Beingness: From Epistemology to Ontology

A few thoughts in preparation for our upcoming Cognitive Escalation workshop (free registration). I’ve been struggling to understand what we should be doing as humans in schools and universities in response to our current era of AI advancement. I argue for beingness – attributes, mindsets, and states of being and existing in a world with many kinds of intelligence and where the functionality of AI (what it’s really good at) allows us to move to a different value point in our education system.

AI’s sudden entrance into the public sphere, in the form of ChatGPT and other generative AI, has produced hype that ignores much of the 70+ years of AI research that has been happening in universities and corporate labs. November 2022 is a “pulling back the curtains” so the general public can see that progress. The result has been much angst, hype, and edtech to AI grift.

One question that keeps simmering under the surface of the discussion relates to what should be taught in this era of supercomplexity and rapid change. Although there are valid concerns and criticisms about these new models, even a few brief interactions with a large language model (LLM) , despite valid criticism, provides end users with a sometimes awe-inspired experience. Want to debug R code? Plan recipes and shopping lists for the next week? Engage in divergent thinking? Create a sci-fi script in the style of Shakespeare? LLMs to the rescue!

As a result of interacting with something that feels quasi to super intelligent, people are asking questions about what we should actually be teaching as AI advances. Should we still teach writing? . Programming? Creating digital art? If we have an enormous new tool at our fingertips, what is the point of traditional views of learning? (I offered thoughts on this several years ago).

This conversation about what education is and should be isn’t new – it has been an undercurrent for the work of many theorists. Morin grappled with it. Aquinas approached it from a morality lens. Freire  and hooks both argued for education as the practice of freedom. Dewey equated it with morality and democracy. And of course Illich wanted a networked school system. At the core, many theorists have argued for education that focuses on the development of humans.

These lofty proclamations of the goals of education feel rather unrealized in the world of modern schooling. The  standard approach is teaching content, mastery of basic knowledge, and then assessment to confirm. Repeat until you get your last degree. Sure, there are examples of alternative systems, but ours is a memory-centric knowledge school system. Hence we talk learning gains and learning gaps due to Covid. We test students nationally and for entrance requirements. We hear polite dialogue about the value of schooling being the advancement of democracy, equity, and opportunity. This is lip service. The system is designed, well into graduate work, to largely value the acquisition of personal knowledge.

There has been some push back against this, but PhDs are still a personal endeavor. A degree is still a personal reward and personally assigned. Digital technologies have raised awareness of knowledge in networks and learning as network forming and pruning. Complex tasks are readily seen as a by-product of a network, combinatorial creativity. Life doesn’t exist in the singular – it’s symbiotic. This lived experience doesn’t align with the structure and activities of schools and universities.

The conversation has changed somewhat now that ChatGPT can produce interesting work – sometimes error filled and sometimes outright lies. At times, it feels like a type of intelligence. There is a big background question that sits awkwardly in many ChatGPT and schooling discussions: What is the point of much of our existing education practices now that this tool is here?

I’ve been arguing for years that, as AI advances, beingness should be the central attribute of education. What is beingness? Well, at a basic level, it is attending to the core human condition – not what we know but who we are. It used to be expensive to know things. Books cost money. So did going to school and university. With the advent of the internet, MOOCs, YouTube, and digital technologies in general, it’s now much cheaper to know things than it used to be. MIT’s OCW, open education in general, open publications, open data sets, recorded and streamed lectures – the cost of knowing things is now a question of attention, not economics.

Obviously there is an entanglement between knowing and being. I generally enjoy knowledgeable people. I enjoy people who connect and collaborate while creating something new. Beingness is an intersection of morality, values, core attributes of human existence, our participation in peer networks, the qualia, if you will, of our relationships to one another and to the broader world we make sense of and navigate. It includes attributes such as being able to navigate complexity, hold varying viewpoints gracefully, engage substantively with contextual and cultural dynamics – including heedful engagement with other cultures, and attending to one’s own mental health and internal orientation to the world. And of course, recognizing that knowing and being are not uniquely human conditions. Intelligence exists around us.

Beingness also carries with it some distinct actions: possessing literacy of the underpinning AI and automation in daily life, coordinating and negotiating with artificial intelligence, preparing for and anticipating the future, seeing the interconnectedness of all things, promoting action aligned with a recognition of how systems change, participating in networks, fostering systems change, and developing capabilities and mindsets to traverse uncertainty. It’s about sensemaking with many types of intelligence, finding inspiration in ChatGPT but also in a forest. Marveling at the capacity of humanity to create particle accelerators while acknowledging that the billions of dollars expended there are an attempt to understand the smallest elements of matter and the marvel of the forces that hold the universe together.

I’m less clear on what an actual pedagogical model looks like to achieve beingness, but the domain of connectivism seems to make sense to me. With AI performing many core cognitive tasks, we need to escalate our cognitive capacity to attend to the nuanced sensemaking/meaning making/wayfinding aspects of our complex world. It is something like a shift from epistemology (knowing) to ontology (being). Unpacking and realizing this in practice is the substantive challenge for our entire education system. We need to discover new value points in education so schools and universities can continue to be enabling entities for individual achievement and satisfaction, critical thinking, exposure to ideas and cultures and people, connection with others, and a humble recognition of our place in a world of many types of intelligence – some of which we likely have yet to recognize.