MWP 1.3.e Pragmatism and the Feedback Loop

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So, how does the Middle Way address conditions? By ‘conditions’, I mean everything that happens in our experience apart from what we experience as choice or decision-making. This would include physical, social, and economic conditions of the outside world, the physical condition of our bodies, and our psychological states both cognitive and emotional. To ‘address’ them, I need to understand them with as much adequacy as possible. That means that the desires, meanings and beliefs that are my response to conditions need to be as unconstrained by prior positive or negative assumptions as possible. I am not suggesting here that we have total control over our desires, meanings and beliefs, or that we have no control – only that the degree of control we experience needs to be maximised through awareness. This is a point that will be developed further in 7.b when discussing responsibility, and in IV.3.f and IV.4.c when discussing freewill and determinism.

Another metaphysical view to be avoided here is the fact-value distinction (see 1.i). When saying that I ‘need’ to maximise the adequacy of my response to conditions, I am being deliberately ambiguous in terms of facts and values.  On the one hand I ‘need’ to maximise adequacy in order to understand conditions, and on the other I ‘need’ to maximise adequacy because I ought to do so. See 7.c for an account of this ‘ought’: my argument there is that all our existing ways of understanding ‘ought’ imply this maximising of adequacy.

The value of understanding and the value of ethics cohere in pragmatism: the belief that our most justified responses are supported through experimentation in practice rather than metaphysically. What is meant by the term ‘pragmatism’ in Western tradition varies hugely because much pragmatism is still affected by metaphysical assumptions rather than being based only on practical requirements – typically making the practical requirements short-term or egoistic, even though there is nothing particularly practical about short-termism or about failure to look beyond one current set of assumptions. Much modern philosophical pragmatism is also still influenced by the fact-value distinction, and thus assumes that practical judgement means relative judgement. The earlier twentieth-century American pragmatists were not so dominated by the fact-value distinction, and John Dewey, in particular, manages to create a philosophy quite close to the Middle Way through the combination of empiricist and Hegelian approaches[1].

One central feature of Dewey’s psychological ethics is the negative feedback loop of reflection in response to blocked impulse. We (individually and collectively) get into the habit of acting in a particular way to achieve a particular kind of desire, until conditions interfere with that habit[2]. The impulse being blocked forces us to use reflection to consider not just other means of fulfilling the same desire, but perhaps even different ways of channelling the desire. This may result just in learning about our environment, or it may result in effects that we might readily recognise as moral progress, or it may involve both. For example, whilst on holiday in France I get into the habit of walking to the local baker to buy bread every morning. Then one day I find the baker shut. I have learnt something new about my environment – the baker closes on Wednesdays – which means that the following Wednesday I will already have made arrangements to get my bread elsewhere and will not have had a wasted walk. If that does not strike you as a discovery with obviously moral implications, there are other examples that might. A child gets into the habit of bullying another child, with both insults and blows. However, one day this channelling of the impulse is interrupted by a teacher, who talks it through carefully as well as imposing a punishment; this leads to an increasing recognition that the other child is a person who suffers distress just as I do. The child’s impulses are then channelled into other activities than bullying.

This pragmatic model of ethical learning bears a close resemblance to Popper’s account of a similar negative feedback loop in scientific discovery, which can be summarised as theorisation, practice, feedback, and retheorisation[3]. When a scientific theory is tested out, the most important information about it is gained through falsification. If our current form of the theory does not stand the test we put it to, it becomes necessary to reconsider it and modify it, even abandon it altogether. It is the role of falsification that makes this feedback loop a negative one, a response to frustration of going back to a starting equilibrium. The process of responding to negative feedback seems to be a function of the right hemisphere of the brain, in contrast to the tendency of the left hemisphere to reinforce its own position through positive feedback[4] (verification as opposed to falsification). As a process it is thus more favourable to objectivity than positive feedback, bringing us back to a point of equilibrium, where positive feedback can merely entrench a prejudice by providing increasing amounts of apparent evidence that is merely a confirmation of starting assumptions.

The only effective difference between Dewey’s version of the feedback loop and Popper’s is one that could be imposed by the fact-value distinction (which Popper relies upon). Otherwise, the way that we learn about facts and the way that we learn about values is similar: through experimentation in practice that leads to the modification of our current desires and beliefs. The model of experiential adequacy can also be applied in either case, because the new model we will have created in response to the feedback in each case will be a more experientially adequate model than the one we had before.

This feedback-loop model can be applied equally to individual learning and to group or social progression. It can be used just as much in relation to our desires or ends (if we cannot get one thing that we want, we shift to wanting something different) as to our beliefs (if one understanding of the world fails, we modify it). I also suggest that it applies equally well to meaning (see 2.b). If one way of signifying is not serving our purposes, either by not representing what we need to represent or not expressing what we need to express, we modify it – for example, by learning new languages or technical terms, or by learning to communicate and express ourselves in a different medium or context.

The negative feedback loop also applies both to judgements at one time and to habitual responses over a period of time. On the one hand our judgements need to invest in the future success of the loop (by improving our moral and epistemic virtues – see 7.d), but on the other this should not be too much at the expense of the adequacy of current judgements. Optimum adequacy is thus produced by balancing long-term investment with short-term judgement.

The Middle Way, then, is a method for supporting this feedback loop and ensuring that it continues to work properly. If my desires, meanings or beliefs are fixed I may come back to the same blocked impulse again and again without changing my response to it, and thus not addressing conditions or improving the adequacy of my experience. Positive metaphysics will either block the feedback loop by making me certain that I have the right beliefs already, or by interpreting all evidence in terms of the positive metaphysics, creating positive feedback: so in either case I do not need to change the theory. Negative metaphysics will block the loop by inhibiting me from developing a new and more adequate belief when I encounter negative feedback, because the possibility of objective improvement has been denied. Very often these two processes are difficult to distinguish from each other, as if I believe that I have the right beliefs already this will also stop me developing new beliefs, and if I don’t develop new beliefs I am effectively stuck with the old ones. The Middle Way involves the cultivation of attention to other options at the point where we encounter the frustrating factor, so that we no longer pursue ineffective, non-learning strategies when confronted in that way.


[1] See Ellis (2001), section 4.f, for a more detailed discussion of Dewey and the other classical pragmatists.

[2] First found in Dewey (1896), and subsequently developed in Dewey’s later writings

[3] Popper (1994)

[4] McGilchrist (2009) p.231-2 a

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