Friday, March 4, 2016

An Alternative to Liberalism, Part 2, Post 2: An Alternative View of Autonomy

In the previous post, I discussed the rise of autonomy theory in liberal social philosophy in the early Enlightenment.  This era also gives us the beginnings of modernism also as we saw.  But the Modernist view has proven to have less staaying power than the Aristotelian view before it, or the oral-formulaic view before that.

One basic concept that has been very universal is what anthropologists call an isomorphism, or a basic homological similarity in how we see different things, between the individual, the society, and the world.  This isomorphism is deeply pervasive to the point where it survives, basically, today.  If we think of the individual as basically a complicated machine, we can think about governments and bureaucracies as products of high engineering, and the universe as the greatest machine of all.  This idea, which rose to prominence also during the Enlightenment, displaced an earlier, more organic view of the individual (the zoodiacal man and other Renaissance ideas).

The earlier views tended to be similar in some ways to Plato's model in Timaeus.  Modern astrologers and skeptics of astrology usually misunderstand the logic that astrology had in such a system.  If, as Plato suggested, we are basically the same as the stars, then through this isomorphism we can divine patterns in our own lives by looking at the stars.    This same basic view underlies all traditional methods of divination as well.  The same model applies to all and the state of one model can infer the state of another model.

The problem with the machine metaphor is that while it is useful for scientific inquiry, it doesn't actually match our scientific knowledge very well once one gets to systems more complex than organic chemistry.  Even in molecular biology, "always" means "most of the time" and "laws" are peppered with exceptions.  By the time you get to general biology or ecology things are downright non-mechanistic.

Anthropology outgrew the mechanistic views in the shift from structuralism to post-structuralism but this is also a shift towards a sort of individualism, recognizing that individuals represent a fluid center and creative force that structuralism cannot well address.

In this essay I will suggest a shift in view from seeing these things as as machines to seeing them as ecological communities and the implications from a communications theory/computer science perspective on such a shift.

The Rise of Permacuture and an Ecological Archetype

Permaculture is a growing movement towards reinventinng food productions by leveraging ecological models in place of our farms and gardens.  The basic idea of permaculture is that instead of fighting against ecology when it comes to weeds, insects, and soil nutrition, we can leverage how mature ecosystems work and thus produce a lot more food with a lot fewer chemical and energy inputs.  The animals and plans become productive, mutually supporting pieces of the whole.  Rather than leveraging machinery, we can leverage even pests to produce more and better food more easily.

Permaculture takes a fundamental cultural shift to make work.  traditionally most of our crops are annuals but permaculture leverages perennials to a much greater extent.  Large fields of wheat or tomatoes have to give way to something else (perhaps food forests of fruit and nut trees).  Plants are layered in space and time.  One must think both diachronically (across time) and in terms of mutually supporting roles.

As permiculturalists are keen to remind us, all problems can be solved in a garden.  The ecology becomes the basic archetype, replacing the great machine, and consequently there is a push for a return to a more organic, less energy-intensive, less socially isolating society.

But beyond this, an ecological archetype (i.e. seeing the human, the universe, the society as being basically ecological in shape) is applicable in a variety of fields.  Instead of seeing bacterial infections as mechanical in nature (the mere introduction of a pathogen) we can see them as ecological in nature (a pathogen population blooming because of other ecological factors).  A shift to use of probiotics preventatively is also part of such a shift.

Similarly, while liberal philosophers tended to reduce society to a machine, an ecological model provides a richer ability to arrange the pieces into mutually supporting roles.  Family and organs of local community (religious groups, guilds, and other structures) become fundamental and larger governmental structures become subordinate to these.

The CAP Theorem, Distributed Computing, and Consistency in society

One of the major developments in computer science has been the CAP Theorem in the face of the rise of distributed computing (first in scientific computing and later in other disciplines as well).

The CAP Theorem takes its name from the initials which provide three desirable characteristics of distributed computer networks:  Consistency (all network nodes having access to the same information at the same time), Availability (the system responding to all requests), and Partition Tolerance (the ability to successfully respond to requests in the event of some information not being available).  The CAP Theorem demonstrates that assuring all three is impossible, and that any two are incompatible with the third.

While it has its roots in computing, the CAP Theorem is really about communication and information and thus is applicable to human society as well.  There are naturally differences, also, that must be taken into account -- the CAP Theorem assumes a sort of communication that is impossible for humans to achieve.  While computers communicate precisely and losslessly, humans communicate imprecisely and in a lossy way.  We don't encode and decode information.  We try to reconstruct what the other will think and then communicate in this way, and then when receive communications we try to reconstruct what the other meant.

This is largely because human language is bootstrapped on environmental learning.  All of our native language is learned through inferring what other people probably mean and this means that no two people speak quite the same language.  This process is also responsible for linguistic drift and some other linguistic phenomena.

The lossy nature of human communications has a number of significant implications for the application of the CAP Theorem to human society.  Consistency is fundamentally mechanical and not fundamentally human.  We can approach consistency, or the illusion of it, but the only hard consistency controls possible involve centralizing power in the hands of a single individual (because in CAP terms, an individual cannot be inconsistent with him or herself).

A second point is that human language is a life-long learning process.  We learn how to effectively communicate with people we work with over time and therefore consistency is more readily possible on a small scale than a large scale.

Human civilization thus depends on tolerating inconsistency in CAP terms and this tolerance must increase as the scope of society increases.

The CAP Theorem, in context with a solid understanding of linguistics, thus provides a solid mathematical proof that individual and local autonomy are necessary for productive ventures in human society.  In areas where human society cannot do without (economic production, reproduction, etc) individual and community autonomy are fundamentally needed.

Of course this autonomy must be balanced with other social concerns, such as the need for mutual support (which we would not survive infancy or into old age without).  But we can prove both a need for autonomy and duty and this piece is about the former, which the CAP Theorem gives us.  But viewed from this perspective, autonomy is a functional requirement that human society simply cannot exist without.

Subsidiarity and Autonomy

The final point to add to the mix is the idea of subsidiarity.  Subsidiarity (as Justice Breyer reminds us in many of his interviews) is a European concept, not an American one.  It holds that the best level of society to tackle a problem is the smallest one capable of tackling it..  Subsidiarity is in theory a basic part of the European Union (added after Denmark voted not to join to appease their fears), but in practice more a part of Scandinavian society, where it is called the Nearness Principle, than in Continental Europe.  While the idea was first formulated in a papal encyclical (Rerum Novarum) in the 19th century, the idea expresses something of a general experience of agrarian, rural countries and even the functional efforts at dual sovereignty in the early US.  The idea is more tightly tied to classical philosophy than it is specifically Catholic and this is probably a reason for its general success.

It's worth noting that even Chairman Mao at one point said that China should see the United States as a model for why decentralization of political power is necessary and should not try to emulate a single strongly centralized government.  So the idea of decentralization as good  has ranged from early America to Communist China, to Scandinavia, to the Catholic Church.   I think this reflects a sense by which the CAP Theorem's limits in fact really do come into play.

The rationale in Rerum Novarum is probably the place to start in understanding the idea of decentralization as a moral matter however.  The basic idea is that theft needs not be material to be damaging.  One can rob someone of dignity just as surely as one can rob someone of money.   A key aspect of dignity is an ability to accomplish good things for one's family, community, and society.  Robbing someone of that ability to accomplish things is thus a very deep and serious form of theft.  As anyone who has been told to do a job and then micromanaged in doing it knows, this is a serious problem.  Of course the CAP Theorem shows us that micromanagement not only feels insulting but is actually harmful so it is no exaggeration to call it evil, but this is a more recent development.

The idea then is that it is a serious matter of theft to take a task out of the hands of an individual who is doing the work capably and put it in the hands of another.  This is what I call work ownership, the idea that a task and the accomplishment that comes with it, should be treated as property (how fruits of the labor should be divided is separate however, since one never really accomplishes anything entirely alone).

What applies to an individual also applies to a group.  For a larger group to take over a task a smaller group is capable of accomplishing is itself also a theft.  Therefore there is a moral necessity in keeping this accomplishment as personal as possible and therefore larger levels of social organization (including government) should work to coordinate and harmonize rather than accomplish on their own what the lower levels are capable of doing.

This echoes Aristotle's views on the roots of the polis.  According to Aristotle, individuals get married and have children thus forming households, and households come together to tackle joint problems and thus form the polis or community.  Larger levels of the state exist because smaller levels come together to address joint problems, which is an inversion of the engineered order (where you start with the large and subdivide).

These all form parts of a more organic, comprehensive view of autonomy which affects both individuals and groups.

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