Biological Bias

3 March 2018

Saturday


What does it mean to be a biological being? It means, among other things, that one sees the world from a biological perspective, thinks in terms of concepts amenable to a biological brain, understands oneself and one’s species in its biological context, which is the biosphere of our homeworld, and that one persists in a mode of being distinctive to biological beings (which mode of being we call life). To be a biological being is to be related to the world through one’s biology; one has biological desires, biological aversions, biological imperatives, biological expectations, and biological intentions. Human beings are biological beings, and so are subject to all of these conditions of biological being.

When we think in terms of human bias — and we are subject to many biases as human beings — we usually focus on exclusively human biases, our anthropocentrism, our anthropic bias, but we are also subject to biases that follow from the other ontological classes of beings of which we are members. We are human beings, but we are also cognitive beings (i.e., intelligent agents), linguistic beings, mammalian beings, biological beings, physical beings, Stelliferous Era beings, and so on. This litany may be endless; whether or not we are aware of it, we may belong to an infinitude of ontological classes in virtue of the kind of beings that we are.

Another example of a bias to which human beings are subject but which is not exclusively anthropic, is what I have called terrestrial bias. Some time ago in Terrestrial Bias: Thought Experiments I asked, “…is there, among human beings, any sense of identification with the life of Earth? Is there a terrestrial bias, or will there be a terrestrial bias when we are able to compare our response to terrestrial life to our response to extraterrestrial life?” As I write this it occurs to me that a distinction can be made between planetary bias, to which any being of planetary endemism would be subject, and terrestrial bias understood as a bias specific to Earth, to which only life on Earth would be subject. In making this distinction, we understand that terrestrial bias is a special case of planetary bias, which latter is the more comprehensive concept.

Similarly, anthropic bias is a special case of the more comprehensive concept of intelligent agent bias. Again, we can distinguish between intelligent agent bias and anthropic bias, with intelligent agent bias being the more comprehensive concept under which anthropic bias falls. However, intelligent agents could also include artificial agents, who would be peers of human intelligent agents in respect of intelligence, but which would not share our biological bias. The many biases, then, which attend and inform human cognition, are nested within more comprehensive biases, as well as overlapping with the biases of other agents that might potentially exist and which would share some of our biases but which would not fall under exactly the same more comprehensive concepts. In Wittgensteinian terms, there is a complicated network of biases that overlap and intersect (cf. Philosophical Investigations, sec. 66); these biases correspond to a complicated network of ontological classes that overlap and intersect.

Our biological biases overlap and intersect with our other biases, such as our biases as the result of being human (anthropic bias) or our biases in virtue of being composed of matter (material or physical bias). Biological bias occupies a point midway between these two ontological classes. Our anthropic bias is exclusive to human beings, but we share our biological bias with every living thing on Earth, and perhaps with living things elsewhere in the cosmos, while we share our material bias much more widely with dust and gas and stars, except that these latter beings, not being intelligent agents, cannot exercise judgment or act as agents, so that their bias can only be manifested passively. One might well characterize the Platonic definition of beingthe capacity to affect or be affected — as the passive exercise of bias, with each class of beings affecting and being affected by other beings of the same class as peers.

I have sought to exhibit and disentangle and overlapping and intersecting of biological baises in a number of posts related to biophilia and biophobia, including:

Biocentrism and Biophilia

The Biocentric Thesis

The Scope of Biophilia

Not all biases are catastrophic distortions of reasoning. In Less than Cognitive Bias I made a distinction between anthropic biases that characterize the human condition without necessarily adversely affecting rational judgment, and anthropic biases that do undermine our ability to reason rationally. And in The Human Overview I sketched out the complexity of ordinary human communication, which is dense in subtle biases, some of which compromise our rationality, but many of which are crucial to our ability to rapidly reason about our circumstances — a skill with high survival value, and a skill at which human beings excel and which will not soon by modeled by artificial intelligence on account of its subtlety. A tripartite distinction can be made, then, among biases that compromise our reason, biases that are neutral in regard to out ability to reason, and biases that augment our ability to reason.

Our biological biases coincide to a large extent with our evolutionary psychology, and, in so far as our evolutionary psychology enabled us to survive in our environment of evolutionary adaptedness, our biological biases augment our ability to reason cogently and to act effectively in biological contexts — though only in what might be called peer biological contexts, as far as our particular scale of biological individuality allows us to identify with other biological individuals as peers. Our peer biological biases do not allow us to interact effectively at the level of the microbiome or at the level of the biosphere, with the result that considerable scientific effort has been required for us to understand and to interact effectively at these biological scales.

A similar applicability of bias may be true more widely of our other biases, which help us in some circumstances while hurting us in other circumstances. Certainly our anthropic biases have helped us to survive, and that is why we possess them in such robust forms, though they have helped us to survive as a species of planetary endemism. In the event of humanity breaking out of our homeworld as a spacefaring civilization, our anthropic, homeworld, and planetary endemism biases may not serve us as well in cosmological contexts. however, we know what to do about this. The cultivation of science and rigorous reasoning has allowed us to transcend many of our biases without actually losing our biases. Instead of viewing this as a human, all-too-human failure, we should think of this as a human strength: we can, when we apply ourselves, selectively transcend our biases, but when we need them, they are there for us, and they will be there for us until we actually alter ourselves biologically. Thus there is a biological “way out” from biological biases, but we might want to think twice before pursuing this way out, as our biological biases may well prove to be an asset (and perhaps an asset in unexpected, instinctive ways) when we eventually explore other biospheres and encounter another form of biology.

What Carl Sagan called the “deprovincialization” of biology may also take place at the level of human evolutionary psychology. If so, we shouldn’t desire to transcend or eliminate our biological biases as we should desire to augment and expand them in order to overcome what will be eventually learn about our terrestrial and homeworld biases from the biology of other worlds.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Advertisements

Wednesday


crowd

Is it possible for human beings to care about the fate of strangers? This is at once a profound philosophical question and an immediately practical question. The most famous response to this question is perhaps that of John Donne:

“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.”

John Donne, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions, XVII. Nunc lento sonitu dicunt, morieris. Now, this bell tolling softly for another, says to me: Thou must die.

Immanuel Levinas spoke of “the community of those with nothing in common,” in an attempt to get at the human concern for other human beings of whom we know little or nothing. More recently, there is this from Bill Gates:

“When I talk to friends about global health, I often run into a strange paradox. The idea of saving one person’s life is profound and thrilling. But I’ve found that when you talk about saving millions of lives — it sounds almost meaningless. The higher the number, the harder it is to wrap your head around.”

Bill Gates, opening paragraph of An AIDS Number That’s Almost Too Big to Believe

Gates presents this as a paradox, but in social science it is a well-known and well-studied cognitive bias known as the Identifiable victim effect. One researcher who has studied this cognitive bias is Paul Slovic, whose work was discussed by Sam Harris in the following passage:

“…when human life is threatened, it seems both rational and moral for our concern to increase with the number of lives at stake. And if we think that losing many lives might have some additional negative consequences (like the collapse of civilization), the curve of our concern should grow steeper still. But this is not how we characteristically respond to the suffering of other human beings.”

“Slovic’s experimental work suggests that we intuitively care most about a single, identifiable human life, less about two, and we grow more callous as the body count rises. Slovic believes that this ‘psychic numbing’ explains the widely lamented fact that we are generally more distressed by the suffering of single child (or even a single animal) than by a proper genocide. What Slovic has termed ‘genocide neglect’ — our reliable failure to respond, both practically and emotionally, to the most horrific instances of unnecessary human suffering — represents one of the more perplexing and consequential failures of our moral intuition.”

“Slovic found that when given a chance to donate money in support of needy children, subjects give most generously and feel the greatest empathy when told only about a single child’s suffering. When presented with two needy cases, their compassion wanes. And this diabolical trend continues: the greater the need, the less people are emotionally affected and the less they are inclined to give.”

Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape, Chapter 2

Skip down another paragraph and Harris adds this:

“The fact that people seem to be reliably less concerned when faced with an increase in human suffering represents an obvious violation of moral norms. The important point, however, is that we immediately recognize how indefensible this allocation of emotional and material resources is once it is brought to our attention.”

While Harris has not hesitated to court controversy, and speaks the truth plainly enough as he sees it, by failing to place what he characterizes as norms of moral reasoning in an evolutionary context he presents us with a paradox (the above section of the book is subtitled “Moral Paradox”). Really, this kind of cognitive bias only appears paradoxical when compared to a relatively recent conception of morality liberated from parochial in-group concerns.

For our ancestors, focusing on a single individual whose face is known had a high survival value for a small nomadic band, whereas a broadly humanitarian concern for all human beings would have been disastrous in equal measure. Today, in the context of industrial-technological civilization we can afford to love humanity; if our ancestors had loved humanity rather than particular individuals they knew well, they likely would have gone extinct.

Our evolutionary past has ill prepared us for the perplexities of population ethics in which the lives of millions may rest on our decisions. On the other hand, our evolutionary past has well prepared us for small group dynamics in which we immediately recognize everyone in our in-group and with equal immediacy identify anyone who is not part of our in-group and who therefore belongs to an out-group. We continue to behave as though our decisions were confined to a small band of individuals known to us, and the ability of contemporary telecommunications to project particular individuals into our personal lives as though we knew them, as if they were part of our in-group, plays into this cognitive bias.

While the explicit formulation of Identifiable victim effect is recent, the principle has been well known for hundreds of years at least, and has been as compellingly described in historical literature as in recent social science, as, for example, in Adam Smith:

“Let us suppose that the great empire of China, with all its myriads of inhabitants, was suddenly swallowed up by an earthquake, and let us consider how a man of humanity in Europe, who had no sort of connexion with that part of the world, would be affected upon receiving intelligence of this dreadful calamity. He would, I imagine, first of all, express very strongly his sorrow for the misfortune of that unhappy people, he would make many melancholy reflections upon the precariousness of human life, and the vanity of all the labours of man, which could thus be annihilated in a moment. He would too, perhaps, if he was a man of speculation, enter into many reasonings concerning the effects which this disaster might produce upon the commerce of Europe, and the trade and business of the world in general. And when all this fine philosophy was over, when all these humane sentiments had been once fairly expressed, he would pursue his business or his pleasure, take his repose or his diversion, with the same ease and tranquillity, as if no such accident had happened. The most frivolous disaster which could befall himself would occasion a more real disturbance. If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own.”

Adam Smith, Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, chapter 3, paragraph 4

And immediately after Hume made his famous claim that, “Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them,” he illustrated the claim with an observation similar to Smith’s:

“Where a passion is neither founded on false suppositions, nor chuses means insufficient for the end, the understanding can neither justify nor condemn it. It is not contrary to reason to prefer the destruction of the whole world to the scratching of my finger. It is not contrary to reason for me to chuse my total ruin, to prevent the least uneasiness of an Indian or person wholly unknown to me. It is as little contrary to reason to prefer even my own acknowledgeed lesser good to my greater, and have a more ardent affection for the former than the latter.”

David Hume, A Treatise of Human Nature, Book II, Part III, section 3

Bertrand Russell has well described how the expression of this cognitive bias can take on the conceit of moral superiority in the context of romanticism:

“Cultivated people in eighteenth-century France greatly admired what they called la sensibilité, which meant a proneness to emotion, and more particularly to the emotion of sympathy. To be thoroughly satisfactory, the emotion must be direct and violent and quite uninformed by thought. The man of sensibility would be moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute peasant family, but would be cold to well-thought-out schemes for ameliorating the lot of peasants as a class. The poor were supposed to possess more virtue than the rich; the sage was thought of as a man who retires from the corruption of courts to enjoy the peaceful pleasures of an unambitious rural existence.”

Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy, Part II. From Rousseau to the Present Day, CHAPTER XVIII “The Romantic Movement”

Russell’s account of romanticism provides some of the missing rationalization whereby a cognitive bias clearly at variance with norms of moral reasoning is justified as being the “higher” moral ground. Harris seems to suggest that, as soon as this violation of moral reasoning is pointed out to us, we will change. But we don’t change, for the most part. Our rationalizations change, but our behavior rarely does. And indeed studies of cognitive bias have revealed that even when experimental subjects are informed of cognitive biases that should be obvious ex post facto, most will continue to defend choices that unambiguously reflect cognitive bias.

I have personally experienced the attitude described by Russell (despite the fact that I have not lived in eighteenth-century France) more times than I care to recall, though I find myself temperamentally on the side of those formulating well-thought-out schemes for the amelioration of the lot of the destitute as a class, rather than those moved to tears by the sight of a single destitute family. From these personal experiences of mine, anecdotal evidence suggests to me that if you attempt to live by the quasi-utilitarianism advocated by Russell and Harris, others will regard you as cold, unfeeling, and lacking in the milk of human kindness.

The cognitive bias challenge to presumptive norms of moral reasoning is also a profound challenge to existential risk mitigation, since existential risk mitigation deals in the largest numbers of human lives saved, but is a well-thought-out scheme for ameliorating the lot of human beings as a class, and may therefore have little emotional appeal compared to putting an individual’s face on a problem and then broadcasting that face repetitively.

We have all heard that the past is the foreign county, and that they do things differently there. (This line comes from the 1953 novel The Go-Between by L. P. Hartley.) We are the past of some future that has yet to occur, and we will in turn be a foreign country to that future. And, by the same token, the future is a foreign country, and they do things differently there. Can we care about these foreigners with their foreign ways? Can we do more than care about them, and actually change our behavior in the present in order to ensure on ongoing future, however foreign that future is from our parochial concerns?

In Bostrom’s paper “Existential Risk Prevention as Global Priority” (Global Policy, Volume 4, Issue 1, February 2013) the author gives a lower bound of 1016 potential future lives saved by existential risk mitigation (though he also gives “a lower bound of 1054 human-brain-emulation subjective life-years” as a possibility), but if the “collapse of compassion” is a function of the numbers involved, the higher the numbers we cite for individuals saved as a result of existential risk mitigation, the less will the average individual of today care.

Would it be possible to place an identifiable victim in the future? This is difficult, but we are all familiar with appeals to the world we leave to our children, and these are attempts to connect identifiable victims with actions that may prejudice the ability of human beings in the future to live lives of value commensurate with our own. It would be possible to construct some grand fiction, like Plato’s “noble lie” in order to interest the mass of the public in existential risk mitigation, but this would not be successful unless it became some kind of quasi-religious belief exempted from falsification that becomes the receptacle of our collective hopes. This does not seem very plausible (or sustainable) to me.

Are we left, then, to take the high road? To try to explain in painstaking (and off-putting) detail the violation of moral norms involved in our failure to adequately address existential risks, thereby putting our descendants in mortal danger? Certainly if an attempt to place an identifiable victim in the future is doomed to failure, we have no remaining option but the attempt at a moral intervention and relentless moral education that could transform the moral lives of humanity.

I do not think either of the above approaches to resolving the identifiable victim challenge to existential risk mitigation would be likely to be successful. I can put this more strongly yet: I think both approaches would almost certainly result in a backlash and would therefore be counter-productive to existential risk mitigation efforts. The only way forward that I can see is to present existential risk mitigation under the character of the adventure and exploration made possible by a spacefaring civilization that would, almost as an unintended consequence, secure the redundancy and autonomy of extraterrestrial centers of human civilization.

Human beings (at least as I know them) have a strong distaste for moral lectures and do not care to be told to do anything for their own good, but if you present them with the possibility of adventure and excitement that promises new experiences to every individual and possibly even the prospect of the extraterrestrial equivalent of a buried treasure, or even a pot of gold at the of the rainbow, you might enlist the selfishness and greed of individuals in a great cause on behalf of Earth and all its inhabitants, so that each individual is moved, as it were, by an invisible hand to promote an end which was no part of his intention.

. . . . .

danger imminent existential threat

. . . . .

Existential Risk: The Philosophy of Human Survival

1. Moral Imperatives Posed by Existential Risk

2. Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

3. Addendum on Existential Risk and Existential Uncertainty

4. Existential Risk and the Death Event

5. Risk and Knowledge

6. What is an existential philosophy?

7. An Alternative Formulation of Existential Risk

8. Existential Risk and Existential Opportunity

9. Conceptualization of Existential Risk

10. Existential Risk and Existential Viability

11. Existential Risk and the Developmental Conception of Civilization

12. Developing an Existential Perspective

13. Existential Risk and Identifiable Victims

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

Saturday


Dollars funnel.

In my post on why the future doesn’t get funded I examined the question of unimaginative funding that locks up the better part of the world’s wealth in “safe” investments. In that post I argued that the kind of person who achieves financial success is likely to do so as a result of putting on blinders and following a few simple rules, whereas more imaginative individuals who want adventure, excitement, and experimentation in their lives are not likely to be financially successful, but they are more likely to have a comprehensive vision of the future — precisely what is lacking among the more stable souls who largely control the world’s financial resources.

Of course, the actual context of investment is much more complex than this, and individuals are always more interesting and more complicated than the contrasting caricatures that I have presented. But while the context of investment is more complicated than I have presented it in my previous sketch of venture capital investment, that complexity does not exonerate the unimaginative investors who have a more complex inner life than I have implied. Part of the complexity of the situation is a complexity that stems from self-deception, and I will now try to say something about the role of self-deception on the part of venture capitalists.

One of the problem with venture capital investments, and one the reasons that I have chosen to write on this topic, is that the financial press routinely glorifies venture capitalists as financial visionaries who are midwives to the future as they finance ventures that other more traditional investors and institutional investors would not consider. While it is true that venture capitalists do finance ventures that others will not finance, as I pointed on in the above-linked article, no one takes on risk for risk’s sake, so that it is the most predictable and bankable of the ventures that haven’t been funded that get funding from the lenders of last resort.

Venture capitalists, I think, have come to rather enjoy their status in the business community as visionaries, and are often seen playing the role in their portentous pronouncements made in interviews with the Wall Street Journal and other organs of the financial community. By and large, however, venture capitalists are not visionaries. But many of them have gotten lucky, and herein lies the problem. If someone thinks that they understand the market and where it is going, and they make an investment that turns out to be successful, they will take this as proof of their understanding of the mechanisms of the market.

This is actually an old philosophical paradox that was in the twentieth century given the name of the Gettier paradox. Here’s where the idea comes from: many philosophers have defined knowledge as justified true belief (something that I previously discussed in A Note on Plantinga). I myself object to this definition, and hold, in the Scholastic tradition, that something known is not a belief, and something believed cannot be said to be known. So, as I see it, knowledge is no kind of belief at all. Nevertheless, many philosophers persist in defining knowledge as justified true belief, even though there is a problem with this definition. The problem with the definition of knowledge as justified true belief is the Gettier paradox. The Gettier paradox is the existence of counter-examples that are obviously not knowledge, but which are both true and justified.

Before this idea was called the Gettier paradox, Betrand Russell wrote about it in his book Human Knowledge. When stated in terms of “non-defeasibility conditions” and similar technical ideas, the Gettier paradox sounds rather daunting, but it is actually quite a simple idea, and one that Russell identified with simple examples:

“It is clear that knowledge is a sub-class of beliefs: every case of knowledge is a case of true belief, but not vice versa. It is very easy to give examples of true beliefs that are not knowledge. There is the man who looks at a clock which is not going, though he thinks it is, and who happens to look at it at the moment when it is right; this man acquires a true belief as to the time of day, but cannot be said to have knowledge. There is the man who believes, truly, that the last name of the Prime Minister in 1906 began with a B, but who beleives this because he thinks that Balfour was Prime Minister then, whereas in fact it was Campbell Bannerman. There is the lucky optimist who, having bought a lottery ticket, has an unshakeable conviction that he will will, and, being lucky, does win. Such instances can be multiplied indefinitely, and show that you cannot claim to have known merely because you turned out to be right.”

Bertrand Russell, Human Knowledge: Its Scope and Limits, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1964, pp. 154-155

Of Russell’s three examples, I like the first best because it so clearly delineates the idea of justified true belief that fails to qualify as knowledge. You look at a stopped clock that indicates noon, and it happens to be noon. You infer from the hands on the dial that it is noon. That inference if your justification. It is, in fact, noon, so your belief is true. But this justified true belief is based upon accident and circumstance, and we would not wish to reduce all knowledge to accident and circumstance. Russell’s last example involves an “unshakeable conviction,” that is to say, a particular state of belief (what analytical philosophers today might call a doxastic context), so it isn’t quite the pure example of justified true belief as the others.

An individual’s understanding of history is often replete with justified true beliefs that aren’t knowledge. We look at the record of the past and we think we understand, and things do seem to turn out as we expected, and yet we still do not have knowledge of the past (or of the present, much less of the future). When we read the tea leaves wrongly, we are right for the wrong reasons, and when we are right for the wrong reasons, our luck will run out, sooner rather than later.

Contemporary history — the present — is no less filled with misunderstandings when we believe that we understand what it is happening, we anticipate certain events on the basis of these beliefs, and the events that we anticipate do come to pass. This problem compounds itself, because each prediction borne out raises the confidence of the investor, who is them more likely to trust his judgments in the future. To be right for the wrong reasons is to be deceived into believing that one understands that which one does not understand, while to be wrong for the right reason is to truly understand, and to understand better than before because one’s views have been corrected and one understands both that they have been corrected and how they have been corrected. Growth of knowledge, in true Popperian fashion, comes from criticism and falsification.

This problem is particularly acute with venture capitalists. A venture capital firm early in its history makes a few good guesses and becomes magnificently wealthy. (We don’t hear about the individuals and firms that fail right off the bat, because they disappear; this is called survivorship bias.) This is the nature of venture capital; you invest in a number of enterprises expecting most to fail, but the one that succeeds succeeds so spectacularly that it more than makes up for the other failures. But the venture capital firm comes to believe that it understands the direction that the economy is headed. They no longer think of themselves as investors, but as sages. These individuals and firms come to exercise an influence over what gets funded and what does not get funded that is closely parallel to the influence that, say, Anna Wintour, has over fashion markets.

Few venture capital firms can successfully follow up on the successes that initially made them fabulously wealthy. Some begin to shift to more conservative investments, and their portfolios can look more like the sage of Omaha than a collection of risky start ups. Others continue to try to stake out risky positions, and fail almost as spectacularly as their earlier successes. The obvious example here is the firm of Kleiner Perkins.

Kleiner Perkins focused on a narrow band of technology companies at a time when tech stocks were rapidly increasing, also known as the “tech bubble.” Anyone who invested in tech stocks at this time, prior to the bubble bursting, made a lot of money. Since VC focuses on short-term start-up funding, they were especially positioned to profit from a boom that quickly spiraled upward before it crashed back down to the earth. In short — and this is something everyone should understand without difficulty — they were in the right place at the right time. After massive losses they threw a sop to their injured investors by cutting fees and tried to make it look like they were doing something constructive by restructuring their organization — also known as “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.” But they still haven’t learned their lesson, because instead of taking classic VC risks with truly new ideas, they are relying on people who “proved” themselves at the tech start-ups that they glaringly failed to fund, Facebook and Twitter. This speaks more to mortification than confidence. Closing the barn door after the horse has escaped isn’t going to help matters.

Again, this is a very simplified version of events. Actual events are much more complex. Powerful and influential individuals who anticipate events can transform that anticipation into a self-fulfilling prophecy. There are economists who have speculated that it was George Soros’ shorting of the Thai Baht that triggered the Asian financial crisis of 1997. So many people thought that Soros was right that they started selling off Thai Baht, which may have triggered the crisis. Many smaller economies now take notice when powerful investors short their currency, taking preemptive action to head off speculation turning into a stampede. Similarly, if a group of powerful and influential investors together back a new business venture, the mere fact that they are backing it may turn an enterprise that might have failed into a success. This is part of what Keynes meant when he talked about the influence of “animal spirits” on the market.

What Keynes called “animal spirits” might also be thought of as cognitive bias. I don’t think that it one can put too much emphasis on the role of cognitive bias in investment decisions, and especially in the role of the substitution heuristic when it comes to pricing risk. In Global Debt Market Roundup I noted this:

It seems that China’s transition from an export-led growth model to a consumer-led growth model based on internal markets is re-configuring the global commodities markets, as producers of raw materials and feedstocks are hit by decreased demand while manufacturers of consumer goods stand to gain. I think that this influence on global markets is greatly overstated, as China’s hunger for materials for its industry will likely decrease gradually over time (a relatively predictable risk), while the kind of financial trainwreck that comes from disregarding political and economic instability can happen very suddenly, and this is a risk that is difficult to factor in because it is almost impossible to predict. So are economists assessing the risk they know, according to what Daniel Kahneman calls a “substitution heuristic” — answering a question that they know, because the question at issue is either too difficult or intractable to calculation? I believe this to be the case.

Most stock pickers simply don’t have what it takes in order to understand the political dynamics of a large (and especially an unstable) nation-state, so instead of trying to engage in the difficult task of puzzling out the actual risk, an easier question is substituted for the difficult question that cannot be answered. And thus it is that even under political conditions in which wars, revolution, and disruptive social instability could result in an historically unprecedented loss or expropriation of wealth, investors find a way to convince themselves that it is okay to return their money to region (or to an enterprise) likely to mismanage any funds that are invested. The simpler way to put this is to observe that greed gets ahead of good sense and due diligence.

Keynes thought that the animal spirits (i.e., cognitive biases) were necessary to the market functioning. Perhaps he was right. Perhaps venture capital also can’t function without investors believing themselves to be right, and believing that they understand what is going on, when in fact they are wrong and they do not understand what is going on. But unless good sense and due diligence are allowed to supplement animal spirits, a day of reckoning will come when apparent gains unravel and some unlucky investor or investors are left holding the bag.

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

Tuesday


William Blake (28 November 1757 – 12 August 1827)

If the Sun and Moon should doubt,
They’d immediately Go out.

William Blake, Auguries of Innocence


I was thinking about confirmation bias today and what a perfect topic of study this would be for evolutionary psychology. It is one thing to get at exactly what confirmation bias is in itself, and how it functions in distorting our thinking, but it is quite another matter to get to the root of confirmation bias and understand it in an Aristotelian sense, i.e., in terms of its causes.

As soon as I started to think about confirmation bias in the context of evolutionary psychology, it immediately made sense and revealed connections to other things that I’ve thought about.

What survival benefit could possibly derive from self-deception? At first thought this seems counter-intuitive. The persistence of discredited beliefs would seem to have a negative survival value. That is to say, stubbornly persisting in believing something to be true when it is not ought to land an agent in a good deal of trouble.

Coming at this from a different perspective, however, one can easily imagine the survival value of believing in oneself. There are many situations in which the difference between believing in oneself and not believing in oneself could mean the difference between survival and death. If this is true, then confirmation bias may lead to differential survival, and differential survival is the conditio sine qua non of differential reproduction.

In the Afterword to my Political Economy of Globalization I attempted to investigate what I called the “naturalistic basis of hope.” What does this mean? Hope has traditionally been treated as one of the three “theological virtues”: faith, hope, and charity. I wanted to investigate the phenomenon of hope from a naturalistic perspective; I would like to see hope understood in a non-theological sense, i.e., as a cardinal virtue rather than a theological virtue. (I made some remarks about hope in Very Short Treatise on Hope, Perfection, Utopia, and Progress, and continued in the naturalistic project with The Structure of Hope.)

I continue to believe that this naturalistic understanding of hope is an important undertaking, but when I wrote this Afterword about the naturalistic basis of hope, I didn’t make any connection between hope and evolutionary psychology. Hope comes in many forms, and one of these forms is a hope against all rational odds that things will go well for oneself. This kind of hope is a belief in oneself that would have survival value. (There are also forms of hope that are more explicitly supernaturalistic, and which nevertheless may also have survival value.)

This not only anthropocentric but also egocentric conception of hope has obvious limitations, but it stands in relation to other forms of hope that are less anthropocentric and less egocentric. In a more general sense than a belief in oneself that might give an advantage in survival, hope is an affirmation of one’s life not only in the present moment of struggle, but also throughout the course of one’s life — past, present, and future — and, in an even larger sense, one’s life taken on the whole, must be seen in the context of one’s life in the community taken on the whole. There is a sense, then, in which an egocentric hope is an affirmation of a wider community; this sense of hope may play a role in self-sacrifice, and the role of self-sacrifice in kin selection.

To live is to engage in an existential gamble. Pascal knew this, and this is why he framed his Christian (actually, Jansenist) apologetics in terms of a wager. The existential choices that we make that shape our lives (and shape the life of the community, to the extent that we are able to use our lives to shape the larger world) are bets that we place, and, when we act, we bet that the world is one way, and not another way.

If you place your bets unwisely, and invest your existential choices in dead ends, your life is wasted for all intents and purposes. To believe this to be the case — especially with a social species whose members need each other for cooperative survival — would be debilitating. To believe that one’s life was wasted because one believed the wrong thing would constitute a kind of spiritual suicide. I can’t imagine that many persons could keep this sense of wasted effort in mind and at the same time fully invest themselves in the business of furthering personal and communal survival.

To believe in one’s existential choices is probably a condition for optimal exertion in the struggle for life. In so far as confirmation bias makes it easier to believe in the rightness and righteousness of one’s existential choices, even in the face of conflicting evidence, it would have a substantial survival value, not only for the individual, but perhaps especially in regard to kin selection.

. . . . .

Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

An unnamed principle and an unnamed fallacy

The Truncation Principle

An Illustration of the Truncation Principle

The Gangster’s Fallacy

The Prescriptive Fallacy

The fallacy of state-like expectations

The Moral Horror Fallacy

The Finality Fallacy

Fallacies: Past, Present, Future

Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology

Metaphysical Fallacies

Metaphysical Biases

Pernicious Metaphysics

Metaphysical Fallacies Again

An Inquiry into Cognitive Bias by way of Memoir

The Appeal to Embargoed Evidence

. . . . .

signature

. . . . .

Grand Strategy Annex

. . . . .

project astrolabe logo smaller

. . . . .

%d bloggers like this: