Archives for category: Social Psychology

On Inauguration Day, fans of Q should’ve read Leon Festinger’s When Prophecy Fails. They didn’t, alas.

Democrats: if you want to outdo Republicans in savvy, I suggest you read that book right about now. The next few months are going to test your devotion.

Hey, we can read it together. Let’s form a book club!

twv

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.

twv

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.”

The Nature of Leftist Hate

The greatest irony of modern leftism is its Inclusion Paradox.

Like the Tolerance Paradox, which deals with that intellectual muddle of “can we tolerate intolerance?,” the Inclusion Paradox shows an antinomy in praxis: In the cause of Universal Inclusion, opponents MUST BE EXCLUDED.

And with disdain, anger, marginalization, and even violence.

Now, this inclusion/exclusion idea was not what the older variants of the Left obsessed about, at least not explicitly. When I was young, there were still communists who believed that a total state and “democratic control of the means of production” would lead to a material and spiritual utopia, to wealth and happiness untold. Almost no one believes that now. History shows what happens when it is attempted, economics explains why it cannot work. So, what to do? Give up.

Yes, leftists have mostly given up on the superiority of complete State control of production and distribution — at least, they rarely lead with such concerns, and they try not to think about all that very much. It is so embarrassing for them, and they would have to actually learn some economics and deal with really smart people who look at issues more dispassionately than they are able to. Actual social scientists. Instead of retreading ground that is stained with the blood of millions — hundreds of millions of the victims of Historical Socialism — modern leftists have embraced the hidden entelechy that always undergirded the Left of the spectrum, and brought it to the surface, applying it to classes of people figured according to racial, cultural and sexual criteria, not economic.

If we take the approach of Dr. Jordan Peterson and philosopher Stephen Hicks and many others, we would interpret this development as a sort of logical outcome of the failure of Marxism and the persistence of Marxists. Specifically, the development via Gramsci, the Frankfurt School, and Critical Theory of a new approach to class.

Karl Marx had taken the class analysis of liberal industrielisme, which tracked class exploitation in the form of State redistribution of resources (the diversion of resources away from those who served consumer preferences and towards “rent seeking” special interests), and applied it bizarrely (and incoherently) to the market itself, without extraneous criminal or statist expropriation. The idea was actually older than Marx — Proudhon argued it in Systems of Economical Contradictions — but Marx put his stamp upon it. “Capitalists” hired “workers” to produce commodities for consumers, but they took a cut, and somehow this cut was robbery — as if capital itself (previously saved wealth) should have no return when invested. The class exploitation was of the workers (proletarians) by the capitalists (owners of capital and entrepreneurs and managers).

Well, this makes sense if you are not very bright or do not think very hard. But it is a ridiculous theory, a strained misuse of exploitation theory. And it depended upon a now-proven incorrect theory of value, the Labor Theory of Value. Well, by the 1890s, just as socialists were gaining power in governments, the LTV and the exploitation theory had been thoroughly destroyed by Austrian economist Eugen von Böhm-Bawerk (Karl Marx and the Close of His System and Capital and Interest are the classic works) and all the Marxists and Social Democrats had left was utopianism and class solidarity/class hatred. Then came the Soviet Union and Mao’s China and millions of corpses and dire poverty and tyranny and mass suspicion and cultural degradation and . . . what was a Marxist to do?

They invented Cultural Marxism. While Marx had formalized the idea that class-based ideas serve only their respective classes – ideologies were “superstructures” that served their class foundations — the later theorists ran with the idea that the classes that matter were based on race, culture, and sexuality, not productivity. It was the very idea of “identity” that matters! A never-ending supply of victim-groups to justify revolution and tyranny and all those old socialist “solutions”!

And here we are, in the postmodern age.

But we must add something to the critique of postmodernism. Marx had formalized the idea that class-based ideas served only their respective classes, sure. But there is an added element. Because “capitalist ideology” serve ONLY capitalists, and “proletarian ideology” serves ONLY proletarians, ideas are thus dismissible on class rather than truth grounds.

This is momentous. And pernicious. It basically justifies the argumentum ad hominem, the logical fallacy/debate technique that attacks the idea referencing the badness of a holder of an idea and not the ideas themselves. It is a recipe for hatred and social division and discord.

Modern cultural Marxists are definitely carrying on that tradition. They just swap classes from economic to racial, sexual and the like. And periodically invent new ones.

C.S. Lewis called this gambit “Bulverism.” Oddly, Wikipedia relates the procedure not to the ad hominem but to “Antony Flew’s ‘subject/motive shift,’” the appeal to motive, circular reasoning, and the genetic fallacy. But what I see most obviously is the ad hominem, though now applied broadly.

Lewis introduced the concept in his usual charming way:

It is a disastrous discovery, as Emerson says somewhere, that we exist. I mean, it is disastrous when instead of merely attending to a rose we are forced to think of ourselves looking at the rose, with a certain type of mind and a certain type of eyes. It is disastrous because, if you are not very careful, the color of the rose gets attributed to our optic nerves and its scent to our noses, and in the end there is no rose left. The professional philosophers have been bothered about this universal black-out for over two hundred years, and the world has not much listened to them. But the same disaster is now occurring on a level we can all understand.

We have recently “discovered that we exist” in two new senses. The Freudians have discovered that we exist as bundles of complexes. The Marxians have discovered that we exist as members of some economic class. In the old days it was supposed that if a thing seemed obviously true to a hundred men, then it was probably true in fact. Nowadays the Freudian will tell you to go and analyze the hundred: you will find that they all think Elizabeth a great queen because they all have a mother-complex. Their thoughts are psychologically tainted at the source. And the Marxist will tell you to go and examine the economic interests of the hundred; you will find that they all think freedom a good thing because they are all members of the bourgeoisie whose prosperity is increased by a policy of laissez-faire. Their thoughts are “ideologically tainted” at the source.

Lewis goes on, though, trying to make the distinction between logical validity and empirical facticity, on the one hand, and the wrongness of a person because of their conceived identity . . . and explains his coinage:

You must show that a man is wrong before you start explaining why he is wrong. The modern method is to assume without discussion that he is wrong and then distract his attention from this (the only real issue) by busily explaining how he became so silly.

In the course of the last fifteen years I have found this vice so common that I have had to invent a name for it. I call it “Bulverism.” Some day I am going to write the biography of its imaginary inventor, Ezekiel Bulver, whose destiny was determined at the age of five when he heard his mother say to his father — who had been maintaining that two sides of a triangle were together greater than a third — “Oh you say that because you are a man.” “At that moment,” E. Bulver assures us, “there flashed across my opening mind the great truth that refutation is no necessary part of argument. Assume that your opponent is wrong, and explain his error, and the world will be at your feet. Attempt to prove that he is wrong or (worse still) try to find out whether he is wrong or right, and the national dynamism of our age will thrust you to the wall.” That is how Bulver became one of the makers of the Twentieth Century.

And Wikipedia addresses the real problem at base:

The special threat of this fallacy lies in that it applies equally to the person who errs as to that person’s opponent. Taken to its logical consequence, it implies that all arguments are unreliable and hence undermines all rational thought. Lewis says, “Until Bulverism is crushed, reason can play no effective part in human affairs. Each side snatches it early as a weapon against the other; but between the two reason itself is discredited.”

And with reason out of the way, and people attacking each other because their ideas stand and fall based on their identity or group affiliation, hatred naturally flows. Because, if you are told you are wrong because “you are a fucking white male!” what defense do you have? I mean, if you are a white male, you cannot prove yourself right by saying you are not a white male. And the charge itself looks a lot like the simple hatred of white males.

Turnabout being fair play, why would not the white males hate their accusers merely because they are not white and not male?

Hence the present ideological moment. And possible civilizational crisis.

All this does not mean one must never criticize people because of their characteristic errors. It only means one must not assume the error and then relentlessly treat all logic as subservient to an assumed group interest.

Where This All Comes From

Marxism formalized the idea that class-based ideas serve only their serviced class and are thus dismissible on class rather than truth grounds.

Modern cultural Marxists carry on that tradition. They just swap classes, invent new ones.

Mises called this gambit polylogism. C.S. Lewis called it “Bulverism.”

Intersectionality is the fasces with which postmoderns attack everybody else. They think of themselves as anti-fascists because of their Marxist heritage, but though they try to force us to use “their pronouns,” they are losing the ability to bludgeon us into submission even to use their nouns and adjectives.

So there may be hope. The lunacy of leftist style and method has reached its peak, and may now be so hysterical in part because the left finally sees double-pronged push-back: intellectual and popular. The revolt against Progressivism has begun.

twv

N.B. This essay was written a year or two ago, but never quite finished, lingering in my drafts folder. In the spirit of house-cleaning, I publish it now. The Venn Diagram atop was made about the same time, but was not tailor-made to illustrate this specific argument — not wholly irrelevant, it adorns this essay for whimsy’s sake. [August 15, 2020]

Let’s all take a moment to mourn the passing of Climate Change Catastrophism. 

For years polls have shown that the bulk of mankind rates this issue very low as a priority.

Now, when other issues emerge to better signal uprightness — like “wear the mask!” and “black lives matter!” — the lip service people gave to climate alarmism, without (of course) really understanding the ramifications of the prophets of doom, the repeated failures of their prophecies, and the infancy of “climate science,” no longer beckons much cultish behavior.

That behavior is reserved for pandemics and racism panics.

While it is just as true that the “science” behind official pandemic responses and patterns of policing are just as shoddy and deceptive as that behind “manmade global warming,” the new ones are new, and more closely and immediately affecting everyday life, so they have extra oomph.

Will Climate Change Catastrophism come back?

Well, it might, but not, I think, bigger and better and stronger. It will be weaker, flaccid. All the people who have become skeptical about the lockdowns and mask orders, and about how real crime stats in America apply to protest demands and riots and statue iconoclasm, will take their newfound skepticism and apply it against the garbage heap that is Anthropogenic Global Warming.

But I predict a new, better form of Climate Catastrophism could emerge, and should: the one that recognizes that the real global threat to civilization, humanity, and life on this planet is extra-terrestrial hits by asteroids, comets, and mass coronal mass ejections (from the Sun).

Maybe after people realize that hair-shirt-wearing religious posturing that serves to replace the doctrine of Original Sin with some secular analogue is an embarrassment to all mankind — or at least that small fraction of intelligent terrestrial life — we can deal with real threats in a rational way.

OK. Stop laughing.

twv

Our civilization lost an imaginary benevolent omnipotent god and imagined an omnipotent benevolent state. Thus we unshackled it from the chains of liberal limits. 

But this experiment in moral and political innovation did teach us a lesson. We found that benevolence is not a defining feature of the state, regardless of intent, and cannot likely be made so.

But we also learned that squaring our fantasies with reality can provide endless intellectual gymnastics that make angel-dancing on pinheads look like the hokey-pokey, against which our ideological cavorting appears as nothing other than a vampiric tarantella, or, worse yet, a totentanz

Religions serve a function, by exaptation.

But experiments more than suggest any metaphysical fixation can provide that same function. What is needed is a somewhat ritualistic or attention-centering contemplation of an ego-transcendent object — it could be a rite or myth or metaphysical schema or puzzle, even, that allows us to transcend the narrow confines of our normal egoistic imagination. Such exercises can provide the signaling necessary to encourage cooperation. Both in ego and in alter, self and in other.

Trick is, this device, which could be a philosophy, or an ideology, or even an art form, needs to forswear the impossible imagining of an omnipotent benevolent state, for — as Nietzsche said — the state is the coldest of all cold monsters.

twv

There is a reason for the ideological divide regarding pandemic “mitigation,” why progressives generally love the lockdown pseudo-quarantines: it feeds their prime conceit, the notion that the freedom of all must be sacrificed for the good of the most vulnerable.

In this case, the most vulnerable just happen to be aging Boomers and senescent Silents. And the corpulent. And other immune-compromised medical cases.

Having once been corpulent, and still being overweight, and having just entered my seventh decade of life, I knew early on that I was in a compromised position. But shutting down commerce to protect me is something that would never have crossed my mind.

The idea of demanding extreme mitigation strikes me as effrontery bordering on tyranny.

But progressives have no such compunctions. They hold to the principle of sacrificing the freedom of all for the lives of a few. That is their chief fixation. Because some people are vulnerable to misfortune, no one must be free to make their fortunes.

Traditionally, Americans see the political ideal as “Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Progressives see this series in a different order: “Life, a stab at happiness, and liberty.” In cases where there is any conflict of the goals in this series, you sacrifice them by order.

That is, you first achieve life — and that’s life for everyone. Then you guarantee a chance at happiness for everyone, equally. Then, if the situation allows, you obtain what liberty you can for as many people as you can.

This revision of the order of ends, conceived ordinally rather than as many classical liberals and libertarians do, as a rhetorical pleonasm — three different views of the same thing, as Hokusai viewed Mount Fuji — is a key to understanding the progressive mind.

But we must add to this the messianic mindset: for progressives, as for most socialists, the “vulnerable” are seen as outsiders, as members of some out-group, and successful insiders are by definition or imaginative fiat their oppressors. That is, successful insiders, merely for not ensuring the success of those on the outs therefore must count as “oppressors.”

So the “privilege” of being an insider must be destroyed . . . or at least minimized — to rescue the un-privileged outsiders.

In America, the “privilege” of Americans is liberty, security, wealth, even health.

Progressives cannot help themselves: they must do their rescue. They must play messiahs. Their soteriology is always in play, and they are willing to conjure up revolutionary eschatologies to ensure the ritual acts of sacrifice. Well, strike “ritual.” VERY REAL acts of sacrifice: take from some to give to others.

Now, for individualists, sacrificing some for others is a perversion, the most horrifying social act imaginable — we would call it the ultimate anti-social act. But progressives see sacrifice as the whole point. These people are post-Christians. No act of salvation is worth it without sacrifice. Not sacrifice of opportunities forgone to invest in improvements. Not that kind of sacrifice. They need to sacrifice some powerful and privileged (as imaginary as that power and privilege often is) people to make the whole thing feel right.

But whereas Christians believe that the only sacrifice worth fretting much about be Christ’s sacrifice for their sins, working out their own sacrifices with fear and trembling away from the madding crowd, progressives must do their sacrificing in public.

Progressivism is inherently Pharisaic.

Which is why they tend to be such “Karens” regarding mitigation and quarantine. The joy is in seeing themselves as righteous in public, and for that there must be an identifiable group to be saved, and an identifiable group to sacrifice.

But we can take this post-Christian interpretation too far. There is something quite chthonian in progressive soteriology. We may have to look back to Ba’al and Beelzebub to understand the kind of sacrifice they demand.

How far back? Let me consider that in some future essay.

The problem with prophecy is that prophesying can change outcomes. 

Ask Jonah. He said Nineveh would be destroyed; in excoriating the Ninevites, they repented; they were then forgiven — holocaust averted. So, was Jonah a bad prophet because his prophecy did not come true? No. He was a bad prophet because he yearned for Nineveh to be destroyed.

The opposite effect can also be true: the self-fulfilling prophecy — as when speaking a prediction sets the situation up for the prediction to come true — which is related to the Thomas Theorem . . . which states that imagined causes can have real effects. 

So the very idea of prophecy links directly to important ideas in sociology and social psychology.

Economists also understand this pretty well — as when warning of a panic causes a panic, or, contrariwise, when warning of disaster spurs folks to prepare for disaster and therefore mitigates or even prevents disaster — and generally economists understand that predictions of a specific variety are well-nigh impossible.

The current pandemic has multiple instances of possible prophecy problems, as should be painfully obvious.

Prediction is a tricky business. Most people in the prediction biz are therefore also in the influence business. When we engage in predictions, we often find ourselves taking sides on outcomes, no matter how horrific.

Just ask Jonah.

twv

George Henry Lewes Painting; George Henry Lewes Art Print for sale
G. H. Lewes, The Study of Psychology: Its Object, Scope, and Method.

I often quote the highlighted sentence:

“Ideas are forces: the existence of one determines our reception of others.”

When I was a kid, my nightmares involved tilted houses with floors you had to climb up against the incline, roosters crowing at the window, and a yawning, chthonian Immensity that Jung would have loved to analyze.

The kids these days, though, have night terrors about environmental catastrophe:

One in five children are having nightmares about climate change, according to a British survey on Tuesday, as students globally stage protests over a lack of action to curb global warming.
About 17 percent of children in Britain said worries about climate change were disturbing their sleep while 19 percent said these fears were giving them nightmares.
The survey of 2,000 children aged eight to 16, conducted by pollster Savanta-ComRes for BBC Newsround, also found that two in five, or 41 percent, did not trust adults to tackle the climate crisis.

The Jakarta Post (Reuters), March 3, 2020

While I suspect that the brand X prophecy of CO2 increases leading to “climate catastrophe” is little more than a psy-op, the more I learn about the end of the last Ice Age, which humanity somehow survived — while most megafauna did not — indicates that we can indeed encounter great climatic terrors and that those terrors can haunt humanity for millennia.

Indeed, I suspect that the notion of an underground realm of the Dead as well as the terrors of “the Tribulations” and our civilization’s fixation on the very idea of a Millennium could all derive from the strange thousand-plus years of the Younger Dryas, through which humanity may have had to live in caves to survive:

I reference here the Human Origin Project, which does not appear to be academically acceptable, because the academics have, so far, proved remarkably reticent about incorporating newly discovered facts into the stories they tell.

The kiddies, these days, are told stories about a counterfactual present and imaginary future by adults who pose as their authorities. From these serioso story time moments many quivering true believers are made.

It is not necessarily a conspiracy theory to conjecture that one reason modern academics routinely evade discussion of the astounding destruction that occurred a mere twelve thousand years ago is that by denying the facts they can better parlay pseudo-science to make plausible weak-tea terrors like “man-made climate change.”

What is going on in our current climate is mere urination into the wind compared to the fire hose of the end of the Ice Age.

It may be the job of us heretics and apostates to throw a monkey wrench into the Great Global Warming Psy-op: tell your kids and their friends that their tax-funded teachers are almost certainly misinformed, and that they should be skeptical of adults (as well as, of course, children) telling tall tales to scare them into demanding political changes neither their teachers nor they, themselves, understand.

There are plenty of real terrors we must all confront.

Including that great, chthonian enormity of our future non-existence.

Sleep well.

“I’m not going to call them ‘conspiracy theories,’” said podcaster Michael Knowles about the growing reports and rumors surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, “because I guess they could be true.”

Well, that was embarrassing.

Look, I recently said something witless like this, too. But can we admit it? Conspiracy theories — conjectures as to secret schemes, plans, intentions, operations — can be true.

We are so programmed to think “ooh, conspiracy theory BAD!” that we cannot even speak logically in public.

Maybe we should all grow up.

The main trouble with conjectures regarding possible conspiracies is that they are hard to falsify. The nature of the beast. And this puts us in a sort of flapdoodlish epistemic situation. In the end, it matters most how you react to such a theory, and whether the theory is correct. Not that it counts as an “x theory.” Ah, that dreaded x!

There are a number of reasons we tend to like conspiracy theories, of course. One is that we know people to be purposeful actors as well as liars. So, realism. But only a few people can keep a secret. So, fabulism. More important, though, is that we like a good story. I think it was Iris Murdoch who wrote that “characters who plot make for well-plotted novels.”

twv