Sunday, December 7, 2014

Current schools of thought on the sources of objectivity

  1. Literalist Fundamentalism: Hybrid of empiricism and scripturalism. Serves capitalism and/or tribalism.
  2. New Ageism: Hybrid of tropes of modern science, superstition and common but uncanny experiences, which remain scientifically unexplored due to # 5).
  3. Post Modernism: Ever changing truth lies between the lines in the ceaseless revolution against narratives of power.
  4. Basic Science: Carries on halfway between rigour and rigor-mortis owing to emphasis on economic benefits, rigid schools of thought, and being a trope of legitimacy unto itself.
  5. Reductionist Science: Puts the methodological cart before the ontological horse, confuses the intellectual filing cabinet for reality, hung up on "building blocks", misses context, life, imagines operational definitions to be exhaustive.
  6. Promethean Science: A hubristic triumphalism of technology that, like dominionist religions, celebrates our conquest/dominion of nature.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The 11 Cynical Laws of Crank (Parr's Laws)

1. If you have an axe to grind and you grind it, you will eventually be seen as a crank*.
2. If you demonstrate enthusiasm in any intellectual cause other than some self or immediate practical community interest, you risk being seen as a crank*.
3. If you are learned but don't sufficiently cite or defer to the canonical script for your discipline when expressing your novel ideas, you will be labelled as a crank*.
4. If a researcher has some good ideas amongst those which render him labelled a crank, you will be seen as a crank if you quote him (even the very good bits.)
5. If you admire someone who is insightful and who has cited the better ideas of someone who is otherwise considered a crank, you mustn't quote him except to disparage him and dissociate yourself or you too will be tainted as a crank.
6. It does not count as an informal fallacy to criticize the ideas of a crank by alluding to his character.
7. Pejoratives suffice as critiques when it comes to the writings of those who are rightly or wrongly considered cranks.
8. If you quote someone who works from a rival interpretation of your discipline, you will come to be distrusted.
9. If you quote from outside your discipline, you will be seen as a crank* **
10. If you earnestly try to change anything for the better, you will be labelled as a crank (but beaten down as an upstart)*.
11. If any of your questions cast doubt on the latest iteration of the myth of the divine right of kings (narratives that sustain various types of social authority), you will be swiftly marginalized, one way or another.

*unless you have at least 2 or more of the following:

A. A personal gravity that comes from an astounding sense of entitlement
B. Brilliant PR skills (i.e., the makings of a good con artist)
C. A wealthy and powerful backer

** unless you are an established pulp news pundit, in which case you can quote or misquote anyone you like to support your position

Monday, October 21, 2013

What the future might hold?

My inner futurist (a dilettante, really) is whispering to me...

  • 3D printers will evolve fast and soon will be able to combine an optimal set of elementary materials depending on the properties required (e.g., bendable, shiny, a combination, etc.). 
  • Evolutionary theory will come to emphasize complex triggers of gene expression and development and retire the theory of the "selfish gene". Discoveries in this line will open the space for more of an understanding of drive and intention. 
  • One day people who have contrasted randomness and causality will realize that nowhere within this opposition can anyone find the clue to understanding what "free will" is. The new understanding will instead turn on an epistemic insight into complexity. As a better understanding of randomness and causality will be a byproduct.
  • Much better batteries will revolutionize cars. 
  • I'm not sure about self-flying one-person planes or even self-driving cars. Maybe commercially run commuter pods or something.
  • Sooner or later, people will have a big groan moment when they realize how easily and cleanly energy can be (and could have been) produced.
  • It will come to be understood that the phrases one utters in one's head are not one's thoughts but the articulation (or obscuring) of  a coursing stream of intentions, desires, fears and related associations. The intentions can come to be expressed as phrases, actions, impulses, even mythical stories, rituals or magical forces, depending on how aware of one's awareness one is. Intentions and instincts are not unrelated. 
  • Much of what were formerly called "psychic phenomena" will be called nonsense while the remainder of them will be accepted and understood as animal instincts (which will turn out to be rather more complicated and less blind kinds of thing than is currently thought and, in humans, be seen to include mythology, ritual etc.)
  • Reductionism, methodolatry, and much of mechanistic linear thinking will fade into the background. 
  • The new pitfall of thinking will be an over-reliance on laissez-faire self-organization without concomitant strategies for things such as inter-system clashes and the "Dark Corners" where information doesn't flow. Depending on how stupid the heavyweights have remained, we could just devolve even further into tribalism or sell out to the Borg. 
  • Hierarchy and patriarchy will probably hang around as irksome dregs until a complete environmental paradigm shift occurs (decades off) but they should become less pernicious, I hope, as more girls come to have greater access to education.
  • An understanding of the relationship between time and entanglement might allow for an integration of relativity and QM. Strings will go the way of the ptolemaic model. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

There's no Accounting for It: Areas where the quest for the true story leads us to falsehood

We have confidence in numbers, not the evidence of our senses, as is often claimed. Everything we consider to be accurately observed is, in fact, accurately defined - i.e., defined in a way that makes the phenomenon of interest measurable, countable. Not until we establish the numeric lens of accuracy, or the illusion thereof, do we consider phenomena to exist beyond our thinking, our interestedness. Pause and ponder that.

You see, our confidence is misplaced. We mistake the indicator for reality. The relevance of data resides in the definition (a.k.a. "operational definition") of what is counted, and rarely are such definitions exclusive and exhaustive of phenomena, outside of some narrow scientific disciplines. 

Speaking from his experience in the area of Psychology, Jack Martin of Simon Fraser University explains that, whereas operational definitions provide investigators with initial cues to the identification and more thorough understanding of phenomena, psychologists frequently treat such definitions as if they were conclusive and exhaustive. Complex phenomena, such as human motivation and confidence, are narrowly understood in terms of a small set of predetermined factors. Understanding becomes reduced to some kind of criteriology, a labelling game. The purposes of investigation, learning and discovery, making new and deeper interconnections, are left out of this paint-by-numbers story.

From the psychology lab to the office, the situation becomes culturally entrenched. Those who report, from students to office workers, spend their days manipulating and their nights worrying about institutionalized performance measures, standardized tests, and a daily barrage of transactional data, all narrowly defined and often rather arbitrary, devoid of much concrete relevance. These measures are meant to provide insight into trends, and evidence of this or that performance, but in fact they mostly just
  • eliminate context, 
  • block connections, common sense and insight
  • erode our capacity for reasoning 
  • keep us too preoccupied to examine our purposes
  • and ultimately put us on the self-sustaining hamster wheel of empty bureaucratic process
The focus on numbers may give us the secure sense that we're getting precise information, but it's a false sense of security.

See also The Logic of Quantophrenia and possibly Amy Lemay on assessing impact as reported by Asha Law at

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Some random hypotheses and tests - testing the waters

1. Myths about the cosmic order are instinctive and reflect the geographic milieu, serve the economic and technical demands of the age and legitimate the the social order - community norms, mores, ethic and hierarchy. These instincts are experienced as compelling numinous images or symbols or enacted as rituals. They are either an emergent communal expression or left to shamans, chiefs or kings, or religious leaders to articulate and disseminate. In modern times, culturally significant artists may take the role of shamans. The myths change with historically significant changes in technology and trade.

TEST If this is true, disruptions in the mythic consciousness would cause psychological disturbances because the capacity for mythic instinct has ceased to be rooted in a social economy - powerful but pointless or counterproductive numinous symbols and rituals. This would imply that when there is any geographic or technical upheaval (positive or negative) that uproots people from their traditional (social and economic) ways and narratives, there will be increases in psychological malaise or social or cultural pathologies (e.g., fanaticism or collective cultural dispiritedness).

Also, if true, themes experienced in dreams of psychologically healthy people or explored in literature would symbolize key socio-cultural trends or turning points where adaptations were needed. Who has the interpretive key would, however, be a difficult question to answer. (Think of Ondaatje's English Patient as a story about the need for changes in the narrative around national (tribal) identities at a time of massive technical change, when production is becoming global, not local, and it makes sense. As you can tell, I consider the EP as a culturally significant work.)

2. Embedded in our myths is a vestigial primate-ness and an alpha-male motif.

TEST Ethological studies of hominid communication suggests hierarchy predominates in the "vocabulary" of our cousins (see Kenneally, The First Word). Robert Bellah, a sociologist of religion, explains the transformation of mythic consciousness over pre-history and history (Religion in Human Evolution). A study might focus on the parallels between hominid communication and human language, (e.g., consider the unquestioning subscription to the narrative of the "divine right of kings" and similar scripts, which is just not explainable by any individual's will to power, Ian Morris.)  This might go some way to explaining modern gender imbalance (now eroding, thanks to mass clothing production, vacs and dishwashers, finally - quite a lag, though - right, Betty?)

3. Attempts at the scientific rendition of mythic terms should be abandoned (are you listening, Rupert Sheldrake?). However, the phenomena that such terms wrongly label may have yet some scientific explanation. For example, phenomena labelled "psychic" may indicate something very different from witchy receptivity to mysterious "energies".  Lacking appropriate explanatory models, these phenomena are packaged in pseudo-scientific terms and are thus rapidly dismissed by the majority of self-respecting scientifically literate folks.  I'm sure nevertheless there are many (if not all) people who experience correctly knowing or understanding something without being able to explain exactly how they do. Not all of these people would say they were "psychic".  Imprecise forebodings and mysterious anticipations may be no more paranormal than bird navigation, snakes detecting earthquakes or the suddenly conscious conclusions drawn by our unconscious processes of assimilating vast amounts of past and present perceptual cues.

Once the epithet, "psychic" is dispensed with, scientifically inclined people should have little trouble finding evidence of people who have drawn correct conclusions on the basis of unconsciously gathering and assimilating information. (My suspicion would be that the instincts mentioned in 1 inflect this process and, when it goes awry, the person suffers from a psychological malaise. On the other hand,  when the narrative sustaining the social order is no longer credible, a collective reaction formation (a.k.a. fanaticism) or a dispirited culture will be the result.)

4. In the same vein as 3, consider ghosts. Instead of thinking of a ghostly experience as evidence of displaced spirits, maybe time is multidimensional and can be layered. Vivid experiences that people mistakenly explain as ghosts may be hints of something occuring in a prior layer of time, a temporal echo. (Pure speculation, admittedly - spectral speculation.)

TEST "Ghost sightings" would be more likely when spatial arrangements have changed very little over the years/centuries; e.g., a "sighting" of a ghost (a temporal echo) on a stairway or coming through a door would be unlikely in a modern building because a modern and ancient building on the same property would not likely have had architectural features occupying the same space.

None of these tests would prove anything conclusively, of course. The two themes I have covered are human instinct and scientific reification. The latter covers all 4, the former, the first 3. I'm interested in having these themes pursued in more depth.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Mental Models: Five of Many Basic Assumptions Currently in Need of Revision

1. The Universe is Composed of Fundamental Building Blocks

This view has proven fruitful in certain types of research, but I wonder why people think that what exists in the universe can be exhaustively explained by reference to fundamental components and their interactions? Effects and causes occur at many scales of granularity.

I also wonder what makes people lean toward the idea that there is a certain "fundamental" aspect of reality? Is the notion of a foundational layer of reality a product of experience or a conceptual hangup?


2. Individual Interests Drive Collective Behaviours

Individuals are born into an existing social milieu and learn the language, norms and aspirations of their group. Though I'm not one to say that we are all simply products of our socialization - people have unique sets of abilities and unique ways to express them - in this chicken/egg scenario, the collective comes first. Therefore the collective will is not an aggregation of individual interests and the notion of an "original position" where individuals came together to forge a society is a mythical fancy with no explanatory value.

Another mistake fed by this assumption: Researchers assume that it's altruism or community feeling that needs to be explained rather than individualism because, ironically, individualism is the current ideological norm and raw self interest is seen as the more fundamental fact. This assumption is not objectively justified. It's an idea that supports the economic system and preserves the social order by allowing individuals to be seen as wholly responsible for their own lack of success, regardless of social realities.

3.  All Biological Traits are Products of Adaptation by Natural Selection (Fitness)

Evolution occurs but that doesn't mean that every trait of every species can be explained as a positive contribution to survival. Species not only pass along traits that positively enhance the possibilities of survival, but traits that are not maladaptive - traits that are just there - or even weaknesses that are compensated for by a cluster of other traits.

The attempt to explain every trait in terms of adaptation begs a lot of questions.  Nearly every species eventually becomes extinct or evolves into a different species. Evolution cannot directly explain the biological mechanisms that give rise to the emergence of a new trait, but only indirectly - only insofar as random mutations occur that  aren't survival liabilities or that are likely to enhance survival opportunities.

4. There Are No Natural Final Causes (No Whys, only Hows)

If you're wondering why I've included this, it's because it's generally assumed that any final cause or purpose (sometimes called "teleology") of existence would imply a non-natural (metaphysical) factor. People who believe themselves to be scientifically minded try to distance themselves from the idea that there are purposes in nature because they assume it necessarily aligns them with proponents of reviled "intelligent design" (ID) theories.  ID theories suppose that matter is a passive receptacle for the purposes implanted in it by a divine architect of the whole universe - an architect who cares about us and who especially cares that we are purified of contaminants from our participation in the natural material world in particular - so one can hardly blame them.

In a sense though, the struggle for existence would be a natural final cause, wouldn't it? The drive to survive is a natural purpose, though not necessarily one that is embodied only in individuals.  Scientifically minded folks need to question whether the idea of natural final causes really is an oxymoron and get over feeling guilty-by-association. (This is just one instance of reactive distancing that shuts doors on avenues of meaningful inquiry.)

5. The Ability to Scientifically Predict and Control Phenomena Proves Determinism

To predict and control what happens, a scientist needs to be able to spell out what influences events in the most generic and universal way possible. This is done by eliminating variable, unpredictable influences by trial and error (or prior knowledge) and then by refining the definition of the predictable influences and their objects so that they can be stated in the form of an equation or "law of nature" that plays out within a generic frame of reference.  For example, Newton's laws of motion refer to "bodies" without any reference to their shape or density, and to "motion", without any reference to the wind's influence, etc. To control something, knowing a number of such general laws, technologists can exactly arrange certain chains of events so that they unfold in predictable, mechanical ways. For instance, we have technologically advanced machines. Parts are arranged, the right amount of power is supplied, and presto...

Only some kinds of investigation allow for this kind of simple analysis and arrangement. For most events, it is not possible to eliminate unpredictable influences and isolate the predictable ones because there is no way to predefine a generic frame of reference within which potential influences are in play.  There is therefore no law in relation to which the influences of an event are "exactly arranged" so that the event rolls out in a pre-determined, mechanical way. Most events are  neither physically nor metaphysically predetermined.

...To be continued...

Friday, September 7, 2012

The Relationship between Objectivity and Bureaucracy

In 2009, I posted a short blog entry, How Organizations Remain Bureaucratic. Here, I'd like to delve a bit further into what is pejoratively known as "bureaucracy" and tie the discussion to a broader cultural theme, one I'll call Fetishizing the Heuristic. The terminology is a bit academic, but apt, so I'll explain.

Heuristics are flexible guidelines, generally sane models, not meant to account for every contingency, but a pencilling in of a plan or set of criteria based on experience. (Maslow's Hierarchy, for example, was intended to be considered a flexible heuristic, but rarely is.)

To fetishize something means to idolize it...

So when a heuristic is idolized, the criteria embodied in a flexible guideline magically come to have a life of their own, alienated from the creative and reasonable minds that set them out. They become viewed as if they issue from a higher order of existence.

So, for example, a preliminary plan is developed that covers a time span, or evaluative criteria are set out provisionally. As soon as dates and scoring methods are assigned, it's as if these plans or criteria issued directly from an eternal source of objectivity, not from the minds of those composing them.

Note of caution: I am not saying that just because something proceeds from a mind and not from independently existing nature that it is not objective. This statement doesn't even make sense (and why it doesn't is something that could be explored in another post another time...)

The problem that arises is that once the guideline has been drawn up and numbers assigned to what started off as a provisional guideline, no counter-evidence from the actual world of objective reality will change the guideline. Where there is deviation, it will considered as a way of illustrating how things and people have failed to meet the criteria, not as evidence that the model needs adjusting.

Jack Martin of Simon Fraser University wrote in 1996 (in a no longer available newsletter of the American Psychological Association) lamenting how assessment criteria, never intended to be more than reasonable, flexible, useful guidelines, become irrationally narrowed and fixed once they are operationalized (assigned a numerical scale.)

Then, of course, these guidelines become embodied in institutional procedures - further alienated from the agents, the creative and reasonable minds of people in the organization, who would otherwise use their minds to question them, adjust them, and maintain their usefulness.

In practice, understanding how we can fetishize the heuristic should lead us to be more active in questioning and revising plans and criteria as necessary, understanding they issue from human needs and objectives.

The broader, more philosophical understanding is that a lot of the conceptual packaging we use to identify something as objective is faulty and needs to be revisited. We need to re-insert the awareness of our responsibility as agents into our plans and to adjust in an ongoing way to what is happening, rather than prematurely bracketing ourselves out of existence while we look for the eternal diagram.

In a nutshell, don't treat a working hypothesis or model as if it issued from the heavens. After all, it's your hypothesis and you should have every right to correct it as more evidence becomes available - and there will always be more evidence, unless you are omniscient.