Free-Will Part 2

I have three close friends with whom I am occasionally in “debate.” Overall, they feel that the Trump Presidency is unusually and exceedingly bad. By “debate,” I mean I play devil’s advocate and they question my motives and/or get riled up.

One is ravaged by Trump’s incompetence and apparent racism. Another knows that Trump will be brought down any day now because.. Russia. (He’s believed this for a year and a half and even lost a bet with me that it would happen by 12-31-17.) The third sees the administration as the harbinger of 21st century authoritarianism. (To be fair, friend 3 is a hardcore libertarian and pulls the authoritarian alarm a lot.)

I have a kinda sorta newish perspective on free-will, which I explained in this post. I knew this perspective was related to my Trump non-stance with my friends, but I couldn’t put my finger on how or why. My perspective is that there is no free-will. More than you could ever be persuaded to believe, we spend life drifting from one manipulating stimulus to the next. I’m writing this post because I think I understand now why my perspective on free-will is related to my being underwhelmed by the Trump phenomenon (or any other president or mainstream political movement).

Chapter One: My friends don’t care as much as they say they do.

Robin Hanson and Kevin Simpler authored a new book entitled The Elephant in the Brain. Kind of like the proverbial “elephant in the room,” we are scarcely aware of our actual motives (sitting there like a giant elephant), or we pretend they’re not there. For example, we often say we went to college in noble pursuit of knowledge. Our behavior instead says we do it for the superiority and salary potential that comes with having a degree. If we really wanted to pursue only knowledge, wouldn’t it make the most sense to audit preferred classes and not worry about the degree?

Robin Hanson was recently guest to a live podcast on Waking Up with Sam Harris. An audience member asked if this means that people don’t actually care about things like climate change. Hanson responded:

You’re involved in politics not to produce outcomes but instead to show your allies that you are with them. From your personal life you have almost no personal influence on the world. You’re not going to change climate change or the outcomes, but you will change how the people around you think of you, and that matters to you. So your goal primarily is to assure people around you that you’re with them.

This is demonstrably true. Here is a discussion on the finding that behaviors like recycling and conserving energy are about recognition, not helping Earth. Similarly, think about how quickly the term SJW (social justice warrior) became a pejorative. The act of diagnosing and avenging “oppressed people” is presumed disingenuous.

Chapter two: My friends don’t know what they’re talking about and neither do I.

Let’s first talk about “fake news.” Of course, news fakeness is on a spectrum from blatant malicious fiction to well-intentioned happenstance fact selection. Facts themselves can also be framed in such a way as to persuade readers to certain conclusions. In addition to news “fakeness,” news networks and media effectively spoon-feed us the issues they want us to care about. Research supports that our perceived importance of something increases with exposure to that something (Mere Exposure Effect). We believe we are smart and independent thinkers incapable of being manipulated. The proven fallibility of the human brain suggests otherwise (check out my last post if you disagree). Of course, we can easily point out when others have been manipulated or believed “fake news” but regard ourselves as immune.

Scott Adams has a great post about the punditry problem. News networks and media feature pundits to talk about policies and why political figures did what they did. This fills airtime efficiently and brings in better ratings than reporting only what happened. Adams explains that presuming the motives of others is effectively mind-reading, and mind-reading is hallucinating.

Back to Hanson on the podcast: he pointed out that there’s this societal norm that we need to have an opinion on everything. To my delight, he even goes on to suggest something that sounds like intellectual blasphemy: only have an opinion when you’re an expert. He also advises to “try to live your life in a way where you don’t have to rely on things being true.”

Conclusion: Put this all together.

My friends, millions of others, and I are:

-Convincing ourselves that we genuinely care about issues and policies, whereas we’re actually motivated by tribalism and portraying ourselves as dutiful and keen.

-Taking persuasive interpretations of events and hallucinations of motives to be facts or truisms.

-Under the illusion that we choose which issues we care about instead of accepting that the media (in its broadest definition) feeds us issues to care about.

Thought experiment: imagine a utopian society so lovely that your current existence is tantamount to slavery by comparison. The very fact that you can imagine such a society suggests that there is something subjective or relative about how you judge your day to day existence. My day to day existence seems normalish, so I am underwhelmed by the Trump phenomenon for now.