July 2011 Archives

All the Wrong "Reasons"

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pig-headed-man

The stream of articles that chip away at the classical view of reason continues. Cordelia Fine, writing in today’s NYTimes Sunday Review suggests that scientific “truth” is established by being pigheaded. In the article, Biased but Brilliant,” she writes

HOW’S this for a cynical view of science? “A new scientific truth does not triumph by convincing its opponents and making them see the light, but rather because its opponents eventually die, and a new generation grows up that is familiar with it.”

Scientific truth, according to this view, is established less by the noble use of reason than by the stubborn exertion of will. One hopes that the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Max Planck, the author of the quotation above, was writing in an unusually dark moment.

The metaphor about dying that Planck used could be interpreted as the ultimate surrender of the opposition and their withdrawal from the battle. Kuhn’s theory about scientific revolution is similar. New paradigms capable of explaining currently imponderable observations emerge as the established views and those that hold them slowly come to dominate the scientific debate. The explanatory power of the new theories is central. Pigheadedness may be an appropriate descriptor at the early stages of a scientific argument, but the resistance is probably due to the fact that the new paradigms float in space for a while, detached from those beliefs and norms that have become institutionalized.

Our beliefs and the norms they spawn are created through experience. We don’t arbitrarily move from one set to another unless the present structure no longer works, that is, when actions based on these beliefs fail to produce the results we seek in the form of satisfactorily explaining an observation , or producing actions that meet fulfill our intentions. Science is related to the first of these, it is a way of finding explanations of observations that are robust and accurate. All the pigheadedness in the world will not change the underlying phenomena on which the observations are based. The Earth is not flat, no matter how many would deny it. If the observations are flawed through the inadequacy of the technology being used to produce them, then it would be possible to pigheadedly argue for some “truth” that will be refuted at a later time. After the first space flights, flat Earth proponents would have found few adherents.

More is at play than pigheadedness. We tend, for sure, to hold on to our beliefs even as we encounter “facts” that begin to erode them. Fine says that this tendency is a “worry.”

Doesn’t the ideal of scientific reasoning call for pure, dispassionate curiosity? Doesn’t it positively shun the ego-driven desire to prevail over our critics and the prejudicial urge to support our social values (like opposition to the death penalty)? . . . Perhaps not. Some academics have recently suggested that a scientist’s pigheadedness and social prejudices can peacefully coexist with — and may even facilitate — the pursuit of scientific knowledge.

Here, I believe, she makes an error found in many similar critiques of scientific “reasoning.” “Scientific” research is an activity designed to produce the truth about a set of observed phenomena. Truth is these cases is a story, in language, that explains the findings in such a way that others can reproduce them. Scientific investigations largely seek to confirm previous theories while pushing their regions of validity ever more widely. Only rarely do scientific studies produce wholly new truths, that is, stories that explain previously unknown or mysterious observations. The sociological processes are different in these two cases. Peer review is used in the first to assure that the work meets established criteria. Biases and prejudices are always in play and errors are made in both accepting and rejecting the new findings. But the process, if well designed and executed, will generally converge on the “truth.” The biases and prejudices ultimately are of little consequence.

The situation is completely different when scientific findings and theories are used to establish some derivative position. Fine says, “Clearly, social values should never count as evidence for or against a particular hypothesis — abhorrence of the death penalty does not count as data against its crime-deterrent effects.” She uses a couple of examples based on determining the risk of accepting findings as true and acting on the consequent conclusions when there is some possibility that the criteria used to establish the “safe” threshold may be incorrect. The decision to use the results or not to depends on the implicit or explicit risk aversion profile of the decision maker; no science is involved at all. Fine and the author, Heather Douglas, she cites confuse scientific methodology with carefully structured reasoning.

Scientific data are just one piece in complicated reasoning chains invoked to argue for and against action, particularly in public debates such as those connected with climate change. These arguments are not science, merely because scientific claims are being employed. The confusion arises from two sources, at least. The first is that we erroneously and misleadingly name arguments that include scientific claims as part of the reasoning chains as “scientific arguments.”

Science often makes important contributions to debates that involve clashes of social values, like the protection of public health versus the protection of private industry from overregulation. Yet Ms. Douglas suggests that, with social values denied any legitimate role in scientific reasoning, “debates often dance around these issues, attempting to hide them behind debates about the interpretation of data.” Professors A and B are left with no other option but to conclude that the other is a stubborn, pigheaded excuse for a scientist.

The second is that we confuse the roles of “scientists” in these debates. We tend to fuzz the boundaries, not surprisingly, between the statements of scientists that arise from their scientific knowledge and arguments they make that lie outside of this domain. The authority of scientists, the persons, rests on their reputations in the first domain, that is scientific knowledge, but they may, intentionally or not, fail to distinguish between these two classes in their statements. Almost all serious public debates involve a mix of scientific “facts” which can, in theory, be grounded through a methodological consensus, and social values which, by their fundamental nature, cannot.

I really don’t see where pigheadedness can be beneficial in science, per se. Disbelief and counterargument for sure, but good scientists are generally committed to the finding of truths. The institutions in which they work have this as a goal. The denial of these truths by disputants outside of the scientific field is, on the other hand, pigheadedness when consensus reigns among scientists. The data may be wrong; science is all about setting up hypotheses and seeking to disprove them, thereby moving truth along. It is reasonable, in the sense of trying to win an argument, to claim that the particular scientific facts should not be used because the consequences of being wrong (always a possibility) would be so great that the preserving the status quo is a better decision. But this is all about regret, not about truth. Unfortunately the sloppiness of public debate on almost all issues today has made these distinctions disappear. We spend too much time focused on the structure of the arguments instead of the substance.

Island Hopping

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stepping away

I am off for a few days, taking a trip with friends to Monhegan Island, a small place off the coast of Maine. I will be completely off the Internet until Thursday. This will give you a chance to re-read some of the latest, but "complex" posts.

Yesterday I heard a few loons sounding off with their unmistakable calls. While scanning the horizon, I captured a large bird in the binoculars. It was a bald eagle swooping over the seabirds lolling on the water surface and, apparently, frightening them. Their calls, as I have learned over the years, serve as warnings that dangerous conditions have appeared. I saw and heard the same thing a few years ago when an Eagle swooped in very close to my boat and scooped up and carried off a duckling baby.

We have discovered a second eagle's nest not far from our cottage. After years of their complete absence from the bay our cottage abuts, it is always very exciting to spot them. The other nest, on a small island about 15 minutes out toward open waters, still has one juvenile nesting and flexing his/her wings. I expect the bird will be gone and on its own in a week or so. Seeing these birds reminds me of the fragility of the "natural" world in relation to the stress we place on it, but also reveals the resiliency of the system once we remove those stresses.

Maturana

I warn you from the start that this blog is going to get pretty academic, but it’s necessary. I have been writing about care as a fundamental human characteristic, so fundamental that our being rests on it. One path to this assertion comes from philosophy; the other from biology. Both come together along the way. I will start with the philosophical and the ontological propositions of Martin Heidegger.

Heidegger claims that humans construct a meaningful world by interacting routinely with the primal, meaningless world. Natural objects and the artifacts we make become distinct through these interactions. They become named and settle into our vocabularies to be called upon whenever we want to enlist others in our intentions or to explain our own actions. The words that denote position or temporal relationships became prepositions, and the language used to describe actions creates verbs.

Human being (existence) is different from that of other forms because we are always acting in the world we create with these distinctions. Only humans can explain what is going on. Only humans can ask questions about existence, and the answers can be framed only through the language that has historically accumulated through these routines. Heidegger’s philosophy is close to Anthony Giddens’s sociology; both follow what Giddens calls structuration. Meaning comes through practice (routine actions) and becomes embodied in meaning-giving structure of societies or organizations, for example, beliefs and norms. The structure, in turn, reproduces the routines. Giddens, interestingly, uses language as an example of his model. Language enables coordinated action and becomes further embedded in the collective “mind” in the course of the action.

Care, in Heidegger’s sense, refers to our actions directed to the world we create. We create our world through these intentional actions (care) and the world thus created in language enables us to think about ourselves as beings. Heidegger writes, “Language is the house of being.” Heidegger mades no distinctions about categories of care, but I find it useful to divide our routines into a set of distinct domains for analytic ease and clarity. I posted my domains in a blog about 10 days ago. These also appear in chapter 12 of my book. Humans have had no choice but to care for (direct actions to) the material world. We are always acting in a world; care describes the whole of our actions. The idea of care makes no presumptions or assumptions about a mind or of psychological drivers. It comes out of direct observations of what is going on and the creation of language to tell stories about what the observer saw.

The biology of Maturana (pictured) and Varela develops a similar scenario. All living organisms exhibit autopoiesis, a process of continuous re-production of their structure, fueled by the intake of energy and materials. But organization, their general configuration resulting from the arrangement of the structural elements, remains constant. The organism changes its structure, but not its organization, in response to changes in its environment, a process Maturana and Varela call “structural coupling.” As long as the organization remains intact, the organism continues to live, but if the organization changes a new form emerges or the old one dies.

The cognitive system of more developed species, especially humans, is structurally coupled to the environment. It produces actions based on the structure in place at the time of the “signals” impinging on the senses. These actions are structurally determined. At the same time, the structure changes as a consequence of the interactions: the same sort of circularity as in Heidegger or Giddens. The structural modification will change the subsequent responses, indicating, in the common use of the term, that the organism has learned something, or that the organism has acquired knowledge about the world. Maturana and Varela say that “All doing is knowing and all knowing is doing.” The structures that enable intentional, meaningful action (doing) arise historically (over the lifetime) through action (knowing) and the actions (doing) produce new structure (knowing). If we associate the cognitive structure of Maturana and Varela with language, we come to the same place as Heidegger does: an important place for sustainability.

One consequence is that if care is taken to be the basic trait that makes us human, not just another animal species, the economic and sociological models that shape our institutions don’t work. The important motivator is not “need,” which is now used in virtually all these models. Need is a fundamental underpinning of microeconomics (demand), marketing practice, therapies, and more. Our needs, by definition, can never be satisfied, and propel us to levels of consumption that are using up more than the Earth can provide. Care is never finished (until we die), but we can declare we have satisfied, for the time being various domains and move to work in others. Care is grounded in relationships and can often be exercised without the use of material goods.

A second important consequence is that this model of learning and knowledge contradicts the conventional Cartesian model of cognition. The position of scientific or technical “knowledge” is no longer privileged. Virtually all methodologies used to set policy or make collective decisions become questionable. The technocratic processes that dominate decision making and management would have to be replaced with pragmatic frameworks. Pragmatism couples the model of Maturana and Varela with a criterion for assessing the effectiveness of the outcomes obtained by deliberating perturbing a system, that is, induce changes in the structure. If the system works better, the perturbation was good; if it doesn’t, try another modification. Truth is then manifest in outcomes that work as desired. Since we can never know enough (conventional knowledge) about the complex systems on which sustainability rests to produce the desired end of flourishing, some form of pragmatic governance is essential; one that produces knowledge by doing.

The Costs of Rigidity

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ttitanic deckchairs

One of my favorite quotes comes from Gregory Bateson, who upon reflecting on the state of our contemporary world said, “The major problems of the world are the result of the difference between the way nature works and the way man thinks.” It is perhaps even more true today than when he wrote the book that is its source, Steps to an Ecology of the Mind, in 1972. The state of our current political system suffers from the same shortcomings. Two items related to this showed up in the Opinions section of the NYTimes today.

David Brooks, in his regular op-ed column, commented on the current stalemate on the debt limit issue. Pointing to the rigidity of several blocks of ideologues in the Congress and outside, but within the Beltway, he wrote,

All of these groups share the same mentality. They do not see politics as the art of the possible. They do not believe in seizing opportunities to make steady, messy progress toward conservative goals. They believe that politics is a cataclysmic struggle. They believe that if they can remain pure in their faith then someday their party will win a total and permanent victory over its foes. They believe they are Gods of the New Dawn.

The groups he named include (his titles and examples): “The Big Government Blowhards (Beck, Limbaugh), The Show Horses (Palin, Bachman), The Beltway Bandits (Norcross). All are unwilling to see the debt issue other than through the narrow lenses of their particular ideologies. The Government may be bigger and more complicated than it needs to be to deliver the services it must to keep the polity in good shape, but that is not the underlying issue. Even if the size of the Government were to be reduced, it would still resemble “ the way the world works” in Bateson’s aphorism; complex and full of strongly interconnected ties to the globalized world. The outcome of any of these narrow stances based on “faith” is unpredictable and likely to result in further problems. The present rigidity reminds me of another favorite Bateson saying (from the same source), “Lack of systemic wisdom is always punished.”

Brooks writes of the “art of the possible.” I am not sure exactly what that phrase means here means; it is often connected to the place of compromise in the process of law making. If that is the correct interpretation, it has little to do with the outcome of a compromise. Resolving differences arbitrarily is as rigid as holding out for one’s fixed positions. Compromise should be based on a meaningful dialogue (not what Congress now calls debate) where the parties accept the complexity of the system and act pragmatically without immediately negating the others involved.

One of the editorials in the same issue criticized the emergent practice of candidates for office to sign onto a written pledge issued by groups, not unlike the narrow ideologues Brooks named. The editorial writer said,

It used to be that a sworn oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution was the only promise required to become president. But that no longer seems to be enough for a growing number of Republican interest groups, who are demanding that presidential candidates sign pledges shackling them to the corners of conservative ideology. Many candidates are going along, and each pledge they sign undermines the basic principle of democratic government built on compromise and negotiation.

These pledges are in large part a reaction to the compromises made by the heroes of some ideologues in the Republican party, who are still angry at Ronald Reagan and George W. Bush. They want their candidates to have their positions set in concrete prior to taking office, not to be changed a whit even after the now officeholder discovers the reality he or she must after the election. The pledges are based on some theory, but the office demand practical action. Failure to see the embeddedness of political life, especially in Washington, as part of a larger system leads to the same kind of outcomes as Bateson writes. The opening line of the editorial suggests that the Founding Fathers understood that it would be folly to specify and harden one’s beliefs before assuming a position of leadership. We have come far from this principled stance. Those involved on both sides, the issuers and signers of these current pledges, are only rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic, so to speak.

Not So Fast: Consumption Still Threatens Sustainability

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bursting bubble

My colleagues in the sustainable consumption world picked up an article, “We’re Spent” from the 7/17/11 Sunday NYTimes that argues that the great consumer bubble has finally burst. Focusing on the persistence of unemployment and the slow recovery from the Great Recession, David Leonhart picks the sharp reduction in consumer spending as the primary cause.

But the real culprit — or at least the main one — has been hiding in plain sight. We are living through a tremendous bust. It isn’t simply a housing bust. It’s a fizzling of the great consumer bubble that was decades in the making. . . If you’re looking for one overarching explanation for the still-terrible job market, it is this great consumer bust. Business executives are only rational to hold back on hiring if they do not know when their customers will fully return. Consumers, for their part, are coping with a sharp loss of wealth and an uncertain future (and many have discovered that they don’t need to buy a new car or stove every few years). Both consumers and executives are easily frightened by the latest economic problem, be it rising gas prices or the debt-ceiling impasse.

No argument with this; the data cited in the article are compelling. Consumer spending dropped almost 7 percent in this recent collapse, compared to no more than the 3 percent decline that accompanied previous troubles in the last several decades. The publication of this data prompted a response from my colleagues that we are finally “seeing the end of the consumer era.” I wish it were so, but our hyper-consumption culture has a structure that may well survive in spite of the loss of much disposable income and the confidence that goes with all that available wealth.

The patterns of consumption in the United States can be explained by a number of theories in play in academia and punditry, going beyond purely macroeconomic models. Tim Kasser (see a short talk in this video part 1; part 2) ties it to the dominance of extrinsic values in the US that push us to consume to support our images in a culture where outward signs signal who we are. Mary Douglas developed a similar theory arguing that we signal who we are and what we want others to understand comes through the material goods we own. Julie Schor thinks that our unceasing desire for novelty starts a cascade of consumption as we upgrade our surroundings to match the novel purchases we make. Maslow says we consume to satisfy our basic set of needs starting with subsistence and safety. Triandis presents a complicated theory that combines past habits with beliefs, social norms and our emotional affect. All of these theories and more are discussed in the excellent text, The Earthscan Reader on Sustainable Consumption, edited by Tim Jackson.

So the real question about this recent drop in consumption is whether the cultural roots have changed along with the loss of buying power and confidence. Only time will tell, but I doubt it. The solutions being sought by the political and corporate world aim at restoring the situation to the prior state as quickly as possible. Leonhart is not so sanguine about the future of this kind of policy.

The notion that the United States needs to begin moving away from its consumer economy — toward more of an investment and production economy, with rising exports, expanding factories and more good-paying service jobs — has become so commonplace that it’s practically a cliché. It’s also true. And the consumer bust shows why. The old consumer economy is gone, and it’s not coming back.

Where are these exports supposed to go? To another economy on its way toward or already where we have been? This might be a way to reduce the burden unemployment brings but it continues to create unsustainability. The Planet doesn’t care which continent produces the stresses that are threatening our livelihood more fundamentally than the economic status is.

I find it curious and ironic that Leonhardt, echoing just about everybody else that talks about this situation as he writes, fails to mention the role of inequality, which has reached record levels, just like the drop in consumption. At the same time we are producing less, reflecting the missing aggregate demand, the wealth needed to consume has shifted dramatically into the hands of the rich who do not spend it proportionately as the less wealthy would if they had it.

Sustainability demands that the world stop consuming in the way we do today. The qualification in this last sentence is critical. Consumption is an inevitable consequence of living and cultural existence for humans. If we stop consuming, we will die like all other creatures. All the theories I mention and others that incorporate a cultural element result in inauthentic behavior and the persistence of the Having mode of life I frequently write about. A shift of the cultural values toward those that produce authenticity and Being, as embedded, for example, in the intrinsic set in Kasser’s work, is essential. No clever economic policy, even if it restores the system to the way it was in the “good old days,” will do anything for sustainability. It’s premature to celebrate the trends of the moment as anything more than temporary. It is an opportunity, however, to demonstrate that a different set of values that spawn a recovered understanding of the importance of relationships, not things, will produce a satisfying life. GDP levels and growth rates can never measure this kind of flourishing well-being essential to sustainability.

Science Has Caught Up with Nick Carr

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brainscan

An interesting article in today’s Boston Globe about how the Internet is changing the way our brains work further supports two ideas that keep showing up in this blog. The first is that we learn by doing and what we learn depends on what we do routinely. The second is that the technology we employ habitually changes what we “know,” but in the sense that what we “know” is reflected in what we do. “Knowing” here refers to cognitive structures that we embody through practices that, in turn produce our routine behaviors. As I have noted before, the idea of “doing is knowing and knowing is doing” is one of the early outcomes of the work of Maturana and Varela and the way they speak about human consciousness and cognition.

The gist of the article is that the widespread of the Internet to search for information is changing our memory capacity so we retain less and use the Internet as a sort of recall mechanism. Nick Carr wrote a convincing book, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, prior to these results (2010) with similar implications. It is important that science establish facts like this, but, if one follows the earlier work of Humberto Maturana these findings are not a surprise; rather they are to be expected.

The Globe's source is a paper just published in Science. The abstract tells the important part of the author’s story.

The advent of the Internet, with sophisticated algorithmic search engines, has made accessing information as easy as lifting a finger. No longer do we have to make costly efforts to find the things we want. We can "Google" the old classmate, find articles online, or look up the actor who was on the tip of our tongue. The results of four studies suggest that when faced with difficult questions, people are primed to think about computers and that when people expect to have future access to information, they have lower rates of recall of the information itself and enhanced recall instead for where to access it. The Internet has become a primary form of external or transactive memory, where information is stored collectively outside ourselves.

Maturana defined living systems as autopoietic, that is, self-organizing and regenerating, systems. All life forms share this property. They continuous recreate the components that constitute the structure of whole body. Our cells’ metabolism consumes energy and matter continuously, maintaining form without growing. They persist in a state far from equilibrium which state would, in living systems, correspond to death. Living systems also exhibit a property Maturana calls “structural coupling” describing a process of recurrent interactions between living systems in which their structure changes in some way to reflect the history of the interactions. Leaving biology behind for a moment, Maturana is saying that a living system creates new structure stemming from a recurrent (routine) set of interactions with an outside body. The outside system could be another living organism or some no-living natural phenomenon.

This structural coupling and development of new structure occurs, in more highly developed species like Homo sapiens, in the cognitive, nervous system. Roughly speaking as a non-biologist, my discussion here echoes what the Globe article relates: the structure of the brain continually changes during our lifetime, reflecting the historical set of interactions the body has experienced. If we begin to use a new technology like the Internet routinely, our brains will follow a different path of development than if we do not. The structure that develops determines how we act, hence the quote above: Knowing is created by doing and doing is produced from the consequent knowing (structures in the cognitive, nervous system). Our actions are constrained by this experience; we do not behave as the conventional Cartesian, computer in the brain model would suggest. If we routinely consult the Internet for the information we use in our daily pursuits, the practice of memorization, not surprisingly, would become less important and less developed.

This model of individual behavior can be extended to groups of individuals related by the routines they practice in ordinary activities. New technologies, like those described in the studies reported on in the Globe, can and do change the patterns of behaviors of those that pick them up and use. New beliefs can also have the same effect. Smoking campaigns have changed behavior in part by convincing people that the practice is harmful.

This model of learning and action has significant repercussions for sustainability. I have argued in my book and elsewhere that the unsustainable state of the world and the life upon it is an unintended consequence of the structures of modernity. The societal, cultural structures on which collective behavior are grounded are mirrored in the cognitive systems of the individuals acting within the culture. The ubiquitous presence of technological systems that shape an ever increasing share of our daily activities stand between us and the world. We unlearn our connections to that world and to other life, human and otherwise. As we unlearn the connection, we care less for the others and relationships wither and become effete and empty. The world becomes no more than standing reserve (Heidegger’s phrase) awaiting our beck and call to be used for something.

Our memories have served our species in good stead. We have relied on them in many situations, for example, to find our way out of a dense forest. If we have become so dependent on the Internet and the information it can provide that our memories wither, think what would happen if the GPS App on one’s iPhone or Droid suddenly stopped functioning. I was unable to access the full Science article so don’t know what the authors said about the implications of their findings. Clearly, they would greatly affect the way we are educated. The fundaments of our present education system are that we learn facts and theories (concepts) and operate on them in the mind/brain. Memorization is a critical part.

In a larger context, we would have to rethink the place of technology in our society. We cannot afford any more unintended consequences of the technological systems or of the technocratic (scientifically or rationally based) institutions that so dominate our lives. Unless we begin to change our views of what it is to be a human, living animal and incorporate the extraordinarily under-appreciated and largely ignored work of Maturana and his colleagues, the structural coupling of modernity is likely to continue to lead us towards the abyss.

Back to Basics: Care

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care

I try to keep the posts in this blog connected to sustainability, although the ties may be and are quite tenuous sometimes. In the previous post, I made the assertion that flourishing was an observation or assessment by someone that all of their cares were being handled. This is not the same as saying that all their needs had been fulfilled. To say something like, “I don’t need anything else,” runs against the sense that our needs are insatiable. Some little voice will forever be whispering in our inner ear that we could really use a little of this or that. Can we ever have enough love if we think of love as something we can possess? In any case, no one has ever seen a single one of these needs; they exist only in our psyche and we verbalize them if asked about them. They do not exist in the world. Someone watching an actor for a while might be able to guess what needs were being satisfied by enumerating the requests and observing the responses to them.

Requests are a form of (directive) speech act in which the speaker is directing someone to do something. (For a philosophical explanation of speech acts, see John Searle, Speech Acts, 1970.)Transactions in the market are initiated by a request to a purveyor often in the form, “I would like that.” If both can agree about the terms of the transaction, the requester gets whatever had been requested. In our advertising driven marketplace, the process may start with an implicit promise of what needs the goods will satisfy, but nothing will happen until one party makes a request. The intent of the speaker is to change his or her internal world so that the need that initiated the action becomes satisfied.

Cares are ontologically different. They, like needs, have no existence other what an actor says about them, when asked, but the actions they create are quite different. Care is about seeing to the well-being of the three classes in the diagram in the previous post: the actor, other humans, and the rest of the world. Actions follow from promises--a different, mirror-image like, speech act. Promises are a form of commissives, speech acts that commit the speaker to act to enact whatever was specified. The direction of the change is opposite to the case where needs are involved. The actions of the caring actor change the context of the targets, including his or her own worlds when directed towards the domains of care. The actor can make assessments about the degree to which the actions have accomplished the intentions.

The three classes that I used to separate the various domains of care may appear to be distinct. They might be to an observer who finds it convenient to separate them for analytic simplicity. To the actor, they are all part of a single way of relating to the world. Need rests on a separation of an individual from the world with all the desired actions pointing inward. Care, as I note, is accompanied by actions with an opposite sense of direction, outward. There is no evaluative distinction between acts toward oneself, others, or the rest of the world. They all are valued and accepted for whatever they are. In other writings I have referred to this as accepting one’s place in the web of life. My constant source of inspiration, Humberto Maturana, associates this acceptance of all others (human and non-humans) and acting out of care for all with the very basic emotion of love.

Love is not a something, but a way of acting out that accepts the being of all others as legitimate. It’s not about getting all hot and bothered in the presence of someone. Our biological and cultural norms may produce strange responses in the presence of a particular individual that we think are signs of love. These are only cultural phenomena. For Maturana, love is an emotion that sets the context for all of our actions. It is very tightly bound to flourishing. Flourishing without love as taking care is not possible.

As you might guess by now, I am about to claim that the culture today has pushed out this meaning of love as caring action, and we must get it back for sustainability to appear. Yes. How can we find it again? I say again because I believe that there was a time when human interaction was primarily driven by caring. Remember, caring is not about some airy-fairy feeling, but refers to actions interacting with a set of worldly domains such that the actor can move among them, as he or she assesses that the situation is satisfactory, at least or the moment.

Early civilizations must have acted primarily out of caring in this sense. Their evolving language grew out of the development of linguistic distinctions that referred to the coordination of their actions. In settlements not cluttered with the distractions of modernity, routines would have been directed towards taking care. The earliest signs of spirituality, the cave paintings I wrote about last time, are a sign of loving care, an acceptance that the animals deserved a place in their lives.

I believe we can recover our sense of care. The first step is learning the distinction between care and need. Not easy as this will take a strong commitment to buck the conventions of modernity. Then learn the classification of domains of care shown in the figure from the last post or, better, in my book. Begin by assessing how well you are doing in each domain. If you commit to take care of all of them, you will have implicitly transformed your emotional state from the ego-driven needy persona of modernity to a loving person accepting the world as it is and relating to it accordingly.

There are no rules about how to go about this transformation. Each person must generate their own, authentic actions. My experience in watching my own and other’s efforts is that it is not so hard, once the goals and framework become clear. Maturana believes we are loving animals that have become separated from our basic way of accepting and interacting with the world by the forces of modern cultures, particularly our beliefs in an external transcendental reality. It is that belief that leads to a privileged way of acting in which we invariably negate, just the opposite of accept, the status of the others engaged in the conversation.

Maturana say it this way. His writings are not easy to follow. This passage is taken from his article, “Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument" in the Irish Journal of Psychology (1988, 9, 1, 25-82).

From all this, it follows that the reality we live depends on the explanatory path we adopt, and that this in turn depends on the emotional domain in which we enter at the moment of explaining. Thus, if we are in an assertive mood, and we want to impose our views on the other without reflection, de facto negating him or her, or if we are directly in an emotion that negates him or her, we find ourselves operating in the explanatory path of objectivity-without-parenthesis [transcendental objectivity]. If, on the contrary, we are in the emotion of acceptance of the other and in the mood of reflection, we find ourselves operationally in the explanatory path of objectivity-in-parenthesis [constituted objectivity]. It follows, then, that the kind of reality that we live as a domain of explanatory propositions, reflects at any moment the flow of our interpersonal relations and what sort of co-ordinations of actions we expect to take place in them. Finally, from the perspective of the explanatory path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, this is so regardless of whether we are aware of it or not because it is constitutive of our operation in the human biology of observing.

A lot of complicated words and sentences, but with a clear meaning. If we do not operate from the emotion of love, acceptance and care, we will continue to dominate others and the world as we do now, with all the negative consequences we call unsustainability. We can talk only glibly about sustainability. Sustainability will not and cannot presence itself until our culture becomes transformed. I come to this conclusion simply by holding a vision of the future I am committed to produce. Maturana sees it as a necessity based on our biology.

Caves Paintings and Caring

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Chauvet bison

I just got back from seeing The Cave of Forgotten Dreams, Werner Herzog’s documentary about the Chauvet caves, the site of the oldest known cave paintings, including the beautiful bison shown to the left. It is a rare trip into the past, the long, long ago past. The cave was discovered in 1994 by a small group of explorers who noticed a stream of cool gas emanating from a small fissure. After finding a way to access the cave, they entered to discover a trove of prehistoric art amidst a glittering background of crystalline deposits. The paintings have been dated, using radiocarbon techniques, to between 30-33,000 years BCE. All are of various animals, lions, rhinoceroses, mammoths, and more, except one that shows the lower half of a women. There is no sign that the cave was occupied as a dwelling-place for humans. The film is stunning and well worth seeing.

The relevance of these painting to my story of Being as caring (and thence to sustainability) is that they are evidence of care in the ontological sense. Whether these humans had oral language or not, they discovered artistic representation as a demonstration of care. Care, in this ontological sense, is the perception of distinct parts of the outside world coupled with some action directed to them. These extraordinarily creative people must have recognized the animal life in which they lived as meaningful in some way that merited creating language to communicate something about. The paintings are for them a form of communication to what ends we cannot tell. There is some evidence that the cave might have been a kind of shrine for worship. Maybe it was no more than a place where the clan gathered to recount their experiences, and, lacking a verbal language, had to resort to images. In any case, the creation of “linguistic” distinctions signifies meaning, as a recognition of distinct objects against a broad background of unnamed phenomena.

They are believed to have been hunters because spears have also been found in the area, adding a little more to the idea of caring, that is, intentional actions in some domain. Building on this possibility, I can think about the evolution of verbal speech as a consequence of the perception of more and more meaningful distinctions. The humans of the time “cared” about something in the world and needed language to coordinate action concerned with whatever it was. By simple logic, it’s possible to divide up the entire world (everything that they could and would perceive) into three non-overlapping domains: themselves as individuals, other humans like themselves, and everything else. Their biological needs must have made them aware of themselves and led to a set of habits devoted to nurturing their bodies and those they took care of. Notice how the word care shows up her; care in the sense of a set of actions directed to a specific set of interactions.

So let’s jump some tens of thousands of years to today. The world has gotten much more complicated as humans changed the prehistoric landscape with our artifacts, infrastructures, and institutions. Classifying the actions that emerged require more distinct domains than body and family. I have created a group of 11 such domains in an attempt to circumscribe all routine activities (see Chapter 12 of Sustainability by Design). This ordering is informed by taxonomies developed by Maslow, Max-Neef, Flores, and others. These 11 domains are illustrated in the accompanying figure below. So what? What is the difference, one should ask, between dividing up our life’s activities according to our cares or by some other schema based on our needs, fitting most current explanations for our actions?

The difference is critical for sustainability. Care as the driver of our actions puts the source squarely on each individual. Everyone is responsible for their actions, which might be described as the myriad choices we make during each daily cycle. They are authentic choices and actions, coming from our sense of care. We can assess the actions taken as being successful and complete or not. When we act out of need, except perhaps for the biological requirements of subsistence, cultural norms always are present. We may act authentically even in their presence, but, in line with ruling theories about consumption, most of our routine actions will be based on conformance with these norms. Action is inauthentic and fails to produce the sense of completion that allows an actor to move on. Needs are insatiable say the theorists; they can never be satisfied; and we blindly believe them. These two modes of action correspond to the two ontological categories of Being and Having. The connection to sustainability as flourishing is short and clear.

Flourishing is the realization of a sense of completeness independent of the immediate material context (in the extreme). One might say aloud, “My cares are being attended to.” Flourishing is not some permanent state but must be continually addressed. The world is always changing and those domains that are momentarily satisfied will require more attention. But the emptiness associated with feelings of insatiable needs is not present. We have heard many tales from life and literature of people expressing great satisfaction (well-being) while incarcerated or in some other poor straits. Perhaps this can partially explain why more material wealth is not correlated with subjective measures of well-being, after basic subsistence needs have been satisfied.

When the prevalent social norms tell people that they are needy, based on the dominant theories of human action and the consequent economic, consumption-driven institutions, they act accordingly, and the finite, living world becomes stressed. Perception of the state of the world and even of their own lack of well-being is overwhelmed by the din of the culture. No amount of efficiency and green goods will reverse this pattern until the impossibility of continuing to live the way we do cannot be ignored any longer. Our beliefs about what it is to be human have to shift from the story of need, having, and inauthenticity to one of care, being, and authenticity. We act out of those beliefs, mediated by the norms we have embodied over time. All of our major institutions should begin to reshape their missions, policies, and practices to align with care, not need. In the next few blogs, I will go through the set of needs in the figure above, explaining each so that designers within these institutions can begin the job of creating sustainability by design.

Who We Really Are

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multiple identities

Since publishing his recent book, The Social Animal, David Brooks has been sticking with his new-found sociologist self more frequntly than than his older politically conservative one. His op-ed piece today in the NYTimes follows that trend. He argues against cutting the budget for a key section of the National Science Foundation, the Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. He points to much recent research in the social sciences that revels the flaws in the classical model of human rationality and cognition.

Yet in the middle of this golden age of behavioral research, there is a bill working through Congress that would eliminate the National Science Foundation’s Directorate for Social, Behavioral and Economic Sciences. This is exactly how budgets should not be balanced — by cutting cheap things that produce enormous future benefits.

His argument rests on losing a key access to our understanding of how humans behave that could be used in shaping policy. Yes, of course, but is there also a darker side to this move? The know-nothing climate in society and, especially, politics today might much rather stick with the incomplete and obsolescing model of a context-free world and humans that do nothing but maximize their utility.

Brooks adds a point almost in passing that is very critical to my story about sustainability. He writes:

People are complicated. We each have multiple selves, which emerge or don’t depending on context. If we’re going to address problems, we need to understand the contexts and how these tendencies emerge or don’t emerge. We need to design policies around that knowledge. Cutting off financing for this sort of research now is like cutting off navigation financing just as Christopher Columbus hit the shoreline of the New World.

His comments are still a bit tainted by the language of Freud and classical psychology. We have no "selfs" at all in the sense of some inner being. We have multiple identities that emerge as a result of the routine actions we take. The actions depend on the context. It important to understand the two-step nature in order to avoid the error of attributing some sort of inherent and permanent human nature to people. Our identities are socially constructed by matching sets of activities to categories that are ascribed according to the specifics of those activities. A parent is a parent according to the actions being taken: changing diapers, feeding, teaching, playing with. These are all actions that most people would identify with parenting and would judge the actor on their own standards of what good or bad parenting should be. Exercising or going to the gym would not fit this identity.

Sustainability has become distant because our cultural story is based on two old notions that may have worked effectively in the past: our belief about reality--how the world works--and what it is to be a human being. I have recently posted a series of blogs that focus on the first of these, featuring complexity as the replacement for the reductionist, Cartesian model of reality. Brook's column serves as a springboard for a focus on the second. His point that we need a new understanding of human action for policy has much broader implication. We need it to explain everything we do; to understand our addictions and bad social actions and to construct models for changing the "bad" behaviors to ones that will bring sustainability with flourishing, replacing the individual and societal pathologies of today.

My short hand for illustrating the difference between the old and alternate (not yet new in the sense of reigning within the current societal paradigm) view of identity is in the distinction between Being and Having. (It's OK to begin to use "self" if you are aware it refers to a set of focused actions, not to something inside.) I discuss these at some length in my book. Being describes a mode of human existence characterized by taking care of a set of [socially constructed] important domains. I add the "socially constructed" modifier because these domains have been delineated by creating names for sets of related actions. Subsisting is one of those domains and comprises all the actions we perform in maintain the biological health of our bodies: eating, exercising, and so on. Participation entails the activities one does as a part of the social milieu: voting, serving on boards, and so on. Spiritual or transcendence is another with characteristic actions including; worshiping the god(s) of ones religion, celebrating one's place in the web of life, and so on.

In my book and my work I divide up cares into a set of 11 domains only for analytic ease. These do not have distinct places in the body. They are created by repeated activities that embody the norms associated with the particular domain. They have arisen historically. A few can be traced back to the earlier periods of human existence when language was created to convert the world into meaningful objects, places, and actions and to coordination action (in these domains). Some, like membership, must have appeared later when distinct societal institutions came into being. Maslow's hierarchy, which starts with subsistence and protection, can be interpreted in the same way without needing to invoke a psychological argument. I distribute his second tier, safety, to the various domains. protection for the body would fit into the bottom tier, subsistence. Using the descriptor, care, inherently, incorporates what Maslow calls the need for protection. Caring involves protection as an important factor in several domains. Need has nothing of this sense of intentional actions directed out word to the world.

In the next few weeks I will continue this discussion of care and its centrality to sustainability, and explicate the domains. Brooks's is concerned that potential defunding of a critical area of research would set back the development of important and socially relevant scientific knowledge. Yes, but it would also push sustainability farther away.

Violent Video Games--Only a Game?

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Violent-Video-Games Now that the current session of the US Supreme Court is over, the blogosphere is full of stories and analyses. Most of the decisions were not aligned with sustainability, creating greater inequalities and tipping the balance of “rights” further toward the corporate construct of a person. Kind of insidious silliness. Only people can speak. But one recent case, Brown v. Entertainment Merchants Association, bears on what I have been writing about.

The summary follows:

Respondents, representing the video-game and software industries, filed a preenforcement challenge to a California law that restricts the sale or rental of violent video games to minors. The Federal District Court concluded that the Act violated the First Amendment and permanently enjoined its enforcement. The Ninth Circuit affirmed.

Held: The Act does not comport with the First Amendment. Pp. 2-18.

The gist is that the Court found that the sale of violent video games could not be restricted on Constitutional grounds. The legal twists and turns are beyond my ken, but that is not what I want to discuss. Judge Breyer argued in his dissent that concern for the children should trump concern over restrain on speech. He wrote;

When the military uses video games to help soldiers train for missions, it is using this medium for a beneficial purpose. But California argues that when the teaching features of video games are put to less desirable ends, harm can ensue. In particular, extremely violent games can harm children by rewarding them for being violently aggressive in play, and thereby often teaching them to be violently aggressive in life. And video games can cause more harm in this respect than can typically passive media, such as books or films or television programs.

Breyer recognized that involved action is very different from passive exposure to the same scenes of violence. Judge Alito agreed with the majority on the basis of legal technicalities, but disagrees with the central theme that violent video games are no different from reading a violent story. He writes;

In the view of the Court, all those concerned about the effects of violent video games--federal and state legislators, educators, social scientists, and parents--are unduly fearful, for violent video games really present no serious problem. Spending hour upon hour controlling the actions of a character who guns down scores of innocent victims is not different in "kind" from reading a description of violence in a work of literature.      The Court is sure of this; I am not. There are reasons to suspect that the experience of playing violent video games just might be very different from reading a book, listening to the radio, or watching a movie or a television show.

The justices are operating on the wrong model of human cognition and action. To them there is no different between a violent scenario depicted in a book and the identical one enacted in a video game. The same facts are learned and the logical response would be the same. A child would be no more inclined toward or away from violence by playing the game than reading the book. The model of action and cognition I believe to be more apt for describing and understanding human nature and behavior is that of Humberto Maturana, a biologist or the philosophical model of Martin Heidegger. Both argue, on different but congruent theories, that we learn by doing, not by acquiring knowledge which we then put to work by the computer in our mind.

Maturana (and Varela) says it very simply, “All doing is knowing, and all knowing is doing.” Reading a book is an act (doing), but the context is that of theory. There is no violence in the room, only on the pages of the book. What we read goes into the brain as a context-free set of information to be recalled later. Its presence in the body is entirely distinct from whatever causes violent acts at some later time.

Acting out violence creates structures in the cognitive system that can be triggered by future events. Breyer’s point that video games “often teaching them to be violently aggressive in life” is correct. I found Alito’s arguments very detailed on this topic and worth quoting here. I have removed the footnote and legal references. They are available in the full opinion.

Finally, the Court is far too quick to dismiss the possibility that the experience of playing video games (and the effects on minors of playing violent video games) may be very different from anything that we have seen before. Any assessment of the experience of playing video games must take into account certain characteristics of the video games that are now on the market and those that are likely to be available in the near future.

     Today's most advanced video games create realistic alternative worlds in which millions of players immerse themselves for hours on end. These games feature visual imagery and sounds that are strikingly realistic, and in the near future video-game graphics may be virtually indistinguishable from actual video footage. Many of the games already on the market can produce high definition images, and it is predicted that it will not be long before video-game images will be seen in three dimensions. It is also forecast that video games will soon provide sensory feedback. By wearing a special vest or other device, a player will be able to experience physical sensations supposedly felt by a character on the screen. Some amici who support respondents foresee the day when " 'virtual-reality shoot-'em-ups' " will allow children to " 'actually feel the splatting blood from the blown-off head' " of a victim.

     Persons who play video games also have an unprecedented ability to participate in the events that take place in the virtual worlds that these games create. Players can create their own video-game characters and can use photos to produce characters that closely resemble actual people. A person playing a sophisticated game can make a multitude of choices and can thereby alter the course of the action in the game. In addition, the means by which players control the action in video games now bear a closer relationship to the means by which people control action in the real world. While the action in older games was often directed with buttons or a joystick, players dictate the action in newer games by engaging in the same motions that they desire a character in the game to perform. For example, a player who wants a video-game character to swing a baseball bat--either to hit a ball or smash a skull--could bring that about by simulating the motion of actually swinging a bat.

     These present-day and emerging characteristics of video games must be considered together with characteristics of the violent games that have already been marketed.      In some of these games, the violence is astounding. Victims by the dozens are killed with every imaginable implement, including machine guns, shotguns, clubs, hammers, axes, swords, and chainsaws. Victims are dismembered, decapitated, disemboweled, set on fire, and chopped into little pieces. They cry out in agony and beg for mercy. Blood gushes, splatters, and pools. Severed body parts and gobs of human remains are graphically shown. In some games, points are awarded based, not only on the number of victims killed, but on the killing technique employed.

     It also appears that there is no antisocial theme too base for some in the video-game industry to exploit. There are games in which a player can take on the identity and reenact the killings carried out by the perpetrators of the murders at Columbine High School and Virginia Tech. The objective of one game is to rape a mother and her daughters; in another, the goal is to rape Native American women. There is a game in which players engage in "ethnic cleansing" and can choose to gun down African-Americans, Latinos, or Jews. In still another game, players attempt to fire a rifle shot into the head of President Kennedy as his motorcade passes by the Texas School Book Depository.

     If the technological characteristics of the sophisticated games that are likely to be available in the near future are combined with the characteristics of the most violent games already marketed, the result will be games that allow troubled teens to experience in an extraordinarily personal and vivid way what it would be like to carry out unspeakable acts of violence. [Let me add that if the teens were not troubled at the start of their game-playing, they might well be when they are done.]

     The Court is untroubled by this possibility. According to the Court, the "interactive" nature of video games is "nothing new" because "all literature is interactive." Disagreeing with this assessment, the International Game Developers Association (IGDA)--a group that presumably understands the nature of video games and that supports respondents--tells us that video games are "far more concretely interactive."

     It is certainly true, as the Court notes, that " '[l]it-erature, when it is successful draws the reader into the story, makes him identify with the characters, invites him to judge them and quarrel with them, to experience their joys and sufferings as the reader's own.' " But only an extraordinarily imaginative reader who reads a description of a killing in a literary work will experience that event as vividly as he might if he played the role of the killer in a video game. To take an example, think of a person who reads the passage in Crime and Punishment in which Raskolnikov kills the old pawn broker with an axe. Compare that reader with a video-game player who creates an avatar that bears his own image; who sees a realistic image of the victim and the scene of the killing in high definition and in three dimensions; who is forced to decide whether or not to kill the victim and decides to do so; who then pretends to grasp an axe, to raise it above the head of the victim, and then to bring it down; who hears the thud of the axe hitting her head and her cry of pain; who sees her split skull and feels the sensation of blood on his face and hands. For most people, the two experiences will not be the same.

     When all the characteristics of video games are taken into account, there is certainly a reasonable basis for thinking that the experience of playing a video game may be quite different from the experience of reading a book, listening to a radio broadcast, or viewing a movie. And if this is so, then for at least some minors, the effects of playing violent video games may also be quite different. The Court acts prematurely in dismissing this possibility out of hand.

I would say the court acts incorrectly, not merely prematurely, because their model of human cognition and behavior is inadequate to explain what we can observe. This error is similar to the errors about the nature of reason or rationality I have been writing about. And like these errors has serious implications for sustainability or for societal well-being in general. By ignoring the context in which we live, the justices have only added to the perversion, not protection, of the vision of the Founding Fathers. We cannot act justly and wisely using “knowledge” that fails to fits the realities of the very different world we live in today, and fails to accept new understanding about how the world works, including the humans that inhabit it.

One last point. We have here another case where technology ceases simply to be a useful tool and shapes the worldview of those using it. Just like the tendency to see a tree as a source for lumber without regard for its intrinsic existence and value, immersion in this technology of violence may turn people into mere targets to be eliminated for a few points.

More (Rational?) Compelling Reasons to be Unreasonable

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Unreasonable300

Our long-standing book club met this week and discussed The Political Brain, by Drew Westen. Westen is a psychologist and political strategy consultant. It’s a provocative book arguing that the Republicans keep winning elections because they aim at the voter’s emotional side of the brain rather than their reasoning powers. The Democratic candidates are stuck, he argues, in a rhetorical style that presents the “facts” and expects the target voter to come to the only rational conclusion, one that would put their vote squarely in the “D” column.

People don’t work that way, says Westen. We have all sorts of biases and erroneous processes that interfere with the logical conclusion of our argument. We tend to hear only the data that tends to confirm our already preferred outcomes. My friends and colleagues keep asking me how can so many people deny the existence of anthropogenic climate change. They take the scientific evidence as the reasonable, rational basis for making decisions about this issue, and claim, that except for a very few contrary “scientists,’ there is consensus on the deleterious role of human activities. Many of the deniers, starting with a position that government should not interfere with the workings of the free market, hear a threat to that and respond accordingly. Calling them unreasonable does not and, according to Westen, will not change their minds and actions.

This behavior is consistent with the new models of rationality I recently wrote about. The first, from an article reporting on the work of two French researchers, Sperber and Mercier, had the provocative headline, “Reason Seen More as Weapon Than Path to Truth.” “Weapon” referred to the use of reason as a way to win arguments rather than its paradigmatic description—a thought process based on a set of logical steps based on information gleaned from the senses. A short time later, the NYTimes published an op-ed piece, based on this story. Writing in his occasional column, “The Stone,” philosopher Gary Gutting, points to the self-contained inconsistency in the article and in the claim of the French researchers that their theory is the right one. If one uses their own arguments, then the claim that their work tells the truth about reason is no more than another attempt to convince people of their claims, and bears no relationship to the “real” truth.

Gutting, then, provides a philosopher’s view that this apparent internal inconsistency is explainable and doesn’t obviate their claims. He writes:

But how do I justify a belief and so come to know that it’s true?  There are competing philosophical answers to this question, but one fits particularly well with Sperber and Mercier’s approach.  This is the view that justification is a matter of being able to convince other people that a claim is correct, a view held in various ways by the classic American pragmatists (Peirce, James and Dewey) and, in recent years, by Richard Rorty and Jürgen Habermas.

The key point is that justification — and therefore knowledge of the truth — is a social process.  This need not mean that claims are true because we come to rational agreement about them.  But such agreement, properly arrived at, is the best possible justification of a claim to truth.  For example, our best guarantee that stars are gigantic masses of hot gas is that scientists have developed arguments for this claim that almost anyone who looks into the matter will accept.

Much earlier than this work, the Chilean biologist, Humberto Maturana, made an almost identical claim in a 1988 article entitled, “Reality: The Search for Objectivity or the Quest for a Compelling Argument,” published in The Irish Journal of Psychology, republished at this link. It is an absolutely fascinating, but difficult, paper well worth reading. For me, he makes the most compelling argument about the shape of reality. His article opens with this challenge:

I claim that the most central question that humanity faces today is the question of reality. And I claim that this is so, regardless of whether we are aware of it or not, because every thing that we do as modern human beings, either as individuals, as social entities, or as members of some non-social human community, entails an explicit or implicit answer to this question as a foundation for the rational arguments that we use to justify our actions.

Just as Stone writes, the key factor in social interactions is the way we justify our explanations for the way the world is, including the actions we take within it. Actions include the speech acts we make, such as asserting that something is so, requesting something from others, or promising to do something. Maturana distinguishes two non-overlapping explanatory paths which he calls: objectivity-without-parenthesis and objectivity-in-parenthesis. The first is the everyday belief in a Cartesian, objective world that we apprehend and employ in our reasoning independently from our history as observers. This also goes by the name of objective reality, technical rationality, and more. Maturana writes:

In this explanatory path, the entities assumed to exist independently of what the observer does, as well as those entities that arise as constructs from these, constitute the real, and anything else is an illusion. In other words, in this explanatory path, to claim that a given statement is an illusion is to deny it reality and to negate its validity.

This mode is the norm in our society. When people depart from this mode they can be delegitimized by those that believe that they hold the genuine truth. This holds great import for sustainability as flourishing because as Maturana writes, “It is in this explanatory path that a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” When those making these claims are the powerful in a society, domination follows. The Enlightenment creators thought that their philosophy of “truth” based on this new, objective form of reality would free human beings from the historic domination of church dogma. Not quite; power still lurks in the background in the differential legitimacy given to the institutions invoked as the source of truth; science, religion, or simply one’s gut feeling. Domination greatly diminishes the possibility of flourishing, and so also sustainability.

Maturana’s title suggests that rationality is not some disconnected mental process that will come up with the same outcome independent of the immediate context, but depends on the immediate and past contexts of the parties involved. In his book with Franscisco Varela, The Tree of Knowledge, the authors claim that listening is an act of interpretation based on the listener’s mood and history, not merely a logical reconstruction of the information in the message. This claim supports the recent reported findings that people are not “rational” in argumentative situations, rather they find reasons that fit their case, not necessarily those that would stand up in a “scientific” debate. The compelling argument replaces the ‘correct” one. There is little or no chance that the parties will ever agree. Westen, in his book, contrasts the rational framework historically associated with Democratic campaign rhetoric with the emotive framework of much Republican campaigning, and gives evidence that emotionally held, already established postures tend to prevail.

In a highly contested political context, such as exists in the US today, deadlock and “extortion” are the obvious results. Obama appears to be a rationalist, in Maturana’s objectivity-without-parenthesis sense, and must be baffled by the failure of his arguments to convince the public of their correctness. In the political arena of sustainability, this explanation of rationality has been used to explain the failure of recent “campaigns” by advocacy groups to convince the public of the dangers ahead from continued global warming.

Maturana and others, including Jurgen Habermas as noted above, have developed an alternate form of reasoning based on objectivity-in-parenthesis, which accepts that reality is created through a person’s life experience and emerges through social interactions. The world appears as the same to many people, not because it has some eternal form outside of their consciousness, but because they have been socialized in a common culture and have adopted the same set of basic beliefs and norms. I’ll add a few more sentences from the Maturana paper, but warn you that they are difficult to follow.

In the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, existence is constituted with what the observer does, and the observer brings forth the objects that he or she distinguishes with his or her operations of distinction as distinctions of distinctions in language. Moreover, the objects that the observer brings forth in his or her operations of distinction arise endowed with the properties that realise the operational coherences of the domain of praxis of living in which they are constituted. In the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, the observer constitutes existence with his or her operations of distinctions. For these reasons, the observer knows in the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis that he or she cannot use an object assumed to exist as an independent entity as an argument to support his or her explaining. Indeed, I call this explanatory path the path of objectivity-in-parenthesis precisely because of this, and because as such it entails instead the recognition that it is the criterion of acceptability that the observer applies in his or her listening that determines the reformulations of the praxis of living that constitute explanations in it.

Sustainability can come forth only in a reality coming from this latter mode. Ultimately it depends on finding a common set of values and a non-dominating way of settling disputes about facts and norms. Not every single person needs to agree, but the bulk of society must change its behavior to attain consistency with a set aligned with, not opposed to, sustainability. Maturana continues his article with an argument that the mode of rationality and model of reality one adopts is an outcome of one’s emotional state or mood.

From all this, it follows that the reality we live depends on the explanatory path we adopt, and that this in turn depends on the emotional domain in which we enter at the moment of explaining. Thus, if we are in an assertive mood, and we want to impose our views on the other without reflection, de facto negating him or her, or if we are directly in an emotion that negates him or her, we find ourselves operating in the explanatory path of objectivity-without-parenthesis. If, on the contrary, we are in the emotion of acceptance of the other and in the mood of reflection, we find ourselves operationally in the explanatory path of objectivity-in-parenthesis. It follows, then, that the kind of reality that we live as a domain of explanatory propositions, reflects at any moment the flow of our interpersonal relations and what sort of co-ordinations of actions we expect to take place in them. Finally, from the perspective of the explanatory path of objectivity-in-parenthesis, this is so regardless of whether we are aware of it or not because it is constitutive of our operation in the human biology of observing.

His two opposing moods or emotions reflect prevailing moods in America today. The dominant one is narcissistic, self-centered, materialistic, and unaccepting of the “other.” Having dominates Being; actions are inauthentic and unsatisfying. Being, with its consequential authentic actions and caring, empathetic relationships, is the only course to a consensus on the kinds of change we must bring forth for sustainability. Those that seek sustainability must learn to adopt arguments that can be heard by those who would do nothing. These cannot be the usual rational, “obvious” stories; we must create a whole new convincing story that can be heard. My book was a very small beginning, but it will take far more than I can offer.