Monday, December 9, 2013

Blog News: What Have I Been Reading?

The official Bibliography Page is now up, over on the reference layer of the blog. Stop by and check it out!

Tuesday, November 26, 2013


Recursive blogging as an informational strategy. Where do we go from here?

In "Rationality Is Dead, Long Live Rationality," I argued on informational grounds that humans are not and cannot be intrinsically rational beings.

In "Oh, Humanity! Three Recalibrations of "Rational Self-Interest"," I declared a second, emotional basis for intrinsic irrationality, connected it to the informational grounds given above, and used the resulting combination to sketch a disturbingly accurate picture of the circular pattern of political discourse. In closing, I suggested that both flavors of irrationality arise unavoidably from a deeper logic, a Universal Logic of Human Nature if you will, that in turn is driven by the interaction of just four basic factors.

I have stated that illuminating that deeper logic is the purpose of this series.

However, many of my readers will have noted a number of important things that I have not done. I have not yet defined my terms, or laid out an overarching road map. Nor have I explained the significance of my unique perspective, placed its origins within a proper academic context, or supported any of my assertions with hard evidence.

Escaping a strategic bottleneck...

For a variety of reasons, I am operating outside of the standard academic template. Therefore, it is best to think of these two essays not as the launch of a dissertation, but as the opening pawn moves in a metaphorical game of chess. These moves engage the general reader’s attention, hint at the broad outlines of a complex attack, and lay the groundwork for the development of more consequential arguments that are waiting, as yet unspecified, on the back rank. The essays aim to capture the high-level flow of the game.

Implicit in my chess analogy, however, is that a lot of off-stage grunt work has necessarily already been done. Someone has already set up the board, manufactured a diverse array of pieces, invented a game around their movements, explained the rules, and developed entire schools of strategy. Attempting to front-load all of this information at an academically rigorous depth would crush one of this blog’s major goals, which is to render the high-level flow of the game [of human nature] as easily accessible to as wide a range of readers as possible. A better solution is needed.

...with an unorthodox solution.

I have decided to solve the staging problem by writing subroutines.

• Higher-level essays will continue to be featured, hopefully about twice a month (or as time and inspiration permit). But, for those who wish to dig deeper, I will also be continuously adding layers of supporting material: conceptual set-pieces, elaborations by request, terminological clarifications, back-and-forth discussions, scholarly citations, cross-linked references, and the like.

• For clarity, these will appear on a small circle of satellite blogs, new spaces dedicated to providing depth without inducing narrative whiplash. Sidebar links will be added as the structure solidifies.

• In order to facilitate browsing, all new off-stage content will be announced here, at center stage. These announcements will wind up sandwiched in between the high-level essays.

• Appropriate navigational tools will eventually appear in the sidebars of each blog.

• Lastly, internal cross-links will be added to existing posts as the constellation of subroutines continues to grow in size and power.

Variations on a recursive theme:

Careful readers will have noticed certain structural resemblances between my declared architectural strategy and my initial hints at the architecture of intelligence.

This is no coincidence.

On the one hand, the bottom-up creation of subroutines gives me the flexibility I need to develop the many pieces of my arguments in whatever order I want to write them, and the flexibility to answer questions as they are asked, without bogging everybody down in a sea of unwanted details. On the other, having a ready-made constellation to draw on will allow me to sustain the high-level flow of a complex narrative much more easily, by reaching down and tapping the appropriate subroutines as they are needed.

That’s the theory, anyway. We'll see if it works.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013


How to account for the effects of emotion upon rationality.

(EXPANDED on 11/19/13)
(EDITED on 4/18/14)

So if you want to build a functioning society, and you need to use rational inquiry to figure out a proper design, but that design has to take into account the fact that none of the actors in the society will be intrinsically rational, what do you do?

You look past the rationality that isn’t there, to the wider mental universe that is.


The notion of "rational self-interest" is central to Western economic and political thought, and for good reason, but it needs three major recalibrations if we are to restore functionality to either system.

I. The self is not only not singular, it is metaphorically diverse. Human analogical intelligence causes the cognitive sense of self to expand, variously encompassing areas such as family members, prized possessions, beliefs, and political worldviews—my sister, my guitar, my religion, my party affiliation, and so forth. Through a process described elsewhere, these identity-extensions have become structurally entangled with the instinctive machinery of the physiological self, resulting in the vast and subtle world of emotions.

EXAMPLE: That is to say, if you threaten my job or my political worldview, my body must react emotionally, in proportion to the intensity of the threat. Cognition steers, but instinct drives.

II. The self is irrational, per the logic of intelligence. Human intelligence automatically integrates concepts from the bottom up as well as from the top down. This means that locally functional bits of understanding are often habituated without any regard for their global consistency. The flexibility we gain from this procedural logic is wonderful—cultural immersion and focused study are each valid forms of learning, and exploration of contradictory new ideas is not difficult—but it comes with a tradeoff: we cannot help but accumulate identity facets that are not fully rationally consistent.

EXAMPLE: When interpreting events, your perspective as a friend will sometimes conflict with your perspective as a co-worker, or as a parent. Where you stand depends on where you sit.

III. The spotlight of attention is far narrower than the reach of the metaphorical self. All identity-related facets are defended by emotion, but your conscious awareness can only attend to a few of them at any given time. These two factors combine to make a fully rational accounting of the self doubly impossible, while also giving a false sense of rational consistency. The actual dynamics, which encompass classical rationality without being bound by it, are much more interesting.

SYNTHESIS: the three recalibrations in action!

On informational grounds alone, conceptual discrepancies are easy enough to miss. Rational introspection requires conscious attention in order to work; the narrowness of human attentional focus permits only small subsets of beliefs to be cross-checked at once; tenuous analogies are just as easily internalized as rigorous arguments; and deeply internalized bits of understanding are so easily taken for granted that they are often overlooked during testing.

But emotional effects add a whole new type of obscuration.

Instinct as emotion: The instinctive defenses are very old, and they were not designed to handle jumbled self-images, analogical or otherwise. Consequently, their physiological defenses of the jumbled identity constellation are applied to the human body simultaneously, across-the-board, and quite impartially, without regard to consistency of self-image.

This makes the overlapping emotional defense of many conflicting ideals a universal hallmark of the human condition.

How does it play out? Well, whenever aspects of your personal identity come into conflict, your instinctive machinery simply responds to the circular threat by rendering the areas of contention emotionally uncomfortable to think about. This is experienced as cognitive dissonance.

This applied instinctive pressure solves the problem of identity protection by deflecting the spotlight of your attention away from the identity conflict (see below), sending it in search of more comfortable waters. The force of this deflection is roughly proportional to three things: the personal significance of each identity facet in question (how important?), the urgency of the issue (how immediate?), and the proximity of the attentional spotlight (how relevant?) to the area of conflict.

EXAMPLE: "He was a good kid, he never would have tried to rob anybody. That isn't him in the surveillance video."

The multifaceted analogical structure of human identity ensures that many, many such aversion gradients are active at any given time. They operate for the most part under the attentional radar, although most of us do tend to notice the stronger surges.

The logic of deflection is straightforward... In the short run, it is simply less painful to maintain conflicting identity investments in the dark—they were adopted for good reason, and they work well enough when considered separately—than it is to risk losing any of them to the light of rational inquiry. Pretzel logic is preferable to ritual sacrifice.

...and its consequences are significant. Unfortunately, it also means that you don’t know what’s really down there, because the very areas that are most in need of rational introspection are among the hardest to reach. Sharp attentional limits, a mobile attentional spotlight, and ingrained identity-driven deflections combine to make us think we are more rational than we actually are, often with disastrous results. They also prevent many of us from noticing that our attention is being internally deflected, or even suspecting the existence of the emotional investments that are driving the deflection.

(Advertisers know this.)

Again, cognition steers, but instinct drives. Even if you have managed to notice that there are places your thoughts won’t go, there is no guarantee that applying cognitive counter-steering will take you there. Counter-steering takes mental energy; the emotional currents are too numerous, too quick, too dynamic, and too complex to be mapped; and the very reason the currents exist is to mask the conflicts that such a map would reveal. Moreover, in areas of extreme personal importance, the maelstrom of emotional deflection can become forceful enough to sweep the spotlight of attention entirely out of operating range, making certain lines of questioning literally unthinkable.

Achieving this protected status is the holy grail of political advertising.

AN APPLIED EXAMPLE: the three recalibrations in politics.

Consider how differently the old and new versions of “rational self-interest” handle the time-worn cliché of circular political discourse:

If you were to logically refute a cherished political position of mine, then the classical reaction of my “rational self-interested” self should be to reconsider. If I have been wrong, would I not improve my chances by accepting the better understanding that comes with the more accurate information?

In my "recalibrated" self, however, that option frequently loses out to faster, gut-level, emotional inclinations. Instinct dictates that I rescue my beleaguered identity-position, by:
1) saying “Oh yeah, but what about this?” while
2) slipping the anchor on my besieged attentional spotlight,
3) riding its automated deflection across the identity constellation;
4) settling into whatever emotionally fortified position it is drawn to (there is great strength in anger) and quickly returning fire; in hopes of
5) deflecting you from your initially effective attack, in exactly the same way that a mother bird whose nest is endangered feigns an injured wing to draw away predators.

6) Rinse, and repeat.

I never have to change my mind if I don't stay in one place long enough to witness any of my positions being destroyed around me. Is this not the classic pattern of political conversation?

Defense in Depth

These emotional tactics are deeply unsuited to figuring out what is going on the real world, but that is not their purpose. They are simply an unreasoned manifestation of instinct, an unthinking method of protecting already invested identity-beliefs, no matter how contradictory. This is often all that matters in the heat of battle.

And they are remarkably effective. So long as I am arguing with another person and not with an unfeeling real-world event like a car accident, my beliefs and I can evade existential conflict more or less indefinitely. If you follow me to my new position and refute that one too, then I simply repeat my escape maneuver, and around and around in circles we go.

What’s more, the defenses have defenses. If I have strongly self-identified as an intrinsically rational person (a belief only made possible, ironically enough, by the same sharp attentional limits that preclude intrinsic rationality), then any of your insinuations that my cherished beliefs might not actually be rationally consistent will be loftily dismissed, and my defense will be to find fault with you for being uncredentialed, unreasonable, or just plain mean.

Finally, if you do somehow manage to corner me rhetorically in spite of my tactics, then as a last resort I can simply disengage! I can change the subject, change the channel, leave the room, tune you out, put down the book, deny everything, or turn off the computer. Or, on a darker note, I can call in allies and attempt to bully you into submission.

Instinctive self-preservation is powerful stuff.

To be continued...

Fortunately, robust strategies exist for turning the vicious cycle against itself, but I will save them for another post. For now, I will merely hint that both the informational and the emotional aspects of human irrationality arise inexorably from the very same logic that enables us to construct rational arguments.

This human logic is universal—we really are all in this together!—and it unfolds as a direct consequence of putting analogical thinking, habitual pattern recognition, and a limited attention span into a body defended by instincts.

In other words, Pandora's box isn't a box at all, it's some sort of Klein bottle.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013


Human beings are not and cannot be intrinsically rational. Here's why.

Every human being walks around with a personalized understanding of the world, cognitively constructed and then internalized over time, that is vast, analogically extensive, conceptually hazy, incomplete, and not strictly bound by the limits of classical rationality (which, it turns out, is only a special case of the larger and more general cognitive logic: think of rational and irrational numbers sharing space on the mathematician’s number line, only in more dimensions, and you’ll have the general idea). I’ll flesh out the specifics in another piece.

This is strike one against the baseline assumption of rationality. The mental architecture just doesn’t fit.

Everybody also walks around with a profoundly limited attention span, from a cognitive processing standpoint, that prevents us from being fully conscious of more than a tiny fraction of this understanding at once.

This is strike two against the assumption of rationality. Omniscience is unavailable.

So, without even having gotten into the complex effects of emotionstrike three, and the eventual heart of this series—we can already stick a fork in classical rationality as a default mode of operation for human beings, because rationality requires unambiguous domain limits to function properly (all the relevant data, and only the relevant data) and all human decisions are influenced by active volumes of analogically cross-threaded experiences that, like icebergs, cannot help but remain almost entirely below the waterline of consciousness.

Note that I am not claiming that people cannot make rational arguments, just that they are universally incapable of making rational decisions.

The distinction is important. Science, philosophy, and other systemic interrogations of the world advance our understanding by relying upon rational arguments. Arguments are powerful because they are constructed from information that is both bounded and verifiable, meaning that their internal logic can be tested philosophically, a priori, in accordance with the rules of rationality. Consistency carries no guarantee of success—science routinely eviscerates huge numbers of logically valid arguments, proving them experimentally false and incrementally advancing human understanding—but consistency is a necessary precondition if meaningful scientific testing (whether of the professional or back yard tinkering sort) is to take place. Internal structure matters.

By contrast, human decisions are made “inside the head” using information that is bounded but not verifiable, even in principle, given the logical interplay of conceptual architecture, analogical cross-threading, and attentional limits. This is especially true of the personal decision to accept/adopt any given rational argument, without which its rationality will find no purchase. The decision to do so is often mistaken for evidence of intrinsic rationality itself, when in fact it is evidence of just the opposite: without the rigorous mental training needed to achieve a degree of logical fluency, and without a cultivated interest in doing so, that “rational” reaction is easily swamped by other informational and emotional considerations that are supplied by the wider cognitive logic. Once again, internal structure matters.

To sum up, several points:

1) The world yields up its secrets to sustained rational inquiry, but humans are not and cannot be intrinsically rational beings;

2) While humans are capable of exercising rationality in limited domains through the power of rational argument, and while we can decide to act in accordance with those rational guidelines, the decision to do so is not and cannot ever be rational (although it is likely to be pragmatic);

3) Criticizing your opponents for being irrational is therefore exactly as meaningless as criticizing them for breathing (a point that provides a nicely barbed defense against airs of superiority);

4) Criticizing their arguments is always fair game.

A corollary:

The widespread existence of a deeper layer of decision-making logic is triply confirmed by the conspicuous absence of rational argument from political and other effective mass market advertising, by the structural conformity of the current appeals that are being used, and by the enormous amounts of money poured into constructing them.

An aphorism or two:

“Humans can make rational arguments, but never rational decisions.”

“There are no rational people, there are only rational arguments.”

A handful of policy recommendations:

1) It is terribly important to teach rationality in schools, precisely because it is not an innate function, and because it is our only reliable means of interrogating the world;

2) It is equally important to teach that rationality is not innate (especially your own!), but is rather a special case within a much wider and wilder suite of cognitive operations whose influence cannot be turned off;

3) Emphasizing pure human rationality over the wider cognitive logic, rather than placing it in its proper context, is not only guaranteed not to solve persistent human problems, it will in fact make them worse.

And finally, a short restatement of purpose:


Update (11/13/13): A second post, Oh, Humanity! Three Recalibrations of “Rational Self-Interest” is now available. It introduces the second type of irrationality (emotional) and touches on how both kinds interact to shape our politics.