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Homo Economicus is a Cultural Artifact


The central thesis of my work is that modern cultures/societies have evolved on a set of fundamental beliefs that do not match the way the world works. Over time, while the institutions of society, based on these beliefs, have become more entrenched, complex, and powerful, they are failing to produce the normative goals of individuals and the larger collective society. This failure is being compounded by the appearance of unintended consequences that loom large enough to pose existential threats to the Earth and its life forms.

If this is the case, then the way out of the situation is simple in theory, but exceedingly difficult in practice. Replace the faulty beliefs; faulty in the pragmatic outcomes of building a world based on them. To the staunch defenders of modernity’s primary beliefs, be assured that I am not arguing that these beliefs are not based on experience; I am saying only that they do not fit the larger interconnected system in we exist. I am deliberately avoiding commenting about the truth of these beliefs at this point, but will later in this essay.

The cultural engine based on these beliefs runs the modern world. This world includes almost all of the industrialized economies of the globe. China and India have one foot there, and one stuck in their traditional culture, but are moving into modernity. When I speak of modernity, I refer to a particular set of foundational beliefs and norms on which the political economy and other major societal institutions are grounded. One belief provides the basic way we explain the way the natural universe, including human beings, works. It is difficult to compress that into a single sentence, but here is a try. We believe in an objective reality, composed of entities with fixed characteristics (nature) that follow knowable, fixed rules of behavior, determined by applying the methods of science to produce the rules. Objective means these rules are acontextual, and fixed in time. An apple always falls downward from a tree, whether in your yard or mine, and will do the same over all time. Human subjects create these rules by observing pieces of the universe in carefully controlled circumstances (reductionism). Both the idea of an objective universe and the reductionist methodology can be traced to René Descartes.

The second belief is a corollary to the first, but so important that it must be set it apart as distinct. It is the belief we invoke to explain the behaviors of human beings. It follows from the first in that it assumes that humans have a characteristic nature and whose behavior follows certain rules, just like everything else in the universe. One of these rules is that humans are rational, that is, their mental processes follow the rules of reason, some universal set of logical processes. This belief became more closely defined during the time of the Enlightenment philosophers to a particular logic. Humans would act in a way to maximize their pleasure and minimize their pain. As economics began to be shaped by Adam Smith and others, this became even more precise and refers to some utility function or ordering that determined the priority of action. While not a scientific taxonomic distinction, humans were labeled by a new species name, Homo economicus: A rational and narrowly self-interested person who acts primarily to acquire goods and services and is never satisfied. An ancillary concept to this is that the acquisition of material objects has become very high on the modern scale of people’s utility functions.

These beliefs underpin both the two major political economic systems of modernity, capitalism and socialism. Adam Smith gave us this pithy idea; “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” John Stuart Mill expressed a similar theme, “[Political economy] does not treat the whole of man’s nature as modified by the social state, nor of the whole conduct of man in society. It is concerned with him solely as a being who desires to possess wealth…” Marx wrote, “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” Each of these men saw human beings as possessing some sort of internal desire that served as the basis for their economic life. The idea grew to encompass all action beyond the economic. Altruistic acts could be explained by arguing the value of helping another outweighed all other options at the moment of decision. The word, need, became reified as in the use Marx made of it. As a noun, it could be and is conventionally viewed as a part of human nature.

This essay was triggered by a conversation I participate in on the Global Transition Network (GTN), a group seeking ways to bring about a transition to flourishing. The sponsors of the GTN use a different normative description, but one that fits this single word very closely. The following quoted lines were posted by a neuroscientist commenting on “the deep problem of what a person actually needs.”

The need a person feels is for something better than he or she already has. This feeling arises from a core brain circuit, present in all animals, that makes us feel good when we receive something better than expected: a warm spot when we are cold, a berry or nut when we are hungry, and so on. But as modern life removes most environmental fluctuations, the circuit “adapts.” Now, when we are warm, dry, and fed, our innate neural circuits drive us to seek new satisfactions. The problem of “need” cannot be plastered over with a slogan; it cannot be controlled by legislation or social pressure.

I fully subscribe to the cognitive model he provides, but not at all to the way he elaborates the consequences. He has failed to put brackets around his scientific thinking and, instead, assumes that need refers to the culturally bound idea about acquisition. Note the use of the phrase “receive something.” He also assumes that the received object is “mine,” that is, private property. Based on the same model of cognitive functioning, I come to a distinctly different explanation of and definition of “need.”

As I often do, I refer to the work of Antonio Damasio, a well-known neuroscientist. Damasio uses a model that separates the brain into three major parts, each corresponding to a different “self.” My language and description lack the nuance and detail he offers, but still represents, I belief, the overall construction of human cognition. The “protoself” refers to processes that originate in the evolutionarily oldest portion of the brain. Here lies the source of more or less automatic responses to certain experiences-fear, disgust, anger, sadness, or happiness. The universality of these emotional acts across cultures and even among some animals suggests a genetic, structural foundation.

The “core self” refers to processes in parts of the brain primarily involved with maintaining the body’s homeostasis, that is, keeping it alive and controlling its movements. The third part, the “autobiographical self,” is the parts of the brain that process the experience of living from moment to moment. Damasio describes this portion as containing neuronal structures that capture images of experiences and the actions that accompanied them. This is the part of the brain/self primarily involved in intentional action, actions over which we could say the actor has a choice and are directed toward the immediate context. The now-mostly accepted description of the brain as having a part that captures one’s life history also indicates an important role for cultural and individual contexts. Using terms from evolutionary biology, we can say a self, a term used to describe the behaviors of a human being, have both a phylogeny and ontology. The first, phylogeny, is that part of the self that arises from cultural experiences, experiences common to other humans in the same cultural settings, from the society as the larger bound to other institutional setting such as work, school, or religious institutions. The second, ontogeny, describes the idiosyncratic experience of the individual and is unique to every individual, even to identical twins.

All this is background to my next point. I argue that “need” is phylogenic, coming from the meaning that the culture gives to it. Words are symbols that humans use to express feelings and other cognition processes. The quote above uses the culturally bound meaning of need, that is, the need for some thing. As I interpret Damasio and other cognitive scientists, some image of the thing may rest in the brain, but the important feature is the process of acting to get it as mine. The process produces whatever positive or pleasurable response, that later can be expressed as, “I needed that.” So-called, “mirror neurons” may be involved in embedding the processes that create pleasure. The object itself is not the source of meaning; the pleasure response comes from the process. If we now put brackets around the cultural context, the phylogeny, we are still left with the ontogeny, a reference to a process that produces a pleasurable response. The Enlightenment philosophers and scientists appear to be right after all.

But what would result from a different phylogeny, that is, a different cultural experience. We would still expect to observe “needy” behaviors, that is, behaviors that produce pleasurable results, but they would be triggered by a different set of actions. What might happen if pleasure was triggered by care, that is, performing empathic actions for others, instead of our self-directed normal behaviors? Over time, following the way language comes to be, we might start to describe human beings as creatures that have a “need” to act to provide empathic care for others, but including myself as a possible other. Before Smith spoke as in the above quote, he thought that human nature was, ironically, based on empathy. Changing the beliefs that run the modern culture is certainly very difficult, but is possible compared to the challenge of changing our genetic components. The first would take a few generations; the second, an epoch.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 1, 2015 5:53 PM ::


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

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 1, 2015 8:48 AM ::

Creating Flourishing Change Agents

change agent I dropped into a lunch a few days ago at the Tellus Institute in Boston to discuss an essay that is due to be published in their series on the Global Transition Initiative. The essay points to some little known passages in Karl Marx’s works, which illustrate his awareness of connections between the economic and the natural worlds, and of what he called the “metabolic rift” that capitalistic production would cause in the latter. Very interesting, but more universal than his critique suggests. All material forms of production burden the earth’s resources. He made what is obvious today, observing the very much smaller levels of production at his time. I suspect he was calling on his direct knowledge of the wounds caused by the industrial revolution in England.

But that’s not the primary target of this post. Toward the end of the meeting, someone began to talk about agency, noting Marx’s focus on structure, one half of the agency/structure apposition in social theory. Issues concerning the agency-structure apposition focus on intentionality or the ability of an actor to make choices. Marx, like many sociologists, took a fairly static view of structure. Greatly compressing his work, he argues that capitalism removed agency from workers, leaving them dominated by the way the political economy was organized. His remedy for the alienation created in workers was revolution and the imposition of socialistic institutions. He implored workers to assume the agency necessary to bring about change.

On the subway ride home, I saw many parallels between this and my work on flourishing. I agree with much of Marx’s critique, but believe that the origin of the problems of capitalism lie deeper than the political economy. It is not the mode of production that produces the alienation that he railed against; it is the beliefs and norm structure of modernity itself. Materialism is inherent in modernity, arising from the dominant notion of Cartesian objectivity which presumes a material world outside the mind. Modern science followed the same origin by developing (reductionist) methods that could probe the material world, one piece at a time, and reveal truths about it in the form of rules, mathematical or otherwise, that described the behavior of objects, that is their nature. Human beings were considered as such objects with a distinctive human nature.

One problem with this is that the study of human nature cannot be carried out with the same reductionist methodology applicable to other objects, and so theories of human nature were developed by idiosyncratic observations of behavior. Marx thought human nature was the expression of some essence through “work” or “labor,” as the form work takes in a capitalistic society. Other observers defined human nature in terms of seeking pleasure and avoiding pain. Others pointed to the rationality of human cognition as the hallmark.

The process of modernization, which Marx assigned to historical materialism, grew around the gradual embedding of these ideas and their use in designing and building the structures that are still present in most industrialized countries today. So who were the agents of this change from feudalism and earlier sociological regimes? Was it the ideas or was it the creators of the ideas or was it those that used them to design institutions. or what? Given any critical critique, that is, one that finds the current culture/society lacking in some important feature, it is obvious that the next step is to seek some sort of agent to change it to the presumed better world. Marks chose the alienated workers themselves. The philosophes provided many of the ideas that fueled the French revolution, but the change was instituted by a revolt of the Third Estate: the peasants, bourgeoisie and other oppressed people. The author of the essay discussed at the meeting I mentioned at the start of the post suggested, in good Marxian fashion, that revolt against the “oppression” of nature (what I call unsustainability) would come from an environmental proletariat. I see no signs of this in Marxian terms.

Although I would expect that historians might criticize this next statement, I argue that gradual changes, such as have accompanied the transition from feudalism to modernity, are more likely to hang around than those created by abrupt revolt. My own critique of modernity is that, although it has lasted a long time, its structure and the agents that act on the foundation of that structure no longer are producing the normative outcomes it was thought it would. I argue the reasons for this assertion in my books and in this blog and will not elaborate here. As for all such societal or cultural critiques, the call for an agent of change usually follows. I find a clue for finding such an agent in the dynamic model of societal behavior of Anthony Giddens. Unlike static models, Giddens’s structuration theory pertains to a society (or any discrete institution) in flux connecting several structural categories that are involved in both the reproduction and change of societal behaviors.

Human agents produce behavior, shaped by four structural elements in Giddens’s model: beliefs, norms, authority ordering, and enabling resources like technology and information. Beliefs provide meaning to the immediate social world; norms provide legitimate responses to the consequent meaningful situations; authority ordering provides power to determine who will act and what resources will be made available; such resources enable actors to effect intentional, actual change in the world. As long as those four elements are more or less constant, one day resembles another, as seen from afar while the existing structure becomes more and more embedded in the collective “memory” of the society, hence the name of structuration—a constant dialectic between action and the elements that shape it.

Change occurs when any one of the four elements change exogenously, that is, outside of the normal patterns. Revolutions are the result of, first, new beliefs, and, then, new power ordering. New institutions then form, endogenously, that embed the power and beliefs; new norms replace the old; and new resources are brought to bear. Change may also come when new resources, frequently technological, are introduced, as is the case of our current information “revolution.” Many new technologies are characterized as “disruptive,” suggestive of revolutionary change.

Giddens’s model pictures how societies both work routinely and also how they change. It is only a model but captures the stable and dynamic features of distinct social organizations all the way from families to entire polities like the US. It is not only explanatory; it can serve as a model for designing deliberate change. The choice of which of the categories should be the “agent” of that change is not made explicit in this model. The actual agents are always people, but their actions are guided by the structure. Something in that structure must change if people are to change their behavior routinely. So where do we start to make changes to raise the possibility of flourishing (my normative vision) against the current threatening and unstable social world.

Since I believe that our troubles arise from a couple of beliefs and norms, I look first at those two categories. It is said that it is hard to teach old dogs new tricks, that is, to change habits or norms. On the other hand, people can change their minds in an instant, that is, replace old beliefs with new. Authority re-ordering is always opposed by the existent holders of power and is resistant to change; history points to upheavals as the way change usually occurs in this category. The absence of a revolutionary-minded environment proletariat argues against looking to this source of agency. Enabling resources, almost always some form of technology, tend to follow other changes. When they arise exogenously and are disruptive, the resultant changes in the other categories along with resultant behavior is very hard to predict, a feature that limits this potential lever in designing an explicit new future.

Eric Olin Wright, at another Tellus lunch session last year, outlined strategies for societal change that seem to me to overlay Giddens’s model quite well. Ruptural change is his language for revolution in authority ordering. He sees this as having failed in capitalistic societies. Escape strategies, that is, physically moving out of the society can work for those that move, but do not change the status quo. Another that he calls interstitial looks promising as a way to produce flourishing change agents. In this strategy, agents with new beliefs and norms work in the cracks and margins of the current system, effecting small, but cumulative changes until some tipping point is reached, and the system structure adopts the flux occurring in the wings. Wright, however, notes that this, like the others, has failed to tip over any system so far. Even so, I believe this is the way to create the requisite agents for change.

The key beliefs for a flourishing world are complexity and interconnectedness in place of the Cartesian analytically deterministic, reductionist view of the world; and a model of human being as empathetic and caring rather than self-interested and coolly rational. The modernistic norm of ever-continued progress toward some indeterminate state of perfection would be replaced by a vision of flourishing as the normative end. Accompanying behavioral norms are pragmatic inquiry in place of the scientific method, solidarity replacing individualism, and relation-based “solutions” for everyday problems applied where technological means are ubiquitous today. Technology tends to place a veil over the direct human experience among interacting people. All of these beliefs and norms can be adapted to Wright’s interstitial strategy, creating a cadre of flourishing change agents. I will mention just a few.

Without giving up capitalism, businesses can re-envision themselves as purveyors of services that enable their customers to enact their caring intentions. Some are already doing this successfully, albeit at the margins. Some major business sectors, especially health care, have historic roots in relational, not transactional, care and should be able to recover that role. Local retail banks focused on customer care/service are faring well relative to the banking giants.

Academic institutions can and do augment their disciplinary structures with systems-oriented teaching and research programs aligned with complexity. Complexity requires different research methods and different decision and implementation procedures. While positivism would remain the primary framework for examining natural phenomena, the social sciences and their applications in fields like business and government can add pragmatic methods to the already potent arsenal of “rational” methods. Systems-oriented courses are already available in business schools, for example, but remain at the margins.

Although under siege, industrial and service unions represent the norm of solidarity and understanding of interconnectedness, but they are perceived primarily as seekers of higher wages. European unions have done a better job of explicating the idea of solidarity. It should take very little to re-frame the missions of institutions like these to highlight the vision of flourishing and the recognition of a different set of beliefs and norms.

The greatest source of potential flourishing change agents is the general public. The vast majority of adults worldwide report dissatisfaction with work. I saw some data recently indicating that consumers in the UK reversed a long-term trend and started saving more and consuming less following the financial bust of 2008. This shows an openness to other ways than the cultural norm of shopping to assuage their hurts. Similarly, alternative remedies to stress like mindfulness practices are on the rise. Mindfulness improves reflective skills and helps one reach further inside to the core of care by filtering out the cultural roar to conform with current norms, consuming being a, if not the, primary one. Spiritual leaders, like the Dalai Lama or Pope Francis, are sending surprisingly mundane messages about caring for other humans and for the Planet. That’s enough for one post. I welcome your thoughts about this and other ways to create flourishing change agents.

It should be clear that I am arguing for relatively peaceful means to effect change. But perhaps we should take a cue from Shakespeare’s Henry VI, where Dick utters this very famous line, “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers.” He was pointing to lawyers as forces that stood in the way of the revolution being plotted. Today, as an impediment to a flourishing revolution, The Bard might point instead to economists.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 25, 2015 9:46 PM ::

This Site Has Been Renamed


I have changed the title of this website as you can see. The url remains the same. Flourishing By Design is the theme of the story I am now telling. Although I have been correcting myself for quite a while, “sustainability” remains present in my past work. Going forward, I intend to stick with flourishing as the goal. As I have written, without a clear vision of the future we want, the concept and implementation of sustainability tend to keep the status quo in place. Ironically, the very use of sustainability arose because powerful, concerned people grew wary of the status quo and sought to change it by applying new strategies, for example eco-efficiency and corporate social responsibility.. For a variety of reasons, this broad approach has done and can do little to change the global trajectory.

Outcomes are shaped by the language we use to coordinate actions. New words are coined when current usage cannot describe some situation that evoked action. In this case, new words are unnecessary; we already have enough good ones, but ail to use them. Flourishing does a much better job is providing an image of the future we want than does “progress,” our current operative word ever since Enlightenment thinkers gave it to us. Having a clear vision conveyed by flourishing, allows us to track our actions more effectively than does the process sense of progress, which lacks clarity about the end state.

Sustainability will hang around in my past work because it is impractical to go back and expunge each and every use of it. But there is no excuse for its continuance as the governing idea in efforts to deal with the social and environmental problems that have caught our attention. The use of meaningless or confusing language renders our actions ineffective. Savvy always, Confucius knew this, as told in this anecdote about him.

When Confucius was asked by one of his disciples what he would do if he were given his own territory to govern, the Master replied that he would “rectify the names,’ that is, make words correspond to reality. He explained:

If the names are not correct, if they do not match realities, language has no object. If language has no object, action becomes impossible—and therefore, all human affairs disintegrate and their management becomes pointless.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 21, 2015 9:44 AM ::

Need I Comment?

angry emoticon

A periodic post about the silliness of corporate behavior and of the media that report on it. This morning a story from the Huffington post about 9 company’s programs to combat climate change. Any similar story that included automobile companies is not worth reading. H&M sells short-lived clothing made under questionable conditions; Mars sells products that make people obese; and so on. See for yourself at this link. Headlines like this, 9 Companies That Are Changing Their Habits To Save Our Planet, usually distort the story that follows.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 19, 2015 11:04 AM ::

Explanation, Belief, and Reality


This essay is motivated by a class studying the origins of psychotherapy that I began today, where we are looking back to Mesmer and others who were associated with what we might call today: miraculous cures. The discussion found itself involved with important ideas about belief, reality, science, religion, and so on. I came home with a very unsettled mind and, as I usually do to put it in order, sat down and began to write about these various topics. I have discussed parts of this in my books and blog posts. The most direct connection is to the assertion that unsustainability is, in large part, an unintended consequence of the excess, hegemonic use of science to explain complex phenomena for which it is methodologically not equipped to do.

There is something about human beings that makes them curious. Curious is a word mostly related to the desire for explanation. Even as infants, we begin to ask “why” questions long before any other. Other than rhetorical questions that one asks oneself or some invisible audience, “why” questions are directed at someone else. The choice of the basis of the explanation is left to the answerer. Over the history of humankind, this kind of response has taken many forms.

The earliest responses created explanations that invoked mysterious or mystical causal origins. Mundane phenomena were explained by invoking some magical force or being. The grew from early, local shamans and gods to the expansive Abrahamic traditions of today. In terms of current linguistic usage, all of these would be classified as spiritual or religious in nature.

As the period of the Enlightenment began, some exceptionally curious men (always men at that time) noticed inconsistencies in the then extant religious explanations, and sought to explain what they observed by using their reasoning powers. As their successes in explaining things grew, so did their methods for gathering the information that fed their reasoning. This process came to a head with Descartes who laid the ground for what we call science today. He invented reductionism, the idea that we could explain a objective, mechanical universe by examining one separate piece at a time.

He hit the jackpot in terms of creating a way of knowing that has become dominant in the West, but not exclusively so. The explanations of both religion and science are bodies of beliefs, that is, truth about how the world works. Before moving on to illustrate other ways of explaining such phenomena, I have to talk a little more about beliefs. Beliefs are those explanations that individuals and cultures hold as basic to design actions and give reasons, if asked, why that action and not something else. The founder of pragmatism, C. S. Peirce, defined beliefs as intimately related to action.

And what then is belief?

First, it is something we are aware of;

Second, it appeases the irritation of doubt; and

Third, it involves the establishment in our nature of a rule
of action, or, say for short, a habit.

A belief established a habit for action, and as long as our beliefs were settled, we were disposed to act as they dictated. Doubts unsettled beliefs and disposed us to eliminate it in order that we might settle back into belief. Inquiry, broadly construed, was the struggle to attain a state of belief by eliminating the irritation of doubt.

The essence of belief is the establishment of a habit, and different beliefs are distinguished by the different modes of action to which they give rise.

Beliefs, in philosophy, have a lot to do with “truth,” but I am not going there in any depth. Beliefs are deemed to be true to the believer, but not necessarily to others, as what constitutes truth is subject to philosophical and practical disagreements. I am writing only about the place of beliefs in explaining both natural phenomena and intentional human actions.

There are other ways to explain observed phenomena that are neither religious or scientific in nature but are very important in human affairs. For lack of a better term, let me call these pragmatic. Pragmatism, following the same Peirce, developed into a method to explain worldly happenings. Explanation is again at the root. Science is severely limited when asked to explain how big systems, like the economy of the US works, and to answer ancillary questions, like what caused the crashes of 1929 or 2008. It is problematic, at best, and inappropriate, at worst, to employ the “scientific method” in such cases of complex phenomena. The system being queried is complex in these cases and cannot be fitted into the tightly controlled context of a scientific investigation. Human beings in action are similarly complex, making scientific explanations equally problematic. This does not stop scientists, both natural and social to make “scientific claims” about the behavior of both human and non-human entities that can and do produce significant unintended consequences.

Pragmatism is built upon inquiry methods aimed at understanding how such complex systems work by observing them them in their actual worldly context over time, while often interacting directly with them by perturbing the system. To the extent that such actions seem to “cause” the system to behave in the desired way, pragmatists would say that some sort of understanding has been generated by the inquiry. Where scientific inquiry is objective, that is, scientists have no interest in the meaning of the outcome beyond clearing up a gap in knowledge, pragmatists always care about the outcomes and their understandings. When we say someone has a green thumb, we are acknowledging the understanding that person has acquired about tending, that is, caring for, their gardens.

The beliefs created by these three distinct categories explanation-seeking means of inquiry are identified by different names although everyday use blurs these differences all the time. Beliefs from religious inquiry are called faith; from science—knowledge or facts or truths; and from pragmatism—understandings. The blurring of these distinctions leads, as I note below, to all kinds of disagreements and conflicts.

One more important category needs to be mentioned, that of intuition. Intuitive beliefs are those explanations given by someone, when asked why they did something (including saying something, also a form of action,) that come from some inexplicable feeling. As I learn more about how the brain works, I have an intuition (not enough experience yet to be an understanding) that intuition fits under the category of pragmatism with a key difference. Pragmatism usually refers to contemporaneous inquiry about some phenomenon still going on. Intuition, it seems to me, uses past experiences, stored in the autobiographical, plastic parts of the brain, as the basis of some intuitive belief by making a sort of metaphorical connection between the immediate experience and other experiences from the past. I find this consistent with Antonio Damasio’s model of the brain (Self Comes to Mind, Vintage press, 2010). This explanation also is consistent the work of Lakoff and Johnson and others on the place of metaphor in meaning (Lakoff, G. and M. Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By. Chicago, IL, University of Chicago Press). Question to the reader, “What kind of belief is this one about intuition I am espousing?”

I should add yet one more class here, which I call as some do, WAG’s or wild-ass-guesses. These are explanations offered up, but with no attempt at grounding as in any of the ones above.

All of these types of explanatory beliefs have a very important feature in common. They are used to construct and explain action. Each of these has a different value as a legitimating ground for action, importantly including speech acts including argumentation, and therein lies the rub. The value of any one of these as an explanatory means differs from person to person and from situation to situation. Those that invariably use but one category to explain everything are called orthodox or, even extreme. That label springs from their use of only one of these categories as grounds for action and legitimation. The consequence of the incompatibility of these different kinds of explanatory beliefs is obvious, but I will stop short of any discussion of such consequences here.

The second important distinction mentioned in class today was reality. It is even a more troublesome word than belief. In general, reality refers to a body of beliefs that explains how the universe works, or, as some would say it, contains the truth about the universe. Those that hold to science as the way to generate true expressions would argue that reality is some assemblage of material things and processes that have been objectively explained to the satisfaction of the standards of science. Conversations about religious reality often beg the question by claiming that the way gods work is ineffable or inexplicable, and that to ask what is real is to ask the wrong question. Pragmatists might say that reality is the last explanation that we just expressed because it seems to work for the time being. So, we can say that reality as the body of beliefs that constitute it is as arguable as are those beliefs. I’ll end with a few statements about reality made by a philosopher and a scientist as food for further thinking. Both have made a big impression on me.

The late Richard Rorty, an eminent American philosophy, wrote the following about truth, but as related to “reality.” (Contingency, Irony, and Solidarity. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1989, p. 4-5).

We need to make a distinction between the claim that the world is out there and the claim that truth is out there. To say that the world is out there, that it is not our creation, is to say, with common sense, that most things in space and time are the effects of causes which do not include human mental states. To say that truth is not out there is simply to say that where there are no sentences there is no truth, that sentences are elements of human languages, and that human languages are human creations.

Truth cannot be out there - cannot exist independently of the human mind - because sentences cannot so exist, or be out there. The world is out there, but descriptions of the world are not. Only descriptions of the world can be true or false. The world on its own - unaided by the describing activities of human beings - cannot.

The suggestion that truth, as well as the world, is out there is a legacy of an age in which the world was seen as the creation of a being who had a language of his own. If we cease to attempt to make sense of the idea of such a nonhuman language, we shall not be tempted to confuse the platitude that the world may cause us to be justified in believing a sentence true with the claim that the world splits itself up, on its own initiative, into sentence-shaped chunks called “facts.” But if one clings to the notion of self-subsistent facts, it is easy to start capitalizing the word “truth” and treating it as something identical either with God or with the world as God’s project. Then one will say, for example, that Truth is great, and will prevail.

Humberto Maturana, a Chilean bioscientist, wrote the following about reality (“Reality: The Search for Objectivity, or the Quest for a Compelling Argument.” Irish Journal of Psychology 9(1):25-82, 1988.).

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies)…..In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation… In this explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.

Reality is an explanatory proposition that arises in a disagreement as an attempt to recover a lost domain of coordination of actions or to generate a new one.

In the first quote, Maturana was pointing to inherent conflicts created by invoking different categories of these legitimating arguments. His “path of objectivity without parentheses” is his way of pointing to science. In particular, he was pointing to the cultural hegemony of science in Western, modern societies. Pragmatism lacks the transcendental claim of religion or science and corresponds more or less to his “path of (objectivity) in parentheses.” The second quote ties the concept of “reality” or, as I would add, “belief,” to action.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 16, 2015 7:43 PM ::

The Amazing New Thing

Today Apple announced its new products. As I read about them, I remembered a very funny cartoon from a recent New York Times Magazine (May 1, 2015) called “The Amazing New Thing.” I copied the first panel, but you will have to follow this link to see it all.

panel 1.jpg

If you didn’t see it, it is definitely worth a click on the link.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 10, 2015 8:12 PM ::

Celebrating My New Year

rosh hashana

The Jewish High Holydays begin next week. It is always a time for reflection and rebirth. Its traditions have many messages that I encourage everyone, not just Jews, to think about. My stepdaughter sent me a link to a very thoughtful message about the meaning of these days. I encourage all of my followers to read it. It is completely consistent with and illustrates my own views of what it means to be a human being. The experience of life comes from how we care in all the circumstances we find ourselves for reasons not of our doing.

(Mosaic by Marc Chagall)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 10, 2015 12:47 PM ::

Troubling Situations; Simplistic Solutions

machine human

The workplace is getting a lot of news coverage these days. Most of it, at least what I tend to read, is bad news for those that spend much of their time there. In the last week or so, I have read about the inhumane practices at Amazon, polls showing that 90 percent of workers across the globe are dissatisfied, making friends at work is waning, and, lastly, rather than rising to their level of incompetence (Peter principle), workers are rising, only to become miserable. At 80+, I do not experience any of this directly, so am forced to comment vicariously in my prose. But it is not only these conditions that tweaks my interest; it’s the reasons the writers invoke to explain what is happening.

The latest article in this series came today in the NYTimes Sunday Review. Arthur Brooks (not David) writes about the last item above: rising through the ranks until one finds misery.

EVERYONE has heard of the Peter Principle: Managers rise to the level of their incompetence. Today, however, a whole class of hyper-competent Americans will never find their level of incompetence. Instead, they will suffer a similar principle in which they rise to their level of misery.…Here’s how it works: Ambitious, hard-working, well-trained professionals are lifted by superiors to levels of increasing prestige and responsibility. This is fun and exciting — until it isn’t.

Another bad mark for the modern workplace in all kinds of institutions, not just business, but what caught my eye was his reasoning for this trend.(my emphasis)

Why don’t people stop rising when they are happy? Because we are built to think that more is better — more power, authority, money and responsibility.

And later:

Easier said than done. People are wired for progress, and regression looks and feels like failure. Furthermore, if one is a manager long enough, one risks falling behind in the skills in which one previously, happily functioned.

This last quote is his response to the likely question one might ask, “If people become miserable as the move up the ladder of “success, Why don’t they move back to the place where they wee happy?” In a similar article (see my post) about the the need to become more romantic to offset the onrushing incursion of computers into the workplace, David Brooks writes:

But the new romanticism won’t only be built on workplace incentives. It will be driven, too, by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism. (my emphasis)

Both make a very critical error that distorts their sense of why the trends they observe are happening and propose the wrong kinds of solutions. They are coming from an uncritical acceptance of modernist views of how the human works. The core of this idea is that we humans are machine-like in nature with built-in motivations and reasoning skills. The consequences are that solutions to the negative outcomes they report on are based on the same model; fiddle with the machine to modify behavior. Arthur Brooks, to his credit, offers a different solution. Following the Bhagavad Gita and its emphasis on devotional service over other forms of work, he writes

In other words, even better than renouncing your exalted position is converting it into a source of personal liberation by devoting it to the good of others.…I believe that service reduces stress and raises satisfaction because it displaces the object of attention from oneself. When I am working for myself, any disappointing outcome is a stressful, unpleasant reflection on me. When I am serving, on the other hand, the work is always intrinsically valuable because of its intention. Adopting a service mind-set guarantees some measure of success.

I fully agree, but it will take much more than a personal mind-set. It will take a culture-wide acceptance that the Bhagavad Gita has the more accurate view of what human beings are at the roots. Given the way Amazon and so many other places work, such a personal desire is eventually going to be worn down. It’s not just business, Arthur Brooks refers to academics that have risen too far for comfort. Universities have become more and more like the corporations that fund them and hire their students. A few years back, while I was still active at MIT, the Sloan Business School installed a point system to rate their faculty for promotions and other signs of success. My very senior colleague over there at Sloan, was told, after the system was put into operation, that he wasn’t getting enough points. The popular class on Environmental Management he and I had developed and which he taught, wasn’t drawing enough Sloan students to earn many points. He gave it up.

I strongly believe that as long as societal institutions function on the basis of the mechanical, fixed notion of human beings, all the deeply troubling social problems being observed will persist in spite of individual efforts such as both Brookses suggest. The mechanical, fixed model of human being has to be lifted out of the collective and individual unconscious and critically examined. Such critical thinking is always difficult as it invariably will run counter to the tide of taken-for-granted beliefs and norms. It is discouraging to me to see people of great discernment, like the Brookses and others who do care about the world to stop short of asking probing questions and keep their heads in the sand. Universities, supposed to be full of unfettered thinkers, are, perhaps, the most committed of all institutions to the reductionist, disciplinary framework that has anchored these early ideas about humans and the world in an almost impregnable vault. I have observed a myriad of efforts to embed practices based on caring humans and systems thinking that take hold momentarily, but are always (I cannot think of any exceptions) swamped by the power of acting-as-usual.

I am confident that small enterprises built on fundamentally different foundations exist in every major institution. They are hard to find, so the great media sources don’t spend much time looking for them. It is only from these experiments with different models and different ways of thinking about them that fundamental solutions will come. The taken-for-granted facts about the world, including the nature of human beings, are nothing more than sentences in the story that runs modern life; it is a fundamentally different story from the ones that ruled life in prior eras, but it remains only a story at heart.

These older stories were supplanted when powerful thinkers and actors were convinced that the old one failed to reflect the world that they observed and the goals they set for human life. They neglected to include the rest of the world that is now also suffering; another whole set of problems arising from the failings of the basic explanatory models we use. If the Brookses of the world would continue to follow the situations that they highlight from time to time with the same energy they put into a single column, they would begin to ask more probing questions about why they are happening. It is only after asking “Why?” many successive times that roots of persistent problems reveal themselves. The deeper the roots, the more iterations are needed. David and Arthur, how about convincing your editors to allow you to adopt a longer view.

ps. Arthur Brooks is president of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank. I applaud his efforts to put a human face on what has been a very wonky place, but he is restricted by the very idea of “conservative,” which to hold the line on thinking to what is already established doctrine. Educational institutions, supposedly places to open up minds, are becoming little more that tools of our political economy that demands only that they fill up these very same minds with the fixed rules of economics and computer science, among similar subjects.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 6, 2015 12:37 PM ::

Getting Realistic about Romanticism

Blake Titania

Again teeing off of a column by David Brooks. Today Brooks argues that, in the face of competition by ever-growing cognitive-like capabilities of computers, humans need to hone their “romantic” skills. For him, “The romantic tries as much as possible to ground his or her life in purer love that transforms — making him or her more inspired, creative and dedicated, and therefore better able to live as a modern instantiation of some ideal.” Strange use of this word, but, in any case, here is his main thesis.

Ironically, technological forces may be driving some of the romantic rebirth. As Geoff Colvin points out in his book “Humans Are Underrated,” computers will soon be able to do many of the cognitive tasks taught in places like law schools and finance departments.…Computers can already go through millions of legal documents and sort them for relevance to an individual case, someday allowing one lawyer to do the work of 500. Computers may soon be able to cruise through troves of data and offer superior financial advice. Computers are not only getting smarter at systems analysis, they are improving at rates no human can match.…Colvin argues that improving your cognitive skills is no longer good enough. Simply developing more generic human capital will not help people prosper in the coming economy. You shouldn’t even ask, What jobs can I do that computers can’t do? That’s because they are getting good at so many disparate things. You should instead ask, What are the activities that we humans, driven by our deepest nature or by the realities of daily life, will simply insist be performed by other humans?

I do agree with the “romantic” thrust of the column, but not with its grounding in reality. I write often about the importance of care and other “romantic” traits because I call for the emergence of a new way of thinking about human being, but do not see it happening until the institution of business and related economic structures value it meaningfully. Examples like Amazon send a polar opposite message. As I wrote in a recent blog, their corporate mantra sends the message that the highest ideal at Amazon is to become an Amabot. Yesterday’s related post was based on data that 90 percent of workers worldwide are dissatisfied with their jobs. It is not enough by a long shot for business to hold out the possibility of empathy and cooperation to a handful of employees while behaving in the same old way.

Noting that empathy counts in a few places today, Brooks waxes philosophical, but wanders far from the reality of today’s world.

But the new romanticism won’t only be built on workplace incentives. It will be driven, too, by the inherent human craving for the transcendent. Through history there have always been moments when eras of pragmatism give way to eras of high idealism.

Pointing, later, to Buddha and Jesus as proof of such inner striving is, to say the least, a bit over the top. I would agree that care, including a capability for empathy, is the more fundamental human attribute, certainly compared to rational economic behavior, but that very trait has become hidden by the hegemonic story of modernity and the triumph of homo economicus. (see yesterday’s blog) I am afraid that all the awakening of romantic impulses in young people (we adults are beyond recovery) Brooks either observes or hopes for cannot resist the forces of a marketplace for their services that wants them to be just the opposite. Efficiency is still the God that the work sector worships.

As a last note, Brooks is using pragmatism very badly in the above quote. The world today is about as far from pragmatism as I can imagine. This fact is one of my own major arguments why we are struggling with growing failures in both the social and natural systems of the world. Modernity, where we are in the sweep of history, is an era built on positivism and ideologies that claim some absolute truth about the way the world works. Most of recorded human history has been characterized by some form of absolutism. The church ruled for many centuries, followed by monarchs claiming a divine right, and now by the absolutism of positive science and its avatar, objective materialism. To this last item, I quote from Humberto Maturana.

There are two fundamental kinds or manners of listening for explanations that an observer may adopt according to whether he or she asks or does not ask for a biological explanation of his or her cognitive abilities. These two manners of listening define two primary, mutually exclusive explanatory paths that I shall call the path of objectivity without parentheses (or the path of transcendental ontologies), and the path of (objectivity) in parentheses (or the path of constitutive ontologies)…..In this (transcendental) path, an explanation operationally entails the implicit claim by the explaining observer that he or she has a privileged access to an objective independent reality, and that it is this objective reality that gives validity to his or her explanations. Due to this circumstance, any disagreement between two or more observers always takes the form of a dispute in mutual negation… In this [transcendental] explanatory path, a claim of knowledge is a demand for obedience.

Apologies for his arcane language. “[T]he path of transcendental ontologies” are his words for positive science and objective materialism. Here he is pointing to the dualism and transcendentalism of Descartes. “[T]he path of constitutive ontologies” refers to what is often referred to as the social construction of reality. As I wrote yesterday, the latter path is the way many modern cognitive scientists, equipped with tools Descartes lacked, now believe we create reality. Above all, pay particular attention to the stunning last sentence in the quote. Such a claim could not arise under pragmatism. Take that, David Brooks!

(Image: William Blake, Titania and Puck with Fairies Dancing, ca. 1786)

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on September 4, 2015 1:47 PM ::