Friday, July 21, 2017


325. A crisis of trust

Trust is said to be like clean air: one does not talk about until it is no longer there. And now there is a lot of such talk. The word ‘trust’ careens across daily discourse. Why? Where does the smog of distrust come from?

There is, I propose, a pernicious combination of three conditions: a great need for trust, a lack of courage for it, and a lack of trustworthiness to merit it. I consider each in turn.

First, an increased need for trust arises from an increasing complexity and interdependence in society, in division of labour that went global, with fluid capital and labour, yielding shifts of production and employment, waves of refugees, tax evasion, and pressures on governments to accommodate the demands of multinationals. Lack of trust on these matters has led to revolt against free trade and ruling elites, intolerance regarding refugees, a re-emergence of nationalism, and shelter sought in authoritarian regimes.

In communication, opportunities for connection have exploded on the Internet, with social media, such as Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, etc. There, lack of trust leads people to cocoon in bubbles of the likeminded, and to blast invective across the media.

Second, there is a lack of courage for trust. Trust entails giving room for actions of others, which yields risk, in room for action against your interest. Without risk there is no relation. It requires courage to accept that, and also resilience, to cope with setbacks and disappointments. I discussed this in an item on adaptiveness (item 321). To cushion courage, one needs some slack, a buffer of time, money and attention, to absorb setbacks. Trust is not being nice to each other: Precisely because there is trust one can give the other ‘a piece of one’s mind’.

Present society, at least in highly developed Western Europe, has become accustomed to risk avoidance. Conditions have to be safe. This leads to the excessive, perverse control of professional work, discussed in the foregoing item in this blog.

To connect with earlier item in this blog (323, 324): Control may be based on scripts, as a generalized frame, but must allow for interpretations and variations depending on the context, as narratives.          

Third, there is a lack of the trustworthiness that is required to deserve trust. In economics classes, prospective managers and politicians have been told that self-interest is a virtue, ‘greed is good’, and efficiency is the basis for prosperity and happiness. But trust requires give-and-take, with openness and awareness of the interests of the other, and some appreciation of the intrinsic value of trust-based relationships. 

Liberalism has won the day, and in liberalism virtue is a private, not a public concern. Debate on morals is seen as a stifling moralism that hampers markets, but trust requires virtues of reasonableness, empathy, openness to others, moderation, and justice, as argued earlier in this blog.

Here, a problem also is the following. In more complex organizations and institutional structures, with division of labour, intertwining interests, roles and positions, responsibilities become diffuse, and blame can be dissolved, across people, and that also undermines trustworthiness. This is part of what earlier I have called ‘system tragedy’.   

Saturday, July 15, 2017


324. Perverse control

In the absence of trust, in present society, professional practice is widely plagued by perverse, excessive, counter-productive control. Oversight is often necessary, but it has gone too far, become perverse, locking professional workers, including teachers, medical doctors, scientific researchers, etc. into protocols, with the goal of preventing accidents, malpractice, cheating, incompetence, and opportunism.

That has perverse effects of failing to achieve the stated objective of efficiency and quality, and indeed achieving an opposite effect, in high costs, decline of motivation, inevitable loopholes, loss of a sense of own responsibility, strategic conduct ‘to beat the system’, resulting in less quality, and lack of room and incentive for experimentation needed for innovation.

In the business literature there is a stream on ‘communities of practice’. There, it is a received wisdom that professional practice is too rich, i.e. too complex, context-dependent and variable, due to accumulating experience and innovation, to be caught in fixed protocols.

Here I aim to dig a little deeper, using the preceding items in this blog. In those terms, the argument against rigorous, formalized, top-down control is that they entail the pretention that practice can be governed by scripts, while in fact it should be seen more in analogy to narrative. The script constitutes the canon, and remains guiding, but should allow for individual variation in interpretation, depending on context and experience. In other words, work should be conducted according to the spirit, not the letter of a script, taking the script as a platform for deviation even if it looks like deviance.

This does not entail full release of control, but room for deviance, subject to argument and subsequent demonstration of success.

There is nothing new in this. It is found also in legal litigation, where law is to be interpreted with allowance for special circumstances and varying perspectives.

In philosophy one finds it in the practical wisdom, ‘phronesis’, proposed by Aristotle.

Earlier in this blog (item 75) I pleaded for ‘horizontal control’, where vertical, top-down imposition of protocols is replaced by debate and negotiation between controller and controlled, where the latter can bring in experience and evidence of deviations from rules that work. By taking part in this, the controller deepens its insight into what works, and thereby becomes an increasingly attractive partner in debate. The aim also is to reduce controls to a minimum, to reduce costs of control, and to ensure that they are feasible and functional, in line with practice.

This yields a concrete form of the otherwise perhaps remote notion of narrative as opposed to scripts. This also connects with the role of ‘voice’ in relationships, mentioned several times in preceding items in this blog.

So, the excess of top-down control is explained, in part, by a misapprehension of the nature of professional work.

Another part of the explanation is cultural, in an excess of risk avoidance, due to lack of resilience, inability to absorb disappointments, setbacks, to fall and get up to go on. A lack of adaptiveness, to connect with a previous blog: lack of flexibility, robustness. Hence the lack of trust. Trust is giving room for action, and that carries risk. Without risk life is lifeless, society stagnates, without trust. 
    

Saturday, July 8, 2017


323. Script and narrative

In this blog (item 31) I presented my theory of invention, in the form of a ‘cycle of discovery’.  To clarify it I used the notion of script (item 35). A script is a structure of connections between nodes that represents and guides action. The nodes represent constituent actions, linked into a coherent whole of a practice. The links represent a sequence, logical implication or causal action, or transfer or sharing of resources. The classical example is that of a restaurant, with nodes of entering, seating, selection, ordering, eating, paying and leaving.

The notion of a script is useful to illustrate the difference between different forms of innovation: change of nodes, the sequence of nodes, the connections between them. Thus the innovation of self-service restaurant entailed a change of sequence: selection, ordering and paying precede seating and eating.  

It also illustrates how there can be levels of innovation, embedded in each other: nodes have their own subscripts: different forms of paying in the payment node, for example. They also have superscripts: how the restaurant is embedded in its environment, in its location, access and parking, in arrival and departure of clients and supplies..

Here I want to elaborate on the notion of scripts, again using an insight from Jerome Bruner, as I did in the preceding item.[i]

Ever since I started using the notion of a script, I have been reflecting on what the ontological status of it is. Is it something given objectively, documented in some written operating procedure, as used for training personnel, perhaps, or as the printed script of a theatrical play? Or is it a mental representation of the process, built by participants in it, perhaps not even deliberate but subconsciously, forming part of ‘tacit knowledge’? In that case, how rigorous or even definite is it? And how idiosyncratic?

Bruner contrasted the script with what he called a ‘narrative’. That has the following features:
1.      It is ‘diachronic’: developing and varying in time
2.      It is particular, not universal but context- and individual-specific
3.      It refers to ‘intentional states’ (belief, desire, fear, ….) and how they are affected by events. It is not a logical or causal explanation. It indicates reasons, not causes.
4.      It is hermeneutic: subject to a variety of interpretation. It does not carry a single ‘true’ or ‘correct’ meaning but yields an intuitively appealing account.
5.      It is not only the case that he meaning of the whole depends on that of the parts, but also the other way around: the meaning of the parts depends on that of the whole, depending on the context. Bruner notes that this narrative comprehension is one of the earliest moves of mind to appear in the young child.

Concerning the last point Bruner also refers to the ‘hermeneutic circle’, which I discussed (in item 36 of this blog) and used as an example of the emergence, in the emergence and shift of meaning, in the preceding item on emergence.

And now the point is this. Narratives require scripts as necessary background, but those do not constitute the narrative itself. Scripts are often implicit, and may be breached ‘from a precipitative event’, which leads one to see things in a different light. Narratives vary with context and individual while ‘maintaining complicity with the canon’.

Two things, now. First, this is strongly reminiscent of the distinction de Saussure made between ‘langue’, which is the canon, and deviations and variations from it, in ‘parole’, which I mentioned in the preceding item in this blog.

Going back to invention, there is a canon of established ‘normal practice’, in a script, which may or may not be written down, as the ‘langue’ of the practice, but it allows for idiosyncratic and contextual variation, the ‘parole’ of invention, and that is what drives invention from application in novel contexts, as argued in my ‘cycle of discovery’.   


[i] Jerome Bruner, The narrative construction of reality, Critical Equiry, 18/1 (1991), 1-21.

Saturday, July 1, 2017


322. Reference and constitution

In this blog a leading principle is that of philosophical pragmatism. It can be summarized as follows: the human being perceives, senses, feels and thinks according to mental processes that guide actions but are also formed by them, in interaction with its environment, especially other people.

As a result, the human being is socially constituted. However, every individual is also unique in its mental construction along its individual life path.

In other words, to connect with the preceding items in this blog, the individual is emergent, in its mental construction. Its parts constitute an identity, as a coherent subject, which is not present in its parts. And while its path of development is constrained by genetic potential, its outcome cannot be predicted. It is uncertain as a result of interaction between self and other. Hence relationships also are emergent.

This presents a major challenge to economic science, as will be argued in later items.

Here I want to add to previous discussions of meaning (items 32, 168 in this blog). There I used the distinction between reference and sense (derived from the work of Frege), but with a twist. Reference is what an expression refers to. The word ‘cat’ refers to the collection of all cats. Sense was defined by Frege as ‘The way in which something is given’, the way it presents itself. I turned that into ‘the way in which we identify’, i.e. how we identify something as something. How we identify some animal as a cat.

I argued that the latter, sense, is idiosyncratic, with largely personal connotations attached to the concept, collected along one’s path of life. We have all had a variety of experiences with different cats. This connects with the distinction that de Saussure made between ‘langue’, the given shared understanding of meaning, at any moment, and ‘parole’, idiosyncratic language use that varies between people and over time.

Here I want to add to that discussion, using an insight from Jerome Bruner[i], a philosopher who has been an important source of inspiration in several aspects of my work. The idea I want to pick up from him here is that in much of our thought and talk we ‘do not refer to the world but constitute it’. That captures well the idea, originating with Kant, that we cannot observe the world as it is in itself, but construe a virtual reality, a rendering of the world and our position in it. That is how we make sense of the world.

Much of that is not conscious, not a matter of rational reflection, let alone a testing of hypotheses.

Let’s face it: this constitution of our view of the world entails prejudice. Among other things, that yields a problem concerning claims of objective scientific knowledge. That claim lies not in individual objectivity but in debate between scientists, and is imperfect also there.    

It also fits with the idea that the knowing and sensemaking subject is not an objective, outside onlooker of the world, but part of it, constituting itself in it. That is found, for example, in Heidegger’s notion of ‘being in the world’.

So, there is constitution in a double sense. The individual is constituted by action and interaction in the world, and in the process it constitutes a representation, a virtual reality of that world. Since it is done in interaction with others there is some commonality, some shared sense and understanding, shaped in part by shared language (langue) and other forms of culture, as well as idiosyncrasy (parole), which yields the variety that feeds renewal of sense and purpose, both private and public. This is a crucial thing about humanity and society.           


[i] Jerome Bruner, The narrative construction of reality, Critical Enquiry, 18/1 (1991), 1-21.

Saturday, June 24, 2017


321. Adaptiveness

In the preceding item in his blog I discussed emergence, where elements produce wholes with properties not present in the elements. Emergence is studied as ‘adaptation’ in the research field of Complex Adaptive Systems (CAS). A subfield of that is that of Agent-Based Computational Models (ABCM). There, interaction and adaptation of agents is simulated in computational models. I have used that, with a PhD candidate and a postdoctoral researcher, to study whether and how trust can arise in markets.[i]  

In general, such a model has at least the following elements: properties of agents (such as capabilities, preferences), a representation they make of relevant elements in their environment, rules for decision making, a mechanism whereby they observe and evaluate each other, adaptation, i.e. strengthening or weakening of rules and preferences, depending on perceived success, and the invention of new rules.

In this case the central question was under which circumstances, if at all, trust can emerge in markets, even while profit is the criterion of success, and agents can choose between competition and collaboration. They form an opinion on the trustworthiness of partners on the basis of loyalty in collaboration. Next to profit, trust may form part of the value of collaboration. The weight attached to trust relative to profit is adaptive, depending on realised profit. Their own trustworthiness is also adaptive. It is modelled as a threshold of defecting from a relationship: the higher the threshold, he greater the loyalty. In adaptation there is also a random element.

De model enabled us to investigate when and how frequently trust may grow even though success is measured as profit. The aim was to test claims from economics that under competition trust cannot survive. According to the simulations with the model, often trust does indeed grow, but it depends on the circumstances, governed by the settings of parameters of the model.     

Beyond this modelling, here I give a reflection on traits that help adaptiveness. If through the uncertainty of emergence it is not possible to determine ahead of time what may happen, then one must be prepared for the unexpected. There are several ways for his.

In robustness one chooses a way that is not sensitive to unexpected turns. Then one may lose some benefit in some cases but avoids heavy loss in others. Robustness can be explored in scenario analysis. There, one invents different possible futures (scenarios) to investigate how sensitive options are to differences between them.

In flexibility one choses a way that can easily and quickly be replaced by another, to adapt to circumstances as they arise.

In resilience one is resistant, able to incur and absorb adversity. One form of that it is create slack: excess capacity to absorb unforeseeable shocks, in money, time, space, reputation, or cognitive capacity.    

In Inventiveness one learns to learn, to invent new ways, depending on experience, and to analyse the conduct of others for their success, and to deliberately seek novel challenges by which one can discover new ways. That is found in the theory of invention that I discussed earlier in this blog (items 31, 35). 

Diversity is important for the evolution of a group (such as a species, in evolution, or an industry, in markets), and for discovery. It increases the chance that at least ome of the various forms fits whatever emerges.



[i] See: T. Klos & B. Nooteboom, Agent-based computational transaction cost economics,
Journal of Economic Dynamics and Control, 25 (2001): 503-526, Alexander Gorobets & Bart
Nooteboom, Adaptive build-up and breakdown of trust: An agent-based computational approach,
Journal of management and Governance,10 (2006): 277-306.

Saturday, June 17, 2017


320. Emergence

Reductionism is a form of scientism: the idea that natural science is the only respectable form of knowledge, on the basis of experimental facts and rigorous, preferably mathematically formalised argument. Reductionism is analytical: it decomposes phenomena into fundamental elements that together explain the whole.  

The opposition claims that ‘the whole is more than the sum of its parts’. In the formation of the whole something is added that cannot be found in the parts. That is called emergence. Aristotle already talked about it.  

Emergence is akin to self-organization. That arises in nature, as in evolution, where forms do not arise from ‘intelligent design’, but from random trials that are selected out when they do not function well enough to survive and replicate.

More generally, in emergence elements have a potential to unfold properties, in interaction with each other, and develop collective properties, depending on the environment.  

The fundamental theoretical argument for the novelty that is added in synthesis is the following. The whole, be it an organ, an organism, a brain, a sentence, an organization, a market, or a society, must achieve some coherent functioning to survive in its environment, which determines what works and what does not, and it must incorporate the conditions for it. As a consequence, not everything comes ‘from inside’, from the components, but also from outside, the functional conditions for survival. In that, the whole reflects the external conditions, which did not lie in the parts.  

Emergence arises widely in nature and society, on many levels. Chemistry arises from physics, biology from chemistry, evolution from genes, consciousness from neurons, organizations from people, markets from firms, consumers and institutions, societies from people, communities, culture, language and institutions.

In language, the meaning of a sentence depends on the meanings of words in it, but also, the other way around, word meaning also depends on sentence meaning. Earlier in this blog, I used the hermeneutic circle to analyse this (items 36, 252 in this blog). Concepts are embedded in sentences, where they obtain one of several potential meanings, but in the action context they can also acquire a new meaning, which shifts the concept. Here, the outside selection lies in the language community, and in what Wittgenstein called language games.

Meanings and ideas arise from action in the world. I proposed (in item 29) that this yields an object bias in our conceptualization of abstract notions as if they are like things moving in time and space, and in terms of ‘what you can do with them’ (affordances). That also connects with the idea from pragmatist philosophy that truth can be seen as ‘what works’.

Relationships are emergent. If individuals develop their perception and ideas, and their judgements, in interaction with their physical and social environment, then the course of  relationship is fundamentally uncertain. That means that it is not known beforehand what can happen. One may have expectations about what people may do, but one is regularly caught by surprise. One cannot even reliably predict one’s own responses.

In groups, social constellations, complexity increases further, in on he ne hand mimicry of conduct and on the other hand rivalry and rebellion, in agreement or conflict. As discussed elsewhere in this blog (item 205), it looks like people have both an instinct for survival, by protecting their interests, and an instinct for altruism, at least within one’s own group, where one is prepared to make sacrifices at the cost of self-interest, in what is called ‘parochial altruism’.

Organizations and institutions can lead to what I have called ‘system tragedy’ (items 109, 159, 187 in this blog). The culture of an organization, the (international) markets in which it finds itself, and the public institutions of laws and regulations, form expectations, positions, roles, interests, and entanglements between them, which routinely yield outcomes that were not expected or intended, and where guilt cannot easily be attributed to single individuals, who often could not, or did not dare to act otherwise, given their positions. An example is that of ‘the banks’.

History is even more complex. It anything is unpredictable it is that. Look at what has happened in just one year, with the rise of populism, the election of Trump, Brexit, and the rise, apparently out of nowhere, of Emmanuel Macron. With each of those one would have been declared a lunatic if one had predicted it. Where does that complexity come from?

In an earlier item in this blog (item 100), concerning the nature of causality, I analysed the emergence of the Dutch United East India Company (VOC) in the 16th-17th century, as a mix of causal factors of different kinds: accidental conditions of climate and geography, entrepreneurial action, eclipse of competitors, technological and organizational innovations, in more or less accidental ‘novel combinations’, and conditions of war. If any of those factors had been different, or occurred at another moment, nothing or something entirely different might have occurred.

Saturday, June 10, 2017


319. Conformism, reputation, empathy, and morality

In my earlier analysis of altruism I contrasted it with self-interest, and conflated it with the desire to be seen as a loyal member of a group. Here, I want to refine the analysis by distinguishing between conformism, empathy-based person-to-person altruism, and morality.

Conformism may lead to altruism, defined as making sacrifices for others, but it is in fact part of self-interest: one conforms to demands for altruism on pain of being punished by exclusion, which, depending on circumstances of dependency, may jeopardize survival. This may be part of an instinct towards altruism. This is related to reputation as a social mechanism that I recognized as part of self-interest.

I proposed that altruism may be based on morality, outside particular relationships, or on feelings of empathy or identification between persons, within specific relationships. It may also carry intrinsic emotional value, in ‘feeling good to do good’. It forms a basis for acts of consolation, protection, help or support.

Person-to-person benevolence is to a large extent instinctive, varying between people, depending on their genetic inheritance, upbringing, and life path. It is aided by a potential for empathy, in the brain, embodied in ‘mirror neurons’. We simulate in our selves what other people are seen to do and to suffer. As a mother moves a spoonful of food to the baby’s mouth, she opens her own. We feel the pain we observe in others.    

Morality is public, collective. Based on some underlying ethical values it is a generalized set of goals or guidelines shared in some group. It is less automatic, non-instinctive, and it is based on reason, culture, or religion, or some combination of them.

These factors underlying altruism may be in conflict but they may also support each other.

In their analysis of motives for pro-environment conduct, Linda Steg et al.[i], proposed three possible motives for conduct: hedonic (pleasure), gain-oriented (self-interest) and moral. Pleasure and gain may mostly go against pro-environmental conduct, avoiding its efforts and sacrifices, but may also support moral considerations. There may be intrinsic value in the pleasure of ‘doing good’, and it may yield status and reputational gains to be seen to do good. Making sacrifices may also signal wealth as enabling one to make sacrifices.

These effects depend on situational factors, such as seeing others comply or not with pro-environmental behaviour. Here conformism also kicks in. 

Similarly, hedonism and self-interest may go against the morality of altruism, but morality may also be supported by intrinsic value (pleasure), and social status and reputation (gain).

However, one still has to deal with the parochial nature of altruism, with a bias towards in-group others and against outsiders, discussed in preceding items of this blog.

Of course, much also depends on what kind of ethics underlies morality. Earlier in this blog I discussed the three main ethical systems: Utilitarian (going back to Bentham and J.S. Mill), duty-oriented (going back to Kant), and virtue-based (going back to Aristotle). Of these three, virtue ethics is the most pluralistic, allowing for different dimensions, of utility, survival and self-interest, pleasure and duties.

I propose that to engage in a consideration of possible mutual reinforcement of self-interest, pleasure and morality one needs to adopt a multi-dimensional virtue ethics. That is no small step as long as economic considerations are dominant, with economics firmly based on utilitarian ethics.



] Linda Steg, Jan Willem Bolderdijk, Kees Keijzer, and Goda Perlaviciute, An integrated framework for encouraging pro-environmental behaviour: The role of values, situational factors and goals, Journal of environmental psychology, 38(2014), p. 104-115.

Monday, June 5, 2017


318. Escape from routine: how does it work?

Routines, where you operate automatically, unconsciously, are useful. They enable you to think about other things while conducting daily activities. Like talking to someone while driving a car. But the danger is then that you fail to pay attention when conditions escape from the routine, and attention is required. Then something must shock you into awareness, to take remedial action. How does this work?

One explanation is that of the decision heuristic of ‘availability’: you pay attention to what is emotionally loaded, such as danger, or opportunity. That can be irrational, in neglect of things that are important but emotionally less salient, but it does serve to catapult you into awareness of danger.  

I hve argued before that while decision heuristics are generally considered to be ‘irrational’, there may well be conditions where they helped to survive under the pressures of selection, in evolution. This may be such a case. Immediate attention under imminent danger overrides prudence.    

How does that work in the brain? I recently read about an answer from the philosopher Metzinger, as follows.[i] The chance of our becoming aware of the goings on in our brain increases to the extent that neurons fire simultaneously which usually do not. Routines are regular patterns of simultaneous firing. Irregularity, outside a routine, triggers awareness.  

But awareness is not yet attention. So, the two ideas may be complementary. First, unusual connections trigger awareness, and the extent to which they are emotionally laden triggers attention.

Does escape from routine arise only then, in danger or opportunity? In creativity, unusual connections arise not from an outside shock, but from within, seemingly autonomously, and surprisingly. It pops up. ‘Eureka’, the inventor cries. One then is aware, but it springs from serendipity, unforced. But it occurs to the prepared mind, previously stocked with knowledge painstakingly collected and mastered. It is an example of how conscious thought can feed unconscious choice or decision. 

How about dreams? There, the craziest connections occur, violating all logic and ontology.  However, during the dream, chaotic as it is, there is some sense of self. When awake, consciousness filters unusual connections, and in that sense routine, established cognition is still in place outside dreaming.

How about the higher awareness that mystics and meditation adepts claim? Apparently they make connections that transcend the self, and customary logic and categorization, to connect with a cosmic whole. This has been studied, with the help of brain imaging, and indeed, during the height of meditative trance there is an unusually large area of simultaneous firing in the brain.

How about simultaneous firing in different brains? That is being studied in brain science as well, and it seems to be possible to achieve, with much concentration and training. People focusing on a joint task activate similar brain regions.   



[i] Thomas Metzinger, The ego tunnel; The science of the mind and the myth of the self, 2009, New York: Basic Books.

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 on 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 is 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.