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Optimistic Unlearning and A Belief in
Infinite Flexibility =/= Adulthood

February 6th, 2011 by Howard Ditkoff

Instead, maturity and a sustainable healthy future require:

  • A wiser, more fully discriminating approach toward certainty
  • Acceptance of certain limits to the benefits of technology
  • Acceptance of certain limits to personal, human and ecological adaptability
  • Acceptance of our own historical traumas and pain
  • An understanding of the value of fundamental diversity

Today I was given a copy of an article from the February 5, 2011 Wall Street Journal by Matt Ridley entitled “A Key Lesson of Adulthood: The Need to Unlearn”. The title certainly struck me as important for two reasons.

  1. The need to unlearn has been a central theme in my life. I spent much of my twenties unlearning a tremendous amount of what was fed to me as truth growing up. And through my writing, coaching, activism and promotion of the work of various change agents such as Daniel Quinn (whose book The Story of B focuses on just such an unlearning process), I have long championed the importance of being willing to question dogmatic beliefs.
  2. We live in an incredibly destructive, unsustainable culture that is driven by the actions of hypocritical adults who act on the world stage in greedy, violent ways that, at home, would get their own children sent to their rooms – if not worse. So I am always fascinated to read commentary by this culture’s adults on what “adulthood” in such a society is considered to really be about.

And so I dove in.

Ridley begins by saying:

“For adults, one of the most important lessons to learn in life is the necessity of unlearning.”

So far so good. Ridley is no doubt correct that there are times when we must unlearn things that we have believed to be true and a mature adult must realize that.

He goes on:

“We all think that we know certain things to be true beyond doubt, but these things often turn out to be false and, until we unlearn them, they get in the way of new understanding.”

Here Ridley is correct. As Mark Twain said “It ain’t what you don’t know that gets you in trouble. It’s what you know for sure that ain’t so.” It is very important to be open to unlearning falsehoods in order to clear the way for newly revealed truths to emerge.

However, I think Ridley is failing to mention the even more difficult challenge that faces the mature adult in this regard. The key required trait is not just the ability to unlearn false ideas, but the ability to wisely discriminate between ideas that are false, which should then be unlearned, and ideas that, despite possibly being thousands of years old, remain true. In other words, the challenge is not only in being able to unlearn, but in knowing what to unlearn and what not to. For it is equally important not to be falsely swayed from a truth, no matter how old or unpleasant it may be, as it is to change one’s mind when a previously held belief is revealed as untrue.

So while Ridley’s article focuses on unlearning, what he should actually be advocating for is a constant application of critical thinking and an overall skepticism toward the very idea of certainty. In other words, he should be promoting the more general adoption of a mature and discriminating model of epistemology.

As we continue, let us remember to apply this same attitude of skepticism and discrimination to Ridley’s own claims, as well as his conscious and unconscious motives, in the rest of the piece.

Ridley then refers to a number of “scientific certainties” that he has had to unlearn. He did not place the phrase “scientific certainties” in quotes, however. The quotes are mine. I hope he is using this phrase tongue-in-cheek as there is no such thing as a “scientific certainty.” The very idea of certainty about anything is anti-scientific. Science is eternally skeptical and open to doubt and change. So perhaps what Ridley really reveals here is simply his own skewed idea of science. However, I will give him the benefit of the doubt that, despite the lack of any such indication, he realizes “scientific certainty” is an oxymoron and is in fact simply commenting on the public’s misunderstanding of the relationship between science and certainty, not revealing his own.

He then lists several of these “scientific certainties” he has had to unlearn. Some of them are quite reasonable or even things with which I wholeheartedly agree. But, among them he lists “that upbringing strongly shapes your personality.” He gives no evidence for why he suddenly claims this not to be the case. When making such a statement, I would prefer to see him at least reference some credible research that debunks the conclusions found in the ACE (Adverse Childhood Experiences) Study or many other studies that have shown that upbringing not only does affect personality, but does so at the level of the very biology and even physical shape of the relevant brain areas:

(See The Effect of Childhood Trauma on Brain Development for a list including just some of the countless studies supporting the strong influence of upbringing on the brain and personality.)

Ridley then begins to advocate a series of ideas put forth or referenced by author Mark Stevenson in his book An Optimist’s Tour of the Future.

First, he encourages us to “think anew” by “disenthralling” ourselves of past dogmas. However, he fails to point out that re-thinking an idea is just as likely to confirm it as to refute it. I may be misreading him, but it seems that when Ridley says “think anew” here he does so in the service of encouraging us not only to re-test our beliefs without prejudice, but to come to new conclusions that are more inspiring. If this is so, it would reveal a highly biased approach to knowledge in which ideas are primarily judged not based on their relation to evidence, but on their newness and inspirational quality.

Ridley then relates Stevenson’s claim that through “disenthralling” himself of nostalgia and pessimism driven by dogmatic thinking, he became an optimist.

“Thinking anew” about this claim raises some key questions about potential bias:

  • Was the “disenthralling” fueled by evidence that previously held beliefs were objectively false or simply by a desire to do so? On what basis were the previous beliefs discarded?
  • Did the disenthralling cause the optimism? Or, conversely, did the desire to become an optimist – or to escape the emotional pain of being a pessimist - lead to the conscious or unconscious attempt to disenthrall through the suppression or repression of data contrary to that optimism?

I do not venture answers to these questions. And perhaps they are addressed further in Stevenson’s book, which I have not read. I simply point out that if Ridley is going to claim to be advocating a skeptical and open-minded search for truth, then these questions and their answers, to the extent that they are obtainable, should probably at least have been mentioned in this article.

Ridley then launches into praise for several other ideas advocated in Stevenson’s book - ideas that just so happen to commonly be championed by those who favor (and often are among those who benefit most from) the “full steam” progression of our modern hyper-technological, infinite-growth-based society and used to attempt to invalidate those calling for caution about its potential consequences.

First, Ridley raises the fact that, since technological change advances exponentially, our attempts to assess the future through linear extrapolation are often futile. This is certainly true. However, contrary to Ridley’s interpretation, it is no more cause for optimism than pessimism. While an unforeseen progression in medicine or computing may aid us in our survival, a similarly unforeseen progression in physical or virtual weaponry may aid terrorists or unscrupulous robber barons in threatening our survival.

Next, Ridley relates the point made by biotech entrepreneur Juan Henriquez that since “evolution is not over” we should not cling to anything “essentially human” in an attempt to resist or slow modern society’s particular brand of rapid and constant change. In his view, the ability to “evolve through culture and technology” is what makes us fundamentally human and so we should, and must, simply bend our ethics and nature to changes in technology as they come about.

There are several flaws in this thinking.

First, it is important to define what we mean here by “evolution.” While it is certainly true that change continues to take place, the relative influences on that change have themselves changed drastically. When Darwin spoke of evolution through the hundreds of millions of years of life on earth, he was referring to natural selection. However, many believe that in recent times, humans have willfully (though probably temporarily and with potentially disastrous consequences) supplanted a growing portion of that natural selection with artificial selection. Even Enriquez himself asks “Are we taking evolution into our own hands?” Modern humans have set up a social and economic system that – sometimes purposefully, other times through unintended consequences - breeds and artificially encourages certain traits in other species, as well as in ourselves, that may differ greatly from what would have been selected for by the type of natural processes Darwin described.

And, even more worrisome, this artificial selection process is not controlled broadly amongst people with a wide array of perspectives, but is utterly dominated by certain societies with particular social and economic viewpoints. Take, for example, how modern business and political cultures, as described in Snakes in Suits, Evil Genes and The Sociopath Next Door selectively reward the traits of psychopaths that in many other cultures throughout human history would have led to banishment as a survival threat (or the elimination through natural selection of groups that did not do so, which may in fact be part of our own society’s eventual fate.) The important lesson is not about whether evolution is over or not. It is about the fact that we have fundamentally changed the nature of evolution itself and we have yet to find out what the ultimate consequences of that may be.

Second, the thinking here is almost magical. It seems to imply that since some humans have been able to temporarily adjust and survive - with varying degrees of physical and mental health and mass destruction - to our modern world, that we can assume our capacity for flexibility will allow us to continue to healthfully survive more and more drastic divergences from the environment in which we evolved and for which we are adapted. This seems to be a rather reckless mindset, promoting a faith-based view of humans as almost God-like, potentially infinite in their flexibility. This is especially so as it is claimed that this nearly endless flexibility is the very essence of humanity – a claim I think would be firmly disputed by many anthropologists, biologists, physicians and others.

It is a mindset ripe for exploitation by those who would rationalize away calls for caution as we change the world in ways there is no guarantee we are flexible enough to accommodate. And it is a common example of wishful thinking by those who wish to transcend their own past traumas without going through the pain of confronting and actually resolving them.

Ridley then attempts to use this extreme perspective on human adaptive flexibility as the basis for two proclamations, one flawed, the other missing the point.

His first proclamation is that:

“We are always on a path, never at a turning point (every generation narcissistically thinks it stands at a turning point in history).”

This is a truly bizarre statement. Being on a path is no indication of the non-existence of turning points. Indeed, turning points are extremely common features of paths. Moreover, history is full of turning points. Was our transition from a primarily hunter-gatherer lifestyle to a primarily agricultural one not a turning point? Was the advent of nuclear weapons not a turning point? Will a potential switch from an economy based primarily on fossil fuels to one based on alternatives not represent a turning point? And wouldn’t the proposed arrival of many of the technological advancements – such as the ability to live forever - on which Ridley basis his own optimism represent turning points (and isn’t the transformational nature of those turning points exactly why Ridley sees them as so important?)

It may be true that every generation thinks it stands at a turning point. But just as the falsehood of some old ideas fails to invalidate many true ones, the narcissistic delusion of many generations would fail to invalidate the fact that some generations really will prove to have been standing at turning points.

Ridley’s second proclamation is that human adaptive flexibility implies that there “simply is no ideal human social arrangement.” While this is certainly true - and Daniel Quinn’s main tenet, for example, is that there is “no one right way for people to live” - here Ridley misses the more important relevant issues. The issue isn’t whether there is an ideal human social arrangement.

The issues are that:

  1. Some social arrangements are more optimal and more thoroughly tested than others for particular goals, such as physical and mental health or support for ecological diversity and sustainability (After all it is not only humans that must adapt to change. The rest of our ecosystem, on which we depend, must adapt to us and to the changes we precipitate and therefore its capacity for flexibility is as important to human survival as our own).
  2. Not only is there not any one ideal human social arrangement, but the ideal is diversity in social arrangements. And not superficial diversity, but deep, fundamental differences in how people obtain food, interact with their environment, make rules and so on. It is diversity that gives the species its best chance for survival given the difficulties Ridley himself acknowledges in predicting the future opportunities and challenges we will face.

    Yet what is going on in our modern hyper-technologically-driven, infinite-growth-based world is a killing off of diversity as the last non-industrialized and indigenous cultures are further challenged to survive in any way of life other than our own. If Ridley truly feels strongly about the importance of appreciating diversity in human social arrangements, then I hope to see him heartily support the work of organizations like Survival International that try to stop the dominant culture from putting itself forward as the ideal arrangement, impelling the emergence of a monoculture and driving out the last remnants of fundamental human social diversity that we have.

Finally, Ridley encourages us to “escape from top-down thinking” by changing our mindset from hierarchical to network-based. I strongly support this as extreme hierarchy is, in my view, one of the fundamental reasons for our culture’s destructiveness. But I’m not sure that Ridley’s idea of an escape is quite the same as mine.

He exemplifies his ideas of such an escape by comparing Facebook to Carnegie Steel and noting how much less capital Facebook requires. So here you have two incredibly hierarchical corporations, both with massive relative wealth and power held by the few at the top of the companies, but because one needed less capital, Ridley appears to see it as an example of a step towards the demise of hierarchy. Compare that with the idea of a company that doesn’t have a massive concentration of wealth and power at the top at all.

He then touts the Internet as likely to further aid this escape from top-down thinking through catalyzing greater sharing and collaboration. While I agree that the Internet will aid us in allowing different people to rise to the top of hierarchies than in decades past (see Google, Facebook, Twitter, various revolutions aided by Internet technology, etc.) or for those people who rise to the top to exploit newfound networks for their own profit, it remains to be seen if it will aid us in escaping hierarchy itself. This is especially questionable since, at least at present, the fundamental technologies that allow the use of the Internet are run by extremely hierarchical corporations and – as shown by Egypt’s recent shutdown of most the country’s Internet service – are to some extent still vulnerable to control by extremely hierarchical governments.

Ridley concludes by asking:

“How many other false nostrums still infect my brain, unchallenged and unexamined, to obstruct the arrival of fresh thoughts?”

He is right that it is crucial to always try to keep our minds open for fresh thoughts. But the fact is that the vast majority of those fresh thoughts will not be fruitful. In fact, some may even be harmful.

The more important challenge is to develop our ability not only to have fresh thoughts but to develop methods for critically assessing which of those fresh thoughts are unfounded dreaminess, which are wishful thinking meant to consciously or unconsciously deny our own psychological fears, past traumas or abuses and which are the very very few revolutionary ones that can truly change the world for the better.

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