Troublesome models

An old friend recently sent me a link to an article he had written about Megalithics in Ogbourne Saint George, Wiltshire. He points out that some local sites, referred to as ‘Castles’ were more likely to be simply meeting points on ancient trade routes.

We tend to look back through a modern war-like lens and jump to false conclusions, using the conflict model to explain the data. If you ignore the aggressive, mafia (royal) families around whom we have built historical perspectives, our real story is one of mutual aid and peaceful co-operation.

Similarly many neuroscientists use the wrong model to describe how the brain works, and their language informs public debate. For instance, there is talk about how the brain stores data, interprets information or sees images – when in fact the brain does none of these things.

The brain does not record, interpret or see, the whole person does these things. There are no filing cabinets or picture galleries to be found in neurones. It is a mereological fallacy to ascribe capacities of the whole to individual parts that make up that whole. One consequence is that we can always blame someone else – ‘it was my brain that made me do it!’.

This lack of cognitive clarity, manifesting through poorly thought out and inappropriate mental models is strongly evident in the domain of economics, wherein it adversely affects each of us every day of our lives. We feel the effects of fiscal and monetary policies (austerity), suffer from hidden inflation (fraudulent substitution of horse-meat for beef) work longer and longer hours in an effort to boost GDP (read bailing out the bankers).

The economic mental model which drives our day is an illusion which does not stand up to investigation. GDP is a nonsense – a factory which pollutes it’s environment adds to GDP, as does the cost of cleaning up that pollution. GDP is measured in terms of pounds or dollars or renminbi or whatever – each of which is simply conjured out of thin air, they bear no relation to real human value or activity.

The act of signing a mortgage loan brings the loaned money into existence (please check it out if you do not believe me). You have to repay that money plus interest. Why interest? You work to make money to pay off your loan. At the end of the term the lender gets the loan money (which they did not have before) plus the interest. But why do we need to pay interest? The lender did not have the money to start with, but by the end of the contract has all the money. Plus the interest – they take the icing and the cake. That interest could be the financial straw that breaks your back, but to the lender it is just a bonus, they have already done very well out of you.

Last year this blog proposed a  thought experiment: imagine that there is no such thing as money, but everyone carries on with their normal daily activity – still producing electricity, making things, shopping etc.. Now think about adding value – which activities would not be needed (banking, accountancy, insurance come to mind) and which would be important (growing things, carpentry, plumbing).

Given that financial services represent 30% of the activity in the UK, that would release an awful lot of people to turn their minds how they might contribute. How would things be valued – perhaps in terms of quality or durability rather than money – how would we measure that? What would be our priorities. Would we find that everyone could work many less hours in order to maintain the same standard of living? That would be a shocker.

The benefit of mental models is that they provide infrastructure – foundations, walls, ceilings – to our thinking, thus enabling prejudices and habits that seem to make life easier, allowing us to run on auto-pilot.

But those very same prejudices and habits can be more than just mental labour saving devices, if we are not careful they can become prison cells wherein we are trapped. Every day peddling harder and harder on the treadmill in an effort to maintain the walls to our prison.

Perhaps it is time to pull down the pillars of our familiar mental cells and create newer, more beautiful, intentional homes in which to live.

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