Lapidarium notes RSS

Amira Skomorowska's notes

"Everything you can imagine is real."— Pablo Picasso

Lapidarium

Tags:

Africa
Age of information
Ancient
Anthropology
Art
Artificial intelligence
Astronomy
Atheism
Beauty
Biography
Books
China
Christianity
Civilization
Cognition, perception, relativity
Cognitive science
Collective intelligence
Communication
Consciousness
Creativity
Culture
Curiosity
Cyberspace
Democracy
Documentary
Drawing
Earth
Economy
Evolution
Friendship
Funny
Future
Genetics
Globalization
Happiness
History
Human being
Illustrations
Imagination
Individualism
Infographics
Information
Inspiration
Internet
Knowledge
Language
Learning
Life
Literature
Logic
Love
Mathematics
Media
Metaphor
Mind & Brain
Multiculturalism
Music
Networks
Neuroscience
Painting
Paradoxes
Patterns
Philosophy
Poetry
Politics
Physics
Psychology
Rationalism
Religions
Science
Science & Art
Self improvement
Semantics
Society
Sociology
Storytelling
Technology
The other
Time
Timeline
Traveling
Unconsciousness
Universe
USA
Video
Violence
Visualization


Homepage
Twitter
Facebook

A Box Of Stories
Reading Space

Contact

Archive

Sep
22nd
Thu
permalink

Timothy D. Wilson on The Social Psychological Narrative: ‘It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world’

                                 

"In the mid 1970’s, Tim Wilson and Dick Nisbett opened the basement door with their landmark paper entitled “Telling More Than We Can Know,” [pdf] in which they reported a series of experiments showing that people are often unaware of the true causes of their own actions, and that when they are asked to explain those actions, they simply make stuff up. People don’t realize they are making stuff up, of course; they truly believe the stories they are telling about why they did what they did.  But as the experiments showed, people are telling more than they can know. The basement door was opened by experimental evidence, and the unconscious took up permanent residence in the living room. Today, psychological science is rife with research showing the extraordinary power of unconscious mental processes. (…)

At the center of all his work lies a single enigmatic insight: we seem to know less about the worlds inside our heads than about the world our heads are inside.

The Torah asks this question: “Is not a flower a mystery no flower can explain?” Some scholars have said yes, some scholars have said no. Wilson has said, “Let’s go find out.” He has always worn two professional hats — the hat of the psychologist and the hat of the methodologist. He has written extensively about the importance of using experimental methods to solve real world problems, and in his work on the science of psychological change — he uses a scientific flashlight to chase away a whole host of shadows by examining the many ways in which human beings try to change themselves — from self-help to psychotherapy — and asking whether these things really work, and if so, why? His answers will surprise many people and piss off the rest. I predict that this new work will be the center of a very interesting storm.”

Daniel Gilbert, Harvard College Professor of Psychology at Harvard University; Director of Harvard’s Hedonic Psychology Laboratory; Author, Stumbling on Happiness.

It’s not the objective environment that influences people, but their constructs of the world. You have to get inside people’s heads and see the world the way they do. You have to look at the kinds of narratives and stories people tell themselves as to why they’re doing what they’re doing. What can get people into trouble sometimes in their personal lives, or for more societal problems, is that these stories go wrong. People end up with narratives that are dysfunctional in some way.

We know from cognitive behavioral therapy and clinical psychology that one way to change people’s narratives is through fairly intensive psychotherapy. But social psychologists have suggested that, for less severe problems, there are ways to redirect narratives more easily that can have amazingly powerful long-term effects. This is an approach that I’ve come to call story editing. By giving people little prompts, suggestions about the ways they might reframe a situation, or think of it in a slightly different way, we can send them down a narrative path that is much healthier than the one they were on previously. (…)

This little message that maybe it’s not me, it’s the situation I’m in, and that that can change, seemed to alter people’s stories in ways that had dramatic effects down the road. Namely, people who got this message, as compared to a control group that did not, got better grades over the next couple of years and were less likely to drop out of college. Since then, there have been many other demonstrations of this sort that show that little ways of getting people to redirect their narrative from one path down another is a powerful tool to help people live better lives. (…)

Think back to the story editing metaphor: What these writing exercises do is make us address problems that we haven’t been able to make sense of and put us through a sense-making process of reworking it in such a way that we gain a new perspective and find some meaning, so that we basically come up with a better story that allows us to put that problem behind us. This is a great example of a story editing technique that can be quite powerful. (…)

Social psychology is a branch of psychology that began in the 1950s, mostly by immigrants from Germany who were escaping the Nazi regime — Kurt Lewin being the most influential ones. What they had to offer at that time was largely an alternative to behaviorism. Instead of looking at behavior as solely the product of our objective reinforcement environment, Lewin and others said you have to get inside people’s heads and look at the world as they perceive it. These psychologists were very influenced by Gestalt psychologists who were saying the same thing about perception, and they applied this lesson to the way the mind works in general. (…) But to be honest, the field is a little hard to define.  What is social psychology?  Well, the social part is about interactions with other people, and topics such as conformity are active areas of research. (…)

Most economists don’t take the social psychological approach of trying to get inside the heads of people and understanding how they interpret the world. (…)

My dream is that policymakers will become more familiar with this approach and be as likely to call upon a social psychologist as an economist to address social issues. (…)

Another interesting question is the role of evolutionary theory in psychology, and social psychology in particular.  (…)

Evolutionary psychology has become a dominant force in the field. There are many who use it as their primary theoretical perspective, as a way to understand why we do what we do. (…)

There are some striking parallels between psychoanalytic theory and evolutionary theory. Both theories, at some general level are true. Evolutionary theory, of course, shows how the forces of natural selection operated on human beings. Psychoanalytic theory argues that our childhood experiences mold us in certain ways and give us outlooks on the world. Our early relationships with our parents lead to unconscious structures that can be very powerful. (…)

One example where evolutionary psychology led to some interesting testable hypotheses is work by Jon Haidt, my colleague at the University of Virginia. He has developed a theory of moral foundations that says that all human beings endorse the same list of moral values, but that people of different political stripes believe some of these values are more important than others. In other words, liberals may have somewhat different moral foundations than conservatives. Jon has persuasively argued that one reason that political discourse has become so heated and divisive in our country is that there is a lack of understanding in one camp of the moral foundations that the other camp is using to interpret and evaluate the world. If we can increase that understanding, we might lower the heat and improve the dialogue between people on opposite ends of the political spectrum.

Another way in which evolutionary theory has been used is to address questions about the origins of religion. This is not a literature I have followed that closely, to be honest, but there’s obviously a very interesting discourse going on about group selection and the origins and purpose of religion. The only thing I’ll add is, back to what I’ve said before about the importance of having narratives and stories to give people a sense of meaning and purpose, well, religion is obviously one very important source of such narratives. Religion gives us a sense that there is a purpose and a meaning to life, the sense that we are important in the universe, and that our lives aren’t meaningless specks like a piece of sand on a beach. That can be very powerful for our well-being. I don’t think religion is the only way to accomplish that; there are many belief systems that can give us a sense of meaning and purpose other than religion. But religion can fill that void.”

Timothy D. Wilson, is the Sherrell J. Aston Professor of Psychology at the University of Virginia and a researcher of self-knowledge and affective forecasting., The Social Psychological Narrative — or — What Is Social Psychology, Anyway?, Edge, 6 July 2011 (video and full transcript) (Illustration: Hope Kroll, Psychological 3-D narrative)

See also:

Daniel Kahneman: The Marvels and the Flaws of Intuitive Thinking
Iain McGilchrist on The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World
Dean Buonomano on ‘Brain Bugs’ - Cognitive Flaws That ‘Shape Our Lives’
David Eagleman on how we constructs reality, time perception, and The Secret Lives of the Brain
David Deutsch: A new way to explain explanation
Cognition, perception, relativity tag on Lapidarium notes

Apr
2nd
Sat
permalink

John Shotter on encounters with ‘Other’ - from inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

                
                                      
M. C. Escher, Relativity (july 1953)

"It is then that the reader asks that crucial question, ‘What’s it all about?’ But what ‘it’ is, is not the actual text… but the text the reader has constructed under its sway. And that is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own." Jerome Seymour Bruner, Actual Minds, Possible Worlds Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1986, p.37.

"Only in the stream of thought and life do words have meaning." Ludwig Wittgenstein, Zettel, G.E.M. Anscombe and G.H.V. Wright (Eds.). Oxford: Blackwell, 1981, no.173.

One of our tasks in understanding an Other, is to do justice to the uniqueness of their otherness. But this is not easy, for, as we shall see, it is in how they express themselves in dialogically structured events that occur between us only in unique, fleeting moments, that we can grasp who and what they are. (…)

In his review of George Steiner's essay ('A new meaning of meaning,' in TLS, 8th Nov, 1985), he comments that such a stance in art, is

"a belief that meaning (or meanings) lies in the work of art, embodied, incarnate, a real presence… It is a faith in meaning incarnate in the work of art that captures the ‘immensity of the commonplace’, that changes our very construction of reality: ‘poplars are on fire after Van Gogh’… The literary artist, it would follow from this argument, becomes an agent in the evolution of mind - but not without the co-option of the reader as his fellow author.”

Crossing boundaries

Almost all of us are now members of more than a single active culture. Thus the experience of having to ‘cross’ cultural boundaries, of having continually to ‘shift one’s stance’, of having to view one’s surroundings, fleeting aspect by fleeting aspect rather than perspectively (Wittgenstein, 1953), to make sense of what is happening around us while being ourselves in ‘motion’, so to speak, has now become a ‘normal’ activity. But what, as academics and intellectuals, must we do in the new dialogical, aspectival circumstances in which we now live, to pay attention to ‘the practices of Self’? Can we just apply our old and well tried methods to this new topic of study? Or must we, if we are to grasp the nature of such practices, invent some new methods, act in some new and different ways? (…)

Milan Kundera's comments - to do with us only very recently coming to a realization of the strangeness of the ordinary, the strangeness of the present moment in all its concreteness - are of crucial importance to us. For presently, as he points out:

"When we analyze a reality, we analyze it as it appears in our mind, in memory. We know reality only in the past tense. We do not know it as it is in the present, in the moment when it’s happening, when it is. The present moment is unlike the memory of it. Remembering is not the negative of forgetting. Remembering is a form of forgetting".

Similarly, Jerome Seymour Bruner (1986, p.13) remarks that what he calls the paradigmatic or logico- scientific mode of thought, "seeks to transcend the particular by higher and higher reaching for abstraction, and in the end disclaims in principle any explanatory value at all where the particular is concerned".

What Kundera and Bruner are reminding us of here, is not only that our current intellectual methods are monological and individualistic, and that as moderns we only really fully alive when set over against our surroundings all alone, but that we also import into our accounts of what happens around us, mythic abstractions of our own making. Positioning ourselves as if observers from afar of someone playing a back and forth, turn taking game - tennis say - we fail to realize that we are the other players in the game, that others act in response to how we act. Lacking any intellectual grasp of the relation of their activity to ours and to the circumstances we share with them, we try to explain what we observe of their activities as if originating solely from within them as self-contained individuals. Ignoring the ‘calls’ of their surrounding circumstances to which they ‘answer’, we invent mythic entities located inside them somewhere that, theoretically, we suppose causes them to act as they do (Wittgenstein, 1953), and set out to prove our theories true. (…)

As I see it, only if we institute a third, dialogical revolution of a kind that calls all our previous methods into question, and suggests wholly new intellectual practices and institutions to us, can we begin to fashion forms of inquiry that will do justice to the uniqueness of the being of Others. (…)

Psychology technicalized and demoralized

In attempting to bring ‘mind’ back into psychology, Bruner didn’t want just to add “a little mentalism” to behaviorism, but to do something much more profound: he wanted to discover and describe "what meaning-making processes were implicated" in people’s encounters with the world; its aim was “to prompt psychology to joining forces with its sister interpretative disciplines in the humanities and the social sciences”.

Indeed, although he admits that "we were slow to fully grasp what the emergence of culture meant for human adaptation and for human functioning" - to contrast with what he calls computationalism - he goes on to outline in this and in his latest book, The Culture of Education), a "second approach to the nature of mind - call it culturalism. It takes its inspiration from the evolutionary fact that mind could not exist save for culture." As he remarks in Acts of Meaning:

"What was obvious from the start was perhaps too obvious to be fully appreciated, at least by us psychologists who by habit and by tradition think in rather individualist terms. The symbolic systems that individual used in constructing meaning were systems that were already in place, already ‘there’, deeply entrenched in culture and language. They constituted a very special kind of communal tool kit whose tools, once used, made the user a reflection of the community… As Clifford Geertz puts it, without the constituting role of culture we are ‘unworkable monstrosities… incomplete or unfinished animals who complete or finish ourselves through culture.”

The ‘movements’ at work in our dialogic encounters with an Other

To refer to issues he has brought to our attention, let me now return to Bruner’s  account of narrative modes of thought in his ‘Two modes…' (…) In the story, Marco Polo tells Kublai Khan of a stone bridge, describing it stone by stone. But Kublai Khan gets impatient and seeks what some of us would now call ‘the bottom line’, and asks what supports the stones? ‘The bridge is not supported by one stone or another,’ Marco answers, ‘but by the line of the arch that they form.’ Then ‘Why do you speak to me of the stones?,’ Kublai Khan demands. ‘Without stones there is no arch,’ Polo replies - for the arch is ‘in’ the relations between the stones. And as Bruner goes on to point out, in their reading of the story, the reader goes from stones to arches to the significance of arches to some broader reality - goes back and forth between them in attempting finally to construct a sense of the story, its form, its meaning. Sometimes in reading stories, we can attend from the relations among their particularities to something much more general. But, what kind of textual structures allow or invite such a move? How is the sense of a more general significance achieved? And ‘in’ what does that more general significance consist?

It is only in our reading of texts of a narrative kind, Bruner maintains, that we can encounter others or othernesses that are strange and novel to us. In reading such texts, individuals begin to construct what Bruner a ‘virtual text’ of their own - where it is as if readers

were embarking on a journey without maps… [Where] in time, the new journey becomes a thing in itself, however much its initial shape was borrowed from the past. The virtual text becomes a story of its own, its very strangeness only a contrast with the reader’s sense of the ordinary… [This] is why the actual text needs the subjunctivity that makes it possible for a reader to create a world of his [or her] own' (Bruner, 1986, pp.36-37).

To repeat: It is the way in which such texts ‘subjunctivize reality’ - or traffic ‘in human possibilities rather than settled certainties,’ as he puts it (Bruner, 1986, p.26) - that makes the co-creation of such virtual worlds between authors and their readers possible. (…)

As he points out, the existence of conventions and maxims that are constitutive of a normative background to our activities, ‘provides us with the means of violating them for purposes of meaning more than we say or for meaning other than what we say (as in irony, for example) or for meaning less than we say (Bruner, 1986, p.26).

This background, and the possibility of us deviating from it, is crucial to his whole approach. Indeed, he emphasizes it again in Acts of Meaning, where he comments on his efforts to describe a people’s ‘folk psychology’ as follows: ‘I wanted to show how human beings, in interacting with one another, form a sense of the canonical and ordinary as a background against which to interpret and give narrative meaning to breaches in and deviations from ‘normal’ states of the human condition' (Bruner, 1990, p.67).

It is the very creation of indeterminacy and uncertainty by the devices people use in their narrative forms of thought and talk, that make it possible for them to co-create unique meanings between them as their dialogical activities unfold. ‘To mean in this way,’ suggests Bruner, ‘by the use of such intended violations… is to create ‘gaps’ and to recruit presuppositions to fill them. Indeed, our own unique responses to our own unique circumstances are ‘carried’ in the subtle variations in how we put these constitutive forms of response to use, as we bodily react, and thus relate ourselves, to what goes on around us. This is what it is for us to perform meaning. And we ‘show’ our understanding of such ‘performed meanings’ in our ways of ‘going on’ with the others around us in practice - to put the matter in Wittgenstein’s (1953) terms. I shall call the kind of meaning involved here, that are only intelligible to us against an already existing background of the activities constitutive of our current forms of life, joint, first-time - or only ‘once occurrent’ (Bakhtin, 1993, p.2) - variational meanings, that are expressive of the ‘world’ of an unique ‘it’ or ‘I’. (…)

In exploring the problem of how it is possible to perform meaning in practice, of how, say, the process of intending might work, Wittgenstein suggests that we might feel tempted to say that such a process ‘can do what it is supposed to only by containing an extremely faithful picture of what it intends.’ But having said this much, he goes on to point out:

"That that too does not go far enough, because a picture, whatever it may be, can be variously interpreted; hence this picture too in its turn stands isolated. When one has the picture in view by itself it is suddenly dead, and it is as if something had been taken away from it, which had given it life before… it remains isolated, it does not point outside itself to a reality beyond.

Now one says: ‘Of course, it is not the picture itself that intends, but we who use it to intend something’. But if this intending, this meaning, is in turn something that is done with the picture, then I cannot see why it has to involve a human being. The process of digestion can also be studied as a chemical process, independently of whether it takes place in a living being. We want to say ‘Meaning is surely essentially a mental process, a process of conscious life, not of dead matter’…

And now it seems to us as if intending could not be any process at all, of any kind whatever. - For what we are dissatisfied with here is the grammar of process, not with the specific kind of process. - It could be said: we should call any process ‘dead’ in this sense’ (no. 236). ‘It might almost be said,’ he adds: 'Meaning moves, whereas a process stands still”.

Meaning as movement

In other words, instead of meaning being a cognitive process of statically ‘picturing’ something, Wittgenstein sees it here in a quite different light: as part of an ongoing, dynamic, interactive process in which people as embodied agents are continuously reacting in a living, practical way, both to each other and to their circumstances.

Thus, even as a person is speaking, the bodily and facial responses of the others around them to what they say, are acting back upon them to influence them moment by moment in their ‘shaping’ of their talk as it unfolds. In such circumstances as these, we are inevitably doing much more than merely talking ‘about’ something; we are continuously living out changing ‘ways of relating’ ourselves to our circumstances, of our own creation; or as Wittgenstein (1953) would say, we are creating certain, particular ‘forms of life’.

Thus, in practice, as we tack back and forth between the particular words of a strange, newly encountered, meaning- indeterminate story or text, and the whole of the already ongoing, unsayable, dynamic cultural history in which we all are, in different ways, to some extent, immersed, we perform meaning. In so doing, in ‘bridging the gaps’ with the responsive movements we make as we read, we creatively ‘move’ over what Bruner (1986) calls the ‘landscapes’ of a ‘virtual text.’ And what is general in our reading, what we can ‘carry over’ from what we do as we read into the doing of other activities, are these responsive ‘ways of moving’ of our own spontaneous creation - ways of ‘orchestrating’ our moment by moment changing relations to our past, our future, the others around us, our immediate physical surroundings, authorities, our cultural history, our dreams for the future, and so on, relating ourselves in these different directions perceptually, cognitively, in action, in memory, and so on (Vygotsky, 1978, 1986). We can ‘carry over’ into new spheres of activity what is ‘carried in’ our initial ways of bodily responding to a text in the first place.

Viewed in this way, as calling out from us possibly quite new, first-time responsive movements, rather than as being about something in the world, such meaning indeterminate texts can be seen as a special part of the world, an aspect of our surroundings to which we cannot not - if we are to grasp their meaning for us - relate ourselves in a living way. So, although such texts may seem to be not too different from those presented as being ‘about’ something - that is, from texts with a representational-referential meaning that ‘pictures’ a state of affairs in the world - their meaning cannot be found in such a picturing. We must relate ourselves to them in a quite different way.

For their meaning is of a much more practical, pre-theoretical, pre-conceptual kind: to do with providing us with way or style of knowing, rather than with a knowledge or ‘picture’ of something in particular. To put it another way: in its reading, such texts are exemplary for not of a certain way of going on. It is exemplary for a new way of relating ourselves to our circumstances not before followed; it provides us with new poetic images through which, possibly, to make sense of things, not images or representations of things already in existence.

Concerning the creative effects of certain styles or genres of writing on us, or works of art in general, Susan Sontag (1962) has written:

To become involved with a work of art entails, to be sure, the experience of detaching oneself from the world. But the work of art itself is also a vibrant, magical, and exemplary object which returns us to the world in some way more open and enriched…

Raymond Bayer has written: ‘What each and every aesthetic object imposes on us, in appropriate rhythms, is a unique and singular formula for the flow of our energy… Every work of art embodies a principle of proceeding, of stopping, of scanning; an image of energy or relaxation, the imprint of a caressing or destroying hand which is [the artist’s] alone’. We can call this the physiognomy of the work, or its rhythm, or, as I would rather do, its style (p.28).

Where the function of such a ‘moving’ form of communication is, not only to make a unique other or otherness we have not previously witnessed, present to us for the very first time, but to provide us with the opportunity to embody the new ‘way of going on’ that only it can call out from us. But to do this, to come to embody its ‘way’, we must encounter and witness its distinct nature in all its complex detail. If we turn too quickly merely to its explanation, not only do we miss what new it can teach us, but the turn is pointless: for, literally, we do not yet know what we are talking about.

As this stance toward meaning as living, only once occurrent, joint, variational movement, is still very unfamiliar to us, let me explore its nature yet a little more: Remarking further about the living nature of meaning, Wittgenstein (1981) comments that he wants to say that When we mean something, it’s like going up to someone, it’s not having a dead picture (of any kind)’. We go up to the thing we mean (Wittgenstein, 1953, no.455).

For instance, as we view, say, a picture such as Van Gogh's Sunflowers, we can enter into an extended, unfolding, living relation with it, one that ebbs and flows, that vacillates and oscillates, as we respond to it in different ways. What we sense, we sense from inside our relations to it: ‘It is as if at first we looked at a picture so as to enter into it and the objects in it surrounded us like real ones; and then we stepped back, and were now outside it; we saw the frame and the picture was a painted surface. In this way, when we intend, we are surrounded by our intention’s pictures, and we are inside them' (1981, no.233).

Indeed, he says elsewhere: It often strikes is as if in grasping meaning the mind made small rudimentary movements, like someone irresolute who does not know which way to go - i.e., it tentatively reviews the field of possible applications (Wittgenstein, 1981, no.33).

The novelist John Berger (1979) has also written about the act of writing in a similar fashion:

The act of writing is nothing except the act of approaching the experience written about; just as, hopefully, the act of reading the written text is a comparable act of approach. To approach experience, however, is not like approaching a house. ‘Life’, as the Russian proverb says, ‘is not a walk across an open field’. Experience is indivisible and continuous, at least within a single lifetime and perhaps over many lifetimes. I never have the impression that my experience is entirely my own, and it often seems to me that it preceded me. In any case experience folds back on itself, refers backwards and forwards to itself through the referents of hope and fear; and, by the use of metaphor, which is at the origin of language, it is continually comparing like with unlike, what is small with what is large, what is near with what is distant. And the act of approaching a given moment of experience involves both scrutiny (closeness) and the capacity to connect (distance).

The movement of writing resembles that of a shuttle on a loom: repeatedly it approaches and withdraws, closes in and takes its distance. Unlike a shuttle, however, it is not fixed to a static frame. as the movement of writing itself, its intimacy with the experience increases. Finally, if one is fortunate, meaning is the fruit of this intimacy.” (John Berger, 1979, p.6, my emphases).

(…)

Describing (and explaining?) the dialogical: ‘the difficulty here is: to stop’

Although such a way of looking for the fleeting, only once occurrent details of our interactions is not easy to implement, it is of the crux. For, as he puts it, the problems we face are not empirical problems to be solved by giving explanations: ‘they are solved, rather, by looking into the workings of our language, and that in such a way as to make us recognize those workings: in spite of an urge to misunderstand them. The problems are solved, not by giving new information, but by arranging what we have already known (no.109) - but which so far, has passed us by in our everyday dealings with each other unnoticed.

Thus, as Wittgenstein (1953) sees it, although not easily accomplished, the task is not to imagine, and then to empirically investigate possible ‘mechanisms’ within us responsible for us being able to mean things to each other, but to describe how we in fact do do it in practice. Indeed, to repeat Kundera’s (1993) remark above:an event as we imagine it hasn’t much to do with the same event as it is when it happens (p.139) - for we can only theorize events as distinct upon their completion, after they have made one or another kind of sense, once they have an already achieved meaning. Something incomplete, something that we are still in the middle of, something that we are still involved in or ‘inside of’, cannot properly be described in a theoretically distinct way.

Thus, if we still nonetheless attempt to do so, we will miss out - or better, we will tend to overlook - many of its most significant details; and in so doing, we will find ourselves puzzled as to how we do in fact manage the doing of meaning between us. There must - we will say to each other - be something else that we have missed, something hidden in what we do when we mean things to each other, that needs discovering and explaining. But, suggests Wittgenstein (1953), in asking and answering his own question: ‘How do sentences do it [i.e., manage to represent something]? - Don’t you know? For nothing is hidden”. (…) There are countless kinds: countless different kinds of use of what we call ‘symbols’, ‘words’, ‘sentences’. And this multiplicity is not something fixed, given once for all; but types of language, new language-games, as we say, come into existence, and others become obsolete and get forgotten.

Once we go beyond the confines of established language-games, we are once again in the realm of the indeterminate, where are meanings are ambiguous and can only be made determinate by us ‘playing them out’, so to speak, within a practice. Our language-games cannot themselves be explained, as they are the bases in terms of which all our explanations in fact work as explanations. (…)

Instead of a theoretical, explanatory account of their workings, we need first to come to a practical understanding of the joint, dialogical nature of our lives together. And if we are to do that, if we are to see, as Bruner puts it, the ways in which we ‘violate’ the norms of our institutions, then, we also must violate the norms of our institutions.”

John Shotter, Emeritus Professor of Communication in the Department of Communication, University of New Hampshire, Towards at third revolution in psychology: From inner mental representation to dialogical social practices

See also:

The Relativity of Truth - a brief résumé, Lapidarium
Map–territory relation - a brief résumé, Lapidarium

Mar
30th
Wed
permalink

Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning

                      
                                                       Vladimir Kush, Atlas Of Wander

"The way we talk about complex and abstract ideas is suffused with metaphor. In five experiments, we explore how these metaphors influence the way that we reason about complex issues and forage for further information about them. We find that even the subtlest instantiation of a metaphor (via a single word) can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve social problems like crime and how they gather information to make “well-informed” decisions. Interestingly, we find that the influence of the metaphorical framing effect is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as influential in their decisions; instead they point to more “substantive” (often numerical) information as the motivation for their problem-solving decision. Metaphors in language appear to instantiate frame-consistent knowledge structures and invite structurally consistent inferences. Far from being mere rhetorical flourishes, metaphors have profound influences on how we conceptualize and act with respect to important societal issues. We find that exposure to even a single metaphor can induce substantial differences in opinion about how to solve social problems. (…)

Even fleeting and seemingly unnoticed metaphors in natural language can instantiate complex knowledge structures and influence people’s reasoning in a way that is similar to the role that schemas, scripts, and frames have been argued to play in reasoning and memory. (…)

We find that the metaphors were most effective when they were presented early in the narrative and were then able to help organize and coerce further incoming information. (…)

Through analogical transfer in this way, systems of metaphors in language can encourage the creation of systems of knowledge in a wide range of domains. Our reasoning about many complex domains then can be mediated through these patchworks of analogically-created representations. A final question is how strong the influence of metaphorical framing really is? Focusing on a real-world social issue like crime allows us to compare the effects of metaphor we observe in the lab with the opinion differences that exist naturally in the population. People with different political affiliations hold different opinions on how to address societal problems like crime. (…)

Analysis reveals a striking effect of metaphor as measured against real-world differences in opinion that exist in the population and impact policy-making. Interestingly, we found that self-identified Republicans were also less likely to be influenced by the metaphors than were Democrats and Independents. (…)

The studies presented in this paper demonstrate that even minimal (one-word) metaphors can significantly shift people’s representations and reasoning about important real-world domains. These findings suggest that people don’t have a single integrated representation of complex issues like crime, but rather rely on a patchwork of (sometimes disconnected or inconsistent) representations and can (without realizing it) dynamically shift between them when cued in context.

Metaphor is incredibly pervasive in everyday discourse. By some estimates, English speakers produce one unique metaphor for every 25 words that they utter. Metaphor is clearly not just an ornamental flourish, but a fundamental part of the language system. This is particularly true in discussions of social policy, where it often seems impossible to “literally” discuss immigration, the economy, or crime. If metaphors routinely influence how we make inferences and gather information about the social problems that confront us, then the metaphors in our linguistic system may be offering a unique window onto how we construct knowledge and reason about complex issues. (…)

We find that metaphors can have a powerful influence over how people attempt to solve complex problems and how they gather more information to make “well-informed” decisions. Our findings shed further light on the mechanisms through which metaphors exert their influence, by instantiating frame-consistent knowledge structures, and inviting structurally-consistent inferences. Interestingly, the influence of the metaphorical framing is covert: people do not recognize metaphors as an influential aspect in their decisions. Finally, the influence of metaphor we find is strong: different metaphorical frames created differences in opinion as big or bigger than those between Democrats and Republicans.”

Paul H. Thibodeau, Lera Boroditsky, Metaphors We Think With: The Role of Metaphor in Reasoning, Department of Psychology, Stanford University, Stanford, California, USA, Published: February 23, 2011.

Mar
19th
Sat
permalink

The History of Science Fiction by Ward Shelley



“History of Science Fiction” is a graphic chronology that maps the literary genre from its nascent roots in mythology and fantastic stories to the somewhat calcified post-Star Wars space opera epics of today. The movement of years is from left to right, tracing the figure of a tentacled beast, derived from H.G. Wells' War of the Worlds Martians. Science Fiction is seen as the offspring of the collision of the Enlightenment (providing science) and Romanticism, which birthed gothic fiction, source of not only SciFi, but crime novels, horror, westerns, and fantasy (all of which can be seen exiting through wormholes to their own diagrams, elsewhere). Science fiction progressed through a number of distinct periods, which are charted, citing hundreds of the most important works and authors. Film and television are covered as well.” Source

See also: Interview with “History of Science Fiction” artist Ward Shelley, Slate, March 14, 2011

Feb
27th
Sun
permalink

Paul Grobstein on science as story telling and story revising
                        William Blake, Newton, (1795-1805), Collection Tate Britain

"Both science itself, and the human culture of which it is a part, would benefit from a story of science that encourages wider engagement with and participation in the processes of scientific exploration. Such a story, based on a close analysis of scientific method, is presented here. It is the story of science as story telling and story revising. The story of science as story suggests that science can and should serve three distinctive functions for humanity: providing stories that may increase (but never guarantee) human well-being, serving as a supportive nexus for human exploration and story telling in general, and exemplifying a commitment to skepticism and a resulting open-ended and continuing exploration of what might yet be. Some practical considerations that would further the development and acceptance of such a story of science as a widely shared nexus of human activity are described. (…)

The Need for a Story

I strongly believe that the evolution of understandings of science is too important to be left solely in the hands of a closed community of scientists. What is needed is indeed an “army,” a more diverse array of human beings who have in common a shared sense of science as a valuable component of human culture and a willingness to shoulder the burden of making it into what it has the capability to become.

Science has the potential to be what we all collectively need as we evolve into a world wide community: a nexus point that encourages and supports the evolution of shared human stories of exploration and growth, an evolution in which all human beings are involved and take pride.

For this to happen, we all need to work much harder to not only reduce the perception of science as a specialized and isolated activity of the few but to make it in fact the product and property of all human beings. I think the story of science as story telling and story revising can do this. And that the story itself follows straightforwardly from applying to science the same inclinations—to question and to revise our understandings—which have give science its evident power in other realms. (…)

Science as Method: Strengths and Limitations

"[T]here has been one transforming change over this thousand years. It is the adoption of the scientific method: the commitment to experiment, to test every hypothesis… It is the open mind, the willingness in all aspects of life to consider possibilities other than the received truth." (Anthony Lewis, The Fault, Dear Brutus, New York Times, Dec 31, 1999)

Science generates stories from observations and, in this context, ‘true,’ if the term is to be used at all, means nothing more (and nothing less) than consistent with all observations so far. There is no conclusion in science; it is a continual and recursive process of story testing.

Science is importantly a continual and recursive process of not only story testing but also story revision. (…) An observation that is not consistent with the story falsifies the hypothesis or, in our terms, shows the summary/story to be no longer adequate and creates a requirement for a new summary/story, one that accounts the new observations as well as the previous ones.

Such falsification is actually the most productive case in terms of science itself (as opposed, perhaps, to practical uses to which scientific stories might be put). Without falsifying observations, stories would become static, and science would end. What is important is making the unexpected observations. Science evolves more by being wrong than by being right. It is for this reason that a scientific hypothesis/summary/story remains necessarily testable; it should not only appropriately summarize observations to date but motivate new observations that may result in its replacement by a better story. (…)

It is the wrong stories that actually advance the process of exploration and evolving understanding that is the objective of scientific method. Being wrong is to be celebrated for its generativity, rather than denigrated or discouraged as error, in classrooms and elsewhere. (…) Recognizing the importance of story revision in scientific method helps to further clarify both the limitations and the effectiveness of science more generally. (…)

Science is continually testing not only its understandings of material under investigation but also its own ways of making sense of things it is investigating. A good example of the resulting changes in story telling style, in a field of research close to my own, comes from the beginning lines of a recent paper:

"We believe that names have a powerful influence on the experiments we do and the way in which we think. For this reason, and in the light of new evidence about the function and evolution of the vertebrate brain, an international consortium of neuroscientists has reconsidered the traditional, 100-year-old terminology that is used to describe the avian cerebrum." (Avian Brain Nomenclature Association, 2005).

Clearly, what is important in science is not only observations but also stories, the sense that is made of the observations as reflected in, among other things, the names we use.

Albert Einstein’s well known remark, “Physical concepts are free creations of the human mind, and are not, however it may seem, uniquely determined by the external world” (Einstein & Infeld, 1938) is relevant here. There is always more than one possible summary/story that will fit any given set of observations (Grobstein, 2003a). And so there is always a choice (conscious or unconscious) to further pursue one or another way of several alternative ways of making sense of the world. It is through this crack that science is perhaps most strongly affected by the individual temperament and cultural background of its practitioners. Many people regard that crack as a weak point of science, the place where the scientific claim of objectivity fails. I think it should be instead regarded as an asset: it is not only a place for individual creativity but also one that, as I’ll discuss further below, contributes importantly to transforming individual efforts into collective ones. Regardless, what is being tested in scientific method is necessarily not only the nature of things being investigated but also the stories chosen to further investigate them. (…)

Whatever practical usefulness the stories have derives from and needs always to be understood in light of their provisional character. Scientists, perhaps more than most, recognize the likelihood that the universe was not made for human beings and so neither perfect knowledge nor absolute safety are achievable. Science is therefore fundamentally not about security but about doubt, not about knowing but about asking, not about certainty but about skepticism. Scientific stories are written not to be believed but to be understood, made use of as appropriate, and revised. (…)

Science as Story: Requirements for Participation?

Science as story telling provides a suggested answer to the question: What is science? as well as to two additional questions: Who is it for? And who gets to say? With regard to the stories science tells, both answers are: the more the better. I will first consider the extent to which all humans are qualified to participate in the story evolving process, and then discuss the benefits of wider involvement, not only for individuals but also for the process of science itself. (…)

Science, in the terms characterized in the previous section, ought not to be defined by laboratories or white coats, nor by knowing certain things (or having a skill at memorizing), nor by compulsive information gathering, the use of mathematical tools, or logical rigor. It is instead nothing more (or less) than the dynamic combination of curiosity and skepticism that fuels virtually all productive inquiry, and is inherent in all humans from the time they are born. Babies arrive in the world as scientists in the universal sense of the previous section. They make observations, test those observations, and learn from unexpected results. They create and revise stories. In short, the underpinnings of science are a set of skills and inclinations that everyone comes equipped with and needs only to be encouraged to continue becoming better at using. (…)

Presenting science = summary = story makes it possible for everyone to connect it to their own curiosities, and to become a part of the larger process of making sense of things, using their own tools, observations and story telling styles. (…)

Science as a Deeply Social Activity

C. P. Snow urged a convergence between the “two cultures,” to be achieved in part by “non-scientists” becoming more familiar with “science” (Snow, 1963). More recently, E. O. Wilson encouraged a “unity of knowledge,” based on a “conviction… that the world is orderly and can be explained by a small number of natural laws” (Wilson, 1998). John Brockman has written of a “third culture” in which “scientists are communicating directly with the general public” (Brockman, 1991).

The story I am offering here, of all of humanity engaged with science, is similar to these but for one important point. Snow, Wilson, and Brockman have all been read by some as telling stories of the colonization of humanity by science. The present story is more like one offered by Stephen J. Gould (2003). The stories science has to tell should of course be made more widely available and accessible, but not simply to enlighten non-scientists. Equally important is the central role that all of humanity needs to continue to play in the stories that science evolves, both about the world and about itself.

As summaries of observations, scientific stories are only as good as the breadth of observations they summarize, so the more people contributing observations the better. In addition to the observations, however, one needs the stories to summarize them, stories that in turn influence what new observations are made and what significance is attached to them. Since these stories are “not uniquely determined by the external world” (Einstein & Infeld, 1938), there is everything to be gained by having available the widest possible array of not only observations but of candidate stories as well. By so doing, science maximizes not only the breadth of observations but also the repertoire of story telling styles with which new stories can be elaborated. The more people, the more observations, the more stories the better.

This may seem to some (again, significantly both scientists and non-scientists) counter-intuitive, but it follows directly from the earlier discussion of scientific method. Much of the power of science has always derived from its public character, involving the collection of observations and creation of stories in open forums where they can be used and criticized by others. The resulting assailability, conflicts, and resolutions, concerning both observations and stories told about them, are as much a part of the successes of science as any other feature of the scientific method. (…)

One of the major intellectual advances of the twentieth century was the demonstration that, even in mathematics, not all significant phenomena can be understood by extension from a small number of fixed starting points. (Chaitin, 2004; Nagel & Newmanl, 1958).

My point here is not to assert that scientists need to give up the aspiration to find a small number of natural laws, but to make it clear that that aspiration should not be taken as a definition of science; it is a story telling style, one of many. Science should never become the advocate either of a particular story about things it is exploring or of any particular form of exploration. Beyond an insistence on grounding stories in observations, and on the open and public evaluation of both observations and stories, it is not, and never has been, particular techniques or styles that create the power of science or assure its continuing progress. What does so is the underlying principle of skepticism, of continually questioning both stories and the styles in which they are told.

The same argument holds for the aspiration of objectivity, the wish to achieve an understanding stripped of the particularities of any individual human perspective (and, perhaps, stripped even of any particularities of being human). There are ways to reduce subjectivity (Kosso, 1998) and these have demonstrable value; but the crack in scientific method precludes any absolute claim to objectivity. Moreover, as science evolves, it is entering realms where human perspectives (and their effects) appear increasingly to be unavoidably (and perhaps even desirably) intertwined with much of what is being explored. Studies of culture, for example, clearly change the subject of study itself, as do, arguably, studies of the brain. Even in physics, there is a need to face the inevitable role of the observer in many observations. Equally importantly, the search for complete objectivity, “the view from nowhere” always risks yielding impoverished stories, stories stripped of particularities relevant to humanness and so barren of “meaning” (Nagel, 1989), as well as no longer generative of new observations and new stories.

Science is much better off aspiring to the view from everywhere, to stories that make most sense of the widest array of observations and stories made from unique and different perspectives. Embracing that diversity is a challenge for science, as it is for other components of culture. But it is a challenge science is particularly suited by its methods and principles to meet, and it is a challenge that is particularly important to science itself. The greater the diversity embraced the more meaningful and less wrong the stories become, and the more effectively science can contribute to human culture, both by its products and as a cultural nexus. (…)

This story of science is not, and cannot be, by itself the view from everywhere. A different person, in a different time and place, might well tell a different story of the need, for example, for science to counter existing authorities of other kinds, of the practical benefits of using observational testing rather than dogma, or of the problems of nurturing a developing scientific community in particular cultural circumstance. I think, though, that the story I have told here is not only supportive of those activities but sets them usefully in a wider context. In this sense, the story of science as story telling and story revising may provide a foundation for a less wrong view of science, one that usefully engages a wider array of experiences and perspectives. That though is for others to decide. As with all scientific stories, the ultimate test of the value of this one is not in the past but in the future, not in whether it is right given the observations, but in what new things happen, what new observations are made, and what new stories develop because of it.

Paul Grobstein (Department of Biology and Center for Science in Society, Bryn Mawr College, Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, USA), Revisiting Science in Culture: Science as Story Telling and Story Revising, Volume 1, Issue 1, Article M1, 2005 

See also: What IS Science? or Science as Story-Telling or Science as a Common Human Story of Exploration, Serendip

Mar
25th
Thu
permalink
Telling Tales. The evolutions of four stories
Pygmalion - A man falls in love with his female creation, Oedipus - A king unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, Faust - A man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power and knowledge, Leviathan - A mythical sea monster terrorizes the deep.

Telling Tales. The evolutions of four stories

Pygmalion - A man falls in love with his female creation, Oedipus - A king unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, Faust - A man sells his soul to the devil in exchange for power and knowledge, Leviathan - A mythical sea monster terrorizes the deep.