28 July 2011

A Global Dream, not just an American Dream

Here's the beginning of a piece by George Lakoff and Glenn Smith about their view of the American Dream and how we are losing touch with it. In brackets I have substituted 'Global' for 'American' because this is the proper scope of the thinking we need to be doing. They are focused on American (U.S.) politics, so it makes sense for them, but I hope that the same dialogue can be brought into the global context, too.

Democracy... has been defined by a simple morality: We ... care about our fellow citizens, we act on that care and build trust, and we do our best not just for ourselves, our families, and our friends and neighbors, but for our country, for each other, for people we have never seen and never will see.

[Global] Democracy has, over our history, called upon citizens to share an equal responsibility to work together to secure a safe and prosperous future for their families and nation. This is the central work of our democracy and it is a public enterprise. This, the [Global] Dream, is the dream of a functioning democracy.

Public refers to people, acting together to provide what we all depend on: roads and bridges, public buildings and parks, a system of education, a strong economic system, a system of law and order with a fair and effective judiciary, dams, sewers, and a power grid, agencies to monitor disease, weather, food safety, clean air and water, and on and on. That is what we, as a people who care about each other, have given to each other.

Only a free people can take up the necessary tasks, and only a people who trust and care for one another can get the job done. The [Global] Dream is built upon mutual care and trust.

Our tradition has not just been to share the tasks, but to share the tools as well. We come together to provide a quality education for our children. We come together to protect each other’s health and safety. We come together to build a strong, open and honest financial system. We come together to protect the institutions of democracy to guarantee that all who share in these responsibilities have an equal voice in deciding how they will be met.

What this means is that there is no such thing as a “self-made” man or woman or business. No one makes it on their own. No matter how much wealth you amass, you depend on all the things the public has provided — roads, water, law enforcement, fire and disease protection, food safety, government research, and all the rest. The only question is whether you have paid your fair share for we all have given you.

We are now faced with a nontraditional, radical view of “democracy” coming from the Republican party. It says that “democracy” means that nobody should care about anybody else, that “democracy” means only personal responsibility, not responsibility for anyone else, and it means no trust. If [the world] accepts this radical view of “democracy,” then all that we have given each other in the past under traditional democracy will be lost: all that we have called public. Public roads and bridges: gone. Public schools: gone. Publicly funded police and firemen: gone. Safe food, air, and water: gone. Public health: gone. Everything that made [the civilized world the civilized world], the crucial things that you and your family and your friends have taken for granted: gone.

The democracy of care, shared responsibility, and trust is the democracy of the [Global] Dream. The “democracy” of no care, no shared responsibility, and no trust has produced the [Global] Nightmare that so many of our citizens are living through.

Read the rest of Why Democracy is Public by Lakoff & Smith.

27 July 2011

Math of Cities and biology

Here's a talk about the mathematics of cities and how it compares to biology. It's fascinating stuff but my impression is that the models ultimately predict collapse because there are finite limitations on 1) resources, which is countered by innovation, and 2) our ability to innovate, which he provides no solution for countering. Our ability to rapidly innovate is staving off collapse from resource depletion, but in order for that to continue we have to continuously increase the speed of innovation. But there is necessarily a limit to the speed of cultural diffusion of innovation. While the internet provides very high speed diffusion of information, there is still a limit to how fast the information can be taken in and effect changes in behavior. Thus, we are destined to see the collapse of cities once that speed limit of cultural diffusion is reached.

Although if we could get a handle on the growth of population then perhaps that could bring about a balance between the need for innovation and the ability to adopt innovations.

20 July 2011

On Otherness: Thandie Newton's TED Talk

Actress Thandie Newton tackles the illusion of self as a prime source of difficulty in our world:

10 July 2011

Do you believe in time and mind?

This is my response to Greg Byshenk's 5th comment on my last post, Do you believe in zero? We have had a very enlightening exchange on this topic. This one was too long for the comment box so I'm posting it here:

Let's examine the unreality of faeries and unicorns, because at a certain level they have referents in the world even though they are clearly creatures of fantasy. Faeries could be the imaginative re-combination of people and dragon flies. Unicorns could be ibex with a single horn in the middle of their heads. Both are then given interesting causal capabilities that we humans don't have, like the abilities of other actual creatures to glow, fly, or perceive outside our sensory range. The point is that the conceptually basic components of unicorns and faeries certainly do exist, but when we take those basic low level components and arrange them differently at another level then we get something fantastic.

Lakoff and Johnson, in Philosophy in the Flesh, say that linguistic analysis shows that there is no literal core referent in concepts of time, only metaphorical constructions. This puts time on the same referential footing as faeries and unicorns; they are all three imaginative recombinations of more basic literal concepts.

But saying that time is not real just because the concept lacks a thing in the world to refer to does not convince me that it is not real. Sure it may be an illusion in some abstract sense, but it's very useful as a concept and pervasive in it's practical applications despite the evidence that it lacks a literal reference point.

Let me bring in Lakoff and Johnson here to assist with the broader point:

From the chapter entitled Realism and Truth in Philosophy in the Flesh- “[E]mbodied truth requires us to give up the illusion that there exists a unique correct description of any situation. Because of the multiple levels of our embodiment, there is no one level at which one can express all the truths we can know about a given subject matter. But even if there is no one correct description, there can still be many correct descriptions, depending on our embodied understandings at different levels or from different perspectives.

“Each different understanding of a situation provides a commitment to what is real about that situation. Each such reality commitment is a version of a commitment to truth.

“What we mean by “real” is what we need to posit conceptually in order to be realistic, that is, in order to function successfully to survive, to achieve ends, and to arrive at workable understandings of the situations we are in.” [italics in original]

This bit comes after they have spent a few pages tearing down the correspondence theory of truth. Notice that they simultaneously reject simplistic ideas of both objectivity and relativity. There are aspects of human experience that will always have absolute commonality because we share the same biological structures and on the other hand there are many aspects of human experience that we do not share, therefore nuanced views of both objectivity and relativity are required.

I would get near universal agreement (except for some post-modernists and buddhists) on the reality of my chair and the non-reality of faeries and unicorns (also with a few motivated exceptions) because all the people considering the issue share the same conceptual structures (including the motivated few who overcame them in order to reach their contrarian ideologies.)

Concepts of time, on the other hand, have a totally different basis. There is no objective, level-independent, neutral way to think about time. There is no universally shared conceptual structure, only a diversity of cultural and linguistic traditions. But that does not make time unreal, it just makes it really complicated.

Mind, on the other hand has a literal core referent. According to Lakoff and Johnson, at its core, mind is literally what thinks, perceives, believes, reasons, imagines and wills. There are manifold metaphorical constructions that make this skeletal core actually useful for understanding issues in the real world, but there IS a literal core referent to a causal agent of some kind. Therefore, mind could be said to meet your criteria for reference but time does not. Is mind real and time not real?

My current studies at Reed are focused on psychology and I take the mind to be a real entity that is the primary concern of my studies. Given that I take both mind and time to be real then it is no stretch for me to take the following steps to get to what I consider a responsible concept of a real god:

  • My mind is one of the primary things that makes things happen in my experience and I recognize that other minds are active agents in the world, too.
  • Minds are causal entities that are associated with many (perhaps all) living things.
  • There are causal forces in the world that act independently of things that I normally recognize as living or that occur at higher levels of organization of living things. (e.g. Following the lead of philosopher Douglas Hofstadter and a variety of ant scientists; individual ants can seem stupid but ant colonies can seem smart, therefore the colony is productively thought of as an agent, a causal unit, as are individual ants though at a smaller scale.)
  • Since, in my experience, minds make things happen, then it is possible that a mind-like entity that I am ignorant of is acting independently of things that I normally recognize as individuals, therefore I will come up with a separate term for a mind-like entity with causal agency in the world: god.
  • My concept of god is real in the same way that time and mind are real.
  • God is real like time in that I have imaginatively constructed a concept out of more basic concepts (via metaphor) to solve a problem: the problem of dealing with phenomena in my life that I cannot trace to individual causal agents.
  • God refers to the phenomena of causal forces that I don't understand, in particular forces that are non-living and/or associated with groups of living things that act in seemingly mindful ways.
  • God is real like mind in that I have borrowed the core reference to causal entities but I have dissociated it from the agency of individual living things.
  • Given that I built this concept of god from the concept of mind, then it is, at its core, a concept with properties associated with minds, but there is nothing inherent in the construction that limits me to human minds, therefore I can also equally conceive of god with attributes that are non-human.
  • God is also like zero in that it solves the cognitive problem of how to represent a lack of information (in a system that can only act on information) by the use of a placeholder.
  • Given that the central problem solved by the concept of god is my own causal ignorance, then I have to take responsibility for my ignorance by conceding that true knowledge about the causal factors that are covered by my use of the term 'god' is both possible and, perhaps, likely, given that I live in a complex technological society.

This way of constructing the argument relies on taking the terms mind and time to each indicate something real, while the realness of zero turns out to be irrelevant since it just illustrates a certain functional relationship. Of course, if you do not accept the reality of time and mind, then we simply disagree on those points, and that's where you'll lose me.

This line of reasoning leads me to reject the notion that 'god' is a term that cannot be used responsibly. It is a tool with specific uses that are legitimate and other uses that are not legitimate. I agree with you that god is a bad tool for playing in the realm of politics. Asserting power tends to require some claims to knowledge, preferably, for the aspirants to power, claims to special or unique access to some knowledge. So responsible use of the term 'god' requires a certain kind of (epistemic?) humility which may be difficult (maybe even impossible) to maintain unless there is institutional support for reigning in the temptations of power and correcting the inevitable occurrence of abuses.

Getting back to faeries and unicorns, I would accept the possibility of those concepts being real for someone if I thought that they served a necessary cognitive purpose. To take a concrete example, if a child consistently described the illumination of a light bulb as the action of faeries then I would not argue. Creating conflict over the specific language a child uses is generally of little value in my experience, so it is a battle I choose to fight only rarely.

Of course, electricity is clearly a hazard that must be handled carefully and if the child is probing for fairies in electrical outlets with a screw driver then I'll step in. But to ensure safety in the short term I would explain that faeries are very private folk and can hurt or kill people who get too nosy. This strategy accepts that faeries are real to her and uses the language of her understanding to reframe the story about faeries to reflect real dangers. Accepting and using her current understanding does not undermine my understanding, so there is no risk to me. In the short term my use of language according to her understanding of the situation will be far more effective than attempting to abruptly change her understanding. Over the long term, rather than argue directly about it with the child I would find out more about her causal concepts and probe the limits of her theory of light bulb fairies. I would probably get a kit for playing with circuits and help the child discover the real properties of electricity and in the process introduce the terminology that is generally accepted for discussing the topic. I am confident that the reality of electricity and the scientific understanding of it is compelling enough to ensure my ultimate success in facilitating the child to develop both a proper understanding of electricity and an ability to use socially appropriate language when discussing it (fairy terms in whimsical settings, if she is inclined to do so, and scientific terms in serious settings.)

So in a sense I am right in the danger zone you mentioned. I know that a little girl does not have an understanding of electricity and so the real phenomena she observes have to be explained in some other way. Imaginative creatures are a culturally supported way of thinking about phenomena in her experience. Faeries are real to her because they serve a legitimate purpose as a cognitive tool for her to deal with the situation of light bulb illumination. Her understanding will change over time and she will learn more ways to talk about her experiences, but for the time being faeries are “real” because they provide a cognitive framework for surviving as a little girl with access to electricity.

But, I will also be honest with her that I think the illumination of the light bulb was the result of electricity. Using her language of faeries to explain how to avoid being killed by an electrical outlet does not mean that I share her beliefs, it simply means that I have taken the time to get to know her and understand how to communicate with her. I am fully confident that her understanding will change over time and if she is allowed to engage with reality enough she will learn both the skills she needs to handle reality and a variety of linguistic concepts that will allow her to effectively communicate about it, as well.

I do not subscribe to the view of children as ignorant in the sense of lacking essential information. I do subscribe to the view that they are independent human beings with their own purposes and have access to a lot less information than older people. Rather than being responsible for delivering into their heads the correct knowledge-set I see my job as a teacher as aligning their purposes with mine. As a practical matter that means I should be clear and explicit about my purposes and letting them know when their purposes are in alignment with mine, or not. When their purposes do not align with mine then we will have conflict, in any case. The long term successful resolution of the conflicts will depend on how well we can come to a shared understanding of what purposes we can mutually serve while we share time and space. I usually have no problem getting kids of any age to agree that safety is a mutual purpose we can both serve. I do not take my purposes to be inherently superior to theirs, just different. I am confident that we share a significant proportion of our purposes and can figure out lots of mutually engaging ones to serve while we are together.

Implied in your concern about the propagation of ignorance is the idea that your knowledge is superior to the knowledge of those who are ignorant of what you know. What purpose are you serving such that your knowledge is superior? Until you specify the purpose you serve, there is no way for me to judge your claim that they are ignorant. Ignorance exists only in the context of purposes that structure the meaning of knowledge. Your knowledge may be superior for certain purposes you subscribe to, but, if the people you claim are ignorant don't share your purposes then your problem is not properly with their a lack of knowledge, its with the purposes they subscribe to such that they know things to be a different way. You can instantly convince them of their ignorance if you can get them to subscribe to your purpose and then examine how their previous behavior did not serve it.

The important shift in their perspective will not be about the truth value of their causal propositions involving the term 'god.' The important shift will be in their values, which follow from the purposes they serve. Given the right purposes to serve they will, over time, adjust their concepts of god to fit.

In my view focusing on the word 'god' as a sign of delusion and unjustified belief does not serve the purpose of communicating across religious divides. I believe that eliminating the word 'god' and its synonyms from common usage is impractical and likely impossible. So coming up with a plausible way of interpreting it that is reasonably defensible with what's known from cognitive linguistics about how humans use language seems like a good idea for enabling it to be used responsibly.

Thanks for helping me clarify what I'm doing!

01 July 2011

Do you believe in zero?

If you believe in zero, then what proof do have of it's existence? How seriously would you take someone who claimed that, given a lack of proof, zero must not exist and that those who continue to use it are suffering from the “zero delusion.” Or that believers in zero must be under a spell that should be broken because of how prolifically it was used in the systematic oppression of minorities of all kinds throughout most of recorded history especially by the Nazis and other genocidal maniacs.

Personally, I do not believe in the literal existence of zero. Zero is a concept we humans developed through our imaginative capacities to logically deal with gaps in our understanding. I am happy to use the concept, in spite of it's immoral use by others, because zero is an indispensable placeholder that signifies an absence of information. It is indispensable because it allows me to imply that information is absent and still proceed with extremely useful mental processes that require some form of information.

God is the same kind of concept. If you go back to the beginning of this piece and substitute the word 'god' for the word 'zero' in those first two paragraphs then nothing logically changes, though, of course, the connotations do.

Consider that Albert Einstien, when he wanted to concentrate his mental capabilities on the physical forces that comprised his expertise, had to ignore other forces in the world, such as political forces, in order to gain productive insights. There are always an unknown number of forces at work in reality at all times and it is perfectly reasonable to suppose that we can, like Albert Einstein may have done, productively encapsulate the forces we do not want to consider at one moment in a placeholder concept signified by the term 'god.'

Given this understanding of the concept, then the question of belief does not properly apply and questions of existence are also non-starters. Zero is not a faith proposition, and I suggest to you, that god is not a faith proposition either. God is a concept we created as a necessary placeholder for our ignorance of the fullness of reality. Use of the term, by definition, admits of ignorance. Therefore, invocation of god when considering causal forces necessarily implies an unwillingness to probe further into the actual causes of the phenomena under consideration. Invoking god in the course of a causal conversation is a resignation that the forces are unknown and/or unknowable.

This is where politics steps in. When power is cultivated upon ignorance, then those who wield that power have a vested interest in maintaining the ignorance upon which their power is based. And the denial of god is also a political move. Denial of god is the arrogant claim that reality is entirely known, or at least knowable. There is no basis for this claim other than speculation based on establishing or expanding a position of power for those who claim special access to knowing reality. Claims of special access to either god or reality are necessarily born of arrogance and/or maneuvering for power.

The point-by-point sketch of an argument that follows was started with the intent of curing allergies to the word 'god' and it's many synonyms. When all positions that invoke god (by that term or a synonym) are automatically considered to be dangerously delusional (ala Richard Dawkins book title), or at least foolishly mistaken, then there is a clear lack of mutual respect. I suspect that this ironically self-righteous position unnecessarily alienates too many people with perfectly reasonable views.

If the argument could be accepted as a reasonable view on both sides of the chasm centered on the use of the term 'god' then perhaps more inclusive and productive public dialogue on the nature and valid applications of religious thought and practice can happen. If we can agree on the specific form of ignorance asserted in this argument, then labeling positions that use the term 'god' as delusions, mistakes, or spells to be broken is fundamentally disrespectful and inappropriate in civil dialogue.

Even if agreement cannot be reached then those who accept this argument should still be able to circumscribe the role of causal belief within the doctrinal dimension of religious life, then deal with all the other aspects of the doctrinal dimension plus the other six dimensions of religion (mythic, social, ritual, experiential, ethical and material) as issues separate from the use of the term 'god,' and it's synonyms. My hope is that preventing allergic reactions to the word 'god' in this way would encourage more respectful public dialogue.

The argument is built on materialist assumptions, so some people may not be comfortable with its premises. But, if this argument is true, then using the term 'god,' or one of it's many synonyms, is effectively an admission of a specific form of causal ignorance that should, in principle, be acceptable to everyone who is honestly interested in respectful public dialogue to address abuses of science, religion, and our planet.

Sketching The Argument
  1. All human symbolic communication is mediated by some form of mapping, even if the realms mapped have no basis in reality.
    1. The only complete map of anything is the thing itself.
    2. No practical map can ever be complete.
    3. Practical maps serve a purpose and the map can be either adequate or inadequate to the purpose.

  2. Animals, including humans, construct biologically encoded maps of reality.
    1. Biologically encoded maps must be incomplete since they are inherently required to be a practical guide to the preservation of the individual animal and/or it's genes.
    2. The biologically encoded maps within humans are capable of representing a lack of information, as is the case with the concept of zero.
    3. In some instances, like zero, humans accomplish the feat of cognitively handling a lack of information by creating a placeholder that enables the system to act as if there is information when there is not, in fact.

  3. When individual humans who are highly responsive to the contingencies in their environment (thus they are both sane and reasonably intelligent) contemplate the complexities of reality they conclude that some of the forces at work are beyond their knowledge.
    1. Given the conclusion of their ignorance of some of the forces that influence their reality, many humans will assign a placeholder, like the term 'god' and it's synonyms, to some sub-set of the forces that influence their reality in order to sustain productive cognitive mapping of a different sub-set of influences that may be within their grasp. (For instance, Albert Einstein, in his role as a physicist, had to ignore some forces acting in the world, like psychological or social/political forces, in order to work productively on his technical understanding of the physical forces that were his primary interest.)
    2. Placeholders for a systematic lack of information beyond the individual level may be necessary for human cognitive maps to be adequate for the purpose of developing accurate cultural maps of reality.

  4. Humans tend to assign human or human-like traits to entities that appear to have the properties of a) independent movement, b) the ability to respond to environmental contingencies, and c) exert substantial influence on the environment.
    1. Given that the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms are by definition representations of complex but unknown forces that may exert substantial influences over the course of human lives, many humans would naturally assign them human or human-like traits.
    2. The assigned characteristics of the placeholder 'god' and its synonyms should reflect a logical combination of the possible aspects of human vs non-human traits and material vs. “immaterial” influences. Like so:

Logical categories for concepts of god and it's synonyms.*
(e.g. animals & tsunamis)
(e.g. minds & magnetism)

* Inspired by Rev. Bruce Bode's sermon series “Four Faiths in the Modern World” which was based on Rev. Fred Campbell's religious education curriculum “Religious Integrity for Everyone: Functional Theology for Secular Society.”


I conclude that god is real since there are clearly forces at work in reality that I don't understand. Those forces include both material forces such as animals, volcanoes and tsunamis and “immaterial” forces such as other minds and electromagnetism. I also conclude that god is correctly conceived in multiple logically-incompatible ways (which includes a diversity of terminology) due to the cognitive structures that are necessary for dealing with a lack of information and the tendency of human animals to assign traits to certain kinds of phenomena.

Logically and morally I assert that all conceptions of god that admit to our underlying ignorance of forces that influence our lives are appropriate, and conversely conceptions of god that deny our inherent underlying ignorance are inappropriate. Inappropriate uses are likely embedded in situations of power inequalities that are advantageous to some individual or group that benefits from the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge. Further, this political caution regarding the assertion of exclusive access to certain, or complete, knowledge applies equally to denials of god.