Nervous States: Counterpoint

This is the second of three posts discussing William Davies’ book Nervous States–Democracy and the Decline of Reason. I pick a couple of areas to argue with some of the scenarios Davies presents.

Markets and Evolution

Davies discusses Hayek as the guy who believes in free markets above all else, and who has helped us reach this point of not agreeing on reality.  When I read Hayek (The Road to Serfdom), he said to me that free markets with the right stable rules in place are the best system for everyone. Unfortunately, determining the right stable rules is difficult and the job of government.  Hayek seems to have taken Adam Smith’s invisible hand and run with it. David Sloan Wilson in This View of Life- Completing the Darwinian Revolution makes clear that the invisible hand only works at one scale of a market (see posts Evolution for Everyone and Multilevel Selection Theory).

Change the scale of selection and you need new rules. This is more or less the concept of externalities. If some things are not baked into the market, say air quality, there is going to be more air pollution than is optimal for the society. To some extent we are experiencing a change of scale without the rules with Google, Facebook, etc, yet.

Davies seems to go along with the idea that evolution is the ultimate marketplace, and worse yet that those most successful in the marketplace must somehow have evolved as the fittest. Evolution generally takes time in sorting  out our fitness. There is not nearly enough credit given to luck for those most successful in the markets. We should also keep in mind that now extinct species were once the fittest. Evolution has dead ends. At the market scale of the galaxy, the black hole ignores evolution.

Jared Diamond in The Third Chimpanzee, 1992, p 98.

In short, we evolved, like other animals, to win at the contest of leaving as many descendants as possible.  Much of the legacy of that game strategy is still with us. But we have also chosen to pursue ethical goals, which can conflict with the goals and methods of our reproductive contest. Having that choice among goals represents one of our most radical departures from other animals.

Diamond (see post Jared Diamond and Decision Making) has also made the point  that natural selection is relative. Religions do not survive because they are the most moral. (The World Until Yesterday-What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies, 2012. page 363)

 In Wilson’s words, “Even massively fictitious beliefs can be adaptive, as long as they motivate behaviors that are adaptive in the real world. Factual knowledge is not always sufficient by itself to motivate an adaptive behavior. At times a symbolic belief system that departs from factual reality fares better.” … As Wilson writes, “Whenever I strike up a conversation about religion, I am likely to receive a litany of evils perpetrated in God’s name. In most cases, these are horrors committed by religious groups against other groups. How can I call religion adaptive in the face of such evidence? The answer is ‘easily’, as long as we understand fitness in relative terms.  It is important to stress that a behavior can be explained from an evolutionary perspective without being morally condoned.

If humans are exceptional, it is based on our morality and reason.

Knowledge Devalued

Davies believes that:  “Once our thoughts and words are reconceived as physical activities their “objective” perspective becomes less credible. If thinking is physical, how can it be isolated from feelings and intentions. The expert claim to be able to separate feelings from knowledge becomes impossible to sustain.”  This does not square with simple examples of daily life. Weathermen are experts. They are not always right and with adequate training and access to information many of us could be adequate weathermen. If we are to make the best decisions for the health and safety of humans, we need a common reality and the National Weather Service provides that. A market cannot do that except in limited situations.

Andy Clark (see post Prediction Machine) and his idea that we are prediction machines agrees that thinking is physical, but it expands the brain to the mind to our entire physical being. This seems more objective as it suggests that our predictions are based on our particular senses and the evolutionary success of the entire package. Davies almost agrees that there can be a post-knowledge world where only feelings matter. The prediction machine debunks the idea that the brain is somehow separable from the rest of us.

The post Political Decision Making: diversity or systematic error  is relevant today. Diversity makes better decisions. Experts can add to a common reality that helps a diverse society make better decisions. Visionaries are just people who get lucky. Markets give good results only with good rules.