Worldview War of Words
We are in the midst of a worldview war. Trump’s election was a successful campaign in this war. Many are trying to figure out the bases of this conflict, the psychology of the opposing armies, and the goals and tactics of each side. Everyone, it seems, has a theory. I’m no different, finding myself curious as to pump and grind of emotions and intellect flowing through the collective hive mind. It makes my head hurt to think about the mess we find ourselves in and curious absence of any reasonable plan to escape the impending crash.
I don’t have the answers. No one does. But I have some thoughts to share as our aircraft is losing altitude and the fasten-seat belt sign is turned on.
We all have a worldview. It is our operating system that quietly runs in the background. We call this inaccessible area The Unconscious. It seems to belong to us. Others around us, friends and family and colleagues all have one that is mostly like our own. We are comfortable around them. Often they think like us.
But what is really going on in the unconscious? Freud had ideas. So do others. The reality is what goes on in the unconscious is a subject of much speculation. We don’t really know. But we have our favorite theories and assumptions. Our reality is we live in a kind of prison which excludes us from the main grounds called the unconscious. By definition, if we could open that mental oyster, it would no longer a mystery. We secretly believe our little oyster is filled with a string of sacred pearls. Everyone else is either a pearl wearer like us or one of those heretics who believes that science demystifies pearls by reducing them to a tiny piece of sand. Nothing special. All is explained, described and understood as part of a natural process. Where’s the beauty, the magic, the mystery in an academic explanation?
Our pearls are cultured. Our societies, rulers, leaders, teachers, preachers, celebrities all work that piece of sand until it is a smooth, white, glorious object reflecting the colors of the rainbow. Our worldview, once in place, is less a necklace than leg shackles and chains we drag behind us as we examine the world around us. We don’t process these restraints as a kind of prison like experience. The beauty of the best run prisons is they seem free, open and friendly. Until you try to saw through the shackles.
Shifting a medieval metaphor for a modern one is the way intellectuals travel down roads that promise a destination where understanding waits. From shackles to operating systems is the path we’ve been on for centuries.
Everyone has an operating system that runs their personal worldview. That operating system has been encoded to describe, identify, understand, and react to others and objects encountered in everyday life. It’s not optional; the system of comprehension and coherence depends on a worldview to run checks on what our perceptional sensory inputs feed into our mental network. Evolution equipped us with the basic operating system to survive and reproduce. The rest is built on top like the cone of a volcano. Smoke is pouring our of our volcanoes. I wake up each morning and check feeds to see if the big explosion has happened overnight.
If you’ve not read this essay by George Lakoff, I’d recommend you’d have a look. The idea of framing ‘values’ to fit the worldview of others is an interesting idea. Lakoff believes that progressives have lost the battle with conservatives because the latter have avoided wonk-like framing their position in terms of facts and policy specifics when what moves the listener is in flavor of ‘values’ that progressives believe in.
Philosophy, psychology, history, neuroscience, and linguistics are networked in ways we are just beginning to understand. The passport between them is often a metaphor, and any time a writer uses a metaphor, it is a clue that he/she has only an indirect way of expressing a complicated idea in one domain and importing it into another.
We struggle within the cognitive limitations of a finite brain capacity, faulty operating system that is difficult to upgrade in order to run new information programs, and we are loaded with heuristics that are crude hammers our Bronze Age brains use to pound the dents out of reality. We are using our brains in ways that exceed the evolutionary requirements of survival and reproduction.
The battle over the nature and meaning of knowledge is closely linked historically with one’s worldview of moral authority. Until the enlightenment, moral authority resided exclusively in a king, warlord, religious head. Codes, morals, values, and knowledge were a royal or religious cartel. Like all cartel bosses, anyone with ideas, theories or knowledge that challenged their authority and dogma was burnt at the stake.
It has only been 500 years (we are 200,000 years old as a species) since science derived an alternative system upon which to found knowledge, to describe and understand reality. This has been a huge revolution. It overthrew the moral authority cartel’s position in establishing and enforcing an absolute, unchanging worldview. We are now in the midst of a pushback against a scientific process of assessing facts, establishing bodies of knowledge based on evidence, observation and testing. We’ve dethroned the dogmatic moral authority in the West. Nothing in modern science could have been achieved otherwise. The written history of this progress as early scientists were dragged through the Inquisition and torture chambers is the history of how science became accepted as an alternative to processing of reality. This new approach to thinking gave birth to a new mental operating system. One that gradually showed an incredibly powerful ability to challenge and replace the old order. Those with a vested interest, meaning those previous social, religious and political elites were wrong footed by science. If these forces allowed themselves to be reshaped politically socially and economically by science, it would be the end of them. It is a myth to believe that two operating systems can run a social, political and economic system as a kind of joint venture.
A violent reaction in Turkey at a bookstore highlights the emotions involved.
Progressives feel that battle was long ago won. But it wasn’t won. It is being waged in America, the Middle East, Asia and Europe.
Progressives underestimated the vast numbers of people who were willing to support regressive moral authority cartels. They pedal their dogma to the masses who find the strong, decisive leader who promises moral certainty a source of comfort and security. Science has always been the domain for those who have a high tolerance for intellectual discomfort, accept uncertainty as normal, and knowledge as tentative until a better description or definition is discovered. No one has the moral authority in this system to throw out contrary facts. The war that has ignited is a cognitive and emotional battle. The progressives march into conflict armed with heavy weight cognitive weapons such as big data, equations, computers, prediction models and probability estimates to predict the future course of events. The regressive types march to an emotional tune sung by a strongman who promises to rid them of the fear and confusion of the progressives. Our vast unconscious loves that melody. It is irresistible as it engages feelings that are embedded deeply in our core operating system and to which our analytical facilities cannot easily influence.
The nature of the problem in this conflict is nature of spoken and written language. We experience life through our sensory perceptions which act as tripwires for our emotions. Language is the secondary filter (after emotions prime us to narrate a response) to describe what we perceive, what it means, its purpose and utility. Our language has a surface universality in the words and phrases that are communicated within and between communities. A central problem is the imperfection and limitations of language. Words are ladders that never gets us over the wall of our emotions. Words are a small step ladder pushed against the side of a mountain. John Paulos’ classic book titled Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy Its Consequences made popular the phrase innumeracy to describe people who have little to no mathematical language skill or facility in which to navigate through life. Professor Paulos also shows the cost exacted on people who suffer from such illiteracy. The language of science is mathematics. The equations are symbolic representations that are tested against the reality they propose. Illiteracy is a cognitive handicap that stunts understanding about the world. Either the observations and testing confirm the equation or they fail. Einstein’s theory of Special Relativity and General Relativity had testable mathematical equations that have been confirmed by observation.
After Einstein’s 1915 General Relativity was proposed, a hundred scientists wrote papers claiming it was wrong. When Einstein was asked about the 100-fold challenge, he replied, that a hundred papers was overkill, as only one scientific paper with an alternative theory that was confirmed by observation was enough.
The standard model describes the composition of reality. This is a mathematical description and it has been observed and tested. Perhaps down the road, new observations and testing will overturn part or all of the standard model. But one thing is for certain—no authority figure in science will throw a scientist in prison for launching an attack with new equations. What can and can’t be done is the realm of mathematical description in thermodynamics. In the classical world, all our observations and testing support the current theories of thermodynamics and the underlying math. It is worth noting that those with differing social, religious, political and economic worldview never extend their dogmas into the world of mathematics. Fundamentalist don’t have an alternative mathematical model describing the reality of events and behavior in the universe or for thermodynamics. The absolutist vocabulary of words doesn’t extend itself into the mathematical realm nor do they have an alternative theory for the atom, fusion, or time dilation. Dogma based on words to support emotional reactions breaks down and collapses when it challenges science. Its arguments can only be sustained by threats and violence.
If science wants to expand its operating system, it also needs self-examination. In 500 years it has not won the cognitive battle with its mathematics and beautiful equations. Lakoff is right. Until the scientific operating system can engage the emotional needs of most people, it will remain a small elite group of cognitive workers who are belittled and despised by those running to seek shelter with traditional strong, decisive leaders who understand how they feel – and show it in a way they can connect with.
The future growth in cognitive science is likely to be the writing of emotional algorithms. Our desires, hopes, and feelings are the words we use to describe the firing of chemical electrical patterns occurring in the brain as input is processed. Once a mathematical solution to manipulating these patterns are discovered, science may gain control over the riddle of our emotional states. Advances in writing algorithms are are showing promise in matching music to control emotional states. This is a development worth watching. The Mozart in the Machine looks at the future possibility of biometric data and AI to decode our emotions.
We need our best cognitive workers to produce a new generation of algorithms dealing with the negative aspects of anger, another for fear, and yet others for the tidal high wave emotions that roil the populace. Such algorithms might not take us to the stars, but they might save us all from being swamped by the emotional tsunami headed our way. The operating system has to fit the platform it works on. We have two divergent operating systems in competition and neither one is processing effectively at the main street level right now.