A Short Piece Based on “Incentives to Problem Solve” by O.G. Rose.

Reality Handicaps Preventative Measures

Ideas are hard to live by, while experiences are natural.

Photo by Bernard Hermant

There are situations that, once we’re in, a tragic trade-off is inevitable. It’s best to avoid these situations in the first place, but until we’re in them, we only have the idea of how difficult the situations will be, not the experiences. “Ideas are not experiences” — as the paper by that name argues — and ideas are much weaker at compelling human action than experiences. Considering this, it’s improbable humans will take preventative measures, especially if those measures are costly and similar historic events (which could provide reference points) distant.

Worsening the situation, as discussed in “Incentives to Problem Solve” by O.G. Rose, if we stop x situation from arising, there’s no experience of x arising, and so we can’t know for sure that:

1. We actually prevented anything.

2. X would have arisen if we did nothing.

3. That the consequences of x would have been terrible

4. That we made a difference.

We must live with the costs of preventative measures without certainty that the costs were worth paying: preventative measures entail existential anxiety. Yes, we can study books, review arguments, and the like to strengthen our idea that the preventative measures were a good idea, but since we can never experience what doesn’t happen, we can’t experience a world where the preventative measures are taken versus one where they aren’t. We have to live with the world we choose and wonder if it’s the best of all possible worlds.

(If philosophy, critical thinking, marital counseling, etc. are all somehow examples of “preventative measures,” what has been pointed here out could shed light on why these enterprises might not be not prevalent.)

Problem-solving is much more linear, clear, and the variables involved more straightforward, but problem-prevention is much more dynamic, debatable, and the variables involved less bound and far vaster. Existential, emotional, and social pressures all favor problem-solving over problem-prevention. Existentially, by problem-solving, we feel more certain that we actually did something, which in turn makes us feel more emotionally and psychologically stable, and socially we are more likely to be acknowledged for solving a problem everyone can see versus prevent a problem from ever materializing in the first place. Ultimately, it’s more natural to be a problem-solver than a problem-preventer: incentives favor solutions.

Since experiences are more powerful than ideas, our experience of a world where preventative measures are taken and nothing happens will likely lead us to imagine that we could have skipped the preventative measures and been just fine. Considering this, we might feel regret, doubt, and idiotic. The nature of our brain and reality itself are against us and preventative measures in general (due to the lack of “sensualization” and perceivable fruits, as elaborated on in other works by O.G. Rose).

If ideas are not experiences but the only way to avoid “tragic mistakes” is to treat ideas as if they are experiences, then we need to train ourselves to be able to be motivated by ideas as much as possible.¹ No, I don’t think we can ever treat ideas exactly like experiences, but we can all do better. How? Well, I’m biased, but this to me suggests the importance of abstract reasoning and the humanities, both of which help us “believe in” ideas and their power. Without that faith, it will be especially difficult for us to not default to experiences every time, perhaps paying ideas lip-service, but only lip-service.

Perhaps the only hope is that we make the mistake of, in the past, disregarding preventative steps and suffering the consequences, recalling of which can help us act wiser. But even then, we can wonder, “What if this time is different?” (Perhaps this suggests why teenagers make so many mistakes and why history seems destined to repeat.) Also, this assumes we get a second chance…

But here’s the thing: once a “tragic situation” arises (I’m thinking Martha Nussbaum here and about how a “tragedy” is generally “a trade-off between competing goods”), all courses of action can be pretty terrible. Take the Covid19 lockdown: we either risk destroying the economy or losing lives. And we must choose. Had the world, for example, back in January quickly closed down flights out of China, perhaps we could have had a better shot of escaping this tough situation (with “no exit”), but the world didn’t because it didn’t want to upset China and suffer the economic fallout. Now, China and America could be on the verge of a conflict, and the economic fallout is arguably even worse, but nobody could have known that at the time.

When the decision about closing flights arose in January 2020, what we are experiencing now could only be an idea to world leaders, while the faces of upset Chinese diplomats and disagreeing doctors were experiences. We also knew then that shutting down flights to China would have consequences, while we didn’t know that not doing so would lead to a global lockdown. Thus, experiences prevailed over ideas, and — here’s the tragedy of us — for “good reason.”

There’s “good reason” to weigh experiences with more authority than ideas. Ideas are not guaranteed to unfold as they might, they are not experienced in “tangible” reality, they don’t bear the same emotional weight, and they are what friends, voters, and families are probably more invested in and unwilling to change (especially before experiences practically force them to reconsider). Considering this, there are “good reasons” not to take preventative measures necessary for avoiding a “tragic situation” in which all decisions are hard decisions. For “good reason,” history repeats.

If someone who supported preventative measures is asked what should be done during the tragic situation that the preventative measures could have stopped, we shouldn’t get upset if the person can’t come up with a solution that doesn’t entail hard consequences. But perhaps we could argue that the preventative measures working was just an idea too? Indeed, there’s always reason to go with experiences over ideas, regardless if those experiences are good or bad. That never changes.




¹Please note that, on the other hand, when it comes to fears and paranoias, we need to be motivated by ideas less, which then brings to focus (when it’s not clear) the question of “How do we tell fear from wisdom?” This is a deep question that I explore in essays and novels; to start, I suggest “On Worry” by O.G. Rose.




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