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Positioning theory illuminates our understanding of rights, duties, expectations and vulnerabilities. It addresses the dynamics of power and control and is a potent tool for understanding the self, the individual in the context of others, relationships, and social institutions. It even transcends the distinction between people and objects and has profound implications for the development of artificial intelligence (AI).
Positioning and technology
It is already becoming apparent that any computer algorithm (whether or not it is based on AI) is not neutral with respect to position. An algorithm that scores my credit worthiness, for example, can have significant impact on my life even though it may be only using a small sample of indicators in making its judgment. These, for example, might include debts that I dispute and might exclude a long-term history of credit and trustworthiness. The algorithm takes its position from a particular set of indicators that constitutes ‘its world’ of understanding. However I might easily question that it has used a biased training set or is not looking at the right things, or that it is quite likely using that information in a misleading way. And like any set of metrics, they can be manipulated once you know the algorithm.
There are algorithms that are explicitly programmed into the software on various decision-making systems but when it comes to more advanced technology based on machine learning, it is also already apparent that we are building into our artificially intelligent devices all kinds of default positions without even realizing it. So, if an AI programme selects staff for interview on the basis of data across which it has run its machine learning algorithms, it will simply replicate biases that are deeply entrenched but that go unquestioned. For example it might build in biases against gender, race or many other factors that we might call into question if they were explicit.
Youtube Vide, Cathy O’Neil | Weapons of Math Destruction, PdF YouTube, June 2015, 12:15 minutes
As we develop artificial intelligences in all sorts of situations and in many different manifestations from credit rating algorithms to robots we can easily embed positions that that cause harm. Sometimes this will be unwittingly and sometimes it will be deliberate.
Where do you stand?
Are you sitting down? Maybe you are in London, or Paris or Malaga. And maybe it’s 4pm on Saturday 11th November 2017 where you are. So, that locates you (or rather me) in place and time. And in exactly the same way, you can also be ‘positioned’ with respect to your attitudes and opinions. Are you to ‘the right’ or to ‘the left’, for example.
Positioning theory can help you understand where you are, and it’s not just ‘left’ or ‘right’. Pretty well every word you say and every action you take, creates a ‘position’. Read on to see how you cannot avoid taking positions and how positions confer rights and responsibilities on you and others, reveal vulnerabilities and determine the power relationships between us. Even objects, both natural and the ones we create have positions, both in the sense of where they are located, but also in the way they affect your actions. Re-thinking the world from the point of view of positioning theory can be a revelation.
Part of the appeal of positioning theory is that it is easy to understand, and it is easy to understand because it builds on a basic psychological process that we use all the time. This is the process of navigating around a space.
Youtube Video, Spatial Navigation – Neil Burgess, Serious Science, December 2016, 12:41 minutes
Positioning theory can be applied to all sorts of things. It can be used between individuals to help understand each other and resolve differences. It can be used in organisations to help effect organisational change. It can be used by therapists to help families understand and adjust the way they think about the main influences in their lives, and help alter their circumstances. It can be used in international relations to help nations and cultures understand each other and resolve their differences. It can also be used manipulatively to sell you things you didn’t want and to restrict your freedom, even without you being consciously aware of it.
In one sense, positioning theory is such a simple idea that it can seem obvious. It can be thought of as ‘the position you take on a particular issue’. For example, you may take the position on animal rights, that an animal has the same right to live as a person. But positions need not be so grand or political. You might take the position that two sugars are too many to have in tea or that it’s better not to walk on the cracks between stones on the pavement. Even ascribing attributes to people or objects is to take a position. So to say that somebody is ‘kind’ or ‘annoyed’ is to take a position about how to interpret their behaviour.
What is common to positions is that they derive from some kind of evaluation within a context of beliefs and they can influence action (or at least the propensity for action). Label someone as ‘violent’ or ‘stupid’, for example, and you may easily affect other people’s behaviours with respect to that person, as well as your own. And, of course, if that person is aware of the label, they may well live up to it.
Despite being a simple concept, positions are so pervasive and integrated into thought, language, dialogue, actions and everyday life that it is only relatively recently (i.e. in the post-modern era from about the mid 20th century onwards) that ‘positioning theory’ has emerged and ‘positions’ have become identified as having explicit ‘identities’ in their own right. However, this understanding of positioning has had impact all the way across the social sciences.
Youtube Video, Rom Harré Positioning Theory Symposium Bruges, July 2015, 1:06:27 hours
If I take the position that ‘people should not be allowed to carry guns’, I am placing myself at a particular location on a line or scale, the other end of which is that ‘people should be allowed to carry guns’. The extremes of this scale might be ‘people should never under any circumstances be allowed to carry guns’ and ‘people should always under all circumstances be allowed to carry guns’.
Should not be allowed – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – Should be allowed
. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .^. . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . A possible position . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
Once you start to assess particular circumstances, then you are taking intermediate points along the scale. Thinking of positions as lines, or scales, along which you can locate yourself and others, and potentially travel from place to place, helps everybody understand where they are and where others are coming from.
Positioning the self
It can be argued that the notion of ‘the self’ is no more than the set of positions you take up, and that these positions define your identity in a psychological sense. You can imagine a long list of attitude scales with your position marked on each, and that the overall profile (where you are located on each scale) defines your unique identity. However, it’s not so simple. You are more than your attitudes. Your physical characteristics, your genetics, your background, your memories and experiences, your skills etc., will all influence your attitudes, but are distinct from them. Also, your attitudes are not fixed. They change over time and they change in response to circumstances.
Roles, the self, and identity
There is another closely related sense of ‘position’ that goes beyond your own opinions on particular issues. This is how others (and you) position yourself in society. This is looking at you from the outside in rather than the inside out.
A position is not just where you are located on some dimension but it also implies a set of rights, responsibilities and expectations. A child is in a different position to an adult. A doctor is in a different position to a teacher or a taxi driver. We have different expectation of them, accord them different privileges and hold them to account according to different criteria.
Work roles are often known as ‘positions’. You apply for a position. Roles, like that of teacher, policeman, nurse, supervisor, colleague, judge or dogsbody can be seen as sets of rights, duties and expectations that are externally validated – i.e. that are commonly agreed amongst people other than (and including) the occupier of the role. Roles like parent and friend also confer rights and responsibilities. When you position somebody as ‘a friend’ you confer on them the right to know more about you than other people do and the duty to act in your best interests.
BBC Radio 4, In Our Time: Friendship, March 2006, 41:42 minutes
Our relationships with different people position us in different ways. To one person we may be a pupil while to another a teacher, to one a benefactor while to another a dependent, to one a comedian while to another deadly serious. As we move in and out of different social situations these different facets to our identities come to the fore or recede. It is as if our bodies contain multiple versions of the self, each triggered by particular circumstances or situations.
When you position your own rights and duties you are helping to define your ‘self’. If you believe that it is your duty to help the homeless or volunteer for unpaid jobs in the community, you are defining yourself as a particular type of public-spirited person. If you believe that you have the ‘right’ to use fear and violence to control others and justify this in terms of your duty to your country then, like Hitler or Assad, you are again defining your ‘self’.
We can distinguish between the list of rights and duties that are self-defined and part is that defined by others. In childhood your role is largely defined by others – in the family, in school etc. As you move into adulthood you increasingly define your own positions. In principle, you have control over how you define yourself, but in practice it is very hard to do this independently of the expectations of others and how they position you. Significant mismatches between your own definitions, and those of others, creates tension and even more significant stresses occur when there is a mismatch between your own perceptions of yourself and what you feel they ought to be.
One or many selves?
Our naïve assumption is that we have just one identity in the same way as we have only one body (and even that is constantly being renewed such that ever cell in our bodies may be different from what it was a few years before). In fact, it is difficult to identify what remains constant over a lifetime.
Youtube Video, Personal Identity: Crash Course Philosophy #19, CrashCourse, June 2016, 8:32 minutes
But just as we can have multiple roles we simultaneously maintain multiple identities. You may, for example, find yourself carrying on some internal debate (an inner dialogue) when making a decision. Take a difficult decision, like buying a car, moving house or making a career move. It is as if each ‘self’ is arguing the case for each option. It adopts a particular position (or set of positions) then loosely keeps track of it’s pre-requisites and implications. It can then engage in dialogue with, and be influenced by, other positions
A: I want the red sports car
B: It’ll be expensive to run
A: But it would be worth it if …
C: What kind of fool are you wanting a sports car at your age
This suggests that, not only do you change in response to circumstances, constantly re-configuring your positions to adjust to various pressures and concerns, but opens the possibility that you are made up on many different ‘selves’ all vying to have their voices heard.
Youtube Video, What Causes The Voice In Your Head?, Thoughty2, August 2015, 6:57 minutes
And even those selves are not simply stored on the shelf waiting to be activated, but are constructed on the fly to meet the needs of a constant stream of changing circumstances and discussion with the other ‘selves’.
BBC Radio 4, The Human Zoo: The Improvising Mind, June 2015, 27:37 minutes
These selves are normally related to each other. They may be constructed from the same ‘materials’ but they can be seen as distinct and to make up the ‘society of minds’ as discussed in the blog posting ‘Policy regulates behaviour’ in the section ‘who is shouting the loudest’.
Maintaining consistency of the self
Normally we seek to be consistent across our positions and this provides some stability. We strive to be internally consistent in our own view of the world and form small systems of belief that are mutually self-supporting.
Some systems of belief are easy to maintain because they are closely tied to our observations about reality. If I believe it’s night-time then I will expect it to be dark-outside, the clock to read a certain time, certain people to be present or absent, particular programmes to be on TV or radio and so on. This belief system is easy to maintain because we can expect all the observable evidence to point in much the same direction.
Beliefs about the self, by contrast are rather more fragile but nevertheless still require consistency.
Without consistency there is no stability and without stability there is unpredictability and chaos.
You need to know where you are – your position, in order to function effectively and achieve your intentions (See Knowledge is Power to Control). Maintaining a consistent model of yourself is, therefore, something of a priority. This is why we spend a good deal of or mental energy spotting inconsistencies and anomalies in the positions we take and finding ways of correcting them.
Much of what drives us as individuals is the mismatch between how we position ourselves and how we believe others, and ourselves, position us in terms of our duties, rights and expectations. We are constantly monitoring and evaluating how our own feelings, thoughts and behaviours align, and how these align with what we believe other people feel, think and behave in relation to us. If somebody unexpectedly slights us (or gives us an unexpected gift) we cannot help looking for an explanation – i.e. aligning our own belief system with what we believe others are doing and thinking. This is not necessarily to say that we are very good at getting it right and there are a whole host of ways in which we achieve alignment on spurious grounds. These are cognitive biases and their discussion underpins much of what is written in these blog postings.
Youtube Video, Identity and Positioning Theory, rx scabin, January 2013, 7:56 minutes
Re-writing the self
The world is not a totally predictable place, and more so the people we encounter in our lives. As a consequence, we are constantly creating and re-writing the story-line of our own lives in the light of changes in how we position ourselves with respect to others, and how we want or feel we ought to be positioned (see ‘The Story of Your Life’).
Although inconsistency tends to create tension and a drive to minimise it, this is something of a thankless and never-ending task. However much we work at it, there is always a new interpretation that seems to be more satisfactory if we care to look for it. Either new ‘evidence’ appears that we need to account for or we may see a new way of looking at things that makes more sense than a previous interpretation.
In a classic experiment in psychology (Festinger et al 1959) students were given either $1 or $20 to lie to other students about how interesting a task was. They were then asked about their own attitude to the task. Contrary to what you might expect, the students who were paid only $1 to lie, had a more positive attitude to the task. Festinger explains this in terms of maintaining consistency between the lie and ones own attitude when not receiving sufficient payment to lie.
Youtube Video, Testing cognitive consistency, PSYC1030x Series – Introduction to Developmental, Social & Clinical Psychology, April 2017, 3:28 minutes
The blog post called ‘It’s like this’ introduced the work of the psychologists George Kelly who set out the theory of personal constructs. Kelly uses the notion of constructs to explain how people develop the way in which they ‘see’ the world. Kelly’s personal construct theory provides a more common-sense and accessible way of understanding some of the ideas of ‘constructivism’ than some of the later, more obscure post-modernist accounts based in linguistics. George Kelly developed his theory of ‘personal constructs’ way back in 1955 and explores this view of people as ‘personal scientists’, constantly trying to make sense of the world through observation, theory and experiment.
Youtube Video, PCP film 1 Personal Construct Psychology and Qualitative Grids, Harry Procter, September 2014, 28:53 minutes
In a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous (VUCA) world (see: https://www.tothepointatwork.com/article/vuca-world/ ) it is impossible to keep up with aligning ones own positions with what we experience. This is true on the macro scale (the world at large) and in respect of every small detail (i.e. ‘positioning’ what even one other person thinks of you at any given moment).
Thankfully, to some extent, there is stability. Much of the world stays much the same from moment to moment and even from year to year. Stability means predictability, and when there is predictability we formulate routines and habits of thinking (e.g. Khaneman’s system 1 thinking). Routines of thought and behaviour require little mental effort to maintain. We are often reluctant to move away from established habits because apart from providing some degree of security and predictability, it takes effort to change. In the same way, there is inertia to changing ones position on some issue and we will tend to defend it, even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary.
This is particularly true in relation to the ‘self’. We don’t like to admit we are wrong to others or to ourselves. We don’t like to be accused of being inconsistent. The confirmation bias is particularly strong leading us to seek evidence in support of our view and ignore evidence that does not fit. If something happens that forces us to change our world view – we lose our job, a relationship ends, or we lose a court case – then the consequences can cause a great deal of psychological pain as we are forced to change positions on a wide range of issues, particularly those related to our own self-perception and evaluation of our self-worth.
Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011,4:31 minutes
Where there isn’t stability, fortunately we can live with a great deal of ambiguity and uncertainty. Our tolerance of ambiguity and uncertainty enables us to hold some quite inconsistent, anomalous or hypocritical positions without being unduly concerns and indeed often without even being particularly aware of it. This is partly because our positions are not necessarily fixed or even known.
We can easily construct new positions, especially when we are trying to justify an emotional reaction to something. This is another example of trying to minimise dissonance and inconsistency but this time the difference we seek to minimise is between our emotional reaction and our reasoning mind. We have similar problems keeping our behaviours consistent with our emotions and thoughts.
We can construct positions ‘on the fly’ to suit circumstances and support the courses of action we want to take. We can post-rationalise to support courses of action we have taken in the past. We can toy with positions and say ‘what would it be like if’ I took such and such a position, just to see how we feel about it. In fact, each one of our multiple selves, so to speak, can construct quite elaborate scenarios in our ‘minds eye(s)’, together with related thoughts, plans and even feelings.
It is in the nature of the human condition that we ‘duck and dive’ and those that are best able to duck and dive tend to be those that can achieve their goals most successfully. Tolerance of ambiguity, and the ability to quickly evaluate and adjust to new circumstances and interpretations, is a great virtue from the point of view of survival.
Furthermore, our realities are socially constructed. We learn from others what to note and what to ignore. Our friends, families, organisations, the media and culture shape what we perceive, interpret and how we act in response. It is our social environment that largely determines the ‘positions’ that we see as being available and the ones that we choose for ourselves.
YouTube Video, positioning theory in systemic family therapy, CMNtraining, July 2015, 33:10 minutes
Positioning and epistemology
Although we strive for consistency between our beliefs and what we take to be external reality, in fact the relationship can be quire tenuous. You might, for example, take the position that you are a good driver. Then, one day you have an accident, but instead of changing your belief about yourself, you believe that it was the fault of another driver. A second accident is blamed on the weather. A third is put down to poor lighting on the road, and a fourth to road-works. You have now built up a mini system of beliefs about the factors that lead to accidents that could, more than likely and more easily, be explained by you being a poor driver. It is not until one day you are charged with careless driving, that you finally have to revise this somewhat fragile belief system.
Belief systems can be a bit like bubbles. They can grow larger as more supporting beliefs are brought in to sustain an original position. Then other beliefs must prop up the supporting beliefs and so on. If the original position had no support in reality the whole system will be fragile, eventually become unsustainable and burst leaving nothing in its place.
In contrast, belief systems that have a stronger foundation do not need propping up with other fragile positions. Each position can stand-alone and therefore can re-enforce others it is related to. This results in a stable belief system with mutually re-enforcing positions and even if one falls away, the rest of the structure will still stand.
Having said that, no belief system is invulnerable. Even the most ‘solid’ of belief systems such as Einsteinian physics came under attack from quantum mechanics. The way in which science progresses is not by gradual accumulation of ‘facts’ but, as Kuhn observed in 1963, is more to do with the eventual replacement of established paradigms by new ones, only once the old paradigm becomes completely unsustainable. This model probably also applies to the belief systems of individuals where established systems are clung to for as long as can be sustained.
As we move towards the development of artificial intelligence and robots it will be increasingly necessary to understand the logic and mathematics of belief systems.
Noah Friedkin (2017) has developed a mathematical model of how belief systems change in response to new evidence and illustrates this with how beliefs change amongst the US public as new evidence emerged in relation to the Iraq war. http://www.uvm.edu/~cdanfort/csc-reading-group/friedkin-science-2016.pdf
How will robots build their belief systems and change them in the light of evidence? This is one of the issues examined at www.robotethics.co.uk .
The naive theory of knowledge is that our knowledge and perceptions are simply a mirror of reality. However, the more we think about it the more we understand that what we take to be reality is very much a function of how we perceive and interpret it.
Some animals, for example, can detect frequencies of sound and light that people cannot detect – they literally live in a different world. In the same way, one person may ‘see’ or ‘interpret’ what they perceive very differently from another person. They are ‘sensitive’ to quite different features of the world. A skilled football player may see a foul or an offside, while to a non-player ignorant of the rules just sees the players aimlessly kicking a ball around. Also, we are highly selective in what we attend to. When we look at a clock, we see the time, but afterwards often cannot say whether the clock had numbers or marks, let alone the colour of the clock-face. In the post-modern view of the world, reality is ‘constructed’ from the meaning we actively seek and project onto it, rather than what we passively receive or record.
Positioning in relationships
The term ‘relationship’ can include personal relationships, work relationships, relationships between organisations, relationships between the citizen and the state, relationships between countries and many more. It can be easier to think in terms of personal relationships first and then go on to apply the principles to other types of relationship.
Relationships reveal an important characteristic of positioning. If I take one position, I may necessarily force you into another, whether you like it or not. So, if I take the position that you are ‘lazy’, for example, then you either have to agree or challenge that position. One way or another, ‘laziness’ has become a construct within our relationship and it is quite difficult to dismiss or ignore it, especially if you are frequently being labelled as ‘lazy’ at every opportunity. It is quite difficult to live with another person’s positioning of you that you do not agree with yourself. It is a kind of assault on your own judgement. We not only seek internal consistency but also consistency with others’ perceptions. Any dissonance or discrepancy will create some tension that motivates a desire to resolve it.
There is also a more subtle form of positioning. This is not necessarily positioning with respect to a particular issue but a more general sense in which you relate to a particular person, society in general, a job, or indeed more or less anything you care to think about. Are you close to or distant from it; behind it or ahead or it; on top of it or is it on top of you? Here positioning is being used as a metaphor for how you generally relate to something.
Youtube Video, Relationship Position – Metaphors with Andrew T. Austin, Andrew T. Austin, July 2012, 13:34 minutes
Another interesting idea, related to spatial positioning in relationships, is Lewin’s Force/Field Theory in which the forces ‘for’ and ‘again’ some change are assessed. If, for example, in some relationship there are some attracting forces and some repelling forces (an approach/avoidance conflict) then a party to the relationship may find some optimal distance between them where the forces balance. If the other party has a different optimal distance at any point in time, then we leave Lewin’s theory and are into negotiation.
Youtube Video, Lewin, headlessprofessor, November 2015, 5:35 minutes
In a relationship, one way of resolving a discrepancy is to argue the case. So I may argue that I am not lazy and support this by evidence – ‘look at all the things I do…’. Another way is to ‘live up to’ the positioning. So, if you describe me as ‘kind’, I may start to exhibit kinder behaviours, and if you position me as ‘lazy’ I may be more likely to stay on the couch. Both ‘arguing the case’ and ‘living up to’ can be seen as an attempt to resolve a positioning discrepancy – to seek consistency and to simplify.
However, people being intelligent as they are, can often predict or at least guess at each others positions, and can then use this knowledge to alter their own actual or declared positions. A positive use of this would be to act in a way that supports or cooperates with another person’s position. So, if I can guess that you would not want to go out to see some of our friends tonight, to save time or argument I might say that I don’t want to go out either, even if I would want to.
Sometimes this will involve negotiation. We may not want the same things but we may well be prepared to ‘trade’. A good trade is where both parties can change their position on something that costs little to them but gives a lot of value to the other. I might say ‘if we go out we can get a take-away’ on the way back, knowing that this will make the proposition more attractive to you.
Alternatively, I might exaggerate the extent to which I think going would be a good thing, knowing that we might then settle on going for a short time (which is what I really want). However, once we get into this type of ‘hidden’ positioning everything starts to get more complicated as we both try to out-guess what the other really wants. Trades are made considerably easier if both parties trust each other to be honest about their own costs and values. Negotiation will start to get difficult as soon as one or both parties hide information about cost and value in an attempt to seek advantage (e.g. by pretending that something is of no value to them when it is).
It is useful to distinguish between one’s ‘position’ and one’s ‘interest’. One’s position in a negotiation is what you say publicly to the other party, whereas one’s interest is often hidden. One’s interest can be thought about as the reason you hold a particular position. This reason may be ‘because I want to get the most for myself out of this transaction as possible’, and we often (sometimes unjustifiably) attribute this interest to the other party. But as often as not the reason may be quite different. It might even be that the other party wants you to gain as much as possible out of the transaction, but your natural suspicion precludes you seeing their genuine motive. Equally, the other person’s interest might be nothing to do with how much each gets out of it. You may not want to go out because it’s cold outside. If this ‘interest’ is revealed it can open up new solutions – ‘we can take the car’ (when the default assumption was that we would walk).
Youtube video, Interests and Positions in Negotiation – Noam Ebner with Vanessa Seyman, Noam Ebner, February 2015, 15:03 minutes
Although it is possible to hold hidden positions to seek advantage or manipulatively, much of what goes on in negotiation is more to do with understanding our own and an other’s interests. A lot of the time we only have vague ideas about where we stand in our interests and positions. We have even less information about where somebody else stands. We need to test possible positions as they apply to particular circumstances before we can make up our minds. I need to say ‘let’s go out tonight’ before I know how either you are I will actually feel about it, and as we debate the various factors that will influence the decision we may both sway around from one position to another, also taking the other’s reactions and uncertain interests and position into account, before settling on our own position, let alone a mutual one.
However, through the informal use of positioning theory in everyday life, we can identify and make explicit what the various dimensions are. We can reveal where each party places themselves and the other on these dimensions and where the differences lie. This takes an important step towards arriving at decisions that we can agree on.
Positioning, power and control
The rights and responsibilities that we confer on each other, and accept for ourselves, determine the power relationships between us. Studies of power amongst college students in the US suggest that power is granted to individuals by others rather than grabbed. Certain people are positioned by others to rise in the social hierarchy because they are seen to benefit a social group.
Youtube video, Social Science & Power Dynamics | UC Berkeley Executive Education, berkeleyexeced, May 2016, 3:43 minutes
Donald Trumps rise to power can be read within this framework as power granted by the manoeuvrings of the republican party in its candidate selection process and the growing group of economically disenfranchised workers in the US. Similarly, the rise to prominence of the UKIP party in the UK can be read as having followed a similar pattern.
In the power relationships between individuals, often very little is spelt out, and rights and duties between individuals can be in constant flux. In principle it is possible to formalise the positions of the parties in a relationship in a contract. Marriage is a high level contract, the terms of which have been ‘normalised’ by society, mainly in the interest of maintaining the stability and hence the predictability of the social structure. Many of the detailed terms are left undefined and are themselves a matter for negotiation, as the need arises, such that the structures holding the relationship between two individuals together can flex a great deal. Many of the terms are implied by social convention within the immediate culture and circumstances of the parties. Some terms may be explicitly discussed and negotiated, especially when one party feels there has been a breach on the part of the other party. As people and circumstances change, terms may be re-negotiated. It may take major, repeated or pro-longed imbalances or breaches of implied terms to break the ‘contract’.
For example, if your position is that I have a duty to supply you with your dinner when you come home from work, and I accept that you have a right to that position, then we have established a power relationship between us. If I do not cook your dinner one evening then your right has been breached and you may take the position that you have a right of redress. Perhaps it has created an obligation that I should do something that provides an equivalent value to you, and in that sense, I am in your debt. Or perhaps it gives you the right to complain. Alternatively, I may take the position that while you have that right in general, I have the right to a night off once in a while, and then we may be into a negotiation about how much notice I may be expected to give, how often and so on. The rights and duties with respect to cooking dinner will be just one of many terms in the implied contract between us. It may be that I accept your right to be provided with dinner on the basis that you pay for the food. And this is only the start. There may be a long and complicated list of implied terms, understood circumstances of breach and possible remedies to rectify breaches.
Ultimately, to maintain the relationship we must both expect to have a net benefit over the longer term. We may be prepared to concede positions in the short term either by negotiating for something else of immediate value, or the value may be deferred as a form of social ‘debt’ with the confidence and expectation that the books will be balanced one day. However, the precise balancing of the books doesn’t matter much so long as the relationship confers a net benefit.
Coercive, financial and other forms of power
Descriptions of power in terms of rights, duties, laws, and social norms refer to the type of power we are used to in democratic society. In some relationships the flexibility to change or negotiate a change in position is severely limited. An authoritarian state may maintain power using the police and the army. An authoritarian person, narcissist or psychopath will also demonstrate an inflexibility over positioning. The authoritarian state or individual may use coercive power. The narcissist and the psychopath may have difficulty in empathising with another person’s position.
Wealth also confers power. People and organisations can be paid to take up particular positions – both in the sense of jobs or in the sense of attitudes. Pay for a marketing campaign and you can change people’s positions on whether they will buy something or vote some way. In modern market-based societies, wealth is legitimised as an acceptable way of granting power to people and organisations that are seen to confer benefit on society. However, wealth can easily be used both subtilely and coercively to change people’s positions to align with value systems that are not their own.
Youtube video, How to understand power – Eric Liu, TED-Ed, November 2014, 7:01 minutes
Positioning in organisations
Just as important are the positions taken within an organisation and the various dilemmas and tensions that these reveal. For example, for most organisations there is a constant tension between quality and cost. Some parts of the organisation will be striving to keep costs down while others are striving to maintain quality. Exactly how this plays out, and how it matches to the demand in the market, may determine a products success or failure. The National Health Service (NHS) in the UK is a classic example of a publicly funded organisation that is in a constant struggle to maintain quality standards within cost constraints.
Different parts of the organisation will take different positions on the importance of various stakeholders. The board may be concerned about shareholder value, the management concerned to satisfy customers and the workers concerned for the welfare of the staff. The R&D department may be more concerned about innovation and the sales force more concerned about the success of the current product lines. Again, by making explicit the positions of each group, it is possible to identify differences, debate the trade-offs and more readily arrive at policies and actions that are agreed to serve their mutual interests. Where tensions cannot be resolved at lower levels in the organisation, they can become the concern of the executive (see ‘The Executive Function’).
Another type of positioning has an important role to play in organisations. A commercial company may spend a lot of effort identifying and maintaining its brand and market positioning. This is its position with respect to its competitors and it’s customers, and helps define its unique selling points (USPs).
Youtube Video, Marketing: Segmentation – Targeting – Positioning, tutor2u, April 2016, 4:08 minutes
‘Don’t ask for permission ask for forgiveness’ is a mantra chanted by people and companies that put a premium on innovation. How we each act is not only determined by what we can do. It is a matter of both what we can do and what we are permitted to do. We can be ‘permitted by others’ that confer on us the right to do it, and by the rights we confer on ourselves. If we seek forgiveness rather than permission we are conferring on ourselves the right to take risks then respond to the errors we make that cross the boundaries of the rights and duties other people confer on us.
We live in a competitive social world where we may have some choice over our trades in rights and duties. If I take the position that employer X is not paying me enough for the job I do, I can potential go to employer Y instead. However, there are costs and uncertainties in switching that make social systems relatively stable. The distribution of power is therefore constrained to some extent by the ‘free market’ in the trading of rights and duties.
Positioning in language and culture
Positioning can involve ascribing attributes to people (e.g. she is strong, he is kind etc.).
Every time you label something you are taking a position.
Linguistic labels can have a powerful influence within a culture because they can come heavily laden with expectations about rights and responsibilities. Ascribing the attribute ‘disabled’ or ‘migrant’, for example, may confer rights to benefits, and may confer a duty on others to help the vulnerable overcome their difficulties. Ascribing the attribute ‘female’, until relatively recently, assigned different legal rights and duties to the attribute ‘male’. However, the positioning can extend far beyond legal rights and duties to a whole range of less explicit rights and duties that can be instrumental in determining power relationships.
It is not always appreciated that the labels put on people, positions them to such an extent with respect to both explicit and implicit rights and duties, and it is easy to use labels without a full appreciation of the consequences. The labels we put on people are not isolated judgements or positions. Through leaned associations, they come in clusters. So to label somebody as ‘intelligent’ is also to imply that they are knowledgeable and reasonable. It even implies that there is a good chance that they will wear glasses. The label brings to mind a whole stereotype that may involve many detailed characteristics.
This is both useful and problematic. It is useful because it prepares us to expect certain things, and that saves us having to work out everything from detailed observation and first principles. It is a problem because no particular instance is likely to conform to the stereotype and there is a good chance that we will misinterpret their actions or intentions in particular situations. Particularly pernicious is when, through stereotyping, we position somebody along the dimensions ‘friend or foe’ (or ‘inferior – superior’) because of the numerous implications for the way in which we infer rights and duties from this, and hence how we behave in relation to them.
Particularly pernicious is when language is use to mislead. This is often the case in the language of politics and the language of advertising.
The terms used to describe a policy or product can create highly misleading expectations.
Youtube video, Language of Politics – Noam Chomsky, Serious Science, September 2014, 12:45 minutes
George Orwell in his book ‘1984’ understood only too well how language can be used to influence and constrain thought.
Youtube Video, George Orwell 1984 Newspeak, alawooz, June 2013, 23:08 minutes
Positions, rights and duties
Much of our conversation concerns categorising things and then either implicitly or explicitly ascribing rights and responsibilities. So we may gossip on the bus about whether a schoolmate is a bully, whether a person is having an affair or if someone is a good neighbour. In so doing we are making evaluations – or, in other words, taking positions.
The bully has no right to act as they do and confers on others the right to punish. Similarly, the person having an affair may be seen as neglecting a duty of fidelity and therefore also relinquishing rights. The good neighbour may be going beyond their duty and attracting the right of respect.
Between two individuals much discussion involves negotiation over rights and duties and what constitutes fair trade-offs, both in principle and in practice. If one person does something for another, an implicit principle of fairness through reciprocation, creates an obligation (a duty that can be deferred) to do something of equal value (but not necessarily at equal cost) in return. A perceived failure to perform a duty may create a storyline of victimisation in the mind of one party that the other party may be blissfully unaware of, unless conversation takes place to resolve it.
When you have a duty, it is generally to another person or organisation. Typically, you have a duty when you have the power to overcome another person’s vulnerability. So if a person is too short to reach something on a high shelf, and you are tall enough to reach it, people tend to believe that you have a duty to do so.
To claim a right is to admit a vulnerability and to assert that somebody with the power to address that vulnerability, will do so.
The right to a fair trial admits a vulnerability to the rushed judgement of the crowd (or the monarch), and confers a duty on the judicial system to protect you from this. The right to citizenship and healthcare admits to vulnerabilities with regard to security and health and confers a duty on the state to provide it.
Youtube video, What Are Rights? Duty & The Law | Philosophy Tube, Philosophy Tube, January 2016, 6:41 minutes
Positioning, ethics and morality
Psychologists Lawrence Kohlberg, in 1958, developed a test of moral reasoning and proposed a number of stages of development in being able to take moral positions. The higher the level the greater the ability to take into account a range of moral positions. A small child may focus on only one aspect of a moral problem. At later stages a person will take into account the positions of different interests – the family, the community, the law and so on. At stage 4 there is an understanding of social order. At stage 6 (a stage that very few people reach) a person is able to reason through a complete range of moral positions. Most adults operate at levels 3 or 4. Kohlberg methods have since been questioned and elaborated. One theory is that we act morally because of our emotional reactions to a situation and that moral reasoning is more of a social act when persuading other people. There are also cultural differences in the importance attributed to moral positions.
BBC Radio 4, Mind Changers: The Heinz Dilemma, September 2008, 27:32 minutes
Positioning in international relations
International relations are nearly always set within the context of multiple parties. Even when considering Arab / Israeli or US/Mexico there is a context that involves many other parties and positions are held in the light of alignments with close ‘allies’. In fact the context can be quite entangled and confusing as in the case of Syria (involving the Syrian regime, the Syrian people, the Islamic State, the Russians and the US as well as many other factions let alone international groupings such as the United Nations and charities). Most importantly any government or regime may have to square its position on the international stage with it’s position within its own country. All these factors considerably reduce the flexibility of re-positioning, except when circumstances configure in such a way that there is a window of opportunity.
Examples of international conflicts can be found at:
Often in international relations it is difficult to establish a parties true costs and true values because parties may hide or exaggerate these to seek a negotiation advantage. It is a matter of working out for each party where there is least rigidity on a set of relevant positions, defining small changes from one (set of) position to another and then working out how to present this change to different parties in terms of their own values, language and objectives.
Youtube video, Negotiations | Model Diplomacy, Council on Foreign Relations, November 2016, 4:57 minutes
It can be important to have a neutral or otherwise acceptable party present propositions or lead negotiations. In terms of how it will be received, the source of a communication can be more influential than the communication itself.
Separating out the underlying reality and logic of the positions from how they are presented and by whom is a first step in resolving conflict. However, throw in unpredictable factors, like a US president failing to follow any previous logic or process, and any such model can break down.
The hidden positions of designed objects and procedures
All artifacts contain embedded positions. So, a door handle embeds the position that it is ok to open the door and a microphone embeds the position that it is ok to record or amplify sound. Even more subtle, is that merely making one thing more readily available that another can embed a position. So, if there is a piano in a bar or a railway station, then it automatically raises the possibility that it may be ok to play it.
This characteristic of all objects and artifacts has a specific name within psychology. It is called ‘affordance’. The door handle affords opening and the piano in a public place affords playing.
Youtube video, Universal Design Principles 272 – Affordance, anna gustafsson, October 2014, 2:10 minutes
Looking at things from this point of view may be difficult to grasp but it has massive implications. These positions are, in one sense obvious, but in another they are difficult to see. They can be so obvious that they go unquestioned and are effectively hidden from scrutiny. They can easily be used to manipulate and exert power, without people being particularly aware of it.
There are several examples that apply to the design of procedures:
• A corporation, for example, may make it very easy for you to buy a service but difficult for you to discontinue it (e.g. subscriptions that automatically renew that require you to contact the right person with the right subscription information, both of which are hard to find, before you can cancel).
• A government may have you complete a long form and meet many requirements in order to claim benefits, while providing many small reasons for a benefit to be taken away.
• Another classic and more obvious example is how, in the UK, energy companies offer a range of time limited tariffs and switch you to a more expensive tariff at the end of the period, requiring you to make the effort to switch suppliers or pay substantially more (as much as 50% extra) for energy.
These subtle affordances are often just accepted or overlooked as just being ‘the way things work’, but when all one’s energy is taken up dealing with the trivia of everyday life, they turn out to be a powerful force that ‘keeps you in your place’ (whether or not they are deliberately designed to do so).
Positioning and narrative
An utterance in a conversation can mean entirely different things depending upon the context. So if I ask ‘Did you pass the paper?’ I will mean quite different things if I am referring to an incident where somebody left a newspaper on a train, to if we had been talking about a recent exam, to if we had been talking about a paper being considered by a committee.
The storyline is different in each case and the position I take in asking the question may also be different. My question may be simple curiosity, the expression of a hope or may determine my intention to act in a particular way, also depending on the context or storyline. In fact, my position will probably be unclear unless I explain it. It is more than likely that you will interpret it one way, in accordance with your theory about what’s going on, while I mean it a different way, according to my own. Furthermore we may never realise it and be quite surprised should we compare our accounts of the conversation at a later date.
Youtube Video, Positioning Theory, ScienceEdResearch, July 2017, 6:02 minutes
By contrast, the blog post called ‘It’s like this’ notes how ‘the single story’ (a fixed and commonly held interpretation or position) can trap whole groups of people into a particular way in which others see them and how they themselves see the world. One way or another ‘position’ has a powerful influence.
Positioning theory integrates
This tour around the many applications of ‘positioning theory’ shows how it integrates many of the concepts being put forward in this series of blog postings. It is a powerful tool for understanding the individual, the individual in the context of others, social institutions in relation to each other and institutions in relation to the individual. In its relation to rights and duties it addresses some of the dynamics of power and control. It even transcends the distinction between people and objects, and has profound implications for the development of artificial intelligence.
Post Truth and Trust
The term ‘post truth’ implies that there was once a time when the ‘truth’ was apparent or easy to establish. We can question whether such a time ever existed, and indeed the ‘truth’, even in science, is constantly changing as new discoveries are made. ‘Truth’, ‘Reality’ and ‘History’, it seems, are constantly being re-constructed to meet the needs of the moment. Philosophers have written extensively about the nature of truth and this is an entire branch of philosophy called ‘epistemology’. Indeed my own series of blogs starts with a posting called ‘It’s Like This’ that considers the foundation of our beliefs.
Nevertheless there is something behind the notion of ‘post truth’. It arises out of the large-scale manufacture and distribution of false news and information made possible by the internet and facilitated by the widespread use of social media. This combines with a disillusionment in relation to almost all types of authority including politicians, media, doctors, pharmaceutical companies, lawyers and the operation of law generally, global corporations, and almost any other centralised institution you care to think of. In a volatile, uncertain, changing and ambiguous world who or what is left that we can trust?
YouTube Video, Astroturf and manipulation of media messages | Sharyl Attkisson | TEDxUniversityofNevada, TEDx Talks, February 2015, 10:26 minutes
All this may have contributed to the popularism that has led to Brexit and Trump and can be said to threaten our systems of democracy. However, to paraphrase Churchill’s famous remark ‘democracy is the worst form of Government, except for all the others’. But, does the new generation of distributed and decentralising technologies provide a new model in which any citizen can transact with any other citizen, on any terms of their choosing, bypassing all systems of state regulation, whether they be democratic or not. Will democracy become redundant once power is fully devolved to the individual and individuals become fully accountable for their every action?
Trust is the crucial notion that underlies belief. We believe who we trust and we put our trust in the things we believe in. However, in a world where we experience so many differing and conflicting viewpoints, and we no longer unquestioningly accept any one authority, it becomes increasingly difficult to know what to trust and what to believe.
To trust something is to put your faith in it without necessarily having good evidence that it is worthy of trust. If I could be sure that you could deliver on a promise then I would not need to trust you. In religion, you put your trust in God on faith alone. You forsake the need for evidence altogether, or at least, your appeal is not to the sort of evidence that would stand up to scientific scrutiny or in a court of law.
Blockchain to the rescue
Blockchain is a decentralised technology for recording and validating transactions. It relies on computer networks to widely duplicate and cross-validate records. Records are visible to everybody providing total transparency. Like the internet it is highly distributed and resilient. It is a disruptive technology that has the potential to decentralise almost every transactional aspect of everyday life and replace third parties and central authorities.
YouTube Video, Block chain technology, GO-Science, January 2016, 5:14 minutes
Blockchain is often described as a ‘technology of trust’, but its relationship to trust is more subtle than first appears. Whilst Blockchain promises to solve the problem of trust, in a twist of irony, it does this by creating a kind of guarantee, and by creating the guarantee you no longer have to be concerned about trusting another party to a transaction because what you can trust is the Blockchain record of what you agreed. You can trust this record, because, once you understand how it works, it becomes apparent that the record is secure and cannot be changed, corrupted, denied or mis-represented.
Youtube Video, Blockchain 101 – A Visual Demo, Anders Brownworth, November 2016, 17:49 minutes
It has been argued that Blockchain is the next revolution in the internet, and indeed, is what the internet should have been based on all along. If, for example, we could trace the providence of every posting on Facebook, then, in principle, we would be able to determine its true source. There would no longer be doubt about whether or not the Russian’s hacked into the Democratic party computer systems because all access would be held in a publicly available, widely distributed, indelible record.
However, the words ‘in principle’ are crucial and gloss over the reality that Blockchain is just one of many building-blocks towards the guarantee of trustworthiness. What if the Russians paid a third-party in untraceable cash to hack into records or to create false news stories? What if A and B carry out a transaction but unknowing to A, B has stolen C’s identity? What if there are some transactions that are off the Blockchain record (e.g. the subsequent sale of an asset) – how do they get reconciled with what is on the record? What if somebody one day creates a method of bringing all computers to a halt or erasing all electronic records? What if somebody creates a method by which the provenance captured in a Blockchain record were so convoluted, complex and circular that it was impossible to resolve however much computing power was thrown at it?
I am not saying that Blockchain is no good. It seems to be an essential underlying component in the complicated world of trusting relationships. It can form the basis on which almost every aspect of life from communication, to finance, to law and to production can be distributed, potentially creating a fairer and more equitable world.
YouTube Video, The four pillars of a decentralized society | Johann Gevers | TEDxZug, TEDx Talks, July 2014, 16:12 minutes
Also, many organisations are working hard to try and validate what politicians and others say in public. These are worthy organisations and deserve our support. Here are just a couple:
Full Fact is an independent charity that, for example, checks the facts behind what politicians and other say on TV programmes like BBC Question Time. See: https://fullfact.org. You can donate to the charity at: https://fullfact.org/donate/
More or Less is a BBC Radio programme (over 300 episodes) that checks behind purported facts of all sorts (from political claims to ‘facts’ that we all take for granted without questioning them). http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p00msxfl/episodes/player
However, even if ‘the facts’ can be reasonably established, there are two perspectives that undermine what may seem like a definitive answer to the question of trust. These are the perspectives of constructivism and intent.
Constructivism, intent, and the question of trust
From a constructivist perspective it is impossible to put a definitive meaning on any data. Meaning will always be an interpretation. You only need to look at what happens in a court of law to understand this. Whatever the evidence, however robust it is, it is always possible to argue that it can be interpreted in a different way. There is always another ‘take’ on it. The prosecution and the defence may present an entirely different interpretation of much the same evidence. As Tony Benn once said, ‘one man’s terrorist is another man’s freedom fighter’. It all depends on the perspective you take. Even a financial transaction can be read a different ways. While it’s existence may not be in dispute, it may be claimed that it took place as a result of coercion or error rather than freely entered into. The meaning of the data is not an attribute of the data itself. It is at least, in part, at attribute of the perceiver.
Furthermore, whatever is recorded in the data, it is impossible to be sure of the intent of the parties. Intent is subjective. It is sealed in the minds of the actors and inevitably has to be taken on trust. I may transfer the ownership of something to you knowing that it will harm you (for example a house or a car that, unknown to you, is unsafe or has unsustainable running costs). On the face of it the act may look benevolent whereas, in fact, the intent is to do harm (or vice versa).
Whilst for the most part we can take transactions at their face value, and it hardly makes sense to do anything else, the trust between the parties extends beyond the raw existence of the record of the transaction, and always will. This is not necessarily any different when an authority or intermediary is involved, although the presence of a third-party may have subtle effects on the nature of the trust between the parties.
Lastly, there is the pragmatic matter of adjudication and enforcement in the case of breaches to a contract. For instantaneous financial transactions there may be little possibility of breach in terms of delivery (i.e. the electronic payments are effected immediately and irrevocably). For other forms of contract though, the situation is not very different from non-Blockchain transactions. Although we may be able to put anything we like in a Blockchain contract – we could, for example, appoint a mutual friend as the adjudicator over a relationship contract, and empower family members to enforce it, we will still need the system of appeals and an enforcer of last resort.
I am not saying is that Blockchain is unnecessarily or unworkable, but I am saying that it is not the whole story and we need to maintain a healthy scepticism about everything. Nothing is certain.
Psychological experiments in Trust. Trust is more situational than we normally think. Whether we trust somebody often depends on situational cues such as appearance and mannerisms. Some cues are to do with how similar one persona feels to another. Cues can be used to ascribe moral intent to robots and other artificial agents.
YouTube Video, David DeSteno: “The Truth About Trust” | Talks at Google, Talks at Google, February 2014, 54:36 minutes
Trust is a dynamic process involving vulnerability and forgiveness and sometimes needs to be re-built.
YouTube Video, The Psychology of Trust | Anne Böckler-Raettig | TEDxFrankfurt, TEDx Talks, January 2017, 14:26 minutes
More than half the world lives in societies that document identity, financial transactions and asset ownership, but about 3 billion people do not have the advantages that the ability to prove identity and asset ownership confers. Blockchain and other distributed technologies can provide mechanisms that can directly service the documentation, reputational, transactional and contractual needs of everybody, without the intervention of nation states or other third parties.
YouTube Video, The future will be decentralized | Charles Hoskinson | TEDxBermuda, TEDx Talks, December 2014, 13:35 minutes
Consciousness, freedom and moral responsibility
Answering the question ‘Are we free?’ at the level of society suggests that the big multi-nationals have assumed control over many aspects of our lives (see: “What is control?”). Answering the same question at the level of the individual is much more difficult. It raises some profound philosophical questions to do with consciousness, freewill and moral responsibility. In considering issues of moral responsibility it is worth first examining ideas about the nature of consciousness and freewill.
There are legal definitions of responsibility and culpability that can vary from one legislative system to another. There are definitions within moral philosophy (e.g. Kant’s Categorical Imperative). There are mental health definitions that aim to ascertain whether a person has ‘mental capacity’. However, it is generally accepted that to have moral responsibility people need to consciously exercise freewill over the choices they make. Moral responsibility entails having freewill, and for people, freewill entails a self-determined and deliberate conscious decision.
John Searle regards consciousness as an emergent property of biological processes. There are no contradictions between materialistic, mentalistic and spiritual accounts. They are just different levels of description of the same phenomena. Consciousness is to neuroscience as liquid is to the chemistry of H2O. There is no mind / body problem – mind and body are again just different levels of description. It’s linguistic usage that confuses us. Consciousness does confer meaning onto things but that does not imply that subjective reality cannot be studied using objective methods.
YouTube Video, John Searle: Our shared condition — consciousness, TED, July 2013, 14:59 minutes
David Chalmers addresses head on the question of why we have conscious subjective experience and how reductionist explanations fail to provide answers. He suggests that consciousness could be one of the fundamental building blocks of the universe like space, time, and mass. He suggests the possibility that all information processing systems, whether they are ‘alive’ or not may have some degree of consciousness.
TED Video, David Chalmers: How do you explain consciousness?, Big Think, March 2014, 18:37 minutes
The view that degree of consciousness might correlate with how much a system is able to process information is set out in more detail in the following:
YouTube Video, Michio Kaku: Consciousness Can be Quantified, Big Think, March 2014, 4:45 minutes
Building on the idea that consciousness involves feedback, John Dunne from the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, looks at self-reflexivity as practiced in many religions, and in mindfulness. Consciousness confers the capacity to report on the object of experience (Is ‘I think therefore I am’ a reported reflection on something we all take for granted?).
YouTube Video, WPT University Place: Consciousness, Reflexivity and Subjectivity, Wisconsin Public Television, March 2016, 40:17 minutes
The BBC have put together a short documentary on consciousness as part of its series called ‘The Story of Now’. Progress has been made in consciousness research over the last 20 years including in the measurement of consciousness and understanding some mental conditions s disorders of consciousness.
BBC, The Story of Now – Consciousness, February 2015, About 15 minutes
Susan Greenfield, addressing an audience of neuroscientists, says consciousness cannot be defined but suggests a working definition of consciousness as the ‘first person subjective world as it seems to you’. She distinguishes between consciousness, self-consciousness, unconsciousness and sub-consciousness. She considers boundaries such as ‘when does a baby become conscious?’, ‘are animals conscious?’, ‘what happens between being asleep or awake?’. Having ‘degrees of consciousness‘ seems to make sense and locates consciousness in transient (sub-second duration), variable ‘neural assemblies’ that have epicentres – like a stone creating ripples when thrown in a pond. The stone might be a strong stimulus (like an alarm clock) which interacts with learned connections in the brain formulated during your life experience, modulated by chemical ‘fountains’ that affect neural transmission. Depression involves a disruption to the chemical fountains and the experience of pain is dependent on the size of the active neuronal assembly. Consciousness is manifested when the activation of the neural assemblies is communicated to the rest of the brain and body. Sub-consiousness arises out of assemblies that are, in some sense, too small.
YouTube Video, The Neuroscience of Consciousness – Susan Greenfield, The University of Melbourne, November 2012, 1:34:17 hours
Some of the latest research on where in the brain consciousness seems to manifest can be found at:
Big Think Article, Harvard Researchers Have Found the Source of Human Consciousness, Phil Perry, January 2017
Prof. Raymond Tallis, however, has some issues with reductionists theories that seek to explain humankind in biological terms and attacks the trend towards what he calls neuromania. He also rejects mystical and theological explanations and, while not embracing dualism, argues that we have to use the language of mind and society if we are to further our understanding.
YouTube Video, Prof. Raymond Tallis – “Aping Mankind? Neuromania, Darwinitis and the Misrepresentation of Humanity”, IanRamseyCentre, December 2012, 18:16 minutes
YouTube Video, David Eagleman: Brain over mind?, pop tech, April 2013, 22:25 minutes
Here is a radio introduction:
BBC Radio 4, Neuroscientist Pauls Broks on Freewill and the Brain, November 2014, 11 minutes
Pinker thinks that our freewill arises out of the complexity of the brain and that there is no reason to postulate any non-mechanical entity such as the soul. He distinguishes automatic responses (such as pupil dilation) from those that are based on mental models and can anticipate possible consequences which are sufficient to account for freewill.
YouTube Video, Steven Pinker: On Free Will, Big Think, June 2011, 2:17 minutes
Alfred Mele speculates on their being different grades of freewill and throws doubt on experiments which claim to show that decisions are made prior to our becoming consciously aware of them.
YouTube Video, Does Free Will Exist – Alfred Mele, Big Think, April 2012, 15:10 minutes
Is consciousness necessary for freewill? Do we make decisions while we are not consciously aware of them? If we do, then does that mean that we are not exercising freewill? If we are not exercising freewill then does that mean we have no moral responsibility for our decisions?
According to Denett, consciousness is nothing special. We only think its special because we associate it with freewill. However, the only freewill that matters is the responsibility for our actions that biology has given us through mental competence. The competence to reflect on our own thoughts and those of others, to anticipate consequences of our actions, and to see and evaluate the consequences, gives us both freewill and a responsibility for our actions.
YouTube Video, Daniel Dennett Explains Consciousness and Free Will, Big Think, April 2012, 6:33 minutes
Freewill and moral responsibility
Where do we draw the line between behaviour that we explain as driven by neurological/ neuro-chemical factors and those we explain in psychological, disease and demonic terms? Professor Robert Sapolsky shows how behaviours that were once explained as demonic are now explained neurologically. This parallels a shift from believing that the locus of control of peoples’ (unusual and other) behaviour has moved from demons and gods, to people, to disease, to brain structures and chemistry. What does this say about our sense of autonomy, individuality and ability to create moral positions?
Youtube video, 25. Individual Differences, Stanford, February 2011, 53:53 minutes
Assuming that we do have choice then this brings with it moral responsibility for our actions. But moral responsibility according to which system of values? Sam Harris argues that we take an odd stance when considering moral questions. In general we are willing to accept that different people are entitled to take different stands on moral questions and that there are no right or wrong answers. We tend to leave moral judgements to religions and are prepared to accept that in principle any moral value system could be right and therefore we cannot criticise any. However, Sam Harris points out that we do not do this in other domains. In health, for example, we are prepared to say that good health is better than bad health and than certain things lead to good health and should be encouraged while other don’t and should be discouraged. By the same token, if we accept that certain moral choices lead towards enhanced wellbeing (in others and ourselves) while other choices lead to pain and suffering then the normal application of scientific method can inform us about moral decisions (and we can abandon religious dogma).
TED Video, Sam Harris: Science can answer moral questions, TED, March 2010, 23:34 minutes
Peter Millican discusses the relationship between freewill, determinism and moral responsibility. He describes Hume’s notion of responsibility, how ideas of right and wrong arise out of our feelings, and how this is independent of whether an act was determined or not. However, our feelings can often be in conflict with lower order feelings (the desire to smoke) constraining higher order feelings (wanting to give up smoking) and that our higher order freewill can therefore be constrained, giving us ‘degrees of freewill’ in relation to particular circumstances.
YouTube Video, 7.4 Making Sense of Free Will and Moral Responsibility – Peter Millican, Oxford, April 2011, 9:48 minutes
Corey Anton sets out a philosophical position – there is ‘motion without motivation’ and ‘motion with motivation’. We call ‘motion with motivation’ ‘action’. Some motivations result from being pushed along by the past (x did y because of some past event or experience) and some motivations are driven by the future (x did y in order to). Freewill is more typically associated with actions motivated by the intention to bring about future states.
YouTube Video, The Motives of Questioning Free Will, Corey Anton, 8:12 minutes
Intentionality and Theory of Mind
If it is our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts that gives us the capacity to make decisions, then, in the social world, we must also consider our capacity to reflect on other people’s perceptions and thoughts. This creates a whole new order of complexity and opportunity for misunderstanding and feeling misunderstood (whether we are or not). Watch the video below or get the full paper.
YouTube Video, Comprehending Orders of Intentionality (for R. D. Laing), Corey Anton, September 2014, 31:31 minutes
How do our ideas about other people’s intentions affect our moral judgements about them, and what is going on in the brain when we make moral judgements? Liane Young highlights the extent to which our view about a person’s intentions influences our judgements with respect to the outcomes of their actions, and goes on to described the brain area in which these moral evaluations appear to be taking place.
TED Video, TEDxHogeschoolUtrecht – Liane Young – The Brain on Intention, TEDx Talks, January 2012, 14:34 minutes
Even though we may not have a definitive answer to the question ‘Are we free?’, we can say some things about it that may affect the way we think.
- We cannot say definitively whether the world is pre-determined in the sense that every state of the universe at any one time could not have been otherwise. This partly arises out of our ignorance about physics and whether in some sense there is an inherent lack of causality.
- If the universe does obey causal laws then that does not mean that the state of the universe would be necessarily knowable.
- Whether or not the universe is knowably pre-determined is independent of our subjective feelings of consciousness and freewill. We behave as if we have freewill, we assume others are conscious sentient beings with freewill and the moral responsibility that arises out of this.
- However, within this framework there are acknowledged limitations on freewill, degrees of consciousness and consequently degrees of moral responsibility.
- These limitations and degrees arise in numerous ways including our own resources, imagination and capacity for reflections (self-consciousness), cognitive biases and controlling factors (including our own genetics, families, cultures, organisations and governments) that either subconsciously or consciously constrain our options and freedom to make choices.
- There could be a correlation between degree of consciousness and the integrated information processing capacity of a system, perhaps even regardless of whether that system is regarded as ‘alive’.
- Wellbeing seems to be enhanced by the feeling that we have the freedom to control our own destiny whether or not this freedom is an illusion.
- The more we find out about psychology, the mind and the brain, the more it looks as if we can explain and predict our actions and choices more accurately by an appeal to science than an appeal to our own intuitions.
- Our intuitions seem largely based on the pragmatic need to survive and deal effectively with threat within our limited resources. They are not inherently geared to finding the ‘truth’ or accurately modelling reality unless it has payoff in terms of survival.
- Some of our behaviour is ‘automatic’, either driven by physiology or by learning. Other behaviour is mediated by consulting internal states such as our interpretations and models of reality, and testing possible outcomes against these models as opposed to against reality itself.
- Our internal models can include models of our own states (e.g. when we anticipate how we might feel given a future set of circumstances and thereby re-evaluate our options).
- Our internal models can include speculations on the models and motivations of other people, organisations, other sentient beings and even inanimate objects (e.g. I’ll pretend I do not know that he is thinking that I will deceive him). Anything, in fact, can be the content of our models.
- We associate freedom with our capacity to have higher levels of reflection, and we attribute greater moral responsibility to those who we perceive to have greater freedom.
- We evaluate the moral culpability of others in terms of their intentions and have specialised areas in the brain where these evaluations are made.
- We evaluate the morality of a choice against some value system. Science offers a value system that we are prepared to accept in other domains, such as health. As in health there are clearly some actions that enhance wellbeing and others that do not. If we accept science as a method to assess the effects on wellbeing of particular moral choices, rather than use our fallible intuitions or religious dogma, then we can move forward in the achievement of greater wellbeing.
- Even if we could ascertain whether and how we are conscious and free, the ultimate question of ‘why?’ looks impossible to resolve.
Given the multitude of factors from physiology to society that control or at least constrain our decisions (and our speculations about them), it is no wonder that human behaviour appears so unpredictable. However, there are also many regularities, as will become apparent later.
Another take, by a physicist, on consciousness as an emergent property of the integrated processing of information.
YouTube Video, Consciousness is a mathematical pattern, June 2014, 16:36 minutes
Corey Anton illustrates how language contains within it, its own reflexivity. We can talk about how we talk about something as well as the thing itself.
YouTube Video, Talk-Reflexive Consciousness, Corey Anton, April 2010, 9:58 minutes
Part 1 looked at language and thought, mental models and computational approaches to how the mind represents what it knows about the world (and itself). Part 2 contrasts thinking in words with thinking in pictures, looking first at how evidence from brain studies inform the debate, and then concludes how all these approaches – linguistic, psychological, computational, neurophysiological and phenomenological are addressing much the same set of phenomena from different perspectives. Can freedom be defined in terms of our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts?
The Flexibility of Thought
Although we often seek order, certainty and clarity, and think that the world can be put in neat conceptual boxes, nothing could be further from the truth. Our thoughts and our language are full of ambiguity, flexibility and room for interpretation. And this is of great benefit. Just like a building or a bridge that cannot flex will be brittle and break, our thinking (and our social interaction) is made less vulnerable and more robust by the flexibility of language and thought.
Wittgenstein realised that categories do not really exist in any absolute sense. A particular concept, such as ‘furniture’, does not have necessary and sufficient defining features so that we can say definitively that any one object, say a piano or a picture, is furniture or not. Rather pieces of furniture have a ‘family resemblance’ that makes them similar, but without any hard boundaries on what is inside or outside the category. Steven Pinker describes a man who was unable to categorise but nevertheless had amazing feats of memory.
YouTube Video, Professor Steven Pinker – Concepts & Reasoning, NCHumanities, First published October 2014, 1:10:40 hours
Pinker also considers reasoning – both deductive and inductive. Deductive reasoning is where a conclusion necessarily follows from a set of premises or assumptions – all men are mortal and Socrates is a man, leads inevitably to the conclusion that Socrates is mortal. Inductive reasoning is where we generalise from the particular – so we encounter five white swans and this leads us to the generalisation that ‘all swans are white’ even though this may not necessarily follow. He concludes that people can do deductive reasoning so long as they are dealing with concrete and familiar content, but easily go awry when the content is abstract. As for inductive reasoning, people are generally not very good, and thinking is subject to all manner of biases (as described by Kahneman).
Representation of Concepts in the Brain
Since technology has become available to scan brain activity, there has been a spate of studies that look at what is happening in the brain as people perform various mental tasks.
TED Video, Nancy Kanwisher: A neural portrait of the human mind,TED , March 2014, 17:40 minutes
Control Systems in the Brain
As well as looking at individual functional components it is possible to identify some of the gross anatomical parts of the brain with different forms of control.
- Cerebrum – Control mediated through conscious abstract thought and reflection
- Cerebellum – Learned control and un/sub-consious processes
- Brain stem – Innate level control
These ideas and a more fully elaborated nine-level brain architecture can be found in a free downloadable ebook available from:
For more on the imaging techniques see:
YouTube Video, Magnetic Resonance Imaging Explained,ominhs, October 2011, 5:30 minutes
If you want to find out more about magnetic imaging techniques then there are several videos in the following Youtube playlist:
Using Functional Nuclear Magnetic Imaging (FNMI) techniques on people as they look at pictures of different objects (faces, road signs etc.) reveals not only something about object recognition in the brain’s visual system but also says something about how we may form categories and concepts. Interestingly, it appears to validate the more armchair philosophical speculations about the ‘fuzziness’ of concepts (e.g. Wittgenstein’s notion of ‘family resemblance’). For example, in his research, Nikolaus Kriegeskorte investigates patterns of neural activity in humans and monkeys. The neural activity suggests conceptual clusters such as animate ‘bodies’ (e.g. a human or animal body) and inanimate objects, despite visual similarities between the members in each group. If we consider the complexity of these patterns of activity and the way in which the patterns overlap, it is possible to see how concepts can, at the one time, be both ‘fuzzy’ (i.e. have no necessary and defining features) and yet distinct (i.e. given separate linguistic labels such as animate or inanimate).
TSN Video, Representational similarity analysis of inferior temporal object population codes – Nikolaus Kriegeskorte, The Science Network, August 2010, 23:11 minutes
In fact, brain and cognitive scientists have made considerable progress in bridging between our understanding of brain activity and more symbolic representation in language.
TSN Video, Emergence of Semantic Structure from Experience – James McClelland, The Science Network, August 2010,1:16 hours
The eventual direction of this type of work will be to integrate what we know about the brain into a simulation of how it works.
Goals, Tasks and Mental Representation
Whilst both language and patterns of neural activity can be considered as mental representation, somehow neither really capture the level of representation that we intuitively feel underlie the performance of tasks and the ‘navigation’ towards goals.
When people perform tasks they have a model in their mind that guides their behaviour. To illustrate this, imagine going from one room to another in your house at night with the lights turned off. In your mind’s eye you have a mental map of the layout of the house and you use this to help guide you.
As you stumble about in the dark you will come across walls, pictures, doorways, stairways, shelves, tables and so on. Each of these will help reinforce your mental image and help validate your hypotheses about where you are. If you come across objects you do not recognise you will start to suspect your model. Any inconsistencies between your model and your experience will cause tension and a search for a way of reconciling the two, either by changing your model or by re-interpreting your experience.
It is often the case that mental representations are vague and fragmentary, needing reinforcement from the environment to maintain and validate them. Even so, conceptual models create expectations which guide the interpretation of experience and tension is created when the internal representation and the external experience are out of step.
In this example, by turning out the lights, we remove a major element of external feedback from the environment. All that is left is the conceptual or mental model supported by far less informative sensory mechanisms. Because you know your house well, the mental model acts as a strong source of information to guide behaviour. Even if you are in a strange house, your knowledge about how houses are typically designed and furnished will provide considerable guidance.
Now consider an example where there is still a strong mental model that drives task performance, except it is less obvious because it does not involve the disabling of any sensory feedback from the environment.
Imagine performing the task of putting photographs in a physical album. You are driven by a view of what the finished product will look like. You may imagine the photographs organised by date, by place, or by who or what is shown in them. Alternatively, you may organise the album to tell a story, to be a random collection of pictures in no particular order, or to have all the better shots at the front and the worse ones at the back. Perhaps you have some constraints on the photos you must include or leave out. All these factors and visualisations form the conceptual model that stands behind the performance of the task. The activity of conceptual modelling is to capture this ‘mind’s eye’ view.
The mental model is not the task itself. The task of putting photographs in the album might be done in many different ways. For example, the behaviour would be quite different if the album were on a computer, involving mouse clicks and key presses rather than physical manipulation of the photographs. The task behaviour would also be different if you were instructing somebody else to put the photographs in the album for you.
The model is the internal mental representation that guides the task behaviour. It can be seen to be different from the behaviour itself, because the behaviour can be changed while keeping the model the same. If instructing somebody to put photographs in the album a particular way is not working effectively, you can take over the job yourself. You have the same image of the end product even though you achieve it in a different way.
A mental model need not necessarily be a goal. The model of the house was simply a representation that allows many different tasks to be performed and many different goals to be achieved. The goal may be to get out of the house, to get to the fuse box, or to check that somebody else in the house is safe. The same mental representation may support the achievement of many different goals.
Imagination, Envisioning and Visualisation
From the above it will be clear that although the mind can respond in an immediate and simple way to what is going on around it, for example by pulling back a hand when it touches something hot, it is also capable of sophisticated modelling of what might happen in the future. This is imagination or envisioning.
Francis Galton in 1880 published a classic paper in the journal Mind called the Statistics of Mental Imagery in which he set out some of the main characteristics of the ‘mind’s eye‘, in particular how people vary in the vividness of their mental images.
Jean Paul Sartre in ‘The Psychology of Imagination’ distinguishes between perception, conceptiual thinking and imagination.
The following playlist from the Open University looks at imagination and envisioning from perspectives from art through to neurophysiology.
Stephen Kosslyn has been researching mental imagery since the 1970’s and argues that people have and can inspect internal mental images when performing tasks. They form a model or representation of reality in addition to propositional representations.
Youtube Video, 12. The Imagery Debate: The Role of the Brain, MIT OpenCourseWare, August 2012, 55:11 minutes (Embedded under policy of Fair Use)
However, the psychology of imagination is somewhat out of fashion at the moment as neurological approaches come to the fore. But talking about the mind in terms of mentalistic concepts like imagination is under-exploited, both as a means of understanding mental representation and as a therapeutic tool.
Youtube Video, Interview Ben Furman 2 – Imagination in modern psychology, MentalesStärken, October 2014, 6:43 minutes
One approach to understanding how we think is phenomenology (Edmund Husserl). This focuses on subjective experience. It is looking inside our own heads rather than trying to construct an objective and theoretical account. Philosophers (Heidegger, Jean Paul Sartre, Simon de Beauvoir) and psychologists (Amedeo Giorgi) have taken this approach. The focus of phenomenology is on being, existence, consciousness, meaning, and intuition. This, in some sense, comes before the great philosophical questions like what is truth and why are we here. It is the sheer realisation that we exist at all and concerns fundamental ideas like the nature of the self and the relationship of self to reality – what we perceive and how we interpret it, before we start to analyse it, put linguistic labels on it or think about it in any logical sense.
BBC Radio 4, In Our Time, Phenomenology, January 2015, 43 Minutes
An idea that comes out of phenomenology is the notion of the gap between what we perceive and our reflections on our perceptions. So, we see a glass of water, but the content of our thought can be about our perception of the glass of water as well as the perception itself. That we can reflect upon what we are seeing is well and simply just seeing it. So much is obvious. Indeed when I ask you to pass the glass of water I am making a reference to my perception of it and the assumption that you can perceive it too. If I ask, “where is the glass of water?” I am making a reference to a belief that the glass of water exists for both you and me even though I am unable to perceive it.
The interesting idea is that the notion of freedom derives from this ability to not just perceive but to be able to reflect on the perception. This removes us from responding to the world in a purely mechanical way. Instead, there are intermediary states that we can consult when making decisions.
It turns out that what the phenomenologists referred to as the gap between perception and reflection, the psychoanalysts have referred to as the distinction between the id, ego and super-ego, the psychologists have developed into the notion of mental models, Kahneman refers to as system 1 and system 2 thinking, linguists think of in terms of semantic structure, and the neurophysiologists have identified as being associated with higher layers of the brain such as the cortex, are all pretty much the same thing!
Mind the Gap
How the mind represents reality can be described at different levels from patterns of neural activity through to mentalistic concepts like imagination.
In reading the following very general and abstract account of mental processes, it is useful to think of an example, like driving a car. For an experienced driver it is almost automatic and requires little conscious thought or effort (until a child unexpectedly runs into the road). For a new driver it is a whole series of problems to be solved.
We can think of a person experiencing the world as a sensory ‘device’ attuned to monitoring our state of internal need and the gap between expectations and experience (our orientation). If all our needs are met, by default we coast along on automatic pilot simply monitoring the environment and noting any differences with our expectations (maintaining orientation). Expectations tune our sensory inputs and the inputs themselves activate neural pathways and may elicit or pre-dispose to certain outputs (behaviours or changes to internal states). Where we have needs, but know how to satisfy them (i.e. we have mastery), we engage appropriate solutions without effort or thought. The outputs can be behaviours that act on the world or changes to internal states (e.g. the states in our internal models). Some circumstances (either internal or external) may trigger a higher level control mechanism to over-ride default responses. When needs are met and experience and expectation are more or less aligned, our autonomic and well-learned responses flow easily. This, in Kahneman’s terms is relatively effort free, automatic and more or less subconscious, system 1 thinking.
Dissonance occurs when there is an unmet need or a difference between expectation and experience e.g. when there is a need to deal with something novel or some internal state is triggered to activate some higher level control mechanism (e.g. to inhibit an otherwise automatic reaction). If sufficient mental resources are available the mind is triggered to construct a propositional, linguistic or quasi-spatial/temporal representation that can then be internally inspected or consulted by the ‘mind’s eye’ in order to envisage future states and simulate the consequence of different outputs/behaviours before making a decision about the output (e.g. whether to act on the outside world or an internal state, and if so how). This is what Kahneman refers to as system 2 thinking. When we have done some system 2 thinking we sometimes go over it and consolidate it in our minds. These are the stories we construct to explain how we met a need or managed the difference between expectation and experience. The stories can then act as a shortcut to retrieving the solution in similar circumstances.
In a very simple system there is a direct mapping between input and output – flick the switch and the light comes on. In a highly complex system like the human brain the mapping between input and output can be of extra-ordinary complexity. At its more complex, an input might trigger an internal state that creates an ‘on the fly’ (imaginary) model of the world which is then used to mentally ‘test’ different possible response scenarios before deciding which response, if any, to make.
As we experience the world (through learning and maturation) we adjust our expectations in line with our experience. Our brains and and expectations become a progressively more refined model of our experience. When we are ‘surprised’, and recruit system 2 problem-solving thinking, we produce solutions. Solutions are outputs – either behaviours that act on the world or changes to internal states. Problem solving takes effort and resource but results in solutions that can potentially be re-used in similar circumstances in the future. This type of learning is going on at all levels of experience from the development of sensory-moror skills like walking or driving a car through to high level cognitive skills such as making difficult decisions and judgements in situations of uncertainty (e.g. a surgeon’s decision to operate on a life-threatening condition). System 1 and system 2 thinking are really just extremes of a spectrum. In practice, any task involves thousands of separate sub-processes some of which are highly learned and automatic and some of which require a degree of problem solving. To an outside observer these processes often appear to mesh seamlessly together.
The learning we do and the models we construct in our minds are very dependent on our own experiences of the world (and this accounts for many of the biases in the way we think). Although our models can be influenced by other people’s stories about how the world works e.g. though our education, peers, family, media etc. (or observing what happens to others), the deepest learning takes place through our own direct experience, and because our experiences are all just different samples of a larger reality, we are all different from each other. Each one of us has merely sampled an infinitely small fraction of an omniscient reality but because of the consistencies in the underlying reality (for example, we all experience the same laws of physics) there are sufficient commonalities in our models that we understand each other to a greater or lesser extent.
Need and maintaining orientation drive us all, and when under normal (but not total) control, we have wellbeing. However, we must always have some manageable gap, so that the system is at least ticking over. This is easily achieved because as lower level needs are satisfied we can always move to others further up the hierarchy, and constant change in the world is usually enough to drive the maintenance of our orientation.
Radio programme links
An index of BBC Radio programmes on cognitive science can be found at:
An index of BBC Radio programmes on Mental processes can be found at:
This Blog Post: ‘Representations of Reality Enable Control’ shows how different levels of description can be used to represent the knowledge that enables us to meet our needs and deal with the unexpected.
Next Up: ‘Are we free?’ delves deeper into freewill, consciousness and moral responsibility. If we are free, then in what sense is this true?
What is the relationship between the world and our mental representation of it? What is the representation that we use to model the world, and run through in our minds alternative futures enabling us to anticipate and predict what might happen? How do we ‘mind the gap‘ between our expectations and our experience and work out how to fill our unmet needs? Things are not always what we expect.
YouTube Video, 10 Amazing Illusions – Richard Wiseman, Quirkology, November 2012, 2:36 minutes
Previous blogs considered how being oriented, and having purpose, formed the basis for having control, and how when needs were un-met, without control, wellbeing will suffer. Orientation was seen as a mental map or model that allows us to navigate around our knowledge and thoughts, to know where we are going and to plan the necessary steps on the way.
Representation is Crucial
I want to know whether it is shorter to go from B to D via A or C. I am told that A is 80 miles west of B. B is 33 miles south of C. C is 95 miles south east of D. D is 83 miles north of A. A is 103 south west of C. What’s the answer?
It is very difficult to figure this out without drawing a map or diagram. With a map the answer is visually obvious. Even knowing that A is Swindon, B is London, C is Stevenage, and D is Birmingham doesn’t help much unless you have a good knowledge of UK geography and can see the problem in your ‘mind’s eye’.
But even problems like ‘will I be happier taking a boring but highly paid job at the bank or a more challenging teaching job?’ are difficult to think about without employing some spatial reasoning, perhaps because they can involve some degree of quantitative comparison (across several dimensions – happiness, financial reward, degree of challenge etc.).
How you represent a problem is crucial to whether or not it is easy or difficult to solve.
The ‘framing’ of a problem and the mindset you bring to it, considerably influences which kinds of solutions are easy to find and which are near to impossible. If we think the sun goes round the earth then we will have considerably more difficulty predicting the positions of the planets than if we think the earth goes round the sun. If we think somebody is driven by a depressive disease when in fact their circumstances are appalling, we may give them medication rather than practical help. Having a suitable representation and mindset are crucial to enabling control.
The wonderful thing is that people can re-invent representations and make difficult problems easy. However, this often takes effort and because we are lazy, for the most part we do not bother and continue to do things in the same old way – until, that is, we get a surprise or shock that makes us think again.
Language and Thought
So familiar and ingrained is the notion of orientation and navigation that spatial metaphors are rife in language – ‘I don’t know which way to turn’, ‘she’s a distant relative but a close friend’, ‘house prices are climbing’, ‘I take a different position’ etc. However, language may only be a symptom or product of our thoughts and not the mental representation itself.
Philosophers and linguists have long speculated on the relationship between language and thought. Is it possible to think about certain things without the aid of linguistics hooks to hang the thoughts on?
Steven Pinker considers language as a window on how we think. Our choice and use of different linguistic constructions reveals much of the subtlety and nuances of our thoughts and intentions. How we phrase a sentence is as much to do with allowing space for interpretation, negotiation and the management of social roles as it is to do with the ‘face value’ communicating of information.
TED Video, Steven Pinker: What our Language Habits reveal, TED, September 2007, 17:41 minutes
Pinker also differentiates thought and language, demonstrating that it is possible to have thought without language and that we think first and then put language to the thoughts in order to communicate. For example, babies and animals are able to make sense of the world without being able to put it into language. We translate between different languages by reference to underlying meaning. Pinker uses the term ‘mentalise’ as the ‘language’ of thought. We often think with our senses, in images, sounds and probably also our other senses. We can also think non-linguistically in terms of propositions and abstract notions. This is not to say that language and thought are not intimately bound up – what one person says influences what another person thinks. However, the fact that words can be invented to convey new concepts suggest that the thoughts can come first and the language is created as a tool to capture and convey the thought.
TED Video, Stephen Pinker: Language and Consciousness, Part 1 Complete: Thinking Allowed w/ J. Mishlove , ThinkingAllowedTV, October 2012, 27:17 minutes
But just as language reflects and may constrain thought, it also facilitates it and allows us to see things from different perspectives without very much effort. In general, metaphor allows us to think of one concept in terms of another. In so doing it provides an opportunity to compare the metaphor to the characteristics of the thing we are referring to – ‘shall I compare thee to a summer’s day?’. A summer’s day is bright, care-free, timeless and so forth. Metaphor opens up the possibility of attributing new characteristics that were not at first considered. It releases us from literal, figurative thought and takes us into the realm of possibility and new perspectives.
TED Video, James Geary, Metaphorically Speaking, TED, December 2009, 10:44 minutes
Despite the importance of language as both a mechanism of capturing and shaping thought, it is not the only way that thought is represented. In fact it is a comparatively high level and symbolic form of representation. Thoughts, for example, can be driven by perception, and to illustrate this it is useful to think about perceptual illusions. The following video shows a strong visual illusion that people would describe in language one way, when in fact, it can be revealed to be something else.
YouTube Video, Illusion and Mental Models, What are the odds, March 2014, 2:36 minutes
This video also illustrates the interaction between prior knowledge and the interpretation of what you perceive. It also mentions the tendency to ignore or find the easiest (most available) explanation for information that is ambiguous or difficult to deal with.
Mental representations are often referred to as mental models. Here’s one take of what they are:
Youtube Video, Mental Models, kfw., March 2011, 3:59 minutes
It turns out that much of the most advanced work on mental models has been in the applied area of user interface design. Understanding how a user thinks or models some aspect of the world is the key to the difference between producing a slick, usable design and a design that is unfathomable, frustrating and leads to making slips and mistakes.
Youtube Video, 4 2 Lecture 4 2 Mental Models 15 28, OpenCourseOnline, June 2012, 15:28 minutes
Mental models apply to people’s behaviour (output) in much the same way as they apply to sensory input.
Youtube Video, Visualization – A Mental Skill to learn, Wally Kozak, May 2010, 4:05 minutes
In the same way that an expert learns to ‘see’ patterns quickly and easily (e.g. in recognising a disease), they also learn skilled behaviours (e.g. how to perform an examination or play a game of tennis) by developing an appropriate mental representation. It is possible to apply expert knowledge in, for example, diagnosis or decision making without either language or thought. Once we have attained a high degree of expertise in some subject, much ‘problem solving’ becomes recognition rather than reasoning.
YouTube Video, How do Medical Experts Think?, MjSylvesterMD, June 2013, 4:44 minutes
So mental representations apply at the level of senses and behaviours as well as at the higher levels of problem solving. We can distinguish between ‘automatic’, relatively effort-free thinking (system 1 thinking in Kahneman’s terms) and conscious problem solving thought (system 2 thinking).
System 1 thinking is intuitive and can be the product of sustained practice and mastery. Most perceptual and motor skills are learned in infancy and practiced to the point of mastery without explicitly realising it. In language, a child’s intuitive understanding of grammar (e.g. that you add an s to make a plural) is automatic. System 1 thinking can also be applied to seemingly simple skills, like catching a ball or something seemingly complex, like diagnosing the illness of a patient. A skilled general practitioner often does not have to think about a diagnosis. It is so familiar that it is a kind of pattern recognition. With the automated mechanisms of system 1 thinking you just know how to do it or just see it. It requires no effort.
System 2 thinking, by contrast, requires effort and resource. It is the type of thinking that requires conscious navigation across the territory of one’s knowledge and beliefs. Because this consumes limited resources, it involves avoiding the pitfall, locating the easier downhill slopes and only climbing when absolutely necessary on the way to the destination. It is as if it needs some sort of central cognitive control to allocate attention to the most productive paths.
Although, to my knowledge, Daniel Kahneman does not reference it, the mechanism whereby system 2 problem solving type thinking becomes system 1 type automated thinking was described and then thoroughly modelled back in the 1970s and 80s. It is a process called ‘universal sub-goaling and chunking’ and accounts well for empirical data on how skills are learned and improve with practice.
This theoretical model gave rise to the development of Artificial Intelligence (AI) software called ‘Soar’ to model a general problem solving mechanism.
According to this mechanism, when confronted with a problem, a search is performed of the ‘problem space’ for a solution. If a solution is not found then the problem is broken down into sub-tasks and a variety of standard methods are used to manage the search for solutions to these. If solutions to sub-goals cannot be found then deeper level sub-goals can be spawned. Once a solution, or path to a solution, is found (at any level in the goal hierarchy) it is stored (or chunked) so that when confronted with the same problem next time it is available without the need for further problem solving or search.
In this way, novel problems can be tackled, and as solutions are found they effectively become automated and easy to access using minimal resource.
The ambitions of the Soar project, which continue at the University of Michigan, are to ‘support all the capabilities of an intelligent agent’. Project funding comes from a variety of sources including the US department of Defense (DARPA).
The Soar architecture is covered in the following Open Courseware Module from MIT.
Youtube Video, 19. Architectures: GPS, SOAR, Subsumption, Society of Mind, MIT OpenCourseWare, January 2014, 40:05 minutes
Whatever the state of the implementation, the Soar cognitive architecture is in close alignment with much else that is described here. It provided insight into the following:
- How system 1 and system 2 type thinking can be integrated into a single framework
- How ‘navigation’ around what is currently believed or known might be managed
- How learning occurs and an explanation for the ‘power law of practice’ (the well established and consistent relationship between practice and skill development over a wide range of tasks)
- How it is possible to create solutions out of fragmentary and incomplete knowledge
- How the ‘availability principle’ described by Kahneman can operate to perform quick fixes and conserve resources
- What a top-down central cognitive control mechanism might look like
- The possible ways in which disruption to the normal operation of this high level control mechanism might help explain conditions such as autism and dementia
In this blog: ‘The Representation of Reality Enables Control – Part 1’ looked at language and thought, mental models and computational approaches to how the mind represents what it knows about the world (and itself).
Part 2 contrasts thinking in words with thinking in pictures, looking first at how evidence from brain studies inform the debate, and then concludes how all these approaches – linguistic, psychological, computational, neurophysiological and phenomenological are addressing much the same set of phenomena from different perspectives. Can freedom be defined in terms of our ability to reflect on our own perceptions and thoughts?