Tuesday, June 08, 2004

Filling the World with Fools

The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.

-Herbert Spencer

Although some may take Spencer's quotation above as a witticism, it strikes me as one of the most succinct analyses of social life of which I'm aware.

There is some software being produced by means of evolutionary processes. Instead of programming the software, line by line, as is done in traditional programming, a programmer will create a specified environment and specified outcomes and then write a very simple program that constantly creates new, mutating versions of itself. It turns out that there are some software problems which are extremely difficult to solve by means of deliberate human design but for which evolved software solutions may be created quickly and easily.

Such evolved software results in computer code that is an absolutely incomprehensible mess; it would be very difficult to figure out the resulting "logic." But as long as the resulting software performs well, it doesn't matter how messy it is on the inside.

Clearly, in order to obtain software that functions, it is necessary to specify conditions accurately. Software that evolved in a false environment would not function correctly in a real environment. It would be stupid to evolve software for which there was not hope of it functioning correctly in a real environment.

Although some may find the analogy offensive, there is a serious, non-trivial analogy between evolved software and human behavior. I am not talking about biological evolution here at all: I am strictly referring to the process by means of which young human beings acquire skills, habits, and attitudes which they will later depend on as adults. Many humans in our society have evolved skills, habits, and attitudes which are not optimized for the real world in which they live. Current welfare and education policy seemed design to create human beings who cannot function successfully as adults. It would be comic if it were not so brutally horrifying.

It must be admitted that, with respect to human behavior, we are largely clueless about cause and effect. Although there are large numbers of social scientists, therapists, social workers, public policy analysts, and others who make their living telling us about cause and effect in human behavior, enormous social problems continue. Crime, poverty, addictions, high-risk behaviors, etc. have in no sense been definitively solved by the professionals who study these issues for a living.

At present academics debate the causes of dysfunctional behaviors; then without any resolution to the debate, other people design "solutions" to the problems based on the theories of a particular group of academics; then a politician or private funder backs one of these approaches for awhile. Later, when the problem hasn't been solved, then some other group receives public support and funding. And, meanwhile, by some measures our social life improves and by some measures it worsens.

With fewer constraints on our lives, some of us will do extraordinarily foolish things. Some will die by means of foolish choices. Some will allow their children to die, in ways that could have been prevented by experts, because of foolish choices. But allowing us greater latitude in the choices that we make will also allow us to discover new and better ways to live, individually and collectively.

From the perspective of most societies, our culture's unwillingness to impose censorship is seen as unbelievable stupid. But, as a society, we have committed ourselves to freedom of thought. Freedom of action is the next necessary step. All the advantages of freedom of thought, in terms of allowing a discovery process that can result in new and better ideas, applies 100-fold to freedom of action. For precisely the same reasons, freedom of action will result in new and better ways of living.

The cost of new and better ways of thinking is that foolish ideas and degrading images are pervasive. The cost of those new and better ways of living is that fools will harm their lives and the lives of their children.

But I’m convinced that freedom of thought is worth the cost. And that freedom of action is worth the cost as well.

As Alan McConnell quips, "If it can't be abused, its not freedom."