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.