Saturday, May 27, 2017


317. Fairy tales of technological utopia

In the media one finds impressive tales of technological prowess. Those are promising especially for medical care, with genetic modification, artificial cells and viruses, for fighting diseases. Mobilizing brain signals to steer machines, such as wheelchairs, or external skeletons strapped on lame legs. Use of quantummechanics for new computers. Imitating nature with new materials. One sees sparkles of ingenuity, creativity, and originality, visionary passion.

However, all this is sometimes glazed with a soothing, intoxicating sauce of technological utopianism. Technology as our saviour, resolution of all problems.

But technology also yields unexpected, unintended and sometimes undesirable outcomes. Look at nuclear energy, which we now want to get rid of. Genetic modification, artificial cells and viruses bring risks of misuse, criminal usurpation, and possibly calamitous accidents. That is no reason to stop, but it does call for prudence and sober evaluation.

Similar utopianism is radiated by bobo’s of the digital revolution, such as Mark Zuckerberg en Bill Gates. The more information and  communication the better. But now use of the Internet is leading to the construction and sale of detailed user profiles that can beneficially be used to tailor services and innovations, but are also used to manipulate, guide choice, and affect privacy and ownership of personal data. Young people get terrorized by ridicule on social media, become depressive from pressures from Facebook and Instagram to compete on looks and pimped accounts of achievements. Twitter sounds nicely birdlike but derails in the barking of blood hounds. And how about hacking and computer viruses?

In connecting brains to machinery and to each other we seem to be on our way to a collective brain and identity, a hyperidentity, in which individuals are small parts in the machinery, like neurons in the brain, with no knowledge or even awareness of the whole. Will that constitute progress, yield happiness?

I heard one of the utopians quote the 16th century British philosopher Francis Bacon in saying that ‘nature is to be put on the rack’ to ‘own up to its secrets’. We seem to be doing well at that, in environmental damage. 

And do the most pressing problems of humanity lie in areas where technological intervention will help? Or do they lie more in human conduct and thought, in political, social and philosophical issues, in partly legitimate grievances of populism, emerging authoritarian regimes, suppression, corruption, wars, terrorism, refugees, banking crises, re-emergeme of nationalism, and threats to liberal democracy?


Saturday, May 20, 2017


316. Intervention or laissez faire in East and West

Taoist political philosophy is non-interventionist, libertarian, approaching anarchism. It criticizes Confucian interventionism in ethical rules, civic and familial values and the imposition of ceremonies. Taoism aims to avoid what it considers to be artificial constructs (wuwei). Human design cannot cope with the richness and variability of holistic nature. Such design is bound to misfire and is in the way of natural processes that are best left to themselves.

This seems analogous to the split, in the West, between socialist interventionism and libertarian liberal laissez faire. However, a fundamental difference is that the latter is based on views not of holistic nature but of freedom for individuals. Those have a craving and see it as their right to exploit nature to their material advantage. And that has dire consequences for the environment.

However, liberal libertarianism does recognize the natural urge in Man for gratification and self-manifestation (and Nietzsche’s will to power). And in nature there is not only harmony but also brutality in the struggle for survival. Taoism seems hesitant to face those realities.

I side in part with Confucianism and in part with Taoism. Such mixes have also arisen in neo-confucianism, as I indicated in item 131 of this blog. I also object to the constraining regimentation of Confucianism, which threatens the variety and variability that are inherent in nature, evolution, humanity and society.

I think there is some similarity between Taoist thought and modern evolutionary thought, which I have endorsed in this blog. Like Taoism, the latter also yields a need for restraint of the urge to engage in ‘intelligent design’. 

For example, and in particular, it is odd to try and plan programmes for innovation while the crux of innovation is that it produces things that were unforeseeable (or else it would not be innovation). By planning innovation one obstructs it. So, here I would go along with Taoist thought.

This does not mean, however, that nothing needs to be done. It does not yield laissez faire. It does entail going along with the natural flow of processes, but one may help evolutionary processes of development to proceed, by facilitating and directing the core processes of the generation of variety, selection and proliferation of success. I think that is consistent with Taoist thought: the growth of plants can be enhanced by seeding, watering and pruning.

Similarly, I appreciate the value of markets, to let people do their own bidding in supply and demand, but institutions are needed to enable markets and constrain them in their perverse effects. In the next item of this blog I start an extensive series concerning economics and markets.  

Will human beings act well when allowed to act freely according to natural impulse? In this blog I have argued that human nature is ambivalent in this respect. It harbours instincts of both self-interest and altruism (within limits). Under existential threat self-interest for the sake of survival is the stronger. Cultural means, in an ethics of conduct, and institutional means, in the rule of law, are needed to curtail egotism. Here I side with the Confucian view.

Institutions are needed to limit obstacles to the manifestation and flourishing of positive natural impulse towards fairness, solidarity, and justice. For example, they may be needed to break through prisoners dilemmas where individually people may be willing to act ethically but collectively find that they are unable to do so unless others do so as well. Society in general, and the economy in particular, are rife with such dilemmas. Intervention is needed to allow for escape from the dilemma’s.

In sum, I side with Taoism in restraint of planning of activities, intervention in natural processes, and regimentation of values and conduct, but I side with Confucianism in the need to curtail perverse instincts and solve social dilemmas.

Saturday, May 13, 2017


315. What effects do heuristics have on relationships?

What are the implications for relationships of the various decision heuristics found in social psychology?

According to the ‘availability heuristic’, what carries an emotional load, in threat or opportunity, for example, gets more attention (is more ‘available’) than emotionally less pronounced but often equally or more important issues. Concerning the stability of relationships, that can go in both directions. A relationship can depend on direct and strong emotions of love, attention, intimacy, tenderness, etc. But it can also fall apart in ravages of anger, jealousy, frustration, or spite. Quieter virtues of attention, intimacy, patience, tolerance, and empathy may better serve relationships but are often overruled.   

The heuristic of ‘representativess’ entails overhasty generalisations, raising incidents to lawlike regularities. ‘You always with your …..’ That seems mostly detrimental for the stability of relationships. One should learn to ‘count to ten’.

The heuristic of ‘loss aversion’ yields more extreme actions to prevent a loss than to achieve a gain. That is stabilizing, since relationships often break when one party sees a gain in getting out while the other sees that as a loss and wants him/her to stay. The heuristic would mean that the first demurs for fear of the second’s wrath and radical action. That is loyalty, though not an eager one.

According to the heuristic of ‘anchoring and adjustment’, one stays with given initial conditions, no matter how dysfunctional or inappropriate those may be, to engage only in marginal improvements, while it would have been better to make a clean break for something very different. That will clearly stabilize a non-ideal relationship.

According to the heuristic of ‘escalation of commitment’ one sticks to a commitment in spite of losses because otherwise those losses would ‘have been in vain’. That is clearly stabilizing.

In ‘cognitive dissonance’, after a choice is made one pays attention only to positive evidence that confirms the choice. That is also clearly stabilizing.

In sum, the heuristics are mostly stabilizing. One wonders whether that may not be coincidental. Might this have developed in evolution, as an instinct that favours the survival of relationships, and especially of the offspring?

Earlier in this blog I offered the hypothesis (it is no more than that) that the heuristics that now are irrational may have made sense in a far past, in evolution, for the sake of survival. Here is another argument for that.

Monday, May 8, 2017


314. Imperfecting poetry

Is poetry a quest for perfection, for the Platonic, transcendent absolute? Then it is bound to fail. And it risks to be seen as pretentious, irrelevant, impertinent, an irritant, even. I pick up this theme from the April 6, 2017 issue of the New York Review of Books.[i]

Plato claimed that in order to perceive any particular thing as imperfect, we must have in mind some ideal of perfection. But how is it possible to set out from perfection?

In my move of ‘imperfection on the move’, discussed in this blog (item 19) and in a book[ii], I turn it around. Any notion of the perfect is at best imperfect, temporary, and at worst an illusion. It is better to face and take on the pursuit of an ongoing variety of imperfections, one extending, varying, shifting the other, in a never ending search for improvement or novelty, moving on without knowing where to.

This is how I see art, knowledge, and science.

It is also related to my process view discussed in the previous item in his blog.   

Poetry, then, is not a doomed grasp for perfection, but an antidote to illusions of perfection. Resistance, rebellion against the lure of the abstract and universal, unmasking it, dancing on its grave. It goes underground, away from the clarity and light of reason, in a treasure hunt, mining for the individual, the particular, that worms from under the abstract universal.

This can be connected, I think, to the hermeneutic circle (item 36 of this blog), with science and philosophy pursuing the abstract, extracted from the complex, variable melee of individuals with their disorderly quirks, and then, with poetry, bringing it back again, dishevelling it, embedding it again in the flux of life.

The argument also applies, though perhaps less prominently, to novels. However, there we find the ‘novel of ideas’, as in the work of Thomas Mann and Dostoyevsky. There is a tricky temptation to surrender to the lure of abstraction, neglecting the celebration of the particular that is, I propose, the central purpose of literature, as opposed to science and philosophy.

That is why I hesitate to try and write a novel, though I would like to, afraid that having written so much non-fiction I will be explaining rather than showing. Turning the suspension of disbelief into the preaching of belief.        

[i] A review by Charles Simic of a book The hatred of poetry by Ben Lerner
[ii] Bart Nooteboom, Beyond nihilism: imperfection on the move, Kindle/Amazon, 2015

Thursday, May 4, 2017

313. From outcome to process

Earlier in this blog, in item 29, I proposed the hypothesis that there is an ‘object bias’ in thought and language. The idea is that in a long period in the evolution of humans, as hunter-gatherers, thought and language have been geared to the need to deal adequately, for survival, with objects moving in time and space, and human action upon such objects. Think of the sabre-toothed tiger, enemies on the prowl, a lost child, an incoming speer, building a shelter, carrying burden, etc.

Then, when abstracts became needed, those were conceptualized as metaphors in terms of such objects and actions. This is helpful, but yields a bias, sets thought on the wrong foot, since abstractions do not behave like such objects in time and space. A chair when carried from one room to another does not drop a leg or change colour, but the meaning of a word changes when moved from one sentence to another.

One of the results, I propose, is also that thought is pre-occupied with substance rather than process, to outcomes rather than the processes by which they may or may not be produced.

One salient example, in my experience, is the preoccupation of economists with optimal outcomes, in equilibria, regardless of how those might be achieved. I was confronted with this while working at a business faculty at the University of Groningen, the Netherlands. Dealing with organizations one cannot just look at outcomes because it is processes, in particular the ‘primary process’ of production, that is the topic at issue.

This difference in thought yielded one of several fundamental obstacles to integrating two faculties, of business and economics, as it was my task to accomplish at the time, as director of a research institute. I now think that the preoccupation with outcomes is connected with the object bias.

It is a special case of the preoccupation with substance and with stable absolutes, as an ideal of thought, in Western Philosophy. There were exceptions, such as Heraclitus, who saw the world as flow, in contrast with Parmenides, who saw it as constancy. Aristotle in some of his philosophy was oriented to process, of development towards an end, such as growth in nature, and more generally process as the realization of potential. But there has been a dominance of Platonic thought of a higher reality, beyond the chaos, buzz, complexity and change of the observed world, of stable absolutes.

It is also associated with the outsider, ‘spectator’ view of the thinking subject, observing the world from without rather than being involved in its process, which I discussed in item 309 of this blog.

I think the object bias bedevils thought in a wide range of notions, including happiness, love, thought, truth, meaning, and trust. The deeply rooted inclination is to see these categories (‘seeing’ is itself one of the metaphors) in terms of object thinking, in terms of ‘having’ something, ‘being in’ something, ‘working on’ something, ‘transporting’ it, etc. We are ‘in love’, ‘in trouble’, ‘grasp’ knowledge, ‘store’ information, ‘send’ information along communication channels’, ‘have’ a body, and ‘have’ an identity.

I think understanding can be much improved, and with it our ‘grasp’ of society, by thinking instead in terms of processes, rather than states or outcomes.

In items 6, 124, and 193 of this blog I discussed love as a process of developing ‘eros’, passionate, romantic love, into ‘philia’, loving companionship.

In items 8 and 211 I discussed identity as a process of formation
 
In item 183 I defined happiness as a process.

In items 104 and 264, I discussed truth as a process of dialogue, debate, trying to establish and test ‘warranted assertibility’.

In item 168, I discussed the notion of word as a process.

In items 31, 35, and 138 I considered economics and learning as a process of trial and error, akin, up to a point, to evolutionary logic, rather than ‘intelligent design’, in a ‘cycle of invention’.
 
I noted, in items, 128 and 137, that in Eastern philosophy there is more awareness to process, in Buddhism and Taoism. I noted that my ‘cycle of invention’ seems akin to the cyclical interaction of Yin and Yang.             

Saturday, April 22, 2017


312. The law, the market, and honour

The law is imposed, regardless of one’s inclination, interest or morality. The market is self-regulating, in theory, based only on self-interest.

Imperfections and limits of laws and markets raise the need for morality, based on some form of ethics. Best known, perhaps, is Kantian duty ethics. In this blog I have argued for a broader virtue ethics, with, among others, the ‘pivotal’ virtues of reason, courage, moderation and justice.

The problem with duty ethics and also, though perhaps to a lesser extent, with virtue ethics, is that they are largely driven by reason and may therefore lack motivating force, particularly in the present, which seems increasingly driven by emotions.

How can morality, in benevolence towards others, and virtues, as instruments of ‘the good life’, gain emotional commitment? In other words, how can they become more self-driven, self-motivating, like markets, while maintaining the orientation towards the well-being of others, unlike markets?

The desirability of this is two-fold. First, it adds intrinsic value of self-motivation, making one feel good. Second, there is an economic argument. The law, duties, and other regulation require expensive monitoring and control.

In my attempt to bring in virtues, beyond self-interest, into economics and politics, in this blog, I have tried to maintain personal freedom of the choice of the good life. For that, I made a distinction between public virtues, to be shared, and personal virtues, left to individual choice.

Public virtues are virtues of allowing for, indeed appreciating, variety of choice of the good life, ability and commitment to listen, and to voice as well as accept constructive criticism, in dialogues and debates on truth and morality, empathy in understanding the motives and positions of others. One would like to have not only personal commitment to the common good of such public virtues, but also commitment to uphold it in public.

How can this goal be loaded with emotional commitment?

Kwame Anthony Appiah offered a solution in the form of a restoration of honour, under the condition that it is morally right.[i] The latter condition is crucial, since honour in the past has strongly tended to be amoral, yielding exclusion, subjugation, violence and terror. Appiah discusses the cases of duelling, footbinding in China, slave trade, and honour killings of women.

Appiah clarifies honour as follows. People have a deeply rooted thirst for respect, and following an honour code yields that, either publicly or privately, in self-respect, or both. As Appiah put it: honour makes a private impulse public.

For positive examples, think of professional honour codes of soldiers, policemen, doctors, scientists, journalists, and, one would hope, managers and politicians.

With the encroachment of neo-liberal market ideology, such hour codes have eroded, replaced by material incentives, and a shift from professional honour to a substitute in the form of power and wealth. That has yielded a mushrooming of costs of monitoring and control.

Elsewhere in this blog (item 75) I argued for a the notion of ‘horizontal control’, where the ones to be controlled are involved in the determination of the instruments of control. There were two arguments for this. One is the satisfaction of more autonomy, with more room for choice, action and improvisation, for its intrinsic worth and its economic worth of motivation, quality, and innovation. The second is the reduced economic cost of monitoring and control.

However, here also, to strengthen motivation, one may need to re-instate professional or organizational honour.

For example, consider the experience with perverse conduct in financial markets that precipitated the crises starting in 2008. To remedy this, I proposed the introduction of other virtues than only utility. And institutional reform to reduce the incentives for bankers and banks to act against public interest. And to reduce the short-termism of financial markets,

Only then, I argued, would some ethical education of bankers make sense. One needs to create the conditions for ethical conduct to be viable. Now I add that this may, in addition, require a re-instatement, or a novel formation, of professional honour, to make virtuous conduct more self-regulating.            

[i] The honor code; How moral revolutions happen, New York Norton, 2010.

Saturday, April 15, 2017


311. Reason contributes freedom to the will

According to what I will call ‘the brain boys’, there is no freedom of the will because what we choose or decide is determined by brain processes we are not aware of. We rationalize choice afterwards, when we become aware of it.

This is not new: it was asserted already by Spinoza, and by Nietzsche.

I had a discussion on this with Dick Swaab, a well-known Dutch author in this field. He defines Free Will as follows: the ability to take a different decision under precisely the same conditions. That is impossible. Given the setting (‘conditions’), our choices are determined, they could not have been otherwise. We cannot correct or change them by reason. This is classical determinism.

One can hardly disagree with this. It seems to be saying: the same causes yield the same outcomes; other outcomes require other causes. Thus, the statement is not very informative. It seems necessarily true, hence not falsifiable, and hence, according to a received view, not scientific (which requires falsifiability).

My definition of free will, following the philosopher Kant, is as follows: conscious, rational deliberation has an effect on our conduct. I immediately add that this effect is very limited, and indirect, acting though neural processes that entail much else, as I argued earlier in his blog, in item 5 (posted 27-07-2012). I then put it as follows: our consciousness is not in control but it does affect choice.  

Our decisions are determined mostly, often entirely, by unconscious reflex, impulse, routine or heuristic. However, conscious reason does have an effect, more or less, and to that extent there still is free will, according to my definition.    

For Swaab (I checked this with him) such conscious deliberation does play a role, and is part of the ‘conditions’ that effect the unconscious decision. So, we agree, in spite of our difference in definition of free will. 

Thank God much of the workings of our brain are unconscious, in a similar way that it is a blessing that we are not conscious of our digestion (if it goes well), our bloodstream, and the production and injection of hormones into it, and their absorption into our metabolism.

There is the familiar notion of ‘tacit knowledge’: ‘we know more than we can tell’, we know things, and have skills, we are not aware of and could not explain. It is often built by exercise and then becomes tacit. Think of a carpenter, a surgeon, an art critic, a sportsman.

Many years ago, in Lisbon, I tried to draw money from an ATM, but the screen displayed a sign ‘communication disturbed’. I thought that meant a technical breakdown in the communication system, and tried again a bit later, with the same result. I then realized that whereas the number pads of ATM’s in my home country count from top to bottom, here they counted van bottom to the top, so that the habitual movement of my fingers on the pad produced a wrong number. I did not know the number: it was embodied in an unconscious movement of my fingers. I had to mentally reproduce the number from the movement of my fingers on an imaginary screen, of the type I was used to, and transform that to a different, awkward feeling, conscious movement on the Portuguese screen.

Let us picture the brain as having two parts: the unconscious and the conscious. Now choice may proceed along several paths, as follows:
1.      Directly from perception to an unconscious decision.
2.      The process then moves on from the unconscious decision to the conscious, in awareness of the choice. That may indeed produce a rationalization that in fact had no causal influence of the choice.
3.      Perception triggers the conscious, which conceives of reasons, which are then fed into the unconscious decision making process, with more or less effect on it. The greater the effect the freer we are. Whether, to what extent and how the conscious and the unconscious are triggered depends on the setting, and is subject to ‘priming’.

When consciousness in on the afterburner, as in 2, it may contribute, as an ‘input’, to the ongoing construction of neural networks that produce future choices. This saves the rationale for punishment (apart from the rationale of retribution): it affects the future making of unconscious choice (in normal, not pathological brains).

Now the interesting question, to me, is to what extent, and in what way, conscious reason has an effect in the choice process.

For an example, let me take trust. That is heavily loaded by emotions, often yielding unconscious ‘gut response’. However, as I discussed at length in his blog, it is also amenable to reason, in analysing reasons for people to be trustworthy, such as dependence, reputation, incentives, morality, position, responsibilities, and outside pressure to cheat. It would be interesting to find out how the two come together, or not, in the decision making process.