Understanding Uncertainty

by James Wallace Harris, 5/1/21

Most people are binary in their thinking. They don’t like juggling shades of gray. We want to know yes or no, it is, or it isn’t, is it good or bad, friend or foe, us versus them, and so on. For several decades now science has been under attack because it confuses people with complicated and even contradictory results.

Reality is not simple. It contains infinite variables working through infinite combinations. Science is about statistics. It looks for patterns, making hunches to test. And the results are never absolute. Last night I came across a film that visually illustrates this better than anything I’ve seen before.

This video is well worth 25 minutes it takes to watch. Actually, it’s worth watching over and over again. Don’t be put off because the film uses climate change as a teaching example if you’re burned out on the topic. Just watch it for how science works.

Digesting the daily news has become a survivalist skill. That skill should be combined with reading, writing, and arithmetic as part of every K-12 curriculum. Even though we’ve all had a lifetime of practice consuming new information, most of us would fail this subject, even the most studious would only be getting Ds and Cs. I’m no exception, failing most tests.

It’s not a matter of knowing the right answers, but learning to live with uncertainty. It’s developing an intuition for data, both numerical and narrative. We need to consume our daily information like Sherlock Holmes, always looking for clues. In the old days, teachers would talk about developing a rule of thumb for rough guessing. Other people talk about bullshit detectors. The trouble is humans aren’t rational, but rationalizing creatures. We constantly fool ourselves with false assumptions. We feel we’re being logical, and sometimes we are, but all too often we’ve started our chain of logic after making a bad initial assumption. If you’ve ever played the game MasterMind, you’ll understand this basic trait.

Learning to think clearly is unnatural for human beings because we tend to make up our minds quickly and stick to our decisions. We decide in childhood, when we’re uneducated, on many beliefs we choose to defend for the rest of our lives. Science is all about constantly reevaluating data, and that goes against common human habits. Humans aren’t Vulcans, but we all need to think like Mr. Spock, but that requires constant effort, constant vigilance. Always learning new insights feels like we’re always swimming against the current, when the urge is to relax and to drift with the current. That’s as natural as entropy. But understanding reality is anti-entropic, it is swimming against the current.

JWH

Will We Reach Herd Intelligence Before We Crash Our Civilization?

by James Wallace Harris, 4/19/21

  • Collapsed: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed by Jared Diamond
  • Falter: Has the Human Game Begun to Play Itself Out? by Bill McKibben
  • Seaspiracy – a documentary on Netflix

All indicators point to the collapse of civilization sometimes this century. Despite all the press about this perfect storm of self destruction, few people are willing to worry, and even fewer willing to do anything. Must the conclusion be that failure is our only option?

Most of humanity is either preoccupied with personal problems, or if they contemplate the future at all, assume our species will muddle through as it always has in the past. All the evidence suggests otherwise, that the biosphere cannot absorb the impacts of Homo sapiens without a significant destabilization of its system, which in turn will alter the course of civilization.

Civilizations have always come and gone, and so have species. Nothing lasts forever, not even the Earth or the Sun. It’s rather disheartening to consider what we could have become. We almost had the intelligence to create a global civilization that could have lasted thousands, if not millions of years. Theoretically, we still have a chance, but few people who think about such things give that chance much hope. It would have required everyone pulling together towards a common cause, and we’re just not that kind of species.

However, don’t worry, don’t get depressed or do anything irrational. No need to become a prepper assuming an Armageddon is just around every corner. The collapse of civilization will probably be so slow you might not even notice it. Humans are very adaptable to hard times and excellent at rationalizing things aren’t what they seem. Just take every day one day at a time and enjoy the passing parade of history.

As an individual who reads many books and watch many documentaries like the ones above, I keep thinking we should be doing something. But I realize there’s a problem with that assumption. First, we all need to be doing the same thing, and second, we should all stop what we’ve been doing our whole lives. Now is that going to happen? Is humanity a ship that can be steered or a bullet on a trajectory? It really comes down to the Serenity Prayer,

God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
Courage to change the things I can,
and Wisdom to know the difference.

It’s the last line that’s so hard to achieve. What can we change, and what can’t we change? Theoretically we could change everything in society if we could just change ourselves. Is it Pollyannaish to think we could, and fatalistic to think we can’t? I wonder if people have always believed in God just to redirect that burden of responsibility?

If you read the above books maybe you will also ask who is smart enough to understand and solve these problems? If we built giant AI minds that could think their way through these immense challenges, would we take their advice? Aren’t we too egotistical to listen? Or even if a God spoke directly to the world would we obey? I’m not sure that’s in our nature either.

Maybe the only path an individual can take and stay sane is learning to accept and endure. But that doesn’t seem to be the way either because too many people today are angry. Anger means still trying to control. If you watch the news pay attention to anger. Too many hate what’s happening to them. And it’s on both sides of the political spectrum. All the people who fight for freedom and all the people who want rules and regulations are motivated by anger. That’s what I dread about the collapse of civilization, living with all these angry people. And the only solution to that is find a place away from them, but that’s not really possible either, is it?

This is a strange book review. But I find it’s getting harder and harder to review books like these by talking about the issues they cover. I’m down to evaluating their emotional impact. The penultimate question is: Can we do anything? The answer is yes. The ultimate question is: Will we? I used to hope that was a yes too, but my faith is fading.

JWH

The Psyche of Blind Faith

by James Wallace Harris, Saturday, January 9, 2021

This essay is not about Donald Trump or politics, but I’m going to use the January 6th riot at the Capitol as an example of blind faith. In the days following the riot several news reports have appeared where followers of Donald Trump have denied he was the instigator of the riot, and in some cases, that the rioters were not the real followers of Donald Trump.

The evidence for Trump instigating the riot is overwhelming, and growing, as law enforcement and the media assemble a timetable of events and clues. I can easily see January 6th becoming the subject of future congressional hearings like those covering the JFK assassination where we heard weeks and months of testimony. In the end, most people will believe that Trump was the inciter-in-chief in the same way the congressional investigations concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. But like lone gunman deniers, there will always be deniers to Trump’s guilt.

This kind of denial comes from a psychology of blind faith. I find that psychology fascinating. We see blind faith everywhere. What allows some people the ability to tune out aspects of reality to maintain their faith in a particular belief? One good example is the free-market capitalists whose faith keeps them from seeing pollution, climate change, wealth inequality or any other negatives to capitalism. They must deny all evidence to the contrary to maintain their faith in the purity of Milton Friedman’s teachings.

The ultimate example of blind faith came just after the crucifixion of Jesus. The followers of Jesus saw that he was dead. However, they couldn’t accept that death, so they invented a faith to prove he still lived. Their blind faith created a new view of reality that they see but others don’t.

The only way to maintain blind faith is through denial. I now see denialism everywhere, which implies blind faith is everywhere.

Donald Trump inspires blind faith in his followers. What causes that? How does it work? Why him? It’s obvious that no amount of evidence can penetrate such faith. It’s a survival mechanism. Believers obviously benefit from other positive mental states once they let go and accept a faith. Once a faith is accepted any threat to that faith is also a threat to the new sense of wellbeing.

This blind faith is why I’ve given up talking with my conservative friends about Trump. The wall between us is impenetrable. To talk with them feels just like being John Cleese trying to convince Michael Palin the parrot is dead.

The inspiration for this essay.

JWH

Our Cognitive Toolbox for Working with Reality

by James Wallace Harris,

All too often we think we know but we don’t. Why do so many people argue with 100% certainty against others who feel equally convinced? Often wisdom tells us the more we know the more we don’t know. Does that mean the person who claims to know nothing knows the most? Why is this reality so hard to understand? Even eyewitnesses are often fooled. And why is it so important to know thyself?

Reality is complex, but is it unknowable? Humans believe they are the crown of creation because all animals are ignorant of their own existence. Is our sentience really a quantum leap over all other life forms on this planet? If we compared ourselves to an amoeba, ant, or cat, we can see that awareness of reality has slowly gotten more complex and each of those animals perceives a larger portion of reality. Does that mean we see everything in reality, or are we just as blind to a much larger reality?

I believe we’ve evolved a number of cognitive tools to analyze reality, but it’s important to know the effectiveness of each.

First-Hand Experience. Common thought claims we have five senses for perceiving reality, but we actually have many more. People often believe seeing and hearing things for themselves is a primary source of knowledge. However, our senses can deceive us. For example, the lady cop who shot a man in Texas because she thought he was a burglar in her apartment when she was in his apartment. Just pay attention to how often eye witness accounts fail. Or better yet, recall all the times your senses have fooled you.

Instinct and Intuition. Our genes and unconscious mind direct us to act without thinking. Many people prefer to go by gut reaction than thinking it through. But how often does gut reaction tell us to kill or take what we want?

Language. By breaking reality down into pieces and giving each part a name goes a long way into gaining useful insight. But language is imprecise and the parts of reality are many. People who know the different names for trees have a greater understanding than the person who only knows the word tree. Language has evolved tremendously giving us one of our best tools. Pay attention to how words help you to perceive how reality works, and observe how people with lesser or better language skills fare compared to you.

Word of Mouth. We learn from other people’s observations. When we were hunters and gatherers hearing from scouts describe where animals could be hunted was vital. On the other hand, if a seafarer told you about mermaids you ended up believing in an unreal being. Word of mouth is very unreliable. Remember the Kindergarten game of Telephone? Word of Mouth evolved into journalism, and we know how reliable that can be. Word of Mouth has always had a fake news problem. Gossip, innuendo, slander are also descendants of word of mouth.

Counting and Measuring. Simple arithmetic became a tool that lets us invent, build, grow crops, trade, and develop an economy. Counting and measuring evolved into mathematics.

Mysticism. Mystics are people who claim to acquire knowledge from a higher source. They became shamans and seers who influenced other people. They also speculated about how reality worked, inventing higher beings. Even today many people still give credence to mystical insight. However, mystical insight has produced an infinite variety of conflicting information. We have to assume its all suspect. Mysticism tries to be the first-person experience of the divine.

Religion. Religion is codified mystical insight that is retaught as the truth. Religion allowed us to create very complex social structures. However, its truth is suspect. If there are a thousand gods, most followers are atheists to 999 of them. Religion succeeds in creating artificial realities that may or may not interface well with actual reality. Religion spreads best through word of mouth.

Laws. Laws are an external tool to encourage consistent thinking. Religious laws attempt to force mystical insights onto a population. Secular laws attempt to get people to work together.

History. If you study the Old Testament you’ll see it’s more about a history of a people than spiritual instruction. We have always tried to remember the past to explain how we got here. Early histories were no better than word of mouth stories that could be highly inaccurate. And each succeeding generation of historians alters the histories. A good example is the New Testament. Whoever Jesus was, and whatever he taught, has been constantly changed by each new writer of the New Testament. It appears the historical Jesus advocated communal living and sharing that today would be called communistic. The historical Jesus was concerned about creating heaven on Earth. It was later writers that gave him superpowers and turned him into God. Studying the history of Christianity is an excellent way to understand how history constantly mutates. History is a worthy way of understanding reality but it has to be tempered by comparing multiple histories.

Philosophy. Where religion taught that knowledge came from God or other spiritual authorities, philosophy teaches us we can figure things out for ourselves. Using rhetoric, logic, and mathematics men and women observe reality and deduce what’s going on. This was a great paradigm shift away from religion. However, like the game Mastermind, it leads to a lot of false assumptions. Elaborate castles of logic can build imposing concepts but that often turns out to be illusions of great knowledge. Philosophy is a major tool for understanding reality but it also has major faults.

Ethics. Ethics, like laws, attempt to come to a consensus on what’s right and wrong. Ethics is based on philosophy. Although in recent years, some ethicists have tried to look for a scientific foundation.

Science. Science combines mathematics, statistics, observation, testing, and philosophy into a systematic way to evaluate reality. Science assumes if tested observations and measurements prove consistent by scientists from any nation or culture then they might be true. Science never assumes it finds the absolute truth, but just the current best guess based on all the existing data. Science is statistical. Some science is so refined that it works incredibly well with reality. Space probes visiting distant worlds validate hundreds of years of scientific endeavors.

Scholarship. We have made education into a major portion of our life. We spend our entire lives trying to figure things out. We study, we think, we make assumptions. Like philosophy, scholarship often builds vast models of speculation. Scholarship tends to endorse results from competing trends. However, scholarly theories can be deceptive and even dangerous.

The problem is we use all these tools to explain our version of reality. Unfortunately, most are unreliable or clash with other people’s version of reality. Science has proven to be the most consistent at explaining reality, but science doesn’t cover everything. For example, right and wrong. These two concepts are ancient, probably coming out of mysticism or an instinctive desire for justice. Both religion and philosophy have tried to perfect them, but our reality is completely indifferent to morality or ethics. We have invented many concepts that just don’t exist in reality.

This causes problems. Several million people might believe with absolute certainty in a particular concept and then try to impose that view on millions of others who are just as certain such a concept is invalid.

We live in a polarize society because we all embrace different ancient beliefs, most of which we can’t explain how they came about. We just accept them as true. Most people believe in God because it was something they learned as a little kid. They won’t let the idea of God go no matter how much other cognitive tools disprove God’s existence.

Donald Trump seems to base most of his knowledge from first-hand experience and word of mouth information. Twitter is the perfect tool for word of mouth. Trump is neither religious, philosophical, or scientific. But this isn’t an uncommon way of dealing with reality. Few people are philosophical or scientific. Too many people only want to trust first-hand experience and instinct, but we know how unreliable those cognitive tools are. People who rely heavily on first-person experience and word of mouth tend to disbelieve science.

There have been various disciplines that try to teach self-programming that jettisons cognitive bullshit. Zen Buddhism is one. Meditation can be used to seek mystical insight or to observe the working of our own being.

The reason I wrote this essay was to help me think clearer. I’ve been reading books on Greek philosophy, and early Christian history. They are teaching me what people 2,000-2,500 years ago thought. I can see those ancient people struggled to make sense of reality without science. I can also see the same struggles today in people. We just don’t think clearly. We’re too influenced by low-level cognitive tools that deceive us. We base our existence on illusions created by those most primal cognitive tools.

I keep hoping the human race will get its act together and create a sane society that coexists with reality, and not on insane illusions and delusions. I realize until everyone becomes a master of their various cognitive tools, and learn the limits and limitations of each, we can’t start working on that sane society. We can’t start learning what’s real until we learn how to perceive what’s not real.

JWH

 

 

Playing Fair in the Game of Life

by James Wallace Harris, Friday, November 15, 2019

Imagine a poker game with one person winning every pot. Eventually, all the players but that one winner will become tapped out unless someone else starts winning. This is a good analogy for wealth inequality.

The challenge to the 2020 Democratic presidential hopefuls is making rule changes to the game we all play. Warren and Sanders want to make drastic changes to the rules to quickly make our society fairer to all, but that scares both the conservatives and the older well-to-do liberals. Biden promises to just tweak the rules a bit which enrages the extreme liberals who want significant change sooner.

We’re all playing this game of economic life whether we realize it or not, even when we think we’re not participating. Our economy is a game that everyone plays and the rules are decided by politics, laws, and voting. We like to think we’re a democracy and we all decide how the game is played but that’s not true. The winners of the game keep altering the rules so they can keep winning.

What would society be like if the game was played fair? What if everyone had an equal say in making the rules of the game, how would society differ from how we play the game now? Would wealth start circulating amongst all the players? Or will the winners refuse to ever change the rules? Maybe losers don’t want to change the rules either. Maybe they hope to be winners someday? How many players have to be wiped out before they realize their true odds of becoming a winner?

Right now a majority of our citizens believe everyone should work to make a living, and if you fail you should suffer the consequences. If you doubt this read “The American Right: It’s Deep Story” by Arlie Russell Hochschild. Hochschild had come up with a little story she tells people that’s a Rorschach test for conservative thinking. Read it to see how you react, then read her article for how she interprets your reaction.

You are patiently standing in the middle of a long line leading up a hill, as in a pilgrimage. Others besides you seem like you – white, older, Christian, predominantly male. Just over the brow of the hill is the American Dream, the goal of everyone in line. Then, look! Suddenly you see people cutting in line ahead of you! As they cut in, you seem to be being moved back. How can they just do that? Who are they?

Many are black. Through federal affirmative action plans, they are given preference for places in colleges and universities, apprenticeships, jobs, welfare payments, and free lunch programs. Others are cutting ahead too – uppity women seeking formerly all-male jobs, immigrants, refugees, and an expanding number of high-earning public sector workers, paid with your tax dollars. Where will it end?

As you wait in this unmoving line, you’re asked to feel sorry for them all. People complain: Racism, Discrimination, Sexism. You hear stories of oppressed blacks, dominated women, weary immigrants, closeted gays, desperate refugees. But at some point, you say to yourself, you have to close the borders to human sympathy – especially if there are some among them who might bring harm.

You’re a compassionate person. But now you’ve been asked to extend your sympathy to all the people who have cut in front of you. You’ve suffered a good deal yourself, but you aren’t complaining about it or asking for help, you’re proud to say. You believe in equal rights. But how about your own rights? Don’t they count too? It’s unfair.

Then you see a black president with the middle name Hussein, waving to the line cutters. He’s on their side, not yours. He’s their president, not yours. And isn’t he a line-cutter too? How could the son of a struggling single mother pay for Columbia and Harvard? Maybe something has gone on in secret. And aren’t the president and his liberal backers using your money to help themselves? You want to turn off the machine – the federal government – which he and liberals are using to push you back in line.

Strangers in Their Own LandTo go deeper into what Hochschild is revealing with her “Deep Story” test, read her book Strangers in Their Own Land. She finds that conservatives identify with this story. In past decades I’ve known many conservatives that have told me variations of this story. But their resentments and prejudices keep us from making society fair. What I find ironic is many of the people who resonate with Hochschild’s Deep Story claim to be Christians, but isn’t her story an anti-Gospel?

We don’t have to examine the whole economic system to see how it’s unfair. Just look at companies like Amazon and Uber as samples. A few people in each company make billions while most workers barely make a living, yet each company would collapse without the low-paid participants in their shared game. Why do thousands of employees have to work their asses off so one guy gets rich enough to have his own space program? Why do Uber drivers put in all the millage but don’t get their fair share of the fares? Why is Trump so desperate to keep his tax returns secret? Is it because he doesn’t want us suckers to know he’s rich without paying his fair share of taxes?

What if labor got a fairer share of the rewards of our economic game? Somehow we’ve decided the owners of a company deserve more money than the people who punch the clock. Is that how we really want to play the game? Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders want to make the game fairer by taxing the winners and use the government to redistribute the winnings. This is one way, but is it the only way, or the best way?

If you don’t understand the long history of capital v. labor I highly recommend reading Capital in the Twenty-First Century by Thomas Piketty. Before the industrial revolution wealth was mostly in owning land, and the landowners used slaves, serfs, peasants, and tenant farmers to make themselves wealthy. When industrialization came along those with capital shifted to owning businesses and letting labor do all the work to make them wealthy.

The reason why capital has always been at war with labor is capital didn’t want to share the rewards of the game. They have always fought unions because of greed. They have always embraced automation because of greed. If they could completely eliminate labor they would. Just see how hard Uber wants to develop self-driving cars, or Amazon to add robotic book pickers. If we extrapolate these trends into the future we’ll have a game with very few winners owning a lot of robots and mostly jobless losers.

Our present economic system is rigged to produce fewer winners. We think because unemployment is low most people are still in the game. But is that really true? The economy doesn’t have a finite pot of money, wealth is always being created. But it appears the 1% are acquiring all the old wealth and new wealth at an increasing speed. Liberals have a history of creating safety nets to keep players in the game. Conservatives even begrudge this level of wealth redistribution. If Warren or Sanders is going to win in 2020 they need to convince a vast majority of players there’s a genuine need to redefine the rules to keep the game from collapsing.

Capital needs consumers with money to spend. That means labor must stay in the game. That’s why we’re hearing talk of guaranteed incomes. If the rich aren’t willing to share their wealth now I doubt they will in this future scheme. This means the present game will end when the very few have corned all the chips and the economy falls apart.

Capital is against universal healthcare because they profit from limited healthcare. Republicans and conservatives are passionately fighting any changes to the game. They see any proposal to redistribute wealth as an attack on the existing game rules that favor them winning. Is there a way to change the game to be fairer to everyone that doesn’t involve redistributing the wealth?

Can the 99% create their own wealth without interfering with the 1%? I recently read an article that said the lower 50% has already been drained by the 1% and now they are working to drain the other 49% percent. Wealth transfer to the wealthier even effects millionaires. For Bill Gates to have $100,000,000,000 means 100,000 people aren’t millionaires. And for every 1,000 billionaires, we don’t have a 1,000,000 millionaires.

How can Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk have their own space programs? How many underpaid workers does that take to build that science-fictional dream? Is the game really fair when some winners in society can afford to play NASA and millions of losers are without homes? Even if we rationalize losers don’t deserve anything because they don’t work, does anyone in our rich society deserve to have so little? Bezos and Musk cannot have their space programs without the whole society supporting them.

Isn’t what we want is a fair society that rewards hard work but is passionate toward those who can’t compete? Don’t we also want a society that is ecologically friendly and sustainable? How do we change the rules to get that if the greedy want to keep playing the existing game?

The game requires everyone to play, even when they don’t work or vote. I’m sure conservatives would love to ship off all the unemployable to another country. A certain percentage of the active economy generates wealth by taking care of people who can’t. If they didn’t exist, these caretakers would be out of a job too. We’d have to exile them. But then that would put more people out of work. See the snowball growing? All activity in the economy goes into generating the total wealth of the economy. And yes, building private space programs do create jobs, but how much more economic activity would our economy have if average workers were paid more?

I’m not saying billionaires shouldn’t have their rewards, but couldn’t the rewards of a successful company be spread around fairly? Why do the owners and shareholders get all the profits? Because labor has always been the target of cost reduction. It’s so ingrained that it’s a religion with business. But if the wealthy don’t want to have their taxes raised they should consider raising the wages of their employees so society won’t have to raise taxes on the rich to help the poor.

The trouble is people who have gained seldom want to give back. Of sure, they become famous philanthropists, but that’s not really giving, is it? It’s just another expression of being a winner.

I don’t know why I keep writing these essays. Striving to describe how things work does not change anything. I’ve been reading about Plato lately. He had lots of insights into how things work. And over the centuries society has changed. That’s hopeful. Everyone has way more than what everyone once had. Besides more material wealth, we have more peace and personal health than our ancestors.

Yet there is still so much poverty and sickness in our world today. Can’t we change the rules of the game to help them? Aren’t there more billionaires today because there are more workers getting ahead? Wouldn’t universal healthcare stimulate the overall economy? Would giving the homeless homes stimulate the economy? Doesn’t raising the living standards for the 99%, create more wealth for the 1% to chase?

I see the 2020 election as a referendum. It’s not really about Trump, he’s only the face of greed. Voting for Trump is a vote for maintaining the plutocracy. Voting for a democrat will be a vote to change the rules.

JWH