It’s Like This

We are all deluded. And for the most part we don’t know it. We often feel as though we have control over our own decisions and destiny, but how true is it?  It’s a bit like what US Secretary of Defence, Donald Rumsfeld, famously said in February 2002 about the ‘known knowns’, the ‘known unknowns’ and the ‘unknown unknowns’.

How can a brain that is deluded even get an inkling that it is?  For the most part, the individual finds it very difficult.  Interestingly, it is often those who are most confident that they are right who are most wrong (and dangerously, who we most trust). The 2002 Nobel Prize winner, Daniel Kahneman has spent a lifetime studying the systematic biases in our thinking.  Here is what he says about confidence:

The fact is, that when it comes to our own interpretations of the world, there is very little that either you or I can absolutely know as demonstrated by René Descartes in 1637It has long been know that we have deficiencies in our abilities to understand and interpret the world, and indeed, it can be argued that the whole system of education is motivated by the need to help individuals make more informed and more rational decisions (although it can be equally argued that education and training in particular, is a sausage factory in the service of employers whose interests may not align with those of the individual). A ‘classical’ education, as illustrated in the book The Trivium: The Liberal Arts of Logic, Grammar, and Rhetoric by Sister Miriam Joseph, for example, sets out a basis on which we can distinguish the rational from the fallacious. However, while it provides a ‘cure’, neither a classical education, not what is taught in schools now, is much concerned with understanding the ‘disease’. We may be taught, and we may learn, but we are seldom told why, what it’s for or what it is about the human condition that leads us so readily towards false assumptions, mis-interpretation, bias and fallacious conclusions.

The debate about whether we should act by reason or by our intuitions and emotions is not new. The classic work on this is Kant’s ‘Critique of Pure Reason’ published in 1781. This is a masterpiece of epistemological analysis covering science, mathematics, the psychology of mind and belief based on faith and emotion. Kant distinguishes between truth by definition, truth by inference and truth by faith, setting out the main stands of debate for centuries to come. Here is a clear (but long) presentation of this work and the various influences around Kant at the time.

YouTube Video, Will Durant – The Philosophy of Kant, Rocky C, November 2014, 1:30:17 hours

From an individual’s point of view, by a process of cross validation between different sources of evidence (people we trust, society generally, our own reasoned thinking, the media and sometimes scientific research), we are continuously challenged to construct a consistent view about the world and about ourselves. We feel a need to create at least some kind of semi-coherent account. It’s a primary mechanism of reducing anxiety.  It keeps us orientated and safe. We need to account for it personally, and in this sense we are all ‘personal’ scientists, sifting the evidence and coming to our own conclusions.  We also need to account for it as a society, which is why we engage in science and research to build a robust body of knowledge to guide us.  George Kelly, in 1955, set out ‘personal construct theory’ to describe this from the perspective of the individual – see, for example this straight-forward account of constructivism which also, interestingly, proposes how to reconcile it with Christianity – a belief system based on an entirely different premise, methodology and pedigree):

But for the most part there are inconsistencies – between what we thought would happen and what actually did happen, between how we felt and how we thought, between how we thought and what we did, between how we thought somebody would react and how they did react, between our theories about the world and the evidence. Some of the time things are pretty well what we expect but almost as frequently, things don’t hang together, they just don’t add up.   This drives us on a continuous search for patterns and consistency.  We need to make sense of it all:

Youtube Video, Cognitive dissonance (Dissonant & Justified), Brad Wray, April 2011,4:31 minutes

But it turns out that really, as Kahneman demonstrates, we are not particularly good scientists after all.  Yes, we have to grapple with the problems of interpreting evidence.  Yes, we have to try and understand the world in order to reduce our own anxieties and make it a safer place.  But, no, we do not do this particularly systematically or rationally.  We are lazy and we are also as much artists as we are scientists. In fact, what we are is ‘story tellers’. We make up stories about how the world works – for ourselves and for others.

Sifting evidence is not the only way that we come to ‘know’. There is another method that, in many ways, is a lot more efficient and used just as often. This is to believe what somebody else says. So instead of having to understand and reconcile all the evidence yourself you can, as it were, delegate the responsibility to somebody you trust. This could be an expert, or a friend, or a God. After all, what does it matter whether what you (or anybody else) believe is true or not, so long as your needs are being met. If somebody (or something) repeatedly comes up with the goods, you learn to trust them and when you trust, you can breathe a sigh of relief – you no longer have to make the effort to evaluate the evidence yourself. The source of information is often just as important as the information itself. Despite the inconsistencies we believe the stories of those we trust, and if others trust us, they believe our stories.

Stories provide the explanations for what has happened and stories help us understand and predict what will happen.  Our anxiety is most relieved by ‘a good story’. And while the story needs to have some resemblance to the evidence, and like in court can be challenged and cross-examined, what seems to matter most is that it is a ‘good’ story.  And to be a ‘good’ story it must be interesting, revealing, surprising and challenging.  Its consistency is just one factor.  In fact, there can be many different stories, or accounts, of precisely the same incident or event – each account from a different perspective; interpreting, weighing and presenting the evidence from a different viewpoint or through a different value system.  The ‘truth’ is not just how well the story accounts for the evidence but is also to do with a correspondence between the interpretive framework of the listener and that of the teller:

YouTube Video, The danger of a single story | Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, TED, October 2009, 19:16 minutes

Both as individuals and as societies, we often deny, gloss over and suppress the inconsistencies.  They can be conveniently forgotten or repressed long enough for something else to demand our attention and pre-occupy us.  But also sometimes, for the sake of a ‘better’ story (often one that better reflects the biases in our own value system), the inconsistencies and the evidence about ourselves and the human condition fight back.  Inconsistencies can re-emerge to create nagging doubts, and over time we start to wonder – is our story really true?

In these blog posting I ask which story about how we are and how we relate to each other is really true? What really lies behind our motivations, decisions and choices?  Is it the story that classical economists tell us about rational people in a world of perfect information?  Is it the story neuroscientists tell us about how the brain works?  Is it the story about the constant struggle between the id and the super-ego told to us by Freud?  Is it the story that the advertising industry tell us about what we need for a more fulfilled life?  Which account tells the best story?  Can these different accounts be reconciled?  And if we are seeking to make a better world what are the implications for the way we should think, feel and behave?

As our knowledge accumulates there is something in the air that relates to all these questions.  There is some sort of consolidation of knowledge, of trends in our thought. A new story is forming.  In this series of blog postings I am attempting to capture the zeitgeist of informed thinking about these topics and help to form a more consistent and more interesting story about the individual and society – about wellbeing and control.

This Blog Post: ‘It’s Like This’ sets the epistemological framework for what follows in later posts. What does that mean? Well, it’s the underlying assumption about how we know, justify and explain what we know – both as individuals and in society.

Next Up: ‘Society can Drive you Mad’ illustrates that a lot of what goes on in society and organisations can have such a negative effect on individual control and wellbeing that it is counter-productive. The individual often picks up the costs of society’s failings in terms of mental health issues.

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Rod Rivers' passions include writing about economics, psychology, and philosophy; listening to Radio 4 and watching TED and YouTube videos; engaging in conversations with friends and colleagues, and re-experiencing the world through the eyes of his two teenage sons. Living in the 21st century is a huge privilege.

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2 comments on “It’s Like This
  1. Erin says:

    This was a really interesting post – I cant wait to see where it all goes!

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  1. […] philosophy called ‘epistemology’. Indeed my own series of blogs starts with a posting called ‘It’s Like This’ that addresses the issue of the foundation of our […]

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About This Blog

This series of blog postings takes a multi-disciplinary approach to social policy, bringing together ideas from psychology, economics, neuroscience, philosophy and related subjects to inform policy makers and other professionals about how we might think in new ways about the individual and society . There are some easy ways to read it:

• Very Easy – Just read the blog titles: Most blog title are propositions that the blog content attempts to justify. Just reading the names of the blogs in order from first to last will provide an overview of the approach.

• Quite Easy - Just read the text in bold. This brings out the main points in each posting.

• Easy - Just watch the videos. This is easy but can take a while. The running time of each video can be seen in the caption above it. Hover over the video to see the controls – play and pause, large screen, and navigate around.

• Harder – Read the whole blog. Useful if you are really interested, want to learn, or want to comment, disagree with the content, have another angle or whatever. The blog is not being publicised yet but please feel free to comment and I will try to respond if and when I can.

The blog attempts not to be a set of platitudes about what you should do to be happy. In fact, I would like to distance myself from the ‘wellbeing marketplace’ and all those websites/blogs that try and either sell you something or proffer advice. This is something quite different. It takes as its premise that there is a relationship between wellbeing, needs and control in both the individual and society. If needs are not being met and you have no control to alter the situation, then wellbeing will suffer.

While this may seem obvious, there is something to be gained by understanding the implications of this simple idea. We are quite used to thinking about wellbeing in terms of specifics like money, health, relationships, work and so on, but less familiar with dealing with the more generic and abstract concepts of need and control.

Taking a more abstract approach helps filter out much of the distraction and noise of our usual perceptions. It focuses on the central issues and their applicability across many specifics that affect how we think and feel.

The blog often questions our current models of the way we think about the human condition and society. It looks at the things we all know and talk about – decisions and choices, relationships and loss, jobs and taxes, wealth and health but in a way in which they are not usually described. It tries to develop a new account, that draws on a broadly based understanding of what we now know from science, culture and common sense.

If you are looking for simple answers you will not find them here. This is not because the answers are complex. It is because the answers are not necessarily what you expect.

If you are looking to explore in some depth the nature of wellbeing and how it is influenced by what you can control, and what others can control that may affect you, then read on. Playing through some of these ideas into the specifics of policy, at the level of society and the individual, will take time but I hope you will see the virtue of working from first principles.

When walking through any landscape different people will see different things. A geologist might see an ice-age come and go, forming undulations in its wake. A politician might see territorial boundaries. Somebody else may see a hill they have to climb together with the weight of their back-pack.

Taking a perspective of wellbeing and control is different from how we normally look at the world. It's a deeper look at why and how things happen as they do and the consequences on wellbeing. It questions the relationship between intention and outcome.

We normally see and act through the well-worn habits of our thoughts and behaviours as they have evolved to deal with things as they are now. We mainly chose the easy options that require the least resource. As a survival strategy this generally works well, but it also entrenches patterns of thought, behaviour and emotion that sometimes, for the benefit of our wellbeing, need to be changed. When considering change, people often say ‘well, I wouldn’t start from here’. And that’s the position I take. I am not starting from the ways things are or have evolved, but from the place they might have been had we known what we know now and had designed them.

The blogs argue that, in an era of specialisation, we have forgotten the big picture – we act specifically and locally within the silos of our specialised education and experience. We check process rather than outcomes. We often fail to integrate our knowledge and apply it to the design of our social and work systems (as well as our own thoughts and behaviours).

To understand society we first need to understand the individual and to this end, a psychological account of how we feel, think and behave based on notions of wellbeing and control is proposed. And not in an abstract airy-fairy kind of way, but as a more or less precise theory that forms the basis of a predictive and testable computational model. The theory is essentially about how, both as individuals and society we manage multiple (and often conflicting) intentions in real time within limited resources. I call this model 'the human operating system'. This is like a computer operating system except that it is motivated by emotions, modulated by reason and is expressed in the language of mind and its qualities of agency and intentionality.

Just as in the mathematics of fractal geometry, complex structures can emerge from simple rules. The explanation given of the interplay between emotions, physical bodily states, thoughts and behaviours shows how much of the complexity in the individual can be accounted for by a set of relatively simple rules. This can be modelled using a system of symbolic representation and manipulation involving intentions and priorities operating in a complicated and changing environment.

The language and models that we use to understand the individual can also be applied to organisations and other structures in society. Through an understanding of what makes for wellbeing in the individual we can also understand what makes for better wellbeing in society generally. The focus, therefore, is on understanding the individual and then using that understanding to inform how we might think about other structures in society and how all these structures relate to each other from the point of view of wellbeing, shifting patterns of control and the implications for social policy.