Thursday, March 3, 2016

What must stuff be like for us to learn?

In my last post, I discussed how object-oriented ontology, as a part of the Copernican Progression, is moving humans from the center of the universe to a position on the periphery. Simon Ensor and Sarah Honeychurch raised some valid challenges to OOO, and I want to explore them.

In the concluding chapter of his book The Democracy of Objects, Levi Bryant lists four theses of flat ontology, which I think summarizes his take on object-oriented ontology, which:
  1. "rejects any ontology of transcendence or presence that privileges one sort of entity as the origin of all others and as fully present to itself."
  2. "signifies that the world or the universe does not exist."
  3. "refuses to privilege the subject-object, human-world relation as either a) a form of metaphysical relation different in kind from other relations between objects, and that b) refuses to treat the subject-object relation as implicitly included in every form of object-object relation."
  4. "argues that all entities are on equal ontological footing and that no entity, whether artificial or natural, symbolic or physical, possesses greater ontological dignity than other objects." (245-246)
I want to write a post about each point, but in this post, I'll talk about Bryant's reason for positing object-oriented ontology, about which he is quite clear: he wants to remove humans from the center of philosophy. He does not, however, want to remove humans altogether from philosophy, an objective he considers silly. Rather, he wants to posit humans as one object among all other objects—sometimes the most important object, but not always.

Starting in Chapter One, "Grounds for a Realist Ontology", Bryant claims that too many Western thinkers since the Enlightenment have adopted a correlationist episteme that assumes that being can only be thought of in terms of our access to being, or knowledge of being, rather than in terms of being in itself:
As such, ontology becomes not an interrogation of being as such, but rather an interrogation of our access to being. The answer to the question, “what is being?” now, everywhere and always, carries a footnote, colophon, or bit of fine print such that the question must be read as “what is being for us?” (35)
Consequently, and unfortunately for Bryant, questions about being in itself become meaningless. First, the modern argument goes, if we know something about the being of an object, then obviously we have access to that object, which reverts the question back to being for us. Second, to know some-thing requires that we have access to that thing, again reverting the question back to being for us. Thus, any questions about being become questions about what we can know about being. Epistemology trumps ontology.

As I was reading Bryant's complaint, I realized that I am an unconscious correlationist. I do not intuitively think and talk about being apart from my knowledge of being. In other words, talking about the being of things that I don't know about seems to me like school kids arguing politics on the playground. Still, Bryant has given me pause to think, and for that I am grateful. Let's see how.

First, he establishes for me that the being of an object in no way depends on my knowing that object. When I encounter an object, that object is always already there, a deceptively simple statement of the obvious: the object always brings its being to the encounter. My knowing the object, encountering the object, does not constitute the object's being. The object is a fact; it is not my fiction, though I invariably create a fiction out of it. Bryant opens his chapter with a wonderful quote from Bruno Latour's The Pasteurization of France which captures this independence of being better than I have:
Things-in-themselves? But they're fine, thank you very much. And how are you? You complain about things that have not been honored by your vision? You feel that these things are lacking the illumination of your consciousness? But if you missed the galloping freedom of the zebras in the savannah this morning, then so much the worse for you; the zebras will not be sorry that you were not there, and in any case you would have tamed, killed, photographed, or studied them. Things in themselves lack nothing, just as Africa did not lack whites before their arrival.
So far, I'm comfortable with OOO, as are most people, for as Bryant notes even staunch correlationists concede that objects exist whether or not humans know about them; however, correlationists argue that since we have no access to things for themselves, then the issue is moot. For OOO, however, this is the core issue. So how do we speak about things that we cannot access, things in themselves and for themselves?

Here, Bryant turns to a discussion of Roy Bhaskar's ontology as developed in his book A Realist Theory of Science. Bhaskar begins with a simple question: "What must the world be like for science to be possible?" Bryant claims that this is a question about ontology and not about epistemology as Bhaskar is not asking what the mind must be like for science to be possible. Can we make reasonable speculations about the state of the world to which we have little or perhaps no direct access? Bhaskar and Bryant say we can and do.

Bryant makes several key speculations about what objects must be like in order for this world to make sense to us humans, especially scientific sense:
  • Objects are "generative mechanisms" (Bhaskar's term) capable of producing effects, qualities, events, or actualities that other objects can perceive and interact with. Indeed, Bryant claims that "Objects … are defined not by their qualities or events, but rather by their powers or capacities" (68). 
  • "objects must be capable of behaving differently in open and closed systems" (67): Most experiments (as well as most traditional classrooms) aim for closed/simple domains where an experimenter can reliably trigger an object's particular generative powers (say, shine a light of a particular bandwidth or get a student to read a particular text) while controlling the effects of other objects (say, preventing light of different bandwidths or students reading different texts or no text). However, 99.9999% of the time, objects exist in the open/complex domain where the object's generative powers may remain dormant despite the proximity of a known, active stimulus, or the object's effects and qualities may be cancelled or obscured by the effects of other objects. In short, the simple, reductionist cause/effect or stimulus/response demonstrated in the closed/simple domain of a laboratory or classroom does not necessarily hold in the open/complex domain of the world.
  • "objects … must be distinguished from events or actualities" (68): Given that objects can and do behave differently in closed and open systems, then Bryant insists that we cannot conflate the object, the generative mechanism, with its effects or qualities, which hearkens back to Aristotle's distinction between a substance and its accidents. Bryant claims that the substance of an object is always withdrawn, inaccessible to all other objects, including the object itself, which can only engage the effects or qualities of an object. For me, this creates a black hole at the heart of all objects, including myself. We can sense and engage the gravitational pull (effects) of the black hole object, but we cannot see inside. This disturbs me.
  • "objects … must be independent of their relations" (68): Given that objects can be isolated within closed/simple domains, then for Bryant it follows that objects are not defined by their relationships to other objects. He does not deny that objects do, in fact, usually exist in relationships to other objects, but that they can be removed from those relationships; thus, they "must be independent of their relations" (68).
I admit that I was not at all comfortable with this line of thinking at first, and I'm still not altogether happy, but I am warming to it. I am certainly grateful to Bryant for helping me think differently, as uncomfortable as that sometimes was for me. Still, I think I can get to my issues by applying Bryant's OOO to the classroom. Bryant tends to be very abstract, and I think better with things and pictures.

Let's start with Bhaskar's original question, reframed for education: what must the world be like for learning to be possible? Note that this is not a question about learning, or epistemology, but a question about ontology, what the world is like. I will have to do a serious review later, but it seems to me that most learning theories do not ask this question. A handy overview of learning theories from the Texas Tech University School of Pharmacy says:
  • Constructivism focuses on how we construct our own understanding of the world, adjusting our mental models to accommodate new experiences.
  • Behaviorism focuses on objectively observable behaviors and discounts mental activities, defining learning as nothing more than the acquisition of new behaviors.
  • Piaget focuses on the process by which the developing child builds cognitive structures such as mental maps, schemes, or networked concepts for understanding and responding to physical experiences within his or her environment, moving from a few innate reflexes such as crying and sucking to highly complex mental activities.
  • Learning styles theories focus on the fact that individuals perceive and process information in very different ways, implying that learning has more to do with whether the educational experience is geared toward a student's particular style of learning than whether or not they are smart.
  • Multiple intelligence theories suggest there are multiple ways that people have of perceiving and understanding the world, each a distinct intelligence or set of skills allowing individuals to find and resolve genuine problems they face.
I could go on with the various brain-based approaches, Wegner's communities of practice, Glassner's control theory, Siemen's and Downes' connectivism, observational learning, Vygotsky's social cognition theories, but the point is that all these learning theories start with epistemology rather than ontology, or in the aberrant case of behaviorism, with observable changes in human and animal behavior. Perhaps this focus is to be expected—after all, we are talking about learning—but we might ask: what if they started with an understanding of what the world must be like for learning to occur, rather than blindly assuming that there is stuff out there that we can learn? What must that stuff out there be like for us to learn it? This just might be an important question. Likely there is a learning theory that starts with ontology or at least includes it, and I just don't know about it. If so, please leave a comment and a link.

If we follow Bryant's argument, for us to learn about something, then that something must have generative powers "capable of producing effects, qualities, events, or actualities" that we can interact with at some scale. This is tricky and subtle, I think. Of course stars, rocks, water, and trees are objects that produce effects (colors, textures, fields, etc.) that we can interact with and learn about, but what about democracy or Harry Potter? OOO says that Harry Potter has ontological status equal to that of rocks, stars, or me, a living human. Like rocks, political parties, and Volkswagens, Harry Potter produces effects that we humans can learn about. Hmm … that might rearrange the order of being for some teachers.

Then, because objects behave differently in closed and open systems—in simple and complex domains—what we can learn depends on whether or not we interact with a rock or Harry Potter in the closed, simple domain of a traditional classroom or a textbook or in the open, complex domain of the world, which is where rocks and Harry Potter spend 99.99% of their time. I think both domains have unique potentials for learning, but they are not the same potentials. This reminds me of how I structure my soccer practices, always beginning a practice in small, constrained spaces to focus on a single skill, but then opening the space until by the end of practice, the players are again in the full, open field. Who knew that OOO would provide rationale for that kind of training? This also helps me understand more about why the community as curriculum works so well for me and some others who want learning released into the wide world, at least some of the time. There are real, valid things you can learn in the wide, open world that you just cannot learn in a constrained, closed classroom.

Because objects behave differently, producing different effects and qualities in closed and open domains, then OOO says we must distinguish their generative powers from their qualities and effects. And while we have access to—can learn about—an object's effects, the generative mechanisms and powers that form the substance of an object are withdrawn from us. I can learn the colors, shapes, and chemical composition of rocks and the physical, social, and literary characteristics of Harry Potter, but the generative mechanism at the heart of a rock or Harry Potter withdraws from me.

This hidden heart of things still disturbs me, but mostly only in the human domain. I want to believe that I can know another and be known in return—my wife and I, for instance. However, OOO says I can know and be known only in part—valentine cards and love letters notwithstanding. Perhaps my resistance is vertigo, the result of standing at the edge of a black hole and looking over, my body rebelling at letting go.

Or I may be interpreting Bryant too harshly, and perhaps he is not isolating all things in their own little black hole bubbles; rather, perhaps he is saying there is more to any rock or fictional character than any other rock, fictional character, or human can ever experience and know. For instance, he quotes Jane Bennett, who in her 2010 book Vibrant Matter speaks of viewing a particular collection of objects in the street: "In this assemblage, objects appeared as things, that is, as vivid entities not entirely reducible to the contexts in which (human) subjects set them, never entirely exhausted by their semiotics" (5). Later, Bryant himself says: "The virtual proper being of objects consists not of qualities, but of powers and these powers are never exhausted by local manifestations. In this regard, there is never a complete mapping of any phase space, but rather only ever a limited mapping of a phase space dependent on the exo-relations into which the object has been placed" (121).

Well, you see how Bryant writes. I think he is saying that the substance of a rock or Harry Potter is not its collection of qualities (color, hardness, roundness or flatness of character, etc) but its powers to produce those qualities, and its powers to produce always exceed whatever qualities it produces in any given situation. In other words, there is always more to know about anything. Now, that's an idea I can support. I can learn somethings about rocks inside a volcano that I will not learn from rocks on the Moon. There is no little postcard collection of facts—which too often comprises traditional curricula—which captures all there is to know about anything. Nothing I can say about a thing ever completely maps or exhausts that thing. The map is not the land.

Now, most educators will likely agree that no teaching covers everything, but most students probably don't get that message. Rather, when they turn the page in the history text, they assume they know all they need to know about Julius Caesar, and they are done with him. This is an awful lesson to learn when even the most stubborn, dense rock is an inexhaustible font of knowledge. We can study anything to death, and the thing will continue to reveal long after we have lost interest. All teachers everywhere should rejoice.

Finally—and I apologize for this being such a long post—Bryant says that objects are not reducible to their relations. Rather, there is something at the core of everything that is absolutely independent of everything else, defining itself solely in terms of its generative powers. At least, this is how I'm interpreting Bryant, and I find this most egregious. I don't like it. First, because I don't know of anything that is absolutely independent of its relations to other things—well, maybe neutrinos which appear to pass through the Earth and everything else unperturbed and not perturbing anything else. Or almost. We have found ways to detect them, and that can happen only through perturbations, or effects. And neutrinos do not exist by themselves but as a result of some nuclear process such as radioactive decay or nuclear reactions. Consider Latour's parable about the zebras that I started with above. The zebras may not need us humans, but they do need each other and the African savannahs. There is no zebra without relationship to something.

I think I understand why Bryant wants to define an object ontologically only by its internal, generative powers. I, too, have argued for definition from the inside-out rather than from the outside-in. When forced, however, I realize that I want to define an object from both directions as an evolving dialogic. The inside-out is in constant juxtaposition to the outside-in, and through a range of interactions between the two, energy, matter, information, and organization from one object constantly perturb and restructure the other object in a causal loop, so that the constitution of each evolves and changes the perturbations between them, which leads to more changes, and so on.

Bryant seems to agree that objects do have relations with other objects and are changed by those relations, but he insists that this does not define either object. Perhaps he is working hard here to protect and preserve the integrity of the object against any abuse from the outside. I have a kind of sympathy, but I don't see the advantage. I also don't think it's realistic. While an object can change any given relation with any given object, it does not follow for me that an object can exist independently of all relationships. For me, all objects are in a web of relationships with other objects, and they are defined both by what internal powers they bring to those relationships and by what perturbations those relationships bring to them. We can learn about a rock or Harry Potter, then, because they have an integrity of being in relationship with other objects with their own integrity and relationships.

Well, that took longer than I thought, but I am pleased that OOO has led me along some unfamiliar paths. Maybe you, too?