Saturday, February 13, 2016

Can a society be 50% rational about politics?

In his 2012 book, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion, social scientist Johnathan Haidt touched on the topic of just how rational (objective) humans can be as a sentient species. Dissident Politics is aware of no precise way to measure the ratio of subjectivity-intuition to objectivity-reason in individual people. Regardless, Dr. Haidt interpreted the research described in his book as consistent with most or nearly all people being somewhere in the range of about 75.1% to 99% intuitive-subjective and about 1% to 24.9% rational-objective.[1]

At one point in his book, Haidt asserts that 99% of human cognitive activity is unconscious:
“. . . . the mind is divided, like a rider on an elephant, and the rider’s job is to serve the elephant. The rider is our conscious reasoning—the stream of words and images of which we are fully aware. The elephant is the other 99 percent of mental processes—the ones that occur outside of awareness but that actually govern most of our behavior.”
 That statement strongly implies that we are highly intuitive or subjective about how we see and think about the world and issues we encounter. Because unconscious mental processes is where subjectivity or intuition arises in human cognition, that accords with Haidt's belief that we are overwhelmingly intuitive or subjective in all of our activities, including politics and religion.

Three visions of reality: Plato, Hume & Jefferson
Haidt points out that other hypotheses were based on the knowledge of their times. Plato (428-348 BC) postulated that humans are are almost exclusively intuitive-subjective but that only philosophers could rise above that situation and be much more or almost exclusively rational-objective. Given the imprecision, it may be reasonable to assert that Plato thought that most people in a society are less than 50% rational, but a few could be maybe 80-99% rational with effort.

The influential Scottish empiricist philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) postulated that humans are 100% intuitive and 0% rational, arguing that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” Hume's reference to the passions is taken as a reference to human intuition and emotion.

On the other hand, Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), while contemplating his personal moral struggle about whether to engage in an extramarital affair, hypothesized that intuition or emotion and reason are co-equals, implying that we are about 50% intuitive and 50% rational. Being a very informed person, Jefferson presumably was aware of Plato's and Hume's opinions on the subject. 

Hume was mostly right . . . . or was he?
Haidt argues that existing cognitive science data is more consistent with Hume’s vision than Jefferson or Plato, i.e., we are inherently or biologically much more intuitive than rational because that’s how we evolved. Obviously, there is imprecision in such simple descriptions. Hume called reason a slave to the passions but Haidt said that “went too far.” Based on the foregoing, Haidt may believe that we are roughly 1-10% rational or objective and thus about 90-99% intuitive or subjective, including in our dealings with politics.

For Dissident Politics, that just doesn't seem right. Social scientists have identified small numbers of people, superforecasters, who are truly talented at predicting future events. Those people were not trained analysis experts, but instead were average people with time on their hands for a four-year experiment to test their ability to predict the future.

Analysis of superforecaster personal traits show that, among other things, they are heavily biased toward being open-minded, rational-objective and self-questioning. Those few people appear to have figured out ways to reduce the fact- and logic-distorting of their own unconscious intuitive impulses, mainly by exerting conscious efforts to be disciplined and rational. That doesn't sound like people being just 1-10% rational.

The other group that seem to be fairly rational is scientists, especially scientists who are in hard sciences such as math, physics and chemistry and maybe even biology, including the social sciences (psychology, cognitive neuroscience, cognitive linguistics, political science, etc). It is easy to see that intuition can sometimes drive insights and even breakthroughs in the sciences. However, it is equally easy to see that translating insights into widely accepted beliefs requires discipline, reason and adherence to undistorted facts and unbiased logic. In addition, discipline and reason dominates the routine experimentation that sometimes leads to new knowledge and insight. Both reason and intuition are at play at the same time and which dominates is not obvious.

The plastic brain
Another consideration that Haidt doesn't explicitly account for is the fact that our intuitive minds can learn from our rational or conscious thinking. The human brain is plastic and does learn from experience and/or conscious effort to learn. This happens all the time in all sorts of fields. Master chess players become more intuitive about chess with time and practice. The same is true for athletes, scientists and fire fighters, who sometimes gain great insight from years of on the job experience.

Changes in personal ways of looking at the world as people pass through life also seem to reflect the influence of reason on intuition. For example, if intuition were so dominant, then why do people occasionally reverse their fundamental ideology or morals, e.g., change from liberal to conservative or religious to atheist? A big role for reason in such changes seems to be present.

All of that raises the question of whether applying intuition to (1) the world at large and/or (2) mathematics based on or informed by, say, a Ph.D. in mathematics and 30 years of successful academic research experience, is truly irrational or is reason or objectivity that the human mind has integrated into its unconscious processing. It would not be the case that such knowledge, although unconscious, is purely irrational. That is intuition being informed by reason or objectivity.

Given that, it can be the case that most scientists are 20-80% rational most or all of the time at least about their science, if not politics as well. In other words, it may still be the case that Jefferson was more right than Hume at least for some people. But again, there is imprecision. The current data does show we are significantly intuitive creatures but doesn't make clear either how rational we or societies really are or possibly can be.

Confusing terminology
Unfortunately, the labels used to describe these concepts seem to be confusing. The confusion obscures the question and how to think about the question. Reframing might ask questions this way:

Assuming that reason or objectivity can exert influence over personal beliefs and behavior via both conscious-rational and intuitive-subjective mental processes, how objective[2] can societies, groups, tribes or individuals be? How rational can American society be about politics, given freedom of speech, which includes a prevalence of lies, intentional misinformation and withheld facts and context?

For better or worse, human cognition is both unconsciously intuitive and consciously rational. Each process affects the other. That’s just how our brains evolved. Our unconscious intuitive mental processes are capable of distorting fact and logic without our conscious knowledge. Even when we know we are being mostly or completely objective, fact-based and logical, that can easily be false knowledge. Our ideology or morals and our powerful innate biases (confirmation bias, motivated reasoning, personal knowledge bias, etc) can and often do overwhelm facts and logic. That distortion can and sometimes does make facts and logic fit with our intuitive-subjective personal ideology or morals, even if it simply isn't true.

Regardless of how rational a person, group or society can be about politics, it is perfectly reasonable to argue that being more rational would be better in the long run than staying with the high degree of intuitive false reality and distorted logic that drives intuitive American two-party politics.

1. In social science, unconscious mental processes are understood to be where moral judgment and intuition (subjectivity) and the more extreme response of emotion arise. Unconscious mental processes can (i) foster intuitive distortion of reality (fact) and common sense (logic), and (ii) generate personal moral judgments, disdain and intolerance that guide personal beliefs and behaviors, including political polarization, distrust of political opposition and, as discussed before, lack of empathy and human conflict and war.

2. For this discussion, cognitive objectivity is defined as thinking and beliefs that are based on fact and logic that are not heavily biased or distorted by personal ideology or morals. some biasing seems to be unavoidable, but being aware biases and wanting to reduce their impacts does help. Some people don't want to reduce the effects of their biases on their beliefs for various reasons. Little or nothing can be done to help or change those people.

An example: Most people who deny that human activity is a significant cause of global climate change base that belief on their knowledge that (i) climate scientists are frauds, (ii) climate science and the data are too unsettled to be believable, (iii) the evidence of that climate scientists who deny a human connection is the truth and/or (iv) a significant minority or even a majority of climate scientists reject a human connection or that climate change is real. Most people who accept that human activity is an important cause, tend to believe as facts the opposite of every one of those four beliefs or facts. Given such stark differences in their perceptions of the facts, either one side or the other has to be objectively wrong about at least one of those four fact beliefs, if not all four. That is the case even though their four truths are taken by both sides to be objective fact or reality. Both sides can't possibly be completely right. That exemplifies the power of subjective ideology or morals to dictate perceptions of both facts and logic in cases where the perceptions are wrong.

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