Longtime listeners of The Bryan Callen Show will be familiar with the story of the cargo cults. If you know the story, then feel free to skip the next paragraph. If you’re not, then here it is:
In short, on islands across the South Pacific, there were humans who in the 20th Century had not had contact with the wider world for thousands of years. They were using stone tools. Suddenly, a large number of aircraft began flying overhead which for tribesmen who had never seen metal must have been utterly mindblowing. Even more mindblowing was that scattered throughout the jungle they found large crates of provisions that they came to find out were called cargo. Inside these crates of cargo were metal tools that unlike stone tools never seemed to go dull and tins of incredibly calorie rich food. Understandably, the tribesmen wanted more of this cargo and so they crept through the forest to find more of it. There, they discovered an the nesting place of the giant metal birds they had seen flying overhead, which we would call an airfield. They watched. They observed. They copied. And then they went off into the forest to repeat the ritual. And so, they built a giant airplane entirely out of twigs and then hundreds of men stood around the twig plane and flapped their lips to make the sound of a plane taking off. Well over half a century later, these cargo cults are still going. Needless to say, none of them has taken off. And when they don’t take off, the believers just keep making them more elaborate. They have added giant wooden towers that mimic aircraft control towers and sent a man up there who place half a coconut on each ear. And they have “figured out” how this new phenomenon of planes fits within their existing beliefs. They believe that good things come from their ancestors and since the people who control these planes are overwhelmingly pale faced they must be from the land of the dead. Their beliefs make sense to them and so they perpetuate.
The story of the Cargo Cults doesn’t reveal something about people from the South Pacific. It reveals something about people. For now, it’s worth noting a few things:
1) Humans are terrible at figuring out why things happen.
2) They begin to try and figure them out by starting at the most superficial level. (The islanders start with the shape of the plane and the sound.) This superficiality is a universal feature of human thinking. We copy the way our heroes (be they rappers, Muslim clerics, politicians, scientists, supermodels or Bryan Callen) act and dress.
3) We all want the good stuff. Some of that is physical stuff like cargo and some of it is emotional like meaningful work, belonging, love and smoking hot sex.
4) What we’re doing can make perfect sense to us long past the point when it should be clear it’s not working.
5) Their minds fill in with what they think has worked for them in the past.
This last point is super important because we all have things that we think can fix everything. For the South Pacific Islanders, it’s ancestor worship and magic rituals. For a lot of us, it’s duct tape. Duct tape is amazing stuff. It can fix almost everything but there are limits.
We all have our own version of duct tape. My own version of duct tape is reading a book. Just as the South Pacific Islanders were taught by their parents to default to ancestor worship, I was taught by my dad to default to books. Can’t make sense of something? Find a book. The book has the answer.
And just like duct tape, books have often served me well but sometimes just like duct tape that habit to reach for a book can go too far. And that is a huge part of where society is today. The people who run our society LOVE data. They LOVE graphs. They LOVE doing more research. They LOVE fancy math. And so, when they try and figure out how to solve our problems, they turn to their duct tape: math.
The problem is that, as regular listeners of the Bryan Callen Show already know, the era of Big Data is not a new phenomenon. It’s us flapping our lips harder on something we’ve been trying to do for a very long time. The problems that we struggle with today (education, health, terrorism and people believing wacky nonsense) are actually emotional and cultural problems. Math is great but it’s the exact wrong tool for the job.
Of course, this does not fit at all with what the Big Data crowd believes about themselves. They believe that cargo cults are a thing of the past. Yes, in the past, people believed in witches and other nonsense but that was then. Yes, people like the South Pacific Islanders in cargo cults still believe these things but that is them. In the modern world and particularly in the west, there is the belief that we have put that all behind us. We see the world as it truly is because we are modern and because we have science. That belief which is disturbingly common is at the root of the world’s problems. Many people in the modern world believe they have escaped the basic trap of the human condition. And that is why they don’t even get a white belt in mixed mental arts.
Someone who definitely does get at least a white belt in Mixed Mental Arts is Jonathan Haidt (Ep. 53 of The Bryan Callen Show) because Jonathan Haidt clearly understands that most fundamental problem of the human condition. In his book The Happiness Hypothesis, Jonathan Haidt writes:
“If I could nominate one candidate for ‘biggest obstacle to world peace and social harmony,’ it would be naive realism because it is so easily ratcheted up from the individual to the group level: My group is right because we see things as they are. Those who disagree are obviously biased by their religion, their ideology, or their self-interest. Naive realism gives us a world full of good and evil, and this brings us to the most disturbing implication of the sages’ advice about hypocrisy: Good and evil do not exist outside of our beliefs about them.”
Of course, while the current name for the brain’s ability to convince us that our brain plays tricks on us is naive realism, it’s something that human beings have known about for a very long time. Before the modern era of scientific research, the belief systems that understood this phenomenon most clearly were the various eastern religions (namely Hinduism and Buddhism) which referred to the concept of maya or illusion. The people in the Cargo Cults really believe that if they flap their lips hard enough that those twig airplanes would take off. They have fallen for the brain’s ability to convince all of us that “we see things as they are.”
Today, the world has a series of competing belief systems that promise us that they know how to bring us all the good things. They can bring cargo. They can make the economy get bigger. They can make more jobs appear. They can cure all our social woes. There’s ISIS in Syria. There are the promises of Putin in Russia and the promises of his liberal opposition. America is divided between Republicans, Democrats, Libertarians and Greens. The Washington Consensus. The Beijing Consensus. We must cut carbon emissions to reduce The Greenhouse Effect. The Greenhouse Effect is a hoax perpetrated by China! Vaccines are good. Vaccines are bad. Multivitamins can improve your health. Multivitamins do nothing. Crossfit. Olympic Lifting. Soul Cycle. High Intensity Interval Training. Dude, if you learn how to computer program then you will always have a job. The list goes on and on and yet there is a common thread: “My group is right because we see things as they are.”
The problem that Haidt is describing is beautifully captured in a classic story that comes out of India. Again, this is one of Hunter’s favorites so longtime listeners will have heard it before, it’s the story of the Blind Men and the Elephant. Feel free to skip this paragraph if you know it:
A group of blind men come across an elephant and decide to figure out what it is. The first blind man wanders up to the tail and feels the rough hairs at its end and announces proudly that he has figured it out. “It’s a rope,” he announces. The second blind man feels the ear and contradicts the first one, “No, my friend. I think you’re mistaken. It’s obviously a palm leaf.” The third blind man feeling the elephant’s trunk writhing in his hands screams, “You fools! It’s a snake. Get away from it.” The fourth blind man feels the leg and insists they’re all touching a column. The fifth feels the side and screams at the top of his lungs that it’s obviously a wall. They then proceed to spend their time beating each other up and abusing each other as fools for not seeing things “as they are.” In some versions, the blind men kill each other over their conflicting views.
This story was originally about religion but it does a good job of capturing the modern world. All of our conflicting beliefs about economics, education, health, fitness and the environment are somehow describing the same reality. In theory, we should all recognize that we are blind, calm down and grope our way around until we figure out a view of the world that makes sense of all the pieces. Why don’t we? Naive realism. We think we see things as they are. We think that everybody else is in a cargo cult but not us. And that is why, as of this writing, so few people in the world have even a white belt in mixed mental arts.
Of course, there is a group of people whose whole life’s work is to come up with beliefs that more closely fit reality. They are scientists. So, if there are people who spend their whole lives trying to figure out how the world works, why does humanity have so little clarity on it? Why hundreds of years and tens of millions of scientific papers later are we still fighting over how the world works? Is it just so complicated that we haven’t figured it out yet? Well, that’s one story, but it’s not the one that best fits the facts as we’ve observed them.
After 200 interviews with some of the world’s leading thinkers, we’ve come to the conclusion that the answers exist; it’s just that most of them are stuck in books. We’ve spoken with lots of experts who have tremendous expertise in their tiny area and are utterly oblivious about what is going on in any other area. As one author put it in an email to me, “One of the strangest experiences of researching this book was finding that different silos of science had different answers to the same questions. Even stranger was realizing that they didn’t really care.” This indifference to figuring out how it all fits together (or the practical relevance of the work) has long been a problem in the culture of science. In fact, it was such a problem so immediately that Jonathan Swift was able to satirize it all the way back in 1726 in Gulliver’s Travels.
Although Lemuel Gulliver travels through many lands, the book is about different forms of human pride. While Gulliver travels among giants, little people, talking horses and people with eternal life, Swift is really satirizing different forms of pride that he saw in his own society. In fact though, Swift’s writing has a timeless quality precisely because while the circumstances of a given society change the nature of the humans who make that society does not. Human nature remains the same. Culture changes. And yet sometimes, cultures persist over a very long time. Swift’s depiction of Laputa is a satire of the Royal Academy, the premier scientific body of his time.
Laputa is a giant floating island that is levitated by magnet. The island is full of people who value higher mathematics and complex music above all. They spend their days lost in their thoughts and wander around with one eye raised to the heavens at all time. They engage in fabulous scientific researches like trying to extract sunbeams from cucumbers and turn excrement back into food. At all times, they are accompanied by a retainer who carries a giant, inflated bladder. That way, when they need to pay attention to something in the real world, the retainer can whack them on the head and get them to pay attention to what’s in front of them. There is, however, a real human tragedy to the Laputan’s lack of connection with reality. The Laputans rule over a giant kingdom of people who are below them called the Balnibarbi. The Laputans (the scientists) believe they have the right to rule over the Balnibarbi (the common folk) because they are so much smarter than them. The Balnibarbi are starving because the Laputans are so busy thinking abstract thoughts that they don’t pay any attention to the practicalities of life. And every time, the Balnibarbi try and rebel, the Laputans bring their giant floating island down upon them.
Nearly, 290 years ago, Swift laid out one of the core tensions at the root of the Brexit vote. When British politician Michael Gove said, “people in this country have had enough of experts” he was expressing the old cry of every Balnibarbi revolution. While the people Gove was speaking on behalf of may not understand what the experts are saying, they, as human beings, are excellent at tracking two things. 1) The cargo hasn’t shown up. 2) These experts who decide what’s best for us seem awfully condescending. In the end, the growing gap between the experts and much of the population is going to keep showing up and getting wider and wider. Having spent time in both cultures, you find the same old pattern of thinking. “We’re the good guys. The other guys are the problem.” It’s naive realism all over again.
In the end though, we are stuck with each other. On some level, we all know that we are related to the other seven billion people on this planet and just like our more immediate relatives we have mixed feelings about that. Some relatives we adore. Some relatives we try and pretend are not really related to us. And yet, yes, sadly…all these people are our relatives. And all of us are blinded by the tendency to believe that we see things as they really are. Call it naive realism like Jon Haidt. Call it maya like the Buddha. Call it “thinking you know it all” like my relatives in Kansas do. It all comes down to the same thing. All of us are the blind people trying to figure out the elephant.
That, however, is not what everyone claims.
In a lot of versions of the story, a new ending was tacked on where a King wanders up who can see. Yes, he sees things as they really are and he tells the blind men the way the world really works. This thing they’re fighting over is the elephant and they should all believe and do whatever he says.
That’s how Kings and Popes and countless other leaders have justified their power throughout the ages.
So, does that mean the world can’t be figured out? Of course not. Humanity has made great progress in figuring out many aspects of the world. We’ve figured out electric light and how to prevent diseases by killing bacteria and how to make tone deaf teenagers sound like they’ve had years of vocal training through auto tune. We can figure out the world more clearly than ever before and the amazing thing is that that doesn’t require finding out how the world works. In fact, it’s mostly about just taking the answers that already exist and are trapped in books and knitting them together. It’s about practicing mixed mental arts. It’s about drawing together all the ideas available and working them into one coherent worldview. It’s about piecing together the shape of the elephant.
Humans spend their entire lives inside belief systems that are trying to deliver the good things in life. We are all in cargo cults. As long as we are human, we will always be in them. The question is how closely your cargo cult fits reality and how good is it at delivering the good things in life. In practice though, the cargo cult that you belong to isn’t something you think of as a cult. In fact, you probably think of it as your culture.
Culture is one of those words that floats around in conversations. We know it’s important but can’t really define what it is or how it works. Of course, before we even take a look at how culture works, you first have to accept that you even have a culture at all. You won’t ever not have a culture of some sort. You won’t ever not be a part of a cargo cult. The question is what culture will you buy into.
Some cargo cults work. The beliefs of aviation engineers create planes that actually fly because their beliefs are grounded in the reality of the physical universe. And some cargo cults create twig airplanes that don’t fly but the members of that cargo cult continue to flap their lips believing that if they just flap their lips hard enough then everything will take off. There are a lot of the latter kind of cargo cults in the world.
Mixed Mental Arts is not only to help you form beliefs that are more usable and more closely fit reality but to have the flexibility to change your culture to suit the needs of your environment. But that’s some next level Mixed Mental Arts. If you’ve accepted that as a human you have a culture (or in other words are a member of some sort of cargo cult) then you just earned yourself a white belt. Welcome to the world of Mixed Mental Arts.