Making Sense

Dear Diary:

Are we over-estimating or under-estimating the chaos of the day’s world?

I know I risk losing friends for spilling my truth. Alas, the time has come to reveal. We say we follow the science, yet we usually choose the science that validates our suspicions and assumption. Why? Because we are animals, not divine or semi-divine beings.

Even the greatest scientists are human animals first and subject to the constraints of our brain wiring and hormones. As philosopher David Hume said, “reason is the slave of the passions’. Recent studies in psychology show this to be so. We are not the demigods or titans that we think we are. I expect members of any species, if asked, would say they are the superior beings. What do we know for sure?

There is a hierarchical structure throughout life, with egotism at its foundation. Of course you are the centre of your universe. You need to be right and good. How could it be any different? We all need to be positive about ourselves in order to function. People nearly always over-estimate their virtues, their attractiveness, their values, and their IQs. We are egocentric by Nature.

We scale-up ego-centrism to ethnocentrism, the notion that our group or community is superior to others. From there we have anthropocentrism, the idea that our species is, for obvious reasons, superior to all others on the planet. We still have lingering geo-centrism as well, believing that our planet is the centre of the universe and that life could not possibly exist on other planets, although this is starting to change.

The idea of species evolution is about 150 years old. Evolution is an ongoing learning and adaptation system. One early Russian scholar said the evolution of life is rock’s way of redistributing. Today many people still do not accept that Nature learns or develops according to a pattern.

Most people do not really understand the workings of evolution. Even evolutionary biologists do not agree on significant details of the processes. “Survival of the fittest” was not an expression coined by Charles Darwin yet it is used to capture the essence of the idea of evolution. Its not true. Evolution is about the survival of the sufficient! One only needs to survive long enough to reproduce. One need not be the strongest or fittest at all! Similarly, we don’t even need the truth. We only need a belief that is sufficient for our survival.

Although modern science has made amazing leaps forward, the knowledge breakthroughs do not penetrate the popular zeitgeist with proportionate impact. It takes a great deal of effort to rewrite your worldviews. Some of the new knowledge should really be transformative game-changers. But we don’t take time to metabolize these findings. Instead, at best we are likely to “wait and see” what the final outcome will be. Any discovery of how the brain works is treated as a mere curiosity by the masses and migrates through the usual pop-culture cycles of trendy bits you didn’t know about. Then it falls off the public radar like the latest Cardassian plastic surgery story.

Its been a century since sociologist William Ogburn coined the term “cultural lag” to capture the idea that change is not uniform across a culture. Many parts, particularly material culture (cars, computers, hardware, etc.), can be quickly adopted while other parts, such as values, beliefs and routines, are more resistant to change. Of course, and more importantly, some ideas are more deeply entrenched than others as well. Worldviews have inertia. It can takes a lot of effort to change your mind.

In the early 1960s Thomas Kuhn, a physicist and philosopher of science, wrote a book called “The Structure of Scientific Revolutions”. In it he explained how science, as a body of accepted knowledge, has to periodically go through radical paradigm shifts when the legacy knowledge is not able to explain new data. Based on this work the new discipline of sociology of knowledge was born. Now we have a better idea of how all knowledge evolves, sometimes slowly and incrementally, and sometimes through dramatic paradigm shifts. We should really see science as an ongoing process of revelation, not a set of static bits of final truths.

Who cares? A few academics care, but they’re not talking to the public. No one would listen anyway. So we go on constructing, deconstructing and reconstructing our worldviews without the benefit of knowing what we’re really doing. Most people believe, and need to believe, that their worldview is not a thing at all, but is reality. If you travel abroad to a culture that is different from your own, you may have this reality shaken. You may be temporarily awakened to the ‘facts’ of your own worldview assumptions. Then you get over it.

In a highly complex world we really need to be far more self-aware of our own thought processes so we can find threads of simplicity to hold our worldviews together in meaningful ways. Yet this is when it is most difficult to deeply deliberate. Civil complexity creates a constant background anxiety that keeps us on our toes. It forbids us from deeper contemplation, if you don’t want to miss the next headline news. This is FOMO[1] write large! Besides, any worldview these days is so complex you wouldn’t know where to start managing it.

We rarely change our worldviews when we hear of breakthroughs in science, politics or other areas of public knowledge. And when we do, we probably do not integrate that new knowledge in the most appropriate ways. As our lives get more complex, it gets harder to make appropriate changes and bring reality into sharper focus. We have failed to  integrate some very fundamental ideas into our worldviews.

There was a lot of concerned discussion about scaling laws and network effects and diminishing returns on investment. These are all taken as principles, if not actual laws of Nature. They are mathematically proven theorems. We should understand them and incorporate them into our worldviews at a very low level, underlying most everything we know and believe.

Brains on Brains

Its been over 70 years since the brainiacs of the 20th century discovered the secret of life. But today few people even know about it. The reason why life exists against Nature’s forces of entropy has to do with feedback loops, which I will not elaborate on here[2]. Suffice it to say, the followers of those original brainiacs went on to invent and commercialize computers and create the new discipline of management science. They were practical and made fun, fame and fortunes. The part about all living things was dropped so that even leading computer and AI scientists today have not heard some of the names of those brianiacs[3]. Those original thinkers actually understood the physics of life.

Alvin Toffler, Future Shock
Alvin Toffler, Future Shock

We have all but forgotten the works of futurologist Alvin Toffler, author of Future Shock (1970). In his books Toffler told us that there was an exponential growth of civil complexity that was going to become unmanageable. People would eventually become overwhelmed by too much information and the quickening pace of change. There had been more people, things and changes in his one lifetime than in the previous 800 lifetimes put together! Fifty years ago he was totally correct!

There were other scary scenario books on our global conditions, such as The Club of Rome’s Limits to Growth. Of course on a limited planet growth cannot continue indefinitely. But there were skeptics. Each revelatory book raised fears of climate change, and loss of species, ecosystems and the biosphere as a whole. None of them seems to have had much traction. They raised alarms and headlines but still, progress marches on, apparently indifferent to our collective and planetary well-being. Few people have been able to conceive of their own little footprint multiplied by 8B inhabitants.

There was a lot of concerned discussion about scaling laws, network effects and diminishing returns on investment. Essentially, there is a maximum, minimum and optimum size and complexity for any entity or event. These are all taken as core principles, if not actual laws, of Nature. They are based on mathematically proven theorems and they serve as parameters for all natural activity (and all human activity is natural). We should understand them and incorporate them into our worldviews at a very low level, underlying most everything we know and believe.

Another 20 years passed before another definitive book was written on the subject of civil complexity. Academic anthropologist Joseph Tainter laid out the explanation for the demise of complex civilizations. The book The Collapse of Complex Societies was not recognized for its great insights at the time, perhaps because it was not written for the mass market. But Tainter made it clear that civilizations become more complex over time, and eventually so complex that they become unmanageable. The cost of maintaining the system is no longer affordable. Society collapses. People scatter like the citizens of Babel[4]. Are we there yet?

Most of us in urban areas have lost our sense of belonging to a geographic community, with all the daily interactions that we would have experienced in a small hamlet. Instead we find a cheap substitute on our favourite social media platform. Instead of community, many people find their strongest sense of belonging in a community of interest. And perhaps the community with the greatest gravity is found in your political allegiance.

Politicians and their “parties” have geared up with the most advanced propaganda arsenal the world has ever seen. They put the hard core advertisers to shame. They tap into your greatest hopes and dreams as well as your darkest demonic fears. They can tap your inner instincts to find the buttons for blind unadulterated loyalty. It is hard to deny the machinery of politics. They follow you on social media. They forward stories you will find favourable to strengthen your allegiance. They have adopted the practices of not only past authoritarians but the latest in commercial marketing and even social psychology. And people love it!

People love to feel they belong to something bigger than themselves. They need a cause. They join the war against the evil ones who would take away all our freedoms and run roughshod over our rights.  They are able to align the media in their cause to spread the news — the news the enemy is trying to hide from us.  There is a cold civil war brewing within nations around the world. National leaders study and align with their international friends.

Who is drawn to power? All normal healthy people want to manage their surroundings to find their own way to self-actualization. Although we may sometimes become submissive, we still pursue what we can within certain degrees of freedom. But remember, we are mere mortals driven by our brain wiring and hormones. Who wants power? People with high testosterone! Its as simple as that.

People high in testosterone seek competition and domination. Some find power on Wall Street. Some find it in MMA fighting. Some find power in a righteous alignment with god. They can attach themselves to whatever political bandwagon is closest to them. They learn the language and culture of the party. They repeat the adopted sacred mantras. They will recruit followers and tell you what you want to hear. The ideology is mostly an adopted facade. “Egomaniacs” are loyal only to themselves.

There is a special class of people who are particularly drawn to power and control over others. They make up about six percent of any population. As a numbers game, there are many winners and losers in politics. Winners are usually verbally smart as well as high in testosterone and low in oxyticin. Those who feel defeated and stressed are high in cortisol. Winners may be high performers when it comes to social intelligence, but low in empathy. They know your emotions but don’t feel them. Testosterone makes people competitive and want to dominate others. The more you win, the more testosterone flows in your veins, and less cortisol.

Oxytocin makes us feel empathy and want to nurture and protect loved ones. The hormone combo that makes us submissive is cortisol and corticosterone[5]. Together they can shut down testosterone and make you give up the fight and take flight. There is a systemic problem with democracy that needs to be culled. The six percent that fundamentally cannot be guardians of the public trust. They are the six per cent who suffer from any of the Anti-social, Narcissistic or Histrionic Personality Disorders. Without a strong sense of empathy their resources are set on power and influence over others for themselves.

Left or Right?

As a social scientist I have come to believe that our legacy left-right political spectrum is a gross over-simplification of reality. It grew up in a time when modern democracy defeated the archaic monarchy. It was not based on science at all. We now have science that tells us there are a lot of other factors in our political makeup, many of which are actually inborn at birth and tied to our biological hormone configurations.

No scientific foundation for this over-simplification!

Each of us has a natural disposition towards Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, Sanctity/Degradation, and Liberty/Oppression[6]. The influence of each of these can changed due to life experiences, just as your hormone levels vary with recent experiences. Your personal configuration of these, ‘hard-wired’ into your brain, does not necessarily align with your left-right status.

We now have drilled down into political science and created decision theory, which gets down to the psychological physics of decision making. Essentially, every decision is a return on investment decision, making every decision also an economics decision. It is not necessarily the pursuit of a maximum or best return, but often, a sufficient return on investment. At the same time, economic preferences are shaped by culture, which is shared through social relationships.

Not only that, but decision making, economics, values and beliefs as well a social relationships, all emerge from our biological constitution. That’s not all, since biology emerges from organic chemistry, from chemistry and, finally, from physics. But more to the point, all these disciplines are not the reality itself. They are parts of our shared worldview of Nature. So after all the work we’ve done to create separate knowledge silos, we find out that reality is not disciplinary at all. We need to reintegrate our knowledge on a new paradigm. We need a paradigm shift!

In today’s world it sometimes seems as though everything has been politicized and polarized. Unfortunately, the left-right political spectrum conveniently encourages formation of deadly tribes that trigger our war instincts. In the war of words we have spear-shaking, sabre rattling, war drums and dances going on right now in virtually every nation. If someone disagrees with you, he or she is CANCELLED! These actions are precursors to violence. Once we have clearly identified the evil ones, we shall have no compunction in killing them. Some will wait for the leader’s signal. Other will read into the leader’s intentions — intentions that are conveyed with subtlety so the enemy can’t see them. They are buried in the body language and peculiar choices of words.

On both sides of the political spectrum you can see the violence in the others. You see them as aggressors. They want to change your world and take what is rightfully yours. You didn’t ask for this. But now you are forced to defend your ideals. You have collaboration. They have conspiracies. Fight or take flight!

We no longer have authentic geographic communities. We don’t know our neighbours. We don’t know their personalities, their talents, values or beliefs. We don’t appreciate that the greatest diversity among us lies in our various talents and orientations. And we don’t appreciate that Nature gave us that diversity because no individual has all the answers to all of our challenges. We were meant to be collaborators.

The neighbours today could be our enemies, so we avoid difficult conversations and keep a watchful eye on them. In many cases our neighbours come from different regions, countries and language groups. Diversity is great but it needs to be constructively managed. How can we constructively manage diversity if we don’t even have a sense of community of our own?

Power

I’ve been studying moral psychology and the psychology of happiness. It has become clear to me that a small percentage of the human population is responsible for a disproportionate number of dysfunctional actions. In the midst of civil complexity, people with high testosterone as well as low oxytocin and cortisol are playing out their dreams of self-actualization. A small handful of these people have competitively risen through the ranks of organizations to dominate. They are surrounded by slightly less talented or less competitive pawns who carry out the leader’s deeds in hopes of some protection and privilege. The leaders don’t know that they suffer from Anti-social, Narcissistic or Histrionic Personality Disorders, and if they did know, they are likely to take this as an asset in the war against the opponent.

Few others recognize this condition in them either. Obscuring their disorders is the layer of mythology created about leaders in the media. Leaders with personality disorders are cheered on by loyal followers in the media and demonized by their enemies.

It does not matter whether the war cry is for personal freedom, equality or family values. It doesn’t matter if the chant is for rights or to shut down privilege. Nor does it matter what values are at stake. It all comes down to the role of our hormonal mix. Whether left or right, we are aligned with our fearless leaders and committed to fight to the death of the evil ones or to our own death. The line in the sand is drawn. You are either for us or against us. There can be no middle ground. Your hormones will decide for you – fight or flight. You will not necessarily know when you have crossed the line and joined the battle.

Nor does it matter whether the left or the right wins. The leaders will not stop until they have full control. Then their task turns to keeping the followers in line. You cannot leave this sacred religion alive. You must be vigilant against the return of the evil ones. Tyrants are paranoid.

Those who are infected with this war virus are not to blame. They are mere animals controlled by their brain wiring and hormones. At least that is what the aliens will say.

Salvation?

I have painted a dark and dire scenario here. I have surely lost a few friends. No one wants to see themselves as determined by their biological constraints. We certainly believe in free will. How could we believe otherwise? But there are two ways to err here — by over-estimating and by under-estimating. You can write me off as either Polly-Anna or Chicken Little or the Boy Who Cried Wolf.

Fractal universe?

Are there ways to turn this movement around? Historically, complex civilizations have eventually collapsed. There is usually a triggering event that cannot be overcome, such as famine, because civil complexity makes solutions stagnant and unworkable. But there is one small possible escape clause. Simplicity. How can we make a complex civilization simple once again?

If we again go back to our science, we can find a good possibility that there is simplicity within complexity. We see patterns repeat throughout Nature. In fact, the universe is probably a fractal, and that fractal has a mathematical algorithm[7]. A fractal is a self-similar pattern, that repeats at all levels of organization. If we can understand the root fractal we can describe all complex phenomena in simple terms.

A good example of a model is the periodic table of elements. Before Dmitri Mendeleev came up with the table, scientists were at a loss to explain the order among the known elements. The table was a simple way to explain what otherwise looks overwhelmingly complex. Across the table the traits of the elements repeat in terms of being normally solid, liquid or gas. Once it was laid out it was then easier to find other elements hitherto unknown. Their existence and traits would be predicted.

There are some other simple ways to understand complexities. The universe consists of just two things — entities located in space and events located in time. In our languages we have corresponding nouns for entities and verbs for events. This enables us to put entities and events in place so we can navigate toward opportunities and avoid threats. For this navigation, Nature has given us a fundamental approach-avoidance response to keep us alive. We also have the pleasure pain principle built into our sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

The right creative hemisphere versus the left logical hemisphere.

We also know that the elemental force fields of Nature have polarity. Things generally have either a positive or negative polarity field and are attracted to the opposite. This pattern is maintained throughout Nature in different layers of organization. It is the balance of forces (e.g. neutrons, marriage) that are stable and promote continuity. Likewise, it is the differences among us humans that make us stronger as a whole.

We know about small group dynamics in theories of organization and leadership. We know that dynamics change as we add more people to a group. It is impossible to know a large number of people so intimately as to work automatically with them. As group size increases the number of relationships grows exponentially. The large number of relationships, according to the mathematics of network effects, will become unmanageable.

Community is the largest naturally occurring social organization, topping out at 100 to 250 souls, according to the Dunbar Number theory. If we want to scale up beyond that number, we need to consciously and deliberatively plan a sustainable structure. We need to recognize the genetic constraints of our brain size, wiring and chemistry and build a civilization that is aligned with the forces of Nature. It will be an engineered artificial construct  and a community of communities.

While we have been shaken from our original natural community settings in which we knew, appreciated and complemented other souls, it has been possible for us to reorganize in dysfunctional ways that will lead to our collective demise. For example, we have giant corporations that have reached diseconomies of scale and yet are too big to fail. Our unrestrained desire for more material goods and instant satisfaction have blinded our sensitivity to higher needs such as social belonging, mastery and self-actualization.

In important ways, the people on the opposite side of the political spectrum are the people we need most in our lives. If they differ in their values and ideologies it is to ensure that the human population as a whole continues in a healthy balance of lifestyles and governance, a balance of individual and collective requirements.

On the other hand, if there is one, maybe Nature has a plan to reduce our numbers by war for the sake of other species and the planetary ecosystems.


[1] FOMO – Fear Of Missing Out

[2] See First Law of Cybernetics for more information

[3] Allen Turing, Jon von Neumann, W. Ross Ashby, Norbert Wiener, Ludwig von Bertalanffy, Claude Shannon, etc.

[4] The Tower of Babel

[5] ScienceDirect

[6] Moral Foundations Theory

[7] The Master Algorithm, Pedro Domingos, 2016

Published by Randal B. Adcock

Independent author on philosophy and the human condition The ideas expressed in this blog are wholly my own and do not represent the opinions of any other organization or entity.

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