Michael G. Johnson

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It has seemed to me recently that there are an unusual number of people with very strongly-held beliefs that appear (from my personal perspective) to be either ill-considered, misguided, illogical, or even deranged. This perception may be a reflection of the current world and national climate, or it may simply be a product of synchronicity or what Eric Klinger (1977) calls a "current concern"--whenever you have some unresolved goal (such as finishing this paper) it serves as a kind of attentional device which makes anything related to that goal more immediately figural than it might otherwise be. Some examples of such beliefs that come to mind range from the seemingly alien world views of the anti-government survivalists and the arguments of those on one side of the creation-evolution debate (which doesn't seem to go away in Tennessee!) to some of the positions expressed in the rhetoric of the current political season. I would also include more esoteric beliefs such as the notion that there is only one true reading of such documents as the Bible and the United States Constitution. My intention is not to argue the truth or falsity of such strongly-held positions, but instead to acknowledge their existence in the context of a discussion of ethics and values in the university curriculum. Beliefs imply values, and when people who believe strongly in the truth of their own beliefs talk about values, they mean "my" values.

That people should hold such positions is not surprising. Fear and uncertainty are closely related. The human mind seems to abhor a conceptual vacuum, and people generally experience a sense of discomfort or even fright when faced with an unexplained fact or event. As a child I had an unreasonable and irrational fear of spiders. I didn't know anything about them, but they looked "scary" and I was probably affected by my mother's rather extreme emotional response to them. One day a friend of the family, who was a biologist, decided that I needed an attitude change. He gave me a few books on spiders, took me on a mini-field trip, and by the end of the day they didn't bother me any more. Knowledge helps, and if it doesn't exist we have to create it. John Dewey began his 1929 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh (ultimately published under the title The Quest for Certainty) with the following observation:

Man who lives in a world of hazards is compelled to seek for security. He has sought to attain it in two ways. One of them began with an attempt to propitiate the powers which environ him and determine his destiny. It expressed itself in supplication, sacrifice, ceremonial rite and magical cult. In time . . . The sacrifice of a contrite heart was deemed more pleasing than that of bulls and oxen; the inner attitude of reverence and devotion more desirable than external ceremonies . . . putting his will . . . on the side of the powers which dispense fortune.

The other course is to invent arts and by their means turn the powers of nature to account; man constructs a fortress out of the very conditions and forces which threaten him.... This is the method of changing the world through action, as the other is changing the self in idea. (Dewey 1929/1960, p.3)

The first kind of search for security ultimately becomes the kind of knowledge and belief that we associate with religion, and the rationalist tradition in philosophy following the enlightenment. The second is that associated with the empirically-based knowledge and belief of the sciences and the social sciences. These are essentially the same as what William James (1896/1956) called absolutist and empiricist ways of knowing in an essay entitled "The will to believe" three decades earlier. There has always been a tension between the more certain attitude toward belief of the former (absolutist) approach and the more relativist attitude of the latter (empiricist), and the increasing complexity of the modern world only serves to increase that tension.

The twentieth century has witnessed a great deal in both intellectual and geopolitical realms which simultaneously place pressure on the certainty of knowledge--or even the possibility of certainty--while increasing the human yearning for it. Various wars have called into question the supremacy of human rationality and, particularly in the case of the second world war, required that we re-examine the nature of evil. In physics Heisenberg's uncertainty principle, Schrodinger's cat, and the Copenhagen and many-worlds interpretations of quantum physics leave us with the conclusion that a complete understanding of physical reality lies beyond the capabilities of rational thought (Zukav, 1979). This idea made Einstein exceedingly uncomfortable, and he died still longing for a comprehensible universe. In mathematics we have Godel's incompleteness theorem, and the application of non-Euclidean geometry to Einstein's theory of relativity was seen as the final refutation of Kant's assertion of the a priori truth of Euclidean geometry. In philosophy the later Wittgenstein's ( 1958) attacks on the foundations of positivism (especially in the area of language and meaning) had similar effects. These are all fields in which I can claim little expertise, so I would like to turn to two areas which I know a little more about: law and the social sciences.

Without attempting anything like a comprehensive history of jurisprudence-which is well beyond the scope of this paper-- the traditional view of law is one or another version of a formalist or positivist one (Posner, 1990). This view essentially suggests that the law is like a deductive system in which the appropriate application of logic to the right premises will ultimately reach the "right" conclusion. It presumes that there is an ultimately correct conclusion which will be the inevitable result if the system is operating appropriately. Although few practicing attorneys would espouse this version if pushed, it is a useful fiction for defending the legitimacy of the system, and comes very close to the view of law I find in my psychology and law students.

About the time that psychology began to emerge as an independent social science discipline at the end of the 19th century, a more realistic jurisprudence began to emerge in the writings of Holmes (1881) and others. Although it takes many forms, this realistic jurisprudence emphasized the treatment of judges as ordinary human beings rather than objective logic machines, and also recognized the embedding of law in social context. Realistic jurisprudence was heavily influenced by developments taking place in the social sciences, and by philosophical pragmatism-which in the hands of James, Dewey, Pierce and others was more or less the same thing. The flavor is captured very succinctly in Levi's An Introduction to Legal Reasoning (1949), published just after the second world war, in which he describes the process as follows:

It is important that the mechanism of legal reasoning should not be concealed by its pretense. The pretense is that the law is a system of known rules applied by a judge; the pretense has long been under attack. In an important sense legal rules are never clear, and if a rule had to be clear before it could be imposed, society would be impossible. ... The steps [in legal reasoning are these: similarity is seen between cases; next the rule of law inherent in the first case is announced; then the rule of law is made applicable to the second case. This is a method of reasoning necessary for the law, but it has characteristics which under other circumstances might be considered imperfections.

These characteristics become evident if the legal process is approached as though it were a method of applying general rules of law to diverse facts-in short, as though the doctrine of precedent meant that general rules, once properly determined, remained unchanged, and then were applied, albeit imperfectly in later cases. If this were the doctrine, it would be disturbing to find that the rules change from case to case and are remade with each case. Yet this change in the rules is the indispensable dynamic quality of law. It occurs because the scope of a rule of law, and therefore its meaning, depends upon a determination of what facts will be considered similar to those present when the rule was first announced. The finding of similarity or difference is the key step in the legal process . . . .

The determination of similarity or difference is the function of each judge.... Therefore it appears that the kind of reasoning involved in the legal process is one in which the classification changes as the classification is made. (p. 1-3)

As we shall see, Levi's analysis is perfectly consistent with modern cognitive psychological views concerning the nature of human categorization. After making his case (rather convincingly, I think) by examining the process in the context of examples of the historical development of the common law, and statutory and constitutional law, Levi concludes his treatise with some words which ought to be required reading for those engaged in judicial confirmations and political criticisms of judicial decisions:

The contrast between logic and the actual legal method is a disservice to both. Legal reasoning has a logic of its own. Its structure fits it to give meaning to ambiguity and to test constantly whether the society has come to see new differences or similarities. Social theories and any other changes in society will be relevant when the ambiguity has to be resolved for a particular case.... This is the only kind of a system which will work when people do not agree completely. The loyalty of the community is directed toward the institution in which it participates. The words change to receive the content which the community gives to them. The effort to find complete agreement before the institution goes to work is meaningless. It is to forget the very purpose for which the institution of legal reasoning has been fashioned. This should be remembered as the world community suffers in the absence of law. (p. 104)

These sentiments are echoed over and over again in the modern history of jurisprudence. Writing three-quarters of a century ago in his book The Nature of the Judicial Process, former Supreme Court justice Benjamin Cardozo (1921) wrote of an ideal legal system, which

if it were attainable, would be a code at once so flexible and so minute, as to supply in advance for every conceivable situation the just and fitting rule. But Life is too complex to bring the attainment of this ideal within the compass of human powers. (p. 143)

At the end of his survey of judicial methods, Cardozo concludes (a little sadly, I think) with the lesson

that the whole subject matter of jurisprudence is more plastic, more malleable, the molds less definitively cast, the bounds of right and wrong less preordained and constant, than most of us, without the aid of some such analysis, have been accustomed to believe . . . . We are tending more and more toward an appreciation of the truth that, after all, there are few rules; there are chiefly standards and degrees . . . . So also the duty of a judge becomes itself a question of degree . . . He must balance all his ingredients, his philosophy, his logic, his analogies, his history, his customs, his sense of right, and all the rest, and . . . must determine, as wisely as he can, which weight shall tip the scales. If this seems a weak and inconclusive summary, I am not sure that the fault is mine. (p. 161-2)

In a recent and very thoughtful monograph entitled The Language of Judges, Lawrence Solan (1993), who is both a linguist and a practicing attorney, analyzed a number of cases in which judges rely on linguistic or quasi-linguistic principles to justify their holdings in written appellate opinions. He concludes

As the cases show . . . judges regularly take advantage of these interpretive principles to justify their decisions, even when the application is highly suspect from a linguistics perspective. Judges do try to do justice, but at times feel constrained to play games with language in order to justify the justice that they do, which undermines the very legitimacy for which they strive. (p. 92)
. . . all of this does not happen because judges lack talent or integrity. Rather it happens because judges are responsible for wielding enormous power, and are obligated to demonstrate the fitness and firmness of the conclusions which they reach. (p. 171)
Judges will continue to find themselves under pressure to write opinions based on interpretive principles, knowing that they could have, with equal force justified the opposite decision using the same or other interpretive principles. (p. 187)

As a case in point, at a recent meeting of the Law and Society association, Solan presented an analysis of a number of Justice Scalia's cases which demonstrated his (Scalia's) use of diametrically opposed principles of linguistic interpretation in his judicial opinions. The inescapable conclusion is that a clever enough justice can argue for just about any outcome of a case--within certain bounds of course. Both Cardozo and Solan argue that this is not an evil thing in and of itself, but that the process would be better served if judges were candid about what they were doing.

I would like to turn from the realm of law to the social sciences--and especially psychology, although I am not sure that the distinction is a very clear one since law and social sciences seem to have a natural affinity for each other, since both deal with the vicissitudes of human beings and their relations with each other.

Herbert Simon won a Nobel Prize in economics primarily for his work challenging many of the traditional economic models which assume that human beings are rational, and are capable of seeking optimum solutions in their own utilitarian self-interest. One of Simon's key concepts is that of "bounded rationality" (Simon, 1981). Simon argues that the limits of our human rational capabilities, even in combination with our increasingly powerful computational tools, make it impossible to seek optimal solutions because in very complex environments (like a global economy, for example) we can't even know what they are. As Simon says

The difficulty with the assumptions underlying the rational expectations hypothesis is that, although they are empirical assumptions, almost no empirical evidence supports them. Indeed our knowledge of the very narrow limits of human rationality must dispose us to doubt that business firms, investors, or consumers possess either the knowledge or the computational ability that would be required to carry out the rational expectations strategy. . . . We know that in principle the ability of human beings to form expectations about future events and about the behavior of their fellows is a potential source of instability for economic equilibria. Since we have little empirical knowledge about how people do in fact form expectations about the future, it is hard to choose . . . among the models that are currently proposed by competing economic theories . . . (p. 47)

If we can't find optimal solutions, what do we do? In order to answer this, Simon invented the term satisficing to replace optimizing. In Simon's words

What a person cannot do he will not do, no matter how much he wants to do it. . . . exact solutions to the larger optimization problems of the real world are simply not within reach or sight. In the face of this complexity [we] turn to procedures that find good enough answers to questions whose best answers are unknowable.... economic man is in fact a satisficer, a person who accepts "good enough" alternatives, not because he prefers less to more but because he has no choice. (p. 36)

Simon basically argues that the best human products are the result of a process that accepts bounded rationality, and adopts procedures which ensure satisficing solutions. He cites the successes of the space program begun in the 1960's as such a product, and the United States Constitution as a document which provides such a process (Simon,1981, p. 162-163).

Although Simon began his academic career as an economist, since the middle 1960's he has been regarded as a psychologist, and it is to my own field that I would like to turn.

There is a trend in current psychological research that suggests there are real and inherent cognitive limits on our ability to acquire certain truth. Nearly a decade ago Donald Broadbent (1987) made the following observation:

Psychological opinion tends to sway between a view that people are almost infinitely flexible and view that there are definite and unchangeable fundamental mechanisms that always work in the same way and set limits of flexibility. (p.73)

This is an expression of the same tension between certainty and uncertainty that we have seen in other domains, and becomes most clearly figural in the search for cognitive structures--the categories and schemas which form the cognitive basis for knowing and believing. The evidence for the ''infinitely flexible" that Broadbent alluded to is growing, and comes from a variety of sources.

For many years, one of the great goals of cognitive research has been to understand the structure of the natural categories which we carry around in our heads, and which form the bases for the underlying semantic structure of word meaning. This, of course, presumes the fact that we actually have categories which are stable over time and contexts, and which have some sort of cognitive instantiation or structure which we can discover. There seems, now, to be ample evidence that this presumption is false. This is a great blow to cognitive scientists, especially those interested in the representation of knowledge in artificial intelligence environments (including natural language processing), because it renders the whole enterprise problematic at best.

It appears as though people enjoy almost unlimited freedom in their ability to form and break up categories. There is a principle which has been articulated by several categorization scholars over the last century, but which some of us at the University of Tennessee call Todd's Law after one of our former colleagues. It goes something like this: given any two things in the universe, they will be similar in that there will be at least some feature or attribute that they share in common; and, given any two things in the universe, they will be dissimilar in that there is at least one feature or attribute which makes them distinguishable. If this is so, then any two things can be lumped together to form a category or can be distinguished by splitting them into two categories. Murphy and Medin (1985), for example, note all of the features which plums and lawnmowers have in common; over a century ago, William James (1890) noted the ease with which a puff of cigar smoke and a dollar bill can be seen as members of the same category.

The implication is that word meaning is also, by its very nature, situational and flexible (Johnson,1975; Johnson and Malgady, 1980). How do we account, for example, for that fact that people can readily interpret randomly generated metaphors like "People are Doors" (Fraser, 1979; Johnson and Malgady, 1980), which might traditionally be considered anomalous or nonsensical? Or demonstrations which show that people can easily comprehend algorithmically generated nonsense sentences such as "Total coffee loses eternal spots." (Pollio and Burns,1977)?

One interesting demonstration of conceptual flexibility is a task in which subjects are asked to solve randomly constructed analogies. Using one version of this task, I (Johnson, 1975) had subjects solve incomplete randomly generated analogies of the form "Horse is to Girl as Sun is to _____________." The participants, who were asked to supply the missing fourth term plus a rationale, were able to generate valid analogy solutions in almost all cases. After describing a slightly different version of the analogy "game", which we worked on together, James Deese (1974-76) concluded:

The game can be played. A knowledgeable person can, sometimes with effort, always justify the analogy he is given, no matter how bizarre the juxtaposition of terms. The fact has profound implications for meaning and metaphor. It tells us that any concept, as well as the lexical representation of that concept, can never be characterized by a limited set of features. (p. 212)

The most important implication of the fact that people can solve random-analogy problems, as well as other language flexibility demonstrations, is that words, and so presumably the conceptual categories that words are taken to represent are always meaningfully relatable to each other. A stronger implication is that categories don't exist at all.

After presenting a series of experiments demonstrating that the structure of categories is unstable over time (within individuals), across individuals, across contexts, and that people seem to be able to make up new categories on the spot, Lawrence Barsalou (1987) concluded that the only viable explanation is that we don't have categories in the usual sense. Instead, we generate them on the spot, based upon our knowledge of the world, to serve whatever purposes the situation requires. This, in fact, seems to be the emerging dominant position with respect to categorization theory (Medin, 1989), and is quite consistent with the various current versions of the idea that reality, as we know it, is constructed rather than discovered. The idea of a constructed reality takes many different forms, and rather than attempt a definitive survey I would like to look at just a few which I find interesting.

Stephen Pepper (1942) began the preface of his survey of metaphysics entitled World Hypotheses by saying "The origin of this book goes 'way back to a consuming desire to know the truth" and describes it as "the solution that seems best to one man, living in the first half of the twentieth century, who has passed through most of the cognitive experiences we have been subject to: religious creed, philosophical dogma, science [modern physics], art, and social revaluation." He begins by distinguishing dogmatism (a willingness to believe more than you have cognitive grounds or evidence for belief), utter skepticism (an unwillingness to believe as much as you have cognitive grounds or evidence for), and partial skepticism (a willingness to accept and believe as much as you have cognitive grounds for, and no more). After deciding (in a Goldilocks and the three bears resolution) that the latter is the only intellectually honest stance, he surveyed the various metaphysical explanation or belief systems that have existed in the history of thought. He concluded that there only four basic types (which he called world hypotheses) that are partially adequate, in that their truth (with a little 't'; he concludes that big T truth is beyond human cognitive reach) can be assessed using the partial skepticism standard. He labels these formism (explanation by categorization), mechanism (causal explanation as we associate it with the natural sciences), contextualism (explanation through the analysis of conscious experience), and organicism (essentially the same as modern structuralism). Late in his career he identified a fifth partially adequate world hypothesis which involved intentional explanation. He also identified two world hypotheses, animism and mysticism, which he calls inadequate since they require a dogmatic stance for belief.

He postulates that each of these world hypotheses is based on what he calls a root metaphor--something from our experience that we use as the starting point for the construction of an explanatory system. All of these root metaphors are based in our experience of the world, but they represent different experiences, and so they generate fundamentally different explanatory systems. Each has its own theory of truth which allow us to assess the adequacy of explanatory systems which it generates, and fundamental weaknesses which prevent any of them from achieving "ultimate" truth. No one of these world hypotheses is better than another, they each have their strengths and weakness, but they all provide means for achieving "satisfactory" explanations (in Simon's sense). Which of these we adopt will determine, however, how we see and understand the world, and so each is a means of constructing different metaphysical realities.

In a series of monographs, beginning with their collaborative effort in Metaphors We Live By (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980), George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have explored the cognitive consequences of what they call experiential reality, especially as it affects language and thought. They argue that our conceptual system is fundamentally metaphorical in nature, and that the essence of metaphor is understanding and experiencing one thing in terms of another. One of their trademark examples is the basic conceptual metaphor ARGUMENT IS WAR. This is a typical example in that metaphors are usually grounded in such a way that the metaphorical target (that which is to be talked about or specified--in this case ARGUMENT) is more abstract or less clearly known, understood or delineated than the metaphoric source (that which is used to explain or specify--in this case WAR). Metaphoric sources are usually more familiar in our experience in the world, and are more likely to concrete.

ARGUMENT IS WAR as a metaphor structures the concept of argument by highlighting certain aspects and hiding certain aspects, which are revealed in everyday expressions like

His criticisms were right on target.
They shot down all of my arguments. etc.

The metaphor highlights the combative aspects of argument while hiding other aspects that might be revealed by expressions based on other argument metaphors like ARGUMENT IS A BUILDING (His argument was carefully constructed. ), ARGUMENT IS A JOURNEY (They arrived at a disturbing conclusion), or ARGUMENT IS A CONTAINER (Your argument has holes in it).

Metaphors can either be conventional or used to create new meanings. ARGUMENT IS AN ELEVATOR is unusual, and perhaps not very satisfactory, but it might generate expressions like

He took the express while the rest of us were stuck on the stairs.
He rode the argument all the way to the top.

The random generation of metaphors referred to earlier creates some metaphors which are good or compelling and many of which are not, but all are interpretable. Metaphors can be used as teaching metaphors and used to explain or let others see things in a new way, or as a learning device which causes us to see things in a new way. In either case, metaphors have consequences. Trial lawyers realize the importance of seizing control of the language in a case, as do politicians in their campaign rhetoric Married couples in which spouses share metaphors of marriage are probably in better shape than those who have quite different ones. As Lakoff and Johnson (1980) put it

If a new metaphor enters the conceptual system that we base our actions on, it will alter that conceptual system and the perceptions and actions the system gives rise to. Much of cultural change arises from the introduction of new metaphorical concepts and the loss of old ones.... Since much of our social reality is understood in metaphorical terms, and since our conception of the physical is partly metaphorical, metaphor plays a very significant role in determining what is real for us. (p. 145-6)

For Lakoff and Johnson the truth of a metaphor is clearly a pragmatic issue in which "We understand a statement as being true in a given situation when our understanding of the statement fits our understanding of the situation closely enough for our purposes." (p. 179) This is not far from Alexander Pope's definition of poetic truth as "What oft was thought, but ne'er so well express'd." Arbib and Hesse (1986) examine the same issue using Lakoff and Johnson's own example:

Lakoff and Johnson examined many examples of extended metaphors such as "Argument is War". . . Suppose this extended metaphor comes to be replaced in philosophical contexts by "Argument is logic." . . . To philosophers, this may seem the only natural and "correct" way of talking about argument, but it depends on metaphor just as the first example did and is equally revealing of a certain set of value judgments about what argument is . . . . To make explicit the ramifications of metaphor is to engage in critique, evaluation, and perhaps replacement. Metaphor is potentially revolutionary.

In such cases, the question "Which metaphor is true?" cannot expect a single or simple answer. There is no "fact" to which "argument" corresponds that has the natural character of "war" or "logic" . . . The extended metaphors are not in that sense true or false but are appropriate or inappropriate, more or less revealing, more or less useful, depending upon the context of application and their coherence with evaluative judgments made about particular situations.... if we look at the implications of recent discussions of the theory ladenness of observation, of realism and the use of scientific models, we find that the use of language in scientific theory conforms closely to the metaphoric model. Scientific revolutions are in fact metaphoric revolutions, and theoretical explanation should be seen as metaphoric redescription of the domain of phenomena. (p. 156-6)

With Michael Arbib and Mary Hesse's book The Construction of Reality (1986) we come full circle in a sense, because this book is based upon their 1983 Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh, just over one-half century after Dewey's 1929 Gifford Lectures. The Gifford Lectures in Natural Theology, established in 1886, are based on a deed of foundation which specifies that the lectures deal with issues having to do with the relationship between science and religion. In this book, two eminent scholars with broad-ranging interests in science, mathematics, philosophy and cognitive science--one an atheist and one an Anglican--try to probe the relationship between religious and secular beliefs, using schema theory as their unifying theme.

Schemas, for Arbib and Hesse, are knowledge representations which guide the construction of reality, and shapes our knowledge of society, science and God. To a large extent, the formation of these schemata is a developmental process which is guided by social and cultural convention, which is, in turn the product of the same developmental process in society. In Arbib and Hesse's words

To the extent that the formation of these unifying schemas is a social process, we may understand the diversity of the gods or pantheons of different societies or the differing emphases of scientific knowledge and research in different communities and at different times. The scientist would insist that the differences of knowledge reflect the imperfection of varying approximations to a common reality. The theist (but not the atheist) might assert that the same is true of different religions. (p. x-xi)

However acquired, schemata, whether secular or religious, can and do undergo transformation both within individuals and societies. However, the rules may be a bit different, and the degree of resistance to transformation may also distinguish secular and religious schemata. The point is, whether the reality under discussion is physical or transcendent, it is still constructed.

Although I have tried to make a case for the cognitive inevitability of conceptual relativism, there still remain two issues. The first is what to do with the absolutist-relativist antinomy in practical terms, and the second is to answer the question of what all of this has to do with ethics and the college curriculum? There is a sense in which the answers to both of these questions is the same, and that answer is not particularly satisfying. After reading a number of treatises on this subject, beginning with William James"'The Will to Believe"--which was a lecture given before the Yale and Brown philosophy clubs in 1896--I am left with the impression that they all conclude with a whimper rather than a bang. But perhaps a whimper is all there is.

Faced with the fact that certainty and ultimate truth may lie beyond the scope of human rationality, but left with the natural human yearning for the absolute, how do we sail between the Scylla of relativism and the Charydis of claiming knowledge of final reality?

One of the common icons for the dangers of uncertainty is Shakespeare's Hamlet. Although the simplistic (cartoon) version of Hamlet makes him out to be something of a vacillating wimp, Hamlet is much more complex and sympathetic than that--some have even suggested that he speaks in the voice of Shakespeare himself (Bradley, 1904/1965). When Shakespeare has Hamlet say such things as

There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamed of in your philosophy.


There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.

he is really uttering some very modern sentiments. If Hamlet's tragic flaw is indecision (and I'm not sure that is really the case), is it worse than the flaws which bring down tragic figures like Othello (who loved not wisely but too well) who act too decisively on the basis of flawed certainties? The negative barbs aimed at both Clinton and Dole in this endless political season are often based on indecision or the practice of situation politics without firm ideas. Given some of the ideas espoused by the alternatives, I wonder if that is such a bad thing.

Simon (1981) proposes a plan for an optimum curriculum for training students for the demands of social planning and design--a practical curriculum, if you will. Two of the five concrete suggestions that he makes involve dealing with ambiguity and uncertainty. The first concerns bounded rationality, and advocates teaching the meaning of rationality in situations where the complexity of the environment is immensely greater than the computational powers of humans and their tools. The second stresses the need to face complex problems with an eye toward satisficing rather than optimizing. His view is very compatible with the concepts of both evolution and creativity--to foster variation in the hopes that ideas with survival value will emerge. As he puts it

Our age is one in which people are not reluctant to express their pessimism and anxieties. It is true that humanity is faced with many problems. It has always been but perhaps not always with such keen awareness of them as we have today. We might be more optimistic if we recognized that we do not have to solve all of these problems. Our essential task--a big enough one to be sure--is simply to keep open the options for the future or perhaps even to broaden them a bit by creating new variety and new niches. (p. 190-1)

The one unifying theme which runs through every commentary that I have seen on the subject emphasizes the need to recognize the fact of intellectual pluralism, and the necessity of ambiguity and uncertainty in our mental lives, and then to get on with it as best we can. I will close with the words of William James:

But if we are empiricists, if we believe that no bell tolls to let us know for certain when truth is in our grasp, then it seems a piece of idle fantasticality to preach so solemnly our duty of waiting for the bell. Indeed we may wait if we will, --I hope you do not think that I am denying that,--but if we do so, we do so at our peril as much as if we believed. In either case we act, taking our life in our hands. No one of us ought to issue vetoes to the other, nor should we bandy words of abuse. We ought on the contrary, delicately and profoundly to respect one anothers mental freedom: then only shall we bring about the intellectual republic . . . then only shall we live and let live, . . . in speculative as well as in practical things. (James, 1896, p. 30)


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Copyright Michael G. Johnson

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