Friday, December 24, 2021

534. Stability and change

 In ancient Greece, Plato and Parmenides considered change to be an illusion, and reality to be stable. An argument against novelty was that it either arises out of what exists, and then is not truly novel, or arises out of nothing, which is impossible. Heraclitus, by contrast, considered everything to be in ongoing flux.

 Many things do indeed seem to be stable, but upon closer scrutiny or in a longer time frame one sees change.

Evolution is a counterexample to the claim that change is an illusion. A truly new species arises from a former one by combining existing and mutating genes. However, in evolution there must be a relatively stable selection environment. If it changes too often too radically, evolution does not work.

Body and mind have processes by which they serve to maintain ‘homeostasis’, a balance of properties within boundaries, needed for the maintenance and flourishing of life. Emotions serve to identify violation of those boundaries, and to call forth remedial action (Damasio, 2003). Excessive deviation causes pain, redress gives pleasure. Thirst signals lack of moisture, drinking gives relief. When relief is reached, and homeostasis is re-established, the renewed balance can yield boredom. Deviation and corresponding pain may then be sought to energise life and obtain the pleasure of relief. Perhaps this is the source of the phenomenon of ‘thymos’, the urge to manifest oneself, seeking diversion, enterprise or adventure.

For another example of stability and  change, the theory of ‘research programmes’, discussed before, implies a degree of stability in that change is considered only in the ‘protective belt’ of subsidiary assumptions, not in the ‘core’ of the programme. This obstructs interdisciplinary mixes of programmes, and is akin to the idea that in evolution different species cannot interbreed. That would eliminate the differential survival needed for evolution. If you mix all colours you get only a drab brown.

For science, this might even yield an argument against interdisciplinarity. Another metaphor supporting that is that one cannot look in all directions at the same time. Looking in one direction, one cannot simultaneously look in another. Disciplines serve to look in a certain direction. On the other hand, combining disciplines can yield a fresh insight. Combining is not necessarily mixing. In terms of Lakatosian research programmes, interdisciplinarity does not necessarily imply mixing or dropping cores, but can be the incorporation of different results emerging from those programmes, possibly in a new programme. When an economist shows that a firm can maximise profit by taking over a competitor, and a sociologist sees it as power play to impress shareholders or scare off competitors, both may be right.

There is evolutionary psychology and sociology. The human potential to form ideas arises from adaptation in the evolution of humanity (Tomasello 2016, Moseley 2019). In cognition, the priority was to categorise things as objects moving in time and space, such as a prey in hunting, the location of a lost child, the speed and direction of a preying animal or enemy, the direction and speed of an arrow, the location of a shelter against bad weather. This has been ingrained in mind and culture to such an extent that it is forming and biasing higher level concepts in metaphor to it (Lakoff and Johnson 1980). An example is the treatment of the meaning of a word as an object to which the word refers, like an exhibit in a museum, and information moving through a ‘communication channel’. However, meaning is not like an object moving in time and space. A word moving from one sentence to another changes its meaning. It is as if a chair changes its colour or shape, or drops a leg, when moved from one room to another. In communication, meaning is twisted, expanded or reduced.

According to this bias, we talk of being ‘in’ love as if it were an abode. This is the container metaphor, powerful from the experience of finding shelter in a hut or cave. Marbles are in or out of a pot, but you can be ‘in’ several moods at the same time. Nationality is not being in the box of a nation: one can have several nationalities at the same time, while one cannot simultaneously be in two boxes. We say we are ‘at’ war as if it were a place. War used to be localised, but now it can be at the distance of a drone. ‘Sales going ‘up’ is good, and going down is bad, because to be alive and healthy one stands, and when sick or dead one is lying down. The very notion of ‘things’ as objects is problematic. Many ‘things’ are processes (Nooteboom 2021). Happiness is not like a piece of cake one can acquire, but a process of living. Knowledge is not having something ‘in’ mind, stored away as if in a chest of drawers, but a neuronal process. The body is not a thing we ‘have’, but a process we ‘are’. Electrons in an atom are not determinate things moving around the nucleus, but clouds of probabilities of location.

Concerning morality, evolutionary psychology proposes that in early tribal societies, it had survival value to collaborate in the hunting of big game and in defense. This entailed the ability to see things from the perspective of the partner. Since it was cumbersome to develop empathy and collaboration each time for a specific endeavour, a general inclination towards empathy and benevolence developed. When after more than 300.000 years of evolution in hunter-gatherer groups, humanity settled down in farming, possessions, of land and resources became salient, and that to some extent eroded this instinct of benevolence or put more weight on self-interest, protecting one’s resources. On the other hand, Berry (2017:103) claims that it was adaptive to control alpha dominators, and that this is the root of an impetus to opposition of oppressive leadership. It was still adaptive to care for vulnerable birthlings and partners, and this confirmed an intuition of care of the weak.

These roots of cognition and morality are ‘pre-wired’, yielding a potential to produce more determinate forms of conduct according to circumstances, like genes, whose ‘expression’ in concrete forms depends on conditions. Babies have an inborn inclination to both smile and frown at strange faces, but which comes to dominate depends on how the babies are treated. Certain brain areas are geared to disgust and rejection, which is adaptive in the defence against poison, but can develop into rejection of foreigners or ‘infidels’.

Nooteboom (2000) offered a ‘logic’ of development, a ‘cycle of discovery’ that produces structural change of cognition in some way similar to evolution, in a process of assimilation of phenomena into frames of thought, which, if that fails, triggers accommodation of that frame, adopted from the work of the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget (Flavell,1967). It works as follows: Cognition is assimilation, attempts to fit experience into present frames of mind. When that fails, one can shift into an alternative frame if one has one, or adapt the current frame. In accordance with Hegel’s principle that one gets to know things in their failure, one can subject an existing frame to novel challenges, in a different ‘selection environment’, in evolutionary terms. This can mean that a product is introduced into a new market, in line with Hayek’s maxim of ‘competition as a ‘discovery device’. In science, it can mean the application of a a new field, say economics in a field customarily studied by sociology, or vice versa. In the cycle of discovery this is called generalisation. This yields an opportunity by failure to fit. If that occurs, the sensible thing to do is to search memory for alternatives that were tried before, but were then discarded, and to try to use that in minor ‘twists’ of current practice. In the theory, this is called differentiation. If that does not solve the misfit, one can look around in the new environment to see how local practices are successful where one’s own is not, and adopt elements from it to explore and try out ‘novel combinations’ of habitual and new, local elements. Initially, that is ‘incremental change’ that still has to fit in the basic logic or design of the existing practice, to limit the risk and expenditure of change before the novelty has proven itself. In the theory, this is called reciprocation. This yields ‘hybrids’ of old and new that allow for experimentation, trying out the usefulness of novel elements. This hybridisation is a familiar phenomenon in technological development (Mokyr, 1990). Those hybrids are prone to yield limited lack of fit, inconsistencies, bottlenecks, duplications, which yield inefficiencies and require work-arounds. This gives hints in what directions the basic logic or design might be changed to eliminate the problems of the hybrid. This yields experiments with those new directions until there is a breakthrough in a novel design This is called accommodation. The new design still carries leftovers of the old design, obstructing the realisation of the full potential of the new one. The ironing of out of  these is called consolidation.

An example of the imperfection of the radical novelty lies in the development of the steam engine. An early application was in pumping water out of coal mines. The application in trains required the development of adequate forms and materials, safety measures concerning the power of steam pressure, the addition of brakes, and the engineering of pistons and the transfer of their pumping movement to the turning of wheels. In the application to steam boats one had to deal with the problem of salt in the water heated to steam. Meanwhile, the old technology of sailing ships did not stand still. In paintings of Turner one sees elegant sailing ships next to awkward, lumbering new steam boats.

Another example is that of an artillery team, where one member stepped back more than needed to protect himself against the recoil of the cannon. It turned out that this was a leftover from old horse-drawn artillery where someone had to control the horses at the cannon’s boom.

The point here, in the cycle of discovery, is that it exhibits an alternation of stability and change. Stability in generalisation, where there is no change of the practice, but change of context, then differentiation with minor change of content, followed by reciprocation with greater change of introducing new elements, then accommodation with radical, structural or ‘architectural’ change, and finally consolidation with minor change. This rhymes with the earlier claim that a certain amount of stability is needed to find out where the limits of existing practice lie, and to collect hints of directions for change .This takes time and demands patience, with a vision towards the longer term future.

The logic of the cycle was confirmed in a conversation with a former CEO of Shell Oil company. He told that formerly the extension of production abroad was to compensate for saturation of the home market, for the sake of ongoing growth. A restriction was that existing practice must be maintained, to achieve economies of scale, and the deviations of differentiation and reciprocation were disallowed, until they found out that those were a source of innovation.

As a result, great power of an multi-national enterprise (MNC) to impose existing practice in the host country, with the promise of employment technology transfer and access of local production to the MNC’s home market, forces local adjustments to fit the practice, and preserve economies of scale, while companies with lesser power are driven to adjustment to local conditions, yielding more innovation.

An economic argument for stability is not to throw away past investments before the need or opportunity of change is pressing, and to earn ongoing returns from that investment. Also, some stability is needed to recover strength after exertion. Standing still, or taking a step back, is needed for reflection to let things sink in, to let ideas come to fruition. After dinner you have to digest. An uninterrupted flux of change makes for ineffectual neuroticism, jumping about without direction. The French have an expression ‘reculer pour mieux sauter’, stepping back for a better jump. However, people are often afraid that standing still is falling back, and economically that is often true, in falling back in the race of technology, consumption and acquisition.



-          Do you prefer stability or change

-          How would you combine them

-          Is change an illusion, or stability

-          Why is some stability needed


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