Tuesday, October 12, 2004
the dangers of determinism
worse than psychoanalysis is psychoanalysis done without sufficient data -- by the extrapolation of on-camera traits, for example. it reduces the probability of meaningful inference.
julian sanchez over at reason does a good job, however, in being sure to make honest mention of that in psychoanalyzing the bush debate performances within the context of some of what has come before it.
The terrifying possibility, then, is that Bush is being perfectly honest when he claims he can't think of any mistakes he's made.indeed, one of the very good reasons to question this president is his inability to think in this probabilistic manner. ideologues virtually always view the world in a causative way -- A leads to B. the truth of the world is that, outside the limitations of science, that is rarely a valid assumption. beyond multivariate analysis, beyond simply being wrong, there is the high degree of randomness that we encounter every day that surprises the deterministic human. even when A sometimes can lead to B, it often won't because of randomness.
that's hard for deterministic people to understand. and we are, all of us, wired for the simplicity of determinism.
i've never really believed that people are so far from their biological roots as we suppose. we all carry in our bodies brains whose structure and function hasn't changed much in millions of years, and wasn't produced to solve problems rationally and view the world probabilistically. it's built to breed. the reptilian core is still in there.
and so i think there's much to be learned about human behavior in studying the behavior of lower animals. indeed, when discussing our deterministic nature, i find skinner's pigeons an indispensable insight into how we animals work. it is why some people carry rabbit's foot. it's why some go to church -- indeed, it's why some build churches. it's how a man could associate good intentions with good actions and good outcomes. we are so wired for determinism that we, like pigeons, create it where it does not exist in an effort to reductively understand a chaotic and probabilistic world.
this is the bush administration's weakness, as it is a weakness for most of us: it is unable to see the world in complexity or in probability.
that is no sin. it is part of being human. but what makes it so dangerous in this white house is, coincident with the massive unchecked power under their control, the inability to admit vulnerability to that basic human weakness. instead it favors instead doubtless ideology and familiar moral narrative -- making no allowance for the fact that they may be one of skinner's pigeons, they view such false reductiveness as "clarity", when it is in fact obfuscation. and that false certainty allows men to quiet their doubts and gives them freedom of bold action.
boldness based on false assumptions is not doomed to immediate failure. probability still rules the game, and brilliant successes can and do emerge from stupid acts. but if one continues to act foolishly, over time the odds will assert themselves.
so the question that the people of this democracy are faced with now is this: do we give a house of fools for determinism more time to let the probabilities impose themselves on them -- and, by extension, all of us?