Originally published November 15, 2011
When Confucius was asked what he would do first if he were in power, he responded: “Cleanse the definitions of terms we use!”
According to Confucius, nothing is so destructive for peace, justice and prosperity as confusing names and definitions.
To illustrate the question of what is real and what is not, Plato tells a story about a cave. In the middle of a cave, a number of prisoners sit against a small wall, chained there since childhood. They face one of the walls of the cave. Behind them there is a huge campfire that they cannot see. People walk between the campfire and the prisoners. All the prisoners can see is the shadows of these people on the cave’s wall in front of them. And because of the echo within the cave, even the sounds the people make seem to come from the direction of the shadows. To the prisoners, these shadows are the real world.
Now let’s assume, Plato continues, that one prisoner is released from his chains, gets up and walks around. At first, he will not recognize anything in this new reality, but after time he would adapt. He would understand more about the new world, and perhaps even understand how people walking alongside a campfire cast shadows on the wall. What would happen if he returned to the other prisoners and told them what he has learned? They would ignore him, ridicule him, and if not for their chains, probably kill him.
What Plato is trying to tell us is that a philosopher is like a prisoner freed from the cave, trying to understand reality. On a deeper level, Plato explains that the words we have for things refer to concepts in our mind; in other words, the shadows. We perceive reality through these concepts. Plato’s Cave is an old story, but still told in many variations. For instance, Plato’s Cave provides the philosophical basis for the film The Matrix, in which Morpheus explains to Neo: “How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see, then real is simply electrical signals interpreted by your brain.”
Plato’s Cave showed that what was reality to the prisoners was nothing but a shadow, covering the “true reality.” For centuries, philosophers have tried to break free of their chains and find the truth. The Enlightenment philosophers believed the world was a large “machine”, and it was man’s purpose to uncover the laws of nature through reason and understand how the world turns. Immanuel Kant spoke of the Categorical Imperative in his search of universal principles to decide what’s right and wrong. Throughout the Middle Ages, truth was a religious principle. Plato believed that everything we saw was just a reflection of an underlying concept, which Kant later called the thing as such (Ding an sich). Every tree is an example of the concept of treeness, every person an example of humanity, every chair an example of chairness.
But the postmodernists try to break away from the idea of truth. In their view, there can only be perception. Everything we perceive comes to us through our senses. What we see, what we feel, what we hear, and so forth. Perceptions can be communicated and shared, but this only means that reality is a social construct and can change anytime. Because perceptions are shared through language, truth and reality are culturally dependent. Think of the legend that Eskimos have nine different words for snow, or that doctors, accountants, lawyers and IT specialists have rich jargons to describe their truths and realities in much more detailed terms than those in other professions. Philosophers that shaped postmodernism include Søren Kierkegaard, Friedrich Nietzsche and Martin Heidegger. Although postmodernism has its critics as well, it is the dominant way of thinking today.
If we look through the postmodern lens, what more would Plato’s cave reveal? Let’s expand Plato’s thought experiment. To my knowledge, Plato never said the prisoners were not able or not allowed to talk. Let them talk, and have them describe what they see. The prisoners sitting on the ends of the row may describe the shadows close to them as very long, while the prisoners in the middle would characterize them as short. The cave is warm to those sitting close to the fire, but cold to those sitting farther away from it. Each would tell a different story. And, just for the sake of argument, let’s bring in time travel and introduce a video camera into ancient Greece. We’ll allow all prisoners to record their view of reality and share those recordings. Whose recording is true? They are all true.1 If they are smart enough, they will detect a pattern if they each describe their reality from left to right. In fact, let’s take the experiment one step further, and allow the prisoners to turn around. They can see the fire and all the people moving through the cave, but are still chained to the wall. They would still each describe a slightly different view on reality.
In short, postmodernists wouldn’t describe truth in terms of the shadow on the wall, and their underlying reality, they would describe it in relative terms; i.e., relative toward other perceivers regardless of whether they are looking at the shadows or the real people. In other words, truth is not in the objects we examine, not in the things as such, but in the eye of the beholder.
Although we live in the postmodern world, IT professionals (and many other business professionals as well) are firmly entrenched in classic times. In the tradition of Plato and Kant, there must be a universal underlying truth to things, and all we have to do is apply reason to uncover it. Sure, it may change over time, but hopefully only to move even closer to the “true truth.”
It is in the field of information management that this classic attitude is most visible. Professionals concerned with defining key performance indicators, putting together organizational taxonomies and building data warehouses have been looking for a single version of the truth since the advent of the information management discipline. It seems that most organizations have fundamental alignment issues in defining the terminology they use. In fact, I have formulated a “law” that describes the gravity of the problem: The more a term is connected to the core of the business, the more numerous are its definitions. There might be ten or more definitions of what constitutes revenue in a sales organization, what a flight means to an airline or how to define a customer for a mobile telephone provider.
Few have been successful in reaching one version of the truth. Business managers have fiercely resisted. Machiavelli might have pointed toward political motives of business managers since a single version of the truth would limit their flexibility to choose the version of the truth that fits their story best. However, IT professionals say business managers should see that the benefits of satisfying their own goals are less important than the satisfaction of contributing to the success of the overall organization. In fact, ignoring less important needs for the benefit of higher pleasures is a hallmark of human civilization. So much for civilization if we can’t even achieve this in the workplace.
Are IT specialists fighting windmills like Don Quixote? As I’ve discussed, the philosophers disagree whether there is a single objective truth or not.2 Postmodernists go only as far as to suppose joint observations, but others come to the aid of the classical IT professional. The American philosophical school of pragmatism states that we can call a statement true when it does all the jobs required of it. It fits all the known facts; matches with other well-tested theories, experiences and laws; withstands criticism; suggests useful insights and provides accurate predictions. If this is all the case, what stops us from calling it "true"?
But let’s stick to postmodernism for a while. To explain the failure of reaching a single version of the truth, postmodernists would point to the IT professionals themselves – they are simply misguided.
There actually is a very elegant and simple solution for the "one version of the truth" problem. “What is it?” I can hear you ask. I'll share that with you in my next article.
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