Eric Nehrlich, Unrepentant Generalist » Blog Archive » Idea functionalism

Idea functionalism

Posted: December 5, 2006 at 10:47 pm in people

This isn’t quite coming together yet, but I’m so happy to be done writing for class that I want to write a blog post this evening, so bear with me. One bit of preamble – for the sake of this discussion, when I talk about truth, I am not talking about logical consistency, e.g. proving geometric theorems after starting from Euclid’s axioms. I am talking about some sort of universal Truth that is objectively verifiable.

In my last post, I posit the absence of absolute Truth, because it seems like we gain more if we agree that truth is relative. This veers dangerously close to utilitarianism, so I think I want to explore this a bit more. My theory in that post is that the world would be a better place without Truth, and therefore we should act as if we live in such a world.

This is an odd argument when I think about it, and I don’t know if I can really justify it. For one thing, it’s only my judgment that the world would work better. For another, it totally goes against our Platonic instincts. We want to say “Yes, but we can’t just make assumptions – what about the way things really are?” I can’t just wave stuff out of existence because it’s convenient or because I think it will make things work better, can I?

But how do we determine the way things really are? We have no methods of discovering completely objective reality. Scientists use probes and interpret data, and Latour describes just how unobjective science really is. The idea of an Absolute Reality is a social construction. It’s attractive in a lot of ways – it’s simple, it’s easy to understand, and it’s what we’ve been taught. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s right.

And it causes a lot of problems. If I’m in an argument with somebody and we’re both appealing to the Truth, then only one of us can be right. But what if we’re both using completely factual verifiable statements? It’s our emphasis on different facts that separates us. We will both complain that the other’s use of facts is incomplete or distorted. A lot of political debate in this country is hamstrung by this right now.

If we get away from the idea of the Truth, then we start to get into the realm of diplomacy in the Latour-ian sense, where we realize that others’ patterns of ideas do not necessarily match our own. Then we can marshall our arguments but do so without irrelevant appeals to authority (which is what appeals to Truth are). Instead we could base arguments on objective verifiable results. This idea is mostly cribbed from Getting to Yes.

When we are evaluating patterns of ideas, I think it makes a lot of sense to evaluate them based on their functionality or usefulness. These patterns are just tools, and like tools, they are not good or bad in and of themselves. It’s what we can do with them that’s interesting. Useful tools extend our reach and our abilities, the same way that useful patterns of ideas expand our range of thinking. New idea patterns open us up to new ways of looking at the world. Are they true? Who cares? A good story may not be true, or even factual, but if it gives me a new viewpoint, it’s useful.

Where it starts to get ethically murky is when we deliberately use idea patterns to coerce or influence others into behaviors they would not otherwise consider. Republican framing. Islamic extremism leading to suicide bombing. Brainwashing and cults. Using such idea patterns is useful to us, so is it okay? Without an absolute standard such as Truth or Good to refer to, it becomes very difficult to figure out where to draw the line. And there may not even be a line.

I think I need to ruminate on this some more. Definitely still needs some seasoning. What do you think?

P.S. In a bizarre coincidence, the lecture in tonight’s class hit several of the same points that I was trying to make in my last post. It was from the perspective of management and leadership, but the professor was emphasizing the importance of getting away from certainty and absolutes, and moving towards a relativistic attitude, open to incorporating new ideas. It’s not quite the same, but they’re definitely related. At least in my head.

8 Responses to “Idea functionalism”

  1. Sumana Says:

    Oh yeah, I was having Nehrlich flashbacks during class tonight too.

    I would very much like to see a system of ethics that built up ideas of goodness and shouldness without referencing core truths.

  2. Beemer Says:

    The way I think about it is this: there is an objective reality out there. We build a model of it in our heads based on our perceptions. Because our experience of Reality™ is filtered through our perceptions, and because our model of it is necessarily much smaller than the whole thing, our models are always flawed. So while your model of the world is useful, it would be wrong to pretend that it’s perfect.

    So, in other words, everyone is always wrong, to some degree. *Nobody* has access to Truth. Instead of saying I’m right and you’re wrong, I have to say that I think my model is closer in this way and that way, to which you can respond okay, yes, but your model neglects this thing and that thing. And we’re both better off as a result of the disagreement, because we can try to reconcile the models. And in the spirit of “all models are wrong; some models are useful” we can then consider ideas that are ‘wrong’ but useful approximations (like Newton approximates Einstein), but in a way that sort of demands the question “useful for what, and under what conditions?” Which seems like it’s less abusable than the “constructed truth” thing people sometimes use for spin, framing, cults, etc..

  3. Beemer Says:

    For Sumana:

    WRT to core truths, I don’t think it’s possible to build up a logical system of any kind without some basic assumptions. You have to start somewhere. OTOH, I do think that you can do a lot by starting with a small number of well-identified axioms that you think would apply to any sane, sentient (human?) being. I think you can get most of what you need for a basic ethical framework out of the following basic concepts:

    *The laws of logical reasoning
    *Happiness is, by definition, desirable
    *Objective reality exists, though I perceive it imperfectly
    *My experience of consciousness, etc. is isomorphic to the experiences of beings who appear to be conscious, etc. in the same way that I am
    *The natural flow of things is in a direction of increasing complexification; going with this flow improves things. (I think this last one is implicit in the others, but it’s worth stating explicitly.)

    That’s what I work from to do ethics, anyway.

  4. Beemer Says:

    Ah! I know where I was going with this, in a kind of roundabout way:

    I agree with you. I think it’s a good way to look at things. Idea patterns and mental models are just tools, neither good or bad on their own, and their fidelity to exterior reality and their usefulness are two separate measures, not necessarily related.

    Talking about usefulness has an implicit value judgement. Those values have to come from some system of thought that’s based on a priori assumptions. So the big question is, what are you assuming? That determines how you value a tool, and whether the use of that tool is ethical. Although we all have different systems, I think that the commonality of human experience can be used as a reference point to work from when we’re comparing ethical evaluations.

    So idea-tool-patterns can be True, and they can be Useful, and they can be Ethical, but none of those measures is necessarily correlated with the others. They often are, but they needn’t be.

    I’m probably blithering at this point.

  5. Eric Says:

    Good points, Beemer, as usual.

    I think part of what I was trying to do was take an extreme position (there is no Truth), and see if I could derive logical inconsistences from it (reductio ad absurdum), but so far, I’m not seeing much wrong with it.

    I’m also struggling to find the functional difference, if any, between “there is no exterior reality” and “there is an exterior reality, but we each experience it differently”. Since we can’t access it directly, and appealing to it doesn’t help because of the differences in experience, it becomes a ghost of perception, a placeholder that means whatever we want it to mean. And because it’s confusing because two people are using the same word to describe totally different concepts in their head, I wonder if it’s actually counterproductive.

    I tried to get at that in the first post – without a direct line to the Truth, some sort of omniscient objective observer, then it might as well not exist because it has to be filtered through each of our (imperfect) perceptions.

    I really struggle with Ethics as well, because absolute Good and Evil end up having the same difficulties in my mind as absolute Truth. We can always construct situations that make us have to make a judgment call, and there’s no system that anybody feels comfortable using in all situations.

    In other words, I’m on the verge of being a complete relativist and treating all appeals to Truth or Good or Beauty as being appeals to irrelevant authority.

  6. Beemer Says:

    I’m also struggling to find the functional difference, if any, between “there is no exterior reality” and “there is an exterior reality, but we each experience it differently”.

    Our experiences of reality may differ in small ways, but they’re not totally uncorrelated. I think that’s what you’d get if there were no exterior reality. As it is, when you and I experience something differently, we can compare notes and get something useful out of thinking about what the differences are and what that implies, because we know that they both reference the same thing out there in Reality.

    I think many appeals to Good, etc. are irrelevant, but sometimes they are used as shorthand for a long, involved, and valid path of ethical reasoning, in which case they’re totally relevant unless you can find a bad assumption in there somewhere. So I think complete relativism goes too far. There are universals that have to do with the things that we all share in common: sentience, reasoning, the human body, etc. And we can use those as a basis for developing a common system that still accommodates our differences. Right?

  7. Charlie Says:

    I’m not smart enough to comment on this post, and many others, but I’m really enjoying them nonetheless. Yours is one of the few blogs that I read every post.

  8. Syaloch Says:

    Eric’s right, a lot of political debate in this country is hamstrung by people talking past each other, emphasizing (on a good day, at least) different sets of facts. But that’s not surprising at all given that many of the debate subjects are abstract rather than concrete. If Truth represents concordance with reality, obviously we’ll never get close to Truth when discussing broad abstractions like “democracy” or “capitalism”. But it’s another matter entirely when discussing physical objects that we can see and touch.

    Note that science pretty much sticks to the latter. Sure, science is as much a social activity as anything else, but Latour’s conclusion that there is no Truth does not follow. On the contrary, science clearly demonstrates Truth in its ability to build upon itself, each generation seeing further than the last by standing on the shoulders of giants, as it were. If Latour were correct, we would still be living in the dark ages.

    It’s not the idea of Truth that’s the problem. Rather, it’s the notion that there is some shortcut, revealed-knowledge sort of way to get to it. If you want to know Truth, the scientific approach is the only technique shown to have any value. But this approach only works when the target of inquiry is clearly defined, such that we can agree on which verifiable statements we should be looking at.

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