To Say What I am Trying to Say

“Truth to Nature” – An true drawing leaves out imperfections, an early view of objectivity according to Dr. Daston

I have two dreadful lines of thought with which I will bore poor captive souls. The first, and newest, is agent based modeling, which I discovered a little over a year ago, but which follows from work I began in grad school and which continued through my time at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and at Ecologic Institute, that is the need for improved methods in social science.

I’ve written about agent based modeling and done a couple presentations at Ecologic Institute and have made it the core method of my Humboldt work. The second line has been more evasive, however, even though I have been thinking about it far longer. As a specific project over two and a half years, but it dates back at the very least to my early days in D.C., and maybe even back to my undergraduate years.

My thinking on this second line, which a few unfortunates already know revolves around a debate between Herbert Simon and Hubert Dreyfus, a rationalist social scientist and a humanist philosopher, about the prospects of artificial intelligence, has also evolved significantly in the past year. To the point that I’ve begun writing articles and pitch letters at a couple of points, only to realize I didn’t quite “have” it yet. I have had a couple of conversations with some very bright and perceptive individuals in the past weeks which has brought this line of thought much closer to being more than merely a line of thought.

The first was with Dr. Lorraine Daston a few weeks back at the Max Planck Insitute for the History of Science. Perhaps best known for her work on the history of objectivity, a history she was able to capture brilliantly in three images, she is one of the top minds and names in the history of science. Her valuable contribution to my work was to note that I am speaking about society in two senses. One as an object which can be analyzed (as a social scientist in the tradition of Simon) and the other as a gathering of citizens which we are only able to understand through engagement and involvement (i.e. to be approached humanistically).

Yes, exactly. I am trying to create a perspective which unites these two understandings of society. Because in our day and age social science is too important to be left to the side of political debate. Economics has become central to nearly every policy debate in the United States. But after the financial crisis and our ongoing inequality and environmental crises, it is abundantly clear that economics will not lead us to a harmonious and perfectly efficient society in which rationality rules the day.

At the same time, we do not have the luxury of just chucking economics or social science in general to the side in favor of a well intentioned abstraction, be it “humans” or “the environment.” Yes, we cannot live without the natural environment and need to learn to appreciate it and care for it better. Yes, a more human and humane society is something to strive for continously, every day, but we must not forget that while empathy and passion are central to a prosperous and just human society, human beings are also toolmakers. And while we may hate the selected and clumsy use of the tools of economic science by elites, the solution is not to throw the tools away, but rather to build better tools, and train more people in them, so the rewards to society are greater and more broadly shared. Agent based modeling is a major step down this path.

My second conversation was with the equally brilliant Charles Martin-Shields who is currently finishing up his Ph.D. dissertation looking at the role of information and communication technology in development. He’s read one of my previous attempts to write something up and noted in our conversation yesterday that it looked like I was trying to revise our epistemology, i.e. our theory of knowledge. And that is exactly the correct academic term for where my work lies. And there is a clarifying distinction to be made there because I would have very little to say with most professional students of Epistemology (i.e. a certain group of philosophers). Dreyfus borrows heavily from Wittgenstein and I do too, and for those of you who don’t care about Wittgenstein (he himself wouldn’t say you should) all that really needs to be known is that there is no major coordinated program to study him. This is because he has no theoretical body of work to build such a program around. His (later) work is therapeutic, it’s about moving past philosophy. A philosopher needs a theory of knowledge, but what kind of theory of knowledge is this?

If I have exhausted the justifications, I have reached the bedrock and my spade is turned. Then I am inclined to say: “This is simply what I do.” -Philosophical Investigations § 217

Which is perhaps why he is sometimes called an anti-philosopher. Something statements such as these lend credence to:

The real discovery is the one which enables me to stop doing philosophy when I want to. The one that gives philosophy peace, so that it is no longer tormented by questions which bring itself into question. § 133 Philosophical Investigations

But anti-philosophy, moving past philosophy, cannot be understood or practiced without understanding (I would say perhaps even living) the philosophical tradition and the earnest and intense arc it followed.

Similarly, insights on and theories of society drawn at a cold analytic distance are of no value if they do not draw on a deeper, more primal, and more vital source. I would say humanism here, but it is not the only one. Similarly pursuing any vital endeavor that is significant and important  and lasting takes more than passion, it takes tools. And while we’ve become relatively familar with physical tools of metal wood and plastic, and are working out the implications of silicon ones, how to make sense and better employ a far more abstract and yet personal set of tools, theory and data describing our values and ourselves, still evades us. But it is exactly building our collective adeptness at employing that last set of tools that is the central problem if we hope to build a more just and prosperous society in our time.

You didn’t get that when I brought up Hubert Dreyfus, Herbert Simon, and the failure of the conventional artificial intelligence program?

2 thoughts on “To Say What I am Trying to Say

  1. Hey mate,

    Having never formally studied poli-sci this is fairly unfamiliar terrain. Nevertheless, I should say that I enjoyed reading it and for the most part, enjoyed how it was written. Good luck in bringing those two strands in to one single thread. Keep it coming!

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