Open Thinkering


Tag: philosophy

TB872: Systemic praxis and epistemological devices

Note: this is a post reflecting on one of the modules of my MSc in Systems Thinking in Practice. You can see all of the related posts in this category.

As a Philosophy graduate, I’m entirely comfortable both in using terms such as ontology and epistemology, and also unphased when other start throwing them around as well. After all, most of the time, what people are talking about is what exists (ontology), or what/how we can know things (epistemology).

So from a Systems Thinking in Practice (STiP) perspective, it makes sense to be talking about ‘epistemological devices’. These are just ways of knowing about a particular situation. Meanwhile, ‘systemic praxis’ just means ‘theory informed practice within a systems thinking context’.

Diagram of woman thinking about a situation of concern. Text reads: 'Systemic praxis involves a practitioner (s) bringing forth a relational dynamic between a system and an environment mediated by a boundary judgement. For an aware systems practitioner a system of interest is an epistemological device - a way of knowing about a situation.'

Putting it all together makes it seem all academic but really all that’s happening is that we’re saying people look at things in different ways because they have different backgrounds and ways of understanding the world. They also are likely to be thinking about things at different scale. In the example above, which is a screenshot from a video on the course, the person/practitioner could be thinking about the pond in terms of the production of fish, or in terms of increasing biodiversity.

In both cases the ‘boundary’ of the system is the pond itself, within a wider ‘situation of concern’. However the purpose is different. The point when drawing diagrams like this isn’t to try and capture some kind of objective view of a situation, which would be impossible. Rather, it’s a good way of helping understand and communicate with others the way you see it.

I particularly liked the way that the course authors explained how STiP fits, like Russian dolls, inside wider issues — for example, systems literacy and systemic sensibilities. Crucially, they’re then situated within what is labelled the ‘technosphere’ and the ‘biosphere’. In other words, everything is connected.

Person with thought bubble which includes nested ideas from 'Systems thinking in practice capability' through to 'Biosphere'

In addition, it’s fascinating to see how they break down what they’ve learned about studnets on Systems Thinking-related course over the last 50 years or so. There have been over 40,000 students, and they’ve started to notice some patterns.

A ‘rule of thumb’ is now recognised: about one third of students come with a strongly held systemic sensibility. For this cohort, discovering systems thinking through formal study offers solace, and gives credibility to the way in which they intuitively understand the world. It is a great relief for them to know that they are not alone, that there is a language and concepts that make sense of the way they think. For another third, study of Systems creates ‘aha moments’. This is when realisation dawns that you can appreciate your own thinking … and act to change it. For the final third, the courses lead to a sort of personal precipice, one might say a challenge to their sense of identity, because systems thinking challenges what they are good at or how they have succeeded in their world. Fear of change undoubtedly plays a part.

I’m definitely in the first cohort, the ones with a ‘strongly held systemic sensibility’. The reason I’m finding the module so interesting is because it really gives me for the first time a way of explaining something I find innate.

On the paucity of ‘raising awareness’

This post is about philosophy, memes, and taking action. It’s a reflection on an experience I had this week which caused me to reflect on the paucity of ‘awareness raising’ as a tactic.

I studied Philosophy at university a couple of decades ago. One of the courses was on ethics and involved the trolley problem.

Trolley problem basic setup. A person is standing next to a lever which can divert the trolley (i.e. train/tram) onto a different track. If they do, the trolley will hit one person instead of five. CC BY-SA McGeddon, Wikimedia Commons

The trolley problem is a series of thought experiments in ethics and psychology, involving stylized ethical dilemmas of whether to sacrifice one person to save a larger number. The series usually begins with a scenario in which a runaway tram or trolley is on course to collide with and kill a number of people (traditionally five) down the track, but a driver or bystander can intervene and divert the vehicle to kill just one person on a different track. Then other variations of the runaway vehicle, and analogous life-and-death dilemmas (medical, judicial etc.) are posed, each containing the option to either do nothing, in which case several people will be killed, or intervene and sacrifice one initially “safe” person to save the others.

It’s a powerful tool to generate insights into your own ethical position on certain topics. These days, it’s rolled out to warn about outsourcing decision-making to the systems underpinning self-driving cars. And, of course, it’s now a recognisable meme.

Trolley problem where nobody is tied to the track. The words read "nobody is in danger" and "however, you can pull the lever to make the train get closer just so you can wave at all the people"

In my experience, most of the trolley problem thought experiments lead towards an understanding of supererogation.

In ethics, an act is supererogatory if it is good but not morally required to be done. It refers to an act that is more than is necessary, when another course of action—involving less—would still be an acceptable action. It differs from a duty, which is an act wrong not to do, and from acts morally neutral. Supererogation may be considered as performing above and beyond a normative course of duty to further benefits and functionality.

Interestingly, in a recent episode of the Philosophy Bites podcast, Theron Pummer suggested a twist on this. Pummer, who is a Senior Lecturer in Philosophy at the University of St Andrews and Director of the Centre for Ethics, Philosophy and Public Affairs, has published a book entitled The Rules of Rescue. I haven’t read it yet, but to quote the summary on his own web page about the book:

Pummer argues that we are often morally required to engage in effective altruism, directing altruistic efforts in ways that help the most. Even when the personal sacrifice involved makes it morally permissible not to help at all, he contends, it often remains wrong to provide less help rather than more.

I have issues with Effective Altruism, which I’ll not go into here, but I find Pummer’s framing fascinating. Basically, you don’t have to help others in certain situations; no-one would think it was immoral or illegal to go about your business. However, if you do decide to help, then there’s a minimum amount of help that could reasonably be required.

This week, I was at MozFest House. I had a good time. As with all MozFests I’ve been to, there are exhibits with which you can interact. One of them asked you to use a touch screen to fill in details of the kinds of services you use. It then printed out a long receipt on the type of data that is gathered on you when using them. I asked the PhD students who had come up with the machine what I was supposed to do with this data. They intimated that they were merely raising awareness and didn’t suggest a single thing I could do.

I was left in a worse position than I began. One could say that’s the point of awareness-raising, that it’s about making people feel discomfort so that they take action. But if you’re going to make an intervention I would agree with Theron Pummer’s stance that there’s a certain minimum level of guidance to give. A first step, at least.

Contrast this with another interactive exhibit in which you received tokens for free coffee if you answered a series of questions about yourself. I managed to get three by lying and not providing personal data. Which, of course, could be said to be the point of the exercise: be careful about the data you put out there, especially for scant reward.

Once you see people putting in the minimum effort of ‘awareness raising’ you start seeing it everywhere. It’s particularly prevalent on social media, where it takes a single tap to reshare news and make others aware of something you’ve just seen. As humans, though, we tend to have a bias towards avoiding harm so social media timelines become full of doom.

I’m on a bit of a mission to get some more positivity into my life. Not in a mindless way. Not in an avoiding-reality kind of way. But rather following people who have noticed a problem and are doing something about it. Seeking out those who can take a step back and look at the wider picture. And, of course, those who share some of the wonder of the world around us.

That silent disappointment face, the one that I can’t bear

Parents talking to child

Perhaps one of the most powerful tools in the toolbox for parents, educators, coaches is disappointment. Whether real or feigned, once a relationship of respect is established between child or student and the person with “pedagogical authority”, then expressing disappointment can be amazingly effective.

In the film Coach Carter, which I watched again with my son at the weekend, the coach in question establishes a culture of respect in a basketball team. He does this initially through discipline. Once this discipline is established, however, he maintains team performance by conveying disappointment when its members contravene the established rules.

Conveying disappointment can be done in at least three ways. Depending on the skills of the pedagogical authority, this can be done in more or less precise ways. In my experience, the most common way of expressing disappointment is through body language: facial expressions, sighing, turning the back. The child or student needs to be able to connect that body language to the thing they have just done.

The next level is verbal: pointing out what the child or student has done to disappoint the pedagogical authority. This is more precise as the child or student is left in no doubt as to what it is they have done. The third level, however, takes on a longer temporal element in that it is written. In my experience, expressing disappointment in written form is the most powerful way of conveying it to a child or student. Unlike body language and verbal expressions which are transitory, a written expression of disappointment is something they can read several times.

As such, disappointment as a tool needs to be conveyed as precisely as possible. The temptation is to over-use it, especially body language and verbal expressions. This can lead to either the child or student starting to ignore the disappointment, or to do the opposite: to take it all onboard which leads to a feeling of helplessness, and a culture of negativity.

Disappointment as a tool between pedagogical authority and child or student is a form of interpersonal relationship. Another form of interpersonal disappointment happens between friends, lovers, and colleagues. In other words, whereas the previous type involved a hierarchical relationship, this type of disappointment happens between peers.

The same three types of expression (body language, verbal, and written) are the forms taken by this disappointment, in my experience. However, because the power relationship is different, the results also differ. In my experience, expressions of disappointment are much less likely to be precisely articulated and instead conveyed via body language. Sometimes (often?) this is involuntary.

As the connection between what the other person has done and the (involuntary) body language is not clear, the feedback loop is often incomplete. This can lead to confusion and problematic relations between the two people, as the cause of the problem has not been identified precisely. There is a feeling of tension, which contribute to what Alex Komoroske calls ‘coordination headwinds’.

The best thing to do in this situation is for one person to verbalise their disappointment in ways that focus on their emotions. For example, there are techniques in both sociocracy and counselling that include sentence templates such as, “When you do… I feel… because…”

The third type of disappointment is intrapersonal. That is to say, it involves disappointment with oneself. In my experience, this kind of disappointment is often felt rather than expressed in a form that involves words. It is a form of internal body language.

One strategy to explore with disappointment with oneself is to externalise the feelings. This is explored in the book How To Think Like a Roman Emperor by the philosopher and psychotherapist Donald Robertson, who has a special interest in Stoicism and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (CBT).

Carrying on with the above theme, then, there are two ways to do this: to verbalise the disappointment and to write it down. CBT is an extremely effective way to verbalise disappointment in oneself, as a trained therapist and guide is there to help you stop spiralling downwards.

Journaling, or maintaining a diary, is a good way to write down the disappointment. Once it’s there on the page in front of you, it either has the power to change your actions going forward, or it looks less of a big deal than it felt in your head. Either way, you can do something about it.

As you may have gathered, I have been both on the receiving end of disappointment and the person conveying it to others recently. This is not a “philosophy of disappointment” as such, although I purposely avoided searching for the term until I’d written the preceding. Perhaps to develop it further I need to read this article in The Independent, watch this 2010 talk by Simon Critchley, and perhaps examine this analysis of the philosophy of Schopenhauer and Nietzsche…

Image based on an original by Monstera. Quotation-as-title via Arctic Monkeys.