Greta Christina writes about one of the vexxing issues for those of us who advocate reason and rationality, the fact that the human brain is only partly capable of those things. We are more prone to rationalization than we are to rationality. So what does this mean for the fight for a more rational society?
Here’s the conundrum. On the one hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to be rational, to the best of our ability.
On the other hand: As rationalists, we’re striving to accept reality, to the best of our ability. And the reality is that our brains are not rational. Our brains are a hot mess. Our brains are loaded with quirks and kluges and eighty kajillion cognitive biases, which are there for good evolutionary reasons but which can make for some seriously crummy thinking. And they always will be. I suppose it’s possible that humanity will eventually evolve to a state in which all our cognitive biases have vanished and we’ve become perfectly calibrated thinking machines — but I doubt it. And if that does happen, it won’t be while any of us are alive.
So how do we deal with this? As rationalists, the most obvious way to deal with our cognitive biases is to learn about them, understand them, learn to recognize them, and do our best to counterbalance them or set them aside. That’s usually what we advocate, and what we strive for…
I do think we have a moral obligation to be rational. When we’re not rational, when we let ourselves think wrong things just because we want to, we can do harm to ourselves and others — because we have a faulty understanding of how cause and effect actually works in the world. (Look at parents who let their sick children suffer or die, because they believe that medical treatment will anger their god.) And I think rationality is a discipline, one which requires a certain amount of practice. I don’t think it’s so easy to be rational in some areas of our lives, while consciously letting ourselves be irrational in others. I think if we do that, we’re likely to engage in self-delusion at the very times when we most need to be on our toes.
I would agree with this. I think we should strive to be as rational as possible at all times and this takes effort. Cognitive shortcuts exist precisely because they are so much easier than critical thinking. We have to develop habits of thought to counteract those natural tendencies. Some of those habits will be in our own minds, constantly questioning our reasoning and our conclusions. And we need to especially do that when we’re most comfortable with our conclusions, when we casually and easily interpret reality to fit a narrative we prefer to be true.
And I think it’s also important to surround ourselves with people who will question us, people we respect enough that when they say they think we’re wrong, we respond with genuine consideration rather than defensiveness. It’s an informal version of peer review in science, which was developed precisely because we are so capable of fooling ourselves. I’m lucky to have many such people around me and I hope you do too.