Reason eating itself

This is the first of a series of essays on reason (1).  I will open with some preliminaries about Darwinism and Evolutionary Psychology. Then, I will discuss evolutionary psychology approaches to the function of reasoning by introducing the Justificatory and Argumentative theories of reasoning. The essay closes with some considerations about how to move forward from what has been suggested.



Darwinism as an acid burning through everything 

In Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Dennet talks about the idea of a Universal Acid. “Dennett writes about the fantasy of a “universal acid” as a liquid that is so corrosive that it would eat through anything that it came into contact with, even a potential container. Such a powerful substance would transform everything it was applied to; leaving something very different in its wake. This is where Dennett draws parallels from the universal acid to Darwin’s idea: “it eats through just about every traditional concept, and leaves in its wake a revolutionized world-view, with most of the old landmarks still recognizable, but transformed in fundamental ways.””

Part of the goal of this blog – insofar as the goals of this blog can be stated this early – is to turn everything into an universal acid.

Part of the power of the idea of evolution is that it does act like an universal acid, and I don’t wish to trivialise that. Despite that, it seems to me that when humans are faced with a quirk in humaness (status hierarchies, any of the H&B bias, and so on) one of two broad reactions happen. Either refusal, dismissal, or acceptance and forgetfulness on one side, or plain acceptance on the other.

Plain acceptance can in turn have two tiers. One is that in which after encountering the quirk the epistemic agent goes  forward in such a fashion “Oh humans are really into status hierarchies!” and then every time that notices a potential status hierarchy situation it aims to see with new eyes, to see through the status hierarchy.

The other type of acceptance, deep acceptance, to-the-bones acceptance is when the reaction is something like “Oh my god…  I have had my status hierarchy glasses on my whole life… Everything has been distorted. This changes everything”.

Deep acceptance is why there are several universal acids. Deep acceptance is why there are Lovecraftian Monsters.


Evolutionary Psychology

Here are Tooby and Cosmides on what Evolutionary Psychology is: “The goal of research in evolutionary psychology is to discover and understand the design of the human mind. Evolutionary psychology is an approach to psychology, in which knowledge and principles from evolutionary biology are put to use in research on the structure of the human mind. It is not an area of study, like vision, reasoning, or social behavior. It is a way of thinking about psychology that can be applied to any topic within it.

In this view, the mind is a set of information-processing machines that were designed by natural selection to solve adaptive problems faced by our hunter-gatherer ancestors. This way of thinking about the brain, mind, and behavior is changing how scientists approach old topics, and opening up new ones. This chapter is a primer on the concepts and arguments that animate it.”

Evolutionary psychology connects to the rest of the essay rests via the notion of adaptive problem: “Adaptive problems have two defining characteristics. First, they are ones that cropped up again and again during the evolutionary history of a species. Second, they are problems whose solution affected the reproduction of individual organisms — however indirect the causal chain may be, and however small the effect on number of offspring produced. This is because differential reproduction (and not survival per se) is the engine that drives natural selection. Consider the fate of a circuit that had the effect, on average, of enhancing the reproductive rate of the organisms that sported it, but shortened their average lifespan in so doing (one that causes mothers to risk death to save their children, for example). If this effect persisted over many generations, then its frequency in the population would increase. In contrast, any circuit whose average effect was to decrease the reproductive rate of the organisms that had it would eventually disappear from the population. Most adaptive problems have to do with how an organism makes its living: what it eats, what eats it, who it mates with, who it socializes with, how it communicates, and so on. The only kind of problems that natural selection can design circuits for solving are adaptive problems.”

Burning through our conception of Reason

The follow-up question is “What function is usually ascribed to reasoning?” “The classical modern view on the topic of reasoning is still deeply Cartesian. It is fundamentally individualistic and internal: through a careful, analytical examination of our beliefs, we are supposed to achieve epistemic improvement and make sounder decisions.” (2)

It is reasonable to expect that function and mechanism are connected.

Argument for Learning about function leads to knowledge about mechanisms

  1. Mechanisms are adjusted to their function
  2. If mechanisms are adjusted to their function, then learning about the function of X helps to learn about the mechanisms of X
  3. Therefore, learning about the function of X helps to learn about the mechanisms of X [2,3]

In this section I present two theories that take an Evolutionary Psychology perspective to explain the function of reasoning.


Theory 1: Reasons are for social justification

The first theory proposes the general idea that language is unique to humans and  created unique adaptive problems. Suddenly one’s mind could be scrutinized by others. This led to the adaptive problem problem of social justification: the reasons given for our actions have consequences .

(Imagine someone hitting you in the arm and you asking why they did that and their answer being “For fun”, “I dislike your face”, “I tripped and was trying to hold on”, “This is a social experiment”.)

The fact that there was now a problem of social justification and of human interests diverging led to incentives such that shaped the human psyche into a public self, a private self and an experiential self. (Similar to Freud’s Superego, Ego, and Id).


“[T]he biological postulate, which is the idea that the evolution of language created a new and unique adaptive problem for our hominid ancestors, namely the problem of social justification. The problem of social justification is the problem of explaining why you do what you do. To consider why this is a ‘problem’, ask yourself the following question: Would you want everyone to be completely aware of all your thoughts? Or, to put it another way, do you always tell everyone who asks exactly what you are thinking? If your answer is “no” (which is basically everyone’s answer), you have a sense that it is often important to filter your thoughts and offer a socially justifiable narrative that explains your actions.” (3)

There is a reason that Liar Liar (a film on the premise that the main character- a Lawyer – has lost his ability to lie) is a comedy. Inability to lie is hilarious because it would destroy your life, and schadenfreude is as big as ever.


Theory 2: Reasoning is for argumentation

Language also led to the problem of how to protect ourselves from liars. (Which is related to the problem above.)

A summary of this line of argument: “Human reasoning is one mechanism of inference among others (for instance, the unconscious inference involved in perception). It is distinct in being a) conscious, b) cross-domain, c) used prominently in human communication. Mercier and Sperber make much of this last aspect, taking it as a huge hint to seek an adaptive explanation in the fashion of evolutionary psychology, which may provide better answers than previous attempts at explanations of the evolution of reasoning.

The paper defends reasoning as serving argumentation, in line with evolutionary theories of communication and signaling. In rich human communication there is little opportunity for “costly signaling”, that is, signals that are taken as honest because too expensive to fake. In other words, it’s easy to lie.

To defend ourselves against liars, we practice “epistemic vigilance“; we check the communications we receive for attributes such as a trustworthy or authoritative source; we also evaluate the coherence of the content. If the message contains symbols that matches our existing beliefs, and packages its conclusions as an inference from these beliefs, we are more likely to accept it, and thus our interlocutors have an interest in constructing good arguments. Epistemic vigilance and argumentative reasoning are thus involved in an arms race, which we should expect to result in good argumentative skills.”


What the theories explain

The beauty of these theories is on how much research they can tie together under one theoretical framework. The justification theory unites research (4) on the interpreter function of the left hemisphere, cognitive dissonance, attribution and the self-serving bias, implicit and explicit attitudes, reason giving,

It also possibly explains other interesting empirical facts. I’d maintain that when people are intellectualising in therapy and “not really doing therapy” they are sharing their intellectual and official (or S2 in another language) positions and beliefs. And that when they are actually doing therapy, actually focusing (5) they share their S1, ego, aliefs. This makes sense of the fact that so much of what comes through focusing is shameful and disgraceful and guilt and remorse-ridden. (The key point being that these are all social emotions.) It further explains that so much stuff that comes out is surprising to the person that is verbalising it and so often met with a renegaded acceptance (“I said it, and I believe it, but it can’t be true…”)-

It hints as well as to why causal mechanics explanation are so deeply unsatisfying. Humans reason in a teleological manner (6) and reductive explanations appealing to effective causes (like causal mechanics) don’t fit. (“Why did you do THAT!?” “Past events made it so that it could not be not done”)

With regards to the argumentative theory of reasoning it gives an alternative explanation for various of the H&B results:

“Mercier and Sperber argue that, when you look at research that studies people in the appropriate settings, we turn out to be in fact quite good at reasoning when we are in the process of arguing; specifically, we demonstrate skill at producing arguments and at evaluating others’ arguments. M&S also plead for the “rehabilitation” of confirmation bias as playing an adaptive, useful role in the production of arguments in favor of an intuitively preferred view.

If reasoning is a skill evolved for social use, group settings should be particularly conducive to skilled arguing. Research findings in fact show that “truth wins”: once a group participant has a correct solution they will convince others. A group in a debate setting can do better than its best member.

The argumentative theory, Mercier and Sperber argue, accounts nicely for motivated reasoning, on the model that “reasoning anticipates argument”. Such anticipation colors our evaluative attitudes, leading for instance to “polarization” whereby a counter-argument makes us even more strongly believe the original position, or “bolstering” whereby we defend a position more strongly after we have committed to it.

What of all the research suggesting that humans are in fact very poor at logical reasoning? Well, if in fact “we reason in order to argue”, when the subjects are studied in non-argumentative situations this is precisely what we should expect.”

As a further data-point there is the beautiful finding that people don’t suck at the Wason selection task once you add to the logical setting some content from social relations.  (I also seem to recall humans being good at deontic logic to a remarkable level without any sort of training, but can’t find the reference.)


And now, an interval for wild speculation

This is the biggest leap I’m going to take in the whole essay. If the rest already pushed your suspension of disbelief then I encourage you to skip this section

“According to the original relational dialectic model, there were many core tensions (opposing values) in any relationship. These were: Autonomy and connectedness: The desire to have ties and connections with others versus the need to separate yourself as a unique individual.” (7)

Now imagine you can’t plug in the culture. You are fundamentally different from the people you interact with, and worse, they are extremely similar to each other. On the one hand you just cannot sacrifice your autonomy of thought and being. On the other you envy and long for what they have: a group, and connections.

Your peculiarity drives you out of the social world and into the intellectual world. And you come up with a beautiful solution: normative systems. Normative systems give you a form of explaining yourself and your actions and why they can’t be any other way, and since the explanation is in place, it allows you to reach out to something that you can use to connect to others over, whilst keeping your autonomy.

This is immensely speculative, but it fits. It answers to the confusion that Vladimir expresses at all the discussions of deontology and utilitarianism when no one uses them, ever. This is a really confusing fact. Why are people spending their lives discussing these systems of how to act when they are never used, ever? The fact is that they are both great normative justification systems. (I was surprised to find there is no post on overcoming bias about how “Moral Philosophising is not about Morality”. There is however a post on what the standard to alief a moral theory is.)

The strategy suggested is ridden with problems. One class of problem that are specific to it, as a strategy of connection; and others are those inherent to normativism. These are those that NVC refers to through the idea of jackal language,  and what therapies that mark the superego as the major psychological force try to deal with as well (8). I think that this category of problem is what is being reflected in this comment by Scott S. Alexander about people that come up with the perfect plans, but just can’t make themselves execute. (9)


What now?

Some intermediate conclusions can be drawn from what has been roamed.

First, a clarification. Despite all that has been said above I want to emphasise that spandrel and exaptation are both things. Yes, it is likely that reasoning evolved for argumentation and justification, still it happens to lead to truths. (Which is actually a remarkable fact in need of explanation. Why is it that we logical propositions that we come to believe are by-and-large true? Why do you logical beliefs match the logical facts? Why is logic reliable? Here is an evolutionary explanation, which coheres and fits to the spirit of the essay.)

The fact that reason leads to truths makes it immensely useful and makes it so that it would be a mistake to let go of it. In some way, in eating itself -using it to figure out where it comes from and its limits – reason validates itself. Just don’t take it for its word. (This point is slightly related to one that Eliezer has made, except I think he is wrong: a brain is not reflective, and the burden of proof is on him to exhibit a brain that is self-correcting to any meaningful level, or even an isolated human. What is reflective is the whole of human culture [which is illustrated by how many pieces by others this essay builds on] . I maintain that he made this mistake because he is still speaking from the individualistic, Cartesian worldview that informs H&B and modern reasoning about reasoning and Rational Choice Theory – the focus is always on one individual acting epistemic agent. Having said that he is meritorious in having, in my opinion by necessity, reached the right answer – creating a community. As further evidence, notice how the “twelve virtues of rationality” are for an epistemic agent to become a perfect Cartesian reasoner and they don’t mention community is the least.)

Secondly, almost no one is actually reasoning. They are rationalising and using ad-hoc heuristics (and evolutionarily adaptive heuristics according to Gigerenzer). This is not necessary bad because of bounded rationality, but at some level it is terrible. I know a very large portion of the readership have just gone “Yeah, of course.”. But integrating this knowledge at a deep level is terrible. Lovecraft-monster-like terrible.

You-should-not-fear-Hitler-but-the-fact-that-he-convinced-all-those-people-and-they-don’t-differ-that-much-from-the-people-around-you-now-like terrible. Our-current-civilizational-equilibrium-is-maybe-not-that-sturdy-and-might-change-at-any-time-like terrible.

Thirdly, and more encouraging, some practical upshots can be derived. Since reasoning is the best tool available to figure anything, it is important to understand the limits of applicability of reasoning, in which situations it ought to work and not; and how to engineer those situations – how to craft epistemic communities, as opposed to individuals. (If this point seems obvious, the reader is encouraged to do a tally of how much research there is on individual versus community debiasing for example.)

I shall explore these practical upshots in future essays.

  1. The way I predict this blog going they will be heavily edited and cross-referenced as my understanding deepens. It starts with a breadth-first search and then as I go deeper I upgrade what had been exposed before, or let it hang as a Wittgenstein ladder.
  2. Mercier, H., & Landemore, H. (2012). Reasoning is for arguing: Understanding the successes and failures of deliberation. Political Psychology, 33(2), 243-258.
  3. Here
  4. Here
  5. Here
  6. Kelemen, D., & Rosset, E. (2009). The human function compunction: Teleological explanation in adults. Cognition, 111(1), 138-143. ; Sehon, S. (2010). Teleological explanation. A Companion to the Philosophy of Action, 121-128.
  7. Here
  8. Wile, D. B. (2002). Collaborative couple therapy. In A. S. Gurman & N. S. Jacobson (Eds.), Clinical handbook of couple therapy (pp. 281–307). New York: Guilford Press.
  9. So apparently CFAR has picked up on something similar and shifted their workshops to be more about S1 and S2 dialogue and debugging. I applaud this effort, but if the rest of the essay is right their efforts will still fail because they are not focused on creating communities but acting on and individual-level. If Mark is right then CFAR has to become something like the Zen koan school of rationality. They cannot do it for you, but they can poke you into the correct direction.

  • Explain how logic and biology relate; explain how beautifully this all mixes with embodied cognition
  • i think it might be impossible not to lie. lies seem to be useful. i know sam harris has thought on this. on the other hand my stint with radical honesty was one of the most powerful things I have done, and NVC seems to be very keen on it as well. I think there might be various reasons for lying, one terrible one being superego inflitration and that is why radical honesty is powerful. Not sure. Need to think more.
    • and of course, even thinking about defending lying comes with huge social costs. the ongoing strategy is to create enough value to absorb those losses but I might have to think about that as well.
  • I eventually want to zoom in on my criteria to consider theories (right now it is something like “coherence” with existing belief-space, simplicity, ability to explain facts, recurrence across places, lines of evidence, expert support
  • It might not be terrible that most people are not reasoning, not sure. (societal mechanisms and bottom-up might win out)
  • talk about second and third postulates of Justification Hypothesis
  • Exposing and removing other cartesian views as necessary and possible
  • Reason works because reflexive (you can use reason to reason about itself)

4 thoughts on “Reason eating itself

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