“Sensible World” Bias

Tiger got to hunt, bird got to fly;
Man got to sit and wonder ‘why, why, why?’

Tiger got to sleep, bird got to land;
Man got to tell himself he understand.

― Kurt Vonnegut, Cat’s Cradle

***

It’s fiendishly hard to actually predict the future.  Even if you correctly identify a soon-to-come scientific or technological breakthrough, that’s still only a tiny piece of the puzzle.  To truly paint an accurate picture of the future, you’d also have to correctly predict the shifting of society’s mores/norms, and how that would interact with shifting demographics, shifting economics, the politics of the day, etc., plus you’d have to correctly predict all other breakthroughs and discoveries which could arise and serve to amplify or mute the usefulness of the first breakthrough — and the list goes on and on.  There’s just so many moving parts.

What’s most interesting to me are not our failures to paint a perfect picture of the distant future, which are perfectly understandable, but things like the near-universal failure to predict the housing bubble would burst.  Or the near-universal failure of pollsters and the media to predict Brexit/Trump’s victory/etc.  These things, surely, should be eminently predictable.  And yet they too, if we’re being honest, caught us by surprise.  Are we failing to get these things right solely due to ingrained biases (which could undoubtedly be remedied, somehow), or are we failing to predict them simply because the world is fundamentally a very unpredictable place?  Earlier in life I leaned towards the former, but lately I’ve been entertaining the idea of the latter more and more.  I am starting to suspect that the most potent bias we suffer from is not confirmation bias, or recency bias, or herd instinct, or any of those dozens of other biases we’ve known for years and can spot a mile away at this point, but rather some as-yet-unnamed bias that was instilled in us long ago by evolution to keep us from being crippled from uncertainty — a bias in favor of thinking the world is sensible and understandable.

I see it in my own life all the time, now that I know where to look.  Things change so quickly; the whole character of life can be transformed in an instant.  And it is transformed, over and over again, at a pace I find truly staggering in those rare moments I actually stop to think about it.  I don’t know if you feel this way, but it’s crazy to think about the things that preoccupied me on any given day five years ago, or even five days ago, and how different they are from the things on my mind today.  I could write you a list a thousand pages long of things I once thought would ruin my life that turned out not to matter one whit.  Intuitions about the most fundamental of truths — why we are here, where we come from, what is “good,” what I can expect from life — shift under my feet so rapidly it’s a miracle I can even walk.  Yet here I am, chugging along, same as ever.  The thing is, those old thoughts, those old convictions, they just fall away like it’s nothing, thanks to the stranglehold the preoccupation of the day has on my mind, and thanks to my “sensible world” bias walking behind me, quietly erasing all the footsteps my wandering has left in the snow.

“Those old thoughts,” it tells me, “they’re just wrong.  You can see that now, right?  Clear as day.  They weren’t crazy, you just didn’t know better.  But now you do.  And now that you do, there is work to be done.”  Most of me, on most days, believes it.  Most of the time, I think I’ve got things pretty much figured out.  But every now and then, I’ll remember a bit of what I was supposed to forget.

Why, I’ll think, should today be any different than yesterday?  Why should these convictions I’m laboring under fare any better under the scrutiny of time than yesterday’s did?  Isn’t it crazy, I’ll think further, to lie to myself like this, over and over?  To tell myself I’m getting somewhere when I’m not?  And then, with no small bit of terror: And what if I were to meet someone who really did know where they were going?  Would I even understand them?  Or would I destroy them, full of fury that they disrupted this routine of shedding and forgetting that I have grown so very accustomed to…

***

Satyanna pramaditvyam.  Always follow the truth — even when it hurts.  Especially when it hurts.

-TAL

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