Jigsaw Puzzles and River Banks: Two Ways of Picturing Our Future

QUEST, 2005, 57, 171-177 © 2005 National Association for Kinesiology and Physical Education in Higher Education Jigsaw Puzzles and River Banks: Two W...
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QUEST, 2005, 57, 171-177 © 2005 National Association for Kinesiology and Physical Education in Higher Education

Jigsaw Puzzles and River Banks: Two Ways of Picturing Our Future R. Scott Kretchmar The papers presented at the 2004 Academy meetings can be thought of as pieces from jigsaw puzzles. While the employment of this metaphor over the years has been useful, we may be ready for a new image, one that is both more accurate and inspiring. We can picture ourselves working at different locations along a river bank. Some of us work upstream, near the headwaters, at the molecular and genetic level. Others work on anatomy, physiology, culture, psychological well-being, ethics, and even spirituality—all different places along the shore as we move down the river toward the broad and deep waters by the bay. But no matter what our location, we all work on water in one form or another. This forces us to come to grips with our interdependence as researchers and with far more complex notions of causation that have been popular heretofore. The riverbank metaphor promises a kind of cooperation, unity, and mutual appreciation that cannot be gained when we come to interdisciplinary meetings carrying our independently produced and prized puzzle pieces.

When Dick Magill put together the 2004 Academy program, he followed a time-honored tradition. He identified a timely theme and invited renowned Fellows and guests from a variety of disciplines to address that singular topic. In doing so, he reinforced what I would like to believe are three core values of the Academy—unity, mutual respect, and intellectual humility. In unity, we speak to common issues. Mutual respect is reflected in a balanced program. And humility is reinforced each year as we see (or should see) the complexity of our problems and the very partial or incomplete solutions any one of us can provide. Academy Fellow # 27, C. H. McCloy, writing many years ago in The Research Quarterly, was interested in the same things, namely—unity, mutual respect, and intellectual humility. Philosophizing upon physical education should illuminate many problems concerning which there is no available scientific The author is with the Department of Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA 16802. E-mail: [email protected] 171



knowledge, but which are important to scientific progress . . . . The scientist, the philosopher, and the man in the gymnasium . . . must be united. They must not be allowed to grow hoary whiskers of inert tradition. (McCloy, 1930, p. 63) Interdisciplinary professions like ours have been working on unity, mutual respect, and humility for a long time. It could be that the presence of very different disciplines makes progress on these matters more difficult, but I have seen single disciplinary fields and departments struggle with harmony as well. How we fit together (or even whether or not we fit together) may well be a universal issue in research and higher education. I would like to think that we in the Academy have a leg up on this problem, in part because we have worked so hard over the years to remain a unitary academy. Indeed we have spent much time and energy on such difficult issues as our name, our roots, our evolving identity, and as we have produced over and again, intelligent, focused, well-balanced programs like this one. We gather each year as if to work on a single puzzle of interest and concern to everyone alike, each bringing pieces that no one else can produce, with each piece contributing (if only in modest ways) to a whole picture. I am not sure, however, that the jigsaw puzzle metaphor is the best one we can find. And if I am right about us having a leg up on issues of unity, mutual respect, and humility, we may be ready for better imagery. I would like to substitute river banks for jigsaw puzzles and, with you as my witnesses and critics, see how well it works. The question then, is this: Have we come together as an interdisciplinary group to provide pieces of a complex puzzle in hopes of producing a more comprehensive whole, one that would generate greater understanding and carry more predictive power? Or have we joined forces to work at different places along the banks of a river in hopes of understanding its flow, taming its energy, and perhaps altering its course? I like both metaphors and think that each one can be used to clarify where we are as a profession and how our individual disciplines join forces. I have used the puzzle image many times for undergraduate students, those aspiring professionals who meet each one of us subdisciplinarians piece-meal and learn, as it were, which parts of the overall movement puzzle we produce. There is a kind of friendly democratic flavor to the jigsaw puzzle metaphor. In principle, no one piece is any more important than another. And until we get the whole picture completed (or at least the major portion of it), we will not be able to tell what we have. A degree of humility is warranted as we try to add our piece to the whole and wait for its full value to be realized. But the more I dwell on this image, the more I think it is lacking. It would have us working alone on our puzzle pieces and then coming together later to fit them together. It encourages us to think of the whole as a composite of discreet, potentially independent pieces—even though we agree, in principle, that they are equally important. Enlightened dualists, for example, may claim that mind and body are equally important, but they are still dualists for thinking that the person is somehow a composite of two kinds of puzzle pieces—ideas and flesh. Likewise, we might need to call ourselves enlightened interdisciplinary pluralists by thinking that



independent puzzle pieces produced by philosophy, history, pedagogy, psychology, medicine, physiology, chemistry, and physics might be brought together at meetings like this one so that larger pictures can be constructed. While enlightened pluralism is undoubtedly better than its unenlightened cousin (someone who refuses to acknowledge the importance of cooperation and comparable worth), it still pictures the whole as an accretion of more or less independent parts. Might not the alternate image of working along the banks of a river allow us to break through some of this inherited and constructed imagery and provide a refreshing and liberating picture of what we do? Granted, working along an idyllic river congers up more romantic images than constructing a puzzle on a cold, plain table top under a bare light bulb. But I don’t want to persuade by subterfuge. The river imagery, I think, gives us a more accurate portrayal of what is actually going on and may well inspire us to move ahead even further. As workers on the river, we are dealing with water no matter where we are positioned along its banks—at the trickling headwaters upstream or near the slow-flowing broad mouth of the river downstream. In contrast to the puzzle image that has us working on separate pieces or things, our river metaphor indicates that in an important sense, this is not possible. We are all dealing with matter, living organisms, movement, and intelligence at one level or another. Consequently, those who cherish their separate puzzle pieces, like certain philosophical rationalists who believe in the independence of the mind, need to take a cold biological shower—a shower that would bring them closer to the banks of the river. And likewise, certain radical materialists who deny the reality of thought need to take a cold humanistic shower—a shower that would bring them too closer to the banks of the river. In his book entitled How the Mind Works, Steven Pinker refers to a tongue in cheek conversation written by science fiction author Terry Bisson between the leader of an interplanetary explorer fleet that has discovered human existence on our earth and his boss (Pinker, 1997, p. 96): They are made out of meat. [the explorer says] Meat? . . . There’s no doubt about it. We picked several from different parts of the planet, took them aboard our recon vessels, probed them all the way through. They’re completely meat. That’s impossible. What about the radio signals? The messages to the stars? They use the radio waves to talk, but the signals don’t come from them. The signals come from machines. So who made the machines? That’s who we want to contact. They made the machines. That’s what I’m trying to tell you. Meat made the machines. That’s ridiculous. How can meat make a machine? You’re asking me to believe in sentient meat? I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. These creatures are the only sentient race in the sector and they’re made out of meat.



Maybe they are like the Orolei. You know, a carbon-based intelligence that goes through a meat stage. Nope. They’re born meat and they die meat. We studied them for several of their life spans, which didn’t take too long. Do you have any idea [of] the life span of meat? Spare me. Okay, maybe they’re only part meat. You know, like the Weddilei. A meat head with an electron plasma brain inside. Nope we thought of that, since they do have meat heads like the Weddilei. But I told you, we probed them. They’re meat all the way through. No brain? Oh, there is a brain all right. It’s just that the brain is made out of meat. So . . . what does the thinking? You’re not understanding [me], are you? The brain does the thinking. The meat. Thinking meat! You’re asking me to believe in thinking meat! Yes, thinking meat! Conscious meat! Loving meat. Dreaming meat. The meat is the whole deal! Are you getting the picture? As we gaze at the river, we acknowledge its ambiguous and paradoxical composition: the particles and cells that are more visible upstream; the physiology and homeostatic regulations that become more prominent as the river widens; the ideas and social organizations that tend to show up in the rapids further downstream; and ultimately, the hopes and dreams, the creative educational and therapeutic interventions that live in the broader and deeper pools of water near the bay. The intermingled water shows no pure machines and no independent ghosts that would inhabit those machines. There are no separate puzzle pieces along the river. Just water—ambiguous hopeful, meaning seeking meat—from its trickling headwaters to its broad slow-moving mouth many miles away. But there is more. River water, as we know, flows in one direction only, from its barely discernable headwaters to the bay. This would suggest that all the important action occurs upstream, that primary causes are found there, while effects can be measured at multiple locations down river. This would place a premium on genetics, on chemistry, and particle physics. This would have us search for underlying mechanisms, for root causes, for chemical, cellular, and subcellular mechanisms. Yet, those who know rivers understand that this description is not entirely accurate. While everything that happens downstream is affected by the flow of water and its upstream laws, not everything downstream is determined by it. Tributaries join a river. The dynamics water movement change as the river widens. The taste and clarity of the water differs. Thus, new rules and laws keep cropping up, rules that were not visible, let alone needed, upstream. The whole cannot always be explained by its composite parts.



And strange as it may seem, water downstream does affect activity further up the river. When dams are built near the mouth of the river, when water is siphoned off for irrigation, and when floods run over river banks, things change upstream too. The flow of water can be modified; flora and fauna change; the quality of the water might vary. In short, things change upstream. Consequently, causes of the aquatic phenomena we happen to be studying in our lab at our particular place on the river can come from either direction. Underlying mechanisms lie upstream. Overlying mechanisms, if we can call them that, affect the water from downstream. None of us, therefore, has the luxury of working on our own river-related problems as if they were independent or free standing. The water we study is colored by factors working from two different directions at the same time. When we use our disciplinary tools to measure what they are best at measuring, we invariably capture factors that have their home some distance from our own site. Our part of the river is, in a sense, forever affected by everyone else’s part of the river. My own work on the philosophy of games, as I came to appreciate recently, is colored by the workings of evolution and the needs of an increasingly intelligent species. That is an upstream, underlying influence. And game intrigue is colored from the other direction, by logic, by relationships of ideas, and by such ideals as excellence and beauty. Those elements come from further downstream. No philosophic distillation procedures prove helpful, as much as my training in the subdiscipline would encourage me to use them that way. The river metaphor also tells us that the water is different at diverse sites along its banks. These distinctive locations help to justify the multiplicity of research paradigms we use and the variety of water-testing tools that have been developed. It could be that no paradigm is, in any absolute sense, better than any other. Rather, paradigms are better or worse depending on the location one is occupying at the river. Arguably, the vision of the individual as a mechanism or machine works better upstream than downstream. Reductive research endeavors and the search for linear relationships may work better some places than others (Midgley, 1994; Pinker, 2002; Ridley, 2003). Obviously, the same holds true for different research tools. A tool designed to measure water at the molecular level will not work very well on such global events as silt collection near its mouth. It is easy to see, then, that the previous science fiction dialogue about thinking and meat would be misconstrued if one were to conclude that measuring meat, on the one hand, and understanding thinking, on the other, is precisely the same thing. In fact, the humor of the interchange works only if we do not conflate the two. Love, hope, and dreams are ideas that are meat tethered; they are not meat identical—any more than events near the bay are identical to events near the headwaters even though both are a function of water. In fact, if the river metaphor puts a premium of sorts on research that occurs upstream—where the water comes from—it puts a comparable premium on understanding that is produced downstream. That is where human beings live. While the quality of living is never disconnection from the refreshing upstream flow of water, our subjective lives—our stories, aspirations, friendships, ethics, and joys—are studied most powerfully from locations where the river is wide and deep. The electron microscopes that are so utterly essential where our life waters begin to flow cannot measure either ethics or joy directly. In a sense, they are required



to play second fiddle when we listen to the sound of the full orchestra near the bay. But they still play. Ethics and joy are still tethered to physics, chemistry, and genetics. And in turn, genetics and similar sciences are tethered to such intangibles as meaning and joy. The water backs up from the dams of human intelligence and culture that far. But importantly, wherever we happen to be working along the river, our attention must be occasionally directed downstream. We are all interested (or at least should be so interested) in how our analysis of the water will help people live better—real people in actual gym classes, real people who are too sedentary, who are overweight, and who will unnecessarily live shorter lives and lives of lesser quality. This annual gathering is based on that interest. Thus, while we can all be captured by the beauty and majesty of our own work, it is, in the final analysis, not a complete end in itself. As we study it, the water moves on from gene, to anatomy, to physiology, to behavior, to culture, to subjective states, to ideal living—as we observe it when we see a well-adjusted child captured by joy! It turns out that the river metaphor stimulates a rather radical departure from a vision of ourselves as enlightened, democratic contributors to the solutions of jigsaw puzzles. It requires us to relinquish dualism, or independent pluralism. It forces us to rethink the direction in which causation works. It thus has us acknowledge that hard and fast distinctions—like those between tangibles and intangibles—may not hold up. Intangibles (overarching mechanisms) can affect tangibles just as tangibles (underlying mechanisms) can affect intangibles. It requires all of us to admit that none of us has an independent piece of the action, let alone a superior or all-encompassing field of study. The metaphor of the river suggests that we need to communicate with one another and know what is happening at other sites along the river bank if we are to do our own work well. I am now finding myself reading as much outside the traditional boundaries of philosophy as inside. Some of you will tell me that this is because I am in philosophy, and I have finally seen the error of my ways. But I would like to think that this is not unique to my discipline. No matter where we happen to be working on issues related to movement and health—at the macro level, the meso level, or the micro level—we need to be attentive to what is going on elsewhere because we all stand in a reciprocally-dependent relationship to one another. In the papers at this meeting, I heard a number of ideas that confirm my judgment that we have moved closer to the river. We heard about multiple locations for intervention; mediated relationships; cause and effect models that have arrows going in a bewildering number of directions; multiple causes working separately; multiple interactive causes; the ubiquity and importance of evolution and evolutionary change; dynamical and chaotic systems; the significance of nature and nurture—not one apart from or at the expense of the other; the intermingled importance of motives, attitudes, and ideas with cellular and subcellular influences. In the 1970s when many of our subdisciplines were young, we had to be good at building puzzle pieces. In philosophy, we had to focus on being good philosophers, in being able to go toe to toe with those from the parent discipline. Nearby areas of study like history and psychology were bothersome distractions, as was anything that had to do with practicality. We made a break from pedagogy, and we were card-carrying philosophers, or at least so we hoped to be.



In hindsight, this seems a little overdone. Isolation as a philosopher or a physiologist or a pedagogist can be stifling, and just at importantly can give us a false sense of independence and perhaps too, importance. McCloy may not have envisioned the kind and quality of unity, mutual respect, and intellectual humility that can develop along the banks of a river. But I think he would have liked it. It is, after all, one thing to build puzzle pieces and then cooperate by trying to fit them together in some kind of coherent whole. But it is a very different thing to be working at different locations on an integrated river and trying to tease apart the tightly interrelated elements that make it what it is. Here in Chicago, we may have witnessed an evolving AAKPE experience. Some speakers showed less comfort with traditional disciplinary walls. Others appear to be sneaking in reading that lies well outside their fields. A few would seem to have bought mobile laboratories to better move up and down the river bank themselves. And importantly, fewer individuals are coming to our meetings with briefcases full of prized puzzle pieces. It seems now, that when we listen to one another’s papers (even those presentations that are two or three subdisciplines removed from our own), we receive intellectual confirmation of our own work. We can see elements of our own truths in the truths of others. In one sense, to be sure, we are confirming what we have known all along—that we were studying very different things. In another sense, however, we see what we have too often missed—that we are also studying the same thing, only at a different level. In looking back on the two metaphors, it seems to me that we are already in the process of moving toward the river. I know that I want to spend my remaining professional years on its banks, and I will be looking both upstream and downstream to see what all of you are up to . . . and also to get ideas for my own future work.

References McCloy, C. H. (1930). Professional progress through research. Research Quarterly, 1(Part II), 63-73. Midgley, M. (1994). The ethical primate: Humans, freedom and morality. London/New York: Routledge. Pinker, S. (1997). How the mind works. New York/London: W.W. Norton & Company. Pinker, S. (2002). The blank slate: The modern denial of human nature. New York: Penguin Putnam. Ridley, M. (2003). Nature via nurture: Genes, experience, & what makes us human. New York: Harper Collins.