Monday 24 September 2012

A Mathematical Case for Conviviality

My last blog post dealt with the ways in which concepts work to simplify a metagame tree so as to reveal equilibrium points which in turn help the making of decisions. I have argued that it is at the moment of discovery of concepts that the release of tension of descending into complex metagame trees occurs, and that this equates to meaningful experience, resolution and understanding - conceived broadly as a "restructuring of anticipations".

But I have not explained how such concepts are discovered.

The emphasis on absence is particularly important in the discovery of new concepts. Informally we intuit that concepts are discovered (gravity, negative numbers, etc) because explanatory absences of existing concepts necessitate new ones with better explanatory and predictive power. However, I want to suggest that this process of awareness of absence is necessarily social. In insisting on this, I think I am probably making a kind of 'private language' argument for concept formation. But I'm comfortable with that!

Everyday social interaction has a negative imprint which lies behind the actualised acts that individuals undertake. As I explained here, each act, each decision is shaped by absences bearing upon an individual: it is the absences which shape the equilibrium points so that decisions can be made.

Moments of tension in social interaction can arise from a failure to identify effective equilibria: the absences of other individuals are not discernable, and so their action is not predictable, leading to difficulties in constructing the meta-game trees. In such moments, recourse to identifying absences that unite individuals is one strategy which can help to simply the metagame tree and identify an equilibrium (i.e. one course of action which is likely to work). This is where I think new concepts emerge from. They emerge from the need to pinpoint absences, to concretise them as ways of binding people together, and creating a new framework and new coalitions for constructive social engagement.

This is very much the Critical Realist position with regard to what Bhaskar calls 'determinate absence'. For example, conflict and inequality in multicultural societies gradually leads to the determination of previously absent mechanisms which are brought to light under the label of 'racism'. With the identification of the concept, so each individual's metagame tree can be restructured, leading to new grounds for discourse (and racism is a recursive concept, with some power).

A humourous example of this is the beginning of the movie Airplane! where the two announcers, one male the other female, compete on whether parking is permitted in the 'red zone' or the 'white zone'. The argument heats up to such a point like this:
P.A. SYSTEM (female v.o.)
There's just no stopping in the white zone.
P.A. SYSTEM (male v.o.)
Christ, you're as bad as your mother!
P.A. SYSTEM (female v.o.)
Oh, really, Vernon! Why pretend? We both know perfectly well what it is you're talking about. You want me to have an abortion.
That's the game-changer in the conversation. And it literally does 'change the game' because the new concept identified through shared absence, cuts through the other strategic possibilities in the conversation.

What I believe is deeply important in all this is the fact that individuals often group themselves around people who are like them, who tell them things they want to hear. Managers are notorious for this (even the occasional University Vice Chancellor!). The theory of shared absence shows how this is catastrophic. If the absences of the people who are managed are excluded from the conversation then the concepts which are inferred by those who hear only what they want to hear will be ineffective, likely to only introduce more tension and a potential pathological conflict.

This is perhaps a more technical, and mathematically-supportable articulation of the dangers of positive-feedback in management. Conversely, effective concepts will arise from social diversity. Indeed, the greater the social tension, the more scope there is for the identification of new concepts. This may help  to explain how difficult times (for example, 16th century England, or Soviet Russia) can be remarkably fertile for creative imagination.

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