Wednesday 17 April 2019

Why is it that Modern Man cannot learn from experience?

It might be helpful for me to to explain this in some detail. But that Modern man is, indeed, unable to learn from experience is one of the main discoveries of my life. Nothing that has happened, is nothing that ever could happen, will make any difference to the core beliefs of the normal, average, mainstream person of today.  I take that observation as proved.

The reason is Modern man cannot learn frm the experiences of his life is that the basic (metaphysical) assumptions - which are explicitly taught in all social institutions, but - more importantly - are implicit in the entirety of mainstream public discourse (political, governmental, legal, educational, medical, mass media - and even church discourse); are that Things Happen either by material causation or by random chance.

When 'something happens' in Life, therefore, it was either merely something that would be expected from understanding the causal factors that led up to it; or else it was merely random chance.

And if The Thing was materially caused, then it has no meaning - it is just an outcome of preceding causes. But if The Thing was just due to random chance, then it also has no meaning, since it Just Happened.

So, it does not matter what happens because - by our frame of reference, by our assumptions, by our fundamental metaphysical convictions - we Already Know that It (whatever It is) has no meaning.

Ultimately this meaninglessness is because we moderns (in public discourse) regard Reality as accidental, not created.

If Reality is created, then it has whatever purpose and meaning is intended by The Creator. But if Reality Just Happened - by some combination of material causation and random chance - then it has no purpose.

Reality Just Is... Just is, whatever it is...

If Reality has no purpose, is not going anywhere (except where material causality and chance happen to be taking it) then Reality has no meaning. Meaning only derives from purpose. Otherwise it is just a case of Stuff Happens (or does not happen, as the case may be).

It is pretty obvious, therefore, why it is that Modern Man does not learn from experience. The answer is that - according to Modern Man's assumptions - learning from one's life is not possible, therefore experience is irrelevant.

(For a typical Modern...) One's life is a mixture of material causality and accidents, it Just Happens, what is there to learn?

We can't do anything about randomness, and even if we know something about material causality, it happens to us anyway, regardless.

For Modern man, life is essentially passive. The only 'problem' is psychologically adjusting to that 'fact'.

What is the alternative? Well, my alternative is to believe the truth that Reality is created (by a loving God), has a purpose, has meaning - and therefore that my Life, my experiences, are tailored to my needs.

I believe that my experience - here, now, in actual life - are designed so that I may learn that which is  important for my eternal well-being. My life is-being tailored, designed, such that I can and should learn from experience.

I even believe that this is the case for those who regard the universe as accidental and experience Life as meaningless! Their lives, like mine, are tailored specifcially to teach them what they most need.

The experience of meaninglessness is the lesson that these people need to learn. They need to ask why, and to keep asking. They need to learn that their daily proximate experience of life as meaningless is directly derived from their prior metaphysical assumption that life is meaningless.

Until they address their fundamental assumptions, they are self-doomed. They must recognise that it is their assumptions that deny meaning, not their experience: it is their theory that denies meaning, not the observed facts.

So, such people (most people) cannot ever find meaning in the experience of life, no matter where they look or how diligently they seek...

MIMO: Meaninglessness-in - meaninglessness-out.


Francis Berger said...

This post nails it. Life reduced to the level of a feckless shrug.

Robert Brockman II said...

“We can't do anything about randomness, and even if we know something about material causality, it happens to us anyway, regardless.”

I’m pretty sure we can get some of the Moderns out of the trap if we can show that the “randomness” is fundamentally connected to subjective conscious experience and free will, and therefore subject to our control at some level.

A big problem here is faith in statistics, which I expect is self-reinforcing: imagine a situation in which you at least partially control the outcome of “randomness” with conscious will. If you have convinced yourself that this is not true, that the randomness is the result of impersonal statistical forces, you will use your will to “unbias” the results! This is probably why scientists with enough faith in statistics will never see anything miraculous: their preconceived metaphysical assumptions are suppressing anything interesting through some sort of observer effect.

Most people have an instinct that they have free will, even hard core materialists talk about free will being a very strong illusion. Some variant of Pascal’s Wager seems appropriate here: if we do not have free will, indeed none of this matters, so we lose nothing by assuming that we have free will, by making it a core metaphysical assumption. We can use this and modern physics (basic QM and Bell’s theorem) to show that conscious will is behind the “randomness” — and at this point we are most of the way out of the trap.

— Robert Brockman

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Material causation is predictable and can be learned from. You touch the stove, get burned, and learn not to touch it again. The metaphysical "meaninglessness" of the experience shouldn't make that kind of learning impossible.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

The more I think about this post, the more I disagree with the assumptions behind it. A rat in a Skinner box can learn from experience. So can a gambler. Meaningfulness is not required. What is required is some sort of continuity, such that similar causes and circumstances can be expected to yield similar outcomes. Material causation meets that requirement. So, in their way, do the unchanging laws of probability behind "random chance."

So, of course, would experience designed by an intelligent agent for a purpose, but I deny that all aspects of our experience may be so characterized. No overall purpose lies behind our experience because it is the fruit of the free choices of multiple agents, not all of whom are working in harmony for a shared goal.

I don't see how you can accept agency and pluralism and still see our experience as "tailor made" by one particular agent.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - But the causal determinism applies to the mind that is supposedly learning.

All that we say entails consciousness, and that consciousness is invalidated by causal-randomness.

I'm not saying it is coherent, but modern people see them-selves as constructed by external causes and forces - or, at least, are plagued by the suspicion/ fear that this may be so.

In which case they are not really capable of learning, but only of implementing algoriths that just happen to have been implanted in them.

It is a profound kind of self-mistrust (and this has been/ can be amplified by some Christian ideas, such as original sin - and the fear/ suspicion that we are rotten at heart and require external divine control, if we are not to destroy ourselves).

@RB - That's too physicsy for me! - something I am trying to break free from in theology - but it may help others.

I should point out that randomness does not exist in real life - it is only a mathematical model. There is an instructive irony in the way that - over a span of c.400 years (since Pascal) an abstract model (originally usued to analyse gambling odds) has become regarded as the ultimate reality!

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, I agree that consciousness and agency are vital assumptions, and that the modern worldview that excludes them is dysfunctional -- but they are not necessary for learning from experience. Algorithms that learn from experience are commonplace.

And it's not that moderns lack the general ability to learn from experience. It is only a particular set of lessons that they are incapable of learning -- so that incapacity must have something to do with the content of those unlearnables.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - There are an 'infinite' number of 'algorithms' - but take one of the possible algorithms.

First - who says it is an alogorithm? Somebody or something must decide. Who or what determines whether the algorithm in question can lean from experience? - or how well it learns? Another algorithm cannot do this (infinite regress).

Only a something with consciousness (that thinks) can idenify a thing which learns, can determine whether it really does learn, how well it learns etc.

This was a major point of Steiner's Philosophy of Freedom, taken up by Owen Barfield later - in our discussions we simply take for granted consciousness - or Thinking as Steiner terms it. We can't know anything or learn anything without there being thinking going-on.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

Bruce, I agree with all that. We seem to be talking past each other.

If no one in fact had consciousness or the ability to think, then, yes, there would be no one to identify whether or not any learning-from-experience was going on. But the situation in the modern world is not that no one in fact has consciousness or agency; everyone does have them to some degree. The situation is that people's metaphysical assumptions do not allow them to incorporate the philosophical concepts of consciousness and agency into their explicit model of the world.

But those philosophical concepts (the concepts themselves, not the state of affairs which the concepts describe) are not necessary in order to learn from experience. Children and animals and other philosophically naive entities are able to learn from experience. I would argue (though the point is not an essential one) that even something like a completely unconscious chess-playing computer program can be described as learning from experience (though, as you say, someone else must be conscious in order to judge that such learning has taken place).

We need to distinguish among these three propositions:

1. We must be conscious in order for us to judge whether we ourselves or anyone or anything else has learned from experience. (I agree.)
2. A given entity must be conscious in order for that entity to learn from experience. (This is debatable and mostly depends on how "learning" is defined.)
3. A given entity must explicitly accept a philosophy that can adequately accommodate the concept of consciousness in order for that entity to learn from experience. (I disagree with this, but it seems to be what your post assumes.)

You don't have to believe in consciousness to be conscious. You don't have to believe in free will to have free will. Hume could still play billiards despite believing himself to have disproved the idea of causation.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - OK. On that basis, what I am saying is that Modern people cannot learn from experience because they make themselves unable to learn, by their assumptions.

I think what generally happens is that there is a certain amount of unconscious and childlike automatic learning; but when this is brought to the point of direct conflict, the point at which people must stand against the mainstream Establishment propaganda, they find their unconscious learning ('common sense') undercut by their explicit incoherent metaphysical assumptions. And they cave-in.

This is related to the lack of courage, bearing in mind that (as CS Lewis says) courage is required for any virtue to be effective. And it is worst among the highest status and most motivated, because the unconscious spontaneous learning is in fact done by the childish and uneducated (and inarticulate, and instinctive) part of ourselves. Hence it can plausiblty be depicted as dumb, and dangerous.

Courage is perhaps a bit narrow for what I mean; but the point I want to make is that modernity has (over several generations) been eroding away at the metaphysical assumptions; and modern culture is *proactively and systematically challenging* our unconscious/ spontaneous/ natural/ common-sensical moral behaviour, and principles.

If you take any of the usual modern examples I think you can see (or feel) how this works. We experience and learn stuff about men and women, and their differences; but when a modern person is explicitly confronted by the denial of knowledge that we have (apparently) learned then our condifence slips-away, because we cannot derive our beliefs or behaviours from our assumptions. We find that our assumptions are arbitrary, and our beiefs and our behaviours are therefore arbitrary.

My experience (including myself) has been that there are many things that people 'feel' (or know, in a preliminary way) are wrong; but when challenged that become aware that they have no explicit grounds that justify this rejection. In fact, their explicit grounds for knowing all deny the validity of what they feel.

This is the reality of 'moral relativism' - it is an erosion of confidence, an erosion of motivation - people become insufficiently sure of the natural/ spontaneous feelings to stick by them. They then 'cave-in' to the massive force of public discourse/ peer pressure and (especially women) rationalise what they have done by saying it is right - which then increases their cowardly confusion, their demotivation.

Part of this is that our spontaneous knowledge is 'concrete' while public knowledge is abstract. When we are compelled to articulate spontaneous learned knowledge, it is converted to abstraction; and reasoing among abstractions is so difficult for most people that they cannot and will not do it, and are unsure about their conclusions when they do. By compulsory abstraction; again confidence, and courage and motivation, are eroded.

In a nutshell, modern metaphysics is demotivating, in the deepest and most fundamental way - so that learning from experience becomes so feeble, and easily overwritten or confused, as to become ignorable.

Wm Jas Tychonievich said...

"My experience (including myself) has been that there are many things that people 'feel' (or know, in a preliminary way) are wrong; but when challenged that become aware that they have no explicit grounds that justify this rejection."

Yes, this is absolutely correct. After leaving the CJCLDS, I found that my moral intuitions were still the same as before but that I was unable to justify them when challenged. I often missed being able to just say "It's against my religion" and have that be the end of the conversation. I managed to hold out against the sexual revolution for about four years without the benefit of religion, but in the end my resistance was eroded slowly but surely by my inability to give satisfying answers to questions of the "Well, why shouldn't we?" variety. I also found that, no longer under command to observe a sabbath, I was no longer really able to do so. "Demotivation" sums it up.

Bruce Charlton said...

@William - That's very interesting to hear.

Yes, it can (it does) happen very quickly. The inertia of even the best and most pervasive kind of religious upbringing lasts less and less time, as the power and pervasiveness set against it gets greater. Separation from parents accelerates it.

For most people there is little or no inertia to overcome, so things get worse very fast and very far.

I think this applies especially to women, and women are less likely to extricate themselves - both because they are more susceptible to culture, and because culture is more fully-supportive of all aspects of the sexual revolution in women.

"It's against my religion" has still not been surpassed as a 'reason', not least because there is never any time for anything more - but of course it is specifically disallowed for Christians; to the point that saying this phrase is interpreted as admitting to being a dumb, crazed, fanatical bigot...

My only constructive suggestion is that this needs to be supplemented by direct, primary, intuitive knowledge of the rights and wrongs of the specific situation under consideration. Not general applications of general rules (which can always be picked apart as probablistic, with exceptions); but development of that divine inner guidance system which (nearly always) tells us what is right, for us, here and now, exactly - and when we get it wrong, informs us of the ecessity of repentance.

This works; but only if we acknowledge its objective reality; as a prior assumption that we know intuitively.

Robert Brockman said...

“@RB - That's too physicsy for me! - something I am trying to break free from in theology - but it may help others. “

The magic is that physics can help you break free of physics permanently, revealing that a huge factor in what happens in the world can only be explained by theology and is forever beyond the reach of physics (and thus all sciences built on it.) From the perspective of physics, what determines the outcome of quantum measurements (and thus all observations) could be anything: Jesus, Vishnu, Buddha, Satan, an infinite tower of turtles, etc., anything *except* for a deterministic rules-based mechanism explainable by physics!

I’ve been finding simpler (yet still accurate) explanations of the underlying math and physics such that non-specialists can “see” what must be going on without having to “trust the scientist”. I’ll report back if I successfully liberate some physicists with this understanding.

— Robert Brockman