Jan 31 2011

Amateur, but trying not to be

Category: ReasoningJames @ 7:41 am

Welcome to The Amateur Thinker. In this first post. I’d like to discuss the blog’s purpose by discussing an interesting talk recently given at the Edge Conference by psychology professor Jonathan Haidt. Professor Haidt titled his talk “The New Science of Morality.”

In part of his talk, Professor Haidt discussed an article by Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber called “Why Do Humans Reason? Arguments for an Argumentative Theory.” Mercier and Sperber’s article discusses the question of “why are humans so amazingly bad at reasoning in some contexts, and so amazingly good in others?”

Haidt points out that the best example of humans using bad reasoning is the confirmation bias, which is the strong tendency for people to “automatically search for evidence to support whatever they start off believing.” The biggest problem with confirmation bias is that it is nearly impossible to train people to stop doing it – we all seem incapable of stopping to think about what could be wrong with our position. Not only we have confirmation bias, but our reasoning also becomes very “biased and motivated whenever self-interest or self-presentation are at stake.”

As Haidt explains, Mercier’s and Sperber’s explanation for these flaws in our ability to reason “is that reasoning was not designed to pursue the truth. Reasoning was designed by evolution to help us win arguments.” Mercier and Sperber explain that the evidence

shows not only that reasoning falls quite short of reliably delivering rational beliefs and rational decisions. It may even be, in a variety of cases, detrimental to rationality. Reasoning can lead to poor outcomes, not because humans are bad at it, but because they systematically strive for arguments that justify their beliefs or their actions. This explains the confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, and reason-based choice, among other things.

I believe that much of western culture’s modern progress over the last few hundred years has been accomplished through harnessing our natural reasoning ability to force us to acknowledge our errors. That is what science, and particularly peer review, are all about. Haidt points out that

[s]cience works very well as a social process, when we can come together and find flaws in each other’s reasoning. We can’t find the problems in our own reasoning very well. But, that’s what other people are for, is to criticize us. And together, we hope the truth comes out.

But the private reasoning of any one scientist is often deeply flawed, because reasoning can be counted on to seek justification and not truth.

Haidt specializes in moral psychology, and he points out that in the study of morals,

[w]e’ve got to be very, very cautious about bias. I believe that morality has to be understood as a largely tribal phenomenon, at least in its origins. By its very nature, morality binds us into groups, in order to compete with other groups. . . . [W]e’ve got to just be extra careful to seek out critical views, to study moralities that aren’t our own, to consider, to empathize, to think about them as possibly coherent systems of beliefs and values that could be related to coherent, and even humane, human ways of living and flourishing.

I’ve been meaning to start a blog for a while, so that I can share my thoughts about philosophy, religion, politics, culture, law, science, and religion. I’ve decided that more than just share my thoughts, I want to put them on display to the world and invite everyone to show me where I’m wrong. Please post in the comments and challenge my ideas and opinions. I hope for good discussion where we can evaluate our views and opinions together. Like almost everyone, I’m just an amateur thinker. I hope this blog is a tool that you and I can use to overcome our own implicit biases, so that we’re not amateurs anymore.