EDIT: I’ve since finished this book and posted a review on Goodreads.
As a former behavioural economist, it’s good to see the expansion of the position that the Enlightenment brought the Western world an Age of Reason, but it failed to see how little capacity most humans have for reason even regarding mundane affairs.
Fundamental attribution bias is clearly at play, as the authors of these Enlightenment works were high-intellect individuals. I respect greatly the likes of Locke, Hume, Montesquieu, Rousseau, and their near contemporaries, but the world they envisaged was based on an invalid premise.
In the realm of governance, one might try to argue that Plato was trying to address this in his admonishment of democracy in favour of The Republic, but he, too, was incorrect, essentially not seeing principle-agent problems as well as predicating a system on the notion of virtue—naive, to say the least.
I’ve been tremendously busy in my day job, so I haven’t been able to contribute here as much as I’d like, but I’ve taken time to jot down this.
Sort of interesting topic, but I’ve been too busy to post much or respond lately.
Think about the concepts of “red” and “justice” and you’ll notice a key difference. If you’re sighted, you’ll associate “red” most strongly with the sensory experience, which relates to signals from cone cells in your eyes. “Justice”, in contrast, doesn’t have any associated sensory qualities – as an abstract concept, you’ll think about its meaning, which you learnt via language, understanding it to be related to other abstract concepts like “fairness” or “accountability”, perhaps. But what about blind people – how do they think about “red”?
A brain-imaging study of 12 people who had been blind from birth, and 14 sighted people, published recently in Nature Communications, shows that while for sighted people, sensory and abstract concepts like “red” and “justice” are represented in different brain regions, for blind people, they’re represented in the same “abstract concept” region.
It’s sometimes difficult living in such a narcissistic place. I’ve lived in and out of the US, but I seemed to have settled here for now. I’ve lived on each coast, the Southwest, and the Midwest. I’ve visited all but four states—notably, Wyoming, Montana, and North & South Dakota, so you might recognise the trend.
Currently, I reside in Delaware, but my office is in Manhatten. As a consultant, I am most often wherever my client is. Combined, I’ve lived in LA for well over a decade, my earliest youth was spent in and around Boston. In my 20s in the 1980s, I spent my formative years in Los Angeles, the centre of the music industry at the time, where I was a recording engineer and musician. I had left my roots in Boston with various pitstops along the way to settle in LA, but I returned to Boston in the late ’80s to attend university and grad school. In Boston, I was married and then divorced, an event that gave me leave to return to Los Angeles, where I got married again and relocated to Chicago, where I spent over a decade as well. Divorced again, I relocated near Philadelphia for work and settled into rural northern, Delaware.
To the uninitiated, the US have two cosmopolitan cities, NYC and LA. By population, the third largest city, Chicago, is an oversized farm town. It qualifies as a city on the basis of population, and it’s not a bad place to be, but it lacks the cultural diversity and buzz of a NY or LA. There is none of that in Philadelphia and even less in Delaware.
The United States are like Australia. It’s ostensibly like a doughnut—empty in the middle, except to say the top and bottom don’t offer much either. So this is not to say that there aren’t valuable things, lessons, and people in these other areas, but by and large, even with the Internet and social media, they are still a decade and more behind.
When I lived in Japan—and I realise that I am coming off as some sort of culture snob—, I was taken aback at how far they seemed behind my frame of reference, having come from an affluent, white, East Coast, family. On one hand, their technology was off the charts and, owing to the exchange rate, it was cheap. Besides the exchange rate, the mark-up was enormous. Americans have no sense of value, and so as much as they exploit other countries, the last laugh is on them.
Americans are not some monolithic entity. There are many dimensions and divisions. To say Americans [fill in the blank] would be disingenuous. To listen to the politicians—especially the ones on the Right, and not just the fringe—you might be left thinking that American are all narcissistic assholes. In fact, this is the same cohort that leaves you feeling that the US have never left the Dark Ages with their religious superstitions.
Much of the country is actually in the 21st Century, but when you try to assess some average sentiment, this vocal minority makes it seem we live in perhaps the fifteenth century.
Even behind these anachronisms, there is still a sense of American exceptionalism—or perhaps there was a time that they were exceptional in some bout of nostalgia. You can cherry-pick some dimensions and claim to rank high on the scale but any exceptionalism only happens by adopting a frame. Many who come to the conclusion that the US are or were exceptional tend to fetishise Ancient Greece and Rome as well. In my opinion, it’s indoctrination, but there has to be more than this. There needs to be a certain gullibility gene that creates the propensity to believe these narratives. Without going off the rails, it might be fair to say that this genetic predisposition might have been the reason humans have evolved this far. I’d like to think it’s merely vestigial, but I’ll presume that this is only wishful thinking.
Americans, like most people, have a sense of identity, whether personal or to groups. And like the personae we project as individuals, we have myriad group personae as well. Perhaps there is already a term for this. If not, I’m not going to coin a term now.
Like individual identity, people defend their notion of group identity, and they tend to over-estimate. More than half of people consider themselves to be average or better than average in looks or intelligence and so on. Clearly, this defies statistics, but it is not merely an attempt to assuage some cognitive dissonance; you can come to a defensible position by picking some attributes that might excel (on some subjective aesthetic scale) and then overvaluing these attributes relative to the entire domain. Perhaps a person is taller than average and has been told s/he has beautiful eyes. It would be easy to discount other factors and place oneself in a higher rank due to these two factors. It works like this for national identity.
In the US, they will focus on some economic indicator, argue that it is important and captures broader coverage than it does, and then reference it as proof of exceptionalism. Meantime, the population is being indoctrinated into accepting this narrative, and much effort is spent trying to convince the larger world that this attribute is important.
In this MAGA Age of Make America Great Again, it’s helpful to remember that it never was and never will be great. And that’s OK. It’s also helpful to remember that the ‘good ole days’ are rarely as we remember them in the rearview mirror.
To some extent or another, humans appear to need order—some more than others. Societies are a manifestation of order, and we’ve got subcultures for those who don’t fit in with the mainstream. Humans are also a story-telling lot, which helps to provide a sense of order. Metanarratives are a sort of origin story with a scintilla of aspiration toward some imagined semblance of progress.
Some people appear to be more predisposed to need to ride this metanarrative as a lifeboat. These people are typically Conservative, authority-bound traditionalists, but even the so-called Progressives need this thread of identity. The problem seems to come down to a sort of tolerance versus intolerance split, a split along the same divide as created by monotheism in the presence of polytheism.
In a polytheistic world, when two cultures collided, their religious pantheons were simply merged. In a blink, a society might go from 70 gods to 130. On this basis, there was a certain tolerance. Monotheism, on the other hand, is intolerant—a winner takes all death match. The tolerant polytheists might say, sure, you’ve got a god? Great. He can sit over there by the elephant dude. Being intolerant like a petulant schoolboy, the monotheists would throw a tantrum at the thought that there might be other gods on the block. Monotheists won’t even allow demigods, though there is the odd saint or two.
This is a battle between absolutism and relativism. The relativist is always in a weaker arguing position because intolerant absolutists are convinced that their way is the only way, yet the tolerant relativists are always at risk of being marginalised. This is what Karl Popper was addressing with the Paradox of Tolerance.
In a functioning society, a majority of the metanarratives are adopted by the majority of its constituent. On balance, these metanarratives are somewhat inviolable and more so by the inclined authoritarians.
A problem is created when a person or group disagrees with the held views. The ones espousing these views—especially the Traditionals—become indignant. What do you mean there are more than two genders? You are either male or female. Can’t you tell by the penis?
I happened to read a tweet by the GOP declaring their stupidity:
The Vice President, a living anachronism and proxy for the American Midwest Rust Belt superimposed on the Bible Belt, he tells his sheep that “The moment America becomes a socialist country is the moment that America ceases to be America…” Americans as a whole are pretty dim, and it seems to get dimmer the higher one ascends their government. Pence seems very firm in affirming a notion of American identity, but not accepting that identities change. He may become upset if he finds out that George Washington is dead—in fact, there are very few remnants of the original United States aside from some dirt, trees, and a few edifices—and the country is still the county. Some people have a difficult time grasping identity. It makes me wonder if he fails to recognise himself in the mirror after he gets his hair cut.
Interesting to me is how people complain about this and that politically. Most of this is somewhat reflexive and as phatic as a ‘how are you?’, but some is more intentional and actioned. Occasionally, the energy is kinetic instead of potential, but the result is always the same: One power structure is replaced by another.
As Lacan noted, as people, we believe ourselves to be democratic, but most of us appear to be finding and then worshipping some authority figures who will promise us what we desire. We desire to have someone else in charge, who can make everything OK, someone who is in a sense an ideal parent. I don’t believe this to be categorical, but I do believe that there is a large contingent of people who require this.
As an aside, I’ve spent a lot of time (let’s call it a social experiment) in the company of social reprobates. What never ceases to amaze me is how these social outcasts seem to have a strong sense of right and wrong and how things should be. Conveniently, they exempt themselves from this scope, so if they steel to buy drugs, it’s OK, but if someone else gets caught, they should get what’s coming to them.
About a year ago I was chatting with a mate, and I shared an observation that the biggest substance abusers in high school—”the Man’s not going hold me down” cohort—are the biggest conservatives. A girl a few houses down from me became a stripper, but her political views are very Conservative, an avid Trump supporter.
One woman I know is a herion-addicted prostitute. In her eyes, she’s fine (sort of—without getting into psychoanalytics); other women are junkie whores. A heavy dose of assuaged cognitive dissonance is the prescription for this, but it confounds me.
Getting back to the original topic, people who need this order are resistant to deconstruction and other hallmark notions of poststructuralism. They need closure. This translates into a need for metanarratives. When confronted with the prospect of no Truth, they immediately need to find a substitute—speculatively, anyway, as denial and escalating commitment will kick into overdrive.
The same problem mentioned above comes into play here. A few years ago, there was an Occupy Wall Street group, and like atheists, there are myriad reasons why people participated. One of the commonest complaints by the power structure and the public at large is if you don’t like the status quo, what status should replace it. None of the above was never an acceptable response.
It doesn’t matter that in this universe we occupy there is more disorder than order, and entropy rules, pareidolia is the palliative. And religion remains an opiate of the masses.
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.
I’m an unabashed atheist, a position I’ve defended since 5th grade when I refused to pledge allegiance* in class—primarily on account of the God clause, but I’ve never been a fan of fealty. It was difficult as at the time I was being raised a WASP in a town comprised of 70-odd per cent of Roman Catholics.
I’d wrestled with the concept for years, even taking a middle-ground agnostic position until I decided to get off the fence and pick a side. Dawkin’s God Delusion made it easier when he published his 7-point spectrum, stretching between an absolute believer to an absolute atheist. Here I was able to remain agnostic but defend the atheist notion as, say, a 6 of 7 on the scale—or 6.9999 as the case might be.
Strong theist. 100% probability of God. In the words of C.G. Jung: “I do not believe, I know.”
De facto theist. Very high probability but short of 100%. “I don’t know for certain, but I strongly believe in God and live my life on the assumption that he is there.”
Leaning towards theism. Higher than 50% but not very high. “I am very uncertain, but I am inclined to believe in God.”
Completely impartial. Exactly 50%. “God’s existence and non-existence are exactly equiprobable.”
Leaning towards atheism. Lower than 50% but not very low. “I do not know whether God exists but I’m inclined to be sceptical.”
De facto atheist. Very low probability, but short of zero. “I don’t know for certain but I think God is very improbable, and I live my life on the assumption that he is not there.”
Strong atheist. “I know there is no God, with the same conviction as Jung knows there is one.”
I leave open there could be such a higher ‘energy’ or some such, but I feel the probability is pretty remote—something less than homoeopathic.
Allow me to sidestep the distinction between an atheist meaning not believing and an agnostic meaning not knowing. For the average person, this distinction is lost—sort of like the use of who versus whom or of fewer versus less at grocery checkout stations.
So why does an atheist care about religion enough to write about it? He doesn’t write about unicorns—except when discussing religion. Why can’t he just agree to individual religious freedom and leave it at that? And why does he refer to himself in third-person?
Marx infamously wrote that religion is the opiate of the masses. He was correct, but religious belief is a cancer. It is not benign. Various people have exclaimed that ‘your right to swing your arm ends at my nose.’ Religion violates this sensibility and smacks you in the face.
Although moral sentiment a precedent to religion, religion is a crucible that codifies it. And like cancer, it spreads into the public sphere as law. I’ve written about the moral outrage of prostitution, and it seeps into legislation around abortion, adoption, and restroom usage. It’s not that one could not have developed these positions independently, but in the US these positions are highly correlated to religious beliefs.
It doesn’t much matter to me the causal direction of this relationship; the correlation is enough for me. I don’t want to say that all religious activity is harmful, but the basis of it is delusional. We consider psychiatric treatment for those with different delusions.
And so my interest in religion is that I would prefer to pull it out by the roots. As Nietzsche notes, if God is dead, we don’t really have a suitable concept to keep society focused. The masses will go into withdrawal. Enlightenment Age Humanists tried to replace it with Natural Law and then some abstract notions that serve as philosophical mental masturbation, but society will not congeal around it, and so politicians prey on the delusional masses.
Whilst I agree that all morality is contrived, Alan H. Goldman, Kenan Professor Emeritus of Philosophy at the College of William and Mary, presents his position that sexual morality is not divorced from any morality. It’s not particularly a special case. I agree in principle, but his argument is lacking.
He states that ‘As other philosophers point out, pleasure is normally a byproduct of successfully doing things not aimed at pleasure directly, but this is not the case with sex. Sexual desire aims directly at the pleasure derived from physical contact. [The] desire for physical contact in other contexts, for example, contact sports, is not sexual because it has other motives (winning, exhibiting dominance, etc.), but sexual desire in itself has no other motive. It is not a desire to reproduce or to express love or other emotions, although sexual activity, like other activities, can express various emotions including love.’
Pleasure is normally a byproduct.
This is not the case with sex.
Sexual desire aims directly at … pleasure.
I'm still following.
Sexual desire in itself has no other motive, which is pleasure.
Damn. You lost me.
I might agree that pleasure (let’s ignore the fact that this is another weasel word) may be the motivation behind sexual desire, but we don’t really have means to determine motivation or intent, and we certainly can’t assess one attribute over another.
Foucault may have argued that the motivation is power—perhaps each side is making their own power calculus. Given the state of current knowledge, this is not ascertainable. Prof Goldman may feel that pleasure is the motive; one may even argue that power yields pleasure. I’ll not traverse that rabbit hole.
Later, he asserts that ‘More controversial is whether any consensual sex between willing partners is wrong’. I won’t debate this position, but there is no good way to full assess consent.
I’ll outline a fairly stereotypical scenario—excuse me for opting for a heterosexual situation, but the pronouns are easier to track. Say a man and a woman have met in a social setting—perhaps they’ve been dating for some period—, and they ‘mutually’ decide to engage in sex. We’d call this exercising agency, two consenting adults.
But what of ulterior motives? Following the stereotype, perhaps he feels that he is conquering her, and she feels she is securing a stable mate; or perhaps they don’t feel this at all. What is the actual intent? Not to go full-on Freud, but are they playing out some latent urge? Is this just some deterministic eventuality. There’s really no way to tell. Any story I tell is as speculative as the next.
So, to end on a tangent, a significant problem underlying philosophy, psychology, and jurisprudence is the issue of intent. The term is bandied about on most cop shows and legal dramas, but it is another just another vapid notion that we accept as valid. Of course, if we dispense of the notion, our legal systems would just unravel.
Some Utilitarians claim that humans are happiness maximisers or at least a large component of utility is happiness. Besides happiness (nor pleasure) is not everyone’s goal. Utility maximisation has a near-term bias, and preference theory leaves a lot to be desired.
Utilitarians are not hedonists, per se, but perhaps this is only moderated by the downsides attributed to excess.
Some people defer happiness in their engagements of so-called labours of love. Stereotypical entrepreneurs, forego near-term happiness in the hope of some future benefit. Given the low probability of even a remotely positive outcome, this is taking a lottery mentality. In the US, much entrepreneurship is reserved for the children of the affluent. This is a hobby, and they typically have several safety nets for the almost inevitable ensuing failure.
In any case, if happiness is a goal, rational choice and homo economicus have surely gone missing.
Buddhism has its Four Noble Truths:
Life is suffering
Suffering is due to attachment
There is a way to overcome attachment
Follow the Eightfold Path
Happiness-seeking is precisely what will ensure unhappiness. One might even argue that this is the general malaise evident in Western society. As Daniel Kahneman, Richard Thaler, and others have pointed out, people rather satisfice, a strategy of getting to good enough. Perhaps this is not letting perfection be enemy of the good, or perhaps this is somehow realising the asymptotic path of diminishing returns ahead.
Happiness should not be a goal; it’s a side-effect, a result of pursuing one’s interests. And happiness is ephemeral. We’re likely all aware of the person who was asking for just one thing to achieve happiness is quickly seeking the next thing because happiness comes with an expiration date.
That language is arbitrary is tautological, an analytic claim. It’s true by definition. Structuralists, i.e. Saussure, had known this even before the postmoderns, e.g. Derrida, came into the picture.
Trigger Warning If sexist perspectives offend your sensibilities, continue at your own risk. This is not meant to offend, rather just to illustrate, but you’ve been forewarned.
Where it might be most apparent is in aesthetics. So, when describing the appearance of a woman in a positive light—I’m a guy, so indulge me, please—, one might describe her by one or more of these descriptors:
Cute (or Kawaii, if you’re into the Anime culture)
A 10 (or something along an otherwise arbitrary if not capricious scale)
Each of these is a term to indicate some aesthetic quality. Each capturing a connotative notion, and of course, beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
I am not going to attempt to illustrate the nuances between these terms. As with any preference-oriented terms, the relationship between and within a given term. What I think is beautiful may not be to you.
What I think is beautiful today, I may not feel is beautiful tomorrow. Speaking in terms of music, there are plenty of songs I thought were ‘good’ when I was growing up, but I don’t like them anymore. Take a look at fashion in the past and how silly it might look now. If you are older, take a look at some pictures of how you dressed in your teens or twenties. You may have felt like quite the chick magnet in the day, and now you cringe and no longer wonder why you spent as many nights alone as you might have.
As a test, gather 100 images of different, say, women—I’m staying with the trend—and rank them from 1 to 100; rate them cute, sexy, whatever. Record your choices. Do this each day for a month and see how steady your choices are. It will be extremely unlikely that there will be no variation no matter how carefully you try to define your classification to remain consistent—and this is just communicating with yourself. Now imagine if you have to consistently convey this to other people.
I am not a defender of or apologist for Democracy. Any system is only as strong as its weakest link, but save for the rhetorical promises Democracy is nothing but weak links. Turtles all the way down. It’s another failed Enlightenment experiment. Sure, you can argue that the Ancient Greeks invented democracy—or at least implemented it at any scale—, but specious Enlightenment ideals pushed it forward into the mainstream.
The Achilles’ heel of Democracy is the principle-agent problem, the same one that separates management (CEOs) from owners (shareholders). Incentives are different.
Plato published his solution is Republic, but this proposal was naive at best. The notion that meritocracy is something real or that we can appropriately understand dimensions and measures in order to create the right incentives is another weak link.
We see the same problem controlling elected officials. Time and again, we elect them, and time and again, they disappoint. We, the People, are the principles, and the elected are our agents. People in the US (and in so-called ‘democratic’ societies) have the vote, and yet—per the oft-cited definition of insanity—, they perform the same action and continue to expect different results; in fact; they are always surprised). At its core, it’s an incentive and accountability problem.
Kenneth Arrow wrote about the Impossibility Theorem, where he proved mathematically that no voting system would yield optimal results. Democracy is cursed with mediocrity. We like to soft-pedal the notion of mediocrity with the euphemism of compromise, another Ancient Greek legacy of moderation. If this makes you feel better, who am I to break the delusion? Cognitive dissonance is a powerful palliative.
Interestingly enough, many people clamour for term limits (a subversion of democracy) because they can’t help themselves from voting for the same shit politicians over and again. They rationalise it and say it is to defend against the other guy’s vote because they’d have never voted for shit representation.
This is often couched as ‘save me from myself’, but it is just as aptly cast as ‘save me from democracy’. I suppose a heroin addict might have the same thoughts.