A profound irony

We credit human beings with the greatest magnitude and scope of cognitive abilities of any species on earth. Furthermore, to our intrinsic biological intelligence we have added numerous prosthetics and enhancements:

  • language
  • culture
  • science (scientific method)
  • numerous technologies for gathering, recording, testing, communicating, and processing information
  • neuroprosthetics

Rodin’s Thinker

But here is a staggeringly profound irony:

With all this enhanced and aggregated cognitive ability, we are still unable to collectively choose between two familiar but diametrically opposed descriptions of reality with much greater consensus than a public coin toss would produce.

Specifically, polls indicate that across a very large and relatively well-advantaged sample of our species, namely US citizens, biases are about evenly divided between a reactionaryauthoritarian (e.g. Republican Party) description of reality and a progressiveegalitarian (e.g. Democratic party) description of reality.

However, the typical political poll is not specifically designed to question the “true” (and often well-concealed) behavior of political party “machines”. At that level there may not be a hair’s breadth of difference between the two major parties. Instead, I think election-season polls tend to  reveal the belief systems, world-views, or cultural narratives that are preferred by responders if we sort them, according to best fit, into just two buckets. Party platforms and rhetoric can then serve as rough but ready proxies for two contrasting views or models of reality. Such a binary complement of proxies is a handy shortcut for getting at deep, underlying belief systems of the electorate.  Since opposing positions on issues such as trade, climate, taxes, education, gender, etc. can be framed or spun in the most innocuous terms by those on each side, conservatives can freely express their bias towards “job creators” and against “entitlements” at the same time that progressives can favor the “working poor” over the “1%” in reference to the very same groups of actual people. These disinhibiting euphemisms and epithets selectively employed by each side give them to inadvertently expose their implicit attitudes and cognitive biases with (they believe) little or no obvious stigma attached.

Now, as far as the approaching US election is concerned, voting for any presidential candidate other than Romney or Obama is practically equivalent to not casting a vote at all. Sure–many on the right dislike Romney and many on the left have problems with Obama’s record that may influence them to vote for “third party” candidates or to blow off voting altogether. I think either of those choices fails to properly compute the effect of the election on the prestige or reputation of the winning and loosing narratives or world-views, regardless of the anticipated and/or the actual post-election governing behavior of those who get elected.

The right and left have two very different public narratives about the world, despite how similarly the parties and the politicians may actually govern in office. The difference in the “spirit” of the two platforms and the associated rhetoric is really quite obvious and profound. The fact that politicians routinely get away with saying one thing and doing another doesn’t mean that narrative doesn’t count or that voting doesn’t have consequences. The fact that voting doesn’t matter as much as we wish it did doesn’t mean that voting is completely irrelevant. Non-voting and voting for unelectable candidates are inconsistent with enlightened self-interest because reinforcing the reputation of one’s preferred world-view has non-zero consequences.

On the other hand, if a third party platform or candidate represents some world view better than either major party, the marginal theoretical difference is pretty much lost right along with the election-day results. The value of  third parties is all in the campaign period (debates, etc.) prior to the election. The value of any “message” a third-party vote sends to a post-election public may be (arguably) slightly greater than zero, but seldom by much. No matter how perfect a third party may seem compared with a just plain “lesser evil” party, the bottom line in the voting booth is almost always the same: the perfect is the enemy (not the champion, savior, or super-hero) of the good. And IMHO that’s about as close to a self-evident axiom (supported by overwhelming empirical data) or pearl of wisdom as you can find anywhere.

Thus the smartest cohort of eligible US citizens will be overcoming the various barriers erected by incumbent powers and voting for one of the two major parties. How they vote will reflect their beliefs about reality. But as things stand, the electorate appears fairly evenly divided this year. So to sum up, in what is arguably an election for the most powerful public offices of Planet Earth, the collective intelligence of homo sapiens as of this great year of 2012 has evolved to an effective level of utility roughly equivalent to a coin toss.

Yet this is hardly the supreme irony of human intelligence. As we embark upon catastrophic anthropogenic climate change and the Sixth Great Extinction of living species (possibly to include our own), we may wish to reconsider our definitions of the word intelligence.

What a piece of work is man, How noble in Reason…” (Shakespeare’s Hamlet, 1603)


Poor Richard

Why America Failed

[Book TV (CSPAN) also covered this recently.]

In Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline Morris Berman makes some great points, such as:  “Education” and “communication” per se (exposure to facts, rational arguments, etc.) can not produce fundamental changes in US society.

The influence of biases in “human nature” (e.g. emotion, cognitive biases, etc.) on our national identity, cognition, and social behavior are too deeply rooted. No matter how hard we try to “communicate” and “educate”, the breakdown of  society is largely an irreversible trend. The behavioral adaptations that are demanded of us if we are to survive the rapid changes in our population, environment, etc. are all but ruled out by the cognitive biases built into us by evolution.

C-SPAN video: Book Discussion on Why America Failed: The Roots of Imperial Decline

“Morris Berman talked about the third book in his trilogy on the decline of the American empire. In this talk, titled “The Way We Live Today,” he argued that self-interest trumping the common good has led the U.S. astray.”

Other C-SPAN videos with Morris Berman


Philosophers from Kant to Wittgenstein to Rorty have speculated that perhaps problems of philosophy are really problems of language.

Thinking and communicating are messy processes. I want to serve up a freshly boiled mess, so put on your lobster bib.

Thinking happens in stages or layers. The most basic layer I think I understand somewhat is a process of forming sets or clusters of loosely-structured associations.

Neurons in the brain are organized in layers, columns, clusters, modules, and networked circuits. The organization is dynamically configurable. Different logical associations between  the layers, columns, clusters, modules, and networks are forming and reforming to accomplish different jobs.

One of those jobs is to assemble sets of associations that are organized around some theme. Lets say this set of associations on a common theme is the precursor of a unit of thought. I’ll call this cluster of associations on a theme a proto-thought. This proto-thought is not yet something that is represented in language. It is just a semi-structured set of associations–associations between various items that have been plucked from memory or incoming sensory data and grouped together around some theme. This semi-structured cluster of associations comes bubbling up from wherever it was assembled into a “higher” layer or network of the brain and it gets a snippet of language assigned to it–perhaps a word or group of words.

The snippet of language is like a container that is selected to hold the proto-thought so it can be further “handled” without falling apart or dissolving or getting mixed up with other proto-thoughts. The upside of using this language container is that it gives the proto-thought some persistence and some ease-of-handling properties.

The downside of using the container is that the proto-thought is somewhat fluid and, like any fluid, once in the container it assumes the shape of that container.

In assuming the shape of the container some of the original structure of the proto-thought is altered.

Once altered, its exact, original structure is forever gone. That change in structure that results from assuming the shape of the container represents a change of information or meaning. So the more closely the shape of the container matches the original shape of the proto-thought the less the original information or meaning of that proto-thought is altered. To retain as much fidelity to the original information as possible it is very important for the brain to select a container that matches the original shape of the  proto-thought as closely as possible.

Once the language packaging is completed a unit of proto-thought becomes a unit of thought.

As the thought-binding process proceeds, many such units of thought are passed on for futher processing and assembly into bundles. By this point the thought may have become a sentence or even a pragraph. These bundles of thought continue to be combined and recombined according to some purpose the brain has set for itself. This may involve only internal self-talk or it may eventually be transmitted in some finished form to another person.

As batches of  language are received by another person they are unpacked and parsed in roughly the reverse of the original process of assembly. They are broken down into units small enough to compare against the reciever’s own internal inventory of “stock” language containers.  The fluid contents of those stock language containers are then poured into another part of the receiver’s brain where they become absorbed as proto-thoughts.

The above is only intended to be taken metaphorically. The details are not important–the main point is that features of language modify and limit the content, shape, and  meaning of our thoughts. In the transition of associations into and out of language, information is lost and noise (which may be interpreted as information) is added.

We can’t really think outside the box of language –or even if we sometimes do, these non-language-conforming thoughts will be very transient. They will quickly “snap” into conformation with language, loosing some of the original meaning. In this way language is a powerful “snap grid” that makes it difficult for us to read or write outside the lines. I think this may be one of the neuro-cognitive underpinnings of confirmation bias.

The take-away message is that we must examine our use of language, especially our choice of vocabulary, very closely. It not only affects how we communicate, It affects how we think.

Speech was given to man to conceal his thoughts.“—Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand

Poor Richard


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