Post scriptum (2022, week 24) — A remedy for FOMO, thinking like a scientist, and the moral responsibility to be an informed citizen
Post scriptum is a weekly curation of my tweets. It is, in the words of the 16th-century French essayist and philosopher, Michel de Montaigne, “a posy of other men’s flowers and nothing but the thread that binds them is mine own.”
In this week’s Post scriptum: The conception of free will can lead us away from our social-media-driven anxieties; why thinking like a scientist will make you happier; how might we alleviate our society’s misinformation problem?; the economics of bubbles; doing more than what duty requires; Mondrian moves; and, finally, the problem with democracy.
A remedy for FOMO
According to Jeanne Proust, FOMO (the ‘fear of missing out’) is “an echo of an existential conundrum related to a deep sense of irresolution in the face of the myriad possible paths our lives can take.”
And although it first appeared two decades ago, the pervasive apprehension that others might be having rewarding experiences from which one is absent is a much older phenomenon that is fundamental to our human condition “This condition has been exacerbated by today’s technology-obsessed society. The ‘infobesity’ coming from social media platforms — the proliferation of possibilities, or at least the illusory impression of such an abundance, along with an ungrounded sense of accessibility — feeds an unprecedented awareness of how other people live their lives: what they watch, buy, enjoy, know, experience and share,” Proust writes in A Remedy For FOMO.
But instead of looking at the immediate social and psychological causes and effects of a narrowly defined FOMO, and at Band-Aid solutions from shallow self-help books, she wonders if we misunderstand regret and its anticipation over the choices we make. “Perhaps FOMO, and irresolution in general, is just the byproduct of a distorted perspective on the relationship between time and free will.”
“FOMO and other ‘decision disabilities’ […] are built on the illusion that time is space or can be spatialized,” Proust writes. “But duration (concrete, real, lived time) operates as a growing snowball: It is the dense process of the past perpetually feeding itself with the present, thereby accumulating, growing and reshaping itself constantly, making it simply impossible to predict what will be or could have been. The deep self is precisely this dynamic process of interpenetration of mental flows, which creates the future from the past but also reorganizes the past. The accumulation of new moments reorganizes the whole self, therefore making all decisions and actions, when stemming from it, utterly new and unpredictable.
The ‘possible’ has no existence, even as a fleshless idea, before the act. A possibility becomes a possibility when it is realized: A free act creates the possible as we enact it — it doesn’t choose among preformed possibilities. How do you know you were free when deciding to read this article? Because, you might be tempted to say, you could have done otherwise — you could have chosen to do something else instead. But that is a gross misunderstanding about how life and reality as duration unfold.
Does this mean it is absurd to regret anything? That we should never feel guilty for what we think we’ve done wrong? Certainly not, but we cannot possibly be transported back in time to make better decisions. It is because we took certain decisions in the past, some of which we regret, that we are now willing to make amends — and better decisions.
Time is not a vacuum in which our free acts take place — it is a textured duration, a creative force manifesting itself through the uninterrupted change and the accumulative mobility of the self. The free act emerging from that self remains unpredictable, even for the one who is doing it — not from nothing, but as a creation. Like an artist’s painting: A work of art will never perfectly match what the artist had imagined. It will be radically new, though it emerges from the artist.
Determinists and defenders of free will alike ignore the ‘processual’ nature of reality. They both say that if free will exists, it has to be defined as radically undetermined. [But for ] Henri Bergson, a free act translates who we are as a perpetually growing, interpreting, transforming self. Our character is always present in all our decisions, as a synergetic, holistic synthesis of all our past states. But it is not determining our actions in a mechanistic way.
Instead of hypocritically trying to embrace a JOMO (the ‘joy of missing out’) attitude, we should more radically let go of the assumptions behind FOMO and JOMO alike by changing our perception of what time and free will really are. Bergson’s freedom — durational, personal and creative — invites us to intuitively grasp the unforeseeable newness that our perpetually evolving personality brings with itself at every instant. That here and now in the making should not be just the object of a healthy, humble resignation; it should be the occasion of perpetual marvel.
Bergson rejected the idea of a tree of possibilities and the angst that it generates in us: There are no such things as missed opportunities, as ‘dead’ branches left behind, as futures renounced. So say goodbye to the incapacitating shoulda, coulda, woulda obsession. And be amazed at the continual creation of unpredictable novelty.”
Thinking like a scientist will make you happier
“We are bombarded by information all the time, and your average person really doesn’t know who or what to trust,” Al-Khalili tells Gallagher. “But we can learn to know who and what to trust. We can employ some of the ways that we do science — examining biases, the importance of uncertainty, being prepared to change your mind in the light of new evidence. Those sorts of things go against human nature because we want to be right about our opinions. We don’t like to be told we are wrong. But that’s not the way we do things in science.”
Science is carried out and funded by humans with various biases and motives. But would you say it still is a uniquely trustworthy enterprise?
[Al-Khalili] “This is not an easy issue. Science of course is very broad. In my area of research in theoretical physics, to a large extent it is value-free. The equations of quantum mechanics that I might come up with or write down will be exactly the same, whether they’re discovered by physicists in China or Russia. There’s a universality about the laws of physics that transcend cultures and political ideologies. But of course there are lots of areas of science, particularly in the social sciences, dealing with the complexity of human behavior, where it’s difficult to avoid value judgements and biases. And that’s just the way scientists have to behave, to try and remove biases, or examine their own biases.
It’s even more difficult for the wider public, who are not trained in science, to know who to trust and what to trust. You see something on YouTube or you read an article online — how do you know (a) whether it’s good science and it’s based on firm evidence and data, and (b) whether whoever is getting that idea across has their own vested interests? Many scientists work for corporations and industry, in the pay of people who do have other vested interests, so it is difficult.
My message is that you shouldn’t take a lot of these ideas at face value. We have to invest some effort into digging in to find out whether something comes from a reputable source or not. To some extent, we may have to rely on technology to help us do that filtering. But even that comes with its dangers. Who’s creating the AI that’s telling you what is fake news and what is good news? As a society, we have to have this discussion because we need to know how to discriminate among all the information that we are being bombarded with every day.”
Do you think we can know reality, the world “out there,” as it truly is, or is it more complicated than that?
[Al-Khalili] “This is an age-old question and it particularly came to the fore a century ago with the development of quantum mechanics: the most counterintuitive idea in science, the theory of the subatomic world. Famously there were long-running debates between the leading physicists of the time, Einstein versus the Danish physicist Niels Bohr. Einstein was a realist. He believed there’s a real world out there and it’s science’s job to get as close as we can to that truth. In The Joy of Science, I lay my cards on the table. I would side with Einstein on that one. We may never reach it, but the world is the way it is. We can’t make up our own narrative. We can’t decide on our own reality. But Niels Bohr, the father of quantum mechanics — the guy was a genius — would argue that the job of science isn’t to find out how the world is, because we can never find out how it is. The job of science is to see what we can say based on what we see, our perception, of how the world is. We can never say how the world really is.”
Do you feel like that’s a cop out?
[Al-Khalili] “Yes. We should say there’s a real world out there, and it’s our job to try and find ways of breaking out from the models that we create in our minds — the reality that we construct in our minds — that we hope reflects what the real world is like. I don’t see any reason why we should absolve ourselves from that responsibility.”
Why do you say that cognitive dissonance is far more serious in our modern culture and times than it has ever been?
[Al-Khalili] “Cognitive dissonance, the idea that we’ll have a view and then we’ll be confronted with something that goes completely against it, is something that happens to us on a daily basis. Pre-internet, we tended to read the newspaper or get our news from a source that we felt that aligned with our worldview. To a large extent, we still do that now, but what has changed is that the internet and social media and YouTube have amplified the problem, because we are now exposed to the opposing views in a very real way, far more than we’d ever been before. Confirmation bias, you like to hear what you already believe in, was much easier in the past. Life was simpler.
Today we are confronted with having to deal with information coming from across the whole spectrum, for any particular issue, whether it’s political, ideological, or religious. And we adopt a defense mechanism against that, which is to reject the views that we don’t like, that we don’t agree with. And my argument is, Hang on. Don’t be so hasty in rejecting it, however uncomfortable it makes you feel. Learn that there’s no shame in changing your mind in the light of new information.”
Why should we question our motives for believing what we think is true?
[Al-Khalili] “It’s the way we do things in science. We constantly test our own ideas and because we know if we are wrong about something, other scientists eventually will discover it. Of course, some scientists will stick to their guns no matter what, but they don’t last long. Those ideas don’t survive very long. Just because you want something to be true or you want something to be correct, doesn’t make it so. I think it’s a nice lesson that wider society could adopt. Being able to admit you are wrong, to change your mind, in science is a strength, unlike in politics, where it’s regarded as a weakness, right? Politicians don’t like to admit mistakes or that they’re wrong. Wouldn’t it be refreshing if they could say, ‘Oh, actually. No, you’ve got a good point there. I’ve changed my mind. I now think this.’”
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The moral responsibility to be an informed citizen
In On the moral responsibility to be an informed citizen, Solmu Anttila, a PhD candidate in philosophy at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam who is working on the political theory of knowledge and information, explores how responsible people are for knowing what they know and share. Or, since awareness and knowledge are prerequisites of responsibility, how knowingly do people know and share things?
“There are two arguments that support the view that people’s belief-forming and information-sharing behaviour generally does not fulfil the epistemic condition of responsibility,” Anttila writes.
“According to the first argument, what anyone knows, how they treat new claims that they encounter, and the choices that they make in sharing new information are based on their previous experiences. These experiences are in turn based on still previous experiences, and so on, until we reach a first experience (birth), an event for which no newborn can be responsible.
An undesirable feature of this argument is that, because it relies on a kind of fundamental determinism, people do not seem to have any responsibilities at all: their behaviour is ultimately based on an involuntary sequence of events that they ride along. If we want to avoid this nihilistic conclusion, a second, more contingent argument can be made instead. People do have some degree of agency, but how they form beliefs and their choices to share them take place in the overlapping collection of information environments of old and new forms of media, educational institutions, cultural institutions, workplaces, and other physical and virtual spaces. Individuals’ behaviour in these environments is greatly affected by their designs: the problems of our malfunctioning information environments are not simply the summation of individual bad habits. As the philosopher Miranda Fricker observes, there is a limit to what the virtue of individuals can achieve in the face of structures of unequal power. Sometimes, looking beyond the level of individuals, we can see that the structural aspects of our environments can corrupt even our best intentions.”
“Considering these two points together — that the designs of citizens’ information environments are not in their own hands, and that these environments make forming sound beliefs difficult — it does not seem like individual citizens are the ones responsible for the problems of our current collective information environment,” Anttila argues.
“However, even if we accept that citizens are not primarily causally responsible for our poor information environments, it could be argued that they nonetheless have a remedial responsibility to mend them. There are two reasons why it is unclear whether positing a personal responsibility to be informed improves our information practices. First, it is reasonable to expect that a lot of people will react poorly to simply being blamed for their ignorance. As the political theorist Iris Marion Young argued in her book Responsibility for Justice (2011): ‘Rhetorics of blame in public discussion of social problems … usually produce defensiveness and unproductive blame-switching.’ In the worst case, blame might even exacerbate the problems of our information environments by deepening polarisation. Blame-switching is especially dangerous if citizens do not themselves collectively agree that they are the problem, which they clearly do not.
Even if there was a mass willingness to accept accountability, or if a responsibility could be articulated without blaming citizens, there is no guarantee that citizens would be successful in actually practising their responsibility to be informed. As I said, even the best intentions are often manipulated. Critical thinking, rationality and identifying the correct experts are extremely difficult things to practise effectively on their own, much less in warped information environments. This is not to say that people’s intentions are universally good, but that even sincere, well-meaning efforts do not necessarily have desirable outcomes. This speaks against proposing a greater individual responsibility for misinformation, because, if even the best intentions can be corrupted, then there isn’t a great chance of success.
But all this does not mean that citizens should not be encouraged to do what they can. It is prudent to stay mindful of the sources of online information, pause to consider the context, bias or the satirical nature of a story before sharing, and to check the publication date. Disinformation is especially effective when repeated often, so it’s good to try to remain critical of especially outlandish content encountered multiple times. And while there is great concern over deepfake technology, still much more ubiquitous are ‘cheapfake’ videos, which create manipulations by conventional editing techniques. Reverse image searches can also reveal suspicious sources for specific images.
Leaning away from individual responsibility means that the burden should be shifted to those who have structural control over our information environments. Solutions to our misinformation epidemic are effective when they are structural and address the problem at its roots. In the case of online misinformation, we should understand that technology giants aim at creating profit over creating public democratic goods. If disinformation can be made to be profitable, we should not expect those who profit to self-regulate and adopt a responsibility toward information by default. Placing accountability and responsibility on technology companies but also on government, regulatory bodies, traditional media and political parties by democratic means is a good first step to foster information environments that encourage good knowledge practices. This step provides a realistic distribution of both causal and effective remedial responsibility for our misinformation problem without nihilistically throwing out the entire concept of responsibility — which we should never do.”
In the margins
“Our analysis revealed that the investment stories we tell and are told are too simple. Because we are wired to focus on the narrative arc of any given investment pitch, we tend to minimise or ignore the ways that new ideas fail, be they technologies, ventures or simply dreams. The stories we tell each other (and that investments are based upon) oversimplify the world into which that new idea is being introduced. For example, early entrepreneurs and investors failed to understand the interrelated complexities of passenger aircraft design, or how to set up the systems and understandings necessary to sell radio ads or mass-produce electric vehicles. By recovering the background, the context, the complexities attending a new idea, we might be better able to defend ourselves against the pull of the heroic narrative, and recognise that some stories are literally too good to be true. […]
Every good story comes to a close, but speculative bubbles are like open books in the sense that we can never be sure when the story will end. Believing that a story is oversold doesn’t tell you when the narrative will unravel. Just 14 days before Black Monday and Black Tuesday, when a 25 per cent market decline in 1929 signalled the start of the Great Crash and the ensuing Great Depression, the esteemed Yale economist and commentator Irving Fisher was certain that the market had reached a ‘permanently high plateau.’ Similar predictions haunt all speculative investors, including those who bought tulips in 17th-century Amsterdam and collectors of Beanie Babies in the early, heady days of eBay. While we, as authors, apply our analysis to predict that Tesla’s stock price will fall to Earth, we are unsure when this will happen. And we do also understand that Tesla’s uber-protagonist, Elon Musk, will tirelessly work to shape the story to prevent a Tesla-failure narrative from emerging.
Bubbles inflate as the distance between fiction and reality increases. Contexts — such as investor liquidity, regulatory frameworks and cultural and macro-economic factors — establish boundaries on how far our stories can depart from reality. But entrepreneurs are also creatures of context, and some are better than others at ‘entrepreneuring,’ stretching the limits of plausibility and maximising time for their imagined realities to catch up to their promises. Sometimes, we don’t observe a bubble not because the stories aren’t sticky or because the technology isn’t narratible, but because the narrative comes to fruition and the technology or entrepreneur delivers.”
From: Economic bubbles are irrational, but we can understand them, by Brent Goldfarb and David A Kirsch (Aeon Magazine)
“Given the current state of the world, […] morality is much more demanding than we typically think. Many of us should be doing a great deal more to alleviate the suffering of others, and doing this may cost us not only resources, but to some extent our own happiness or well-being.
In making donations to help strangers, we must ask when our reasons to keeping resources for ourselves are outweighed by reasons of beneficence. Under a more demanding view of morality, I should donate the money I could use to upgrade my TV to a charity that can save someone’s sight. Similarly, if the billionaire class could eradicate world poverty by donating 50 per cent of their wealth to development agencies, then they should do so immediately.
This may sound austere to our contemporary ears, but the Ancient Greeks and their philosophers thought morality could be rather demanding, and yet they never even considered the idea that duty was something you could go beyond. According to them, there are right things to do, and we should do them, making us virtuous and praiseworthy. And if we don’t, we are acting wrongly, we deserve blame, and we should feel guilty and ashamed.
It’s plausible to think that, once our health and wealth have reached certain thresholds, the things that really matter for our well-being — friendship, family, meaningful activities, and so on — are largely independent of our financial position. So, making much bigger sacrifices than we currently do may not be nearly as difficult or demanding as we tend to think.
But either way, supererogation, combined with the great weight we give to our own self-interest, has enabled an undemanding understanding of our duties of beneficence to survive for thousands of years. This has led to much preventable misery. And if we drop the idea that it is possible to go beyond our duty in a praiseworthy way and instead face up to the fact that morality is significantly more demanding than we’d thought, we will stand a better chance of offering real salvation to those who are suffering today.”
“Recent research on Mondrian has revealed that ‘he was really influenced by jazz and that he was a very wild dancer,’ [according to Ulf Küster, the curator of Mondrian Evolution in the Beyeler Foundation in Basel, Switzerland, an exhibition of 89 of the painter’s works, more than 50 of which are on loan from the Kunstmuseum in The Hague, The Netherlands]. The artist Lee Krasner, one of Mondrian’s contemporaries in New York, ‘said that it was hard to dance with him because he was always inventing new steps, he noted.
Mondrian was a fan of American jazz and would play it on the gramophone for visitors to his studio, said Küster. He also attended Josephine Baker’s dance performances in Paris. When he was living in Paris in 1928 and learned that the Dutch government had banned the Charleston because of ‘the danger of sexual stimulation,’ he wrote to a friend to declare that if the ban was upheld, ‘it will be a reason for me not to come back,’ according to [the Dutch architect and follower of the De Stijl movement] J.J.P. Oud […].
In her own research, [Caro Verbeek, the curator of Mondrian Moves] found that Mondrian was also fascinated with early developments in electronic music. […] Verbeek’s exhibition includes other sensory elements that encourage visitors to regard Mondrian’s paintings from this new vantage. Verbeek also worked with perfumers to create scent sticks that museum visitors can smell while looking at models of Mondrian’s studios in Paris, London, The Hague and New York. The Paris scent smells like furnace coals; the New York stick is a bit sweeter, like a men’s deodorant.
Küster at the Beyeler said Verbeek’s new interpretation and approach were ‘extremely refreshing,’ adding that he had invited her to lead a clapping workshop with visitors at his exhibition.
A focus on sensory experiences, Küster added, also related to Mondrian’s long-term adherence to Theosophy, an occult movement that sought ‘a mystic conception of cosmic harmony,’ as Mondrian put it, through nature. Mondrian wanted to ‘create a spiritual space between the viewer and the work of art,’ said Küster, and he saw his abstraction as ‘a form of meditation to get to this divine truth.’
Mondrian’s work is open to all sorts of interesting interpretations, Küster said, in part because the artist continually reinvented himself and explored various realms of experience: This lack of stasis or rigidity, perhaps, is why he continues to fascinate.
‘I still think that he is a visual artist, really,’ said Küster. ‘But one should define what a visual artist means,’ he added. ‘The experience of looking at his art is not limited to the eyes.’”
From: Want to Understand Mondrian’s Paintings? Try Dancing to Them, by Nina Siegal (The New York Times)
“Nearly a decade ago, the scholar David Runciman wrote a book called The Confidence Trap. It argued that the problem with democracy is that each time it survives a crisis, people wrongly assume that it’s indestructible. We’re confident that democracy can survive anything because it survived the last thing. In today’s America, that confidence now looks badly misplaced. The US only narrowly survived Trump on 6 January 2021 — and the defences that kept the peril at bay are steadily getting weaker.” — Jonathan Freedland in Trump’s forces are preparing for the next storming of the Capitol. This time, they plan to win