Thursday, October 21, 2010

How My Current Journey Began

Below I repost my very first blog post from over a year ago, which I pulled down when I repurposed and relaunched the blog to focus primarily on economic issues.

When I started out back in late 2008/early 2009, the economy was not even on my mind.  I was looking to escape the corporate world, and to accomplish this I was developing a new business model more consistent with what I want to accomplish in life.  (In one of his videos, Damon Vrabel talks about how corporate execs are trained to think of sabbatticals as the time you spend thinking about what you're going to do next to make money; that's where I was at the time, on sabbatical thinking about my next gig.)  I have not given up on this idea, but I view the approach as an adjunct to more important things to do.

Useful Fictions: On the Models That We Use to Interpret Our World
One of the primary goals of my side project (hereafter, simply “the Project”) is to use entertainment to encourage critical thinking and meaningful discourse by the audience. I say “encourage” because (1) not all human beings are predisposed and/or interested in engaging such thinking and (2) if you are too aggressive, it will stop looking like entertainment and starts looking like a sermon. Since my focus is to promote a process and not any particular outcome of that process, seeming “preachy” would entirely defeat my purpose.

As I will detail in future posts, there are multiple obstacles to achieving this particular goal, but the most imposing is what I have come to call “Useful Fictions,” which are the models of the world that we have developed and/or adopted to help us make sense of the world. All of us rely on such models, although the vast majority of us are not conscious of that fact. Many have recently commented on this phenomenon (although not using the “Useful Fiction” label), including Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan (2007), Michael Philips in The Undercover Philosopher (2008), Jonah Lehrer in How We Decide (2009) and George Cooper in The Origins of Financial Crises (2008). Most of the commentary is phrased in psychological terms as most of the research into the phenomenon has been conducted by psychologists and cognitive scientists. I prefer my construct because it is free of any judgment of the rationality of human beings. Besides, I came up with it before discovering the work in the area, and it is more consistent with the goals of the Project.

What makes Useful Fictions such a thorny problem is that our widespread and unrecognized reliance on them prevents critical thinking from the get-go. Most of us are far more interested in confirming what we think we already know—our models of life, if you will—than we are interested in questioning it. And with the explosion in the availability of information (both processed and unprocessed), much of it seemingly contradictory, Useful Fictions become even more important for many of us to help us make it through the day. Indeed, I blame the amazing advances in information technology as the primary driver behind the rise of religious fundamentalism around the world and the “conservative” movement in the U.S., two examples of people running towards unswerving certainty in the face of uncertain times.

Like any model, every Useful Fiction is subject to boundary conditions beyond which the assumptions of the model break down. Unfortunately, because we are (1) largely unaware that we rely on Useful Fictions and (2) we intuitively seek to confirm our Useful Fictions, we are completely oblivious to when our Useful Fictions become non-functional, which at best makes our Useful Fictions useless and at worst makes them harmful. Taleb’s “Black Swans” often arise because commonly-held Useful Fictions break down.

So, if your goal is to encourage critical thinking, how do you successfully get past Useful Fictions when they exist precisely to avoid the need to engage in critical thinking? Frankly, I don’t have a complete answer just yet. I do believe that fiction has to be the avenue for accomplishing this goal because people process fiction differently than facts, they’re more likely to take it at face value than spin it to match their expectations.

It is ironic that human beings tend to be more accepting of fiction than we are of facts, but that’s the case. For proof, you need look no further than the impact of The Da Vinci Code on Christianity generally and Catholicism specifically. That work of fiction (which I thought was pretty horribly written), had more impact on some people's faith than the rise of Dawkins et al.'s neo-atheist movement ever will. Why? Because fiction invites the willing suspension of disbelief but does not challenge the beliefs you already hold, so no defenses are raised in response. Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged is an example of how fiction can be purposefully used to advance an ideology. I think that both Dan Brown and Ayn Rand were dishonest in their approach-- Brown because he presented fiction as if it were fact; Rand because she disguised her philosophy as fiction. I don't want people to change their minds but rather open them.