Thinking about complex matters in terms of simplified models and metaphors can be very helpful when it comes to dealing with intractable subjects, but if we then confuse the simplified models and metaphors for reality, we can stray into dangerous territory. Particularly if this happens in political and economic policy-making, with its considerable downstream consequences for real, not imagined, people.
I was reminded of that harsh lesson, which I learnt in the 1990s, and have since spoken of as ‘reductionist determinism’, when idly reading Thomas Nagel’s review of Kwame Anthony Appiah’s book, As If: Idealization and Ideals, in The New York Review of Books (5 April 2018, vol LXV, no 6, pp 36-38). The essay is online, but accessible only by subscription.
As explained by Nagel, Appiah’s concept of idealization, taken from German philosopher Hans Vaihinger’s concept of ‘fictive thinking’, strikes me as very close to my own formulation of ‘reductionism’, often as part of what I have seen in political economy, management, and technology practices that confuse oversimplifications for reality.
Hans Vaihinger’s influence
Beginning with Vaihinger, his principal work was Die Philosophie des Als Ob (1911), based on work begun decades earlier and subject to numerous revisions, but translated into English in 1924 and revised in 1935 by Charles Kay Ogden as The Philosophy of ‘As if’.
As a logical positivist and neo-Kantian, Vaihinger’s prose, even in the English translation, comes across as dense, abstruse, and ambiguous.
To simplify, according to Arthur Fine’s essay ‘Fictionalism’ (Midwestern Studies in Philosophy, Vol XVIII, September 1993, pp 1-18. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-4975.1993.tb00254.x [paid access only]), thought is seen as a biological function which employs ‘fictions’ as mental models of reality, or abstractions of them, that aid in thinking about more complex realities without having to account for the full range of complexities, which might elude any single individual’s cognitive powers.
Vaihinger’s emphasis on fictions exalts the role of play and imagination in human affairs. He finds no realm of human activities, even the most serious of them, into which play and imagination fail to enter. … These faculties are part of the way we think (“constructively”), approach social and intellectual problems (“imaginatively”), employ metaphor and analogy in our language, and relate to others every single day.
Within science, idealizations and approximations are an integral part of ordinary everyday procedure. The representation of three dimensions on two (that is, graphing), the conceptualization of four (or twenty-seven!) in terms of three, all call on the imagination to create a useful fiction-as does any pictorial presentation of data. The images by virtue of which whole fields are characterized (“black hole,” “strings,” “plates,” “bonds,” “genetic code,” “software,” “systems,” “chaos,” “computable,” “biological clock,” and so on) have the same character. Indeed, new techniques are constantly being developed for the creation of scientific fictions. Game and decision theory come readily to mind. Computer simulation, in particle physics or weather forecasting, is also a significant postwar example. Preeminently, the industry devoted to modelling natural phenomena, in every area of science, involves fictions in Vaihinger’s sense. …
In these terms, Vaihinger’s fictionalism and his “As If” are an effort to make us aware of the central role of model building, simulation, and related constructive techniques, in our various scientific practices and activities.
Vaihinger’s particularist [prescriptive and granular] attitude over the question of whether and to what extent any model captures an element of the truth, warns us to be wary of overriding arguments about how to interpret (useful) scientific constructs in general.
That warning about exercising care when it comes to remembering that fictions are not to be confused for ‘truth’, and models are not to be confused for reality, becomes important to Appiah.
Nagel on Appiah
Thomas Nagel is Professor of Philosophy and Law Emeritus at New York University, where Professor Kwame Akroma-Ampim Kusi Anthony Appiah also holds an appointment. Colleagues, maybe, and friends? In any case, Nagel seems to be well familiar with Appiah’s thinking and works. He wrote:
Vaihinger contended that much of our most fruitful thought about the world, particularly in the sciences, relies on idealizations, or what he called “ﬁctions”–descriptions or laws or theories that are literally false but that provide an easier and more useful way to think about certain subjects than the truth in all its complexity would.
Reading that sentence was a double-take moment for me. It describes almost precisely my conception of ‘reductionism’, in which an abstraction of the real is developed and used for its greater simplicity in formulating policy, practice, or algorithmic processing. (As an aside, Nagel is the German word for nail; I wonder whether anyone ever played on it to say ‘you nailed it’.)
Nagel moves on, presumably drawing on Appiah, to illustrate how Adam Smith was able to present a coherent picture of political economy only by reducing human motivation to egoism. That example made me smile. I have argued so many times, with nonplussed or outraged interlocutors, that Smith’s theories are not merely dated, but overly simplistic when read with a simple-minded, passive literalism that confuses an abstraction for reality: human motivations are far more complex and circumstance-specific than allowed for by a reductionist prescription of egoism, or even a simplification elevated into a doctrine, which is equivalent to my notion of determinism.
Nagel points out that Appiah is likeminded:
… it is essential to hold on to the contrasting concept of truth, and to keep in mind both the departures from truth that idealization involves and the speciﬁc purposes for which it is useful.
Quite. With some qualifications.
I wouldn’t use the word truth too often since it tends to be taken as an absolute, based on culturally ubiquitous oversimplifications itself. Instead, I would be more comfortable talking about perceptions of reality from a variety of perspectives that are not mutually exclusive, even if they should appear to be in conflict. For example, the underlying reality might be that ‘night fell’, but whether this was a beautiful transition from day to night, a period of anxiety and dread, or a barely noticed and mundane change is open to qualitative interpretation.
If nightfall is the truth, without necessarily entailing the qualitative perceptions about it, I could live with the term. Unfortunately, people are rarely that rational or thoughtful. Particularly not when reductionists come along to impose quantitative models on human decision-making, of which Nagel says:
… precise psychological states … are assigned by … theory itself, on the basis of … their preferences or rankings (better, worse, indifferent) among alternatives. … Given a sufficiently extensive set of preferences (rankings of alternatives) by an individual, it is possible, employing relatively simple laws, to assign to [an] individual a set of subjective probabilities and desirabilities that would account for those preferences, if the individual were rational in the sense of the theory. But since rationality in the sense of the theory involves such superhuman capacities as immunity to logical error, instantaneous calculation of logical consequences, and assigning equal probability and desirability to all possibilities that are logically equivalent, it is clear that no actual humans are rational in this sense. So if we use the theory of economic rationality to think about the behavior of real human beings, we are treating them as if they were super-rational (“Cognitive Angels,” in Appiah’s phrase); we are employing a useful ﬁction, which allows us to bring human action under quantitative laws.
The ﬁction is useful only for certain purposes. If it is not to lead us astray, we have to recognize the ways in which it deviates from reality, and to correct for those deviations when they make a difference that matters. This is in fact the concern of the recently developed ﬁeld of behavioral economics, which tries to identify the consequences of systematic deviations of actual human behavior from the standards of classical economic rationality.
Nagel goes on to consider some of Appiah’s philosophical hair splitting not really germane to my topic, but also not in conflict with my exposition here.
In that hair splitting, there was only one observation from Nagel about Appiah I think is worth repeating: ‘An ideal that cannot be implemented is futile.’ A rather elegant summation. What’s the point of reducing reality to a simple model with zero relevance to the circumstance or problem to which it is applied? The answer is evident in every economic planning and technology failure. Imposing futile models on reality courts disaster. And yet it remains a popular pastime for politicians, business executives, and even some professionals, because it requires relatively little thought compared to dealing with the full complexity of reality.
Nagel cites Appiah in an observation about ethics which again reminds me of my own thinking about reductionist determinism:
The history of our collective moral learning doesn’t start with the growing acceptance of a picture of an ideal society. It starts with the rejection of some current actual practice or structure, which we come to see as wrong.
When a reductionist model is confused for reality, or applied as doctrine, critical thinking is defenestrated, and judgement is banished in favour of obedience. People slavishly follow the logic of an abstraction instead of thinking about and interacting with far more complex realities. To some extent this is why ethics is in decline in public life: people prefer simple, abstracted rules they can obey (or not) to the much harder job of having to think about each individual circumstance that requires an individual ethical or moral response.
The insane demand to metricate everything–necessarily abstracting much more complex realities–has dulled us all to the need for critical thinking, and the end products of that thinking: independent evaluation and judgement. In business and government this reductionism leads to failure, and, more importantly, to a breakdown in moral character and ethical behaviours, most often manifested in corruption and white collar criminality.
Nagel’s concluding paragraphs contain a number of observations closely aligned with my own, even if I arrived at them via the Frankfurt School, and particularly through the work of Jürgen Habermas (there is no mention of Appiah being influenced by these thinkers).
Appiah is cited to say ‘our best chance of understanding the world must be to have a plurality of ways of thinking about it.’ Just so This correlates precisely with my earlier point about reality being explicable from a variety of perspectives without violating what Nagel and Appiah call truth.
… our best understanding may come from theories or models that are not strictly true, and some of which may contradict one another. … Appiah insists, we should not allow the plurality of useful theories to undermine our belief in the existence of the truth, leaving us with nothing but a disparate collection of stories. It is conscious deviation from the truth that makes a theory an idealization, and keeping this in mind is a condition of its value.
It is a very neat encapsulation of the deafening roar that is the cultural warfare, between right wing reactionaries and the strawman of ‘postmodernism’. What we have are some overly zealous students and academics, interpreting a body of theoretical work too literally, and reactionaries insisting that this signals the end of the world unless we dismiss all such theory wholesale. Nagel seems to gently remind everyone that simpletons using critical and other theory to insist on deconstructing all meaning are as fatuous and unhelpful as all those other simpletons who insist that such theory necessarily subverts reality or truth in an orgy of left-wing nihilism and perversity that undermines the present ‘equilibrium’ between privilege and disadvantage.
In the end, reductionism, or idealization, is only an intellectual tool, not an end in itself, and its products are not commandments or ideologies, just perspectives to gain different understandings and new insights.
I’m glad to have come across Nagel’s review, if only to pass the time on a weekend, in a national era that has diminished our sense of reality in favour of ideological and algorithmic fantasies.
How I came to my own views on these matters is far less philosophical.
Reductionist determinism in political economy …
In the 1990s, I worked for chambers of commerce and industry in West Australia and Queensland. At that time these organisations functioned to represent employers in industrial relations tribunals, and to lobby state governments on all policies related to political economy. Their national representative body, the Australian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (ACCI), did the same on a federal level.
My rôle was in straight journalism, but also public affairs, meaning I had to understand a wide range of issues related to political economy and translate these into simple concepts and language to report to members and persuade news media of ‘our’ perspective. I knew this involved ‘reducing’ complex ideas and data to much more simple abstractions of reality than serious thinking requires. At least, that was my somewhat arrogant assumption. We were often labelled as the propaganda arm of the Liberal Party of Australia (LPA), the way the labour union movement was considered the industrial wing of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). [Is there an irony, here, that the acronyms are comprised of the same letters?]
What happened next, though, made me feel less arrogant. Far from understanding that policies roughly equivalent to the ‘neoliberalism’ of Reaganomics and Thatcherism were being sold as reductionist abstractions, LPA politicians began to behave as if they believed the reductionisms to be the entire ‘truth’ of political economy. And then they began to act as if the reductionist abstractions were an unassailable and incontrovertible ideology of righteousness, excluding from it all inconvenient facts, and denying all reality when outcomes simply didn’t match the wildly unrealistic ideological promises. Worse, the ALP also adopted some of this simple-mindedness, effectively ending a pluralism in policy for political economy.
It is that dogmatic defense of over-simplification I regarded as ‘determinism’. A blind adherence to imposing a demonstrably failed ideology.
‘Reductionist determinism’ thus became my terminology for confusing a simplified abstraction for the full complexity of reality, and then imposing the abstraction as an ideology, almost as if it were ‘righteous’, religious doctrine.
… and in management
At a later stage in my career, when I had switched from journalism and public affairs to business and information technology consultancy, I applied my ideas about reductionist determinism to both business management practices in general, and information technology methods in particular.
This was quite a heretical journey.
While I believe in the utility of structured practices, like business analysis, enterprise architecture, and project management, I also began to see how many professionals, and not just in IT, started to treat methodology as dogmatic commandments rather than guidelines. How they eschewed independent, critical, rational thinking in favour of relying on rules set in stone, not to be challenged.
In the hands of many professionals, applying the ‘rules’ outweighed inconvenient consequences, and reduced the potential for creative adaptation of guidelines and principles to better meet actual circumstances, and to have a better chance at realizing the stated outcomes. That stifling culture of professional practice also made it possible for unprincipled and sociopathic individuals to justify deliberately ideological or corrupt ends as merely following the rules.
I saw this trend as a reductionism of humane, humanist behaviour in favour of organisational autocracy and delusion. The anti-intellectual delusion that fixed methodology and prescribed rules were in fact the entirety of available tools and practices. A delusion that persists to this day, especially now that people ignorant of management and IT practices (nominally HR professionals) do the hiring and firing for positions tasked with designing and implementing management and IT practices and goals. In A self-perpetuating, descending spiral of mediocrity.
The proof of my interpretation is the continuing high failure rate of private and public management, particularly in IT projects and the administration of nominally ‘stable’ IT systems. It is evident, too, in the appalling lapses of ethics we see in private enterprise and government when they are not closely enough regulated and supervised. Need I mention the banking royal commission here, or the vigorous opposition to a federal corruption watchdog?
Perhaps worst of all, a reductionist approach in software design and development has delivered to us social media in which privacy is betrayed as a matter of routine; conspiracy theories, disinformation, and hate-speech are encouraged for their click-through rates; and the dismantling of democracy is encouraged.
In Australia, we have seen the erosion of the rule of law, with the Australian government suborning fraud to advance ideological goals like public funding rorts, or the deeply flawed software ‘robo debt recovery system’.
When such grotesque reductionism first became idolized as Silicon Valley success stories, and standard practice in eliminating informed human judgement, I could see very clearly that that the contraction of reality to fatuous simplifications was being ludicrously declared to be improvements on reality. I was looking at the same reductionist determinism as the one I had identified for local political economy. I should have known that from the start, since vocations like IT specializations are invariably sub-sets of political economy.
My fiercest critics in talking about such subversions of reality were always IT people, because it was in that context I discussed these ideas most frequently. I began to see that many IT professionals and specialists are too ill educated to understand that abstraction is not reality, and algorithms will never be equivalent to human thought or judgement. By ill-educated I mean the astonishing lack of anything but training in even postgraduate IT degrees. No hint of engaging with the ideas and history of their own cultures. No awareness of society or politics as precious human artifacts. Sometimes no conscience at all.
I began to think that many IT people were in fact deliberately cultivated sociopaths, able to rationalize to themselves that vast numbers of people could be required to dehumanize themselves just to meet the assumptions of deeply flawed algorithms. A harrowing, anti-intellectual, anti-democratic conception of the world. A technocrat conception little different to the theocratic tyranny of militant Islam, or the ideological chicanery of states like North Korea and China.
This failure of imagination and humanity by technocrats makes them the perfect executors of efforts to dismantle democracy, to destroy the rule of law, to remove restraint on persecutions and mass murders, and to undermine a once-upon-a-time Western ambition to liberalize conditions for all of humankind.
Unfortunately, this benighting reductionist determinism is precisely what we see now as state policy in Australia, the UK, and the USA.