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. (They become reified in processes, detached from the aim that inspired their development.)

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). This causes the quality and relevance of research in empirical psychology to degenerate.

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 mechanizing thought in bureaucratic processes or bracketing ourselves out of existence while we follow an eternal diagram (our role in conceiving it, forgotten).

In a nutshell, don't treat a working hypothesis, guideline, process or model as if it issued from the heavens. After all, it's your model 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. 

Tuesday, August 7, 2012

Ironic Observations on Dawkinism

Rather ironically, literalism, in religion (taking religious stories literally) is a fallout from an emphasis on empirical evidence (tangible, observable) and likely a newish phenomenon. At the same time, when non literalist people believe a religious text to be true, what do they believe is true? Do they find only metaphors that explain an aspect of personal psychology? I don't think so. 

When I look at what religions do, they don't so much answer metaphysical questions or address individual psychological phenomena as they sort out the social order, governing social and economic institutions. A very simple example: The hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful, includes the lines, "The rich man in his castle, the poor man at the gate, God ranks them high and lowly and measures their estate." Religions sanction the "divine right of kings", my general metaphor for the myths that sustain various forms of social organization.

So I'd like to say to Richard Dawkins, "look, we're primates and primates are hierarchical, clannish and tribal, but as humans we don't have a great sense of smell so we need other vehicles to transmit instinctive forms of organization ;) and your reduction of myth to childish stories actually closes off a whole area of possible investigation." Of course, Freud and others reduced conscious experience to include only what can be articulated more or less prosaically, while I'm sure plenty of our conscious experience is filled with things we can't quite clarify as easily as the author of "All Things Bright and Beautiful".  

Our fuzzier, less prosaic, numinous experiences don't seem to live anywhere but on the fringe - and even there, people are trying to explain these experiences with references to complexity theory or quantum physics (either to reduce numinous experience to science or to give scientific weight to the "spiritual realm").

The reason Dawkins is keenly writing books that debunk religion probably ties in with the fact that we're at a critical juncture in terms of our economic relationship with the planet and each other. A new governing narrative will probably emerge, but I certainly hope it's not something that channels us to a cyborg singularity.

(Inspired by )

Saturday, April 7, 2012

Context, what context? There are only things, things and more things (rather a lot of things, really).

I think the biggest intellectual sin of the western thinking is to erase context.

There are two variations. One is duplicity. If you can frame something incompletely, you can spin anything, and given that framing is not the strong suit of our cultural discursive modality, spin rules and we don't even know what non-spin would be. Why? because of the second area in which the western mind erases context:

In pursuing objectivity exclusively by trying to define things in eternal terms (mathematically), a researcher would still have to identify/place the relevant conditions in order to make predictions or design working machines, an art for which there is no algorithm. Sure, s/he can model some astoundingly complex scenarios - all well and good - until the practitioners suppose that this model works for everything, in which case the set of vast, messy, tangled set of influences gets in the way, rather a lot.  But because the western habit is to ignore context, we can ignore a vast set of influences, a whole host of potential questions and other avenues of research...

Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Society for the Promotion of Cosmological Literacy (Temporary Title)

I'm looking for like-minded folks interested in forming a society for the promotion of (materialist but non-reductionist) cosmological literacy. 

I'm inspired by some of the thoughts of Loren Eiseley, Stuart Kauffman, Manuel DeLanda but I'm sure there are others you may know that I haven't yet encountered. 

We'd arrange high level talks across the Canada or even internationally on history/anthropology/economics/ecology/religion/various sciences and related themes to promote that. The aim would be to get us past the idea of human beings as nature-transcending while realizing that, strangely, so many people today still live under the "firmament".  We could also work to situate religious belief historically against a backdrop of paleontological and geological history (for lack of a better word). A better lived understanding of our relationship to nature and our impact on ecology is needed. 

I'm very uninterested in new age or creationist metaphysical theories based in the supposition of forces or entities based on a misunderstanding of complexity or quantum physics.  Equally uninterested in being part of anything that dismisses the existence of anything at all that can't be explained within the current understanding of laws-of-nature or assumes that there is only one fundamental layer of existence and that everything else is epi____. (e.g., Wilson and Weinberg). 

If interested, please reply.