Thinking of knowledge as a graph

This is a response to the E-Learning 3.0 task  for course participants created by Matthias Melcher. See https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/11/09/el30-graph-task/

The task requires that we select from one of the topics of this course, and create a map from the list of keywords for the topic provided by Matthias. Matthias took the keywords from the synopsis for each topic written by Stephen Downes. The task is to connect and annotate the keywords.

Matthias provided links to two types of mapping tool – cmap.ihmc.us  and  a tool he has created himself – http://condensr.de/download-page/ . I have used both tools in the past, but I am more familiar with Matthias’ tool, so I used that.

I selected the ‘Cloud’ list of keywords, to create this map.

  • storage
  • electricity
  • server virtualization
  • vmware
  • docker
  • amazon web services
  • edx
  • coursera
  • yaml
  • vagrantfile
  • jupyter
  • redefine textbooks
  • experience
  • algorithm
  • containers
  • load-balancing

Creating the map

Since I have used this tool before (see A new mapping tool: useful for research purposes) I did not find it technically difficult.

Here is a screenshot of the map I created. Click on the image to enlarge it.

And here is a link to the interactive map, which is much more interesting, because by clicking on a node you can see the annotations – http://x28hd.de/tool/samples/JM%20Cloud%20Map.htm 

(I contacted Matthias to ask him to create this link for me. WordPress does not host .htm files; at least, as far as I am aware it does not)

Despite the lack of serious technical difficulties,  I did somehow manage to inadvertently make 4 copies of my map, one under the other. I found that it took a while to delete each node and link individually. And at another stage I managed to lose the map entirely (I think I swiped it off the screen). I have done this before, but I couldn’t remember how to get it back. I had saved the xml file though, so just uploaded it again. I know that Matthias is refining this tool all the time, so a block delete function sometime in the future would be great. (Update 13-11-18 – See http://condensr.de/2018/11/12/a-user-question/ for Matthias’s video explanation of how to overcome these minor difficulties that I had)

I created the map using the text from Stephen’s synopsis. This revealed the aspects of the topic that I still haven’t understood. I made a note of these in the text annotations (in italics). I did look up definitions and explanations of some terms and added text if an explanation wasn’t evident in Stephen’s text, e.g. algorithm. If I were to continue to develop the map, I would do more of this.

Thinking of knowledge as a graph

This is the real challenge, i.e. moving from thinking and seeing knowledge in a linear way to thinking and seeing knowledge as a network/graph.  I like lists, but in recent years I have come to appreciate that when you organise and categorise terms in lists you miss the richness of connections. Some terms need to be in more that one category. A map shows us how ideas are interconnected. A list cannot do this. Matthias explains this really well at the start of his video, which is posted on his website download page – http://condensr.de/download-page/

I know from my experience of using this tool, that my tendency is to use it as a repository for resources. It is actually great for this. I have used it for research purposes, as a place to store information and thoughts about related articles, but as Stephen writes

The graph, properly constructed, is not merely a knowledge repository, but a perceptual system that draws on the individual experiences and contributions of each node. This informs not only what we learn, but how we learn.

To develop my knowledge of the Cloud, to learn and understand more about it, I need to grow my connections and the links between them. The state of my knowledge can then be represented by the map. A  key affordance of Matthias’ Think Tool is that it is easy to ‘grow’ the map, adding nodes and links, and storing information about them, as this growth occurs.

A graph is a distributed representation of a state of affairs created by our interactions with each other. The graph is at once the ­outcome of these interactions and the source of truth about those states of affairs. The graph, properly constructed, is not merely a knowledge repository, but a perceptual system that draws on the individual experiences and contributions of each node. This informs not only what we learn, but how we learn. (Stephen Downes – https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=68472)

I do not yet fully understand the link that Stephen makes between graphs and the “source of truth”. I have yet to read the article he links to – Epistemology in the Cloud, which I think might help. Stephen has written

The source of truth, if there is any, lies in how those links are created and maintained ….. and that …. it’s not the individual idea that’s important, but rather how the entire graph grows and develops. It protects us from categorization errors and helps prevent things like confirmation bias.

This links to what Matthias says, at the beginning of his video, about the dangers of pigeon-holing things.

These ideas go beyond what Matthias asked for in his task, but I do see that in order to start thinking of knowledge as a graph, we probably need to start by creating graphs, and his Think Tool helps to make the shift from thinking of knowledge as a representational system to thinking of knowledge as a perceptual system.

And finally, I now realise, more than before, that I have already been thinking about this, implicitly, in my search for understanding what Iain McGilchrist means by ‘betweenness’, which I was writing about last month on this blog. See

‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/10/02/betweenness-a-way-of-being-in-the-world/

Understanding ‘Betweenness’ – seeing beyond the parts – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/10/10/understanding-betweenness-seeing-beyond-the-parts/

Edusemiotics, the Divided Brain and Connectivism https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/09/17/4436/

Resources

Matthias Melcher Thought Condensr website – http://condensr.de/

E-Learning 3.0, Part 3: Graph – https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=68472 and associated video https://youtu.be/WiaxHxiN_IA  (Stephen’s summary of the week)

E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine

This post is a response to a challenge set, as a result of Task 2, by Frank Polster, a fellow course participant on Stephen Downes’ MOOC, E-Learning 3.0.

Here is my challenge to all the E-Learning 3.0 cohort and a task associated with course module E-Learning 1 and 2 Conversation with George Siemens. Please comment on what fields, skills, talents, and education that you think are unique domains of humans like Stephen’s “kindness and compassion” and the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

I have given this post the Title, E-Learning 3.0: The Human versus the Machine, because that is how I have interpreted this challenge.

My response to the challenge is based on what I have learned from reading the work of Iain McGilchrist,  author of The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of The Western World. McGilchrist’s writing focusses on the differences between the ways in which the left hemisphere and the right hemisphere of the brain view and attend to the world. For example, the left hemisphere’s view of the body is as a machine. The right hemisphere’s view of the body is as a living whole in nature.

I have heard MGilchrist talk about the difference between living things and machines and have written about this before – see my post Skills for ‘Being’ in a Digital Age where I listed the differences he discussed. I will copy them here for ease of reference. According to McGilchrist these are the things that differentiate living things from machines:

  • An organism cannot be switched off. There must be an uninterrupted flow from the origins of life.
  • A machine is at equilibrium. An organism is far from equilibrium. A cell carries out millions of complex reactions every second. Enzymes speed these up to a thousandth of a second.
  • The relationship between steps and an outcome are different in machines and living organisms. In an organism there are no steps – there is a flow of process.
  • In living things there is no one-way step. Interactions are complex and reciprocal.
  • The parts of a machine are static. The parts of an organism are not static, they are constantly changing.
  • An organism is aware of the whole and corrects for it in its parts (see the work of Barbara McClintock)
  • Organisms have no precise boundaries.
  • Machines don’t generate other machines from their own body parts.
  • Machines’ code is externally generated. Organisms manufacture their own instructions.

But what is it that makes human beings unique and different to machines? My response to this (again informed by McGilchrist) is that a human being is able to relate to something ‘Other’ than itself that exist apart from us, beyond ourselves and may be ‘new’ or to some degree ‘unknown’. (A machine can only relate to what is already known.)

Priests, teachers, doctors, and similar professions do this as part of their jobs, through care, empathy, trust, altruism, kindness and compassion. They are able to put themselves in the position of the ‘Other’ and experience their experience. Human beings can experience not only their own pain, but also the pain of others. Human beings can love. We can also see all this in family relationships.

Other characteristics unique to humans are the ability to recognise and experience beauty, awe and wonder, in art, music, dance and nature, and to value wisdom, intuition, metaphor, ambiguity, uncertainty, flexibility, the implicit and the spiritual. Human beings experience emotions such as humour, fear, anger, anxiety and sadness, and affective states such as hope and optimism; they have a sense of self, an understanding of the uniqueness of the individual, and search for meaning and truth in life. They do this through embodied engagement with the world, not detached abstract contemplation of it or separation from it. Human beings can imagine, wonder and dream.

An education which values the uniquely human is one that focusses on learning the meaning of ‘Other’, recognising the value of living things, nature and the unknown, learning how to think in an embodied way, and acknowledging that thinking and feeling can’t be separated.

To think is to thank. Thinking is not made up by reason. It is not certain, unidirectional and detached. Thinking is receptive and grateful. It is relational. Mind relates to ‘to mind’, which relates to ‘to care’ again suggesting a relationship. Thinking is deeply connected with feeling (feeling probably comes first) and is an embodied way of sensing……… All thinking is dependent on the body. (From my blog post The Divided Brain – What does it mean to think?)

The second part of Frank’s challenge is – comment on the skills, talents, and education required for the “ghost in the machine” that provides that alternative view.

‘Ghost in the machine’ is not an idea I am very familiar with, but what I have read seems to imply that it questions whether there is a ghost in your machine making it work and whether you can put a ‘non-physical mind’ into a physical machine.

This of course relates to Descartes’ argument that mind and body can function separately. My understanding is that this idea of body/mind dualism has long been discredited, so I’m wondering if it is worth taking the idea of ‘ghost in the machine’ seriously, although there are scientists working on trying to understand what’s unique about humans and to replicate this in robots.

If Frank is asking what human-like skills could be adopted by a machine, then I would say only those skills that can be programmed by a human being, and that there are unique qualities of humans, as discussed above, that are immeasurable and cannot be programmed. A machine, if programmed correctly, can perform many of the tasks a human can do, but it cannot do or be programmed for the important, immeasurable tasks and qualities that are so essential for a meaningful life.

And if I am wrong and machines will ultimately be able to replicate humans, then, as I think Frank is asking, what checks should be put in place in a machine to ensure that the machine always has access to an alternative perspective. If we value what is unique about humans, then machines should be programmed to ensure that human beings are never prevented from experiencing the ‘Other’, or thinking and feeling in an embodied way.

Source of image here.

Update 11-11-18

Frank Polster has replied to this post on his blog. See http://frankpolster.com/blog/elearn30/a-response-to-jennys-e-learning-3-0-the-human-versus-the-machine/ 

See also Laura Ritchie’s response to Frank’s task and the conversation there – https://www.lauraritchie.com/2018/11/10/what_makes_us_human/#comment-57854 

And see Matthias Melcher’s post which informs this discussion – https://x28newblog.wordpress.com/2018/10/24/el30-alien-intelligence-ai/ 

Talking about dying

This month the Royal College of Physicians has published a report bearing the title ‘Talking about dying: How to begin honest conversations about what lies ahead’ 

There is a concern that doctors and other healthcare professionals find it hard to talk to patients about dying. This reflects something that I have heard Iain McGilchrist  author of The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World, say, i.e. that death is no longer freely talked about. It has become a difficult topic. We would now rather talk about sex than death, whereas in Victorian times it was the other way round. If this is true, then it is not just doctors and healthcare professionals, but the population at large who finds it difficult to talk about death, and especially to talk about death to people who are dying.

Earlier this year my mother died so I now have a heightened awareness of death and how we might approach it. The problem is that if you have never experienced the death of someone you love (or indeed anyone) before,  unless you make an effort to become informed before the event, which seems to be generally regarded as morbid, then you can only learn through hindsight. Reflection on my mother’s death this year has made me think I should have thought more about death before she died. I now realise that there are many ways in which I could have done this.

I recently read Paul Kalanithi’s autobiographical book, published posthumously, When Breath Becomes Air,  in which he records his experience of dying and how he prepares for his own death. The book highlights the importance of open communication about this experience not only with healthcare professionals, but also with family and friends.

Also this year, my research colleague and friend Mariana Funes, encouraged me to watch a number of videos on YouTube in which the presenters discuss the importance of preparing for death and talking about dying. In these videos the presenters consider changing approaches to the care of the dying (https://youtu.be/mviU9OeufA0 ), the need to make clear our preferences for end of life care (https://youtu.be/lkvKGafoyIY ) and why we should all talk about dying (https://youtu.be/nQ90MFMYnZg ). These are just three of the videos I have watched. There are many more.

And last week I watched on DVD the film ‘Awakenings’, based on Oliver Sacks’s book of the same name. Its tells the story of victims of an encephalitis epidemic many years ago who have been catatonic ever since and how treatment with a new drug, L-Dopa, brings them temporarily out of this catatonic state, hence the title ‘Awakenings’. What really struck me about this film was that the doctor realised before treating his patients with L-Dopa, that behind the catatonia is a person who can be reached and communicated with. This is what I wish I had more fully appreciated when my mother was dying.

My mother had dementia for eight years before she died. In the latter years it was not possible to communicate with her through conversation. We used to communicate through singing. Right till the last year of her life she could recognise her old music hall favourites, even though I was not sure that she knew me or understood anything I said to her.

Having watched ‘Awakenings’ I think I should have had more faith that she could ‘hear me’. I remember on the day before she died the District Nurse told me to go and sit with my mother and talk to her. I felt awkward about this. I hadn’t had a conversation with my mother, or really talked to her, for years. But I did what the nurse told me to and the last thing I said to my mother was that she was not to worry, she would not be moved from her home into a hospital (her wish was always to die in her own home) and she would not be left alone. At the time I wondered whether she had heard or understood me, but now, with hindsight, I think that she did, and that she knew I was her daughter and was reassured that she would die at home. My regret is that I didn’t talk to her more during her last weeks.

I hope the Royal College of Physicians’ report is widely disseminated and discussed. We should not wait until after the death of someone we love to learn how to talk about dying. As I wrote in a previous post, death should be a friend of life.

Understanding ‘Betweenness’ – seeing beyond the parts

In a previous post, I began to explore and share my understanding of what Iain McGilchrist has written about and means by ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.

I thought that maybe a ‘both/and’ view of the world, rather than ‘either/or’ might explain it, but this explanation feels over-simplistic and unsatisfactory. It seems to miss the depth that McGilchrist is exploring. Whilst more ‘both/and’ thinking might serve, at least in part, to  counter ‘either/or’ thinking, it wouldn’t get to the heart of the problem.

Gary Goldberg in commenting on my last post about ‘betweenness’, has written that he considers the issue of betweenness to be ‘ effectively addressed …. in the architectonic philosophical system of Charles Sanders Peirce…… the issue is a tolerance for ‘vagueness’ when one considers the universe as fundamentally relational and context-dependent.’

Martina Emke wrote ‘Betweenness’ is related to the concepts of ‘rhizome’ and ‘becoming’ (Deleuze & Guattari, 1987). ‘Betweenness’ is a counter-narrative to the idea of identity, a constant process of transitioning that pertains to humans and non-humans.

And Matthias Melcher in a private communication emphasised the similarities between the idea of ‘betweenness’ and connectivism. For example, in his article ‘An Introduction to Connective Knowledge’, Stephen Downes has written ‘Connective knowledge requires an interaction. More to the point, connective knowledge is knowledge of the connection.’

But McGilchrist’s idea of ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world, goes, I think, beyond all these three quests at seeking understanding of how we learn to understand and live with the uncertainty,  ambiguities and complexities of the world we live in. It even goes beyond language.

Any one thing can be understood only in terms of another thing, and ultimately that must come down to a something that is experienced, outside the system of signs (i.e. by the body). The very words which form the building blocks of explicit thought are themselves all originally metaphors, grounded in the human body and its experience.’ (p. 118. The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World).

If this is the case – then how can we talk about ‘betweenness’ so that we can share an understanding of it and so that it can be applied as a way of learning and being? How can the idea of betweenness be made explicit without losing its meaning. This would mean ‘seeing’ the relationships between concepts as a whole, and avoiding separating concepts from experience? It would mean recognising ‘knowing’ as a reciprocal, reverberative process, a back and forth, reflecting the way in which neurones behave, which is not linear, sequential, unidirectional. As McGilchrist writes, p.194,

It seems that this reciprocity, this betweenness, goes to the core of our being. Further than even this, there is fascinating evidence that betweenness and reciprocity exist at the level of cell structure and function within the single neurone, even at the molecular level, as the brain comes to understand something and lay down memory traces.’

I suspect that any attempt to fully articulate and define what ‘betweenness’ might mean is going to fail, if only because, if it is embedded in experience, then it will necessarily be personal to each and every one of us. The nearest anyone I know has come to presenting a holistic view of ‘betweenness’ as expressed by McGilchrist is Matthias Melcher with this map, which he sent me in a personal communication and has given me permission to share in this blog post. (Clicking on the image will enlarge it).

To fully appreciate the power of this map in articulating the idea of ‘betweenness’, you will need to engage with the interactive version, which you can quickly see via this link – http://x28hd.de/tool/samples/betweenness.htm

The interactive map allows you to click on a node (as seen in the example below where the node ‘reciprocation’ has been clicked on, to reveal text from p.194 of Iain McGilchrist’s book – The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.)

This view of ‘betweenness’, a view resonant of the right hemisphere’s holistic approach (the view that McGilchrist has suggested is being lost in favour of the left hemipshere’s fragmented abstracted view of our world, in which we see things as parts rather than a whole), has been arrived at by reading through The Master and his Emissary’ to find everything that McGcilchrist has said about ‘betweenness’. There is no one section or chapter addressing this point. (It would be rather ironic if there were.) ‘Betweenness’ is a theme that runs through the book. Having collected all the ‘parts’, Matthias, using his Think Tool, has been able to look for relationships between the parts and create this ‘whole’. Someone else, of course, would have created a different set of connections, a different whole, but there would probably be enough similarity to come to some common understanding.

Is there then, some value to thinking not in terms of either/or, nor even in terms of ‘both/and’, but in terms of maps of relations? Would this be a better way to understand ‘betweenness’?

Further information about Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool

It may be that on viewing the map that you can see different or additional connections that you would like to make. If you would like to edit the map you can download Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool from his website – http://condensr.de/  and then upload his file, which is accessible via this link  http://x28hd.de/tool/samples/betweenness.xml by dragging and dropping it into the tool.

Many thanks to Matthias Melcher for creating this map which helped me better understand ‘betweenness’ and for sharing his open website and the file links.

‘Betweenness’ : a way of being in the world

At the beginning of this year my colleague Mariana Funes and I published a paper in which we argued for ‘both/and’ thinking, as opposed to ‘either/or’. We did this in the context of open, online education environments, which we suggested can be both inclusive and exclusive. This was our abstract:

Open education aspires to democratize education, promote inclusion and effect change through social justice. These aspirations are difficult to realise in open, online environments, which enable multiple, and often conflicting, perspectives. This paper proposes a counter-narrative that surfaces certain operational norms of the internet and foregrounds their exclusionary nature. We offer an illustrative inventory of some social media interactional patterns to examine communication used in open online education communities. This examination leads us to conclude that language online is subject to a dialectical tension that both includes and excludes. We conclude that a different language is needed in open online educational environments; one that embraces exclusionary structures and strategic ambiguity, as well as the aspirations to further democratise education via digital means.

Mariana Funes & Jenny Mackness (2018) When inclusion excludes: a counter narrative of open online education, Learning, Media and Technology, 43:2, 119 138, DOI: 10.1080/17439884.2018.1444638

(See also https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/02/28/when-inclusion-excludes/)

In the paper, we examine online communication patterns in open education environments and find them to be subject to dialectical tensions. We quote Gibbs et al. (2013, 106) as saying that “dialectical tensions have been found to be productive in enabling the accomplishment of multiple goals since they enable organizational members to creatively attend to both poles of the opposition by transforming or transcending it and embracing both alternatives as ‘both-and’ options (Putnam & Boys 2006)”.

Whilst the idea of ‘both/and’ thinking is not new, it does seem particularly relevant in this post-truth age of intolerance for ambiguity and alternative perspectives, where ‘either/or’ thinking seems to dominate. Iain McGilchrist, author of ‘The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World’, considers this to be one of the results of the increasing dominance of a left-hemisphere view of the world in our current civilisation. On p.137 of his book he writes:

‘If one had to characterise the left hemisphere by reference to one governing principle it would be that of division. Manipulation and use require clarity and fixity, and clarity and fixity require separation and division. What is moving and seamless, a process, becomes static and separate – things. It is the hemisphere of ‘either/or’: clarity yields sharp boundaries.’

By contrast a right-hemisphere view of the world is one which embraces, complexity, uncertainty, and  ambiguity.  (For an introduction, but necessarily over-simplistic description of the differences between right and left hemisphere views of the world, according to McGilchrist, see this blog post. Better still watch this video.)

‘Both/and’ thinking requires accepting that opposite poles might actually be complementary, interconnected and interdependent as suggested by Yin and Yang in Chinese philosophy, and embracing paradox as depicted by Escher in his Drawing Hands lithograph.

Escher’s lithograph is one that Iain McGilchrist often uses to discuss the paradox of linear analysis. He writes: (p.134, The Master and his Emissary). ‘The paradox applies to how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge itself comes into being.’

If it is difficult to determine how we know something, it’s interesting to consider how, when and why ‘either/or’ thinking would be appropriate.

Implicit in McGilchrist’s writing is the suggestion that ‘both/and’ thinking is characteristic of a view of the world in which opposite poles (where subjective and objective appear as fundamentally asymmetrical, separate ways of being), are held in suspension; a world where there is ‘betweenness’.

It is this idea of ‘betweenness’ that intrigues me. What does it mean? How can we recognise it? In talking about ‘betweenness’, McGilchrist seems to go beyond the complementarity of separate poles, to thinking about a world of ‘togetherness’ and intersubjectivity, rather than one of competition and bias; a world where we transcend the apparent duality of subjective and objective, of realism and idealism (p.144, The Master and his Emissary). This is a world which focusses on the relations between things, reciprocity and empathy, where knowledge comes through a relationship. From this perspective ‘belief is a matter of care: it describes a relationship, where there is a calling and an answering, the root concept of ‘responsibility’ (p.170, The Master and his Emissary).

Betweenness does not deny our distinctness as individuals. ‘Betweenness is being able to share in the character of the Other and feel separateness from it’ (p.363, The Master and his Emissary). My interpretation is that a world view that acknowledges ‘betweenness’ enables a ‘both/and’ sort of arrangement. For me, McGilchrist best describes ‘betweenness’ when writing about music.

‘Music consists entirely of relations, ‘betweenness’. The notes mean nothing in themselves: the tensions between the notes, and between notes and the silence with which they live in reciprocal indebtedness, are everything. Melody, harmony and rhythm each lie in the gaps, and yet the betweenness is only what it is because of the notes themselves. Actually the music is not just in the gaps any more than it is just in the notes: it is in the whole that the notes and the silence make together. Each note becomes transformed by the context in which it lies. What we mean by music is not just any agglomeration of notes, but one in which the whole created is powerful enough to make each note live in a new way, a way that it had never done before.’ (p.72, The Master and his Emissary).

It’s important to stress that I am not suggesting that there is never any need for ‘either/or’ thinking, nor that a right hemisphere view of the world, which seems to embrace a ‘both/and’ approach, is the only view. As McGilchrist stresses ‘Both hemispheres clearly play crucial roles in the experience of each human individual, and … both have contributed importantly to our culture. Each needs the other.’ (p.6, The Master and his Emissary).

We need  ‘either/or’ and ‘both/and’ thinking, but these are currently out of balance. We seem to live in a world dominated by ‘either/or’ thinking. The question is how to promote more ‘both/and’ thinking and how to acknowledge ‘betweenness’ as a way of being in the world.

Truth in a Post-Truth Age

Last week BBC Radio 4 broadcast a series of 15 minute podcasts over five days on the topic of Truth. It was noticeable that each of the five podcasts mentioned Donald Trump in one context or another, who seems to have become synonymous with the idea that the world is suffering from an epidemic of truth decay. In the first podcast we were told that an analysis of Trump’s tweets have shown that he misleads the public 7.6 times a day (this did make me wonder what counts as a 0.6 deception). However, having listened to the five podcasts (https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0bjz95t), it is clear that whilst Trump might be the current and most spectacular symptom of post-truth America, he is not the sole cause (Kurt Anderson, Episode 2).

The series was launched with a podcast by Dr Kathryn Murphy, Fellow in English at Oriel College, Oxford, who examined the striking contemporary parallels between Sir Francis Bacon’s 1620s essay ‘On Truth’ with today’s pressing issues. In his time, Bacon protested against ‘corrupt lovers of the lie’ and classified the intellectual fallacies of his time under four categories which he called idols:

  • Idols of the tribe – common tendencies of the human race to exaggeration, distortion and disproportion. Bacon diagnosed confirmation bias before the term existed.
  • Idols of the cave – within the mind of the individual. These are the blinkers and silos of our identities which blind us to different points of view.
  • Idols of the market place – errors arising from the false significance bestowed upon words, the imprecision of words and slippery terminology. Bacon thus anticipated the science of semantics.
  • Idols of the theatre – the human tendency to adopt authority uncritically.

Kathryn Murphy’s question was – doesn’t this all seem very familiar? In other words, this is not the first time in history that there has been confusion about the meaning of truth. But she also suggested that we might now need to add Idols of the algorithm to Bacon’s list, to name new confusions.

Bacon advocated writing in aphorisms to give us brief glimpses of possible truths which would demand active engagement, probing and testing what is read. In a post-truth world it is not that truth is dead, but that too many people refuse to engage critically with truth and test ideas. Could a tweet act like an aphorism?

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 1)

We live, we keep being told, in a “post-truth” world, suffering an epidemic of “truth decay”, but we are not the first to fear information overload, disinformation and fake news.

‘In the 1620s, the statesman and philosopher Francis Bacon opened the final edition of his Essayes, which had been the first book of their kind in English when first published in 1597, with an essay entitled  ‘Of Truth’.

He was driven by his own personal political woes but also by the preoccupations of his era: rapidly changing technology (the telescope and microscope made the world feel at once bigger and smaller); America and its inhabitants challenging European understanding and sense of identity; passionately opposing factions continuing the arguments of the Reformation; war in Europe forcing the question of just how far Britain should get involved in the Continent; and – to spread the news and unrest about it – the first organised distribution of newspapers in England had just begun.

In the second podcast in the series, Kurt Andersen, author of ‘Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire: A 500-Year History’, discusses America’s ‘iffy’ relationship with reason, rationality and empirical truth. This was an interesting podcast for a non-American, such as myself. Andersen suggested that America was created from scratch by dreamers, gold hunters and the promise of Eldorado. It was a blank slate new world for wishful thinking and fantasy, shaped by natural selection of those willing to believe in advertising eagerness and to credit the untrue because it was exciting.

In the mid 20th century America’s immersion in fantasy accelerated with the arrival of Disneyland and TV which enhanced the unreal and make-believe.  For three centuries America’s gatekeepers managed to relegate ‘nonsense’ to the fringes, but by the 1960s, they lost the will and ability to keep true and false separate. From the 1960s onwards, America (and from my perspective, not only America) has seen the growth of extreme individualism, the pursuit of happiness above all, and undiscriminating acceptance of all understanding of reality. During this time, large numbers of academics have moved away from reason and a scientific world view, to a social construction of reality in which all is equally true and false and the paradigm is one of anything goes. Factual reality is now just one option. Americans feel entitled to their own facts as well as their own opinions.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 2)

As he unpicks the fantastical beliefs that run through America’s past and present, the writer and broadcaster Kurt Andersen asks if the US is now entering a post-truth era.

The author of Fantasyland and co-founder of Spy magazine, Kurt has spent many decades separating fact and fiction and in this essay he explores the historical roots of America’s weakness for alternative realities.

From the religious visions of the Pilgrim Fathers and Joseph Smith, to the showbiz dreams of PT Barnum and Walt Disney, the proliferation of conspiracy theories and the new age of virtual reality and internet chat rooms, Kurt tells the story of a nation in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined.

In Episode 3, Juliet Samuel discusses the role of markets in defining truth.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 3)

In the depths of the financial crisis of 2008, American bankers-turned-regulators met to discuss plans to restore market confidence by injecting vast quantities of cash into the failing system. “What about $1 trillion?” , Neel Kashkari is reported to have suggested. “We’ll get killed,” Hank Paulson is said to have replied. And so the figure of $700 billion was agreed, the biggest bailout in history calculated not on market truths but on political realities.

Juliet Samuel writes for The Daily Telegraph and in this essay she looks back at the recent history of financial markets to ask whether markets really are, as many economists believe, vast mechanisms geared towards discovering truth – the true price of assets, the true risks and rewards of investment and therefore the most efficient allocation of cash.

As she considers financial market failures such as the 2008 crash and the euro crisis, Juliet argues that, ultimately, there is still a compelling reason for believing that markets are as close to economic truth as we can get and it is almost impossible to beat them. Investors who try to do so, so-called “active managers” who are probably managing some of your pension fund right now, have consistently failed to get to the truth more accurately than the market. What we are learning is how and when markets can discover the truth – and when it’s simply undiscoverable.

The fourth podcast was presented by Pankaj Mishra, who discussed Mahatma Gandhi’s autobiography – ‘The story of my experiments in truth’. Gandhi always kept an open mind and thought that there were at least seven points of view, but that they were not all correct at the same time and in the same circumstances.

The focus of this podcast was on the necessity, as expressed by both Ghandi and Nietzsche, to recognise that human beings can only know partial and contingent truths and perspectives; there are a multiplicity of truths and perspectives. Nietzsche thought rational truth an illusion.

In our post-truth age we agree to agree because we share the same perspective, not because of rational truth. We advance our own truth claims with our own biases and live in echo chambers which are amplified by social media. There has been ethical and epistemological breakdown, with people entrenched in different value systems and viciously hostile to each other’s truths. We rationalise and justify anything at the expense of ordinary reality. But we don’t have to remain imprisoned by our biases.

Gandhi’s message was that to see/find truth we must be prepared to hear the other side, but he rejected all claims of objective truths. Relative truth was his beacon and he thought relative truth was best found in action. We must hold fast to truth by exploring the attitudes and motives of our opponents. Man is not capable of knowing absolute truth and therefore not competent to punish. Truth in action does not admit a violence inflicted on one’s opponent. The golden rule is mutual toleration. We will never all think alike. It is openness of mind that strengthens truth in us.

Gandhi realised that an age of pluralism has the potential to degenerate into an age of nihilism.  For him truth is too important to be left to politicians, technocrats, journalists and the like. We must all strive for truth in our everyday practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 4)

Mahatma Gandhi wrote “Devotion to this Truth is the sole justification for our existence. All our activities should be centred in Truth. Truth should be the very breath of our life.”

The final podcast in this series was by Simon Blackburn, author of the ‘Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy’ and until his retirement Professor of Philosophy at Cambridge University.

Simon Blackburn’s message was that even in a post-truth world we are pretty good at judging what is true. For example, we know when it is safe to cross the road and we know that not everyone should be trusted equally about everything. On the whole we grow into being good, practical epistemologists. But we find it difficult to settle doubt ourselves. We dismiss inconvenient facts and find conspiracy theories irresistible . Bewilderment about where truth lies can be quick to set in.

Blackburn claims that the issues are more verbal than substantive. We find ways of describing things difficult. All our terms can be controversial and contested. He quotes Charles Sanders Peirce as saying that we must not begin by talking of pure ideas, we must begin with men and their conversation. We shouldn’t lose ourselves in abstract thoughts about truth, thought and reason, but look at the actual uses of words to sift out descriptions that really matter. Some descriptions have consequences and some sources of information are more trustworthy.

So long as we have thoughts and beliefs at all, we have notions of truth and falsity.

Truth beckons but it does need careful wooing. If you think knowledge is expensive, try ignorance.

(Quoted text below from BBC Radio 4 website, relating to Episode 5)

“In simple affairs of life we’re often pretty good at judging what’s true. We have designed, tested and trusted instruments to help detect whether an electrical circuit is live, whether there is petrol in the car or pressure in the tyres. Given this background of success, it is perhaps surprising to find how often scepticism about truth and about our capacities has reared its head in the history of human thought…”

So where does this series of podcasts leave us.

It seems that truth decay has happened before in history and is likely to re-occur in eras of information overload when there is a blizzard of information and disinformation and conspiracy theories can gain traction. Perhaps America’s history, in which fantasy and reality have long been intertwined, makes it particularly susceptible to truth decay, which given its position of power in the world, cannot be good for the rest of us. Financial markets can be equally irrational and unpredictable. According to Juliet Samuel, economic and financial truth is a constantly moving target and cannot remove the next crisis.

This all sounds like doom and gloom with no hope for finding truth. But as McGilchrist says (he would have been a good addition to the programme), this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to seek truth or a multiplicity of truths. For Gandhi this requires action in every day practices of altruism, humility, compassion and self-evaluation. For Simon Blackburn it requires sifting out descriptions that really matter and sources of information that are more trustworthy.

We shouldn’t give up on seeking truth. The word ‘true’ suggests a relationship between things and is related to the word trust.

McGilchrist tells us in his book The Master and his Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World)  that Heidegger related truth to ‘unconcealing’. It is come at by a process, a coming into being of something. It is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together. Truth is process, not object.

From my perspective this means that we have work to do.  We must critically engage with it. This must surely have implications for how we live our lives in this post-truth age.

Edusemiotics, the Divided Brain and Connectivism


I have recently been exploring Iain McGilchrist’s ground-breaking work on the divided brain (see The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World), with a view to learning more about the implications of this work for education.

This interest was sparked by hearing McGilchrist say, on a course I attended earlier this year (see Field & Field website), that there are no static and separate things, but instead there are relationships and patterns. I wrote about this at the time – see (https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2018/03/15/there-are-no-things-there-are-patterns/). Even though the word ‘education’ does not appear in the index of McGilchrist’s remarkable book, how can the idea of ‘there are no things’ not have implications for education?

At the end of August, I received a number of comments on my blog from Gary Goldberg, with many lines of thought and threads to follow. Central amongst these was the idea that edusemiotics is relevant to an exploration of the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education.

This is an area completely new to me and having started to explore it, I find there is an extensive body of scholarly work associated with it. It will take me a while to get to grips with this and I do not intend to try and cover it here. Instead, I will share my initial understanding of what is edusemiotics and how it might relate to McGilchrist’s work. I will also mention Stephen Downes’ work on connectivism, since this is a new learning theory which seems pertinent here.

Semiotics is the study of signs, such as in body language, rituals, linguistics, media and advertising. Edusemiotics is the study of signs + learning theory + education. It is a process which draws on the work of Ferdinand de Saussure (semiology) and Charles Sander Peirce (semiotics) to defy Cartesian substance dualism. Merleau-Ponty’s work on signs is also significant here, but I have yet to follow this up.

Edusemiotics takes a holistic approach to education, decrying fragmentation and subject/object dualism. It posits that since we use signs to interact with the world, then it follows that signs shape our experience, and human experience is an interpretive structure mediated by signs. Everything is in relation to everything else. ‘As signs connect and become transformed in ever-changing contexts, new signs are created as part of an ongoing open-ended process of interpretation, growth and development.’ (Semetsky & Stables, 2014, p.10).

The edusemiotics argument is that if knowledge is constructed through our ongoing interaction with signs and the world, then knowledge cannot be out there waiting to be found; education must be a process of continuous inquiry; it cannot be reduced to right or wrong answers. A priori learning objectives, measurement and assessment make no sense from this perspective.

An edusemiotics approach to education therefore focuses on significance and meaning rather than ‘true facts’ and content. It is a process and is about interactions and relations ‘between students and teachers, between people and their environments, between ourselves and others, and between elements of that which is to be learned, understood through various relational perspectives’ (Deely & Semetsky, 2017).

The presence of paradox is also a distinguishing feature of edusemiotics. Iain McGilchrist has a lot to say about paradox (see p. 137-140, The Master and his Emissary). For example on p.134 of his book he writes:

‘Our attention is responsive to the world, but the world is responsive to our attention. The situation presents a paradox for linear analysis. .. This paradox applies to the problem of how we get to know anything, but is particularly problematic for the special case whereby we are seeking to approach the very process whereby knowledge comes into being.’

Related to this is Charles Sander Peirce’s work on vagueness and intrinsic uncertainty, although McGilchrist does not reference Peirce in his book. (Again, I have only, as yet, touched on Peirce’s ideas).

The significance of paradox is related to the question of fixity. As McGilchrist says, if there are no things and everything is uncertain and changing, at what point can you say you know something; at what point can a few grains of sand be described as a heap of sand and which grain of sand makes the difference? I have written about this before (see https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/29/exploring-the-divided-brain-time-space-and-reality/). This of course relates to our understanding of the structure of reality in relation to time, but more importantly to our understanding that everything changes and everything flows; ‘all is in the process of change and eternal flux, rather than stasis and completion’ (p.270-271, The Master and his Emissary).

Deely & Semetsky (2017, p.209) have written that:

The holistic perspective taken by edusemiotics entails several distinctive characteristics including:

  • the relational ethics;
  • the role of experience as exceeding its ‘private’ dimension;
  • emphasis on interpretations surpassing factual ‘evidence’;
  • a conception of language understood broadly in terms of dynamic structures related to the regimes of signs exceeding linguistic representations; embodied cognition;
  • and the importance of self-formation as a lifelong process, thus having implications for education throughout the lifespan, inclusive of children and adults.

It is clear even from this brief introduction to edusemiotics, that whilst it does not explicitly inform McGilchrist’s The Master and his Emissary, it does share some similar thinking, principally in the idea that ‘knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing’. Interestingly these are the words that Stephen Downes uses to explain connectivism (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653).

It also shares the right hemisphere’s ‘take’ on the nature of knowledge, that knowledge is an encounter with something ‘other’, not fixed or certain; it depends on ‘betweenness’ and the coming together of wholes. ‘Knowledge and perception and therefore experience, exist only in the relations ‘between’ things, i.e. in the knowledge of distinction and the experience of difference.’ (p. 94-97, The Master and his Emissary).

But from what I have read so far (admittedly little), edusemiotics neither goes as far as connectivism, which rejects cognitivist and constructivist theories of learning as being grounded in language and logic (see https://www.downes.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=38653), nor as far as McGilchrist who emphasises language as being rooted in the body (p.118).

Downes writes:

In a representational system, you have a thing, a physical symbol, that stands in a one-to-one relationship with something: a bit of knowledge, an ‘understanding’, something that is learned, etc. In representational theories, we talk about the creation (‘making’ or ‘building’) and transferring of these bits of knowledge. This is understood as a process that parallels (or in unsophisticated theories, is) the creation and transferring of symbolic entities.

As Richard Parmentier writes: …  representation lies at the heart of the sign processes

But Downes also writes:

Connectivism is not a representational theory. It does not postulate the existence of physical symbols standing in a representational relationship to bits of knowledge or understandings. Indeed, it denies that there are bits of knowledge or understanding, much less that they can be created, represented or transferred.  

So edusemiotics, whilst sharing some of the pedagogical aspirations of connectivism, differs quite significantly in philosophy.

And McGilchrist writes of the left hemisphere as the hemisphere of representation, in which signs are substituted for experience (p.70). Whilst edusemiotics is discussed in terms of embodied cognition, I wonder about the tension between a discipline which studies signs, which are designed ‘to emphasise the ‘freedom’ of language as far as possible from the trammels of the body and of the physical world [they describe] (p.119 The Master and his Emissary), and a holistic, embodied approach to education.

It seems to me that edusemiotics shares some of the characteristics of connectivism and some of McGilchrist’s philosophical ideas, but the differences between edusemiotics and Downes’ and McGilchrist’s work are significant enough to ultimately affect philosophical and pedagogical approaches to education, making edusemiotics, connectivism and the implications of McGilchrist’s work for education incompatible.

References

Thanks to Gary Goldberg for prompting this post and to Matthias Melcher for discussion about the content.

Source of image: https://vanseodesign.com/web-design/semiotics-signifier-signified/