Wednesday, July 24, 2013

There’s No Going Back in The Box

I have always had a Hobbesian view of the human condition, but over the last couple of years the fine and rather disturbing details of that view have been elucidated by the The Black Swan by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Free Will by Sam Harris, a number of books by Steven Pinker, Risk : The Science and Politics of Fear by Daniel Gardner, and most recently by Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman.

I have also always had a strong suspicion that the human condition would be completely codified in my lifetime. What I did not suspect however is just how thoroughly depressing the coalescence of that codification would be; indubitable scientific research shows that we are pathologically, recursively and absolutely  deluded as a species, and that the vast majority of judgements and decisions that we make individually and collectively are non-optimal in the best cases, and patently wrong in the worst.  This goes a long way to explaining why the planet is in the state that it is in.

As I have attempted to internalize the codification contained within the aforementioned books, I have struggled with how one can turn the awareness of the limitations of one’s meatware to one’s advantage. Basically it would require the insertion of the equivalent of a  perhaps-you-should-think-hard-about-that  hardware interrupt into all of one’s cognitive processes, or at least those that don’t involve having to respond to a flesh and blood Panthera leo that has put Homo sapiens sapiens on the menu. Achieving this level of mental discipline is hard enough in its own right, but then once the interrupt has fired there is the not-insignificant challenge of identifying and adjusting for the cognitive biases and heuristics that might be in play; and there are A LOT of them and their effects are most often very subtle and  totally counter intuitive (as their name implies). It may simply be beyond my, and most human’s, cognitive abilities to avoid making decisions with a “sub-system” evolved for avoiding the inadvertent consumption of toxic plants, hungry predators and randomly falling trees in The Savannah.       

Having an awareness of this codification also leads to the uncomfortable realization that humanity is utterly vulnerable to manipulation by amoral agents (sociopaths, politicians or artificial intelligences)  who have deep knowledge of this research and the motivation to use/misuse it.  

If we are to survive as a species we are going to have to overcome the significant limitations of our own neurology. Given that most humans are seemingly unable to even overcome their petty prejudices, I don’t have a high degree of confidence that we are going to be around long enough to speciate. I can only hope that as awareness of this research becomes more widespread that we will become collectively less vulnerable to the limitations of our own mental processes, and the manipulation of those processes by unscrupulous forces. We could start by requiring that all high school students and politicians learn about cognitive biases and how they negatively impact our ability to make optimal decisions and accurate judgements.

Some or other ancient Greek philosopher suggested that one should “Know Thyself”. They should have followed this gem with a warning that one cannot “Un-know Oneself” after the fact. There is no going back in the box.  

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