Thursday, 29 January 2015

Withheld assent

...experience seems to teach us especially clearly, that we are able to suspend our judgment before assenting to things which we perceive ; this is confirmed by the fact that no one is said to be deceived, in so far as he perceives anything, but only in so far as he assents or dissents.
Baruch Spinoza - Ethics

Karl Friston thinks our brains are wired to seek a state of fewest surprises. It’s a least action idea where the brain does as little work as possible while processing sensory data.

In short, we sample the world to ensure our predictions become a self-fulfilling prophecy and surprises are avoided. In this view, perception is enslaved by action to provide veridical predictions (more formally, to make the freeenergy a tight bound on surprise) that guides active sampling of the sensorium. 
Karl Friston

It seems to me that Friston’s idea works well enough, but doesn’t explain why some people are inclined towards scepticism, the awkward squad who see no merit in following the consensus merely because it is the consensus. Social pressure tends to create situations where not following a consensus surely requires more brainwork than following it. So what drives scepticism?

Suppose some people see fewer surprises outside a particular consensus. Or suppose they see fewer surprises in simply withholding their assent because the consensus seems flaky. If so, then there may be brainwork benefits to withheld assent even if the majority don't see it.

As an aside - maybe the majority do see the benefits of withheld assent. Maybe it is mostly the chattering classes who assent too readily to fashionable consensus. As this isn't the least action approach their brains overheat.

Withheld assent feels similar to detachment if we see detachment as perpetually withheld assent. We've known about detachment for centuries - where some people seem to prefer to remain outside the easy brainwork of consensus. 

Detachment or perpetually withheld assent may lead to fewer surprises anyway, especially in areas which are so complex that a number of interpretations always seem to be viable. Until they go wrong that is.

All of which seems to fit modern life quite well.


James Higham said...

So, what is the next step?

A K Haart said...

James - more scepticism.