Saturday, November 28, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Relational Bodies and Houses

Preiser says that complex systems must be understood as a nexus of nonlinear, dynamic relationships. In a previous post, I explained this second of Preiser's five characteristics of complexity this way:  

Complex systems are constituted relationally both inside and out, and the relations between internal components and the environment are dynamic, manifold, and nonlinear, which means that output is not directly proportional to input. The behavior of interactions is to some degree unpredictable and uncertain and functions in a state of asymmetrical non-equilibrium. The survival of complex systems depends on this nonlinear relationality.

So what does this mean for thinking about myself or my home?

It means first that the typical definitions of myself are limited -- not necessarily wrong, but not exhaustive, either. The usual way of knowing a thing such as myself is to look for defining characteristics -- features that I have that distinguish me from you, for instance, or from them. We have numerous labels for those characteristics such as weight, height, race, voting preferences, gender, occupation, family, location, age, and so on. We can assign values to each of those labels: pounds or kilograms (the particular scale employed matters little here), inches, colors, political parties, years, and various types. If we aggregate those characteristics, then we identify and define Keith Hamon.

This is the classical scientific approach to knowing Keith Hamon: break him down into whatever characteristics are relevant to the current discussion (health, commerce, politics), assign appropriate values to these characteristics, look for the patterns of cause and effect in those characteristics, and then, if you are clever and focused, manage Keith Hamon better: correct his illnesses and insure he buys certain things and votes for certain candidates.

This is an extremely powerful approach to knowledge about the world in order to control the world. We record the tokens of an individual. For instance, I got the brown hair color token -- at least until a few years ago, when I had to exchange it for the gray hair color token. Either way, I had a specific token, a thing, a chunk of knowledge that in the correct conversation could be used to manage me better. If something was wrong with my health or economic status, I or some employed expert could examine my tokens, determine what is amiss, and recommend a course of corrective action.

This stuff works. The problem, Preiser says, is that because of its efficacy, people assume that this is the only approach to knowledge. They become blind to other knowledge and to the limits of their own knowledge, especially when confronting complex systems such as Keith Hamon, or even his house.

First, my characteristics are not discrete chunks of something, tokens, that I possess and can exchange; rather, they are the results of dynamic relationships among multiple entities. Even something as apparently simple as my hair color is the result of dynamic relationships. I don't have a brown hair token -- not really. Rather, I have the interplay of a range of hair follicles of different shades and colors, the ambient light (my hair is black at night and has auburn highlights when I've been in the Bahamas for a month -- I have the photos to prove it), the age of the rest of my body, the quality of the measuring devices (your eyes, a camera, mirrors), and the distance from me at the time of recording or viewing. My hair color, then, is a result of the interplay of all these entities and relationships which are constantly changing. Thus, the color of my hair is constantly changing. Perhaps not by much day to day, but it is changing.

Fortunately, my hair color is trivial to most discussions, and I can glibly answer brown when asked about it, as I did at my last driver's license examination. The license clerk accepted the brown token just as glibly, even though I could have legitimately answered gray, or better yet, salt and pepper. Still, salt and pepper was not one of her available designations, and since brown was still about as appropriate as gray, she recorded brown. I'm confident that when I use my license in the future, most people will accept the brown token, even if they notice that it's no longer quite accurate. It fits well enough.

And that is the problem for Preiser: understanding anything as a collection of characteristic tokens works well enough in the common light of day. Heck, it even works well enough to send astronauts to the Moon and back. Still, as we peer farther into the Universe and deeper into the atom, we find that this reductionist token approach works less and less well. There are no tokens. There are only dynamic relationships. What's worse, our ability to manage -- to predict and to determine -- those relationships becomes more and more uncertain. For instance, the color of my hair is a property -- in however small a part -- of the relationship between my hair follicles and the beating of my heart and flow of my blood and my current exposure to Sun flares. I don't know how it is related, but complexity thinking tells me it is. If I had powerful enough monitoring devices and the correct mathematics, I could perhaps trace those relationships and win a Nobel prize, but ... I don't.

We humans intuitively know this. We know that the reduction of knowledge to a handful of tokens is limited and limiting, but we've also learned that it is useful and powerful. It works. Mostly. It's the "mostly" that bothers Preiser and other complexity thinkers.

PenubagVector: Victor Blacus, CC BY-SA 3.0 
via Wikimedia Commons

It bothers me, too, especially when I encounter people who insist that reductionist science is the only way to knowledge. It's a bit like insisting that only the electromagnetic radiation that we can see, visible light, really counts, when it has become clear to us that visible light is a really small slice of what's available and that reducing reality to visible light is nonsensical -- even though focusing on the common light of day works very well for me most of the time. I must keep in mind that reductionist science is in great part responsible for my awareness of the wider spectrum of light.

But I'm also excited to think about how open complexity thinking is. Understanding something so specific as Keith Hamon or a chrysanthemum means exploring all the dynamic relationships and interactions between all the infinite parts starting with the human scale and moving inward toward the quantum scale and outward to the cosmic scale and mapping all those pathways and flows of energy, matter, information, and organization. It's an endless task, which means learning has no end. Well, that should occupy my time. And if I throw in trying to understand you as well, then it should keep me busy until I'm gone.

Tuesday, November 24, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Open House and Open Human

House and Human

I want to explore these five characteristics of complex systems that Preiser lists in her dissertation by comparing and contrasting the human body to a human house. This is mostly a matter of convenient proximity, as I have one of each. I start with the assumption that a house is more of a closed system and a human is more of an open system. In other words, on the sliding scale from simple system to complex system, a house skews to the simple and a human skews to the complex.


The first characteristic that Preiser mentions -- openness -- suggests that the contrast between house and human may not be as distinct as I imagined. As Preiser describes in her dissertation, the openness of a complex system both internally and externally involves us in the issue of boundaries both internal and external. I can, of course, see and model the boundaries of my own house, both inside and outside. I can also see the boundaries of my own body, mostly on the outside, but I know that the inside can be seen under special, medical conditions. I can in the common light of day point to both my house and my body and say, "That's my house. That's me." Most everyone will know what I mean and agree with me. I can walk through my house in the dark, and mostly the walls do not shift and the floors don't rock. My own body stays mostly inside my skin, a convenient and customary area of demarcation -- a boundary.

However, as soon as I begin shifting my gaze to see through a complexity lens, then both house and body begin to open, though I think the body opens more. As it happens, both my house and my body emerged in 1951, so we are the same age. The boundaries of my house were fixed at birth/building and have changed very little since then. The original owners had about 2,400 square feet under roof in 1951, and we -- the second owners -- still have the same. The room layout is about the same, though the surface features have changed with new paint, carpets, and furnishings. 

The boundaries of my body, on the other hand, have changed much, certainly more than my house. I have more cubic footage under roof than I did 69 years ago, and the contours are different -- though thankfully my head is still atop my shoulders, my heart in my chest, and my legs underneath me. Still, even the most casual observer will note that I am not what I was 69 years ago. I don't occupy the same space. My boundaries have shifted mostly due to the growth and rearrangement of my internal components, but also because of complex interactions both internally and externally. For 69 years -- or rather for 70 years, as my body was growing and interacting with its environment in the womb -- I have been open to energy, matter, information, and organization from outside. My entire body is a porous sponge that soaks up my environment. I process those inputs internally more or less well and feed back outputs into my environment. 

One scale down, my organs are doing the same. My heart is jostling with its neighboring lungs and stomach to get along (it mostly does) and to be a productive member of the society that I am. It takes in blood and oxygen for energy to do its work and feeds back the blood and energy to its community. Round and round, a constant, essential cycle. I can scale down through tissues, cells, molecules, and atoms as deeply as my science and technology will allow me to go, and it's the same openness all the way down or in.

One scale up, my family is doing the same. We jostle with each other to get along (we mostly do) and to be productive members of the society that we identify with (we mostly are). We take in and feedback in a constant, essential and necessary cycle. We gather often, exchanging information and energy that coordinates us and maintains our identity as a family. Again, I can scale up through clan, community, town, state, nation, world, and cosmos as far as my science and technology will allow me to go, and it's the same openness and flows all the way up or out.

However far I go inward or outward, I see the same flows of energy, matter, information, and organizational patterns back and forth through whatever boundaries I define. My skin is a convenient and handy boundary with physical and informational implications ( social, economic, and political). It's also the boundary that most people see and that photographs capture. It shapes my perception of myself and my world, and it shapes my environment's perception of and interactions with me, but it is by no means absolute. I leak inward and outward. Each scale in or out stains the next scale, and understanding my skin requires understanding those proximate scales. Complete understanding of my body requires understanding all the scales inward and outward -- an impossible task. I am infinite, and I could study me forever and still not get to the bottom of me.

Well, I did not expect to follow that line of sentences to that period, but I'll let them stand to see if they have legs.

It's easy for me to see that my body is a more open system than is my house. I tend to think of a house as protection from the outside -- a fixed, inviolable, somewhat sacred boundary, or barrier, between my family and the environment, but complexity thinking questions those assumptions. Similar to my body, my house is made up of different systems that manage the flows of energy, matter, information, and organization into and out of my home. My house has electrical, gas, and plumbing systems that bring energy and water in and take heat and waste out. My house has television, telephone, and network systems that exchange information between the inside and outside. During this pandemic I've been more conscious of ventilation in my home, and so I've opened my house's windows more often to allow a better exchange of air from outside to inside, but really, my house is old and was built back when insulation was not a priority, so it has long exchanged air with the outside.

If I look for them, then I can find lots of exchanges and flows between my house and the environment, and the interactions between my house and environment become even more open and complex when I think of my family and me as my house's microbiome. We live inside the guts of my house similarly to the way all those bacteria live in my guts, and the interactions between the microbiome and host are complex and critical. The interactions become even more complex if I extend the microbiome metaphor to the holobiont, which includes the host, the microbiome, and all the other species living in or around the host and that contribute in some way to the functioning, whether for good or ill, of the host. I can see my house as the host and me, my family, my friends, workers, insects, pets, furnishings, devices, cars, lawn mowers, and other things as the holobiont. I've now included my yard as a second, more porous skin of my house. Clearly, my house is not a closed, simple system, but open and complex.

Of course, there are differences between my body and my house, as the other characteristics of complexity are likely to reveal, but the lesson for me here is that if I start looking from the framework of complexity, then I find that there really are no absolutely closed systems. Even rocks and black holes exchange some energy, matter, information, and organization with the rest of us, though on very different time scales and perhaps in coarser chunks. Still, everything is part of the weave, the complexus ("what is woven together") as Morin calls it.

I have a couple of reservations about openness as I have described it. First, the proximate scales are more important to us and to our identity. The farther I focus my attention away from my human scale, then the more obscure I become and the more difficult it becomes to trace the influences of my human scale on the behaviors of the other scales. I'm fairly confident if I move one scale inward toward my internal organs or one scale outward toward my immediate social groups, but if I move much further, I start losing Keith Hamon. At the molecular level, I'm just a nebulous cloud. At the national level, I'm just a bland dot. Either way, I Keith Hamon recede into the background as just part of the general noise, and it becomes increasingly difficult to determine what impact, if any, my behaviors at the human scale are having on either the molecular scales I enclose or the national scales that enclose me. Whatever influences that might be attributed solely or even mostly to Keith Hamon at the human scale seem to diffuse and become muddy as they delta out or in to other scales. At some scale, I seem to lose myself. Once I move beyond a certain horizon, I dissolve into something else. My house does the same. If I focus too far in or too far out, I can no longer recognize my house. (You can illustrate this graphically with Google Earth). Later in her dissertation, Preiser talks about the critical importance of horizons and boundaries for knowledge.

Second, the term openness suggests superficially that complex systems are all open and not closed. This is not the case. Openness in the sense of allowing the flow of energy, matter, information, and organization across some boundary of a complex entity must be counterpoised by closure in the sense of restricting, modifying, or at least monitoring the flows across some boundary. Both opening and closing boundaries are absolutely necessary functions for the maintenance of the complex entity, for its internal interactions, and for its external interactions with its environment. Openness and closure work hand-in-hand in constant, irreconcilable dialog, and the life of my body and my house plays out in the dynamic tension between them. Both my house and my body have boundaries that keep the rain water out of the inside while allowing some water in. Failures of either function leads to catastrophes. A leaky roof or a burst pipe can allow water in where I don't want it and stop water where I do want it. When the plumbing breaks, the party is over. Most activity ceases until the boundaries are repaired. My body works the same. Drowning and extreme thirst both lead to catastrophes. I just googled oxygen poisoning and learned of oxygen toxicity. Apparently, this is a condition, though I've never heard of it. Too much oxygen, just like too little, is bad for my body. All life on Earth depends just as much on the flow of light from the Sun AND on the layers of atmosphere, seas, and vegetation that filter that light. The dialog between sunlight and sunshade is a constant interplay in our lives, and we absolutely need both.

Openness, then, must be managed -- either by the boundary itself (my skin or my roof) or by the complex entity that depends on the boundary (me, when I decide not to have that next beer). Both my house and my body need both more liberal impulses of openness and more conservative impulses of closure, and the mix of both depends on the internal interactions of the complex entity and the external interactions with the environment. The mix is never static; rather, it needs constant attention and care. That's the responsibility of life as a complex entity.

Finally, I have issues with the implications that some entities can be almost completely closed while some entities are almost completely open. I don't think any system in reality is ever completely open or closed. I don't think Reality itself is completely open or closed. We must always account for the interplay to some degree of interaction of the forces and components within a complex system and the forces and components without that system. Even a rock has something going inside, though it takes a very long time to emerge, and what happens inside the rock is dependent on what is happening outside the rock, between it and the environment. Over centuries, even a rock must learn to adjust to its new environment or cease to exist. A black hole may be the most nearly closed entity in all the Universe, and yet we are learning to tease information and energy from it -- if not matter or organization. And who knows what matter and organization may lie on the other side of that hole? So dialog and interplay it is all the way down, all the way out.

Well, I intended to write about all five characteristics of complex systems that Preiser lists in her dissertation, but I'm up against the boundary of post length. It appears that I will devote one post to each characteristic. So more next post about relationality, non-linearity and non-equilibrium.

Friday, November 20, 2020

The Problem of Complexity: Definition and Knowledge

I will write more about narrative theory, but I won't stop reading about complexity. I'm reading a dissertation by Rika Preiser entitled The Problem of Complexity: Re-Thinking the Role of Critique (Dec. 2012, Stellenbosch University). I find it most engaging, and I want to write about it before I forget what she says. I came across Preiser's work through her association with Paul Cilliers, who was her dissertation director until his untimely death 2011 July 31. I have read much of Cilliers, and quickly realized that he was helped greatly by two of his students Rika Preiser and Minka Woermann, both of whom I started reading. Their own work has helped me understand Cilliers. I suspect Preiser's dissertation will do the same.

In her dissertation, Preiser frames the problem of complexity in two ways:

  1. the problems with the definition of complexity, and
  2. the problems with observing, knowing, and describing complexity.
In other words, she poses an ontological question: what is complexity? and an epistemological question: how can we understand complexity?

The Idea(l)s of Complexity

Preiser insists that there is no unifying Theory of Complexity (24). At best, we can recognise a certain "economy of concepts" that arranges itself around the characteristics of complex systems to form a "commonplace structure of intelligibility" (38) that Edgar Morin calls a paradigm of complexity and Paul Cilliers calls an attitude of complexity. Preiser lists 10 common denominators that inform the various theories of complexity:
  1. The history and origins of theories of complexity are directly linked to General Systems Theory, cybernetics and artificial intelligence. 
  2. Theories of complexity follow two distinct tracks: 
    1. a track that claims complexity has the duty to measure and formalise complex systems by means of mathematical computation, called restricted complexity by Morin and Cilliers, and 
    2. a paradigm that argues that complex systems ultimately cannot be measured and calculated but remain in principle too complex to model in theoretical equations. Called general complexity by Morin and critical complexity by Cilliers. 
  3. Theories of complexity are all concerned with the study of complex phenomena in states of non-equilibrium that display characteristics of non-linearity, self organisation, and emergence and behave in a manner in which time and energy expenditure is irreversible. 
  4. Theories of complexity use technical and metaphorical vocabulary to describe complex phenomena and provide scientists with a language for dealing with complex phenomena. 
  5. Theories of complexity shift from a paradigm of classical Newtonian/Cartesian science to a non-reductionist paradigm, in direct opposition to linear, atomist, determinist and reductionist explanations of the world. 
  6. Complexity studies prefer organisation over static structures, ‘relationships over entities’, stochastic above determinist mechanism, and phenomenon in its context over isolated objects. 
  7. Complexity theories express the limits of human understanding in relation to complex natural and social phenomena and problematizes instruments and strategies used to model the relation between natural and formal systems. 
  8. Theories of complexity devise few problem-solving tools and clear-cut solution kits, but rather expose, challenge, and problematise the assumptions of conventional theories and practices. 
  9. Theories of complexity influence the way in which we do science and how we practically implement scientific findings and demand methods of inquiry and knowledge generating practices that draw from a plurality of epistemologies or positions. 
  10. Complexity discourses affect and cross-pollinate a variety of fields of study.

Describing Complexity

The general, interdisciplinary approach to complexity of Morin and Cilliers leads to Preiser's second problem: knowing and describing complexity. Study of complex systems requires a complex, interdisciplinary, integrative theoretical approach that remains critical of each approach used, challenging its own knowledge generating practices. Complex study cannot ignore its own complicity in and influences on the complex systems it studies. Once inside a system to observe it, the observer must account for being there. This is always a problem inside the problem one is trying to observe, understand, and describe. Complexity, in other words.

Preiser lists five descriptions of complex empirical phenomena that seem not to fit the traditional "Cartesian/Newtonian prescriptions of analysis" (74):
  1. Openness - Complex systems are open to their environments -- exchanging energy, matter, information, and organization -- so that according to Cilliers clearly defining the boundary of the system is problematic and is often "a function of the activity of the system itself, and a product of the strategy of description involved".
  2. Relationality, non-linearity and non-equilibrium - Complex systems are constituted relationally both inside and out, and the relations between internal components and the environment are dynamic, manifold, and nonlinear, which means that output is not directly proportional to input. The behavior of interactions is to some degree unpredictable and uncertain and functions in a state of asymmetrical non-equilibrium. The survival of complex systems depends on this nonlinear relationality.
  3. Non-homogeneity - Complex systems are comprised of a number of heterogeneous components with multiple, dynamic pathways among them that create rich and diverse interactions which become to complex to calculate. The elements and interrelationships change over time and scale.
  4. Emergence & complex causality - Because of the dynamic nature of internal and external interrelationships, complex systems manifest emergent properties that can be understood only in terms of the organizational structure of the system and not in the properties of the components. Emergent phenomena depend on and yet are independent of constituent parts and display certain properties:
    1. radical novelty: emergent phenomena are neither predictable nor deducible from micro level components, which are necessary but insufficient for understanding emergent phenomena.
    2. coherence: emergent phenomena are integrated wholes likely to maintain some identity over time.
    3. macro level: emergent phenomena occur at a macro level compared to their micro level components.
    4. dynamical: emergent phenomena are not a priori wholes but gradually appear as a complex system dynamically develops over time.
    5. ostensive: emergent phenomena show themselves and are ostensively recognized in terms of their purpose and meaningful behaviour.
    Complex systems operate through both upward and downward causation, such that emergent properties are the result of the organization and interactions of constituent parts at the micro-level but also in turn cause changes in the constituent parts.
  5. Self-organisation - Complex systems are able to evolve within themselves their internal structures in order to cope with their environments. They are able to learn and to adjust to ensure their survival.
Complexity, then, is first a problem of observing and studying complex phenomena that themselves have incalculable interrelationships and interactions and unpredictable properties and then second being able to observe only from the inside as part of the system. The observer has no objective, outside point of view, but only a subjective, inside point of view that affects -- often non-trivially -- the complex system under observation and study. The presence of a thermometer changes -- however slightly -- the temperature of the body being measured.

Following Morin's lead, Preiser  concludes by positing complexity not as a theory but as a pilot notion "that allows for an integrative theoretical approach that remains critical of the scientific assumptions that emerge from studying complex phenomena ... exposes the limits of each discipline and ... [problematizes] the status of knowledge and knowledge generating practices (75).

In my next post, I will use my own house and body to explore these five characteristics of complexity.

Sunday, November 8, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: Good Reasons

As I think about Fisher's argument, I am more and more persuaded that the narrative paradigm helps me explain the disconnect between my arguments about Trump and the arguments of my Evangelical friends. First, we usually argue at different scales: I'm arguing from the rationalist paradigm which focuses on a narrow, prescribed perspective and they from a narrative paradigm which has a much wider reach. Let me explain.

Fisher claims that the narrative paradigm includes the rational paradigm, superseding it without negating it. He says:

I want to stress, however, that narrative rationality does not negate traditional rationality. It holds that traditional rationality is only relevant in specialized fields and even in those arenas narrative rationality is meaningful and useful. (10)
In a sense, then, narrative is the frame within which a technical reason can function. When Newton used a new technical reason (calculus) to formulate the universal laws of motion, he did so within a narrative — a frame — that relegated God to the role of watchmaker who created the mechanical world, set it running, and then was largely absent as the wheels and engines whirred reliably throughout the Universe, managing both the arc of the moon and the fall of an apple. His story didn't quite rid the Universe of God (Laplace did that a bit later), but his narrative distanced God far enough that the Universe could follow the universal laws of motion without divine interference or help. The story provides a suitable frame for Newton's technical rationality, his mathematics and calculus. All technical rationality has a similar relationship with some enfolding story, just as all systems have a similar relationship with their ecosystems.

An immediate problem with technical rationality noted by Fisher is that not all people can use any given technical rationality. I, for instance, cannot use Newton's calculus, which he devised for rationalizing the laws of motion. I assume I'm bright enough to do so, but I have not studied it. I've even forgotten most of the geometry and trigonometry that I last studied as an underclassman some 50 years ago. However, as Fisher claims, all people have access to narrative rationality with its tests of probability and fidelity. All of us can recognize good reasons for believing or not believing some story.

So what are these "good reasons" that Fisher says all human beings can recognize and use? As I understand him, Fisher examines good reasons through three lenses:
  • narrative coherence: Does the story make sense in itself, or as Caldiero says in his article Crisis Storytelling: "Is the story free of contradictions? Does it 'hang together?' Is it consistent (Fisher, 1985, pp. 349, 364)?"
  • narrative fidelity: Does the story fit well with other stories that I already know and believe? Caldiero says: "Does the story exist on the same plane as other stories the reader has experienced? What are the “truth qualities" of the story? Is the reasoning sound? How good is the reproduction of the story? What is its value (Fisher, 1985, p. 349ff; 1987)?"
  • narrative context: Both coherence and fidelity are tempered by a person's own "history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character of the other people involved (all of which may be subjective and incompletely understood)" (Narrative paradigm). Both coherence and fidelity — or what we might call the fit or feel of a story — is determined not solely by the characteristics inherent within a story but also by the life history of the people hearing the story. Stories that fit well with what people already know and value are more readily accepted. Those that don't fit require much more persuasion, if not coercion. Thus, we cannot think merely of an argument itself with its internal logic and probabilities as we can with a syllogism; rather, we must account for the ecosystem within which the argument is expressed.
Any argument about Trump that I might offer my Evangelical friends will always be tested not simply for how well it arrays and presents the facts, but also for how well it fits with stories that my friends already know and believe. Even if my argument, which itself assumes a larger story, is internally consistent and logical, my friends will reject it if it does not hang together with stories that they already know, believe, and trust to give meaning to their lives.

An easy example is my argument to Evangelicals that Trump's personal life does not meet the usual Evangelical standards for righteous living, a failing that they hated and castigated Bill Clinton for. I was raised under those standards, and I know them well. Other than his avoidance of alcohol and tobacco, Trump meets none of them. He lies, cheats, and philanders. He is vulgar in speech and habit. He is self-centered, petty, petulant, and profligate. I can produce ample evidence to support all of these claims, and my Evangelical friends simply nod, smile, and say along with Rick Perry, "Yes, isn't it miraculous how God has used Trump — the worst among us — to lead America back to the path of righteousness?" Or they might say, echoing influential Evangelical leader Jerry Falwell, Jr, "Well, we are not supporting a pastor-in-chief, but a president." Or they might join with Melania or Phyllis Schafley and say, "That's just fake news. Donald Trump's a devout family man."

I should not be surprised, though I often am. I'm certainly too often confused. In the face of all this evidence to the contrary, how can they continue to support someone who is so clearly not an Evangelical supporting their life goals?

They, of course, have a larger story that makes the facts I present irrelevant or incorrect. They first have stories from the Bible — or at least, their interpretations of those stories, which have often been reworked into a narrative more to their liking. The favorite one, of course, is King David, to whom Trump is often compared. Like Trump, David was a womanizer. He was also a murderer (as far as we know, Trump is not). Yet, David stands in the eyes of most Evangelicals as Israel's greatest king — not despite his flaws, but because of them. His flaws highlight the glory of God, who can use even a flawed human to work His Will. And God is still doing that today with Trump. This not only gives a pass to Trump's flaws but actually praises them as supports to God's glory. This view strikes me as most perverse, as it does some other Evangelicals, but most Evangelicals that I know accept some version of this story, at least well enough to swallow Trump's outrageous behavior.

But one story may not be enough, even if it's from the Bible and regularly retold in Sunday School. Fortunately, the Bible has more stories of sinners turned saints, as in the story of Saul the persecutor of Christians blinded on the road to Damascus and converted to St. Paul. But there's more.

Many Evangelicals are also familiar with the sinner-turned-preacher story of today. My own family's denomination had countless stories — often told in lurid detail by flashy evangelists in a  holy ghost revival meeting — of a flagrantly outrageous sinner suddenly blinded by God's light in a road-to-Damascus experience who gloriously turns from attacking God's kingdom to defending and expanding God's kingdom. My Evangelical friends and family see in the flesh a King David or St. Paul character in their pulpits and witness first-hand the amazing power of God to transform a miserable sinner into a glorious servant of God.

Perhaps you detect some sarcasm in this observation. I can see it myself, and I'm sorry, for I intend none.

I firmly believe in the power of religious stories to inform and transform a believer's life, and most religions teach and practice this power. For every spectacular failure of a Jerry Falwell, Jr, or Jimmy Swaggart, I see millions of people whose lives are enriched by their religious faith, and I deeply respect it. To me, this quiet, quotidian work of faith is the real story, but it lacks narrative coherence and impact. A good story needs a well-defined protagonist in conflict with exceptional forces. It's this heightened tension between good and evil that drives the story and makes it memorable (I'm in agreement with Flannery O'Connor here). Fortunately, some of these real-life heroic figures are more like St. Theresa or Billy Graham, and some are not. One character supports our faith, one does not. I think we need both for a rich, complex understanding of life.

But the question remains if and how the Trump as King David story is supported by good reasons as Fisher defines them. I think it is for those who accept the King David story as historical fact. The story is coherent, and it fits the pattern of a well-known and accepted story. Of course, the coherence and fidelity are not perfect. Trump, for instance, was not born a poor shepherd, but he has garnered a reputation for taking on and slaying giants such as China — to my mind, a reputation largely of his own fabrication, but a reputation nonetheless. And this points to a critical feature of the power of stories: once Trump becomes identified with King David, then he takes on all of the characteristics of David, including his ability to kill giants and drain the swamp.

Then, the Evangelical view of Trump as King David is well-tempered by their "history, culture, and perceptions about the status and character" of Donald Trump and the people retelling the story. My Evangelical friends know who they trust on Facebook and Twitter, and when those trusted sources retell this King David/Trump story again and again, then they believe it. Once the story begins to wear well in their hearts and minds, then evidence to support that story appears everywhere. For instance, they consider the 2016 election campaign itself: No one expected Trump to be the Republican candidate, much less the winner over Clinton. Perhaps even Trump himself didn't expect it, but he won anyway. And he won through the miracle of the Electoral College, which could only have happened through God's direct intervention. Once you accept the story, it's easy to see the Hand of God in this improbable event. Forget your statistics and the arcane machinations of the Electoral College. This was God at work to bring America back to Him. And He used Donald Trump to do it. How wonderful and glorious is that?

This brings me to thoughts about the ecosystem within which a story emerges and sustains itself. More about that later.

Sunday, October 25, 2020

The Narrative Paradigm: Epistemology vs. Ontology

If Walter Fisher is correct, then the rational paradigm is a matter of epistemology, of knowing the facts of a situation and the operations for manipulating both those facts and the situation. The narrative paradigm, on the other hand, is a matter of ontology, of becoming and living out a chosen story with some consistency and truth — though oddly enough, even violating one's own story can affirm the consistency and truth of that story. Rationality is something we can acquire, but narrative is something we are born with. Rationality is something we can learn to do, narrative is something we are.

For Fisher, homo narrans is the master metaphor for the essential character of humans, relegating other metaphors — homo faber, homo economous, politicus, sociologicus, sapiens, and so on — to various specialized ways of recounting and accounting for human thinking and doing. For Fisher, we become our stories through emerging and living within a particular family, clan, and community, and we retell and even reshape those stories to recount and account for who we are. We learn and preserve our shared reality through the stories we live and tell. Fisher quotes Kenneth Burke's Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent: "Not only do human beings successfully infer other beings' states of mind from symbolic clues; we know that they characteristically, in all societies, build each other's minds" (9). Our stories build our minds within an ecosystem of shared stories. Our minds seemingly come wired for story, and our engagement with our communities helps us create and live our stories.

If Fisher is correct, then we build mind through story first and through reason later; thus, narrative as a function of mind subsumes rationality (9). Our reasoning is always framed by, tempered by, informed by our narratives, which is one easy way to explain the differences in argument employed by physicists, engineers, lawyers, doctors, and theologians. Their narrative frames present them with a particular subset of facts and with an often peculiar subset of terms and operations for manipulating those facts. Agents in each of these different fields can observe facts within their fields and more or less skillfully manipulate those facts, but each agent will identify themselves as a physicist, engineer, or lawyer based on the stories about themselves and their worlds that they believe, tell, and live. Story precedes and frames reason.

Moreover, most academicians are painfully aware of the difficulties of translating the facts and reasoning methods from one field to another — say, from physics to English. The acceptable facts and the operations for manipulating those facts in one field are not intuitively obvious to people in another field, and conversation between the two fields can be awkward. Physicists can talk to deconstructionists, for instance, but it takes some special effort, and thus, most academicians are content to stay in their fields only dim aware of the conversations and arguments in other fields. But thinkers such as Michel Serres, N. Katherine Hayles, and Basarab Nicolescu believe that the crosstalk between fields, between differing stories, can be especially enriching for any fields that engage it. I believe this as well.

What are the implications of grounding story in ontology and grounding reason in epistemology, especially for understanding the tension I feel between my own perceptions of the Trump administration and the Evangelical perceptions of Trump? Several, I think.

First, story is more resistant to change than is reason. Presented with new facts and interpretations, I can change my rational mind (though even that can be difficult, given the influence of story). Reason is a more nimble and manipulable tool than is story. Indeed, reason can be described as a tool, but I'm not sure that story can. Reason, it seems to me, is designed and is used for arranging and rearranging facts into rational formations and for using those resulting understandings for manipulating and managing reality. Reason is a tool designed and used for specific purposes.

Story works deeper than that. Story provides the framework that helps us foreground facts in the first place: to be able to even see a fact and to identify it as salient. There are more facts in the world than we can recognize and comprehend, and story helps us highlight those facts that have potential for our lives — that fit the narrative of our lives — and it makes these choices before we are even conscious of making a choice and long before we apply the scopes and razors of reason to our observations. Thus, reason is a function of the clear, conscious mind; whereas, narrative is a function of the subconscious mind. Reason works like clockwork; narrative works rhizomatically, in the sense that Deleuze and Guattari suggest. Most of us are likely conscious of and in control of our reasonable minds, but I suspect most of us are not conscious of and in control of our narrative minds — unless we have turned our reasonable minds onto and examined our narrative minds.

The reasonable mind, then, is more liberal in the classical sense than is the narrative mind. When presented with new facts, the reasonable mind will readily dismiss old beliefs and systems to make room for new beliefs that better account for the new facts. Story, on the other hand, clings to the old beliefs, the old gods, and resists change. As Walker Percy has noted, changing our stories usually requires trauma of some kind (think of a near death experience or a divorce) or a close encounter with a great mind (think of a graduate seminar with Isaac Bashevis Singer). Story is more conservative; reason is more progressive.

I do not use the terms conservative or progressive in a political sense, though the implications for politics should be obvious. Rather, I use them in the sense of how we construct reality, a process that requires both conservative and progressive functions. On one hand, we must be able to conserve life constructs. We cannot afford to relearn the same things over and over; hence, both muscle and mental memory are obvious conservative system functions. A known and reliable route from home to work and back is a conservative and very useful construct. On the other hand, we must also be able to learn new things as the demands of our environment and internal systems change. We can benefit from trying new routes between home and work. Often at one and the same time, we must be able to rely on what we already know (the past) and rely on our ability to learn new things (the future). This leads me to define the conservative mode as past truth and the progressive mode as future truth. A well-functioning mind makes use of both modes, as both modes reinforce and support each other.

I am not suggesting a golden mean here between the left hand and the right hand, progressivism and conservatism. I am not arguing for moderation. Rather, this is placement of ourselves within the complexity zone, damn near chaos, which has proven to be the most dynamic, robust, and interesting zone in all of life. The constant interplay and tension between what I have already learned from experience and inherited wisdom — my story — and what I have yet to learn from new experiences and stories is what drives my life on its trajectory. It is what makes my life interesting. Complexity is a sweet spot between the cold, dead certainty of the past and the hot potential of the future. But as with a soccer ball, I don't always hit the sweet spot. Sometimes I cling too much to what I know (conservatism), and sometimes I revel too much in what I have yet to learn (progressivism). I suppose we all have these tendencies to one extreme or the other. We all know someone who, for instance, is trapped in a life-draining relationship with a lover or employee because they are too afraid to abandon a given, familiar, sanctioned structure and someone else who cannot maintain even a life-affirming relationship with a lover or an employer because they are too attracted by new relationships.

Well, my thoughts are meandering away from ontology and epistemology — not in a bad way, but in a way, away. My point is that I tend to favor rational arguments, and I am often confused by the arguments of my Evangelical friends. I'm also amazed at how intractable they can be. I can provide voluminous data that, to my mind, proves that Donald Trump is a narcissistic liar and cheat with no morals and they will insist that he is nonetheless God's chosen man for the hour. I walk away confused and dispirited.

But I'm coming to see that we are arguing on two different levels that do intersect and certainly do not translate without some serious effort. I'm talking about reason and they are talking about narrative. I'll give an example to end this post.

One of my favorite websites, The Conversation, recently posted an article by Baylor University professor Samuel Perry entitled "Evangelical Leaders like Billy Graham and Jerry Falwell Sr. have long talked of conspiracies against God’s chosen – those ideas are finding resonance today." Perry explores one of the most long-held and common stories among Evangelicals: that they are denigrated and dismissed by mainstream society — the World. This is a subplot to a larger story about how this world is not our home; rather, Heaven is our promised home. The old red back hymnal used in the Churches of God of my youth contained countless songs that claimed alienation from and indifference to this World and allegiance to the World to come. The old hymn "I'm Getting Ready to Leave this World" says it pointedly:

To prepare a mansion, Jesus said “I’ll go.”
If it were not true I would have told you so.
Just a little while to linger here below.
I’m getting ready to leave this world.

I’m getting ready to leave this world (of sorrow).
I’m getting ready for the gates of pearl.
Keeping (my record bright).
Watching (both day and night).
I’m getting ready to leave this world.

I can recall countless sermons railing against worldly pleasures, amusements, and adornment. I grew up believing that the World is hopelessly, noxiously sinful and that the sinners of the World hate the redeemed who follow Jesus. We chosen remnant should avoid sinners whenever possible, distinguish ourselves from them in dress and manner, and wait vigilantly for the call to Heaven, our true home. No one should not be confused that many Evangelicals have little regard for environmentalist concerns: why worry? This world is doomed anyway, and God's people will be on the side that destroys it and replaces it with the shining New Jerusalem.

It's easy for me to see, then, how Evangelicals who believe this story can fall for the idea that mainstream media — the voice of the World — hates them and mocks them for their religious beliefs. And who is the only one who will stand up for them and call out the mainstream media, the fake news? Well, Donald Trump, of course. He's clearly God's appointed man to defend the faithful from the attacks of Satan and the demonic Democrats (the alliteration really helps the story, don't you think?). I might counter that Donald Trump is the sort of man who can brag about grabbing women by the pussy, which seems to run counter to the stated beliefs of most Evangelicals, and my Evangelical friends will respond: "Praise be! Isn't it miraculous how God can once again use a broken man as He used King David to defend His people?" I find quickly that there's no way I can state my reasons that they cannot neatly rearrange the facts to fit their narrative. If you believe the story, the facts work.

And my Evangelical friends can find lots of facts to support their opinions. I watch Bill Maher, and though most Evangelicals don't, they are aware that he makes great sport of them. See? The World hates them.

If I'm to engage my Evangelical friends, I must start at the level of story, of a generalized frame — I can't start at the level of rational argument as it is too restricted, too specific. Moreover, the story that frames my rational argument is inconsistent with their story. Pussy-grabbing Donald Trump is a hero in their story and a villain in mine. The details or facts don't change, the story does. The meaning and value of the facts depend on the story. The facts are what I know, the story is who I am.

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.