[extropy-chat] Humans--non-rational mode

Lee Corbin lcorbin at tsoft.com
Thu Mar 9 16:09:18 UTC 2006

Keith writes
> [Lee wrote]
> > Of course, what you write here is by no means an attack on
> > rationality, because, as you say, our interests and our genes'
> > interest at times diverge, and naturally we want what's best for us.
> It is *much* worse than an attack on rationality.  It is an attack on such 
> concepts as "we" and "us," not to mention "I."

It seems to me that the *concept* of "us", for example, is clear.
It merely needs to be internalized that what is good for us is
not necessarily the same thing that is good for our genes or
memes. I think that most of us who've read Dawkins understand

> The unexplained freakin' out of the Libertarians over "Memes, MetaMemes and 
> Politics" is perhaps due to these paragraphs being seen as an attack on the 
> fundamental Libertarian belief that people are (or at least should be) 
> objective and rational.

Probably true.  I have had no end of difficulty getting people (even three
years ago on this list) to doubt the merits of unbridled rationality. Folks
here and elsewhere seem to equate rationality with critical thinking, and to 
continually see those with whom they simply disagree as lacking in rationality.

Moreover, (perhaps we agree here) rationality in the absence of moderating
emotional and intuitive restraint has been highly oversold, and despite
help from Hayek, few seem to be getting the message. Most of the horrors
of the twentieth century came from unbridled rationality, e.g., Leninism
and Nazism and people's general conviction that they could remold society
by the power of reason alone. The French were the first to suffer thusly;
they even built a statue to Reason and commenced a sort of worship of same.
I call it "hyperrationality".

You'd call it "out of control memes" I wager. But the extremism was all
very rational. What was missing from their thinking were the traditional
feelings for their victims, which they suppressed for abstract goals.

> But a good fraction of the memes that make up human culture fall into the 
> categories of political, philosophical, or religious. A rationale for the 
> spread and persistence for these memes is a much deeper problem.

Of course. My point is that it's too "rational".  "Logically, in order
to appease the Gods---in which we do believe---we must torture the 
small children and burn our crops, even if that seems to go against
our better judgment."

The *hard* problem is identifying when general judgment and intuition
*should* be overridden.  My tentative answer: there's no general solution,
but the burden of proof and experiment must always lie with those
advocating strictly rational courses of action.

> The spread of some memes of these classes at the expense of others is of
> intense concern to many readers of Reason. If we are to be effective at judging 
> ideas and promoting the spread of ones we think are more rational,

*That* is the problem. It's not that the obscurantists have abandoned
rational thought---if they did, they'd be easy to defeat---it's that
they all too rationally try to defend extremely erroneous points of
view. We---you---should stop thinking of our beliefs as more "rational".
For example, Intelligent Design is *not* irrational: it's only wrong,
and the intuitive and unconscious judgments that give rise to it are
religious in nature, i.e., based on false fundamental beliefs about 
the world.

> So, "we want what's best for us." opens a car of worms.  Best for our 
> genes?  Best for our memes?

But our language (thanks to Dawkins and his advocates) is not
the problem. Once one understands the basic claims of memetics,
it is clear what "we want what's best for us" to mean. And 
that's simply because it's (now) obvious that we are not our
genes nor our memes. 

[At this point I listed four limitations to reason:]

> > 1. (the first one I ever heard of) Schelling's examples of how
> >    it is sometimes very rational to be irrational (the words
> >    here are very problematic, obviously)
> >
> > 2. general emotional behavior: anger, love, envy, and so forth
> >    surely have evolutionary explanations, and moreover, one
> >    easily sees that the *propensity* to become angry, for
> >    example, in many situations pays dividends
> >
> > 3. the famous Damasio card experiment in which (as I understand
> >    it) one cannot rationally keep track of so much data, and so
> >    feelings of disfavor towards situations are necessary for
> >    optimal human performance. (I dare say that such brain
> >    processing can literally create a bad taste in one's mouth.)
> >
> > 4. Gladwell's book "Blink" which I have not read and do not
> >    recommend, but joins the parade of claims that many situations
> >    are best *not* dealt with rationally (e.g. the legend of "The
> >    Marines vs. the Wall-Street brokers)
> I could add one.  I never knew "chicken" was studied by game theory people 
> until recently.  Apparently ripping the steering wheel off and tossing it 
> out the window is considered a way to win.

Yes, it's similar to making a believable threat, e.g., I will retaliate
even if it costs me because it will be basically out of my hands (I have
thrown away the steering wheel; I am a vengeful person who'll get even
even if that's not best for me)


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