thoughts on bear life

A here’s-a-new-site-to-follow post today, courtesy of some passing toot on Mastodon which I failed to bookmark, shame on me.

Anyway, the site in question is the Philosophy Bear substack, and the post that had me dump the url into my feedreader is basically just 54 half-formed philosophical thoughts in one long scroll; the now-forgotten tooter—my interloctooter?—observed that many newsletter writers (or bloggers, for that matter) would have stashed these aside and developed them into a year’s-worth of “content”. I sure as hell wish I had this many ideas to burn just sat there waiting… or, perhaps more charitably to myself, that I had the time and the discipline to chunter out short versions of this many many ideas into one post.

Anyway, here are three of the bear-thoughts that I particularly enjoyed or found relevant.

Judgment as a spectacle: In “Society of the Spectacle” Guy Debord emphasizes the passivity of the spectacle. People are awed into watching rather than acting– by TV, by mass media generally, by celebrity culture, and so on: “In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into a representation.” Since Guy Debord’s time, the spectacle hasn’t gone away, but it has moved into a new phase, which we could well call the active spectacle, enabled by the internet and other communication devices. People are invited to join in the spectacle, to help determine its direction, to help create it. But the spectacle still isn’t the real world, and so just as the previous ‘passive’ spectacle provided an alternative to acting, the new ‘active’ spectacle still provides an alternative to acting meaningfully. Apart from simply generating more content to look at, the main kind of representation this “active spectacle” invites us to participate in is the activity of judgment. We rate things, people, events, and so on good and bad- especially bad. Thus screaming at people on the internet becomes a kind of spectacular facsimile of action. Labeling something or someone bad is an alternative to potentially effective collective action to abolish the conditions that made things this way. Addressing our condemnation to images, we are effectively reduced to sympathetic magic- trying to alter the world through representation.

VCTB veterans will know that I’m a sucker of a Society of the Spectacle citation. This one seems like a companion to Sam Kriss’s thing about the nerd as a machine for liking things which I wrote about here a while back.

The writerly bias: Because we have encountered so many narratives, we tend to think events will unfold in a way that would make a good narrative. We come to think of ourselves as characters in a book. On a microscale, this likely contributes to a number of more specific biases. It helps feed an unjustified confidence that things will turn out well in the long run (the just world bias). It likely makes us much more afraid of violent crime from strangers than we should be. Perhaps the most striking example of this on a macroscale is science fiction and predictions about the future. Ways technology could turn out that are hard to write enjoyable stories about tend to be missing from our cultural imagination. For example, worlds in which everyone is superintelligent or superintelligent advice on any topic is readily available are very difficult to write about for humans, so are rarely portrayed- there are fictional worlds in which superintelligences exist, but they are rarely portrayed as available to the protagonists or consistently genuinely superintelligent. Worlds in which a working lie detector existed and was used very consistently lack narrative tension, so there also aren’t many books like this.

This bear’s thoughts are interesting, but that’s not at all to say I agree with all of them; they seem particularly credulous with regards to the notion of “superintelligence”, for example, which I tend to find not only incredible (in the literal sense of that term) but also laden with eugenicist creepiness. This thought is less about that than it is about storytelling, and it’s not exactly a novel conclusion outside of more authorly circles, but it’s nonetheless interesting to see it approached from a rather different direction.

This last one, however, is both short and pointed:

You shouldn’t be too worried about confirmation bias: People are too often focused on getting it right. This is not the correct goal. When it comes to important questions, the correct goal is helping society get it right- infinitely more valuable a goal than getting it individually correct. arguing for unusual opinions is useful for this goal in order to increase epistemic diversity- even if you’re likely wrong- just don’t be a dick about it. A little bit of confirmation bias helps with this. Don’t worry about confirmation bias so much in your own life, worry more about finding interesting, under-argued positions and putting them forward. Doesn’t matter all that much if you’re wrong- social epistemology is a cooperative game- we’re all on spaceship earth together.

The basic argument seems almost blasphemous in the current context, but again, the rationale is way more sophisticated (and concise) than the more familiar positions on either side of the issue. The obvious counter would be to say that I’m just experiencing confirmation bias… to which the counter-counter would be for me to reply that yes, that’s exactly what I’m doing. The circularity of that dynamic makes it feel a bit pat, in truth, but I think there’s something here worth sitting with nonetheless.



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