Sense

“A man talking sense to himself is no madder than a man talking nonsense not to himself.”
Tom Stoppard

Why does our world seem to make no sense much of the time? Why do nations, corporations, organisations and individuals do and say things that are not even in their own interests?

In brief: that’s our nature. There is no reason why we’ve ever needed a more than a rough grasp of reality, probability, physics and rationality in general in our evolutionary history – what we have now in the way of mental tools has been good enough since we grew a brain, and good enough is all evolution aspires to. We may be smarter than our remote ancestors, but that doesn’t mean we’re smart. We may be better educated than any of our ancestors, but that doesn’t mean we can make better use of that education. It especially doesn’t mean we’re smart enough to cope with, let alone thrive in, the technological society we are building.

What do we do about this? How much does it matter? Is it such a bad thing?

By ‘making sense’ here I mean being able to rely on these bodies to at least act in ways that accord with their own best interests, that actually match what their goals are or are said to be. In her magnificent book “The March of Folly” Barbara W. Tuchman documents examples of nations acting – obviously and plainly – against their own best interests, stretching from ancient Greece to the US’s Vietnam war. In each case they had ample information and opportunity to avoid humiliation but failed to do so (thus “Folly”) for reasons of pride, or simply failing to think clearly about how to achieve their goals, or to realise they were unachievable. Ignoring inconvenient facts, spouting hyperbolic slogans and idealistic principles instead of listening to critics and doubters, and failing to reassess in the face of failure.
So yes it does matter and it is a bad thing. If we are building a society in which only a small proportion of people are capable of thriving we need to change that society, those people or both. People are not being equipped with the mental tools to properly make the decisions and choices they are called on to make; we need to simplify or remove those decisions where possible, and teach children better ways of thinking about the options available to them, and show them they can make better decisions even on incomplete information.

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