Adaptive Stories and Overdetermination
Maps of the World
A theme that I repeatedly return to in my work is the idea of the Map:
Inside of our heads, we assimilate (or reject) information into our mental model of the world. Each one of us does this. We construct a mental map of how the World truly is, and we then judge further experiences based on that mental map.
In particular, I have raised concerns about how individuals vigorously resist admitting their Maps of the World are incorrect, as such an admission necessarily leads to an existential crisis of some magnitude:
And so, I already have my Truth before I encounter a new event. I may not be consciously aware of this, but there is information that can be assimilated and information that must be rejected. If I fail to properly curate my experience to fit my preexisting map, I will fall into existential crisis.
To have your map proven demonstrably wrong is to lose one’s bearings in the world. Where do you go? What do you do? Who do you trust? Your map is useless. You are Lost.
I was reminded of this by the recent conflagration on Twitter regarding BlackRock, where I noted a feeling (which a mutual of mine kindly pointed out as being "Gell-Mann Amnesia") after seeing the various incorrect claims that the source of BlackRock's success comes from the Fed or the State, etc:
Another mutual of mine had this to say:
History, as far as we can understand, appears to resemble some kind of overdetermined web. For any event, there are a variety of causes, and even absent a particular impetus, the event may still have happened. What this means, of course, is that it becomes extremely easy to construct narratives, as the overdetermination presents a wide variety of "causes" to pick from and declare to be THE cause, depending on whatever your personal feelings are. Remember, our Maps of the World are deeply interlinked with our identities and values:
All these descriptions of reality fit within a conceptual framework of narrative, motivation, values, and norms. Our understanding of the world is always and everywhere embedded in morality (or, more specifically, our concept/map of moral space).
“To know who I am is to know where I stand. My identity is defined by the commitments and identifications which provide the frame or horizon within which I can try to determine from case to case what is good, or valuable, or what ought to be done, or what I endorse or oppose.”
(Taylor, Sources of the Self)
Our values are the water that give us life. They are what motivate us to keep going. They are what give us meaning.
Which leads itself back to the point I raised above: individuals construct their Maps of the World and will do whatever it takes to avoid admitting the Map is wrong and entering an existential crisis. So how does that get manifested? What does it look like? No one knows everything, so what happens when new information is presented and a Map must be updated? People are not infinitely inflexible. They don't draw up a whole map and then refuse to ever change it. The Map slowly evolves over time. Fog is removed as new areas are sketched out with new information. What I am trying to say is that, our Maps, or at least our explanations of our Maps, manifest as "adaptive stories."
"What is an 'adaptive story,'" you might ask. The term was popularized (invented?) by Gould and Lewontin in their famous 1979 critique of evolutionary theories: "The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm". Originally targeting "functionalist" explanations of evolution, in which the scientist presumes that any feature of a species must have evolved to solve some problem the species faced in its environment, Gould and Lewontin had this to say on these "adaptive stories":
the rejection of one adaptive story usually leads to its replacement by another, rather than to a suspicion that a different kind of explanation might be required. Since the range of adaptive stories is as wide as our minds are fertile, new stories can always be postulated.
Plausible stories can always be told. The key to historical research lies in devising criteria to identify proper explanations among the substantial set of plausible pathways to any modern result."
(Gould and Lewontin, The Spandrels of San Marco and the Panglossian Paradigm)
Each of us tells an adaptive story about our Maps. This is how people bend themselves into pretzels to justify their priors. And so I want to delve into more detail on how our Maps change. I know I have done this before, but I want to sketch it out further and with clearer language. In a previous piece, I noted that there are three main ways our values can shift: reason, moral dilemmas, and trauma. But that doesn't properly explain the entirety of our Maps. Our Maps incorporate our values, yes, but those values serve as landmarks and guides for incorporating information we acquire and experiences we may have. So my previous explanation did not provide a complete account of how our Maps of the World change. Let us delve further into that topic.
We have our basic foundations, our "unassailable" values, the Goods that we resist shifting due to the discomfort such instability causes. But our stories of how the World works, our "directions" along the Map, incorporate more than these values. It is these stories that must be adaptive. And as Gould and Lewontin mentioned, there are always a huge variety of plausible adaptive stories that can be told to incorporate new information alongside our values.
Various accounts of history, schools of economics, theories of the mind, and other explanations for how the World works begin from assumptions that are effectively never challenged since one can simply construct a new adaptive story to explain away any new information that might theoretically pose a challenge to the idea. There are certain fields where such stories may be inevitable, but they certainly are not inevitable in either history or economics. And in both of these, adaptive stories need to be treated with healthy doses of skepticism. In the words of Granovetter:
As Gould and Lewontin suggest for biology, one problematic element of these 'adaptive stories' is that while in principle appealing to an historical account, they actually skip over historical research by appealing to a speculative idea about what 'must' have happened.
(Granovetter, Society and Economy)
I will temper Granovetter's claim as such:
In most cases, adaptive stories include a healthy dose of historical research. But rather than engaging with the overdetermination and complex web of causes that characterize history, the research aims (either intentionally or unintentionally) to single out only the particular causes that support the adaptive story.
If you want to understand why economists are the only group of experts with a worse record for predictions than weathermen, this is part of that reason. If we wish to understand how the world works, we must come to terms with overdetermination and parse out the various relations between institutions and individuals that actually existed.
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(Cover image from Map Scaping)