Enlightenment 2.0
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Enlightenment 2.0

Joseph Heath

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eBook - ePub

Enlightenment 2.0

Joseph Heath

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Über dieses Buch

The co-author of the internationally bestselling The Rebel Sell brings us "slow politics": promoting slow thought, slow deliberation and slow debate.

Over the last twenty years, the political systems of the western world have become increasingly divided--not between right and left but between crazy and non-crazy. What's more, the crazies seem to be gaining the upper hand. Rational thought cannot prevail in the current social and media environment, where elections are won by appealing to voters' hearts rather than their minds. The rapid-fire pace of modern politics, the hypnotic repetition of daily news items and even the multitude of visual sources of information all make it difficult for the voice of reason to be heard.

In Enlightenment 2.0, bestselling author Joseph Heath outlines a program for a second Enlightenment. The answer, he argues, lies in a new "slow politics." It takes as its point of departure recent psychological and philosophical research that identifies quite clearly the social and environmental preconditions for the exercise of rational thought. It is impossible to restore sanity merely by being sane and trying to speak in a reasonable tone of voice. The only way to restore sanity is by engaging in collective action against the social conditions that have crowded it out.

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Part I

The Old Mind and the New

Modern psychology has shown that reason is far less powerful than it was once thought to be. To the extent that it functions at all, it does so because we have discovered work-arounds for the flaws in the hardware that has been provided to us by evolution. This is the correct observation at the heart of the conservative critique of rationalism. And yet modern psychology has also shown that certain problems can be solved only by reason. While reason may not be perfect, we have no choice but to work with what we have. Civilization depends on it.

1. The calm passion

Reason: its nature, origin, and causes

Anyone who has ever taken an aptitude test with an “analytical” section will undoubtedly have encountered little word puzzles such as the following:
The Marriage Problem:
Bill is looking at Nancy, while Nancy is looking at Greg.
Bill is married. Greg is unmarried.
Is a married person looking at an unmarried person?
Answer: A) yes, B) no, C) cannot be determined.1
If you are like most people, you will get this question wrong the first time you try to answer it. The obvious answer is C, “cannot be determined.” This is what our intuitive, rapid problem-solving system tells us. How do we arrive at that conclusion? Through a style of pattern matching. We are looking for a married person looking at an unmarried person. So we take the first couple: Bill is looking at Nancy. Bill is married, but we have no idea whether Nancy is married or not, so there is no match. Now we take Nancy looking at Greg. Greg is unmarried, but again, we have no idea about Nancy, so there is no match. Bill looking at Greg would be a match, but Bill isn’t looking at Greg, so we get no matches. Response: We can’t say. In order to answer the question, we would need to know Nancy’s marital status.
This is how we tackle the problem when we are being less than fully rational.2 There’s a problem, though. Indeed, just walking through the steps, the way I did in the paragraph above, explicitly articulating how the pattern-matching approach works, will make the problem stand out for many people. (Hint: Do we really need to know whether Nancy is married?)
Now consider what a solution to this problem looks like when you use the rational part of your brain. We know that Bill is married and that Greg is not. We do not know whether Nancy is married. Yet there are only two possible states she can be in. The first is that she is married, the second that she is unmarried. Now, suppose that Nancy is married. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? Yes, Nancy is looking at Greg. Now suppose that Nancy is unmarried. Is a married person looking at an unmarried person? Yes, Bill is looking at Nancy. So it doesn’t matter whether Nancy is married or not. Under either state, a married person is looking at an unmarried person. The correct answer to the question is A (“yes”). This is actually quite obvious, from a rational point of view. But it is also unintuitive, which is why people tend to get it wrong on first pass.
The term reason traditionally refers to a particular mental faculty, one that is associated with a distinctive style of thinking. David Hume famously described reason as a “calm passion,”3 and a degree of detachment and distance from immediate circumstances is a hallmark of the rational style. But perhaps the more significant feature of rational thought is that it can be made fully explicit. To the extent that we are reasoning, we are fully aware of what we are doing and we are able to explain fully what we have done—hence the connection between the faculty of reason and the practice of giving reasons, or argumentation and justification. For any particular claim, we must be able to explain what entitles us to make it and we must be willing to acknowledge what it commits us to.4
This provides the basis for the traditional contrast between reason and intuition. An intuitive judgment is one that you make without being able to explain why you made it. Rational judgments, on the other hand, can always be explained. This doesn’t make intuitive judgments wrong or defective; it just means that they are produced by a different sort of cognitive process. Malcolm Gladwell helped to popularize this distinction in his book Blink, using a number of very striking examples. One involved a forged statue and a group of art historians, many of whom were convinced that the piece was inauthentic but who were hard-pressed to explain why. Something about the statue just felt wrong. According to one of these experts, the first word that came to mind when he saw the (supposedly ancient) statue was “fresh.” Another said that the statue “felt cold,” as though he were seeing it through a pane of glass.5
These judgments were clearly the product of cognition—in fact, they were the product of very sophisticated expert judgment, a system of discernment built up over the course of decades of experience. But they were not rational judgments. Why? Because the experts themselves had no access to the basis of these judgments. They could not explain what exactly it was about the statue that triggered the reaction.
We make this sort of judgment all the time. Look at a photo of a young child, maybe five years old. Is it a boy or a girl? In most cases you can easily tell. Yet how do you form that judgment? What exactly is it about a boy’s face that makes him look like a boy, not a girl? Most of us would be hard-pressed to say. Judgments of age are similar. How do you tell the difference between an eighteen-year-old and a twenty-five-year-old? The judgment is intuitive, not rational. We can go back afterward and try to figure out how we made the decision, but the basis of that decision is not available to consciousness as we are making it. What intuitive judgments provide us with are simply the outputs of a set of cognitive procedures.
Rational judgments, on the other hand, are based on reasons—considerations that the American sociologist Harold Garfinkel described as “detectable, countable, reportable, tell-a-story-about-able, analyzable—in short accountable.”6 With a rational decision, we have conscious access to the inputs and the decision procedure, as well as to the output. If the experts assessing the statue had been able to point to an aspect of the technique, the material, or the style and show that it was anachronistic, this would have provided a basis for rational judgment. Like Sherlock Holmes solving a crime, they would have been able to explain precisely how their process of deduction had unfolded. But they weren’t. They just knew, without being able to say how they knew.
Rational thinking is slow and onerous, which is typically why we try to avoid doing it. The “marriage problem,” however, shows us why it is nevertheless indispensable. One might be tempted to think that that first time we tried to solve the problem we simply made a mistake but that the second time, when we looked at it more carefully, we got it right. This idea—that the mistake is attributable to what psychologists call performance error7—is highly misleading. Our brain, according to this view, is like a cigarette lighter that sparks but sometimes fails to produce a flame, so we shake it a bit and try again. In fact, our brain is more like a bureaucracy or a customer service center, which strives to solve every problem at the lowest possible level. It is only after we have tried and failed to solve a problem using frontline resources that we decide to kick it up to a higher level, and maybe get management involved in the decision making.
In other words, the first time we look at the problem, we typically use a limited set of cognitive resources to produce an answer. Specifically, we try to solve it using a fast, intuitive pattern-matching approach. It is only after finding out that the answer is wrong that we go back and bring additional resources to bear upon it (the mental equivalent of calling a manager). This is when reason becomes engaged. When we decide to concentrate more carefully on the problem, our motive for doing so is not to eliminate a source of error, but rather to facilitate the operation of this new set of cognitive resources. We are, in effect, kicking it up from an intuitive to a rational level. The need to concentrate is just a sign that we are bringing these new resources online. The reason we are forced to do so is that some problems cannot be solved simply by using an intuitive thinking style.
The thought process that leads to the correct solution to the marriage problem has five characteristics that are widely recognized as the hallmarks of rational thinking:
1. Working out the solution requires explicit linguistic articulation. Many people will look at the problem and very quickly come to the intuitive, incorrect conclusion, without any explicit awareness of how they got there. It just seems to them that the answer must be indeterminate. When told that the correct answer is actually “yes,” they may stare at the problem blankly for a while. It is only by explicitly talking their way through it—either to themselves or out loud—that they are able to see the rationale for that answer. It is only the very odd person who is able to come to the correct conclusion without any explicit awareness of how he or she got there. (Consider another problem: “Everyone is prejudiced against prejudiced people. Nancy is prejudiced against Bill. Is Greg prejudiced against Bill?”8 The correct answer is “yes,” but very few people can see why without talking their way through the problem, step by step.)
2. It requires decontextualization. The mistaken response to the marriage problem starts with the tendency to think about it too concretely. We imagine that in order to solve the problem, we need to know some fact about the world: namely, whether Nancy is married or not. We fail to realize that there is a more abstract fact that, alone, is sufficient to resolve the problem: namely, that Nancy is either married or unmarried. Seeing this more abstract fact and its relevance requires an insight into the logical structure of the problem, which in turn requires abstraction from the specific information that we have been given about Bill, Nancy, and Greg. This is a major difference between intuitive and rational thinking. Intuitive thinking relies upon contextual information to solve problems—often supplementing existing knowledge of the problem with additional information that might seem relevant. Rational thinking moves in exactly the opposite direction, stripping the problem of contextual details in order to get at elements of structure.9
3. It makes use of working memory. The chain of reasoning that leads to the correct solution requires us to hold an intermediate conclusion in what psychologists call working memory.10 To see what this is, consider how you go about solving a long multiplication problem in your head. For simplicity, consider 8 times 23. Most people don’t have the answer to this memorized, and so need to work it out. The standard procedure for doing this is to break it down into two smaller problems. First, multiply 8 by 3 to get 24. Then multiply 8 by 20 to get 160. All you have to do now is add up 160 and … what? At this point you have to pull the 24 back out of memory to get the answer of 184. That place where you put the 24, while you were working out the second part of the problem, is your working memory. It’s called that because, first, you are using it as part of an ongoing computation and, second, you will dump it some time shortly after you’re finished. That may seem simple enough, but there is a very widespread consensus among cognitive scientists that rational thought processes depend crucially on this working memory system.11 The pattern-matching system fails to solve the marriage problem because it moves through, making pair-wise comparisons, looking for a “hit” on the pattern it is scanning for. Failing to find one, it concludes that the problem is unsolvable. The rational solution requires first considering what follows from the assumption that Nancy is married, storing that in working memory, then considering what follows from the assumption that she is unmarried, retrieving the first result from working memory, and integrating the two. (The “prejudice” problem is similar. In order to get the correct answer, you need to first figure out the crucial intermediate conclusion, that Bill is prejudiced against Nancy, then use that as a basis for further reasoning.)
4. It is capable of hypothetical reasoning. The intuitive problem-solving system likes to work with facts; it is no good at handling suppositions. The marriage problem forces us to construct a hypothetical scenario (“Suppose Nancy is married”) then figure out what follows from it. Furthermore, we know that the supposition underlying at least one of the two scenarios is false (Nancy is either married or she is not, but she cannot be both). Thus one of the two scenarios is not just hypothetical, but counterfactual. Only reason can deal with these sorts of constructs.12 Intuition is useful when it comes to thinking about and responding to the real world, but whenever we need to think about some possible world (including the negation of the real world), we need to use the rational part of our brain. This means that we need to use reason in order to engage in contingency planning (“What if Plan A doesn’t work?”), strategic thinking (“If I do this, then she may do that”), modal reasoning (“That’s not necessarily true”), and, most importantly, so-called deontic moral reasoning (“He ought to pay her back”).
5. It is hard and slow. Thinking rationally is difficult, which is why most of us try to avoid doing it until absolutely forced. As we shall see later on, there is a good reason for this—you are basically making your brain do something that it was never designed to do. Much of this difficulty is a consequence of the fact that rational processing is slow, relatively speaking, and cognitively demanding, primarily in terms of attention. Maintaining this sort of attention involves inhibiting or controlling all sorts of other thought processes, which in turn involves significant self-control. This is why it is so hard to think clearly when you’re in a rush, or when there is a lot of distracting noise or competing stimuli. (One sure way to irritate other people when they are trying to count is to stand beside them and shout out random numbers. They are bound to lose their place. Yet our own brains are constantly doing the same thing to us: “I’m hungry,” “Look at that bird!” “I’m itchy,” “It’s been a while since you checked your email,” etc.)
The picture that emerges from this is of a mind that is capable of two very different styles of thinking. At one extreme, we have fully reflective, rational thought. This style of cognition is linear, conscious, and explicit, requires attention, and has access to working memory. On the other extreme, we have completely automatic, “modular” systems, which are fast, unconscious, and implicit and can run in parallel (since they require no attention and do not make use of working memory, several tasks can be performed at the same time).
The classic example of mental modularity is our capacity for facial recognition. You see a person, you instantly recognize him as familiar (even if you can’t quite put your finger on who he is or where you met him). The cognition is triggered automatically by the visual stimulus (at no point do you get to decide whether to run your facial-recognition program on people—you can’t stop it even if you want to). You might be hard-pressed to say exactly what it is about him that is familiar, or how you recognized him. Furthermore—as we know from trying to program computers to do facial recognition—an astonishing amount of extremely complicated visual processing must be going on. Not only are faces very complex, but they are seen from different perspectives and angles, not to mention that they change over time (for instance, people’s noses and ears get longer as they age). Yet people are able to recognize each other in all sorts of different circumstances and after years of separation. Thus the processing must be happening very quickly, much faster than anything we can reproduce in consciousness.
The facial-recognition program is also domain specific, which means that it is by and large good for only one thing. For example, while we are very good at recognizing individual faces, we are very bad at recognizing individual trees. A person who spends a lot of time in the woods and worries about getting lost might want to become better at recognizing trees (say, by remembering slight differences in the patterns on their bark). Unfortunately, whatever portion of our brain we use to recognize faces can’t be redeployed to this task (the best we can do is to try to find “faces” in the bark). The domain of this competence is innately specified. This is what leads many cognitive scientists to describe these sorts of intuitive processing systems as part of the “hardware” of the brain.
One other feature of our facial-recognition program is that, because it is triggered and runs automatically, it doesn’t require any attention on our part. It also doesn’t seem to make use of any shared or central resources: there is nothing to stop this program from running at the same time that you are doing other things. When someone you know walks into the room, you recognize that person immediately, regardless of what else you happen to be doing at the moment. It’s not as though you have to wait until you’re finished before turning your attention to the task of deciding whether you know this person. Thus many psychologists have argued that these cognitive compete...