Intuition Showdown

Two different colleagues have independently recommended The Matter With Things by Dr Iain McGilchrist, who is also known for The Master and His Emissary, published in 2009.

As a result of these recommendations, I’ve watched some 6 or more hours of video interviews with Iain, some of which are hosted on his own site, Channel McGilchrist, including this one. Before I get to the topic promised by the title of this post, I’ll say that I like Iain. I respect his intellect, his demeanour, and his approach. If you are a credentialist, his an Oxford-educated psychiatrist—so he’s no slouch.

Iain’s positions are well researched, informed, and articulated. I could listen to him for hours. In fact, I have. And yet I disagree with a fundamental position he takes on intuition. Allow me to build up to that.

My first recommendation was due to a reaction I shared that depicting left-right brain hemisphere as analytic-creative was overly reductionist and quaint. McGilchrist was recommended because he disagreed. But it turns out his disagreement was more in the way it was being portrayed. The answer was wrong because the question was wrong. In a nutshell, his contention is that we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing. I agree with this.

we shouldn’t be asking what each hemisphere processes, but how it goes about processing

His point is that in cases where an experience (inputs) might be processed on one side versus another, the interpretation (outputs) would necessarily differ. To make a false analogy, the left brain might be performing an exponential function whilst the right brain might be performing an arithmetic function. So, if ƒ(left) = xx and ƒ(right) = x+x, then an input of 3 would yield 27 and 6, respectively. There is nothing wrong with either side, they just produce different results. In context, this difference might matter: How many feet across is that chasm I must leap. I say, ‘Oops’, as I am falling to my demise having underestimated the difference, having used the right rather than the left function.

False Analogy by the Numbers

So where is this showdown you are wittering on about? A little more setup.

Science is stereotypically an analytic function, which is the say it requires a lot of left hemisphere processing. Psychology—and keep in mind that I cast psychology as pseudoscience, or para-science when I am being more charitable—elevates the notion of intuition as not only having value but of being largely ignored by science.

Those who have been following me for a while, know that I am also critical of Scientistm™, the blind-faith devotion to the current state of science as being some infallible truth. But neither am I an advocate for metaphysical claims. This is what I feel Psychology™ is trying to do with intuition. It feels like they are not only trying to inject a metaphysical claim; they are simultaneously making a normative claim that you should have (and trust) intuition; further, they are staking out the territory to be able to say an absence of this acceptance is pathological, so this is a power play. We’ve got the tea leaf readers taking up arms against science.

Of course, I am being hyperbolic and polemic for effect, but this division exists. Iain is not the first to attempt to elevate intuition. A central idea that Jonathan Haidt tries to sell the reader on in his book, The Righteous Mind, is that we need to be more accepting and trusting of intuition. Even Malcolm Gladwell pushed this point in Blink: The Power of Thinking Without Thinking.

I do think that this will escalate. Even if it doesn’t materialise into a full-scale war, people will take sides—they already have—, and we’ll see more us versus them fingerpointing. Whilst I am not fully on the side of science, my propensity is to lean in that direction.

UPDATE: Even before I post this, I discover that I am behind the times with this prediction. In searching for a suitable image for this post, I find the book Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology, which calls out pseudoscience presented as fact not only in the obvious realm of pop psychology but in the offices of practising psychologists. I have not read it, so I am not in a position to recommend it. I may get a copy for myself, if only just to have it on hand.

Before I end this, I also wish to anticipate a point of disagreement. I’ve encountered practitioners of ‘scientific psychology’ who vehemently defend their vocation as science. Without addressing this directly, let’s just raise the point that applying the scientific method and maths to a discipline doesn’t graduate it to become a science. I can apply this to Tarot or haruspicy. If fact, this is how, in general, social sciences became so-called soft sciences: ‘Look at me, mum. I’m using numbers’.

Where do you fall on the topic of intuition? Am I exaggerating and making mountains out of molehills?

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The Infertility Trap

A colleague who happens to be a professor in New South Wales shared this video with me. I am tempted to just recapture the presented content here, but I feel everyone should just watch it for full impact. I intentionally used a cover image that is counter to the narrative. The challenge is not overpopulation. Rather, it’s the opposite. Find out why.

Video: RSNSW Clarke Memorial Lecture 2021: The changing tide of human populations: an infertility trap

I’ve cued the video beyond the introduction—feel free to rewind for context, but there is no material content to be missed—, and there are a couple of minutes of additional material at the end, making the content closer to 50 minutes (48.5) than an hour.

The Infertility Trap was published last month as a book. I’ve not read it, but it was referenced. Countdown, by Shanna Swan is also referenced.

Some highlights follow:

The Rise and Rise of Humankind

Geometric growth commenced after the Black Plague was driven by the discovery of how to harness fossil fuel. As with Malthusian predictions, The Population Bomb missed the mark—but not for all of the reasons you might be thinking.

Changing Pace of Population Growth

Population growth rates were already on the decline when The Population Bomb was published in 1968. This trend was a result of the fertility trend that became precipitous circa 1963.

The Demographic Transition: Population Momentum

Though birth rates may seem to be increasing, this is merely optics as this is a legacy of positive population momentum stemming from high birth rates a few decades prior to the impending decline in fertility.

The Malthusian Paradox

Thomas Malthus didn’t grasp the paradigmatic shift technology would provide nor the relationship between fertility and prosperity.

Charts: Prosperity, infant mortality, child mortality, and fertility rate

As prosperity (as measured by GDP) increases, infant and child mortality as well as total fertility rate, each decrease. (I’m calling out the poor statistical representation of the non-zero-based Y-axis, but I don’t believe this was done to exaggerate the slope. It’s apparently just out of index.)

Reproductive Patterns: Australia vs !Kung Hunter-Gatherers

Notable in the charts above, are the delays in reproduction by the average Australian woman to around 30 years effectively limits the delivery to about 2 (1.7) whereas the hunter-gatherers commence closer to 20 years, yielding them an average of 5 children.

Rapid decline in semen quality

Semen quality (motility) and count are down.

Projections: Countdown to sperm count of zero in Paris and New Zealand

If declining semen count trends remain unabated or unaltered, one might anticipate a point where male fertility (potency?) reaches zero. This is characterised as azoopermia and projects this on Parisian males just past 2030 and by 2026 for New Zealanders.

Secular trend in declining testosterone levels

This downward trend is not constrained by region.

Trends in Testicular Cancer (NSW)

A correlated trend in fertility rate is an increase in testicular cancer, as shown with NSW data, even as ovarian cancer remains steady and cervical cancers are decreasing.

Reproductive Cancers in New South Wales

Conversely, other reproductive cancers (in NSW)—uterine and breast cancers—are on the rise in sync with testicular cancers and the drop in fertility.

My intent with this post is to share rather than editorialise. The video speaks for itself. I’ve provided some excerpted content for those who can’t spare the time to view the source.

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Intuition and Reason

I’ve been cycling through The Righteous Mind and Moral Tribes, respectively by Jonathan Haidt and Joshua Greene. These blokes are social psychologists and moral philosophers. I started each of these books with the conception that I would neither like nor agree with the content. As for like, I suppose that’s a silly preconception better captured by whether or not I agree; that with which I don’t agree, I don’t like.

This said, I like the style of both of the authors, and I am finding the material to be less contentious than I first thought. I can already envisage myself agreeing with much of the substance but waiting to disagree with the conclusions.

Although I committed myself to document The Righteous Mind in situ, I am finding that I am listening to the audiobook whilst driving and so getting ahead of myself, so I’ll have to rewind and retread in order to do this. In fact, the reason I switched back to Greene’s Moral Tribes is so I wouldn’t progress even further in Haidt’s work.

I am writing this post to acknowledge this. I’d also like to document that I don’t believe that humans are good reasoners, a situation both Haidt and Greene cite to be generally true. Humans are post hoc rationalisers, which is to say that they make up their minds and then create a narrative to justify that position. Haidt uses an analogy of an elephant and a rider, and he asserts that humans might more accurately be described as groupish than selfish. Certainly not shellfish. Greene notes that people have been shown to concede self-interest to political party interest, which helps to explain how people continually and predictably vote against their own self-interests. This also supports my position that democracy is a horrible form of government. Of course, Haidt would argue that this proves his point that people tend to adopt facts that support their perspective and diminish or disregard those that don’t.

it doesn’t follow that intuition is (1) better, (2) significantly better, or (3) good enough for (a) long term viability or (b) grasping complexity.

Haidt suggests that reason is overvalued, but then he proposes intuition as a better alternative. I agree with him that reason is overvalued and for the same reasons (no pun intended) that he does. But it doesn’t follow that intuition is (1) better, (2) significantly better, or (3) good enough for (a) long term viability or (b) grasping complexity.

Whilst I am not immune to this any more than someone else. I recall Kahneman writing in Thinking Fast and Slow that even though he is well aware of cognitive biases and fallacies, he himself can’t escape them either. When I used to teach undergraduate economics, I’d give some sort of policy assignment. As a preamble, I’d instruct the students that without exception, all policy decisions have pros and cons. In their submissions, they’d need to gather both supporting and detracting arguments and then articulate why one should be adopted over another. Minimally, I’d expect at least three pros and cons.

The students would almost invariably complain about how difficult it was to imagine a counter-position. Even when they’d include some, they were usually weak tea fodder. Oftentimes, the students already shared the same perspective, so they couldn’t usually even get the opposing side until we debriefed after the assignments had been graded. Although I do recall instances where students would admit that they hadn’t considered this or that opposing view, I can’t recall a case where a position was flipped after hearing new evidence—not that this was my intention. People do engage in escalating commitment, doubling down on existing beliefs and generating defensive—sometimes tortuous—arguments to support their positions.

Democracy à la Carte

I’ve been pondering the notion of democracy. This is not new for me. I’ve looked around and asked myself, ‘If democracy is so great, why is it not more widely adopted’. I don’t mean why don’t other countries try it? And I don’t mean to confound the issue by arguing that a republic is not a democracy, the last refuge of the desperate.

Democracy is a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance. 

H. L. Mencken

Mencken offers more critique in his Notes on Democracy.

What I wonder is why, if it’s so good, why don’t companies structure democratically? Why not the military? I’ve always found this particularly humorous: An autocratic, socialised structure defending democracy. Some of the biggest democratic flag-wavers are military and ex-military.

I know that most military members in the US would be lucky to work flipping burgers at McDonald’s. Some speak of the mental illness and homelessness of military veterans, but this misses the direction of the arrow of causation. These people had a free ride, room, and board on Uncle Sam’s dime in the States—some other denomination elsewhere. It’s really no wonder that one wouldn’t want to give these people a voice in military affairs, and yet they do get a voice in civilian affairs. It’s a good thing almost half of Americans eligible to vote don’t.

The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.

Winston Churchill

I’ve already mentioned that democracy is a sham and its best feature is the illusion of control. I suppose if I come up with something better, I might write about it. Until then, it’s just one of many mediocre options.

Interestingly, some people’s options are asinine. Frank Karsten hawking his book and ideology on Beyond Democracy thinks that downsizing is the answer. Hans-Hermann Hoppe agrees, as he posits in several essays in Democracy: The God that Failed. I don’t disagree, but his basic point seems to be that 300MM people deciding is too much, so perhaps 10MM or 20MM might work better. What’s the limit? Why not 150? How is conflict among this smaller political units adjudicated? With this downsizing, how does the system control the urge for upsizing? In the end, this feels like more Libertarian, anarcho-capitalistic mental masturbation, which as I type this feels redundant. Unfortunately, the common denominator is people, and that’s Achilles’ heel.

Jacques Lacan, anyone?

I’m wondering whether I should delve into Lacan. I am only vaguely aware of him and have never read any of his published essays or lectures. From what I’ve gleaned, I may end up down some rabbit hole. His interest in the function of language interests me, but his analogy of that to psychoanalysis is disconcerting.

The analogy is fine, but I have a problem with the entire field of psychoanalysis as I view it as pseudoscience. As with Freud and Jung, the speculation around the unconscious and their metaphors are fine storytelling, but that’s about it.

My interest is in his structural approach to language and the notion I share concerning the lack of specificity in language, but it seems to me that my time would be better spent reading Derrida.

Lacan is categorised as both a structuralist and a post-structuralist, which might be correct given the period in which he lived, but I am still trying to figure out how he might be considered to be a post-structuralist, as he seems to be concerned with a sense of order, which is somewhat antithetical to this worldview.

The Mind is Flat

So, given the wide gap between the last post and this, it may be apparent that I’ve been otherwise occupied. I’ve been a bit distracted, but, among other things, I’ve just commenced reading The Mind Is Flat by Nick Chater.

Although this is more about the pseudoscience that is psychology, there is a bit of a philosophical, subjectivist undertone, and I find the political and jurisprudent implications interesting.

No amount of therapy, dream analysis, word association, experiment or brain-scanning can recover a person’s ‘true motives’, not because they are difficult to find, but because there is nothing to find. It is not hard to plumb our mental depths because they are so deep and so murky, but because there are no mental depths to plumb.

Of course, this perspective is right up my street: There is no there there, and this is where it becomes problematic: in the US anyway, much of law is based on the concept intent and motives—and the underlying belief that these can be sussed out. But in reality, as it were, it’s not much more than rhetoric obfuscated with smoke and mirrors.

Our ‘computational innards’ are not a churning sea of experiences, feelings, beliefs, desires, hopes and fears, whether conscious or unconscious. Our mind spins stories about how we work – driven by motives, beliefs, percepts, moral norms, religious precepts. And they are such compelling stories that we can imagine that they are true, or partially true, or surely at least along the right general lines.

From the perspective of evolution, humans are storytellers.  More to the point, humans are storylisteners, and they can be are influenced by compelling narratives. These narratives range from a sense of identity to the yarn about history and progress. As Foucault might have noted, people in positions of power leverage these narratives and spin their own in order to maintain their advantage.

In practice, humans are mere parsing machines. Their brains may not work precisely like a computer, but practically, the brain is an interpreter and it generates ‘consciousness’ based on experiences and sense data. Input a new narrative and the brain will interpret it in context with other experiences—or as Chater puts it, ‘motives, beliefs, percepts, moral norms, religious precepts’.

Marketers, politicians, and other hucksters use this to their every advantage.

Well, enough typing for the moment. Back to reading…

Looking back at books & such in 2017

Evidently, I ‘read’ a lot in 2017. To be perfectly honest, I listened to a lot of long-form audiobooks in 2017. Here is a summary of my favourites. The ♠ symbol indicates that I read rather than listened to the audiobook version.

  • Recommended Favourites
    1. Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow by Yuval Noah Harari
      This is a strong follow-on to his Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. He assesses the present and extrapolates from the past to formulate a vision of the future.
    2. Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows
      ♠ Whilst not philosophical, per se, this is a reminder of how much of what we analyse is based on systems and how poorly humans process complexity.
    3. What Is Property? by Pierre-Joseph Proudhon
      ♠ I could have captured this under Classics, but Favourites rates higher. Proudhon does a bang-up job of critiquing private property, especially as rentier. Some have espoused stronger views, but he was a trailblazer and a trendsetter.
    4. Good Strategy Bad Strategy by Richard Rumelt
      Another non-philosophy book, this was more supportive of my rent-paying day job. He does a good job of defining strategy and explaining how poor most executives are at it—despite how many have done MBA-level coursework in Strategy at top-tier schools.
    5. Lolita by Vladimir Nabokov
      One of the few fiction pieces I read this year, I am not sure if I’ve read a better book. Whilst it’s difficult to judge over an expanse of years and decades—given falible memory and circumstances—, it’s got to be one of the top two or three.
    6.  Neo-Nihilism: The Philosophy of Power by Peter Sjöstedt-H
      Although this work is entirely derivative, it is presented as a compact summary, and I enjoyed it on a plane trip from someplace to somewhere.
    7. Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter
      Full disclosure: I’ve been a McWhorter fanboy for years, but again I enjoyed his perspective on language and linguistics.
    8. The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature by Steven Pinker
      I like Pinker’s presentation style, though I am not quite on board with his defence of Humanism and neo-Enlightenment position. These aside, his analysis resonates once I compensate for the bias they introduce. I read this after having read Robert Wright’s The Moral Animal, which trod some of the same ground. I recommend it, too; I just found Pinker’s presentment to be superior.
    9. Philosophy and Real Politics by Raymond Geuss
      ♠ This came as a recommendation as result of an online conversation in a Libertarian forum. I listened to it as an audiobook and the read it to fully grasp the material. It was well worth it.
  • Classics
    1. Discourse on the Origin of Inequality by Jean Jacques Rousseau
      I enjoyed this quite a bit, and though it’s viewed through quite the quaint Romantic lens, it is nonetheless enjoyable. I was strongly considering this as a favourite, but I opted to place it at the top of the Classics list.
    2. The Social Contract by Jean Jacques Rousseau
      Although I appreciate Rousseau as a thinker and writer, I didn’t really like this. It was a decent thought experiment in its day, but in the end, it’s just a Romantic and fanciful sort of origin story.
    3. Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche
      I also considered placing this in Favourites. Nietzsche or his translator provide coherent exposition, but in the end, I found it to be spotty. Though many find it to be a hard pill to swallow, his extension of Hegel’s master and slave (herd) morality still resonates today.
    4. On the Genealogy of Morals: A Polemic by Friedrich Nietzsche
      A strong follow-on to Nietzsche’s Beyond Good and Evil, though not quite a favourite. Nietzsche is a master rhetorician, and this polemic is quite enticing. What struck me most is how he presaged Freud by at least a decade.
    5. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding by David Hume
      ♠ I actually read rather than listened to this classic. Hume, the Empiricist, was so far ahead of his time.
    6. Anarchy, State, and Utopia by Robert Nozick
      More of a modern classic—whatever that means—, Nozick tries, but the entire idea is based on a faulty premise and wishful thinking. I understand he walked back some of his position in his later years (of which there weren’t many), but he never quite jumped off the Libertarian bandwagon.
    7. On Liberty and Utilitarianism by John Stuart Mill were refreshing, as I mention here. Whilst I don’t agree with his consequentialism, I appreciate what he has to say. Ultimately, he demonstrates what is wrong with empiricism. Still, definitely worth the read.
    8. The Republic by Plato
      I found this book to be sophomoric and lame logic. I truly don’t understand how this tripe is revered. It’s like listening to some random dude tripping balls at a party. It’s saving grace is his Allegory of the Cave, but I could have read that on the back of a cereal box. I didn’t need it to be buried in a book.
    9. The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism by Max Weber
      Not a favourite in the least. Probably the least interesting book I read in 2017. If I read a worse book, I mercifully put it aside and didn’t slog through it. Let’s just say I read this. Check that box. This was the epitome of boring. I almost quit, but as it was relatively short, I persevered. Weber’s main point of how Calvinism created the environment to allow Capitalism to flourish, could have been presented as a pamphlet. I was not interested in the deep historical perspective. YMMV
  • Great Courses
    In addition to reading and listening to the books above, I enjoyed several courses, which I recommend highly and I’d be remiss not to mention. Follow the links to read about them. 

    1. The Modern Intellectual Tradition: From Descartes to Derrida (publisher)
    2. No Excuses: Existentialism and the Meaning of Life  (publisher)