Increasing numbers of people look upon our world as dominated by “curated reality” — not reality itself. So much of what we think of as true is determined not by our stable appraisals, but by our acceptance of frameworks established by others, by factoids paraded as facts, fantasies doing all the heavy lifting, and narratives told by the gifted storytellers, and perhaps also by conspiracies among some or all of these players.

There is something to this perspective, and the big questions regarding it would seem to be

  1. how much of reality curation is individuals “competing in the marketplace for memes”;
  2. how much is orchestrated meme production and distribution out in the open and
  3. in secret; and
  4. how much is “rational” or “irrational”?

The scare quotes because rationality is a contested concept.

Ray Scott Percival’s essay in Scott Adams and Philosophy: A Hole in the Fabric of Reality (Open Court, 2018), along with several essays by David Ramsay Steele, addresses some of these issues. Scott Adams is one of the most important current advocates of the curated-reality concept, promoting the notion that hypnotism defines much of our human experience, where “the facts don’t matter” (just like on Whose Line Is It, Anyway?). Though I have only just begun reading it, Percival’s essay “Biases Are Rational!” provokes thought — and reminds me of notions I mulled over years ago. A trouble with the Daniel Kahneman/Amos Tversky approach to biases is that by focusing on neoclassical economics’ rather narrow definition of rationality, it suggests that people are error-prone at a very fundamental level, and thus scuttles a more “invisible hand” (emergentist) understanding of human action. Percival takes this on directly:

“Biases,” Percival writes, “can be adaptive to our circumstances.” This view of the cognitive biases Gerd Gigerenzer calls “ecological rationality.” It strikes me as familiar. Did not Armen Alchian advance similar ideas? In any case, Percival argues that we are rational in how we manage our biases — adapt them in light of experience. Here I am reminded of Herbert Spencer’s version of praxeology, human choice and action being defined as “actions adjusted to ends.” But we have to extend the adjustment process to “ends adjusted to means” by trial and error, and standards and routines adjusted in due course.

One of the things I encountered years ago reading F.A. Hayek is the notion that rationality in the French sense, constructivist and very clean and sterile — “Spockian,” you might say, referencing Mr. Green-blooded Pointy Ears — is not a very useful guide to actual human acts and interactions. One of Hayek’s distinctions in this regard was to distinguish teleocratic from nomocratic behavior — that is, purposive from rule-following. While to many theorists teleocratic explanations tend to boil down to a simple ends-means matrix, capable of simple mathematical formulation and calculable in Thorstein Veblen’s parody as “lightning-swift,” actual human action has competing goals as well as scarce means, often radically insufficient information to make any sure calculation, and an almost kaleidic shifting of all these elements (divergent ends, competing scarce means, uncertain knowledge and even a vast scope of nescience); pretending otherwise is foolish. Hayek believed that people use rules of thumb to make manageable the complexity of our actions. No matter how goal-oriented we are, we use rule-following habits to navigate the sheer booming, buzzing confusion of life.

My rap, back then, was that every purposive being did not just ration scarce means towards his ends, but also had to ration rationality itself. That is, the technical proficiency of ends-means calculations is always circumscribed by habits of thought and action that are learned behavior, and pertain to a tacit dimension of our reality. (I confess, I got this view from Julian Jaynes, whom I read long before Herbert Spencer, whose view of the human mind was also a matter of modularity and learning over vast spans of time, by natural selection, or “survival of the fittest”; you may note a tip of the hat to Michael Polanyi as well.)

What does all this have to do with a possibly curated reality? Well, we cannot conceive of reality without curation, or at least mediation by more than just pristine symbols. We are not robotic inquirers proceeding to adjust our mental maps of the world in a one-to-one, crisp-and-nifty rationalism. We human beings use a number of tools that are not just thinking with a limited set of concepts and fact/non-fact propositions, tested and perfected. Among those tools include myth and metaphor. These are crucial to our ecological rationality.

And because our complex of routines is so complex, it is quite possible to manipulate ourselves and others to scuttle the best use of those routines. Indeed, one way to curate another person’s sense of reality is to use rhetoric and mythic thinking but not acknowledge it, keeping the methods sub rosa. Thus we witness, in our time, people who pretend that they are Just The Facts, Ma’am thinkers, while they are almost wholly controlled by ideologies that gain their power from fantasy and myth more than from any careful calculation.

The notion of curated reality undermines simple appeals to “the facts.” Nietzsche’s challenge is pertinent here: There are no facts, only interpretations. But even more basic than that is the idea that we act and judge actions by conjectures often so outlandish that they might as well be called fantasy, and that our understanding of choice depends upon hypothesized counter-factuals, the “roads not taken” with every choice we make. Those are the costs of our actions. And they are necessarily “metaphysical” and not simply factual.

The complexity of the phenomenology of human choice lands us in a realm that simple accounts of rationality — especially low-brow materialist accounts, the kind you tend to encounter among engineers and science-fiction readers and stand-up comedians — simply cannot comprehend. Because of this, the very model of rationality as a Spock-like discipline leaves its proponents open to manipulation by people who understand that this model is necessarily insufficient. As James Randi was fond of saying, the easiest people to fool by stage magic are scientists. There is a reason for that.

Thus the curated reality of our time finds its biggest marks amongst those I call “the moderate brights,” who — unknowingly committed to grave error — repeat stock memes and thereby reinforce our present irreality.


N.B. I hope to report back on these issues after I finish Ray Scott Percival’s contribution to Scott Adams and Philosophy, and perhaps the great David Ramsay Steele’s several essays as well. This post is merely my rehearsal of old ideas dimly recalled from back when I read economics and choice theory in a near-scholarly manner. Oh, and also: facts do matter. They just do not amount to “all that is the case.”