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.