The problem with rationality

post by David Loomis (david-loomis) · 2024-05-21T18:49:44.863Z · LW · GW · 1 comments

I could write a book concerning the problem with rationality and may well expound upon many of my introductory post's assertions in future posts. I will attempt to be as succinct as my run-on brain is capable of. Forgive the vaguery and lack of precision. Here goes!

Life came to be billions of years following the earth's haphazard entry into the universe. It's agenda was basic: survive, thrive, and reproduce. That edict is still paramount to every form of life to this day. Failure to abide by it ultimately results in extinction. Life obviously started very simple but separated into kingdoms relatively early as compared to how they exist today. Homo sapiens appeared from the Kingdom Animalia a very long time after the the simplest members of said Kingdom. For the sake of brevity, I will jump a few billion years ahead to a comparatively complex single celled member of the animal kingdom - the amoeba. The Amoeba has organelles that work together and a crude ability to manipulate it's environment. It senses, engulfs, and consumes nourishment until it is able to split into two amoebae. That sequence is a precursor to consciousness; it is "aware" of it's environment and actively pursues a course of action it "assumes" will benefit it. 

Multi celled animals had developed by a few million years later. Different cells developed the precursor to a brain by using biochemical communication between the cells for the entire organism to function. Primitive nerves appeared later to convey messages quicker giving the organism an advantage and ushering in more complex creatures that possessed the ability to "think" from central nerves. Thus, a brain came into being. Animals' brains continued to develop specializing in various tasks eventually bringing mammals into the scene. Note that all of the advances that culminated in a rational thinking brain did not develop to be "right". They developed to gather information from the environment and produce a surprisingly efficient best guess of how to best survive, thrive, and reproduce. That motif is also primary in the more primitive mental processes of homo sapiens. The predilection to survive and thrive is far more important to all mammalian animal brains than being right. 

Interestingly, there are many major differences in body development and sensory abilities that have adapted to the specific environments different mammals inhabit. Land bound and water bound mammals have differing specialized means of motility. Nocturnal mammals have eyes that require less light. Humans and chimpanzees have similar but environmentally adapted limbs and gaits. Yet both dolphins and bats possess acute echolocation abilities. But brain processes that developed earlier in mammalian evolution do not disappear. they may be more or less developed, but they don't completely restructure. Every mammal has a hippocampus for example. Every mammal also has separate areas of the brain for senses and some basic innate emotional innervation below the level of consciousness. And every mammal's conscious mind believes that what they think is essentially correct, especially those necessary for immediate survival.

Every animal consciousness has a veritable God complex. An earthworm must believe that it's next wiggle is in the best direction for it to survive and thrive even though that wiggle may ultimately result in its death in a mud puddle or a birds beak. That is also true of homo sapiens regardless of our rational capacities. Now comes the problem with human rationality. Our "lizard" animal brain has slowly evolved over a billion years or so. Our rational capacities pretty much kept pace with the more animistic parts of our brain until about 50,000 to 100,000 years ago when our rational capacities exploded. But our animistic subconscious could not possibly keep up. We are now essentially cavemen with a supercomputer cerebral cortex. Our subconscious processes are no longer capable of adequately controlling, directing, and innervating our massive rational capacities. Nor have our rational capacities EVER been allowed to completely control or directly change our subconscious mind. Information between the two is nearly completely directional. The subconscious constantly feeds the conscious mind with rapidly changing updates. But the conscious mind is not allowed to directly update the subconscious. The subconscious quickly accepts sensory information from the environment but carefully restricts the influence, demands, and control of the conscious mind.  We can't even know what it's doing to us while it does it. Ask any teenager in their first puppy love if the are in control of their behavior and able to adequately assess the object of their affection. They may tell you they are, but others might take issue by observation.

Now I'll really make things interesting. I'll toss ignorance and stupidity into the soup. No member of the species has nearly the mental capacity it they think they have. There's the obvious genetic influence that gives many a mental abacus and a piece of paper to count on while others have an Intel i9 octacore computer with a 2TB SSD drive. But our stupidity goes far further than that. Countless geniuses have uttered adages such as "the more I learn, the more I see how little I know." The Dunning-Kruger effect explains why the smartest people discover that. Every animal brain is limited, usually exponentially more than we comprehend. A comparatively brilliant chimpanzee is still a stupid chimpanzee. A brilliant human being is still a human being - we don't have a clue of where evolution is taking us relative to intelligence. Homo "somethings" a million years from now will likely laugh at how arrogantly stupid we are today. And our brains have to ignore all but a minuscule amount of what our senses collect at any given point. We would otherwise suffer from constant information overload and analysis paralysis. Anyone thinking otherwise should look at the wall in front of them the next time that visit the restroom. Look long and hard. You can always see another detail you have missed frequently for over a decade of seeing that wall. "But that's not important!" you say. Perhaps so. But anyone honest with themselves would have to admit they miss many things every day that were more important than they gave credit for.

Now lets look at how the human brain learns and works in general. No two brains are wired the same. Our genetic makeup dictates the predetermined relative strength and interactions of millions of processes ready to suck up information from our environment like a sponge in the early years of life. In fact, we begin picking up information before we even leave the womb. None of the pathways that pick up this information are rational. Yet everything we will pick up and use in the future is based and biased by what we picked up before we knew how to think. Bias is how the human brain works. We couldn't live without it. Thus, everything everyone thinks is based upon arational information and is biased to a considerable extent. That's why there's so much disagreement between people about most any topic. We lack the information to do anything else. Any person not taught to challenge the validity of information they think they know will remain at their present level of ignorance until they learn how to do so and apply it. Most do not. They're taught to be cognitively lazy by default. They tend to be argumentative extremists. They get so far down the track of their beliefs that coming back creates overwhelming cognitive dissonance. The arational input from a our early life skews information we take in now unless we realize how dubious the validity of what we think may be. 

So, enter the truth ..... ENTER THE TRUTH .... Truth? Where are you truth?  It's laughable that any of us believes we can grasp any but a minute amount of truth and even that is a biochemical illusion in our heads. The "real" truth is the contiguous whole of everything in the known universe (I think). We can handle little more than what we pick up in our petty daily affairs and we miss or forget most of that. Besides, most of the truth in our daily lives is misshapen or hidden by those wanting you to accept their version of the truth.

So how do  we improve the rational quality of what's already in our head? How can we possibly glean the truth out of all of the warped information we perceive? How so we guard against someone attempting to manipulative us with tainted information? I could  write a book on all of that, but I promised to be succinct. (Watch for another article on that.) Essentially, TO THINE OWN SELF BE TRUE! We must walk on that razor edged line between trusting what's in our head more than what others and life throw at us while simultaneously realizing the dubious validity of what we think we know. We must constantly assess the validity of what we know when reality presents contrary information. We must learn to don the amour against logical fallacies, propaganda, emotional manipulation, and lies. We must observe our own nature; especially emotional interference. We must try our best not to lie to ourselves. (Those are the most heinous lies there are.) We must get the big picture before memorizing the minutia. 

I advise the reader to assiduously assess the validity of what you think you already know. Don't worry about right and wrong. Those are simplistic constructs of the human mind. Very little in life is black or white. A computer renders 256 thousand shades of gray between black and white. Therein lies the great majority of life. Do not fear others calling you wrong. Admitting error is the only way to be rid of it. Nor should one dissect every thought in ones head. It's enough to seek out the most egregious errors. Any more than that is a destructive denial of self. 

There is a chasm between honesty and truth. Honesty is an an effort to search for truth across looking across that chasm and share what you see. But always remember, you may not have seen quite what you think. Absolute truth is not even close to being in our grasp. Yet, you will remain in your present level of ignorance if you stop searching. The search for truth is a journey with no end but mental death.


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comment by Viliam · 2024-05-22T12:59:50.803Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What is the summary here? The problem with rationality is that... we may make mistakes?