Thursday, August 4, 2016

Don't Touch My Map!

Newton's laws of motion are wrong. They are not an accurate representation of reality. Bear with me here, these are bold claims, I know. I say that somewhat provocatively. How can I possibly claim the fundamental laws of classical mechanics taught at every school in the world for the last three centuries are wrong? Because they are. And talking about how and why they're "wrong" is actually a very telling look into how humans map reality.

Newton's laws, first published in Principia Mathematica in 1687, were so profoundly impactful, European nobles often had their portraits painted holding copies of Principia Mathematica and the Holy Bible. Newton's laws became the cornerstone for understanding motion and the forces applied to them for over 200 years. All that changed in 1905, when a smart-ass punk who worked at a Patent Office published a paper that talked about space and time, and how the motion of objects near the speed of light behaved. This upstart named Einstein came up with a mathematical formula that yielded much more accurate results than Newton's laws of motion. Special relativity was born, but was this the end of Newtonian physics?

We still teach Newton's laws of motion to this day in every high school and college in the world. Why? Three reasons. First, Newton's laws work just fine on objects that are not close to the speed of light, but are inaccurate for much faster objects. Objects so fast, they are generally not seen on Earth. Relativity yields accurate results on objects that are moving slowly and near the speed of light. Relativity is a more accurate map of reality than Newtonian physics. Secondly, Newton's laws are much simpler, much easier to solve for and easier to apply. Relativity is complicated and difficult to solve for, even though it's more accurate. Third, Newton's laws are good enough for most things. Let's face it, in our day to day lives we don't deal with objects that move near the speed of light. So for an investigator trying to reconstruct a fatal car accident scene, solving for F=MA is way easier to do and gives adequate results rather than trying to solve for ds^2 = -dX^2/0 + dX^2/1 - c^2 in order to account for 4D space and time dilation. Sure, the latter formula will yield a result that's 0.000001% more accurate, but F=MA works just fine.

Thus Newton's laws are not an accurate representation of reality, but they're a really damn good approximation!

So how does this apply to epistemology and how humans form and hold beliefs? Beliefs do not have to accurate, they just have to be good enough, like Newton's laws of motion. Newton's laws of motion are an excellent approximation of reality, as are most beliefs. Beliefs are a survival mechanism. Humans cling bitterly, and often violently to their beliefs because challenging them is, literally, trying to take away a survival tool from the brain. Challenging someone's belief in something usually triggers a fight or flight response. Especially if that belief is held dearly and sincerely regarded as integral to their identity.

When humans gather a set of beliefs, this set forms cohesively to become their map of reality. This map is how they navigate, make sense of and survive the world. What's really startling is this map often filters information and updates itself mostly without our awareness. We have seen it a million times. People will often invent wildly absurd beliefs in order to keep their existing beliefs intact. If something conflicts with their map, they invent new beliefs to buttress old ones. If someone believes, for example, "Obama hates America" their map will often ignore or reject information to the contrary, and add information which confirms that map onto the map itself. This is called confirmation bias. This is when a belief is consistently and repeatedly self-confirmed so many times, and for so long it's literally unfathomable to the brain that there is any chance it's incorrect.

And the proof is in the pudding. I have heard Mormons say, "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt Mormonism is true." I have heard Muslims say, "I know with every fiber of my being Islam is true." I have heard Republicans say, "I know with every ounce of my being Obama hates America." I have heard Democrats say, "I know beyond a shadow of a doubt Republicans are destroying America." And you know what? I agree with all of these people. They truly and honestly deeply believe those things, because they have gone through an unchecked process of confirmation bias for so long, they are literally incapable of believing anything different. These are people who literally think Satan is more moral than Obama, or that Republicans are no different than ISIS. "No matter what you say I will never change my mind, and whatever you do, don't you dare ever, ever touch my map! "

Here's the dangerous part. Maps of reality are useful. They help people make sense of and understand the world. But convincing someone their map is incorrect is often met with vitriol. To quote Mark Twain, "it is far easier to fool a man than to convince him that he's been fooled." "Don't touch my map! I KNOW my map is right, and everyone else's is wrong!" There's a certain arrogance in claiming "I KNOW my map is right." It's basically saying, "Not only do I know better than everyone else, but there is no chance I'm suffering from any kind of bias or delusion" which, ironically, is a conclusion that is deeply biased and deluded. But this is how insidious bias is. Bias is so strong, it can convince us that we are not suffering from any kind of bias. Delusion is such a treacherous trap, we can easily become blind to our own delusion.

I think a much more humble, responsible and sensible approach is always asking yourself things like "is my map correct? What kind of biases am I suffering from? What processes am I putting in place to vet information? Do I ever consider the possibility that I'm wrong? Do I only accept information that agrees with my beliefs? Do I dismiss conflicting information to my beliefs out of hand?" These are the kinds of questions which help keep people anchored in reality instead of running off, care-free straight into ConfirmationBiasVille. America, and the world will be much better off when people are freely able to say, "I know that I'm biased" and lay down the arrogant, and incorrect position of, "I know that I'm right."

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