Knowledge is a Human Project

I.

I like to be generally personally correct.  This tendency of mine is nothing special.  Probably most people like to be correct.  Or at least we think we like to be correct.

Often, I notice my opinions changing according to circumstance—according to who I’m talking to.  And like, what’s up with that?  Obviously the state of the world does not change depending on my personal conversations.  When I notice myself expressing different opinions depending on whether I’m talking to my friends or my family or strangers on the internet, my first instinct is that I must be being disingenuous.

But I don’t think I’m being disingenuous.  Don’t get me wrong, clearly, if my goal was to be as close as possible to correct at the given moment, then changing my opinion based on the recipient is a failure to achieve that goal.  But if my goal is to be generally correct, then it is probably beneficial for me in safer circumstances to entertain a new framework, so that in more important circumstances, I can be closer to correct.

This, by the way, is essentially what song birds do.  Male song birds sing both by themselves and while with females.  When courting a female, the song is consistent, and the pattern of neuron firing looks the same with each repetition of a motif.  When singing alone, the song is more variable, and the neuron firings are more variable:  In higher stress situations, the birds are singing their best version of their song; and in low stress situations, the birds are experimenting and improving.

Okay, so in order to be correct when it matters, I experiment with different ideas when my correctness matters less.  This is generally how learning works.  Perhaps it’s not obvious that this is what is happening when I adopt unusual opinions, but it’s hardly surprising.  But I don’t think this is the full story.

II.

Sometimes I imagine myself as a point in ideological space. I can draw a hypersphere around myself: the locus of ideologies that are some given difference from mine (of course drawing this sphere requires putting a metric on ideological space, which seems nigh impossible to rigorously define, but I feel comfortable using an intuitive metric).  And when I draw this hypershere, I notice that I feel much more annoyed with some of the ideologies on the sphere than others.

To put this observation in more concrete terms, let’s consider a one-dimensional case:  When I interact with someone whose worldview is generally similar to mine, but who is a few steps economically to the left, I feel a much stronger sense of disagreement than someone who is a few steps economically to the right.

There are a number of mundane explanations for this: the style of discourse in each direction is different; people to the left of me sometimes remind me of individuals who I dislike for reasons unrelated to politics; and so on.

But a key reason for this asymmetry is that I actually just do not believe in the correctness of my own opinions.

I mean, when I state my beliefs one by one, they all sound correct to me.  But when I step back, and I imagine a world where the median ideology is my personal ideology, I start to feel uncomfortable.  I start to feel like hang on, we need some conservatives to counterbalance these crazy leftists.

So if my goal is to be generally personally correct, it’s obvious what I should do, right?  I should shift my personal opinions a little bit away from socialism.  But is that really my goal?  Is it a good goal?  What does my own personal correctness even serve apart from my own ego?

(Okay, so obviously personal correctness can help me make decisions.  If the question is whether lentils are nutritious, then I want to be personally correct for the sake of my diet.  But if the question is about economic policy, I’m not personally making decisions about what economic policy to adopt, so my own personal correctness is less obviously important)

III.

In a previous post, I talked about conceiving of humanity as an integrated whole instead of as a collection of individuals.  One idea that I explored in that post is that diversity is not accidental.  In ants, diverse task-thresholds within a nest lead to malleable division of labor.  Of course humans are not ants and it’s not always accurate to generalize from one species to another, but if we conjecture that humans are similar to ants in this particular way, it sheds insight on my ideological predicament.

Knowledge is a human project.  It doesn’t really matter what I personally think about economic policy.  What matters is what we collectively think about economic policy (and what the people in charge think about economic policy).   It is beneficial for the human super-organism to create individuals who think in a variety of different ways, so that a community always has multiple angles from which to address important questions.  And it is beneficial for the human super-organism to create humans who seek out under-performed intellectual tasks: We form our beliefs not only based on our values and priors, but also based on our intellectual skill set, and on our perception of how that skill set fits into aggregate cultural ideology.

Like most people, I exist in multiple communities.  Different communities send different signals about where my intellectual skill set is most useful, and my beliefs morph accordingly.  Sometimes my instinct is to temporarily forget my reservations about a particular perspective, so that a community can explore in that direction.  Sometimes my instinct is to morph my opinion to push against a group consensus.

This perspective explains not only ideological sentiments that shift with social context, but also the way that we interact with art.  Many people deride the tendency of “normies” to be enthusiastic about a work of art only because it’s popular, or deride the tendency of “hipsters” to criticize a work because it’s popular.  And it’s true that if people were ideal isolated opinion-havers, then we wouldn’t have these tendencies.  But people aren’t designed to be isolated opinion-havers.  We’re designed to work in concert with other people.

Individual humans act as nodes in the cultural network, amplifying or dampening signals in a way akin to neural networks.  Whether a person amplifies or dampens a signal depends on personality (enthusiastic or cynical), personal beliefs (in agreement or in disagreement), and perception of overall cultural opinion.

IV.

I’m not saying that the system works perfectly, and no one ever needs to worry about being wrong.  For one, the human evolutionary context is pretty far removed from the current state of the world, so the intellectual task-thresholds we’ve developed may not work well for the present day.  For another, for any given human trait, it’s very difficult to know whether that trait is evolutionarily selected for, or basically random.

Stanford professor Robert Sapolsky points out that evolution is a tinkerer not an inventor.

Humans have chins. Humans have chins. Apparently, all humans do have chins hidden away someplace or other. Humans have chins. And weirdly, we’re like the only primate that does. You look at, like, other apes and stuff, and they have the sort of weak chins that suggest sort of immoral characters and criminality and things like that. We’re the only species that has chins.

And apparently, there’s been some like nutty adaptationist school somewhere back when, trying to make sense of why it is that humans evolved chins. Why it is that human faces come to a point there, and what’s the adaptive advantage? And you can, like, stab rivals — or you can get crumbs from out of the corner on the floor and stuff with your chin. Until somebody figured out that there’s no way that you could have a primate face that has a muzzle foreshortened and a jaw at this angle. You do this, and you do this, and you’re going to get this little spandrel thing sticking out there. And oh, there hasn’t been selection for a chin because you have selection for a hominid face with a shortened muzzle, and this thing pops out there.

So maybe my irrational ideological tendencies and my obnoxious hipster-ism are just irrational and obnoxious and not a part of some greater functioning whole.  Maybe these tendencies are not beneficial in themselves, but are a byproduct of some other advantageous trait, like, you know, the oft discussed “tribalism,” or group identity around uniform belief.

(Maybe this whole post is just a misguided attempt to say “Hey, so you think I’m wrong? Well guess what, I’m proud of being wrong sometimes!  That’s my role in human society.”)

I’m not at all suggesting that all incorrectness functions to temper human super-brain.  I’m just saying that the expectation that individuals should always be correct is short-sighted.  An optimal system for group correctness would not optimize for individual correctness.  And perhaps too much concern about our correctness in our isolated bodies, instead of focus on how we contribute to a larger intellectual whole, is counter productive.

 

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