Sunday, May 06, 2007

Single- and Double-loop Learning as Applied to Religion

LeisureGuy refers to Chris Argyris, a Professor Emeritus at Harvard Business School, and his notions of "single-loop learning" and "double-loop learning." LeisureGuy smartly applies Argyris's ideas to the mainstream media and I'd like to do the same for the ways that we think about the world.

First an introduction to the terms:
Single-loop learning seems to be present when goals, values, frameworks and, to a significant extent, strategies are taken for granted. The emphasis is on ‘techniques and making techniques more efficient’ (Usher and Bryant: 1989: 87) Any reflection is directed toward making the strategy more effective. Double-loop learning, in contrast, ‘involves questioning the role of the framing and learning systems which underlie actual goals and strategies’ (op. cit.). In many respects the distinction at work here is the one used by Aristotle, when exploring technical and practical thought. The former involves following routines and some sort of preset plan – and is both less risky for the individual and the organization, and affords greater control. The latter is more creative and reflexive, and involves consideration notions of the good. Reflection here is more fundamental: the basic assumptions behind ideas or policies are confronted… hypotheses are publicly tested… processes are disconfirmable not self-seeking (Argyris 1982: 103-4).


Here is their illustration of the difference between the two techniques.



I've taken the liberty of modifying the chart to discuss beliefs:



I believe that most Orthodox Jews (and other traditionalist groups) engage only in "single-loop" learning. For example, given the assumptions that God is good and God wrote the Torah, they reasonably conclude the Torah is good. Fine. Here's where it gets interesting. Some piece of data comes along that appears to contradict the conclusion the Torah is good. To reference my previous post, I'll use the example of the Torah commanding the stoning-to-death of adulterous women. Most Orthodox Jews will not question the assumptions that God is good and God wrote the Torah. They will instead go back to the interpretation stage and find a way to reconcile the new data with the old assumptions.

There's nothing about single-loop learning that makes it necessarily incorrect. In fact, if we didn't use it most of the time, we'd never be able to get anything done. However, there is a great danger to depending on it to the exclusion of double-loop learning. If one of our assumptions happens to be false and we don't know it yet, we can waste a lot of time and make a lot of incorrect conclusions if we stick to single-loop learning.

It can be scary and disorienting to question one's assumptions but it's clear that sometimes it's the only way to reach a correct conclusion. I think that people who leave their faiths (or join faiths!) for intellectual reasons are more willing to ask themselves the hard questions. (Or, in some cases, life's events practically force them to ask the hard questions.)

If we're interested in the truth and in good results, I think we must frequently do a sanity check on our underlying assumptions (to the degree we are even aware of them.) Then again, if we aren't concerned with the truth and are happy with the results, it might be reasonable to not look at those assumptions. Perhaps it's unfortunate for those of us who care more about what's true than about what's useful.

Even if we don't habitually question our assumptions, I think there are some warning signs that we are engaging in single-loop learning when double-loop learning is called for. For example:
  1. We are having great difficulty coming to reasonable conclusions. (e.g. my husband loves me and he beats me so his beating me must be a form of his love.)
  2. We can reach satisfactory conclusions, but the interpretation is so convoluted that it strains credibility. (e.g. the epicycles in the Ptolemaic system of geocentrism.)
  3. We finds ourselves having to do a lot of interpretation too often. (e.g. my child would never use drugs and his strange behavior today was because he was stressed out. And the same was true yesterday and the day before that and the day before that...)
In my opinion, thinking Orthodox Jews should stumble upon these warning signs quite frequently. Just off the top of my head, I can think of an example for each of these. The problem for believers in an omnipotent and good God who causes destructive "acts of God" (tornadoes) or allows large-scale human evil (Holocaust, Rwanda) falls under #1. The day-era argument for a literal Genesis falls under #2. And the totality of Orthodox Judaism falls under #3. (For example, any Orthodox Jew active on the skeptic blogs has had to satisfy him- or herself with separate interpretations for the age of the universe, evolution, biblical authorship, the lack of evidence for an Exodus, etc. instead of the single, simple, and obvious (with a different assumption) interpretation that the Bible was written by imperfect men.)

I guess this is all just a fancy way to describe Occam's Razor, but coming at it from a new direction is pretty interesting.

20 comments:

Orthoprax said...

JA,

While Occam's Razor does describe part of this way of thinking, I think it's more in line with general Kuhnian paradigm shifts.

Within an explanatory paradigm with its certain assumptions scientists, for example, will try to fit misbehaving data into the theory until there are too many ill-fitting points and the whole theory falls. That's when a new theory, a new paradigm, takes the place of the old one and the data fits more comfortably.

Stephen said...

On the subject of stoning as a punishment for adultery —

I don't argue that the scriptures are inerrant. Still, I think the biblical authors were, in some sense, inspired by God. Let me offer a few points in defence of the Torah.

First, if these texts are judged in the context of their historical era, the teaching is generally more enlightened than the conventions of the surrounding culture. Elf makes a good point (in her comment on the previous post): the Hebrew scriptures made provision for rape, which was a significant innovation at the time.

Second: one way of interpreting these texts is to say that this is what the moral law would look like if it were applied without mercy. As a theoretical construct, the texts have the merit of showing what a serious matter sin really is.

Third, in practice the interpreters of the text did not apply them without mercy. If executions actually had been carried out, the Law would be revealed as a terribly harsh instrument indeed. But both the Hebrew scriptures and the Christian scriptures are mindful of the importance of tempering justice with mercy. Accordingly, as others have pointed out, these texts were virtually never acted on.

Call my explanation convoluted if you want. But taken together, the three points I've made go a long way toward acquitting the Torah, at least on this point about stoning adulterers. Even you, JA, would not have been such an enlightened thinker if you had been born 3,500 years ago.

jewish philosopher said...

Perhaps saying "God created life" is a simpler answer than saying "we don't know how life was created". Occam's razor has two edges.

beepbeepitsme said...

I am fascinated to watch people trying to justify stoning people to death.

jewish philosopher said...

What's so shocking about stoning? Do you think that modern prison life is so humane? You cannot stop crime with a slap on the risk.

Sadie Lou said...

Beep said...
I am fascinated to watch people trying to justify stoning people to death.

But what's the difference between stoning someone to death, hanging them, dragging them behind a horse, starvation...all of these were methods of the death penalty before people "evolved" into the more "moral" way of using death as a punishment.
Now they get a leathal injection and tons of people are fine with that. Some people even watch it.
Maybe civilization 1,000 years from now will look at our methods and think we were barbarbarians because they have designed an even more humane way of killing someone...
Now the previos thread is getting a bit off the topic of the OP but I would like to add that what are Christians today supposed to do with the passages of the OT?
I asked the question to Beep on her blog some time ago and I don't think I got a serious answer.
What effect should the OT have on our Christian lives today?
We live after Christ's redeeming work on the cross. We live after his teachings and parables. Jesus put to rest the restrictions and punishments of the Torah.
We don't stone our disobedient children or our adulterous spouses.
The law of the land prohibits it. The law of the land in the time of the OT was stoning--so how were God's people any different than anyone else? I heard an article today about a young, Muslim woman that pleaded with her OBGYN to sign a certificate saying that she was a virgin after his medical exam (which she wasn't). The doctor was expressing his concern to the press because often times, he'll do a virginity exam and after the results, he finds that his patient had her throat slit by her own parents in an act of unbearable sham and humiliation.
Muslim fundamentalists are different than Christian fundamentalists in that they have the law of the land supporting their wildly inexcusable retributions while Christian Fundamentals have to reconcile their actions against the Jesus of the New Testament and the law of the land.

Ezzie said...

(1) and (2) aren't really issues. The idea of a God allowing free will and evil to happen all are perfectly understandable; it would seem to make less sense to believe that God should have created a utopia - what's the point? Many people don't believe in (2) as you've written it.

(3) is a bit tougher, but let's flip the questions: If you're an atheist, and believe every cause has an effect and every effect is due to some cause, why does the Universe exist? Wouldn't that be a question that recurs? Why is killing wrong as opposed to survival of the fittest? Why should any generally accepted moral belief be true? Take out the incredible backbone of religious ideology and Western morality is reduced to nil. Sure, you can come up with interpretations and conclusions if you make assumptions that all of those things are "wrong", but those assumptions are based on... nothing, really.

If anything, it's Orthodoxy and the like that are doing more 'double-loop' thinking in that they're coming up with serious questions but are able to direct them all into one orderly interpretation.

It also doesn't make sense (in general) to mock the "simplicity" of answering God for so much while then decrying the numerous interpretations.

beepbeepitsme said...

If you can talk about how a clump of cells is a person and yet with the same voice try and justify stoning a fully formed human being to death - there is no hope for you.

asher said...

JA,
Could you apply this double loop theory to your defence of the theory of evolution....so what that there's no evidence...

This is what passes for intellectual ideas? I always thought the pilpul in the gemarah was a useless waste of time.

Ezzie said...

If you can talk about how a clump of cells is a person and yet with the same voice try and justify stoning a fully formed human being to death - there is no hope for you.

If you can talk about how a baby that is to be born is to be dumped into the garbage but a cold-blooded killer should be treated "nicely", there is no hope for you.

Chana said...

I like this post a lot. Thanks :D

beepbeepitsme said...

I was merely pointing out the inconsistency between protecting a clump of human cells and yet supporting the stoning to death of a fully formed, functioning and aware human being. There is nothing admirable or consistent in this position.

Jewish Atheist said...

Orthoprax:

While Occam's Razor does describe part of this way of thinking, I think it's more in line with general Kuhnian paradigm shifts.

Sort of. The post is more about what causes a paradigm shift in a single person. Why are some more likely than others to undergo one? What defenses do various paradigms have against being "shifted?"


Stephen: I don't argue that the scriptures are inerrant. Still, I think the biblical authors were, in some sense, inspired by God. Let me offer a few points in defence of the Torah.

This post was mainly addressed to people (i.e. Orthodox Jews) who believe that God literally dictated the Torah to Moses.


JP: Perhaps saying "God created life" is a simpler answer than saying "we don't know how life was created". Occam's razor has two edges.

"I have no need for that hypothesis, sir."


Sadie:

We live after Christ's redeeming work on the cross. We live after his teachings and parables. Jesus put to rest the restrictions and punishments of the Torah.

Again, the post was mostly aimed at Orthodox Jews. Christians have an entirely different take on the OT than Jews do.


Ezzie:

If anything, it's Orthodoxy and the like that are doing more 'double-loop' thinking in that they're coming up with serious questions but are able to direct them all into one orderly interpretation.

But the interpretation is not orderly at all! And they never modify their underlying assumptions, so unless they happened to get them right thousands of years ago...


asher: Could you apply this double loop theory to your defence of the theory of evolution

Sure. When Darwin and friends came along, the underlying assumption in the west was that the world was thousands of years old. Darwin et al looked at the data and rather than attempting to shoehorn it into the young-earth assumption, realized they had to start from scratch with an assumption that the world was much older. Obviously, they have been proven correct since then.


Chana:

I like this post a lot. Thanks :D

Thanks!! :-) I haven't been getting too much positive feedback from theists lately. ;-)

Stephen said...

• Beepbeep:

Apparently my argument went over your head. I did not defend stoning anyone to death. I defended a diferrent construct, justice tempered by mercy.

Actually, I don't think my argument went over your head. I think you disliked hearing a defence of scripture, so you responded by deliberately distorting my position.

I am open to authentic dialogue, but that sort of debating tactic is dishonorable.

Kullervo said...

Man, most of this stuff applies to Mormons times a bajillion.

beepbeepitsme said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
beepbeepitsme said...

stephen:

Apparently you didn't realize that I wasn't commenting upon your comments.

I find it objectionable that any supreme being, should it exist, would suggest that human beings kill each other by throwing rocks /stones at each other until they are dead.

Ever watched a stoning? If this is the will of a god, whichever god it is, it can kiss my aspidistra.

In fact, if such a being existed and this was its will, I would consider it honorable to disobey it.

Sadie Lou said...

I find it objectionable that any supreme being, should it exist, would suggest that human beings kill each other by throwing rocks /stones at each other until they are dead.

So it was God that suggested people stone each other to death to serve justice? You mean people weren't practicing that anyways? That was all God's idea? Or what?
Sounds like you're blaming God for a brutality man made up.

beepbeepitsme said...

sadie:

Sorry, if the bible is the word of god, then stoning to death at least for jews is supposed to be the law. (I hear lots of christians who support bringing back stoning. Yes, the insanity never ceases.)

You can't have it both ways. (The bible is the inerrant word of god except for the yucky bits or the bits I don't agree with.)

I remember you arguing on my blog that people lived to at least 400 years old in biblical times because afterall, the bible COULDN'T be wrong. I also remember you saying they lived to these fantastic ages because they had a better diet.

Come on now - believing that the bible or any religious book for that matter is literally true is bordering on wilful insanity.

Sadie Lou said...
This comment has been removed by the author.