Counterfactual Social Thought

I keep feeling like I need to study Bayes nets in order to clarify my thinking about society. (This is probably not standard advice given to aspiring young sociologists, but I'm trying not to care about that.) Ordinary political speech is full of claims about causality ("Policy X causes Y, which is bad!" "Of course Y is bad, but don't you see?—the real cause of Y is Z, and if you hadn't been brainwashed by the System, you'd see that!"), but human intuitions about causality are probably confused (and would be clarified by Pearl) much like our intuitions about evidence are confused (and are clarified by Bayes).

Almost every policy proposal is, implicitly, a counterfactual conditional. "We need to implement Policy A in order to protect B" means that if Policy A were implemented, then it would have beneficial effects on B. But most people with policy opinions aren't actually in a position to implement the changes they talk about. Insofar as you construe the function of thought as to select actions in order to optimize the world with respect to some preference ordering, having passionate opinions about issues you can't affect is kind of puzzling. In a small group, an individual voice can change the outcome: if I argue that our party of five should dine at this restaurant rather than that one, then my voice may well carry the day. But people often argue about priorities for an entire country of millions of people, vast and diverse beyond any individual's comprehension! What's that about?

(To be sure, you can come up with reasonable arguments why someone should concern themselves with large-scale politics: every collective effort requires the actions of many, so one might cooperate with a group rather than defect, precisely because bad things would happen if everyone defected; or, maybe some particular individual is exceptionally well-positioned to make a difference through their own actions; or, a tiny probability of having a large effect might be worthwhile in expectation; or, ... &c. Whether or not these are good arguments, I don't think they're an adequate explanation of what's actually going on inside most people's heads.)

I often find myself feeling angry and upset that the mainstream society around me doesn't reflect my values; I spend hours composing rhetoric and slogans about how our dominant forms of social organization are systematically flawed in knowable ways. I imagine the world being different—and only in brief moments of lucidity do I realize that what I'm doing is daydreaming, fantasizing. Thinking about social change doesn't feel like a mere fantasy in the way that thinking about how great it would be to have magical superpowers is obviously fantasy, but it is: thinking about good outcomes in the absence of actual planning about how to achieve those outcomes from the present state is wasted cognition except insofar as the thinking-about-good-outcomes is valuable for its own sake. Fantasy is a fine thing in moderation; it's not being able to reliably tell the difference between fantasy and reality that's dangerous. In the case of magical superpowers, the difference is obvious. In the case of the mainstream magically adopting my priorities, it's somehow not obvious; somehow I find it hard to stop thinking about worlds that are not my own. Why?

It's easy to tell an evolutionary psychology just-so story: precisely because arguing about politics actually is important in small groups like the ones our ancestors lived in during the environment of evolutionary adaptedness, I can't bring my brain to notice that things don't work the same way when you're one voice among three-times-ten-to-the-eighth. Whereas obviously-fantastical fantasy is just wireheading in the sense that it's a byproduct of imagination and preferring-certain-experiences, both of which are adaptive in themselves, but which together result in non-adaptive daydreaming; since this has a different etiology than political daydreaming, it's not surprising that it would have a different character ...

But that's just a story I made up; I'm not claiming it's actually true; most of the stories people make up aren't actually true.

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