Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Considered Life...

A very short, pivotal piece by Stuart Kauffman: This has important implications in almost every domain.

Friday, October 21, 2011

Inventory and Alienation

Haven't posted for a while. There has been a lot in the non-virtual world to tend to lately.

My Dad used to tell of the saying that he and his fellow Englishmen belonged to "a nation of shopkeepers." Looking at this from a distance, combined with the general ubiquity of English "empiricism", I see the general worldview encapsulated in this saying as one of "inventory". Of course we associate empiricism with evidence and objectivity, the successful scientific method, and contrast it with the general failure of scholastic philosophy (as parodied by Monty Python in the witch skit in the film, the Holy Grail, for example) which is viewed as contributing nothing more than impractical and fanciful speculations. I'm led to think, though, that our insistence on clear definitions and numbers owes itself far more to our economic arrangements than our scientific one, and science suffers as much as the rest of us for a misplaced trust in clear definitions and numbers.

Is the world in fact "composed of things of various kinds in various numbers"? Yes, obviously, most people would say. But that describes an inventory, not an ecosphere, which is rather more dynamic and complex. So what do scientists do if not inventory? They do think in numbers and definitions. The cornerstone of experimentation is the "operational definition" which is about defining something in measurable, numerical terms. In order to accomplish this, scientists need to speculate about potential influences on the object of study and set up experiments to "control for" these influences in ways that can be measured. And in order to manage this, they need to circumscribe the list of potential influences, which for certain things (i.e., things that we'd say are "law governed", i.e., mechanical things) is doable.  Well, gosh, that would be obvious wouldn't it, because if things weren't law governed, no scientist could manage to create an experiment with reliable predictions and repeatable results.

It's my view that this approach is only amenable to objects of study where context can be mathematically parsed out of the equations, and those things are everywhere, but not necessarily everything (i.e., certain areas of physics and chemistry.) In other words, scientific laws describe ideal relations, without context. The particular context is supplied by the "initial conditions". Is there ever a situation where the initial conditions can't be exhaustively identified? Of course! Pretty well every situation that is not covered by the "hard sciences."

Stuart Kauffman suggests that we "sneak in" the lawfulness in hard science by roping things off, setting them up in advance "by hand". Yes, this is awesome that we can do this, and it's what allows us to have incredibly complicated technologies and wonderful experimental discoveries in physics and chemistry, but I don't believe that, even in principle we'd be able to identify the field of things meant to count as initial conditions for all the different occasions and events in the world. At best, we could do so retroactively, but never proactively.

What this means is that for much of what we try to plan and determine, we identify rather an incomplete list of things that count as conditions for the outcomes we are projecting. People are becoming more attuned to this fact as, for example, they now talk about "wicked problems" in business planning; in other words, problems whose dimensions are not definable and enumerable in advance. People have always known that ecology and sociology do not make the kinds of hard and fast predictions of physics and chemistry, but the question is why and the answer is that they do not have the kinds of problems where the "parsing out" that goes on in physics and chemistry can be done. Why don't they? Because not everything that occurs happens at one scale. Everything is intertwined, everything is interconnected, everything influences on several scales. Mechanical (or "reductionist") thinking focuses only on one. This focus keeps us alienated from discovery and from life. If an experience of a situation doesn't fit into that box, it's supposed to be "merely subjective" and otherwise non-existent? (Talk of epiphenomena, or even silly concepts such as supervenience are used as ad hoc supplements to reductionist models.)

Types, lists and numbers. How much of our planning counts these as the cornerstone? More to the point, how much of our ideas of worth are tied to these "real, practical, objective, factual, measurable" things? Are these not our very idea of what's worth pursuing? (Think of S.M.A.R.T. goals for example.)

I'm not sure that's smart or even scientific, to be honest. It's just an inventory.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The constellations of philosophy?


The patterns of every socio-economic organization in history and the powers that maintain them are supported by a tacit ontology (myth/theory of what reality is) that underpins public discourse and the social narrative. This ontology serves to legitimate the social order in the same way as the ancient belief in the "divine right of kings" or "mandate of heaven". (Another metaphor that may work in place of the divine right of kings might be heavenly/stellar constellations. Ancient rites seem to have connected them.)

Philosophers are by trade apologists for or critics of the divine right of kings (i.e., the ontology that underpins the social narrative). It is changes in technology that occasion changes in the social narrative (and only indirectly philosophy) because technological change gives rise to the need for changes in the patterns of economic and thus social organization, which then calls forth a new narrative. Philosophers gain a following when they contribute to a sustaining narrative, or to one held onto by soon-to-be eclipsed powers (there's usually a lag...).

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

The Wisdom of Crowds...

I have seen talks about social media by people with expertise who objected to the "everyone's an expert" phenomenon. The issue that concerns me, though, is not so much that some opinionated bloggers :D can claim more of a following than people who know what they're talking about but it's about the nature of influence and the apparent malleability of public opinion.

People's cultural beliefs are generally, well, cultural, historical, inherited and then mussed around by messages that support the economy (the economy is how we are organized and then interact to get what we need from nature.) We know why we need a public broadcaster in a world where messages are dominated by the power-houses of the economy. What's to stop the same people who created so-called "populist" sound-byte news from dominating the social media web-o-sphere and having an even greater influence on public opinion?

Charles Taylor decried the emphasis on the economic machine as a cultural ideal in an article entitled "The Agony of Economic Man" (1971). More generally, and very much related, are the warnings of thinkers like Maslow and Gadamer about our conflation of means with ends in an increasingly instrumentalist society.

Our real social ideals have become seen as "merely" subjective values. A sizable majority of people seem generally keen on aligning themselves with whatever version of "the divine right of kings" plays out in public discourse. Far from being either populist or grass roots wisdom, where each person contributes his or her own carefully thought-out view to the common good, what seems to be the case is that, as Matthew Taylor says in his RSAnimate talk, 21st Century Enlightenment (also posted below), people pursue "simplistic and inadequate ideas of freedom, justice and progress." They're simplistic, IMO, because they're not framed as cultural ideals, but as ideological supports for the "economy", i.e., as supports for the instrumental requirements of the economic power-houses.

With public opinion as the opinion of the electorate/tax payers, whose side do the politicians need to be on when public opinion is so readily influenced?

What is the role of the new media government communications person or policy analyst when this question needs to be taken in to account?

(I'd recommend the article by David Blacker, linked on the side, if you're up for a bit of a think.)

These are all difficult questions.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Thursday, June 2, 2011

The State of Ontological Systems and Systems Ontology

Google comes up with 0 hits for ["philosophy of science" "ontology of state-space"]. So I searched ontology of systems (since state space is the mathematical classification of systems), and it seems that the ontology of systems IS the state space. That is utter circularity. That is the perverse effects of metrics at the heart of human cognition. Taxonomy does not equal reality. Our habits are deeply wired.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Initial Conditions and Predictability

According to physicist, Eugene Wigner (article linked in sidebar), physics is possible because we are able to identify regularities in nature.
The world around us is of baffling complexity and the most obvious fact about it is that we cannot predict the future... It is, as Schrodinger has remarked, a miracle that in spite of the baffling complexity of the world, certain regularities in the events could be discovered. One such regularity, discovered by Galileo, is that two rocks, dropped at the same time from the same height, reach the ground at the same time. The laws of nature are concerned with such regularities...
This is surprising, he says, for a few reasons. The first is that it is true everywhere on earth and it will always be true, i.e., it is invariant. The second reason that it is surprising is that this invariance "is independent of so many conditions that could have an effect on it." It doesn't matter where on earth or by whom the rocks are dropped and "there are innumerable other conditions which are all immaterial from the point of view of the validity of Galileo's regularity." He says,
The irrelevancy of so many circumstances which could play a role in the phenomenon observed has also been called an invariance. However, this invariance is of a different character from the preceding one since it cannot be formulated as a general principle. The exploration of the conditions which do, and which do not, influence a phenomenon is part of the early experimental exploration of a field. It is the skill and ingenuity of the experimenter which show him phenomena which depend on a relatively narrow set of relatively easily realizable and reproducible conditions. (Italics added.)
This is important when it comes to understanding the surprising thing about making predictions. Wigner says, "the law of nature is contained in the statement that the length of time which it takes for a heavy object to fall from a given height is independent of the size, material, and shape of the body which drops."

Given certain "easily realizable and reproducible" Initial Conditions (ICs) and a Law of Nature (LN), then a Prediction will follow. (IC & LN) > P. However, 
the laws of nature can be used to predict future events only under exceptional circumstances - when all the relevant determinants of the present state of the world are known. It is also in consonance with this that the construction of machines, the functioning of which he can foresee, constitutes the most spectacular accomplishment of the physicist. In these machines, the physicist creates a situation in which all the relevant coordinates are known so that the behavior of the machine can be predicted. Radars and nuclear reactors are examples of such machines.
The two important points I draw from the preceding exposition are:
  1. In order to apply a law to make a prediction you need to identify the relevant conditions (ICs).
  2. The ability to isolate phenomena whose regularity can be demonstrated with easily reproducible conditions cannot be summed up in a general principle. 
 To those two points I would also add an idea that I think follows from an insight of Stuart Kauffman, author of Reinventing the Sacred (linked on the sidebar) where he says, in analyzing mechanical systems, 
physicists since Newton have put in the constraints..."by hand" as what are called the mathematical "boundary conditions" on a system, rather like the boundaries of a billiard table, that keep the balls from rolling off into infinity or under the table. Given the boundary conditions, physicists state the initial conditions, particles and forces, and solve the equations for the subsequent dynamics...
But in the real universe, we can ask, "Where do the constraints themselves come from?"(pp. 90-91) (italics added.)
Although in principle it might be possible to retroactively determine the sequence of events that gave rise to a naturally occurring phenomenon (then again, there's the problem of infinite regress), no one could specify the relevant conditions in advance of every phenomenon-to-be in this complex world. What would we be looking for?

Kauffman discusses the evolution of life and considers Darwinian preadaptations; e.g., three bones in the jaw of an ancestral fish that become bones in the middle ear in species descended from it. At the time this ancient fish lived, was there any way to predict the role of its bones in later species, let alone what later species would emerge?

This is not just an issue of complexity or chaos; i.e., sensitivity to initial conditions (a.k.a "the butterfly effect"). It is that, as Kauffman says, we can't prestate the relevant conditions  (p. 139 ff). What potentials will become actualities?  In Kauffman's view, this is not just an epistemic limitation, it is an ontological one. He says, "the evolution of life violates no law of physics, but cannot be reduced to physics." Not all of nature is law governed. 

So it seems to Kauffman, and to me, that the "natural law" model of a mechanistic universe has limited applicability; i.e., to "phenomena which depend on a relatively narrow set of relatively easily realizable and reproducible conditions."

We cannot completely predict the future, and generally that idea gives me comfort. Nature has space to play.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

On Elitism

Ironically, populist movements in the US support the elite (creditor class, plutocrats, monopoly capitalists) and laws that increase their wealth and power, which are sold as contributing to greater individual freedom while increasing the class divide. Meanwhile the American Dream of individual freedom that began with the Age of Enlightenment has become a ridiculous caricature, as it is considered "elitist" to trust scientists and intellectuals, who are generally motivated by curiosity and concern for the public good more than self-interest.

It doesn't make sense to think of society or social institutions in terms of the original "social contract" among rational consenting individuals because, clearly, individuals maintain their identities in terms of their relationship to a real or idealized group, not by means of some inborn identity and a capacity for individual reasoning.  People are born into and conditioned into an existing culture, with its history, its images, and its language . Speech is always historically and culturally conditioned and most people welcome that conditioning, although they may tell you otherwise by way of some fantasy "lone cowboy" image of individualism or something along those lines, equally culturally conditioned.We are members of real or idealized tribes and in times of rapid change in technology, the precursor to a change in ideology, there is a culture lag. Today we see culture regression. In some years, this will pass, hopefully with less pain than in times past.

Politics is not about rational choices. It's about tribal allegiances and, in uncertain times, it's the ancient archetype of the alpha male tribal leader, perhaps updated to the archetype of a valiant king, that keeps the lines of power organized and most people aligned to the interests of the oligarchy that directs our economy, regardless of what government regulators may want to do about it. Although our contemporary stories still indicate some deformed attempts to escape some vestigial projection of feudalism, the instinct to submit to the "divine right of kings" across many domains of human endeavour doesn't seem to have abated much.

What is an economy? It is a combination of our technologies, how we are socially organized to make the best use of them (or not) to produce what we need (and much, much more) from nature, and the institutions and stories that sustain that arrangement, and the powers of those who dominate the economy, in whom our powers are vested. We, more often than not, work against our personal advantage (usually unwittingly) and instead maintain the structures that in turn maintain our investment in the powers that sanction the rules and rituals that organize our lives and public relationships. For example, mothers in certain countries make sure that their daughters are "circumcised" in order to ensure their marriageability.

Today though if you dare to dream that reason, morality, art and respect for evidence (science) will help see us through to a more just arrangement, you may be called "elitist". This label is vestige of the hatred of the privileges of the feudal lords. It has nothing to do with today's world. Populism is the vehicle that most acutely and continually sustains the elite today. The next question is, what does that mean for democracy, if the dream of the enlightenment has become something "elitist"?

Of course, it's much more complicated than dreamers of the enlightenment may care to think. There is a deep seated sense that enlightenment dreams represent a kind of hubris on the part of human beings, as if we could rationally organize ourselves or submit our wills to a rational economy (invisible hand, "free"enterprise) to best achieve our increasingly empty ends.  Of course we can't. The the complexity of the world would prevent our being able to do it - although frighteningly, the recent rediscovery of the complexity of nature doesn't prevent our ability to think it. 

What is the alternative? As many are voicing today, the solution is in being adaptive, in our responsiveness and resilience. Rather than fixed universal truths of "human nature" or visions of true science, the just beneficence of some "invisible hand" economics, or various ideological diseases that afflict us today, I think we should rediscover what it means to understand, in all its dimensions, with the proviso that human understanding is ever-provisional.

Today more than ever we need to understand our relationship to the world we burden with the polluting byproducts of our Promethean dreams and our unrelenting, culturally conditioned searches for a better life. We will never arrive at a perfect solution but we can find our way to a more harmonious one, I hope.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Materialists aren't materialists.

We don't live in a "materialist" society.  The prevailing views about what's real in the world are not based on a materialist philosophy, but on an inverted kind of transcendence, the decaying legacy of an ancient metaphorical, conceptual separation of heaven and earth. (This separation has evolved over history, but I'm starting with its most recent incarnation.)

So, what is inverted transcendence? Think of it this way. Since ancient times, we have believed that the most knowable is the most real. The most profound way we have of knowing our world comes through the use of concepts and mathematics. Concepts and mathematical relationships describing nature are idealizations of patterns of regularity that we find in nature. 

To get objective about nature, we have to arrange it so it fits our conceptual and mathematical tools, our idealizations of it. This has proven very successful in areas where researchers can control and eliminate local contingencies to get to the universally constant laws (such as laws of motion.) This is what allows people to build reliable machines. However, not all of nature is amenable to this approach to research (unless you think that nature is "nothing but" particles in motion; i.e., unless you privilege that one scale of things and stamp it with the label, Reality, and talk of building blocks, putting the methodological cart firmly before the ontological horse as is the wont of reductionists...) 

Nature is not just particles in motion, it exists on many scales - it is ecosystems, tectonic plates smashing together, the act of breathing, rustling leaves, strange creatures swimming by vents in the ocean floor, reproducing, etc.  These things have power to make changes in the world. Not all causality occurs at the level of sub atomic particles. 

One cannot locate and eliminate local contingencies and make rigorously controlled experiments when studying human behaviour and other phenomena. All natural phenomena are complex.  Human beings reduce natural phenomena to idealized mathematical objects, quantities and relations - particles in motion governed by natural laws. 

So, from a scientific perspective, the matter we call objective reality is a conceptually reduced scale of existence - a useful idealization. Note the absence of any value ideal in those mathematical idealizations, though. Nature, as seen through the reductionist lens, has no purpose. So what are we transcending with our idealizations of matter? Our vitality? Our lived experiences? Our woes and joys? Certainly there is joy in the act of genuine discovery, but that's peripheral to the reductionistic project. More and more people talk of the next stage of evolution as a cyborg society, to my mind a symptom of the nihilism in the project. Even basic drive is purpose. Even this nihilism is purpose.

So what is inverted transcendence, as distinguished from materialism? Painted in an extreme kind of way, I'd say an inverted transcendence is one which focuses on reduced idealized matter, not on nature, and has as its point the reduction and idealization of nature, and the subjection of our human interests and cares to that model.  Or perhaps I could put it this way: Heaven and earth became separated and nature was reduced to an idealized inert matter. It was virginalized. Next, heaven was eliminated from the picture of how the world is,  leaving us with laws of nature or what Sheldrake calls "the ghost of the god of the world machine." (Have a listen to Minute 13:30 to 15:30 of his CBC podcast. I'm deeply skeptical of many of Sheldrake's explanations, but like his questions.)

Having shied from understanding material nature in its richness, we're not really asking or learning about ourselves in a way that situates us in nature, where we might gather the learning we need to adjust and make the right decisions. There is a loss of meaning. Meanwhile, we're inundated with products. We're all dressed up with nowhere to go, except to an ecological tipping point.

I don't think the solution to this strange nihilism is to reinstate some kind of theological or platonic heaven but to heal the split and come back to earth. To do that, we need to find a new way of looking at matter, while questioning what it is we wish to transcend.

Matter is not inert.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Why this blog?

This blog is called "Art of Objectivity" because I don't think objectivity has a formula or methodological foundation. When I first read the article (included in the sidebar) by Eugene Wigner, a physicist,  I was struck by his saying that it is not the application of some principle, template, formula or algorithm, but rather, "the skill and ingenuity" of an experimenter, which allows him or her to identify objects of study whose causes can be identified and reproduced.  I think this could be expanded (with some major caveats, to be introduced later) to say that human beings can learn to identify themes and recurring patterns, and with caution, use them to navigate their way in nature and in the world of politics, and they do so best, not by relying on some kind of "best practice" or pure unbiased methodology (whatever that would be) but by applying their care and concern, interest and curiosity, wisdom and intelligence to problem solving.  This is a dignified approach to learning.

With that in mind, I can explain why I'm writing this blog. I'm thinking aloud about the way we come to understand our relationship to nature. There have been countless stories about this over milennia and its countless civilizations.

The stories that we tell come to us from different dimensions of existence: myths and religions, the political sphere, the world of academics (both the sciences and humanities) and its tribal schisms, even today the world of image and advertising.

Anthropologists, psychoanalysts, analytical psychologists, philosophers, sociologists and historians all have commented on our ideas about ourselves in the world.  It seems to me, though, that we haven't really come to the right questions to ask, because we insulate ourselves in our anthropomorphic bubbles - those stories either scientific, religious or political, that continue to make some aspect of humanity the key to our eternal rightness and well-being in a world that we are supposed to transcend, one way or another. We believe we transcend nature because we're mostly rational beings (we're not, of course) or beings for whom nature itself was created (it wasn't) or beings who are enlightened, modern, no longer superstitious and "primitive" or primordial.

My take is that we're products of nature, we live in nature, we are hominids, mammals, vertebrates, etc., and we, like other animals, have instincts. To come to an understanding of our relationship to the world, we need to question and understand our deepest instincts about it.

I work from the hypothesis that human instincts unconsciously anchor the relationships between the available technology , the work we do gathering what we need from nature, our economic and social roles in the distribution of what we gather, and the power structures that emerge from that dynamic.  We have deeply embedded scripts around these relationships and these contribute to a profound sense of belonging. I would say these stories have a scent that connects and grounds us (well or ill.) Our instincts occur to us in ritual and symbology, ranging from the most solemn (e.g., rituals of birth, marriage, death) to the most power entrenching (i.e., attaining the throne) to the most rousing (e.g., sports), to the superficial (Tim Horton's vis a vis the Canadian national identity and other well-merchandised rituals of a consumer economy. )

So, in future entries, what I'm going to try to do is spell out our stories of our relation to nature and how they sustain our social and political roles. (This has implications for change management, as well.)