Friday, 19 August 2016

Unchain Thyself

When I was a professional gambler I knew many systems, strategies and tricks to which the non-gambler's naked eye was not accustomed. Here's one that's not only a lot of fun, but one to which I can attach a powerful truism. This can be used as a real gambling exercise, an allegory for one of life's truisms, or simply as a party game that will amuse onlookers at the end of the night.  

The game
In auctioning an arbitrary sum of money, you play a game in which you are host to two willing bidders. You show the two bidders a £20 note (you can play this with any amount of money), and get them to enter rounds of bidding on the money by handing you their bids on a piece of paper, with the winning bidder receiving the £20 at the end of the bidding, and both bidders having to pay you their final bid. 

As soon as two people agree to enter the game, not only are you (the host master) almost guaranteed a profit, you'll find that it has the potential to spiral out of the bidders' comfort zones. Say John starts the game and bids £5 for the £20 prize and Pete bids £6. Both John and Pete are soon going to find out that there's not going to be a good time to pull out of the bidding. If John quits on the first round he's just lost £5 straight off, so he might as well bid £7. Similarly if Pete then drops out he loses £6 for nothing, so he might as well bid £8. 

This bidding process carries on, because neither John nor Pete can pull out without giving up £15, £16, £17 etc for nothing. Once John has bid £18 and Pete £19, John can either bid £20 and break even, or he can lose £18 for nothing. Now Pete has to decide between bidding £21 and taking a £1 loss, or pulling out and paying £19 for nothing.

This process just carries on escalating until one of the two bidders runs out of money, or reaches the point at which they want to cut their losses to avoid escalating losses. By then, as host, you've guaranteed yourself a tidy profit. Really smart people are astute enough to work out in a few seconds that this is a futile auction in which to find oneself bidding. Others tend to either chicken out, withdraw dissonantly, or end up skint.

What we can learn from the game
That was just a light-hearted look at a fun gambling game with a twist for the uninitiated. But I think this is a good instructive template for life in general. Don't enter into situations whereby you find yourself heavily invested into something that brings about a too narrow perspective or biased affiliation that impairs your judgement.

This is one reason why I've never had any strong affiliations with a political party, or any dogma-driven allegiance to top-down social management - I'm just too enamoured with individuation, because the healthy collectivism that is sought is only attainable if the minds that make up a collective conglomeration have individuated themselves. To borrow from Thoreau we must "breathe after our own fashion".

While nothing is certain, generally I think it's true to say the more ubiquitous, established and prominent the group, the harder it is to resist its gravitational pull away from your individualism. Of course, sometimes this is a good thing, particularly when the group's influence is positive, and your present internalism negative - but the key to rational discernment is to distil when it is good and bad. 

I think a good rule of thumb for being true to your own convictions is this; don't do or champion anything in the name of a group that you wouldn't do or champion as an individual - for if you do so, you become a chameleon that fades into the colours of group think, and you compromise the autonomy of individuation.

Think of how much of your supposed individualism is moulded by others - you'll find it's much more than is often realised. The subtle ways in which others shape us are plentiful - as we trade off the person inside for the role others wish us to play. The danger is that the role involves putting on a mask - and with time the mask and our own faces can become indistinguishable.

The auction scenario above is a good analogy for large groups that have this kind of sway due to prior emotional, socio-political and financial vested interests. There comes a point - be it on a pre-election party campaign, a cult, a socio-economic affiliation, or things of that kind - where what's been invested in the thrall of the collective overpowers the true quality of investing in individual liberation of mind, intellectual openness, and a relatively unbiased enquiry. 

Take a pre-election party campaign as a good example; once the party has invested so much time and financial resources into its campaign, it becomes incredibly hard to hold a balanced view. Or take the poster boys for new-wave atheism – Richard Dawkins, Christopher Hitchens (sadly now deceased), PZ Myers, Sam Harris, and Dan Dennett – with so much at stake (finance, reputation, career) it is much harder for them to consider their views with as much rigour as a comparably unbiased person. The same is true of creationists, left wing extremists, right wing extremists, scientologists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, and other cult-like groups – they have so much invested in their agendas that a truly open, balanced, and liberated view eludes them. Plus, as Voltaire reminds us above - "It is difficult to free fools from the chains they revere".

So, my general advice is this: before you even think of becoming immersed in the collective, make sure you become immersed in the liberation of your own individualism. Rescue yourself from seeking refuge in group think, or from being transfixed on the false security of cooperative agendas, and first master the essence of your own individuality. Only then will you really be a valuable part of a collective.