Fixed or probable ideas
Gash H. (2013) Fixed or probable ideas. Foundations of Science 19(3): 283–284. Available at http://cepa.info/894
Table of Contents
This commentary on Nescolarde-Selva and Usó-Doménech (Found Sci, 2013) raises questions about the dynamic versus static nature of the model proposed, and in addition asks whether the model might be used to explain ethical flexibility and rigidity.
Key words: Heuristics · Probability · Ethics
Understanding cultural differences is an intriguing challenge. Communicating from different cultural perspectives is complex because meanings vary culturally. Messages that are clear in one culture risk being misinterpreted in another culture with different contextual rules. Nescolarde-Selva and Usó-Doménech (2013) introduce a mathematical model for belief systems which specifies precisely the meaning of signs used in communication.
We live in an era of unprecedented mobility, international travel and commerce. Using fewer languages to communicate makes these activities simpler, though there is inevitable loss of nuance and precision in cross-cultural communication, particularly when people use non-native languages. Often there are hidden features of a communicator’s world view that may not be noticed by a listener, especially when this world view is not shared. Recent work on cognition has proposed that mental heuristics or shortcuts operate according to a Bayesian logic (Gopnik et al. 2004). These shortcuts provide rapid solutions to communication problems, like the options proposed in smartphones when texting. If these heuristics are effective for any user, they are likely to survive even when they are incorrect. They work in limited contexts so why change them. Indeed, in the context of stereotypes they become part of the identity of the communicator and are socially supported and expected, so becoming resistant to change (Gash 2009).
Given the role mental heuristics have in explaining how prejudice and cultural misunderstandings arise, it would be interesting to see how the authors can integrate the probabilistic information that lies behind mental heuristics into their model. For example, the ways that prejudice emerges against recent immigrants in some societies seems to depend ￼on the available economic resources. So, when immigrants are needed to do certain jobs because locals no longer want to do them, immigrants are welcome. Whereas, when jobs are in short supply locals do not want to share jobs and local resources. Similarly and following the example given in this paper, the likelihood of ecologically friendly solutions to home heating problems seems to this reviewer to depend on available financial resources (a person condition) and also on the solutions that are available and in current use in the neighbourhood (a social contextual condition). Will the mathematical models proposed function more effectively with probabilistic approaches to interpretation?
In a different domain, extensive data are available on cultural values in different countries in the world (Welzel 2010). The mathematical models developed in Nescolarde-Selva and Usó-Doménech (2013) provide some detail concerning how an individual at a particular moment in a particular context might think. Is it possible to show which conditions might change so that this individual’s thinking could change? Related to this question is the additional one as to how the model functions across time (diachronically) as opposed to at one moment of time (synchronically)?
Finally, turning to ethical discussion, one hidden meta-ethical issue concerns whether the discussants vary in their assumptions concerning the objectivity of their ethical argument; whether there is scope for varying ethical opinions. If variation is disallowed, one position in the discussion is invalid and mutual respect is in jeopardy. Does this systemic model of belief systems help to understand the conditions leading to a person becoming fixed in their own “right” view, and the conditions leading another person to “engage in discussion to understand differences between their own and another’s view”? From an educational and cultural view, appreciating how to facilitate flexibility in the face of disagreement is enormously helpful.
Hugh Gash is a graduate of SUNY University at Buffalo, was a post-doc at University of Georgia, taught at California State University at Chico and retired from St Patrick’s College Dublin in 2010. He is a Fellow of the Irish Psychological Society, on the Editorial Board of Constructivist Foundations, and the Board of Directors of the Inernational Institute for Advanced Studies in Sysems Research and Cybernetics. His interests are in applied constructivism and his website is at http://staff.spd.dcu.ie/gashh/.
Gash, H. (2009). Attitude change, stereotypes and tolerance. In G. E. Lasker & K. Hiwaki (Eds.), Personal and spiritual development in the world of cultural diversity (Vol. VI, pp. 13–20). Tecumseh: International Institute for Advanced Studies in Systems Research and Cybernetics.
Gopnik, A., Glymour, C., Sobel, D., Schulz, L., Kushnir, T., & Danks, D. (2004). A theory of causal learning in children: Causal maps and Bayes nets. Psychological Review, 111(1), 1–31.
Nescolarde-Selva, J. A., & Usó-Doménech, J. (2013). Semiotic vision of ideologies. Foundations of Science. doi:10.1007/s10699-013-9329-8.
Welzel, C. (2010). How selfish are self-expression values: A civicness test. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 41, 152–174.
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