An Examination of Conversation

My last post received a couple of comments that raised a few good points which I think dovetail very nicely with my attempt to "relocate" Agile Conversations to a firmer foundation.

One point was that the distinction between reality and fiction was flat and potentially unhelpful. I will admit that I intentionally shut off certain avenues of consideration as I was afraid I would inject my own meaning into the words used by the authors of the book and who they quoted, rather than what they actually meant. Here I must acknowledge a limitation of human languages: We can use two different words to mean the same thing and use the same word to mean two different things. This limitation is why I focused on the word "fiction" and what was meant when Yuval Harari or Douglas Squirrel or Jeffrey Fredrick used it. Now that I'm not as focused on what they meant, I feel a little freer to explore possible alternative meanings.

A second point introduced an excellent alternative meaning. "Fiction" could be interpreted as "model", which would address most of my concerns and still fit the intent of the authors. I like the word "model" and prefer it to "fiction" since all models are an acknowledged attempt to imitate reality. Applying this to Agile Conversations, I see that the authors are giving the reader the tools and techniques to build and improve a conversational model. This model can then be used within a business context to build and improve a shared model of the business constraints and customer needs. So using "Model" definitely fits within the authors' state goals for "Agile Conversations", yet I think only focusing on the model drops an important aspect that exists in the word "fiction".

A third point hinted at this important aspect: for a model to be useful, it must fit within a specific context and scope, and meet certain goals. To evaluate a model, we need something in addition to consider. I think we would need the story of how the model came into existence, the insights that led to its creation, and any oversights that had to be overcome during its creation and development. This story would explain the constraints or invariants that made the model usable in our particular context and gave us confidence that it would met our goals. Sometimes, however, the story does not satisfy because it goes against our experience or previously accepted stories. To truly determine the potential usefulness of the model, we may need to re-examine it based on statements that, once we understand the meaning of the words, we cannot but assent that they are true. These statements are often referred to as first principles.

The first principles can be grasped through the interaction of two different human activities. The first activity is the human ability to sense the world, the second is the human ability to reflect on what it has sensed. Because these principles are grasped from how we can know reality, it means that they apply to all branches of knowledge. Working from these principles is rather slow and difficult, which is why we rely on stories that assume them and the conclusions that come from them.

Conversations build on top of this natural human ability to grasp first principles. According to Merriam-Webster Online the definition of conversation is:

  • oral exchange of sentiments, observations, opinions, or ideas
  • an instance of such exchange: talk
  • Conduct, Behavior

The brief etymology stated that "conversation derived from Middle English conversacioun, which came from Anglo-French conversacion, which in turn came from Latin conversation-, conversatio, from conversari "to associate with", frequentative of convertere "to turn around".

Combining the current definition and the original Latin definition, we end up with the rough meaning of "To turn over with another". When we are in conversation, we are "turning over" the topic being discussed. This aligns with the two human activities relied upon to recognize the first principles. Two or more people sense some reality and then reflect together on what they sensed. As we can see from the limitation of language and human perception, we know that each person will arrive at different conclusions about the same reality. Sharing those different conclusions and seeking to build a consistent and shared model based on those conclusions while weeding out incorrect conclusions using first principles is precisely what the authors of Agile Conversations are seeking to do. Conversations can take what each person can do with grasping truths about the world, and turn it up to 11.

However, without a firm foundation in first principles, we can accept stories that assume wrong conclusions or deny certain first principles. This can make conversations unproductive if not downright impossible. The denial of first principles can arise from either rejecting the senses as a source of knowledge by claiming that they are utterly unreliable, or by rejecting that the human mind can grasp reality and claiming that the senses are the only source of knowledge. Now there is some truth to both statements, as we can see in the cognitive biases or perceptual delusions that human beings can experience. Yet without both actions, the sensing and the reflecting, we would be unable to know anything, which we can prove from first principles.

For a short and inadequate version of the argument:
- Through our senses, we are aware that everything is changing
- Through reflection on what we sense, we can grasp what is fixed, what are the laws the govern the changes that we see.
- If the senses are unreliable, then we couldn't know that things change, and be unable to determine the fixed laws
- If nothing is fixed, then we would not be able to determine that a change had happened, much less be able to predict how something changes or when something would change.

This would contradict the first principle that "Being is, Non-being is not". the changes that we grasp through the senses are too real to be dismissed, and the fixed laws which govern those changes and can only be grasped through the intelligence are also too real to be dismissed. As an example, you cannot say that the law of evolution exists, and then say that evolution proves there are no fixed laws

Taken from God and Intelligence in Modern Philosophy by Fulton J. Sheen.

With all this in mind, I now need to turn back to the original concept of "shared fictions" and see if I have laid out a firmer foundation for "Agile Conversations". The problem that I see with "shared fictions" is that it promotes the idea that there are no fundamental truths or first principles about the world. I will admit the possibility that my perception is wrong but it is very difficult to do so when the development of shared fictions arises from an evolutionary process that appears to violate the first principle that the greater cannot come from the lesser. I also don't see what would prevent one shared fiction from being replaced with another, even if they both made the opposite claims about reality. Building upon such a foundation would be like building on sand. However, if the stories and models about our everyday experience are grounded in first principles, while it may not be perfect, would not be liable to shifting around just because an alternative fiction became more popular.

I hope this blog post sufficiently explains my concerns and responds to the comments that I have received while writing the last two. These posts were a lot harder than I thought they would be as I had to think a lot deeper than I probably would have. Since I've now told my story, I would like to open this up for a conversation. Feel free to reach out to me either in the comments or the various platforms that I hang out on.

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