#52 On reasons for selection

Dear Jamie

Damn it man all I wanted was an exact explanation of the hierarchy of value boiled down into a sentence or two. What good are you?

I’d like to sully your thinking by forcing it into categories. Here’s what I have. It seems like there are four reasons to explain why a work has currency now. Firstly, what’s said and/or what’s interpreted has survived repeated criticism in a culture that applies it (hopefully rational criticism). Secondly, what’s said and what’s interpreted may have a survival value in the real world. Thirdly, the piece might merely exist based on some fluke historical contingency. Fourthly, what’s said and what’s interpreted may have some fleeting trendiness and people get carried away.

To lay this over some of our recent reading list, Deutsch thinks the first is paramount, Taleb and Peterson think only the second is rational. Dennet and Dawkins think the third make up a healthy proportion while Taleb and Peterson require that these things be an ignorable minority. They all hate the fourth category, dismissed as dangerous false positives. Everyone agrees these first two are crucial and the second two distractions.

The four kinds can all be the case at once and add up. A fluke argument that survives rational criticism, just happens to satisfies everyone’s taste and ends up legitimately improving our lot would be the easiest thing to swallowed.

Skipping to the fourth, time naturally and unrelentingly erodes that kind of fame. Which is good. But it’s also the ever-present Achilles heel of the progressive mind. Cutting-edge ideas for how the world works are much more likely to be of the fourth kind than the first or second. There is a symmetry, conservatives run the risk of conserving suboptimal contingencies.

The idea of rational criticism is obviously inspired by Popper but the institutes or culture that apply these rules will approach the truth of the matter if they remain faithful to the rules. But what are the rules? Ah what indeed. The rules themselves are merely ideas that can be written into texts and criticised themselves. There’s a weird downward bootstrap going on where the truth gets iterated so long as new ideas are criticised with correct rules, which themselves are ideas that are criticised by other ideas. It’s messy but other ideas we invented like self-consistency and manifest reliability seem to be getting us somewhere. I take all that to mean that there is an objective quality and truth to works and that continued study of the right kind will get us there.*

The second and the third categories are complementary. I’ll make the assumption that what isn’t leveraging the real world for a survival effect is mere historical contingency. We then need to draw some line. Is the choice of the current most prominent religion just because of a few fluke conversions? Possibly. Or did one religion contain more invisible lever points on repeatable truths than the other? When it comes to natural selection of animals we admit there is room for freak mistakes but that the timescales are so long that evolution bends toward real exploitable regularities. To call back to our earlier letters, does the West contain more lever points on truths than other societies?

Another way to think about it is how well things fit their niche. Do they cram into their niche with bits jutting out thanks to unproductive historical contingencies (Dennet and Dawkins)? Or do they flow snug into their niches more like water leaving almost no gaps (Taleb and Peterson)? I originally believed the evolutionists on this but there’s a asymmetric effect at work that leads me to the latter camp. The vast majority of scientific findings are realisations of utility in parts of living things that we originally thought were superfluous or contingent. The reverse, realising that certain animal traits thought to have practical value are actually useless, almost never happens.**

In the animal kingdom the idea of animals caring for other animals looked like a self-destructive policy, probably a dumb contingent legacy. That is until the discovery of inclusive fitness showed us we were the ignorant ones all along. There is an infinity of knowledge out there for us to collect, which from another vantage is an infinity of ignorance that veils us right now. If ever we are arrogant enough to judge a consistently selected work as lacking, the flaws are more likely to be in our rules of judgement rather than in its well-worn pages.


PS I unflinchingly moved from biological evolution to memetic in the last paragraph because Dennet does it and for that reason I reckon it’s safe.

* Us as in humans, not us like me and you. God no.
** I felt I had to say “almost” here, but I don’t know of a single example of this happening. While pretty much every single scientific finding in biology ever is just a realisation or discovery of some long-exploited functionality of a species.

Also published on Medium.