#56 On systems and their yardsticks

Dear Jamie,

I love snide but every part of your second paragraph tells me you didn’t understand my last letter at all. But the gut/unconscious is a good topic. The politics thread is getting stale.

We’re about to go on an Amazing Race of sorts, a race into the meta. I said that there are lots of ways that we understand ourselves to be wrong (congnitive biases, etc). You went meta and said that even knowing those limitations is evidence that our brain is uniquely suited for knowing things. Fair enough but you can’t stop there if you want to be serious about true knowledge. One more level my friend, take my hand. How the brain and world actually works is independent of our conscious knowledge about it. And that especially applies to brain science.

Our brains and gut function in a way we don’t understand. The brain and gut were the same when our theories of the brain and gut were different 20 years ago. The brain and gut were the same before we even had science to question how they worked. And critically, the brain and gut will be the same in 20 years’ time, when all our theories about them will be refreshed in a new set of pop science books. I know you know this but I don’t think you’re taking this seriously.

Through every twist, dead end and flash of insight science has achieved the rational mind kept thinking and the subconscious kept intuiting. System II has made real knowledge gains, despite it spending a lot of time spinning its wheels and going in the wrong direction. It’s most bountiful yield has been into how rational thought itself should work. And that makes sense. We’ve honed rules of logic and rationality that are very close to reality. And it’s quite clear system II is at its best when it follows these rules.

In contrast the subconscious can do no serious thinking, but it’s not supposed to. Shall we also criticise it because it’s not capable of digesting food? The conscious is an organ for rational thought, the subconscious is an organ for intuitive thought. The subconscious does its thing, we don’t know what that thing is. It’s not thinking that’s for sure. And applying logic as a yardstick is not an indictment of system I, it’s an indictment of the otherwise rational measurer insisting on using the wrong tool.

The subconscious clearly has a ton of hard-won knowledge that our conscious is no-where near grasping.* Just how does it beat the heart 100,000,000 times without fail and under unpredictable stressors? How does it do this and simultaneously control breaths with a similar unrelenting frequency? How does it attract you to a healthy compatible combination of genes in your potential mate without a genetic test? How does it track hundreds of relationships, multi-dimensional hierarchies and intuit social queues? It’s truly mind boggling. Rational theories stretch thin over these systems, they easily tear – simply not up to the task. And system II, failing to understand it, has the nerve to dismiss it as illogical and intervene on the basis of one of its soggy hypotheses?

While we argue and hypothesise it chugs away successfully exploiting real knowledge of complex systems with infinite variables.

Not only has the subconscious honed survival knowledge over the eons, it’s capable of new knowledge too. From a logic point of view that must be true, otherwise how did the existing knowledge get there in the first place? That specific process is probably tectonically slow. But even in our day to day the subconscious contributes to thinking. It clearly has a major role to play in creativity, a critical factor of system II knowledge generation.

You and I are compelled by Deutsch’s optimism to say that anything that isn’t physically impossible is possible given requisite knowledge. So it’s foreseeable in the future we would have the explicit knowledge to make a rational, system II, conscious intervention in heart beating, breathing, hierarchies or even society itself strategically better. Earlier I said intelligent intervention will make it worse, but I do believe that it is possible to make it better. There’s a paradox here I couldn’t shake for a while.

But I recently thought up an obvious answer: Just because it’s possible to rationally solve every problem, doesn’t mean we have the means to rationally solve every problem right now. Last time you visited Canberra I asked under what circumstances would you have your genes engineered by a hospital. You, having just had an organ unnecessarily removed, had the rather question-begging answer “when we know how to do it properly”.

The new (< 10,000 year old) problems you worry about are complex. We should keep pushing system II as hard as possible to understand them, but if we want to survive, I suggest taking system I seriously.


Also published on Medium.