What Hitchens taught us….

Posted on January 2, 2012


What can we learn from Christopher Hitchens?

Christopher Hitchens

What legacy has he left us about managing the increasing uncertainty and complexity of modern life, handicapped as we are by our bounded rationality?

First, he demonstrates the functional but fallible power of emotionally anchored beliefs, models, or biases in creating and sustaining certainty in the face of complexity and criticism.

As a young man he manages uncertainty by relying on blind trust in communism,  rationalism and he claims atheism. So he provides support for Simon’s mantra” no conclusions without emotionally anchored assumptions’ and biases, and Hawking’s theory of  ‘ model dependant realism”.

But like a lover, he demonstrates the capacity to dump one ‘true’ love for another – while still remaining true to rationalism and atheism, after moving from Britain to the states he dumps communism while supporting Bush’s right-wing posture and the debilitating war on Iraq.

But notice he has the capacity to fall blindly in and out of love – levels of emotionally anchoring – a hierarchy of biases. His blind trust in rationalism and atheism persist – providing a foundation of certainty, but he demonstrates the capacity to jettison some of his biases and replace them with others, providing for some flexibility – communism doesn’t fly so well in the US as it did in Britain.

So in addition to reflecting Simon’s and Hawking’s theories of constructing realities with aid of biases and models,  Hutchins also reflects Popper’s and Gaine’s models of a hierarchy of biases, where some are more disposable and replaceable than others – sort of serial love affairs to meet changing conditions, but built on a foundation of stable biases and beliefs, in Hitchens case rationalism and atheism.

Hitchens also had a brilliant mind and a combative spirit enabling him to both counter and cowe critics in the debating game, thus not only reassuring himself but attracting followers, even worshipers.

Hitchens managing uncertainty

When he encounters uncertainty beyond the reach of rationalism, and his current heirarchy of biases. he resorts to non-rational methods – boozing and smoking – which work but at the cost of shortening his life.

So while Hitchens remained true to rationalism and atheism to the end, I remain true to the models of Simon, Popper and Hawking in managing any uncertainty I have concerning Hitchens.

So we end up with a meta-model for managing uncertainty by bounded rationality operators: A hierarchy of biases or models; but with  enough flexibility or plasticity at some levels of the hierarchy to maintain a viable internal and external relations, with some of the methods providing short-term gains and long-term pains.

Hitchens constructed his certainties,  defended them brilliantly, scarred his critics, developed deep friendships, attracted followers, and practiced his over indulgences without causing wars or famine. Not a bad record!

All of us might well consider the costs – to ourselves and others,  of those beliefs and behaviors that help us manage short and long term uncertainties and demons. Hitchens boozing and smoking costs appeared to be relatively local – eg his own health and probably  family stresses.

Estimating the costs and benefits of our major beliefs, biases and models is more challenging. Certainly Hitchens articles and books, and particularly his atheism paid off financially with his best-setller God is not Great.

Fig 2: Hitchens managing uncertainty: Hitchens: www.flickr.com/photos/32006902@N00/367653945

Posted in: Sciencing