Saturday, November 12, 2011

Adaptability, Not Conservatism

As the crises and changes that are becoming manifest around the globe proceed, from climate change to peak oil to technology’s advance to continued global integration, humanity is going to need to strengthen its innate abilities of anticipation, flexibility, nimbleness, and adaptation. Even if we manage to keep global warming to a minimum there will be large movements of populations that, if handled poorly, could bring down our civilization as migrations brought down the Romans’, and even positive developments, such as further rapid advances computing and in medicine, call on us to rapidly change how we think and perceive both the world and ourselves.
We are already behind in bringing our moral outlook up to date with our technology, having moved into a global information age without even figuring out moral arrangement appropriate for the industrial age. The industrialized nations should have decades ago all adopted mixed economies with stronger government programs and democratized corporations in order to raise the quality of life for all; it’s just the moral thing for a society with such high productivity to do. Instead, over the last generation America regressed backwards towards the nineteenth century laissez-faire model, and even Western European countries shrunk their social democracies starting in the 1980s. And don't get me started on the moral atrocity that is the world's current “free trade” exploitation system; humanity should have figured out development and brought the global poor up to acceptable living standards a couple decades ago. Now, as we face the crises that we have brought upon ourselves we are going to need to adopt new ways of thinking, indeed a whole new way of life, instead of continuing on autopilot with consumer capitalism. We need to make adaptability a virtue, adaptability both of mind and of social institutions.

Instead, the United States is mired in a conservative age, conservative in habits of thought, of ideologies, of politics, and of institutions. However, what I'm talking about is not limited to the political conservatism of our current Rabid Right ideologues per se, but of cognitive and social conservatism more generally: a resistance to adopting new ideas, even when those ideas are clearly better, because of the comforts of habitual thinking or in the rationalization of vested interests. People have a tendency to believe that the ground truth is simply that which they know well, or what they were taught growing up, or what they have otherwise come to take for granted, and that's that. The regressive Right only shows the worst of the problems, with its resistance to evolution and climate science and to any economic idea written after Adam Smith, but in my experience the problem is more widespread  than that.
I'm sure that there's a case to be made by cognitive and neuro-scientists that there is a natural bias against changing how we think too quickly. However, human beings have been extremely adaptable in evolutionary terms, and if there are innate tendencies to resist changing patterns of thought, there are also great capacities to make changes, too. It is always important to avoid using pseudo-biology to make current social arrangements seem to be based in nature rather than culture, something that evolutionary psychologists routinely fail at. The tendency to naturalize what is social imposes mental limits about what can be changed and what must be accepted as nature, and is itself part of the problem that limits our adaptability. The fact that history, sociology, and anthropology show that other peoples at different times and places have been much more experimental and flexible than ours suggests that we are living in a particularly conservative age: compare our current sclerotic, rigid political system with the decades both before and after the American Revolutionary War, when different states and even the federal government experiment with different constitutions and political structures. 
The Left seems to face a couple of options: 1) come to a better understanding of how minds adapt and then change as many as possible, until we reach a critical mass to achieve the political policies that the world needs. This would require better neuroscience, but it also must include the traditional study of rhetoric, which has for thousands of years examined how to effectively persuade other human beings to change their minds. Rhetoric’s  modern version is public relations, and both rhetoric and PR are in themselves morally neutral and can be used for both good and bad purposes, so I will be the first to say it is necessary to make sure they are used ethically.  (More about that in future posts). 2) The Left has to accept that it will never be able to please everyone. There will be many people who will never change their minds, no matter the evidence presented, and unfortunately they must simply be politically beaten and defeated. Then we can get to work on making sure the next generation is not as badly afflicted with a conservative mentality as their parents are. 
The need to combat the tendency to resist changing our minds, whether it has natural or social causes, means that philosophy will never lose its value, for the main purpose of philosophy is to think about thinking, to question assumptions, to dig out what is taken for granted and examine if it should be. That's the whole point of the Socratic method of questioning. There are a few scientists out there who think that philosophy has lost its value and that neuroscience will soon tell us everything that we need to know about the human mind. Improved scientific understanding of the brain's functioning is to be praised and supported, and will help us understand how to overcome tendencies to cognitive conservatism that prevent the necessary progress we need to make and keep the world fit for human habitation. But even when we discover such techniques, we will need to examine their use philosophically to ensure their ethical application. 
And the need to combat the tendency to resist changing our minds, whether it has natural or social causes, means that democracy will never lose its value, for the main purpose of democratic deliberation is to figure out collectively what is best for the common good.  Deliberative examination and critique invite people to examine their own ideas, to share information and outlooks, and to take other’s needs and experience into account. I think that we will find that one necessary way to enhance social adaptability is to build more opportunities for thick deliberative democracy into the political system.

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