Humans are a programmable species, and we live inside the most ancient operating system of all — ideology.
For many years, Joscha Bach could not understand why humans flock so strongly towards religion and ideology. Having grown up in communist East Germany and seeing the people around him buy into nationalistic narratives—that were to him obviously untruthful—made no sense. It was only when the wall came down that he came to understand that people everywhere are buying into various false narratives—as of 2015, 34% of Americans still reject evolution completely. The drive to believe whatever instructions come from above you is not a cognitive error, Bach realized then, but an evolutionary feature—as powerful as it is problematic. The ability for large groups of people to follow one set of rules, to cooperate, is how Homo sapiens established agricultural societies, and is ultimately how we outcompeted other now long-gone nomadic hominin groups. We are a programmable species, says Bach, and we need to belong and conform to a larger entity to survive. As such, Bach sees the debate surrounding free will not as a question of determinism or incompatibilism, but of social conditioning. Perhaps the free will relates to decision-making over physics: are you really free to act in a way that is true, or are you bound by a social code of responsibility that runs thousands of years deep in your genetics? Joscha Bach's latest book is Principles of Synthetic Intelligence.
It's time to get real about key ideas that run our lives, which have been taking laughable liberties with human nature – and with the logic of livable liberty.
1. Our way of life takes liberties with human nature. It uses Enlightenment ideas about reason which Samuel Hammond says psychologists know are “very unrealistic” (if not laughable).
2. Hammond’s essay on liberalism (=workable liberties sought by lefties and conservatives) makes many crucial points, but isn’t entirely realistic about reason’s role.
3. Key principles of workable liberty are discovered, not invented. For instance, Hammond says, church/state separation and multicultural religious toleration were discovered in 1590s India under Islamic rule. And in 1640s Europe after many wars. (Aside, the supposed “failure of multiculturalism”isn’t universal).
4. Certain behavioral rule patterns (like the Golden Rule, or property rights) are discoverable by any perspective-taking game-theoretic thinking.
5. Game theory enables “mathematical…ethics" with patterns as provable as geometry. And like geometry, game theory takes teaching (try rediscovering Euclid). But cooperation-preserving game theory matters far more than geometry.
6. Hammond mentions the badly taught Prisoner’s Dilemma game. If the strategy labeled “rational” produces bad results, is it rightly called rational? That the Golden Ruled or god-fearing beat “rationalists” suggests we need to rescue “rationality.”
7. “Experts play a vital role” says Hammond. Yes, but only if they’re properly motivated. If experts (or leaders) aren’t loyal to something above self-gain, like the public good, they’re buyable and unreliable (see Plato on greed-driven politics, + original idiocy).
8. Hammond feels that “reason can help establish… cooperative norms.” But they’re also established, transmitted and internalized emotionally (see paleo-economics). Social emotions evolved partly for cooperation, as did language (we’ve got evolved social cooperation rule processors, akin to our tacit grammar rule processors).
10. Hammond advises “reason and persuasion, not fear-mongering or other emotive strategies.” But persuasion often requires emotion (see Aristotle’s rhetoric). The trick is to recruit emotions for “good,” not to ignore them (see Plato’s emotive Chariot, + facts versus fears).
11. Many besides psychologists know that the Enlightenment’s reason-reliance is laughably unrealistic. Only the unobservant or “experts” educated into “rationalist delusions” or “theory induced blindness” (like model-mesmerized economists) could believe otherwise.
13. But less realistic ideas won, and “Enlightenment errors,” though unempirical, still underpin democracy and economics.
14. Three unempirical “Enlightenment errors,” rationalism, individualism, and hedonism, are particularly seductive because they’re partly truth. However their elegant oversimplifications exclude much that matters. They’re typically empirically complex compositions hybridized with their opposites (emotional and relational rationality, self-deficient individualism, painstaking mattering and meaning-seeking).
16. Ways of life built on unempirical views of emotions or reason aren’t sustainable. Hammond makes progress by using empirically sounder psychology (e.g., mentioning System 1 + System 2). But long-lived liberty requires “behavioral politics” and “better behaved behavioural models.”
Illustration by Julia Suits, The New Yorker cartoonist & author of The Extraordinary Catalog of Peculiar Inventions