Rage against the algorithms | mathbabe

“[A]lgorithms are becoming ever more important in society, for everything from search engine personalizationdiscriminationdefamation, and censorship online, to how teachers are evaluated, how markets work, how political campaigns are run, and even how something like immigration is policed. Algorithms, driven by vast troves of data, are the new power brokers in society, both in the corporate world as well as in government.

“They have biases like the rest of us. And they make mistakes. But they’re opaque, hiding their secrets behind layers of complexity. How can we deal with the power that algorithms may exert on us? How can we better understand where they might be wronging us? […]

“Algorithms are essentially black boxes, exposing an input and output without betraying any of their inner organs. You can’t see what’s going on inside directly, but if you vary the inputs in enough different ways and pay close attention to the outputs, you can start piecing together some likeness for how the algorithm transforms each input into an output. The black box starts to divulge some secrets.”

More… via Guest post: Rage against the algorithms | mathbabe.

CONTRARY BRIN: Shall we give up on reason?

Will we genetic-cavemen ever become the logical beings we flatter ourselves into believing we are? Or that Science Fiction says we might become?  Recent research suggests that we have a long slog ahead of us… and yes, even the smartest best-educated folks allow their pre-set beliefs and passions to interfere with basic mental processes, if their close-held biases might be under threat. Indeed we have all seen this tenacity in online arguments, in which cogent – even devastating and fact-rich — rebuttals don’t sway the other guy even an iota. See: Scientists’ depressing new discovery about the brain.
 
We already knew this. The Dunning–Kruger effect is a cognitive bias in which unskilled individuals suffer from illusory superiority, mistakenly rating their ability much higher than average. This bias is attributed to a metacognitive inability of the unskilled to recognize their mistakes. Clearly this is what goes on as know-nothings rage against scientists and other professionals. –David Brin

via CONTRARY BRIN.

—————————————————

If the Dunning–Kruger effect describes the delusional superiority of unskilled know-nothings, what should we call the brilliant self-delusions hatched by our best and brightest minds? The cognitively biased genius may be a greater threat to the fate of civilization than the self-deluded dumb-ass.

Bertrand-Russell-the-whole-problem-with-the-world-is-that-fools-and-fantatics-are-always-so-certain-of-themselves-wiser-pepole-so-full-of-doubts

Notice that Russell says wiser people are full of doubts–not smarter people or better-educated people.  Is there a consistent correlation between intelligence and wisdom? If my personal experience is any guide, there often seems to be an inverse relation between the two at the high end of the intelligence scale. There never seems to be any shortage of highly-intelligent and well-educated fools. It reminds me of the correlation between income (or wealth) and happiness. Up to a point increasing wealth is positively correlated with increasing happiness and decreasing stress. But at some point there is a diminishing return, and then eventually the relationship becomes inversely proportional. So too with intelligence and wisdom. So too with knowledge and certainty.

PR

Jane Austen

“I have no talent for certainty.”

Jane Austen, Mansfield Park

Mind at the End of its Tether

Image: amazon.com

“in sœcula saeculorum” [Latin: the end of the ages]

In Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945),  H. G. Wells last book, I think the ever-prescient Wells anticipates the demise of optimistic science-futurism. For most of his life Wells was such a futurist, but his later work became increasingly dark and pessimistic. Ultimately his powers of prediction seemed to fail him and he imagined some underlying existential change in the universe as the cause. Some critics explain this as Wells projecting his own approaching death on the world itself. I have an entirely different take on it. Wells (referring to himself as “the writer”) tries to express his growing frustration with a curtain that seems to be drawn between him and the future that he has constantly striven to scientifically and rationally foresee:

“It requires an immense and concentrated effort of realization, demanding constant reminders and refreshment, on the part of a normal intelligence, to perceive that the cosmic movement of events is increasingly adverse to the mental make-up of our everyday life. It is a realization the writer finds extremely difficult to sustain. But while he holds it, the significance of Mind fades. The secular process loses its accustomed appearance of a mental order. The word “secular” he uses here in the sense of the phrase “in sœcula saeculorum”, that is to say, Eternity. He has come to believe that that congruence with mind, which man has attributed to the secular process, is not really there at all. The secular process, as he now sees it, is entirely at one with such non-mental rhythms as the accumulation of crystalline matter in a mineral vein or with the flight of a shower of meteors. The two processes have run parallel for what we call Eternity, and now abruptly they swing off at a tangent from one another—just as a comet at its perihelion hangs portentous in the heavens for a season and then rushes away for ages or for ever. Man’s mind accepted the secular process as rational and it could not do otherwise, because he was evolved as part and parcel of it. ” ( Wells, HG; Rucker, Rudy; Wilson, Colin (2013-04-02). The Last Books of H.G. Wells: The Happy Turning: A Dream of Life & Mind at the End of its Tether (Provenance Editions). Monkfish Book Publishing. Kindle Edition Kindle Location 810)

What Wells imagined as a cosmic tangent of some kind that was rendering the future world obscure and unpredictable is better framed as a radical divergence between the accelerating pace of anthropogenic changes to the environment and the maximum effective speed at which a) the biosphere and b) the human bio-computer can adapt to those changes. Humanity seems to have passed the point of peak fitness right along with peak oil and peak water.  Our increasing “adaptive lag” relative to environmental change is likely to prove catastrophic. Humanity is producing its own virtual asteroid or iceberg impact. Even though many see it coming (and have seen it coming at least since Wells’ day) the time to fatal impact is too brief for us to turn the Titanic ship of human nature (i.e. the operating system of the unconscious mind) and human culture out of harm’s way. We are increasing the scope and severity of our intellectual, emotional and social challenges (e.g. environmental destruction, overpopulation, resource bottlenecks, etc.) far more rapidly than we are increasing our effective problem-solving capacity. The irony is that our inability to increase our effective problem-solving capacity is in stark and glaring contrast to what our potential problem-solving capacity might be.  The optimism of Well’s earlier work and the optimism of futurists like Buckminster Fuller and Ray Kurzweil comes from a well-justified estimation of the enormous creative and rational potential of the human brain–but optimists turn a rather blind eye to how refractory the unconscious brain (that creature of slow evolution that determines most of our behavior) tends to be. We mostly repeat unconsciously generated behavior patterns regardless of their decreasing utility under changing conditions. If only we could learn to apply to politics and economics the kind of empirical evidence-based practice we apply to things like smartphone engineering or even to modern sports training… But, alas, behavioral economics has shed startling new light on the predictable irrationality of human behavior and the degree of “artistic license” we take with the explanatory  narratives with which we rationalize our irrational, corrupt, and anti-social behavior.

In short, the problem is not so much some metaphysical change in the universe as an inability of the unconscious mind to keep up with (much less get ahead of) its own growing impacts on the physical world.

Wells circa 1945

Wells circa 1945

“Of everything he [Wells referring to himself] asks: “To what will this lead?” And it was natural for him to assume that there was a limit set to change, that new things and events would appear, but that they would appear consistently, preserving the natural sequence of life. So that in the present vast confusion of our world, there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality, and adaptation and a resumption. It was merely a question, the fascinating question, of what forms the new rational phase would assume, what Over-man, Erewhon or what not, would break through the transitory clouds and turmoil. To this, the writer set his mind. He did his utmost to pursue the trends, that upward spiral, towards their convergence in a new phase in the story of life, and the more he weighed the realities before him the less was he able to detect any convergence whatever. Changes had ceased to be systematic, and the further he estimated the course they were taking, the greater their divergence. Hitherto events had been held together by a certain logical consistency, as the heavenly bodies as we know them have been held together by the pull, the golden cord, of Gravitation. Now it is as if that cord had vanished and everything was driving anyhow to anywhere at a steadily increasing velocity. The limit to the orderly secular development of life had seemed to be a definitely fixed one, so that it was possible to sketch out the pattern of things to come. But that limit was reached and passed into a hitherto incredible chaos. The more he scrutinized the realities around us, the more difficult it became to sketch out any Pattern of Things to Come. Distance had been abolished, events had become practically simultaneous throughout the planet, life had to adapt itself to that or perish, and with the presentation of that ultimatum, the Pattern of Things to Come faded away. Events now follow one another in an entirely untrustworthy sequence. No one knows what to-morrow will bring forth, but no one but a modern scientific philosopher can accept this untrustworthiness fully. Even in his case it plays no part in his everyday behaviour. There he is entirely at one with the normal multitude. The only difference is that he carries about with him this hard harsh conviction of the near conclusive end of all life. That conviction provides no material at all for daily living. It does not prevent his having his everyday affections and interests, indignations and so forth. He is framed of a clay that likes life, that is quite prepared to risk it rather than give way to the antagonistic forces that would break it down to suicide. He was begotten by the will to live, and he will die fighting for life. He echoes Henley:

“Out of the night that covers me Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be For my unconquerable soul…

Beyond this place of wrath and tears Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.”

There, for all his philosophical lucidity, in his invincible sticking to life and his will to live, he parallels the normal multitude, which will carry on in this ever contracting NOW of our daily lives—quite unawake to what it is that is making so much of our existence distressful and evasive and intensifying our need for mutual comfort and redeeming acts of kindliness. He knows, but the multitude is not disposed to know and so it will never know. The philosophical mind is not what people would call a healthy buoyant mind. That “healthy mind” takes life as it finds it and troubles no more about that. None of us start life as philosophers. We become philosophers sooner or later, or we die before we become philosophical. The realization of limitation and frustration is the beginning of the bitter wisdom of philosophy, and of this, that “healthy mind”, by its innate gift for incoherence and piecemeal evasion and credulity, never knows. It takes a priest’s assurance, the confident assertion of a leader, a misapplied text—the Bible, bless it! will say any old thing one wants it to say if only one picks out what one needs, or, better, if one lets one’s religious comforters pick out the suitable passages—so that one never sees it as a whole. In that invincible ignorance of the dull mass lies its immunity to all the obstinate questioning of the disgruntled mind. It need never know. The behaviour of the shoal in which it lives and moves and has its being will still for a brief season supply the wonted material for that appreciative, exulting, tragic, pitiful or derisive comment which constitutes art and literature. Mind may be near the end of its tether, and yet that everyday drama will go on because it is the normal make-up of life and there is nothing else to replace it. To a watcher in some remote entirely alien cosmos, if we may assume that impossibility, it might well seem that extinction is coming to man like a brutal thunderclap of Halt! It never comes like a thunderclap. That Halt! comes to this one to-day and that one next week. To the remnant, there is always, “What next?” We may be spinning more and more swiftly into the vortex of extinction, but we do not apprehend as much. To those of us who do not die there is always a to-morrow in this world of ours, which, however it changes, we are accustomed to accept as Normal Being. A harsh queerness is coming over things and rushes past what we have hitherto been wont to consider the definite limits of hard fact. Hard fact runs away from analysis and does not return. Unheard-of strangeness in the quantitative proportions of bulk and substance is already apparent to modern philosophical scrutiny. The limit of size and space shrinks and continues to shrink inexorably. The swift diurnal return of that unrelenting pendulum, the new standard of reference, brings it home to our minds that hard fact is outpacing any standard hitherto accepted. We pass into the harsh glare of hitherto incredible novelty. It beats the searching imagination. The more it strives the less it grasps. The more strenuous the analysis, the more inescapable the sense of mental defeat. The cinema sheet stares us in the face. That sheet is the actual fabric of Being. Our loves, our hates, our wars and battles, are no more than a phantasmagoria dancing on that fabric, themselves as unsubstantial as a dream. We rage in our dreaming. We may wake up storming with indignation, furious with this or that ineffectual irremovable general, diplomatist, war minister or ruthless exploiter of our fellow men, and we may denounce and indict as righteous anger dictates. ’42 TO ’44 was made up of that kind of outbreak. But there are thousands of mean, perverted, malicious, heedless and cruel individuals coming into the daylight every day, resolute to frustrate the kindlier purposes of man. In CRUX ANSATA again, this present writer has let himself boil over, freely and violently. Nevertheless it is dream stuff. “To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, creeps in this pretty pace from day to day…and all our yesterdays have lighted fools the way to dusty death… Life… struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more…a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing…” It passes and presently it is vague, indistinct, distorted and at last forgotten for ever. We discover life in the beginnings of our idiot’s recital as an urge to exist so powerful that every form it takes tends to increase in size and numbers and outgrow its supply of food energy. Groups or aggregates or individuals increase not only in numbers but in size. There is an internecine struggle for existence. The bigger aggregations or individual eliminate the smaller and consume more and more. The distinctive pabulum of the type runs short, and new forms, capable of utilizing material which the more primitive were not equipped to assimilate, arises. This inaugurates a fresh phase in the evolving story of Being. This idiot’s tale is not a tale of yesterday, as we, brief incidents in the story of life, are accustomed to think of yesterday. It comprehends the whole three thousand million years of Organic Evolution. All through we have the same spectacle of beings over-running their means of subsistence and thrusting their fellows out of the normal way of life into strange habitats they would never have tolerated but for that urge to live, anyhow and at any price, rather than die. For long periods, in our time-space system, a sort of balance of life between various species has existed, and their needless mutations have been eliminated. In the case, however, of a conspicuous number of dominating species and genera, their hypertrophy has led not only to an excess of growth over nutriment, but also in the case of those less archaic forms with which we are more familiar to a loss of adaptability through the relative importance of bigness over variation. The more they dominated the more they kept on being the same thing. The continual fluctuations of normal Being in time, and its incessant mutations, confronted each of these precarious hypertrophied unstable dominating groups with the alternative of either adaptive extension of their range or else replacement by groups and species better fitted to the changing face of existence. Astronomical and internal planetary shrinkages in this universe of ours (which are all a part of the Time process) have, for example, produced recurrent phases of world-wide wet mud and given away again to the withdrawal of great volumes of water from a desiccated world of tundras and steppes, through the extension of glaciation. The sun is a variable star, but we can fix no exact term to its variations. The precession of the equinoxes is a wabble in the sequence of our seasons. The same increasing discordance with the universe which we regard as real being, grows more and more manifest. Adapt or perish has been the inexorable law of life through all these ever intensifying fluctuations, and it becomes more and more derisive as the divergence widens between what our fathers were wont to call the Order of Nature and this new harsh implacable hostility to our universe, our all. Our universe is the utmost compass of our minds. It is a closed system that returns into itself. It is a closed space-time continuum which ends with the same urge to exist with which it began, now that the unknown power that evoked it has at last turned against it. “Power”, the writer has written, because it is difficult to express this unknowable that has, so to speak, set its face against us. But we cannot deny this menace of the darkness.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Locations 826-905).

The dark, unknowable power that has set its face against us is is not some cosmic “Antagonist” as Wells imagines it. As I suggested before, it is really the dark power of the unconscious, which makes up by some estimates well over 90% of our brain and rules most of our behavior. We might make that dark universe much more visible and tractable to enlightened cultivation (e.g. cognitive re-engineering) if we explored it with the same urgency and fantastic levels of resources that we pour into our struggles for wealth and power and into all the other efforts that we devote to “daily life”.

But that, in fact, is what we all dread and resist the most–seeing ourselves as we really are and taking responsibility for our irrationality. We conflate the dark unconscious with our individuality, creativity, spontaneity, and “freedom”. It is just the opposite–it is the tyranny of biological evolution and the haphazard, ad hoc development of an unconscious brain reacting in  “wild” instinctive ways to random experience despite the thin veneer of “civilization” and “learning”. While we hope for social justice we reflexively pursue individual advantage and immediate gratification.

The unconscious brain resists domestication like a wolf resists captivity. Of course there is much that we love about our dark, wild, unconstrained wolfishness. Among other things it is the source of what some call the Ego. We shall continue to indulge it in exorbitant excess, regardless of the  disaster we know that overindulging the Ego invites. The apex predator (or the apex artist, engineer, economist, or politician) will not domesticate itself. A higher power is required. Some hope for the intervention of gods, some for enlightenment, others for better science or artificial intelligence, and still others place hope in the invisible hand of markets.

Unfortunately the science that might help enlighten and save us (make us better fit for modern life as in the optimistic science-futurist’s imagination) is more likely to be used to further brainwash and enslave the majority of us. That’s how we roll.

“The writer is convinced that there is no way out or round or through the impasse. It is the end.” (Wells, ibid., Kindle Location 823)

However, as Wells also observes, “in sœcula saeculorum,”  the end of the ages, i.e. the end of the future, is not the end of daily life or daily cares. No amount of future-anchored existential absurdity eclipses the eternal present. Our cares persist. Except for the most pathologically depressed among us, those with extreme existential and philosophical neuroses, the effort to “make the best” of even the worst possible circumstances is the only rational approach. This can be described as maintaining psychological hardiness under stress. What often matters most is how we go about adjusting our emotional balance controls to fit the circumstances. There is a fine line between down-regulating negative emotions or cognitive dissonance, or moving unpleasant signals to the “background,” and constructing a full blown delusion or personality disorder. Cognitive filters and biases can be useful adaptive mechanisms when artfully applied; but unpracticed, careless, or excessive application quickly becomes pathological.  Unfortunately, given our unfamiliarity with our own brains, the latter is most often the case. Again, that’s just how we roll.

Poor Richard

H. G. Wells later non-fiction works from Project Gutenberg Australia

  • World Brain (1938)– HTML
  • The Fate of Man [a.k.a. The Fate of Homo Sapiens] (1939)–HTML
  • Utopias (1939)–HTML
  • The New World Order (1940)–TextZIPHTML
  • The Common Sense of War and Peace (1940)–HTML
  • Crux Ansata (1943)–HTML

Related PRA 2.0 posts:

A World With No One In Control « how to save the world

A World With No One In Control « how to save the world.

Filed under: How the World Really Works — Dave Pollard

“There’s an implicit presumption, in everything the media reports on, in our whining about governments and elites and bosses, that as civilization culture has grown ever larger and more global, the power and control of those at the top of the pyramid has grown correspondingly larger, and that they’re still in control, still worthy of praise and re-election and multimillion dollar bonuses when things go right, and still worthy of blame and overthrow and opprobrium when things go wrong.

“But there’s plenty of evidence that if that ever was the case, it isn’t the case now. One of the key attributes of complex systems is that, unlike merely complicated ones, because of the huge number of variables and moving parts and interactions and effects between and among them, we can never hope to understand what’s really going on in them, or predict or significantly influence what happens in them. They become larger and larger black boxes, ever more mysterious, until suddenly they produce great depressions, peak oil and runaway climate change, and no one knows how, or why, or how to mitigate or change them. Like Charles Barsotti’s cartoon above says, in complex systems nobody knows anything. And no one is in control.”  Read the rest…

[I agree with most of Dave’s epiphany about complexity, but another aspect of reality is proximity–we do know a little about a little, and we can predict or control a little about a little. So there is a place for small hopes and puny efforts, even in the context of the grand complexity and absurdity which Dave Pollard portrays most eloquently. The ego that wants to control or save the whole world is the same one that wants to renounce the world and absolve itself of all duty and responsibility. –PR]

:: Pema Chodron – On Shenpa :: (being “hooked”)

Epimemetics (Epimemes) – Wiki

Epimemetics (Epimemes) – Wiki.

“Epimemetics is the scientific methodology of studying and consciously re-engineering “ideas about ideas’ (Meta-Memes) and “beliefs about beliefs” (Meta-Beliefs). The ultimate goal is to transform and limit the power of negative replicators by taking personal and cultural responsibility for them.

“Epimemetics combines the neurochemistry of dopamine with semantic theory, decision theory (game theory), motivational and behavioral theory, cognitive (bio)neurophysics, neuroeconomics, confabulation theory (blind spot theory), network theory, evolutionary biology, and memetics.

“Innovation and insight derived from these converging disciplines could be used to engineer a culturally-determined movement towards pure collaboration, compassion and endless creativity. “

Epimemetics (Epimemes) – Wiki.

Time and the Soul Interview

See on Scoop.itScience and Sanity

Jacob Needleman – philosopher and author, talks about the poverty of time that we experience in our modern technological world. He explores the paradox of how this poverty is rooted in our attempts to satisfy our desires, and describes the experience of real meaning as being one of timelessness.

See on vimeo.com

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)

Cheers,

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.

PR
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

Addiction to Irrationality

Drunkard’s cloak — Source: Wikimedia.

[updated 5-13-2013]

The typical alcoholic (outside of treatment or AA) often says “I don’t have a drinking problem. I can stop whenever I want.”

In a way, we are all like this about our innate irrationality. We tend to think we can be rational whenever we want. We refuse to admit, to ourselves and others, that we have a problem with spontaneous, compulsive, and unconscious irrationality. This includes, but is not limited to, the matters discussed by Dan Ariely in Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, in which he challenges assumptions about making decisions based on rational thought. Many of the problems listed below have clinical diagnoses as pathological states, but they are also prevalent (if not ubiquitous) in “normal”, “healthy” people at sub-clinical levels.

Our struggle with irrationality includes (but is not limited to):

In evolutionary terms, reason is only an emerging property of the brain. Irrationality is still more the rule than the exception.  It is innate in every one of us–even in the best and brightest of our scientists, philosophers, educators, and leaders. Although scientists and scholars take great pains to eliminate irrationality from their work products, it is insidious, and it often still intrudes in subtle ways. Even in our most rational-seeming people, irrationality often runs rampant in areas outside their core competence and in their private lives. Irrationality and bias often arise from a cognitive dissonance between individualism and cooperation (or selfishness and altruism).

It is always popular to minimize and/or look on the bight side of irrationality. This reminds me too much of the rationalization tricks of alcoholics. Even Dr. Ariely has joined this trend with his newest book, destined to be a smash-hit bestseller, The Upside of Irrationality: The Unexpected Benefits of Defying Logic at Work and at Home. This will be popular in may quarters, but especially among all the boneheads of the world for the ammunition it will give them against their more rational friends, coworkers, and family members.

It is undeniable that evolution has given the brain powerful heuristic tools for making snap judgments. These may serve us well (or not) when circumstances don’t permit more conscious, deliberate, and scientific methods of decision making. It is also undeniable that “facts” are often incomplete or presented in a biased way, that appearances (even “scientific” and “empirical” appearances) may deceive, and that sometimes our contra-factual  intuitions turn out  right. But no amount of benefit we may derive from irrational thinking  and behavior (which can often only be judged in hindsight) in any way changes, diminishes, nor even remotely compensates for the harm it does. Of course we wish to keep the cute, irrational baby– but that’s no excuse for not throwing out the  toxic bath water. The only rational thing is to do both.

Recognizing and saving the baby (the upside of irrationality) is all well and good. Nevertheless, the downsides of irrationality are accelerating humanity towards a cliff. If we all go over the cliff, what happens to the effing baby? As Richard Dawkins  points out in the The Selfish Gene (1989 p.8), things that give selective advantage can, if carried to an extreme, lead to annihilation of species.

It is no doubt precisely because irrationality seems so often to bear gifts, especially in the short term, that it is so seductive. It may also have to do with our inclination to be “cognitive misers“.

The problem with irrationality is that it is easy, it is pleasant, and it is reassuring; but it is also an unconscious compulsion or addiction, and we continue to pursue it and defend it way past the point of diminishing returns.

Why? Because irrational behaviors, emotions, and mental states are reinforced by the same neurochemicals that cause other forms of addiction. In An Open Letter to Researchers of Addiction, Brain Chemistry, and Social Psychology, the astrophysicist and author David Brin writes:

Consider studies of gambling. Researchers led by Dr. Hans Breiter of Massachusetts General Hospital examined with functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) which brain regions activate when volunteers won games of chance — regions that overlapped with those responding to cocaine!

“Gambling produces a similar pattern of activity to cocaine in an addict,” according to Breiter.

Moving along the spectrum toward activity that we consider more “normal” — neuroscientists at Harvard have found a striking similarity between the brain-states of people trying to predict financial rewards (e.g., via the stock market) and the brains of cocaine and morphine users.

Along similar lines, researchers at Emory University monitored brain activity while asking staunch party members, from both left and right, to evaluate information that threatened their preferred candidate prior to the 2004 Presidential election. “We did not see any increased activation of the parts of the brain normally engaged during reasoning,” said Drew Westen, Emory’s director of clinical psychology. “Instead, a network of emotion circuits lit up… reaching biased conclusions by ignoring information that could not rationally be discounted. Significantly, activity spiked in circuits involved in reward, similar to what addicts experience when they get a fix,” Westen explained.

How far can this spectrum be extended? All the way into realms of behavior — and mental states — that we label as wholesome? Rich Wilcox of the University of Texas says: “Recovery process in addiction is based to a great extent on cognitively mediated changes in brain chemistry of the frontal/prefrontal cortex system. Furthermore… there is even a surprising amount of literature cited in PubMed suggesting that prayer also induces substantial changes in brain chemistry.”

Clearly this spectrum of “addiction” includes reinforcement of behaviors that are utterly beneficial and that have important value to us, e.g., love of our children. I get a jolt every time I smell my kids’ hair, for instance. The “Aw!” that many people give when then see a baby smile is accompanied by skin flushes and iris dilation, reflecting physiological pleasure. Similar jolts come to people (variously) from music, sex, exercise and the application of skill.

Although a lot of recent research has danced along the edges of this area, I find that the core topic appears to have been rather neglected. I’m talking about the way that countless millions of humans either habitually or volitionally pursue druglike reinforcement cycles — either for pleasure or through cycles of withdrawal and insatiability that mimic addiction — purely as a function of entering an addictive frame of mind.

For a majority, indeed, this process goes un-noticed because there is no pathology! Reiterating; it is simply “getting high on life.” Happy or at least content people who lead decent lives partake in these wholesome addictive cycles that have escaped much attention from researchers simply because these cycles operate at the highest levels of human functionality. (It is easy to verify that there is something true, underlying the phrase “addicted to love.”)

This wholesomeness should no longer mask or exclude such powerfully effective mental states from scientific scrutiny. For example, we might learn more about the role of oxytocin in preventing the down-regulating or tolerance effects that exacerbate drug addiction. Does this moderating effect provide the more wholesome, internally-generated “addictions” with their long-lasting power?

Even more attractive would be to shine light on patterns of volitional or habitual addictive mentation that are NOT helpful or functional or desirable.

Gambling has already been mentioned. Rage is obviously another of these harmful patterns, that clearly have a chemical-reinforcement component. Many angry people report deriving addictive pleasure from fury, and this is one reason why they return to the state, again and again. Thrill-seeking can also be like this, when it follows a pathology of down-regulating satiability. Ernst Fehr, Brian Knutson, and John Hibbing have written about the pleasure-reinforcement of revenge, that Hollywood films tap incessantly in plot lines that give audiences a vicarious thrill of Payback against villains-who-deserve-it.

The Most Common (but Unstudied) Form of Self-Addiction

So far, we are on ground that is supported by copious (if peripheral) research. If nothing else, at least there should be an effort to step back and notice the forest, for the trees, generalizing a view of this whole field as we’ve described so far. A general paradigm of self-reinforcement.

Only now, taking this into especially important new territory, please consider something more specific. A phenomenon that both illustrates the general point and demands attention on its own account.

I want to zoom down to a particular emotional and psychological pathology. The phenomenon known as self-righteous indignation.

We all know self-righteous people. (And, if we are honest, many of us will admit having wallowed in this state ourselves, either occasionally or in frequent rhythm.) It is a familiar and rather normal human condition, supported — even promulgated — by messages in mass media.

While there are many drawbacks, self-righteousness can also be heady, seductive, and even… well… addictive. Any truly honest person will admit that the state feels good. The pleasure of knowing, with subjective certainty, that you are right and your opponents are deeply, despicably wrong.

Sanctimony, or a sense of righteous outrage, can feel so intense and delicious that many people actively seek to return to it, again and again. Moreover, as Westin et.al. have found, this trait crosses all boundaries of ideology.

Indeed, one could look at our present-day political landscape and argue that a relentless addiction to indignation may be one of the chief drivers of obstinate dogmatism and an inability to negotiate pragmatic solutions to a myriad modern problems. It may be the ultimate propellant behind the current “culture war.”

If there is any underlying truth to such an assertion, then acquiring a deeper understanding of this one issue may help our civilization deal with countless others.

Actually, there are other problems besides the enormous political, social, and personal costs of irrationality. Another is what I would call the “atrocity cost”.  As Voltaire said, “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”

Well, as they say in all the Twelve-Step programs, the first step to recovery is “admitting that one cannot control one’s addiction or compulsion.”

Hello. I’m Poor Richard, and I’m an irrationalcoholic.

Are you an irrationalcoholic, too?

Poor Richard

by Dave Pollard (howtosavetheworld.ca)

Dr. Gabor Maté ~ Who We Are When We Are Not Addicted: The Possible Human

Normal Schnormal

The older I get, the crazier I realize that I am. Despite some evidence that I am getting smarter at peeling back layers of reality and seeing more of the big picture, the more clearly I see myself, the worse I appear in my mental bathroom mirror– full of neuroses, false narratives, revised memories, self-deceptions, obsessions and compulsions, unconscious associations, and cognitive biases.

If I’m right that each age and each age group suffers from its own set of individual and collective self-delusions, the only rational behavior would be for all of us to abandon our faith in normality, whatever we currently think it is, and work together in multi-generational, multi-disciplinary groups to re-explore the world and to prospect for new nuggets and veins of reality together.

Homer statue at the University of Virginia

Homer statue at the University of Virginia (Image via Wikipedia)

Prospecting for reality…

I think this is what Thomas Jefferson hoped would happen at the University he established. He doubted the value of simply handing out degrees as certificates of competence. He wanted to create an ongoing, living experiment–a diverse demographic of people living and laboring together in a common cause: questioning normality and learning something new about reality every day. I don’t think the University of Virginia has lived up to that hope over time, but time isn’t all over and done, yet.

When I suggest abandoning normality, I’m not proposing anarchy. I’m really talking about “beginner’s mind“. Of course, there may be some babes worth saving from the dingy bath water of normality and tradition. But normality is  missing something we need to keep the whole bathtub from going over a cliff: We need a diversity of experimental colleges* and universities that aim to combine life-long continuing education with original research and scholarship, which aim to support themselves sustainably on their own local resources, not just as institutions but as diversified micro-cultures; and which aim to reinvent the art of being human for the modern age of anthropogenic disaster.

Not everyone wants to be a student or a scholar. Fewer yet want to be scientists and engineers. Still, I see no reason why every one of us can’t live and work within communities designed to be experimental, educational, and mindful at every level.

Poor Richard

__________

* “Originally, college meant a group of persons living together, under a common set of rules (con- = “together” + leg- = “law” or lego = “I choose”); indeed, some colleges call their members “fellows”.” (Wikipedia: college)

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