Tuesday, June 19, 2018

WTF is happening? Why is there a Trump?

(The first paragraph below of repeats things I've said elsewhere for a brief recap.)

If you look back over history at periods where there is huge social upheaval, you can see it is usually correlated with technological change. Technological changes cause social changes because they alter the way that people need to interact with each other to get and distribute what we need to live and make our livelihoods. This changes the power relationships in society. It looks like this:

Technological change >>> changes in ways people need to produce and distribute stuff >>> changes in social power relationships >>> changes in what is acceptable to believe is "natural" or "just" in social arrangements.

It's been happening since prehistory.

Here are a couple of relatively recent examples:

  1. The power of Rome and the priestly class was undercut by the invention of the printing press.
  2. "Women's liberation" occurred when new household technology and the invention of the pill freed them up from domestic work and allowed them more of an involvement in the public sphere. 

Unfortunately, there is usually some kind of backlash from the rulers that are being displaced by the changes:

  1. The Inquisition
  2. Patriarchal backlash in the form of religious or demagogic pronouncements or regressive legislation.

After some horrific and largely unnecessary suffering - witch burnings, stonings, wars, civil wars, for example - things generally fall into place the for better (or worse).

But note that the upheaval is not caused individual leaders of change movements (e.g., Luther) but by social conditions that created the possibility of their messages becoming considered "acceptable" to believe, rather than heretical, offensive or nonsensical.

OK, so if that's clear, we begin to understand where we're at now. MASSIVE technological change: Factory automation, instant global communication, high speed transportation, increasingly viable green technologies. In other words, a global economy that threatens to thoroughly disenfranchise an even greater underclass of people who will be without work in what remains a wage-based economy dominated by about 80 or so individual billionaires with a lot at stake (many of whom know or care very little about climate science or potential social-economic or political implications of their actions).

So what are today's "heretics" shouting and what has been the backlash to them? What is becoming acceptable to believe and how is it being resisted?

The heretics are shouting "environmental sustainability", "flatter organizations", "universal income / equity", "cultural diversity" while emphasizing the importance of developing responsiveness (rather than aggressiveness) for resilience.

The backlash is shouting "jobs before the environment", "hierarchy is natural", "no freeloaders",  "your culture threatens rather than enhances my culture", while gunning for aggressive  individualism.

So there we have the rise to prominence of people like Trump who hear and capitalize (very literally) on the backlash. The voices of the backlash come from the plutocracy, and from the lower-middle class who fear loss of social position if those they consider below them (women, minorities) are on the rise.

A backlash to the Trump backlash is not to be wished for or acted out. A Petersonian backlash to the backlash to the backlash will get interpreted as a backlash - and it certainly looks like one. A less polemical, less hyperbolic, more gentle and reasonable, dialogical approach is what we need to move forward.

Monday, March 5, 2018

That's just human nature...?

A synopsis of Jordan Peterson on human nature:

There is an inescapable human nature which means that we have no choice but to be organized hierarchically, or at least, we will be more happy if abide by these dictates of our nature. Women tend to be more agreeable by nature than men because they have to accommodate infants (1), while men are more competitive. Liberal philosophies that flout inescapable human nature and blame Western patriarchy for gender inequality are out to lunch and very dangerous - especially "post-modern Marxism" (PMM) which is actually a position of totalitarian Maoism in that proponents group people under banners of identity politics. (Well, Derrida, so much for difference!) Proponents of PMM are dangerous not only because they harbour insidious authoritarian and totalitarian tendencies but because their actions will cause a backlash among men and give rise to cultural manifestations of the dark side of masculinity. It's best that we stick to what nature intended for us in order to prevent or minimize this impending catastrophe.

Nature and culture are of course inextricable. As Merlin Donald points out, no human would be able to achieve anything like human cognitive potential without being imbedded in culture, which is where both the ancestry of our ideas and abilities, and the seeds of our potential, repose. Human cognition evolves with culture, and cultural evolution since prehistoric times is largely driven by technological advancements, especially in communicating through stories, writing, and other modes of external memory storage.

It turns out that technological advancements also not surprisingly influence the organization of human societies and the focus of institutions.  Any socio-political arrangement is how people organize themselves to produce and distribute what they need and want given a certain level of technology.  Ian Morris explores the prehistory and history of social organization and power relations between nations in his book, Why the West Rules for Now.

Consider, then, the social role of women in relation to the work they do either in or out of the home in relation to technology. Women used to produce manually much of what was used in the household. With modern manufacturing, mass production, the availability and continuous improvement of the efficiency of household appliances and the invention of the pill, much of women's work in the home became unnecessary. Over time, the nature of work and our political and legal institutions have changed to reflect the fact that most of women's traditional work is not now needed in the home. There's usually an awkward or very uncomfortable lag between technical change and the reconfiguration of society that follows it.

The story of what a woman or man is in society has changed over millennia, is changing and will continue to change. During the last few centuries, the narrative that human beings have used to explain gender roles has been articulated and sustained by those who dominated in the public sphere - i.e., men of power and influence. We are currently in a lag period between the changed technology and the story that is going to make sense of it (and still finding out who will most benefit from that story).

What's thrown us for a loop is that the technology is changing so fast that automation threatens to undermine our entire system of economic arrangements based on wage labour. Most jobs will become unnecessary, so ask yourself, how is the wealth going to be redistributed? Meanwhile the underclass of unemployable people is becoming larger and feeling their loss of power ever more acutely. This is especially so for men, who at least had enjoyed an advantage of higher social status than women in the same economic bracket. These are the people who I expect tend to vote in strong man politicians and fall victim to false nostalgia. There is a backlash and the darkness looms, but it has to do not with PMMs but with the sense that, historically, men have had rights over women; their sense of threat and humiliation that women, who were formerly accorded lower social status, are now getting small gains in social status by becoming more involved in the public (versus the private) sphere. (In some societies, women are not even supposed to have a public face.) Things are changing too fast for the narrative to catch up and people are stressed out. During uncertain or fearful times, people's views tend to become more conservative. People retrench.

Chimamanda Adichie says that we do girls a great disservice by raising them to accommodate men's egos. This unpleasant obligation is embedded in the narrative that all of us have inherited in one variant or another. In some societies women are still blamed for men's inability to master their sexual impulses. The tendency for women to be agreeable and accommodating is an effect of inequality, not a cause. Being agreeable and accommodating is different from being loving and kind, caring and considerate. It is a defence. It becomes a defence that fosters resentment of their own capacity for caring and it makes those without the "right balance" of agreeableness and commitedness into scapegoats. "The beast" of the masculine feared by Peterson is one that he generously sustains with circular rationalizations.

Note 1:

"... the demand for for inclusiveness 
and unity and care and the demand for high-level performance in a hierarchical structure - they're very different orientations in the world and so it's complicated for people who are agreeable and conscientious -  and actually I think often that large corporations and large institutions of any sort run on the unheralded labor of people who are high in agreeableness and high in conscientiousness and they're disproportionately women. In my experience in large institutions has been that if you want to hire someone to exploit appropriately - no,  not appropriately -  if you want to hire someone to exploit productively you hire middle-aged women who are hyper-conscientious and who are agreeable because they'll do everything they won't take credit for it and they won't complain and that's nasty and I think that happens all the time and so one of the things you have to be careful of if you're agreeable is not to be exploited because you'll line up to be exploited and I think the reason for that is because you're wired to be exploited by infants and so that just doesn't work so well in that actual world." 

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Imagining Reality

I saw a talk on TED a couple of years ago by cognitive scientist, Donald Hoffman. He presented his view that our perceptual faculties have evolved for our survival and not so much to preserve a likeness to whatever it is that is causing our perception. To some extent, this is an unremarkable hypothesis since we already know that the range of colours and sounds extends beyond that we can see and hear. What are sounds to us and other living things are basically air vibrations, and there is no sound in the void of outer space. We also know our perceptual systems are tricked by optical illusions.

But Hoffman's idea is more radical - he thinks that the world we perceive might bear no more resemblance to whatever causes our perceptions than a computer screen interface bears to the actual inner workings of the computer, i.e., none. Further, he believes that even scientific activity remains at the perceptual "user interface" and, for all intents and purposes, we remain within the matrix of our perceptual systems, with no perceptual access to reality. Even brains and neurons, as we study them, reside in the interface. This is not to say we are lost in a sea of perceptual illusion, however. He retains hope that mathematics and reason will guide us to scientific truths.

Variations on the idea that we cannot get beyond our modes of perception to experience reality directly have been advanced throughout the history of ideas.  For the most part, these positions have been thought to entail that we simply do not know what is beyond the perceptual horizon and must leave aside any hopes of metaphysical insight; or that are grounds to believe that we are somehow trapped inside our heads, or that the world we see is a hallucination or a delusion; or that the world there is is really nothing other than the world we perceive - esse est percipi.

We end up with this set of positions only because our idea of reality is one that assumes a gulf between Mind and Nature.

The world is real (or it is nothing). I'm not saying that we perceive things as they would be without us. Why have we have assumed that's what reality is - the world as it is without us? The world we inhabit is a dynamic environment that includes us and within which we have considerable influence, for better or worse. A world without us is clearly an imaginary one. Without perceiving beings, the world wouldn't really look like anything.  It has existed and could exist without us, and it will again one day, but as of now, here we are.

It's a simple truism. The world we perceive is the world in which we live. Our perceptions occur in nature, and they are more or less relevant to our purposes, whether those purposes be the pursuit of scientific knowledge, manipulating others, or obscuring something painful from our past.  Perceptual veridicality is not true representation of a non-perceived world but has to do with with the horizon of our intentions.

Our idea of objectivity (our current one - the concept of objectivity has a history) is the idea of the world  without us, a world imagined without involvement (taint) from any human intention or purpose. This has led us to frame reality as a principally spatial world of catalogued things whose interactions can be described in terms of the operation of forces acting according to laws of nature.

Our habit of conceptually freeze-framing phenomena in space and time in a way that favours spatial and mathematical representation is likely cognitively energy-saving but ontologically misleading. Perception is an active response to our present environment and we cannot remove ourselves from the world to understand it - why would we think we could? Does anyone know what the world would look like sub specie aeternitatis (from the POV of eternity)?

The conceptual freeze-frame is only a shorthand that we have somehow managed to reify because we see ourselves as so different from nature. Our own nature has been considered an impediment to objectivity. Nevertheless, we live in a dynamic symbiotic universe, not a world of disconnected things attracted by forces and governed by laws. We reify our conceptual models and assume tangible experience falls short.

The question of how the world is without our witnessing it is not possible to answer. That doesn't mean there is "some mysterious unknowable world" about which we have no direct or indirect information or that the existence of the world depends upon us perceiving it. The question is an error. The world we know more or less well is the world in which we came to be.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Just thinking out loud about teleology

Maybe it's a simple progression of drive to survive, associating this with self-animation, projection of this "animation" on everything that moves, belief that everything that moves has a purpose such as an interest in staying alive...? 
The flip side would be the all too culturally conditioned notion that subjectivity means self-interest and self-interest means bias and bias leads to falsehood or at least misleading claims. So to ensure truth (or at least public legitimacy) there would be a concerted effort to remove any vestige of agency from nature, in spite of the palpable and clear drive to survive of all self-moving entities (or even any for whom homeostasis is required for survival), to render nature all about random spandrels (chaotic nature) plus (rational) laws of nature... 
Or perhaps the official removal of agency from nature began with the realization of the power of reasoning in cultures over 2K years ago around what is known as the "axial age" and hylomorphist ontology came along with it?

Friday, October 6, 2017

Numinous experience and instinct - the meaning of the meaning of life

Shinto sacralizes places where people have a sense of the awe of nature. Various pieces of music, e.g., Agnus Dei from Faure's Requiem or Vaughan Williams' Theme from Thomas Tallis, are evocative of an unearthly majesty. Abraham Maslow spoke of peak experiences - experiences that are not the result of biological need fulfillment (which include safety and belonging in his account) such as aesthetic experiences or spiritual experiences. Biological drivers he called extrinsic motivation, motivation by a lack or need. The kind that give rise to numinous experience such as scientific curiosity/discovery for its own sake rather than the prestige or big pharma payout, the joy of creating or experiencing music or art or writing that is not politically motivated but just beautiful, this is intrinsic motivation. The joy of understanding, learning or appreciating something new for no other reason. Apes experience this at waterfalls (Goodall).
Is it conceivable to explain these numinous experiences 
  • in naturalistic terms
  • while conserving the distinction between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation ?
If not, is all naturalism essentially reductionist by design?

Thursday, February 9, 2017

The world needs a new story

The world needs a new story to make sense of itself. It will include the fact of evolution, the immensity of time that preceded us; the fact that we live on a planet in an incomprehensibly vast universe; the urgent need for us to be environmentally responsible and a stress on the dire consequences of wasteful consumerism and an economic model built on it; a sense of the importance of acceptance of differences among people and peoples; the social, environmental, political and emotional benefits of gender equality; the need to keep network power nodes in check; and all of this needs to impart a sense of coziness. It sounds odd to say "coziness" but that's the nub of it. We all know or sense, more or less, the other stuff. In the past, it has been established power (accompanied with a supposed divine sanction such as the mandate of heaven or the divine right of kings) that bounded the universe in tidy ways for us, but that no longer exists or at least, where it does, it exists in a decadent form from which little good could emerge (and vehemently defended by people in thrall to a reaction formation). So there's the challenge. To find a story so we feel at home 'on a planet', as opposed to 'in a world'.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Ideological Lag

The economy sets the rules of how we cooperate (and has throughout history), because how we cooperate is how we work together to make and do stuff - any stuff - all stuff - ever. Those arrangements (personal or institutional) are eventually established in terms of our evolving levels of productive technology and patterns of trade.These things are thoroughly interconnected.

But there's usually a very uncomfortable lag between the implementation of an economically significant technology, our new working relationships that emerge out of the change, and the collective story that makes sense of it, a story that generally reflects evolving notions of "justice".

Being forward looking is very important. It's time to resist nostalgia for an imaginary "homeland" as we cannot afford to be tribal in a transnational economy. The last century in Europe should have taught us that. This is what we should remember today.

We need to allow ourselves to risk thinking informed by wisdom and good purpose.