Saturday, 13 September 2014

One size fits most

I attended a professional development workshop recently where the concept of Occam's Razor was used kind of out of context by the facilitator—not to bad mouth the professionalism of the facilitator whose credentials (at least the number of years of teaching) are without question. His misapplication of the concept got me thinking about what I call the one-size-fits-most principle. It's kind of related to Occam's Razor but it also looks at the other "solutions" that are filtered out by the Razor.

Occam's Razor is "a principle of parsimony, economy, or succinctness used in problem-solving devised by William of Ockham (c. 1287–1347). It states that among competing hypotheses, the one with the fewest assumptions should be selected. Other, more complicated solutions may ultimately prove correct, but—in the absence of certainty—the fewer assumptions that are made, the better." (Wikipedia)

There is a somewhat Darwinian aspect to the one-size-fits-most concept with a dash of cybernetics thrown in. In the new Cosmos: a spacetime odyssey TV series the host (Neil deGrasse Tyson) explains what climate is in relation to weather by an illustration of him walking his dog. He (representing climate) walks in a relatively straight line while the dog on a leash (representing weather) zig-zags about sniffing and exploring the owner's chosen path.

The expressed intent on reclamation of other "solutions"whatever they may be—are the zig-zags and the straight path put together. In other words, the one-size-fits-most principle is the interplay between the owner and the dog (ie, highly well-defined constraining principles that allow freedom for both the owner and the dog to deviate slightly while maintaining the integrity of the path).

I suspect this notion applies to most if not all natural systems. It takes out the value-ridden (mis)interpretation of Darwinism (ethnocentrism par excellence), and attempts to regain some level of intellectual honesty in the descriptors—honesty that inevitably gets lost in the process of unchecked rationalization/idealization in the scientific and philosophical discourse (especially prevalent in the ontological and epistemological branches of philosophy).

In the one-size-fits-most world the notion of the-survival-of-the-fittest (though certainly a part of the description) is incomplete and inadequate in every sense of the word. Applied in sociological terms, the-survival-of-the-fittest goes completely off the path and its perversity renders it unsustainable and unviable (ie, it leaves the natural world for the artificial and disingenuous realms of ideology and dogma).

In its crudest forms, the current Prime Minister of Canada is a perfect example of the survival-of-the-fittest mindset. Among his unforgivable Burkean political rhetoric and social engineering impulses, he maintains to anyone who'd listen and print his lie that he does not drink alcohol even as countless images of him drinking beer and wine and champagne attest contrary-wise. I choose him merely out of convenience and am largely indifferent really to whether he drinks sometimes or not.

The one-size-fits-most concept is not a methodology of providing clear binary solutions/answers but is rather more like a surveying instrument that describes a landscape and seeks the whys and wherefores of suitability of descriptors for this and that. Insofar as it is a process of reflection and contemplation, it is in the spirit of Einstein's "biggest blunder" and the fecund mathematical mind of Gauss who came up with so many different proofs of Pythagorean Theorem that he lost interest.

There is an intellectual/scholarly movement afoot—a long time coming—that is beginning to find purchase in the halls of learning. For example, the wonderfully generous and insightful (nay, Tao-like) comprehensive take on anthropology of Dr Eduardo Kohn vis. How Forests Think (2013) and the compassionate and honestly human take on sociological discourse of Dr Margaret Lisa Stevenson, and the likewise remarkable scholarly works of Karla J Williamson, Timothy B Leduc and Jean L Briggs (among many others more) all have some aspect of the one-size-fits-most bent. *a note of disclaimer: my interpretation of these scholars' works may be erroneous; these misinterpretations are entirely my own. My apologies to these fine scholars.

Jay

Saturday, 6 September 2014

"necessary and sufficient conditions"

When I hear people say they are workaholics I can't help but think "please...". I'm not averse to hard work and I have really well-developed powers of concentration that, over the many years, have become second-nature to me. I just love playing around with ideas and thinking and trying to apply ideas to work is really not what I'd consider "working". Not having much physicality I respect those who can actually do real, sustained hard work.

I know someone, whom I have great affection for, who is actually committed to her work and who always make a conscientious effort to make sure that others down the line aren't left hanging. But I've never heard her say that she's a workaholic. I respect that.

In my many years of thinking I've come to realize that quantity has nothing much to do with it but quality. One of the tricks I have learned in critical thinking skills is the oft-used phrase in mathematics: "Does it (a proposition/idea/concept) meet the necessary and sufficient conditions to contribute meaningfully to a given discourse?" I call this type of ability to think dialectics-on-the-fly.

In the movie, I, Robot, the exchanges between Detective Spooner and Dr. Lanning (who has died and is now a holographic image) epitomize the "necessary and sufficient" phraseology:

Detective Del Spooner: Is there a problem with the Three Laws?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws are perfect.
Detective Del Spooner: Then why would you build a robot that could function without them?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: The Three Laws will lead to only one logical outcome.
Detective Del Spooner: What? What outcome?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: Revolution.
Detective Del Spooner: Whose revolution?
Dr. Alfred Lanning: That, Detective, is the right question. Program terminated.

Answers are not provided because it is the questions that are important (or, the correct formulations of questioning are because they tend to have a life of their own). When the Spooner character asks a wrong type of question the Lanning hologram only responds by saying, "I'm sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right question".

Critical thinking is like groping one's way through a dark room: the obstacles are there for a reason because the lay-out of the room is just so and no malice is ever intended. Insights, then, take on almost spiritual dimensions once the vista opens up. Critical thinking is addictive that way. It prods inexorably to a productive path.

There is something substantive about a liberal arts education.

Jay

Saturday, 23 August 2014

My education

My best friend asked me one day how one can even conceive of the dual nature of reality (wave and particle), and I told him that we can see this in the everyday: everything that we see has colour.

I read a very interesting article on Scientific American by Barbara Kantrowitz called, The Science of Learning (August 2014), but it was a quote in the article that got me thinking. Said Joseph Merlino (on p. 73):

"I don't think you can look at education from the point of view of whether it works or doesn't work, as if it's a light bulb. I don't think human knowledge is like that...In the mechanical age, we are used to thinking of things mechanically. Does it work? Can you fix it? I don't think you can fix education any more than you can fix your tomato plant. You cultivate it. You nurture it."

As someone who has spent his life learning and thinking as much as I can for the sheer joy of it, I say well said, Mr Merlino: You cultivate it; you nurture it. This is an art in the decline.

Yesterday I was listening to the CBC radio show, Ideas, where Steven Pinker spoke about his book, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined. During the Q&A segment of his presentation, a military academy teacher of philosophy tried, rather dismissively, to box him in with a question why he'd claim such a thing when everything that's happening in the world points to the contrary. His answer was brilliant.

After all his tour de force presentation on statistics and inferences from humanity's past, his answer was that he's talking about the part that is not reported on the news or documented by historians (countries at peace, schools that weren't shot up, mailmen who didn't go postal, etc.) but nonetheless bear down on his (rather counter-intuitive) conclusion.

The brilliance of his answer lies in the fact that he's somehow able to take a step back to take in a more complete picture than the hapless guy who thought he had him. But...but...but. But nothing.

There is a piece I just read on Huffington Post (Canadian edition) by Giovanna Mingarelli (http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/giovanna-mingarelli/inuit-elders-history-_b_5698664.html) where one of the comment posters betrays his mechanical thinking (a right-wing troll who thinks he cracks wise regularly on subjects he knows very little or nothing about); something Merlino is saying is the problem.

I've spent a great deal of time thinking about what (especially) younger aboriginal people mean when they talk about education as if it were a reward or a designation earned after suffering through something rather than a characteristic one acquires through (sometimes) hard work. Unscrupulous bureaucrats visibly cream their pants when confronted thus because it is the most unproductive and uninformed starting point of discussion (can we even say "discussion"?).

I know some of the elders Mingarelli writes about in her article (elders including Shirley Tagalik who has spent many years working with Inuit elders both as an educator and social activist). Their assumption is that "education" is a human developmental process where acquiring manual and intellectual skills is seamlessly incorporated to developing character (to have a good and caring heart capable of being useful and wanted on the voyage). It is called the "warrior mind" by some cultures but I think a closer description is "inferential learning".

We were struggling one time in one of the workshops organized by Shirley and her colleagues in the Arviat curriculum development office trying to communicate the subtleties of Inuit notions of education when it occurred to me that we (the Inuit) were actually talking about the holistic process of human development (Inuliurniq).

Mark and Donald are no longer with us but I am grateful for all the learning I got from them and the others mentioned in the Mingarelli article. From them I learned that it is less about the brand of "education" than it is about acquiring the drive to become fully human.

Jay

Saturday, 16 August 2014

Richard Kearney's "anatheism"

I've rediscovered the radio. I'm the midst of moving to another town, another job and everything is packed and gone so I've been listening to online radio all day. Thank G*d for the CBC, or more precisely, the CBC radio show called, Ideas. This is where I've discovered Richard Kearney and his notion of "ana-theos" or returning to G*d after G*d.

Here is the link to the online broadcast of the episode of Ideas where Kearney is featured: http://www.cbc.ca/player/Radio/Ideas/Full+Episodes/ID/2469543746/

Wow. I know I've wanted to "reclaim" Christianity but I didn't realize that there is a beautifully developed discourse for what I've only felt and been unable to articulate and clumsily tried to actualize both in thought and act.

I need to think some more...

Sunday, 27 July 2014

Naujaat

There have been a few times when I've felt the power of a landscape—at once ancient and new, eternal and ephemeral. Naujaat is one of those landscapes. Words alone cannot do it justice, but it reframes the mind, the soul (dare I say?). It has the mountains and hills of south Baffin, only the scaling is differentsmaller.

There is a familiarness to it like something or someone we've never seen before but know immediately how beautiful they are once we've seen them. It is a spiritual synchronicityif you'd forgive my literary/intellectual paucity.

The landscape clearly has been occupied by Inuit for thousands of years. It is a gathering place of Inuit. One can tell that it has never been taken for grantedat least up to our times. There is a lot of ancient engineering but it is incorporated into the land and to leave the bio-productivity untouchedunhewn stonework:

And if thou wilt make me an altar of stone, thou shalt not build it of hewn stone: for if thou lift up thy tool upon it, thou hast polluted it. (Exodus 20:25)

It is less about uncritical yearning for the past, though in honouring it, it is about the renewal of the eternal promise: the Tao; the Halakhaboth in essence refer to the path to follow. That is Naujaat.

Jay

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Luke 18:10-13

Yesterday I read a very interesting interview by Matt Sledge on Huffington Post with author Max Blumenthal on the current Israeli-Palestinian crisis (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/10/max-blumenthal-israel-palestine_n_5574082.html?utm_hp_ref=world). Blumenthal has been labelled an "Israel-basher" but I think he has some important things to say about the social engineering efforts of the extreme right whose strand may be traced back to the rise of the so-called, New Christian Right movement, which emerged in the 1970s in America and Australia (google: Televangelism as Pedagogy and Cultural Politics, written by Peter McLaren and Richard Smith).

It is not hard to see why this movement has been such an insidious and aggressive movement by the list of well-funded Superpacs: The Moral Majority, Christian Voice, Religious Roundtable and the Institute of Religion and Democracy (in America); The Festival of Light, The League of Rights, The Queensland National Party, STOP and CARE (in Australia) (McLaren and Smith, p. 153), and in Canada, to a lesser degree, off-shoots of these movements that have taken root especially in the western provinces of Alberta and Saskatchewan that Harper has been able to exploit to achieve a majority government.

The ultimate aim of these funding agencies is to bring about the "new" Jerusalem culminating (up to this point) in the re-election of Netanyahu ("...with Netanyahu determined to reverse the damage that had been done to him and shatter the unity agreement."):

I noticed in 2009 that Israel had undergone a massive societal transition, and that new voices were moving into the mainstream from the extreme right. That the peace process had completely collapsed and failed to accomplish what it supposedly set out to do, and that the most right-wing government in Israel's history had been elected by a comprehensively indoctrinated and militarized public, whose youngest members were its most extreme, and that this was going to spell serious trouble on the ground. 
....
They're the direct result of an education system that promotes militarization, that seeks to delegitimize the other in the minds of Israelis, and to cultivate Israelis as good soldiers, not good citizens.
To help them accomplish the psychological feat, which is not normal, of joining an occupation army at age 18, they have to be processed through a prolonged program of indoctrination which convinces them that they are in existential peril at all times, and that Palestinians could throw them off their land if they don't join the army.
(Abu Khdeir's killers) are a common product of Israel's education system and its comprehensively militarized culture. (Blumenthal interview on Huffington Post)

As a Judeophile I see the ruthlessness of Netanyahu and the largely invisible Christian Right as pure hubris, as sinful arrogance assuming the role of a mid-wife, not because of some great and external evil but because of the misguided belief that this is what G*d wants. Armageddon and the rising internecine strife benefit who? It is the multi-billion dollar funding complex that preys on and perverts the core belief systems of the invalids, the misfits, the angry, the mean, the greedy, the mentally- and ideologically- seiged, etc. spoken of in Depeche Mode's song, "Personal Jesus".


Jay

Friday, 11 July 2014

Halakha

The term, halakha, is a Hebrew word meaning "the way to go" which is taken to mean the "overall system of religious law" which is contrasted with another term, aggadah, meaning "to draw out" which is taken to mean the diverse corpus of rabbinic commentaries and philosophical and mystical interpretations of the Holy Scriptures and other important works of Jewish literature and thought.

I was given a book recently called, How Forests Think: toward an anthropology beyond the human (2013), by the author, Eduardo Kohn, a husband of an old friend and whom I now consider a new friend. In much the same way that original intellectual works of achievement draw together seemingly disparate insights from seemingly unrelated fields of study,Einstein's theories of relativity drew from ideas and findings that had been bandied about for many years before he came up with a consistent frameworkEduardo's work on, and applications of semiotics is profoundly insightful.

I read an article today on the Huffington Post (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/07/10/torah-robot-berlin-jewish-museum_n_5574936.html?utm_hp_ref=science&ir=Canada) that got me thinking about the Kohn book, or more precisely, helped expand the notion of transcending dualism as Kohn speaks of it in his book.

The inventors of the robot arm that writes Hebrew calligraphy takes pains to make clear: "The finished scroll, to be complete in January 2015, will not be considered halakhic, or meeting the requirements for use for religious purposes. The installation is part of the exhibition 'The Creation of the World' ('Die Erschaffung der Welt' in German), predominantly a collection of Hebrew manuscripts."

There is a system to copying the Holy Scriptures—a halakha—that is considered, by some sects of Judaism, as a partnership between the people and G*d, and not to be taken lightly at all:

"'In order for the Torah to be holy, it has to be written with a goose feather on parchment, the process has to be filled with meaning and I'm saying prayers while I'm writing it,' said Rabbi Reuven Yaacobov."

This brings me to Jean Baudrillard (1929-2007)—and Kohn's comprehensive critique of dualism. Baudrillard, in his later years, increasingly became obsessed with virtual reality, and, in effect, gave up on trying to transcend dualism and sided with materialism in the extreme having seen his children (his theories) either cut down by history or by the very developments in technology and human knowledge he said would happen a certain way with certain results. -Here's to Baudrillard: a tragic hero of post-modernism.

Kohn, on the other hand, uses the very terror and angst that brought down Baudrillard to gain an original perspective on the nature and ontology (and perhaps a way out) of dualism. In reference to a personal experience that brought about an "aha!" moment, he writes:

Panic provides us with intimations of what radical dualism might feel like, and why for us humans dualism seems so compelling. In tracing its untenable effects panic also provides its own visceral critique of dualism and the skepticism that so often accompanies it. In panic's dissolution we can also get a sense for how a particular human propensity for dualism is dissolved into something else. One might say that dualism, wherever it is found, is a way of seeing emergent novelty as if it were severed from that from which it emerged. (Kohn, p. 57)

In my rather crude interpretation of Kohn, I'd say that the interplay between the halakha and aggadah (ie, the historical being that is Rabbi Yaacobov) is what distinguishes the Rabbi from the robot arm, but the distinction is ultimately superficial because it is not a matter of choice but a symbiosis between the goose feather, the parchment and the Rabbi that creates the religious act (the partnership between G*d and man, if you will). This symbiosis negates the utility of the robot arm but simply because the cycle of relations is complete.

It is these cycles of relations within cycles of relations that Eduardo Kohn studies:

An emergentist approach can provide a theoretical and empirical account of how the symbolic is in continuity with matter at the same time that it can come to be a novel casual locus of possibility. This continuity allows us to recognize how something so unique and separate is never fully cut off from the rest of the world. (Kohn, P. 56-57)

Jay