up the themes and ideas for your ravenous brains to devour.

Firstly, sense-making. What is that?

Let’s start as we mean to go on: Phoebe talks a lot about sense-making in this provocation (and in general, actually) — but what does she mean by that? ‘Sense-making’ is just the act of attempting to make sense of the world.

Scientists and philosophers have been doing this for hundreds of years; just look at Isaac Newton or Renee Descartes, for instance. Isaac Newton first made sense of gravity, and Descartes did a lot of sense-making and is often credited with being the ‘father’ of modern day science. Phoebe started life as a scientist and so thinks of science as one of foundational ways of making sense of the world, and actually it’s one that’s become quite dominant in our Western society.

I think, therefore I am

In fact, Newton and Descartes probably had quite a time trying to make sense of the world, — and Phoebe has a lot of compassion for this. Imagine trying to understand the concept of being alive, or the force of gravity, without access to the current frameworks that we use to make sense of things now.

In the process of understanding the world, Descartes coined the phrase ‘I think therefore I am’, which was before The Enlightenment, — the period which gave birth to modern day science — really got going. That is to say, he was working to understand what it meant to exist and to know things, before any great strides in science and technology were made — so, at a time when we understood the world even less than we do now, Descartes et al were grappling with the impossible question of: where do we, as humans, end and where does the universe begin?

I am, therefore I feel

Phoebe flips ‘I think, therefore I am’ (Descartes’ famous phrase) to I am, therefore I feel. Because we are kind of ‘over the idea that we exist’ now: even though The Enlightenment brought us modern science and alternative modes of thinking, we’ve reached a point where we might be ready for another new mode: one that emphasises feeling as well as thinking. Look at it this way:

  • Where ‘I think, therefore I am’ says: ‘I exist, and have the ability to know things’…
  • ‘I am, therefore I feel’ says: ‘my conscious, thinking brain lives inside a body that feels things — so I do more than just think, actually’ (this is also referred to as embodied cognition, which you can read more about in this primer).

Why is adding feeling (emotions, yuck) into the equation so important?

The scientific method is, on the one hand, very good and exciting: science assumes that everything will be mappable: you can pick out anything from the universe, and design experiments that will eventually get to the bottom of how it works. But on the other hand, the one-dimensional nature of this method has given us a very narrow view of the world.

The assumption that we ‘can understand everything’ has made it possible for us to construct the complex systems we live in right now: housing infrastructure, healthcare, education, etc. Science and technology has pushed us to control, measure, and manipulate the world around us beyond recognition. And this has put us into what Phoebe called a ‘dodgy epistemological trap’, where we have inadvertently separated ourselves from nature.

Cold data and warm data

This is because our current framework of ‘measuring things’ is not fit to truly measure information about how things are interconnected within complex systems — even ones we built ourselves. This information, that exists in complex systems, is known as warm data. Phoebe argues that our reliance on only cold data is what’s holding us back. To understand the difference between these two types of data, consider the town or city you live in.

Cold data about where you live is the kind of stuff we measure all the time: size of population, average age of population, average persons per household, employment rates, etc.

Warm data about where you live is something that we have trouble measuring under current frameworks, such as: the relationships between individuals and communities; how identity might form new communities or subcultures within your town; even how moods fluctuate over time.

The Juice Loosener in the Simpsons: it extracts hardly any orange juice from a whole bag of oranges. It’s a needless model and framework that separates us from nature.

The warm data theory, developed by Nora Bateson, says that you will never be able to map all of a complex system, because there’s just too much data that exists across many different contexts. If we want to gain more understanding of complex systems, we have to accept that the ways in which we currently measure impact are out of date.

So it’s not that we have to ‘add feeling’ into our frameworks of understanding — because the word ‘feeling’ is not adequate to describe what’s needed. In fact, Phoebe notes that we don’t really have the language to describe what’s missing yet, because language is the main way we understand the world, and is quite possibly too simple — or simply wrong.

Can science and feeling reunite?

Disregarding ‘feeling’ in decision-making is what has brought here: a world where complexity is flattened into unhelpful silos and boxes, and we prioritise things like mining cryptocurrency over preventing societal harms.

This is what Moral Imaginations seeks to develop; ways to perceive and work with the tacit value of those things that are, at the moment, seemingly impossible to measure or describe. Our current scientific paradigm holds no space for spiritual thinking — Moral Imaginations wants to remove this debilitating taboo.

It does this through practices of embodied cognition, using deep imagination processes to guide people through shifting their perception of themselves through time and in relationship to other beings, both human and non-human.

So, if you’re interested in the general idea of ‘understanding more stuff’, consider how great it might be to get a wider view of the entire world, without having to fling yourself into space, or dropping a load of acid. With Moral Imaginations, you can.

Georgia is currently Writer-in-Residence at Moral Imaginations.

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Moral Imaginations is a studio of imagination. We design practices and interventions of collective imagination that bring people closer to a sense of radical kinship with human and non-human beings, in this time, in the deep past, and the distant future. This leads to an expanded sense of self and connection to ecological world and deep time, shifting the way people not just think but feel about the future, the past, themselves and their communities.

Georgia Iacovou is a writer and researcher working mainly in the socio-technical space. She works to help others understand how technology is going to destroy us all (and how to stop that from happening). Read her hilarious and informative newsletter.



Georgia Iacovou
Moral Imaginations

Writing about data privacy and tech ethics; dismantling what Big Tech firms are doing in a way that’s easy to understand