Natural hurdles, human hurdles.
Did you notice? It’s quite uncommon to face medium difficulty problems.
In your everyday life you are sometimes tasked to solve issues that seem impossible to come to grips with. There are mysteries that seem way bigger than our puny minds.
We often get to comment on issues that on the contrary appear quite easy to deal with, and you are left wondering why people are still struggling with them.
But you rarely seem to encounter intermediate level problems.
Let’s put down some examples (I’ll alienate some readers in the process).
- Producing a new vaccine requires an excellent research team and years of work, and the result is far from guaranteed. Realizing the importance of vaccinations, ignoring anti-vaxxers: easy.
- Understanding how economy works is a very difficult task. Destroying the craziest theories about money that are tossed around (and manage to gain traction) is relatively easy.
- Putting men on the Moon was the result of a giant collective effort. It’s comparatively extremely simple to annihilate those conspiracy theories that pretend to prove that the entire Apollo project was staged and we never got there.
- Cooking the perfect Neapolitan pizza requires a lot of experience and the touch of an artist. Preparing a pizza better than a typical American pizza: piece of cake.
- Knowing the ultimate truth about God: impossible. Understanding that Jesus Christ is the only God possible: with the support of sufficient objective information, actually quite easy.
- Launching a new product on the market: a complex endeavor. Noticing how the proposal coming from your incompetent colleague won’t help: a child’s play.
- Understanding human sexuality: a daunting challenge. Coming to terms with the fact that being male or female isn’t just a feeling: as clear as day.
- Investing: difficult. Not squandering all your money: easy.
- Getting rid of an addiction (dope, alcohol, pornography): very difficult. Avoiding the trap, not developing such addiction: with some basic cautions, it’s easy.
Is there some overarching principle connecting those cases?
The Law of Eviction and Tarot Cards.
I’ll use two images to visualize the meaning of two sets of problems.
EVICTION: Hard problems are about our hard struggles with reality: the world is quite complex, moreover the issues that are still in need of a resolution in our advanced society tend to be the most untreatable still baffling us.
TAROT CARDS: Easy problems stem from human stupidity: things you may understand with little effort; if they are still on the plate this is due to the stubbornness of some groups of people who can’t accept the truth, or are victim of their weaknesses, prejudices, interests.
Explaining the symbols.
Receiving a Notice of Eviction is a crude example of life hitting you like a falling piano. Believing in the power of tarot cards instead is about falling for a stupid trick.
EVICTION-HARD. TAROT CARDS-EASY.
Notice two relevant additional facts:
- among the very difficult problems: trying to convince idiots, people who have been conditioned or are simply refusing to see the truth, to accept the solution to easy problems. That’s how it would be a mammoth task to put sanity in the head of an anti-vaxxer, a conspiracy theorist, a believer in ludicrous solutions for the economy. You won’t probably put the clueless colleague on the straight path, nor the drug addict, the spendthrift, or the average American who sucks at cooking. Just for trying to convince a man who feels he’s a woman that reality is way bigger than his psyche, you’d get labeled as a monster. A non-Christian could hardly accept that there may be one religion clearly superior to all the others, including his own. It’s always a tough nut to crack: trying to change the external world, especially when the crux is the stubborn will of other human beings.
- For those who have no clue whatsoever an easy problem is still very easy to solve, only the self-evident solution -in their view- is the opposite one. A conspiracy theory is resting on a lot of “obviously”. The most hallucinated loons will show utter contempt for the luminaries who dedicated their lives to the study of matters they know nothing about, yet keep self-assuredly pontificating on.
Non-trivial practical applications.
At first blush, drug addictions (and the like) may appear a qualitatively different phenomenon. But look it this way: once you’re addicted, it’s a hard struggle against physiological processes you can’t control, plus a mental habit (I may just use a discredited, stale word: a vice) that you don’t experience as yours, but more like an external force managing to wreak havoc from within. You want to get rid of it and don’t know how. This is again an “Eviction” problem: fighting against Nature (human, in this case), not unlike an engineer that needs to design an earthquake-proof home.
But just avoiding to get addicted in the first place isn’t that hard. Similarly, no one is forcing you to move to a region subject to frequent earthquakes.
Our brains (and bodies) are not designed to withstand an onslaught of pornographic imagery or psychotropic chemicals: we are built to interact with more limited, meaningful and focused stimuli. Since we are not equipped to deal with such excesses, it’s a no-brainer that we should steer clear of situations that would expose us to such a risk!
Then how come we fall for such traps? This is about human obtuseness; even adults tend to act like teenagers that downplay the threat, insisting it’s no big deal, evil is subjective anyway.
Fighting against the idiocy of those who justify this attitude is, again, a hard battle; same goes for dealing with the practicalities of the struggle (i.e. the ease with which drugs or porn are distributed. Eviction type problem).
But we are giving up too soon on the Tarot Cards aspect: on highlighting the inanity of a worldview that considers letting it go as something inherently good and/or inevitable! Since we are unable to turn people to sanity, we cease to defend sanity, eventually losing sight of what is or isn’t reasonable.
Problems get more and more untreatable because we become passive. We convince ourselves that a teenager can’t exercise self-restraint. Yet civilizations from the past knew about various psychotropic drugs, but they never became a widespread phenomenon.
It’s a cultural battle. It would be ironic to have been able, as a society, to solve most of the hard problems, only to succumb to the easy ones, becoming enslaved by human weaknesses.
Judging from the pop culture, it’s all about admitting we can’t resist our desires. Nevertheless, we aren’t even gaining any significant points on the pleasure scoreboard.
For all this talk about sex and freedom, the Western World is immersed in a really gloomy atmosphere. Our (average) sexual lives are in shambles; you hear about a whole range of issues, from fears, illnesses, perversions, apathy, promiscuity, cheating that are part of the usual westerner menu, to a novel and surprising indifference to the whole concept of sex and love, that is a new fad involving many Japanese precursors.
We are talking about a biology/psychology mechanism that wouldn’t be theoretically so difficult to manage, by just respecting its nature and promoting a wholesome development of young boys and girls, giving them outstanding examples to follow through imitation. Our civilization is grounded on the value of strict monogamy, and this solid foundation brought about impressive results. It’s asinine to call everything into question and to let a very crude and primitive model to spread and replace the old one, again still based on imitation, but focusing on base instincts and ephemeral feelings.
For the same reason I’m stating confidently that having a successful marriage, far from being a daunting task, is a false problem. Of course finding “the right person” is not a given: exterior world, again (difficulties).
But even if what I’m going to say may sound harsh and unacceptable, I’ll be blunt. If the person you married eventually yells at you: “I want a divorce”, that has nothing to do with a Notice of Eviction. Typically, that’s just the final nail, a symptom, the breaking point of a story that was marred by immaturity from the beginning: two poor souls that went through life with the attitude of fools who put their destiny in the hands of a set of tarot cards.
I really don’t need any mental strength not to cheat on my wife. It’s so natural to be faithful! It’s so easy it’s astonishing to think this is not the case for most people. People who aren’t even put in a position to imagine how being naturally faithful would feel like!
As a soccer fan, I’m a supporter of Genoa CFC and it’s inconceivable for me to switch teams. Any sports fan can relate. And this is true even while sport isn’t really a significant part of our life. Even more so, I couldn’t think of leaving my wife: that would be earth-shattering!
It’s all about the initial setup. It’s about what vision of life and marriage you developed. Before even knowing each other. Your love life as a couple is overwhelmingly determined before you become one. But this delicate topic is worth of a separate article.
The minimum effort criterion.
Human beings are naturally lazy. That’s why we usually spend our entire life steering clear of any serious problems. At most we manage to give our itty-bitty contribution to the planet, through our jobs, completing a small fraction of a much larger endeavor.
We refer any problem we encounter to the easy case. The idea is that of transforming unmanageable matters into something trivial. How could we possibly unveil the secrets of the Universe? We focus on finding out what idiots think, assume the opposite is true.
Most people form their worldview almost exclusively based on the convictions of those they hang out with, of leaders held in higher esteem. You feel secure being part of a group. And you’ll look down in pity and disbelief to those fools in the opposite group… they don’t really have a clue…
If you want to emerge as more objective and productive (as I’m trying to do), you should focus on observing and analyzing common mistakes, prejudices and reality tunnels that hinder human reasoning and decision processes; you become an expert in other people’s bias. This may not be as visibly beneficial to humanity as the guy who comes up with some exciting new tech gizmo, but it’s crucial to fight the prejudices that hamper our society, for the sake of making actual progress. It’s a huge and underappreciated field to explore.
Most intellectuals and scientists, though, aren’t following this time-consuming route; they stay focused on their specific field, making some tangible contribution to the hard work of exploring the inhospitable jungles of Mother Nature. But outside of their field of expertise, when they leave the University building, they enjoy embracing a gullible, superficial persona as anyone else.
Brilliant scientists, despite being capable of sublime abstractions rooted in hard facts, are displaying a painfully limited understanding of the intricacies of a society; when religion is concerned, they act and think like they are still 14. Because (almost) everyone in their peer group thinks alike.
Non-scientists (ranging from most psychologists, philosophers in general and historians, to social studies or literature majors), distinguish themselves for their use of mental gymnastics to shield their ideological choices from criticism, blocking any opposing voice as an attack from a vicious enemy.
Here’s how even the best and the brightest make some major blunder, sooner or later.
How come some superior observers of reality, usually very adept at spotting inconsistencies and mistakes in a story, sometimes end up giving credibility to untenable theories, ideas unworthy of them? I began asking myself this question after I read about the following incident.
Vittorio Messori, international bestseller and long seller author, also the most important Italian Catholic writer of the last 50 years (at least), centering his work around exploring the basic tenets of Christian Faith and the historic reliability of the Scriptures, with cunning and rigor. My library is full of his paper books. He’s got all my admiration.
And yet… in a couple occasions he spoke in favor of a guy named Gustavo Rol who became moderately famous as a magician pretending to possess paranormal abilities. Sure, he got to know and appreciate the man as a nice guy, a unique character who wasn’t seemingly interested in fame or material gain…
But how come he didn’t consider how his defending a guy that was, after all, performing tricks similar to those of professional illusionists, would jeopardize his credibility as an impartial commentator and popularizer of stories from the Christian tradition dealing with the supernatural?
Another example: Olavo de Carvalho, a Brazilian philosopher capable of mesmerizing the reader with his anti-conformism, cunning and in-depth analysis, unfortunately became entangled with a popular paranoid meme, a fixation about Barack Obama’s birth certificate authenticity.
Then there’s this recent episode: in my last article I berated Paolo Attivissimo, a renown journalist and debunker of conspiracy theories, who wrote a shamelessly partisan and unfounded tirade against Donald Trump; in the process, he had time to scold all the rubes who aren’t in favor of his idea of Progress, including yours truly, a homophobic Catholic bigot.
How could they lose contact with reality? Stepping outside of familiar territory. Above all, failing to recognize that even idiots sometimes get some things right.
That’s how you could fail, even and especially after countless victories. A thinker gets used to recognize the mental pitfalls of his opponents. He ends up convincing himself that anything they say is wrong, by default: after all, that’s been proven innumerable times, with abundant evidence and a coherent interpretive framework. But eventually the day comes when the ignoramuses support a non-trivial idea that happens to be right on the money.
-Messori got used to skeptics “warning him” about subjects they displayed no real knowledge of, since their atheistic approach can’t contemplate “religion” other than by looking down on it. Among other things, superficially considering any religious phenomenon equivalent to any superstition or magical thinking.
On that occasion where a skillful magician who didn’t seem to obtain personal gain (except for his ego) from his tricks and seemed also a good Christian, Messori took the “proof” of paranormal events as credible, and the skepticism of the usual atheist detractors as a preconception.
-Olavo de Carvalho brilliantly fought against progressives in the media. When the same media system launched a character like Obama, someone whose personal life story and persona sounded inauthentic and un-American, many, himself included, jumped at the opportunity of a seemingly easy target, i.e. finding out through his birth certificate that Barack Obama wasn’t even born on US soil. From that point on, events unfolded in a way that made it easy for them to become fixated on some alleged birth certificate tampering. There you go: being very clever and knowledgeable, and yet ending up as a laughingstock.
-Attivissimo’s starting point is already deeply in biased territory, as a progressive. But the problem is compounded with the fact that he failed to recognize the peculiar political isolation of Trump: that caused a disproportionate support for him to come from (normally hardly visible) fringe groups. This fact convinced Attivissimo that Trump was an extremist, without bothering to objectively assess the actual content of his platform.
If your bread and butter is hoax debunking, once you see that Trump is hailed as a leader by discredited conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, you put two and two together and you think you can extend your expertise to this new reality. Eventually you end up passing superficial judgments based on hearsay, marching in lockstep with the Democrats and the media, even daring to call Trump supporters “Nazis”!
From fighting hallucinated loons, to behaving like one.
Even the best fail. The pattern seems to always be the same: using the minimal effort approach, counting on the fact that the counterpart are those who “always” proved themselves to be embarrassingly wrong.
Never let your guard down, I’m telling to myself.