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Human Beings Are Not Machines

Excellent article on this topic in the Boston Globe. The difference is critical to flourishing. The machine computer brain already can do marvelous things, but cannot add the context needed for caring. Here are the punch lines.

Machines possess no capacity to will, create, and want. From inside the computational framework, powers like these can only be bracketed or dismissed. If widely accepted, the moral and political implications of such dismissals would be grave. What becomes of democracy, individual liberty, and the right to pursue happiness, if computer-man has no capacities for free choice and is algorithm-driven?

Scientific researchers require guiding analogies and metaphors to help them simplify the massive complexities and mysteries of the mind and brain. Loose, reductive equations may be pragmatically necessary, but when overstated they can prove blinding and at times dangerous. The idea that human brains are digital computers is just that.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 13, 2015 10:35 AM ::


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 13, 2015 8:48 AM ::

Think Before You Give Your Six-year Old a Smart Phone


Sherry Turkle has done it again. Her new book, Reclaiming Conversation, outdoes her previous book in showing us the dark side of all this wondrous new personal technology. Jonathan Franzen, reviewing the book in the New York Times Sunday Book Review Section captures it much better than I ever could. Here is the key paragraph from his review.

Her new book, “Reclaiming Conversation,” extends her critique, with less emphasis on robots and more on the dissatisfaction with technology reported by her recent interview subjects. She takes their dissatisfaction as a hopeful sign, and her book is straightforwardly a call to arms: Our rapturous submission to digital technology has led to an atrophying of human capacities like empathy and self-­reflection, and the time has come to reassert ourselves, behave like adults and put technology in its place. As in “Alone Together,” Turkle’s argument derives its power from the breadth of her research and the acuity of her psychological insight. The people she interviews have adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them. The likably idealized selves that they’ve created with social media leave their real selves all the more isolated. They communicate incessantly but are afraid of face-to-face conversations; they worry, often nostalgically, that they’re missing out on something fundamental.

Turkle, herself, wrote a short capsule of the book for the NYTimes shortly before the review quoted above. Her argument is focused on the loss of empathy associated with young people who cannot put their phones down long enough to hold a meaningful conversation.

In 2010, a team at the University of Michigan led by the psychologist Sara Konrath put together the findings of 72 studies that were conducted over a 30-year period. They found a 40 percent decline in empathy among college students, with most of the decline taking place after 2000.

Empathy is a proxy for the care I argue is central to flourishing. The two are always intimately linked. To care for someone is to act empathetically, that is, with awareness of the other’s concerns and with a focus on what is going on over there. This kind of care is active, not affective. It is the essence of human being and has largely disappeared over the evolution of modernity.

Technology always places itself between human actors; that is its intrinsic nature. It turns most actions into mechanical transactions because it hides the context that provides meaning to the actors. The kind of technology Turkle writes about, smart phones mostly, diminishes the richness of interpersonal conversations, the primary way we relate to other people. I have been making this argument for a long time, but lack the hard data and clarity that Turkle provides.

Across generations, technology is implicated in this assault on empathy. We’ve gotten used to being connected all the time, but we have found ways around conversation — at least from conversation that is open-ended and spontaneous, in which we play with ideas and allow ourselves to be fully present and vulnerable. But it is in this type of conversation — where we learn to make eye contact, to become aware of another person’s posture and tone, to comfort one another and respectfully challenge one another — that empathy and intimacy flourish. In these conversations, we learn who we are.

But we have forgotten just that, who we are. The amnesia of our “self” is not just the result of smart phones. It is the assault on human Being that began hundreds of year ago when the whole self that developed in earlier times was turned into a machine with many parts by the new sciences of the Enlightenment.

I see the task of recovering our fundamental humanness as being made harder by the trends she reports, but she finds some redeeming features. Turkle writes, “Every technology asks us to confront human values. This is a good thing, because it causes us to reaffirm what they are.” I disagree; technology, as her examples show, hides our values. That is the problem, not a route to the solution. This statement surprised me. Much as I admire her work, this doesn’t fit. The very nature of the technology she is writing about silences any questioning we might have about what it is doing to us.

One of her examples is about a young woman who is described as being of “the ‘app generation,’ which grew up with phones in hand and apps at the ready. It tends toward impatience, expecting the world to respond like an app, quickly and efficiently. The app way of thinking starts with the idea that actions in the world will work like algorithms: Certain actions will lead to predictable results.” There is no questioning of values here; only the creations of new ones that are less humane.

There is much more in both her article and the very thoughtful book review by Jonathan Franzen. I will order the book and read it and report here after I finish. She finishes the NYTimes piece with a positive take on how to reverse the trend. She notes a case where phones were banned during a five-day camp experience.

After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. This is easier to do without your phone in hand. Conversation is the most human and humanizing thing that we do.

The last line is very powerful. The obverse is that empty conversations are dehumanizing. We will have to find better ways that to isolate people for extended periods. That doesn’t sound like a broadly practical solution. My own experience with my grandchildren tells me that they are already hooked. It’s up, in part, to their parents to provide time for meaningful conversations with no distractions. Turkle mentions a child who longs for such times spent at home. Maybe it will be necessary to design and offer conversation classes at the primary school level; children already own these devices by then. That would be a place to teach empathy as well since empathy is a form of listening to another’s spoken and unspoken words.

Since I also believe that, contra to Turkle, technology blinds our human values, the importance of empathy and care must be explicitly raised and put into practice. We are, instead, transforming our education of the young around the value of STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). What a terrible mistake. We need adults who can access the values tied to their uniqueness as human beings, not those created by the current political economy. A world without empathy and care is a world without the possibility of flourishing. If we can choose to put STEM into our educational system, we can choose to match it with a curriculum about empathy and care and other human values. If we fail to do that, these values will become ever more defeated by the hand of all those devices that the STEM path will undoubtedly create.

Posted by John Ehrenfeld on October 8, 2015 10:13 PM ::

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 ::

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 ::