Good interview with Dan Sperber in Philomag
Synthesis of the ideas of this little-known author:
1) The opposition between nature and culture of Lévi-Strauss is to be qualified. The mind is not a blank page on which cultural knowledge would be inscribed. It is structured in a complex way from birth.
2) The epidemiology of representations is the way in which ideas and knowledge are transmitted in a population. They spread less like viruses than like addictions. The most relevant thing is to study why a representation takes root in a particular mind and becomes a practice.
3) Reason is not a superpower of humanity. The mind makes gross mistakes in rudimentary reasoning tasks. If pure reason were so effective, it would have been selected by evolution rather than the rough versions we use.
4) Kahneman’s dichotomy system 1 (intuitive, spontaneous, biased) / system 2 (rational, timed, precise) is disputed by Sperber. System 2 is also a source of errors. It serves above all to rationalize our initial intuitions. Illusions are not necessarily disadvantageous. They contain an interpretation of the data beyond their raw meaning.
5) Reason is based on inferences. Our mind exploits, in its proposals, the links it has already spotted between things. The difference with animals is that humans make ‘metarepresentational’ inferences. His world is populated not only by objects but also by their mental and verbal representations, and representations of these representations.
6) Covid is a good example of an epidemic of representations accompanying the spread of the virus. Sperber does not see in fake news and conspiracy the sign of a growing credulity. For him, people transmit the infox according to the social benefit they expect. The discourse of a ‘flat-earthist’ or an antivax is not relayed out of conviction but because the idea seems remarkable to the torchbearer, or to testify to an independence from the official discourse.
The need for a hierarchy of representations
Dan Sperber thinks right. He understood the need for a hierarchy of representations to explain the peculiarities of human reason. He is ontological in his approach, seeks the origin of our modes of thought in evolution rather than in the idealism of a pure reason whose implantation should be guided in our minds. Dan would probably be passionate about reading Stratium,which answers his questions by neurologically transposing the hierarchical structure of the mind, into a complexity that he has only touched upon.
This complexity avoids any break between the animal and human spirit. The gap is only a difference in depth of information. The gap sometimes appears in the opposite direction, to the detriment of the human, when it comes to specific intelligences. The pre-eminence of the human comes essentially from the complexity of his society and the unforeseen events that it continually rains down on the mind.
The reason is dismemberable
Dan merges too much the concept of reason, in contradiction with the hierarchy he recognizes it. The reason is dismemberable, is built layer after layer. It is no more uniform than consciousness. Each his reason, with his contents, which can be shared. The contents of science and logic adapt remarkably to the material world. In this particular relationship, they are not on an equal footing with others.
Our personal worlds are engaged in such virtualization that social networks acquire a reality comparable to that of the material world. The society as a show is a screen. An ‘alternative reality’ becomes sustainable because its flaws have no consequences for the material situation of the individual. He continues to receive his food, to enjoy a roof, even reaps more social benefits when his ‘alter-world’ is provocative, galvanizing. The consensual reality is bland in comparison.
Spreading fake news is not sharing info
This is where I differ from Dan Sperber’s concluding remarks, who are too complacent towards infox propagators. If he is right about the social advantage behind these practices, he neglects the problem of groupism, yet well known to cognitive scientists. The infox cloud hides an extremely threatening antivax kernel for the entire society. I weigh my words. In contrast to the ‘fish caught in the current’ that Sperber visualizes, the antivax is concreted in a sectarian belief. It doesn’t deviate an inch, no matter what new data shakes it up. Religion implanted in him until his death.
Why does antivax pose such a threat? Replay: A virtualized world that is too disconnected from reality can suddenly collapse. This is how the virus is on the verge of destroying our great social balances. Was it so dangerous? No, as the antivax keep repeating. The danger came above all from social panic, hasty measures as much as their contestation, from the lack of international coordination, with in the end a global debacle. The spectre of a collapse of economies, supplies and services has loomed. The resistance of the hierarchies in place has avoided the worst. Probably they didn’t make the best decisions. But the heart of the problem is not there. The trap where the antivax have driven us is the nothingness of organization. Eradication of the complexity inherent in a decision of this importance. Replaced by a ‘crowd wisdom’, in fact an inexperience largely diluting the expertise concentrated in a part of its members. The antivax have plunged society into a bath of acid, leaving it in the state of scattered individual atoms, which they would like to reaggregate to their idea.
Threat to participatory democracy
Antivax activism is far removed from participatory democracy. It is a concept that involves citizens more, but the democratic principle remains: all submit to the majority choice, recognizing the pre-eminence of the collective over the individual. The antivax, on the other hand, does not participate. He dismembers. He breaks down humanity into 7 billion potentates brought together only by alliances of circumstance. The collective is dissolved. Anarchy that works in the virtual world of the antivax, because he carefully filters the guests. Alternative reality pruned from its conflicts, but mocked by the real world, which kills the unvaccinated. Do infox dies out with their authors? Not. Natural selection operates only on genes. Not on memes. Which are disseminated in any receptive mind. Creating addictions to infox, as Dan Sperber points out. There is no weaning clinic large enough to house all of humanity. Gaia, whose premises we occupy like dirty people, has herself become suffering.
Unfortunately, while the planet deserves the care of a unified humanity in a global collective, some are trying to install prehistoric anarchy. Homo sapiens thought he was master of his destiny? A tiny virus cruelly disillusions him, lowering his beautiful organization to the level of that of a band of grimacing and fighting baboons.