Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Perception, Misperception and Counterfactuals

An alternative title for this post would be "Requirement Underpinnings".

To begin, let's fence off the philosophical brink of solipsism. The practical world of providing value to stakeholders (whatever that means) is grounded by the assumption that there is a "real world" that is capable of change. This "real world" is assumed to be the source of sensory inputs that lead to perception. In this context, "perception" is distinguished from "reception". That is, for example, whereas the eye receives sensory input in the form of photons interacting with the retina, the mind perceives an image. Exactly how this happens need not concern us; suffice it to say that it is a complex distributed process that is less than perfect.

Perception, then, is an imperfect representation of an external reality: a model, a set of beliefs, a theory. So how does it differ from misperception? Psychologically, there is no real distinction, at the time of (mis)perception: misperceived reality is as real to the misperceiver as perceived reality is to perceiver. This is similar to the semantic distinction between knowledge and belief. Part of the distinction, skirting the epistemological minefield, is that knowledge is "true" by definition. Likewise, perceptions are "more accurate" beliefs whereas misperceptions are "materially inaccurate". Another distinction between knowledge and belief, also applicable to (mis)perception, is the degree of conviction. For a belief to be a plausible candidate for the epithet "knowledge", within the mind of the believer, the believer must be convinced of its "truth".

It is to be hoped that "requirements" are underpinned by accurate perception rather than inaccurate misperception. Although in practice this cannot be assumed to be the case, we can assume that it is for the purpose of this exposition. When a mind contemplates the "real world" being different from how it is, it is operating in the domain of "counterfactuals", rather than "misperception". The psychologigal reaction to the difference between (perceived) actuality (or "real world") and the (contemplated) counterfactual is some combination of attraction and aversion. Leaving aside deeper consideration of the theory of mind, it seems to be in the interplay between such reactions to the counterfactual that the intention to sustain or alter the actuality arises.

To some extent, such reactions may be rational. And to some extent, non-rational reactions may be perceived by the mind itsef as rational. This, however, is a topic for another time. The term used here to represent the complex intention of the mind is "value". We put to one side the psychological processes that lead to the perception of "value", together with the underlying conflicts that, in practice, are often the source of inconsistency. So our focus is on the conscious and rational perception of value in the mind. This is not to suggest that "requirements" cannot arise from the non-rational or non-conscious, however.

So we move on to effecting or preventing real change to the actuality. Because the mind perceives positive or negative value from a contemplated change, it makes decisions that it believes will increase the likelihood that its more valued state of affairs will be the actuality. By the effect of these decisions, "words" and "deeds" (and silence and inaction), another mind draws inferences about what is valued. There is, in short, "communication". Communication is necessarily imperfect, since it is a form of perception; the perceiving mind incorporates beliefs about the other mind into its model of external actuality (and, indirectly, into its couterfactual models). The important point is that communicated value is qualitatively different from uncommunicated value. Under what circumstances either should be considered a "requirement" is, of course, purely a question of semantics. But it is only in the realm of communicated value that the "requirements practitioner" can operate, whether by stimulating or responding to the communication.

How communicated value translates into explicit requirements (however imperfectly specified) is considered in an earlier post.

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