Path Dependence

I used to believe in the rational nature of human beings. That is, I believed that if they put their mind and will towards it, they could (and would) make the best decisions in all circumstances. That belief has been consequently broken from recent readings on cognitive bias and evolutionary psychology. The long and short of it; we are slaves to our emotions.

I imagine most people, if they are like me (and I assume that is the case), make snap decisions and are not likely to think through most everyday thoughts slowly and methodically. We just ‘know,’ without knowing how we arrived at the decision, or in other words we act on intuition or gut feelings. There are a few relevant problems that arise because of this in our day and age.

The first problem is that we segregate our society into hierarchies and systems, where the people on top are assumed to be the brightest and best and therefore making all the best decisions that benefit the rest of us. However one only has to take a cursory inventory of not just fallacies, but cognitive biases or ‘heuristics’ if you will, to see that when it comes to cognition we are systemically at fault and we lean in that direction most of the time. We are largely terrible at calculating risk and probability as well on every level, from the microcosm (the individual) to the macrocosm (our institutions), this doesn’t bode well for decision making for the individual or for the executive decision makers in our institutions.

Even the most potent solution out of all this (which is science, and careful analysis) was used, the truths arrived at would not likely be some Platonic everlasting truth. How are we to know that hundreds of years from now people will not be laughing at our current beliefs, so called truths, and ways of thought? You only need to look at the history of science to see this may be the case. I don’t think most people will accept this notion, we like to think we live in the best of times; we like to believe that we cannot be at fault and that we can solve any problem.

I used to believe that perhaps we live in the best of all possible worlds, that we are lucky to be alive in this era, this time. I suspect that this is the case for most people, and not just the everyday man and woman but the intellectual as well. We can see this with Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. This belief that we are progressing towards some sort of end seems to permeate into (or from?) other fields (like religion) and extend into the past. It would be only conjecture at this point, but the roots of this belief of linear progress may lay in the thoughts of St. Augustine. His ideas can be paraphrases as follows: that our times on Earth and all the suffering people endure is meant to purify us towards an “end” where we are perfect and we then live in the City of God rather than the City of Man.

I think we are seeing in postmodernity that these Grand Narratives, or that Millennialism or end time prophecy is all nonsense. We are seeing that as a collective and as individuals, we are responsible for where we end up. Of course the full implications of this is too scary for most people to rationally or emotionally deal with.

If I had to summarize in general an easy way to understand and tie all this together is inertia, social and historical inertia. We tend to stick with what has worked in the past, and what has pushed us forward, to what has given us hope and meaning. This holds true even if our beliefs and institutions are in fact outmoded and irrelevant.

Perhaps it is the cynic in me, but from what I have read, such as the lifetime of myth’s in our collective conscience (it can be decades) I have little hope that we will achieve any sort of utopia based on objective truths such as our fallibility any time soon. I believe however that the wool over our eyes is starting to fall, and the theater is failing to amuse, and the man behind the curtain is failing to impress.

I guess this is why there seems to be a crisis in meaning. We used to find it in authority figures, specifically our parents, our grandparents and our ancestors; we used to look to our heritage. Some people look for it in their work, some try to find it in sex, some try to find it in books or in magazines or television or even food. I believe mostly we now look for it through our peers and media, we can see this pretty easily when we look towards our youth.

Ultimately, none of this is necessarily a bad thing. It shows us that the way things could and can be is malleable. We have the power to shape and reshape ourselves, our lives, and our societies. We can already see this through social movements across the globe. What prevents the reshaping is mostly fear mixed with a corrupt sense of self-interest. For example there are those who believe that life is a zero-sum game, that for some to win, others must lose. I would like to believe that cooperative action, solidarity and the synergy of groups is and always will be more effective and powerful than any one individual or privileged group! Time will tell I guess.