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On the flight into reason
Hyper-rationality is the unquestioning faith in the efficacy of reason.
This is something of an irony, since those who take the hyper-rational approach to reason are violently opposed to "faith" of any sort. They (rightly) condemn "faith" as "irrational," but they then go to the opposite extreme of making reason supreme. In so doing , they inadvertently turn reason into a sort of surrogate God, to whom they must pay homage at all costs. This is rationality carried to the extreme, beyond rational limits, hence the term "hyper-rationality." It is important to remember that one can be under the tyranny of "reason" just as much as one can be under the tyranny of a god (or gods). To make reason absolute is to make reason into a "god," since only God is, by definition, absolute. To fail to acknowledge the limits of reason (as hyper-rationalists do) is to view reason in god-like terms.
Hyper-rationalists cling to their faith in reason as desperately as believers cling to their faith in God. Both are attempting to escape from something by fleeing into the arms of something else. Here, however, the focus is not on what believers are fleeing from (enough has been said about that by others elsewhere), but rather, on what hyper-rationalists are attempting to escape. The fact that they are taking refuge in rationality would suggest that they are fleeing from a recognition of their own irrationality—or rather, the irrational aspects of themselves. (Remember Newton's Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.) They are (often unconsciously) terrified by the prospect that they might in fact have an irrational side that could take over at any time. They have to repress this irrational side at all costs, since it may well go out of control once it is allowed to express itself. So the hyper-rationalist, in an attempt to convince himself or herself of his own absolute rationality and his or her own sense of being completely in control, makes a great external display of being hyper-rational and committed to reason 100 percent. In doing this, the hyper-rationalist is somewhat like Hamlet's mother, Gertrude, who "protested too much" in Shakespeare's play. The excessive protestations cast doubt on the claims.
Are there any grounds for this analysis of the motives of the hyper-rationalist? As it happens, there are.
Scientists have known for a long time that at the core of the human brain, clustered around the brain stem, is a bundle of neurological structures that are identical to the structures that form the brains of reptiles. This part of the human brain is often called the "reptilian brain." It is completely irrational—about as "rational" as a snake or a lizard or a crocodile. The human capacity for rationality is located in the neocortex, the outermost layer of the brain (also known as the "new mammalian brain"), which happens to be a very late addition in evolution. (See David Ritchie's fascinating book, The Binary Brain, for more details.) Irrationality is an inescapable part of our evolutionary inheritance. David Ritchie talks about how the reptilian brain (irrationality) and the new mammalian brain (rationality) are in constant conflict with each other. He notes that the new mammalian brain does not always win in this "contest of wills." More often than some of us would like to admit, we act irrationally: we succumb the dictates of our reptilian mind. Thus, the flight into rationality is simultaneously a flight from one's own irrationality, and hence a denial of one's capacity to be irrational, a rejection of a vital part of oneself. And of course, we flee from what we fear, so it can be concluded that hyper-rationalists fear their irrationality and seek to escape from it by taking refuge in an excessive and exaggerated devotion to "reason."
There is another dimension to hyper-rationality: the flight from emotions. Ever since Descartes, the Western world has held the mistaken notion that emotions are irrational. For the most part, we have accepted Descartes dichotomy between reason and emotion unquestioningly. However, science has once again shown that all is not as it appears to be. In his book Descartes' Error, Antonio Damasio has amassed an impressive body of neurological evidence to show that at the biological level of brain processing, reason cannot, and does not, function on its own. Emotions are inextricably interwoven into our most "rational" decisions and thoughts. If hyper-rationalist are fleeing into the embrace of reason, they are also, unwittingly fleeing from their emotions. And as before, they are fleeing from their emotions because they fear them. And they fear them because they think they are unable to handle them—or simply because they just don't know how to handle them.
"Hyper-rationalism" is something of an oxymoron, since true rationalityis always modest enough to recognize its own limitations. True rationality would never claim for itself the status that hyper-rationalists ascribe to it. Reason is not something absolute, some god-like principle: it is practical and grows out of the day-to-day experience of human beings as perceived by the human senses. We now know that these senses are notoriously susceptible to deception, so any system of reason based on the evidence of the senses is bound to be flawed in some way. Aristotle formulated the Law of Non-Contradiction based on the commonsense observation that something could not be true and not true at the same time. But anyone who has some knowledge of quantum physics would know that this does not apply to the quantum world. Reason would tell us (following Aristotle) that things cannot have two different states at the same time, or be two different things at the same time. Yet quantum physicists tell us that light is both a wave and a particle. Reason tells us that a cause cannot be separated from its effect in time and space. And yet, the principle of nonlocality in quantum physics holds that at the quantum level this is indeed possible. Einstein, ever the rationalist, found Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle highly unsettling—and to the hyper-rational mind it undoubtedly is. He famously quipped: "God doesn't play dice with the universe." To his highly rational mind, the probabilistic nature of quantum physics was utterly abhorrent. But he, as it turns out, was wrong. God (if we will temporarily allow that there is such a thing!) does indeed play dice with the universe—Einstein and "reason" notwithstanding. Incidentally, it has been proposed (on the basis of rather compelling evidence) that Einstein suffered from Asperger's Syndrome, a mild form a autism, in which emotionality and social interaction are impaired, but sensory perception and cognitive processes (rational functions of the brain) are enhanced in some cases.
Hyper-rationality is a defense mechanism: it defends against all that is threatening and causes unease. Emotions and irrationality are anathema to the hyper-rationalist because they bring uncertainty and doubt—and for some people uncertainty and doubt are unsettling. If we can embrace uncertainty and doubt, and along with them our emotions and our phylogenetic irrationality, we do not need the defense of hyper-rationality. We can live a fuller, more balanced life.
Why mega-eruptions like the ones that covered North America in ash are the least of your worries.
- The supervolcano under Yellowstone produced three massive eruptions over the past few million years.
- Each eruption covered much of what is now the western United States in an ash layer several feet deep.
- The last eruption was 640,000 years ago, but that doesn't mean the next eruption is overdue.
The end of the world as we know it
Panoramic view of Yellowstone National Park
Image: Heinrich Berann for the National Park Service – public domain
Of the many freak ways to shuffle off this mortal coil – lightning strikes, shark bites, falling pianos – here's one you can safely scratch off your worry list: an outbreak of the Yellowstone supervolcano.
As the map below shows, previous eruptions at Yellowstone were so massive that the ash fall covered most of what is now the western United States. A similar event today would not only claim countless lives directly, but also create enough subsidiary disruption to kill off global civilisation as we know it. A relatively recent eruption of the Toba supervolcano in Indonesia may have come close to killing off the human species (see further below).
However, just because a scenario is grim does not mean that it is likely (insert topical political joke here). In this case, the doom mongers claiming an eruption is 'overdue' are wrong. Yellowstone is not a library book or an oil change. Just because the previous mega-eruption happened long ago doesn't mean the next one is imminent.
Ash beds of North America
Ash beds deposited by major volcanic eruptions in North America.
Image: USGS – public domain
This map shows the location of the Yellowstone plateau and the ash beds deposited by its three most recent major outbreaks, plus two other eruptions – one similarly massive, the other the most recent one in North America.
The Huckleberry Ridge eruption occurred 2.1 million years ago. It ejected 2,450 km3 (588 cubic miles) of material, making it the largest known eruption in Yellowstone's history and in fact the largest eruption in North America in the past few million years.
This is the oldest of the three most recent caldera-forming eruptions of the Yellowstone hotspot. It created the Island Park Caldera, which lies partially in Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming and westward into Idaho. Ash from this eruption covered an area from southern California to North Dakota, and southern Idaho to northern Texas.
About 1.3 million years ago, the Mesa Falls eruption ejected 280 km3 (67 cubic miles) of material and created the Henry's Fork Caldera, located in Idaho, west of Yellowstone.
It was the smallest of the three major Yellowstone eruptions, both in terms of material ejected and area covered: 'only' most of present-day Wyoming, Colorado, Kansas and Nebraska, and about half of South Dakota.
The Lava Creek eruption was the most recent major eruption of Yellowstone: about 640,000 years ago. It was the second-largest eruption in North America in the past few million years, creating the Yellowstone Caldera.
It ejected only about 1,000 km3 (240 cubic miles) of material, i.e. less than half of the Huckleberry Ridge eruption. However, its debris is spread out over a significantly wider area: basically, Huckleberry Ridge plus larger slices of both Canada and Mexico, plus most of Texas, Louisiana, Arkansas, and Missouri.
This eruption occurred about 760,000 years ago. It was centered on southern California, where it created the Long Valley Caldera, and spewed out 580 km3 (139 cubic miles) of material. This makes it North America's third-largest eruption of the past few million years.
The material ejected by this eruption is known as the Bishop ash bed, and covers the central and western parts of the Lava Creek ash bed.
Mount St Helens
The eruption of Mount St Helens in 1980 was the deadliest and most destructive volcanic event in U.S. history: it created a mile-wide crater, killed 57 people and created economic damage in the neighborhood of $1 billion.
Yet by Yellowstone standards, it was tiny: Mount St Helens only ejected 0.25 km3 (0.06 cubic miles) of material, most of the ash settling in a relatively narrow band across Washington State and Idaho. By comparison, the Lava Creek eruption left a large swathe of North America in up to two metres of debris.
The difference between quakes and faults
The volume of dense rock equivalent (DRE) ejected by the Huckleberry Ridge event dwarfs all other North American eruptions. It is itself overshadowed by the DRE ejected at the most recent eruption at Toba (present-day Indonesia). This was one of the largest known eruptions ever and a relatively recent one: only 75,000 years ago. It is thought to have caused a global volcanic winter which lasted up to a decade and may be responsible for the bottleneck in human evolution: around that time, the total human population suddenly and drastically plummeted to between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs.
Image: USGS – public domain
So, what are the chances of something that massive happening anytime soon? The aforementioned mongers of doom often claim that major eruptions occur at intervals of 600,000 years and point out that the last one was 640,000 years ago. Except that (a) the first interval was about 200,000 years longer, (b) two intervals is not a lot to base a prediction on, and (c) those intervals don't really mean anything anyway. Not in the case of volcanic eruptions, at least.
Earthquakes can be 'overdue' because the stress on fault lines is built up consistently over long periods, which means quakes can be predicted with a relative degree of accuracy. But this is not how volcanoes behave. They do not accumulate magma at constant rates. And the subterranean pressure that causes the magma to erupt does not follow a schedule.
What's more, previous super-eruptions do not necessarily imply future ones. Scientists are not convinced that there ever will be another big eruption at Yellowstone. Smaller eruptions, however, are much likelier. Since the Lava Creek eruption, there have been about 30 smaller outbreaks at Yellowstone, the last lava flow being about 70,000 years ago.
As for the immediate future (give or take a century): the magma chamber beneath Yellowstone is only 5 percent to 15 percent molten. Most scientists agree that is as un-alarming as it sounds. And that its statistically more relevant to worry about death by lightning, shark, or piano.
Strange Maps #1041
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How imagining the worst case scenario can help calm anxiety.
- Stoicism is the philosophy that nothing about the world is good or bad in itself, and that we have control over both our judgments and our reactions to things.
- It is hardest to control our reactions to the things that come unexpectedly.
- By meditating every day on the "worst case scenario," we can take the sting out of the worst that life can throw our way.
Are you a worrier? Do you imagine nightmare scenarios and then get worked up and anxious about them? Does your mind get caught in a horrible spiral of catastrophizing over even the smallest of things? Worrying, particularly imagining the worst case scenario, seems to be a natural part of being human and comes easily to a lot of us. It's awful, perhaps even dangerous, when we do it.
But, there might just be an ancient wisdom that can help. It involves reframing this attitude for the better, and it comes from Stoicism. It's called "premeditation," and it could be the most useful trick we can learn.
Broadly speaking, Stoicism is the philosophy of choosing your judgments. Stoics believe that there is nothing about the universe that can be called good or bad, valuable or valueless, in itself. It's we who add these values to things. As Shakespeare's Hamlet says, "There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so." Our minds color the things we encounter as being "good" or "bad," and given that we control our minds, we therefore have control over all of our negative feelings.
Put another way, Stoicism maintains that there's a gap between our experience of an event and our judgment of it. For instance, if someone calls you a smelly goat, you have an opportunity, however small and hard it might be, to pause and ask yourself, "How will I judge this?" What's more, you can even ask, "How will I respond?" We have power over which thoughts we entertain and the final say on our actions. Today, Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
Helping you practice StoicismCredit: Robyn Beck via Getty Images
One of the principal fathers of ancient Stoicism was the Roman statesmen, Seneca, who argued that the unexpected and unforeseen blows of life are the hardest to take control over. The shock of a misfortune can strip away the power we have to choose our reaction. For instance, being burglarized feels so horrible because we had felt so safe at home. A stomach ache, out of the blue, is harder than a stitch thirty minutes into a run. A sudden bang makes us jump, but a firework makes us smile. Fell swoops hurt more than known hardships.
What could possibly go wrong?
So, how can we resolve this? Seneca suggests a Stoic technique called "premeditatio malorum" or "premeditation." At the start of every day, we ought to take time to indulge our anxious and catastrophizing mind. We should "rehearse in the mind: exile, torture, war, shipwreck." We should meditate on the worst things that could happen: your partner will leave you, your boss will fire you, your house will burn down. Maybe, even, you'll die.
This might sound depressing, but the important thing is that we do not stop there.
Stoicism has influenced and finds modern expression in the hugely effective "cognitive behavioral therapy."
The Stoic also rehearses how they will react to these things as they come up. For instance, another Stoic (and Roman Emperor) Marcus Aurelius asks us to imagine all the mean, rude, selfish, and boorish people we'll come across today. Then, in our heads, we script how we'll respond when we meet them. We can shrug off their meanness, smile at their rudeness, and refuse to be "implicated in what is degrading." Thus prepared, we take control again of our reactions and behavior.
The Stoics cast themselves into the darkest and most desperate of conditions but then realize that they can and will endure. With premeditation, the Stoic is prepared and has the mental vigor necessary to take the blow on the chin and say, "Yep, l can deal with this."
Catastrophizing as a method of mental inoculation
Seneca wrote: "In times of peace, the soldier carries out maneuvers." This is also true of premeditation, which acts as the war room or training ground. The agonizing cut of the unexpected is blunted by preparedness. We can prepare the mind for whatever trials may come, in just the same way we can prepare the body for some endurance activity. The world can throw nothing as bad as that which our minds have already imagined.
Stoicism teaches us to embrace our worrying mind but to embrace it as a kind of inoculation. With a frown over breakfast, try to spend five minutes of your day deliberately catastrophizing. Get your anti-anxiety battle plan ready and then face the world.
A study on charity finds that reminding people how nice it feels to give yields better results than appealing to altruism.
- A study finds asking for donations by appealing to the donor's self-interest may result in more money than appealing to their better nature.
- Those who received an appeal to self-interest were both more likely to give and gave more than those in the control group.
- The effect was most pronounced for those who hadn't given before.
Even the best charities with the longest records of doing great fundraising work have to spend some time making sure that the next donation checks will keep coming in. One way to do this is by showing potential donors all the good things the charity did over the previous year. But there may be a better way.
A new study by researchers in the United States and Australia suggests that appealing to the benefits people will receive themselves after a donation nudges them to donate more money than appealing to the greater good.
How to get people to give away free money
The postcards that were sent to different study subjects. The one on the left highlighted benefits to the self, while the one on the right highlighted benefits to others.List et al. / Nature Human Behaviour
The study, published in Nature Human Behaviour, utilized the Pick.Click.Give program in Alaska. This program allows Alaska residents who qualify for dividends from the Alaska Permanent Fund, a yearly payment ranging from $800 to $2000 in recent years, to donate a portion of it to various in-state non-profit organizations.
The researchers randomly assigned households to either a control group or to receive a postcard in the mail encouraging them to donate a portion of their dividend to charity. That postcard could come in one of two forms, either highlighting the benefits to others or the benefits to themselves.
Those who got the postcard touting self-benefits were 6.6 percent more likely to give than those in the control group and gave 23 percent more on average. Those getting the benefits-to-others postcard were slightly more likely to give than those receiving no postcard, but their donations were no larger.
Additionally, the researchers were able to break the subject list down into a "warm list" of those who had given at least once before in the last two years and a "cold list" of those who had not. Those on the warm list, who were already giving, saw only minor increases in their likelihood to donate after getting a postcard in the mail compared to those on the cold list.
Additionally, the researchers found that warm-list subjects who received the self-interest postcard gave 11 percent more than warm-list subjects in the control group. Amazingly, among cold-list subjects, those who received a self-interest postcard gave 39 percent more.
These are substantial improvements. At the end of the study, the authors point out, "If we had sent the benefits to self message to all households in the state, aggregate contributions would have increased by nearly US$600,000."
To put this into perspective, in 2017 the total donations to the program were roughly $2,700,000.
Is altruism dead?
Are all actions inherently self-interested? Thankfully, no. The study focuses entirely on effective ways to increase charitable donations above levels that currently exist. It doesn't deny that some people are giving out of pure altruism, but rather that an appeal based on self-interest is effective. Plenty of people were giving before this study took place who didn't need a postcard as encouragement. It is also possible that some people donated part of their dividend check to a charity that does not work with Pick.Click.Give and were uncounted here.
It is also important to note that Pick.Click.Give does not provide services but instead gives money to a wide variety of organizations that do. Those organizations operate in fields from animal rescue to job training to public broadcasting. The authors note that it is possible that a more specific appeal to the benefits others will receive from a donation might prove more effective than the generic and all-inclusive "Make Alaska Better For Everyone" appeal that they used.
In an ideal world, charity is its own reward. In ours, it might help to remind somebody how warm and fuzzy they'll feel after donating to your cause.
The 'Monkeydactyl' was a flying reptile that evolved highly specialized adaptations in the Mesozoic Era.