Blind faith

Church Window Stained Glass Church
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Diving back into Dominic Cumming’s epic blog post, while taking a sidelong look also at Alastair Heath‘s piece in the Telegraph yesterday, I noticed an aligning of ideas that answered something that has been bothering me for a while now.

In Dominic’s post, he quotes Bret Victor on the quality of political debate that often goes on these days. The bigger picture, as Dominic points out, is that the quality of information being presented to MPs is woeful at best, which is worrying when these people are often making life and death decisions, that can have ramifications for generations to come.

Victor, talking of many self-proclaimed ‘experts’ in climate change, says: ‘And why trust them? Their rhetoric is catchy, but so is the horrific “denialist” rhetoric from the Cato Institute and similar. When the discussion is at the level of “trust me, I’m a scientist” and “look at the poor polar bears”, it becomes a matter of emotional appeal and faith, a form of religion.’

This quote really struck a chord with me, and has been bouncing around the old cerebellum for a couple of days now.

Meanwhile, yesterday, Alastair Heath writes about how left and right often misunderstand each other because they emphasise different core moral values. He writes:

‘The seminal works here are the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, as well as his more recent The Coddling of the American Mind. As Haidt points out, there are six main moral intuitions: fairness, justice, liberty, loyalty, authority and sanctity. The Left judge almost everything by the first two – and don’t really realise that there are moral intuitions other than their own, fuelling their anger – the Right by the last four, though they are usually more aware of the first two, which makes them more puzzled than angry. Such self-awareness is a key differentiator between Lefties, conservatives and libertarians.’

This was a bit of a light bulb moment for me. The reason being that having immersed myself so thoroughly in Hayek for the past year or so, certain things didn’t feel quite right, and one of them was his argument that intelligent people tend to be socialists because they are intelligent and rational, and if you are intelligent and rational, you can’t accept that you don’t know everything.

Yet, the level of debate I’ve had with a lot of people around Brexit has been of a similar poor quality. Now, I know that I said here before that the part of the brain that deals with decision making doesn’t deal with language, so it’s often hard to articulate why choose to like what we like. That said, it is usually possible for us to at least come up with something, even if we feel it doesn’t really do it justice. There is usually something rational we can salvage from it.

And yet, with Brexit, the two camps have definitely taken each of their core values and run with them at a visceral level, not really thinking things through logically at all. And so we find those in the remain camp in a situation of almost loathing people in the leave camp. I suspect this is because their core values of fairness and justice have been mortally affronted by the result. Those who adhere to the latter for end up perplexed as to the amount of vitriol they sometimes receive, as they adhere to the other four codes, that allow them to be somewhat more tolerant of people who disagree with them (though, not always!).

The problem is that in both cases, rationality has gone out of the window. As Dominic says, both parties need to up their game in terms of proper objective arguments based on sound contextualised data to make the best decisions.

As Hayek argues, the extended order operates somewhere between instinct and reason. In recent years, many, particularly on the left, have shied away from rationality and taken refuge in instinct. This is the thing that has confused me for a while. I expected these rational, intelligent people to have the answers as to why they voted to remain, and yet they didn’t. More often than not they had nothing but, ‘You’re wrong, you’re an idiot.’ End of argument.

It reminded me of a very young and naive me, in my days of being a bit of a God-botherer.

In that context, it almost feels like socialism has moved away from being the rationalist’s home to being the believer’s home. It’s become a religion. And many of the key issues of our day, including Brexit, climate change and veganism have also taken on the blind faith qualities of religion, with an anger to rival some of the fiercest fundamental Christians or Muslims.

Strangely enough, I’m writing this on the train, and have just looked up to see a headline in the Evening Standard, ‘Now to we have a nasty left to match the nasty right?’

We need to find the middle ground again, and the start of that is proper, well informed, rational debate based on the latest techniques in data modelling and forecasting. Not only that, we need to start telling some proper stories to reflect the truth in these facts and figures. Time to bring on the actuaries?

Animals

Orangutan Mother Animal Mammal
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Going back to David Eagleman’s Incognito for a moment, one of the key things that stuck out for me was a finding he refers to by the nineteenth-century psychologist William James, who was the first to get suspicious of the idea that humans were somehow better than other animals because we had fewer instincts. He felt this to be completely wrong, and instead suggested that we are more intelligent and neurologically flexible than other animals because we possess more instincts than they do.

Eagleman makes much of the idea that the ‘conscious’ part of the brain is just a small fraction of the whole brain, and that the rest of the unconscious is, in the large part, made up of these pre-programmed instincts, almost like computer routines, that have been so hard-coded into us, that in a lot of cases that they are in our DNA and we are born with them. These instincts are tools in our toolbox, and as we have the most tools, we became the most adaptable creatures.

Now, for fans of Hayek, this ties in with his ideas of the Extended Order, but it doesn’t sit too well with them. He saw the Extended Order as coming from somewhere between instinct and reason. The problem is, his appreciation of neuroscience was based on what we knew in the 60’s and 70’s, which means that he may have been a bit off the mark. But the fact that we know so much more about the functioning of the brain and the subconscious now doesn’t mean we have to write off his ideas. Instead, I would say that what he understood to be meant by instinct was perhaps a bit too simplistic, perhaps nothing more than ‘gut reactions’ or ‘basic instincts’, and that it is this huge array of more complex instincts that drive the Extended Order.

This is reinforced when you consider the way our brains are very much programmed to be social, even to the point where solutions to complex puzzles we humans would normally struggle with can be easily solved when they are presented in a social context. We are wired from the ground up to be social, and it is this that drives the Extended Order – the traditions and politics and religions and laws and everything else that we create around us to keep society civil.

And for the most part, we have no idea these instincts are there. Which raises some interesting questions…

Zombies!

Manipulation Witch Zombie Cemetary
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Yes, I know I said I thought they were rubbish, but I’ve just finished reading an interesting article by Andy Beckett in the Guardian, “‘A Zombie Party’: The Deepening Crisis of Conservatism”, arguing that Conservatism is dying and that the Left is on the rise, and it’s rather got me thinking.

I have to say that I agree with Beckett to a point, yet as ever with left-wingers, not necessarily for the same reasons.

I felt that Beckett got the fundamentals of Conservativism muddled with the fundamentals of Libertarianism. He argues that the Hayekian free-trade, low taxes, small government of Thatcher and Reagan were Conservative fundamentals, and that they’ve never really worked. Admittedly, many Conservatives think this way too looking at what some of the candidates vying for the PM post are saying, but I’m starting to think that while many Conservatives consider themselves Libertarian, Libertarian values are fundamentally at odds with Conservative values.

Libertarian values are rooted in the Extended Order, which is almost a kind of magical spiritual realm (at least in mine and Hayek’s minds), and more ‘Liberal’ in its operation than Conservatives would feel comfortable with. It will morph and change in a progressive fashion as society evolves. Certainly, I think this is the core of Hayek’s essay, ‘Why I am not a conservative’. The Extended Order will take the best of society, and run with it, the bits that don’t work falling away. It may drift to the ‘right’ or ‘left’ in the process, but ultimately it transcends both.

A central tenet of Beckett’s argument, which I think is right, is that Conservatism is a holdover from the days when the Elites where trying to fight the rising tide of the masses gaining power. I’m not sure this means that if society drifts more to the left (which it certainly does in London) then Conservatism is dead, nor that people under 45 today who are more liberal in attitude, will stay that way as they grow older (and not go all conservative, as they have traditionally done). That said, they might do, such is the wonderful way of the world, that’s the point! It will possibly never go the way you expect it too, it’s all so com-per-li-cated.

The Extended Order is fundamentally about evolution and change, something the liberal left claim to be for, and the conservative right against. The problem is that the magical nebulousness of the Extended Order is anathema to left-wing rationalists, who need facts and figures to justify what’s happening in society, something that can only ever be sought in hindsight, and usually too late as society has moved on before the data can be found to prove it. And data is notoriously slippery at best. Just look at the climate change debate, or read Foucault’s Pendulum.

And yes, I still think Zombies are daft.

Need to know

Brain Science Biology Psychology
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At the moment I’m reading the fascinating book about the brain, Incognito – The Secret Lives of the Brain by David Eagleman. One of the big takeaways for me so far is that the Extended Order, to continue briefly on the post from last week, could be seen as a mirror of our unconscious in the outside world. Our subconscious is a vast network of neurons and memories all stored away and relatively inaccessible to our comparatively limited conscious minds. It’s full of rules and regulations on how the body works, much as the Extender Order controls society with its rules and traditions.

The subconscious, and indeed the Extended Order, is so vast there is no way the conscious mind could ever hope to know all that goes on in there. Indeed, even our explicit memories, those we can access readily, tend to be locked up until we need them. And so the brain operates on a need to know basis. As matters arise in our daily life, so we tap into the stores of memories, both implicit (gut feelings) and explicit (autobiographic) memories.

All the time new contexts and situtions present themselves to us and we seek relevant information depending on what we want to know. Hayek argues that this is why trying to control trade/commerce/economics will always fail, as those put in control of trying to order such enterprises can never hope to know all things in all circumstances.

Always better to defer and decentralise to those that can specialiase in specific situations in specific circumstances in more local settings. Making arbitrary, central decisions that try to cover too many different circumstances will always be doomed to fail.

On the Extended Order

Board Empty Rule Instruction
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I keep waffling on about the Extended Order, but what on earth do I actually mean by that?

In my mind, following on from Hayek, who developed the idea extensively, the Extended Order is the laws, traditions and rules of society. More often than not these rules are deeply ingrained within us through our parents and family from birth, and we play by these rules primarily at a subconscious level.

This order is controlled by no-one; it could never be because it is vast and complex. Within it there are groups of often competing sets of beliefs; religion, trade, economics and politics all emerge within the extended order. I read recently that once a population reaches a million it starts to develop notions of religions. I’d say that you probably don’t need that many people for them to start figuring out how they can work and live together, and a fledgling extended order starts to develop.

As Hayek likes to point out, these rules and traditions exist develop somewhere between reason and instinct. By this he means that if we based the rules purely on reason or instinct alone, the logical and primal aspects of our brains would negate much of the positive good that comes from the extended order.

The extended order is irrational and evolutionary. As culture changes, so old ideas drop away and new ideas (that work) come to stay. It’s interesting to watch recent developments in regards to gender and feminism and multiculturalism, as people push and prod at our long held beliefs. Over time, the order will change to either accept these newer ideas, or they will drop away from lack of use as newer challenges come along.

Hello World

Hello World Computer Programmer
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Inspired by many accounts that daily blogging is a ‘good thing to do’, I thought I’d dip my toes in and give it a bash.

By way of introduction, my name is Andy Coughlan and I’ve spent most of my adult life split between careers in IT and Digital Marketing, and, at various times, trying to ‘make it’ as a writer, musician and filmmaker. I’ve been reasonably successful on all of those fronts, even if I’m not a household name living in a luxurious countryside mansion.

I make award winning short films with reasonably well-known actors, run a great little Sci-Fi anthology with one of my oldest and closest friends, enjoy working in London as a Digital Product Manager (and the daily commute on Southeastern’s High Speed link), have played hundreds of gigs with some top class bands (all of whom could have been the next big thing), and spend most of my spare time either adapting my favourite books into screenplays or writing new ones.

So that’s what you’ll find here; the outpourings of a mind struggling to make sense of all things creative, social, political, philosophical, and metaphysical. I have a deep interest in neuroscience and how that affects the way we deal with the world. Fair warning; I’m a libertarian (in the mould of Hayek and von Mises) and a firm believer in all things free (especially lunches – I’m usually available between 1 and 2!).