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  • Max Stearns

Cycling, Consciousness, and Humanity (part II): Our Institutional Minds

My prior post on this topic, see here, posited that consciousness reflects an endless series of developed responses to cycling patterns in the "Era of Evolutionary Adaptation" (EEA). I offered examples of emotional and cognitive cycles, along with several potential defenses. I will now add two points: First, our imperfect institutions mirror our imperfect minds. Second, just as human imperfections are embedded in our institutions, see The Federalist 51 (James Madison), available here (“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”), our institutions—courts, plebiscites, legislatures, executives, agencies, markets—reflect back in ways that edify our understanding of the mind.

In a series of scholarly works, see here, here, and here, I have relied on cycling dynamics to explain otherwise anomalous features of various institutions. Each institution confronts manifestation of cycling preferences, but institutions respond to cycling dynamics in different ways. When institutional features ill serve their purposes, those features are replaced with others. If the revised features also fail, the process continues, until adopted features succeed, at which point they tend to stick. This implies that persistent institutional features are like fossils, offering clues about how or why something persisted from the past. This is true even if, as is often the case, from an immediate perspective, what we observe appears mysterious, anomalous, or somehow problematic. To be sure, not all evolved features are adaptive. As with the Peacock’s Tail or the Club-Winged Manakin’s Song, see here and here, some features develop as path-dependent, or even maladaptive, quirks. As one-hit wonder, Right Said Fred, recognized, it is sometimes possible to be “Too Sexy,” listen here. Yet it is also too easy to assume that all seeming quirks are maladaptive, rather than to try and identify a causal account for a persistent feature.

Let us return to the cycling dynamic. Imagine three persons holding the following non-transitive preferences (Person 1: ABC; Person 2: BCA; Person 3: CAB). There’s no first-choice winner, and with sincere voting over binary pairs, the group cycles, preferring A to B to C to A, etc. Such cycles might arise among divisions within a legislative body, say a state general assembly or Congress; among jurists on an appellate court, including the Supreme Court; or among members of the President’s cabinet. Although each institution sometimes cycles, the institutions respond differently.

Arrow’s Impossibility Theorem proves helpful in identifying the varying mechanisms that institutions have developed to respond to cycling dynamics. This shouldn’t be surprising. Nobel Laureate Kenneth Arrow set out to devise those conditions that would satisfy what he regarded as basic requirements of fairness and rationality, which, he claimed, should characterize a well designed democratic institution. (For Arrow’s second, corrected proof, see here). Rationality means taking transitive, or non-cycling, member preferences as inputs and ensuring that the collective outputs are also transitive. William Vickrey, also a Nobel Laureate, simplified Arrow’s mathematical proof, distilling the conditions to four: Range, Unanimity, Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives (IIA), Non-Dictatorship. (See here). Although the next three paragraphs are a bit technical, I will explain their significance in the discussion that follows. (For a more detailed analysis, see here).

Range requires that each member be permitted to select among any rank ordering over three options, ABC. This can be calculated using three factorial (3x2x1=6), or simply listed: ABC, ACB, BAC, BCA, CAB, CBA. We already saw the problem of range. If you combine ABC, BCA, CAB, you get a cycle, with the group preferring A to B to C to A, etc. (This also happens in reverse: Combining CBA, BAC, ACB results in the group preferring C to B to A to C, etc.) One way to break these cycles is to “relax range,” meaning holding some orderings, or some options, off limits. I previously explained that cycling arises when our choices implicate more than a single dimension, see here. Limiting options stabilizes group preferences by reducing the likelihood that the available choices implicate more than one dimension. We might not agree on the outcome, but we are more likely view our disagreement in common terms, thus improving the possibility of compromise.

Unanimity means honoring mutual exchange. With standard assumptions, economists generally posit that mutual exchange improves the position of one participant without harming another, and more typically, they assume the gains are apt to be shared. Mutual exchange, for example in private markets, is presumed to create wealth. Unanimity is the flipside of Independence of Irrelevant Alternatives (IIA). IIA demands that when faced with a choice between two options (A versus B, B versus C, C versus A), each person will decide strictly on the merits. Present choices should not be influenced by strategic considerations, such as which options might be later introduced. Scholars debate whether IIA is justified since a later-introduced option might reframe our thinking about present choices, for example by exposing a dimension of choice we would otherwise have missed. On the other hand, later options might distract from assessing our choices based on genuine merits. Not surprisingly, institutions vary in whether they adhere to IIA.

Finally, Non-Dictatorship seems the most obvious condition for an institution designed to embrace democratic values. This condition demands that the institution not systematically vindicate the preferences of one member against the contrary preferences of the group as a whole. An irony of Arrow’s Theorem is that under specified conditions, the only way to break a cycle within a democratic institution is to allow the preferences of a "dictator" to dominate the contrary preferences of the rest of the group.

Volumes have been devoted to what I’ve just briefly described. Here I will offer my thoughts on how this connects to consciousness. In prior works I have shown that some institutions, such as appellate courts and direct democracy, break cycles by limiting range. See here and here. In these institutions, decision makers are typically presented with binary choices, voting for or against a proposed result, nearly always ensuring an outcome. If those institutions expanded the formal choices to include underlying rationales, they would risk exposing a cycle, thwarting predictable and stable outcomes. Relaxing range allows these institutions to ensure outcomes even when combined member preferences over rationales and outcomes might cycle. The same institutions generally adhere to IIA, making it difficult for members to commodify their preferences, to vote strategically, or to trade votes. This does not mean that there are no elements of strategy in Supreme Court, or other appellate, decision making, see here, but it does mean that, in general, jurists and electoral voters tend to vote consistently with how they sincerely view the merits of the options before them.

By contrast, legislatures tend to relax IIA. Effective participation demands that members sometimes vote strategically, for example by trading votes, or logrolling, with the effect of expanding the dimensionality of the institution’s choices. This is why IIA and unanimity are flip sides of a coin. The legislature is like a hopper in which we throw all sorts of matters of concern, and we let the members negotiate it out. Those negotiations do not limit members to the merits of each alternative separately considered. Instead, the process allows members to commodify preferences through vote trades, sacrificing their preferences over some matters to improve their position respecting others that they care more deeply about. Conversely, legislatures generally adhere to range, allowing aggregate preferences sometimes to cycle. This means that inertia, or inaction, might prevail when there isn’t a sufficiently broad coalition to change the status quo.

Finally, the executive branch, the President is not first among equals; he, or she, is simply first. Presidents can choose against the contrary wishes of the entire cabinet. The President isn’t a dictator in the conventional sense of the term. The President is, in theory, constrained by checks and balances and separation of powers. Even so, within the executive branch itself, the presidency relaxes non-dictatorship as that term is defined within social choice. And with good reason. All governments sometimes need decisive action, and the presidency, vested with that authority yet subject to constitutional constraints, is intended to satisfy that need.

This admittedly simplified presentation returns us to where we began. Each institution—courts, plebiscites, legislatures, the executive branch (includes executive agencies), markets—is imperfect, reflecting the imperfections of is creators. Each also complements the others, balancing their differing imperfections. And each relaxes some condition in Arrow’s Theorem, as it must to ensure its functioning. The relaxed features differ across institutions: Courts (and plebiscites) relax range yet adhere to IIA; legislatures relax IIA yet adhere to range; the executive branch relaxes non-dictatorship; markets embrace unanimity, yet, through commodification of preferences, relax IIA. We can think of these as their respective social choice profiles.

Cycling is generally presented in the context of groups. But it is also part of us, a product of our minds. Our emotions cycle, and our thoughts cycle. Sometimes combining emotions and thoughts can help break those cycles. And other times, combining these systems creates cycling, exposing our minds to different dimensions of choice. “Don’t be so emotional!” Or “Why don’t you care about how you are affecting others!” On our own, or guided with the help of someone else, we allow our rational and emotional processes to reframe problems in new ways, expanding the dimensions of our thinking, of our consciousness. That is all part of the human experience. We engage in what social choice theorists refer to as multi-criterial decision making, incorporating other people's frames of reference as our own, see here, and expanding the dimensionality of the choices we face. We also internalize, with mirror neurons, other people’s emotional states, see here. We not only reflect our collective selves through institutions; we also reflect the minds of other individuals. And to extricate ourselves from the inevitable cognitive looping that sometimes results, we variously relax those condition that institutions relax in a more systematic manner. Rather than having a specific social choice profile, our minds somehow manage to hold all social choice profiles, manifested at different times and in different ways.

Sometimes we restrict our range of choices. We allow religious or other commitments (ie. vegetarianism or veganism) to restrict such choices as food or dress; society’s laws and norms to force ourselves to avoid certain otherwise desired actions; and our internal sense of morality to restrict aspects of our personal conduct. Other times we open Pandora’s box, allowing new options to enter even at the risk of making choices difficult or impossible by exposing new ways of framing old problems. Sometimes we relax IIA, compromising our internal commitments and behaving in ways that we, or others, might once have considered unprincipled. Other times we set everything aside, focusing in a laser-like way upon a single goal, overriding all else and ignoring any obstacles in our way. (Although "individual unanimity" sounds oxymoronic, we generally allow ourselves improvements that impose little or no personal harm, and we even incur substantial personal costs to achieve greater gains.)

If I’m right, this all implies that our minds manage to accomplish what seems impossible. But not all at one time, and not in one way. As individuals, we project ourselves onto the myriad institutions we create, yet each of those institutions captures only a part of what makes us human. In the prior post on this topic, I posited that our minds cycle, that we adopt rules that extricate us from cycles, and that we adopt meta-rules that cycle over the cycle-breaking rules themselves, and on and on. These dynamic processes might help to explain consciousness, something that also seems impossible, and yet also deeply human.

As always, I welcome your comments.

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