Our Mind Seems Counterproductive

I listen to a lot of science podcasts, and really love the discoveries, new ways of thinking about the world, and better understandings of the world that we gain from science. Science is a process that strives to be rational and to build on previous knowledge to better understand an objective reality. What is also interesting about science, is that it operates against the way our brains want to work. As much as I love science and as much as I want to be scientific in my thinking and approaches to the world, I understand that a great deal that shapes human beings and the world we build is not rational and seems counterproductive when viewed through a rational lens.

 

Part of the explanation for our minds being so irrational might be explained by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson in their book The Elephant in the Brain. The authors describe one reason for why our brains evolved to be as complex and irrational as they are: we evolved to be political and deceptive creatures, not to be rational and objective creatures with a comprehensive view of reality. “Here’s the puzzle:” write Simler and Hanson, “we don’t just deceive others; we also deceive ourselves. Our minds habitually distort or ignore critical information in ways that seem, on the face of it, counterproductive. Our mental processes act in bad faith, perverting or degrading our picture of the world.”

 

We act so irrationally and have such an incorrect view of the world according to Simler and Hanson because it helped our ancestors to be more deceptive and to survive. If you wish to tell a white lie to someone or if you really want to appear sincere in your thoughts and actions, it is much easier if you believe the things you are lying about. If you know you are lying and acting in bad faith, you have to be a really good actor or poker player to convince everyone else. We actually benefit if our brains fail to recognize exactly what is driving us and help us systematically not recognize inconvenient truths.

 

For example, I use Strava, a social media platform geared toward runners and cyclists. The app allows us to upload our GPS data from our runs and bike rides and to compare our routes and see who went the fastest along a particular street or who ran up a trail the fastest. At a base level I know that I am using the app because it allows me show off to other people just how good of a runner I am. But if you asked me at any given point why I upload all my workouts to Strava, I would tell you a story about wanting to keep up with friends, wanting to discover new places to go running, and about the data that I can get to analyze my performance. The first story doesn’t look so great for me, but the second one makes me sound social and intelligent. I am inclined to tell myself that is why I use the app and to deny, even to myself, that I use it because I want to prove that I am a better runner than someone else or to show off to my casual running friends who might log-in and see that I went on a long run.

 

Our brains are not the scientifically rational things I wish they were, but in many ways that is important for us as we try to build coalitions and social groups to get things done. We connect in ways that are beyond rationality, and sometimes we need the generous (though often false) view of ourselves as good actors to help us get through the day. We can strive for more rationality in our thoughts and actions, but we should accept that we will only get so far, and we shouldn’t hate ourselves or anyone else for not always having the nice and pure motives that we present.

Respecting the Well-Being of Others

Peter Singer focuses on the ideas regarding our interactions with others throughout his book The Most Good You Can Do, and he continually returns to the idea of how we value our life relative to the lives of our family members and the lives of those beyond our family.  Singer argues that the effective altruist movement would not be able to spread if people did not have the ability to empathize with others, and if people could not find ways in which they recognized that all human life holds the same value.

 

Singer references Richard Keshen, a Canadian philosopher, to explain the ways that effective altruists may view other people in the world. “At the core of the reasonable person’s ethical life, according to Keshen, is a recognition that others are like us and therefore, in some sense, their lives and  their well-being matter as much as our own.” Prior to this quote Signer quotes Keshen to explain that a reasonable person is someone who makes decisions and develops beliefs that are backed by evidence which can be defended. Their evidence may still be criticized and challenged by others, but the evidence can be used in a rational way to reach a real conclusion.  The base mindset of a reasonable person is that their thinking is unbiased, and the unbiased nature of their thought means that it is not influenced by personal factors and takes a more objective view of the world.

 

As I write this I am absolutely able to understand the importance of viewing the lives of others as equal in value to our own, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s views of reason and do not feel as though they completely add toward the point he is making.  I question whether or not we are able to take a truly objective view of the world regardless of the reason behind our thinking and regardless of how well we try to live without biases.  While I agree that living with the principal that the lives of all members of society are equal in value, I feel as though there are personal biases that have pushed me in this direction. I have been guided by more than just  rational thought, and I know that I am affected by my biases even if I don’t notice them.
I also wonder if the same argument presented by Keshen in support of effective altruism can be used to demonstrate the differences between the lives of those in society and ultimately used to show the importance of keeping wealth and resources within a close family unit.  I do not argue with Singer’s main point, but I am conflicted with Keshen’s view of a rational person, and I am not sure that his definition helps us truly understand the thought process and identity of an effective altruist.