‘As if’: Fiction and reductionism

Belatedly 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) was a double take moment.

In that review I recognised some of my own philosophical thinking since the later 1990s.  Until I have time to absorb both the work of Appiah and Hans Vaihinger, from whom Appiah draws some foundation for his concept of ‘idealization’, this is a preliminary comment.

Hans Vaihinger.

As explained by Nagel, Appiah’s concept of ‘idealisation’, taken from Vaihinger’s ‘fictive thinking’, strikes me as very close to my own formulation of what I have always called ‘reductionism’, often as part of what I have seen in political economy, management, and technology practices as ‘reductionist determinism’.

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, though I confess I only skimmed Ogden’s 1925 translation.

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), 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.

Fine wrote:

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.  But before moving on to the contemporary philosopher, cultural theorist, and novelist, I want to trace the genealogy of my own thinking about reductionist determinism.


Reductionist determinism in political economy …

Through 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 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 union movement was considered the industrial wing of the Australian Labor Party (ALP).

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’ or reality 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 ideological promises.

It is that latter dogmatism I saw as determinism.  A blind adherence to imposing a demonstrably failed ideology.  Reductionist determinism in political economy is thus 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 religious dogma, or monist, righteous ideology.

Embarrassingly, the LPA still operates on that basis today, with most of its members unable to distinguish between the fantasy of reductionist abstractions and the demonstrable facts of reality as revealed in statistics and empirical research.


… and in management

At a later stage in my career, when I had switched from journalism and public affairs practices to business and technology consultancy, I applied my ideas about reductionist determinism to both business management practices in general, and information technology management in particular.

This was quite a heretical journey.

While I believe in the utility of disciplines and practices like business analysis, enterprise architecture, and methodological project management, I also began to see how the applications of what were supposed to be principles underlying these disciplines became dogmatic and literalist commandments in the hands of intellectually lazy graduates who had never learnt to think and relied entirely on formula and method rather than critical analysis and professional judgements.

In the hands of many practitioners the ‘rules’ outweighed any recognition of reality and any potential for adaptation to better meet anticipated outcomes, unanticipated complications, and the humanism of dealing with people as complex individuals rather than expecting them to behave like homogenous automatons.

Thomas Nagel.

I saw this trend as a reductionism of humane, humanist behaviour in favour of organisational autocracy and delusion.  The anti-intellectual delusion that guidelines and principles were in fact the entirety of available tools, methods, perspectives, and practices.  A delusion that persists to this day while people ignorant of management and IT practices (nominally HR professionals, and people already hired by such HR drones, acting as management and IT professionals) do the hiring and firing for positions tasked with designing and implementing management and IT practices and goals.  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 particularly evident, too, in the appalling lapses of ethics we see in private enterprise when it is not closely enough regulated and supervised.

Worst of all, a reductionist approach in software design and development has delivered to us social media in which privacy was betrayed as a matter of routine, and flawed algorithms became the basis for yet more algorithms that started to impose on everyone’s lives by destroying ‘old industry’ paradigms.  Along with this ‘disruption’ came the price of watching Russian propaganda being presented as reality in dismantling American democracy.  In Australia we have seen the erosion of the rule of law, with the Australian government suborning fraud by pushing what was known to be a deeply flawed software ‘robo debt recovery system’ to impose on the nation’s poorest citizens the disastrous financial consequences of predictably false algorithmic conclusions.

When such miscalculations first became idolised as Silicon Valley success stories, and standard practice in eliminating human judgement, I could see very clearly that that the reduction of reality to fatuous simplifications, that were then taken to be improvements on reality, I was looking at the same reductionist determinism as the one I had identified for political economy.  I should have known that from the start, since IT and all other human endeavours are invariably sub-sets of political economy.

My fiercest critics in talking about such subversions of reality were always IT people.  Mostly because they are too ill educated (as opposed to trained, like monkeys) to understand that abstraction is not reality, and algorithms will never be equivalent to human thought or judgement.  But also because many IT people are so sociopathic they think there’s nothing wrong in demanding that people behave like automatons, or battery hens, in carrying out the purposes assigned for them by someone else.  A harrowing anti-intellectual, anti-democratic conception of the world.

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 liberalise conditions for all of humankind.  ‘Whatever, dude,’ they say, waiting for their Uber-delivered pizzas and coke, with not a thought about the reality that they have destroyed taxi driver jobs, keep pizza-makers on sub-minimum wages, and remove from the economy the taxes drug pushers should be paying to fund national interest infrastructures (because they–the IT drones–inevitably don’t vote, but do design algorithms that undermine votes).

I wrote about these observations at some length.  Some examples are listed.


Nagel on Appiah

Kwame Anthony 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.

This is almost precisely a description of my notion of reductionism, in which an abstraction of the real is developed and used for its greater simplicity and usability in formulating policy, practice, or algorithmic processing.



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 in that dopey, passive literalism which confuses the abstraction for reality: human motivations are far more complex and circumstance-specific than allowed for by a simple prescription of egoism interpreted literally, or even elevated into a doctrine (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.  Instead I would talk about a reality that can be apprehended from a variety of perspectives without preventing multiple interpretations, even if they should 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, a mundane change, etc, 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.

Appiah, like me, recognises that any theory of human behaviour, or psychology, is usually stripped of most of the messy, unpredictable, unquantifiable, circumstance-specific reasoning that characterises reality as opposed to clean, rule-driven theories or models.

Nagel goes on to consider some 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 and business executives because it requires relatively little thought compared to dealing with the full complexity of reality.



Appiah is cited in an observation about ethics which again neatly dovetails into my 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 some 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(or model, idealisation, or fiction) 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 ethical or moral response.

It has long been my opinion that the insane drive 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 often leads to failure, and, more importantly, to criminality, corruption, and a breakdown in ethical behaviours or moral character.

An apparently contradictory corollary seems to be that we nevertheless may need principles–abstractions in themselves, even if drawn from instances of critical thinking and evaluation–to help us form judgements about circumstances too complex to consider in a reasonable time-frame.  Principles, though, are only ever guidelines.  Never iron-clad rules or inflexible doctrines.



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 apprehensible from a variety of perspectives without violating the existence of reality (what Nagel and Appiah call truth).

Nagel says:

… 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 odious arguments about the pernicious effects of relativism and the heresy of post modernism’s execution of such a thing as incontrovertible truth.  Nagel seems to gently remind everyone that idiots using critical theory to insist on deconstructing all meaning are as fatuous and unhelpful as all those who insist that all critical theory necessarily requires such deconstruction to replace reality or truth.

In the end, reductionism, or idealisation, is only an intellectual tool, not an end in itself, and its products are not commandments or ideologies, just perspectives to gain different understanding 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 news media so much that the only weekend newspapers are now propaganda organs for the Murdoch empire, filled with astonishingly bad prose, repetitively silly propositions, and such unimaginative lies about reality they aren’t even entertaining.

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