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

Keith Henson hkhenson at rogers.com
Thu Mar 9 15:28:25 UTC 2006

At 11:53 PM 2/26/2006 -0800, you wrote:
>Keith writes
> > [Hal wrote]
> >
> > > reasonable heuristic for a rational observer with potentially stringent
> > > bounds on his available computational capacity; or whether you see it
> > > as irrational behavior in terms of getting at the truth, but justified
> > > in terms of other benefits, such as social advantages.
> >
> > In the last year or two I have been subjected to a dawning horror that
> > genes have not only built mechanisms into humans to allow them to think
> > rationally, but mechanisms to shut off rational thinking when doing so is
> > in the interest of the gene.
>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."

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.

"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. 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, it would 
be useful to understand how memes come about, how they use people to 
spread, and why the self-interest of the people who spread a meme and the 
meme's "interest" are not always the same.

"Study of these concepts may provide insight into why some ideas are more 
attractive than others and into what "rational" and "objective" mean. Much 
of the recent progress in understanding evolution came from a viewpoint 
shift:biologists started looking at the world from the viewpoint of genes. 
Because genes influence their own survival (via causal loops) the ones we 
observe seem as if they were "striving" to be represented by more copies in 
the next generation. Memes too seem to "strive." Of course, this is 
metaphor, since neither genes nor memes are conscious. In the process of 
making more copies of themselves in human minds memes sometimes work at 
cross purposes with human genes.

"At least three different and conflicting viewpoints for 
determining"rational" and "objective" exist: from the viewpoint of the 
genes a person carries, from the viewpoint of the memes they carry (or are 
infected with) and from their conscious mind, shaped by both genes and memes."

If any of you can put yourself in the Libertarian mind mode--do you think 
this is the part of the article that invoked the response to this article 
that persisted for at least ten years?

It is only in the last few days that it has dawned on my how the above 
would have been seen as an attack.  I probably would have offended them 
less by peeing in the potted plant at their office.

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

Sigh.  Best for the "rational" and "objective" person may be darn near lost 
in the noise if the genes have--for sound reasons--evolved brain mechanisms 
to depress rational thinking and "partisan" (and war mode) mode memes are 
activating the mechanism.

> > I about half way suspect that non-rational behaviors may
> > all have roots in the same evolved brain mechanism.  [E.g.]
> > humans have capture-bonding mechanisms because of heavy selection.
>Well, I have quite a number of questions, but they boil down to
>wondering about all the assaults on rationality. The emphasis
>here is different from yours; I take the default hypothesis to
>be that evolution knew what it was doing (at least in the EEA),
>and that "irrationality" is not ipso-facto a bad thing each time
>it's identified.
>The assaults on rationality that come to mind:
>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)
>and there was, I think, at least one paper at the Society for
>Personality and Social Psychology conference held recently that
>made the news. It was about the same thing, but I can't find it
>right now.

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.

>How much should these change our perspective?

I don't know.  EP is a depressing subject, but I can't see any other way to 
understand what's going on with such events as the "cartoon" meme resulting 
in hundreds of deaths.

""My contention, simply put, is that the evolutionary approach is the only 
approach in the social and behavioural sciences that deals with why, in an 
ultimate sense, people behave as they do. As such, it often unmasks the 
universal hypocrisies of our species, peering behind self-serving notions 
about our moral and social values to reveal the darker side of human 
nature." (Silverman 2003)

It may be to late to do anything about the hundreds of millions or billions 
of deaths event(s) even if everybody understood the EP reasons behind it.

Keith Henson

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