Sunday, August 08, 2010

Rush in my head...

I struggle to not despair our reasoning ability is mostly an illusion, but research like this isn't helping.
Needless to say, this new theory paints a rather bleak portrait of human nature. Ever since the Ancient Greeks, we’ve defined ourselves in terms of our rationality, the Promethean gift of reason. It’s what allows us to make sense of the world and uncover all sorts of hidden truths. It’s what separates us from other Old World primates. But Mercier and Sperber argue that reason has nothing to do with reality. Instead, it’s rooted in communication, in the act of trying to persuade other people that what we believe is true. And that’s why thinking more about strawberry jam doesn’t lead to better jam decisions. What it does do, however, is provide up with more ammunition to convince someone else that the chunky texture of Knott’s Berry Farm is really delicious, even if it’s not.
The larger moral is that our metaphors for reasoning are all wrong. We like to believe that the gift of human reason lets us think like scientists, so that our conscious thoughts lead us closer to the truth. But here’s the paradox: all that reasoning and confabulation can often lead us astray, so that we end up knowing less about what jams/cars/jelly beans we actually prefer. So here’s my new metaphor for human reason: our rational faculty isn’t a scientist – it’s a talk radio host. That voice in your head spewing out eloquent reasons to do this or do that doesn’t actually know what’s going on, and it’s not particularly adept at getting you nearer to reality. Instead, it only cares about finding reasons that sound good, even if the reasons are actually irrelevant or false. (Put another way, we’re not being rational – we’re rationalizing.) While it’s easy to read these crazy blog comments and feel smug, secure in our own sober thinking, it’s also worth remembering that we’re all vulnerable to sloppy reasoning and the confirmation bias. Everybody has a blowhard inside them. And this is why it’s so important to be aware of our cognitive limitations. Unless we take our innate flaws into account, the blessing of human reason can easily become a curse. [More]
The odd thing is those folks who do work to overcome biases and see the world as clearly as they can usually are run over by irrational mobs convinced of their beliefs. Maybe the real trick is to identify and embrace which "truth" will help us right now and which will endure.

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