A Valedictory for 2011

31 December 2011


It seems appropriate on this, the last day of 2011, to reflect upon the year now almost expired, even as the new year is already being celebrated in time zones in advance of my own. As a night person who is always in better spirits and more energetic very late in the day that than early in the morning, it also seems strangely appropriate that I should be near the end of the global “day,” since the date line lies west of me, out in the Pacific Ocean, and the next large landmass on the other side of the date line lies near the beginning of the global “day” — it is quite literally the Land of the Rising Sun.

It was recently reported that a couple of islands in the Pacific — Samoa and Tokelau — decided to switch to the other side of the international date line, skipping Friday altogether and advancing a day in order to align their calendars with those of their major trading partners, Australia and New Zealand. If I had been a Samoan or a Tokelauer I would have been rather irritated with the date switch, as I would have enjoyed being on the very tail end of the global day.

What is to be said of 2011? Did 2011 reveal any new truths to the world, or exhibit any coherent pattern or structure?

Just a few days ago in The Stratfor Hack I said that I had come to the realization that it is just as important to deny the existence of historical patterns that are not in fact exhibited by events as it is to bear witness to historical patterns that are in fact exhibited in events. The more I think of this, the more I think it is more important to resist the attribution of illusory and fallacious historical patterns and trends, since we as human beings are much more likely to find order where there is none that to deny apparent order where there is, in fact, order.

In Futurism without Predictions I argued for discerning patterns in history as the appropriate form of futurism, as against the attempt to make detailed predictions. This is like the difference between being a day trader in the stock market and buying stocks on the basis of research and value. In Confirmation Bias and Evolutionary Psychology I argued that the well known phenomenon of confirmation bias has a basis in our evolutionary history, since believing viscerally in what one is doing is probably a condition for optimal exertion in the struggle of life.

If we put together the critique of prediction-based futurism, the need to discern patterns in history, and the need to transcend our evolutionary predetermination to find patterns where there are none, we come to the overriding importance of not finding patterns where there are none as one of the most important intellectual exercises in the understanding of history. This strikes me as an application of Copericanism to human history: the principle of mediocrity (or the cosmological principle, if you prefer) demands that we not assume that our perspective is special. Thus to claim for any particular year, such as the year just elapsed, that it was a watershed or an historical pivot or a time a great transition is probably to delude ourselves.

And this is exactly what I see in 2011. Certainly it was a year in which much changed, but there have been at least as many historical continuities as historical discontinuities, if not more continuities. 2011 was in year in which many people suffered horrible events and terrible calamities, but it was also a year in which many of the seven billion people on the planet lived a life largely undisturbed and not greatly differentiated from the previous year. If you were to run the numbers, I suspect that you would find that those who suffered a particularly terrible fate during the year (say, for example, the victims of the combined disasters of the Sendai earthquake and the Fukushima nuclear accident) would constitute a small minority of the world’s total population. This does not mean that their suffering was insignificant, only that it did not necessarily shape world events or constitute an historical pattern.

As I see it then, 2011 was a mixed bag, and in the same spirit of historical Copernicanism, I suspect that 2012 will be a similarly mixed bag. Even as I say this I expect that numerous predictions are being made for great historical watersheds in the coming year, just as numerous retrospectives will be identifying 2011 as the the year in which the world changed entire. But one year is very much like another. Few stand out as anything especially shocking or surprising. There is nothing new under the sun.

My perspective is deflationary (in the best tradition of recent analytical philosophy) but sometimes deflationism is necessary. The alternative is to be deluded, and I prefer not to be deluded.

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H a p p y N e w Y e a r !

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Grand Strategy Annex

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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.

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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

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Grand Strategy Annex

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