Wednesday, October 7, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: The World as a Set of Puzzles

In my last post, I talked about how the rational paradigm undermines public discourse by excluding most people and all values. In this post, I want to talk about the fifth feature of Fisher's rational world paradigm:

The world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved through appropriate analysis and application of reason conceived as an argumentative construct. (4)

Well, this brings me directly to conflicting stories that help us see different worlds. To illustrate how this is so, I contrast this feature of the rational world paradigm with the fifth feature of Fisher's narrative world paradigm:

The world is a set of stories which must be chosen among to live the good life in a process of continual recreation. (8)

This is particularly rich for me in trying to understand my evangelical friends. Note that the rational worldview sees the world as a series of puzzles to be worked out in pursuit of a meaningful, good life. The puzzle metaphor for life implies certain things about the world. First, it means that the world is approachable through the tenacious application of human knowledge and reason. Any person confronted with issues in life can surmount or circumvent those issues if they bring enough knowledge and reason to bear. Puzzles may be simple — like a flat tire — or complicated — like Covid-19 or your love life — but with enough information, clear reasoning, and tenacity, you can solve most any problem in your life. This is certainly my approach to my profession. If I encounter a poem or story that I don't understand, I can bring information, reason, and persistence to bear on the work, and eventually I will understand it — at least well enough to teach it. Plenty of scientists still believe that with enough work they will eventually achieve a theory of everything that will explain the Universe. The Universe is a puzzle, and we humans have the expertise to figure it out.

Second, the puzzle worldview requires expertise, but it doesn't have to be our own. We can use the expertise of others, and we puzzle-types tend to value expertise both in ourselves and in others. If presented with a puzzle outside our area of expertise, then we are quite willing to defer to the expertise of others. Think of heart surgery. We want knowledgeable, skilfull surgeons, and we usually don't care about their political or religious views which we see as irrelevant to the puzzle at hand. 

Third, the puzzle approach means that there is a best solution to most puzzles, and only expertise can determine what that best solution is. A simple puzzle such as a rubik's cube has one correct answer. A complicated puzzle may have multiple answers, and the best answer is often reached by consensus among the experts in the field, but followers of the puzzle metaphor believe that each puzzle has a best answer and that that best answer can be found.

Finally, then, for puzzle-people, the world is not mysterious. The World may be currently unclear or even confusing, but it is always knowable. We may not know the answer to a puzzle just now due to lack of information or enough reasoning, but we know that a clear answer exists and that we can find it given enough and time and effort.

Of course, most of us recognize that the Universe is not a simple puzzle — not even a complicated puzzle — but we still often act as if it is. At least, we of the puzzle worldview act this way. Others, including my evangelical friends, do not see the world this way.

For my evangelical friends, the world is not a puzzle at all. Rather, it is a story of God's relationship with His bride, His Church, His people — with them. And this story is wondrous, and clear. It has a simple beginning in Creation, a plot in their favor, and a definite ending in eternal bliss for them and eternal damnation for everyone else. The Gospel is a simple story that anyone can understand; therefore, no one has an excuse for not believing it.

They do not approach the world primarily through knowledge and reason but through their personal relationship with the Almighty. Now, I do not mean to suggest that they have no knowledge and reason — they do. They can change a tire as well as anyone, but puzzles are specialized cases for them. The world is based on their relationship with God, and the unfolding story of that relationship. All information and reason must fit within that story, and when it doesn't, then that information and reason is dismissed or denied.

This relationship with God does not depend on expertise, though knowledge of Scripture can be beneficial; rather, it depends on faith in and fidelity to God and to His Word. Again, I am not suggesting that my evangelical friends do not have expertise, they do. They are craftsmen, artists, musicians, scientists, business people, and politicians — they are some of the smartest and most gifted people I know — but this expertise is subordinate to and subservient to their faith in God. They do all for the glory of God, and whatever does not bring glory to God, they avoid, regardless of how reasonable it may be to believe or to do.

There is, then, only one solution to life's issues: God. Remember that heart surgeon we mentioned above? Well, if your heart surgery worked, that was God preserving you because He has more for you to do here on Earth. If you surgery didn't work, that was God calling you home. Either way, it's God. The surgeon is just a bit player, a prop, an instrument of God's Will. You can thank the surgeon after successful surgery, but it was really God's call.

The World, then, is largely mysterious as God is mysterious. God has revealed all we need to know in His Word, and the rest is a mystery best left alone. Eventually we will come to know the world, but only in the presence of God and only when He reveals it. As the old hymn promises:

Farther along we’ll know more about it.
Farther along we’ll understand why.
Cheer up, my brother, live in the sunshine.
We'll understand it all by and by. ("Farther Along" by W. B. Stevens)

This helps me understand better, then, why my evangelical friends have such a visceral mistrust of experts and education. The experts believe that knowledge and reason answers everything eventually, while evangelicals believe that knowledge and reason answer only some mundane details. All truth is ultimately held by God and revealed to us only in His time.

Friday, October 2, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: Fisher's Divide

As I read more carefully into Walter Fisher's article "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm", I'm impressed by his sketch of the divide between the rational and the narrative paradigms of public conversation. This divide clarifies for me the break between myself and those close to me over the issue of Trump politics, so I want to explore here what I think Fisher means.

First, Fisher posits two distinct paradigms for human communication: the rational and the narrative. These two paradigms need not be antagonistic — they can be complementary — but conflict is certainly possible, and I think that in the case of my evangelical family and friends, they are antagonistic. Let's see how and why, at least according to Fisher, who begins his analysis by describing what he means by the rational paradigm for public discourse.

The rational paradigm entered Western thought with Aristotle's Organon, and Fisher claims that regardless of its local variations over the centuries since, the rational paradigm has several consistent core features:

  1. Humans are essentially rational beings.
  2. Argument composed of clear inferential structures is the primary mode of human decision-making and public discourse.
  3. This argument is ruled by the dictates of the situation, the field, within which it occurs — legal, scientific, legislative, and so on.
  4. The rationality of one's argument is determined by subject matter knowledge, argumentative ability, and skill in employing the rules within a field.
  5. The world is a set of logical puzzles which can be resolved through appropriate analysis and application of reason conceived as an argumentative construct. (4)
These features of the rational paradigm lead to several problems that can undermine public discourse as I think it has today. First, to my mind, is the claim that humans are essentially rational in a formal manner. They aren't. Rationality, especially the scholastic kind, must be learned and cultivated. Stories are innate, syllogisms ain't. We must learn and practice this kind of rationality, and many of us — perhaps most of us — don't.

Then, in the rational paradigm, public discourse requires a certain amount of specialized knowledge of the field within which a rational discussion occurs: legal, economic, scientific, and so on. This has been particularly debilitating for public discourse as the various fields of human knowledge have become increasingly specialized and compartmentalized. In his famous 1959 essay "The Two Cultures", C. P. Snow identified the growing rift between the sciences and the humanities, which was rendering impossible communication between the two. Since then, we've come to see that the situation is worse than Snow thought: physicists can't talk to biologists who can't talk to sociologists, and no one can talk to mathematicians or deconstructionists. Being conversant in any of these fields requires more qualifications than most of us can manage.

Unfortunately, as Fisher notes, "The actualization of the rational world paradigm … depends on a form of society that permits, if not requires, participation of qualified persons [italics mine] in public decision-making" (4). The rational paradigm has come to require those experts — those qualified persons — who my evangelical friends resent as elites who think they are the only ones smart enough to make decisions about public policy. I, of course, think it perfectly reasonable to leave important decisions about Covid-19 to epidemiological experts, but my evangelical friends do not. Rather, they feel excluded from public discourse and decision-making — disenfranchised and denigrated — and they don't like it. They admire Donald Trump for standing up to these elites and telling it like it is, reclaiming the public discourse for those who have felt excluded for so long. The rational paradigm, then, says if you don't know most of the salient facts and the rules of engagement for a given discussion, then you should be quiet and let the experts talk. Donald Trump says fuck that and talks anyway. My evangelical friends love him for that. They think he is telling it like it is, even though all his facts are wrong. Keeping your facts straight belongs to the rational paradigm, and they aren't doing that.

The fragmentation of knowledge by what Fisher calls naturalism has also removed values from public discourse. Hard naturalism — physics, chemistry, and mathematics — ignores the question of values altogether, either turning it over to the poets and mystics or dismissing it as meaningless, "an expression of mere personal feeling" according to John Herman Randall, Jr. (5). Soft naturalism — biology, psychology, and the social sciences — seems intent on building "a science of values comparable to the science that was the glory of Greek thought" (5). Consequently, hard naturalism denies both public knowledge and public discourse as too permeated with value issues, and soft naturalism is trying without much success to create a scientific basis for the values that permeate public knowledge and discourse. Most of my evangelical friends find little sense of those values that they hold so dear in the language of either hard or soft naturalists. As they note, quite accurately, God is left out of most scientific discussions, and for them, God is the ultimate value. They find any conversation that ignores God confusing and repugnant.

Fisher says that "the effects of naturalism have been to restrict the rational world paradigm to specialized studies and to relegate everyday argument to an irrational exercise" (5). He may be overstating his case, but he does shine light on the issue for me. The strict requirements of specialized knowledge of the relevant field and the field's increasingly peculiar protocols for discussion and the exclusion of values as either irrelevant or impossible on a scientific basis excludes my evangelical friends from the very conversations that I find valuable. They find no values, and thus no value, in those conversations, and they are suspicious of the people who do. Moreover, and perhaps most importantly, they resent the disdain they feel from people like me who look down on them because they cannot or do not join in these rational conversations.

I confess that I have been disdainful of those who ignore the facts and are irrational. If I'm to finish my novel, then I have to replace disdain with understanding. I don't have to change my preferred responses to Covid-19, but I do have understand why my friends and I are talking past each other. One of us needs to learn to speak the other one's language. I'm writing the novel, so I should do it.

Sunday, September 27, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm of Walter Fisher

For the past several years, I've been writing a novel about southern Pentecostals, their origins in the Appalachians and the fringes of southeastern society, and their eventual emergence into and influence on the current evangelical movement. I was raised in this faith, and though I left it about the time I left home for college, most of my family is still engaged with it and with its ideas. For the last several years, I've been perplexed how this group of people has championed Donald Trump, who for many of them is God's appointed man of the hour sent to protect them from the demonic Democrats who seek to destroy them and the United States. They are the true Church and the true State, and Trump is their miraculous leader.

I've tried to think my way rationally through this point of view, and I can't do it. I don't think it makes rational sense. So I've come to suspect that something non-rational is at work, and I'm exploring narrative theory as a way of helping me understand what is happening with many of my family and friends. I am not giving up on complexity theory, even though I considered shifting this exploration to a new blog. Rather, I suspect that narrative theory will help me expand and enrich my own thinking about complexity and that complexity will frame and inform my understanding of narrative. So what is narrative theory?

The Psychology Wiki says that narrative theory started with Walter Fisher in the 1980s with his 1984 article "Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm" in Communication Monographs and his 1987 book Human Communication as Narration. Fisher calls his idea narrative paradigm rather than theory because he views paradigm as the more inclusive term. The wiki says that Fisher's paradigm:

is based on the concept that people are essentially storytellers. Storytelling is one of the oldest and most universal forms of communication and so individuals approach their social world in a narrative mode and make decisions and act within this narrative framework.

In his article, Fisher quotes Alasdair MacIntyre's book After Virtue (201): "man is in his actions and practice, as well as in his fictions, essentially a story-telling animal" (1). Story, then, is at the ground of what it means to be human. At first reading, I interpreted narrative theory as the ground of human knowing, but Fisher's article corrected that view. Storytelling is the ground of human being. It is ontological rather than epistemological. Fisher says that homo narrans can function as the master or root metaphor for what it means to be human, thus, incorporating the other metaphors such as homo faber, homo economous, homo politicus, and so forth. These other conceptions, then, are different modes of storytelling, different ways "of recounting or accounting for human choice and action" (6). Storytelling is not, then, merely how humans come to know their world; rather, it is how they come to exist in their world. To my mind, this takes narrative to a different level, and I suspect I will require some time and much writing to work out the implications, but I find it enticing enough to think on it.

Fisher develops his paradigm by contrasting it with what he sees as the prevailing paradigm in rhetoric, communications, and social theories: the rational paradigm inherited from Plato and Aristotle, which says that humans are basically rational. According to the Wikipedia article "Narrative paradigm," Fisher believes that "humans are not rational and propose[s] that the narrative is the basis of communication" and that "people communicate by telling/observing a compelling story rather than by producing evidence or constructing a logical argument." According to Psychology Wiki, Fisher contrasts the rational and narrative paradigms this way:

Rational World Paradigm: Narrative Paradigm:
  • People are essentially rational.
  • People are essentially storytellers.
  • People make decisions based on arguments.
  • People make decisions based on good reasons.
  • The communicative situation determines the course of our argument.
  • History, biography, culture, and character determine what we consider good reasons.
  • Rationality is determined by how much we know and how well we argue.
  • Narrative rationality is determined by the coherence and fidelity of our stories.
  • The world is a set of logical puzzles that we can solve through rational analysis.
  • The world is a set of stories from which we choose, and constantly re-create, our lives.
  • In general, Fisher's ideas as presented here and in his 1984 article resonate with me. Stories tell people not only what they believe but who and what they are, and we all assimilate and become the narrative structures that we grow up with and experience, and we recount and account for our experiences through story first. If we bother with rationality at all, we do so after the story. From my experience, most people are persuaded far more by engaging stories drawn from their culture than by impeccable logic and facts that apply to a given situation. Even those people who are trained to look only at the facts when assessing the truth of a situation appear to have great difficulty overcoming their stories even when the facts obviously don't fit their stories. All too often, people prefer to fit the facts to their stories rather than change their stories to accommodate the facts.

    Think of the detectives trying to solve a crime. Most of them are not a Sherlock Holmes who can self-righteously proclaim, "When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth." This principle holds if you are agnostic, with an amazing ability to shapeshift your worldview to incorporate a new worldview that makes sense of the available facts. Of course, you must have a worldview to make sense of facts and observations. Though I'm no Sherlock Holmes scholar, I suspect that he had a worldview, a paradigm or story, but that he was willing and able to shift that worldview when he needed to make sense of new facts. He was something like the Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhism, who says, "If scientific analysis were conclusively to demonstrate certain claims in Buddhism to be false, then we must accept the findings of science and abandon those claims." One can hardly imagine a modern televangelist saying anything similar.

    And difficulty accepting facts is not limited to religious believers. Most people — including all those detectives outside the realm of fiction — are highly threatened by challenges to their worldviews, religious, scientific, political, or otherwise. As Thomas Kuhn has shown, hard-nose, empirical, highly trained scientists will resist challenges to their paradigms — their worldviews, their stories — until the facts are simply too overwhelming to ignore. Many well-intentioned, thoughtful scientists die never accepting the new paradigms of a Newton, Darwin, Einstein, or Bohr. We today pity those poor scientists trapped in their antiquated paradigms but only because we have had sufficient time to adjust to the new paradigms. Note, however, that 100 years after Einstein's first papers most people still have no idea what we was talking about and wouldn't believe it if they did. Most people are still locked into very different stories that are totally challenged by the notion that the rules of the universe are relative to one's position and trajectory in space/time. Rational analysis and verifiable experimentation seldom hold against a powerful story. Indeed, the genius of a Newton or Einstein is expressed mostly in their abilities to envision a new story — a new paradigm — that accommodates more facts better than the old stories did. It's the story that makes sense of the facts, not the other way around. Usually, the intuitive story comes before the math and the experiments. It's telling to me that Fisher quotes a couple of theologians to make this point:

    Neither "the facts" nor our "experience" come to us in discrete and disconnected packets which simply await the appropriate moral principle to be applied. Rather, they stand in need of some narrative which can bind the facts of our experience together into a coherent pattern and it is thus in virtue of that narrative that our abstracted rules, principles, and notions gain their full intelligibility. (Goldberg 242)

    The Laws of Motion came after Newton watched an apple fall from a tree, and E=MC2 simply cleaned up the details of Einstein imagining what it would be like to cruise through deep space alongside some light. Story first.

    And once we have a new story, then we tend to see only those facts that fit the story. It is much easier for most people to challenge and dismiss a few facts than to challenge and dismiss the world stories upon which they have built their personal and professional lives. If your eternal salvation depends upon your story, then you'd better ignore a few inconvenient and incongruous facts. Or find a way to accommodate those facts. It's much easier to fold a sinner such as Donald Trump into your existing stories — Trump as King David — than to dismiss him as a really poor president. Whichever way you see Trump, the story is key, and facts are folded into the story and either accepted and kept or discredited and discarded.


    •  Fisher, Walter R. “Narration as a Human Communication Paradigm: The Case of Public Moral Argument.” Communication Monographs, doi:10.1080/03637758409390180.
    • "Narrative Paradigm." Wikipedia: The Free Encyclopedia, Wikimedia Foundation, Inc. Accessed 20 Sep. 2020.
    • "Narrative Theory." Psychology Wiki, Fandom, Inc., Accessed 20 Sep. 2020.

    Sunday, April 19, 2020

    Hermes: Covid-19 and Story

    So my last post left me in a relativistic muddle, unable to choose among competing localized epistemologies, or seemingly so. In their introduction to Serres, Harari and Bell say that Serres claims that all epistemologies are equivalent, but they do not quite define what they mean by equivalent, so I feel quite free to go off on my own to make sense of it for me. That's probably what I would have done anyway, even if they had provided a definition. I really do read to learn what I think, not so much to learn what others think. It's one of the things that makes me such a poor scholar.

    Anyway, in what sense are localized epistemologies equivalent? Does this mean, for instance, that epidemiology as a system of knowing is equivalent to conspiracy theories about the Democrats undermining the Trump administration in terms of understanding and responding to Covid-19? I can think of some ways these two localized epistemologies are equivalent.

    First, I think all our systems of knowing and believing are made up by us. We each create our own peculiarly localized epistemology. We each have a mind with an idiosyncratic set of affordances that enable us to perceive and understand the world and ourselves in an individual manner. We each sit at the center of our own worldview, and that view is as distinct as a fingerprint.

    But just like a fingerprint, almost all of our minds are recognizable as human minds with contours, lines, and whorls that echo from mind to mind, print to print. We are at once both unique and similar, same but different. This is in large part because we do not create a worldview out of thin air. We are all born into amazingly rich physical and cultural environments with which we spend a lifetime exchanging energy, matter, information, and organization. This dynamic interaction with a physical and cultural environment is just as necessary for the development of a way of knowing as is the network of neurons in our brains and through our bodies. In fact, the environment may be more important than my nervous system — the physical and cultural environments can exist and function quite well without my individual mindset; however, my mindset cannot exist without the environment. Of course, the environment needs some minds — and apparently, the more and more varied, the better — but the scales of importance tip decidedly in favor of the group mind embodied in the Earth, just as my mind is embodied in my body. My mind/body must exchange with the Earth's mind/body, or it is stillborn.

    So all epistemologies are created by each of us individually in our dances with groups of other people and with the Earth, and all of us create multiple ways of knowing. We have, of course, intellectual ways of knowing, but we also have physical ways — body-knowledge — emotional ways, spiritual ways, and so on. And each of these large domains of knowledge have multiple knowledges. Even the hard-headed, exacting sciences have multiple knowledges. Currently, physicists have 5 main string theories, and Brian Greene's book The Hidden Reality explores 9 different kinds of multiverses, and a whole host of other scientists believe that these theories are bunk. The truth is that all of us have multiple ways of knowing reality. We are not Mr. Spock, totally locked into one coherent, logical, and efficient system of knowing, though many of us want to cultivate that ideal. Perhaps amoeba have one system of knowledge, but we humans have multiple.

    Saying that each cultural formation or knowledge system is equivalent to any other is not the same as saying that I can't believe any of them. I can believe, and I should. The entire process of maturation as an adult can be summed for me as a process of developing and practicing a range of localized epistemologies, belief systems, stories that allow me to interact with my environment in ways that sustain and enrich both myself and my environments — in some ways, the two are equivalent, certainly complementary: I am my environment. We are our environment. I need a story, or a constellation, to make sense of my journey with my environment.

    Of course, like most of us, I was born into a group of stories and given a language, land, family, market, state, church, and school with and within which to speak and adapt those stories. For whatever reason, I was able — again, like many of us — to examine my inherited stories and to find some of them wanting. I've spent the rest of my life changing my stories, looking for a new constellation, and I've been fortunate enough to create a few new stories using many of the old stars but a few new ones and a slightly different contour. But I cannot fool myself, here: I'm still basically a Southeastern US Pentecostal Christian, and my constellations still lie in the same quadrant of the sky as that of my father. If an ancient Egyptian were to view my belief systems, my constellations, they would hardly see a difference between my father's constellations and mine, and they would point to a very different sky quadrant to show their own very different constellations. A good childhood church friend of mine who lived consciously as an atheist always persisted in calling himself a Christian. He explained that all of his cultural values and ideas — even his science and reason — came out of western, Christian culture; therefore, he could hardly be anything else. Of all the people I've known, this fellow was the most like Mr. Spock.

    So a major part of becoming a viable human is writing stories with and within your environments, or finding constellations with the stars you can gather. The issue is do I create simple, closed stories or complex, open stories? My father has created a closed, simple story. I have created an open, complex story — rather, I'm creating an open story, for an open story is never finished. Of course, the issue is more nuanced than I'm writing it here. My father's stories are more open than I make them out to be, and mine are more closed. I'm exaggerating our differences to make a point, but all our stories are open and closed, so we differ in degree rather than kind. My father has been fairly open to new stories about race, though his stories about gender, politics, and most of all, religion are closed. Of course, he's also 89. Perhaps my stories will be closing by then. While I'm more open on those issues, I do have my own closed stories. The music of the 60s and 70s was the best, the ONLY music. Rap and hip-hop will never measure up. See? I can be a fundamentalist still.

    A complex, open story implies several attitudes and beliefs. First, an open story implies, as Serres seems to, that no story is complete. No story covers it all. No constellation uses all the stars. No system of knowledge sums up all you need to know about Covid-19. Something else always lies outside the explanatory capabilities of any system, as Goedel's Incompleteness Theorem demonstrates with a system as seemingly closed and airtight as arithmetic (Yes, I'm extending Goedel's rather exacting work outside the field of mathematics and likely unfairly, but I'm comfortable with applying his insight to reality in general). As Paul Cilliers' writing demonstrates to my satisfaction, any system of understanding, any model of reality, that we develop leaves some aspect of reality out so that we can grasp and manipulate the model, and we can not know beforehand if the omitted knowledge is important or not. For instance, the conspiracy stories of Covid-19 have some information that my scientific stories omit, and I cannot say beforehand and with certainty if that information is useful or not. I confess that I am not overly concerned about some conspiracy story being correct and containing useful, actionable information and insight, but I cannot be certain.

    Then, a more open story understands that its meaning does not emerge solely from the static, internal arrangement of its own stars — though that organization is vitally important — rather, the meaning of a story also emerges from the dynamic interaction of its internal energy, information, and organization with the environment in a continuous give-and-take that changes both stories, sometimes for the better, sometimes for the worse. Any given story can pollute its environment as well as enrich it. Indeed, all stories will pollute some environments and enrich others. The story of oxygen's emergence some two and a half billion years ago, flipping our atmosphere from an anaerobic state to an aerobic state, looks like enrichment to us aerobic creatures, but for the primitive anaerobic microbes that dominated Earth's ecosystem before the flip, oxygen looked very much like pollution, very deadly pollution. It was something like dropping bleach into a petri dish full of Covid-19 — end of story. I'm certain that some organisms will benefit from our current pollution of the Earth and that some aeons hence they may be telling a happy story, but it won't be our story.

    A more open story recognizes the value of other stories and will exchange energy and information with those other stories. An open story is resilient rather than rigid. It maintains a core identity through multiple retellings around different campfires. For instance, my Bible is resilient, my father's is rigid. My father is fond of saying, "The Bible says what it means, and means what it says." And of course, my father knows what it means, and I, apparently, do not. This brittle understanding of knowledge led me to initially reject any reading of the Bible, and it has taken me a good long while to learn that the Bible is far more resilient than my father understands it. I find many brittle stories about Covid-19. This is very unfortunate.

    Finally (at least for this post), all stories have some value in some context. Conversely, all stories are stupid and inappropriate in some context. The key test for me is actionable knowledge. Does this story, this understanding, lead me to action that increases well-being or decreases it in this situation? For instance, does the story that Covid-19 is being overblown by the Democrats and the liberal media to undermine the Trump administration lead me to any action that increases the well-being of my community and me soon? I think it does not. Could it be useful fodder for idle speculation over dinner with friends and family after the pandemic fades? Possibly, though the fascination might be short-lived for me and could very well lead to a family argument. Could it be the basis of a wildly popular action novel and movie starring Tom Cruise and Alec Baldwin? Hmm … now there's a context that begins to make sense to me. So in some contexts, I can do something useful with the knowledge contained in the conspiracy story. In other contexts, I can do nothing useful.

    So I can choose from a range of stories available to me, and I must choose as no choice is also a choice. I must engage the world to some degree and in some fashion to exchange energy, matter, information, and organization, and I engage it through some story — my story — knowing full well that I might be wrong. I have chosen a story grounded in a scientific system of knowledge about Covid-19 that I believe will give the best chances of preserving the well-being of my family, my community, and me. However, as our lockdown continues, I am expanding my stories to include those grounded in economic and spiritual knowledge systems. More hard choices will lie ahead, and the more knowledge systems I can bring to bear, the better.

    Saturday, April 18, 2020

    Hermes: Covid-19 and Power

    In my last post, I began writing my way through Harari and Bell's introduction to Serres. I listed the premise and 5 core theorems that they glean from decades of Serres' writings, and I applied, way too briefly, the epistemological issues of Theorem 1 to our current struggle with Covid-19. My takeaway at the moment is that world knowledge is a ragged patchwork of different knowledge systems and points of view, sometimes overlapping and sometimes totally disconnected, and each vying to position itself as the dominant system. Each wants to be the one, true theory of everything, if not for everyone, then for at least one subset of beings. Trying to understand something as complex as Covid-19 requires access to all these knowledge domains, a Herculean task, but necessary for, as Serres says it, "any encyclopedia that omits any of the multiple dimensions of knowledge is a false encyclopedia at the very moment of its realization" (xvi).

    I accept up front that no encyclopedic knowledge exists, certainly not within the mind of any one human such as I. Such knowledge requires God, and I don't have access to that encyclopedia, though I know people who believe that they do. Anyway, given that I must make decisions about Covid-19, then the more knowledge domains that I can bring to bear on my decisions, the better. I know that I tend to privilege some knowledge domains over others — in the case of Covid-19, I favor scientific and technological domains in general and epidemiology in particular — but all domains hold some actionable knowledge that may be of benefit. In short, I accept the truism that the more I know, then the better decisions I can make. I also accept that I will never know enough to make decisions with absolute certainty. Complexity does not allow certainty, only probability. Probability is woven into reality somehow. Harari and Bell summarize it this way, quoting Serres' collection of essays in Hermes V:
    "To see on a large scale, to be in full possession of a multiple, and sometimes connected intellection" means to understand that the foundation of knowledge presupposes neither one philosophical discourse nor one scientific discourse, but only regional epistemologies. (xiv)
    Regional epistemologies leaves us with something of a social and political mess: we have multiple, local ways of knowing that have competing rules and stories, and as they develop and assert themselves, they inevitably come into conflict with other local ways of knowing, many, if not most, claiming to be the one, true theory of everything. Any one, true theory of everything — whether religious, social, political, or scientific — has great difficulty tolerating opposing theories, which are, from their points of view, at best wrong and at worst threatening. Threats must be subjugated or destroyed.

    This brings me to Theorems 2 and 3 of Harari and Bell:
    • Theorem 2: Any theoretical exigency is inextricably linked to a moral or political exigency. (Theory always borders on terror -- something that has always been known in academic circles that engage exclusively in theory.) From this follow two corollaries: (xvii)
      • 2.1: A philosophy is not purely and simply the result of a free choice ; it always results from a double necessity, theoretical on the one hand, moral and political on the other hand. (xvii)
      • 2.2: The theory of science is akin to the theory of domination. Knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is always finalized by political practice : "To know is to engage in a practice implicated in the ideology of command and obedience." (xvii)
    • Theorem 3: There is no hierarchy of cultural formations. "It is not, it has never been the case that science is on one side and myth on the other. In a given myth, millennial tradition, or barbarous thought, the proportion of relevant science is probably as great as the proportion of mythology that envelops any given science." From which one may draw the following corollaries: (xix)
      • 3. 1: Science is a cultural formation equivalent to any other. Thus one passes from the cultural formation called "science" to any and all cultural formations. (xix)
      • 3.2: There is no "natural" hierarchy within the sciences. At any given moment, one scientific discourse may fall silent to give another scientific discourse or mythology a chance to speak. (xx)
    Whatever belief or knowledge system we hold -- and I hold belief and knowledge to be similar concepts, as Serres helps me explain in Theorem 3 -- our tendency is to champion our own system and to disparage or destroy through assimilation, argument, law, and violence other systems. We find it very difficult to say, "Well, this is true for me, and my next door neighbors are free to believe as they wish." We want to surround ourselves with like-minded and remove those who are different. Moreover, those who hold to a one, true theory of everything tend to regard opposing theories as imminent threats to be ignored at best or forcefully opposed.

    Even if we are liberal-minded enough or confident enough in our own systems to be willing to engage, understand, and co-exist with other systems, times of great stress which force a public decision can reveal fault lines among different knowledge systems. Covid-19 has done this.

    Different epistemologies lead different people and groups to formulate different responses for this pandemic — everything from doing nothing to total isolation until we have a cure and vaccine. For instance, if you see Covid-19 as a judgement by God on a wicked people, then you will have a very different response to the pandemic than if you see Covid-19 as a naturally occurring and overly aggressive pathogen, or as a conspiracy by the Chinese to attack the United States, or as an economic issue that threatens to disrupt the world's leading economy. All of these different responses play out from very different knowledge systems, and I can see these different responses playing out around the world, though most modern countries do not seem to be as conflicted as the United States, but that may be because I do not see those other countries as well as I see the US.

    The genuine need to respond to an existential threat forces people to make choices, usually based on their view of the world. For instance, if you think that personal power and economic health trump all other considerations, then you will make one set of choices. If you think, on the other hand, that a scientific approach to public health is primary, then you will make different choices. Some of those choices may overlap, but many won't, and those that don't will make plain the different knowledge systems among people.

    Unfortunately, and especially in a time of crisis such as we face with Covid-19, people must make decisions and take action. Those individuals and groups with the most power will make decisions for themselves and others, and it will be painfully obvious that "any theoretical exigency is inextricably linked to a moral or political exigency." If people are of a like mind — if they share a common knowledge system — then these decisions by leaders can match the group well (Note that I'm not saying that the decisions will be correct, only that they will fit the group well). However, in a pluralistic society such as the US and many western countries, where people adhere to very different knowledge systems, coherent decision-making and action becomes problematic. Even if everyone is acting in good faith, conflicts will emerge among the differing world views. To prevent chaos and to enable action, coherence and adherence will be enforced by whoever has the most power, but not everyone will like it, and for many, decisions made and actions taken — or not taken — will appear wrong-headed and counterproductive, even disastrous.

    This is where I am and where I think many in America are. Some of us believe that the decisions and actions of the Trump administration have been disastrous and wrong-headed, some of us don't. Some of us think the governor of Michigan, Gretchen Whitmer, has been too stringent in her stay-at-home orders, and some of us think she has not gone far enough. My 89-year-old father believes that my 87-year-old mother's nursing home is being grossly unreasonable in stopping him from visiting his wife of seventy years. Never mind that he has been basically free-range during the pandemic, in part because he still mostly believes that the pandemic is being over-played by the Democrats as a devious attempt to undermine the Trump presidency. His behavior and mindset do not match mine.

    Needless to say, I find it difficult to discuss Covid-19 with my father and to agree on a public course of action.  I present my scientific facts, which he largely dismisses, he presents his conspiracy facts, which I largely dismiss, and we get nowhere. It is, of course, incredibly easy for us both to dismiss the other as unreasonable, and here's the rub, from our different "regional epistemologies", from our different little islands of understanding, the other is unreasonable. We don't see the same facts, and what common facts we do share, we don't arrange the same way. Our epistemologies work in different ways to create different world views. We both look in the sky and see different constellations. We are both genuinely confused and annoyed that the other cannot see our constellations.

    Moreover, Serres claims that there is "no hierarchy of cultural formations." Rather, "Science is a cultural formation equivalent to any other", and indeed, there is "no 'natural' hierarchy within the sciences. At any given moment, one scientific discourse may fall silent to give another scientific discourse or mythology a chance to speak." If I believe this, then I cannot claim any natural or inherent superiority of my scientific point of view over my father's conspiracy point of view. I probably shouldn't even use the pejorative term conspiracy to label his point of view, though that is what it seems to me. Dad's constellations are equivalent to my constellations, mine to his, and we have both believed our own constellations for so long that they seem natural and self-evident.

    Well, I seem to have gotten myself into quite a relativistic muddle here, and with power thrown into the mix, I can see great potential for struggle and injury on all sides, just as I see in the daily news. Is there a way out for me? I think so, but this post is long already, so I will write about telling Covid-19 stories tomorrow.

    Saturday, April 4, 2020

    Hermes: Covid-19 and Enough Knowledge

    So I'm being given an object lesson in connectivity, exchange, and emergence, though not the one I want. Still, the pandemic is here -- I may as well think about it. I'll consider the virus in light of my readings through Michel Serres' collection of essays, Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy.

    I start with the introduction to the book by Josue V. Harari and David F. Bell who attempt to outline through a list of theorems Serres' program for exploring his primary thesis ("Introduction: Journal a plusieurs voies"). According to Harari and Bell,  Serres' thesis, first noted by Rene Girard, is simple: to demonstrate the passages and connections between the exact sciences with their regime of mathematical demonstrations and rigorous observation and experimentation and the human sciences with their more open literatures, myths, and discussions. Harari and Bell list 5 theorems that they glean from decades of Serres' writings and which, they say, suggests the contours of a program of philosophical study that Serres pursued for much of his life:
    • Theorem 1: In order for there to be an encyclopedic totality, this totality must be constituted as a theory providing access not only to a field of knowledge but to the world as well. (An encyclopedia that omits any of the multiple dimensions of knowledge is a false encyclopedia at the very moment of its realization: this explains, in Serres's view, the repeated failure of all philosophers of totality.) (xvi)
    • Theorem 2: Any theoretical exigency is inextricably linked to a moral or political exigency. (Theory always borders on terror -- something that has always been known in academic circles that engage exclusively in theory.) From this follow two corollaries: (xvii)
      • 2.1: A philosophy is not purely and simply the result of a free choice ; it always results from a double necessity, theoretical on the one hand, moral and political on the other hand. (xvii)
      • 2.2: The theory of science is akin to the theory of domination. Knowledge, including scientific knowledge, is always finalized by political practice : "To know is to engage in a practice implicated in the ideology of command and obedience." (xvii)
    • Theorem 3: There is no hierarchy of cultural formations. "It is not, it has never been the case that science is on one side and myth on the other. In a given myth, millennial tradition, or barbarous thought, the proportion of relevant science is probably as great as the proportion of mythology that envelops any given science." From which one may draw the following corollaries: (xix)
      • 3. 1: Science is a cultural formation equivalent to any other. Thus one passes from the cultural formation called "science" to any and all cultural formations. (xix)
      • 3.2: There is no "natural" hierarchy within the sciences. At any given moment, one scientific discourse may fall silent to give another scientific discourse or mythology a chance to speak. (In some cases mythology may even express or explain the emergence of a new field of knowledge. This happens for instance in the nineteenth century with the emergence of topology.) (xx)
    • Theorem 4: "Science is the totality of the world's legends. The world is the space of their inscription. To read and to journey are one and the same act." One must therefore conceive of a philosophy that would no longer be founded on the classification and ordering of concepts and disciplines, but that would set out from an epistemology of journeys, forging new relations between man and the world" (xxi, xxii)
    • Theorem 5: Order is not the law of things but their exception. (xxvii)
    I find their outline of Serres' thesis and program very helpful, especially since I have not read as much of Serres as Harari and Bell appear to have (much of Serres' writing has not been translated from French to English, and my French is inadequate to the task), but this is a great deal to unpack. After all, Serres spent much of his life unpacking it (he died last year, 2019, at age 88). I don't think I have that long.

    Fortunately, I have Covid-19 to help. Lucky me.

    Harari and Bell start their overview of Serres' program with an epistemological issue: the problematic relationship between knowledge and the world, or reality. Humans seem to want a coherent, simple world and knowledge of that world, science included, yet everywhere we see evidence of multiple views of the world, and if we travel enough, we see multiple views of the world. This multiplicity disturbs us. We will argue over different views, and we will attack, conquer, and kill over different views. We might want to think that science is above this fray, but Harari and Bell point out that it isn't. Science, too, tends to believe in the mythical one Theory of Everything, the big TOE, that holds in all the universe, at all scales, and explains everything -- and by extension, gives us power over all things if we can just understand the explanation. Harari and Bell explain science's buy-in to the one world view this way:
    Until recently, science had convinced us that in the classification of the spaces of knowledge of the local was included in the global ... Clearly this assumption implied a homogeneous space of knowledge ruled entirely by a single scientific or universal truth that guaranteed the validity of the operation of passage. Such a space differs qualitatively from a more complex space in which the passage from one local singularity to another would always require an arduous effort. Rather than a universal truth, in the more complex case one would have a kind of truth that functions only in the context of local pockets, a truth that is always local, distributed haphazardly in a plurality of spaces. The space of knowledge, indeed, space itself, would not be homogeneous or rigidly bound together, it would be "in tatters." (xii)
    Serres, they say, rejects a simple view of reality and embraces a multiplicity of both reality and knowledge. Harari and Bell quote Serres from his book Hermes V:
    No, the real is not cut up into regular patterns, it is sporadic, spaces and times with straits and passes . . .. Therefore I assume there are fluctuating tatters; I am looking for the passage among these complicated cuttings. I believe, I see that the state of things consists of islands sown in archipelagoes on the noisy, poorly-understood disorder of the sea, ... the emergence of sporadic rationalities that are not evidently nor easily linked. Passages exist, I know, I have drawn some of them in certain works using certain operators . . .. But I cannot generalize, obstructions are manifest and counter-examples abound. (23-24)
    There is no Big TOE. Or to say it more comprehensively: there is no God's Big TOE. Actually, I'm not willing to say that in any absolute terms. Perhaps there is a Big TOE and perhaps it is God's Big TOE after all, but I am unable to know it in any encyclopedic sense. I can't say what Serres' final judgment of God's Big TOE might be, but he seems to suggest that he thought it highly unlikely. Rather, reality itself is too complex for a Big TOE: "the real is not cut up into regular patterns, it is sporadic, spaces and times with straits and passes." Serres clearly sees an issue between reality and the models of reality that we humans like to construct through our various knowledge regimes.

    Knowledge can be thought of as a model-making activity: we try to capture reality in words, numbers, and images that we can share with others and that enable us to extend our authority over the real. Both the religious and scientific minded, in the West at least, tend to believe that the world was made for us and that we were given dominion over it, and both our religions and our technology have provided ample evidence to support that belief. Just like Sauron in The Lord of the Rings, we want one ring, one Theory of Everything, to rule them all and in the darkness bind them. We want one model of reality by which to exercise our dominion over the world. To my mind, this is the heart of fundamentalism -- political fundamentalism, economic fundamentalism, religious fundamentalism, social fundamentalism, philosophical fundamentalism, all fundamentalisms. Fundamentalism claims that there is only one reality, that there is only one valid way to view and understand reality, and that all other worldviews are false -- or in today's parlance, fake news. Serres rejects fundamentalism. So do I.

    Covid-19 helps me explain why.

    We -- by that I mean the world, not just the United States -- we are confronted with an enemy that is invisible to all our senses at the human scale. It is, then, demonic. Fortunately, science and technology have exposed this demon for many of us, but millions of us still don't see it, or hear it, or feel it, smell it, taste it. For these people, Covid-19 is demonic or a hoax, depending on the knowledge regime, the island, they inhabit. And lest those of you on the scientific archipelago are feeling smug because you follow Dr. Fauci and the experts at WHO, know that your knowledge regime is no less disconnected and peculiar. For some of you, Covid-19 is seen from a den crowded with screaming, schooless children who are driving you insane. That is a very different understanding of Covid-19 from those who see the virus from a hospital emergency room in tattered protective gear and with too many patients in the ragged process of dying or recovering.

    Each of us constructs a model of the virus based on our own particular knowledge regime. That model comes from the reality we confront, our existing beliefs about reality, and the interactions between reality and our minds. Each of us will work hard to see the virus in light of what we already know, and each of us will find evidence -- hard facts -- that fit our model of reality and make sense to us. All of us will struggle to form a simple model that explains and gives us control over the virus, whether we see a biological agent run amok, a punishment by God for our wickedness, or a plot by the Chinese (or North Koreans, or Democrats, or whoever) to undermine our economy or Trump's re-election or both.

    But Covid-19 ain't simple, nor is our understanding of it simple. Both are complex; however, the contagion itself is more complex than our understanding of it because models of something (knowledge of something) are always less complex and more simple than the thing itself. The best, the most complete and accurate, model of something is always the thing itself. Serres says in his 1977 article La Naissance de la physique dans le texte de Lucrece, "The best model is the thing itself, or the object as it exists" (202, translated by Harari & Bell). However, we cannot grasp mentally or physically the thing itself, so we make models that we can grasp and understand, but the model always reduces and excludes aspects of the thing itself, as Paul Cilliers explains to my satisfaction (see his article "Knowledge, limits, and boundaries"), and we cannot predict how the aspects reduced or left out change the behavior of the model and distort our knowledge of the thing itself. But they do change and distort. Thus, it is impossible to know anything completely with full fidelity, certainly not something as complex as Covid-19.

    Am I suggesting, then, that knowledge is useless (if you can't know it all, then you can't know anything) or that any knowledge system is as good as any other (everybody is entitled to their own opinion, as my students like to claim)?


    Both those claims are nihilistic and relativistic bullshit that lead to insanity and death. In the face of existential crises such as Covid-19, some knowledge is better than no knowledge, and some knowledges are better than other knowledges. In the apocryphal words of George Box, "All models are wrong, but some are useful."

    Of course, a little knowledge can be dangerous, and we should always strive to gain more knowledge -- especially knowledge from outside our usual knowledge system, but we will all make decisions from positions of relative ignorance in terms of Covid-19.

    So here's what I learn from Serres, and from Harari and Bell's interpretations of him: I will never know all there is to know about Covid-19, but despite that lack of knowledge, I must generate as much sense of the virus as I can, because I must be able to take action. To my mind, some sense of where I'm going is better than no sense at all. I want for my family, my community, and me to make it through the pandemic in good health. The more I know, then the better decisions I can make.

    Given that I cannot know all there is to know about Covid-19, I must seek other knowledges, often from people I do not know. In the case of epidemics, I look first to epidemiologists. These people have studied plagues and contagions way more than I have, and I have faith that they want to stop the pandemic as much as I do. I access these people through media channels that I trust to tell me just what they say -- no more and no less -- so that I can expand my own knowledge and make my own decisions. I test these people for actionable knowledge. Does this new knowledge help me to make good decisions?

    Even as I am taking action, I continue to look for new information. I look to the experiences of others who have already gone through the pandemic and either did well or poorly. Both have lessons to teach me. I read a case study of two side-by-side Italian provinces in the hard-hit Lombardy region, Lodi and Bergamo, that took different responses to the pandemic and had two very different trajectories. Lodi began social distancing on Feb 23 and Bergamo not until two weeks later. At first, the infection trajectories were almost identically upward, but within two weeks, Lodi's trajectory began to flatten while Bergamo continued its exponential rise. Social distancing seems to work. I don't even have to know why to know that it works. That's sufficient knowledge for me to take action.

    I also seek knowledge outside the scientific knowledge domain. I look to spiritual, social, political, and economic knowledge domains. While I might privilege scientific knowledge in this case, I cannot ignore other knowledges.

    I also reject some knowledges. First, I reject knowledge of those who refuse to seek knowledge outside themselves. Politicians or business leaders, for instance, who systematically remove and undermine scientific and technical expertise from an administration and who surround themselves with sycophants are left with too narrow and simplistic view of any situation, and to my mind, that results in poor decisions. Some leaders today have consistently viewed Covid-19 only through the only frameworks that they value, and they, thus, make decisions based only on considerations about how an action will affect their personal political power, economic profit, and social popularity. When confronted with a challenging situation, such people cannot rise above their own limited points of view to craft a more comprehensive plan of action.

    This unwillingness -- perhaps inability -- to seek knowledge beyond oneself is a most damaging trait for anyone, but especially for leaders. Covid-19 makes that painfully obvious to me.

    Sunday, March 15, 2020

    Hermes: The God of Exchange and Emergence

    I'm reading through Michel Serres' collection of essays entitled Hermes: Literature, Science, and Philosophy (Johns Hopkins University Press, 1982), and I need to write it out. It's a slow way to read that I don't use with most works, but Serres is one of those thinkers that I must take my time with, and I've always been rewarded.

    What attracts me immediately about the book is the focus on exchange between domains that are usually separated: literature, science, and philosophy. Of course, you can throw economics, religion, and most any other domain into the mix, and Serres seems to do so whenever it suits his purposes. By its nature, exchange opens any domain to other domains. Moreover, regular and systematic exchange within a domain is a large part of what defines that domain. That's the nature of exchange: the pathway by which  entities move energy, matter, information, and organization among or within themselves. Or perhaps a better way to say it is that exchange is the way that entities facilitate the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. And don't think of flows as laminar and unidirectional. Nature provides for plenty of backwash, misdirection, redirection, and resistance. Flow is not simple.

    The Greek god Hermes is the dominant agent standing at the crossroads, gateway, or bridge of the points of connection across which exchanges are made. Hermes is the god of exchange. Whenever two atoms exchange electrons, there is Hermes. Whenever two Instagram users swap memes, there is Hermes. Whenever people share bread, there is Hermes. Uhhh .. and Jesus, who has clear hermetic properties. Connectivity means exchange, and networks and rhizomes are mapped by their exchanges, their points of connection across which things flow, back and forth. Hermes, then, is the God of Emergence, presiding at all the points of connection and exchange which enable the emergence of entities, from ions through societies to galaxies. Hermes is one busy dude. I suspect he is worthy of serious consideration.

    The second attraction for me is how Serres explores the connections and exchanges between the humanities and the sciences. As the editors of this volume explain it:
    There exists a passage (or passages) between the exact sciences on the one hand and the sciences of man on the other. This thesis in itself is not new. Since the pre-Socratics and Plato, there have always been attempts to link these two domains, to overcome an unfruitful division. (Harari and Bell xi)
    It seems to me that the principle of exchange runs through all domains and through all our systems for modeling and expressing our knowledge of those domains: natural language, number, music, image, statues, scale models both real and computer, and so forth. And exchange scales. This blog post, for instance, is composed of letters which exchange data to combine and form words, which exchange data to form sentences, which exchange data to form paragraphs, to form posts, to form a blog, to form a blogosphere, to form ... well, you get the idea. Numbers do the same, exchanging information and organization to enable the emergence of new entities at multiple scales. Bodies do the same: particles to atoms to molecules to cells to organs to me to family to community to ... well. Understanding any domain through words corresponds to understanding any domain through numbers. Words and numbers are not the same. Each has its own strengths and abilities, but they each use exchange and connectivity to combine and recombine in ways that generate and move information and organization and that describe matter, energy, information, and organization. We can do words about words, numbers about numbers, and words about numbers and numbers about words.

    Image: © NRAO Outreach/T. Jarrett (IPAC/Caltech);
    B. Saxton, NRAO/AUI/NSF
    So there are passages from domain to domain -- from science to literature, for instance. Energy and information and organization flow across the domains, but the exchanges are not easy and seldom obvious -- in part, because the exchanges always require a translation. According to the editors of the book, Serres is suspicious of "a homogeneous space of knowledge ruled entirely by a single scientific or universal truth" (xiii). Rather, for Serres, the space of knowledge and, indeed, physical space itself are in tatters, with pockets or islands of coherence and truth scattered about and with treacherous passages from island to island. Anyone who has travelled much in an archipelago of islands such as I have in the Bahamas and Caribbean will understand this fractal image: each island has its own character, just reminiscent of the last island, but too different to make the similarities reliable, and the passages from island to island are fraught with currents, eddies, tides, rocks, and sand bars that make travel risky for all but the most experienced.

    Fortunately, Serres is well trained in sciences, literature, and philosophy, and he is fun to follow. And that's what I'll do for awhile. I want to see where Hermes leads us.