Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mundia & Modia: The two worlds in which we live

We humans live in two worlds. One world, I call Mundia, is the world of immutable laws: gravity, electromagnetism, supply and demand, etc. - it is the world that we see when we look out at the natural landscape.The other world, I call Modia, is the world of social relationships: love, hate, admiration, envy, loyalty, gratitude, etc. - it is the world that we see when we look out at the social landscape.

I believe that, while all of us live in both worlds, most of us live in one world much more than the other: we are Mundians or Modians, not both. Mundians look out at the world and see the natural landscape; Modians, the social landscape. This fact explains a lot of phenomena that have puzzled me for a long time. At the most basic level it explains this: when faced with a problem, what is the heuristic that we use for solving it? Mundians use a naturalistic model, while Modians use a sociological model. The nature of these two models is very different, often leading to very different answers.

Mundia: The world is made of immutable laws. We can successfully manipulate the world by learning them. Over thousands of years, our society has gradually built up a knowledge of the world's immutable laws, and the best way to educate oneself is to learn this collective wisdom. If something is unknown, or if there is some disagreement, the way to resolve it is to understand things better; whether by experimentation or by reason. The facts speak for themselves.

Modia: The world is made of relationships between people. We can successfully manipulate the world by figuring out who is powerful, or by becoming powerful ourselves. We must learn to be responsive to people in the right way, or to act in a way which will elicit the response we want. How we look, dress, and the opinions we hold are all factors in interpersonal relationships, which signal to others our social status.

Now, you might think that Mundia and Modia are non-overlapping magisteria. If only they were! I will give you an example of how they are not: the anthropomorphic global warming debate. I am not, personally, knowledgeable enough about this issue to have an informed opinion about it. Most likely, neither are you. But, there is a good chance that you have an opinion, informed or not, and might even believe it very strongly! So how did you form you opinion? The answer most likely depends on whether you are Mundian or Modian. A Modian would say: "Obviously, there is anthropomorphic global warming, there is consensus among the experts!" A Mundian would say, "Even though there is a consensus among experts on this issue, there are some experts who disagree. How do we know they are not right? Only a few decades ago the experts were warning about global cooling. Minority views have often overturned the scientific consensus. The jury is still out." Note that I'm not saying anything about the truth value of anthropomorphic global warming! Only about the heuristic that we use to make decisions when we are not well-informed.

You might also notice that being pro-AGW is generally associated with the political left, while being anti-AGW is associated with the right. I don't much like the terms "left" and "right" as political descriptions ("liberal" and "conservative" are even worse) because to most people they imply ideology. I don't believe that ideology is consistent over time. When I look at the ideology of the left or right a hundred years ago, and look at it now, I don't see much continuity. When I look at policy I see even less. The continuity that I do see is the difference between Mundia and Modia.

Why is it that Hollywood tends to be leftist, while farmers tend to be on the right? It is because success in Hollywood depends on successfully manipulating people, while farmers must manipulate nature. You can make a list of professions, and easily see that the more Modian they are, the more left-leaning they tend to be, and the more Mundian they are, the more right-leaning. Thus people who work in the media tend to be on the left, and engineers on the right. Business people tend to be on the right, because they are judged by objective standards of profit and loss. But those business people whose success depends on understanding fashion tend more to the left. Wherever you see objective standards, you see Mundians; wherever the the standards are subjective, Modians.

All human institutions tend to become Modian over time, for the simple reason that they are made up of people. The more subjective the criteria for success, the more Modian the organization will become. Those institutions that have little or no exogenous criteria for success, like government, academia, or the non-profit sector, will inevitably come to be dominated by Modians, whatever their explicit goals may be. Businesses, which must make a profit to survive, are not immune to this tendency. Though they have exogenous criteria for success, it is a difficult task to propagate the objective criteria down through the ranks; at each level of decision making there will be some degree of subjectivity. But in the business world, there is some good news for Mundians: those businesses that become too Modian will fail.

Mundia and Modia explain why people tend to move rightwards as they age. We are all born Modians, knowing nothing about the world, but trusting our parents to inform us. Later we learn from our teachers, and our peers. It is usually perfectly clear what the right opinions of our society are,  and we accept them as fact. As we move away from the orbit of our parents, an interesting thing happens. We become acutely aware of the social hierarchy of our peers. It often becomes clear that the high-status opinions are different, often diametrically opposed, to that of our parents. Which do we choose? Most of us still don't have a well-formed inner model of the world with which to make a Mundian decision, but we value our status among our peers, so it's an easy choice.

As we age, we gradually learn more about Mundia. Its immutable nature means that our knowledge about it is cumulative. Occasionally, we learn things that seem to contradict what we think we know, and we have to reconcile our ideas, but the direction is always forward. Nothing of the sort happens in Modia, at least on a macro scale. Opinion-makers are always changing. Intellectual fashions go in and out of style. To a Modian, it's all natural; keeping up with the latest fashion is instinctive. But a Mundian soon becomes disillusioned; the world is supposed to be immutable! When our personal experiences of the world contradict the social messages, Mundians reject the social messages. And so, they gradually move the the right.

You might have detected above my own personal bias. I am, I admit, a Mundian. But I do not believe that Mundians are always right, nor is Modia an illusion. In fact, Modia is probably more important than Mundia, even to Mundians! Mundians crave social success, and status, more than they crave success in farming, or building bridges that won't fall down. A typical Mundian mistake is to assume that success in Mundia will naturally lead to success in Modia. It might, but it might not. A successful movie star will always be more popular than a successful businessman. I also think that Modia is important in its own right, especially on the micro level: interpersonal relations. On the macro level, marketing is part of life, for better or for worse, and it's an important skill. In the arts, why not? Viva la Modia! Why not enjoy it?

The problem comes when you use Modian skills to solve a Mundian problem, or vice versa. Everybody knows that Modian skills won't keep your bridges from falling down, but we still choose bridge-builders partly, at least, for Modian reasons. Everybody knows that truth isn't a popularity contest, but we still tend to view a recent scientific consensus as truth, and call dissenters deniers. Conversely, Mundia won't help you get along with your spouse, your co-workers, or make you popular.

In then end, we humans live in two worlds: Mundia and Modia. Enjoy the difference.