Who we are is determined by how absurd our reasoning is. Part 1.

Our beliefs are not set in stone. They define who we are, and yet if we choose to change our beliefs we can do so. To be honest, our reasoning is absurd and self-contradictory. This was pointed out by Socrates. Here I want to question some of my own beliefs. More reading here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here.

As this article started to become ridiculously long, I decided to split it. This is part 1 of 2.

Design theory and culture

I planned to write this article for 5 years already, slowly procrastinating and dealing with other stuff. What changed my mind was an excellent YouTube video on how design and culture set our minds. This DesignTheory channel is very honest dealing with things we often take for granted.

For example, the video I referenced addressed several subjects I did not think about. It started with an optical illusion affected by left-to-right reading, but I read both ways (Hebrew/English/Russian), so initially the illusion did not work at all. Then the narrator compared focal-point guided description of the environment with context-based description. Like when we enter a room in the mental palace, do we start from the PAO placement and itinerary or from the description of the room itself and its theme? He used an example of fish in a pond. I am totally itinerary-focused. Then the presented formal logic, like Aristotle’s law of contradictions compared with the Chinese philosophy of balance and synthesis.

I knew all of those. What I did not know was the effect of the medieval ban on cousin marriage and the rise of Western individualism. The relevant studies might not hold the test of time, but the idea itself is mindblowing. The medieval church set our culture on a different path, millennia before the protestant revolution, simply as a way of avoiding incest. We might think that we choose our own values. We can compare the modern Western individualism of billionaires leaving money to charity and the family-based model of the Rothschild banking family. Both models are very effective, and yet we instinctively find the model keeping the money in the family distasteful.

Sherlock’s effect and intuition

For the small universe of memory masters,  Sherlock Holmes is an interesting role model. The fictional Sherlock gave rise to the not-so-fictional science of criminology. The author, Arthur Conan Doyle, personally solved a crime using the methodology of his personage. Sherlock has perfect recall, perfect attention to detail, an extreme mastery of mental palaces, extraordinary creativity, and some other super skills associated with rigorous memory training.

The controversy mainly deals with intuition. Using very few recall cues or markers to deduce a complex story is a great memory skill.  Sherlock notices small details and tells very complex stories. Only in real life this may work or may fail statistically. Almost none of the details that can be found via quick observation is unique. When creating the most plausible story, Sherlock’s intuition might be terribly wrong. DNA evidence freed multiple innocent people sentenced based on inconclusive situational cues. If military intelligence with all of its electronics, trained experts, and AI power can miss clear signals detected by girls with cameras, the chances of the “deductive method” being wrong are very high.

To make things worse (I quote here) the tricks of fiction have falsely portrayed an inferior method as a superior one.   Holmes learns about or observes a result – say, the death of a woman in her bedroom – and then uses intuition to describe the steps required for the incident to have occurred. The reader is tricked into thinking that backwards reasoning is brilliant, yet it rarely works. For any result, any set of clues, there may be numerous possible ‘trains of events’ that could explain the result.

I read a lot, and remember a lot, yet I never fully trust my memory. The things that I took for granted, might become incorrect due to some new discoveries. Obviously, I updated my memories in retrospect, and I feel that I had some intuition… This hindsight thinking is usually wrong. Try to invest your money based on such intuition and you will probably lose everything.

Socratic method is not ethical in the wrong hands

We accept the Socratic method as one of the pillars of our philosophy, the basis of formal logic, and yet is ethical? Any set of thoughts and beliefs regular people have will probably be self-contradicting. We come back to Aristotle’s laws of thought. I quote:

(1) For all propositions p, it is impossible for both p and not p to be true, or: ∼(p · ∼p), in which ∼ means “not” and · means “and.” (2) Either p or ∼p must be true, there being no third or middle true proposition between them, or: p ∨ ∼p, in which ∨ means “or.” (3) If a propositional function F is true of an individual variable x, then F is true of x, or: F(x) ⊃ F(x), in which ⊃ means “formally implies.” Another formulation of the principle of identity asserts that a thing is identical with itself, or (∀x) (x = x), in which ∀ means “for every”; or simply that x is x.

This is valid for formal binary logic. In real life, things are less formal and more statistical. In 1970s, AI experts used to play with fuzzy logic. If the chances of X are 60% and the chances of not X are 30%, there is a 10% chance of a third outcome. For example, a perfectly balanced coin may fall on its edge approximately once in every 6000 tosses.

Placing a person under the scrutiny of binary questions, the nuances of small chances and exceptions disappear. The person, any person, starts to contradict himself and eventually can be bullied into believing pretty much everything.  If this method is not applied carefully, it can create terrible confusion. When the results of such experiments are cited out of context,  by extreme leaders, everything becomes possible, and “alternative truth” appears as plausible as the actual events. Thus it would be nice if people using the Socratic method pledged “do no harm”, like medical doctors.

Impulsive decision making

Adults are held responsible for their actions by the law. The law is more lenient with children, enabling some of them to rehabilitate. And yet, the question of responsibility is not as simple as it sounds. An entire generation was poisoned by lead emissions from internal combustion engines. The crime waves are highly correlated with lead poisoning rates. Moreover, lead poisoning is known to cause impulsive behavior.

We are responsible for what we do… And yet, there are children, criminally insane adults, people under the influence, possibly those poisoned by industrial activities, groups brainwashed by cults or ideologies, and more… Are these people equally responsible? Should they be?

The answers here are political. There may be no good answer or many great answers contradicting each other. Do we want a safe society for compliant individuals or a society where people take chances? Some of our biggest entrepreneurs, artists, and politicians have borderline personalities. Would the world be a better place if we played safer or if we allowed more freedom?

Personally, I instinctively believe in playing safe, aggregating small strategic advantages over long periods. This is my personal style, not an objective truth. It is quite boring, without flamboyant risk-takers, but it works well.

Persuasion vs manipulation

Can we really persuade someone? If we are using the same criteria we might check together some influential encyclopedia or published scientific papers, or maybe even run an experiment and see the result. The discussion is within the same categories. However, if we apply to science and another person applies to religious authority, there is very little place for persuasion. Moreover, we can both apply per science, only trust different groups of scientists. For example, I can trust independent scientists while another person can trust scientists sponsored by a corporate body. Or maybe we can both trust independent advisors, but there can be very little reliable evidence and we can speculate using the little data we have. In any case, persuasion gets nearly impossible really fast.

Manipulators are significantly more successful than honest persuasion. They do not try to set objective criteria and evaluate the situation according to these criteria. Instead, they have a target goal and use whatever tools then need to bring others to similar outcomes. For example, they may use selection bias and address the set of experiments justifying their position even if it is significantly smaller than the set of experiments contradicting their position. And they rarely limit their intervention to data manipulation. They may lie and invent things that are hard to check but initially sound right, like some of the made-up experiments by Dan Ariely. Or they may attack honest people, putting their reputation in question, and tainting the discussion. Based on the situation, manipulative people may choose hostility and intimidation, or friendliness and social pressure.

Typically the initial criteria to judge manipulators is simple: who benefits and how much harm is done. If there is time for a more detailed analysis, it may be possible to evaluate if the reported results are reliable and reproducible, or if there are additional details justifying a specific decision. Manipulators are usually more interested in the end result than in the analytical framework. Honest people usually are more interested in finding out the truth, discovering additional perspectives, or maybe reaching a deeper balance and synergy.

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