Posts Tagged ‘language’

Cartesian problems cannot be solved by Cartesian solutions, no matter where those solutions originate

April 13, 2019

Trying to persuade or educate individuals to change the way they think and act, by pointing to the facts or by making emotional or moral appeals, seems always and everywhere to be the default go-to solution for those interested in addressing social and environmental problems. I suppose that approach works to varying degrees for different issues, but behavior change never occurs on as massive a scale as when it is mediated by a technology that enables people to do something they value.

The meaning of McLuhan’s expression, “the medium is the message,” and the long history of the many ways in which technologies transform cultures, for better and for worse, all seem utterly lost and forgotten when it comes to efforts aimed at provoking culture change. The ongoing discourses of environmental and social justice inevitably always seem to come back to targeting individual decisions and behaviors as the only recourse for effecting change.

But history teaches us that, if we want to change our values, we have to figure out how to embed the new terms in virally communicable metaphors that enthrall imaginations and captivate people’s attention and interest. Cultures turn on shared meanings that make some behaviors more likely than others. Good metaphors (“love is a rose;” “God is love”) organize experience in ways that allow infinite creative variations on the theme while also lending just a bit of structure and predictability to how things play out. We need to root new metaphors embodying shared human values in information infrastructures that operationalize consensus standards as the common currencies in which those values circulate.

Though the ongoing culture wars seem to suggest wildly divergent values in play across communities, research in developmental psychology strongly indicates that these differences are not what they seem. No matter what their politics, people need to feel valued, to have stable identities, to be recognized as someone of worth, to have a place of dignity in a community, to be trusted, and to see that others enjoy all of these qualities as well. Experience shows that these conditions cannot be implemented by a simple decree or force of will. Broad general conditions have to be cultivated in ways that make the emergence of abundant social capital resources more likely.

A point of entry into thinking about how those conditions might be created is provided by a 2010 quote in the Miami Herald from Gus Speth, former Dean of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (http://tinyurl.com/y7mqtzzn). Speth recounts his sense that scientific solutions to ecosystem and climate problems are insufficient because the actual causes of the problems are greed, selfishness, and apathy. So he appeals to religious leaders for help.

But Speth’s moral diagnosis is as misconceived and uninformed as his original scientific one. As has been the topic of multiple posts in this blog, many of today’s problems cannot be solved using the same kind of Cartesian dualist thinking that was used in creating those problems. Voluminous citations in those earlier posts tap a large literature in the philosophy, history, and social studies of science describing a diverse array of examples of nondualist ecosystem thinking and acting (for instance, see references below). These works show how technological media fuse, embody, distribute, and enact social, moral, aesthetic, economic, and scientific values in complex multilevel metasystems (systems of systems). Moral values of fairness, for instance, are embedded in the quantitative values of measurement technologies exported from laboratories into markets where they inform economic values in trade.

Our task is to learn from these examples so that we can develop and deploy new languages that resonate with new values in analogous ways across similarly diverse cultural domains. Beauty, meaning, and poetry have to be as important as logic, mathematics, and science. Readily available theory and evidence already show how all of these are playing their roles in the evolving cultural transformation.

And, fortunately for humanity as well as for the earth, the new nondualist noncartesian solutions will not and cannot be primarily an outcome of deliberate intentions and conscious willpower. On the contrary, these integrated problem-solution monads are living, organic, self-organizing embodiments of ideas that captivate imaginations and draw creative, entrepreneurial energies in productive directions.

Of course, this kind of thing has happened many times in the past, though it has not previously emerged as a result of the kind of cultivated orchestration occurring today. Williamson, North, Ostrom, Coase, and others describe the roles institutions have played in setting up the rules, roles, and responsibilities of efficient markets. Today, new institutions are arising in a context of reproducible scientific results supporting ownership of, investments in, and profits harvested from sustainable impacts measured and managed via virally communicable media spreading social contagions of love and care. This is coming about because we all seek and value meaning and beauty right along with the capacity to enjoy life, liberty, and prosperity. However differently we each define and experience meaning and beauty, caring for the unity and sameness of the objects of the conversations that we are enables us to balance harmonies and dissonances in endless variations performed by every imaginable kind of rhythmic and melodic musical ensemble.

So instead of expecting different results from repeated applications of the same dualistic thinking that got us into today’s problems, we need to think and act nondualistically. Instead of assuming that solutions do not themselves already presuppose and embody problems of a certain type, we need to think in terms of integrated problem-solution monads deployed throughout ecosystems like species in symbiotic relationships. This is precisely what’s happened historically with the oil-automobile-highway-plastics-engineering ecosystem, and with the germ-disease-pharmaceutical-public health-medicine ecosystem. In each case, financial, market, accounting, regulatory, legal, educational, and other institutions evolved in tandem with the emerging sociotechnical ecology.

Now we face urgent needs to think and act on previously unheard of scales and levels of complexity. We have to work together and coordinate efforts in social and psychological domains with no previous history of communications capable of functioning at the needed efficiencies.

But merely urging people to live differently will never result in the changes that must be brought about. No matter how compelling the facts, no matter how persuasive the emotional power, and no matter how inspirational the moral argument, individual people and small groups simply cannot create new shared standards of behavior out of thin air. We are all products of our times and our sociocultural environments. People cannot be expected to simply wake up one day and spontaneously transform their habits by an effort of will. Instead, the values of fairness, equity, inclusion, and justice we say we live by must be embedded within the very fabric of everyday life, the way hours, meters, liters, degrees, grams, and volts are now.

That is, measurements read off instruments calibrated in fair units of comparison—measurements mathematically equivalent to those made with the scales of justice, measurements expressed in the common metrics of a new international system of units, and measurements as adaptable to local individual improvisations as they are generally comparable and navigable—have to be built into every institution in just the same way existing units of measurement are. Education, health care, social services, human resource management, environmental solutions—all of these and more need to attend closely to ways in which the objects of conversation can be more systematically expressed in meaningful words. Ecosystem thinking demands that everyone and everything in a system of relationships must be consistently kept in proportionate contact, within ranges of reported uncertainty, instead of being disconnected off into separate incommensurable universes of discourse, as occurs in today’s institutions.

These are all monumentally huge challenges. But much of the hardest work has been underway for decades, with important results and resources spreading into widely used applications often taken for granted in the background of largely unexamined assumptions. These results are now well enough established, and the associated social and environmental problems are so serious, that more can and should be done to put them to use.

The need for new values is indeed urgent, but empty talk and doing more of the same is getting us nowhere, at best, and more often is worsening conditions. Conceptual determinations of reproducible mathematical values embodying people’s lived social and moral values in fungible economic values are not just theoretical possibilities or provisional experimental results. They are longstanding, widely available, and practical, as well as beautiful and meaningful. With attentive cultivation and nurturing, there are abundant reasons for believing in a safe, healthy, happy, and prosperous future for humanity and life on earth.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available at http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com.

Self-Sustaining Sustainability

August 6, 2018

After decades of efforts and massive resources expended in trying to create a self-sustaining sustainable economy, perhaps it is time to wonder if we are going about it the wrong way. There seems to be truly significant and widespread desire for change, but the often inspiring volumes of investments and ingenuity applied to the problem persistently prove insufficient to the task. Why?

I’ve previously and repeatedly explained how finding the will to change is not the issue. This time I’ll approach my proposed solution in a different way.

Q: How do we create a self-sustaining sustainable economy?

A: By making sustainability profitable in monetary terms as well as in the substantive real terms of the relationships we live out with each other and the earth. Current efforts in this regard focus solely on reducing energy costs enough to compensate for investments in advancing the organizational mission. We need far more comprehensively designed solutions than that.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By financially rewarding improved sustainability at every level of innovation, from the individual to the community to the firm.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By instituting rights to the ownership of human, social, and natural capital properties, and by matching the demand for sustainability with the supply of it in a way that will inform arbitrage and pricing.

Q: How do we do that?

A: By lowering the cost of the information needed to be able to know how many shares of human, social, and natural capital stocks are owned, and to match demand with supply.

Q: How could that be done?

A: By investing as a society in improving the quality and distribution of the available information.

Q: What does that take?

A: Creating dependable and meaningful tools for ascertaining the quantity, quality, and type of sustainability impacts on human, social, and natural capital being offered.

Q: Can that be done?

A: The technical art and science of measurement needed for creating these tools is well established, having been in development for almost 100 years.

Q: How do we start?

A: An important lesson of history is that building the infrastructure and its array of applications follows in the wake of, and cannot precede, the institution of the constitutional ideals. We must know what the infrastructure and applications will look like in their general features, but nothing will ever be done if we think we have to have them in place before instantiating the general frame of reference. The most general right to own legal title to human, social, and natural capital can be instituted, and the legal status of new metric system units can be established, before efforts are put into unit standards, traceability processes, protocols for intralaboratory ruggedness tests and interlaboratory round robin trials, conformity assessments, etc.

Q: It sounds like an iterative process.

A: Yes, one that must attend from the start to the fundamental issues of information coherence and complexity, as is laid out in my recent work with Emily Oon, Spencer Benson, Jack Stenner, and others.

Q: This sounds highly technical, utilitarian, and efficient. But all the talk of infrastructure, standards, science, and laboratories sounds excessively technological. Is there any place in this scheme for ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics? And how are risk and uncertainty dealt with?

A: We can take up each of these in turn.

Ecological values: To use an organic metaphor, we know the DNA of the various human, social, and natural capital forms of life, or species, and we know their reproductive and life cycles, and their ecosystem requirements. What we have not done is to partner with each of these species in relationships that focus on maximizing the quality of their habitats, their maturation, and the growth of their populations. Social, psychological, and environmental relationships are best conceived as ecosystems of mutual interdependencies. Being able to separate and balance within-individual, between-individual, and collective levels of complexity in these interdependencies will be essential to the kinds of steward leadership needed for creating and maintaining new sociocognitive ecosystems. Our goal here is to become the change we want to institute, since caterpillar to butterfly metamorphoses come about only via transformations from within.

Ethics: The motivating intention is to care simultaneously and equally effectively for both individual uniqueness and global humanity. In accord with the most fundamental ethical decision, we choose discourse over violence, and we do so by taking language as the model for how things come into words. Language is itself alive in the sense of the collective processes by which new meanings come into it. Language moreover has the remarkable capacity of supporting local concrete improvisations and creativity at the same time that it provides navigable continuity and formal ideals. Care for the unity and sameness of meaning demands a combination of rigorous conceptual determinations embodied in well-defined words with practical applications of those words in local improvisations. That is how we support the need to make decisions with inevitably incomplete and inconsistent information while not committing the violence of the premature conclusion. The challenge is one of finding a balance between openness and boundaries that allows language and our organizational cultures to be stable while also evolving. Our technical grasp of complex adaptive systems, autopoiesis, and stochastic measurement information models is advanced enough to meet these ethical requirements of caring for ourselves, each other, and the earth.

Aesthetics: An aesthetic desire for and love of beauty roots the various forms of life inhabiting diverse niches in the proposed knowledge ecosystem and information infrastructure, and does so in the ground of the ethical choice of discourse and meaning over violence. The experience of beauty teaches us how to understand meaning. The attraction to beauty is a unique human phenomenon because it combines apparent opposites into a single complex feeling. Even when the object of desire is possessed as fully as possible, desire is not eliminated, and even when one feels the object of desire to be lost or completely out of touch, its presence and reality is still felt. So, too, with meaning: no actual instance of anything in the world ever embodies the fullness of an abstract conceptual ideal. This lesson of beauty is perhaps most plainly conveyed in music, where artists deliberately violate the standards of instrument tuning to create fascinating and absorbing combinations of harmony and dissonance from endlessly diverse ensembles. Some tunings persist beyond specific compositions to become immediately identifiable trademark sounds. In taking language as a model, the aesthetic combination of desire and possession informs the ethics of care for the unity and sameness of meaning, and vice versa. And ecological values, ethics, and aesthetics stand on par with the technical concerns of calibration and measurement.

Risk and uncertainty: Calibrating a tool relative to a unit standard is by itself already a big step toward reducing uncertainty and risk. Instead of the chaos of dozens of disconnected sustainability indicators, or the cacophony of hundreds or thousands of different tests, assessments, or surveys measuring the same things, we will have data and theory supporting interpretation of reproducible patterns. These patterns will be, and in many cases already are, embodied in instruments that further reduce risk by defining an invariant unit of comparison, simplifying interpretation, reducing opportunities for mistakes, by quantifying uncertainty, and by qualifying it in terms of the anomalous exceptions that depart from expectations. Each of these is a special feature of rigorously defined measurement that will eventually become the expected norm for information on sustainability.

For more on these themes, see my other blog posts here, my various publications, and my SSRN page.

 

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Economy of language, Eros, meaning, the public, and its problems

July 11, 2017

The medium is the message. The more transparent the medium is, the more seductive the messages expressed in it. The seductiveness of numbers stems from their roots in the mathematical quality of all thinking: the way that signs are used as the media of concept-thing relations. Our captivation with numbers is entirely embedded in the allure of language, which stems in large part from its economy: knowing how to read, write, speak, and listen saves us the trouble of re-inventing words and concepts for ourselves, and of having to translate each other’s private languages. The problem is, of course, that having words for things and sharing them by no means assures understanding. But when it works, it really works, as the history of science shows.

Seductive enthrallment with meaning and beauty defines the parameters of the difference between the modern Cartesian dualist world view and the emerging unmodern nondualist world view. This is the whole point of taking up Heidegger’s sense of method as meta-odos. As Plato saw, Socrates’ recounting of the myth of Eros told to him by Diotima conveys how captivation with beauty embodies the opposites of wealth and poverty in a simultaneous possession and absence, neither of which is ever complete.

The evolutionary/developmental paradigm shift taking place will transform everything by institutionalizing in every area of life an order of magnitude increase in the complexity of relationships, and a corresponding increase in the simplicity with which those relationships can be managed. The compelling absorption into the flow of meaning that necessarily informs discourse but currently functions as an unacknowledged assumption informing operations will itself be brought into view and will become an object of operations.

As Dewey understood, public consciousness of an issue or set of issues, and the will to take them on, emerges when existing institutions fail. We are certainly living in a time in which our political, economic, social, educational, medical, legal, environmental, etc. institutions have been failing to live up to their responsibilities for quite a number of years. The efforts of the public to address these failures have been obstructed by the lack of the media needed for integrating the complex, multilevel, and discontinuous opposites of harmony and dissonance, agreement and dissent, that structure a binding, coherent culture.

Science is nothing but an extension of everyday reasoning. Instead of imitating the natural sciences, the social sciences need to focus on how science extends the complex cognitive ecologies of language. As we figure that out and get these metasystems in place, we will simultaneously create the media the public needs to find its voice and organize itself to meet the challenges of how to build new institutions capable of successfully countering human suffering, social discontent, and environmental degradation.

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LivingCapitalMetrics Blog by William P. Fisher, Jr., Ph.D. is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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Modern, Postmodern, or Amodern?

February 17, 2010

A few points of clarification might be in order for those wondering what the fuss is all about in the contrast between the modern and the postmodern (and the amodern, which is really what we ought to be about).

The modern world view takes its perspective from the foundational works of the European Enlightenment and the Scientific Revolution. One of its characteristic features is often referred to as the Cartesian duality, or subject-object split, in which we (the subjects) enter the previously-existing objective world as blank slates who deal with reality by adapting to the facts of existence (which are God-given in the full Christian version). Many Marxists, feminists, and postmodernists see modernism as a bastion of white males in positions of political and economic superiority oblivious to the way their ideas were shaped by their times, and happy to take full advantage of their positions for their own gain.

Postmodernism takes a variety of forms and has not yet really jelled into any kind of uniform perspective; in fact, it might not ever do so, as one of its few recurrent themes has to do with the fragmentation of thinking and its local dependence on the particular power relations of different times and places. That said, a wide variety of writers trace out the way we are caught up in the play of the language games that inevitably follow from the mutual implication of subject and object. Subject and object each imply the other in the way language focuses attention selectively and filters out 99% of incoming stimuli. Concepts originate in metaphors that take their meaning from the surrounding social and historical context, and so perception and cognition are constrained by the linguistic or theoretical paradigms dominating the thoughts and behaviors of various communities. We cannot help but find ourselves drawn up into the flow of discourses that always already embody the subject-object unities represented in speaking and writing.

When we choose discourse over violence, we do so on the basis of a desire for meaning (Ricoeur, 1974), of an inescapable attraction to the beautiful (Gadamer, 1989, 1998), of a care that characterizes the human mode of being (Heidegger, 1962), of a considerateness for the human vulnerability of others and ourselves (Habermas, 1995), of an enthrallment with the fecund abundance of sexual difference (Irigaray, 1984), of the joy we experience in recognizing ourselves in each other and the universal (Hegel, 2003), of the irresistible allure of things (Harman, 2005), or of the unavoidable metaphysical necessity that propositions must take particular forms (Derrida, 1978).

All violence is ultimately the violence of the premature conclusion (Ricoeur, 1974), in which discourse is cut off by the imposition of one particularity as representative of a potentially infinite whole. This reductionism is an unjustified reduction of a universal that precludes efforts aimed at determining how well what is said might work to represent the whole transparently. Of course, all reductions of abstract ideals to particular expressions in words, numbers, or other signs are, by definition, of a limited length, and so inevitably pose the potential for being nonsensical, biased, prejudiced, and meaningless. Measures experimentally justifying reductions as meaningfully and usefully transparent are created, maintained, and reinvented via a balance of powers. In science, powers are balanced by the interrelations of theories, instruments, and data; in democracy, by the interrelations of the judicial, legislative, and executive branches of government. Just as science is continuously open to the improvements that might be effected by means of new theories, instrumentation, or data, so, too, are democratic governments continuously reshaped by new court decisions, laws, and executive orders.

An essential idea here is that all thinking takes place in signs; this is not an idea that was invented or that is owned by postmodernists. C. S. Pierce developed the implications of semiotics in his version of pragmatism, and the letters exchanged by William James and Helen Keller explored the world projected by the interrelations of signs at length. The focus on signs, signification, and the play of signifiers does not make efforts at thinking futile or invalidate the search for truth. Things come into language by asserting their independent real existence, and by being appropriated in terms of relations with things already represented in the language. For instance, trees in the forest did not arrive on the scene hallmarked “white pine,” “pin oak,” etc. Rather, names for things emerge via the metaphoric process, which frames new experiences in terms of old, and which leads to a kind of conceptual speciation event that distinguishes cultural, historical, and ecological times and places from each other.

Modernists interpret the cultural relativism that emerges here as reducing all value systems to a false equality and an “anything goes” lack of standards. Unfortunately, the rejection of relativism usually entails the adoption of some form of political or religious fundamentalism in efforts aimed at restoring bellwether moral reference points. One of the primary characteristics of the current state of global crisis is our suspension in this unsustainable tension between equally dysfunctional alternatives of completely relaxed or completely rigid guides to behavior.

But the choice between fundamentalism and relativism is a false dichotomy. Science, democracy, and capitalism have succeeded as well as they have not in spite of, but because of, the social, historic, linguistic, and metaphoric factors that influence and constitute the construction of objective meaning. As Latour (1990, 1993) puts it, we have never actually been modern, so the point is not to be modern or postmodern, but amodern. We need to appropriate new, more workable conceptual reductions from the positive results produced by the deconstruction of the history of metaphysics. Though many postmodernists see deconstruction as an end in itself, and though many modernists see reductionism as a necessary exercise of power, there are other viable ways of proceeding through all three moments in the ontological method (Heidegger, 1982; Fisher, 2010b) that remain to be explored.

The amodern path informs the trajectory of my own work, from the focus on the creation of meaning in language to meaningful measurement (Fisher, 2003a, 2003b, 2004, 2010b), and from there to the use of measurement and metrological networks in bringing human, social, and natural capital to life as part of the completion of the capitalist and democratic projects (Fisher, 2000, 2002, 2005, 2009, 2010a). Though this project will also ultimately amount to nothing more than another failed experiment, perhaps sooner than later, it has its openness to continued questioning and ongoing dialogue in its favor.

References

Derrida, J. (1978). Structure, sign and play in the discourse of the human sciences. In Writing and difference (pp. 278-93). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2000). Objectivity in psychosocial measurement: What, why, how. Journal of Outcome Measurement, 4(2), 527-563 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/WP_Fisher_Jr_2000.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003a, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part I. Implications for method in postmodern science. Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 753-90.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2003b, December). Mathematics, measurement, metaphor, metaphysics: Part II. Accounting for Galileo’s “fateful omission.” Theory & Psychology, 13(6), 791-828.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2004, October). Meaning and method in the social sciences. Human Studies: A Journal for Philosophy and the Social Sciences, 27(4), 429-54.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2005). Daredevil barnstorming to the tipping point: New aspirations for the human sciences. Journal of Applied Measurement, 6(3), 173-9 [http://www.livingcapitalmetrics.com/images/FisherJAM05.pdf].

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2009, November). Invariance and traceability for measures of human, social, and natural capital: Theory and application. Measurement (Elsevier), 42(9), 1278-1287.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010a). Bringing human, social, and natural capital to life: Practical consequences and opportunities. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11, in press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2010b). Reducible or irreducible? Mathematical reasoning and the ontological method. Journal of Applied Measurement, 11(1), 38-59.

Gadamer, H.-G. (1989). Truth and method (J. Weinsheimer & D. G. Marshall, Trans.) (Rev. ed.). New York: Crossroad (Original work published 1960).

Gadamer, H.-G. (1998). Praise of theory: Speeches and essays ( Foreword by Joel Weinsheimer, Ed.) (C. Dawson, Trans.). New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press.

Habermas, J. (1995). Moral consciousness and communicative action. Cambridge, Massachusetts: MIT Press.

Harman, G. (2005). Guerrilla metaphysics: Phenomenology and the carpentry of things. Chicago: Open Court.

Hegel, G. W. F. (2003). Phenomenology of mind (J. B. Baillie, Trans.). New York: Dover (Original work published 1931).

Heidegger, M. (1962). Being and time (J. Macquarrie & E. Robinson, Trans.). New York: Harper & Row (Original work published 1927).

Heidegger, M. (1982). The basic problems of phenomenology (J. M. Edie, Ed.) (A. Hofstadter, Trans.). Studies in Phenomenology and Existential Philosophy. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press (Original work published 1975).

Irigaray, L. (1984). An ethics of sexual difference (C. Burke & G. C. Gill, Trans.). Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press.

Latour, B. (1990). Postmodern? no, simply amodern: Steps towards an anthropology of science. Studies in History and Philosophy of Science, 21(1), 145-71.

Latour, B. (1993). We have never been modern. Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press.

Ricoeur, P. (1974). Violence and language. In D. Stewart & J. Bien (Eds.), Political and social essays by Paul Ricoeur (pp. 88-101). Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Press.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2002, Spring). “The Mystery of Capital” and the human sciences. Rasch Measurement Transactions, 15(4), 854 [http://www.rasch.org/rmt/rmt154j.htm].

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