Why You Don't (and Can't) Think Alone

Science (and life) keep hammering nails “into the coffin of the rational individual." But rationalism and individualism still haunt and systematically mislead—even about where your mind is.

Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions


1. It may surprise many, but all “individual knowledge is remarkably shallow.” So says a view-of-mind-altering book The Knowledge Illusion: Why We Never Think Alone, by Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach.

2. Science (and life) keep hammering nails “into the coffin of the rational individual" (Yuval Harari’s review), but rationalism and individualism still haunt and systematically mislead.

3. “Our intelligence resides not in individual brains but in the collective mind.” This “division of cognitive labor is fundamental to the way cognition evolved and the way it works today.”

4. You know how to use GPS because masses of others know things you don’t (—>key human trick is to not be limited by our own brains, or our own tool-making, tech is the materialized knowhow of others).

5. Thought “extends beyond the skull"; your mind uses its brains + body + tools (physical and cognitive) + other minds + environment.

6. Hence the “mind is not in the brain. Rather, the brain is in the mind” (the “extended mind”).

7. We’re unaware of most information we process. “Deliberation is only a tiny part” of cognition. Per Kahneman, most cognition is fast, intuitive, subconscious System 1, not slow, deliberative System 2.

8. Many experts are exorcising “rationalist errors” (—>“theory-induced blindness”) to relearn the everywhere-evident fact that people often aren’t rational. But there’s less progress on individualism’s errors.

9. To plumb cognitive dependence’s depths, consider cultures where counting, counterintuitively, isn’t intuitive. Caleb Everett’s Numbers and the Making of Us covers cultures that label only one, two, three, and many.

10. Language is innate but numbers need painstaking training. That such basic-seeming cognitive tools are learned suggests useful extensions to Systems 1 and 2.

11. Measurable “cognitive biases” might not be in “the machinery of cognition” (e.g., need learned numeric skills). System 0 could label invariant traits vs System 1 culture-dependent ones (—>arrow illusion). Roughly, System 0 is hardware and System 1 is low-level software (see individualism and human nature's software). 

12. And since thought depends on extra-cranial resources, there’s a System 3 that encompasses our collective physical and cognitive tools (—>“social cartesian” capabilities embedded in language).

13. "You can't do much thinking with your bare brain." We evolved to acquire our culture’s thinking tools with whatever biases they harbor (our first nature needs second natures, “Words Are Thinking Tools”).  

14. You can’t do much thinking without others. As Siri Hustvedt says “Everyone's head is filled with other people” (from before birth). And “all ideas are… received ideas” (or they build on innumerable other-built thoughts).

15. No important part of human nature exists that isn’t social (we're inalienably self-deficient).

16. Harari warns that faith in rational individuals (“mythical creatures”) weakens democracy and capitalism (—>“errors of the Enlightenment”).

17. Harari’s review is revealingly headlined: “People Have Limited Knowledge. What’s the Remedy? Nobody Knows.” There can be no remedy. Your knowledge can’t be unlimited (—> unbounded economics folly). And you can’t not need others (to think or live).

18. Only forms of (paradoxical-seeming) collective individualism can work (see “relational rationality”). Rationally, you’re only as fit as the collective(s) you need.

Illustration by Julia SuitsThe New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions

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