Saturday, March 26, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics IV

I've finished the book and overall find it to be quite good. I'll just sum up my reaction to the last few chapters.

One of the chapters is titled "When Failures of Belief Revision Are Less than Motivated Reasoning or Sloppy Reasoning." Goel writes:

In short, what I'm suggesting is that some false beliefs are resistant to rational evidence because the motivating desire is not a cognitive desire. It is a desire propped up by instinctual (and other) low-level subcortical systems....

This is one of the most important ideas in the book and is a good starting point for examining the current political polarization within many Western countries.

The next chapter, "Global Belief Revision is Constrained by Neural Maturation," describes how neural systems start out relatively fluid, but once they mature they become less flexible:

If the receptive window of opportunity is missed, no amount of sensory stimulation is going to change the organization of the mature visual or auditory cortex. Once this window passes, the organization of the primary cortex and associated subcortical structures is largely fixed. They cannot be reorganized or repurposed to deal with a radically different environment....These subconscious perceptual biases – even though they may be an accidental feature of the environment – will feed into the In-Group/Out-Group system and infiltrate up into presuppositions and belief systems.

The consequence is this:

If it is indeed the case that the scope for belief revision is limited after neural maturation of the association cortex, it has interesting implications for our standard cognitive and social science Platonic models of mind, where rationality is divorced from biology. Even if in some ideal world the machinery of reason may allow for extensive and perpetual belief revision, the actual biology that supports the machinery may not.

So, in addition to interplay between the different components of a mature brain, neural maturation separately limits change as people age. Goel notes that, according to a survey, young people are generally more receptive to the idea of anthropogenic climate change than older people. This may be because the older people grew up before global warming was a recognized phenomenon, and for this reason their brains do not recognize it as a significant risk.

Goel also includes an interesting personal anecdote that serves as an example. He was born to Indian parents in India. The family moved to Canada when he was young, and he grew up there. Later, when his family returned to India to visit relatives, he found that Indians all looked the same to him, and he could hardly distinguish them. I find this highly amusing, because, in politically correct circles, Goel would typically be described as a racist because of his visual insensitivity to Indians – in this case his own relatives. Obviously, this kind of political correctness is based entirely on biological ignorance. I could relate to this example, because I moved from the U.K. to the U.S. when I was seven and think that it affected my mental development. Since then, I have lived in eight different states, and I always notice that people who have lived only in one location, particularly if it is rural, tend to have very limited worldviews. Education may make a difference, but you can see how the environment affects brain development.

In the final chapter, Goel points out that his tethering model is different from the standard social science and cognitive model, which emphasizes rationality, and the standard evolutionary psychology modularity model, which emphasizes biology and evolution and minimizes the role of reason. I am inclined to agree with his model, because the role of reason is vastly exaggerated in economics and other social sciences, and this significantly reduces its usefulness for public policy. I am sympathetic with the biological/evolutionary approach, but agree with Goel in the sense that some room must be left for reason and its acceptance as a real phenomenon. What I like about Goel's model is that it allows one to speak intelligently about the mountains of cognitive errors that one confronts on a daily basis. As I've been saying, when trapped between right-wing ideology and political correctness, it is disturbing that no one before now has stepped up to address the intense cognitive dissonance that it can cause. This book is the first one that I've read that provides a usable model for that task. It is probably no coincidence that the book was written by a Canadian, who may be less worried about being fired for his views than his cowering American counterparts.

My only criticism of the book is that the subtitle is a little misleading. The main example about food concerns Goel's admission that he is unable to stop eating chocolate cake even though he knows that it makes him overweight and unhealthy. The main example about sex concerns John Edwards, the politician who had an affair while he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination and his wife was dying from cancer. Goel thinks that Edwards was stupid to have an affair at that time. The examples from politics include the first impeachment trial of Donald Trump and the fishing crisis in the Canadian Maritime provinces. Although I found the examples useful, I initially thought from the subtitle that food, sex and politics would be the central themes of the book, but, as it turned out, they were merely a few examples used to explain his theory. One could write volumes on the subtitle alone, and it is probably just as well that Goel remained focused on his model. Perhaps Goel or his publisher thought that "Sex" on the front cover would increase sales. I don't think it has so far.

Sunday, March 20, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics III

This is not a particularly long book, but I am reading it in short segments because it is written primarily for academics, and I've never taken a psychology or anatomy class (behaviorism was popular when I was in college and sounded incredibly boring). Goel's theory is fairly straightforward, and I have no significant objections to his argument, but he is going through all the paces to present his colleagues with a falsifiable theory and is dutifully recounting years of experimental results. He has described in detail the evolution and workings of the human brain and compared it to the brains of other species. Then he says:

Taking this neuroanatomy seriously has far-reaching consequences for our understanding of human behavior. It provides an underlying biological basis for the qualitative differences in autonomic, instinctive, associative, and reasoning behaviors. The biology suggests that the cognitive characterization of rationality as unhindered by more earthly concerns is not rooted in reality. The neuroanatomy paints a picture of hierarchically organized systems but with a clear tethering of newer systems to older ones. 

In the next chapter he makes a case for "feeling" as the mechanism that modulates between the chronologically separated components of human brain anatomy. I am doubtful that this approach will have much influence on his colleagues, but think that it is quite adequate for my purposes. Whether or not he can provide an academically acceptable model for human behavior, I think that it is sufficient as an intuitive model that one can understand through introspection. If you ever analyze your own reactions to different situations, you will notice that they are often based on your feelings about past situations that you experienced in your life. Thus, you are likely to weigh strong feelings that you had over tepid feelings, and in this manner you may make appropriate or inappropriate decisions. In my view, this is about the best that most people can hope to do in most situations, and I think that some of the rationalistic models presented in economics and cognitive science, on close examination, may be little more than status-bestowing presentations to those who are currently successful, wealthy, or both. That is why I was skeptical of the Steven Pinker-Bill Gates alliance celebrating the triumph of reason at this stage in our collective history. I am inclined to think that humans have a limited capacity to understand much of anything, and although science is usually better than the alternatives, we may be incapable of truly understanding many highly complex phenomena.

For my purposes, I am happy that Goel brings up actual cases of public cognitive mistakes. He describes the fishing dilemma in the Canadian Maritime provinces from the 1970's to the 1990's. There was a precipitous drop in cod catches in 1974, and the Canadian government intervened and set limits on cod fishing. The cod fishermen rejected the quotas and applied political pressure to have them raised. As a result, by 1992 the cod population was practically eradicated, and the fisheries accordingly went out of business. This example shows how individual self-interest can backfire when people don't follow rational procedures for the benefit of a group as a whole. Goel uses this example as a parallel to the public's lack of responsiveness to warnings about climate change. I am hoping that he will have more to say about public irrationality in the remaining chapters, because that is probably the greatest problem of our time. The underlying issue is that human nature allows people to act in self-interest even when the long-term consequences of that behavior are extremely negative. In this instance, despite an effort by the government to protect the fishermen, their irrationality sabotaged the actions taken to assist them.

Although, in a practical sense, this is a more complete treatment of human cognitive limitations than that of the other authors I mentioned, I don't think that Goel will be extending the discussion as far as I would like. At the moment we have not only destructive autocrats making the world unsafe for millions of people, but also millions of people in democratic countries making poor choices about political candidates. This isn't a simple case of democracies being better than autocracies, because, as is clear from Goel's examples, either system can result in catastrophic mistakes. We are currently in a situation in which we have to worry not only about deranged autocrats, but also about deranged democratic voters. Faith in democracy is looking pretty misguided at the moment. It's as if we just wasted four years worrying about what the idiot who was elected president of the U.S. would do next, only to waste more time worrying about what the idiot Russian autocrat would do next. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has to be one of the stupidest and most destructive events since World War II.

I am approaching the end of the book and will wrap up on my next post.

Sunday, March 13, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics II

While, so far, I am broadly in agreement with Goel's model, I am not particularly enjoying the presentation, which includes a fairly detailed history of cognitive science, going all the way back to William James and covering B.F. Skinner in some detail. In the context of his argument, their ideas apply primarily to the associative aspects of cognition and don't account for reason. He is gradually working from the autonomic to the instinctive to the associative to the reasoning modes, and most of the research is dated. He also rehashes the more recent research of Daniel Kahneman, which I don't find particularly enlightening. And he quotes several philosophers, who, as you might expect, I don't think add much to the discussion. However, unlike Kahneman, he is including research from evolutionary psychology, which I find helpful, and he is open to seeing cognitive science through an evolutionary lens. Above all, more than any other books I've read, he is applying his model to important real-world situations, such as Donald Trump's first impeachment. The Republican "arguments" in support of Trump's innocence were primarily ad hominem attacks on his critics:

None of these responses address the coherence relation between evidence and conclusion, that is, the soundness of the arguments for impeachment. They all commit common reasoning fallacies, but they do so intentionally, consciously, rationally! The official impeachment counteroffensive relied on the calculation that most of the MAGA faithful would fail to accept any evidence of wrongdoing by the President, if universal in-group/out-group instinctual systems could be activated. The group we belong to is always good, pure, innocent, and of course beloved of God; the out-group consists of elites, socialists, Muslims, and others trying to destroy us and our way of life for nefarious purposes....

As straightforward as this analysis is, you don't generally hear it in the news media, which coddles the public to such an extent that popular public figures are rarely criticized. Because of this, the news media is actually encouraging public irrationality.

I won't attempt to rehash all of the details of the book as I read it, and I'll just throw out whatever thoughts occur to me. There is the omission of Kant among the philosophers whom he quotes, and I think that at the moment one of Kant's ideas is at the vanguard of biological research into cognition. In Born Knowing: Imprinting and the Origins of Knowledge, by Giorgio Vallortigara, the argument is made that chicks perform more sophisticated cognitive tasks than one would expect with a neural configuration based on a sort of template of the world, which they have acquired through evolution. In all likelihood, all animals have such templates, and the template of one species is likely to be similar to the template of another. What is interesting is that these templates probably originated through an evolutionary process in which natural selection permitted organisms to survive when they had a template that triggered behavior that was appropriate for real-world situations. In the case of mathematics, even chicks were able to make calculations without the use of language or symbols. 

Where Kant comes in is with his distinction between phenomena and noumena. Phenomena are the things that organisms perceive, and noumena are the reality behind their perceptions. The sensing organs of animals create perceptions, but animals have no direct access to the objects that cause them. Thus, animals, including us, behave as if the environment follows mathematical rules, but, since we lack direct access to reality, we can only know what our perceptions, which are produced by neural systems, tell us. According to Vallortigara, evolution is what caused these neural systems to exist, so it cannot be said, for example, that the world itself follows mathematical rules. We can only say that organisms with particular neurological arrangements survive, while others do not. Although this position does not contradict anything that Goel says, it places rationality in a humbler position than he seems to advocate.

Another area that Goel hasn't brought up yet in the book is the development of language in humans, as discussed in the books by Gaia Vince and Nichola Raihani that I covered earlier. I think that the existence of language alone explains most of what counts as human rationality and sets us apart from other species. Although language probably evolved for the dissemination of knowledge, it is probably the only biological feature available for engaging in the analyses which, on this planet, only humans are capable of making. So, in addition to the kinds of analyses that animals are able to perform in order to evaluate situations, the development of language, along with increases in brain size, allowed humans to engage abstract reasoning.

Sunday, March 6, 2022

Reason and Less: Pursuing Food, Sex, and Politics I

I'm now underway on this new book by Vinod Goel, and will be discussing it for a few weeks. Goel is a Professor of Cognitive Neuroscience at York University, Toronto. This is the first book that I've come across that offers a comprehensive perspective on human cognition over a wide range of areas and addresses some of the associated real-world problems. My other readings have covered the same territory, but usually with a narrower focus: Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler tell us that we don't always think clearly and can improve ourselves with the help of libertarian paternalism; Steven Sloman tells us that we don't know much, but that we can get around that by cooperating with others; Robert Plomin tells us that our life outcomes are largely determined by our genes; Frans de Waal tells us that we're not much smarter than animals; and Robert Sapolsky chimes in to tell us that we're sort of stuck with our animal brains. Goel's view covers most of this territory, but his objective is specifically to develop a multidisciplinary model of how human reason is modulated by our evolutionary history, and how we can give reason the upper hand in real-world situations in which we behave irrationally to our own detriment. Because this book was not intended to be a bestseller and is more specifically academic, I am finding the discussion somewhat more interesting and theoretically useful than the others mentioned.

Goel's model is called tethered rationality and he describes it as follows:

The "animal passions," or nonreasoning behaviors in technical parlance, include autonomic behaviors, instinctive behaviors, and associative learning behaviors. These behaviors and their underlying mechanisms have been studied extensively over the past hundred years. They differ not only from reasoned behavior but also from each other. They are hierarchically organized in terms of appearance on the evolutionary tree, are integrated, and are widely available across species, including humans. Humans also exhibit reasoning or rational behavior, which (I will argue) is unique to us. However, it does not supplant the evolutionarily older behaviors. Reason evolved on top of them, but it does not "float" untethered above them; it is tightly integrated with both bottom-up and top-down connections. This means that human behavior is a blended function of all these systems, not just reason (or any other individual system). Humans have a reasoning mind, but it is tethered to and modulated by evolutionarily older associative, instinctive, and autonomic minds. 

I find this model more appealing than any others that I'm aware of. The System 1 and System 2 model used by Kahneman and Thaler is too oversimplified to be of much use, and it seems to me that, by advocating libertarian paternalism, they are inadvertently promoting a social hierarchy which favors the economically successful over the economically unsuccessful, and as a result they may actually be endorsing a two-tier social structure which, in the end, would become nothing more than a new measure of social status, i.e., rich = smart, poor = stupid. Sloman emphasizes human ignorance, but does not offer much of a solution. Plomin is primarily a genetic determinist, but also has little to say about the social implications of his work. De Waal is mainly an apologist for animals, and does not address human cognitive limitations. Sapolsky is well aware of the haphazard evolutionary construction of the human brain, but isn't interested in how this bears out in our political or other institutions.

Goel's objective in this book is broader, and he hopes to address some of the serious cognitive errors that turn up routinely in public life. He uses examples of persistent, scientifically confirmed errors, such as climate change denial and opposition to inexpensive healthcare systems, to show how unreason overpowers reason in our brains. However, in his defense of rationalism, he may not have answers to deterministic positions that Sapolsky and others may hold. He is operating roughly from the psychology/sociology/cognitive science group of fields, which generally hold that humans are the only truly rational species, despite somewhat intractable intrusions of irrationality. Although, in the end, he may only come up with a slightly more complete description of the modules of cognitive dysfunction than Kahneman was able to, of all the authors I've mentioned, he is the only one who seems interested in countering the ridiculous statements that pass for normal in national and world politics. 

To his credit, Goel also seems willing to take on some of the false precepts of political correctness. So far, like Robert Sapolsky, he has explained in detail why gender is not a social construct and is in fact determined by known biological processes. He also backs E.O. Wilson regarding the unfair attacks that he experienced with the publication of Sociobiology: The New Synthesis in 1975. As I've often said, liberals and politically correct people, then and now, have been unable to accept biological determinism as playing a role in our species – thus, ignorance still holds sway in leading universities.