CONTINUED FROM PART 1
Published in the February 2016 issue of Sraddha, Vol. 7 (3), pp. 128-146.
Model-based Scientific Decision Making and its Limitations
It is very typical of human reason to develop some kind of systematic model to represent the diverse set of variables present in the existing reality. We find examples of such behaviour in fields as diverse as business analysis, justice system, educational programming and sociological policy-making. Using objective reason (to whatever extent possible) models are constructed to simulate various scenarios based upon which a final decision is made. Such decision-making models are commonly used by individuals as well as organisations without even realising the processes used to construct these.
An interesting example of such decision-making is the food pyramid[i] developed by the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which synthesis thousands of scientific studies on diet and health into a single picture, a model. For nutritionists, physicians, healthcare professionals as well as ordinary public – people with varying backgrounds and levels of scientific sophistication – the USDA food pyramid serves as one of the most important guides. However, the very idea of synthesising a vast number of scientific findings into one simplified model must result in the loss of substantial information, considering the wide range of data, nuances and caveats in the original studies.
Let us take a look at a few more examples of model-based decision making. Recent advances in the computing power and the automated real-time data collection have helped develop highly sophisticated models which use complex algorithms regarding consumer behaviour, preferences and spending patterns. These models help businesses to improve performance by making highly accurate predictions or guiding consumers’ choices. Use of such models has helped business companies to avoid some of the common biases that at times undermine their leaders’ subjective judgments[ii]. From ‘loyalty programmes’ at grocery stores to banks approving or rejecting consumer loans, insurance companies extending or limiting coverage, and credit card companies preventing frauds, we find several such examples of successful application of these objective reason-based models.
Nonetheless, over time these models may go out of sync due to unforeseen changes in marketplace, great advances in information technology, fast pace of development of computing power, use of artificial intelligence, etc. “Well-crafted models allow management to anticipate the future and solve problems. But once constructed, these mental models become self-reinforcing, self-sustaining and self-limiting. And when mental models are out of sync with reality, they cause management to make forecasting errors and poor decisions.”[iii]
One of main reasons why all models will eventually fail is because of the inherent limitation of our mental knowledge. The reasoning mind tends to work with an assumption of continuity of existing reality, implying that since the status quo will always continue and prevail accurate prediction for future may be possible. Such an assumption leads to convergent thinking, which is the primary reason for models getting out of sync. “Convergent thinking focuses on clear problems and provides well-known solutions quickly. Order, simplicity, routine, clear responsibilities, unambiguous measurement systems and predictability are the bedrock of convergent thinking… Convergent thinking can be effective at handling small, incremental changes and differences. But transformational changes completely flummox the system.”[iv] The assumption of discontinuity, however, “thrives on the divergent thinking, which focuses on broadening—diverging—the context of decision making. It is initially more concerned with questions than getting to the answers in the fastest possible way… It focuses as much on careful observation of the facts as on interpretation of the facts. It focuses as much on the skills of reflection (which requires time away from the problem) as on the skills of swift decision making (which seek to avoid delay).”[v]
Thus we see that the model-based decision making is fundamentally limited in its value because of the very limitations of the mental reasoning. Mind, in reality, is not an instrument of knowledge, it is rather an instrument that processes the information received from outside. Often the mind is more prone to apply convergent thinking skills in order to arrive at a swift solution to the problem at hand. Only when the realisation sets in about the limits of external information, about the pitfalls of thinking fast, it begins to turn inward for reflection which requires a time away from the problem. The divergent thinking as described above sounds similar to the “stepping back” advice of the Mother whenever one is faced with a critical decision to make.
Another important limitation of the reason is its tendency and ability to justify each and every decision it takes. Recalling the example of Kodak, the photographic film manufacturing company, as cited in our previous article, we find that even though the company knew that the future of photography was all about the digital camera, it chose to stay away from transitioning to the digital media. And it chose to justify this decision on the ground that such a move would have destroyed its existing well-established photographic film business.
Reason is also limited in value when it exclusively relies on objective facts. The Indian epic Mahabharata provides several helpful examples to illustrate this point. Objective facts such as those having to do with the primacy and legality of birth-based inheritance can be used to reasonably justify the claim of Duryodhana, the eldest son of King Dhritrashtra, on the throne of Hastinapur. Similarly, the fact that the eldest Pandav, Yuddhisthir had duly consented to all the mutually-agreed-upon rules of the dice-game beforehand could be used to reasonably justify (or at least rationalise) any punishment or insult he, his younger brothers and his wife Draupadi had to undergo as part of their wager in the gamble. Only when we see these events in the light of a higher truth, a truth above and beyond the objective rationality or reason that we come closer to distinguishing between right and wrong, between what was true and what wasn’t. This higher light is the light of dharma, a subjective light, a light so subtle and discerning which cuts the darkness of the limitation imposed by rational mind. Only in this higher light, reason arrives at its true purpose of existence, to help discern between right and wrong, between truth and falsehood, so that a correct decision may be possible. Thus, reason’s value is enhanced when it is used as an instrument to seek higher knowledge and not merely to analyse the external data. And that is possible in the light of subtle knowledge obtained by a more inward-oriented subjective instrument.
Need for Turning Inward
We return back to the reading from “The Celestine Prophecy.”
“…you felt you had a method, a consensus-building process through which you could discover the nature of everything around you, including God, and including the true purpose of mankind is existence on the planet. So you sent these explorers out to find the true nature of your situation and to report back…, but because of the complexity of the universe they weren’t able to return right away…When the scientific method couldn’t bring back a new picture of God and of mankind its purpose on the planet. Eventually we arrived at what seemed to be a very logical solution. We are certainly learning enough to manipulate this new world for our own benefit, so why not work in the meantime to raise our standard of living, our sense of security in the world?…We shook off our feeling of being lost by taking matters into our own hands, by focusing on conquering the Earth and using its resources to better our situation, and only now, as we approach the end of the millennium can we see what happened. Our focus gradually became a preoccupation. We totally lost ourselves in creating a secular security, an economic security, to replace the spiritual one we had lost. The question of why we were alive, of what was actually going on here spiritually, was slowly pushed aside and repressed altogether…Working to establish a more comfortable style of survival has grown to feel complete in and of itself as a reason to live, and we have gradually, methodically, forgotten our original question… We have forgotten that we still don’t know what we are surviving.”[vi]
In the above passage “so why not work in the meantime to raise our standard of living, our sense of security in the world?” suggests a movement that is at the root of increased materialism and commercialism happening as a result of discoveries in physical sciences. In a way, this speaks to Sri Aurobindo’s reference to the “profound vitalism” which is an important sign of this advanced age of reason, a vitalism which has its “eye fixed on life rather than on the soul” and “seeks to interpret being in the terms of force and action rather than of light and knowledge.”[vii]
To put it in simpler terms, in such an age the primary driving force for both the individual effort as well as the collective one is an impulse to make the outer life of the humanity more comfortable, organised and efficient. This excessive utilitarian and pragmatic approach to life in time leads to a gradual loss of meaning and deeper aim of life. Only an inward turning of a contemplative mind can offer a way out. Only an inward turning will open the way to a greater knowledge. To quote from Sri Aurobindo:
“But after a time it must become apparent that the knowledge of the physical world is not the whole of knowledge; it must appear that man is a mental as well as a physical and vital being and even much more essentially mental than physical or vital. Even though his psychology is strongly affected and limited by his physical being and environment, it is not at its roots determined by them, but constantly reacts, subtly determines their action, effects even their new-shaping by the force of his psychological demand on life. His economic state and social institutions are themselves governed by his psychological demand on the possibilities, circumstances, tendencies created by the relation between the mind and soul of humanity and its life and body. Therefore to ﬁnd the truth of things and the law of his being in relation to that truth he must go deeper and fathom the subjective secret of himself and things as well as their objective forms and surroundings.
“This he may attempt to do for a time by the power of the critical and analytic reason which has already carried him so far; but not for very long. For in his study of himself and the world he cannot but come face to face with the soul in himself and the soul in the world and ﬁnd it to be an entity so profound, so complex, so full of hidden secrets and powers that his intellectual reason betrays itself as an insufﬁcient light and a fumbling seeker: it is successfully analytical only of superﬁcialities and of what lies just behind the superﬁcies. The need of a deeper knowledge must then turn him to the discovery of new powers and means within himself.”[viii]
[i] 1992. Food Pyramid. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Food_pyramid_(nutrition)
[ii] Phil Rosenzweig. 2014. The benefits—and limits—of decision models. http://www.mckinsey.com/insights/strategy/the_benefits_and_limits_of_decision_models
[iii] R. Foster, R. and S. Kaplan. 2001. Creative Destruction. Currency Books, p. 18.
[iv] ibid, p. 19.
[v] ibid, p. 19.
[vi] James Redfield. 1993, pp. 16-20.
[vii] Sri Aurobindo. CWSA, Vol 25. P. 30
[viii] Sri Aurobindo, CWSA, Vol. 25, pp. 28-29.