Improving our cognitive toolkit – The Edge Question 2011 – Part III

Welcome back to some of the thoughtful answers of some bright minds to the question:

What scientific concept would improve everybody’s cognitive toolkit?

This post is part III of my small series about the Edge Question 2011; if you have missed part I or II look it up here and here. Off we go: more ideas worth knowing about:

11 Kayfabe

I have to admit I had to look this one up: Kayfabe is a term from professional wrestling. It is the portrayal of events within the industry as “real” (taken from Wikipedia). So it basically means that in professional wrestling everything is staged and the corporation scripts reality. Of course we all know that, so why is kayfabe in this list? Eric R. Weinstein argues that the idea of kayfabe works not only in wrestling but also in real life and if we would consider kayfabe as a possibility for events we would better understand the world. Far too often we think that deception is the exception when in fact it is the rule in systems of selective pressure. He says this is especially important when considering economic theory, which assumes perfect information while in real economy deception is widespread. Kayfabe in wrestling serves to reduce severe danger to participants and boredom and monotony to spectators and participants. A similar system of fabricated reality would be a tempting and applicable option for systems sharing those motivations: science, finance, politics, war and love.

12 Open systems

This again is a concept familiar to most. After all the internet is what made open systems popular. Open source codes and open standards in the web have been a major driving force of its inventiveness and creativity; the ability for everyone to use public open sources and communicate in one common language is what made the web what it is today. Thomas A. Bass argues that open systems have not only existed prior to the world wide web, for example in physics and philosophy, but that some forces are not exactly overjoyed to see open systems succeed and we should fight more to keep or create open systems. Groups more in favour of “closed systems” might for example include companies wanting to keep consumers from copying their systems or police states. Looking at the issue from a science point of view: Open Access publishing anyone?

13 Supervenience

Supervenience is a dependency relationship. It is about how everything relates to everything on different levels. Properties on higher levels supervene on properties of lower levels. Being the same on the lower level implies being the same on the higher level and being different on the higher level implies being different on the lower level, but importantly the opposite is not true: supervenience is not symmetric. This is easiest exemplified by a digital image: at the higher level, you see an image, for example of your partner. At the lower level, the information is in the pixels. The image supervenes on the pixels; no image may differ from another image without differing in its pixels. Yet, the pixels do not supervene on the image! Simply changing the resolution for example will change the pixels but the image will still be an image of your partner. Pixels determine image, but image does not determine pixels. Another example of supervenience is depicted in the box to the left. In his response, Joshua D. Greene states that understanding supervenience would help us understand relationships between complex things. He uses the relationship between humanities and science as well as between mind and brain as examples.

14 Emergence

Many answers named some concept related to emergence as the concept to improve everyone’s toolkit. One of them came from Nicholas A. Christakis. Emergence is the concept that a complex system has novel and coherent properties that cannot be predicted by looking at its parts. Some definitions also include supervenience (see above).  These novel properties are called emergent. The perfect example for emergence is life itself, but there are many others. On the molecular level, life arises from just carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen, phosphorus, sulfur and some other elements, but what an emergent property!

This has implications in science especially: A huge amount of science is done with a reductionist approach of taking systems apart and studying the parts on their own. This has led to many and amazing discoveries but according to emergence, some phenomenae can simply not be explained by studying parts of a system only. Systems Biology, a relatively new discipline of biology is trying to look at biological systems in their wholeness to try to answer questions inaccessible by looking at the parts only.

15 Contingent Superorganism

Superorganisms are organisms that are formed when individuals can link their fate to a (stronger) group. When they have appeared in evolution they have been very successful. Examples are eukaryotic cells, multicellular organisms and ant colonies. Jonathan Haidt thinks that the ability of us humans to form these superorganisms contingently, temporarily and not based on kinship is downright noble and terrifying at the same time and thus names contingent superorganisms as his answer. He mentions that too often we think of life and evolution as pure survival of the fittest, ignoring how good we are at cooperation. He also argues that in recent history any selfless or altruistic act was too quickly labeled as selfish in disguise owing to kin selection or reciprocal altruism. The ability to temporarily form superorganisms is found not only in bology but also in successful corporations as well as in military and it is the reward that makes us want to join larger groups, from rock bands over sports clubs to fraternities. It also is the dream of fascism, sacrifice for the good of the group. Understanding the idea of contingent superorganisms might lead us to better understand ourselves. And, I can’t help to like the idea that the “good in people” can NOT be explained by reciprocal altruism.

And finally, let me share my own thought on the concept that would improve everyone’s cognitive toolkit. It is more simple than most of the ideas presented here. I believe that a lot of the things in our world could be better if more people had a deeper understanding of causality. Understanding what is cause and what is effect can be quite difficult, in science as well as in everyday life. In science being able to distinguish between causes and effects is very important for experimental design as well as for analyzing results and I know some senior scientists having trouble with that. But especially in everyday life, understanding cause and effect will help people see through arguments and judge for themselves. If people were to spot causes and effects more accurately some scams would not be able to fool us. Also, if we would get more accustomed to thinking in these terms regularly I think it would make for much better arguments in politics and lead to better educated decisions in many situations where judging of options is involved.

This finally concludes the three posts about the Edge Question 2011. I hope you liked the series and come back for other posts. In any case, let me know.



Images: Wrestling image by jrandalic, handshake image by Aidan Jones.

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