“If I Think Really, Really Hard, I Can Get The Right Answer”

25 Apr


Human beings are social animals.

“Duh” you say. Of course we are. Why am I pointing this out? Well, why are human beings social animals? How strong is the desire for socialization; for having friends and family and allies? Think about how something like that would come about, and how strong that pull is in our cognition.

If evolution had to choose between two options — being correct or having allies — which one would evolution choose for brain design? I’m pretty sure that if it was only one that could be chosen, the strategy that confers the most reproductive benefits would be to have allies. Of course, the two aren’t mutually exclusive; you can be correct and have allies.

But then, think of the modular mind. We are strangers to ourselves. There are probably different modules for correctly modeling the world, and others for making friends. And probably just like my computer, one module takes precedence over the other in certain situations. And probably due to evolution, the making allies module(s) probably override the having correct beliefs modules 9 times out of 10 (I just made that ratio up). And these modules probably don’t communicate all that much. The only thing you’re aware of is the end product — your feeling of certainty.

So no, the title-quote of this blog post is wrong. Yet, I see the equivalent of the above numerous times in myriad contentious issues on blogs/online newspapers almost daily; the title of this post is especially wrong if whatever it is you’re attempting to figure out has some sort of moral component. Since morality is all about moderating social behavior, your social brain will be rationalizing things (think religion, politics, social justice, non-economists doing economics, etc.) to make yourself signal being impartial when in reality you’re subconsciously defending your in-group.

Imagine it like this. If you woke up one morning and said to yourself “If I work really hard, I can build a computer” the first thing a normal person would do would probably be to go out and get the tools and materials needed to build a computer. Almost no one would do the complete opposite: Stay in their room and attempt to build a computer with just the tools and materials that they happened to already have in their room. That would be, well, downright irrational.

Do you have the tools and materials, right now, in your bedroom to build a computer? Probably not; unless it was already your job or hobby to build computers.

And yet — and yet! — people do the analogous of the irrational approach of building computers when it comes to “getting the right answer”. They think that they can do the epistemic equivalent of building a computer with just the tools and materials lying around in their apartment instead of going out and getting the proper tools; they think that the fact that they have a brain is evidence enough that they have the proper tools and materials. It would be equally odd (and arrogant) to think that just because you have hands (after all, people who actually build computers also use their hands!) you too can build a computer… with nothing but the tools & materials that are currently in your bedroom. 9 times out of 10, the tools you’ll be using will be the ones to make friends.

So no! By all that is holy in the milk of Hera, no!

If you intend to get the right answers for some issue, you need to first adorn your brain with the right tools and materials: That means learning the methods of rationality. That means getting familiar with Bayes Theorem (the foundation for the logic of science); that means learning how to figure out patterns; that means learning the laws of thought and what actually makes a good explanation; that means knowing that you are the easiest person for yourself to fool, that education more than likely makes you better at defending conclusions you originally arrived at for irrational (or social!) reasons. Education in and of itself actually doesn’t seem to do much to get rid of said irrational conclusions; education just gives you better ammunition to defend them.

Maybe even start taking some creatine!

So it’s not enough to know that you’re a flawed human being. Yes, yes, we all have biases. But someone who engages in fake humility is one who is just professing their flaws, as one would do with a new pair of pants they never wear or a flashy car they never drive; it’s a status symbol; it’s signaling; it’s your social modules; it’s you making friends. The true purpose of humility is to plan to correct for our flaws. Indeed, chances are that the more something promotes prosociality, the less it accurately models reality.

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Posted by on April 25, 2014 in cognitive science, rationality


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