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Friday Feedback: Suboptimalism

Friday Feedback: I shy away from premises that imply that we are returning to some sort of better historical past. It reminds me too much of Garden of Eden stories, a perfect place from which we have fallen. Humans have never fallen – in an evolutionary sense – from anything better. Things perpetually get better and they get worse, over the short run. But I’m sure this comment is not completely applicable to your statement.

Fridays the LA Progressive features a comment that was particularly noteworthy. This week we are featuring a comment submitted by Chuck R. commenting on "Coffee Time: Reason, Bigotry, and Tea Party Angst," by Charles D. Hayes.


Here's Chuck's comment:

Excellent piece, well reasoned and well-written. I fear that its length will dissuade many from attempting it. The same goes for this reply, but I hope you wade through it.

I am currently working on the development of a philosophy which I’ve labeled Suboptimalism. Many of the points you make dovetail with my thinking. The central statement of this philosophy is:

“Humans are a suboptimal species of symbol-using social animal, becoming fully human only through human relationships.”

Suboptimality can be seen as the working out of the 2nd law of thermodynamics (entropy, nothing can be perfect) in living organisms. It affects humanity primarily through their bodily structures and in the unavoidable degradation of information as it passes from one medium to another, especially through our senses, nervous system, brain and ultimately to consciousness. Philosophically it is an updating of Sartre’s existentialism, rooting it more firmly in evolutionary theory, most particularly the formative influence of natural selection.

Despite widespread awareness of evolutionary theory, very few people have made the paradigm shift into really seeing that we humans are truly animals, and operating from that perspective. We have a billion years of animal evolution driving us, perhaps 10-40 million years of development as a social animal, and only a few hundred thousand, perhaps 2 million years of developing and using symbols (primarily language). All of these aspects of our nature have their own needs, problems and problem-solving techniques. All conflict with each other. Harmonious resolution of these problems – either individually or collectively – is never more than fleeting, if ever achieved at all. We are deluding ourselves when we think that our recently-developed symbol-using intellect has somehow canceled the effects of the prior 999 million years of animal evolution.

When we operate from premises that are unsupported by fact, we lead ourselves astray. We ask bad questions (“How many angels can dance on the head of a pin”, What is The Meaning of Life”) and we arrive at bad answers. Until sufficient numbers of the human species make the profound paradigm shift to the realization that we “are a sub-optimal species of symbol-using social animal, becoming fully human only through human relationships,” we will continue to ask bad questions and get bad answers.

Here are some comments on a few selections from your essay:

(1). “In 1999…Lakoff and Johnson put it like this: “We’re not who we thought we were. What we do is not what we thought we were doing.”

Exactly right. We do not understand our own fundamental nature. As long as we deny our animal ancestry, we will continue to be befuddled by our biases, hatreds, fears, violence, survival drives of all sorts. We will ask questions and seek solutions based on false premises. You can’t get to where you need to be unless you acknowledge where you are.

(2). “…the aggregate of innovative research has yet to become conventional wisdom, but it…will someday result in a paradigm shift in the way we think about human character and the whole concept of virtue and morality….reason is not a disembodied experience as it seems, but is instead shaped by the body…”

Agreed. A paradigm shift is necessary, but I see no guarantees that we will achieve it before we self-destruct or undergo radical population reduction & non-beneficial climate change and societal chaos. There is no “world spirit”, destiny, fate, “divine plan”, or “historical imperative”. Our future is completely, irrevocably in our own hands. We can close our eyes, not pay attention and mouth soothing mantras, but the responsibility and the future are still ours.
Emotions (in many, perhaps all animal species) are a form of inferential system, a survival system molded by natural selection to increase the likelihood of survival. Anger, fear, curiosity, lust, etc. all have their purposes rooted in the evolutionary need for survival and procreation. Suboptimalism points out that none of these systems work terribly well: they can be too strong, too weak, fail to turn off or arise at inappropriate times.
Reason can be seen as a newer system of inference-building, an improvement in many (not all) ways on our animal emotional inference system. It certainly hasn’t come close to replacing it. Reason depends upon the use of symbols (primarily language and the new language of math). Our use of symbols is highly suboptimal. We have great difficulty understanding each other, saying what we mean, and have almost no awareness of the defects of our languages. General Semantics says that we need “Consciousness of Abstraction,” succinctly expressed in the awareness that “The map is not the territory.” Our words for an object are not the object itself.

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(3).”…unconscious cerebral feature that acts sort of like our personal accountant; it’s a reality checker, so to speak…”

The book “Why God Won’t Go Away” by Newberg & D’Aquili describes eight “Cognitive Operators”, inference-creating neural functions that perform functions such as you describe. They are:

Holistic Operator: Seeing the forest in the trees; the ability to recognize a tree from the assemblage of bark, trunk, leaves, branches, etc.
Reductionist Operator: Seeing the trees in the forest; analysis, breaking a whole into component parts.
Abstractive Operator: The taxonomist; recognizing that a snake, skink and lizard are all reptiles; finding inks between two or more separate facts.
Quantitative Operator: The mathematician; calculations, estimates of time, distance, amounts, sequencing.
Binary Operator: This versus That; reduction of complex relationships to simple pairs of opposites.
Emotional Value Operator: Feeling of what happens; determines the strength of fear, joy, curiosity, etc.
Causal Operator: How & Why; anticipation, identification of causes; the likely driver of curiosity.
Existential Operator: No Exit; determines whether what we perceive is real or unreal.

These operate below the level of consciousness. The inferences they draw are sometimes made available to consciousness, but certainly not always. When we react swiftly to a sensed danger or opportunity, that’s our CO’s in action. Like everything else, they function suboptimally, i.e. they don’t work well all the time. They are perpetually drawing inferences that are incorrect. Natural selection eliminates organisms that draw too many incorrect inferences, but many incorrect inferences are not of survival importance, thus not greatly affected by the environment. Very generally speaking, it’s better to accept without question that the inference produced by a CO is valid and should be acted on, that to assume it is false. Speed of reaction was often the difference between survival and death. This is why we always accept these subconscious inferences, until we intentionally decide to PAY ATTENTION to them, and introduce a momentary “pause” into our reactive process. The intention to utilize this pause must be constantly renewed and acted upon. There is no possibility of a one-time-for-all-time decision.

Another facet of suboptimalism springs from evolutionary theory: it is not the “survival of the fittest” that drives natural selection, it is the “elimination of the least fit.” This permits a vast intermediate range of mediocrity to survive and procreate. This history of mediocrity is the primary reason why nothing about living organisms, including humans, including their brains and cognitive systems, works as well as we might like it to.

(4). “That’s how our brains help to ensure our survival; it’s the software that comes with the hardware of experience, programmed through thousands of generations when the times were often met by plague and scarcity, and when differences represented the cutoff point for dividing bounty. For millennia, differences raised suspicion, and our still-active but primitive detection apparatus is expert at discerning them.”

Correct. Our inferential systems were created and molded by natural selection. There WAS NO IMPLIED DIRECTION to evolution. Every organism reacts to its environment and develops what it needs to survive (or it doesn’t survive) but such survival systems do not develop beyond the level of need required by that organism’s current environment. An organism cannot “look forward” and then develop systems that will be useful in the future. Thus mediocrity abounds.
Fear of “the other” is an ancient survival mechanism. Every in-group must have an out-group. Cohesion – thus individual survival – is greatly aided by rejection of the out-group. Humans become fully human only through human relationships (referring back to the original statement of Suboptimalism).

(5) “If the conscious mind is the pilot and the hidden brain is the autopilot on a plane, the pilot can always overrule the autopilot, except when the pilot is not paying attention.”

Absolutely correct. Conscious intention and attention is essential to override the inferences produced by the system of Cognitive Operators. The CO’s are ALWAYS FUNCTIONING; you cannot turn them off as they are “built-in” functions of our brains. You can only pay attention and be aware of the good and bad inferences they are always cranking out. Thus you can never conquer their propensity to create errors with a once-for-all decision or act of will. It requires constant vigilance. This is not an optimal solution, but is the only one possible, given our neural structure.

(6)”… overcome our propensity for relating and return to objective efforts to help restore the kind of democracy that offers a well-reasoned future…”

I shy away from premises that imply that we are returning to some sort of better historical past. It reminds me too much of Garden of Eden stories, a perfect place from which we have fallen. Humans have never fallen – in an evolutionary sense – from anything better. Things perpetually get better and they get worse, over the short run. But I’m sure this comment is not completely applicable to your statement.

(7)My own life experience tells me that we can learn to override our inner accountants and that we should engage in political dialog with opponents only when all sides can agree to yield to the better argument.

This sounds optimal. As previously stated, to “override our inner accountants” is a mental action that must be constantly renewed. Can “all sides” ever agree “to yield to the better argument?” This implies that the better argument is a “reasoned” argument, but evolutionary speaking, the Cognitive Operators have been around far longer than our ability to “reason” and they are constantly supplying their own form of “better argument.” The techniques of propaganda, at which the conservatives have become quite adept, appeal directly to the survival-directed CO’s with messages of danger, fear, outside enemies, suspicion of betrayal and so on. They are emotionally-laden pitches which bypass the faculties of reason and go straight to the gut. And they work because few humans have the will or the desire to pay attention. Few have even the awareness that they are not paying attention.

Thanks for the thought-provoking essay. My reply may have been very long, but your essay was even longer.