Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

March 19, 2015

Uncertainty is our friend

Filed under: General Homeland Security — by Philip J. Palin on March 19, 2015

Homeland security is a phrase widely used as a linguistic signal for a wide array of perceptions and problems… and programs emerging from those perceptions and problems.

Most of these problems pre-date September 11, 2001. Our perception of the problems, however, tends to be heavily influenced by experiences since 9/11… and since Katrina… and since our most recent significant personal experience that we label as related to homeland security.  Perhaps Sandy for you.  Haiyan for me.  Et cetera.

Human linguistics is, among other things, an expression of our cognitive tendency to categorize.  Using notional buckets we draw water from the roaring stream of experience, set aside various buckets, and give them labels.  This can often be helpful. A similar problem previously encountered becomes a possible short-cut to understanding and potentially solving a new problem.  Or a heuristic trap.

Some of us are inclined to closely observe and interact with selected buckets. We may even be motivated to separate each bucket into individual vials for more detailed consideration. We specialize. Well, I don’t. Not really. But maybe you do.

While the full stream of experience — including its rapids and cataracts — is very difficult to comprehend, it is often possible to observe interesting patterns within individual vials or buckets.  Patterns exposed outside the stream, may be more easily recognized within the stream.  In some cases we can explain and predict the emergence of such patterns. This can be very helpful.

There are, however, also instances where findings for one bucket or vial seem to be quite different from those for other buckets or vials.  Choosing which evidence to apply from one to another bucket or some aspect of the stream can require considerable time-and-effort, even trial-and-error.

It can be difficult to find the time to explore these possible patterns.  It can be challenging to invest the energy, especially when some of the findings — no matter how strong the evidence — seem speculative or even counter-intuitive. Patterns that threaten a preexisting understanding of ourselves are particularly troublesome.

I am more likely to make the investment in such exploration if, in addition to the evidence presented, there is a complementary social context.  Perhaps there is a preexisting friendship. Perhaps others involved are interesting to me for reasons that have little to do with the issue or evidence.  It makes sense to me that several studies have found peer-approval is often more important to what is learned than the teacher’s approval. (Also see Vygotsky.)

My personal readiness to be open to a novel finding is clearly related to the nature of my pre-existing relationship with the source of the report.  If my pre-existing relationship is fraught, I will be more skeptical.  If my relationship is positive, my attitude toward the novelty will also be more positive. This is not reasonable.  It is an impediment to reasoning together.  But it may be rational: prior direct experience has demonstrated the comparative utility of various sources of indirect experience. It is important to be careful regarding indirect experience.

Reason has a complicated ancestry. It has emerged in many forms.  If I have accurately understood Chris Bellavita and Jonathan Haidt they have, for much of their lives,  understood reason to be a matter of disciplined objectivity and careful weighing of evidence.

With sufficient objectivity and evidence there is (once was?) considerable confidence in finding the correct answer, correct as in how a mathematical formula might be correct (or incorrect). As Chris recently sighed… mumbled… prayed, perhaps “Reason will be resurrected and all will become clear…”

I am all in favor of objectivity and evidence.  More of each is usually helpful.  There is nothing inescapably delusional in either of these inputs.  But the supposed outcome?  That’s where the delusion begins to emerge… it seems to me.

Better and worse I will accept. More or less likely, okay.  Correct and incorrect are, however, beyond my expectation, especially for most aspects of homeland security.

If — instead of evidence — reason begins with the relational (human and conceptual) and then becomes conversational, I have found there is much more receptivity to whatever evidence is presented and less defensive posturing regarding any questions aimed at the evidence.

But if a stranger arrives on a mission to persuade me, I am predisposed to ignore, dismiss, or worse.  On a good day, I may self-correct this predisposition.  But most days I am not nearly that good.

–+–

A step back or shuffle aside: I have spent my life as an entrepreneur.  Initially by accident and then increasingly from habit, I have lived on the edge of what is known and operated mostly in the opacity of the not-yet-known.

My expectations of reason emerge from this context.

Entrepreneurship is usually collaborative.  Clients, colleagues, investors, suppliers and others are needed if the unknown is to be explored, even more if the unknown is to be made known.

There is absolutely a need to reason together about risks and opportunities, options and prospects, past experience and personal insights.   And at the heart of this process is the probability of failure.

I have failed much more than succeeded.  So has every innovator I know.  Most of us are eccentric, some are certifiably crazy, but I have never met an unreasonable entrepreneur who has been outfitted for more than one ride down the rapids.

Entrepreneurs depend on others — typically much more dependable sorts — to go along, even better: to share our enthusiasm.

Evidence is important to involving the less adventuresome.  Credible data — encouraging or not — is golden.  Self-deluding behavior is deadly.

In my experience the most dangerous participants in exploring the unknown are those who insist on living inside a bubble of their own unexamined beliefs.  The leader or flank support I crave combines courage, self-criticism, communication of where we are trying to go and reminding me why… without any temptation to certainty.

Certainty is not a friend of reason.

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8 Comments »

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 19, 2015 @ 7:15 am

Overnight I received one email expressing appreciation for Chris and I considering the issue of reason “somewhere other than a smoky bar” (or undergraduate classroom?). The writer said we had caused him to recognize unexamined — potentially troublesome — assumptions. He expects practical benefits.

A few minutes ago another email arrived pleading for me to dispense with an “abstraction beyond any solution.” Clearly the writer perceives we have abandoned any chance of practical benefit.

I am not surprised by the most recent missive. I had hoped, in fact, to offer a second post on the DHS budget. But at least so far, deciphering those financial accounts make Kant and Hegel comparatively transparent.

My final fall-back position at HLSWatch is that I’m “just a volunteer”, so I’m allowed some self-indulgence on topics of personal interest.

I am, however, probably going to soon accept a paid position to start a new online magazine. It will be focused on networks, complexity, and related topics within a homeland security frame. Amazingly, the publishers seem to want (put up with?) a poetic, philosophical angle on questions of risk.

It makes me wonder, what is the right balance? How can we give sufficient attention to both practice and precept? In Buddhist terms, how do we achieve samma-kammanta (right action, right conduct) in regard to homeland security?

In the midst of this examination of reason, any thoughts on the interplay of these two sides of, what I would argue is, the same coin?

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 19, 2015 @ 8:36 am

Good luck with the new opportunity! How many other efforts address the same issues?

And DHS has largely chosen not to address the following and wondering why?

“It will be focused on networks, complexity, and related topics within a homeland security frame”

Comment by Christopher Tingus

March 19, 2015 @ 9:09 am

http://www.academia.edu/231305/Towards_a_Political_Philosophy_of_Risk

Comment by Jeff Kaliner

March 19, 2015 @ 11:23 pm

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.” – attributed to Linji Yixuan

Comment by S. T. More

March 20, 2015 @ 3:44 am

I will say that after reading your post several times (perhaps late night reading is not best time to consider such matters), I came away with the same reaction as both of your e-mailers. I feel ill-equipped to tackle your question about how to address the interplay of right action/right conduct in the realm of Homeland Security. Nevertheless, I find persuasive the following excerpt from your post and believe it accurately describes why it is that in so many aspects of society, particularly political discourse, and discussions of how to address societal problems and homeland security challenges, reason, let alone productive discourse fails to emerge.

I am all in favor of objectivity and evidence.  More of each is usually helpful.   There is nothing inescapably delusional in either of these inputs.  But the supposed outcome?  That’s where the delusion begins to emerge… it seems to me.

Better and worse I will accept. More or less likely, okay.  Correct and incorrect are, however, beyond my expectation, especially for most aspects of homeland security.
If — instead of evidence — reason begins with the relational (human and conceptual) and then becomes conversational, I have found there is much more receptivity to whatever evidence is presented and less defensive posturing regarding any questions aimed at the evidence.

But if a stranger arrives on a mission to persuade me, I am predisposed to ignore, dismiss, or worse.  On a good day, I may self-correct this predisposition.  But most days I am not nearly that good.

I think an examination of reason, rational discourse and the importance of the relational aspects of discourse should be part of every homeland security academic program and should also be addressed in undergraduate and even high school curricula.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 20, 2015 @ 5:32 am

S.T, Bill, Mr. Tingus, Jeff… I appreciate the feedback. What S.T. calls for was once upon a time called the study of “rhetoric”… but those days are long gone.

In terms of classroom engagement: following is an excerpt comparing Kant and Hegel that may suggest the origin of the Bellavita/Haidt notion of Reason… and a credible — relational and conversational — alternative:

Immanuel Kant (1724-1804) was a strong advocate of human reason and a principal source of the modern notion of human autonomy. Because we are able to exercise reason we have a duty to be autonomous – to think through clearly and completely what we will do – and to only do what is consistent with what we have autonomously and reasonably determined. He called this the Categorical Imperative… Good habits – fulfilling our ethical duty – will enable us to be consistently reasonable in making our choices. Kantian purpose is focused on this duty… For Kant privacy is a near absolute right because only the autonomous person has the capacity for full reason. Kant wrote something close to the following (original in German):

Thus morality is the relation of actions to the autonomy of the will, so that it is possible to offer universal law through its maxims. An action that can coexist with the autonomy of the will is permitted; one that does not accord with it is forbidden. A will whose maxims necessarily harmonize with the laws of autonomy is a sacred, absolutely good will. The dependence upon the principle of autonomy of a will that is not absolutely good (moral necessitation) is obligation. This, accordingly, cannot be attributed to being sacred. The objective of an action from obligation is called duty.

Whether or not it is consistent with Kant’s original intention, the cultural manifestation of this Kantian notion is some mélange of Wordsworth’s Happy Warrior and Nietzche’s Superman and Ayn Rand’s John Galt and the consumer culture’s Marlboro Man. In most of his films John Wayne was playing a pseudo-Kantian role.

Hegel (1770-1831) disagreed with Kant. If the Categorical Imperative is fundamental to Kantian Ethics, then its Hegelian equivalent is the Dialectic and especially the interaction of the so-called thesis and antithesis. In German Hegel describes this interaction as aufheben. The German can be translated as abolish or suspend or lift-up or preserve or transcend. The most common English translation among those working with Hegel is “sublate” meaning deny, contradict, or negate. Where Kant aspires to absolute self-consistency, Hegel depends on perpetual self-contradiction.

The Dialectic emerges from Hegel’s understanding of the crucial relationship between the individual and society, the Self and the Other. This is the foundation of the Dialectic. I encounter Thou (or It). Through my relationship with you and your relationship with me, we are each aufheben… thesis and antithesis give way to synthesis. Rather than John Wayne it is Woody Allen and his ensemble casts or the complicated relationships at the core of the Star Wars franchise (especially between Luke and his father Darth Vader) or the Fellowship of the Ring which succeeds by forging shared purpose out of diverse goals. More recently Hegelian themes are clearly played out in the Harry Potter series. It is in the encounter with the Other that we have a chance to become our best Self. The individual depends on the interpersonal. We are self-actualized – fulfill our purpose – through this encounter.

For Dialectical Self-Contradiction the only consistency is aufheben. What we know – even what we are – will be succeeded. DSC very much values reason and freedom, but does not anticipate pure versions of either. The individual is fulfilled through active participation in civil society and the institutions of the modern state. Problems are solved. Goals are pursued. The intellect is engaged. The old is succeeded by the new. Privacy is valuable, but is less essential than for Kant. Indeed, a meaningful encounter with the Other necessarily involves some loss of privacy. For Hegel freedom is expressed in community. For Kant the community is more often a distraction or challenge to freedom.

Comment by William R. Cumming

March 20, 2015 @ 7:52 am

Thanks Phil! Wish I had Kant and Hegel and maybe Heidigger more at my fingertips. Any modern translations recommended?

Comment by Philip J. Palin

March 20, 2015 @ 8:09 am

Bill: They are all tough, even in the best translations. In my judgment the complexity of language is purposeful… but paradoxically intended to be generous. Each of them (though I sometimes wonder about Heidigger) are trying to really think with us. They are crafting humanistic algorithms… with just about as much procedural detail as anything since COBAL.

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