Living and acting together

Hi, Bob --

I'm cc'ing this reply to CSGnet, because the subject is of general
interest. You might want to sign on to defend your end of the argument (see
Chuck Tucker for details).


I've received your new book _Living and acting together,_ for which thanks.

It's a bit embarrassing, considering your praise of my work, to have to say
I disagree with your main thesis, as far as I understand it. My
disagreement can be boiled down to a few of your sentences in the
introduction, p. 16:

"Regrettably, what may be in the world apart and independent of us is
inaccessible. Therefore, we cannot talk about that world with any more
confidence than we can about any other invention of the mind. There is no
way of testing the correspondence between what we say about that separated
world and the world apart."

I can see why you think that PCT supports this view. But it only seems to
support it when you decide, arbitrarily, to apply it to some things but not
to others. What, you must ask, is the basis for claiming that all we know
about reality consists of our own perceptions? That claim is a deduction
from a physical model of the world coupled to a neurological model of the
brain and nervous system. So for this claim to be correct, we must also
claim that the physical and neurological models provide us with a correct
picture of reality. If that is true, it is not true that reality is
inaccessible. If it is not true, of course, then there is no basis for PCT.

In a similar way, when you cite the studies of Milgram and Sherif, you are
exempting the results of those studies from your general conclusion, that
we cannot talk about a world that exists independent of constructions of
the mind. The results of those studies are accepted as if they were about
an objectively accessible reality. This means you are using what you call
Enlightenment-style scientific studies as evidence that your Romantic
stance is the right one, or an advance over the Enlightenment one. So this
makes your thesis undecideable: it is true if we believe it is true, and
otherwise it is false. There is therefore no basis for deciding if it is
true or false.

When you say "2 + 2 = 4," you're making a definite statement about reality,
or some part of it. This mathematical fact can be discovered by anyone,
living and acting alone. In fact there are huge areas of knowledge that do
not require more than one person to discover and affirm facts. Sociology,
despite your professional bias, does not cover all of human existence or
knowledge. There is, potentially, a companion volume to yours, entitled
"Living and acting alone." People do that, too. When Archimedes figured out
how to measure the density of the King's crown, he was the only one in the
world, at that moment, who knew how to do that. When I first understood
that behavior is the means by which we control perceptions, I was the only
one who knew that.

The basic problem with your reasoning as I see it is in your assumption
that the external world is "inaccessible." Taken literally this is pure
solipsism. You have to specify what you would mean by "accessible" before
you can define "inaccessible." If the world existed but were totally
inaccessible, then we could not affect it and it could not affect us. PCT,
of course, claims that the world is very accessible, so much so that every
action we take affects the world so as to control its effects on our
perceptions. PCT posits a reality that is part of every feedback loop.

What science studies, I would claim, consists of the properties of all
those external parts of our feedback loops. While we can't know anything
about them but what we sense, we can characterize these external
connections by producting known actions (which we can perceive) and
observing the resulting changes in other perceptions. In this way we can
build up a picture of how some perceptions affect others, through paths
that presumably exist outside of us since we can't see them. In physics,
those relationships are called the properties of matter and energy. The
actions on reality are called experimental manipulations, and the effects
on our perceptions are the resulting meter readings. The science of physics
is a model of what lies between the manipulations and the meter readings.

The important thing to realize is that while we can choose our actions more
or less freely (within constraints, which are themselves of interest), and
we can select the way we will construct perceptual systems, again within
limits, we can't choose how a given action is going to affect a given
perception. Once we have committed to an action and a way of perceiving, we
can only wait to see what constraints reality will impose on the
relationship between action and perception. What we discover in this way is
a direct measure of a property of the external world, translated into terms
of human perceptions. It is a property of the external reality in exactly
the sense used in physics or chemistry or engineering. When you construct a
model that contains all these properties, you have a picture of a reality
that is just as accessible as the model is. That is, you know how to act on
it to produce almost any perception you please, and by observing what is
going on, you can predict what will happen next. What more could be meant
by "accessible?"

Furthermore, and this, I think, is the death-blow to your thesis, when
people study reality by making models of it and experimentally acting on
it, they very often converge to a common understanding WITHOUT ANY
COMMUNICATION WITH EACH OTHER. The convergence is due not to the influence
of one person on another person, but to the influence of reality on anyone
who does the same experiment. It is easy, of course, to succumb to the
illusion that convergence must be due to an interpersonal influence, an
illusion that is strengthened when that proves to be the only explanation
(as is sometimes true). But even when that seems to be true, we can be

Take Sherif's studies of autokinesis, for example. Of course the point of
light in a dark room does not move at all, although the subjects report it
moving. These studies focus on judgements of its motion made by people who
are communicating with each other or who are told things by the
experimenter, with the result that gradually the judgements converge in a
way we know (or rather assume) to be spurious. But that conclusion, which
is the point of the studies, ignores another major convergence that occurs
without any discussion or mutual interaction at all -- and indeed, that
occurs for solitary observers. It is the observation that the point of
light is seen to move.

In fact, the point of light _does_ move on the retina. It moves because the
eye moves. Without any other position references, and lacking any fine
sensing of eye position in the dark, it is reasonable for a person to
conclude that the point of light moves. It would look just the same if it
_did_ move.

But this brings up another fact of interest, which is that a person can
_make_ the point of light move, by deliberately moving the eye. So we
suddenly have an explanation for the convergence of opinions among
observers who are communicating with each other. As the interactions
continue, the people start making the point of light move in a way that
agrees with the descriptions of others, so they can truthfully report that
it looks the same way to them. This process would, given just one
postulate, naturally converge until the actually experienced movements and
their descriptions are the same for all parties.

The postulate is that the people involved want to agree on what they
observe. Why they want to agree can vary from person to person, as long as
the net result is an attempt to alter descriptions and motions of the point
of light until they are the same for everyone. One person may want to agree
because of a fear of being different; another in order to avoid being rude
to someone else; another because of a belief that normal people will agree
on observations of the same thing, coupled with ignorance of the
autokinetic effect. The reasons don't matter; what matters is that if the
participants all want to agree on what they experience and report, they
have both the opportunity and the means to do so, truthfully. And of course
we can't ignore those participants who do NOT actually make the point of
light move to match the descriptions of others, but simply SAY that it does
(i.e., they lie, but only to achieve verbal agreement with others).

I wonder how different the results in Sherif's experiments would have been
if the experimenter had simply asked the people to make the point of light
move by moving their eyes, and to try to make it move the way others
described it moving. I suspect that the results would be hard to
distinguish from the less candidly-instructed results. Even _knowing_ that
the problem was basically a control task would not help in converging on a
common truthful description of an intentionally-produced perception, unless
one person took charge and said something like "OK, everyone, let's all
make it move side to side by four inches."

I think we interact, knowingly, with reality all the time, and that once we
learn how to test our ideas about it experimentally, we can make better and
better models of it. And in reality, I include the properties of human
beings. And in that I include me.


Bill P.

[From Rick Marken (981104.0720)]

Bill Powers (no date) to fellow named Bob:

I've received your new book _Living and acting together,_ for
which thanks.

It's a bit embarrassing, considering your praise of my work, to
have to say I disagree with your main thesis, as far as I
understand it...

Beautiful post. Clear, well written and right on target. Thanks
for posting it to CSGNet.




Richard S. Marken Phone or Fax: 310 474-0313
Life Learning Associates e-mail: