generalizing on generalizations

january 31, 1998

generalisation is a simplifying device which saves us a lot of time; i.e. insofar as we can generalize 'things' ... and 'causal action', this saves us the time of starting out each time from scratch to assess the nature of a 'thing' or the nature of a 'causal action', .... but are we exposing ourselves, through an overextended use of generalization, to a 'haste makes waste' backlash?

as david abram points out in 'The Spell of the Sensuous', man is a rather exotic pattern 'sensor' ("humans are tuned for relationship. the eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears and nostrils --- all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness")

this is rather convenient, since, as abram also points out, man is operating in a 'many voiced landscape' where our responses to our sensory perceptions, along with those of other living organisms form part of an intertwined matrix, ... "a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or 'reality'."

this is the same unity which henri poincare speaks of in 'Science and Hypothesis', as follows; "The Unity of Nature --- Let us first of all observe that every *generalisation* supposes in a certain measure a belief in the unity and simplicity of nature. As far as the unity is concerned, there can be no difficulty. If the different parts of the universe were not as the organs of the same body, they would not re-act one upon the other; they would mutually ignore each other, and we in particular should only know one part. We need not, therefore ask if Nature is one, but how she is one." (e.g. is it 'simply' or 'complexly' 'one'?)

as both poincare and abram go on to discuss, with great consistency but from their different contextual points of view, this 'unity' as we know it from our pre-generalisation experience, is like a flow in which each participating aspect (to say 'particle' here would be to generalize) is mutually effecting each other, as if the behavior of each coordinate of the unity were tied to each other by an invisible and intricate 'spider web' (i.e. the four basic 'forces' in nature; gravity, electromagnetics, strong and weak 'forces' all tend to operate in this 'action at a distance' or 'spiderweb' manner).

both poincare and abram, in their own way, find it curious that we confuse our generalisations with our lived experience. poincare, who in 'science and hypothesis' is interested in openly stating the unstated approximations we make in our mathematical generalizations on nature, admonishes us in the 'author's preface' that in science and mathematics, we must not forget that we are dropping out experiential information in order to make our generalizations or 'laws'; generalizations which can be extremely useful, but which remain generalizations; "For here the mind may affirm because it lays down its own laws; but let us clearly understand that while these laws are imposed on *our* science, which otherwise could not exist, they are not imposed on Nature."

and in their own way, both poincare and abram observe that as a culture, it is indeed our habitude to 'forget' or to ignore (even as we educate our young) that our pre-analytical experience is richer than our generalisation. in abram's words; "The fluid realm of direct experience has come to be seen as a secondary, derivative dimension, a mere consequence of events unfolding in the 'realer' world of quantifiable and measurable 'scientific facts.' * it is a curious inversion of the actual demonstrable state of affairs." * [*'s are mine].

poincare emphasizes that to harvest the value of generalisation, one must keep an eye on any non-generalizable initial conditions and consequences arising from our use of generalization. and he notes that the primary approximations we make in our generalizations are; "homogeneity, relative independence of remote parts, simplicity of the elementary fact". these approximations, of course, open up for us a generalized world based on 'things' (independent enitities free from remote influence from other web regions), and 'causality' ('cause' emerges from these approximations from 'the bottom up', from the simple, and elementary facts, as opposed to cause being 'dispersed' as in an 'ecology' or feedback web). since we typically have an iconic 'picture' of the generalized 'thing' in our mind, i often refer to this generalized, approximated model of reality as an 'icono-causal' model.

mathematical physics is just one aspect of our complex system of generalizations. there is also the generalization inherent in language; one which has been much discussed by wittgenstein and foucault, amongst others. abrams also picks up on this language theme, noting that the languages of different cultures embody very different levels of generalization. in the 'icono-causal' languages of the western culture, much is 'dropped out' in the implicit nature of the generalizations. one of the interesting 'drop-outs' in english is what we refer to as 'gender'; a complex suite of physical and behavioral characteristics etymologically associated with whether a 'thing' can 'generate' some offspring in a fathering or mothering way, or whether it cannot (i.e. is 'neutral'). experientially, these subtle and remarkable differences which range from basic physiology to complex geometrical systems dynamics make a big 'difference' to us, however, they are far too intricate to be preserved in our linguistic generalizations. by the time we get to the highly generalized language of business, most of the exquisite properties of 'life' have been purged from the 'iconic' generalizations and we refer to people as 'headcount'; e.g. "we are going to have to 'cut' 500 'heads' in order to make our profit plan."

as erich jantsch has pointed out ('Design for Evolution'), we tend to mentally 'live' in a world of objective and subjective language-influenced generalizations in which we totally ignore the forward propagating 'error' from the 'edge effects' of our generalizations. i.e. we no longer consider, as poincare says we must, the hidden initial conditions and the evolutionary consequences of 'cutting 500 heads', and simply focus on the 'independent' things and 'independent' problem space which is of immediate interest. i.e. we do not see space-time as an evolving flow or 'web', but as a configuration of 'icons' which may be interfered with on a 'issue by issue' basis, like a poor pool player who focuses only on the ball he is currently trying to sink, ignoring the disturbance which propagates throughout the configuration from the collisions which inevitably ensue (one need change the position of only one ball to change the overall configuration in a fundamental way).

that business seems intent on continuing to 'cut heads' and manipulating the 'icons' without considering the forward propagating effects ('evolutionary consequence') of its actions; i.e. that business seems intent on "seeing the fluid realm of direct experience as a secondary, derivative dimension, a mere consequence of events unfolding in the 'realer' world of quantifiable business 'facts' is a curious inversion of the actual demonstrable state of affairs." periodically, someone makes a film such as 'Roger and Me' , exposing this unnatural 'inversion' and touching a nerve or two, but the dysfunction itself seems to be 'untouchable', lost in the deeply rooted mental generalizations which characterize our western culture.

as the psychologist r.d. laing and the writer-anthropologist jules henry have observed, such generalizations as business makes are woven together with many other espoused generalized 'truths' which our culture holds to be 'untouchable'. we do not allow our creativity, or the creativity of our children, to probe to the needed depths in a comprehensive, systems fashion. as laing says, citing jules henry; "If all through school the young were provoked to question the Ten Commandments, the sanctity of revealed religion, the foundations of patriotism, monogamy, the laws of incest, and so on ..." ... there would be such creativity that society would no know where to turn."

this is not to say that chaos would ensue, as there are existing cultures which espouse none of the above, yet live and relate in a very harmonious manner, both with respect to their social relationships and their relationships with nature. it *is* to say that the unconsidered 'propagating edge effects' of these action influencing concepts may be engendering unanticipated and undesirable emergent behaviors.

from the viewpoint of 'sociohistorical psychology' (Vygotsky, 'Imagination and creativity', soviet psychology, 1931, and Ratner, 'Vygotsky's sociohistorical psychology and its contemporary applications, 1991), which views the psyche as a suite of socially shaped functions, rather than as a 'thing' which processes conscious and unconscious ideas (as implied in freudian and jungian psychology) our dysfunction is readily understandable. that is, this particular strain of psychology clarifies our 'inverted' subordination of the flow of direct experience to the quantifiable fact-world of 'icons' and simple 'cause', and illuminates the manner in which we indoctrinate our children into this same way of thinking (i.e. same 'psychology').

ratner, in reviewing the sociohistorical character of such psychological phenomena as 'love' and child rearing says; "Parental insensitivity to children similarly has a particular form depending upon the social values which parents embody. Jules Henry illuminates these values in his extraordinary book, 'Culture Against Man' (1963). One episode involves a mother vacuuming the rug for 20 minutes while her daughter cried miserably. Finally, the mother finished, went over to baby and said, 'o.k., you're the winner.' According to Henry, the mother's neglect of her infant stems from her social values of competition (with her baby for control over the mother's activity; i.e., the mother views giving in to the baby's demand for attention as losing the struggle for control), materialism (where concern for the cleanliness of the rug takes precedence over the baby's needs), individualism (where the mother places her desires above her baby's), segregating housework from personal relations with the child (so that one contradicts the other), and teaching independence and toughness to the baby (by not 'spoiling' it and leaving it to fend for itself). If psychological research is to be adequate to its subject matter, it must comprehend the specific sociohistorical character of psychological phenomena."

It is the last two points in Henry's vacuuming example which most strike a nerve with me; the tendency to view our actions as independent and the early attempt to induce conforming behavior into the child. i am only too aware of my own parental practices in both these areas and the unanticipated and undesired (but not irreversible) consequences of them. As laing says; "Children do not give up their innate imagination, curiousity, dreaminess easily. You have to love them to get them to do that. Love is the path through permissiveness to discipline; and through discipline, only too often, to betrayal of self."

so the love the child needs, in our culture, often becomes contingent on the child's conforming to our sociohistorical beliefs. thus is the sociohistorical psychology of the parents instilled, in a self-perpetuating manner, in the child. while we as individuals in the western culture may not really 'believe' in the ten commandments or competition or monogamy or the profit motive, we see these as 'tabu' areas and our education encourages us, not only to refrain from challenging them, but to sustain them for the generalized 'good'. unless, of course, one is educated in a school such as a.s. neill's 'summerhill', which strives to cultivate imagination and creativity on a level where most schools are striving to suppress it.

in effect, we unthinkingly draw our children into our own culturally conditioned world of generalizations, weaning them from the exquisite complexity and harmony of direct experience as quickly as we can, and encouraging them to subordinate their exotic sensory abilities (which inform them on evolutionary flow patterns and the evolutionary consequences of theirs and others interventions into the flow), to cultural stockpiles of generalized facts, roles and scripts which allow them to shortcut the time-consuming 'direct experience' of the natural world around them.

one of those generalizations whose propagating error is particularly insidious, as has been pointed out by poincare and more recently by 'fuzzy logicians' such as bart kosko ('Fuzzy Thinking') and complexity researchers such as ilya prigogine, is the concept of 'chance', which underpins the field of 'probability and statistics'. the concept of 'chance' and the tools it has spawned are highly useful as are most generalisations, if not abused. however, 'chance' and 'statistics' have become a rationalizing mechanism which lets us off the hook when we perpetrate our ad hoc focus and response (akin to a single shot focus in pool) on our children, family, teammates and employees. we say in our minds, 'statistically', this is a being a good 'role model' or 'this is a best practice', out of the context of the specific intervention we are engaging in, and this gives us an excuse for ignoring the damage which ensues from suppressing direct experience. but 'role models' and 'best practices' are gross generalizations because what is really going on escapes our ability to capture it in terms of objective inquiry, subjective inquiry and/or language. what we are speaking of is " ... an intertwining matrix, ... "a single, ever-shifting fabric, a single phenomenal world or 'reality'; the world that we as 'hustlers' know is there but which leaves no audit trail.

that is, the essence of what works out well, which we vainly try to capture in the generalized form of 'roles and scripts', goes beyond the limits of language; it comes through the eyes, the skin, the tongue, ears and nostrils --- all are gates where our body receives the nourishment of otherness."

if we prefer, we can put this, as poincare did, into the more 'scientific' terms of 'deterministic chaos' (deterministic 'harmony' would have been better coinage); "A very small cause which escapes our notice determines a considerable effect that we cannot fail to see, and then we say that that effect is due to CHANCE. If we knew exactly the laws of nature and the situation of the universe at the initial moment, we could predict exactly the situation of that same universe at a succeeding moment. But even if it were the case that the natural laws had no longer any secret for us, we could still only know the initial situation APPROXIMATELY. If that enabled us to predict the succeeding situation WITH THE SAME APPROXIMATION, that is all we require, and we should say that the phenomenon had been predicted, that it is governed by laws. But it is not always so; it may happen that small differences in the initial conditions produce very great ones in the final phenomena. A small error in the former will produce an enormous error in the later. Prediction becomes impossible, and we have the fortuitous phenomenon."

when we use probability and statistics, we are generalizing on the independent nature of phenomena as previously discussed; i.e. if there are no 'butterflies' in the system as described here by poincare, then we can speak in terms of 'chance' and if the system is not 'evolving' (if its statistical properties are 'stationary'), then we can speak in terms of 'averages'. our observations then become 'generalizations of generalizations' and that's exactly what 'role-models' and 'best practices' are; --- *generalizations of generalizations*.

if this is what we are teaching our kids, to subordinate their direct experience to *generalizations of generalisations*, we should not be surprised if we are unable to arrest social dysfunction.

am i generalizing in all of this?

of course i am, since i have claimed that what i am speaking about cannot be spoken about (i.e. it is 'beyond language'). but i have also said that there is value in generalized propositions, a value which is well expressed by ludwig wittgenstein in the final two propositions of his 'Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus'.

"6.54 My [generalized] propositions serve as elucidations in the following way; anyone who understands me eventually recognizes them as nonsensical, when he has used them --- as steps --- to climb up beyond them. (He must, so to speak, throw away the ladder after he has climbed up it.)

7. What we cannot speak about we must pass over in silence."

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