Showing posts with label Rationality of behaviour. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rationality of behaviour. Show all posts

Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Did Hayek acknowledge the importance of individual self-direction in his vision of spontaneous order?

 


One of the reasons why Friedrich Hayek’s vision of spontaneous order is more attractive than collectivist alternatives is because it offers individuals greater opportunities for self-directed flourishing. However, the question arises of whether Hayek may have undermined the appeal of his vision by presenting a view of the limitations of human reason that leaves little room for individual self-direction.

In exploring this question, I sketch out the importance of self-direction to human flourishing, Hayek’s objections to constructivist rationalism, Hayek’s reverence for tradition and social evolution, Hayek’s attitude to free will, and the role of human agency in Hayek’s account of spontaneous order.

Importance of self-direction

 In helping make the case that “self-direction is the central necessary constituent or ingredient of human flourishing” Douglas Den Uyl and Douglas Rasmussen quote Aristotle and Henry Veatch, a leading neo-Aristotelian of the 20th century. Veatch writes:

“Is it not evident that not only does a human being not attain his natural end by an automatic process of development and maturity after the manner of a plant or animal? In addition, no human being ever attains his natural end or perfection save by his own personal effort and exertion. No one other than the human individual – no agency of society, of family, of friends, or of whatever can make or determine or program an individual to be a good man, or program him to live the life that a human being ought to live. Instead, attaining one’s natural end as a human person is nothing if not a ‘do-it-yourself’ job.” (The Perfectionist Turn, 51-2)

The errors of constructivist rationalists

Chris Sciabarra makes an important point about Hayek’s anti-rationalistic beliefs:

“His enemy is not reason but the constructivists who have “historically again and again given birth to a revolt against reason”. (Total Freedom, 131)

Hayek observes that constructivist rationalists - enthusiasts for a deliberately planned society - tend to base their case on the synoptic delusion, “the fiction that all the relevant facts are known to some one mind, and that it is possible to construct from this knowledge of the particulars a desirable social order”. (LLL, v1, 14) Hayek argues that by over-estimating the powers of reason, constructivist rationalism has given birth to a revolt against the wisdom embodied in abstract rules, including rules of just conduct, which tell us what not to do. (LLL, V1, 31-34) The abstract rules protect individuals from arbitrary violence by others and enable them to try to build for themselves a protected domain with which nobody else is allowed to interfere and within which they can use their own knowledge for their own purposes. (LLL, V3, 163)

Hayek’s reverence for tradition and social evolution

In my view, Hayek sometimes went too far in downplaying the ability of humans to understand the significance of abstract rules. For example, in one instance he claimed that “submission to undesigned rules and conventions whose significance we largely do not understand, this reverence for the traditional, that the rationalistic mind finds so uncongenial, … is indispensable for the working of a free society”. (COL, 63) It seems to me that most people are capable of understanding the purposes served by rules of just conduct. It makes more sense to explain those purposes than to suggest that reverence for the traditional should be sufficient reason for compliance.

The emphasis which Hayek placed on group selection in the evolutionary process also downplays the potential role of reason. Hayek argues that rules of just conduct evolved because the groups which practiced them were more successful and displaced others. (LLL, V1, 18) James Buchanan pointed out that there is no reason to believe that group survival will always lead to a more beneficial state of affairs. Chris Sciabarra makes the same point, also noting that Hayek does not provide an objective standard by which to judge as desirable or undesirable the consequences of spontaneous orders. (Total Freedom, 131)

Buchanan suggests that Hayek’s skepticism about the ability of humans to rationally design social institutions, including constitutions, precludes any attempt at reform. In their excellent discussion of this point, Peter Boettke and Scott King suggest that the issue has been confused by conflating the question of the origin of institutions with questions relating to the development and improvement of institutions. They note that Hayek is open to attempts to improve spontaneous orders through small revisions in the overall rules. (I refer to the chapter entitled ‘Hayek and the Hayekians on the Political Order of a Free People’, in Hayek’s Tensions: Reexamining the Political Economy and Philosophy of F. A. Hayek, edited by Stefanie Haeffele, Solomon M. Stein, and Virgil Henry Storr.)

Hayek’s attitude to free will

Discussions of Hayek’s attitude to free will often begins with his venture into theoretical psychology in The Sensory Order, published in 1952. When I read the ‘Philosophical Consequences’ chapter of that book, about 30 years ago, I gained the impression that Hayek was an advocate of free will. Hayek certainly rejects the idea that it is possible to explain why people hold particular views, at particular moments, from knowledge of their material circumstances. Immediately afterwards, in discussing free will more explicitly, Hayek asserts:

“To us human decisions must always appear as the result of the whole human personality – that means the whole of the persons mind – which, as we have seen, we cannot reduce to something else.” (See page 250 of “The Essence of Hayek”, 1984 by W. Glenn Campbell (Foreword), Kurt R. Leube (Editor), Chiaki Nishiyama (Editor).

Hayek based his argument against microphysical reductionism on the belief that the human brain can never fully explain its own operations. Paul Lewis has suggested that if Hayek had relied more fully on the ideas of organismic biologists he would have been able to develop an emergentist argument against microphysical reductionism, thus providing a stronger basis for use of concepts such as goals and purposes. (See Lewis’s chapter entitled ‘Tensions and Ambiguities in Hayek’s Social Theory’ in Hayek’s Tensions, cited above. Those who are interested in reading a philosophical emergentist argument for free will can find one in the The Metaphysics of Emergenceby Richard Campbell. I reviewed the book here.)

In The Constitution of Liberty, Hayek offers a potted summary of the free will debate. He notes that the concept of universal determinism that dominated 19th century science seemed to eliminate the possibility of free will. He also notes that physicists have now abandoned universal determinism but doubts that this affects “the puzzle about the freedom of the will”. He then states:

“It appears that the assertion that the will is free has as little meaning as its denial and that the whole issue is a phantom problem, a dispute about words in which the contestants have not made clear what an affirmative or negative answer would imply.”

However, Hayek’s subsequent discussion of the conclusions generally drawn by determinists and voluntarists about their respective positions leaves little doubt about where he stands:

“The determinists usually argue that, because men’s actions are completely determined by natural causes, there can be no justification for holding them responsible or praising or blaming their actions. The voluntarists, on the other hand, contend that, because there exists in man some agent standing outside the chain of cause or effect, this agent is the bearer of responsibility and the legitimate object of praise and blame. Now there can be little doubt that, so far as these practical conclusions are concerned, the voluntarists are more nearly right, while the determinists are merely confused.” (COL, 72-73)

In discussing the difference between “inner freedom” and the absence of coercion, Hayek had already made clear his belief that it is possible for a person to be guided by “considered will”, “reason or lasting conviction, rather than by momentary impulse or circumstance”. He adds:

“If a person does not succeed in doing what, after sober reflection, he decides to do, if his intentions or strength desert him at the decisive moment and he fails to do what he somehow wishes to do, we may say that he is ‘unfree,’ the slave of his passions.” (COL, 15)

Later, Hayek asserts:

“The recognition that each person has his own scale of values which we ought to respect, even if we do not approve of it, is part of the conception of the value of the individual personality. (COL, 79)

The role of individual human agency

In The Road to Serfdom, Hayek wrote:

“Freedom to order our own conduct in the sphere where material circumstances force a choice upon us, and responsibility for the arrangement of our own life according to our own conscience, is the air in which alone moral sense grows and in which moral values are daily re-created in the free decision of the individual. Responsibility, not to a superior, but to one’s conscience, the awareness of a duty not exacted by compulsion, the necessity to decide which of the things one values are to be sacrificed to others, and to bear the consequences of one’s own decision, are the very essence of any morals which deserve the name.” (231-2)

That statement seems to me to be broadly consistent with the do-it-yourself job of being a good person, as described by Henry Veatch. However, some of the things that Hayek wrote later give a different impression. In The Constitution of Liberty, he advocated submission to rules and conventions, quoting David Hume’s assertion that “the rules of morality are not the conclusions of our reason”. (63) In Law, Legislation and Liberty, Hayek writes:

“Man is as much a rule-following animal as a purpose-seeking one.”

Mario Rizzo has suggests (in a paper entitled, F.A. Hayek and the Rationality of Individual Choice’) that Hayek’s mature views about rationality should be understood in terms of a general framework acknowledging that humans are both purposeful agents and rule-followers. In emphasizing the importance of rule-following behaviour, Hayek didn’t abandon individual rationality. Even at the purely individual level, leaving aside the need to coordinate plans with others, rule-following makes sense because we live in a world of uncertainty and because our minds have limited capacities to know and compute.

Hayek seems to have rarely considered individual agency apart from the spontaneous order. The following paragraph provides a good summary of his perspective:

“What makes men members of the same civilization and enables them to live and work together in peace is that in the pursuit of their individual ends the particular monetary impulses which impel their efforts towards concrete results are guided and restrained by the same abstract rules. If emotion and impulse tells them what they want, the conventional rules tell them how they will be able and be allowed to achieve it.”

Personal perspective

Did Friedrich Hayek undermine the appeal of his vision by presenting a view of the limitations of human reason that leaves little room for individual self-direction? In his efforts to counter constructivist rationalism, I think Hayek inadvertently understated the role of human reason in individual flourishing. However, if individuals have greater potential for self-directed flourishing than Hayek thought possible, that makes spontaneous order a more attractive option.

In assessing Hayek’s views on the role of self-direction in individual flourishing it is important to recognize that advising individuals how best they could flourish was incidental to his main purpose. One way to illustrate that is by reference to my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing. I draw fairly extensively upon Hayek’s wisdom in the first part of that book in discussing topics such as the definition of liberty, rules of just conduct, transmission of ancient law to the modern world, and evolution of social norms.

I only mention Hayek’s contribution once in the chapter discussing the challenge of self-direction. His views are referred to in that context not to emphasize the difficulty of self-direction but to counter the view that we (humans) are prone systematically to make serious mistakes in the individualized pursuit of happiness. I draw attention to the fact that Hayek urged respect for social norms that embody the experience of generations in advocating a legal and social order consistent with pursuit of happiness by individuals. (150-1)

In retrospect, I could also possibly have drawn on Hayek to point out implications of the fact that reasoning is cognitively demanding. In pursuing our personal goals it often makes more to sense for us to choose rules (norms) to follow, based on our own previous experience and the experience of others, than to attempt to reason our way through life by treating every issue that arises as though nothing similar has ever previously been encountered in human history.  


Saturday, December 9, 2023

Did Ayn Rand recognize the capacity to exercise practical wisdom as a basic good?




 This question is of interest to me for two reasons. First, I am a fan of Ayn Rand’s novels. Second, in the first chapter of my book, Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I seek to identify the basic goods that a flourishing human could be expected to have.

My view of basic goods

The chapter identified the basic goods as: wise and well-informed self-direction, health and longevity, positive relationships, living in harmony with nature, and psychological well-being. I suggested that the exercise of wise and well-informed self-direction helps individuals to obtain other basic goods.

The chapter also noted that Aristotle saw the exercise of reason as the function that distinguishes humans from other animals and held that a good man’s purpose is to reason well (and beautifully).

I argued that individuals develop and realize their potential for wise and well-informed self-direction largely by learning from experience. I therefore accepted implicitly that it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices that on mature reflection they might later regret.

Rand’s view

Until recently, I was fairly sure that my view of what is good for humans was broadly similar to that of Ayn Rand. Some of the things she wrote suggest that impression was correct. For example, John Galt’s speech (quoted above) suggests that it is good for humans to have the capacity to exercise practical wisdom. A similar sentiment is expressed in the following passage in the chapter, ‘What is Capitalism?’ in Capitalism: The unknown ideal:

“Man’s essential characteristic is his rational faculty. Man’s mind is his basic means of survival – his only means of gaining knowledge.”

However, later in that essay, in endorsing “the objective theory” of the nature of the good, Rand rejects the idea that good can be an attribute of things in themselves:

“The objective theory holds that the good is neither an attribute of ‘things in themselves’ nor of man’s emotional states, but an evaluation of the facts of reality by man’s consciousness according to a rational standard of value.”

It seems to me that Rand is suggesting that it would not be legitimate to say that the capacity to exercise practical wisdom – which is a thing in itself - is a good attribute for an individual to have, irrespective of how it is used. Rand seems to be implying that having the capability is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of value.

Grades of actuality

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl (the Dougs) seem to me to provide a less ambiguous approach to considering the nature of the good in a recent article in which they compare their Individualistic Perfectionism (IP) to Rand’s Objectivist Ethics (OE). (‘Three Forms of Neo-Aristotelian Ethical Naturalism: A Comparison’, Reason Papers 43, 2, 14-43, 2023.)

The Dougs acknowledge that a person does not have a concept of moral good apart from the self-directed use of their conceptual capacity. The human good is individualized. It is good for a human being to engage in the act of discovering human good.

However, the Dougs suggest that the process of discovering the human good can be thought of in terms of grades of actuality:

“IP holds with Aristotle that there is a distinction between grades of actuality when it comes to living things. The first grade of actuality is the possession of a set of capacities that are also potentialities for a living thing’s second grade of actuality—that is, their actual use or deployment by a living thing. Included among the set of potentialities of a human being that comprise its first grade of actuality is the potential to exercise one’s conceptual capacity. This first grade of actuality is a cognitive-independent reality. However, when one’s conceptual capacity is exercised and used in a manner that actualizes the other potentialities that require it, then a second grade of actuality is attained. For example, one has the capacity to know one’s good and attain it (first grade of actuality), but one needs to engage in knowing and attaining it in order to be fully actualized (second grade of actuality).”

One’s inner nature

In 2008 I wrote a blog post on the topic, ‘Is our inner nature good?’. The post consisted of a discussion of the views of Abraham Maslow, Aristotle, J S Mill, David Hume, and Jonathan Haidt and Fredrik Bjorklund. My outline of the views of Abraham Maslow is reproduced below because it seems relevant to the current discussion.

Abraham Maslow suggested that humans have an inner nature or core which is good. According to Maslow this inner core is “potentiality, but not final actualization”. He argued that in principle our inner core can easily self-actualize, but this rarely happens in practice due to the many human diminution forces including fear of self-actualization and the limiting belief in society that human nature is evil (“Toward a Psychology of Being”, 1968, chapter 14).

On reflection, I am not sure that the concept of an inner nature makes much sense. However, the idea that all humans have good potentiality is appealing.

Conclusions

In my view it is good for adults to have a capacity to self-direct even if they make choices, that on mature reflection, they might later regret.

I am unsure whether Ayn Rand would have agreed. At one point she seems to imply that a capacity to exercise practical wisdom is only good when it is used to make evaluations according to a rational standard of values.

Douglas Rasmussen and Douglas Den Uyl offer a less ambiguous approach by recognizing different grades of actuality. They suggest that the first grade of actuality is cognitive-independent. On that basis, there is no reason to doubt that the potential to exercise practical wisdom is good.

I like the idea that all humans have good potentiality.

Postscript

My understanding of the quoted passage by Doug Rasmussen and Doug Den Uyl is as follows:

Though we must use our minds and act in the appropriate manner to self-actualize, that is, to attain our second grade of actuality, it does not follow from this that what is being actualized is merely a potentiality.  Rather, it is a cognitive-independent actuality that also has potentialities.  The distinction between actuality and potentiality in the case of living things does not require a dichotomy. It is not 'either-or'. Aristotle is subtle.

Moreover, though attaining one's second grade of actuality requires both cognition and practical actions to exist, this does not make human good simply an evaluation (which Rand claims). To hold that an objective view of human good is an evaluation is a further non sequitur.  Consider this analogy:  Phar Lap was a thoroughbred racehorse, as such he would not have existed without much human thought and effort, and in terms of the function of racehorses he was very good.  But the reality of his goodness did not consist in our evaluation of him as good but in how well he fulfilled his function. The same is so for human beings, mutatis mutandis.  Humans attaining their second-grade of actuality does require cognitive effort and choice, but this does make the goodness thereby expressed merely an evaluation.

Further Reading

I was prompted to write this contribution by my reading of two recent essays on The Savvy Street:

Ed Younkins, Objectivism and Individual Perfectionism: A Comparison; and

Roger Bissell, Ayn Rand’s Philosophy Decoded: Replies to Recent Criticisms of the Objectivist Ethics.

Roger Bissell has also responded to this essay.

I encourage anyone wishing to obtain a better understanding of the issues to read those articles as well as the article by the Dougs referred to above.


Monday, November 20, 2023

Do clinical delusions have anything in common with a mythology mindset?

 


In my discussion of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality, I referred to his observation that people tend to have a reality mindset in the world of immediate experience and a mythology mindset when discussing issues in the public sphere. Although that is an accurate observation about a general tendency, delusions are also fairly common in the world of immediate experience.

The delusions that most of us experience are fairly harmless. For example, it may not do you much harm to believe that you are happier than average, even if you aren’t. That common delusion may help to explain why so many people walk around with smiles on their faces.

For some unfortunate people, however, the world of immediate experience includes delusional beliefs that are symptomatic of mental ill-health. These are referred to as clinical delusions.


The question I ask above has been prompted by my reading of Lisa Bortolotti’s recent book, Why Delusions Matter. Lisa Bortolotti is a philosopher who specializes in the philosophy of the cognitive sciences, including issues relating to mental illness. She observes that there is a strong overlap between clinical and non-clinical delusional beliefs. The non-clinical delusional beliefs that she discusses include beliefs that Pinker would associate with a mythology mindset.

A conversation context

Bortolotti notes that in any discussion between two people, you have a speaker and an interpreter swapping roles as the conversation proceeds. The speaker says something and the interpreter listens, making inferences about the speaker’s beliefs, desires, feelings, hopes and intentions on the basis of the speaker’s words, facial expression, tone of voice, previous behaviour and so on.

Interpretation becomes challenging when the interpreter suspects that the speaker may be delusional. The interpreter rarely has the information needed to assess that the speaker’s beliefs are false, so falsity cannot be a necessary condition for attribution of delusionality.

Three elements are often involved when the interpreter judges the speaker to be delusional:

  • Implausibility: The interpreter finds the speaker’s beliefs to be implausible.
  • Unshakeability: Speakers do not give up their beliefs in the face of counterarguments and counterevidence.
  • Identity: The beliefs seem important to the image that speakers have of themselves.

Clinical delusions

Bortolotti offers what she describes as an “agency-in-context” model to explain clinical delusions. She explains:

“The adoption and maintenance of delusional beliefs are due to many factors combining aspects of who you are and what your story is (your genes, reasoning biases, personality, lack of scientific literacy, etc.) and aspects of how epistemic practices operate in the society where you live.”

The epistemic practices she refers to include what we learn at school about knowledge acquisition, and the stigma that makes it difficult for people with delusional beliefs to participate fully in public life.

There is no doubt that persecutory delusions are harmful to the speaker and others. They undermine the ability of speakers to respond appropriately to events, and often erode their relationships with others.

However, Lisa Bortolotti suggests that it is important for interpreters to understand that most delusions offer some benefits for speakers. Delusions “let speakers see the world as they want the world to be; make speakers feel important and interesting; or give meaning to speakers’ lives, configuring exciting missions for them to accomplish”.

Interpreters also need to understand that the underlying problems of speakers don’t disappear when they obtain insight about their delusions. They may become depressed when they approach reality without the filter of their delusional beliefs.

There is not much to be gained by attempting to reason with people whose beliefs are unshakeable. Bortolotti suggests that it is probably more productive for the interpreter and speaker to share stories rather than exchanging reasons for beliefs. Exchanging stories can show how delusional beliefs emerged as reactions to situations that were difficult to manage. While sharing stories, interpreters have opportunities “to practice curiosity and empathy in finding out more” about underlying problems.

Conspiracy delusions

From an interpreter’s viewpoint, a speaker’s beliefs about the existence of conspiracies often have similar characteristics to clinical delusions. They are implausible, unshakeable, and closely tied to the speaker’s self-image.

Bortolotti emphasizes that those who hold conspiracy delusions often claim to have special knowledge of events – they claim to be experts, or to know who the real experts are. Identifying as a member of a group is often also important. Non-members often refer to members of such groups in a derogatory way e.g. QAnon supporters and anti-vaxxers. However, people are often attracted to conspiracy delusions promoted by like-minded people whom they trust. The act of sharing a delusional story can be a signal of commitment to a particular group.

Comments

Lisa Bortolotti’s book has improved my understanding of delusions in a couple of different ways. First, it has given me a better appreciation that delusions offer some benefits to the people who hold them, and those benefits help to explain the unshakeability of delusional beliefs.

Second, viewing delusions within the context of a conversation between a speaker and an interpreter is helpful in drawing attention to the value judgements involved in assessing whether the speaker’s beliefs are delusional.

My main criticism of the book is that the author seems to me to be biased in favour of “the official version” of events, even though she acknowledges that contrary beliefs are sometimes vindicated. The most obvious example bias is her apparent reluctance to give credence to the possibility that Covid19 may have originated in a lab in Wuhan.

I am pleased that my reading of the book did not leave me with the impression that the author believes that it is delusional to have an unshakeable belief in the importance of the search for truth. In emphasizing that value judgements are involved in assessing whether beliefs are delusional, Lisa Bortolotti seems to me to be providing readers with a better understanding of the meaning attached to the concept of delusion in clinical and non-clinical settings, rather than casting doubt on the existence of reality.


Saturday, September 30, 2023

What's wrong with people?

 


This question is posed in the title of Chapter 10 of Steven Pinker’s book, Rationality: What it is, Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters.


I enjoyed reading the previous 9 chapters but didn’t learn much from them. Those chapters were a painless way to refresh my memory about definitions of rationality, rules of logic, probability, Bayesian reasoning, rational choice, statistical decision theory, game theory, correlation, and regression analysis.

I particularly liked the approach Pinker took in discussing the research of Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky which documents many ways in which people are prone to fall short of normative benchmarks of rationality. Pinker makes the point:

When people’s judgments deviate from a normative model, as they so often do, we have a puzzle to solve. Sometimes the disparity reveals a genuine irrationality: the human brain cannot cope with the complexity of a problem, or it is saddled with a bug that cussedly drives it to the wrong answer time and again.

But in many cases there is a method to people’s madness.”

A prime example is loss aversion: “Our existence depends on a precarious bubble of improbabilities with pain and death just a misstep away”. In Freedom Progress and Human Flourishing, I argued similarly that loss aversion helped our ancestors to survive.

Pinker doesn’t seek to blame the propensity of humans to make logical and statistical fallacies for the prevalence of irrationality in the public sphere. He is not inclined to blame social media either, although he recognises its potential to accelerate the spread of florid fantasies.

The mythology mindset

Pinker argues that reasoning is largely tailored to winning arguments. People don’t like getting on to a train of reasoning if they don’t like where it takes them. That is less of a problem for small groups of people (families, research teams, businesses) who have a common interest in finding the truth than it is in the public sphere.

People tend to have a reality mindset when they are dealing with issues that affect their well-being directly – the world of their immediate experience – but are more inclined to adopt a mythology mindset when they are dealing with issues in the public sphere.

When economists discuss such matters, they may refer to the observation of Joseph Schumpeter that the typical citizen drops to a lower level of mental performance when discussion turns to politics. They reference the concept of rational ignorance attributed to Anthony Downs and Gordon Tulloch. They may also refer to Brian Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. (For example, see Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, pp 114-115).

Pinker doesn’t refer to those economists’ perspectives but offers interesting insights about factors that might lead people to adopt mythology mindsets. In summary, as a consequence of myside bias, attitudes to the findings of scientific studies often have less to do with scientific literacy than with political affiliation. The opposing “sides” are sometimes akin to “religious sects, which are held together by faith in their moral superiority and contempt for opposing sects”. Within those sects the function of beliefs is to bind the group together and give it moral purpose.

What can we do?

Pinker’s suggestions for combatting irrationality in the public sphere are summed up by his subheading “Re-affirming Rationality”. He advocates openness to evidence, noting the findings of a survey suggesting that most internet users claim to be open to evidence. He suggests that we valorize the norm of rationality by “smiling or frowning on rational and irrational habits”.

Pinker identifies institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge as playing a major role in influencing the beliefs that people hold. Since “no-one can know everything”, we all rely on academia, public and private research units, and the news media for a great deal of the knowledge which forms the basis of our beliefs. Unfortunately, these institutions are often not trustworthy.

In the case of the universities, Pinker suggests that the problem stems from “a suffocating left-wing monoculture, with its punishment of students and professors who question dogmas on gender, race, culture, genetics, colonialism, and sexual identity and orientation”. News and opinion sites have been “played by disingenuous politicians and contribute to post-truth miasmas”.

It is easy to agree with Pinker that it would be wonderful if universities and the news media could become paragons of viewpoint diversity and critical thinking. However, movement toward that goal will require large numbers of individuals to enlist for a ‘long march’ to re-establish norms of rationality in institutions that specialize in creating and sharing knowledge.                                                                    


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

What implications does a livewired brain have for personal development?


 


I was pondering this question while reading David Eagleman’s book, Livewired: the inside story of the ever-changing brain. Eagleman is a neuroscientist, writing about neuroplasticity for a popular audience. My interest in brain plasticity was aroused over a decade ago when I read Norman Doidge’s book, The Brain that Changes Itself, and speculated about some implications of his assertion that “to keep the mind alive requires learning something truly new with intense focus”.

Eagleman prefers “livewired” to “plastic” because the latter term may bring to mind plastic molds rather than flexibility. He suggests that we need the concept of liveware “to grasp this dynamic, adaptable, information-seeking system”.

By the way, Eagleman’s book has left me thinking that in 50 years’ time, people who are shown the above cartoon will still be able to see the humor in it.

The livewired brain

In my view, the most important point that Eagleman makes is that the human brain arrives in the world unfinished: “despite some genetic pre-specification, nature’s approach to growing a brain relies on receiving a vast set of experiences, such as social interaction, conversation, play, exposure to the world, and the rest of the landscape of normal human affairs”.

Experiences during early childhood are to a large extent determinative. If infants don’t have appropriate social and sensory interaction, their brains become malformed and pathological.

As brains mature, neural maps become increasingly solidified. As brains get good at certain jobs, they become less able to attempt others. Adult brains keep most of their connections in place to hold on to what has been learned, with only small areas remaining flexible. Nevertheless, even in the elderly an active mental life fosters new connections.

Eagleman distills the main features of livewiring into seven principles:

  1. Brains match themselves to their input, e.g. when a person is born blind the occipital cortex is completely taken over by other senses.
  2. Brains wrap around the inputs to leverage whatever information streams in. It is possible for one sensory channel to carry another channel’s information, e.g. with appropriate equipment, the brain is able to learn to use information coming from the skin as if it is coming from the eyes.
  3. Brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback, e.g. that is how we learn to communicate with other people, how we can learn to control machinery, and how a damaged spinal cord can be bypassed using signals passed directly from a brain to a muscle stimulator.
  4. Brains retain what matters to them; flexibility is turned on and off in small spots based on relevance; what is learned in one area is passed to an area in the cortex for more permanent storage; the cortical changes involve the addition of new cellular material; brains have a different system for extracting generalities in the environment (slow learning) and for episodic memory (fast learning). “Everything new is understood through the filter of the old.”
  5. Brain lock down stable information. Some parts of the brain are more flexible than others, depending on the input. Brains adjust themselves depending on how you spend your time. When learners direct their own learning, relevance and reward are both present and allow brains to reconfigure.
  6. Plasticity arises because different parts of the system are engaged in a competitive struggle for survival. Competition in the brain forest is analogous to the competition between trees and bushes in a rain forest. The principles of competition poise the brain “on the hair-trigger edge of change”.
  7. Brains build internal models of the world; by paying attention, our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models.

Eagleman argues that the computer hardware/ software analogy tends to lead people astray in thinking about brain function. He suggests that as neurologists illuminate the principles of brain function, those principles will be gainfully employed to create self-configuring devices that use their interaction with the world to complete the patterns of their own wiring.

The book ends with this thought:

“We generally go through life thinking there’s me and there’s the world. But as we’ve seen in this book, who you are emerges from everything you’ve interacted with: your environment, all of your experiences, your friends, your enemies, your culture, your belief system, your era—all of it.”

That could be interpreted by social engineers as an invitation to seek to modify our brains by shaping our environments. I prefer to see it as an invitation to individuals to think about their belief systems and the choices they make that influence their personal environments because their beliefs and choices can have a profound impact on their own personal development. I will explain later the links between personal environment, social capital and individual flourishing.

The idea that individuals can make choices about their personal environments implies the existence of free will. Eagleman is somewhat skeptical about the existence of free will but he speculates that it may be a property of the whole brain as a complex network or system.  He acknowledges that organisms display the property of free will in their interactions with their environments. Self-direction seems to be implicitly acknowledged in the discussion of some topics in Livewired.  For example, there seems to be implicit acknowledgment that individuals may choose what they practice in the discussion of the ten-thousand-hour rule concerning the need for practice to acquire expertise. Self-direction also seems to be implicit in choices many elderly people are making to keep their brains active.

More fundamentally, if brains learn by putting out actions and evaluating feedback it seems reasonable to expect such behavior to encompass actions that are consciously self-directed as well as those occurring without conscious awareness. The idea that by paying attention our brains notice whenever predictions are incorrect and are able to adjust their internal models seems to me to suggest a role for conscious self-direction. If humans are capable of building robots which can adjust their internal models in the light of experience, it seems reasonable to expect individual humans to be capable of using some of the principles of brain function to create better versions of themselves.

The knowledge that human brains are livewired suggests to me that it is not unduly optimistic to believe that individuals begin life with huge potential for self-directed personal development and that this potential in never entirely extinguished as they grow older.

Directing attention to achieve cognitive integrity

Self-direction implies an ability to direct one’s attention sufficiently to consider the consequences of alternative courses of action. An ability to direct one’s attention is a meta-cognitive capacity – it entails a degree of control over one’s own thought processes.  

You might be thinking that exercising control over thought processes is difficult enough for psychologically healthy people, so it must be impossible for people suffering from addictions, obsessions and delusions. However, in a Psychology Today article, Gena Gorlin, a psychologist, has pointed to evidence that people who appear to have a diminished capacity for rational deliberation in some aspects of their lives, can actually be helped by therapies which help them to exercise agency and acquire relevant knowledge.


In a scholarly contribution, published in 2019, Gena Gorlin and a co-author introduced the concept of cognitive integrity to describe “the metacognitive choice to engage in active, reality-oriented cognition”. (Eugenia I. Gorlin and Reinier Schuur, ‘Nurturing our Better Nature: a proposal for Cognitive Integrity as a Foundation for Autonomous Living’, Behavior Genetics, 2019, 49: 154-167. Independent scholars may be able to obtain access by following links on Gena Gorlin’s web site.)

Cognitive integrity is both a state of mental activity and a trait-like disposition. It stands in contrast to passive cognitive processing – being driven by unconsciously activated intention – and active pretense, or self-deception. The pretense of cognition occurs when we procrastinate and make lame excuses to ourselves to avoid doing things that we have chosen to do. Among other things, self-deception can also involve negatively distorted self-assessments, inaccurate causal attribution for life events, and false memories. Those cognitive biases are common among individuals with depression and anxiety.

Gena Gorlin posits that people who engage in repeated exercise of cognitive integrity earn self-trust. By contrast, those who engage in frequent self-deception are likely to harbor an increasing sense of insecurity about their own abilities.

It seems to me that there is a strong overlap between people who practice cognitive integrity and people who are self-authoring and self-transforming, according to definitions adopted by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow. A self-authoring mind is self-directed and can generate an internal belief system or ideology. A self-transforming mind can step back from and reflect on the limits of personal ideology. You can read more about that and how I see it as linked to personal integrity in Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing (pp 171-173). There is also relevant discussion on this blog.

Personal development as a multi-stage process

The information we have about the livewired nature of brains is suggestive of substantial potential for individual personal development throughout life. The process of personal development can be seen as a multi-stage process involving interaction between a person’s family and social environment and the degree of cognitive integrity they achieve.

In Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing, I make use of an analytical framework proposed by the economist, Gary Becker, to propose that the extent to which an individual flourishes at any time during her or his life, is a function of personal capital and social capital.

Personal capital includes all personal resources, natural abilities, skills acquired through education and on-the-job training, and preferences, values and habits acquired from past experiences. For example, habit formation causes previous consumption patterns to have a large impact on current preferences. Those habits can either enhance or inhibit an individual’s flourishing.

Social capital incorporates the influence of other people—family, friends, peer groups, communities. People want respect, acceptance, recognition, prestige, and so on from others and often alter their behavior to obtain it. Social capital can have a positive or negative impact on an individual’s flourishing. For example, peer pressure on a teenager could lead to sexual promiscuity, or to healthy exercise.

This framework recognizes that present choices and experiences affect personal capital in the future, which in turn affects future flourishing. It is difficult to modify the social capital of the networks to which individuals currently belong, but they may have opportunities to leave networks that damage their prospects of flourishing, and to join other networks.

I wrote:

“The journey of life is a multi-stage process. At each stage, the extent that we can flourish depends on effective use of personal capital we have developed in earlier stages, and alertness to opportunities for further investment in personal capital. Investment in personal capital can help us to forge mutually beneficial relationships with others and, if necessary, to enter more favorable social networks. As we flourish, our priorities may change, bringing about changes in preferences and behaviors. At each stage of adult life, flourishing requires values consistent with wise and well-informed self-direction.”


Wednesday, February 9, 2022

Is "scout mindset" a worthy objective of personal development?

 


If someone had mentioned “scout mindset” to me a week ago, I would probably have thought they were referring to mottos of the scouting movement such as “Be prepared!” and “Do a good turn every day!”. Since then, I have had the opportunity to read Julia Galef’s book, Scout Mindset, Why some people see things clearly and others don’t, which was published last year.


I think this is a remarkably good book - even though it has left me feeling somewhat more modest about the accuracy of some of my perceptions.

Scout mindset versus soldier mindset

Julia Galef defines scout mindset as ‘wanting your “map” – your perception of yourself and the world – to be as accurate as possible’. The scout aims to form a map of the strategic landscape. The scout mindset is characterized by accuracy motivated reasoning and guided by the question: Is it true?

By contrast, “soldier mindset” is aimed at fighting off threatening evidence. It is directionally motivated reasoning, evaluating ideas through the lenses of “Can I believe it?” and “Must I believe it?”

Galef suggests that soldier mindset is our default setting, and argues that in many, if not all situations we would be better off abandoning it and learning to adopt a scout mindset instead.

I am inclined to the view that intuitive thinking is our default setting, and that there are often good reasons to be reluctant to abandon intuitions and expectations that are based on patterns that have we have observed in the past. Nevertheless, it is probably fair to argue that most of us have a tendency to keep fighting conflicting evidence long after it should have persuaded us to change our minds. That is the soldier mindset. When we adopt a scout mindset, we begin to assimilate the evidence and re-assess our views sooner – perhaps by engaging in reasoning akin to Bayesian updating of probabilities.

Galef explains that there are several reasons why people tend to adopt a soldier mindset. It enables them to avoid unpleasant emotions by denial or by offering comforting narratives. It helps them to feel good about themselves by maintaining illusions. It helps them to motivate themselves by exaggerating their chances of success. It helps them to convince themselves so they can be more successful in convincing others. It enables them to choose beliefs that make them look good. It also helps them to belong to social groups of like-minded people.

The author suggests that scout mindset is more useful to us than for our ancestors. I have some reservations about that claim. Scout mindset would have been a useful attribute for our hunter and gatherer ancestors when they were searching for food. Nevertheless, she is persuasive in arguing that, by comparison with your ancestors, “your happiness isn’t nearly as dependent on your ability to accommodate yourself to whatever life, skills, and social groups you happened to be born into”.

In subsequent chapters, Galef proceeds to discuss how to develop self-awareness, thrive without illusions, change your mind, and develop a scout identity. In what follows, my focus is selective. Readers seeking a more comprehensive review should also read Jon Hersey’s article in Quillette, which persuaded me to read the book.

It seems to me that the strongest objection that people raise to having accurate perceptions of themselves is that self-delusion serves them well. The strongest objection to seeking accurate perceptions relating issues of public policy is that it is not worth attempting because the individual voter’s influence on policy outcomes is insignificant. I will look at those objections before discussing scout identity as an objective of personal development.

Does self-delusion serve us well?

A substantial amount of psychological research purports to show that people who deceive themselves are happier than realists. Galef points out that these research findings are based on measures of self-deception that lack any objective standards of reality as a basis for comparison. They use measures of self-deception that conflate positive beliefs with illusions. For example, the measurement methodology assumes that people who claim that they never get angry are deceiving themselves. Similarly, people who claim that they always know why they like things are assumed to be deceiving themselves.

It is not necessary for us to deceive ourselves about the probability of success before embarking on new ventures. Galef refers to Elon Musk as an example of an investor who has proceeded with ventures even though he has a clear-eyed view that they have a low probability of success. When asked why he has said:

“If something is important enough you should try. Even if the probable outcome is failure”.

A gamble can worth taking if the expected payoff (value of each outcome x probability of occurrence) is positive.

There can also be an issue of perspective involved in assessing probability of success. I find it helpful to think in terms of adopting a player mindset rather than a spectator mindset. On the basis of past performance, spectators might be justified in assessing that the player has low probability of success in a particular event. However, a coach who knows a great deal about the player’s capability might have good reasons to suggest to her that the spectators are under-rating her chances. Encouraging the player to adopt a mindset that makes use of her inside knowledge might induce her to take a more positive attitude toward training etc. My point is that adopting a player mindset is an exercise in realistic self-appraisal, rather than self-deception.

Julia Galef is not alone in being critical of empirical research which purports to show that holding positive illusions about oneself tends to promote happiness. As previously noted on this blog Neera Badhwar has also taken that position, and has argued strongly that realistic optimism about oneself and one’s future beats unrealistic optimism. Badhwar also notes that Abraham Maslow and Carl Rogers, leaders of the human potential movement, viewed realism as central to mental health and well-being. She notes that in Rogers' view the fully functioning individual is open to experience, distorting neither his perceptions of the world to fit his conception of himself, nor his conception of himself to fit his perceptions of the world. I find this particularly interesting in the light of Rogers’ use of Alfred Korzybski’s notion that “the map is not the territory”. Carl Rogers recognized that our maps do not serve us well if they are not realistic.

Why seek accurate maps of public policy issues?

Readers who are familiar with Chapter 6 of Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing will be aware of my concern that individual voters lack incentive to become well-informed about policy issues. Most voters are either apathetic about politics, or view it in the same way as they view sporting contests. They cheer for their team and jeer at their opponents.

Galef discusses Bryan Caplan’s concept of rational irrationality. In explaining what he means by rational irrationality Caplan suggests:

“In real world political settings, the price of ideological loyalty is close to zero. So we should expect people to ‘satiate’ their demand for political delusion, to believe whatever makes them feel best” (The Myth of the Rational Voter, p 18).

Galef rejects the view that voters are rationally irrational on the grounds that it implies that they are “already striking an optimal balance between scout and soldier”. She seems concerned that if she were to accept that rational irrationality is widespread, she would have to appeal to the desire of the readers of her book to be good citizens, and/ or to love truth, in urging them to adopt a scout mindset.

However, it seems to me that readers of this book who have any interest in politics are more likely to be Vulcans than Hooligans – to use the terminology of Jason Brennan (in Against Democracy, 2016). Vulcans try to avoid bias, while the Hooligans are the rabid sports fans of politics. The Hooligans are so wedded to soldier mentality that their beliefs are determined by the social groups that they identify with. The only hope of persuading these soldiers to modify political beliefs that are at variance with reality rests with the ability of scouts to persuade the generals (opinion leaders they respect) to modify their views.

Galef has little respect for those Vulcans whose reasoning resembles that of Spock in Star Trek, but has plenty of advice for people who really want to avoid bias in beliefs relating to policy issues. For example, she discusses the research of Phil Tetlock, which suggests that people who are willing to make subtle revisions of forecasts of global events in response to new information tend to make more accurate forecasts than academic experts.  

The author also has some interesting advice for people who want to reduce bias in their beliefs by exposing themselves to views outside of their echo chambers. Exposing partisans to the views of their political opponents tends to reinforce their existing views. She suggests:

“To give yourself the best chance of learning from disagreement, you should be listening to people who make it easier to be open to their arguments, not harder. People you like or respect, even if you don’t agree with them.”

Scout identity

Galef notes that identifying with a belief can wreck your ability to think clearly because you feel that you have to defend it, which motivates you to feel that you have to collect evidence in its favour. She suggests that activists are likely to be most successful if they hold their identity lightly enough to be capable of engaging with the views of opponents and making clear-eyed assessments of the best ways to achieve goals.

The author presents several arguments for seeking to adopt scout identity, but suggests that the most inspiring one is “the idea of being intellectually honorable: wanting the truth to win out, and putting that principle above your own ego”.

In reading The Scout Mindset, I was struck by parallels between the argument presented for adoption of scout mindset and the views of Robert Kegan on stages of mental development from a socialized mind, which enables people to be faithful followers and team players, to a self-authoring mind and self-transforming mind. Readers wishing to investigate further might find it helpful to read Immunity to Change, by Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey. (I discuss the book here.) 

Conclusions

In my view Julia Galef makes a strong case for people to seek to have realistic maps - perceptions of themselves and the world that are as accurate as possible.

The author successfully challenges research findings claiming that self-deception contributes to happiness of individuals, and she provides useful advice to those seeking to make their maps more accurate.

Galef offers particularly useful advice for people seeking better mapping of public policy issues. If you want to become less biased, listen carefully to the views of opponents you respect rather than seeking exposure to opponents you do not respect.

I agree with the author that the most important reason to seek to have realistic maps is because that is intellectually honorable. Scout mindset is a worthy objective of personal development.


Thursday, May 20, 2021

Who should read "Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing"?

 


I have dedicated the book to those who reflect on what it means to be a flourishing human.

When individuals think about their own personal development, they are reflecting on what it means to be a flourishing human.  I believe that reflection on what it means to be a flourishing human also holds the key to understanding the importance of liberty, and its role in economic development.

What is the book about?

The book explains how freedom (liberty) enables individuals to flourish in different ways without colliding, how it fosters progress and enables growth of opportunities, and how it supports personal development by enabling individuals to exercise self-direction.

The importance of self-direction is a theme of the book. The introductory chapter explains that wise and well-informed self-direction is integral to flourishing because it helps individuals to attain health and longevity, positive human relationships, psychological well-being, and an ability to live in harmony with nature.

Part I discusses natural rights and the evolution of freedom since ancient times. It explains how most people living in the liberal democracies today came to enjoy greater freedom than their ancestors.

Part II discusses progress. It explains how cultural change made economic progress possible by supporting the rule of law, liberty, and interpersonal trust, as well as the advance of knowledge, respect for innovators and tolerance of diversity. It notes that progress has led to increasingly widespread opportunities for people to meet their aspirations. It also discusses reasons for apprehension about the continuation of progress.

Part III considers how it is possible for individuals to meet the challenges of self-direction and to enhance their potential to flourish by investing in personal development. It explains that while the exercise of practical wisdom has always been integral to the flourishing of individuals, it has become commonplace for people to aspire to exercise meaningful self-direction over their lives to a greater extent than has ever been possible in the past.

The main message of the book is that people who live in Western liberal democracies should count their blessings. They have many blessings to count!

What are reviewers saying about the book?

Doug Rasmussen, a philosopher, and joint author with Douglas Den Uyl of a trilogy of books about liberty and human flourishing writes:

“Freedom, Progress, and Human Flourishing is a highly informed, but not an unduly technical, account of human flourishing and the need for a political/legal order that has the primary goal of protecting individual rights. This work is informed by not only philosophical but also by psychological and economic studies. This work provides an excellent entry point for deeper discussions of these fundamental claims.”

Readers who are seeking deeper discussions will find much to think about in the books by Rasmussen and Den Uyl: Norms of Liberty, The Perfectionist Turn, and The Realist Turn: Repositioning Liberalism.

Ron Duncan, a distinguished Australian economist with particular expertise in the economics and governance of developing countries, writes:

“With so much attention on identifying issues we should be unhappy about, Winton Bates' book is a welcome relief, given its emphasis on how much the lot of most people—particularly those in western liberal societies—has improved, why the improvements have taken place, and why they should continue. Its historical coverage of the philosophical issues underpinning the role of liberty in western progress should delight all serious thinkers.”

Ed Younkins, author of Flourishing and Happiness in A Free Society and Capitalism and Commerce writes:

“This masterful feat of integration of a wide range of literature from philosophy, economics, political science, and the social sciences will inspire scholars to bring their disciplines together to advance the argument for a free society.”

What are my qualifications to write such a book?

I am an economist. I first became professionally involved in broad issues concerning human flourishing in the early 1990s. Before then, my career focused on public policy relating to economic development, international trade, productivity growth and technological progress. Whilst retaining my professional interest in such matters, I have become increasingly interested in economic history, happiness economics, behavioral economics, self-help psychology, politics, and Aristotelian philosophy. I have written extensively about freedom and flourishing and have been blogging on this site for about 12 years.

How do I perform when interviewed about my book?

Potential interviewers who need to make such an assessment should take a look at me being interviewed by Leah Goldrick. The interview entitled “Freedom Helps us Flourish” has been published on Leah’s Common Sense Ethics channel on YouTube. The interview is also a useful source of background information about the book and its author.

Where can the book be purchased?

The book has been published by Hamilton Books and can be purchased at the Rowman and Littlefield web site: https://rowman.com/ISBN/9780761872665/Freedom-Progress-and-Human-Flourishing

It is also available from Amazon and some other booksellers.

Wednesday, May 5, 2021

Does evolutionary psychology shed light on the source of human intuitions?

 



I have difficulty thinking of Aristotle as a blank slate theorist. The view that evolved psychological adaptations play no role in determining human behavior seems impossible to reconcile with Aristotle’s teleological view that living entities contain in themselves the principle of their own development. It is worth remembering, however, that Aristotle saw personal development as linked to formation of good habits – he saw roles for both nature and nurture in human flourishing. In order to make sense of the passage quoted above I need to allow myself to imagine a blank writing tablet that has functional specialization allowing information relevant to the flourishing of our pre-historic ancestors to be most readily written upon it. (Incidentally, the quote is from On the Soul, Book III, Part 4.)

Evolutionary psychology has promoted the view that evolved psychological adaptations play a role in determining human behavior. To consider the light it sheds on the source of human intuitions I will begin with Steven Pinker’s list of the cognitive intuitions (also referred to as modules, systems, stances, faculties, mental organs, multiple intelligences, and reasoning engines), and then move on to Jonathan Haidt’s list of ethical intuitions. I will then consider whether attacks on evolutionary psychology should cause us to be wary of the evolutionary reasoning associated with such lists.

Pinker suggests that we are equipped with a range of different cognitive intuitions that evolved through psychological adaptations to keep our ancestors in touch with reality. These intuitions emerge early in life, and are present in every normal person. His list includes a basic intuitive grasp of physics, biology, engineering, psychology, and economic exchange. It includes a spatial sense, and senses of number and probability. It also includes language, and a mental data base and logic that are used to represent ideas and infer new ideas from old ones. These intuitions are suitable for the lifestyles of small groups of illiterate people living several thousands of years ago. They do not give people a spontaneous intuitive understanding of modern science, technology, or economics. (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, 2002, 219-21)

Haidt argues that moral intuitions evolved to meet various adaptive challenges faced by our ancestors. He suggests that moral intuitions relating to care and harm evolved to protect children; intuitions relating to fairness and cheating evolved to reap benefits of cooperation; intuitions relating to loyalty and betrayal evolved to protect groups from challenges; intuitions relating to authority and subversion evolved to obtain benefits from hierarchies; and intuitions about sanctity and degradation evolved to avoid contamination and disease. (Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind, 2012, 123-127)

The views of Pinker and Haidt seem to me to be plausible, but can this kind of reasoning withstand the criticism that evolutionary psychology consists of “just so” stories?  


In his book, Rethinking Evolutionary Psychology, Andrew Goldfinch, a philosopher, tells readers that critics view evolutionary psychology explanations “as shockingly naked in historic and scientific detail”. Massive modularity has been a particular focus of criticism. The strongest form of massive modularity claims that there are no systems or mechanisms that are not dedicated to particular problems.

I came to Goldfinch’s book with the idea that the concept of brain plasticity was opposed to modularity. I had thought that evidence that brains “rewire” themselves in response to experience as people transition from infancy to adulthood would tend to count against modularity. However, many cognitive psychologists stress that when they talk about modules what they have in mind is functional specialization which is consistent with overlap between processing areas of the brain. Plasticity enables brains to develop so that individuals normally have intuitions that are common among adult humans.

However, Goldfinch also makes it clear that the existence of innate knowledge does not require massive modularity. It is possible for domain-specific knowledge to be generated by domain-general processing. Both domain-specific and domain-general mechanisms are compatible with evolutionary theory. I think it follows that the issue of whether the lists of intuitions compiled by Pinker and Haidt are evolutionary adaptations does not depend on the validity of the theory of massive modularity.

The main point that Goldfinch makes is that leading evolutionary psychologists have brought their research program into disrepute by packaging it as a paradigm shift. The research program became identified with claims of a strong form of massive modularity as leading proponents argued that evolutionary adaptation implies the existence of strong massive modularity. Leading proponents used the concept of strong massive modularity to challenge conventional social science based on the foundation of domain-general knowledge and processes that are exclusively social. This prompted excessively critical responses that sought to discredit the entire research program as “just so” stories.

Goldfinch argues that strong massive modularity is not integral to evolutionary psychology. He suggests that evolutionary psychology should be viewed as an exploratory research program aimed at generating and testing hypotheses about psychological mechanisms. Viewed in that light, evolutionary psychology explores whether psychological traits that are observed across cultures could be adaptations, and has potential to guide researchers into identifying new behavioral patterns and mechanisms.

Goldfinch summarizes his view as follows:

“Initial evolutionary psychology hypotheses aim, or should aim, not for the last evolutionary word on a given phenomenon, but the first. They are in constant adjustment—both with the research programme’s own findings and findings from adjacent research programmes and disciplines. If this is done, this should generate sophisticated hypotheses, as well as generate progressive increments to our understanding of psychological and social phenomena.” (200)

I can see the wisdom in Goldfinch’s suggestion that evolutionary psychologists should not be aiming to have the last word. Should any scientist ever be aiming to have the last word? However, I think it is inevitable that a good number of the hypotheses advanced by evolutionary psychologists will challenge beliefs that human behavior is wholly attributable to simple mechanisms of learning and can be modified readily by changing social arrangements.  

Even if the views about human intuitions put forward by evolutionary psychologists only have the status of plausible speculations, they can still help us to comprehend aspects of the world we live in. For example, Pinker’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people tend to perceive the world they live in much the same way as their ancestors who knew nothing about the processes that modern physics describes. Haidt’s views provide a provisional understanding of why people hold ethical intuitions that cannot be readily explained in terms of current social circumstances. The paucity of historic detail supporting such speculations should not cause them to be dismissed unless more plausible explanations are offered. Those seeking truth should find plausible speculations more satisfying than implausible speculations and mysteries.