Inter-Subjective Linking - Tying Star Wars, Marvel, Sports Rankings, Democracy, and Marriage Norms Together - Yuval Noah Harari - Joe Abittan - Sapiens

Inter-Subjective Linking

In my own mind I like to play out lots of fictional scenarios before I go to bed. If I have recently watched a Marvel movie, then I might be teaming up with Iron Man or Captain America in my own superhero story while I brush my teeth. If I was listening to a Star Wars audio book, then I might be engaged in a space battle while my day winds down. Since I was a kid I have had my own running fantasies with me as a main character in some of the science fiction stories I like the most. In my own mind, these stories are as real as the stories that appear on the big screen.
 
 
My individual stories, something the nerd community might call my own “head canon,” are subjective. They exist only within my own consciousness, and as a result I can change them or abandon them and they will no longer exist. They are subjective to my own individual consciousness, not dependent on the subjective consciousness of others and if I want I can completely ignore the rest of the world or certain aspects of the larger story.
 
 
Contrasting my individual fictions are the larger narratives that I engage with in my mind. The stories that make it on the big screen, onto a streaming platform, or into official books are inter-subjective. In the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari describes the existence of the inter-subjective by writing, “the inter-subjective is something that exists within the communication network linking the subjective consciousness of many individuals.” Iron Man has died in the current Marvel story line, and his death is now part of the inter-subjective communication network linking all the fans of the Marvel movies. In my own mind Iron Man might come back to life, but my individual consciousness doesn’t change the larger story which is inter-subjectively linked.
 
 
Outside the world of science fiction, inter-subjective linking is an important part of human societies. We see it in sports rankings, political organization, and marriage and family norms. We debate which sports team is better and have our individual opinions about who is a great player and what teams are the best. We can individually believe that our team will win the championship, should be ranked #1 in the country, or got screwed out of the playoffs without our subjective beliefs influencing how the sports season actually plays out. We can also have inter-subjective beliefs about sports that drive the narratives around the season and can lead to coaches being fired, players being traded, and coordinated booing at bad officiating calls.
 
 
Within politics and marriage and family norms we can have our individual beliefs, such as beliefs that one political system would be better than another, beliefs that polygamy is better than monogamy, or that kids need to leave the house at 18. There is nothing that makes representative democracies inherently better than divine monarchies, nothing that makes monogamous relationships inherently better than polygamous relationships, and no reason kids should be afforded the option to live at home after they turn 18. In each of these areas our inter-subjective beliefs have come to shape the way we understand the world, our relationships to others within the world, and our subsequent beliefs about how the world should ultimately be ordered. Representative democracies fit with other inter-subjective beliefs which have come to discredit divine monarchies. Monogamous relationships have certain advantages in helping ensure more men find romantic and life partners which blends with other inter-subjective beliefs that form the backbone of modern stable societies. The idea that one becomes and adult and full citizen at 18 and not 17, 19, or 21 is also an inter-subjective belief that we support together. It makes no difference if I decide that a young man is an adult at age 17 rather than 18. Inter-subjectively, our culture has agreed that full citizenship begins at 18.
 
 
Thinking about the relationship between the subjective and inter-subjective is helpful for understanding the world. It is helpful to see that our individual beliefs are often little more than our own twist on a fictional story. It is helpful to see that larger institutions and structures in our worlds are based on little more than shared fictions. Recognizing this dynamic can change the way we interpret and approach debates and arguments about topics for how we all should live and coordinate our lives together.
Political Myths

Political Myths

Throughout the book Sapiens Yuval Noah Harari argues that modern humans are able to cooperate and live in large societies because we share common myths. There are certain institutions which we have developed based on little more than myths that smooth our interactions with others, allow us to follow basic norms, and create a shared understanding of the world. This allows us to buy food from people we have never met, to bestow authority on others, and to coordinate movements over vast distances. But at the heart of our system is myth.
 
 
Harari demonstrates this through the political thought of the United States, specifically looking at the founding texts of the United States, such as the Declaration of Independence. Harari compares the founding principals of the United States to the principals of Hammurabi, an early human political leader thousands of years before the United States existed. Demonstrating political myths and their roles in unifying people and creating institutions within society, Harari writes:
 
 
“Hammurabi and the American Founding Fathers alike imagined a reality governed by universal and immutable principles of justice, such as equality or hierarchy. Yet the only place where such universal principals exist is in the fertile imagination of Sapiens, and in the myths they invent and tell one another. These principles have no objective validity.”
 
 
Ideas of divine leadership, equality among all humans, human rights, or reciprocal punishment, are little more than myth. To be clear, these ideas are incredibly useful political myths, and when everyone agrees and accepts these myths a society can function well. But nevertheless, each of these ideas can be demonstrated to be an inadequate way of understanding the universe given various situations. They are not inherently and objectively accurate and correct ways to understand humans and the world we occupy, but they can be incredibly useful ways of organizing ourselves for cooperation and peaceful living within large societies. Harari continues, “It is easy for us to accept that the division of people into superiors and commoners is a figment of the imagination. Yet the idea that all humans are equal is also a myth.”
 
 
Within the United States we have superiors and commoners, but we call them by different names. Business owners, managers, and landlords all fit into a category of superiors with authority over other people. We have specifically written down the ways in which they can and cannot exercise that authority, but they clearly exist within a hierarchy. We strive for a level of political equality among all people, where the law applies equally regardless of ones authority or status as a superior, but we all know that we don’t manage this process perfectly. We believe we are all equal and that one person is not more valuable or inherently better than another, but we can demonstrate that not all people are equal. For example, I don’t have a learning disability and I excelled in school, while others have dyslexia and struggled in school. I was born to a solidly middle class family which offered me a safe and enjoyable childhood, while others grew up in poverty stricken homes and others still grew up in incredibly luxurious homes that provided a great deal of opportunities for future economic success. Clearly there is no real equality either biologically or socially within our society.
 
 
What I am not trying to do with this post, and what I don’t believe Harari is trying to do in his book, is to argue that myths are bad. Instead, I am trying to demonstrate that many of the things we believe and hold as obviously or intuitively accurate, is little more than happenstance. Some ways of living and being are excellent for the current time and place, while others have been excellent in the past or will be more advantageous in the future. It is important that we recognize how much of our lives is driven by myth, so that we can adapt and be flexible where needed in how we understand and approach the world. It is easier to believe that our myths reflect an inherent reality about the universe so that we don’t have to question our beliefs, but that would be incorrect and could lead us to make essentially tyrannical decisions that belie the actual reality of the universe. We can use myths to cooperate and function in a society, but those same myths can be abused when believed too strongly or in the wrong scenarios.
Shepherds

Shepherds

“It was no accident that kings and prophets styled themselves as shepherds and likened the way they and the gods cared for their people to a shepherd’s care for his flock,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens.
 
 
I don’t like bucolic narratives and I don’t like the way that we equate people we don’t like with sheep in modern American political discussions. Bucolic romanticism requires a reductionist way of looking at history, and equating people to sheep is reductionist way of viewing anyone we disagree with and dislike. As Harari’s quote to open this post shows, both styles of rhetoric are much older than their current usage in modern American politics.
 
 
What Harari is saying in the paragraph that the opening quote came from is that some agrarian societies and ancient (and not too ancient) human civilizations treated their domesticated animals very well. Sheep were well cared for, in order to get the most wool possible from them. War horses and workhorses were well cared for, again for the benefit of humans. And even today we pamper our pets as if they were our children. The narrative of the shepherd comes from the care with which humans are capable of treating animals under their protection. A shepherd is a benevolent god who directs his flock to greener pastures and protects them from wild beasts and the evils of nature. Bucolic imagery calls up a simplistic time when humans lived in nature, protected and shielded from the evils of modernity. Combining these two perspectives allows people to feel a child-like protection under the watchful eye of a benevolent leader while we live in a natural peace and harmony with the planet.
 
 
I think the narrative associated with both narratives is deeply troubling, and untrue. David Deutsch was recently on Tyler Cowen’s podcast, Conversations with Tyler, and argued that the belief that we are living in a simulation is no different than believing that Zeus is the supreme god who directs the course of the world. His argument is that if we live in a simulation, there is a barrier at which we can no longer gain more information about the universe. A Simulation, he argues, is the same as a religion where there is a barrier at which people cannot know more about their god, the course of the universe, and why things happen. Invoking the imagery of a shepherd, to me, seems to be exactly the same. A leader comes along, invokes such a message, and says to the people they wish to lead that only they know how to help them, that there is a barrier which normal people cannot cross in terms of knowledge for what is good for them and how to live their lives. The shepherd seems benevolent, kind, and praiseworthy, but really, they are dehumanizing people. They are making statements that there is knowledge and information that only they can know and appropriately utilize, and they are hiding that from the masses. The same process happens in reverse when we call people sheep. We deny their humanity and assume they are non-thinking morons without preferences who are easily misled.
 
 
Bucolic imagery can be just as pernicious as the ideas and narratives surrounding the shepherd or equating people to sheep. Just as the idea that there is some boundary on knowledge which normal people cannot surpass, the idea of a bucolic nature to which we should return or maintain is equally flawed and inaccurate. We romanticize a past and a ‘natural’ way of living that never existed. We don’t fully understand what life with nature has been like for the billions of humans that evolved before our modern times. We fail to see the diseases, the dangers, the struggles, and the deaths of humans living in pre-modern times. We call up this idea to put people in a romantic and child-like state of mind, reassuring them that someone else will take care of them and protect them. It is a narrative that combines well with the narrative of the shepherd to create a false view of reality that we can find comforting, and that we may find the motivated reasoning to believe. Ultimately, however, I think bucolic thinking and the narratives of sheep and the shepherd should be tossed aside and discounted if we want to think more accurately and rationally. 
The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

The Danger of Only Asking Questions We Expect To Be Able To Answer

It is not fun to face ambiguity and questions that we don’t have any hope of answering. Humans don’t like sitting with the unknown, and we don’t like admitting that there are questions, some very important and definitive, that we simply have no way of answering. Some questions we know we cannot answer at this point, but we expect to be able to answer, and some questions there is almost certainly no hope of answering within our lifetimes, and perhaps not within the entire lifetime of our planet or sun. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t still ask such questions.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes, “scholars tend to ask only those questions that they can reasonably hope to answer. … Yet it is vital to ask questions for which no answers are available, otherwise we might be tempted to dismiss 60,000 of 70,0000 years of human history with the excuse that the people that lived back then did nothing of importance.”
In this quote, Harari is specifically referring to scholars who don’t ask questions about ancient humans living in times before modern tool use. Such humans didn’t leave an obvious trace through items which can be identified and discovered through archeological explorations. Their tools and items were made of organic materials that decomposed. Their major advances came in languages which were not written down and preserved. Their important contributions to human evolution were psychological and cultural, and didn’t easily leave a trace that could survive 70,000 years of weathering, continental drift, volcanic explosions, floods, and human resettlement. As a scholar, why spend time and put your career on the line investigating questions you can’t answer, knowing that you won’t produce journal articles and research presentations for your non-answers?
It is understandable why scholars don’t ask the questions they have no hope for answering, even beyond questions of early human cultures, but Harar thinks they should. By asking such questions, we remember to think about important factors that can be ignored or easily discounted. We can limit our view of history to only those things that left material imprints and traces on our planet. We can overlook details that we might otherwise find important. As an example, Harari shows how early humans still changed the world around them, primarily through hunting and the use of fire, even if the hunting often involved chasing an animal until it died of exhaustion or burning a part of a forest to force animals out of hiding. We might not find a lot of physical tools and evidence of such behavior, but the changes in the ecology and environment may be detectable. For 60,000 years early Homo Sapiens changed the planet, even though we can’t always detect how. Failing to ask questions about such humans and their cultures, questions we can’t find evidence and information to answer, means that we overlook their contributions to the changes of the planet. Failing to ask unanswerable questions means we also fail to ask questions for which we do have some hope of finding answers. It also means we ignore important areas and topics, leaving them for people who want to abuse history and science with myth and narrative that may not have a hope of actually being accurate or discarded as junk without serious minds thinking about the topic.
The Location of Human Knowledge - Yuval Noah Harari Sapiens - Joe Abittan

The Location of Human Knowledge

“The average forager had wider, deeper, and more varied knowledge of her immediate surroundings than most of her modern descendants,” writes Yuval Noah Harari in Sapiens. Individual human hunter-gatherers had to know a lot about their environment, and they were not learning from text books and schools. They were learning by trial and error, by being shown what was edible and what was not edible older members of their tribe, and they had to develop a plethora of skills in order to do all the things necessary for survival.
Humans today are not very likely to be able to weave baskets from reeds (as much as we joke about basket weaving courses for college athletes). They also likely can’t sharpen a flint arrowhead, don’t know what animals are around their location and how to hunt them, and don’t know what wild plants are helpful or harmful. Individually, modern humans don’t seem to have the same regionalized knowledge as the ancient humans that came before them. But today we definitely know far more than the humans before us as a whole.
The difference, Harari explains, is that the location of human knowledge has changed. We no longer all hold the same helpful regional information in our heads. Instead, we have a collective knowledge spread across humanity. Each of us is an expert in our own little niche. For example, I studied political science and Spanish. I know a bit about theories of policy processes, such as the Multiple Streams Framework, and I know a bit about medieval literature from the Iberian Peninsula. On the other hand, I don’t really know much about how nuclear submarines work, how my city’s sewage system works, and I don’t really know what migratory birds can be found in the area during the spring versus the fall. Someone else in the collective of human knowledge is an expert in each of those things.
“The human collective,” writes Harari, “knows far more today than did the ancient bands. But at the individual level, ancient foragers were the most knowledgeable and skillful people in history.” This quote may be a broad overgeneralization, but it is nevertheless interesting and thought provoking. Some of us are incredibly skilled with a variety of things and have a great deal of knowledge about much of the world around us. Others don’t seem to have as much skill, and know more about celebrities than we do about what is happening in the world. Overall, the important thing to consider is that the modern world has seen a shift in the distribution of knowledge. We don’t all have to hold information about our immediate surroundings in our heads, and we don’t all have to be able to produce the things necessary for our survival. Only some humans need to know those things and have the skills to produce the basic necessities for life. The rest of us can then go off and explore different areas and learn different things, constantly increasing the collective human knowledge and skill base, even if we individually seem more narrowly skilled and less immediately knowledgeable compared with our ancient forager ancestors.
The Pursuit of Solid Answers

The Pursuit of Solid Answers

Human’s have egos, and that causes a lot of problems. To be clear, it is often not the ego itself that causes problems, but our feeling that we need to be right, that we need to be powerful, that we need to have important friends and connections that becomes problematic. Humans evolved in small tribes where survival often depended on being high status. Men had to be high status to pass their genes along and being high status meant that people would come to your aid if you needed help. Knowing useful things, being physically imposing, and having useful skills all contributed to make us higher status. Today, the drive for higher status is often understood as ego, and it is still with us, even if survival and evolutionary pressures toward super high status have declined.
One way in which this status and ego pursuit manifests to cause problems in our lives is in our intellectual discussions and debates. We often pursue our own ego rather than accurate knowledge and information when we are in debates. We are both signaling to our tribe and trying to dominate a conversation with our strong convictions rather than trying to have constructive discussions that help us get to correct answers.
Mary Roach writes about this phenomenon in her book Spook when discussing paranormal phenomena. She writes, “hasty assumptions serve no one. To make up one’s mind based on nothing beyond a simple summary of events – as believers and skeptics alike tend to do – does nothing to forward the pursuit of solid answers.” When we get into debates on religious topics, questions of psychic or paranormal phenomena, and complex social science questions, we often fall into reductive arguments that are mostly aimed at people who hold the same assumptions and beliefs that we already hold. We make hasty assumptions because our ego wants us to appear decisive and correct without spending time in ambiguity carefully considering the truth. The goal for us should be to become less wrong, but that is not a mindset that is generally rewarded by the ego, which for much of human evolution was rewarded by conviction and demonstrations of loyalty. Making changes so that more considerate thought is rewarded over ego-centric thought is crucial for us to move forward, but it runs against evolution, our self-interest, and what gets the most attention on social media today. Hasty assumptions may not be helpful, but they do get strong reactions and generate support among like-minded individuals.
Science and Facts

Science and Facts

Science helps us understand the world and answer questions about how and why things are the way they are. But this doesn’t mean science always gives us the most accurate answers possible. Quite often science seems to suggest an answer, sometimes the answer we get doesn’t really answer the question we wanted to ask, and sometimes there is just too much noise to gain any real understanding. The inability to perfectly answer every question, especially when we present science as providing clear facts when teaching science to young children, is a point of the confusion and dismissal among those who don’t want to believe the answers that science gives us.
In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach writes, “Of course, science doesn’t dependably deliver truths. It is as fallible as the men and women who undertake it. Science has the answer to every question that can be asked. However, science reserves the right to change that answer should additional data become available.” The science of the afterlife (really the science of life, living, death, and dying), Roach explains, has been a science of revision. What we believe, how we conduct experiments, and how we interpret scientific results has shifted as our technology and scientific methods have progressed. The science of life and death has given us many different answers over the years as our own biases have shifted and as our data and computer processing has evolved.
The reality is that all of our scientific fields of study are incomplete. There are questions we still don’t have great answers to, and as we seek those answers, we have to reconsider older answers and beliefs. We have to study contradictions and try to understand what might be wrong with the way we have interpreted the world. What we bring to science impacts what we find, and that means that sometimes we don’t find truths, but conveniently packaged answers that reinforce what we always wanted to be true. Overtime, however, the people doing the science change, the background knowledge brought to science changes, and the way we understand the answers from science changes. It can be frustrating to those of us on the outside who want clear answers and don’t want to be abused by people who wish to deliberately mislead based on incomplete scientific knowledge. But overtime science revises itself to become more accurate and to better describe the world around us.
When to Stop Counting

When to Stop Counting

Yesterday I wrote about the idea of scientific versus political numbers. Scientific numbers are those that we rely on for decision-making. They are not always better and more accurate numbers than political numbers, but they are generally based on some sort of standardized methodology and have a concrete and agreed upon backing to them. Political numbers are more or less guestimates or are formed from sources that are not confirmed to be reliable. While they can end up being more accurate than scientific figures they are harder to accept and justify in decision-making processes. In the end, the default is scientific numbers, but scientific numbers do have a flaw that keeps them from ever becoming what they proport to be. How do we know when it is time to stop counting and when we are ready to move forward with a scientific number rather than fall back on a political number?
Christopher Jencks explores this idea in his book The Homeless by looking at a survey conducted by Martha Burt at the Urban Institute. Jencks writes, “Burt’s survey provides quite a good picture of the visible homeless. It does not tell us much about those who avoid shelters, soup kitchens, and the company of other homeless individuals. I doubt that such people are numerous, but I can see no way of proving this. It is hard enough finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. It is far harder to prove that a haystack contains no more needles.” The quote shows that Burt’s survey was good at identifying the visibly homeless people, but that at some point in the survey a decision was made to stop attempting to count the less visibly homeless. It is entirely reasonable to stop counting at a certain point, as Jencks mentions it is hard to prove there are no more needles left to count, but that always means there will be a measure of uncertainty with your counting and results. Your numbers will always come with a margin of error because there is almost no way to be certain that you didn’t miss something.
Where we chose to stop counting can influence whether we should consider our numbers to be scientific numbers or political numbers. I would argue that the decision for where to stop our count is both a scientific and a political decision itself. We can make political decisions to stop counting in a way that deliberately excludes hard to count populations. Alternatively, we can continue our search to expand the count and change the end results of our search. Choosing how scientifically accurate to be with our count is still a political decision at some level.
However, choosing to stop counting can also be a rational and economic decision. We may have limited funding and resources for our counting, and be forced to stop at a reasonable point that allows us to make scientifically appropriate estimates about the remaining uncounted population. Diminishing marginal returns to our counting efforts also means at a certain point we are putting in far more effort into counting relative to the benefit of counting one more item for any given survey. This demonstrates how our numbers can be based on  scientific or political motivations, or both. These are all important considerations for us whether we are the counter or studying the results of the counting. Where we chose to stop matters, and because we likely can’t prove we have found every needle in the haystack, and that no more needles exist. No matter what, we will have to face the reality that the numbers we get are not perfect, no matter how scientific we try to make them.
Who Are the Homeless?

Who Are the Homeless

In the United States we have many housing insecure individuals. We have many people who are chronically homeless, and are unlikely to ever get off the streets. We have many people who experience homelessness only transiently, possibly during an unexpected layoff or economic downturn. And we also have many people who find themselves in and out of homelessness. For each group of housing insecure individuals, their needs and desires of people differ. However, when we think about homelessness in America, we typically only think about one version of homelessness: the visibly homeless man or woman living in the streets.
In his book Tell Them Who I Am Elliot Liebow writes, “an important fact about these dramatically visible homeless persons on the street is that, their visibility notwithstanding, they are at best a small minority, tragic caricatures of homelessness rather than representatives of it.” When we think about the homeless we think about men and women who don’t work, who are smelly and dirty, and who appear to have mental disorders or drug addictions. This means that public policy geared toward homelessness is a reaction to this visible minority, not policy geared to help the many people who may experience homelessness in a less visible way.
People do not like the visibly homeless who live on the street. They feel ashamed to see them begging, feel frustrated by their panhandling, and are often frightened of them. The visibly homeless are not a sympathetic group, and are not likely to be the targets of public policy that supports them.
The less visibly homeless, however, are a population we are less afraid of and less likely to strongly dislike. But because we don’t see them, we don’t think of them when we consider policies and programs designed to assist the homeless. Their needs, their concerns, and the things that could help them find more stable housing are forgotten or simply unknown to the general public and the policymakers they elect. We are often unaware of the individuals who are homeless but still managing to work a job. We don’t think about those who experience temporary homelessness, sleeping in a car for a couple of weeks at a time between gig work. We don’t consider those who live in shelters until a friend or family member can take them in and support them until they can find work. Without acknowledging this less visible side of poverty, we don’t take steps to improve public policy and public support for those working to maintain a place to live. We allow the most visible elements of homelessness to be all we know about homelessness, and as a result our policy and attitudes toward the homeless fail to reflect the reality that the majority of the homeless experience.
Causal Illusions - The Book of Why

Causal Illusions

In The Book of Why Judea Pearl writes, “our brains are not wired to do probability problems, but they are wired to do causal problems. And this causal wiring produces systematic probabilistic mistakes, like optical illusions.” This can create problems for us when no causal link exists and when data correlate without any causal connections between outcomes.  According to Pearl, our causal thinking, “neglects to account for the process by which observations are selected.”  We don’t always realize that we are taking a sample, that our sample could be biased, and that structural factors independent of the phenomenon we are trying to observe could greatly impact the observations we actually make.
Pearl continues, “We live our lives as if the common cause principle were true. Whenever we see patterns, we look for a causal explanation. In fact, we hunger for an explanation, in terms of stable mechanisms that lie outside the data.” When we see a correlation our brains instantly start looking for a causal mechanism that can explain the correlation and the data we see. We don’t often look at the data itself to ask if there was some type of process in the data collection that lead to the outcomes we observed. Instead, we assume the data is correct and  that the data reflects an outside, real-world phenomenon. This is the cause of many causal illusions that Pearl describes in the book. Our minds are wired for causal thinking, and we will invent causality when we see patterns, even if there truly isn’t a causal structure linking the patterns we see.
It is in this spirit that we attribute negative personality traits to people who cut us off on the freeway. We assume they don’t like us, that they are terrible people, or that they are rushing to the hospital with a sick child so that our being cut off has a satisfying causal explanation. When a particular type of car stands out and we start seeing that car everywhere, we misattribute our increased attention to the type of car and assume that there really are more of those cars on the road now. We assume that people find them more reliable or more appealing and that people purposely bought those cars as a causal mechanism to explain why we now see them everywhere. In both of these cases we are creating causal pathways in our mind that in reality are little more than causal illusions, but we want to find a cause to everything and we don’t always realize that we are doing so. It is important that we be aware of these causal illusions when making important decisions, that we think about how the data came to mind, and whether there is a possibility of a causal illusion or cognitive error at play.