context matters
The idea of a virtual reality is a pretty hot topic these days. Googling for “virtual reality glasses” brings up about 100,000 hits. Google and Facebook have invested over $2 billion in acquiring part or all of a couple of leaders in the VR business. But why on Earth would anyone want to spend money to land in a virtual reality when we already exist in one. Our modern culture has created a reality that departs from whatever the real world is like. We live in that virtual world everyday, but have been lulled into thinking it much more precise than it is. The result is that we make a lot of mistakes as we go about our business, some of which are posing large threats to our continued existence.
The very idea of an objective world with fixed features and functions is a myth, created by the new scientists of the Enlightenment, but it is a very powerful myth, as Einstein noted: “Reality is merely an illusion, albeit a very persistent one.” I never quite appreciated the power of Einstein’s aphorism until recently when I started thinking a lot about meaning and its centrality to human existence. Objectivity permits us to perform mental magic by removing the spatial and temporal context in which objects exist, thus endowing them with a timelessness and context-free set of rule-based functions.
It turned out that this was a wonderful new story when first invented. We learned all sorts of things about parts of the world around us and put that knowledge to work in the form of technology and rational rules for managing the newly found objects. The arbitrary rules that had come from religious dogma faded into the background. We were free at last! Most of the rules refer to inanimate objects, but similar rules were applied to human beings since we were considered to be objects like everything else, except that we also had a mind that could apprehend the objects and their rules.
Alfred North Whitehead, a philosopher and scientist, rephrased Einstein’s quote in terms of what he called, “the fallacy of misplaced concreteness.” He was referring to the common mistake when one takes an abstract belief, concept describing some worldly thing, or opinion to stand for a “concrete” reality. His words were, “There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete.” His argument, similar to Einstein’s special relativity theory was,

[…] among the primary elements of nature as apprehended in our immediate experience, there is no element whatever which possesses this character of simple location. [… Instead,] I hold that by a process of constructive abstraction we can arrive at abstractions which are the simply located bits of material, and at other abstractions which are the minds included in the scientific scheme. Accordingly, the real error is an example of what I have termed: The Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.
I put this abstruse quote in to emphasize a point I have been making in several of my recent posts. Whitehead is saying in his convoluted way that context is important to the way the world works. No object can be described without reference to the world it is embedded in. Another way to think about this is that the menu is not the meal. The menu is an example of virtual reality. We use it to imagine what the various choices will taste like, but, as all of you know, we then suffer from the fallacy of misplaced concreteness when the waitperson brings the food to the table.
There is no avoiding this result whenever we act on the basis of abstract, decontextualized knowledge. We cannot avoid using such knowledge because we cannot stop every time we are about to act and try to add the missing context back. We account for it by qualifying our actions as having some probability of matching our intentions, but we are unconscious about it. The new “virtual reality” business will reinforce our blindness by reinforcing the belief that present everyday experiences constitute reality, as contrasted to what we perceive through our Oculus goggles as virtual.
Most of the time we accept the outcomes and move on, but some of the errors accumulate and become problems on their own account. Inequality is one of those. Virtually every action in the economy fails in some way to meet the perfect market model that is used to analyze and manage it. Over time the errors become visible as some new problem. The same is true for well-being, a critical measure of how the political economy is doing. The use of indices of wealth or material assets cannot reflect one’s real life as they lack the context of that life.
Our society has stagnated in many ways. The economist Robert Gordon has just written a book that argues that the economic boom that extended from 1920 to 1970 is not to be repeated. The Republican candidates seeking the nomination for President shout that we have lost our way. Inequality is increasing. Our infrastructure is rotting. Part of this situation is the result of the fallacy of misplaced concreteness. Our models tell only partial truths about the real world in which we exist as individuals and as a cultural mass.
Fixing the glitches as they show up will not work. We cannot move forward as long as we live in this virtual reality. We must replace it with a vision of the world that comes closer to how it really works. For many others, and me this is the easy part. The better model for the world is that of complexity, which does a better job of representing its highly interconnected, non-linear nature. This can be done in an instant by merely switching the beliefs we hold. The hard part is to follow with the re-design of the present, modernist cultural structure that has been erected on old, reductionist foundations.
We cannot fully represent the world; it is far too complex to be reduced to models we can fit into our individual cognitive machinery or even the largest supercomputer, but we can do much better than our present reductionist methods permit. We can start by putting context back into the processes both individuals and collectives use to determine what we will do next. This means we must use methods of observation and inquiry that capture both the things we focus upon and their spatial, temporal situatedness. This means we need to stay connected long enough to begin to understand temporal behavior. Such is the essence of pragmatism, as I have written quite a bit. Pragmatic inquiries require a team of concerned people, each of which will bring a different lens and, thus, expose more of the context than an individual or group of single-minded individuals could. Groupthink is quite the opposite from the reflective processes of pragmatism.
To those who might find the pragmatic way interesting and promising, but wonder if it can be translated into everyday practices, I point out the example of the Toyota Production System, now emulated by many of the world’s leading companies. The TPS uses teams, equipped with practical tools to facilitate patient observation of systems that have broken down. They come to understand “root” causes, that is, parts of the system that may not be visible in the immediate space of the factory floor. The key to this method and others like it is the capturing of context and subsequent transforming it to practical understanding. Complexity will not permit this understanding to be reduced to simple rules, but what counts is the results, anyway. Additional examples can be found in the field of organizational learning.
Among my recent blog posts are several that deal with individual relationships. The same process requirements apply to individuals as to groups. The key to finding effective ways to co-exist with others is through patient, reflective observation and inquiry. The purpose is the same: to add context to the superficial appearance of one’s present surroundings. Some of the methods used in the TPS and similar processes involve nested questions. If one asks why a number of times in succession, the chances of alighting on a helpful piece of the context grow. Such inquiry can work for individuals as well as groups. The key here is to draw on what you have observed, not attempt to find some abstract theory to explain it.
Please note that what I write here is applicable to just about every persistent problem we face together or in our individual lives. I have wandered into this thinking in my quest to find ways to create flourishing, but it is much more general than that. Flourishing, itself, is the result of thinking about complexity. By definition, any measure of well-being is a kind of value. Our place on the scale shows where we are at some moment. We use a particular kind of conventional value today. There may be a name for these, but I am unaware of it, so I will coin my own label. I will call such values as GNP or wealth as derivative values. There always is some model or set of reductionist assumptions behind them. Being able to quantify any measure implies that some factors are included and some are not, that is, these values have been plucked out of context.
Flourishing is different from this kind of measure. It is technically an emergent property of a complex system. It is present or not depending on how the system is operating. It can come and go. It is qualitative and subject to whatever criteria the assessor(s) are using. It is tied to one’s existential state of being and so is an important way to discuss how well life is going. It involves both one’s biological and cultural context. It is a proxy for the interconnected tapestry of meaningful aspects of one’s life. It is imperfect, but much closer to reality that any abstract or decontextualized index.
I hope, at this point, you are thinking about reality, if even a little bit, and, beginning to accept the artificial or virtual nature of modern life. It is not that such a reality is good or bad; it simply is not how the “real’ world is. That fact matters to us as human beings. We are complex ourselves and exist in meaningful interactions with the real, complex world. When meaning fades, so does our human Being; we become mere parts of the world, acting in ignorance of our place in it. We have accepted that fact for hundreds of years, even calling it progress. Time to wake-up and regain the wonder of human Being. It was present to those that invented language at a time it represented encounters with that real world. We have all had moments when we would respond positively to the question, “Are you flourishing?” All it will take to start to extend those moments is to begin thinking about reality in the way I have been talking about and carry that way of thinking into your everyday lives. “Just say No” to the same old, same old way of thinking. Don’t expect instantaneous results, but look for small changes in your close relationships at home, at work, and everywhere else. See if those persistent problems start to disappear. When we add context back to our practical thinking, we begin to apprehend the real world that is our home and the source of meaning that is so central to our species.

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