People kill me.
Our species has the knowledge and the power to turn this world into a pleasure garden, a paradise not only for ourselves but for every living thing.
We fail to make good on that opportunity because we have made dissembling and divisiveness a cultural norm and we raise each new generation of children up in it. It takes many forms including:
- cognitive bias
- implicit association
- logical fallacy
- emotional plague
- mass psychology
- false memes
- psychological narratives
- magical thinking
I have of late–but wherefore I know not–lost all my mirth, forgone all
custom of exercises; and indeed it goes so heavily
with my disposition that this goodly frame, the
earth, seems to me a sterile promontory, this most
excellent canopy, the air, look you, this brave
o’erhanging firmament, this majestical roof fretted
with golden fire, why, it appears no other thing to
me than a foul and pestilent congregation of vapours.
What a piece of work is a man! how noble in reason!
how infinite in faculty! in form and moving how
express and admirable! in action how like an angel!
in apprehension how like a god! the beauty of the
world! the paragon of animals! And yet, to me,
what is this quintessence of dust? man delights not
me: no, nor woman neither…
The theory of progress says that over time the better “angels” of our natures gradually win out over the darker, more primitive parts of ourselves and civilization progresses towards something more and more noble and ideal.
That might be a real possibility except for one thing: each new human child quickly learns that every adult, every authority figure in its world, is a big fat liar. The child quickly learns that to be a proper human it must become a world-class liar.
How do the best liars achieve their success? We have a lot of names for it but in my opinion the best description of the art of lying goes under the label of “method acting.” Children pick it up and take to it like ducks take to water.
However highly the art of lying has been developed by human culture, it appears to have its roots deeply embedded in biology. Evolutionary psychology, experimental psychology, and game theory shed some light on the value of deception to the proliferation of genes. What it all adds up to is that we truly are born liars. And one of the first people we lie to is ourselves.
How facts backfire:
The evolution of self-deception
The great emphasis of early brain development in humans is on mastery of the all-important social skill set. By the time an infant has learned to read its parents’ emotions and facial expressions it has begun learning the art of deception. By the time it can speak, it has mastered the fundamentals of lying, including the all-important method for making a lie as believable as possible–believing it oneself.
Lying is one of those skills that helps one gene lineage compete against others, so that it tends to increase in prevalence within the species as a whole. Ironically, the cumulative distortions of reality within the species as a whole explain our tendency towards mass self-destruction. What is good for individual survival also happens to spell suicide for the species as a whole. Richard Dawkins maintains self-preservation leads to annihilation of species, and eventually, if the mindset or actions persist, radical destruction
of interrelated and symbiotic organisms (Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 1989 p.8).
In earlier periods of human history, nature was able to select for critical thinking skills. There were still natural niches that favored the survival of humans who had more accurate perceptions of reality over those whose cognitive maps of reality were more severely distorted by self-delusion and unconscious cognitive bias. In modern times such niches have disappeared. Now, social selection criteria, such as the “go along to get along” rule, outweigh all natural selective forces. Nature can now save itself only by decimating our entire species and sending whatever human population that survives back to the stone age.
Opportunity knocks…for a while
That isn’t why people kill me, though. The epidemiology of self-delusion is biology’s fault. But the reason that people kill me is that we could do something about it, but we don’t. On a scientific level we have enough knowledge to reprogram our brains, re-engineer our culture, and fix almost everything. We could have started doing it a hundred years ago. For our species, social selection transcended natural selection centuries ago, but social selection has proceeded in a primitive Malthusian pattern rather than according to any progressive plan. Rather than slowing down the rate at which we approach our self-destruction, we are constantly speeding it up.
The Enlightenment 2.0
There is a point at which we must stop saying our biological nature alone makes us behave irrationally as a species and we must take some cognitive responsibility. That is equivalent to reaching the end of our cultural adolescence, to our species reaching it’s age of majority. That’s the point at which I blame people, and not nature, for killing me.
The “Age of Reason” is said to have begun in the 17th century, but reports of its birth (like the reports of Mark Twain’s death) have been greatly exaggerated. Reason has been emerging in our species for thousands of years, but it has not yet taken a majority position in our neural networks and cognitive processes.
We now have perhaps fifty years in which to achieve true cultural enlightenment or perish. The challenges faced by the Chinese Cultural Revolution were trivial in comparison to the global cultural revolution of enlightenment 2.0 that we must now undertake. We have top down, authoritarian methods and grassroots, democratic methods to choose from. The former will be necessitated by default if the job is not accomplished proactively by the latter methods.
The Enlightenment 2.0 is founded on two pillars: 1) information quality control, and 2) cognitive hygiene.
Our biased thinking is enabled and supported by distorted information. Distorted information is what propaganda and spin are made of. Distorted information is also what self-delusion is constructed from. Distorted information is a type of information pollution.
We have two fledgling technologies for enabling information quality control and filtering out information pollution. The best existing models for these are Wikipedia and Google. The United Nations, The US National Science Foundation, and other national and international science bodies need to partner with Google and Wikipedia to create a massive global initiative to establish trustworthy, pollution-free, public information.
Of course, the Internet search technology, loosely modeled on Google, needs to be implemented as a public, open sourced platform, free of advertising and other conflicts of interest. The key functional feature is the page ranking algorithm, which must rank information primarily by quality rather than by popularity or any other metric.
The global knowledge-base already has a good model (in Wikipedia) of a democratic, grass-roots infrastructure. The problem there would be overwhelming that model with a sudden infusion of billions of dollars of capital and millions of new contributors, editors, and administrators. All existing public documents, peer-reviewed scientific and academic publications, databases, etc. must also be merged into this global, universal “Wikipedia”.
In addition to the two information quality technologies above, we need to pour billions of dollars into the science and technology of cognitive hygiene, which is essentially a program for re-engineering the cognitive functions of the brain to reduce the predictable irrationality resulting from self-ignorance and self-deception.
Mindfulness training and forms of meditation, discovery of unconscious cognitive biases and implicit associations, recognition of logical fallacies, concentration and conscious control of attention, self-observation, and many other cognitive skills and abilities are taught/coached in academic settings devoid of any of the “spiritual” overtones often associated with traditional methods of mental training.
In the case of meditation and concentration, various kinds of biofeedback can quantify and optimize neural states. In the case of unconscious cognitive bias and implicit associations the degree of bias or strength of associations can be numerically quantified by computer testing. This is only the tip of the iceberg compared to the kinds of cognitive hygiene methodology that will soon be available. At some point in the near future I hope that cognitive neuroscience and cognitive hygiene can be mapped onto video game technology for mass markets.
This is not a joke.
If the human species is to achieve its rational majority within the next 50 years , a radical cognitive revolution along the lines of what I have outlined here is probably the critical path.
Related PRA 2010 posts:
- The Science and Psychology of Lying – Psychological Book Review … (revelator.org)
- Liar, liar: Why deception is our way of life (newscientist.com)
- Born to lie (theage.com.au)
- The science of lying: Why the truth really can hurt (independent.co.uk)
List of Cognitive Biases (Rational Wiki)
Forthcoming in Global Catastrophic Risks, eds. Nick Bostrom and Milan Cirkovic
Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, Palo Alto, CA