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

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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?”

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