Tuesday, 14 November 2017

Information and Syncretism: from Floridi to Piaget

Luciano Floridi has appealed for an "ethics of information" (he has written a book about it: http://www.philosophyofinformation.net/books/the-ethics-of-information/). His basic argument is that since we all live in an "information environment", information ethics should be seen as a variety of environmental ethics. So putting out "wrong" information onto social media is like dumping mercury into a river. I wouldn't be surprised if Floridi has been consulted with regard to the UK's stance on Russian hacking (see http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-41983091). But whatever the Russians (plus quite a few others) have been doing on social media, I think there's a ontological error in Floridi's argument. Information is not mercury: unlike mercury, information's effects depend on the beliefs of those receiving it.

Among the central presuppositions of belief in society today is a view of logic which upholds the principle of the "excluded middle": either the statement "it is raining" is true, or the statement "it is not raining" is true. Both statements cannot be true. What this means is that a collection of statements which are taken to be true or false can be taken together to leave the impression of an indisputable fact. By virtue of this principle, the more facts which can be brought to bear to support other statements, the more "objective" or "scientific" the conclusions drawn from their combination.  For example, the demand for "evidence" in social science is rather like this: the demand for more statements whose truth or falsehood can be established to more precisely identify the truth or falsehood of a more complex statement.

Some medieval philosophers puzzled over the excluded middle because this aspect of Aristotelian logic did not fit their theology. It occurred to John Duns Scotus that something could conceivably be true and false at the same time. He called his principle "synchronic contingency": Antonie Vos has brilliantly explored this (https://www.amazon.co.uk/Philosophy-John-Duns-Scotus/dp/0748624627) - personally I am indebted to Prof. Dino Buzetti for drawing my attention to it. What's so fascinating about this is that in Quantum Mechanics, exactly the same principle has a name: super-position. Scotus saw synchronic contingency as a co-existing dimension to what he saw as Aristotle's "diachronic contingency" - which is where something may be true and one moment and false at the next, but never both at the same time.

In the world of synchronic contingency, information looks very different. I think it also looks much more like our deeper human creative processes and spirit.

In my reading of Ehrenzweig's Hidden Order of Art, I've been struck by the emphasis that he places on another theological word: syncretism. Actually, Ehrenzweig cites Piaget as the originator of the use of the word in a scientific context:

Piaget has given currency to the term "syncretistic" vision as the distinctive quality of children's vision and of child art. Syncretism also involves the concept of undifferentiation. Around the eighth year of life a drastic change sets in in children's art, at least in Western civilization. Whilst the infant experiments boldly with form and colour in representing all sorts of objects, the older child begins to analyse these shapes by matching them against the art of the adult which he finds in magazines, books and pictures. He usually finds his own work deficient. His work becomes duller in colour, more anxious in draughtmanship. Much of the earlier vigour is lost. Art education seems helpless to stop this rot. What has happened is that the child's vision has ceased to be total and syncretistic and has become analytic instead. (p6)

In theology, syncretism refers to the holding of many contradictory ideas at the same time. Ehrenzweig argues that the creative process is precisely a process of holding many contradictory ideas at the same time. When he talks about dedifferentiation (see my previous post) he is describing the process of blurring the boundaries between true and false so that something new may be brought into being.

Our problem with "information" - whether its in big data, learning analytics, or the stock market - is that we don't consider the creative potential of a syncretic approach to it whereby such machine generated information could be a powerful spur to more authentic creativity. Instead, we uphold the excluded middle, and seek "triangulation" between different "truths" and "falsehoods". It is because we are so bound to this that our social media networks have become so vulnerable to "wrong" information - whether it's placed there intentionally or by mistake.

The world of creativity and the wold of "data" feel very different. One enlivens the soul and warms the heart. The other tightens the stomach muscles and ties us in knots - both as individuals and as a global society! Syncretism is the difference between the artistic mode and the analytic: the distrust of syncretism is the root of the pathologies of management and government.

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