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The Autobiographical Self


This post continues themes in the last one. Antonio Damasio uses this phrase to describe, in part, how the brain works. In his several books, including his latest, Self Comes to Mind, he develops arguments to explain how emotions feelings, and other seemingly tangible products of cognitive activity come to be. He sees them all as products of neuronal processes. Damasio importantly, unlike Descartes, defines both mind and self as descriptions of neural activity or processes, not as material entities. He carefully describes the mind as not being some entity,

“The term mind, as I use it in this book, encompasses both conscious and unconscious operations. It refers to a process, not a thing. What we know as mind, with the help of consciousness, is a continuous flow of mental patterns, many of which turn out to be logically interrelated. The flow moves forward in time… (Damasio, A. R. (2000). The Feeling of What Happens: Body and Emotion in the Making of Consciousness. Boston: Mariner Books. fn 7, p. 12.)

He divides self into three parts: proto-self, core self, and autobiographical self. Proto-self corresponds to activities in the parts of the evolutionary-derived brain we have inherited from creatures like reptiles, and is the seat of instinctual emotions. The core self is the self of the present. It springs from neural action in other parts of the brain. The core self is a representation of the current state of the body. It is the self that is aware of the bodily state of the present moment and signals the body to maintain itself. The third self, the autobiographical self, is the most germane to this discussion. This is the self of the past and future, constituted by those portions of the brain that have been modified through living. It stores memories of the past, including dispositions or “instructions” about what to do when called upon. It is the self that envisions a future moment and calls on the brain to enact it intentionally. It is historically, not genetically determined, a key point.

The primary function of the brain, Damasio writes, is to maintain the body in a homeostatic condition, not straying into conditions that would produce a pathology or even death. Both the proto-self and core self are involved in maintaining the homeostasis. Biological, genetic “essence” lies here. If there were no cultural or autobiographical self, as in most other living species, that would be the end, but human’s self has a critically important additional part, the part that arises out of one’s existence amidst other selves and the rest of the world. It is here where existence precedes essence and choices lie. Neither nature (essence) or nurture (experiential learning) reigns supreme as previous models of self generally argue. Our intentional, as opposed to automatic, actions arise in a dialectical process actions in which the already present structure is modified by immediate experience to produce new structure that is subject to the same dialect when new experience acts on that same part of the brain.

Our species has successfully evolved by paying attention to the world and developing coping responses that are embodied in this tripartite cognitive self. Instinctual, pre-linguistic responses to the natural world, like fear, are part of the evolutionary proto-self; meaningful actions, mediated through language, are part of the auto-biographical self. Language itself embodies the cultural history of successful coping. Martin Heidegger argues further that, since language is historically created by giving words to observations made in the course of everyday life, it incorporates a sense of intentionality or caring about the world. Given our sublime consciousness and language, humans exist as caring creatures, a trait suppressed by the power of modernity.

Care, as a process of paying attention to and acting on the surrounding world to create a future, implies a consciousness of being connected to it, absent in the mind/body split of Descartes. Humans, by bracketing their current cultural beliefs and values, have the possibility of intentionally acting from a foundation of worldly care that can be distributed among three non-overlapping categories: self, other humans, and the non-human world. This form of care is existential or ontological, different from the affective care we feel about people and things. While care for Heidegger is an ontological notion, its in-the-world presence shows up through our concerns and associated intentions, resulting in our actions toward the world we exist in. Everyday actions, like working, eating, loving, meditating, or planting, are all modes of concern in which humans interact with the world of phenomena.

It should begin to be clear that this view of human existence, let me call it the autobiographical self to avoid confusion, leads to several critical differences from those springing from the modern, essentialist view. In that view, each autonomous individual stands, unconnected, outside of and separated from the world. Legitimation and justification for human agency can be thrown off to some outside entity or mechanical engine. God, as the master agent, has been replaced by some universal machine. On the way towards the autobiographical self, postmodern thinkers reversed the source from some essential human nature to culture as the source. The self was seen to socially constructed and shaped by the culture. Hans-George Gadamer, the German philosopher wrote:

[L]ong before we understand ourselves through the process of’ self -examination, we understand ourselves in a self-evident way in the family, society, and state in which we live. For this reason I, the focus of subjectivity is a distorting mirror. The self-awareness of’ the individual is only a flickering in the closed circuits of [social and historical life. (Truth and Method, 2nd ed., New York: Crossroad, 1989, p. 276)

A serious problem arose with this model; agency, or the responsibility of the actor for whatever actions were performed, was very hard to pin down. Was there any “I” there to hold accountable or was society as a whole the entity to hold accountable? The more nuanced view of Heidegger and the existentialists that followed combined this process of acculturation with a positive step of choosing and owning the resultant self. Individuals who owned up to their identity as “mine” lived an “authentic” life in which they became responsible agents. The autobiographical model of Damasio is consistent with these philosophically derived views. Responsibility for the world comes home because humans are free to choice who they are in the world and what kind of agent they will be. The consciousness of connectedness and caring that accompanies this way of being instills a moral sense in the individual.

The autobiographical model by itself is no more than a story that seems to be better grounded than those that preceded it. But the story is full of meaning about how to cope with the problems of the world we face. Being the result of a dialectical process, the self or agent can learn new ways to address and act in the world. The essentialist, modern model leaves us in a dilemma where the best, maybe the only, outcome is to keep applying fixes to the unintended consequences that keep showing up. The postmodern, socially constructed model requires deep-seated cultural changes, primarily in the belief structure, before human behavior can or will change. But the autobiographical model supports learning both at the individual level and at the cultural level. The two reinforce each other. Victor Hugo’s loosely translated aphorism, “Nothing is stronger than an idea whose time has come.” and Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of a tipping point combine to make the idea of care as a basic human way of acting a hopeful way toward a future of flourishing and a world one would want to sustain.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 19, 2015 5:13 PM ::


spam I have again deactivated the comments function, at least for the time being. I started to get a few thousand spam messages every day. I do still want to hear from you. Instead of using the comment link, please send an email to the link at the bottom of archive list. I will paste your comments into the appropriate post. I hope this will defeat the spammers.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 19, 2015 8:48 AM ::

The "Self," Not Technology, Can Save Us


School’s out for me. I am done with the course I have been leading at my school for gaffers: The Harvard Institute of Learning in Retirement. My course, titled, “Who am I really?,” examined how the concepts of “self” has evolved over time from premodern days to our arguably post-modern era. The course text was On Being Authentic by Charles Guignon, a philosophy professor at U. of Southern Florida. He traced the evolution of “self” and also described how the related term, authenticity, changed. It was an eye opener to both the class members and to me, even though I have been thinking about a closely related topic, what does it mean to be human, for quite some time.

Authenticity is important when one thinks about the impact of human beings on the planet. To live authentically is to act out of a belief in who you are, what kind of self you have. Sounds easy, but there is a hooker. You never have a completely free choice in the matter. The prevailing views of society always exert a strong influence. Long before we entered the modern era, individuals believed they were a part of some cosmic or theocentric order. They identified themselves with this external framework and acted accordingly. Being authentic was to act one’s assigned part. Life’s guidance came from the outside, either the Church of the tradition. With modernity, the self appeared as something inside. Luther and other Protestant reformers looked inside for the source of salvation and created a form of religious individualism, focusing religious life on the individual. The ritualistic ties to the established Church were broken. Devout individuals, for this first time, could point to their own relationship to God. In other words, an individuals could speak of a self or some inner being responsible for their choices toward God.

Another major force in creating the modern self was the rise of science. Galileo conceived of reality as a universe, constituted by a multitude of objects interacting according to fixed laws. In the years that followed, scientists discovered many of these laws and reduced them to abstract mathematical expressions. Old traditional explanations were supplanted by new scientific findings and, absent such findings, were to be disregarded or set aside. One such belief was that of the self, whatever it was. For Descartes, the disembodied mind played that role. Self became an immaterial point of thought and will. The human being became a subject set over against a world made up of objects whose properties could be discovered by applying the new reductionist methodology. The human body was placed in the class of all other objects, just another thing with an intrinsic nature like rocks and trees.

Where earlier cultures were theocentric with God at the center or cosmocentric with a focus on the universe as the source of order, the world that accompanied these changes was anthropocentric. The human knowing self now stood at the center of the universe. As an aside, I just finished a review of a book, The Anthropocene, that argues we are now entering a new geologic era characterized by human-caused changes. Perhaps in degree, but our influence on the Earth started to be significant the moment when we first saw ourselves at the center and began to view the new-found knowledge as means to control and subdue the earth. Descartes wrote, “our goal is to make ourselves masters and possessors of nature.” The reification of society as an object created by humans reinforced the notion of otherness and individualism.

What I find most critical about this view of self is that it assumes some fixed human nature. It tilts the balance between nurture and nature all the way to the side of nature. What that nature is has been subject to argument, but the prevailing view was and is that of Homo economicus: rational beings, operating always to satisfy their self-interest within their available means. For a while, Adam Smith thought that human nature was empathy. More recently Freud gave us a model composed of the id, ego, and superego.

Given the fixedness of human nature, societal institutions that evolved upon this concept were equally fixed and followed immutable laws. The political economies of modern nations presume the economicus model of human being without question. Greed is good, as Gordon Gekko says in the movie, Wall Street:

The point is, ladies and gentleman, that greed, for lack of a better word, is good. Greed is right, greed works. Greed clarifies, cuts through, and captures the essence of the evolutionary spirit. Greed, in all of its forms; greed for life, for money, for love, knowledge has marked the upward surge of mankind. And greed, you mark my words, will not only save Teldar Paper, but that other malfunctioning corporation called the USA. Thank you very much.

The emergence of the modern, bounded (relative to the pre-modern notion) individualistic self brought many new possibilities, as old traditions of a fixed place in either God’s or the mysterious universe crumbled. But a new phenomenon came along with this different sense of freedom. Life became objectified and lost meaning. People were left without guidance about how to live their lives. The rather poorly understood idea of happiness became the aim of most. It was central in our founders thinking and memorialized in the Declaration of Independence. But happiness has turned out to be chimerical; here one minute, gone the next. To many thought leaders, this central aim of life created alienation from others, both human and non-human, and even from the pursuer herself. Marx seized upon this tendency in modern, capitalistic life as did Freud with his new psychoanalytic theory. By the early nineteenth century, led by the creative actors, poets, artists and others, a new model, the romantic view of self, evolved as a counter to the cold-hearted modern self.

Romanticism, through the works of poets like Holderlïn and Wordsworth, or philosophers like Rousseau, created counterarguments. The self was not just some object among other in the world; it is the highest and most present among all other objects. It was not something to be discovered through science, but only through immersion in one’s thought and feelings. Experience was its source. The truth about who we are was obtainable only though life itself. Last, this kind of self possessed a sense of wholeness and oneness with the world that was missing from the prevalent view. This sense of creating one’s self suggested that everyone was a kind of artist, acting out the truths derived from immersion in the world. In the absence of scientifically made rules, what one did with her life became less important than how she lived it. The romantics spawned a great outpouring of art in many forms.

But romanticism was short -lived and dominated by the modern view. The discovery of being at home on Earth returned to a sense of domination and control. With ever more powerful technology coming forth, the Earth (nature) was again being exploited as Francis Bacon had argued, “…nature had to be hounded and made a slave to the new mechanicized (sic) devices; science had to torture nature’s secrets out of her.” He had earlier written, “I am come in very truth, leading to you nature with all her children to bind her to your service and make her your slave.”

This is not the end of the story, but it is the end of this post. It may be the end of the modern world, done in by its own thinking and acting. I will continue with the evolution of the self in another post. Philosophers and others have taken up a new way of thinking beyond the hard, analytic counterpart to the objective, unchanging, rule-bound world. The so-called linguistic turn has freed them and us common folks from the inevitability of purely positivistic modern thinking. As they and we have learned that language gives meaning to all those objects out there, we are able to think about who we are and and what that world out there means in new ways. We can think about the self in new ways that may better represent the way we think and act. More importantly, we are beginning to understand how tightly selves are bound up in the culture. This, alone, raises a new possibility: if we change the culture, we can change the way we think and act, and vice versa. We can prove Bacon wrong and begin to care for and serve both humanity and the Earth instead of enslaving them. More later.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 11, 2015 2:53 PM ::

The [Mistaken] Nature of Poverty

bread line

I have been arguing for more systems thinking for quite a while. It is next to impossible to deal with the persistent problems that are plaguing the US and other nations using only the ubiquitous reductionist frameworks that dominate our thinking. My thoughts about this subject were triggered, as they often are, by a column by David Brooks, titled, “The nature of poverty.” Writing in the NYTimes today, Brook is arguing that our efforts to alleviate poverty for the past 4 or 5 decades have failed. He attributes this to a belief that pouring money into poor areas is the solution. Even with some improvement as a result, the recent urban unrest shows that the underlying problems are still with us. Brooks gets part of the way to understanding what really is happening.

Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it. What’s needed is a phase shift in how we think about poverty. Renewal efforts in Sandtown-Winchester prioritized bricks and mortar. But the real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighborhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition.

But if he really thinks that the answers lie in “social psychology,” he is just as mistaken as those he blames for believing that money is the answer. He is merely shifting focus from one reductionist regime, economics, to another, social psychology. Both of these academic and practical disciplines are grounded on singular beliefs about human nature and human behavior. Those who practice in these and other professions see the world through these beliefs. Abraham Maslow pointed out the limits of academically grounded professions in a now famous line, “I suppose it is tempting, if the only tool you have is a hammer, to treat everything as if it were a nail.”

The failure to make significant progress in our efforts to reduce poverty fits a classic pattern well known to systems thinkers, fixes-that-fail. This label describes programs where solutions are aimed primarily or exclusively at alleviating the symptoms of some persistent problems. If lack of money is the problem, provide more money. Further, since we have defined poverty in monetary terms as the minimum amount of dollars required for an adequate life, providing more money to those in need appears completely reasonable. Following this path offers another benefit, it avoids thinking deeply about the real causes of poverty. Manfred Max-Neef, a Chilean economist, has written that we are looking at poverty through the wrong lens. It is not about the quantity of money but the capability to carry out essential human activities. He argues we should be talking about poverties, not poverty. Another economist, Nobelist Amartya Sen, has made much the same arguments, but both are different kinds of economists than those running our economic policies.

Continuing to throw money at the problem has another serious consequence; we stop looking for the real causes until much too late. This pattern is also familiar to systems thinkers, and is called, shifting-the-burden. These patterns are found at every scale from individuals to businesses to whole societies. Thomas Piketty recently offered us a chance to dig deeper with his book, Capital in the 21st Century, in which he suggests that inequality (and thus poverty) are inherent outcomes of capitalism. His sweeping conclusions are being questioned, but my point is only that it is critical to get under the surface, especially when what is being done over and over again fails to produce the desired results. Franklin Roosevelt know all about this when he said, “It is common sense to take a method and try it. If it fails, admit it frankly and try another. But above all, try something else.” In the decades since his Presidency, such attitudes at the top of our government are all but impossible, given the now deeply entrenched ideologies everywhere. Systems thinking cannot win elections.

In any case, the answer to mitigating or eliminating problems like poverty requires systems framing and systems-oriented solutions. Moving from one discipline to another as Brooks suggests won’t work.

The world is waiting for a thinker who can describe poverty through the lens of social psychology. Until the invisible bonds of relationships are repaired, life for too many will be nasty, brutish, solitary and short.

Social psychology cannot do much better than economics unless the problems fit the mental models that practitioners of this discipline will apply. I doubt they will. We need a hefty dose of the kind of pragmatism that the statement of Roosevelt’s smacks of. It’s not enough, however, simply to do “something else.” It’s important to spend time and resources to determine what might be at the core before acting. If Brooks had suggests calling for sociologists instead, I would still make my same argument, but with a qualifier. Many sociologists tell us that persistent problems have the same roots as persistent positive outcomes. Both arise from the underlying structure of a society. I won’t go into detail about these theories and models, but many place basic beliefs at the base of cultural structure.

By basic beliefs, I mean those beliefs on top of which cultural institutions have evolved and control the everyday patterns in a society. For example, our capitalist political economy is grounded on a model of human nature that pictures each of us as as isolated self, rationally acting to maximize our material goods, given the resources we have at hand to do that. It should be clear that as long as we plan and execute our major policies based on this model, problems like poverty are not going to go away. The best we can do is to try to alleviate the normal outcomes. Psychologists have similar models. They will argue for different “solutions,’ but unless their mental models better represent human beings, we will have no better results. I have little more faith in social psychologists than economists, but both disciplines (all such disciplines do) spring from the reductionist science that is embedded in our academies and other places of learning.

If we are truly selfish, isolated beings, I see little hope for us. This belief has brought us far from the medieval world, a world where human demands were small relative to the available resources. Life was miserable for many. It still is for many, perhaps more numerous today simply because there are so many more living on the Planet now. The Planet is now crowded, and our technology is doing irreparable damage to our life-support system and to us. We do not have to be stuck with this model. It is just a model, that is, a particular story. This self has never been found by probing our brains in the same way we discover how atoms are constituted. There are many alternates that have been posited over time. Some have failed the test of time, giving way to whatever advances in knowledge we generated. Some have never gotten much attention because the dominance of the one I mentioned above keeps us from trying them out.

There is a dialectic between the institutions that runs our lives and the beliefs on which they are based that tend to embed these beliefs ever tighter as the people go about normal life. Systems thinking demands that we do think about them, especially when our problems aren’t going away, like poverty as Brooks writes. Add climate change, wars, and a few others and it should be clear that we are stuck. I have written similarly in all my work: books, articles, and this blog.

The model of human being I believe is more likely to prove itself in practice is one based on caring. This is not just a hopeful shot in the dark. It is a model found in poetry, philosphy, and even in psychology, and seems to be consistent with current neuroscience research. I always find it ironic that Adam Smith, to whom the selfish model is often attributed, wrote in his major treatise on moral sentiments that humans are fundamentally empathetic beings. He thought that mutual caring, not mutual self-interest, would maximize the common good. Too bad he changed his mind. Think about how the world might be if we cared for others as a rule instead of seeing them merely as instruments to maximize our own self-interest. The notion of compassionate capitalism has been pushed in recent years. It is still just an idea; no one has figured out how to marry the mechanistic, impersonal theory of capitalism with the humane process of caring. It’s worth stopping to figure this out before continuing to use money as the universal solution.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on May 1, 2015 8:20 PM ::

Thoughts on Returning Home


My recent absence from this blog is due to a tour of Central Europe. My wife and I visited the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Hungary. Over the years we have visited most or lived in a few European nations. Inevitably, I return with a heightened sense of both our own national stories and those of the European world. This time, I was impressed by the history of all three of the places we visited. In particular, all had a very long history with signs of civilization starting just before the advent of the Common Era. All had a long record of being under the thumb of one occupier or another; the latest being the Soviets. I found that the last liberation process has left the people with an optimistic outlook, even as life is still hard and the memories of the last 60 years or so cannot be easily washed away.

Now a few days after returning home, I am trying to recall the vivid images from the trip. The major cities visited, Prague, Bratislava, and, particularly, Budapest, are all filled with grand vestiges of past; wide streets, monumental-scale structures, and great cultural centers. I was surprised by the number of UNESCO world heritage sites we visited. Budapest, which was heavily damaged during WWII, has largely been rebuilt, but not modernized. The central areas have been restored mostly to their original character, but only the structures tell me that I am in a different world from home. Watching the people at work and in their homes, I sense a remarkable similarity with their peers in the US. The dress is indistinguishable. They are hardworking and busy living the same materialistic life we do.

One important difference struck me: the horrors of their recent occupation, first by the Nazis and then by the Soviets. As we often do when traveling, my wife and I visit synagogues and other signs of Jewish life. In both the Czech Republic and Slovakia, we found synagogues that have been turned into places to visit, but little or no Jews. The large Jewish quarters are abandoned. My wife remarked along the way that Hitler’s plan to exterminate the Jews has been largely successful in these place. Budapest is a somewhat different story. The Jewish population that once numbered almost a million, before the Holocaust, has dwindled to perhaps 50,000, but had regained a presence in Hungary. There are number of working synagogues, including the largest in all of Europe, and signs of Jewish life seen as we walked through city streets.

Hungarians are slowly accepting responsibility for their role in Hitler’s Final Solution. We visited a very moving memorial in Budapest along the Danube. It was simply a row of bronze shoes embedded in the wall that line the river, recalling the slaughter of many Jews that were forced to remove their shoes before being shot and pushed into the Danube. The perpetrators were not the occupying Nazis, but a group of ultra-fascist Hungarians who, legend has it, outdid their Nazi counterparts in cruelty.

We visited other place where the cruelty of our species was palpably present. The first was the Czech village of Lidice which as obliterated in response to the assassination of Reinhard Heydrich, the Nazi regent of the region. All the men and many children— were shot and the rest deported to labor camps. Every structure was demolished, and bulldozers ran over them until no remnants of habitation remained. The memorial is striking in the absence of structure. There is nothing there except a simply memorial and the rest is just the fields where the town once existed. The emptiness is overcoming, as is the simplicity of the shoes along the Danube. Later, we visited a Soviet forced-labor camp where both criminals and political prisoners were sent to work in uranium mines. The brutality was present even as we saw only lifeless structures. I can’t imagine the feelings of the older Czechs and others who celebrated the coming of their liberators from the Nazis, only to find themselves once again living under a terribly repressive regime. Real freedom came only about 25 years ago.

Maybe it takes a terrible tragedy to wake up to the harsh reality of modernity. Like much of the rest of Europe, these countries have some form of a social democracy. The government is very much present in daily life; health services and education are free to all comers. Most provide a decent pension. Maternity leave is very generous, allowing working mothers several years at home, until their children enter the school system, starting with kindergarten. Family units are much tighter with many more children living at home with their parents. It is very hard to absorb a culture as a visitor with only a short immersion, but I did feel more care present than here at home. The institutions of government certainly express that. Their cities are places of living history where both the high and low points of the past are evident.

Having been visited all too often by the ravages of war, these countries and others are attempting to work together under the aegis of the EU—a very difficult context given the very different origins and history of all the member states. I heard grousing about this and that, but I believe most think the present system is better than the old one that was kept in place by power, domination, and war. I thought a lot about our recent efforts to find a diplomatic solution to our differences with Iran. The alternative expressed by those who oppose entering into a treaty is basically war, an all-too-easy solution for those who have never had their homeland destroyed and occupied. A few moments spent in Lidice would quickly dispel such a notion. A trip through the European monuments, dead and alive, to the realities of war might turn the minds of our politicians away from the deadly technological weapons that they think will solve all our problems. It is increasingly clear that this is a terribly mistakenly vision. War at a distance relieves responsibility for its actuality. That’s the message that lingers as I resettle into my routines, blotting out memories of many glasses of real beer, beautiful cities, medieval villages, love of craftsmanship, and others.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 29, 2015 11:56 AM ::

Amazon Strikes Another Blow


The cause for flourishing just took another hit with the unveiling of Amazon’s new “Dash.” Dash, a device to make ordering from Amazon both effortless and mindless has two parts. The hand-held Dash will automatically place orders for household goods by scanning barcodes or by recognizing your spoken commands. The second, related part is called Dash Button. a smaller device that sticks to whatever cabinet you store your household goods that allows you to order replacements with the mere touch of a button. Here what Amazon says:

Place it. Press it. Get it.

Dash Button comes with a reusable adhesive and a hook so you can hang, stick, or place it right where you need it. Keep Dash Button handy in the kitchen, bath, laundry, or anywhere you store your favorite products. When you’re running low, simply press Dash Button, and Amazon quickly delivers household favorites so you can skip the last-minute trip to the store.

I see this as only a step toward implanting some sort of device in your brain that intercepts the stimulus that would have actuated the Dash Button or clicked the Dash’s bar code scanner, then and sends the intended order directly to Amazon. Why bother with more gadgets lying around the house? It can all happen without them. This is truly mindless consumption, or close to it. Each of us becomes nothing more than a cog in Amazon’s provisioning machine. No conscious thinking needed; no agonizing choice between All® and Era®. What could come any closer to making us the perfectly rational, optimizing, hyper-efficient human machine that makes markets hum?

The on-line New Yorker had a story about this that I cannot help generously cribbing from. Thanks to Ian Crouch for “The Horror of Amazon’s New Dash Button.” He begins with comments about the promotional video that Amazon used to introduce the Dash Button.

There was also something slightly off about the promotional video. It opens with a montage of repeated household tasks—squeezing a tube of moisturizer, running a coffee maker, microwaving a container of Easy Mac, starting a washing machine—that gets interrupted when a woman reaches for a coffee pod, only to discover that there are none left. She leans forward and exhales, resigned. It’s going to be a long day. But then, thanks to Dash, the montage starts up again, with those familiar Amazon boxes arriving continuously in the mail—and in them a supply of coffee, lotion, and macaroni and cheese for as many days as we may live to need them. “Don’t let running out ruin your rhythm,” a voiceover tells us.

Most of the article was devoted to a theme I have been harping on for years, mindless, addictive consumption. The ubiquity of advertising has dulled our ability to make meaningful choices. The fundamental notion that the market works best when buyers have all the information needed to make rational choices has been buried for years. There is no way that anyone can determine which brand is better or whether the product being considered has hidden costs that outweigh or offset the apparent benefits. But Dash goes too far as the next quote from the article suggests.

And the idea of shopping buttons placed just within our reach conjures an uneasy image of our homes as giant Skinner boxes, and of us as rats pressing pleasure levers until we pass out from exhaustion. But according to Amazon, these products represent the actual rhythm of life, any interruption of which might lead not only to inconvenience but to the kind of coffee-deprived despair that we see when the woman realizes that she has run out of K-cups. That’s the real dystopia: not that our daily lives could be reduced to a state of constant shopping but that we might ever have to, even for a moment, stop shopping.

Crouch picks up on my theme by asking, “But what if there is actual value in running out of things?” Amazon is trying to make shopping completely transparent, that is, an action we take without conscious reflection. Heidegger saw this kind of action as fundamental to humans. So does modern neuroscience. Our brains learn to do routine tasks without thinking as long as the tools we need for them are “ready-to-hand.” That clumsy phrase, also from Heidegger, means simply that the necessary tools are easily available to us. If it were true that effortless consumption was purely beneficial, then it might be a good idea to make it easier. It would become just another action like walking or talking, both of which actions we perform without conscious thinking.

But consumption is clearly not without a dark side. It is the medium through which human economic life despoils the Earth. It is the medium that blinds us to the relationships we have with the world by the very readiness-to-hand nature of consumption, as Amazon would like to have it. So, by the way, would most neoclassical economists. Human life has progressed (if you would call it that) only when the transparency of action ceases. It is only then that we become conscious of the world before us that we use our real smarts to solve our problems. The world, again, according to Heidegger, becomes present-at-hand, and humans enter a different mode of thinking, reflecting on the scene. Almost all other animals lack this capability. It would be a terrible shame to lose it or to injure that talent. The Skinner box referred to in the last quote is a system where the animal (including humans) inside operates only by a transparent stimulus-response behavioral pattern. No ‘thinking” is involved.

The ability to think critically or reflectively is being neglected today. Teaching to tests is a thinly disguised form of Skinnerism. Humanities which teach such critical skills are being pushed aside by the drive towards complete professionalism in higher education. With only a little simplification, professionalism is a form of ready-to-hand behavior. One learns how to address many kinds of problems, transparently, with the tools one acquires in school and through experience. The appearance of many societal ills can be traced to the failure of professionals to cope with the present-at-hand, that is the real world. Even though Dash might appear to be an almost trivial player in a technological world where mindlessness is already the key, it is another ominous sign that what makes us human is taking another hit.

The sinking feeling that comes as you yank a garbage bag out of the box and meet no resistance from further reinforcements is also an opportunity to ask yourself all kinds of questions, from “Do I want to continue using this brand of bag?” to “Why in the hell am I producing so much trash?” The act of shopping—of leaving the house and going to a store, or, at the very least, of one-click ordering on the Amazon Web site—is a check against the inertia of consumption, not only in personal economic terms but in ethical ones as well. It is the chance to make a decision, a choice—even if that choice is simply to continue consuming. Look, we’re all going to keep using toothpaste, and the smarter consumer is the person who has a ten-pack of tubes from Costco in the closet. But shopping should make you feel bad, if only for a second. Pressing a little plastic button is too much fun.

Most of my readers are far too young to remember, Fantasia, one of Disney’s very early animated films consisting of fantastic scenes set to classical music. One of them tells the tale of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, set to the music of the same name by Paul Dukas. In it the Apprentice (Mickey Mouse), trying to emulate his master, performs what he believes is the correct incantations and spells to turn on a broom to become a water carrier to perform Mickey’s own chores. But the scheme goes awry, and the broom continues until the place is inundated. Mickey is powerless to stop the action until the master returns, turns the broom off, and gives Mickey the boot. I see Amazon as the sorcerer and me as Mickey. I am given the magic wand, Dash, and the ability to turn it on, but not the secret to turn it off. I can envision my house overflowing with toilet paper and Mac’n Cheese, but I cannot imagine the Sorcerer, Amazon, ever showing up to turn off the spigot.

This is not even the end of the story. It’s the last line in the following quote that conjured up images of The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Crouch ends with:

Soon we won’t even have to hit a button. Amazon is also working with companies on devices that will be able to restock themselves. As the Wall Street Journal explained, “Whirlpool is working on a washer and dryer that anticipate when laundry supplies are running low so they can automatically order more detergent and dryer sheets.” Water purifiers could reorder their own filters; printers reorder their own ink. This is the dream of domestic life as a perfectly calibrated, largely automated system. But the doomsayer in me likes to imagine some coffee maker gone HAL 9000, making its own decisions about what kinds of coffee it thinks it should be brewing. Or a washing machine, haywire and alone in a basement somewhere, constantly reordering supplies for itself long after we’ve all been wiped off the Earth.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 10, 2015 2:38 PM ::

“Religious Freedom”: Another Failure to Think in Systems Terms


The recent news has been full of stories about the passage of laws to protect religious freedom. One question that seems always to accompany these stories relates to the discriminatory nature of such laws. Is it right to pass laws that arguably increase the freedom of someone, but at the cost of discriminating against another? This question is posed as very important, as if there is an alternative. But there is not, a fact generally overlooked. It is impossible to increase one’s [negative] freedom without reducing someone else’s. This is always true, no matter what the issue involved.

Laws and other restrictions like this are directed at negative liberty, an idea discussed in a famous essay by Isaiah Berlin. He argues that liberty comes in two flavors, positive and negative. Positive liberty determines one’s possibilities to act in any way one chooses. It has to do with one’s life choices in matters of religion, expression, profession, marriage and so on. One should be able to choose without established barriers, but that is not always possible without the authority of some societal institution to crush the restraining power of institutions, like the Church held over the English citizens who fled to the New World to escape them. Such form of liberty did not always exist. Until the advent of the Enlightenment, individuals existed, but caught up in a system of authoritative beliefs that fixed them in a web established by religious orders or societal orders, like medieval feudalism.

Negative liberty is a mundane consequence of positive liberty. Put in a systems framework, unlimited possibility (positive) is possible only if one is alone in the world, living amidst natural beings with no similar rights. The second part was deemed to be the case, as modernity, which brought this kind human of freedom, also relegated the world itself, save for humans, as fodder for our mills, having no such libertarian rights. Perhaps there was a time with only one human being, but genetically that would have been the end of us. As soon as two human beings lived in communicative proximity, natural problems with freedom must have arisen, even if early humans had no words to express their sense of encroachment. So negative freedom, the right to do exactly what I choose, must have accompanied its positive relative, more or less, from the advent of humans on Earth. As the global population grew, human settlements spread into the unsettled frontier where more negative freedom could be found, but such frontiers are all but gone in the industrialized world.

Discrimination is the ability to act in a way to prevent the involvement of some other human being. It is a form of negative liberty and is inseparable from it. One cannot have one without the other, a point that seems missing in almost everything I have been reading about these recent 
“religious freedom” laws. To find some legalistic ground to separate the two is impossible in a systems sense. Looking at the same system, the finite Planet, it is impossible to have positive freedom for any one individual with encroaching on the freedom of another. No law protective of property or some other immaterial right can undo this knot. If there is to be any resolution, it must come from some systemic solution that accepts the finiteness and interconnectedness of everybody.

The closest such concept that comes to my mind is that of “tolerance.” Tolerance is a way of interacting with other beings that accepts the reality of being part of the same system; it is a systemic notion. It has become a moralistic term as something that ought to be practiced as a “good.” But such “goods” are always arguable because they have little or no real grounds, but tolerance can be derived simply from its systemic origins. If I want to be able to exercise my positive freedom, I need freedom from the inhibitory powers of others. I would like them to do their best to allow me my freedom; best in the systems sense in that such allowance must always be judged by some systems-wide criteria. I have no choice but to do the same for them. I cannot, a priori, determine what such criteria should be used because the real world is complex and not amenable to any theoretical optimizing calculus. But I can affirm that no finite laws will be able to produce th systemic result that would be seen to be optimum for all.

We have not followed such a systemic path, passing law after law that defines classes that one can or cannot discriminate against, that is, prevent them from entering one’s sphere of possible activities. The intent of such actions may be meritorious, but the outcomes cannot be because of the failures of systems thinking I have just outlined. If we, as a society, seek to get the most of our real existence, we must begin to practice tolerance seriously. We must question every act taken that consciously excludes another human being for whatever reason we assign. Ask ourselves how deeply does excluding anyone increase my freedom deep down inside? I believe that it is possible to value positive freedom and possibility, but not negative freedom, in the same way that it is not possible to prove a negative. The process of discovering our possibilities, our true freedom, is very difficult and requires a reflective process that enables us to get beneath the rules we have adopted simply because there are out there and have been labeled good.

There is much here that fits my writings on flourishing. Flourishing is, like tolerance, a systemic notion. One cannot observe tolerance until the system shows it. Individuals can act tolerantly, but discrimination will still be the overall outcome until some point where the system will flip into a new tolerant regime. Tolerance can take us part way to flourishing by mitigating or eliminating negative behaviors. Flourishing requires a more positive attitude, one of caring. It is not enough not to consider the needs of others, one needs to positively take care. A moments thought, using a systems focus, should paint a picture of a world where everyone is realizing their human possibilities, not because they are free from the encroachment of others, but because they being pushed toward those possibilities by everyone else.

Such a world is possible, but exceedingly difficult to foresee as real. One strong reason for our blindness lies in our idea of negative freedom, an idea that is consistent with our modern view of the world as made up by individual isolated, disengaged human beings. It’s time to stop tinkering with this idea and start to think systemically. We will have to create the process as we go because we haven’t bothered to do it for many centuries. One important first step is to accept that negative liberty and discrimination are but two sides of the same coin, If we want one, we must get the other, but there is a way to avoid both.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on April 5, 2015 1:24 PM ::

F***ing Up the World By Doing the "Right" Thing

right thing

Over breakfast today with my son, Tom, we started to talk about how sustainability has been slowly fading from view. My alert systems show fewer entries every day. Sustainability has become just another routine activity for many companies. That’s both good and bad news. For me, mostly bad news. Here’s why. When some persistent problem like unsustainability settles into the normal activities of organizations of all sorts, it means that those who set priorities have decided that the current strategies and programs are sufficient to deal with it. Serious thinking stops dead, and that’s a big problem in and of itself.

In the first place, sustainability efforts never were sufficiently critical to discover the underlying causes for the problems that set out to solve. The systemic nature of the symptoms of unsustainability was ignored by individual organizations that could only see their own contributions to what they perceived were the problems. Not surprising. Our overall understanding of the economic world is that it is self-correcting, Individuals do what it best for them, while some invisible mechanism propels the collective outcome in the “right” direction. What is somewhat surprising is that, although nothing much has happened as a result of all the separate efforts, there is little interest in finding out why. Again, that’s because, deep down most of the players have some understanding that they cannot connect their own efforts to results.

There is some superficial agreement that using less of the Earth’s resources and and doing less to corrupt the environment is the right thing to do. So organizations go on with their programs to recycle, light-weight and detoxify their offerings and similar projects, all the while communicating their actions in search of more market share and improved reputation. Their individualistic mind set keeps them in what systems dynamicists call the shifting-of-the-burden archetypal behavior. They focus increasingly on the projects they have begun, reinforced by knowledge that everybody else is doing more or less the same thing. Whatever attention might have been focused on discovering and attacking the deeper rooted causes of unsustainability is lost in the efforts to keep on doing what they have been, even doing more.

Meanwhile at the level of institutions, say business as a whole, the patterns that have been going on for awhile become normalized and take on legitimacy as the right way to attack the problem. The ineffective behavioral patterns at the single firm level now have grown to become an institutional characteristic, and, as other institutions follow, a societal problem. The normal way to solve the problem has been dictated by the prevailing cultural norms, in this case, to apply some sort of technological or rationally-based solution. That is how we as a society tend to attack all common problems. This norm leads to another pathological behavioral pattern that systems dynamicists call “fixes that fail.” This results from attempting to use the normal way to solve some problem with deep roots. We have been falling back on technology for centuries ever since the founders of modern science and technology saw the fruits of their application as leading inexorably forward, overcoming every obstacle in the way.

Nobody is to be blamed for this kind of ineffectual behavior. People are only doing what is legitimately expected of them, that is, the right thing. We, as a society, are stuck in a box out of which we cannot get by continuing to behave as we have been acculturated to do. We are really stuck, hoist by our own petard as some might say. Our best weapon has turned upon us. If this were to happen in a small group, someone might notice that more of the same isn’t working and, perhaps, suggest they should start from a different mental model of the situation. This is exactly how organizational learning works. The well-known systems of deep, permanent change of, say, Argyris and Schön or Peter Senge rest on getting to the bottom of things, to discover the particular misfitted mental models or belief structures that are freezing the minds of those involved, and replace them with new ones that fit the problem at hand. Organizations that apply these systems of learning or problem-solving methods know how very difficult it is to get them going and staying around, even if they appear to have worked. The background norms and their associated beliefs have become so strongly embedded that they come back and run the show as soon as the immediate problems appear to be solved.

Now expand this small story to a whole society facing a persistent, apparently intractable problem like unsustainability. Like all societies, normal behavior is controlled by deeply embedded beliefs and institutional structures built upon them. If people are to stop for a moment and try a new way to solve big problems, someone must hold up the stop sign and get a lot of people to think differently and, ultimately, to act differently. This doesn’t and, maybe, can’t happen because there is no one with enough power to be heard. Small organizations, however, have enough power concentrated in the hands of senior managers for it to occur. A scientist, in similar situations where the old theories no longer can explain observations or unravel an intractable puzzle, can undertake such a shift in thinking all by herself. When such steps are taken and are successful, the change in belief structure and subsequent new, normal behaviors has been called a paradigm shift by Thomas Kuhn. This description explains why so many believe it takes a crisis visible to some critical mass to stop the normality, and embark on a paradigmatically different path. On the face of clear crisis, there is room for powerful voices to arise from many quarters and call attention to the failures of the present normal ways of thinking and acting. The same crisis makes it much more likely that others will heed the call. With some obvious omissions, this is what happened in the US during the Depression years.

Unsustainability suffers from a serious difference from the collapse evident during the Depression. There is little or no consensus that there is a problem at all. The historically uneven patterns of climate behavior permit some to ignore or deny that there is anything to worry about. Social problems, like inequality, are visible only to the neighbors of the poor or sociologists studying the problem. Lone voices crying in the dark, like mine, are just that, lone voices that might find a few followers. Robert Putnam has just published a powerful indictment of the way inequality has rooted itself so deeply in the US that it may take generations to make a dent. But like so many, his voice will reach only a limited set of ears. Nothing is going to change until either the problems become so obviously critical or the most powerful voices in the nation speak up and cry, “Whoa, we need to make changes.”

In the case of unsustainability, with climate change as its current focus, we are deeply in a pattern of fixes-that-fail or shifting-the-burden. Ironically, social scientists have offered models of collective behavior that would reveal this and offer paths to avoid the pitfalls of normality. All lead to the presence of deep-seated beliefs on which the dominant societal institutions have evolved. As we know in the smaller organizations I mentioned above that the beliefs tend to be at the bottom of what has become normal, we should be looking critically at the same kinds of beliefs in our society, but cannot. Part of the reason is that the primary political parties have become so ideologically polarized that they cannot step back even an inch from their beliefs, firmly anchored in the concrete of some partial reality.

It is no easy task to critically examine the beliefs that have brought so much so-called progress to human affairs. But if the focus were to shift from only the humans on the Planet, I would expect the consensus of progress to dramatically splinter. Also ironically, unlike the situation in science, where each new step forward comes on the back of an entirely distinct novel belief, there are already alternative beliefs hanging around to be picked up and used. The ideas are there, but the will to think about them isn’t. There is no CEO to demand that we stop what we are doing and start doing it distinctly differently. Those that do care about the state of the world are mostly offering solutions coming from their normal ways of going about business. But what is normal to someone is always focused on a different part of the system as seen by another. Think about the way our Congress is behaving right now. I am running out of steam at this point. I have no solution to offer except to argue as strongly as I can that to continue to act normally is a trap. Starting to build from a different foundation is essential, but I haven’t got any bright ideas about how to make that happen. Help!

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 30, 2015 10:01 AM ::

Climate Change Is Not a "Tame" Problem


Renewable energy is much in the news these days. Energy prices from wind machines and solar panels have dropped and now match or are lower than conventional sources of energy. New prospecting for oil and gas, at least in the US, has slowed as a result. Headlines are shouting that we are close to halting global warming. The connection is completely ungrounded. The atmosphere will continue to warm up due to the greenhouse gases that have already been released. Few if any of these stories ever mention the effects of continued economic growth, which creates larger emissions in the aggregate, even with the additions of non-carbon sources, but this is not even the real issue at play here.

Global warming is not the “problem.” Yes, it certainly is causing alarm, given the many threats it poses, but its more critical aspect is as a sign of much deeper problems. The immediacy of climate change blinds us to these problems and their sources. Having lived through a record-breaking winter in Boston, I am very aware of its palpable impacts. In very simple terms, the world population is using the equivalent of now, perhaps, two Earth’s worth of life-supporting resources. Global warming is the paradigm example of a “wicked problem,” a term invented by two planning professors, Horst W. J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber in a classic 1973 paper, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning.” The abstract tells much, but not all, the story,

The search for scientific bases for confronting problems of social policy is bound to fail, because of the nature of these problems. They are “wicked” problems, whereas science has developed to deal with “tame” problems. Policy problems cannot be definitively described. Moreover, in a pluralistic society there is nothing like the indisputable public good; there is no objective definition of equity; policies that respond to social problems cannot be meaningfully correct or false; and it makes no sense to talk about “optimal solutions” to social problems unless severe qualifications are imposed first. Even worse, there are no “solutions” in the sense of definitive and objective answers.

Russ Ackoff referred to wicked problems as messes. I discuss them in the general context of complexity. Rittel and Webber’s paper should be required reading for everyone taking on climate change and other “wicked problems, but, unfortunately, neither it nor other similar framings shows themselves in the “professional” or “public” media. I have yet to find an awareness of this context in any discussion. People keep talking about solving the problem, but what is the problem. Here’s R & W’s response. They discuss wicked problems in a list of ten points. I will keep their numbering system, but list them in a different order. There points are italicized, the roman text is mine except for the block quotes.

8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. This important observation is clearly critical, as soon as anyone recognizes that systems in which wicked problems arise are characterized by manifold interconnections, producing all sorts of feedback links. Feedback always occurs in loops in which each active node affects another, but the other also affects the first, so which is the cause of observed behavior? Now multiply this by many, many such interacting loops in the system we are concerned about. Applying technology to “solve” climate change problems ignores this relationship and leaves the unaddressed “causes” or actors in place to continue causing mischief in the system.

9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. The choice of explanation determines the nature of the problem’s resolution. Unlike the “tame” problems they write about for which standard methodologies will generally lead to consensus about the “problem” to be solved, wicked problems allow different parties to stymie consensus and, subsequently, action. Climate change is a perfect example.

7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. Global climate change is clearly not a single problem. It depends, among other factors, on the nature of the polity contributing to it. Seeking global solutions simply won’t work. Some sort of global consensus that the problems need to be addressed is essential, but one-size-fits-all global solutions should be avoided. This conclusion springs from the first item in their list.

1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. More bad news for scientific or “rational” solution seekers. Imagine a scientist in front of a computer, thinking which algorithm to code, but the computer telling her that none will work. Maybe fuzzy logic would help, but even this is algorithmic at heart.

6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable (or an exhaustively describable) set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. This feature dooms scientifically-based solutions, or, at least, relegates them to the closet. The acontextual, objective nature of scientifically based (technological and technocratic) methodology inevitably leaves out important aspects of the problematic system. The best outcome is something that may seem to work right now, but may not in the next instant, thus requiring constant attention and adaptive measures. This leads to the next point.

2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. Any “solution” can be good, only for the time being. Like a balloon filled with water, pushing a solution into the balloon will cause a new problem to pop out somewhere else. There’s no possibility of splitting up the problem among various disciplines during the planning phase or separating planning from implementation. The next characteristic is even more vexing.

4.There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. The results from the inevitable unintended consequences of intervening with any “solutions. To examine the efficacy of the solution, these will have to factored in for some indefinite time afterward. R & W say it this way:

The full consequences cannot be appraised until the waves of repercussions have completely run out, and we have no way of tracing all the waves through all the affected lives ahead of time or within a limited time span.

The next point is pretty obvious.

5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a “one-shot operation”; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial-and-error, every attempt counts significantly. The world is always changing so that the context is different from one moment to the next. Further, given the long time it typically takes to design and implement solutions to wicked problems, this aspect can be daunting to those seeking to solve it. Everything so far has followed from the technically complex nature of wicked problems. The last two items illustrate the ethical dimension of these problems.

10. The planner has no right to be wrong. R & W are pointing to the difference between the framing for wicked problems and for tame problems amenable to rational attack. Scientific methods are always contingent and subject to be falsified. If a solution is attempted on the basis of a model that is subsequently proven false, those involved can be excused from moral blame. They did what was expected of them by a set of accepted standards. Not true of solvers who are flying by the seat of their pants, even if a lot of wisdom lives in that spot. They cannot turn to any socially-legitimate standard to explain the failure. They have much more than a penny in the pot.

3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true-or-false, but good-or-bad. This follows from the last point. There is always an ethical context to wicked problems. Values are involved. The reduction to some economically-based cost/risk/benefit analysis fails to consider the very facets that distinguish wicked from tame problems. Again, R & W are clear about this.

For wicked planning problems, there are no true or false answers. Normally, many parties are equally equipped, interested, and/or entitled to judge the solutions, although none has the power to set formal decision rules to determine correctness. Their judgments are likely to differ widely to accord with their group or personal interests, their special value-sets, and their ideological predilections. Their assessments of proposed solutions are expressed as “good” or “bad” or, more likely, as “better or worse” or “satisfying” or “good enough.”

I have been following the Great Transition Initiative dialogs for some time. The players in this project want to create a world with a different set of primary values from those of the “average” western, modern nation. The key values are: human solidarity, quality of life, and ecological sensibility. These are coincident with the single value, flourishing, I also seek to make present in the World. I speak about this example because it resembles virtually everything I can find focused on “sustainability,” climate change, inequality, or similar wicked problems. The conversation participants are primarily academics or professionals, each defined by a disciplinary methodology and an associated set of beliefs about how the world works. While interesting and thoughtful, I find that their interactions slowly but surely devolve to discussions of how many angels dance on the head of a pin. They recognize the need for new values, but overlook that values are just beliefs that have been ordered by some criteria, often just another belief.

That’s not because they are so narrowly constrained by their beliefs, although they mostly are, but that they are stuck in their framing of the problem. They have been trained to deal with tame problems, and the more disciplined they are the better at taming such problems, and the worse they are at tackling wicked problems.

Many of the Great Transition Initiative dialogs, in particular, decry the lack of a model for social change. But that is oxymoronic because the whole topic of social change is wicked. There are just too many loops to hope that some discreet framework will guide us to the desired future. But this does not preclude some path toward a flourishing or similar future. Pragmatism, while not explicitly designed to work on complex systems or the derivative wicked problems, fits the description laid out in the ten points above and offers the hope of a useful context for anxious problem solvers.

The founders of pragmatism, back at the end of the nineteenth century, focused on beliefs as the primary “cause” leading to habits or norms in both individuals and societies or organizations. Over time the constitutive beliefs, the ones on which institutions sprang up over time, tend to be implicated as major factors in observed dominant behaviors or norms Change these constitutive beliefs and everything else changes eventually, but in ways unpredictable when the changes were made. Well, we live in the modern world where one very critical dominant belief is that we come to know the way the world works through scientific pursuits and can apply the consequent knowledge to solve all our problems. Most of the time this works very well, but only because so many of our problems are tame. In any case, normally scientists work on tame problems. It’s the belief in a mechanistic, knowable world that is at or near the bottom. Not alone because it is embedded in our most powerful institutions, like academia, markets and economics, management theories, indeed, all theories.

That’s why all the conversations I alluded to earlier are focused on the wrong problems, or. better perhaps, on the wrong way to solve them. They are using methods designed for tame problems to address wicked problems. If we are to make progress though the inherent powers of these conversations, the participants must drop their illusions about the nature of the problem and adopt a framework consistent with complexity, perhaps, drawing on the way pragmatists go about their business. To do this is very scary and challenging because virtually everything that was familiar and comfortable in their professional homes becomes flimsy; the bedrock of certainty evaporates and with it a sense of solid ground. Tough to face, but it must be done if we are to find ourselves nudging our way to the world we seek.

I have written more than I usually do, but I have been away from my blog for awhile with only a few scattered post this year. I can’t promise to be more regular, but I will try. Somehow the rhythm of my days is slowly changing. I am still “working” on a new book, still about flourishing. I am working hard to anchor my key personal belief that our constitutive societal beliefs are no longer working for us after many centuries of what is generally considered forward motion. This post is about one of these beliefs, complexity and the nature of important problems. Many other posts have been about the other, erroneous belief about human nature. That’s what this book will be all about. So were my first two, but they were not so clear because I was not so clear. The haze is slowly lifting.

ps. I just posted a short blog written with my son, Tom, to the Lean Enterprise Institute’s website,. It draws on an example of a well-established wicked-problem-solving system, based on the Toyota Production System. The Toyota system, which was generalized as “Lean Manufacturing” by a group of my former MIT colleagues, is, to me, the epitome of pragmatism and complexity in action. The problems that Toyota and other car makers faced was not climate change, but quality, a desired, but elusive characteristic for most car makers. By treating it as a wicked, not tame, problem, and using pragmatic tools, Toyota managed to “solve” its problems. They never used this vocabulary, however. I encourage all those working on climate change to take in the lessons of Toyota and those that have translated it into broader language and tools, but be prepared to learn about gemba, muda, andon, jikoda, and kaizen, and more. The particulars of Lean are not designed to be applied directly to climate change, but the thinking behind it is.

(Cartoon, courtesy of the New Yorkor Magazine)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on March 25, 2015 8:47 PM ::

Without Prejudices, We Could Not Make Sense of Anything


Today’s blog, like many of mine, comes out of synchronicity. I read a piece on the TPM website about an uproar over a course on “The Problem of Whiteness,” to be given at Arizona State University. When I thought about what I read, I could not help but see this through an article I read just last night about how we make sense of the world. The piece was an extract from a Ph.D. thesis on psychotherapy and how it is shaped by a model of the human self. The author was discussing the idea of hermeneutics, that is the process by which we make sense of texts, including conversations. Drawing on Hans-Georg Gadamer, a Swiss philosopher, whose works are widely respected on this subject, he pointed out that psychotherapists need to recognize that whatever sense or meaning they make of their patients talk is filtered through their prejudices or pre-understanding of the meaning of words and signs.

Gadamer argues, I believe persuasively, that the meaning we give to what we read or observe is a melding of what we take in and what we already “know” about what is in front of us. We, in an important way, are our prejudices or presuppositions, another word with, perhaps, less charge to it. As we live, we acquire a story about the meanings of textual objects we encounter in life. Post-modern theorists would include all objects, arguing that whatever meanings we give to them are textual in nature. Because we share common meanings for many words and signs, we take for granted that meaning resides in the object, not in our heads. But a moment’s thought about arguments we have or dither in reading a text should point out the error in such assumptions.

Hermeneutics applies particularly in interpreting texts from previous eras where the historical and cultural context were different from ours. It has been developed as a way of interpreting ancient religious texts or objects like the US Constitution. The present US Supreme Court has several originalists who argue that we must try to understand what the words meant to the framers hundreds of years ago, not what they mean in today’s world.

This requires a hermeneutic exercise. These originalists must get beyond their prejudices to undercover the original meaning, if that is ever possible. The process of understanding is called the hermeneutic circle, a continuous going back and forth between your stored meaning-giving filters and the external object. Each iteration starts with a modified set of prejudices so that the interpretation may move closer to the sense of the external object. If the outside object is a human being, then one can enter into a conversation designed to narrow the gap between the two participants in the conversation. This is obviously much harder to do with an artifact, but each attempt at understanding will start with the last one, coming, perhaps, ever closer to the object’s meaning.

The brouhaha at ASU and other similar situations would appear to arise from a different view of how humans act. The opponents argue “that Bebout’s course was ‘racist’ and a sign of what he said was the increasing oppression of white people in the U.S.” The prejudices that Gadamer is talking about are always part of our cognitive system whether we know about them or not. Without them, the world would be empty and without meaning. We would be no more than animals with only instinct to act upon. The word has taken on a negative meaning in general conversation. The University’s statement is a bit muddled:

The statement said the “problem of whiteness” class would “examine how people talk about - or avoid talking about - race in the contemporary United States.” It also defended the course as “designed to empower students to confront the difficult and often thorny issues that surround us today and reach thoughtful conclusions rather than display gut reactions.”

If we are to act in a manner than acknowledges the other and his or her understandings of the language being used, then it is essential to know, first, that prejudice is natural and universal and critical to intentional acting, and, second, that consensual actions among people depends on having some ideas of what one’s own prejudices are. This requires a critical look at the culture, in general, and an examination of one’s own experience, in particular. Becoming aware of those presuppositions that shape your actions takes self-reflection and conversations with others. Much of what serves as filters making sense out of whatever world you happen to encounter has become embedded imperceptibly over long periods of time.

The White Supremacists who were protesting wear their prejudices on their sleeves. They act without thinking that their beliefs are not reality, itself, but only a particular story that they believe is true and needs no critical look. I don’t know the details of the ASU course, but the idea of examining our prejudices in a collective setting is always a good one. Our basic moral grounds in the US are inalienable rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The practical implications of this are that action among people should be consensual. That can happen only when they are on the same page, that is, that the words they are using to coordinate their actions mean the same to all.

Given that everyone has a unique life history, everyone’s prejudices are different. Much of the time, when doing everyday tasks, that does not manner, but when it comes to a subject of race, our culture promises that there be differences of meaning. It is absolutely unavoidable. If we are ever to live peacefully in our multi-cultural, multi-racial country, courses such as these are essential. Our standard model of reality assumes that there is only one, or at most a few meanings for words to be found in a dictionary. It ignores that there are as many meanings as there are people who have encountered the words in their lives. Many will conform to the dictionary, but more will carry a meaning developed out of the idiosyncratic experiences that constitute a single life. Don’t confuse what I am writing about with negotiations. Negotiations are all about cost/beneficial resolutions of differences. There is nothing consensual about them. This subject is more basic and is critical if we are ever to learn how to live together as equal human beings.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on February 27, 2015 3:01 PM ::