Review: To Be Or To Become

'To Be or To Become: The Emzine Dialogue' by Dr. Marc van der Erve is "a new and unifying theory of our world that goes beyond present-day science and religion." The author's academic background is in applied physics (bachelor's degree) and sociology (doctorate), with employment in various managerial roles in organisations such as Xerox, DEC and KPMG and more recently in leadership consulting. As the title indicates, the book is written as a dialogue, often an accessible style to present complex ideas as well established since the Socratic dialogues of Plato and Xenophon some two and half thousand years ago, where a simple style and universalistic setting have contributed to their timeless relevance. The word "Emzine" is an acronym for "Existential Manifold Magazine".

Of course, in the Socratic dialogues the characters take a strong archetypal form. They are not mere extras for the heroic protagonist, but individuals come with strong opinions which they defend with admirable skill. In the dialectic and narrative development that follows there is inevitable character development - at least among the friendly characters - that ends with an admission of all of what they do not know, but a recognition of the virtue involved in the inquiry.

Unfortunately these features are largely lacking in The Emzine Dialogue. The style is stilted and the conversation forced; too often obviously leading questions are presented to the protagonist to display their apparent genius. The setting - mainly based around cafes and lunches - lacks the diversity of place (compare with The Trial and Death of Socrates). Most frustrating however is the lack of sophistication on the part of the other characters, who seem to exist only to ask 'Dorothy Dix' questions and to exclaim "I see!" once some wisdom is cast from above.

However the quality of the material is not just to be judged on the quality of the writing and storytelling. However, it is a probable result from the sheer certainty that the author has discovered a Theory of Everything, which does come from both physicists and theologians. Like similar theories encountered in the past (e.g., Wilhelm Reich), the author is convinced that Emzine will be taught to children "even before they learn about the birds and the bees" (p11). In the tradition of elitist enlightenment, the first chapter gives the example of Plato's Cave, an analogy that is used throughout the text. Fortunately the protagonist is "[A]n escapee who has returned to the cave that we all share", a figure equivalent to Copernicus and Galileo (p28). As with Nietzsche, Zarathurstra has come down from the mountain albeit this time with verbosity rather than aphorisms.

Introduced early is one of the more unusual arguments in the book - and not necessary for the core practical message - is adopting cyclical time rather than linear time; the author chooses the Egyptians, but it was also common throughout early cultures. Cyclical time is expressed as a point to argue for a narrowing of time intervals to nil, thus for event simultaneity with the proposition that "time is a human invention" (p31). Whilst this is trivially true for the choice of intervals and events, the author takes quite a leap in suggesting that the arbitrary signs can alter the signifier. The argument is that "outside the cave" the temporal frame is "the world of simultaneity ... spontaneously or naturally emerging forms of organiztion or order" (p35)

Much of the text is dedicated to elaborating this with fairly common-sense arguments relating to behaviour patterns. Inequalities lead to behaviour by actors who follow a path of energy efficiency to reach a level of harmony. This applies to both the social and physical universe. Numerous examples are provided to indicate the validity of this thesis, ranging from the formation of snowflakes, the flight of a flock of birds, the formation of fossils, the development of organisations etc. A degree of volition is supported described as the capacity of humans to speed up or spoil the development of an emergence (p52). Again, taking a fairly significant leap of faith, the author claims "the reality, that we observe, is a reflection of a parallel world, a world of behavior patterns" (p54).

Four stages of congruent-simultaneity development are identified, starting with a state of chaotic behaviour, the development of an inequality, the spread of consistent orderly behaviour, and finally the reproduction of "behavior pattern-species" (p63). "No matter whether we observe physical or social realities, even in the most varied examples of reality can be reduced to the rise and decline of behavior-pattern species.. All examples show the same four stages" (p64). However as inequalities fade away this puts the established behaviour patterns into disarray, thus providing for the chaotic conditions to arise once more. A comparison is drawn with the zeroeth law of thermodynamics (p74), although this does seem to contradict the possibility of cyclical re-emergence.

The division of labour is construed as an attempt to find the path of least resistance through efficiency, whereby the author acknowledges that this creates new inequalities. A reference to Marx here on the distinction between technical and natural inequality and social inequality would have been welcome. In a somewhat sudden jump, the author then applies the developmental cycle to the universe as a whole (p87), with an extremely speculative suggestion that dark matter and dark energy represent the remaining developmental potential (along with a cycle of bang-crunch, despite the fact that contemporary sciences considers this unlikely). From this, the possibility of co-existence between religion and science is raised, as long as religion embraces the path of least resistance as 'the good' (p91).

It seems unsurprising then to see that the author then claims that the Emazine process applies on all levels, and can be used to explain some of the more difficult natural phenomena in the universe, in particular gravity (p122) and DNA (p124). A claim is made that meaning itself can only be generated through behaviour patterns (p123), a position that would have both psychologists and linguistic philosophers raising a bemused eyebrow, at the very least. Emazine is then raised to a meta-science which we are told is the Greek word for 'across' (which it isn't).

Turning to organisational leadership the author suggest that leaders should "ideally rise to the surface at a certain stage of behavior-pattern emergence" (p136) and where this does not occur organisational development is hampered. This issue here is the notion of comfort-zones, resulting from successful stage accommodation. Changing the mix of leaders can result in "comfort-zone rebalancing" assists organisations develop beyond their current circumstances which also improves the sense of identity of the organisation (p141). All leaders are therefore described as transformers (p155) which is certainly a matter of some debate in organisational theory.

Rather late in the piece, the text turns towards the issue of volition which is dealt with in a rather mechanistic manner with the claim that free will is an illusion (p176). This illusion is manifest in moments of awareness when apparent choices are made as they present one's destiny, a point which is emphasised in the narrative with a philosopher's dream and an attempted assassination, the indication being that through the knowledge of patterns one can make highly accurate predictions of the future.

In all honesty there is not too much to this text. The main thesis of pattern behaviour and efficient paths is, of course, quite sound and already well recognised, but could have - and should have - been dealt with in a single chapter. Surprisingly the author did not even touch upon Taoism which would have provided a very rich source of material within that theme, and perhaps would have have alerted the author to the distinction between procedure and content.

The claims of the nature of the time are, of course, quite speculative and could very well fit within an idealist tradition (Leibniz, Kant) rather than the realist (Newton, Einstein) view. The text makes a number of naturalistic fallacies throughout which can only be dealt with the glib manner in which human will and consciousness is dealt with. Ultimately it is worth repeating Popper's famous remarks on the degree of proof that is required of bold conjectures; the Emazine dialogues lack this.