Sunday, August 7, 2011

Seeking Certainty in an Uncertain World

That Scientific American subscription is proving a huge inspiration for this blog. There was an article last month on the biases that lead people to skew the truth. One of my favorite topics on this blog, one my brother told me to stop writing about because it's a truism not worth exploring, is the tribalism of American politics. Anyone who's been paying attention to the events of the last few weeks/decades/centuries knows that factionalism has been around almost as long as our republic. And as I like to point out from time to time, I knew this president's attempt to move past political factionalism would not succeed because tribalism is ingrained in human nature.

"The Believing Brain" sheds some light on the phenomenom. The article explains how people come to understand reality. Humans form their beliefs first and see reality second. One of the many biases that lead to these beliefs is the in-group bias of tribalism, where opponents are demonized and dismissed while friends are listened to and empathized with. (Which can explain how a political party can ignore their own significant contribution to the problems they blame another party for.)

In the same issue of SA there's an article on how unknowable reality just may be. In the "Bad Boy of Physics", Leonard Susskind explains that reality may be too complex for us ever to understand fully. He even says we should stop using the word reality, but rather focus on what is "reproducible,": knowable discreet events. He then goes on to say things that I cannot comprehend: that physics currently predicts this universe is 1000 times bigger in volume than the portion we can ever see? That there are most likely multiverses, meaning this large forever-completely-unobservable universe of ours might not be the only one?

And it all reminds me of why we use these biases to shape reality. Without them we'd have to admit our inability to understand ourselves and our places in this uni-or multiverse. It's a big, confusing, unknowable existence. We're just a small speck in a small corner of a place infinitely larger than we can ever comprehend. And for many politically active people in the US, certainty and meaning come from battling it out with the opposite members of a political party. It's a lot more empowering to see yourself in a battle of good v. evil then to come to terms with your own ignorance and insignificance. The world becomes us v. them because without that simplified division of reality, we would not know what to make of this thing we're doing.

No comments: