Sunday, April 28, 2013

Reality as a Zone of Engagement

So I've distinguished the Real from Reality and accepted that most of the Real is hidden, probably forever and not just from me but from my entire species, both because we physically cannot encounter it all and because, even if we could, we can't hold it all. Hmm … perhaps. This last point troubles me. I accept that I cannot hold it all, but what about we? Can we hold it all? Perhaps not, but we can certainly hold much more knowledge than I alone, and that may be sufficient for whatever tasks our species encounters. This is a thought that I will keep. Hold that thought.

At any rate, I now have the Real, Reality, and Knowledge. If I understand Nicolescu, Reality is the zone of engagement between the Real and the knower. Nicolescu describes this zone in, for me, rather interesting terms:
By "Reality" (with a capital R) we intend first of all to designate that which resists our experiences, representations, descriptions, images, or mathematical formulations.
Reality, then, is first that zone within the Real that in some way resists my pushes outward. Reality is the stuff I can bump into, the stuff that I can draw or sculpt or construct, the stuff that I can describe in words or mathematical formulations. Reality is the stuff that sends back a signal when I ping it. Group knowledge, I suppose then, is that zone within the Real that pushes back in similar enough ways when any of a group of us ping it.

I'm immediately troubled by my knowledge of those things—say, the Greek gods or Yoda—that I can push against and describe, but that I don't want to admit into the realm of Reality—and certainly not the Real—but let's not think about that for the moment. What I like about this description of Reality is the dynamic process of engagement between the Real and the knower, or between ontology and epistemology. Reality, I think, is first an emergent property of the interaction between my push outward and whatever pushes back. Of course, sometimes the Real pushes in first and I push back in response. In other words, reality as a zone of engagement is a reciprocal process, but the key is the dynamic interaction, the zone of engagement, out of which Reality emerges.

And here is the key for me in answering my original question: does epistemology take second seat to ontology? Perhaps it should; however, the moment-to-moment emergence of Reality within the interactions of the Real and the Knower seems to depend as much on the Knower (epistemology) as on the Real (ontology). I'm quite certain that Reality—the stuff that I know of the Real—depends as much, if not more, on my engagement with the Real and the processes by which I make sense of that engagement. In his wonderful book The Master and his Emissary (2012), psychiatrist and literary scholar (cool) Iain McGilchrist explores the two realities created by our divided brains, and he is quite explicit about the role we play in creating Reality:
In fact I believe there is something that exists apart from ourselves, but that we play a vital part in bringing it into being. A central theme of this book is the importance of our disposition towards the world and one another, as being fundamental in grounding what it is that we come to have a relationship with, rather than the other way round. The kind of attention we pay actually alters the world: we are, literally, partners in creation.
When I connect McGilchrist's book to Zull's book about the neuroscience of learning, it seems highly likely that my and our Reality depends as much on my/our neurological apparatuses and processes as it does on the ontological features of the Real.

However, I think, too, that the Real as well as Reality is changed by engaging with the Knower. If I understand my readings in quantum physics correctly, then many physicists accept that engaging the Real changes all parties of the engagement, the Knower/s as well as the Real itself. This seems counter-intuitive in day-to-day life. For instance, most of us assume that our car remains the same thing ontologically whether we are looking at it or not and regardless of the angle from which we look at it, but quantum physics seems to suggest that this is not so. While fine quantum weirdnesses are often flattened out in the coarse structures and processes of everyday life, this is not always so. In his Big Ideas talk The World as a Hologram (2011), quantum physicist Leonard Susskind tells the story of two friends Alice and Bob and what they both experience when Alice falls into a black hole. From Alice's point of view, nothing happens as she crosses the point of no return where she can no longer resist the inexorable pull of the black hole. However, from Bob's point of view, Alice is incinerated in a flash of unbelievable heat and disappears forever. In one reality, then, Alice is fine, but in the other reality, Alice is dead. At the same time. This makes no sense, but here's a serious, world-famous scientist insisting that it is the case.

So I don't think that epistemology quite plays second fiddle to ontology. I am increasingly coming to believe that the interactions across the zone of engagement between me and the Real not only change me, but they also change the Real. Engagement changes all parties to the engagement, and the Realities that emerge from that engagement depend very much on the relative positions of the engaged parties.

So what does this have to do with MOOCs and quantum random walks? Much it would seem.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Knowledge and the Hidden Real

In Manifesto of Transdisciplinarity (2002), Nicolescu speaks of the core human crisis that transdisciplinarity tries to address:
The unprecedented increase of knowledge in our era raises the challenging question of how to adapt our mentality to being. The challenge is enormous, because the influence of the Western-type civilization around the globe is so pervasive that its collapse would be even more devastating than the destruction we suffered in the two world wars. (40)
The comment "adapt our mentality to being" immediately raises a question for me: must epistemology adapt to ontology? This seems to be the normal way of it. After all, we can change our minds, right? At least much more easily than we can change reality. Therefore, our minds should fit to reality, not the other way around. Our minds can be in error, after all, while the Real cannot be, right? Isn't one of the big goals of education to adapt the mind to the Real?

I'm not so sure, and I'm not sure that is what Nicolescu means to say. Rather, the issue may be more nuanced than simply saying that epistemology must adapt to ontology. Let's try to tease this out.

Nicolescu makes a distinction between the Real and Reality. In his book Transdisciplinarity: Theory and Practice (2008), Nicolescu writes:
One has to distinguish between the words "Real" and "Reality." Real designates that which is, whereas Reality is connected to resistance in our human experience. The "Real" is, by definition, veiled for ever, while the "Reality" is accessible to our knowledge. (4)
I am somewhat uneasy with this distinction, but I don't know just why, so for this discussion, I'm willing to concede the point. The Real, then, is that which is, independent of our knowing, and Reality is that which we know. The Real is, by definition, hidden forever. By definition? Who defined the Real that way? Perhaps quantum physicists, which Nicolescu is.

Just this past week, I listened to a lecture entitled The World as a Hologram (2011 Nov 04) by Leonard Susskind of the Stanford Institute for Theoretical Physics, in which he discusses the indestructability of information and the nature of black holes. In this lecture, Susskind defines entropy as hidden information (18:38), and he says that the unseen Universe is 1000 times larger than the seen Universe (52:40). Most of the Real, then, is hidden to us, literally. It is flowing down into black holes from which no light returns, thus no information, and out beyond our seeable horizon. In another Big Ideas lecture entitled The Universe from Beginning to End (2010 Jun 18), astronomer Brian Schmidt of the Australian National University says (41:20) that of the Universe we can explore, only 4% is composed of normal, everyday atomic stuff that we can see (both with our natural eyes and our instruments), 24% is dark matter, and 72% is dark energy. We know almost nothing about dark matter and dark energy, except that dark energy is the stuff responsible for creating our expanding Universe. Schmidt notes (50:10) that eventually the Universe will expand out beyond the horizon of what we can see, as the expansion pushes galaxies apart faster than the speed of light. For us, then, most of the Universe will simply disappear in a few hundred million years.

So most of the Real is hidden, within the internal horizons of black holes, beyond the external horizons of an expanding universe, within dark matter and dark energy, and within the tangled strings of quanta. At the moment, we cannot know the Real, not even with our magnificent telescopes, microscopes, and particle colliders. The overwhelming majority of the Real is hidden from us.

Of course, most people are not at all concerned with black holes and expanding universes, and perhaps rightly so. Still, educators are in the business of making and sharing knowledge, and this idea that most information is hidden must be sobering (I'm using information here in its popular sense, which is different than physicists such as Susskind and Nicolescu use it).

It is also a delightful thought. As I have noted before, there is more in this World to know than we will ever be able to know. And given that we are in an increasingly expanding Universe, no matter how far we push the horizons of our knowledge, the Universe is pushing farther and faster yet. So if you think learning is a lifelong journey, it just became much more. It's a journey for a species, for a planet, for a galaxy. We may as well enjoy the journey, given that we'll never get there. Perhaps there will be an end, but there is no destination.

PS - Just after I pressed the publish button for this post, I read an essay entitled Why We Cannot Know Complex Things Completely by South African philosopher Paul Cilliers (thanks to Jenny Mackness' blog for connecting me to his work), and I want to add some of his insights. What initially captured my attention about Cilliers' essay is his own exploration of the relationship between epistemology and ontology. If I understand him, then in a nutshell, he argues that because complex systems are open systems with more interactions, both inside and outside the system, then our knowledge of the system must involve a reduction. As he says, "If an infinite number of interactions have to be considered, the production of meaning will be indefinitely postponed. … It would not be possible to have any real meaning if the number of relationships is not limited" (85, 86). Fortunately, Cilliers explains, knowledge is "constituted within a specific context where some components are included and others not" (86). This context, then, restricts for the moment the almost infinite meanings that any complex system can have at the moment, leaving us with a few reasonable options that make sense within the context.

Of course, we humans manage often enough to misunderstand the contexts of events and thus to botch the meaning. This slippage and mismatch between context and event is the source of much TV comedy. Still, Cilliers' point helps me understand that, even within the part of the Universe that we can see and engage (never mind the stuff that has slipped down the black holes), we cannot know the Real, which includes all possible connections within and without a complex system. The number of connections is very large—for the sake of simplicity, let's say it's infinite—and we cannot deal with that much information at one time. To create knowledge, we must reduce the amount of information, and we try to do that in a way that works within a given context. But this means that much remains hidden, not just because it is physically beyond us (down black holes and beyond the horizon), but also because we cannot hold all the details and make sense of them.

Monday, April 15, 2013

MOOCs and Network Scale

I've just listened to a TVO lecture by Eric Mazur, a well known physicist at Harvard University, in which he talks about the stop-motion photography that his lab is able to perform. While I like the magic  of stop-motion photography as much as any, what really impressed me was his clarification of the remoteness of different space/time scales from our own. Different network scales lead to radically different views of reality—in the words of Nicolescu, they lead to different levels of reality.

First, Mazur helped me to see how intimately space and time are bound together. When we speed up or slow down time significantly, then we are automatically reducing or expanding the amount of space that we are encompassing. I know, of course, from my readings in science that since Einstein we have known that space and time are a unit and that if, for instance, you bend space then you bend time, but for whatever reason, Mazur helped me see that more clearly. When you talk about nanoseconds, then you are also talking about micro-distances. The one includes the other.

But mostly Mazur helped me understand viscerally the truly profound differences between different scales, or levels, of reality. Basically, with our natural eye we see very little of life that happens at scales much smaller/faster or larger/slower than our own. For us, anything quicker than the blink of an eye or smaller than a grain of sand simply doesn't exist. Likewise, anything slower than a lifetime or larger than the horizon doesn't exist.

Except, of course, that it does exist, and it influences us. Those influences exert themselves across the various scales, or levels, of reality, affecting us almost as if by magic. Thus, the Moon, on a scale far larger than our own, exerts influences on the molecules of our bodies, a scale far smaller than our own, and drives us crazy once a month, as any grade school teacher can tell you.

Our technology, including Mazur's own amazing lazer-aided photography, allows us to slow down time, to almost stop it, so that we can see events that have been happening all along and affecting us in mysterious ways, but that we could not see. Likewise, with our telescopes we can speed up time almost back to the Big Bang to learn what's been happening in those long processes of the Cosmos.

This makes me wonder, then, about the effects of scale within a MOOC. It seems to me that just saying MOOCs are massive does not quite get the point of all those people in a coherent group. I have a sense that shifting from a normal 20 or even 200-student class to a 2,000 or 20,000-student MOOC is something else entirely. As Nicolescu says of the different levels of reality: "two levels of Reality are different if, while passing from one to the other, there is a break in the laws and a break in the fundamental concepts" (Manifesto, 21). Education among 2,000 may be a radically different scale of education than educating 20 or 200. As Mazur shows, when we use factors of 10 down from a second, we quickly reach scales that are not obvious to the naked eye and that behave very differently than our ordinary scale. Likewise, longer/larger scales are also not obvious to the naked eye and behave very differently. It seems to me quite reasonable that MOOCs are fundamentally different than a 20-student classroom. That is not a radical statement, but I don't think that xMOOCs are aware of it. They appear to be committed to business as usual: transferring some knowledge or skill from a teacher to a student, 20-at-a-time or 20,000-at-a-time. I think they are making a fundamental mistake.

But I don't really know how. Well, I've identified yet another thing that I don't know. I don't understand well enough the different structures and interactions at the different scales of education and I don't know how those different scales influence one another across the various scales. If anyone has already addressed this issue, then please direct me to them if you can. Thanks.

Friday, April 5, 2013

Socks, Complexity, and the Included Middle in MOOCs

In Chapter 5 of his book Manifesto of Transdisciplinary, Nicolescu says that the logic of the excluded middle applies mostly to simple situations while the logic of the included middle applies to complexity and complex situations. I think that Nicolescu's observation has implications for the Cynefin framework and for MOOCs. I'll explore these implications by defining simplicity, complexity, and the included middle in ways conducive to my argument.

Let's start with simplicity and complexity within the Cynefin framework of Dave Snowden. Wikipedia says that:
The Cynefin framework has five domains. The first four domains are:
  1. Simple, in which the relationship between cause and effect is obvious to all, the approach is to Sense - Categorise - Respond and we can apply best practice. 
  2. Complicated, in which the relationship between cause and effect requires analysis or some other form of investigation and/or the application of expert knowledge, the approach is to Sense - Analyze - Respond and we can apply good practice. 
  3. Complex, in which the relationship between cause and effect can only be perceived in retrospect, but not in advance, the approach is to Probe - Sense - Respond and we can sense emergent practice. 
  4. Chaotic, in which there is no relationship between cause and effect at systems level, the approach is to Act - Sense - Respond and we can discover novel practice. 
The fifth domain is Disorder, which is the state of not knowing what type of causality exists, in which state people will revert to their own comfort zone in making a decision.
I use a sock drawer explanation of the Cynefin framework. A simple sock drawer is a closed system of clean, homogenously coupled socks arranged neatly in a highly specific order: dress socks on the left and casual/sport socks on the right. Each of those categories is then sorted by colors (left to right: dress > black, grey, blue, brown, green and casual/sport > white, black, team colors. Everyone can readily see the relationships here and intuitively knows that this is the best arrangement for socks, and if I can maintain this order, then the task of choosing socks is simple, even on a dark morning (if you detect a tinge of sarcasm, then you have a sense of my opinion of the simple domain).

A complicated sock drawer is also a closed system of clean, homogenously coupled socks arranged in matched pairs by color and use, but also by fabric types, without labels. This drawer domain demands analysis and expertise, and often requires my wife's input as I cannot reliably distinguish cotton from rayon from blends. A complicated drawer messes up my wife's morning.

A complex sock drawer is an open system of clean, heterogenously coupled socks, including one or more unidentified men's socks that are not my size or style. Such a sock drawer suggests connections to and interactions with emerging practices beyond the strict confines of the drawer, the closed system. Choosing socks from this drawer requires an aesthetic sensibility and prayer, and it messes up my whole day.

A chaotic sock drawer is an open system of uncoupled socks—some clean, some not—men's and women's underwear, credit card receipts, spare change, and electronic gear, all in no discernable order. Both its contents and its interactions with the ecosystem are totally unpredictable. I have no way to choose a pair of clean socks, and this drawer messes up my whole professional and personal life and challenges my sense of myself and my wife.

It seems to me that much of human activity, both work and play, is an effort to move Life from the chaotic/complex domains into the simple/complicated domains (though I think lawyers work hard to move Life from the simple to the complicated domain, but that's another post). We can see why. A simple sock drawer reduces the aggravation in our lives and renders simple and mindless a task that most of us do not want to spend much energy on. Almost all factory processes depend on rendering complicated or complex tasks into the simple domain so that even an idiot can perform them. Indeed too much intelligence, curiosity, or humor is usually an impediment to good factory processes.

For the rest of this discussion and for the ease of reference, I will conflate the closed simple and complicated domains into the simple and the open complex and chaotic domains into the complex. A person's relationship with the simple domain goes far, for me, toward explaining that person's orientation toward life. A fundamentalist, for instance, will insist that the order of their sock drawer is ordained by the gods or the founding fathers and must be unerringly maintained at the risk of eternal damnation and ruin. A conservative will insist that they've always arranged their sock drawers this way, they see no reason to change it now, and they won't change it unless everyone else changes and proves that the new order is substantially better. A progressive will grow tired of the old arrangement and will try new arrangements to see if they work better, even if they don't. Free spirits will keep no particular order of socks. Perverse people will create an orderly sock drawer and then violate it. Kind people will organize your sock drawer for you. A holy person will organize your sock drawer in the way you want. A mean person will mess up your sock drawer. A tyrant will force everyone to keep their socks in the same order. In the U.S., Democrats will say you can buy only organically grown, fair trade socks, but you may pair them as you like. Republicans will say you can buy any socks you like, but you must pair them in prescribed ways.

You get the idea. It seems to me that, likewise, much of education is an attempt to move knowledge from the open, complex domain to the closed, simple domain, and it's easy to see why this is so. Only knowledge in the simple domain can be easily packaged for easy transfer from teacher/expert to student. (AN UNCOMFORTABLE ASIDE: I'm always amazed by the otherwise liberal faculty who become fundamentalists and fascists about the contents and arrangements of their own disciplines, their own little sock drawer. They will go to war over who belongs in the canon of World Literature or whether or not Pluto is a planet).

The problem with the simple domain for me is that almost all of Life belongs to the complex domain, and it requires much energy to force any aspect of Life into the simple. It requires even more energy to keep a chunk of Life in the simple domain. To add a second metaphor, think of a highway as a process of wrenching a strip of complex terrain into the simple domain for human use. The highway forces the complex texture of the land into a regular, flat, smooth surface. The highway absolutely remembers the pathway to a destination. It has a specific starting point and ending point. It has regular, reliable signs. Cars pass each other safely at 60 miles an hour because they stay on their own sides and follow the simple, explicit rules. This is a pre-eminently useful and beneficial use of the simple domain, and no one would sensibly argue for complex highway systems. Still, though a few highways have endured thousands of years, though seldom in their totality and never without some kind of maintenance, most highways will revert to the complex domain within a few years or decades after they are abandoned by humans. Complexity always wins out over the simple domain. Simple is hard to achieve, and I don't think it is ever completely stable. If it were, then we would all be fascists and fundamentalists. Nothing else would make sense.

Knowledge has an even shorter shelf-life than roads do, especially these days. Yesterday's knowledge is no longer a smooth road to effective and appropriate action in the world. Today, we must constantly map and re-map what we know about the world and how to behave in it. It isn't easy being a fundamentalist these days. You have to ignore so much, become so blind, to maintain the internal consistency of your beliefs and your logic. You have to ignore so much evidence to continue to believe that the Sun rises and circles the Earth each day. Mind you: there is some evidence for just that point of view (go out some morning, and watch the Sun rise), but the evidence for the Earth circling the Sun is overwhelming, if you will shift your point of view and look. Fundamentalists refuse to do that.

And this brings me to Lupasco and Nicolescu's logic of the included middle. Basically, this law is a response to the reality revealed by quantum physics which regularly ignores Aristotle's laws of classical logic:

  1. Law of Identity: A is A.
  2. Law of Non-Contradiction: A is not non-A.
  3. Law of Excluded Middle: There is no middle ground that is both A and non-A.

For millennia, this logic seemed as eternal and as right as the universe until we learned that light, for instance, can be both a particle and a wave at the same time. It was like learning that the Sun does not circle the Earth and having to change all our ways of thinking and knowing. Lupasco's Law of the Included Middle says that there is a middle ground that is both A and non-A, and as Nicolescu insists, Lupasco demonstrated that this logic was rigorous, internally consistent, and empirically verifiable. Nicolescu added to this Law of the Included Middle ideas about the different levels of Reality and Perception, and all of a sudden we gained a reliable way of knowing the world that maps to things we had divined and intuited earlier, but couldn't quite say. As Nicolescu points out in his Manifesto, a simple road follows classical logic: it has two sides (A and non-A, left and right) and there is no middle ground that is both A and non-A. We know which side is ours, and we violate the distinction between left and right at our peril and the peril of others. But this clear distinction between left and right holds only at the flat, untextured level of everyday traffic, and if we shift our point of view outward to the cosmic level or inward to the atomic level, then we readily see that the contradictions disappear. There is a middle ground where left is right and right is left. Or perhaps it's better to say that from a different level of Reality, left and right no longer make sense and cease to be a contradiction.

We've always intuitively known that a shift in point of view to a new level could obviate contradictions at another level—that's what therapy, conversions, and paradigm shifts are all about—but fundamentalists (political and scientific as well as religious) have always tried to flatten Reality into a single, simple domain like road kill on a highway. If you can never transcend the flat surface of the highway, then left is always left, right is always right, and there is no middle ground, no fifty shades of gray. But if you accept that Reality is complex, with different textures, different laws, different logics working across different levels and scales, then you can see the Included Middle. You see that right is right and left is wrong works only at a certain level and in a narrow place and time. The logic and utility of that simple level can be most valuable, but we should not allow that value and utility to trap us at that level. To return to my sock drawer analogy, the order in my drawer is very useful to me, but I should not be trapped by that utility. No drawer is sufficiently large to accommodate and account for all socks, and if it were, it wouldn't be useful to me. To extend this to education, I should not present my sock drawer (or my view of British Romanticism or physics or whatever) as the only way to do socks.

And this brings me at long last to MOOCs and their connection to Cynefin and the Included Middle. The traditional class built around a single teacher/expert almost of necessity encourages a single, simple view of Reality (British Romanticism or physics, for instance). Even if the enlightened teacher works against this tendency, students will tend to venerate the teaching and preaching and flatten other expert opinions into simple contradictions to be ignored or discounted. This is so especially if the teacher is a great person. In the early 1980s, I had the great fortune to study under Nobel prize winning author Isaac Bashevis Singer, and though he was himself an incredibly rich and complex artist with a complex view of Reality, his voice was so strong and convincing that we students took his sayings as gospel. For a while, all literature for me was Singerian, and I inhabited a delightful, but simple domain. I don't regret the experience at all, but even a mind as rich, intricate, and complex as Singer's is not sufficient to account for all of reality, not even the literary reality. We have all had other, lesser teachers who were tyrants in one way or another, both benevolent and not, intent upon forcing a simple view of biology or business on their students.

A connectivist MOOC, on the other hand, provides an ideal platform for a complex exploration of the Included Middle. Even if a given MOOC starts with a specific content, agenda, and exposition by facilitators, its open nature mandates that participants rip, mix, and burn, or in the more accurate words of Dave Cormier:

  1. orient,
  2. declare,
  3. network,
  4. cluster, and
  5. focus.

MOOCs are one of the best platforms that I know of for moving education from the simple domain to the complex domain, a place that I find much more engaging and rewarding. This is not to say that all MOOCs embrace the complex, as many xMOOCs have demonstrated. Still, I am convinced that connectivist MOOCs will persist and will show all of us how, in the long run, complex education takes us farther than simple education. More and more of simple education (the multiplication tables, for instance) is being moved to our machines, and I do not see this trend changing, regardless of our personal views about it. Machines are teaching the simple and they are even removing the need for learning the simple (I really don't know that we will still be teaching children their multiplication tables 30 years from now). I think the complex domain is the future of education, especially higher education, and MOOCs are one of the most concrete steps toward that future.