October 11, 2010

Useful errors

I was in an interesting conversation this weekend about the root causes of social problems, which caused me to start thinking about the slippery issue of causality. Or maybe not.

The human tendency to think in terms of cause and effect is deeply ingrained and probably has roots in evolutionary biology. Being able to infer causal patterns was no doubt adaptive in relatively the simple environments in which early humans lived.

The problem comes when we all too readily assume that causal explanations we find satisfying are true. Natural selection, that "blind watchmaker", doesn't really care about truth; it just cares about what is useful.

My old pal Friedrich Nietzsche put it this way:

Throughout immense stretches of time the intellect produced nothing but errors; some of them proved to be useful and preservative of the species: he who fell in with them, or inherited them, waged the battle for himself and his offspring with better success.

Thought for the day: would you prefer truth without utility or utility without truth?

UNUSEFUL UNTRUTHS. Paul Krugman takes aim at the prevailing narrative on the economy and the recession.

CORRUPTION. Big money, sleazy politics.

SOCIAL ANIMALS. Research on twins suggests that people are socially oriented even before birth.

DEATH BY BREAKFAST. Here's a look at some unhealthy menu items.


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