"Local Discontinuity" of experience and belief

June 16, 2021

I've been struck lately by how different people are. This may sound like a stupid thing to be struck by - of course we're all different! However, this was not always the case locally

I was talking with my father recently, and I realized that his notion of reality is fundamentally different than mine. His is premised on wildly different experience, is sensitive to events that I find unimportant, and thinks completely different sorts of thoughts.

This is weird when you think about it. How can two people, so similar in genetics and location, be so different? 

We all live in an “abstract” world where remote ideas and events influence day-to-day existence. So while me and my father are close physically, we live in completely different parts of “idea space”.

 For example, my father is a chiropractor. He works everyday under an explanation of how the body works, fitting each individual body into his mental framework as he makes treatment decisions. He, like everyone else, works with a simplified construction of a specialized piece of reality.

Every finite being needs a simplified mental model of reality. My argument is that these models are rapidly diverging between people. With increased communication abilities, our social networks are expanding such that there is little overlap between otherwise close people. With professional specialization, everyone's daily challenges are completely different in nature.

Let’s contrast ourselves with people ~300 years ago. It is likely that in 1720 my father and I would be very similar people. Our concerns would both center on farming, local politics, etc. I may be concerned with taking over the farm and he isn't, yet he went through the same experience in his youth, and so did his father. My point is blatant local discontinuity in experience is new to humans.

The discontinuity is threatening to our current mode of understanding: ideology. A rigid, axiomatic world view necessarily finds outside ideas threatening. Today, the knee-jerk reaction to difference of opinion is to ignore it. You filter others through your axioms, opposed to a more empathetic stance. This is an understandable heuristic because it's crippling to constant rethink. Eschewing an identity-ideology is an incredibly stressful experience. However, under this new regime of local discontinuity the ideology heuristic is no longer a good one. 

Society is premised on local cooperation. You can fundamentally disagree with people from other regions and life will be fine, but things get dangerous when your "tribe" sees things differently. Class conflict, political vitriol, and protests cause social chaos, and we must work as a society to resolve these conflicts constructively. We need to resolve the disconnectedness between neighbors, lest life get a lot worse.


My solution.

 ( Note: this will certainly ahnge in the future)

Social homogenization is obviously a bad answer - we’ve tried this. I argue the need for an enlightenment period where we realize that contradictions between belief structures are necessary, yet can be resolved.

Our current mode of understanding stems from an unreasonable need for certainty. Living a more empathic life is possible, even enjoyable, when you can sit with the feeling of not knowing the full truth. My goal is to install some humility in humans. You are a finite being, so pretending that your beliefs are self-evident, and that you have managed to capture all the important features of reality in one lifetime, is folly. You are lying to yourself.

  1. A prerequisite to this “uncertainty mindset” is material comfort. The most important (positive) side effect of privilege is you can psychologically afford to admit uncertainty. In dire circumstances, uncertainty may cause you to be wrong, and being wrong may mean suffering or death. This ensures the monkey brain stays active, even when mental flexibility is a better heuristic in your situation. The consequence of failing for the wealthy is not as threatening. A person of material stability can absorb multiple failures and be fine, so entertaining uncertainty is easier.
  2. We need to realize that abstract ideas are not immediately threatening. 'Political Correctness" in it's toxic form is a dangerous way of life because it conflates abstract ideas with violence,  perpetuating a fear-based mindset in lieu of a more nuanced approach. Future success requires cognitive dissonance, in the sense of believing two things to be true until they can be synthesized. This sounds scary, but it’s simply a recognition of fintine perspective. If confronted with two contradictory positions, you should believe they are both true until you find an explanation that resolves the contradiction. Empathy is the key to this because understanding what led someone to another position is a synthesis into a broader world view.

In short, the “other side of the aisle” is not wrong or stupid. Everybody has a unique set of beliefs that follow naturally from prior experience. Understanding why someone holds their beliefs resolves any apparent contradictions.  Local discontinuity is mitigated by explaining other worldviews in terms of yours.

Personally, I cope with uncertainty by assuming that a shared basis of understanding exists - that there is an explanation that unifies all the seemingly contradictory things around me. Of course,  that explanation may be too hard for me to understand. But that’s ok. Most contradictions need not be resolved, anyway. Navigating life is a lot easier when you realize this.