Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Ignorance and blissful cooperation

Over the years, New York Times Op-Ed columnist David Brooks has written a number of pieces extolling the virtues of group cooperation over solo intellectual pursuits, and, naturally, I've criticized various of his conclusions, most recently here.

Brooks now has a new book out entitled--why did I not this one coming?--The Social Animal. In it, he sings the virtues of social connectedness and argues that the emotional, intuitive subconscious is much more important than the rational conscious in determining how we feel and what we do.  review of The Social Animal by philosopher Thomas Nagel appeared in this past weekend's New York Times Book Review, and  Nagel discusses two fallacies that underlie Brooks' conclusions. First:
Brooks has a terminological problem here. He describes the contents of the unconscious mind as “emotions, intuitions, biases, longings, genetic predispositions, character traits and social norms,” and later he includes “sensations, perceptions, drives and needs.” A majority of the things on this list are “conscious,” in the usual sense of the word, since they are parts of conscious experience. The sense in which they are unconscious, which is what Brooks has in mind, is that they are not under direct conscious control. I may consciously choose from a menu, but I do not consciously choose what foods to like.
There is moral and intellectual laziness in his sentimental devaluation of conscious reasoning, which is what we have to rely on when our emotions or our inherited norms give unclear or poorly grounded instructions.
Along these lines, it's interesting to reconcile Brooks' reverence for social connections and for the intelligence of cooperative groups with a recent Economist article subtitled "A group's 'intelligence' depends in part on its members' ignorance." Discussing Iain Couzin's computer models of fish shoals, the article observes:
If the models are anything to go by, the best outcome for the group—in this case, not being eaten—seems to depend on most members’ being blissfully unaware of the world outside the shoal and simply taking their cue from others. This phenomenon, Dr Couzin argues, applies to all manner of organisms, from individual cells in a tissue to (rather worryingly) voters in the democratic process. His team has already begun probing the question of voting patterns. But is ignorance really political bliss? Dr Couzin’s models do not yet capture what happens when the leaders themselves turn out to be sharks.
Hmm. Is ignorance bliss? Is the slavish adherence to your subconscious urges, and the slavish following of leaders via mimicry of those closest to you and blindness to the larger world around you, the best route to happiness?

Yes, absolutely--assuming you are a sardine.

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