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Commentary on Politics and Strategy

Thursday, April 17th, 2014

[by Mark Safranski, a.k.a. "zen"]

Infinity Journal has a good article by eminent Clausewitzian strategist Colin Gray on the interrelationship of politics and strategy (free registration required):

Politics, Strategy and the Stream of Time

….Second, many scholars appear to be resistant to the conceptually, perhaps even morally, necessary recognition of the implications of the fact that all ‘policy’ is made by political process, and that that process, everywhere and in all periods, is run and dominated by the people who succeed in being influential over others. The substantive content of policy is made in a process of political negotiation among the people and organizations who contend for power, as they must. Decisions on national defence are taken politically, usually with input from subject-specific experts and interests. But, in all systems of governance politics ultimately rules. Prudent assessment concerning the maintenance of their preeminent popular influence flags to political leaders where the limits of the politically tolerable most probably lie. This is not to be critical, it is simply to recognize that we humans run our affairs, including our security affairs, by the means of a political process that is geared to generate power as influence, not prudent policy. Policy does not emerge, pristine and unsullied by unduly subjective emotions, as the ever dynamic product of objective expert analysis.[xviii] This is not to claim that political process will be indifferent to arguments that are armed with evidence of apparent national danger. But it is to say that strategic theorists and defence analysts (like this author) need to appreciate the humbling professional truth that their contribution to debate on public policy can always be trumped by politics.

Third, civil-military relations may well be said to lie at the heart of strategy, as Eliot Cohen claims, but it would probably be more correct to argue that public political tolerance is as, if not even more, vital.[xix] As a very general rule, people will go only whither they are content to be led. Great leaders always require willing, even if somewhat politically passive, followers. Civil-military relations vary in detail, of course, given the breadth of unique historical circumstance that is their particular foundation in every polity. However, this critically important subject does allow authority to an elementary golden rule: the military power of the state must always be subject to authority that is accepted very widely as politically legitimate. The substantive reason for this is that the well-being of society and state cannot prudently be entrusted, or surrendered, even to their coercive instruments. It is only common sense to deny those coercive instruments the opportunity to be more than they should be, given the temptations to organizational mission creep that can come opportunistically to soldiers. Military culture often differs from public and private political culture(s), and it would be imprudent to have one’s national security policy and strategy decided by professional military experts (or their civilian defence analytical associates and frequent functional allies). The price one pays for insisting upon civilian political authority over defence matters is, naturally, necessarily an acceptance ultimately of the sovereignty of a public political will that is ever likely to be inadequately understanding of security problems. It is worth noting that the danger of undue military influence over the policy realm is understandably enhanced when the polity is committed to war (even only to ‘armed politics’ or ‘politics with arms’). However, the peril to civilian (political) supremacy in war lies not only in the scope and weight of the burdens of actual armed conflict, but also in the nature of war itself. By this I mean that the balance of relative influence between the civilian and the soldier is likely to alter simply because of the dynamic and ever unpredictable course of a (necessarily unique) particular war. Whatever the constitutional niceties and formalities in relations, in wartime the state can find itself serving the present and near-term future apparent necessities of a conflict that has evolved beyond expectation, let alone confident anticipation. There is in effect a natural and inevitable tendency for the needs of an on-going conflict to subordinate and even subvert civilian society so that national priorities are reordered more and more in practice in favour of the plausible necessities of war. Not infrequently in strategic history, this re-prioritization in favour of the military security interest has occurred with good enough reason. My point is that even when military leaders are not seeking to reduce or subvert civilian political authority, a context of armed conflict may itself achieve that end.

I think in the second paragraph Gray is correct in the broad historical sense of major wars and existential conflicts. As violence escalates, the war tends to become a Darwinian (or Clausewitzian) ratchet turning in the direction toward “absolute war“. We can see examples of this tendency in historical conflicts as diverse as the Peloponnesian War, the Punic Wars, the Thirty Year’s War and of course, the Second World War, which culminated in nuclear fire.

Curiously,the United States since the end of WWII has had the exact opposite tendency than the one described by Gray: the politicization of war as a mere prop for or tool of civilian domestic politics -and strategy being subordinated to (increasingly trivial) political matters- without regard to combat effectiveness, the external strategic effects or the ultimate outcome of victory or defeat. There are, in my view, many reasons for this. Most of them are particular to the sad state of American culture and our current generation of “leaders”, but some are intrinsic to the epistemological natures of strategy and politics themselves.

Strategy, if it is to be done well, requires a clarity of vision that is willing to strip away cherished illusions, unfounded assumptions and more intentional forms of intellectual dishonesty. This is because making effective strategic decisions depend upon having a realistic calculus of actual and potential power, situational probabilities, material resources, psychological frameworks and other variables with which to work. In a trite and overused phrase, strategy has to be “reality-based” in the sense of being empirical, to the greatest extent feasible, even as it tries to shape future outcomes. As strategy is an iterative process and in warfare something done by tactics, the feedback provided by combat (“lessons learned”) and intelligence about the enemy needs to be understood in context as accurately as possible. This means that enforcing party-lines, shooting the messenger, “not-invented-here” syndrome, putting turf battles over real ones and bowing to ideological fantasies (“the Slavs are subhumans”, “they will greet us with flowers”, “they are only agrarian reformers”) in making strategic assessments is inherently a form of self-defeating intellectual derangement, a willful blindness likely to bring loss or even ruin.

By contrast, Politics is not harmed by expressions of fabulism, mythmaking, self-delusion or the construction of elaborate, closed systems of thought predicated upon ideological fantasies. Arguably, such visions are empowering and inspiring by helping to craft an attractive narrative that men find compelling, unifying and motivating to action, including the will to power or a call to arms to stand, fight and die in a “higher” cause.  That political ideas may only bear a passing resemblance to reality or may be entirely composed of ahistorical nonsense, irrational hatreds and conspiracy theories is not always relevant to their memetic success or failure. To a degree, the process of political radicalization itself, as ideas become more extreme and demanding, tend to attract the kind of true believer personalities given to turning the ideas into violent or even apocalyptic action. Furthermore the intensity of belief or the closed system nature of the ideology tends to make the followers anti-empirical – highly resistant to information (or even the outcomes of physical reality) that run contrary to deeply held beliefs, as seen in the historical examples of die-hard Communists, Imperial Japanese ultranationalists and fanatical Nazis.

If politics trumps strategy then strategy can only prosper if the political mind is rationally sound.

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Recap: on HipBone / Sembl Thinking

Monday, March 10th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- briefly picking up a strand from an earlier post & running with it ]
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Some of the fish in the pool HipBone / Sembl swims in - slide credit Cath Styles, & h/t Derek Robinson

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I just wanted to reiterate an Einstein quote that I slipped into the middle of a post on the Black Madonna and iconography recently, where some readers more interested in the Sembl / HipBone games and their applicability to analytic work and creative thinking may have missed it:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.

The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

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Combinatory playessential feature in productive thoughtanalogous to certain logical connections one is searching for — these three phrases sum up pretty exactly the congitive training function of the HipBone / Sembl games.

As I said earlier, I have to wonder how many of our analysts are deeply versed in this “combinatory play” of images and kinesthetic experiences, way below the threshold of conscious thought.

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More on the Black Madonna — Poland, Bibliography, Carl Jung

Sunday, March 9th, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- some background and pointers, a glimpse of how Eastern-rite Christians feel about their icons, some Einstein, & some implications re my games ]
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I have to admit I was startled by the sheer power — visual and musical — of the ritual depicted below, performed daily at 6am, of the unveiling of the statue of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, Poland:
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Here’s the commentary that accompanies that video on YouTube — scholarly accuracy not guaranteed:

The shrine of Czestochowa is found in the heart of Poland. A highlight of Marian devotion, it attracts four to five million pilgrims each year from 80 countries worldwide. The icon of the Black Madonna and Child goes back to medieval tradition. According to historians, the painting follows the model of Byzantine iconography: it is an “Odigitria” icon, that is to say, the image of “one that points out and guides all along the path”. A legend attributes the creation of this painting to St. Luke, who was a contemporary of Mary, and so could reproduce her true image.

In 1382 the icon was brought to the hill of Jasna Gora, which means “Bright Mountain” in Polish and overlooks Czestochowa. At Prince Wladyslaw of Opole’s initiative, a hilltop monastery was built for the Pauline monks. The Child’s face is turned towards the pilgrim. But Her gaze is elsewhere, as if looking into the distance, beyond time and space. Both the Mother and the Son seemed immersed in thought, yielding an aura of wisdom. The brown color of their skin contrasts with the bright surroundings. Mary shows the Child Jesus to the pilgrim, and the Christ Child holds a book in one hand, and with the other gives a simple yet noble gesture of blessing.

In every moment of difficulty of Poland, the population has huddled around the Black Madonna of Czestochowa and the child Jesus, this merely increases the influx of pilgrims. Even today, tens of thousands of people walk to the shrine each summer. The image is dark .. made even darker by the smoke of candles that continuously burn before the icon. Karol Wojtyla himself visited frequently as a pilgrimage to the shrine, especially in 1936, along with many other university students who pledged to build a new Poland with the help of the Virgin.

Prayer: “Our Lady of Czestochowa, Mother of God and our Mother, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Mother of those who place their hope in Divine Providence, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Mother of those who are deceived, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Mother of those who are betrayed, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Mother of those who are imprisoned, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Mother of those who suffer from cold, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Mother of those who are afraid, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland Mother of the suffering, pray for us. Our Lady of Czestochowa, Poland Mother of the faithful, pray for us. Pray for us, Our Lady of Czestochowa, That we may be worthy of the promises of Christ.”

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There are many examples of Black Madonna figures — Jungian analyst Ean Begg enumerated almost 500 of them across Europe in his book on the topic in 1985 (revised, 2006), and they have been of considerable interest (among others) to Begg and other analytical psychologists in the tradition of Carl Jung and James Hillman — and an extensive Annotated Bibliography for Books on Black Madonnas exists.

Jung made a speciality of the murky regions of the psyche where imagery and imagination prevail over verbalism and ratiocination — the region in which Coleridge located the “hooks and eyes of memory” and from which Einstein‘s thoughts originated, as he noted in his celebrated letter to Jacques Hadamard.

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Might as well take Einstein seriously on this matter:

The words or the language, as they are written or spoken, do not seem to play any role in my mechanism of thought. The psychical entities which seem to serve as elements in thought are certain signs and more or less clear images which can be “voluntarily” reproduced and combined. There is, of course, a certain connection between those elements and relevant logical concepts. It is also clear that the desire to arrive finally at logically connected concepts is the emotional basis of this rather vague play with the above mentioned elements. But taken from a psychological viewpoint, this combinatory play seems to be the essential feature in productive thought – before there is any connection with logical construction in words or other kinds of sign, which can be communicated to others.

The above mentioned elements are, in my case, of visual and some of muscular type. Conventional words or other signs have to be sought for laboriously only in a secondary stage, when the mentioned associative play is sufficiently established and can be reproduced at will.

According to what has been said, the play with the mentioned elements is aimed to be analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for.

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How many of our analysts are deeply versed in “this combinatory play” of images and kinesthetic experiences, below the threshold of conscious thought — and scholarship?

“Combinatory play” — “the essential feature in productive thought” — “analogous to certain logical connections one is searching for” — does any of that remind me of those games I was describing just yesterday, using graphs as game-boards [1, 2]?

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Ritual, dream, music, myth, play — these are the places where we most richly encounter our own deepest insights and creative possibilities. Religion, at times, captures and holds these themes with a psychological intensity that it is unwise to overlook.

The Black Madonna — in Poland, in Ukraine, in legend and in the hearts of people — is one of those themes.

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Happy New “Creative Leap” Year

Wednesday, January 1st, 2014

[ by Charles Cameron -- wondering whether a von Kármán vortex street might be a good place to take a Paul Lévy walk one of these days -- when I'm out and about, foraging for new ideas ]
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"Named after French mathematician Paul Lévy, a Lévy walk is characterized by many small moves combined with a few longer trajectories."

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M’friend Bill Benzon of the New Savanna blog posted two paras out of an NYT blog piece, Navigating Our World Like Birds and Bees, today:

What they have found is that when moving with a purpose such as foraging for food, many creatures follow a particular and shared pattern. They walk (or wing or lope) for a short time in one direction, scouring the ground for edibles, then turn and start moving in another direction for a short while, before turning and strolling or flying in another direction yet again. This is a useful strategy for finding tubers and such, but if maintained indefinitely brings creatures back to the same starting point over and over; they essentially move in circles.

So most foragers and predators occasionally throw in a longer-distance walk (or flight), which researchers refer to as a “long step,” bringing them into new territory, where they then return to short walks and frequent turns as they explore the new place.

I can’t help but think that this may give us a closer approximation to the way minds can think than our usual terms, linear and lateral, or on a wider scale, disciplinary and interdisciplinary thinking, with the short walks involving thoughts that require investigation but not analogy, and the long steps being leaps by analogy into new territory — the familiar hop, skip and jumps we also call creative leaps.

From my POV, seeing both linear and leaping thoughts this way allows for the fact that what we’ve been calling linear thoughts aren’t so much linear as local, while analogical thoughts by their very nature take us from one thought domain to another — via parallelism or opposition — leaping conceptual distances.

Which is why I can wish you a Happy New “Creative Leap” Year! — even though 2014 isn’t divisible by 4 and there will still only be 28 days this February.

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Bashar the Vampire-Slayer

Tuesday, August 20th, 2013

[ by Charles Cameron -- pop messianism, Syria, 2013 ]
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The caption for the Bashar al-Assad image reads:

Bashar the Wahhabi Slayer [ image ] Has killed more than 40,000 Wahhabi terrorists who came from all over the world to destroy Syria

and Phillip Smyth, who tweeted it, commented:

This photo has been uploaded onto many pro-#Assad & pro-Shia (in #Syria) militia pages. Note how dead are characterized

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How the dead are characterized?

Why, as Wahhabi terrorists, explicitly — and implicitly as vampires.

FWIW, I’d argue (broad strokes) that “Wahhabi terrorists” is directed at the conscious mind, and “vampires” at the emotions.

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