Friday, January 20, 2012

Frames and Elements; Divergence and Convergence

Just before I hopped in the shower today, I picked up Carse's Finite and Infinite Games and reread a couple passages.  In my esteem, James Carse deserves cannonization (sic.) as a 2nd-Class Saint of Eris, given that said book boils down to a case for the idea that all seriousness is contained within playfulness, rather than the other way around, and given the way his delightful Religious Case Against Belief points out that the complete acceptance of any literal religion as a guide appears to be an abdication of moral decision making in favor of letting some text decide for you.

Delightful as I find the books themselves, I'd rather talk about the train of thought the former set off in me.  Reading the book I remembered the period soon after I'd first read it before finishing undergrad classes, and some of the discussions I had with fellow philosophy students.  Of course, contention comes to memory more easily than quiescence, so my mind quickly drew back to a peer's point about the great difficulty in defining 'game' as Carse uses it in the book.  Perhaps due to our shortsightedness, due to the lack of a cogent phrase, or simply due to misconceptions about what kind of definition would satisfy, we had no success, with effort, at defining the term in a way that seemed satisfactory.  All the definitions proposed seemed either too limited in scope to fit the way the term comes up in the book, or so broad that we could see nearly anything in terms of games.

It was today that it dawned on me that that the latter doesn't actually a pose problem.  If a term's definition has enough flexibility that the term can be applied to virtually anything, the term doesn't refer to an element of the world, it refers to way of framing our observations of the world.

Previously I've heard it argued that terms that can apply to anything, in fact, apply to nothing.  This point holds water in that, if you treat everything as though it had a particular property, explanations in terms of that property tell you almost nothing.  For instance, if we posited that the universe and all constituents thereof are 'wiggly', we could attempt to explain both the counter-intuitive results of the double-slit experiment and the poor record of intelligence tests at predicting future performance in terms of wiggles, but to the extent that we posited wiggles as explaining every nook and cranny we could project them into, we would simply create a semantic spook, like the imps medieval doctors posited to reside in the abdomen that caused stomach cramps.  Similarly, atheists (and others) will readily note that explaining the unknown in terms of "God did it" and leaving it at that serves more as a veil than an explanation.

To this I offer the rejoinder that such explanations attempt to explain happenings in the universe in terms of some particular element of the universe (or, to preempt the quibbles of certain theologies, in terms of some element that has causal efficacy over the universe).  We posit wiggles, God, or phlogiston as referent terms rather than as frames of reference.  Games, however, as presented in the book, feel more like a way of looking at things than a set of elements that explain the operation of other elements.  (It's worth noting that Carse does not make this distinction explicitly, but we challenge you to tell us how an infinite game would operate without multiple cognitive frames of reference.)

Now let's spend some time looking at the inherent barrier that sometimes hides the distinction between frames and elements from us.  The primary one, as I see it, lies in the dominance of convergent thinking.  If the distinction between convergent and divergent thinking doesn't ring a bell,  convergent thinking involves the attempt to find one solution to fit all the evidence and moves onto a different once such a solution has been found; while divergent thinking entails finding many possible solutions to explain extant evidence, with more of a focus on creating possible answers than on eliminating possible answers to find the solution.

With convergent thinking, novel observations lead us to either find a more accurate way to describe the behavior of currently accepted elements of the world or to posit new elements such that their interaction with previously known elements explains the new phenomenon.  Convergent thinking aims to create a mono-mega-model (MMM) for explaining everything smaller than the universe and larger than the Planck scale, so developing new models without a way to tie their framework into that of the MMM fragments our ability to understand the universe.  The urge to convergent thinking gives the appearance of a crisis in modern physics, with the macrocosm explained in terms of the bending of continuous spacetime and the microcosm in terms of discrete quantized units of the same.  We create new frameworks, but only with the intent of unifying what we previously dealt with in multiple different frames.

As David Bohm points out in Wholeness and the Implicate Order, chapter 5, each major tangible advance of science, each paradigm shift, indicates itself by the explanation of what were previously dealt with under different frameworks in terms of a unified order.  Bohm, though hardly the exemplar of convergent thinking's worst shortcomings, still indicates some of them in his thought.  He makes a strong stand in the first chapter against the widespread assumption our theories give us a complete and perfect picture of reality, checking the tendency of convergent thinking to lead to an MMM we believe in because we have nothing else, but he makes a very determined case against fragmentation.  Though not opposed to divergent thinking,  it seems pretty clear that he feels convergent thinking should act as the final arbiter of our ontology.

On the other hand, modern divergent thinking typically involves at least the tacit acceptance of confirmation bias as remarkably difficult to eliminate from thought - so difficult to eliminate, in fact, that you easily to think you've eliminated it when, in fact, you haven't.  With divergent thinking one prefers to have multiple frames that explain the same phenomena than to narrow down to one on a permanent basis.  This doesn't necessitate that the divergent thinker freezes when it comes to choosing a course of action where different frames point in different directions (though premature uncertainty poses as much a pitfall for divergent thinking as premature certainty does for convergent) - it simply involves coming up with multiple solutions to the same problem before riding off into the sunset on the back of the first seemingly cogent explanation.

Studies have shown that the brainwaves of creative women performing divergent thinking tasks tend to be asynchronous, while while those of creative men doing the same are more often coherent across the cerebral hemispheres.  Given [pdf warning] that a significant portion more left-handed people (more often those who write with their hand above the text than those who write with their hand below it as most right-handed people do) have language centers outside the left hemisphere than do right-handed people, this indicates why left-handed men do markedly better on average than right-handed men do at divergent thinking tasks, while handedness does not appear to affect the performance of divergent thinking tasks for women.  It also indicates an explanation for the cultural dominance of convergent thinking.

While the influence of women among intellectuals has markedly increased over the past several centuries, and left-handed males have an influence on politics and the like disproportionate to the amount of the population they constitute, by millennia of patriarchy and by sheer numbers, right-handed males, least likely to be particularly gifted at divergent thinking, have constituted the majority of influential positions in modern history.  Hardly a surprise, then, that we often tacitly accept convergent thinking as the final arbiter of thought.

Now that we've examined the reason we tend to use ubiquitous terms (terms that can be applied to nearly everything, remember) as elements rather than frames, let's time to look at the two with an eye toward recursion.  Of course, in the frame we've looked into here, we see frame and element as the two major elements.  Distinguishing between referents and frames of reference comes in handy when looking at perspectives, but it is still but a way of looking.  Seen through its own eye, it assumes that all ways of looking have assumptions underlying them so that it can compare those, and places perspectives in terms of the frame that created them rather than their content.

This arrangement reminds me of the epistemic paradox underlying much of post-modernism: why trust the frame that tells us no frame is privileged over various frames which claim that they are privileged?  As tempting as we find it to say that any frame which makes an idol of itself sells itself short when it comes to seeing the whole truth, enacting this belief idolizes frames that don't affirm their own truth via circular logic.  Such seeking to winnow away frames seems to bear the mark of our favoring of convergent thinking over divergent.  If we don't expect to find singular truth for the sake of accommodating our habits of thought, little issue arises with holding many frames in approximately equal esteem.

In the opposite direction, taking frames as elements, we find a frame that shows us various ways of interpreting perception as elements acting upon the sphere of human action.  Such a frame would resemble the one used in the above discussion of convergent and divergent thinking as elements affecting human thought.  Such a frame has much use in times where many competing perspectives affect people's behavior.

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