Identity graphs as a ‘source of truth’

Week 4 on Identity in Stephen Downes’ E-Learning 3.0 MOOC has come to an end. It was another very interesting week. Stephen has summed up the week with a video and a paper, both of which I will link to in this post. They deserve to be widely distributed.

Whilst the topic title for Week 4 was ‘Identity’, and we had some discussion about identity in general as a philosophical idea that ‘runs through the history of education in a single thread’, the week mainly focussed on digital identity, which Stephen clearly said is not the same as ‘my identity’.

I was pleased to hear him say this, as throughout the week I consistently felt that our digital identity is nowhere near the whole picture of who we are. As Stephen says it is just one outcome of ‘myself’, through which I can recognise parts of myself and others can get glimpses of me, or if they know me can recognise a bit more.

I subscribe to National Geographic and this week I received a mailing from them which included this stunning photo by Yuri Andries.

But it was the text underneath that caught my attention. ‘…. the photo was taken in Ladakh, a remote alpine region of northern India where Tibetan Buddhists, Shia Muslims, Sunnis, and Christians live in villages connected by rocky roads. There’s no phone signal, Internet, or gas stations, and hardly a single person in sight.’ So no digital identity for anyone living there, but of course that doesn’t mean no identity.

I was struck by this because also this week I have been trying to understand what Stephen means by the ‘source of truth’ for the identity graphs we have created. How do we know the graph is an accurate representation of who we are? Where does the information come from? In his video Stephen says ‘we are the source of truth for our digital identity’; we are the thread that runs through the disconnected and distributed data that makes up our digital identity graph. Instead of our digital identities being about quantified demographics, they will (in E-Learning 3.0) be about quality, about the rich tapestry of data relations we have.

In case your were wondering, there is a link in my thinking between the people living in Ladakh with no digital identity, the many of us who do have a digital identity of one sort or another, and the idea of a source of truth, because it occurred to me that the truth about identity has to also include what is neglected, hidden or invisible. The emergent identity from the graph must surely be as much about what is not there as what is there.

As I was thinking about this Vahid Masrour published a post in which he writes about how he discusses online identity with this students. He urges his students to consider how their digital identity might be interpreted by future employers. This highlighted for me the idea that we have to manage our identities, deciding what to reveal and what to hide.

Stephen has said that identity in E-learning 1.0 and 2.0 was about the ‘quantified self’ where our digital identities were represented by demographics and numbers. E-Learning 3.0 will see us shift towards digital identities which reflect the qualified self and ultimately the connected self.

For the connected self, being represented by numbers (the quantified self of E-Learning 1.0) and facts (the qualified self of E-Learning 2.0) will not be sufficient. The connected self will be more about our relations and interactions. Will this lead to a more ethical Web? Will digital identity as a ‘connected self make the ‘source of truth’ of these identities more visible? Will the ‘connected self’ be more reflective? Will ‘the connective self’ more honestly reflect our hopes, aspirations and dreams?

Much of what is being discussed in this course is new to me and that includes the idea of identity graphs and the qualified and connected self. Stephen has clearly been thinking about this for some time. For further insights into his thinking I can recommend watching the video embedded above and reading this paper, which he shared as a summary of the week.

E-Learning 3.0, Part 4: Identity – https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?post=68516

Further resources

Digital Identity on the Threshold of a Digital Identity Revolution – http://www3.weforum.org/docs/White_Paper_Digital_Identity_Threshold_Digital_Identity_Revolution_report_2018.pdf

The Economic Impact of Digital Identity in Canada – https://diacc.ca/wp-content/uploads/2018/05/Economic-Impact-of-Digital-Identity-DIACC-v2.pdf

Canada’s Digital Economy Relies on a Foundation of Digital Identity – https://diacc.ca/2018/05/16/the-economic-impact-of-digital-identity-in-canada/

Identity as an Analytic Lens for Research in Education https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/10.3102/0091732X025001099

See also the resources listed on the course site: https://el30.mooc.ca/cgi-bin/page.cgi?module=8

E-Learning 3.0 : Identity Graphs

We are now in the fourth week of this E-Learning 3.0 open course/MOOC. The task for this week is to create an Identity Graph, which Stephen Downes (convener of this course) has outlined as follows:

Identity – Create an Identity Graph

  • We are expanding on the marketing definition of an identity graph. It can be anything you like, but with one stipulation: your graph should not contain a self-referential node titled ‘me’ or ‘self’ or anything similar
  • Think of this graph as you defining your identity, not what some advertiser, recruiter or other third party might want you to define.
  • Don’t worry about creating the whole identity graph – focusing on a single facet will be sufficient. And don’t post anything you’re not comfortable with sharing. It doesn’t have to be a real identity graph, just an identity graph, however you conceive it.

Here is my graph, which I created using Matthias Melcher’s Think Tool – Thought Condensr, which is very quick and easy to use.

Like Matthias,  I puzzled over why Stephen required that the graph – “should not contain a self-referential node titled ‘me’ or ‘self’ or anything similar”. How could I avoid this if the graph is to be about my identity? In the event, it became obvious that not only is it possible to create the graph without referring to me, but also that doing this clearly demonstrates that knowledge of my identity is in the network rather than any specific node. My identity begins to emerge from the graph, without me having to specify it.

You can see from the graph that there are three links which don’t connect. I did this by simply cutting them off for the screenshot of the graph, because I wanted to suggest that this graph could, in fact, go on and on. This image provides only a glimpse of my identity. I could not only expand the graph, by making more links and connections, but I could also make more connections within this section of the graph. I am also aware that if I started afresh and drew this tomorrow it would be different because my identity and how I think of it is fluid and evolving.

I was also aware in drawing the graph that pretty much all of it is traceable online. It reminded me of the introductory task that was set on Etienne Wenger’s online course  Foundations of Communities of Practice that he ran with John Smith and Bron Stuckey in 2008. The task was based on the idea of six degrees of separation. “Six degrees of separation is the idea that all living things and everything else in the world are six or fewer steps away from each other so that a chain of “a friend of a friend” statements can be made to connect any two people in a maximum of six steps” (see Wikipedia). At the start of that course we were given the name of an unknown fellow participant and had to find out enough about them to be able to link to them in six steps and then share this information. This was a very good way of learning more about fellow participants at the start of the course, but also of recognising that we can easily connect to anyone across the world in just a few steps.

Stephen set some further optional questions for us to consider:

  • What is the basis for the links in your graph: are they conceptual, physical, causal, historical, aspirational?

They seem to be physical and historical, whereas Matthias’s graph seems to emphasise the conceptual. 

  • Is your graph unique to you? What would make it unique? What would guarantee uniqueness?

I think it must be unique. The nodes are not unique, but the relations between the nodes, whilst they might not be unique individually, as a whole must be unique. I think it would be impossible to guarantee its uniqueness if it remained static. Anyone could come along and copy or mimic it. Uniqueness can only be guaranteed if the graph is continually updating, evolving and new connections are being made. I am not sure whether old connections can be broken, or do they just become inactive and move way off to the edge of the graph?

  • How (if at all) could your graph be physically instantiated? Is there a way for you to share your graph? To link and/or intermingle your graph with other graphs?

I’m not sure if I have understood the question correctly? Isn’t the graph I have created using Matthias’s Think Tool, and posted here, a physical instantiation? Does physical instantiation have a specific meaning in relation to graphs? I think I might have missed the point – but I can see that it would be relatively easy to intermingle my graph with Matthias’s graph. It might be necessary for us both to add a few nodes and links, but not many, to be able to connect the two graphs fairly seamlessly (a bit like the six degrees of separation task described above).

  • What’s the ‘source of truth’ for your graph?

This is a big question as it raises the whole question of what we mean by truth. I have been grappling with this for quite a few months now. In my most recent blog post about ‘truth’ –  I reported that both Gandhi and Nietzsche have expressed the view that “human beings can only know partial and contingent truths and perspectives; there are a multiplicity of truths and perspectives.” So in these terms, the truth of my graph can only be partial or contingent. Even if I have not knowingly lied, I have selected what to include in the graph and therefore I have also selected what to leave out.

But Stephen’s question is about the ‘source of truth’. Is he asking about ‘source of truth’ as defined in information systems?  This is not a subject I know anything about.

In information systems design and theory, single source of truth (SSOT) is the practice of structuring information models and associated data schema such that every data element is stored exactly once. Any possible linkages to this data element (possibly in other areas of the relational schema or even in distant federated databases) are by reference only. Because all other locations of the data just refer back to the primary “source of truth” location, updates to the data element in the primary location propagate to the entire system without the possibility of a duplicate value somewhere being forgotten. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Single_source_of_truth

In these terms I’m not sure how to answer Stephen’s question about ‘source of truth’. If someone could enlighten me that would be great.

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)

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.

There are No Things. There are patterns.

As we can see from his website, Iain McGilchrist, author of The Master and his Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World,  is working on a number of further books, but the one that he talked to us about on the Field & Field course that I recently attended in the Cotswolds, was the one which bears the title: ‘There are No Things’, a book on epistemology and metaphysics.

Iain told us that this follow up book to The Master and his Emissary will focus on how everything is changing, flowing, connected and never fixed. He told us that if we could slow things down enough we would be able to see the mountain behind his house flowing.

Source of image: http://player.lush.com/tv/matter-relative-matter-iain-mcgilchrist

Iain’s new book will make the case for no static and separate things, but instead relationships and patterns. For me, this brings to mind Stephen Downes’ work on the theory of connectivism and an early article that he wrote on his blog in 2009, where he wrote:

[Knowledge] is not an object (or objective), it is not discrete, it is not a causal agent. It is emergent, which means that it exists only by virtue of a process of recognition [pattern recognition], as a matter of subjective interpretation. 

  • Knowledge is not an object, but a series of flows; it is a process, not a product.
  • It is produced not in the minds of people but in the interactions between people.
  • The idea of acquiring knowledge as a series of truths, is obsolete

Even earlier than this in 2007  Stephen was writing about connectivism as follows:

At its heart, connectivism is the thesis that knowledge is distributed across a network of connections, and therefore that learning consists of the ability to construct and traverse those networks.

It shares with some other theories a core proposition, that knowledge is not acquired, as though it were a thing (https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html)

The first time I heard Iain speak he told us that his follow up book to The Master and his Emissary would be a book entitled: The Porcupine is a Monkey.  The intention was to write ‘a popular Master and his Emissary’, a book that would discuss how science and education have become increasingly left-brained, but this book has been abandoned. He felt it would be repeating much of the work he has already done.

So Iain has moved away from an explicit focus on education, although clearly his work has implications for education, but Stephen has addressed how connectivism might influence pedagogy. He has written that connectivism:

… implies a pedagogy that (a) seeks to describe ‘successful’ networks (as identified by their properties, which I have characterized as diversity, autonomy, openness, and connectivity) and (b) seeks to describe the practices that lead to such networks, both in the individual and in society (which I have characterized as modeling and demonstration (on the part of a teacher) and practice and reflection (on the part of a learner)). https://halfanhour.blogspot.co.uk/2007/02/what-connectivism-is.html 

But both authors, as philosophers, are interested in the relationship between knowledge and ‘truth’.

Iain told us that the first part of his new book will attempt to answer the question of what we mean by ‘truth’. In the Master and his Emissary he writes

‘Truth is a process.’ (McGilchrist, p.154).

‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150).

‘The statement that ‘there is no such thing as truth’ is itself a truth statement, and implies that it is truer than its opposite, the statement that ‘truth exists’. If we had no concept of truth, we could not state anything at all, and it would even be pointless to act. There would be no purpose, for example, in seeking the advice of doctors, since there would be no point in having their opinion, and no basis for their view that one treatment was better than another. None of us actually lives as though there were no truth. Our problem is more with the notion of a single, unchanging truth.’ (McGilchrist, p.150)

Stephen, in one of the quotes above, doesn’t write about a single truth so I am not sure what he thinks about this or whether or not he and Iain would agree about what we mean by truth. But it does seem to me that they agree on some epistemological positions, principally that ‘One must never [] lose sight of the interconnected nature of things’ (McGilchrist, p.154). The importance of patterns, relations and processes seem to be recognised by both.

The work of both authors work has implications for education, epistemology, and understanding our world and our existence.

16-03-2018 Update: Stephen Downes’ responds (Thank you).

I’ve said in the past that knowledge is recognition, and if I were pressed to describe what I think truth is, I would say that it is a strong feeling of recognition. This I think is consistent with what the early empiricists (like David Hume) would say. Formally, truth is an attitude toward a proposition: we say that a propositoon is ‘true’ or ‘not true’ and then try to explain that through an interpretation (such as Tarski’s theory of truth, or model theory, or some such thing). That makes truth easier to work with, but only because it abstracts the messier reality. Having said all this, I think this puts me in accord with Iain McGilchrist, cited by Jenny Mackness in this article, when he says things like ‘No single truth does not mean no truth.’ http://www.downes.ca/post/67894 

16-03-2018 Update

See also notes from last years course – Where we can go for Truth – https://jennymackness.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/exploring-the-divided-brain-where-can-we-go-for-truth/

Exploring the Divided Brain – Where can we go for truth?

21st August 2016 am – a 4 day course with Iain McGilchrist. Day 3 (am)

This is the fifth in a series of posts in which I am sharing the notes I took whilst attending a 4 day course- Exploring the Divided Brain- run by Field & Field and featuring Iain McGilchrist.

Here are the links to my previous posts:

Day 1 (am). Introduction to the Divided Brain

Day 1 (pm). The Divided Brain and Embodiment

Day 2 (am). Time, Space and Reality

Day 2 (pm). The One and the Many

 

Where can we go for truth? (Some thoughts about the question of what constitutes truth)

I think this may have been a repeat of the Laing Lecture that Iain gave earlier in the year at Regent College in Vancouver. It bore the same title. I can’t find a video recording of that lecture, but the introductory text on the web page  is …

How do we think about truth? Where do we go to find it? While science and reason have undeniable power to disclose many aspects of reality, they do not reveal everything. In this lecture, Iain McGilchrist explains why we cannot rely only on the reports of science or the power of rational argument and demonstrates that it is both unscientific and irrational to do so.

… and these were the same topics and questions that Iain covered in our session.

How do we think about truth? Iain’s answer was that if there is a God (and for him God is a process, an eternal becoming) then how can we stop ourselves thinking about truth, but he believes there is no definitive answer to this question.

On reflection I wonder if underpinning all Iain’s work is a search for an understanding of the meaning of ‘God’ (and here I use the word ‘God’ for want of an alternative). As he writes on p.150 of the Master and his Emissary, ‘Things are not whatever we care to make them. There is something that exists apart from our own minds’… and on p.151, he writes, ‘[Truth]is an act, a journey, not a thing. It has degrees. It is found by removing things, rather than putting things together.’

For the left hemisphere where understanding is built up from parts, there is objective evidence for truth, but for the right hemisphere, truth is derived from the whole and can only ever be provisional (p.142, The Master and his Emissary).

Where shall we go for truth? Iain suggested that we go to the beauty and awe-inspiring magic of the non-academic, non-religious natural world, where opposites tend to coincide as much as disperse and where intuition and insight is more directly compelling than reason. Reason, he said, is the endless paperwork of the mind, but for truth uncertainty is essential.

We cannot go to science for truth. Science cannot fulfil the role of purveyor of truth. Good science is always aware of its limitations, but science cannot discover the purpose of life nor tell us about God’s nature or existence and science promotes the use of models. There is always a model whether we are aware of it or not, but the model we choose determines what we find.

Science places a high value on precision, but what about things we cannot be precise about, where apparent opposites come together? Science passes over entities that cannot be measured; it takes things out of context and decontextualizes the problem. We put our faith in science because it is seen to be objective, but science is not value free. A lot of scientific research is not adequately designed; we know that the Hawthorne effect can influence scientific results and positive findings are more likely to be published than negative ones. We can’t ask science to do what it can’t do. A hypothesis cannot be proved nor disproved. Each comes with many assumptions. Proof used to mean a trial run (as in a printed proof).

Science cannot provide us with dependable ultimate truths. It’s not pointless, but it does not provide us with reliable truth. Philosophy equally has problems with notions of intuition, uncertainty, rationality, reason and the complexity of truth.

Iain quoted Edmund Burke as saying – ‘It is the nature of all greatness not to be exact’, and Rabindranath Tagore:

Tagore

Source of image

Truth is not a proposition but a disposition towards the world. It is related to trust and what one believes. Belief is not signing up to a proposition but about a relationship. Truth and belief used to be embodied. We can’t passively wait for them. We have to make a move to meet them. There is no fail-safe path to truth.

Iain believes that truth has intrinsic value not just instrumental value. He mentioned but disagreed with Pascal’s wager. Pascal proposed that whether or not there is a God, we should live our lives as though there is one – just to be on the safe side! Iain believes truth is a moral value, like beauty and goodness. It is not a human convention. There will be truth when we are no longer around to see it. The pursuit of truth is greater than the possession of truth. Potential is greater than actuality.

Personal Reflection

I don’t remember God being mentioned on last year’s course as much as on this year’s course and it was interesting to hear Iain describe briefly what ‘God’ means to him. There was virtually no explicit reference to religion during the course. It seemed to me that the word ‘God’ was being used to identify or name ideas for which there is no adequate universally agreed explanation.

Reflecting on this session I remember that I have, in the past, done my fair share of searching for answers to the question of what is life all about and thinking that there must be more to it than all this. I was a child of the 60s (actually I wasn’t a child, I was already in my twenties), so I followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, owned a copy of the I Ching and practised meditation, before becoming dissatisfied and moving on to ‘religion’ (Christianity), with which, after a few year, I became equally dissatisfied.

I also remember that in the 90s when doing an MA in Education I read and wrote about the meaning of truth in relation to an assignment on research methods. On digging out this assignment, I find it includes these quotes:

‘No finitely describable system, or finite language, can prove all truths. Truth cannot fully be caught in a finite net’ (Nagel & Newman quoting Godel’s Theorem, 1959).

‘… there can be many points of view, or many faces of truth, some even mutually contradictory, and yet all equally real in the potential sense …’ (Zohar & Marshall, 1994).

So on reflection I can see that questions about truth have accompanied my life since my twenties and maybe even before, which perhaps explains my interest in Iain McGilchrist’s work and why it resonates. Having said that, what I like about Iain’s work is that whilst it makes reference to spirituality, it is more about how the right and left hemispheres view the world than about ‘God’ or religion. As he writes in The Master and his Emissary (p.92)

‘There is not likely to be ‘a God spot’ in the brain, and the area is fraught with problems of terminology and methodology: but there are areas that are often implicated as accompaniments of religious experience.‘

It’s not religion, but the idea of being able to see the ‘big picture’ and what it means to have an open mind that intrigues me.

 

Authors/people referred to during the session

Iain McGilchrist (2010). The Master and His Emissary. The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World. Yale University Press.

Sir William Empson (1930). Seven Types of Ambiguity

Lakoff, G. & Johnson, M. (2003). Metaphors We Live By. University of Chicago Press.

Edmund Burke 

Rabindranath Tagore

 

Authors/philosophers who have most influenced Iain’s thinking

Of most interest for Iain is Heraclitus (c. 535 – c. 475 BCE)

Heidegger (1889-1976) – a struggle but a revelation

Hegel (1770-1831) – also a struggle but a revelation

The early and late phases of Ludwig Wittgenstein’s work (1889-1951)

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Scheler (1874-1928) – difficult

Mary Midgley – a modern philosopher – born 1919

John Cutting – psychiatrist and author

Louis Sass (1994) Madness and Modernism. Insanity in the Light of Modern Art, Literature and Thought. Harvard University Press.

The work of A. N. Whitehead (1861-1947) on God and the Cosmos