Balance, Signals, and Analogy

Three Sunday thoughts

On the necessity of balance in the force

Perhaps one of the most pernicious errors in human thought is this:

If some thing (a belief, action, value, etc.) results in negative consequences when taken too far, then the thing itself must be evil in some way.

Charles Taylor describes this quite succinctly in reference to a critique of commonplace metaethics of modernity (emphasis my own):

It is quick to jump to the conclusion that whatever has generated bad action must be vicious (hence nationalism must be bad because of Hitler, communitarian ethics because of Pol Pot, a rejection of instrumental society because of the politics of Pound and Eliot, and so on). What it loses from sight is that there may be genuine dilemmas here, that following one good to the end may be catastrophic, not because it isn't a good, but because there are other [goods] which can't be sacrificed without evil.

If we wish to recover any semblance of moral sanity, we must reject this mindset. If we wish to recover any sense of sanity as a society, we have to understand that there are various moral dilemmas we will face and that the key must be to find the proper balance of Goods in order to facilitate the healthiest society.

Signals and Noise

A lesson I learned working in finance that I feel has broader implications is this:

I would much rather have a weak signal without any noise clouding it, than a strong signal in a sea of noise. At least in the first case, I have a good idea where the signal is coming from/what it means. I am far more prone to misidentifying the signal in the latter case.

In other words, I would much rather have a very clear piece of information that shifts my estimates by +1% than a piece of information that could shift my estimates by 25%...maybe. Uncertainty is a devilish thing to deal with, and we all do our best, but sometimes the most intellectually honest answer you can give is something far too broad/uncertain to meaningfully guide any action. (You will hear "You're telling me this stock could go up 50% or down 25%? That isn't very helpful" many, many times.) This is why I much prefer a weak but clear signal over a strong but clouded one. The weak signal isn't telling me much, but I understand what it is telling me. The strong signal is telling me a lot, but I'm not sure what exactly it is telling me.

Similarly, I prefer to not engage with most of the media because, even when they break a meaningful story or have a piece of information that is quite illuminating, these powerful signals exist in a torrent of utter noise. Our mainstream media have been the biggest factories of "misinformation" for as long as they have existed. The yellow journalism, party newspapers, and USS Maine incident should be reminders of how long this has been going on for. I would rather be mildly less informed, than significantly misinformed. Sometimes it is simply impossible to determine what is signal and what is noise.

Analogy and Teaching

My piece on Friday regarding empathy talked a lot about analogy. Here is one excerpt:

My ability to put myself in someone else's shoes relies on analogy. Perhaps all of my grandparents are alive, but I can understand your feeling of loss via analogy (perhaps a family friend, or one of my extended family, or a pet I grew up with died). I abstract to the point of "archetypes" (for lack of a better term). I understand that you are feeling loss. I cannot experience this particular feeling of loss you are experiencing, but I can understand and look back to times when I felt loss myself. In that sense, I can feel sentiments that are akin to the sentiments you are feeling.

While I was talking about empathy in a broader political or social setting, I think a more particular setting that it is important in is teaching.

Analogy being the core of empathy means that empathy can be understood as learning and becoming proficient in the various languages other people speak. None of these languages are properly private, but they do have to be uncovered and understood over time. If I were to make a rather speculative bet, it would not shock me if the broken American pedagogy of the last 75-100 years is tied to the continued decline in empathy we see in our society. How the causal direction goes is not something I can venture a guess on.

A corollary to this is that a recovery of empathy is crucial if we want to have good teachers and a strong educational system. It would not be too insane to say that the lack of genuine empathy in our society is one of the biggest problems we face today.

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