Systems and values.
Gash H. (2015) Systems and values.. In: G. E. Lasker & K. Hiwaki (eds.) Personal and Spiritual Development in the World of Cultural Diversity. Vol XIl.. International Institute for Advanced Studies, Tecumseh Ontario: 7–11. Available at http://cepa.info/2418
Table of Contents
Systems as a way of approaching thinking.
Types or classes of values.
Belief systems form the background to this paper (Gash, 2015). Central in that discussion were constructivist insights into thinking such as taking responsibility for our knowledge, recognising its limits, understanding the role of difference, our need for certainty and feedback. Here values are examined from a constructivist systemic perspective. Values arise from difference, then classes of valued things emerge at different levels. It is important to understand (1) the “rational” basis of values and (2) that operating in indefinable domains has implications for the way values influence decisions. Intransigence may follow from values being personal.
Key words: Constructivism, systems, values, classification, Maturana
In last year’s paper I discussed ways constructivism offers insights into the role of beliefs in conflicts and the conditions for reconciliation. These include the limited nature of knowledge, the role of difference in cognition, our need for certainty, and the importance of negative feedback in regulating process. Of central importance are considerations that facilitate or impede flexibility in conflict resolution. This year I want to consider aspects of values from a systems perspective. Values such as freedom of the press, and the need to distribute wealth equitably have dominated newspaper headlines in Ireland and abroad throughout January 2015, however usually the focus has not been systemic, nor have the positions been flexible. Schweitzgebel (2014) presents belief as an attitude we have about something we take to be true. My efforts to find a similarly brief synopsis of value were less successful as value is intertwined with a variety of domains including ethics and meta-ethics, but here I begin by introducing value as arising when difference is noticed. Value theory is concerned with classifying things that are good and how good they are, and more generally with theoretical questions about value and goodness (Schroeder, 2012).
Systems as a way of approaching thinking.
The phrase “integrity of the self” evokes an image of the self as a system. This means the self organises its activities in terms of its own reference points and the data it observes as a system. Some activities are organised consciously and some not. From conception living organisms operate systemically keeping in balance all sorts of parameters using expectations that may be conscious and that may be learned. Individual human systems are open systems growing in their environments. We can examine the parameters used to make choices at a variety of levels, biochemical, physical, sensorial and so on. However, when we examine these levels as observers we do so always from a specifiable perspective, from a position outside the individual. The individual herself, for the most part viewing the system from within, does not notice the balances and valued choices that are maintained. Initially the reference points are pre-representational and by the age of two some become representational as ideas. Then across human psychological development ideas differentiate with experience. However, it is important to observe that when we make choices we do so based on the way the system is ready to act at that moment.
So having made the case that we make decisions to keep our system in balance, let’s consider the ideas or elements we use in this process. Historically Giambattista Vico (1710) specified that we can distinguish between ideas we are aware of and ideas we make. We have a more complete understanding of ideas we make because we have access to the process by which the idea was made. Ideas we are aware of, for which we do not have access to the making, we know less completely. From a constructivist perspective we make all ideas, but there are many ideas we use in conversation that are not well made, that we cannot explain clearly as we are not aware of the process. Siegfried Schmidt (2011) developed these ideas radically, proposing that all objects or elements of thought depend on processes.
This observation about how well we know goes to the heart of so many disagreements. It is all too easy to hold onto ideas that merit discussion for reasons that we may be only partly aware of, that have little to do with the idea and owe a lot to associated values like our own identity and self-image. For example, Irish children were negatively prejudiced towards French children and Greek children (Gash, 1995). What was interesting was that they had virtually no contact with Greek children, it seemed to be the case that the “unknown other” was bad.
Let’s try to model this to understand the interface between values and types of information. We could consider (1) speakers who value discussion or do not value discussion and (2) information that might be securely shared or not securely shared. Let’s define securely shared information here as information that is decidable, that is information that one can produce rules for, or show the process of construction and importantly - where this can be agreed. For example, I can tell you how to get from A to B for the specified domain and I am confident that we can agree about the maps and turns and so on.
Modelling person-information interface
Table 1: Modelling person information interface
/Person who values discussionPerson who doesn’t value discussionSecure information: mathematicsInteractive LearningDidactic LearningUndecidable information: religion aestheticsPersuasionDomination
Let’s consider each quadrant on the top row, remembering that the persons in our model might vary in confidence (low and high) and that other dimensions might also be relevant. The purpose of this exercise is to highlight the ways these variables may influence each other and to become aware of the systemic interactions.
In any domain with decidable information if the people speaking do not value discussion, is it clear that the information being shared would be shared differently? When there are difficulties for the listener understanding the speaker, or when the speaker is being questioned, there are procedures that could be followed to explain the message. This is like what Humberto Maturana had in mind when he spoke about “reality in parenthesis”. When there are disagreements about one’s experience of the world one can explain how and why it is that one thinks this way.
One implication is that disagreements or questions that arise in any discussion about secure information are potentially resolvable in ways that depend on the psychological interface between participants. Further, the existence of procedures for deciding what is meant provides a way to reveal a shared meaning.
If we consider the two lower rows of quadrants, however, undecidable information could include likes and dislikes, preferences, prejudices, religious ideas, poetic ideas, and all sorts of imaginative ideas. The key issue here is that there is no agreed set of rules by which one can explain to another rationally what one means. I have my likes and dislikes but there is no reason why another will share these. Others may share them but they may not. The same with preferences. With prejudices and stereotypes, the problem is that these are shortcuts and pretend to be generalisations where counter-examples are ignored. Irish people behave this way, French people behave that way, men like football and women don’t. These statements are imprecise but prejudice invites or demands acceptance. Religious ideas of many types are grounded in texts that are deemed to be authoritative. However, for non-believers these texts lack authority and the ideas are not grounded in legitimate ways. So we have versions of experienced reality. Alternate realities also emerge in artistic domains. Poetic ideas provide descriptions of experience that express in really new vibrant ways things that may have become commonplace. Art consists of making the commonplace strange and exotic, just as the autumn colours make trees so extraordinary, and as love creates magic and freshness.
In the case of insecure information in any of these domains used by a speaker who likes discussion, then the rules of rhetoric come into play. Listeners may be enchanted with the meanings communicated and not notice the overgeneralisations or the absence of evidence or the absence of rules by which one can check the information. The issue is the creation of alternative visions. Speakers who do not like discussion may be questioned about the message but in this case the process does not play the same role. How the discussions proceed depends more obviously on choosing between Maturana’s “reality in parenthesis” and “reality without parenthesis”. Value and identity are systemically intertwined in these choices.
Types or classes of values.
Children seek regularities in their experience, and there is an iterative cycle between previously remembered reference points and ongoing experience (Gash, 2015). These regularities or reference points include expectancies and beliefs and in diverse approaches are described with different hierarchically organised levels. Abraham Maslow (1943) for example, proposed a hierarchy of values that begins at the physiological level and moves up to safety, to love/ belonging, to self-esteem, and finally to self-actualization at the highest level. Jacquelynne Eccles and Allan Wigfield (2002) reviewed motivational beliefs, values and goals. Their review offers an alternative look at ways values are integrated into human behaviour at both personal and social levels. They (ibid., p. 110) focus on expectancies and beliefs in the following way: “Expectancies refer to beliefs about how one will do on different tasks or activities, and values have to do with incentives or reasons for doing the activity.” In some cases these beliefs are self-referring, that is, beliefs about one’s ability to do tasks, as in Bandura’s self-efficacy (1997).
In applying systems theory to values it seems important to consider how values arise in cognition and how they inter-relate. Classification of values and comparison or relationship between values seems relevant. In addition, values arise at all levels of cognition when differences are noted because one side of a difference will usually appear more attractive.
Infinitely large classes are problematic logically. This concerns classes of values with infinite connotations. George Cantor is credited with recognizing that some collections are too big to be treated as sets and this is a problem for the foundations of mathematical thinking (Irvine & Deutsch, 2014). Classification in turn operates on sets. Further, maths depends on logic and logic depends on sets. So putting this non-technically - if we know p or q is the case and we then find p is not the case, this proves q is the case. If set theory is inconsistent because for infinitely large sets there is a problem, it’s important to find a solution. Otherwise we run into the well-known issue of paradox. If we consider the set whose members are those objects who are not members of themselves, problems arise. In school I recall: “if the barber shaves everyone who doesn’t shave themselves, who shaves the barber?” The problem arises with self-referencing sets. It can be put in another way: all infinitely large sets like the “set of everything” are problematic because the question “are they members of themselves” precipitates a paradox. Bertrand Russell proposed a solution based on the idea of types, that is, the domain of a proposition had to be defined before the proposition could be defined.
Values help us make sense of experience and organise our relationships with ourselves and others. Defining their domain though is a problem as they exist at different levels, e.g., the biochemical, sensory, emotional, and as ideas. They are slippery! Or we are fickle! We can be clear about them in print, but in decision-making we may slide from one value to another. Let’s consider so-called core values that have to do with identity (courage, honesty, duty and sacrifice). These values operate across domains, and so it is not easy to see how they can be given defined domains to avoid paradox. I think it is reasonable to say they can operate in infinite rather than restricted ways. Such core values are also matters of individual choice and so understandably not easily let go. Individual differences on such matters are likely to provide opportunities for potential conflict.
Let’s consider a simple example, the belief that lying is not good. To what domain does a person tempted to lie refer? Is it personal good that is at risk, is it institutional or societal good? It might be any one or any mix of some or all of them. One solution is that differences in value require the most careful analysis of individual cases. Given that people use heuristics to analyse information, and that social pressure often plays a role, analysis of differences between people is a project fraught with difficulty. Violence will not help. Adherence to rules will not help. Our choices depend on unconscious processes. Promoting our human capacity for sympathy and love requires selfless ethical application. Surely this grows out of cooperation?
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