Thursday, February 9, 2017

In Praise of Hypocrisy

Cognitive dissonance doesn't get enough credit. Why would our minds have the ability to believe contradictory things? That's certainly not how we train our robots. The ideal is to believe in no contradictory things, to never contradict yourself in speech, to shun hypocrisy. In practice, hypocrisy and contradiction are everywhere. I've seen this explained as an evolutionary priority to decisions being made and a sense of rightness being felt, no matter the truth of it, which leaves us as stunted, truthless beings. I'm going to argue the opposite.

The elasticity of language allows us to very quickly make unfortunate equivalencies. A few things we can say really are one way or another. The majority aren't. I want to make very clear my position that human language is insufficient for describing human experience. We do an excellent job at assigning symbols and manipulating them, but the true depth of their interconnectedness is often lost when that happens.

Up and down are opposites. Are kindness and cruelty? Can someone be kind on one situation, then cruel in another? If not, we'd never let soldiers home. Could kindness be increased by experience with cruelty? Could cruelty be increased by a desire to receive kindness?

Our world drips with nuance and contingency. For all the fear we hold toward the thought of pitiless sentient machines, we certainly hold them up as exemplars of how to think. Contradictions, slippery arguments made in the heat of a passionate debate, blustering about how your side is correct and all the things said about you actually apply to your interlocutor - these are fundamentally human, often a necessary part of the thought process, and we owe it to our friends to accept not only that their thought will be messy and often contradictory, but that it will ultimately reach that way-station we call a conclusion.

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