A friend of mine made a horrible mistake this morning. He did something he rarely does. He made a political statement on Facebook.
It was a fairly benign comment about the unpopularity of congress in general, not about one party or another. Of course, you couldn’t tell that from the comment stream that followed. Both Democrats and Republicans quickly revealed themselves by addressing the post from their own extremely biased perspectives. My friend seemed a bit shocked that a non-partisan statement could bring about such partisan behavior. I wasn’t.
We seek to confirm our biases.
I’ll say here what I said there, “we’re all too busy feeding our confirmation biases to have a real discussion on issues. We feed the biases and argue from those positions as if the world were some finite state machine. It’s not. But we treat it like it is.” If I had given my statement more thought I might have worded it this way, “We feed the biases and argue from those positions, because we’re more comfortable acting like finite state machines.”
Let’s define some terms.
- Confirmation Bias: “is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position.”
- Finite State Machine: ” is a mathematical model of computation used to design both computer programs and sequential logic circuits. It is conceived as an abstract machine that can be in one of a finite number of states.”
Confirmation bias feeds the simplest of finite state thinking. This goes in the black box. That goes in the white box. Yeah, I’m making a mental leap here, but if you spend any time online, you see this played out in every comment stream on any post about any sensitive topic or deeply entrenched beliefs. We, as a society, have a strong tendency to respond to and interpret even ambiguous data as supporting any existing position we hold. And we seem to just as easily reject even factual data that is contrary to our bias. Data comes in and we act in a predetermined way to respond to that data. In addition, we go out of our way to seek data that confirms our already defined positions. In the end, we all end up in the same place we started.
I’m not sure how we grow in this finite state. I’m not sure how complex problems requiring creative thought get solved in this state machine mode. Some problems don’t fit neatly into our predefined boxes. As my friend thought, we should be able to have open conversations around issues without them devolving into us vs them debates. But we can’t, and I don’t see an end to it.
The Infinite State
The opposite of a finite state machine would be an infinite state machine. Wikipedia, oddly enough, doesn’t have a definition for infinite state machine. Urban Dictionary defines an infinite state machine this way: “a computational engine designed to create random states of operation which allow it to “think creatively” enough to “crack” systems of a similar binary language system (cell phones computers satellites any thing that can be accessed remotely by the machine) so far this idea is purely science fiction according to my research.” The concept of an infinite state machine has been discussed on various forums and the general position held by commenters is that an infinite state machine is not realizable. It can’t exist.
Perhaps not in machine form. But I refuse to believe that humans can’t attempt to exist in an infinite state kind of mentality. A few weeks ago, I was directed by Gahlord Dewald to a great piece of writing on Rands In Repose. There Rands spoke in abstract about the infinite state as it related to work and satisfaction. But his comment about the possibility of infinite state is what stood out for me. He said, “When I’m either in the discomfort of a new job or mired in the boredom that permeates an old one, I remind myself of returning from vacation. I remember how much my brain likes it when I’ve shut down the state machine and see a familiar world as new. I remember there is always more to learn because the state is infinite.”
I’m thinking we could all use a break from our finite state thinking. We could all use a break from how we perceive sensitive issues and return to them, as if from a vacation, to see what we thought was familiar as new. We could return seeking to learn from those in a different state. We’re never going to grow unless we do.
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