The two worlds we live in by David Boxenhorn
I refer to this essay from 2014 by David Boxenhorn on his blog, Rishon Rishon, so many times, I’m going to have to put it here. The video is a reading of this text.
We humans live in two worlds. One world, I call Mundia, is the world of immutable laws, e.g. gravity, electromagnetism, and supply and demand – 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, e.g. love, hate, admiration, envy, loyalty, and gratitude – 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 Over the course of our lifetime, we can gradually build up our knowledge of the world – our knowledge never goes out of date. We might get something wrong, and have to update our understanding of things, given new information, but the underlying world that our knowledge describes is fundamentally unchangeable; there is no such thing as old-fashioned knowledge. Moreover, the same is true for society as a whole: over thousands of years, we have gradually built up a knowledge of the world’s immutable laws, and the best way for an individual to become knowledgeable is to learn this collective wisdom. If something is unknown, or if there is some disagreement about the way things are, 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, how we express ourselves, and even the opinions that we hold, are all factors in interpersonal relationships. Since power relationships are always changing, this world, unlike Mundia, is continually shifting, and knowledge about the world quickly goes out of date. Intelligent Modians use their wits to develop an acute sensitivity to the Zeitgeist. They must know whether to support the powerful, in the hopes of being raised by association, or perhaps rebel in the hopes of joining (or starting) a new power center. They must know who, and what, is in or out, since a faux pas can lead to immediate loss of status. Finally, for the most part, the world of Modia, unlike Mundia, is a zero-sum-game: one person’s gain is another’s loss. Status relationships can never be win-win.
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 anthropogenic 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 your opinion? The answer most likely depends on whether you are Mundian or Modian. A Modian would say: “Obviously, there is anthropogenic global warming, all the right people believe it! 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. Not enough time has passed to come to a conclusion. The jury is still out.” Note that I’m not saying anything about the truth value of anthropogenic 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. Issues that the left or right supported a hundred years ago seem to have no relationship to issues that they support today. When I look at policy I see even less continuity. 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 tend to be 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 for success down through the ranks – at each level of decision making there will be some degree of subjectivity, and by the time we reach the bottom rank, decisions might be completely Modian. 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 who has the right opinions in our society, and we accept their opinions as fact. But 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 in this society are different, often diametrically opposed, to those of our parents. Which do we choose? Most of us still don’t have a well-formed inner model of the world from which to make a Mundian decision, but most of us value highly our status among our peers, so it’s an easy choice: we abandon the opinions of our parents, and embrace those of our peers.
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 thought we knew, and we have to reconsider 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 seems natural to keep up with the latest fashion, and they are instinctively swept along. But a Mundian soon becomes disillusioned; the world is supposed to be immutable! When our personal experiences of the world contradict its social messages, Mundians rebel. And so, they gradually move to 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 no less than Modians, and usually 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 of 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.