Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Aggregate Thinking and Objectification

   By Steve Rensberry

   Thinking in the aggregate is a nearly ubiquitous and irresistible human impulse, an impulse born perhaps in an increasingly complex, changing world that requires quick decisions and survival smarts. We plug people into groups, draw inferences based on averages, then move on as if all is well. But is it rational, and does it lend itself to the making of accurate, humane, and meaningful life decisions? This essay will explore the premise that such thinking is neither rational nor beneficial, and that ultimately all assessments of human beings that lean on aggregate statistical analysis, and other forms of abstract generalization, are in essence subtle and damaging forms of dehumanization. Philosophically, attempts to establish a conclusive interpretation for any individual human action by employing aggregate based calculations and related assumptions is an ontological nightmare, not unlike the epistemological quagmire we find ourselves in with platonism, structuralism and moral absolutism.
The term aggregate is used in different ways by different groups, one being the concept of aggregate demand or aggregate supply in macroeconomics, signifying some comprehensive or total value. People working in statistics, in the credit industry, or in the fields of predictive analytics and actuarial science also make extensive use of aggregate concepts. As used here, aggregate thinking is defined as the practice, whether codified into a mathematical formula or through simple every-day observation, of simply grouping and making assumptions about individual human beings derived from an analysis of the many, ostensibly to predict some future outcome, level of risk or value.
How does such thinking differ from the formation of the common stereotype, or prejudicial thinking in general, both of which are almost universally deplored? I would suggest that they differ only on a very superficial level. Judgments which seem entirely arbitrary, lacking any kind of statistical support or detailed argument, certainly appear more prejudicial. But garnish them with even the slightest amount of statistical reasoning, however superfluous, and the acceptance level rises accordingly. Conflating the abstract with the particular, and the realm of thought with flesh-and-blood existence, seems particularly easy when the subject of our analysis is of a conceptual nature, such as people, or society, as opposed to a living, breathing, individual human.
What choices do we have, really, when assessing our fellow human beings? We can consider individual people as entirely unique, living, breathing, sentient creatures, each with his or her own 100-percent unique life experiences, level of intelligence and genetic predisposition; or we can view them as something lesser, in the abstract, as just one part of a large group, defining them according to some mathematical algorithm or set of averages -- or generalization -- which assume that similar creatures think and reason in 100-percent identical ways.
Consider a group of 100 people. If 80 people out of this 100 are determined to have X characteristic, and if all those who have X characteristic engage in Y, can we take each of these 100 individuals in isolation and say that each of them has an 80 percent chance of engaging in Y? Not without committing a number of logical fallacies we can't. We commit the fallacy of division when we say that something which is true for the whole is necessarily true for each or some of its parts. We commit the ecological fallacy when we infer that statistics involving an individual can be deduced from inference for some group to which an individual belongs. The fallacy of composition involves falsely reasoning that what is true for a part is also true for the whole. The informal fallacy of hasty generalization is made when a conclusion is reached without consideration of all variables, which in this case would be those unique to a specific individual.
Put another way, is it fair to assume that each and every person in a group with predominantly similar characteristics carries the same degree of risk that the entire group does, in the aggregate? Most of us would say no, yet this type of assumption is exactly what happens in all sorts of enterprises -- in the field of insurance and actuarial science, in the determination of credit scores, in setting security clearances, in establishing citizenship, indeed with just about everything and anything that requires certification or a license. Conformity, predictability and risk aversion may be the underlying motives, but at what cost? One could make the point that the fundamental nature of organized society itself, governed by a universal set of rules and regulations, is all about the common good, and with it the implicit expectation that individuals will accept some degree of sacrifice and individualism to maintain the dominant ideal. But how far is too far, and when does mass conformity and group-think overwhelm that which makes us truly human?
Requiring people to sacrifice their individuality on the altar of the abstract, the aggregate, and the hypothetical seems to me to be fraught with dangers, among them deindividuation, defined in social psychology circles as the loss of self-awareness in groups and the diminishing of a person's sense of individuality. The belief that such states are a factor in antisocial behavior has been explored by a number of researchers, among them French psychologist Gustave Le Bon who described it as a process whereby individuals' minds become dominated by a “unanimous, emotional, and intellectually weak” collective mindset, leading to a loss of individual responsibility
In a 2002 working paper series for the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis, writer Thomas Garrett points to another danger, this one involving the use of regression analysis and consumer sentiment indices, and how the use of data aggregation can lead to misleading conclusions about individual economic behavior. The irony of formal regression analysis as it relates to economics is that it still involves a form of objectification, by treating a person as a mere variable. As commonly defined, regression analysis is simply a statistical forecasting method used to estimate the effect that an independent variable has on a dependent variable.
Garrett states: "Every field of economics uses aggregated data to test hypotheses about the behavior of individuals. Examples in macroeconomics include the use of aggregate consumption and income to test the permanent income hypothesis (Hall, 1978), and forecasting national personal consumption expenditures using consumer sentiment indices (Caroll, et al. 1994: Bram and Ludvigson, 1998). The use of aggregate data to explain individual behavior makes the assumption that the hypothesized relationship between the economic variables in question is homogeneous across all individuals. When the behavior of economic agents is not the same, a regression analysis using aggregated data can provide conclusions regarding economic relationships that are different than if less aggregated data were used."
Jean JacquesRousseau, in The Social Contract and Discourses, parses the foundation that we give to a very old ideal – the idea of "the strong" – seen by some (in particular the strong) as the implicit arbitrator of morality and an element of that class of things considered to be truly real.
Rousseau writes: "The strongest is never strong enough to be always the master, unless he transforms strength into right, and obedience into duty. Hence the right of the strongest, which though to all seemingly meant ironically, is really laid down as a fundamental principal. But are we never to have an explanation of this phrase? Force is a physical power, and I fail to see what moral effect it can have. To yield to force is an act of necessity, not of will – at the most, an act of prudence. In what sense can it be a duty? Suppose for a moment that this so-called 'right' exists. I maintain that the sole result is a mass of inexplicable nonsense. For, if force creates right, the effect changes with the cause; every force that is greater than the first succeeds to its right. As soon as it is possible to disobey with impunity, disobedience is legitimate; and the strongest being always in the right, the only thing that matters is to act so as to become the strongest."
Where Rousseau questions the idea of force making right, we may just as well question the utilitarian idea of the right action always being that which results in the greatest good for the greatest number. In either case, we are dealing with non-physical elements of discourse, and the impossible challenge of determining what is infinitely “right” and what is infinitely “good” apart from complete omniscience, and against the great expanse of time.
The common denominator that aggregate statistical analysis, regression analysis, and utilitarian ethics all share is a reliance on non-concrete, abstract, absolutist thinking, and on the belief that it is possible to accurately define and relate to human beings as static things, things which can and should be compared to some abstract infinite quality existing entirely outside of normal time and space. Philosopher Martha Nussbaum described the process of objectification as something that occurs when a person is used as a tool, as something that is owned or interchangeable, or as something that may be destroyed without any additional permission needed. Similar to the concept of dehumanization, objectification negates the feelings and humanness of an individual, either indirectly or directly, through various levels of oversimplification and denial.
The debate over the role and reality of the immaterial is an old one and entails a number of metaphysical positions which I think are worth summarizing. They include:
Platonism: Abstract objects exist in a non-physical and non-mental realm outside of normal time and space. (Historical Platonism adherents: Plato, Numenius, Plotinus, Augustine, Ploclus. Modern platonism, small "p" adherents: Bernard Bolzano, Gottlob Frege, Edmund Husserl, Bertrand Russell, Alonzo Church, Kurt Gödel, W.V. Quine, Hilary Putnam, George Bealer and Edward Zalta).
Nominalism (anti-realism): Universal entities and abstract objects do not formally exist, as do particular concrete entities and objects. (Francis Bacon, David Hume, John Stuart Mill, Herbert Spencer, and Nelson Goodman.)
Conceptualism (mentalism, psychologism): Abstract objects such as numbers do in fact exist, not as independent entities but as mental constructs. (Locke, Husserl, Brouwer, Heyting, Noam Chomsky, Fodor).
Immanent realism (moderate realism): Universals exist, not in some external reality beyond time and space but within the physical world of particulars. (Aristotle, D.M. Armstrong).
Nihilism: Nothing actually exists. (Friedrich Nietzsche, Stanley Rosen, Martin Heidegger).
Naturalism: mind and non-material values are a product of matter. (John Dewey, Sidney Hook, Roy Wood Sellars, Francis Bacon, Voltaire, Paul Kurtz)
Idealism: Mind or spirit constitutes the fundamental reality. (Immanuel Kant, G.W.F. Hegel, Johann Gottlieb Fichte, Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Schelling, Arthur Schopenhauer).
Objective idealism: Material objects do not exist independently of human perception. Spiritual realities are independent from human consciousness. (Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph Shelling, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Plato)
Subjectiveidealism: Mind and mental constructs are all that exist. (Dharmakīrti, George Burkeley).
Solipsism: Knowledge outside of one's one mind is uncertain. Only one's mind is sure to exist. (René Descartes, Gorgias of Leontini, George Berkeley).
Common senserealism (Naïve Realism): Material objects do in fact exist.(J.J. Gibson, William Mace, Claire Michaels, Edward Reed, Robert Show, Michael Turvey, Carol Fowler).
Existentialism: All thinking must begin with the living, existing, feeling human being, and not with some abstract essence. (Søren Kierkegaard, Jean-Paul Satre, Johan Sebastian Cammermeyer Welhaven, Franz Kafka, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Albert Camus, Eugène Ionesco).
Moral Absolutism: The acceptance of or belief in absolute principles in political, philosophical, ethical or theological matters.
Structuralism: Elements of human culture must be understood in terms of their relationship to a larger, overarching system or structure (wikipedia). Simon Blackburn: Structuralism is "the belief that phenomenon of human life are not intelligible except through their interrelations. These relations constitute a structure, and behind local variations in the surface phenomena there are constant laws of abstract culture."
Theories concerning the ultimate nature of reality can be broken down furthermore into several other basic categories. These include monism, representing the view that reality is fundamentally one process or being (Parmenides, Hegel); pluralism, which see ultimate reality as flexible, incomplete and unknowable; and dualism, which sees reality as split between the eternal and unchanging realm of ideas or forms (Plato) and the ever-changing, temporal realm of human experience.
We may also view such differences in terms of idealism, realism and pragmatism. Idealists emphasize the role of mind and the relationship between the knower and the things known. Realists treat the mind as secondary and separate the knower from the world he or she inhabits. And pragmatists reject both views and instead embrace the idea that thoughts and things are fundamentally inseparable in a world of pure experience.
Still others have parsed the differences into those of mysticism, emphasizing the oneness of reality; materialism, focusing on matter as the stuff which ultimate reality is made of; and supernaturalism, which presupposes a higher being or beings who transcends the natural realm and who created and sustains all that exists.
It stands to reason that modern, densely populated societies need some measure of order and rules in order to function, especially with creatures who are unpredictable at best and dangerously self-serving, exploitive and violent at worst. But on what foundation should such rules be created, and just how far can we go in treating people as numbers before we cease to treat them as people at all? Should there be some measure of objectivity and concreteness in the process, or must we resign ourselves to generalizations and aggregate-based assumptions for the sake of efficiency and order, for lack of viable options?
I think the answer is most certainly yes, there should be some extraordinary level of concreteness to that which informs our choices; and no, I do not believe that we ought to resign ourselves to thinking in the aggregate merely because it is too time consuming or too difficult to reason otherwise. Individual human beings deserve to be treated as individual human beings, in all their complexity, with all their imperfections, and taking into account all that impacts their choices in the way of culture, genetics and environment. Thinking in the aggregate may be a natural and almost irresistible human impulse, but so might be a deeply-rooted and irrational fear of uncertainty -- a fear that has effectively been codified into almost every institution that surround us.
Given the bigger picture, it behooves us to make peace with uncertainty, make greater exceptions for environmental anomalies and human individuality, aim for general compliance rather than total conformity, and pursue empathy rather than penalty.
British philosopher Alan Watts, in his acclaimed 1951 work, The Wisdom of Insecurity:A Message for an Age of Anxiety, writes: “The 'primary consciousness,' the basic mind which knows reality rather than ideas about it, does not know the future. It lives completely in the present, and perceives nothing more than what is at this moment. The ingenious brain, however, looks at that part of present experience called memory, and by studying it is able to make predictions. These predictions are, relatively, so accurate and reliable (e.g. 'everyone will die') that the future assumes a high degree of reality -- so high that the present loses its value. But the future is still not here, and cannot become a part of experienced reality until it is present. Since what we know of the future is made up of purely abstract and logical elements -- inferences, guesses, deductions -- it cannot be eaten, felt, smelled, seen, heard or otherwise enjoyed. To pursue it is to pursue a constantly retreating phantom, and the faster you chase it, the faster it runs ahead. This is why all the affairs of civilization are rushed, why hardly anyone enjoys what he has, and is forever seeking more and more. Happiness, then, will consist, not of solid and substantial realities, but of such abstract and superficial things as promises, hopes, and assurances.”
Treating human beings as human beings also demands a certain understanding with respect to choice and free will. Yes, we may feel as though we have choice, but it is a choice stripped of the power to manifest much of what the will desires. People don't choose to be born in an imperfect world. They don't choose to grow old, to have a will and desires that exceed the capability of the physical universe to fulfill. Nor do they choose to have bodies that are susceptible to disease, infection and death. They don't choose the parents who will rear them, nor do they choose the home and environment they will spend their days in as children. It may be easy, simple, and quick to ignore the bigger picture, to see human beings as isolated pockets of infinite knowledge with infinite responsibility for every action they take, but it would not be accurate. Much has been made of a study by German scientists Hans Helmut Kornhuber and Lüder Deecke regarding a phenomenon known as “readiness potential,” which suggests that the unconscious mind may actually initiate action prior to one's conscious awareness of it. Subsequent studies by Benjamin Libet in the 1980s and by John-Dylan Haynes in 2008 using MRI technology has led to similar conclusions. While such studies do not conclusively prove that free will is merely an illusion, they do present a challenge to our traditional understanding of it. As Canadian transhumanist and bioethicist George Dvorsky writes in a Jan. 4, 2013 article for the blog io9: “What would really settle the issue would be the ability for neuroscientists to predict the actual outcome of more complex decisions prior to the subject being aware of it themselves. That would, in a very true sense, prove that free will is indeed an illusion.” (See: Scientific Evidence That You Probably Don't Have Free Will).
The concepts of risk and probability, as they relate to individual human action, are two other ideas that are ripe for reassessment. While the human condition may compel us to quickly assess the probability of theoretical future events and matters affecting our safety, the mere desire for certainty ought not lead us to the dehumanization of our fellow human beings. Yes, we can determine the relative likelihood of a group of people behaving in a certain way through aggregate analysis, but what is not so easy to determine is the degree to which a specific individual within that group will behave in a certain way. The concept of bounded rationality is one that may have bearing on our propensity to jump to conclusions and generalize, with respect to assessments of probability and risk. As listed in the Cambridge Dictionary: “Bounded rationality is the theory that people can understand only a limited amount of information within a limited amount of time, and for this reason they do not always make the best decisions, especially in complicated situations.” The concept of of bounded rationality differs from “rationality as optimization,” in that the process of optimization is seen as a constraint rather than an enabler.
Platonism, with a small “p,” asserts that abstract objects are objective, timeless entities, totally separate from the physical world, even from the symbols that people use in describing them. Structuralism is a method of interpretation that focuses on a broader conceptual system that supposedly underlies individual human cognition and behavior. And absolutism presupposes the existence of infinitely fixed principles that are above and behind all individual existential realities. While such ideas may sound nice and feel good to those seeking assurance, they exact a heavy toll – stripping humanity of the innate unpredictability, the non-linear processes that reflect our various states of consciousness, the mystery embodied in our range of desires, and the exceedingly complex and symbiotic mind-body relationship that all but makes us who we are.

For further reading

The Common Good
By Claire Andre and Manuel Velasquez