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

Keith Henson hkhenson at rogers.com
Thu Mar 9 22:04:51 UTC 2006

At 08:09 AM 3/9/2006 -0800, you wrote:
>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 sure isn't for me.

>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

I can't even set up a hierarchy.  Our hardware was shaped by genes.  We 
don't yet and may never appreciate how deeply this influences us.  What 
would we be without memes?  Not even as well off the chimpanzees.

And this war business . . . if I am right external environment signals flip 
an evolved behavioral switch that changes the gain on a class of memes.

In the EEA was that good for us?  Almost certainly or it would not have 

If it isn't good for us today (and you could argue either way) what can we 
(at the society or species level) do about it?  Can you picture the people 
in power in the US today understanding this?  It would be seen as an attack 
by the godless evolutionists!  They would probably react worst than the 
Libertarians did to my meme article if they ever heard about it.

>I think that most of us who've read Dawkins understand that.

I am not so sure Dawkins understood it.

> > 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.

Heck, I have doubts about rationality being much of a factor in human 
thinking at all.

>here and elsewhere seem to equate rationality with critical thinking, and to
>continually see those with whom they simply disagree as lacking in 

Chances are both sides are operating in "partisan mode."

>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.

Reason when you don't have knowledge is a non-starter.  It was simply 
impossible to reason correctly about chemistry when chemistry concepts 
included the philosopher's stone or phlogiston.


There is no chance you could "remold society by the power of reason alone" 
lacking a really good understanding of the humans who make up society.  I 
don't think our knowledge is up to the task today, but we can look back and 
state with a great deal of confidence that nobody in the previous century 
had the knowledge to remold society any more than a 10th century alchemist 
could have sequenced DNA.

>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.

Erk.  I suggest you read Azar Gat's article on primitive warfare.  I think 
that will convince you that there is no such thing as "traditional
feelings for their victims," at least not for humans in hunter gatherer 
groups.  The "abstract goals" you mention are really xenophobic class memes 
that served to synch up the warriors to kill.  People may claim they were 
rational, but that does not make it so.  On the other hand, I can believe 
they were rationalized by "twirling the cognitive kaleidoscope" and calling 
it reasoning.

> > 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."

Part you are quoting was written almost 20 years go.  I think I have a 
handle on the "much deeper perblem."

>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.

I am not going to defend the state of my understanding 20 years ago.

> > 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.

If I threw out an estimate that we are 45% genes and 55% memes that does 
not leave much "us."

Consider your computer.  It definitely has a "spirit" you interact 
with.  And yet the hardware, software and its "experience" (accumulated 
files) is ever bit of it.  If you can show me that humans are in some way a 
different class, I would be most appreciative.

Point being, I understand the facts, but can't sort it out.  I don't even 
have an idea of where to start.

I suspect that this is one of that class of questions where it is better 
not to ask.


Best wishes,

Keith Henson

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