This I Believe

Thomas - Saratoga, California
Entered on March 24, 2007

Human conscious reasoning is greatly over-rated.

All will agree it’s rarely used during the course of a typical day.

It’s easily simulated by a computer, while things that humans and animals

do with ease, like recognizing a snake in the grass and running without

tripping, are much harder.

Even mathematicians and computer programmers, who are smart and highly

practiced in long chains of reasoning, make so many mistakes that their

work isn’t accepted until it’s been double-checked by another expert.

In the case of programmers, at least, even that still leaves errors.

Rational thought is so vulnerable to errors in logic or errors in premises

that it often in fact leads us astray. How often do we blithely assume

another person or society is like us, and therefore has the same

motivations and will respond the same way as we would? How often does

“armchair theorizing” or even “common sense” blind us to the true state of

affairs? How often does our reasoning, or others’ “reasoned argument”,

lead to bizarre conclusions, which we happily accept? Who but a

reasoning human could be “talked into” becoming a suicide bomber?

In fact perfectly correct logical thought could be a very bad thing:

given the same data, everyone would reach the same conclusions, with

none of the variation that is the raw material for both learning and

natural selection.

Though there is sometimes no substitute for human conscious reasoning – we

wouldn’t have telephones or smallpox vaccinations without it – it should

be recognized to be a limited and sometimes even dangerous tool.

Conscious reasoning is widely thought to make humans qualitatively

different from all other life forms. But the more we learn about biology,

the more we find that things we thought derived from consciousness, like

empathy, or from reasoning, like a sense of justice, turn out to be

present in mice and monkeys. Philosophical concepts like Free Will, or

Morality, turn out to be feelings, inculcated by nature or early nurture,

which we merely attempt to rationalize by abstract reasoning.

If a martian zookeeper was put in charge of the Homo Sapiens exhibit on

planet Earth, he would not start by assuming humans were a variety of

calculating machines who “logically ought to do this” or “logically ought

to want that”. He would instead observe how they in fact behave. He

would then try to find out how to arrange society so it took advantage of

humans’ natural tendencies (including the variability of those tendencies)

to result in a sustainable human population, and he would try to make sure

that humans’ early nurture tended to instill, to the extent possible,

feelings and tendencies that were compatible with long term

sustainability. Humans’ abilities to consciously reason would be only one

of their various characteristics the zookeeper would keep in mind.