Why do I find Sam Harris boring? His was one of the first few podcasts I listened to, and I agreed with a large proportion of things he said. I realized lately that I haven’t even subscribed to his podcast on my new phone of 6 months, and haven’t heard an episode in more than a year. I remember thinking he was just plain boring, but now that I think about it, it’s a lazy, unsatisfying answer given his objective compatibility with my tastes. Leaving aside the substantial likelihood that he just became stale and repetitive or that my own views have evolved slightly to no longer be compatible with his, I instead think it most likely that Claude Shannon’s view of information has something to do with this. Shannon’s beautiful connection between information and entropy blew open the science of communication and info theory. As a WW2 codebreaker, Shannon figured out the intrinsic patterns in language, the probability distributions of letters (‘e’ will appear the most in an English message), digrams (q will be followed by u), trigrams, syllables, words and even sentences. Given these probability distributions, one can guess the next letter/digram/syllable with reasonable accuracy, meaning every successive letter conveys a little less unique information than the previous. A totally random string of letters, high entropy, with no discernible probability distribution conveys the most information. This is my problem with Sam Harris. His level of entropy is close to 0.
I think of this as the bouquet model of ideology. Buy 1, get 20 free. I’m a liberal American, I must vote Democrat, support gender/race/LGBT rights, socialism and abortions. I’m a rationalist like Sam Harris, I must be atheistic, pro-Enlightenment values, pro-liberty, deterministic and skeptical of free will. It’s a badge of honor, a demonstration of internal consistency, an unqualified virtue. We applaud consistent people and denigrate equivocators and hypocrites. In theory, internal consistency seems an efficient way to build out your world views, you have to start somewhere so why not start with those views that are highly correlated with the views you already hold. But in practice, I imagine we either take these bouquet add-ons for granted without further scrutiny, or we assemble a kangaroo court in our confirmation-biased minds and make a show of democratically electing the add-on as the newest member of the ideological pantheon, which now becomes even stronger in unearned legitimacy.
If we accept that active falsification of our beliefs is the intellectually honest mode of rationality, and that this is difficult to do against the flow of confirmation bias, then perhaps the rational strategy in building out ideology complexes is to begin with world views that are least correlated with our current set. It isn’t natural. Ideology is like a heuristic we use so we don’t need to devote limited cognitive resources to evaluate every single issue we’re faced with. That’s why cognitive dissonance exists. Despite being frowned upon in the music of Antiquity, dissonant intervals like the minor second and major seventh became popular during the Baroque period. Bach uses it generously in the aptly titled Widerstehe doch der Sünde — upon sin oppose resistance. Dissonance creates tension, and then the consonance resolves the tension making the entire piece far more dramatic and enjoyable than one of purely consonant intervals. I’d like to think cognitive dissonance works like music, that we can force it upon ourselves and then resolve the tension one way or the other.
When Godel broke apart formal axiomatic systems, internal consistency became a thing of the past, something that could never be proved or disproved. But there’s a part of the puzzle missing in this premature fatalism, if something is provable as inconsistent, then the statement is certainly false and no longer part of the axiomatic system, so all we need to do is focus on proving inconsistencies rather than consistencies, leaving behind a solid kernel of theorems that are beyond critique at a certain level of analysis. We need hypocrisy more than we need internal consistency. It is fitting that Godel himself changed his mind towards the end of his career. Einstein wrote strongly in favor of a Platonist approach to math, and then tore Platonism down completely somewhere else. Wittgenstein wrote one of the greatest works of philosophy, then never wrote anything else, and then completely changed his mind about what he had written. And of course, there’s the line I’ve been using for years until learning only last week that it was by none other than Keynes ‘When the facts change, I change my mind, what do you do sir?’
That ideology constrains original thinking and individual expression isn’t anything new, I’m very sensitive to any amassing nebula of views that is approaching the critical gravitational status of ideology. But I figured the contagion was contained in the realm of the social sciences, where empirical truth was harder to access. More importantly, it’s easy to see the impact of personality on these social views, like the research findings that orderliness and conscientiousness correlate with conservatism or openness and compassion correlate with liberalism. But today the contagion spread. While reading about the on-going debate about mathematical formalism vs constructivism, I found myself thinking how neatly these two opposing philosophies might align with personalities, that orderliness might be highly correlated with constructivism while openness correlates with Platonism. In an uber-empirical abstracted field of pure rationality like math, surely personality could not correlate with truth. In which case, choosing a philosophy of math based on personality seems totally random. Be an active hypocrite. It’s hard. It might be fun. It could be my next great epistemic tool.