In which Hegel and Hofstadter help us set expectations concerning the problem of governance.
I. Naming things is hard
In his Pulitzer-prize winning magnum opus, Gödel, Escher, Bach, cognitive scientist Douglas Hofstadter discusses the challenge of naming things.
Naming things is hard, Hofstadter explains, because every name given to a thing is inevitably simpler than the thing itself. A name is a summary, and names are chosen to highlight the most important aspects (according to… someone) of the thing being named. Of course, highlighting certain aspects of something necessarily means downplaying other aspects of that thing.
Naming things is hard, then, because there is always something a name leaves out, and that omission usually ends up being important at some point down the road. A “good” name is one which gets us most of the way there, most of the time — but no name is perfect. The same idea underlies the distinction between “the map and the territory”: a map is always a summary of the territory, a reduction of the dimensionality; a perfect map would be the size of the territory, and thus not useful. A “perfect” name would be as complicated as the thing itself, and thus impossible to speak!
It’s worth noting that that naming gets harder as the thing becomes more complex. For example, a variable named
time-delay is fairly complete, just like the title of “goalie” is a fairly good description of that role on a football team. But what about a job like “president”? Or the name of a person? When dealing with more complicated things, naming gets harder.
Hofstadter plays with this idea in one of his many humorous dialogues between Achilles and the Tortoise, in which the former attempts to solve a puzzle posed by the latter, with little success:
Achilles: Confound it all! Every time you give one of my answers a NAME, it seems to signal the imminent shattering of my hopes that that answer will satisfy you. Why don’t we just leave this Answer Schema nameless?
Tortoise: We can hardly do that, Achilles. We wouldn’t have any way to refer to it without a name. And besides, there is something inevitable and rather beautiful about this particular Answer Schema. It would be quite ungraceful to leave it nameless!
Achilles has an intuition for the answer — he somehow grasps the essence of the puzzle — but every time he actually has to transcend amorphous intuition and commit formally to an answer in words, that formalization contains some inherent limitation. This is the essential insight of Hofstadter’s work: anytime we attempt to formalize something complex (“give it a name”), that formalization necessarily leaves something out. This is because formalizations are fixed summaries of the things themselves, and can never capture things in their entirety.
In a certain quite profound sense, the daily headache of programmers naming variables is essentially connected to Russell and Whitehead’s valiant but vain effort to place mathematics on solid, formal foundations (it is highly suggestive that Whitehead spent the rest of his career developing a metaphysics of dynamism known as “Process Philosophy”).
The truth is that we are limited beings attempting to understand a universe more complex than our powers of comprehension. We can incrementally expand our horizons, and iteratively improve our understanding, but we will never quite reach the boundaries.
II. A guiding metaphor
Before moving on, let’s introduce three thinkers and use their work to develop our argument.
- The first is a cognitive linguist out in California who thinks that our minds run on metaphor, and that these metaphors are the essential building blocks of our understanding.
- The second is a mystical philosopher living out in the mountains somewhere, who thinks that all life forms can be understood as being recursively composed of more fundamental life forms, according to some general principles.
- The third is a long-dead german philosopher, who thought that many of the world’s social phenomena could be understood as a dynamic tension of opposites.
A lot of people think this trio is totally bananas. But let’s play a game and for the next 90 seconds pretend that they were all basically right about everything.
I made you an image containing our important metaphor. Look at it for a minute and we’ll discuss.
What do we see here?
In the center, Da Vinci’s famous Vitruvian Man, here taken as an archetypal human. Off to the sides, we see an Ameoba (minimally structured biomass) and a skeleton (highly structured but lifeless). The metaphor here is that humans come into being with the hardness (skeleton) is brought into a balanced tension (magenta arrow) with the softness (the organs and tissue). Too far in either extreme and the delicate complexity of the human cannot survive: a lifeless skeleton, or a puddle of goop.
This image provides us our first example of a dialectical tension, an essential component of Hegel’s philosophy. We see similar tensions elsewhere: in between liberals and conservatives, between process and outcome, between freedom and security, and between individual and community, among others. Each one of those names captures the extreme and ideal end of a spectrum, but life cannot be sustained at ideal extremes. It can be sustained only in the tension which comes from bringing the extremes into a dynamic but stable balance. A small nonprofit with pages of bureaucratic rules will get nothing done; likewise, a multinational firm without adequate procedures and policies will be mired in dysfunction.
Note also that the Ameoba can live just fine without a skeleton; but that Ameoba is a simple life form. The skeleton literally provides the backbone for supporting more complex types of life (there’s a reason why vertebrates are the headliners in the food chain). “Solving” a dialectical tension is not the end of the story: it simply sets the stage for the beginning of a new story — this is the essence of Wilber’s argument of increasing levels of complexity, each succeeding level of complexity made possible by the foundation provided by the stable resolution of tensions of the level below.
As an interesting aside (indulge me my amateur evolutionary biology), it is interesting to consider the arthropods (beetles, etc) as representing an alternative solution to the problem of “structural support”. Vertebrates put the structure on the inside, arthropods on the outside. Both solutions provided a stable structure, but had different long-term consequences: the former seems to have been better at scaling up (vertebrates are bigger), while the latter better at scaling across (there are many more species of arthropods).