Beyond Hitchens…

Posted on January 1, 2012


If we buy the assumption (the bounded rationality assumption of two Nobel Prize winners – Simon and Kahneman) that the reach of rationality is limited therefore we must rely on non-rational methods of cutting   complex problems down to mind size, then the question becomes how do we do that?

There are some obvious and popular non-rational methods, including religion, booze, drugs, biases, bigotry, theories, guesses, bets, daydreams, etc.

Obviously Hitchens rated booze and  personal rationalizations (emotionally anchored assumptions) as  better methods of taming the demons of uncertainty than religion was for him. At one time he was a true believing communist – that emotionally anchored rationalization helped him manage uncertainty for a while, then he shifted to the right and supported Bush and the Iraq war. What he believed at any one time he believed strongly and communicated with style. He was an excellent example of someone with strongly anchored beliefs or biases who was able to defend them effectively even when he shifted from left wing to right wing positions.

According to the bounded rationality model all of us  must rely on strongly anchored biases to tame our demons of uncertainty, to supplement our inherited genetic instincts and reflexes.

We do so in various ways – if we’re lucky we construct compatible, reassuring realities – as Stephen Hawking says we rely on trusted ‘models of reality’, we rely on ‘model dependant realism’. Scientists do it by relying heavily on mathematical models and cherry picked observations, priests do it with religious models and cherry picked ‘evidence’, historians do it with theories of history and cherry picked  bits of history, psychologists do it with pet theories of human behavior and cherry picked observations, politicians do it, doctors do it, drunks do it, addicts do it, teachers do it, editors do it, lovers do it… we all do it.

If we lack a functional, personal  bias to manage uncertainty in a given situation we usually borrow or buy a bias from a friend, an expert, a group, a culture..we  rely on the  follow-the-expert-or-leader syndrome. Most of us follow medical ‘experts’ even though pet treatments trusted in one generation are discarded  in the next, some of us blindly follow one political ‘leader’ Bush and other’s trust another like Obama … for a time until a new one comes along promising to manage of dispel new uncertainties.

We have no choice – we have to make decisions or choices about uncertain futures – flipping a coin doesn’t seem to reduce uncertainty as much as following a convincing leader or expert… even though flipping a coin may be just as ‘rational’ a decision rule as following Bush or  Obama or Romney, or Paul…..

But Hitchens did demonstrate a functional, if fallible, strategy for managing uncertainty. He not only relied heavily on emotionally anchored beliefs or biases, but he defended them effectively against critics and made a good living doing it. Furthermore, if his main bias (eg communism) no longer provided personal certainty he not only discarded it but readily found others to replace it  – a neat trick or adjustment. He became a true believer in freedom of  belief and expression of same – free to be a true believer and to change his mind to the opposite or to another belief. Not a bad mode of  adapting to an uncertain world – by means of serial bigotry, by sincerely adopting  whatever belief or bias fits his personal criteria of ‘the truth’ at the time.

On the other hand, even with our bounded rationality and facing awesome complexity some of our experts generate ‘reliable knowledge’ that continues to reduce uncertainty: flipping a light switch turns on the lights, it took a long time but experts finally linked lung cancer to smoking, and we finally learned that boiled water and washed hands were very good ideas – but it took a long, long time… and we’re still not washing our hands – even  doctors – as often as we should. So reliable knowledge is not always enough to change our behavior in ways that reduces uncertainty.

Hitchen’ rationality wasn’t strong enough to deal effectively with the linkages between smoking and drinking and various forms of cancer. But those irrational habits did help him manage some of his uncertainties for a time.

Concerning certainties, notice that  clean water and sanitation – more than fancy medical products and procedures – have  added decades to our lives …. And now we must deal with the chronic diseases that afflict our ballooning population of seniors. Enduring certainties seem increasingly difficult to find.

Life get complicated don’t it?

But it’s still a helluva lot better than living in a cave worried about sabre toothed tigers.

Posted in: Sciencing