Creatures of Habit


David Brooks has been writing much of late about human behavior. He has fallen into this habit exhibiting a human side I once thought was missing from his columns. At the same time that such notions about human behavior are making it into the mainstream media, they are showing up more and more in academic and scholarly sources. I have been reading a bunch of articles from the open source journal, Constructivist Foundations, that underlay the findings Brooks has become fond of. As I read these, I am finding my own sense of what Being is all about is becoming clearer.

At the core of whatever clarity I am getting is a more distinct concept of reality. In the classic model of Descartes and many others, the world is out there waiting to be acquired in our minds. The American philosopher, Richard Rorty, described that kind of reality as a mirror of nature—an objective, that is, material world that exists out there whether we exist or not. Rorty was a strong critic of that view. This view presumes that humans are subjects gazing and acquiring knowledge about that external world through our senses and our reasoning capacity. We take what we acquire in small chunks and construct bigger models of the world by theorizing.

As I have written, this view of nature and human cognition leads to a model for human action motivated by a rationality, based on some optimizing calculus performed by our minds. The whole of standard economics rests on this model. The computer is always telling us to satisfy the highest valued member of our set of mystical utilities or preferences for which we have the means to acquire or enact. Even the concept of rationality, a built-in way of getting to the truth by the use of a logical algorithm, is falling by the wayside, to be replaced by a version that says reason is merely a process by which we try to convince others of the truth of our position.

These ideas are a deeply engrained base for the power and domination so evident today in even our modern, rational culture in the US. I have often quoted Maturana’s wonderfully terse aphorism that, “In this explanatory path [objective reality], a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.” There is only one truth, the mirroring of the outside timeless world, but it often shows up differently in the statements of two people. Rational argument cannot produce a convergence. The more powerful among those in the conversation will always prevail eventually. A second unfortunate consequence is the idea that we operate from some sort of human nature embodied in the computer that contains the rationality algorithm, which is the same for all of us. We are all greedy, needy people at the core because that computer program is always telling us to act to maximize our “pleasure” and avoiding our “pain.” The old idea of pleasure that appealed to the Enlightenment philosophers who invented these models of human nature and behavior has become reduced to numbers some measure of our utility or risk aversion and ultimately to dollars and cents by economists. Putting this model at the heart of a systems dynamics model (see my book) demonstrates the inexorable tend toward more and more material acquisitions and its associated material and human damages within a finite world.

I would say our species and its highly evolved culture are basically doomed if we continue to operate in the shadow of this model. We simply cannot survive on a Planet with the damaged goods we are creating. The human damage caused by the inherent place of power in the system will not disappear. Fukuyama wrote that we are at the “end of history.” We are in the sense that we cannot avoid a reversal in the so-called progress of the capitalistic West. The generally move toward the right end of the political spectrum in most places all over the globe is an indirect indicator of the increasing prevalence of this model. The institutions that govern our cultural behavior have this model deep in their structures.

Fortunately for all of us, this model is slowly being eroded by new findings in the widely divergent field of philosophy, biology, neuroscience, cosmology, and others. This new model comes in various names and flavors, but the one that I find most descriptive and general is “constructivist.” In this model, a world continues to exist out there, but without any meaning. All the body recognizes in the process of living in this world are sensory inputs, signaling the existing of some phenomenon. Phenomena are meaningless experiences that signal an observer that is something happening. They are meaningless until the observer describes the experience in language, not necessarily words, but some distinctive linguistic symbol. After that, any repetition of the same phenomenon can be explained using the symbols. It should not be difficult to imagine the development of language and cultures springing from this fundamental mode of human Being.

The meaningful world, the only one that can support coordinated human activities, has come to us by the accretion of meaning through the reality constructed by the actions of all language-enabled humans that have preceded us. Other creatures express linguistic behavior and can and do coordinate their activities, but they cannot use their linguistic competence to invent new ways of interacting. “Languaging”, a word often used by Humberto Maturana, is a second-order process in which the words we have embodied are rearranged to form meaningful statements that permit us, in a coordinated manner, to act in new ways. The “progress” we attribute to our modern culture is the accumulation of novelty enabled through the use of language.

Without the benefit of fMRI’s that show cognitive scientists how the brain responds to incoming signals, Heidegger figured out that Descartes and all the models based on the transcendental, mysterious mirroring of nature were built upon a house of cards. So have many other philosophers, but Heidegger developed an alternate, powerful explanation to explain the existence of our species. He argued that we are living creatures that acquire our understanding of our place in the [real] world out there by acting within in through the context of language. Nothing more than the simple process I sketched above. Understanding is a meaningful sense of that world and of ourselves. “Meaning” here means that we become capable to acting in a purposeful manner. We can metaphorically picture a way we want the world to be and act deliberately to create our picture in real terms. More directly, we construct a world by our bootstraps. First learning the meaning of simple things through the language we listen to as infants, a process with grows and continues all through our life.

This process is hard to accept for several reasons. One is that we are acculturated from the beginning by the Cartesian model. It is the fundamental believe in our modern culture of the model for knowledge and rational behavior. Secondly, in each distinct culture, we share the meaning of many words so that we act transparently without asking what did she mean by that. Heidegger called acting in way ready-to-hand. We act unconsciously using language and artifacts that we have grown so accustomed to us under the particular circumstances that we just do it, as Nike tells us to do. (Nike is wrong, however, in the context they operate in. It is only the ready-to-hand actions that are already routine. Nike is talking about new kinds of actions. You simply cannot just do it here; consciousness and learning is essential.)

Heidegger called our competent, routines: ready-to-hand. He felt compelled to invent a new vocabulary to startle those who were stuck in the language of Descartes. What he was talking about are actions we usually call habits. These are behavioral patterns we exhibit routinely without consciously thinking about them. Most of them are positive in the sense that we are being effective in acting. Most of our daily life is spent in this mode. Talking and walking are two sets of such habits. Driving a car is another involving a complicated piece of machinery. Some of our habits are just the opposite; we act in such ways to create negative outcomes. The Cartesian model of the mind does a poor job of explaining this opposing set of modes of acting, because they are not actually opposed at all.

I will continue to write about the constructivist model of reality and its consequences on human culture in further posts. The take home today is the implications of the constructivist model on the possibility of flourishing: the same thing as sustainability in this blog. If it were human nature to be greedy without limit and always act out of the ill to power, I would stand by my pessimistic prediction that we are doomed. But if the constructivist model is more realistic, then we can replace the pessimism by hopefulness. Habits, no matter how deeply engrained in an individual and the culture, are potentially changeable. No theoretical reason stands in the way. Of course, the institutions and their embedded beliefs and norms will be highly resistant to any change that tears down the current beliefs and norms and upsets the ordering of power. Bloody revolutions can do this, but at great cost often even to those propelling the changes. Continuing on our present trajectory invites such revolutionary behavior, not only at the hands of the suffering human being, but also from the Earth itself.