Responsibilities (Feb 18 post)

[from: Bruce Buchanan 950218.14:50 EST]

I feel somewhat obliged to rejoin this discussion related to human
responsibility so that conclusions do not rest by default in the court of
the most recent speakers - although there are undoubtedly others, such as
Bruce Nevin, much better equipped who may also respond. A wonderful
outcome of some of these discussions is that they do sometimes :wink: get
down to the key differences in assumptions that operate (controlling
variables, I suppose).
So - IMHO -

Bill Leach 950217.20:10 EST(EDT) writes:

We all are "guilty" of discussing various philosophical matters.
I don't doubt for a minute that an honest application of PCT type
thinking to such "social conventions" would be of a personal value
to me but I also doubt that there would be many solid answers.

What a strange way to speak of philosophy (except maybe in the company of
supposedly hard-headed scientists)! For it can only be through
philosophical enquiry that really fundamental confusions in relation to
concepts and experience are sorted out, and that there is any real
possibility of being liberated from arbitrary and accidental ideas. So
donUt put down philosophy
in principle! I know that sorting out confusions is too often badly done,
hence this note, the intent of which is liberate :wink: !

I do question however, how much the science of PCT would benefit.

No science can stand at all, much less benefit, without clear fundamental
terms, which include agreements (for science is a social enterprise) on
is meant by evidence, etc. including truth, validity, significance etc.

The terms are far too vague for anything more than equally vague assertions.
These are the sorts of terms "that everyone knows what they mean" but no
one can define them in any precise sort of way. Qualitatively everyone
"knows" when someone is "unreliable" and can even give "support" for a
specific assertion but again, how is "reliability" measured?

These may all be understood as questions in the minds of many individuals.
However they are only points of beginning in relation to the philosophy of
science, or in social matters in relation to law and moral obligations etc.

In practice, for instance, one might question whether it is worth pursuing
dialogue with someone who insists that reliability and responsibility i.e.
consistency and dependability of language and action, are not only
unimportant but so indeterminate as to be meaningless (which is the
impression I have got from this discussion). My observation is that the
actual performance of many contributors do not match this rhetoric; indeed
they can too often be counted upon to make and remake the same points
regardless ;-).

..terms [i.e. for "reliable knowledge"] have ...perceptions for one's
own reference(s) (which of course may not even be remotely related to the
actual reference(s) for the terms); [to] perceptions for individual others;
and perceptions for 'groups of others'. Naturally, that the 'match' for
these last two are not "good" is a virtual certainty.
The terms themselves border on meaningless within PCT...

Here we are getting to what I think is a basic source of confusion, perhaps

an error from a philosophical perspective (and part of the error is to rule

out consideration from a more comprehensive perspective).

The point is that everything cannot be reduced to PCT. Other systems must
be understood on their own levels in terms of their own entities and
and according to their own observed regularitities. Further to this point -

Bill Powers (950318.0100 MST) writes:
in comments re Bruce Nevin (950217.1349)

the problem we have here is similar to the
problem of explaining behavior in terms of genes. If we have two legs,
two eyes, and so forth, it seems evident to some people that there must
be genes for eyes, legs, etc., or perhaps even a gene for each eye and
each leg, and a gene for the number of each. If we see with our eyes,
there must be a gene for seeing, and if we walk there must be a gene for
walking. From there it is only a short hop to a gene for drawing
pictures, a gene for dancing, and a gene for making movies about Fred
Astaire and Ginger Rogers.

I donUt know how Bruce Nevin may interpret this but to me it is a reductio
ad absurdum which does not deal with BruceUs argument at all. It sets up a
straw man.

If, for example, we observe that there is a perception of social
responsibility, the assumption is that there must be some specific reason
for this perception, some social force or inherited goal of being socially

This might be the assumption in some cases, (e.g. as in asserting
theological grounds as the only justification for the Ten Commandments)
but to assume
it is always and necessarily the only possible grounds for social
responsibility is not justified. Most stable social arrangments have their
own practical logic based in the relations involved at their own level of
daily experience of give and take, codified in the rules for clarity and
convenience as well as social power, etc. When I open a new package of
software there may be a little notice advising me that in acting to break
the seal I am at the same time undertaking to abide by the copyright.
There is nothing of an inherited social force about this. It is a quid pro

The bounciness of a ball is an emergent property, not a basic one. What
is basic is the response of a massive object to forces acting on it, and
the tendency of certain materials to restore themselves to a least-
energy configuration after a forcible distortion. At this level of
properties, we describe relationships among variables in a way that is
totally independent of macroscopic events....

But from our limited human perspective there are no absolute distinctions
to be made, and the relation between a basic property and an emergent one
is a relative one. I would agree that to label an observation as
"bounciness" does not make it anything special (indeed I would have thought
it a mass property rather than a truly emergent one.)

First let us be clear that we can hardly consider human concepts per se as
basic or elementary properties. The concepts by which we model our ideas
of the world are key for our thought, but are hardly basic realities in the

Be that as it may, as Michael Polanyi pointed out, while emergent
properties depend upon the more basic properties of the systems from which
they emerge, they have new properties at their own levels, with new
relationships and new dimensions, as I think is recognized by PCT. For
example, binocular vision depends upon the integrity of the visual
processes in two separate eyes, but by reaggregation of selected features
brings out depth perception, which is not, however, in turn reducible to
any two dimensional fields. No more can social and economic phenomena be
reduced to adequate explanation within PCT, even if the principles involved
in PCT and physiology, etc., do underlie some aspects of the higher level
descriptions of relationships and events, i.e. phenomena.

The fact that there are tennis balls and that they
show a certain behavior in a gravitational field, in an atmosphere, and
in relation to a tennis racket is merely an accident, an invention,
which might not exist in a universe with a different history ...

Well, if conditions in the world were different, we would not have the
problems and the questions we do. But to follow this line of reasoning
leads nowhere, and, from a philosophical point of view, it raise pointless
questions as to objectives and methodology. More specifically, failure to
accept that we live in this universe, on this earth, with the history we
were given by the accident of birth in a particular culture, is to reject
the possibility of an inquiry into many complex problems, the results of
which might well be justified in relative terms as the best we can do.

When we find regularities in social behavior, it may seem that there
must be some important property of societies that makes the regularities
necessarily appear. But I argue that this is not the case. . .

There may be no need to argue against such a case, since it may be simply a
function of the unnecessary assumption Rit may seem like there must be ...S
i.e. a straw man again.

If there are social
rules, for example, they exist only because people are capable of
perceiving rules and making behavior conform to them. This property is
totally independent of WHAT rules are put into effect.

As written this still seems to be beating a straw man. If what is meant is
that *social rules depend upon general human capacities to perceive and
conform*, it would be hard to disagree. But what is implied also suggests
that there are no other reasons can exist which may make rules necessary
or desirable.

This leaves dangling at least two important questions which are the reason
for the discussion in the first place i.e. (1) what might be the logic of
social structure and relationships which requires some sort of rules,
whatever they may be, independently of who might occupy the social roles in
question; and (2) what might be the functions and activities which
account for such human capacities in terms of their evolution and
development i.e. what functions those capacities serve.

we have the same kind of problem with linguistics that we have with
ideas about societies.

Well O.K., but this particular problem being described is an artifact of
perceptual constraints, imposed by an extention of PCT ideas, not the
problem of the sciences of linguistics or of society - although they do of
course have problems enough!

Neither linguists nor sociologists are students of human nature. They
are students of language and social phenomena. The linguist naturally
sees the regularities of language as reflecting some inborn talent for
language; the sociologist sees other regularities as reflecting inborn
talents for social skills....Specialty by specialty, each person who studies
human behavior sees the ability to carry out that class of behavior as
something specifically existing inside the brain, like a specialized

I think you are overgeneralizing here!

But a person like me who is not in any of these specialties does not
naturally see human behavior in any of these ways. I see a brain with
the capacity (I conjecture) to perceive and control in terms of
intensities, sensations, configurations, transitions, events,
relationships, categories, sequences, rule-governed processes,
principles, and system concepts....

Well, on the one hand these comments seem almost modest e.g. (RI
conjectureS) and on the other hand they strike me, correctly or not, as an
imperialistic hard-science approach to all questions of human nature.
While the principles and insights crucial to PCT seem to me to valid in
their own right, the do not seem to me to provide warrant, means or methods
for judging other sciences, or for doing much more than critiquing other
studies from a PCT perspective.

We had, of course, to
come up with _some_ set of examples, but it could have been any set. The
ones we see around us now are accidents, inventions, one alternate
universe among many possible ones.

Yet the set of specific secondary or emergent attributes which could arise,
whether food habits, social rules, tool-making, language habits, and all
the features which make a civilization operate, could not have been just
"any set(s)". They had to be habits and rules, etc. which fit the
conditions and enabled mutual survival, and these constraints are more
often than not quite rigorous.

[in most discussions]... certain questions are avoided. What is a
rule, that we can follow it? What is an object, an action, a concept,
that we can name it? What, in general, is a meaning, that we can attach
a word to it?

These are not matters or questions that have been avoided at all, although
those who who are convinced that philosophy has nothing further to
contribute may well avoid them.

Nobody seems to have come up with the simple answer:
meanings, like words, are perceptions....

And perceptions, like the concepts to which words refer, may be multilevel,
such that some of the meanings in perceptions are to be found in controlled
perceptions at higher levels, even at levels related in on-going ways to
social and environmental conditions, as well as in intrinsic variables
which represent limit conditions of existence itself. I understand that
within PCT perceptions may be more strictly defined for the special
purposes and understanding of PCT. Yet I would argue that there is a case
to be made, not incomptible with PCT although not part of its theory, for
considering that ultimate meanings for human beings are related not only to
physical survival but to the individual's perception of membership, of
acceptance within a group and in the universe somehow.

of social phenomena: they seem to begin and end in the middle. Of course
that may be because I AM entering the discussion in the middle and will
leave before it is finished. But maybe the problem is more serious than
that. Maybe the problem is a preference for staying at a certain level
of analysis without asking the deeper questions.

We perhaps agree that all observations and discussions must begin from
where we are. And we are individuals enmeshed in social structures in a
physical world. We do not know enough to explain all this in terms of a
single theory which reduces everything to to terms of perception alone. As
I think I have suggested, I do not believe that such a reduction is
possible in principle.
And it seems to me incontrovertible that it has not yet been done. As for
taking discussions deeper, the case might also be argued for taking them
higher, i.e. to the higher level criteria, purposes, and evaluative
processes which set the stage for subordinate operations.

Consider this as a bit of free association that used your [B.Nevin's]
words as a jumping-off place.

By joining you in this exercise I have tried to highlight and focus upon
differences in view. This is not to negate the great wisdom that I have
found in much of Bill's writings.

From a philosophical perspective I guess I would see Bill's position as

that of a Rhard scienceS reductionist, while my position (I think) is that
of phenomenological existentialism, which it what I think is required to
place the various sciences and human arts into perspective in relation to
human nature.
I think I probably have to rest my case in that.

Cheers and best wishes.

Bruce B.


Bruce Buchanan
*We are all in this together!*