Woe v Rage

There’s no such thing as objectivity

The Supreme Court has recently delivered a rash of decisions with major repercussions that echo around these United States. From abortion to gun control, those on the Supreme Court are required to make decisions about constitutional rights.  This would be a difficult task for an advanced AI robot let alone a human being.

Human beings can’t be objective, unless they are playing a simplified constructed game, like Monopoly where there are very defined rules about what can and can’t be done. Even then, there’s room for subjectivity to influence decision-making. So, trying to work out what a group of men, some of whom have been dead for more than 200 years,  would think today is about impossible. I suspect that many times judges are subconsciously if not consciously looking for how the constitution might reinforce their views rather than suspending their judgement and asking what those Founding Fathers really meant, or would do today. That is how humans, at this moment in time, “think”. And if I needed more confirmation of this notion, I recently read from a reliable source that Supreme Court justices often barter amongst each other for their “votes” on different issues. Of course, they’re human beings.

The divisiveness in the USA will only get worse, with potential calamitous implications, if this situation continues. The issue here is that the brain really needs an upgrade to deal with the complexity of modern life. The brain’s main focus is survival, and for that it needs energy. So, energy conservation is critical and that doesn’t help the brain think critically. Critical thinking takes a lot of energy.

As  Grant Renier and I wrote in our recent book  Intuitive Rationality: A New Behavioral Direction of AI…

“…consciousness is selective. It looks to create a coherent summary of reality, a summary that is heavily influenced by past experience and a host of other factors and organized subconsciously.”

Our feelings, opinions and images just appear like magic within us and stroll through the open gate of inattention onto the welcoming fields of acceptance.

As a result of the brain’s energy-saving function, it instantly looks at the world in a binary fashion. It’s either a or b. This leads to an absurd simplicity and instant divisiveness. When any group rallies behind its banner, it instantly distinguishes itself from everyone else, creating more divisiveness. We have one main connecting trait; we are all human. When things are done because of our mutual humanity they resonate. When we separate ourselves, it becomes divisive. That doesn’t sound logical until you realize the fundamental functioning of the binary brain.

This tendency is troubling enough without it being fueled by a divisive media, social media and even some marketing, designed to manipulate as many of us, who are incredibly vulnerable. In the attention economy, where it has been estimated that many of us are exposed to at least 5000 commercials a day, it’s easy to become cynical, if not angry and dismissive, about almost everything you disagree with. The confirmation bias reigns supreme.

In a different era , like 1776, before all these developments led to the bombardment of the mind, it would probably be a lot easier to seriously believe that some people could be completely objective. But in today’s world, that is increasingly unlikely, as in impossible.

It obviously would be helpful if we could return to civility, but that is unlikely to happen in the complex world where peddling divisiveness is what gets “more eyeballs”, and where the most popular narrative is a helpless woeful victim against an angry predator.

Another contributing factor is that reasoning and logic are being challenged, typically by those driven by confirmation bias. While logic and reasoning are very important tools, they are not infallible. In our complex world and even in most scientific studies, the amount of information is necessarily limited. You never have all the information you need, and you can only guess at what the most important variables are. Thus, any argument is potentially fallible, opening the unthinking gate again to confirmation bias, and whatever you want to believe. As British statistician George Box once said about scientific theories,

 “All models are wrong, some are useful.”

That’s a very useful quote we all need to keep in mind.

The secret to wisdom is recognizing what you don’t know. It is understanding how the mind really works and how to escape the tyranny of those editors and lenses that we have often unconsciously acquired and drive our views about others and ourselves. Then being vulnerable and humble enough to accept one’s limitations which would lead to the respect of others and the possibility of more civil and product discourse.

Unfortunately, politics and pretty much every other human endeavor, doesn’t work like that.  So, we are left with decision-making based on confirmation bias and emotion, rather than rational and civil discourse and a mind open enough to put aside political blinkers.

Going forward it looks like the discussion, as well as society, will continue to be centered on woe and rage.

Howard Rankin Ph.D.