Category Archives: philosophy

ideologies and complex systems

A recent paper entitled “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology”* presents a theory much like the one I have begun to develop in a series of posts on this blog and other work.

The authors write,

If we construe ideologies as complex systems, we have (at least) two levels of systems embedded in each other. At the individual level, the elements are ideas, beliefs, and values, whose interactions give rise to a person’s understanding of society, which in turn guides individual political behavior. At the group level, the elements are individual minds whose interactions give rise to discourses and power dynamics, which in turn guide collective action and societal change. We thus conceive of an ideological system as a network of minds, where minds are networks of concepts.

Fig 1 illustrates their model. Compare a diagram of the ideas held by my undergraduate class some years ago (with each student’s ideas in a different color):

The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” also diagram the ideology of the Tea Party Movement, using the qualitative analysis in a well-known article by Vanessa Williamson, Theda Skocpol, and John Coggin as their material.

Their diagram of the Tea Party is not heavily documented, but it demonstrates a payoff of their method. A paradox about the Tea Party is that they were powerful opponents of Obamacare yet passionate defenders of Medicare. The authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” explain this pattern by arguing that “representations of social programs are connected on one hand with representations of the self as a hard worker contributing to society and, hence, deserving of the government check …, but on other hand with the highly negative representations of government, spending, and taxation common to conservative ideologies.”

Each idea and link in the Tea Party ideology is consistent enough in its own way, and the overall system generates a combination of policy positions that only seem inconsistent if you try to place the whole ideology on one linear spectrum from pro- to anti-welfare. As a network of ideas, the ideology is as well structured as many others are. This is not an endorsement, since some of the specific nodes in the Tea Party’s network are objectionable by my lights. But a complex systems model offers a more refined analysis.

The word “complex” is used loosely and in various ways, but the authors of “A Complex Systems Approach” mean systems that exhibit “emergence, nonlinearity (disproportionality of cause and effect), path dependency, and multiple equilibria.” In the Tea Party ideology, for example, resentment of groups perceived as undeserving (which, in turn, is a racialized perception) has a powerful effect because of its location in the whole network. The Tea Party can land in several places (libertarian or #MAGA) that reflect multiple equilibria.

I find it intuitive that our ideas are structured and that the structures matter apart from the lists of individual ideas we hold. I acknowledge that we are not necessarily conscious of the whole structures of our own thought. Self-consciousness requires critical introspection and/or interaction with other people, and it is always partial.

However, I do believe we are conscious of portions of the network at any given time–not just the individual ideas, but the connections among them. Much of our discourse is about mini-structures of ideas, e.g., “I think this because of that.” Methods that reveal structures of ideas and links are alternatives to the family of methodologies that use latent variables to “explain” lists of specific beliefs, as in Moral Foundations Theory. I believe that such methods assume rather than demonstrate that human beings are driven by a few unconscious psychological traits. Although such explanations offer some insight, they should be combined with methods that allow us to see how people and groups build more complex structures. This is why I am excited to see this new paper and the work that underlies it.

* Homer-Dixon, Thomas, Jonathan Leader Maynard, Matto Mildenberger, Manjana Milkoreit, Steven J. Mock, Stephen Quilley, Tobias Schröder, & Paul Thagard. “A Complex Systems Approach to the Study of Ideology: Cognitive-Affective Structures and the Dynamics of Belief Systems.” Journal of Social and Political Psychology [Online], 1.1 (2013): 337-363. Web. 4 May. 2020. I had been previously influenced by Thagard’s work although I have not made the detailed study of it that it deserves.

See also: judgment in a world of power and institutions: outline of a view; from I to we: an outline of a theory; an alternative to Moral Foundations Theory; etc. `

notes on the social role of science: 1. the example of fetal ultrasounds

We reflect on–and we argue about–the point at which human beings become persons with rights, how (if at all) gender relates to biological differences, the degree to which people are interdependent versus free, the rights of disabled persons, and the roles of mothers and other parents.

Meanwhile, we are surrounded and supported by tools and technologies that obtain data and information to guide decisions and judgments. Methods for obtaining and analyzing data have high prestige. But methods for reflecting on moral and metaphysical issues attract widespread skepticism, except among people who are deeply committed to particular moral/metaphysical views (often, religions).

In this context, we have a tool–fetal ultrasound imagining–that purports to peer into the womb and provide data about the developing organism, including its viability and its genitalia, as well as the prospective mother’s health. People may suspect that this scientific tool will shed light on personhood, sex, disability, and motherhood, not to mention such specifically contested questions as abortion and gender attribution.

The tool is used in specific, culturally resonant ways. Often prospective parents go into the medical facility together. The prospective mother is prepared and treated as a patient–in a blue gown, and so on. The room where the procedure is conducted is private, separated by a closed door from the waiting room. A large, precise, moving image appears on a screen. The parent or parents are asked whether they want to know whether the child is/will be a boy or a girl, which determines whether they are shown the genital area. At least some pregnant women report that the image compels everyone’s attention to the fetus and negates the woman, since she is literally made invisible (Barad 1998). Prospective parents of “normal” or “healthy” children are congratulated and offered good wishes. They can take still photos or even videos home with them.

If we ask “What is a fetal ultrasound session?” (as Clifford Geertz asked, “What is a Balinese cockfight?“) we might consider several answers:

  1. “A fetal ultrasound (sonogram) is an imaging technique that uses sound waves to produce images of a fetus in the uterus. Fetal ultrasound images can help your health care provider evaluate your baby’s growth and development and monitor your pregnancy. In some cases, fetal ultrasound is used to evaluate possible problems or help confirm a diagnosis” (The Mayo Clinic). Note: “your baby” as a description of the object. Not “the baby,” not “the fetus,” not “you.”
  2. An apparatus that uses a piezoelectric transducer, a crystal that both receives and produces ultrasound waves in complex interactions with the mother, the fetus, the computer, the video screen, and the viewers (Barad 1998).
  3. A “bonding scan” also known as a “recreational” or keepsake” ultrasound, meant to produce pictures or videos to save and share with friends and family or even with the child later on (per LiveScience.com, which does not endorse such uses).
  4. An application of SONAR technology, invented to detect and destroy enemy submarines (Barad 1998)
  5. One of the events to expect when you are expecting. A moment to anticipate, celebrate, and share.
  6. A ritual that encourages prospective parent(s) to: 1. bond as couples and begin bonding with their child, with whom they will form a nuclear family, 2. bring the fetus to term because is already moving and kicking, 3. avoid behaviors, such as alcohol consumption, that might harm the fetus, 4. encourage them to begin to begin thinking and talking about it as a “boy” or a “girl,” who will have an appropriate name, pronouns, etc., 5. allow them to announce the pregnancy to a larger audience, thus enhancing their social capital, 6. reinforce the authority of credentialed medical professionals in white coats, and 7. produce revenue for the clinic.

Karen Barad wrote a brilliant 1998 article* that explored much of this terrain. I would respectfully dissent from part of her analysis, only because I am trying to work out a view that better fits my sense of the problematic power of science.

Inter alia, Barad raises epistemological doubts about the image that we see on the screen. We are not “peer[ing] innocently at the fetus,” but using an elaborate apparatus that produces an image as a result of complex interactions that can be changed by altering the apparatus. It is a mistake to think that the referent, when we talk about this image, is “the fetus.” The referent is a “phenomenon that is constituted by the inter-action of the apparatus and the object.” Barad cites Niels Bohr’s epistemology in opposition to the older, “Newtonian framework” in which observation was the “benign facilitator of discovery, a transparent and undistorting lens passively gazing at the world.”

I completely agree that looking inside the torso of a pregnant woman is not innocent or automatically benign. Whether to do it, how to design the procedure and the larger event, and what conclusions to draw are moral and political choices that should be critically assessed. Fetal ultrasound could be banned, discouraged, publicly funded, or required. The image could be seen only by a professional who would give written results to the pregnant woman alone. Or it could be done only by the pregnant woman, who would decide whether to share any information with anyone, including a physician. It could be re-designed so that the woman was depicted in the image along with the fetus, or in many other ways.

A fetal ultrasound event is a social phenomenon that reflects and reproduces power. There is a risk that it will block critical deliberation about issues like abortion and gender by claiming to present natural facts just as they are. To quote Bruno Latour, science can “render ordinary political life impotent through the threat of an incontestable nature” (Latour, 2004, p. 10).

Yet I do believe that we are looking at the fetus. In fact, it is precisely because the technology allows us to actually peer into the woman’s body that it is invasive.

When you see a car coming down the road, you may not actually look at the object that matters. Your brain interprets a reflection on the back of your retina, which may reflect the image on a convex mirror, which distorts reality by showing objects smaller than they would appear if seen directly. But you’d better not pull out into the road if there’s a car coming. The mirror is an excellent device for looking around corners, which is why we use it.

We are in a world of tools that we use effectively for a variety of reasons. In the Philosophical Investigations, Wittgenstein encourages us to see representations as tools that we can use for many purposes. A blueprint can provide instructions to a builder or ideas for a heist, or it can decorate a wall. There is nothing tricky about its metaphysical status. A picture does nothing mysterious inside us that needs analysis (Philosophical Investigations, 188). Whether the visual experience of an image is authentic is not an interesting question (190). The question is what uses we make of an object, including using it to represent a different object. For instance, to see a painting as a portrait of someone is to use it in a certain way. “Now when I say, ‘We consider a portrait to be human’ – when and for how long do we do this? Whenever we see it at all (and don’t see it as something else)” (199).

Likewise, when we are presented with a moving image from inside a pregnant woman, we can see it as a person, or as a boy, or as a fetus, or as a medical problem. Science has no legitimate right to tell us which way to see it. However, the ritual of a fetal sonogram event–conducted by people in white coats with scientific degrees–probably does determine how we will see it. The ultrasound technology really works; the question is whether and how we should use it.

Sources: Karen Barad, “Getting Real: Technoscientific Practices and the Materialization of Reality,” Differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 10, no. 2 (1998): 87-91; Bruno Latour, Politics of Nature: How to Bring the Sciences into Democracy, trans. Catherine Porter (Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2004); Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations, German text (1953), my translations.

See also: what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?; issues in the philosophy of social science; science, democracy, and civic life; is science republican (with a little r)?; nature includes our inner lives; some thoughts on natural law; is all truth scientific truth?; decoding institutions; media literacy and the social discovery of reality

debating equity

In my public policy course today, my students took a short opinion survey that I created for them, with questions about the justice or injustice of a variety of circumstances. For instance:

  • Bob Iger, the CEO of Disney, was paid about $45 million last year. A customer service representative at Disney starts at $10.43/hour. Is this unjust?
  • A child raised in Lexington, MA can expect a much better education than a child raised in Lowell, MA, who can expect a much better education than a counterpart born in Jackson, MS, who (in turn) is likely to get much more schooling than a child born in Malawi. Are those gaps unjust?
  • Who has the responsibility to fix the Lexington/Jackson gap? If the gap between Lexington and Lowell persists, does that imply that Massachusetts voters hold unjust values or attitudes?
  • Most Amish or [Haredi] Orthodox Jewish children will grow up to have lower incomes and less advanced health-care than average Americans. Is this unjust? Are the Amish or Orthodox parents responsible for an injustice toward their children?
  • Was this (below) a bad thing to express?
  • Are people who object to David Geffen’s Tweet demonstrating the vice of envy?
  • If David Geffen self-isolated on his yacht but didn’t Tweet about it, would it be OK?

Many of the examples in my survey are derived from Tim Scanlon’s very useful article, “When Does Equality Matter?” ?

The survey’s forced choices generated a range of responses. In discussion, students offered more nuance.

You can take the survey yourself and then look at the aggregate responses.

See also defining equity and equality; sorting out human welfare, equity and mobility; college and mobility.

what does a Balinese cockfight have to do with public policy analysis?

In a course on policy analysis, we have been investigating these policy questions: Who should decide which kids attend which schools? (E.g., Should parents choose in a marketplace of schools? Should all kids be required to attend the nearest public school?) And on what basis should these decisions be made? My students have begun to investigate other policy issues of their own choice, using similar tools.

We have been applying a scientific paradigm, in this sense: We ask why questions, and the “why” is causal. What causes people to put their kids in certain schools? What causes schools to have certain outcomes? What might cause a government to choose a given policy for school assignment?

Answering these questions seems relevant to policy because we can decide what the state should want and then how to set up institutions so that those outcomes are more likely, given what individuals are likely to do in the situations that confront them.

Lots of factors can cause people to act in certain ways, including emotion, error, and instinct. But we have often assumed that people act in order to accomplish ends. Parents try to get their children into a given school so that their kids will be on a path to safety and wealth. Governments segregate schools to preserve white supremacy or else integrate them to promote a certain form of equity. These explanations assume purposive behavior toward ends. We could call them “functionalist” explanations. We are asking, “What is—and what should be—the function of public schools?”

In this context, I have assigned Clifford Geertz’ classic text, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight,” Daedalus, vol. 101, no. 1, Myth, Symbol, and Culture (Winter, 1972), pp. 1-37.

Geertz and his unnamed spouse–both of them “malarial and diffident”—arrive in a village in Bali, Indonesia in the late 1950s to study it. They encounter many institutions and practices e.g., farming and Hindu temple festivals. Among these, cockfighting is prominent and also somewhat alien, since most Americans don’t participate in cockfights. It creates puzzlement for Geertz and his readers and seems to need an explanation.

Our puzzlement grows as we realize that cockfighting: 1) occupies a lot of energy and time; 2) persists even though it is illegal; 3) involves betting that is “irrational” in the sense that it is carefully contrived to cause a net loss of utility; and 4) conflicts with several pervasive Balinese norms. For instance, Balinese culture is integrated on sexual lines, but cockfighting is just for men. Balinese culture is very courtly, but cockfighting is violent and extremely competitive.

You could ask lots of “why” questions. Why do Balinese people engage in cockfighting? More specifically, why are the betting odds for the main event always set at 1:1 and why are there also side bets that are never 1:1? Or why do people from the same factions never compete in the main fight?

And you could pose functionalist explanations. The function of cockfighting in Bali is …?

But here is a different question. What is a Balinese cockfight? That question has many possible answers:

  • “A chicken hacking another mindless to bits “(p. 84)
  • An example of “deep play” (p. 71)
  • “fundamentally a dramatization of status concerns” (p. 74)
  • an “encompassing structure” that presents a coherent vision of “death, masculinity, rage, pride, loss, beneficence, chance” (p. 79)
  • “a kind of sentimental education” from which a Balinese man “learns what his culture’s ethos and his private sensibility (or, anyway, certain aspects of them) look like when spelled out externally in a collective text” p. 83

These descriptions range from “thin” (chickens fighting) to “thick” (a vision of death and masculinity)

Gilbert Ryle originated the thin/thick distinction here:

Two boys fairly swiftly contract the eyelids of their right eyes. In the first boy this is only an involuntary twitch; but the other is winking conspiratorially to an accomplice. At the lowest or the thinnest level of description the two contractions of the eyelids may be exactly alike. From a cinematograph-film of the two faces there might be no telling which contraction, if either, was a wink, or which, if either, were a mere twitch. Yet there remains the immense but unphotographable difference between a twitch and a wink. For to wink is to try to signal to someone in particular, without the cognisance of others, a definite message according to an already understood code.

You could ask, “Why did the boy’s eyelid contract?” That helps you answer the question, “What was that?”

According to Berry Tholen (“Bridging the gap between research traditions: on what we can really learn from Clifford Geertz.” Critical Policy Studies 12.3 (2018): 335-349.),

Three aspects of Deep Play are most often cited as exemplary for interpretive research in the social sciences:
• trying to understand people as they understand themselves;
• offering understandings by presenting thick descriptions and
• using text-analysis as the paradigm for studying societal meanings.

What is the relevance of this kind of inquiry to policy?

1) It reminds us that “what?” is often as hard and important a question as “why?”

I was recently the principal investigator for a social science research project asking whether a new arts venue in Boston’s Chinatown—the Pao Arts Center—benefits community members, specifically by improving their mental health. This is a causal question, and we investigated it using surveys and interviews. Ideally, researchers would randomly assign people to get the “treatment” of the Pao Arts Center, or not, and measure its effects on hard outcomes, like stress hormones.

But there is also a question of “what.” On a given afternoon at Pao, the auditorium might be a venue for a classical Chinese opera or a spoken-word performance by a young Asian-American artist. What are those things? I have so little background in Chinese opera that I can only give the thinnest description (“Chinese opera”). I cannot thicken those words to say, “This is an excellent, if conventional, performance of an opera from the Beijing court tradition.” Or, “This is a subversive postmodern version of a well-known classic.” Or, “This is an incompetent effort to perform a classic.” I do not know how to thicken the description, but I could ask better-informed observers or learn more myself.

Only once we know what the art is can we know whether that kind of art helps with mental health. Hence our project deliberately combined humanities scholars from Department of Theatre, Dance, and Performance Studies with public health scholars from the Tufts Medical School.

2) It requires certain methods.

How can we know what a culturally complex object is? How does Geertz go about knowing? This is a moment to talk about ethnography, textual analysis, and other methods of interpretation. And it is a moment to ask whether interpretations are arbitrary and subjective, or whether they can be valid.

3) It recognizes that human beings do not always act for outcomes.

Geertz asserts (citing Weber, vaguely) that “the imposition of meaning on life is the major end and primary condition of human existence” (p. 16). We sometimes act not to do things but to “increase the meaningfulness” of things. If that is true, policy analysts and policymakers should take meaning into consideration.

To return to our original policy question: What is a school in modern America? What is a school within a given system of school assignment? What is a “no-excuses” charter school, or a de facto segregated neighborhood school, or a small-town school that serves everyone?

Martin Luther King as a philosopher

I am teaching a seminar on the political philosophy of Martin Luther King, Jr. The salient issues include race and racism, peace and violence, the nature of democracy, and the meaning of American history. At the same time, I am personally interested in what it means to treat King as a philosopher and to define philosophy to include what King does.

His words are meant to affect events in the world. Often he reflects on what has just happened. His written and spoken words belong to episodes (such as specific boycotts), campaigns (like Montgomery or Birmingham), and the Freedom Movement as a whole. These episodes and campaigns are expressions of ideas that King puts into words, as do his colleagues in the same movement.

King is often obviously strategic. To name just one example, he says that he “should indicate why” he has come to Birmingham. The answer he gives–he is the president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, which has a Birmingham chapter that asked him to come–is not in any respect false. But it is also far from the whole truth. King has good strategic reasons not to write, “We struggled in Albany, GA because the police chief there was savvy and media-friendly and avoided confrontation. His counterpart in Birmingham, Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor, is an overtly white supremacist bully who can be counted on to react violently, and we have rushed here just in time to confront him on national TV before his term in office ends.” This would be part of the truth but would not be smart strategy to say.

A more troubling example is the opening sentence of Stride to Freedom: “On December 1, 1955, an attractive Negro seamstress, Mrs. Rosa Parks, boarded the Cleveland Avenue Bus …” In these pages, King evades the fact that Rosa Parks was a deeply experienced and trained organizer whose main issue had been sexual violence against Black women, which (as he neglects to say) was relevant to the Montgomery Bus Boycott because White drivers harassed Black female passengers. But again, King is being strategic: picking his battles, reading his audience.

King is also prophetic, in a particular sense. The Hebrew prophets don’t have crystal balls and don’t pretend to make forecasts. They admonish their audiences to action. They are prophetic not in the sense of prediction but exhortation; they try to make things true. Thus, when King writes, “the goal of America is freedom,” that is not a description of a trend over time. It is an effort to make freedom become America’s goal. “Human progress never rolls in on wheels of inevitability; it comes through the tireless efforts of men willing to be co workers with God.”

A frequent interpretive question is whether we should take any given argument strictly on its face. For instance, King makes a quick but tight argument for natural law in the Letter from Birmingham Jail. To paraphrase: human beings have certain natural capacities to flourish; a law is just if it “uplifts” those capacities and unjust if it “degrades” them.

Does King believe in natural law? Or is this a strategic move in a letter to pastors? (I would say: both.) This exegetical question doesn’t really matter if you view King as a political leader, but it is important if you want to take him fully seriously as a theorist.

One view of philosophy is that it is all about truth and is carefully distinct from strategic discourse and prophesy (and religious faith). There is a sense in which King is less of a truth-teller than, say, James Baldwin in the same years. He is more likely to think about how a specific audience (including a morally unreliable white audience) will react to his words and tailors them accordingly to produce the results he wants. He is more likely to express ideas that he hopes will prevail in order to make them come true, even though he knows they have not ever yet been true.

On the other hand, all moral and political philosophy is writing (or speech) that aims to affect an audience. It always has outcomes, whether intended or not, and whether in the direction of change or stasis. Like King, Machiavelli and Hobbes wrote for explicit audiences and may have wanted to persuade other audiences implicitly. As Machiavelli addressed the Medici, so King writes a letter to white pastors that he knows will be read by many others.

King is, however, much more thoughtful than most modern professional philosophers are about the ethics of his speech-as-action. (To say that he is thoughtful does not mean he is always right, as the Rosa Parks example indicates). He must be more thoughtful because he bears a far heavier burden. As a leader of a movement of oppressed people, he doesn’t really have “freedom of speech.” He has a responsibility to use his speech effectively under severe constraints. And that makes his texts all the more complex as works of philosophy.

See also: syllabus of a course on Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.; Martin Luther and Martin Luther King; notes on the metaphysics of Gandhi and King; some thoughts on natural law; “Another Time for Freedom? Lessons from the Civil Rights Era for Today’s Campuses,” against inevitability; and what is public philosophy?