Content-type: text/html ~ Stephen's Web ~ Networks - Revisiting Objective/Subjective...

Stephen Downes

Knowledge, Learning, Community

Jun 27, 2006

People who read my writings on subjects as diverse as education and politics can see without too much effort that relativism - or something like relativism - is central to my position. When I argue in learning that students should be free to choose their own curriculum, and when I argue in political economy that people ought to be free to pursue their own good in their own way, I am appealing to the same essential principle in each case.

It is important to articulate this principle clearly, because there is a large difference between saying that there is no objective fact of the matter and saying we cannot know what the fact of the matter is. The first is an ontological point. We are asserting something about the nature of the world. The second is an epistemological point. We are asserting something about what we can know. These are very different.

To turn, then, to George Siemens's recent discussion on the objective-subjective distinction: he writes, "Words and concepts (knowledge and knowing, meaning and wisdom) are not static in their conception in the minds of individuals. The does not directly lead to notions of an abstract (or worse, subjective) nature of the entities or concepts considered." Quite so. This does not follow. Because the former is a statement about what we know; it is an assertion that we do not know, and therefore, we should not draw an inference about that which we do not know. This includes both the inference that there is and objective reality, along with the inference that there is not.

Why is this important? I mean, who cares whether a pebble is real or not? After all, our experiences with a pebble are pretty unambiguous - we kick it, we toss it into the pond, we make a pile of pebbles out of it. Philosophers can sit there and argue all they want about whether a pebble is real, or about whether we can have objective knowledge of a pebble, but who cares?

George Siemens helpfully gives us a very clear example of why. He writes, "we have an intended target to which we desire our learners to aspire or achieve. In a similar sense, we generally have certain values to which we would assign 'objective status': tolerance, value and dignity of all people, honesty, etc." This is all the more an issue for me because, as the astute reader will note, I appeal frequently to such principles in my own writing. "Live honestly," I write, while out of the other side of my blog saying "there are no objective values."

The idea that there is a single underlying set of ideal values has a wide appeal. Plato, for example, held that values such as 'justice' and 'beauty' consist in ideal forms, no less so than, say, the concept of a 'triangle' or a principle of mathematics. The American Declaration of Independence states, in part, "We hold these truths to be self-evident..." And certainly there are bodies of thought in comparative religion that holds a single set of values underlie all the major faiths.

If there is, however, an objective morality or underlying set of values, we are hard pressed to find it. Certainly, such a set of values does not manifest itself empirically. Take "tolerance", for example; nobody would claim that the world's people, or even a substantial majority of them, have embraced tolerance as a value. In the case of "honesty" we see an even clear trend in the other direction; if we were to rely on empirical data, we would have to say that dishonesty is our core value! And some of the even more fundamental values - the prohibition against killing, for example - is violated by the same state that passes laws to ensure that its citizens do not also violate it. Some objective value!

It is just as likely as not that the world is silent about such values. Or, as Nietzsche suggests through the argument of transvaluation of value, it may be just as likely that the opposite to what we believe is actually the objective value. We celebrate respect for the law and society, but at the same time, adore a Superman who writes his own rules. We believe in democracy and the will of the people, but yearn for a strong leader to take charge. We believe in honesty, but celebrate and reward the poker face.

It is not automatic, it is not a given, that the values we celebrate in today's modern industrial society are in any sense 'objective' standards to which all teaching and morality must conform. The great debates - and wars - of the twentieth century were fought along fractures in our understandings of those values: are all people indeed born equal, are civil liberties indeed self evident? The political debates of today reflect other disagreements: does the ends justify the means, is freedom more important than security? To name a few.

To return to our pebble - it turns out that there are reasons to be sceptical about the pebble. Certainly, as Descartes argues, we should not trust the senses to inform us about the pebble. Never mind that we see it differently in water or out, or that we see it differently in differently coloured light. It's a miracle that we see it at all, considering that the pebble is mostly space! And even in that space, there is no place that an electron actually is! Our common pebble turns out to be much, much more complex than it appears to the naked eye.

Does it follow then that there is no fact of the matter about the pebble? Of course not. But consider how Siemens argues. "Calling something subjective says 'okay, thinking about this hurts'. I'll abandon thought and appeal to the objective ideal of subjectivity. In this manner, I don't have to see the broad rich array of the painting, and instead can focus on simply the element I choose to perceive as valuable.'"

But let's ask now: do we see a pebble the way we do because it's too hard to see and think about a pebble the way it really is? This seems unlikely. It's not as though we had some sort of objective way to get at the underlying structure and make-up of a pebble. It's not like, for example, we could pinpoint the location of an electron - or even say that it has a location! The fact of the matter, if there is one, is unknowable to us.

One way to think of this is via the Heisenberg Principle. In a nutshell, the principle asserts that the process of observing an object changes the nature of the object. We observe very small things by bouncing other small things things - like photons or electrons - off them. But every time we do this, it changes the location of the thing being observed. It's kind of like locating a motorcycle by boucing cars off it and seeing where they end up. The method works - but it's very hard on the motorcycle.

But at least a pebble is a pebble, right? Even if we cannot get at its essential nature, at least we can identify a pebble, right? Well - it's not so clear. Every pebble was at one time part of a larger rock; it becomes a pebble when it breaks off and erodes into a roundish shape. So, was it a pebble before it broke off? When it was only partially broken off? Does the piece have to have been eroded and rounded to become a pebble? How much so? Should the pebble later become part of another rock, is it still a pebble?

We could say, without exaggeration, that for any given small piece of rock, some people might call it a pebble, and some people might not. And, in fact, this is a sufficiently strong principle (about as strong as any principle gets, at least) so say, "For any entity P and any property a there is at least one person that says P is an a and one person says P is not an a." And even if we went out and checked every one and found that they all did say P is an a this would be merely accidental; it is always the case that someone could say P is not an a.

And if someone always could say a piece of stone is or is not a pebble, then there is no objective means by which we can determine whether it is a pebble, even if there is some objective fact of the matter as to whether it is or is not a pebble (we could ask, though, what would such an objective fact look like? And the emptiness of our answer illustrates more clearly than anything that it's something that simply eludes us).

We need to be clear that this is more than simply having points of view (although our having points of view is certainly illustrative). It's not like we can get all the descriptions of the pebble together and, somehow, come up with an objective determination of the essential properties of a pebble.

Consider Siemens's argument: "If I'm part of a group that witnesses an accident, I will describe it in a certain manner... Each individual who views the accident has a different version of what happened... [but] The accident happened; it was someone's fault (or the weather perhaps)." Well, let's consider this case of the accident; what was the cause of the accident. Who's fault was it?

The answer to such a question may be genuinely ambiguous. Norwood Russell Hanson argues that it depends on the theory of cause you bring to the investigation, which in turn depends on the context of the investigation. If the driver failed to check the brakes, does that mean that the politician is off the hook for failing to ensure the road was well maintained? Of course not - nor either is it the case that the cause of the accident is composed of these two factors; from one point of view - your car insurance, for example - the other 'cause' is irrelevant.

It's like the image of the duck-rabbit. When we see the image, we either see it as a duck or as a rabbit. It isn't somehow a combination of duck parts and rabbit parts. And even if there is some fact of the matter - even if it is actually a duck or a rabbit - this no longer matters. We see it as one, or we see it as the other, and there is nothing that would mediate the dispute.

You see, something like the Heisenberg Principle operates when we perceive things. When we look at an object - a pebble, say - we cannot say what it is without having some theory about names and naming. Without having some concept about pebbles, we could never say that something is a pebble. But there are many ways to see the world (as Lakoff evocatively shows in his Women, Fire and Dangerous Things). So there are many concepts of pebbles we could bring into the observation. And there's the rub - whatever concept we bring to the table is what actually determines whether or not the thing is a pebble.

So how do we determine that somethings is a pebble? It's not the pebble - it is, as Wittgenstein would say, the language game that surrounds the use of the word pebble. One person says to another, Bring me a pebble. You bring a pebble. No, no, that's too large. You keep trying - different rocks, different people, until you get some sort of idea in your mind. What are the essential features of a pebble? There are no essential features - it's like the word game, it's a set of related concepts, concepts that look alike, as though they shared family resemblances, but don't share all and only the same traits in common.

But surely that's not strong enough for a science, is it? After all - what I am saying essentially is that whether something is or is not a pebble has more to do with the conversation we have than with the pebble itself!

Read George Siemens on this: "In order to move to a networked view of learning, we need to see learning nodes (people, software, concepts, or ideas) as possessing some consistent state... If something can't possess 'what is' attributes, then it cannot be of value in the process of connection forming. A node can form connections based mainly on its intrinsic (objective) attributes." Siemens may as well be saying, "If there can't be some fact of the matter about pebbles, then we can't have a theory of pebbles."

And it seems like common sense, right? In order for a network theory of learning - or anything else - to work, there must be a network. And not, say, something that we merely interpret as a network.

But, in opposition, I would say that seeing something as a network is a way of seeing something. That something may be seen as a network in the same way that it may be seen as a pebble.

How can this be? Consider the following question: when you look at War and Peace, are you looking at one thing, or 1256 things? There is, of course, no correct answer to the question. If you are counting books, you are looking at one thing. If you are counting pages, you are looking at 1256 things. Viewed from the perspective of being a set of related pages (or words, or readings) War and Peace may viewed as a network. Viewed merely as a book, it is merely an object, and not a network at all.

The discussion of networks isn't one of whether something is a network, or not. Everything is a network, from a certain perspective, just as everything is a quantity, and just as everything is a set of properties. And, in the same way, there is no absolute objective truth here. When you look at a pebble - do you see one thing or a hundred billion things? Depends on whether you see it as a pebble or a bunch of atoms. Is it solid or mostly space? Same answer. What it is depends on the theoretical framework you bring to bear on the question.

What a network theory does for us is to inform us about ways of looking at phenomenon. As I have written elsewhere, the knowledge we obtain from a network is an emergent property of that network. What that means is that when we look at a network, we see it as an instantiation of some higher level entity, just as we see the patterns of pixels on the television screen as an image of Richard Nixon. Network theory, therefore, informs about successful and unsuccessful strategies of doing this.

In this way, it is no different from science. Because, after all, we do come to understandings about pebbles. If we toss one into the water, we know we will create a set of ripples. And we know why that will happen, and under what grounds we would predict such an event.

We can do this because science isn't ontology. Science, strictly speaking, is silent on what things exist. No, instead, science is the discipline of deriving explanations for things. It is a system of practices and interactions humans use in order to construct a (mostly mathematical) model that is useful for making predictions. Science, in other words, does not answer the question what. It answers the question why.

Consider, for example, Newton's three laws, which underlie classical physics. What was important about these laws was not that they described an objective state of affairs (in fact, they did not) but that they expressed the state of affairs mathematically and in such a way that we could, with some facility, use them to make predictions. Newton's laws offered an explanation of observable phenomena by adducing a property, mass, that allowed for a single set of equations to describe multiple phenomena.

What makes one scientific explanation better than another? It is tempting to respond, off the cuff, that one is true while the other isn't, but what happens when the two appear to describe the phenomena equally well? If I let go of a rock, for example, and it strikes the table, is it because gravity pulled it down, or because the rock wanted to go down, or because God willed it to go down? Any of these theories explains the phenomenon equally well! So what is the fact of the matter?

When we look at what scientists actually do, we find that they are doing pretty much the same sort of things as happens in Wittgenstein's language game. Is that a pebble? No, I wouldn't call it a pebble. Well, a pebble is a thing that's eroded. Well, this is eroded. But not enough. Science is a set of conversations around sets of processes and activities. The outcome or product of these conversations is a set of theories.

Why one set, and not another? There is no single answer, but today scientists employ a set of what might be called methodological criteria for theory selection. That is not to say that these are hard and fast rules - a successful theory might violate any or all of these. But in general, scientists favour:
  • theories that are simple - this is the principle of Ockham's Razor
  • theories that have explanatory breadth - that is, it should explain more things rather than fewer things
  • theories that are testable, or falsifiable
None of these is a guarantee that the theory will be true. Certainly, the ontological status of the theory itself is dubious - is there some thing out there, some entity, that is Newton's Laws, or the Theory of Relativity? Who can know?

In the same way, the theories of networks I have described elsewhere are not objective properties of networks (nor am I committed to the view that the networks so described have some sort of objective existence). Rather, they are best viewed as methodological principles for setting up networks and using networks to generate empirical phenomena.

The principles, recall, are that reliable networks should be:
  • open, so that any node an receive or send signals
  • diverse, so that different types of nodes are included
  • autonomous, so that each node functions independently of the others
  • interactive, so that nodes communicate with each other
Now we can see that, strictly speaking, these principles can be seen (and should be seen) not merely as principles for building networks, but also, as a way of looking at things as though they were networks.

How does this work? Look at a forest. When you look at a forest, any number of ways of looking at it present themselves. You can look at it as a single entity, a 'forest'. Not very useful. Or you can look at it as a set of trees. Useful, but not so useful. Or you can look at it as an ecosystem. Most useful. When looking at forests, as a methodological principle, it is better to think of it as an ecosystem. This won't always apply - someone taking a tree census won't be usefully aided by this principle. But by and large, it is the best point of view to take, such as scientists prefer simple and powerful theories.

Is there an entity that is the 'network' in (or of) the forest? Who knows? Whether or not there is such an entity plays no part in our discussions.

Finally, from this, we can see how I approach the apprently intractable problem posed at the beginning of this post. It may be that there is no objective value of 'honesty' but there is a principle that I appeal to, 'honesty', when I discuss moral and political philosophy. This principle is derived from a way of seeing society - a way of seeing that is akin to looking at human society from the point of view of being a (successful) network rather than, say, a certain number of trees.

There is no objective virtue that is honesty, or any of the others - that's why these virtues are so easy to break. But, as a methodological principle, one's own conduct will in general be more successful if one understands the nature of the world around him, and one way of understanding it, and interacting successfully, is to be honest.

Stephen Downes Stephen Downes, Casselman, Canada

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