Overweening Generalist

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Cosmic Schmuck Principle and Some of Its Family Resemblances

The Cosmic Schmuck Principle
Robert Anton Wilson minted the term "Cosmic Schmuck" in a similar spirit to Murphy's Law. The Cosmic Schmuck Principle seemed aimed at greater ethical behavior among the educated classes; I see this impetus in RAW as an influence from Ezra Pound and Confucius, and also Alfred Korzybski. Also: RAW wrote a lot about hearing and reading formulations like this while growing up:

An X (person or group) appears to have done something lousy.
Therefore all people who seem like Xes are suspect or bad or dangerous, or might do something lousy.

This formulation leads to incivility, bad ethics, injustices, violence, and even genocide. (Think of Hitler making the above statement, and replace X with Jews.)

Yes, but what is this thing called The Cosmic Schmuck Principle? It has to do with pretending to a level of certainty or knowledge that you are unlikely to have, and so you're acting like a schmuck. Oh, but let's have a concise statement from RAW:

The Cosmic Schmuck Principle holds that if you don't wake up, once a month at least, and realize you have recently been acting like a Cosmic Schmuck again, then you will probably go on acting like a Cosmic Schmuck forever; but if you do, occasionally, recognize your Cosmic Schmuckiness, you might begin to become a little less Schmucky than the general human average at this primitive stage of terrestrial evolution. - p. 21, Natural Law: Or Don't Put A Rubber On Your Willy
HERE is the text of this incredible little anarcho-libertarian pamphlet on epistemology at Scribd.

Another website excerpts more from the page(s) with the quote I used above; I link to it in the interests of context. I don't know who the man is in the photo. It is not RAW.

Nota bene and what I find very lovable in the Cosmic Schmuck Principle is that it's heavily implied that we are all schmucks, to some degree. And RAW would've acknowledged his own schmuckiness at times. This dovetails really well with the ideas about Wrongology from Kathryn Schulz, who I write about near the end of this piece...

One of the main tropes that runs through Wilson's entire oeuvre is the embracing of uncertainty; one reason being that, in his epistemology, given our nervous systems and how we're wired, coupled with what we've found in quantum mechanics, cultural anthropology, genetics, perception psychology and neuroscience, linguistics, and a whole host of other disciplines, we cannot know anything but the most trivial things for certain, and maybe not even these trivial things. And secondly, this is something to be embraced, not because it is inevitable and seems to have been built into the fabric of the weirdness of "reality," but because it enables us to live with a sense of deep wonder, which he once said was "all the religion we need."

It could be that Pyrrho the Skeptic was the first to advocate for something along these lines (after encountering some "naked wise men" in India?); there seems much to dispute here.

Other ideas that seem to bear a family resemblance in the Wittgensteinian sense: fallibalism, aspects of the sociology of knowledge, Eric Hoffer's "True Believer," and many other forms of social epistemology. I want to discuss - and maybe even elucidate - a few others here.

Richard Rorty and "Knowingness"
One of my favorite academic philosophers of the late 20th century (Rorty died in 2007 at the age of 75), Rorty thought the educated classes, especially via too much theory, had fallen into a trap he called "knowingness," which he may have gotten from someone else, possibly the literary critic Harold Bloom? Anyway, when I first read about knowingness in Rorty's sense it knocked me on my ass, and a definition has stuck in my neural circuits:

"Knowingness is a state of soul which prevents shudders of awe."

Think of the 23 year old grad student who thinks he's "seen it all." He hasn't. Not even close. He "knows" too much. A 23 year old grad student has hardly seen anything, but he is under the illusion he's seen it all. He has been trained to think analytically, and possibly over-analyzes everything, so that nothing is wonderful anymore. This seems born of a deep-seated fear, because another part of himself knows he hasn't experienced much of the world yet. Academics up to the age of 80 have been known to have fallen deeply into the slough of knowingness. It's pretentious to us, but for them, they have defended their knowledge in learned paper after learned paper. Who reads these papers? His colleagues and hardly anyone else. He lives in an academic bubble of knowingness, and many of his fellow academics are hyper-theoretizing and caught in the mire of knowingness also. Females are just as liable to this trap, this "state of soul," as men. It seems a lot like the Cosmic Schmuck Principle, but I seriously doubt Rorty ever read Wilson. They ran in different intellectual strata. But I think it would be a safe guess, were someone to have asked Wilson (who also died in 2007) if Cosmic Schmuckiness prevented  a shudder of awe, he'd say yes.

Likewise, I easily imagine Rorty, after reading his books and seeing interviews with him, that he'd embrace the idea of recognizing when you were pretending to know when you really didn't. His theory of truth - which was not a theory - was that truth was something that happened to an idea. And it happened because it was found to be good, pleasurable, helpful. When you're on that track - what helps you get through your days and nights with more humanity - I hazard that you're bending towards less schmuckiness, less knowingness already...

Rorty was often labeled a "neo-pragmatist." I think the Cosmic Schmuck Principle fits into the pragmatist (accused as "anti-philosophy" by some) project snugly.

When I read online about criticism of people between 18-30 who are thought of as "Hipsters," I get a vague whiff that their critics think the Hipsters have too much knowingness, or are Cosmic Schmucks. But because I'm still not sure what truly constitutes Hipster-hood, I will neither defend Hipsters nor join in the scorn. But above all, I don't want to play in the formulation near the top of this article ("An X appears to have done something lousy..."), as it's NEVER fair or just to do so. Moving on...

                        A hedgehog. This one is probably smarter than Thomas Friedman?

Sir Isaiah Berlin wrote in 1953 a famous essay on types of intellectuals, "The Hedgehog and The Fox: An Essay on Tolstoy's View of History," and he drew upon the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who wrote that the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing. In Daniel Kahneman's recent - astonishingly erudite, endlessly worthsomewhiles - book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, he expounds on the Hedgehogs in our midst, the "experts" and (worse, to my eyes) the "pundits."

Kahneman, a psychologist who won the Nobel Prize for Economics (a fascinating story in itself), is the go-to guy for insight into our own biases, and how to stop acting like a sucker or Schmuck...even though it appears we're wired to fall into schmuckiness (not the word Kahneman uses!) by evolution.

"As Nassim Taleb pointed out in The Black Swan, our tendency to construct and believe coherent narratives of the past makes it difficult for us to accept the limits of our forecasting ability. Everything makes sense in hindsight, a fact that financial pundits exploit every evening, as they offer convincing accounts of the day's events. And we cannot suppress the powerful intuition that what makes sense in hindsight today was predictable yesterday. The illusion that we understand the past fosters overconfidence in our ability to predict the future." - p.218

Kahneman illustrates the role of chance in 20th century history: in very minute sections of time, the fertilized eggs that went on to become Mao, Hitler and Stalin had around a 50/50 chance of becoming females. And around 47 million people were murdered because of this chance. (My estimates, based on a few moments rustling around in some history books; Kahneman does not come up with a number in the text.)

[I may have taken tremendous liberty with this past example; I may have made something along the lines of an egregious error. If anyone would like to point it out, I would be happy to hear what that error might consist of. In other words: was I being a Cosmic Schmuck there? Or not? Or does my writing this bracketed paragraph somehow exonerate me from any Cosmic Schmuckery I may have been guilty of in the above paragraph? Are we in a Strange Loop right now?]

Daniel Kahneman then discusses Philip Tetlock's 20 year project of doing massive interviews and questionnaires with "experts" - pundits who forecasted about political and economic trends - and how these experts panned out, with hindsight. The results, which should be far better known than they are, show that these pundits performed, as Kahneman writes, "worse than they would have if they had assigned equal probabilities to each of the three potential outcomes." (Tetlock got 80,000 predictions for very many questions that had respondents pick whether they think the status quo would remain, there would be more of something such as political freedom or economic growth, or less of those things. Tetlock's book is Expert Political Judgement: How Good Is It? How Can We Know?)

Nassim Nicholas Taleb writes about this very thing, quite amusingly, in The Black Swan: quite often, instead of asking your stockbroker for tips on how to invest in the market, you can ask a taxi cab driver and you'll end up with the same amount of money. Similarly, Tetlock is quoted: "In this age of academic hyperspecialization, there is no reason for supposing that contributors to top journals - distinguished political scientists, area study specialists, economists, and so on - are any better than journalists or attentive readers of The New York Times in 'reading' emergent situations."

Tetlock falls back on Berlin's "Hedgehogs" when talking about "experts" and why we listen to them. Most of the pundits we see are not foxes - who know a lot of things - but "experts" who are loathe to admit when they were wrong, but when forced to admit their wrongness always have many ready-made excuses. They are dazzled by their own brilliance (to my mind the worst of the worst in Unistatian electronic corporate media are Thomas Friedman and David Brooks, not that you'd asked), and they're led astray not by what they believe but how they think. They have a coherent model of the world, and they worship that model. Robert Anton Wilson called this "modeltheism." If you show them they have been wrong in their predictions, they get angry and say they were off by a little bit, or the timing was a tad askew. As Kahneman writes, "They are opinionated and clear, which is exactly what television producers love to see on programs. Two hedgehogs on different sides of an issue, each attacking the idiotic ideas of the adversary, makes for a good show." (p.220)

These Hedgehogs seem like cousins to the Cosmic Schmucks (look at the astounding level of schmuckiness attained by a guy like Rush Limbaugh!), and they seem far too knowing also, eh?

The take-away message? Take the punditocracy with a massive salt-lick, and be a Fox. (Or a non-overweening generalist?)

                                 Kathryn Schulz, who has a lot to say about being wrong

The Pessimistic Meta-Induction From The History Of Science
The wha? Get it straight, kids, from the sexy intellectual Kathryn Schulz. This same article is collected in the recent book This Will Make You Smarter: New Scientific Concepts To Improve Your Thinking, pp.30-31. Most of the theories of the past have fallen by the wayside, so why do we, as Schulz says, grant ourselves "chronological exceptionalism"? When I ran across this bit in the book, I was reminded of John Horgan's book The End of Science, in which he asks very many of the biggest names in science whether we know about 99% of what there is to know, or maybe it's closer to 1%? Fascinating book, wonderful on the sociology of scientific intellectuals and the hard-to-pin-down field Horgan calls "limitology," and it's quite readable, with an ending that, for me, had a twist and was surprising. (Horgan's attitude toward his own question.)

I liked what blogger Roger E. Breisch had to say about the Pessimistic Meta-Induction From The History Of Science, and other of Schulz's ideas from her own book, Being Wrong: Adventures In The Margins of Error.

In my own reading of classics, I think I've seen variations of all of the above family members in the writings of Montaigne, and earlier, Lucretius. And still earlier, Epicurus. But I refuse to dogmatize about any of this and would rather declare that I think I've detected more than enough Cosmic Schmuckery in my own thinking and utterances lately...

Here's Kathryn Schulz, Wrongologist, talking about many of the ideas above. It's 4 mins and 19 seconds.


Roger E. Breisch said...

Michael, thanks for the reference to my blog. I love this piece from you. You gave me many new perspectives and ideas to ponder. I love the quote from Rorty! Roger

Sue Howard said...

Another great, informative piece. I hadn't heard of Kathryn Schulz. Fascinating to consider (as she points out) that the word "error" has roots in 'to wander', to 'go astray' from the (presumably well-trodden) path. Which seems like a different kettle of fish than the notion of "error" in logic ("does not compute", etc).

I wonder where thinking about things in terms of winner-script & loser-script fits into this. Parallel to Cosmic Schmuck axis, or perpendicular to it, or not really part of the same area of thought?

I must dig out the recording of RAW's 'Secrets of Power' talk, about the Infallible people among us, and the power they seem to have over the rest of us.

BrentQ said...

Interesting stuff Michael.

I bought This Will Make You Smarter recently and it truly has some great essays in it. I've found it to be the perfect book for bathroom reading. Who doesn't want to become smarter while sitting on the john?

And if you were wondering, that RAW excerpt you linked to is accompanied by a picture of the biggest Cosmic Schmuck of all, the Pope.

michael said...

@Roger: Thanks, and yea, that quote - which I THINK was from Rorty, I couldn't find attribution in my notes, nor in my scattershot delvings online - was one of those lines that made my mind go in eleven places at once, and I had no trouble remembering it.

More shudders of awe for all!

michael said...

@Sue Howard: I only found out about Kathryn Schulz after I started studying "expertology" a year or so ago, for this blog. Her book is smart and funny.

I like the idea of "error" as a wandering away, and these definitions remind me when there are Game Rules that we have supposedly opted into, we can make an error according to the Game Rules; but when we're talking about social ideas we're usually working with an operating software made of disparate human values, so "error" in that domain seems to apply more to something like the sociology of knowledge? Does that make any sense?

In math, if I make an error, it's fairly clear-cut. But if someone tells me I made an error when I argued that the minimum wage should be raised, that's a different semantic meaning of "error" altogether. Along these lines, I think you can MAKE your ideas about "error" and admissions of wrongness fit into your own models of winner and loser scripts.

Now that I think of it: this idea of yours seems robust, pregnant with ideas to explore. From another angle your query reminded me of another really cool thinker who fits into this general discussion, and who I had to omit from this blog on Cosmic Schmuckery: David Weinberger. See his book _Everything Is Miscellaneous_. He says that, with the Internet/digital age, the structure of Knowledge has changed. It's one of those non-fiction books I've read more than twice.

RAW seems to have about 391 (23x17) times more to say about these issues in his extended oeuvre (books, recordings, videos, interviews, etc). Just one example, his riffs on the Correct Answer Machine that gets installed in your thinking software when you buy into an Ideology (Catholic Church, Marxism, Republican Party, Save The Plankton, $cientology, etc, etc, etc): it forecloses on a LOT of actual thinking: the party or priests or Great Leaders have the answers, you must remember them, for it is written...RAW talks about the Correct Answer Machine and himself in the essay on Non-Euclidean Politics (online: "Beyond Left and Right"?), but also collected in Email To The Universe. He attributes the term "Correct Answer Machine" to Michael Hoy.

Sometimes I marvel that RAW, in his twenties, was an Ayn Rand Objectivist!

Three cheers for neuroplasticity!

michael said...

@Satori Guy: I knew I'd seen that face somewhere! Thanks. It's Joey "Rats"!

I'd have to include Antonin Scalia too, in some Cosmic Schmuck's Hall of Fame.

Reading a book like that on the john: you get smarter and lighter! It's like a free lunch!

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

It's funny about Antonin Scalia -- when you listen to an interview with him, he seems like a smart and interesting guy. (He was interviewed on NPR recently -- he's plugging a book.) When he sided with the majority in deciding that burning the American flag was an action protected by the First Amendment (a correct and courageous decision) his wife indicated that she did not agree by humming "It's a Grand Old Flag" as he came to breakfast. (Scalia also said there have been times when he changed his mind about a decision during deliberations,including one time when he was assigned to write the majority opinion and he had to explain he couldn't do it anymore, which seems to show an awareness he could be a Cosmic Schmuck.)

It seems to me that the political implication of the Cosmic Schmuck principle would be to lean toward libertarianism. If it's impossible to be really sure that your political ideology is correct, what right do you have to use force to impose your political ideas on everyone else?

While I love RAW's ideas on Cosmic Schmuckiness and model agnosticism, I do wish he had given a couple of examples where he admits he was a Schmuck, cosmic or otherwise.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

I was startled to see Pyrrho the Skeptic mentioned in your piece; I only knew the name because by coincidence the day before I read your piece, I read a chapter in Quantum Psychology that moved me to look up an entry on Sceptic philosophers in the Oxford Classical
Dictionary. No doubt you've been dropping Pyrrho's name in parties in Berkeley for years ...

The entry you like to mentions that Pyrrho and other philosophers accompanied Alexander the Great and that they met Indian philosophers (Buddhists?) I just want to know why there were philosophers with the army. Where they rank and file soldiers, or did Alex the Great mass murderer like to keep philosophers on staff?

michael said...

@ Tom: I've followed Scalia for years and I've found far to many instances where he appears to be a Mega-Cosmic Schmuck...but I'm biased towards honing on him because of his political and social power and the very nature of what many of us think a judge should "be." There was a 60 Minutes piece a couple of years ago that, I thought, nailed his Schmuckiness pretty well...or rather, he seemed to happily volunteer to reveal what a Schmuck he is. If you see that piece online, stay till the end, where he says there are many disagreements about big issues, but he smilingly says, "I happen to be right." (About everything.)

I run into all kinds of libertarian schmucks. In my experience, they tend to be Randroids. In Natural Law, RAW SEEMS to be calling sombunall of the other Libertarians he's arguing with schmucks, but as to your Q about RAW calling himself a Cosmic Schmuck, I think this was primarily meant to be a private affair: you say to yourself, "Last night at the dinner party, when we were talking about guns/abortion/US foreign policy/taxes, etc...I think I was being a cosmic schmuck when I said...." I think it's meant to be a 6th circuit-y thinking about thinking thing, where you cybernetically correct yourself about assumed infallibalism. You may not have FELT infallible, but you may have assumed a stance which strongly implied you were absolutely RIGHT, others clearly WRONG...it was only rhetoric, you felt the spirit of fun, but came off wrong...because the Spirit suddenly took hold of you and you forgot you weren't infallible?

I do this shit all the time. I also think it's endemic to the class of people - academics or otherwise - who READ a lot. A solid emotional life is required for a solid Rational life (see Damasio's work) but we're so complex all kinds of things can go wrong...

In CT2 RAW writes about all sorts of different ideologies he'd fallen into, how he eventually found them stale and incorrect, only to fall into another ideology. I also think he was largely aware of the intellectual fights he'd picked, and that there was the RAW-as-writer/dialectician and his private self.

I would argue that there's a common feeling that will arise in every ardent reader of Wilson, and it's difficult to not feel it - for me - when, for example, I've read Illuminatus!: "Jeez...what if EVERYTHING I think about the world is inaccurrate, or just plain wrong?"

That's one of the reasons I fell in love with his writing and his writing personae. (Later, when I met the Man, I found him very lovable, but clearly hurt that the world hadn't found him fascinating enough to make him a bigger star, or a writer who made more money.)

Good Qs about Alex da Great. He was both a mass murderer and an intimate student of Aristotle. One story has him memorizing The Iliad. It's not difficult to picture him wanting some well-read guys around, but I'm not up on my Alex/Great to say. The article on Pyrrho I linked to has Alex and Pyrrho in India and possibly listening to some naked wise men, who I like to think were proto-saddhus: men from the upper caste who had earned a lot of dough as businessmen, and dropped out to become Holy Men, wandering India in loosely-fitting robes, smoking massive amounts of ganja, and spouting profundities to the locals, who fed them.

Clearly, if you drop out - become unmoored from the local mind-hive and habits of everyday life, and go off wandering, constantly stoned on THC, you're more likely to arrive at a philosophical position that says, "We can't really KNOW much of anything!"


Chris Phoenix said...

Please consider your language - you're an author - you know it matters.

The symmetric word of "men" is not "females."

I'm guessing that Kathryn Schulz probably would not appreciate the label "the sexy intellectual." If you want to praise her, how about "the incisive intellectual" or "the thought-provoking intellectual"?

(Seriously, she's wearing modest clothing and drab makeup - is there any way she could avoid being called sexy by you, short of wearing a burka?)

Of course, you can define me into a category of "One of the few annoying people that this kind of language matters to" - pretending that it doesn't influence the rest of your readers - but that would be an act of schmuckiness.