Prisoner’s Dilemmas: X- The Generation Gap

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The great classical philosopher ironically exemplified the tensions between the youth and older generations. In his famous quote: “The children now love luxury. They have bad manners, contempt for authority; they show disrespect for elders and love chatter in place of exercise.” This observation of one of the greatest minds in western history is ironic for several reasons. For one, Socrates; was convicted on charges of corrupting the youth and was sentenced to death. I guess respecting your elders is worthy of condemnation and execution (sarcasm). The man described by the Oracle of Delphi; as the wisest of all men; displays an abundance of ignorance. How could such an inquisitive and contemplative individual so easily dismiss the intentions and innovations of the younger generation?

As brilliant as Socrates was, he was still a mortal man subject to the same biases afflicting all people. There is something deeply human about assuming laziness or bad faith in young people. Why? Why do people have the unfortunate proclivity for underestimating or assuming the worst of the youth? A bias stems from the fact that youngsters lack experience and responsibility. One modern example would be men in their late teens/early twenties leading a hedonistic lifestyle; filled with alcohol, drugs, and tramps. However, as we all understand this is merely a stereotype; not all young men enjoy these pursuits. The probability is higher, that young men would prefer such excesses. In contrast to an older man who is established and married, would tend to veer away from such vices.

While older generations may believe they have the upper hand, but they may have unwittingly locked themselves into a Prisoner’s Dilemma. Sure, speak ill of all young people, but this only deepens the generation gap. There are many other conflicts where both sides defect does not reach a mutually beneficial compromise. Therefore, fitting the textbook definition of a Prisoner’s Dilemma. All the censure and criticisms of the “old people” become background noise, essentially static. Instead of young people viewing these statements as advice or legitimate concern, they perceive them as baseless complaints. The genuine concern behind the derogatory statements becomes lost in translation as mere noise.

This tendency towards mutual defection is a communication breakdown. The younger generation does not understand the older generation(s) and vice versa. Both parties were raised under drastically different conditions, with varying norms. For example, Baby Boomers remember a world without cable. Conversely, Gen-Z could not fathom a pre-internet world. These factors contribute to the social and cultural development of both generations. Beyond the cultural variations between generations, the older generation has the unfortunate propensity to use younger generations as scapegoats for moral decay. In order to resolve the intergenerational conflict, both generations need to listen to one another. The youth would perhaps stop viewing older generations as ignorant, out-of-touch, and backward. Hopefully, older people would stop viewing the youngsters as reckless and amoral. We interact with an individual outside of our generational cohort there are profound information asymmetries, there is no possible way to completely understand the conditions under which the other individual grew up. The best resolution would be active listening, open communication, and an open mind otherwise both sides will merely continue to disparage the other.

Sometimes It Is Easier to Be Ignorant

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Arguably one of the most famous quotes attributed to Socrates is “The unexamined life is not worth living”. It is the type of quote we have grown to expect from such as deep and contemplative thinker. Is this truly the best advice for the average person? Not that I would ever veer into the territory of philistinism, but is every aspect of life worth examining? Better yet, are such intellectual endeavors even productive for the average person?  I would argue no. Not because I seek to celebrate ignorance, nor do I lack faith in the intellectual capacity of my friends and neighbors. Sometimes knowledge is more trouble than it is worth. Everyone is familiar with the colloquialism “curiosity killed the cat”. As simplistic and folksy as that old saying might be. It does contain a grain of truth. In the pursuit of knowledge, we risk becoming jaded and overwhelmed by some of the more unpleasant aspects of reality.

Do you remember the disappointment you felt we discovered Santa Clause wasn’t real? Even worse, your parents’ marriage was nothing more than a sham? These examples may seem trivial but applied to grander questions they can make someone very skeptical. Skeptical to such an extent it brings them to the brink of an existential crisis. If you have devoted your life to political activism and you come across a few Public Choice articles regarding voting, you will grapple with your sense of identity. Being told that your vote carrying any weight is nothing more than an illusion is difficult to pill to swallow. Especially much of your sense of self and principles are derived from believing you have sway over political issues. Therefore, it isn’t necessarily prudent to want to dissect all of the mysteries of the universe. Even if it is a lie, sometimes that one lie is what helps people cope with the difficulties of life.

Looking too deeply into an issue is generally counterproductive at most jobs. The ability to extrapolated basic logic is generally rewarded. To overthink an issue, will cost your employer and customer time and money. Utilizing reason to more efficiently perform a task is conducive to being a “good employee”. Pondering the large philosophical questions at work eats into productivity. Also, getting so philosophical that you question the entire veracity of the enterprise of your employer’s goals or metrics will not win you any friends. Overtly questioning your superior’s decisions in Socratic prose will award you with some unfortunate adversaries. Speaking of friends, you will not be making very many. Most of your co-workers will think you are weird for not accepting the prima facie assumptions of our world. In most cases, avoid you like the plague. For all the philosophy majors currently working retail, at call centers, offices, etc. I feel for you. Your love of wisdom and truth can effectively alienates you from your peers.

Outside of the pursuit of knowledge destroying your coveted illusions and making you something of a misfit, is another issue, you can never put the genie back in the bottle. Once you have seen the truth, it might be enlightening, but you never look at the world the same way again. I do not personally subscribe to the new-age movement, but many who do talking about opening their third-eye. In most instances, these individuals will tell you don’t open your third-eye if you like your life the way it is. Why?  Once you have become enlightened, it is a point of no return. You can’t unlearn the secrets of the universe. You will never enjoy the pleasures of binge-watching reality television after a bad day at work if you have learned it is nothing more than a farce. Speaking of your job, the stable nine to five, you might want to quit your job because you figure out it is pointless. Decided to take on the risk of becoming an entrepreneur in an attempt to find a meaningful vocation. This is a lot of disruption for one person, especially if they are more than content with keeping the status quo intact.

I have never attempted to open my third-eye. However, I love to study philosophy and political economy. Once you have opened Pandora’s box of uncommon knowledge you will begin to crave it. Much like tapping into a deeper sense of consciousness, you can never see the world the same way again. Leading to some conflicts. I find it more and more difficult to care about my day job. I am a proponent of capitalism and all, however, I know there are better ways to make a living. I will never have the same work ethic I had before my independent study of the large questions. It was much easier to keep my nose down and get my job done back when I was ignorant. Demonstrating that it can be maladaptive for some people to reflect upon vast questions such as the quiddity of existence.

The process of seeking wisdom is never easy. Whether the actual pursuit is what makes a man weary or it’s the consequence of not being able to cherry-pick the pleasant truths from the unpleasant ones. This is why it can sometimes be a lonely path. For those who are inclined to take up the challenge, it is the only path. Despite the downsides of pursuing truth, knowledge, and wisdom in an imprudent world, for some, this is their only true calling. They are the ones who seek daylight when everyone else opts to remain in the cave. It is important to remember that pursuing truth does have its pitfall beyond misconstruing it. One excerpt from Plato’s Republic that encapsulates this point beautifully. It was about Socrates’ telling of the Allegory of the Cave in the book:  

            Therefore, even if a person should compel him to look to the light

            Itself, would he not have the pain in his eyes and shun it, and then,

            turning what he really could behold, reckon these as really more clear

            than what had been previously pointed out? (p.235).

That is it. The truth can be inconvenient. The truth could even unravel the very fabric of our being. Especially if it is predicated upon a false sense of identity or a flimsy house of cards built upon numerous lies. Much like almost all of the other cave dwellers in Socratic allegory chose to ignore the truth. Most of society elects to do the same. Similar to the discomfort experienced when our eyes adjust to direct sunlight, it can also be uncomfortable to be confronted with the unadulterated truth.

The Long White Beard Fallacy

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Introduction:

There are few fallacies as prevalent as equating age with wisdom. This false assumption is predicated on the belief that age tends to correlate with the accumulation of life experiences. Conventional wisdom would dictate that a prudent mind would be able to formulate deep insights based upon these plentiful experiences.  However, this presumes that the individual of advancing age is capable of shrewd judgment. Much like another demographic of people, some older people are not.  This error in thinking has been enshrined in the mythical image of a sagacious prophet or philosopher. A Socratic or an Aristotelian figure radiating the mystique of lost ancient knowledge. While imagery plays a powerful role in our perception, picturing every individual with a long white beard as being wise is an illusion. Simply confuses correlation with causation. The reality reduces the saying of being “another year older and another year wiser” to an empty statement.

Believing that every older individual has amassed a stockpile of knowledge ignores several prerequisites that make an individual inclined to become a wise person.  These characteristics include intellectual curiosity, the ability to learn from experiences, and the capacity for sound reasoning. Without these attributes it doesn’t matter if a person is twenty-five or ninety-five, they cannot be wise! To credulously accept conventional wisdom without any forethought makes an individual nothing more than a passive fool. To only continue to do so for decades on end is antithetical to wisdom. It is quintessentially spending an entire lifetime relying on lazy thinking, which will not lead to acquiring any knowledge. Claiming that such an individual is wise or knowledgeable irrespective of their chronological age is borderline criminal.

Intellectual Curiosity:

Encapsulated in the words of the wisest man among the ancient Athenians, “The unexamined life is not worth living”. Arguably one of the most cited quotes in Western Philosophy conveys a lot of the nature of knowledge and wisdom. If one is not inclined to pursue the knowledge they cannot become wise. This is regardless of how many years they have spent living on this planet. Most true knowledge generally needs to be pursued, not passively obtained. The thought process of an individual content with accepting the superficial appearance of the world is not one who is going to explore ideas or the nature of the universe. Rather have their beliefs bequeathed to them.  Versus actively discriminating between two choices based on acquired knowledge. To merely accept the status quo for decades on end without any deeper contemplation is the opposite of being wise. This person has only spent their life regurgitating the ideas that have been inculcated into them since childhood. Instead of thoughtfully engaging with ideas to acquire knowledge.

Spending a lifetime staring at the surface deludes people into thinking they understand how the world works. Creating the erroneous belief that they can easily formulate solutions to problems or have a firm grasp of the nature of reality. Unfortunately, they have only been gazing at shadow puppets on a cave wall for all these years. Attempting to derive a complete understanding from such an inadequate foundation is impossible. Further substantiating the importance of having a thirst for knowledge to achieve the coveted status of a wise person.  A wise person does not succumb to the illusion of having the complete picture when all that is available are thin silhouettes. They have a firm understanding of the limitations of knowledge and acknowledge that learning is a continual process, not a destination. They echo the sentiment of the Socratic profession of ignorance keeps themselves open to accepting new information. Through remaining humble and reminding ourselves that there are severe limitations on our breadth of knowledge we allow ourselves to broaden our horizons.  If we assume that due to our age we automatically have a thorough understanding of the nature of the world, we are only fooling ourselves.  Such self-deception does not amount to wisdom.

The Ability to Learn from Experiences:

It is easy to assume that because we lived through an experience we truly have a strong comprehension of how to handle it if it reoccurs in the future. Once again, this is an attribute that is tantamount to self-depiction. Making matters only worse, our elders feel so confident in their abilities to draw meaningful inferences from these anecdotes they firmly distribute this advice to younger generations. Creating personal allegories that become imperative that younger folks learn from. However, how are these sage individuals so sure they have pin-pointed the precise source of the issue? Narrowing it down to one salient detail is an oversimplification of a complex situation. There could be multiple issues resulting in the problem at hand.  The specific contextual details of the current issue may differ just enough from the situation experienced by the older individual that their remedy may not be applicable. Dismally, even after all of these years, they have never been able to accurately determine the source of the problem. But have spent the past number years under the false impression that they know the correct course of action. People have the unfortunate propensity to conflate and transpose details that lead them astray. Rendering the solution to being ineffective. Attributing the issue to a salient detail rather than the true cause of the issue. A confusion that can lead a litany of personal fables and longwinded tales resulting in faulty advice.

It should also be noted that if an individual lacks intellectual curiosity, the aptitude of them ever getting down to the heart of a problem is slim. The capacity to learn from experiences is an attribute that dovetails to tightly with intellectual curiosity.  Those of an inquisitive nature are much more likely to weigh all the variables and then cautiously attempt to conclude. Resulting in sound retrospective analysis. While those accepting a crude and rudimentary version of the truth are prone to devise a solution from incomplete information and half-baked premises and reasoning. When examining experience and only accounting for an incomplete depiction or inaccurate assumptions about the scenario, it is impossible to learn from that experience.

Capacity for Sound Reasoning:

You can possess the learning capacity, applying information, and drive to acquire knowledge. None of this will make you wise if your thinking is plighted with biases and fallacies. To have all of the information but no means of interpreting it essentially makes this knowledge useless. What good is information if my interpretation of it is clouded by my prejudices. Capacity for sound reasoning is so integrally related to learning from experiences, it could be argued that without sober reasoning skills we would not be able to draw meaningful lessons from our past experiences. Odds are we would again resort to spouting the convention wisdom specific to our generation. Following the crowd does not lead you to the truth. Conforming for the sake of conforming is nothing more than a flaw in reasoning. Cemented and immortalized in the appeal to popularity fallacy. Popular consensus can lead us down some dark and treacherous roads. One only needs to be reminded of Nazi Germany to witness the grisly ultimate consequences of this fallacy. A genuinely wise individual would be able to recognize the danger in mindless acquiescence. Versus firmly leaning on the thoughtless cliché of referring to “back in my day”. However, times have drastically changed since the youth of well-meaning elderly folks.  Espousing outdated platitudes for fifty years ago (that most likely were even incorrect back then) is not equal to disseminating wisdom.

Assuming that advanced age automatically is equal to wisdom presents another fallacy in reasoning in its own right. That is the appeal to authority fallacy.  Utilizing age as an indicator of wisdom is setting that up as a social signaling mechanism. We hold an authoritative reverence for the advice provided by an elderly person, even though that advice could be flawed. We are allowing the variable of age to obscure our better judgment.  If we truly thought about it, only a small minority of people under the age of sixty-five are truly wise.  Do these individuals all of a sudden alter their habits and adopt a proclivity for sound reasoning magically after reaching this arbitrary age of retirement? No. Odds are as we get older we tend to become more rigid in our thinking and set in our ways. This may not be true of all individuals, but it does tend to be true for most people.

Social Media – A Virtual Cave

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The topic of reality is one that has been highly discussed in the discipline of philosophy. From the extensive discourse has generated a litany of postulations pertaining to the nature of reality. A natural corollary of examining reality is the extent to which our perception of reality is a delusion. How do we know what we believe to be real is truly real?  This is a daunting question that humans have been grappling with since the days of  Greek antiquity. No other than the philosopher Plato. Plato provides a firm demonstration of the illusory nature of reality in The Allegory of the Cave [1].

 

In a nutshell, The Allegory of the Cave details a group of people held captive since infancy in a cave. The only visual stimulus they have “shadow puppets”. Produced by the fire-light silhouetted hand gestures of their captors. The prisoners only know the forms of our world through these two-dimensional figures projected on the cave wall. As we all know from our own experience with shadows they lack texture and detail. Only provide a general outline of the for of an object. One day, one of the prisoners breaks free from their shackles and decides to leave the cave. That prisoner was in for a shock.

Blinded by the blaring sunlight the prisoner’s eyes adjust to the lighting of the external environment. Then realizes the true vibrancy of the world outside of the cave. The prisoner comes to the realization that the “shadow puppets” projected on the cave walls were only a caricature of the true objects. For example, a shadow puppet of a tree does not convey all of the veins in the leaves or the crevices and grooves in the bark.  Upon this monumental discovery, the prisoner comes back to the cave to announce his new findings to his captive peers. Unfortunately, they were not receptive to this new perspective of the world. The looked at him as if he was crazy. Defended the validity of perceiving the world as depicted on the cave walls. They continued to intently watch the motions of the shadow puppets on the cave wall.

 

The Allegory of the Cave demonstrates some important points about human perception. Clearly, the shadows simulating the animals on the cave walls are not an accurate representation of their actual forms. We can believe that we know the true form of the depicted animals, however, due to our faulty perception, we do not have an accurate account of their essence. The prisoners believe that they were seeing a dog, however, it was merely the shadows being formed by their captors. By referring to the shadows as a dog does not mean they truly comprehend the essence of a dog. What a dog truly is. It is possible to gain knowledge through perception. However, there is a gulf between our perception and truth [2]. Meaning there is a giant gap between true knowledge and illusion.

 

Illusion tends to be a problem that has continuously plagued humans in the pursuit of truth. On a biological level, we are susceptible to optical illusions.  This is a by-product of evolutionary adaptions that help facilitate easier navigation of our environment. The human mind has a limited capacity for sensory input, therefore our eyes are designed to operate on preassumptions.  Hence, why we tend to enjoy looking at the Impressionist paintings of Claude Monet. We are reading into the painting with our perceptual assumptions. His painting is comprised of a myriad of loose, formless, and broad brush strokes. Anyone of us would swear up-and-down that we see a sailboat or a springtime picnic. In reality, our brain is imposing that form on the sensory input. Such misconceptions are innocent in terms of visual aesthetics. In areas where moral considerations are more pressing, this can be dangerous.

 

Throughout Machiavelli’s flagship book The Prince there are multiple references to perception being more important than reality. He clearly asserts that appearing to be righteous takes primacy over actually being so (Machiavelli, 1532, Transl. Mansfield, 1985, P. 62) [3]. This sentiment is quite often reflected throughout modern society. The idiomatic statement “fake it until you make it” a perennial favorite of every aspiring salesman. Above all, this reflects a dishonest mentality and a facade that cannot indefinitely be maintained. Due to our strong proclivity towards a plethora of biases, we will continue to trust those exuberating confidence over people who are competent. At least until charade starts to unravel. Needless to say, we are wired to fall into the trap of faulty perception. If we are easily tricked by smoke-and-mirrors it is reasonable to question the validity of our perception.

 

While Plato may have used The Allegory of the Cave as an abstract model it still has countless potential for real-world applications. One of the best examples is social media. I really could not even fabricate a better example of a metaphorical cave. The emergence of the occupation of social media influencer has only compounded the extent to which reality is distorted. Even for the average social media consumer you only get a brief glimpse of their life. Often it only details vacations, happy hours, good times with friends, and rarely displays hardship. This brief snapshot of your friend’s life is somewhat illusory. It only illustrations only a fraction of the story. It does not detail the mundanity of day to day life or family disputes.  As people we all have struggles. What those struggles are and their magnitude is what varies. No one has a perfect life. Therefore, I would suggest stop looking at the exploits of your Facebook “friends” with envy. Realize that odds are their life isn’t much better than yours.  In fact, theirs could be worse. Hence, why they are putting up an impenetrable front.

 

In the instance of social media influencers, this effect is only compounded. They are frequently paid to promote a service or product through the channels of social media platforms. There is nothing inherently wrong with that. I am a proponent of capitalism after all. It should be noted that many of these influencers are also paid to embellish upon their lifestyle. Make it seem as if they have more freedom, wealth, and sex appeal than what they actually possess. Ultimately, a great lifestyle is the best selling point for a product or brand. Regardless of the truth of the matter. This contrived lifestyle does not convey the actual truth of the influencer’s lifestyle. You do not see the behind the scenes pressures of appeasing a brand’s aggressive marketing department. Nor do you see the pitfalls of fame. Fame brings a level of Scrutiny that few mild-mannered people can adequately weather. This was the same point that Adam Smith illuminated in his book Theory of Moral Sentiments. The trapping of fame often comes with profound drawbacks. The lavish life portrayed by the kings and queens of  Snapchat does not include the bad and the ugly aspects of their lives.