Cyclones of Knowledge: Perpetual Cycles of False Certainty and Predicting the Unpredicatable

“The idea that the future is unpredictable is undermined every day by the ease with which the past is explained.”

Daniel Kahneman, Thinking, Fast and Slow

And the Harry Potter references continue. This week it was in the discussion of divination and how science is magic. At least one thing is standing the test of time.

Beyond my near constant search for Harry Potter references, this week was actually pretty big for me.

I present to you the cyclone of knowledge. No I did not have my nephew draw it. I just have the same level of artistic skill.

I present to you the cyclone of knowledge. No I did not have my nephew draw it. I just have the same level of artistic skill.

The class finally caught up to my realization from a month ago that the accumulation of knowledge is like a cyclone. Well they said spiral, but given how messy my thought process is, a cyclone seemed more appropriate analogy. From there we went into a discussion of how this cycle works and what differentiates predicting from the sensory-motor level and if prediction is even necessary.

To me the logical answer is of course we need to predict. It’s how we survive, how the animals survive. The problem for me becomes that if predicting is something even the animals can do, what separates us from the animals? If animals can predict, and rely on some form of prediction to survive, and they clearly have perceptual skills of sorts, then are we essentially no different than animals? Well that can’t be the case. There has to be something.

We often argue that it is our capacity for “higher thought,” but what does “higher thought” mean? It’s a term that is raised often enough in all my classes, but we never really talk about what it means. It’s like “inborn” or “Western.” Professors just sprinkle them like fairy dust, and we all nod and smile. Of course, the behaviour is inborn. Yes, Western psychology is different from East. No we don’t care where “west” is.

At the end of the discussion I was no closer to determining what separates us from the animals. I think that it probably that we try to predict more than is warranted. Or that we are capable of a wider range of emotions. That we can think about thinking instead of simply being. Probably aimed at improving our survival rates, though given the frequency with which humans suffer “mental health” problems I would argue that it is not doing such a great job. But still it has allowed us to develop art; we’ve invented cars, and computers; and we’ve found ways to map the essence of humanity (the human genome). So all that “higher thought” can’t be entirely useless, but still, animals have complex mating patterns, birds migrate thousands of miles and hide seeds in hundreds of locations and apparently never forget where a single one is. So creative and unique thoughts and behaviours can’t really be “higher thinking,” and it can’t be the thing that separates us from the animals. But then what is it? Is there anything other than our belief that we are superior to animals? Maybe our capacity to see and imagine things that we have never seen? The ability to praise an unseen God? The need for that unseen higher power?

Of course, this is all speculative, because no one can say for certain that animals don’t have this capacity, or that they do not have similar thoughts. It could arguably be boiled down to a capability-performance distinction.

Perhaps that is what our more developed brain is for. We have used it for various things, including invention and religion, but maybe that is the core of higher-order thought processes – we think beyond what has been, in a non-evolutionary way (thus excluding reflexes and species specific behaviours including stranger fear that we cannot explain). And we hold those predictions and beliefs despite lack of evidence, and on occasion despite evidence that our predictions and beliefs are false. So higher order thought=the ability to be guess at the future and being overly confident in things we can’t see? DIVINATION! And we’re back to Harry Potter.

Do you see what this class has done to me? I am now convinced that I am essentially no different than my cat other than an ability to believe and imagine things that have never been and may never be.

coffee posterThis seems to answer the question of what the human mind is for – i.e. is it exclusively a predicting machine? – but it doesn’t really. Our beliefs in an unseen reality could be argued at predicting, or they could be argued that the human mind also exists to create new ideas and bonds, thus not necessarily predicting the future, but creating it. An inherent belief that we can control such things.

Returning to the concept of the necessity of prediction that started this whole mess – if I believe, as I do, that predictions are crucial to survival,  does this mean that all predictions are based on survival needs? No. Predicting the speed at which a car is travelling towards me and the likelihood that said car will hit me is survival based.  Predicting that my Keurig will drip/pour coffee into my mug when I push the “brew” button is a prediction, but I survived the first twenty years of my life without coffee. Thus that prediction has nothing to do with my survival and everything to do with.. well my conditioned need for coffee. But also, potentially this exposes another class of predictive reasoning – the need to understand the world – presumably out of some need for control.

Part of our predictions lies on the inanimate objects in our environment that have no will, and thus simple principles of physics really, but part of our environment is also with living organisms that can choose to act or react as they please. Thus can we truly predict? Assuming predicting is synonymous with expecting, then yes, based on prior experience, we can form expectations of how people will react. But those are potentially flawed predictions. There is always the potential for some confounding variable to interfere with our predictions, our predictions could be based on flawed understandings or premises. A whole host of factors exist that diminish our ability to predict accurately. So if we can so easily make false predictions, is the utility of predictions also lost? Or do these flawed predictions also have a use? Assuming they are not so flawed that they result in our death, our errors in predictions, signaled by some sensory-motor input that contradicts the input we were expecting, show us how to improve our ideas and understanding of the world, which potentially improves our odds of survival.

Assuming you accept that the evidence that they were flawed in the first place.

What if you don’t? What if just as we refused to believe that the Earth was not flat and does not revolve around the sun, or that evolution is a thing – we resisted the predictions others made persistently? If we resisted incorporating knowledge of others into our own predictions and understandings?

This poses a challenge. As we discussed tonight, science is about inductions (moving from the specific to the general), which is inherently allogical. What passes for science and fact varies across generations – is this species wide engagement in our “cyclone of knowledge” or a perpetual cycle of false beliefs? Too bad there’s no logical and infallible way of determining which is the case.

But the way I see it, three scenarios exist:

  1. We got it right. We are correctly refusing to incorporate false knowledge into our predictive schemas and correctly accepting appropriate modifications.
  2. We got it wrong. We are rejecting correct information on the basis of its conflict with our false beliefs, or we are naively accepting inaccurate information.
  3. We have no clue what we’re doing. We just incorporate on whim and hope it doesn’t kill us.

In an ideal world it would always be scenario one – we would always be adhering to pure fact. It is the aim of virtually every science. For two years in stats I had it drilled in my head, reduce error! Always find better ways to be more accurate. I also had it drilled in that an error rate of zero is suspicious. We acknowledge that perfection is impossible, so we will do our best, hope our best was done right, and accept that that is all we can do.

Worst case scenario – case three is the true state. Albeit it is very unlikely, it is a case more commonly attributed to pill bugs that will scurry when you turn on a light without any sense of direction or strategy. Case two is ineffective though, predictive schemas that aren’t truly functional are essentially useless. And all our mental power can’t be for nothing. Then again our belief that case one is usually the case, may just be a byproduct of case two at play.

Have fun with that. And I said I hated philosophy.

Where does this leave us?

  1. The human mind isn’t only about predicting – it is also for understanding and imagining that which has yet to be.
  2. Predictions are only as accurate as the premises they rest on, which we can never be truly sure of.
  3. Predictions, even flawed ones, still have a use – we need to have some sense that we know where we are going and what we are doing.
  4. If our predictions are truly dysfunctional we will die or their predictive schemas will be adjusted. If we don’t we assume it is a sign of mental illness and we see to fix it.
  5. Predictions are based on an attempt to generalize the past experience and knowledge into our experience of the presence and expectations of the future.

But how do we predict that which we have never experienced? Especially when we have not made the effort to gather information. Take for example – my first half marathon – I made my way to the start line because that seemed like a good place to start (haha pun) and I knew I had to walk, but before that moment, I did not know what to expect at the start, I did not know the emotions I would feel, what it would look like from the middle of the crowd. Is the unknown what generates anxiety? The inability to predict? An interesting thought.

I think I have caused enough of a mind warp for now.

I posted the offer to Facebook, but aside from the possibility to believe in things that can’t be seen or that have yet to be seen – if anyone can propose a valid and well supported reason we differ from the animals, I will hand deliver a batch of Oatmeal Chocolate Cheesecake Cookies. Or do we not differ? Tell me what you think down below!

“When the number of factors coming into play in a phenomenological complex is too large scientific method in most cases fails. One need only think of the weather, in which case the prediction even for a few days ahead is impossible.”

Albert Einstein


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