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Week 6 round-up

Please check back here on Friday afternoon of week 6 for the weekly round-up of the previous week.
Hello, everyone, and welcome to the final roundup of the final week of ‘The Mind is Flat’.
Jess, we’ve been talking about some big issues this week: complexity, language, how society is so much more mysterious and elaborate than we could possibly understand as individuals. Now what have people particularly been picking up on this time? So one thing that people have been picking up on is the fact that a lot of what you talk about this week has to do with these incredible things that humanity has done– how we were able to develop incredibly complex, clever languages, cultures, and societies. Could you explain a bit how this squares with ‘The Mind is Flat’ perspective, because I think a few people have felt that this seems– at least on the face of it– contradictory?
How can we possibly have flat minds if we’re able to do all of these amazing things? I know you don’t think it’s contradictory, so perhaps you could just explain in a little more detail why that’s the case and how to square these two perspectives. Yes. A couple of analogies might be helpful. So one would be crossword-puzzle solving. So imagine you have this sort of huge crossword puzzle with lots of tricky clues. And each of us looks at some of the clues and how they go and occasionally solves one. And obviously the extent that we do that helps the next person solving some other clue which overlaps with ours.
If it is the case that my answer actually encroaches on yours, I might choose the first letters in “owl” or whatever it is. And so you can imagine all these people working away on that crossword, and finally, perhaps, solving this enormously complicated crossword. And we could look from the outside and think, crumbs! How on earth did anybody do that? How did you plan the whole thing? How did you realise that this answer up here was going to connect with that answer down there. It’s just amazing. And the answer will be, well nobody did that really. We just all beetled away with our part of the crossword puzzle.
Now of course, in practise if we did that, we’d actually have terrible problems, because we’d fill in bits of the crossword, mistakenly occasionally, and we’d only realise it when we bumped into some other person’s solution to that bit of the crossword, and then we have a discussion with thrashing around, and we think, oh yeah, I made a mistake. I retract. It isn’t in fact “levitation,” it’s something else. Take that away, than the ‘L’ goes, and off we go again. So we end up collectively able to solve this very complicated problem, even though each person is dealing with it in a very local, piecemeal way. And a fallible way, but by putting us together, we can produce this amazing result.
And I think a lot of human achievements are like that. Trying to understand how some complicated institution like part of the government or a bank or telecoms company– and how these things work, goodness knows. All you’ve got is lots and lots of people, each of whom are filling in their own, as it were, tiny piece of the crossword and trying to link together with other people. And miraculously, the whole thing does more or less function. But not because everybody understands the whole. Yeah. That makes sense. I think that’s a helpful explanation.
I think it’s also useful to go back to a distinction which I think we tried to draw in the earlier weeks, which was between saying that the mind is flat and saying that the mind is simple. So just because the mind is flat in the way you describe it, just because we don’t necessarily have these deep-seated beliefs and preferences and desires, and actually a lot of our decisions are momentary doesn’t mean that the mind is this simple thing that has no complexity to it and can’t do incredible things. So I think it’s really useful to emphasise that.
Another very tiny thing to answer that is, of course, crosswords themselves, the crossword that could be solved by this huge team could be really hard. The clues could be really, really tricky. And so you need as much intelligence as you’d like, but as much cleverness as you like to solve the individual problems. But what isn’t happening is that no one is looking at whole thing and solving it all at once. And the other example I’d like to mention is maths. So mathematics is this enormous, complicated tangle of different consistent strands– enormously elaborate. Nobody understands even a tiny fraction of it.
But because of the fact that each individual person in their own little bit of mathematics is trying to fill in their own little bit of the crossword as it were, effectively they could create this enormous structure which is very, very remarkable. And of course, that doesn’t diminish the smartness of mathematicians. They are really smart people. It takes a lot of cleverness to fill in the relevant proofs and so on to make mathematics work. But nobody understands it all, not even remotely. Yeah, I don’t think anyone would want to diminish the smartness of a lot of mathematicians, but yes, it’s a nice example.
So on a slightly different note, a question I quite liked from someone in the comments this week was whether the whole ‘Mind is Flat’ perspective– and particularly the idea you talked about this week that there’s this dangerous circularity in the fact that our preferences are shaped by the society we’re in. Someone was asking whether this should make us worried about people’s voting behaviour, which is particularly topical with the upcoming UK election. Do you have any thoughts on that? Well, I think it should make us somewhat worried about our voting behaviour, yes.
We’re all liable to vote, in the same way we are liable to do all kinds of things, based on relatively superficial criteria. Trying to analyse genuinely what’s right for the country is very, very difficult. Even working out what ‘right’ even means is difficult– what we’re trying to actually achieve is hard enough, let alone how to achieve it. Society is vastly complicated, as we’ve just been talking about. So trying to solve the hard problem of what I think is really best is difficult,
so we tend to use simpler substitutes such as: what do other people like me do? What would I normally do? What do I think of the relevant party leaders or other opinion-formers? And so we tend to use sort of shortcuts. Now, to some extent one’s faith in the political system really depends on whether one thinks that rather like mathematics, putting together all these shortcuts actually leads to something fairly coherent. So although none of us really understand all that much about politics, not too much about who to trust, and who’s capable and who isn’t, putting all our intuitions together into a big sort of melting pot, will that actually lead on the whole to a reasonable outcome?
In the case of mathematics or science, it seems to work really remarkably well. We might doubt it’s quite as effective in the case of politics, but– one may not be entirely sceptical, But we’re all sort of limited creatures. And I think it’s actually quite important that we try as hard as we can to figure out what to do using as much reason as we can rather than going on a very simplistic ‘this is what I’ve always done’ or ‘this is what people around me do’. It’s a bit like the crossword.
Although it may be the case that the crossword is very complicated, I can’t really work out whether or not my solution to my clue is actually right and maybe we’ll never know until we’ve filled in lots of the rest of the crossword, if everyone is trying really hard to solve their little piece, that’s going to make it much more likely we all succeed than if people are just thinking, oh, who cares, the person that comes into my head. But it’s a hard problem to know how to vote. And I think we should be humble about it.
One concern that we might have about the case of politics as compared to the case of maths or the case of markets as you talk about a lot in the course is that, whereas in a market, you talk about how a person kind of like bears the cost of being inconsistent, there’s this money pump example. So if someone has inconsistent preferences, actually they will pay for that. They will get exploited. Whereas in politics, it seems less like that’s the case. Actually, you can have inconsistent political beliefs or crazy political beliefs, and maybe society bears the cost of that because you go around spreading and voting based on those beliefs.
But you personally don’t actually– nothing very bad necessarily happens to you for having those beliefs. So that’s one reason why we might be a bit concerned about collectively– all the people’s voting behaviour and political preferences coming together to something coherent. And I think that’s absolutely right. And that’s one reason why debate in politics is so crucial. One local way that we do find inconsistencies hurt us is if we get told that we are inconsistent by other people we’re trying to articulate our ideas to. So as soon as we actually engage with other people, they can say, hang on. But you said this and you said this, and these don’t make sense.
And then I have to deal with that in a way that I don’t if I simply carry around, unexamined, my private thoughts. You’re absolutely right. There’s no mechanism as powerful as the market or indeed in mathematics. The whole institutions of academic peer review, mathematicians become famous by disproving each other’s theorems. There’s lots of things that keep you honest in mathematics. Make a mistake, and you’ll get clobbered. As you say, in politics the forces are much weaker. But having an open society in which debate is possible is the best we have. Absolutely.
And finally, a question that I would like to end on was a very good question that someone sent me, which is basically, is there any kind of evidence or experiment that you think would falsify ‘The Mind is Flat’ hypothesis or perhaps would make you change your mind and think it’s not true? I thought that was a really good question, something I’m interested to know the answer to as well. It’s a very good question. So supposing you considered something like a computer database– or for that matter, a physical library.
Now, it might turn out– it would normally turn out that if you ask the computer database the same question many different times in different ways, it would give you the same answer. Or If you look up something in the library– if you get the same book out of the library– it’s got the same stuff in it. Now, we don’t seem to work like that. It appears to be the case that when you ask us different questions on different occasions with different memories, you get different opinions and judgements. Now, if it could be shown that those opinions and judgements that we are giving are nonetheless based on some underlying, stable memory.
If you could say, well deep inside– using some clever experiments or some clever neuroscience– actually there is a library. And it is stable, and we’re just reporting it badly. Then, I think we would think, OK. This is the wrong story. So you could imagine two stories, I suppose. One story will be the ‘Mind is Flat’ story, where there are no stable beliefs and preferences, and we invent these as we’re going along. Another story will be, no. There’s a sort of inner library with all these beliefs and preferences written down.
But with a person– the librarian as it were– who you send off to get the information is a bit unreliable, and they sort of spout off all kinds of stuff that isn’t quite in the books. So if we could find some other way of seeing what’s in the book and say, ah. That’s consistent. We’ve just got this reporter, this librarian, who is misleading us, then I think that will be quite persuasive. And that’s not impossible by any means. You could imagine how that could happen. So I don’t think there’s any evidence that’s true, but I wouldn’t rule it out– it’s not inconceivable of course. Like any scientific hypothesis, the Mind is Flat– it’s entirely possible it’s wrong.
I do hope not, but it could be. Yeah, that’s a nice challenge to anyone out there who is taking the course and is still not entirely convinced. That’s what it would take to convince Nick. So if you can do some experiments that show that, then we would be very interested hear about them. Absolutely. Yes. So then finally, thank you, everybody, very much for taking part in the course. Jess and I have really enjoyed putting the course together and obviously the interactions each week with you. It’s been a huge pleasure for us. I hope it’s been enjoyable for you. If you’re interested in following up, there are various things you can look out for.
You can see what courses are going on at Warwick Business School’s Behavioural Science Group. Occasional things happen. There’s executive education courses. There is the Human Zoo Weblab, which is up all the time. You can try some experiments, some you’ve seen on this course. Also the Human Zoo radio show– it comes back a couple of times each year with topical bits of information about the world and how psychology affects our interactions with society and politics.
But just in general, I really hope that this course has been a starting point for you to think more about how your mind works, how other people’s minds work, and be inspired really to explore a bit more in the exciting world of psychology and behavioural science. I hope it’s not an endpoint really, but a beginning point to exploring more thoroughly the amazing world that is the human mind. Flat or otherwise, it’s really quite an astounding thing. And it’s been an enormous pleasure for me over many, many years to spend a large bit of my waking life pondering it. I think it’s more interesting than I thought at the start.
So if you have any thread of that that’s hopped over into your mind and you’re also inspired to find out a bit more, then that’s a great success from my point of view. Anyway, I hope you’ve enjoyed it, and we certainly have. And goodbye!
This week, we focused on how incredible complexity can emerge in the absence of design – where do languages, cultures and societies come from?
Termites, which are incredibly simple beings, manage together to build nests which are much more complex than any of them individually. Humans are similar – we are living in a world that is massively more complex than any of us can understand. How is this possible?
One way in which this occurs, we suggested, is by a process of cultural evolution.
  • In analogy with biological evolution, the idea of cultural evolution is that aspects of cultural change are evolved by a process of cultural selection. Just as those genes that make an organism more likely to reproduce evolve over time, the ideas and practices that are most easily passed on from person to person also become more and more prominent.
An example of cultural evolution at work is in the development of complex languages.
  • A popular explanation of where language comes from is that it’s built into us, that it’s innate. The details may not be fixed, but our genes determine the general structure of language patterns.
  • The problem with this explanation is that it doesn’t really account for how languages change over time and why they are different from group to group. An alternative explanation is that we invent languages collectively, and they evolve over time through cultural selection.
  • Individuals are often reinventing the words and phrases of a language in slightly different ways – reinventions that work well get propagated, and those that work less well get eliminated.
  • The reason languages are so easy for us to learn is that they’ve been ruthlessly selected by cultural evolution to be as easy to learn as possible – obviously languages that are easy to learn will be more likely to get passed on.
All kinds of conventions, rules, and laws, have, we suggest, evolved through a similar process of cultural selection. What’s strange about all of these things is that no-one ever planned them, no-one fully understands how they work, but we all seem to be able to learn rules and conventions extraordinarily well.
A second way in which complexity can emerge in the absence of design is by the operation of markets – means that each of the individuals in a market economy can contribute to the welfare of others even when following their own self-interests. Prices convey information that orders activities in the economy appropriately.
Tying all of this back to the “Mind is Flat” perspective, the idea is that the meaning and justification of many of the things we do comes from the complicated patterns of language, convention, culture and society – not from inside our own minds.
Finally, we also talked about the implications of the “Mind is Flat” view for thinking about what makes a ‘good society.’
  • One intuitively compelling perspective is the utilitarian idea that a good society is one which maximises the happiness of each individual. But if happiness is purely relative, and we can’t measure how happy any individual is, how can we actually try to maximise individual happiness in practice? Does the idea even make sense?
  • Another appealing political perspective is liberalism – the idea that freedom is a basic virtue, that people should be free to do what they want. This of course requires that I have a stable sense of what I do want – an assumption that this course has challenged.
One particularly troubling thought is that, since we’re obviously influenced by societal norms, the kind of society we want to build will itself be shaped by the kind of society we’re in – which is a dangerous kind of circularity.
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The Mind is Flat: The Shocking Shallowness of Human Psychology

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