Tag Archives: economics

Facts in Right Relationship

Philosophising by Lukas

Across the globe an increasingly dominant worldview sees reality as ultimately physical. There are various expressions of this worldview in Western philosophy, including:  logical positivismempiricismphysicalismscientismnaturalism and causal closure. I would sum them up as follows: the only true reality is physical and material, and direct observation using the scientific method arranged into cohesive logic is the only way we can “know” and thus make statements about what is meaningfully and objectively “true.” The highest form of expressing a true statements is one that results in a “fact”, something that is “proven” true by evidence.

Linear Thinking vs Cyclical Processes: Changing Mental ...There are some been some big dissenters. Pragmatist philosopher William James, popular with a lot of Western Buddhists, asserted that something can only be said to be objectively true if there is subjective value to that being so. This is often misunderstood as saying something is true if it is subjectively valuable to someone, which is not the same. Commenting on the subjective value of truth itself, his idea of “radical empiricism” asserts that any philosophical worldview is flawed if it stops at the physical level and fails to explain how meaning, values and intentionality can arise from that. (Image of cyclical & linear thinking from here)

There is no doubt that Western science is physically powerful, and this power seems to validate the worldview underpinning it. On a social level, Western science delivers great physical control into the hands of they who dominate physical resources. What we are left with is a very powerful confirmation bias that minimises the importance of other ways of being, and of experiencing and knowing reality. Far from seeing this kind of thinking as our saviour, I consider it responsible for much of the deepest suffering in the world today. Considering the medicine wheel, we have traded a lot of physical comfort and knowledge for much greater insecurity in emotional, psychological and spiritual realms. To me, the very existence of facts, and Western scientific epistemologies more broadly, can only ever be tools that exist in a complex relationship with subjective experiences that defy physical description. Core to understanding our experiences is an understanding of that which is meaningful in our lives, including how we materialise that meaning, both of which are based in values and worldview. Wise application of values can help us place logic and objectivity into proper relationship with our experiences.

Confirmation Bias in 5 Minutes - YouTubeHowever much one tries to be “objective”, behind all science lies priorities and values, and this affects what ends up being considered real or true. Values inform priorities which help us develop meaningful goals as well as guide us how to err when faced with the inevitable uncertainty of complex systems. And, hard is it can be, values help us remain undistracted and unattached to the vicissitudes of life, and prioritise process over outcomes. By asserting the primacy of process, I am not rejecting consequences in favour of pure deontological “moral” frameworks. Rather, I am stressing that such frameworks are, amongst other things, methods for deciding how we ought err in uncertainty, to be used in combination with thought processes reliant on logic.

The wisdom, or dare I say the “truth”, of our values can be observed pragmatically over time and space in ways that are supra-rational as well as rational, relational and subjective as well as objective. Such dualities and the potential for them to be paradoxical are, I believe, intrinsic to the human experience. Their relationship to one another does not need to “make sense” intellectually. Subjectivity and supra-rationality are not antithetical to science or empiricism. Buddhist science is based on experience-based enquiries into the nature of mind and consciousness, and Indigenous science is based on people learning themselves and their land through subjective and relational ways of being. Whom would you rather ask questions about the nature of mind, a Buddhist lama or a cognitive scientist? And whom would you rather ask questions about sustainable land management, a Western-educated ecologist or a local Indigenous Elder? Your answers to these questions says a lot about you and your worldview.

Positivism Cartoons and Comics - funny pictures from ...I think the most dangerous application of logical positivism, particularly when applied to complex social and ecological systems, is the predictive theoretical model. In modern society, it is often used instead of intuitive wisdom, Buddhist science, or Indigenous science to complement or replace Western scientific observation. A model, like anything, is ultimately uncertain, and decisions have to be made about what to assume and how to err. To demonstrate my point I am going to use to examples that come from a relatively closed and simple system, aeronautical engineering. I say “relatively”, because despite the ability of physical science to predict things like aerodynamics and metallurgy with a high degree of accuracy, when building an aircraft there is no “best” design, only “best effort” at matching design and engineering to values and priorities such as safety, fuel economy, speed, capacity, manufacturing cost, etc. The advantage of this field is that theoretical models can usually be tested, preferably before people fly on the plane! But not always.

Example 1.
A380 engineers used theoretical models to ascertain the wing strutting they hoped would meet wing strength certification regulations. Models were tested with wing stress tests (weights literally placed onto the wings), which determined that they needed to improve the struts. They added extra struts, thus increasing the weight of the aircraft and reducing fuel economy. This, along with incorrect modelling of the aviation market, led to a beautiful, safe, unprofitable plane. But the value of placing safety before profits shone through, and not a single person has died on an A380. (Image from here.)

Travel

Example 2.
Boeing wanted an updated fuel-efficient 737 model to compete with Airbus’s A320 NEO. The 737 has slightly shorter landing gear than the A320, and thus could not accommodate the latest generation of super fuel efficient turbo fan engines, which have a large diameter. To create a whole new airframe (the core of an aircraft) is a lot more expensive and time consuming than an incrementally new model, so the engineers were asked to “make it work.”

They ruled out re-designing the landing gear because it would be too heavy, bad for fuel economy. They changed the way the engine was positioned on the wing, but this altered aerodynamics and made the plane prone to stalling in certain circumstances (when close to the ground). To compensate, they installed software that would take control of the plane’s elevators and aggressively point the nose of the plane down in the event of a low altitude stall. This system took its cue from a single sensor.

You might think that such a system would require extra pilot training, but this would have raised the effective price of the plane, and Boeing were keen to sell it to budget airlines in the developing world, and besides, the system would only run in the background, and in the event of a failure could be disabled the same way pilots had been trained with other Boeing planes. The American regulators, by now more or less run by ex-industry workers with vested interest, approved the plane to fly.

We know what happened next. Two sets of pilots were so scared that their plane was trying to crash them into the ground that they were unable to work out that the problem was an automated system they knew how to shut down. A lot of people died as a consequence.

Disregard for consumer safety and the law - Product Safety ...There are numerous errors of logic identifiable in Example 2 without questioning values too deeply, and these should not be ignored. But I think those errors were proximate causes of flawed values. The aeronautical engineering profession must be based on a deeply held commitment to safety above profit. They, and their regulators, should err on the side of safety. I cannot help but think that government backing of the A380 project — considered a public interest project — had something to do with the values underpinning their decision-making. The risk of producing an unprofitable plane is not as catastrophic to the public purse as it might be to a purely private enterprise. But it also has something to do with the physical nature of the wing test showing a “fact” playing into biases in the Western world. Feelings of unease in the pit of Boeing engineers’ stomachs that I am confident was there were too easily rationalised and discounted within a worldview that puts physical knowing — or its poorer cousin, physical modelling — on a pedestal. (Image from here.)

My commitment to living a process- and values-driven life is why the Australian government’s response to the Corona virus did not align with my values, even if I am grateful for the outcomes we have had so far. In March I saw them erring based on certain values and priorities, but that was not at the centre of societal dialogues. Discussions about values seem increasingly missing in favour of myopic searches for evidence of “fact” or inter-group conflict. What I seek is dialogue based in values that utilise facts once people see and trust where each other is coming from. When we see someone like Trump acting the way he does, it is tempting to malign his refusal to listen to “facts.” But this is only part of the story. The problem for most of us is that we do not like Trump’s values. As physical “facts” continue to gain power both in terms of physical change in the world and as a dominant worldview, dialoguing on values will only become increasingly important. Facts are not the solution to bad leadership, and an increased emphasis on evidence-based “facts” can quickly become a vehicle for even greater trickery and corruption.

Toilet paper wars (from the Western worldview)

This is a blog looking at the great Corona virus toilet paper hoarding of 2020 by Lukas.

The odds of any one individual getting the Corona virus are so far quite low, and the probability of severe symptoms or death even lower. Making individual decisions based on this low probability is therefore, on some level, the rational thing to do. But on a long enough time scale — which in this case could be a matter of weeks — self-interested rationality becomes catastrophic. For some it may be physical, and for others psychological, emotional, and spiritual.

Perhaps the most visceral example of self-interest creating collective chaos in recent times is Australian toilet paper hoarding.

I will analyse this phenomenon from three frameworks of Western thinking starting with the Prisoner’s Dilemma. It goes like this: two prisoners are being interrogated. They have only two choices, rat on their mate or keep silent:

  1. If neither rats on the other, they both get one year in prison (two total years from a collective perspective);
  2. If one keeps his mouth shut and the other rats him out, the rat goes free and the one staying silent gets three years in prison (three total years from a collective perspective); or
  3. If they both rat on each other, they get two years a piece (four years total from a collective perspective).

Rat White Background Images | AWB

If one’s individual goal is to avoid as much jail as possible, the most “rational” self-interested thing to do is to rat, because if you are acting in a self-interested fashion, so too might be the other prisoner. If you rat, you have a chance at going free, and your worst case scenario is only two years. Cooperating is a good option for the individual but is irrational because it cannot be relied upon and comes with the greatest personal cost. But this thinking falls down if one has confidence in the collective values of the other. The IRA were famous for fanatical silence under interrogation, such was each member’s commitment to the collective cause. For our prisoners, the cause could be a desire to collectively serve less time. Applied to our toilet paper example, it means that the decision to hoard toilet paper is like ratting on your accomplice. If you can’t rely on the other’s collective values, or even their spirit of selfish cooperation, it is best to join the hoarders. Best case scenario, you are fully stocked for months; worst case scenario, you will have a decent amount. Under no circumstances will you be left with none. (Image from here.)

The tragedy of the commons The tragedy of the ...Another famous idea is the “Tragedy of the Commons”, an 1833 essay now part of the Western cultural lexicon. This is the idea that a common resource, for example grazing land, can easily become depleted or destroyed by individuals acting in their own self interest, i.e. grazing their own herd without regard to the long term effects on the land. This was in fact an argument — a terrible one if you ask me — for the morality of the enclosure movement, which was the creation of legal property rights over what was previously common land in the Britain, the idea being that an individual owning land will take better care of it, because it will be within both their interest and power to do so. This could mean that rather than our being trusted to collectively or cooperatively manage the supply of toilet paper, an authority needs to “own” the supply. This is perhaps like supermarkets ‘taking ownership’ of the situation and setting limits on TP purchases. (Image from here.)

Jesse's Café Américain: This Is Moral HazardA third framework of interest, and perhaps most relevant to our toilet paper dilemma, is the idea of Commonize Costs — Privatize gains. Also called “Moral Hazard” during the Global Financial Crises, it is an individual maximising their self-interest by being selfish with any benefits derived from their interaction with a common resource and offloading any negative consequences to the collective. In the toilet paper case this is people hoarding a personal stash and leaving the consequences and chaos to others to deal with. They got in early and those who didn’t can be damned. If this behavioural trait is common in a group, those with the most community-minded instincts or values in relative terms lose out (i.e. those who didn’t buy extra TP because to ‘do the right thing’ and now have none). (Image from here.)

Looking at these articles on Wikipedia, it struck me how much that I think ought be deeply ingrained wisdom and self-evident knowledge has been studied intellectually and quantified as ‘evidence’. This is borne out by people acting like they need this kind authoritative guidance and advice before believing something is true. For example, the Tragedy of the Commons article mentions a study finding clear evidence that the culture of the people had something to do with how people treated common land! It is truly shocking to me that this needed to be studied. I do not wish to sound totally negative about the usefulness of these ideas. But it is clear to me they are fundamentally limited by ignorance of the worldview and cosmology from which both the behaviours and our attempts to understand them emanate. To me, the sheer complexity of systems at play in all of these circumstances call for indigenous thinking and science. From this vantage point, how to look after a common resources is self-evident, an idea antithetical to the Western scientific mind. (Image from here.)