Wednesday, June 1, 2011

What the Enlightenment Swept Under the Rug

Humans are not designed to be good reasoning machines. This basic humility is at the core of any skeptic's worldview, but sometimes I worry that it doesn't cut deeply enough. To any materialist who thinks that the uncertain, wasteful, blind, good-enough-for-government-work hand of evolution produced the inelegant mess inside our skulls, and that our consciousness is dependent on that mess, this should come as no surprise.

What is the consequence? Among them, that right now, you (and I) are chock full of false beliefs - baldly, badly, embarrassingly false beliefs. And maybe our deliberate efforts to put ourselves in situations where experience will clearly show which are false has given us a slightly lower percentage of false beliefs than many other humans. But for us to undertake such a program, we have to believe one of the following:

a) that increasing the truthfulness of our beliefs will make us happier; i.e., there is no conflict, and the aims are intimately related.

b) that having true beliefs is more important than being happy; there might be a conflict, but it doesn't matter.

c) that we must pursue truth, regardless of the outcome to our hapiness, once we become aware of the possibility of having false beliefs; "loss of innocence" or "truth by compulsion".

d) that we've never even considered whether they are in fact distinct, although we act as if a) were true.

The relationship between truthful beliefs and happiness is a profound question with unsettling implications for the Enlightenment as a whole, and all the ideals that flow from it. Full disclosure: I would like a) to be the correct answer, but given the mess in our heads, I don't see why this would necessarily be the case. I suspect that most atheists and most Christians either assume a) or have just never thought about it (d).

So we find ourselves in a situation where the very people who should be most vividly aware of the human brain's poor ability to produce and analyze valid proofs about itself or anything else (us!) are exactly the ones who seem most blithely assuming about its ability to do so. Furthermore, we often, probably overoptimistically, assume that most or all brains are able to do so, once we they're freed of any lens-smudging ideologies, supernatural or otherwise. In particular, given that most rationalists recognize (at least superficially) that skepticism and examination of one's own biases is a very "unnatural" hack of human cognition that must usually be taught, and because it is apparently out of reach of many otherwise functional, healthy human beings, it may be that we eventually will have to accept that a substantial fraction of the human race will always remain measurably more delusional.


If you think I'm pessimistic about this, you apparently haven't met Francisco Goya.


This sobering possibility came out of an excellent discussion between Sean McCorkle and Chris Mooney about the limits of science education to affect truthfulness of beliefs. Mooney begins:

...[Education] does not appear to check biased reasoning about issues where we have deep emotional investments. And why would it: We respond emotionally on such issues, and then we rationalized our deep set views. In this context, more intellectual ability will only aid in rationalization.

So what does this mean for Enlightenment? Sean continues:

I ask this in the larger context of a point that you have raised previously, that we need to reexamine the Enlightenment. That's something that I find profoundly disturbing for many reasons, not least of which is that I fear you are correct. Among other worries I have about potentially abandoning principles that lifted the west out of the dark ages centuries ago, the issue for me here is the potential for institutionalizing a perception that some—maybe most—people will never reach a level where they can be counted on to make an objective evaluation of reality, and so will have to be treated differently, thus perpetuating a social subclass by an education process of low expectations (oh, we won't bother teaching them that because they can't really comprehend it anyway) rather than one which challenges the students to become more than they are.

There are a lot of principles associated with the Enlightenment. I certainly do not propose discarding the Enlightenment's political philosophy principles which underlie the Declaration of Independence and Constitution–equality, human rights, etc. Rather I want to get rid of the Enlightenment's naivete about humans being rational and dispassionate, whereas we really are, as Shermer puts it, "belief engines."[emphasis mine-MC]

Most of us already consider that we're morally obligated to manage affairs for the 1% of us who are uncontrolled schizophrenics, despite many of them insisting that it's the rest of us that have a problem perceiving reality. Either way, all of us are on a spectrum with schizophrenics at one end. Will there be a point in the future where rational discourse will be able to spread no further within our species, finding the rest of us unfertile soil? Even assuming optimistically the self-editing skeptics are a stable majority, at such time we might say fine, you can have your self-harming and false or incoherent beliefs, but they'll affect your ability to drive a vehicle, vote, and live un-assisted.

The implications go straight to the foundations of democracy and individual rationalism. Given our values, we rationalists should all start taking questions about the relationship of truth and happiness more seriously.


[Note: I find the criticism of Chris Mooney's "accommodationism" to be unnecessarily shrill. While I agree that he's wrong on that point, the online pilings-on that his articles inspire are positively tribal.]

[I'll be posting an article at my economics and political blog about the implications of this potential internal conflict of the Enlightenment for individual rights and responsibilities.]

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