[FRIAM] All hail confirmation bias!

David Eric Smith desmith at santafe.edu
Tue Jul 30 05:37:12 EDT 2019

Hi Steve,

I agree with what you say below, and had a similar reaction to reading Ortega.  From today’s perspective and my own scientific experience set, it would rarely seem natural to me to think of a complex human function as a novel and irreducible thing.  We can see so many areas of cognition develop as accretions along the sequence versebrate/mammal/primate/human, with sometimes re-organizations at various partitionings.  Also as you say, if we didn’t want to somehow bound the problem at things that are cognitive in the fast/neurological sense, the nesting of response phenomena could be pushed almost arbitrarily far back.

Glen’s ponts about the many problems of my ad hoc “painted window” metaphor are also points I entirely agree with.  As someone who likes and frequently recommends the Conant and Ashby control-theorist’s way of talking about implicit models in control loops, I very much like the project of understanding how much freedom there is for model representations.

If Ortega had been writing today rather than in the early decades of the 20th century, and if he had been a professional cognitive scientist at least in greater admixture with being a political philosopher and (maybe somewhat) historian, I wonder in how far he would have needed a different argument structure.  He seems to me clearly an advocate of reason, so I don’t think he would have rejected any of these things that we now know.

At the same time, any time I pick up a a new person and try to listen to him, I am aware that all good writing is done to a purpose, and the need to be finite (preferably short) makes all such constructions unsatisfactory in important ways.  To other purposes, a writer of the same logical style as Ortega may (probably would) not have wanted to draw a dividing line between man:builder-of-stories and the rest of the animals. I assume Ortega’s purpose is to get somewhere near the center of a characterization that makes self-destructive and world-destructive behavior comprehensible and thus something we can try to find ways to deal with.  The characterization of such behavior as “irrational”, while always available based on what one chooses to cast as rationality, may not be particularly helpful in finding remedies.  That frame is closer to the common-behavior way we always wrap a narrative around conflicts, lecturing (in our own minds) the people we are in conflict with about why what they are doing is bad and we would never want to do that, and don’t want them to do it.  One can say “good people should try to be rational; you are being irrational and I don’t see how any person could be good and could choose to behave as you are”.  Well, okay, but then what?  I assume Ortega is trying to put forward a frame that offers a “then what”.  From my short reading of commentary, I think he has a whole philosophy around these things, which is developed across several books.  But I am hopelessly far from following up the rest of it.

Take care,


> On Jul 29, 2019, at 12:56 PM, Steven A Smith <sasmyth at swcp.com> wrote:
> Eric -
> Great weigh-in as usual!
>> Since in every “now” there is a need to navigate some choice of what
>> to do, and since the experience of each now is constantly being
>> superseded by the following now, the need to be constantly
>> constructing an experiential edifice is the relentless driver of human
>> nature and behavior.  The awareness that there is such an edifice, and
>> that it is something constructed, seems very close to Husserl’s
>> arguments that (in my language) we think of experience as a
>> transparent window through which we passively receive a reality, but
>> it is more like a painted surface on which we are constructing things
>> we believe to be co-registered with something outside the window.  The
>> assertion that we can only look at our own painting, and that it is
>> our nature to be unable to see it as our own painting, because to
>> function we need to use it as a transparent thing seen “through”, are
>> I think Husserl’s conception of what “experience” (or Experience) is
>> distinct from some list of “propositions that are true”.  These
>> frameworks of experience, as a system from which one can extract
>> choices, seem to be what Ortega is calling “the World” for each of us,
>> or in a zeitgeist carried by a generation.
> I appreciate the subtlety and thoroughness of this description but want
> to seek some parallax between the experience of "homo sapiens" and any
> other perceiving consciousness.   I do believe that humans (and perhaps
> other species like cetaceans and elephants and apes) have a significant
> self-awareness *capability* which helps us stand somewhat apart from the
> other creatures (including plants, micorbiota, etc.).   We *can* know
> something of *how we think we know what we know* and even have a sense
> of *knowing that there are things we don't know* up to and including the
> stunning incompleteness of formal systems as exposed by Kurt Godel.
> Life itself (consciousness) seems to be a self-organized collection of
> coherence-maintaining, gradient-seeking self-perpetuating subunits.  
> Each subunit (whether it be individual organism, colony, tribe, culture,
> species, etc.) seems to have as it's main (only?) tactic a skill at
> predicting it's environment as a phase space of relevant qualities...
> sense organs, hormonal/endocrinal systems, appetites, desires, hopes,
> fears, dreams, stories, disciplines of knowledge, religions, all seem to
> be artifacts contrived to support effective prediction of the subunits
> trajectory.    To the extent that the only sure thing (besides taxes) in
> life is death, all these trajectories ultimately terminate in the
> decoherence of the individual, whether that be you or me, the mosquito I
> just smooshed on my arm, the multi-element organism that is the aspen
> grove on the side of the mountain or the Roman (or US) Empire, the
> project is a failure.  On the other hand, these multiple trajectories
> are perhaps illusory (at least in their distinctness) and join together
> in a piecewise plurality of trajectories...  which when admitting the
> smallest/simplest (dancing quarks?) to the largest, most complex
> (supergalactic clusters?) into this description, becomes "the World". 
> Yet each subsystem with a "map of the world" embedded in itself (e.g.
> somewhere among the state-space of the 302 nerve-cell system of C.
> Elegans or the ~40,000 cells dancing biochemically within a tardigrade).  
> We watch other species make what appear to be devastatingly bad
> decisions for themselves (as individuals or groups... like lemmings, or
> suicidal drone-bees, or beaching pilot whale pods) but with enough
> introspection and study can usually discover how these "bad decisions"
> are "adaptive" at *some level*.  
> Of course "we humans" seem more psychotic than most with our incessant
> warfare and polluting/collapsing our local (now unto global) ecosystems,
> etc.  To whatever extent we are "the first of our kind" it seems very
> optimistic to imagine that we are likely to "get it right" the first
> time.   How many "living fossils" were "the first of their kind"?   Were
> they more likely all but a fluke side-shoot of a "good idea turned bad"
> which happened to find/maintain a niche for itself in the larger milieu?
>>  I find the discussion interesting because I see it as an effort to
>> give a concept decomposition to dimensions of cognition or awareness.
>>  Even If being unaware of Experience in this sense is not an important
>> source of error, we seem to have little concept system to discuss
>> empirically what the aware state “is”, and I wonder if the thing
>> Husserl and Ortega are after goes part of the way to supplying one
>> relevant such concept.
> Very fascinatingly packed set of observations... I hope there is more
> conversation here to try to help me unpack it more.
> - Steve
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