Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Negative Capability and Dogmatic Simplists

From How to Think Like Shakespeare: The Positive Value of Negative Capability by Daniel Honan.

An interesting piece. To my jaundiced eye, it moves from academic blather to a usable concept. I barely understand Keats' initial commentary in a letter.
What quality went to form a Man of Achievement especially in Literature & which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact & reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half knowledge.
Wikipedia is marginally better on Negative Capability:
Negative capability describes the capacity of human beings to transcend and revise their contexts. The term has been used by poets and philosophers to describe the ability of the individual to perceive, think, and operate beyond any presupposition of a predetermined capacity of the human being. It further captures the rejection of the constraints of any context, and the ability to experience phenomenon free from epistemological bounds, as well as to assert one's own will and individuality upon their activity. The term was first used by the Romantic poet John Keats to critique those who sought to categorize all experience and phenomena and turn them into a theory of knowledge.
But later in the article there is a line which I think lies at the heart of the issue:
Keats understood Coleridge as searching for a single, higher-order truth or solution to the mysteries of the natural world. He went on to find the same fault in Dilke and Wordsworth. All these poets, he claimed, lacked objectivity and universality in their view of the human condition and the natural world. In each case, Keats found a mind which was a narrow private path, not a "thoroughfare for all thoughts." Lacking for Keats were the central and indispensable qualities requisite for flexibility and openness to the world, or what he referred to as negative capability.
This is close to a formulation I have been playing with arising from a frustration with what I have taken to calling dogmatic simplists; those that seek to explain something which is clearly beyond our frontier of knowledge despite how interested we might be in it, as well as those who seek to ascribe the products of complex, non-linear, chaotic processes to simple single causes.

For example, we are all intensely interested in being more productive (or at least are interested in the benefits that arise from productivity) and therefore have a strong interest in understanding the means by which currently productive countries became productive. This entails knowledge from multiple fields including history, economics, philosophy, religion, sociology, psychology, etc. We have dozens of case studies to examine and interpret but for which the data is of mixed quality. And regrettably, all these case studies occur with their own unique contexts and historical parameters. However, from these case studies we seek to identify patterns that would allow us to formulate policies and make reliable predictions (If you do A, B, and C, then you can expect outcomes X, Y, and Z). In other words, what are the root causes that allow countries (and individuals) to become productive?

This is, to me, intensely interesting stuff. Sadly though, most our public experts and commenters completely fail to acknowledge either the weaknesses of the data and case studies or the complexities inherent in the processes involved. Everything comes down to simple causes of complex outcomes: All you need are natural resources, or financial resources, or good government, or good institutions, or a future oriented culture or simply a productive culture, or the right technology mix, or the right topographical conditions, or democracy, or the right religion, etc. Each explanation has its ardent advocates and each is right to some small extent. But none are sufficient on their own - it is much more complex than that.

Other examples of dogmatic simplists at work: Climate change is due primarily to CO2, Gender wage differentials are primarily due to discrimination, Poor education results are due primarily to underinvestment in teachers, Poverty is caused by bad luck, Group disparate impact must arise primarily because of prejudice, etc. All of these are plausible elements of the complex truth but it is unlikely any one of them is the single or even primary contributor to the outcome.

Reading through the rest of Honan's essay and the related links I think they are getting at the same conclusion at which I have arrived. That is, to be productive and make better decisions, you have to:
Listen and observe
Seek patterns but not impose them
Acknowledge ambiguity
Practice humility - confidence in a truth does not make it true
Act confidently, mindful of the uncertainty
Celebrate the strengths of fact and reason but recognize their limitations
Remain open to awe
Accept that all Truths are conditional upon the next revealed Truth.

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