Externalizing Reality

In economic theory, an externality is any cost or benefit not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss. Classic examples are the cost of pollution not included in the price of a manufactured product, the death of coal miners not included in the price of electricity, and the cost of mass murder or the little matter of global warming not included in the price of oil and gasoline.

Economic externalities are only a small subset of a more general category I call cognitive externalities–anything that is filtered out of our mental picture of the world around us.

We all externalize parts of reality, not because they are unknowable, but because they are unpleasant or inconvenient. That is the principal basis of all our corruption, all our dis-enlightenment. We all do it. Its in our DNA. But the costs or consequences of externalities in economic models or in any other domain of reality, are disproportionately borne by the poor and powerless. One of the worst examples of externalized reality is this: despite some remnants of local color from country to country, the new world order is a global East India Company with helicopter gunships. A Martian anthropologist studying the last five thousand years or so of human history would have to conclude that the primary industry of our species is conducting mass murder for profit and that the masses, even in the dominant cultures, have all devolved into cargo cults.

If cargo cults are mentioned in anyone’s personal library of mental narratives they probably take the form of a story about the peculiar behavior of small numbers of black natives somewhere on the coast of Africa in some prior century. Am I the only person with a story in her head about how that same behavior shows through in all of us under the euphemistic label of “consumerism”?

People live by stories. Each person’s head holds a library of short and long narratives and we pull one off the shelf that fits something about any particular situation or circumstance we meet from moment to moment. Too often these stories are on the level of children’s picture books, suggesting simple but wrong solutions to complex problems or situations. Most of us have stories about history that are wrong, stories about our families that are wrong, stories about nature that are wrong, and stories about ourselves that are wrong. And anything that doesn’t exist in the current active mental story, right or wrong, is externalized from a person’s reality in that moment.

Sometimes, reality is externalized on purpose. The principle weapon of special interests today is information asymmetry, a simple idea (better known to most of us as fraud, deception, marketing, public relations, spin, infotainment, etc.) that won a Nobel Prize for economics. This has resulted in a vast and thriving industry of disinformation and information pollution that corrupts and perverts every institution of society. But by far the most destructive lies are the ones we tell ourselves.

Our addiction to self delusion is encouraged and enabled by a liar’s code. If you don’t unmask me I won’t defrock you. Popes, presidents, senators, CEO’s, teachers, and parents set the example for one and all.

Of course there is such a thing as an ethical (justified) lie, a lesser evil than some dire alternative, but self deception dissolves sanity itself. Identity itself becomes externalized. Self awareness fails and then, as Yeats said, “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold; Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.” This is the truly unpardonable sin. But it won’t be avoided by force of will, strength of character, or high moral ideals. Our cognitive deformity, self-delusion, settled upon us by evolution, will be undone not by willpower, for which humanity is not noted, but mostly by wit, art and innovation–things we are good at.

The opposite of the unpardonable sin of self deception is liberation from self-imposed delusion–especially delusions about ourselves. The ability to tolerate cognitive dissonance and look clearly at uncomfortable facts is the essence of authentic enlightenment. It was inscribed on the entrance of the ancient Greek Temple of the Oracle at Delphi: “Know Thyself.”

Externalizing inconvenient reality (sometimes called denial, self deception, willful ignorance, or preserving cognitive consonance) is a coping mechanism. I would never suggest that we discard a coping mechanism without replacing the truly protective parts of it with something new. In fact with many, many new things.

The Greeks knew what they didn’t know (self-knowledge) but their philosophical methods were empirically weak. Today we know how to come by that knowledge–by the scientific method. We must discover and invent new cognitive prophylactics and prosthetics not as Sir Thomas Moore invented Utopia or as Reagan-era bean counters invented “Trickle-Down Economics”, but as Eli Whitney invented the cotton gin: with all the real working parts. We need a science and technology of cognitive hygiene and end-to-end information quality control. Despite living in an “age of science,” we still mostly resort to authority and reputation to judge the quality of information. I guess there are many reasons that “fact checking” remains in the dark ages. Information Quality Management is fine for database administrators, but we human beings reserve the right to our own facts, just as we reserve the right to mate with the worst possible partner. Still, without surrendering such rights, it might be nice if the scientific/academic community devoted more effort to producing a science and technology of information quality assurance that we could consult or ignore at our own risk.

In addition to empirical knowledge, like that which we might gain from brain signals, functional MRI pictures, or implicit association tests, enlightenment grows from coaching and practice with the object of re-engineering faulty parts of the operating system of the brain. Unlike genetic engineering, it requires exercise and training much as any physical, athletic ability.

I’m not drumming up a utopia built on some cult of cognitive science. But we MUST discover alternative practical means to protect ourselves from that suffering which we seek to evade by externalizing reality. As we do, we may find that workable solutions to nearly every other problem and crisis are already on the table.

Poor Richard

“The Beginning of Wisdom 3.0”

“The Enlightenment 2.0″

“The Inner Hunchback”

“Is Spiritual the New Supernatural?”

7 Responses to “Externalizing Reality”

  1. Ronald Rutherford Says:

    Hello PoorRichard.
    I have heard and again it was stated that you were banned from Thomland. Is that correct. Some were even questioning your “authenticity”.

    We come from different political directions but just wanted to contact you as I am open to talking to people with different points of view. Email me if you have further questions.

    About myself, I have been on Thomland’s forums for nearly 5 years and all the regulars will know my name. Anyway,

    Carry on…
    Ron Rutherford

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Mr. Rutherford,

      I appreciate your visiting PRA 2010 and leaving a comment.

      It is true that I was banned from the thomhartmann.com discussion forum. I was given neither a warning nor a reason and I don’t have enough information to speculate on their beliefs about me or their motives.

      Whatever their reasons, though, I’d have to say their process sucks and does them no credit.

      Poor Richard

  2. Ronald Rutherford Says:

    By the way, technically an economist would state you have it wrong on externalities but worthy of a B or C in class.

    Carry on…

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Mr. Rutherford,

      Just for fun, why don’t you explain what you think I have wrong about externalities instead of just making a categorical statement that no one can evaluate for truth? I would be glad to correct my views if I had enough information to make that possible.

      Poor Richard

  3. Ronald Rutherford Says:

    Externality is technically not derived from profit and loss but simply costs or benefits that third parties are exposed to because of market transactions-although I have tried to state any action by individuals including non-market transactions to my professors. Wiki provides this: “In economics, an externality (or transaction spillover) is a cost or benefit, not transmitted through prices[1], incurred by a party who did not agree to the action causing the cost or benefit. A benefit in this case is called a positive externality or external benefit, while a cost is called a negative externality or external cost.” Externality – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

    Sorry about the banning as I have experienced the same arbitrary application of even their own rules. I am sure our group is not your cup of tea but a few of the conservatives have formed a group at: Forum – My Forum
    I am sure even if there is a political divide, we would love to hear about your story. If you want, we also should have some email addresses if you want to appeal to Thom.

    Carry on…

    • Poor Richard Says:

      Thanks for taking the time to explain your point about externalities. In my post I wrote that “an externality is anything not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss.” I will change this to say an “externality is any cost or benefit not accounted for in a calculation of profit or loss.” Does that bring my statement in line with the definitions you refer to? Please keep in mind that only my first paragraph deals with economics per se and I don’t want that paragraph to be too technical. With that in mind, please feel free to suggest alternate wording.

      I am not really interested in appealing to the Hartmann organization or in taking any sides pro or con regarding that organization at other venues, but thanks for the invitation.

      In this venue, however, I am willing to say that I am disappointed in the process (or complete lack of it) that I experienced when I was summarily banned from that forum without so much as a word of explanation. I don’t think that I broke any of the rules, but it seems I’ll never know what “case” they had against me since my email asking about it has not been answered.

      I gathered from comments that a moderator made publicly to other members that I was suspected of being someone other than who I represented myself to be and that I was part of some conspiracy to disrupt their forum.

      I have never written online under any name other than Poor Richard and I am not in cahoots with anybody. I wish the Hartmann organization all the best and have no wish to cause them any difficulties. If I have any criticism of their online forum it is only that they should not allow their moderators to take sides in debates on issues in order to preserve the highest possible impartiality while enforcing the rules.

      I think they should be able to figure that out for themselves, though, and I am not interested in sending them any more emails.


  4. New Word: euphemasia « Poor Richard's Almanack 2010 Says:

    […] Comments Poor Richard on Atheism 2.0n8chz on Atheism 2.0Externalizing Realit… on The beginning of wisdom 3…Poor Richard on Love’s labor lost?Karl on […]

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