Stuck Inside of Language


I have been a little depressed lately; maybe I’m just feeling that I am stuck and so is the world. Two days ago, James Hansen and other climate scientists published a report that predicts ocean rise is occurring much faster than previously thought. If he is right, cities like New York will be inundated by as early as mid-century. You might think that this would be newsworthy but I found almost no news reported about it through a Google search. Only the Huffington Post and Washington Post and a handful of others appeared to have covered. Nothing in the NYTimes. Some argued that, since it is yet to be peer-reviewed, it is not newsworthy. Such hypocrisy, given the tripe that too often passes for hot news.

When this news does take hold, as I am confident it will be, given Hansen’s reputation, there will, perhaps, be a flurry of technocratic responses. I doubt if dikes will work against such a large height. Hansen includes some data suggesting that a similar occurrence took place some 150,000 years ago during the Eemian period. We still are acting as if there is a disconnect between humans and the rest of the universe. We stand outside and treat it as some sort of house we occupy. When the conditions inside of our house get uncomfortable, improve the walls. I can think of many other metaphors to describe our disconnected relationship to the world. No matter which one I choose, the consequences for the world are bad. It seems so clear to me, but why is it so hard for us to recognize that our big problems arise largely because we fail to think in systemic terms in which metaphors like walls would not be appropriate.

I have written much about this failure, generally from the perspective of complexity. Complex describes systems that cannot be fully understood by examining all of its parts independently and describing each in analytic or mathematical terms. Complex systems are unpredictable is a very critical sense. They may operate in what appears to be a normal mode, seemingly predictable, but then move into a mode of behavior completely detached from what has been observed. Such complexity is the root of Hansen’s new work. Instead of the linear models used in past predictions of warming and ocean rise, he used a non-linear model more consistent with the complexity of climate.

Most arguments trying to explain our modern society’s difficulty in thinking in systems terms or in building strategic models based on complexity go back to Descartes and his dual model of human beings. He separated the essence of humans, mind, from the material world. We became subjects gazing on and acquiring knowledge about the world of objects, including ourselves, outside the mind. The scientific method that he also developed turned this concept into a organized practice that has become the standard for truth about the world. That is until politicians and others adversely affected have found those truths inconvenient. But that is another story. I have been wondering whether a more subtle context to Descartes’ simplification might explain our difficulties with thinking systemically. And, of course I do.

I suspect our difficulty to think systematically started with the invention of language. Language is composed of particles of experience. Humans, before they invented language, experienced life as do all living creatures in some holistic way. They had to because they had no means to label any part of the world that constituted their experiences. They could call attention, in the moment, by gestures, but the meaning of that moment could not be captured as a distinction against the rest of the world. As the evolution of our species continued, at some point our cognitive powers increased such that gestures were augmented by sounds that, through repetition, would have become associated with particular objects out there. (I have no proof of this tale, but I find it reasonable and very useful.) Over time, the words that described objects, actions, and spatial relations would have become object-like and could be discussed independently from the context in which they had acquired their meaning. They acquired the property of an abstraction, but retained an association with the world of real object in space.

Later, the Greeks added a new and mind-expanding part of language, concepts: words whose meaning was connected with immaterial things. The idea of concept, per se, is abstract. They have meaning without any particular context. Now people could talk without any connection to a worldly context. Sentences and grammar further closed the worlds of language. Language became capable of describing experience completely out of the immediate context of that experience and could even invent stories about a world that did not even exist in people’s actual experience.

It makes sense to me as part of this story that people began to lose sight of and interest in the world out there as the language they possessed became richer and richer. Philosophy became the first “science,” as the pursuit of knowledge through language without the need to tie it to any real context of experience. The early philosophers used the abstractions of language to create stories about how life should be lived, again away from life itself. I could continue in this vein, but I hope I have made my point.

We may think by some mysterious biochemical processes, but we express our thoughts in verbally. Even if we are conscious of the systemic world in which we exist, we are limited by language itself to think in terms of abstractions. Complexity, itself, is an abstraction. I can describe it in general terms, but cannot describe it in any particular sense without having the real complex system in front of me. Systems thinking, like language, evolved as a result of humans’ desire to explain the world they experienced and to coordinate action within it. Systems thinking involves an inherently incomplete description of real worlds simply because it is bound by the abstract language we use, but is an attempt to expand upon the limits of the way we use language in everyday situations and in out-of-context analytical efforts of all kinds.

Most of the times, our normal rules for explaining things can tell us what to do, but complexity is different. The basic rule to use here is that no rules can be made to apply. Since we only know how to know how things work through the rules of science, this is a pretty pickle. The typical response when faced with problems springing from complexity is to deny or ignore that they are complex, and treat them as ordinary pieces of the world. We have become, over millennia, very uncomfortable when we cannot explain something or make it do what we want, even with human beings. That is because human beings are inherently complex. They often do what social scientists tell us they will do, but an awful lot of the time they do not. But we ignore this and continue building social structure based on our abstractions.

In the long run, this can’t work. We do know that because we already use another abstraction to a describe our understanding of the limits of unsystematic thinking: unintended consequences. Now I am ready to get back to the beginning of this post. Climate change and ocean rise are very serious and large unintended consequences of ordinary modern life. But ordinary modern life is the result of living in societies built upon the abstractions we have taken up since language showed up and accelerated when the Greeks breathed a new life into it.

If we want to avoid such problems, big and small, not just think what to do about them in the sense of treating their symptoms, we MUST (in caps, italics, and bolded for all the stress I could muster) do a better job about the complexity of the real world. This will require a few initial steps. One, we have to shed our highly nuanced hubris about our ability to understand the world. I use understand in apposition to know. Understand means that we can do a pretty good job in practice; knowing is some abstract way of describing the world out of the context of practice. Two, we have to start to deal with the world through pragmatism. Pragmatism, although not initially intended as such, is a method we can use to do the best job we can to understand and act within complex situations. Best here means the closest we can come to getting what we want out of the situation. Of course, if the system is incapable of giving us what we want, we are deep in proverbial doodoo. (Capitalism, hmm…)

Pragmatism, like science, is built around a method, but a method that has no fixed rules about how to proceed. Pragmatism requires careful observation, over time, about what is going on and how whatever we do to intervene works. Careful rigorous study is important. We have to observe the system in situ. Computer simulation can help determine how best to play with the system, but cannot substitute for what happens in real practice.

Third, we have to learn to be patient, both individually and collectively. Understanding takes time and mistakes along the way. A polarized society will have a very hard time accepting this, since it works largely by claims of knowledge (that’s the problem) and pointing out the other’s mistakes. We want our machines to start immediately and do exactly want we want, and expect the world to act just like a car. But if it fails to work as we wish, we cannot recall it.

Fourth, we have to rebuilt those societal institutions based on abstractions, using a worldly model of complexity. Much of what we have already created in our modern age can stay around, but only in places that do behave more or less like machines. Learning, itself, has to change. A system of knowledge based on disciplines, each with its own abstractions and methods, is the antithesis of what is needed to run the social world. Technocratic public decision and management processes are similarly not suited. Abstractions, like efficiency and cost-benefit, do not fit complex systems. Need I say that this is going to be a very big job. It is, indeed, so big that it is mind boggling, but that is a good word to use to describe complex systems of any significant size.

Fifth and last for today. We have to put humans into the same context of complexity as the rest of the world. That means that we have to understand them in the context of life, instead of as machines as we do through economics, psychology, medical science and all the other ways we now describe human beings. As I noted in the last post, Aristotle understood that one had to examine humans over a lifetime to determine if they were leading a virtuous life, otherwise stated, if they had achieved eudaemonia or flourishing. I have written much about care as the central feature that distinguishes humans from all other beings. In thinking about this post, I see that care, whatever else it means, has a pragmatic context to it. Care means acting in the comple real world of the moment to create the conditions that produce some measure of goodness in the target(s) of that action. Goodness here means some condition that is consistent with whatever potential the entity possesses. It was best expressed, perhaps, by Also Leopold in his Land Ethic.

A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.…The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants, and animals, or collectively: the land…[A] land ethic changes the role of Homo sapiens from conqueror of the land-community to plain member and citizen of it. It implies respect for his fellow-members, and also respect for the community as such.

I have simply tried to say much the same thing in this post, but using the daily abstractions that are more common. His use of community is that of a systems thinker, far more encompassing in scope that of the forest science he practiced. But then forestry is one of the most systemic of all professions.

ps. The picture is a rendering of what might have happened to London during the Eemian Period.