An individual neuron in the brain is meaningless in and of itself, though we can perfectly well isolate one and stare at it.   However, we can only understand what it does based on what other neurons it is connected to and on what sorts of information passes to and from it and these other neurons.

Say we isolated a single neuron and named it Herman.  There is little we could really learn about Herman alone.  Mainly we could learn about Herman’s material structure.

To understand Herman, we would have to see him in action.  Furthermore, Herman would act quite differently depending on how he was connected to other neurons, so we would really be dealing with many different Hermans, Herman 1, 2, 3 … and so on.  Furthermore, the activities connected Herman engages in across time can change some of his material structural properties, so our initial decontextualized investigation of Herman can be misleading if not put in the context of an investigation of connected Herman in action and interaction.

What is true of neurons is true of human beings.  If we have a human Herman in isolation we can learn little more than Herman’s material properties (structure, design).  We can only really understand a human individual in terms of what other people, which aspects of the environment, and what tools that individual is connected to and in terms of what sorts of information flows into and out of the individual from these connections. For human Herman there are also many Hermans and for human Herman, too, Herman’s actions and interactions across time can change Herman’s material structural properties.

Just as different types of neurons have somewhat different design features and, thus, different affordances (different tendencies) for how they act when connected with other neurons of their own type or different types, so, too, for people.  We are each different due to our genotype and our development across time in different environments and, so, we “plug into” and “play” differently with different sorts of people, aspects of the environment, and tools than do other people.  And we do so differently across time as what we are connected to across time changes us.

What makes this view of ourselves strange to us humans is that we, unlike neurons, have minds and, thus, opinions.  We think of our mind as a conscious chooser and knower.  But in reality, humans do not freely make choices or know really why they do what they do or feel as they do.  The vast majority of what our brain does is not open to our conscious inspection.

A variety of different, sometimes quite complex, modules (of neurons) process information and interact with each other in ways to which we have no conscious access.  One relatively small part of our brain serves as an “interpreter” and seeks to make sense of the outputs of these unconscious modules without knowing how and why they reached the decisions or outputs they did.

We tell ourselves stories that are often not true—or, at least, which we have no way to actually know they are true—about what we want, why we feel the way we do, and why we have done what we have done.  But the wanter, feeler, doer here is not really us as a conscious individual but us as a complicated device whose inner workings are inaccessible to us (i.e, we are inaccessible to ourselves) beyond making up plausible, helpful, or comforting stories.

What really differentiates us from neurons or other connected devices is that we make up stories.  These stories are not always or even mostly true, but they do affect how we act and feel (but always relative to our connections).

This does not mean humans cannot reach some sort of truth.  It does mean that our ideas of free will and responsibility—ideas on which our institutions are based—are an illusion.

We humans can reach (little “t”) truth (no master narrative needed) when we collaborate with others who do not necessarily agree with our stories and collaborate, as well, with good tools to collectively test and mutually vet hypotheses about, and data from, the world.  When this activity is formalized, we call it science.  When it isn’t, we call it survival based on respect for the world as something that can “bite back” if we ignore it or disdain it long enough.

This collective activity of respect for the world, formalized as science or not, is not an individual enterprise and is not contingent on “smart” people.  It is a form of collective intelligence based on networks of people, tools, practices, and respect for evidence, other people, and the world.

Almost all work in the social sciences and in education is based on the wrong ontology (wrong units of analysis), based, that is, on wrong assumptions about what actually exists.  We have folk terms for individuals and minds, but these are not in reality what we think they are.  This is, in part, because the reality about these matters is only becoming clearer as science makes progress.  But it is also true because we humans and our institutions could not really function—in terms of how our societies and institutions (including religions) are currently organized—if we accepted these realities.  But, then, too, this is part of why we and our institutions function so poorly.

The proper unit of analysis is “individual + connections + time + change across time” all mutually and reciprocally interacting.  We cannot make valid judgments about Herman (or even about ourselves) as individuals.  We make such judgments only about Herman at time t connected to x, y, and z elements (people, tools, aspects of the environment) relative to change across time.

Of course, there may be continuities across the many time slices of Herman and his coupled, interacting, and changing connections across time, but these need to be discovered.  They cannot be discovered by staring at Herman alone.  We cannot discover these continuities by studying (or assessing) Herman at one time or without due reference to connections and interactions among them and Herman’s mind and body.  When and if we find such continuities we have no valid reason to call them (“internal”) “traits” of Herman, since they may well be complicated outcomes of patterns of “Herman-connections-time slices-across-time” caused mutually by Herman’s doings and the doings and interactions of the elements connected to Herman (and the two cannot be neatly and cleanly separated).

The vast majority of research in education is based on studying and assessing Herman, Janie, Jose, and Susie, as countable individuals and not as dynamically changing connection systems with continuities that are often not “traits” but deeper patterns within and across connection systems.  Herman is complicated, very complicated.  Our current paradigms of research nearly completely fail to capture this complexity.  Worse, yet, this research leads to bad policies.


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March 29th, 2018

The Interpreter System (7)

Let’s return to our diagram of a human being (or, “an enviro-human system”).  I want now to look just at […]

March 27th, 2018

Joint Actor Systems (6)

The diagram I used in the last post is misleading in that it makes things look more contained and bounded […]

March 26th, 2018

A Human Being (5)

Last time, we raised the question: “What is ‘Jim”?” (substitute your own name for “Jim” here).  We think of ourselves […]

March 25th, 2018

Jim and Identities/Discourses (4)

When we make a choice, who is making the choice?  We have already seen that there are lots of things […]

March 10th, 2018

Alternates (3)

When we make a choice about ourselves often that choice is vastly undetermined by the information we have available.  Say […]

March 7th, 2018

Flourishing (2)

It makes little sense to see a human being (or any other animal) as an individual making free choices.  In […]

February 25th, 2018

Free Will (1)

Note that the question of free will simply does not arise for animals.  We think that, even for intelligent species, […]

October 29th, 2017

The Principle of Charity

October 8th, 2017

Character Education

Recently, the College of Education at Arizona State University—where I work— received funding from the Kern Family Foundation to make […]

June 15th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 6 (The End)

What killed people’s sense of mattering was the growth of very high levels of inequality.  What caused such high levels […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 5

Many of us tend to think of history as a march forward and upward. So, we tend to interpret the […]

June 14th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 4

The Catholic Church declined in three stages. The same was true for many other institutions.  “The Sixties” (roughly from 1963 […]

June 12th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 3

Today, we have among the highest levels of inequality we have ever had.  Drug addiction, environmental degradation, flows of climate […]

June 11th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 2

The British economist John Maynard Keynes and “Keynesian Economics” were foundational to the Bretton Woods Agreement and to the world […]

June 10th, 2017

Neoliberalism Part 1

Though neo-liberalism is the “usual suspect” for the miseries of our institutions and society, it is not nearly as relevant […]

May 30th, 2017

Main Points from My New Book

Teaching, Learning, Literary in our High-Risk, High-Tech World: A Framework for Becoming Human (Teachers College Press, 2017). Ignorance We humans […]

April 17th, 2017

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 10 The End

Neither love nor liking is necessary for the sorts of critical discussions among different frameworks that might lead to shared […]

April 15th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 9 Interpretation

Goodwill.  What could possibly encourage people in a fractured and inequitable world to have goodwill?  I, for one, do not […]

April 14th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 8 An Example

I want now to give an example of two different frameworks that certainly appear incommensurable.  My purpose here is make […]

April 12th, 2016

The Importance of Discourse Analysis:
Step 7 Discussion

We are at a critical juncture now in our attempt to understand why frameworks can cause us humans such grief.  […]