Sunday, December 12, 2010

Thoughts on Hayekian Subjectivism

In The Sensory Order F.A. Hayek suggests that "anticipation" is a central element to the sensory order (6.26, 6.27). This is in agreement with the thesis laid out by Jeff Hawkins in On Intelligence, commented upon here by Matt Ridley. What Hayek then goes on to say, though, is that attention is connected to disposition (6.28). That is, what we pay attention to is determined by our disposition -- which itself is partially inherited and partially learned/developed through experience. If this is true (and I think it is), then there are going to be differences to the extent to which we see, understand, and respond to the world.

Basically, Hawkins' thesis is that our brains send information to the senses, anticipating what they are going to experience. This is based on past experiences. If nothing changes, fine. But if there is a change in pattern, take notice. Now, what consistutes a "change in pattern"? If that is in part determined by disposition, then this is significant as far as the thesis that our subjective experiences are what are central to our decisions and to what is best for us. Indeed, what we would have would be our subjective dispositions, which develop in the interactions between our own individual genetic redispositions and our subjective experiences, create subjective anticipation of patterns. Even if we assume the patterns are themselves objective, if the anticipation of those patterns is subjective, then there is a certain selection bias necessarily at work (Nietzsche observed that when we read we typically only confirm our beliefs, no matter what it is we are reading -- making this a particular instance of what I am talking about here). Since we all have a selection bias, we cannot say for certain that our interpretation is the right one for anyone other than ourselves. This does not mean that everything is purely subjective and relative -- no, there are species-specific elements that result in everyone seeing things in similar ways (meaning there is species-specific selection bias). This allows us to be able to communicate at all -- as Hayek notes in his discussion of mutually shared symbols being necessary for communication (6.9, 6.10). But the subjective element also means that we will have our own particular interpretations -- and this also means there will be some miscommunication.

If all of this is true, then it becomes impossible to justify imposing one's own view of order on others. If attention to patterns is determined by disposition, and disposition is determined by a combination of genes and experience, then how indeed can you justify imposing your world view on me? At the same time, this does not negate the reality of species-specific dispositions that allow for enough similarities to allow for the existence of human universals and communication. This latter allows people to think that it is in fact legitimate to impose their own world views on others, as it allows them to overapply those commonalities.

It is interesting to note that either of the two extreme views -- the blank slate view, in which anything at all can be written on the human mind through proper education/experience, and the absolute commonality of experience -- allows people to believe that they can impose their world views on everyone. However, if people are combinations of species-specific and individual dispositions created through the combination of genes and experiences (resulting in limited neural plasticity), then there can be no such justification. Freedom exists in the borderlands between order and randomness yet again.
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