Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Kinder Reader

Not being in a big city, I am not sure how useful this would be for me. However, the Kinder reading device actually seems to have broken most of the hurdles holding back electronic readers.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The need for new balance when living forward

A lot of science deals with explanations.  Predictive power comes as a spin effect from this goal.  As expectations of forward precision increase social scientists are confronted with questions of accuracy.  Minimizing error propagation in practical venues often requires a human touch.  As Kauffman states (2008, pp 149);
Our incapacity to predict Darwinian preadaptations, when their analogues arise in our everyday life, demands of us that we rethink the role of reason itself, for reason cannot be a sufficient guide to live our lives forward, unkowning.
The new scientist recently ran a major article discussing the limitations of conventional reason. It makes a good read for those who may just be getting into some of the standard arguments in this realm.  However, I don't think any of the arguments are as strong as Kauffman's.  They tend to be more about the application of reason more than fundamental limitations.

Kauffman's position in relation to reason , or at least conventional reductionist approaches to knowing, focusses on forward knowledge.  His frequently restated position basically sums up to this:
  1. There is no lowest-level basement language of simple functionalities from which all possible higher future functionalities can be logically derived (pp. 153)
  2. We can not prestate all the variables required for prediction.
  3. Evidence points to emergence as a significant organizing characteristic.  
  4. We live in a critical chaotic universe.
  5. Natural laws can not fully describe this reality.
  6. Reductionist approaches are incomplete.
  7. If we truly can't predict, then "the way a CEO lives his life and guides his company is a combination of rationality, judgment, intuition, understanding, and invention that goes far beyond the purview of normal science, and far beyond the normal purview of rationality and “knowing", (pp. 176).
  8. "We must come to see reason as part of a still mysterious entirety of our lives, when we often radically cannot know what will occur but must act anyway," (pp. 149).
This is a fairly significant proposal.  At what point during investigation do we break the Galilean spell of conventional rationality?  The arguments are really over practicality.  The Dawkins and Dennetts contend that science is the best thing we have.  It has features that resist corruption, enable common semiotics, and filter intuition.  Its application, while containing some self-correcting features, is, however, susceptible to abuse.  So, the debate really centers on maximization.  How do you balance the viral corruptive capacity of our predictive powers with the errors of a rationally modeled universe?  

I think the answer to that injunction is an unstable equilibrium.  One needs to leverage the deity of inspiration and group-dynamics while cycling back to the reliability of science.  However, our evolutionary history lead us to one valley or another.  The cycling point is the power position.  However such locations are unstable and highly susceptible to abuse.  So, is it worthwhile?  Again, I think insights from new religious movements are essential for informed opinion.  The dynamics seem fairly analogous - controlling reality as experienced.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Is it enough?

In "Reinventing the Sacred", Kauffman’s has chosen to take a fairly noble rode in the recent science-religion debates.  He critiques conventional science based positions as falling into a Galilean spell (pun to Dennett's work probably well intended).  Supernaturalistic religion is, for the most part, implicitly critiqued.  However this is done in a respectful manner that acknowledges the motivational and creative powers such beliefs often entail.  On the science side of the debate, I suspect many will ask, do we really need to play in waters where the predictive, explanatory, or communicative power of science is partially or in specific cases fully eschewed?

The creative spark of the intellect can be lit in many ways. The fuzzy tensions of probed spirituality are one match. The deductive and inductive ferreting of novel fact connections is another. I would also suggest the leveraging of fundamental group dynamics is another.  In this debate many “new atheists” tacitly, or in some cases evangelically, project their own motivational dynamics onto others. It is a dogmatic, perhaps na├»ve, leap to assume that since religious magesteria doesn’t emerge as a necessary condition to describe reality it has no place in fruitful understandings.

For some extremists it is a case of contamination. The real world, based on natural laws, is logically constructed. False realities hinder description building. The role of interpretation is subordinate to representation. In opposition to the Greek philosophy that has influenced the West, in this new perspective, the mind is the contaminate to continual understanding not the body. Taken to the extreme, some may say the mind, when uncoupled from reality, hasn’t a hope in hell of replicating the natural world. The probability of one's imaginations duplicating the known and yet to be discovered aspects of the universe are woefully small. Minds bounce through cognitive fitness landscapes that drift off in the wonderland of supernaturalism and comfortable circularities.

Wilson bravely takes the position that religious magisterial produce selectively advantageous group benefits (2004, pp. 228).
“If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism, such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. To paraphrase evolutionary psychologists, factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors.”
Survival doesn’t hinge upon setting a proper foundation for future representation, it hinges upon successful competition.   However, the current science/religion debate isn’t about survival, it is about understanding. Wilson’s argument is one of utility not validity. Kauffman steps into the magisterial overlap by proposing the emergence of a motivational God (spiritualism) steeped in the wonderment of scientific naturalism.  This he argues is a plausible replacement for traditional divinity and overextended scientific reductionism.
“In its place we will find a profound partial lawlessness as we invade the adjacent possible in the nonergodic universe. With it we will find ceaseless creativity in the universe, biosphere and human life. In that creativity we can find one sense of God that we can share. This is, I believe, the core of why we have wanted a supernatural God.”  (Kauffman, 2008, pp. 141)
However, proposing a rational alternative doesn't mean it will be adopted.  For religious like dynamics to resonate, numerous criteria need to be superpositioned.  Usually emerging groups are tweaked according to ultimate predispositions.  Ultimate causes, like selection for reproduction are manifest in proximate urges, like satisfaction from sex.  Similarly, latching onto the power of religious like dynamics requires a stage where proximate causes can be superpositioned.  

Single pronged approaches to religious change have to reposition the tensions balancing the spaces around which group selection resides.  We participate in evolutionary selected groups because certain balances feel right. Changing the balance of belief isn’t a rational exercise. When one element of a group directed belief set drifts out of superposition, sprandreled elements must change their own harmonies to create a new superposition. Another way of saying this is that components need to be reinterpreted to produce the correct feeling for any given set of essential tensions. For example, if I move to the works side of the works vs. grace debate, I had better accentuate, or leave space for the accentuation of, some other underlying aspects of grace. If not, the change is overly radical and will feel phony or contrived. Kauffman’s single pronged approach has to play in a very competitive fitness landscape.

By taking a single pronged approach he is hoping the awe/creativity card will let at least some people reside in the overlap of religion/science.  However, evolved group-level adaptations tend to come with associated free-loader protections.  Proximate predispositions to not cheat probably mean religious change isn't just a rational choice.  It is likely a spandreled chore.  As Wilson suggests, pure rationalism may not be a selectively advantageous trait.  If this is the case, I admire Kauffman's attempt to find one way of reinventing a religious like balance. However, I suspect much more work is required before we are able to leverage, not just deny, our natural tendencies.  Do we stick to the descriptive surety of rationalism/reductionism or do we leverage ourselves into the game of creating new understandings?

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

New Directions

I have all but finished my science & religion readings for the summer.  This involved quite a few journal articles, including Rational Choice literature.  It also included "Darwin's Cathedral", Kauffman's "Reinventing the Sacred", Givens' "A People of Paradox", and another attempt to force myself through the final chapters of Dennett's "Breaking the Spell".  Sometime I will have to add in Boyer's book, however, I have heard it is very similar to Atran's so I will probably hold off on that until I need to cycle back to this theme.

This sets me up for another theme: Relational (social) networks.  This builds on some of the topics in complexity based management I've been studying the last few years.  In particular I am hoping to explore some of the tools that could be used to study quasi-religious group dynamics.  I am limiting things to culturally significant moralistic organizations.  I think one should always be careful not to overextend the application of theory before solid cases have been made.  I think the application of group dynamics from religious perspectives, while valuable, requires quite patience & nuance if it is to break out of its pejorative box.

Network approaches to religion are old hat.  Network approaches to organizational management are currently in vogue, but, like most management memes, certain to fade.  As with education, widespread implementation tend to dull a theory's sharpness.  Late adopters tend to change their practices so as to combine the worst elements of old an new practice.  After all, the pieces that matter most are the ones that take the most time to grow and master.

With that in mind I suspect the relational networks in quasi-religious organizations may have some unique characteristics that relate to change management.  Ideally I would love to find some research on how perturbations affect the relational networks in moralistic and non-moralistic organizations. How would you design instruction concerning organizational protocols that maintain an awareness to the fitness landscape created by natural religious tendencies?

Reinventing the Sacred - Kauffman

I've been going through Stuart Kauffman's book "Reinventing the Sacred: A new view of science, reason and religion".  It is a somewhat technical read, that I think, should form part of a standard base for scientists wishing to study religion (I would also add in Atran's In God's we trust, Wilson's Darwin's Cathedral, some complexity theory readings including Willis 2004 paper, "A complexity and Darwinian approach to management with failure avoidance as the key tool", and Ball's Critical Mass).

One of Kauffman's main intentions is to show how life is best viewed as an emergent property that requires no appeal to supernatural divinity.  In this process some interesting arguments come up:
  1. Some processes have multiple platforms from which they can be explained.  Forward predictive power determines the level from which things are best explained.  Just because you can explain everything back to the level of physics doesn't mean that is the level from which things are always best understood.  This depends on the level where predictions start functioning.  
  2. Life begins to emerge when endergonic cycles are coupled with exergonic cycles. This increase the number of reactions possible. Agency emerges as boundary conditions are naturally selected to favor certain combination of reactions over others.  For instance, a bacteria's path along a glucose gradient emerges as part of the process of maintaining a boundary condition with respect to food.

Friday, August 15, 2008

how self-organization, social capital and tacit knowledge affect an organization's absorptive capacity

Having just finished Darwin's Cathedral, I have returned to Charle's Ehin's book "Hidden Assets". The main idea is how self-organization, social capital and tacit knowledge affect an organization's absorptive capacity.  This is an interesting thesis, but I have to confess, I got quite bogged down in his evolutionary appeals.  Evolutionary psychologists are frequently critiqued for their loose functional appeals to pre-historic cultures.  These are anything but well understood.  In fact, when done poorly, they come across like an Umberto Echo book where backward connections are ridiculed for the conspiracy theories they engender.  Backwards connections do not imply causality.  Usually what happens is an author has a point they want to support.  To do so they look for a plausible selective advantage for the desired trait.  I found Ehin's book full of such tenuous appeals.

Poorly done evolutionary appeals also leave the genie out of the bottle.  In "Hidden Assets", Ehin gives evidence that un-management (his term for full self-organization with tribe sized business groups) is the strongest leverager of human capital.  While I believe this rather dogmatic assertion may apply in specific cases, I think it is a huge over-extension when generalized.  However, Ehin uses a functionalist appeal to evolutionary psychology to bolster his argument.  In doing so he fails to identify why we should accommodate evolutionary tendencies for un-managment but reject evolutionary tendencies towards despotism and hierarchial structures.  I suspect a standard free-loader argument would come into play here.  However, Ehin never used it.  This substantially undermines Ehin's book.  The questionable validity of functional appeals really demeans what should have been a very interesting thesis.

Successful explanations about how self-0rganization, social capital and tacit knowledge affect absorptive capacity would seem to require the following elements:
  1. multi-level selection theory  (see Wilson's "Darwin's Cathedral")
  2. structures limiting free-loader exploitation (see Wilson's "Darwin's Cathedral & Atran's "In God's we trust)
  3. organizational entropy  - a.k.a - the rise and fall of organization structures (see Willis, 2004 in "A complexity and Darwinian approach to management with failure avoidance as the key tool")
  4. group neuropsychology (I think the evolutionary psychology of religion is a fruitful approach to this question, although other branches of science certainly can offer quite a few insights as well)
  5. a pragmatic philosophical base (I think Peirce is probably the best resource here - his physics background resonates well complexity theory and its history)
  6. a tool like relational (social) networks for exploring and testing predictions
However, this certainly isn't an exhaustive list.  What elements need to be brought together for a full answer to Ehin's thesis?

Monday, August 11, 2008

Leveraging natural tendencies

One of the advantages of experimenting with non-traditional assumptions is transformational leverage. In religion there is always a tension between internal reform and schism. Wilson views schism from the lens of the free-loader. Established religions that function as group adaptations enrich participants. Over time those that abuse the system get more benefits than those that sacrifice for it. As a result the pious in religions tend to be the poorest. Eventually the difference between the religion and the pious participants is so great free-loader reform or schism is required. In the book of Mormon, the pride/rich cycle clearly demonstrates the same sequence. In the New Testament the Pharisees and the rise of the Christian cults illustrate the same point.

When group organizations are viewed from an evolutionary lens Wilson indicates “human nature will be seen as something that evolves rather than as something we are stuck with,” (2002, pp. 219). While I agree with this statement, I don’t think it means reason will automatically overpower other selective pressures for cultural (group level) adaptation. Just because we understand something doesn’t mean we can always control it. Addiction is a good example. I also think academically minded folk tend to resist using building blocks tainted with perceived irrationality, let a lone ambiguous supernaturalism. However, this resistance seems to deny the very world we live in.

If religious tendencies are an inherit part of a normally distributed biology, and supernaturalism, anthropomorphic big brothers, etc are adaptive expressions of this tendency, then shouldn’t the most powerful group dynamic theories be leveraging not denying these propensities.

The expression of and benefits gained from religion certainly aren’t uniform or static. I can understand why some academics would prefer a world of brights. However, is this any different than preferring everyone to be heterosexual, non-violent or altruistic to non-kin? Appeals to ethics seem more than offset by practicality. If you entertain biological reprogramming, practically seems to more than offset functionality or dogmatic preference. If we truly are dealing with evolutionary tendencies, then any changes not accompanied by extreme selective pressure and numerous generations will have no practical utility. Since this is undoubtedly the case, the wisest solutions to our religious tendencies may be pragmatic both in nature and theory.

While this approach may allow religion and science to remain as non-overlapping magisteria, I really don't see how the two domains shouldn't blend together for those who wish greater understanding.

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Proximate vs. Ultimate Explanations of Religion

One question that must be asked with respect to Wilson's multi-level (group) selection approach to religion is how much of the religious experience do his tools explain?  Before answering this question, it is probably wise to follow Wilson's example and clean up the distinctions between proximate and ultimate causes.

Religions are hard to pin down to a single function - whether this be community, economic (rational) choice, or any other casual explanation.  While religion may be much more than community, "this statement might be true at the proximate level, but not at the ultimate level," (Wilson, 2002, pp. 170).

By proximate level, Wilson means the direct individual reasons motivating a behavior, ie pleasure from s e x, or contentment from love.  The ultimate level is the selective advantage behind these actions, ie babies, more robust environment to raise children.  

By postulating an ultimate cause for religious tendencies, Wilson avoids having to directly explain specific  features of  religious belief.  His theory just needs to show selective advantages for belief.  In this task, scale becomes an important issue.  Wilson advocates using the congregational scale (single church groups) rather than a denominational, or larger, scale.  This choice will likely require some appeals to complexity theory to explain the emergence of larger structures.  Biologists are quite comfortable with this, so it shouldn't be problematic.  Perhaps the extension of scale will provide an opportunity to tie in approaches like Pascal Boyer's (2001) religion as no-longer adaptive, or the Gould like view of religion as a spandrel.

However, I suspect it will be some time before the utility of the metaphysical and supernatural questions religion raised can be openly tackled.  Thus, I don't at all think Wilson's work undermines the value of religion.  Knowing the reason for love doesn't undermine it's value.  Knowing the evolutionary underpinnings of religion should only strengthen how it can be leveraged. Some may reference Christ's spiritual solitude on the cross as evidence that a hands off god is still functional while others may proceed to other conclusions.  Whatever answers resonate, religious tendencies are a fundamental component of our existence.  As such they have implicit effects in everything that is done, especially in terms of group dynamics.

Boyer, P. 2001. Religion Explained. New York: Basic Books

Wilson, D. S. 2002. Darwin’s Cathedral: Evolution, Religion, and the Nature of Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Friday, August 08, 2008

Core beliefs & environmental adaptation

The downfall of many religious organizations is not that they fail to support core teachings,
but rather that they treat all aspects of the organization as core ideology that cannot be changed

Roger Finke (2003, pp. 23)

Balancing the essential tensions in religion is difficult.  The moral answers emerging from a belief structure are a vector.  They contain an individual's history with a problem and the magnitude of force needed for a solution.  Because of the momentum and direction, specific moral solutions don't transfer overly well.  Answers are not silver bullets, but rather spandreled solutions to balance the tensions of complicated histories.  This gives rise to one of the foundational problems of organizations, perhaps best explained by Willis' (2004) thermodynamic treatment of organizational life cycles.

Organizations don't remain static.  One view is to say they are either getting more organized (often bureaucratic), or they are getting back in touch with their roots (shadow systems are gaining control).  The implication is there is never one ideal situation for an organization. Solutions always depend on the organizations trajectory and momentum (think historical factors, current direction, and current rate of change (and rate of rate change)).  To slow down the thermodynamic cycling, organizations need to have a proper responsiveness to their environment.  As Finke (2003, pp. 20) explores, "religious groups sustain organizational vitality by preserving core religious teachings as they introduce innovations for serving members and adapting to their changing environment".

New religious movements, including mormonism, are good case studies for this investigation.  A few recent bloggernacle posts help set the stage:
One question new religious movements face is how their heads can lead change in a prophetic manner without either sacrificing the wrong core elements or responding to the wrong external influences.  While non-religious organizations don't have the extra pressure of supernatural expectations, I would wager they must still maintain a balance between protecting core beliefs and adapting to environmental pressures.  

Given's book "People of Paradox" can be read to show the strength of early mormon unification enabled innovation.  A comparative lack of modern innovation may occur from an environment whose unifying tendencies are more suited to eventual entropic decay than risky chaos management.

In Finke's (2003) explanation, many faltering mainstream denominations have sacrificed their core teachings in lieu of organizational innovation.  In the quasi-religious environment of formal education, are many changes attempting to disrupt core teachings in place of environmentally appropriate innovation?

Finke, R. (2003). Innovative returns to tradition: Using core teachings as the foundation for innovative accommodation, Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 43(1), pp. 19-34.

Willis, R. (2004). A complexity and Darwinian approach to management with failure avoidance as the key tool. In Complexity theory and the management of networks: Proceedings of the workshop on onganisational networks as distributed systems of knowledge (P. Andriani & G. Passiante Eds.). Imperial College Press: London. pp. 74-88

Religion as a category of investigation

Can religion be considered a category of analysis in academic investigations?  The non-subjective sciences seem easy to excuse, while the arts seems easy to include.  The middle that interests me are the various branches of social sciences.

Qualitative investigations have a number of different tools at their disposal.  One popular approach is to view knowledge as a multi-faceted crystal (Richardson, 2003).  This encourages an unlimited degree of personal reflection.  In practice, researchers can either try to portray an issue's interesting complexity, they can probe a few different avenues of perspective, or they can boldly explain relevant factors.  Picking relevant categories for analysis is a reflexive process.  It is tied to the meaning the author and readers give to, and can make from, the category of investigation.  However, some categories, more than others, tend to illuminate the trees hidden by the forest.  I think religion is increasingly becoming one of these torches.  

There is no question that religion is a fundamental aspect of human behaviour.  There is also no question religious tendencies can produce their own substantial momentum.  Somewhere between the product and the seed lies individual influence.  During biographical investigations the utility of religion as a category is obviously graduated.   However, the slope, while slippery in places, is usually not avoided.  In organizational investigations, however, religion as a category of investigation is rare to non-existent.  There are some exceptions (Demerath, Hall, Scmitt & Williams, 1998). Quasi-religious and para-religious views emerged investigating religion's soft boundaries.  The company as a quasi-religious unit is an application of this investigation.

For religion to be an appropriate category of analysis in social science investigation, I believe, it should be limited to the level of group dynamics in an environment that has a robust culture, moralistic imperative and has demonstrated change resiliency.  I believe formal education fits this bill quite nicely.

Demerath N., Hall, P, Schmitt, T., Williams, R. (1998).  Sacred Companies: Organizational Aspects of Religion and Religious Aspects of Organization USA: Oxford Press.

Richardson, L. (2003). Writing: A method of inquiry. In N. Denzin & Y. Lincoln (Eds.)
Collecting and interpreting qualitative materials (pp. 499-541). USA: Sage.

Friday, August 01, 2008

Group-level adaptations and circularity issues in change management

Why people sing "May the Circle be Unbroken"

“Science works best when it tests among well-framed hypotheses that make different predictions about measurable aspects of the world,” - 
D.S. Wilson (2002, pp. 44)

"Once the reasoning associated with scientific thought loses its status as the only adaptive way to think, other forms of thought associated with religion cease to be objects of scorn and incomprehension and can be studied as potential adaptations in their own right." - D.S. Wilson (2002, pp. 43)

Changing the implicitly held core beliefs of large organizations is difficult.  Change that affects core beliefs in an organization that commonly understood to guardian core societal values is daunting.  In the field of education, Tyack and Cuban (1995) have suggested that only reforms that are fundamentally important, societally supported and culturally long lasting actually affect teacher implementation.  Do religious tendencies inform some of the circularity issues that surround educational change?

Wilson(2002, pp. 45)  has summarized most of the evolutionary approaches to religion as follows:

1 . Religion as an adaption
1.1 Religion as group level adaptation
1.2 Religion as individual level adaptation
1.3 Religion as cultural parasite that often evolves at the expense of human individuals and group

2 Religion as nonadaptive
2.1 Religion as an adaptation to past environments, such as ancestral kin groups, that is maladaptive in modern environments, such as large groups of unrelated individuals
2.2 Religion as a byproduct (spandrel) of genetic or cultural evolution

I suspect a number of circularity issues associated with organizational change can be illuminated from these perspectives.  Viewing religion as a group level adaptation locates change issues in a place of dynamic tension.  Individual interests compete with group interests.  Evolved mechanisms that discouraging free loading and other self-interest strategems may inform why single-pronged, or even many multi-pronged, change approaches fail.  

Fundamental educational change normally requires the death of one generation and the regeneration of another.  The societail milieu in which the rising generation understands its world is different.  Core beliefs can be protected, while other beliefs can be reinterpreted or completely jettisoned (Tyak & Cuban, 1995).  In effect, the rising generation has a different implicit understanding of what behaviours are group-appropriate.

Now one can take the view that appropriate group behaviours are learned, but I would suspect this idea doesn't stand on its own. Rather, I suspect, tacit understandings combine to form implicit conceptions of moral imperatives.  In some cases moral imperative become embodied in an avatar like fashion (religion).  In other cases they remain fuzzy and unembodied.  I suspect thresholds for agent detection systems  (Atran, 2002), and other factors come into play here.

For organizations this means changes touching fundamental nerves may have to compete against deep evolutionary adaptations that prevent the average person from abusing group-level benefits.

Atran, S. (2002). In Gods we trust: The evolutionary landscape of religion. Oxford University Press: New York.

Tyak & Cuban (1995). Tinkering toward utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.