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. 

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