Self-Motivation
David Goggins
Former Navy Seal
Career Development
Bryan Cranston
Actor
Critical Thinking
Liv Boeree
International Poker Champion
Emotional Intelligence
Amaryllis Fox
Former CIA Clandestine Operative
Management
Chris Hadfield
Retired Canadian Astronaut & Author
Learn
from the world's big
thinkers
Start Learning

Want to Be More Optimistic? Consider the Triumph of Human Reason

Yale psychologist Paul Bloom has views on empathy, emotion, and rationality that make him a black sheep among his peers.

Paul Bloom: In some way my book is an optimistic book, because I argue about all of our limitations and how empathy leads us astray. But in order to make that argument we also have to have an appreciation of we’re smart enough to realize that empathy could lead us astray and that we’re smart enough to act so as to override its pernicious effects. So it’s empathy that causes me to favor somebody who looks like me over somebody who doesn’t. Or somebody from my country or ethnicity over a stranger. But it’s rationality that leads me to say hey, that’s not reasonable. There’s no reason to do it. It’s not fair. It’s not impartial. And so we should try to override empathy.

My outlook is very optimistic. I’m a huge fan of reason and rationality—that we can work together and deliberate and talk and argue, and through this come with some great accomplishments.

So what I argue is that we have the capacity for rationality and reason. This is actually fairly controversial. In my field my fellow psychologists, philosophers, neuroscientists often argue that we’re prisoners of the emotions, that we’re fundamentally and profoundly irrational, and that reason plays very little role in our every day lives.
Which is to say, well, determinism of a sort is true. What we do, how we act, how we think is the product of events that have started a very long time ago plus physical law. We are physical creatures. We can’t escape from causality so we’ll just continue doing what we’re doing.

One of the main goals of my work is to argue against that. I think that notions of moral responsibility can be reconciled with determinism. I think determinism is correct, but none of that challenges rationality. And as an illustration you could imagine a computer that’s entirely determined but is also entirely rational. You could imagine another computer that’s entirely determined but is capricious and arbitrary and random. And so, even in a deterministic universe, the question remains: what sort of computer are we? Are we emotional creatures or are we rational creatures? But there is nothing, not the slightest bit of inconsistency between the claim that we live in a determined universe and that we’re rational reasoning creatures.

I think it’s worked with science. Science is that paradigmatic case where the exercise of reason by these imperfect people has come out with extraordinary discoveries, from the origin of the universe to the origin of life, the atomic structure of material objects… Amazing things.

And I think we could do the same thing with morality. I think people can argue and deliberate about morality. Now whenever I say this and whenever I talk about empathy I always get a cynical response and a cynical response is I think reasonable enough which is to say well that’s not how it works in a real world. I was reminded recently that we’re supposed to live in a post-fact world right now. In the real world people are persuaded by whoever yells the loudest, whoever appeals to their self-interests, whoever tweaks their emotions, including empathy. And I honestly don’t doubt that that’s right in the short term. I think that in any case if I wanted to persuade somebody to go to war against Syria, to give money to this cause, to expel that group from my country, I would appeal to their emotions. And anybody who appeals to their emotions would be much more successful than those who attempt to make a rational deliberate argument.

But I think in the long run over time, reason and rationality tends to win out. I look at the world we’re in now, and for all of its many flaws and problems I see signs of those moral accomplishments all over the place. I think we care more for people we had forgotten about, that we have a broader moral circle, as Peter Singer would say. We are less prone to killing each other, as Steve Pinker has demonstrated in his work. And there’s a lot of explanation for these changes, but I think one key component has been exercise of reason, and I’m optimistic we’ll continue this in the future.

 

For once, an optimistic worldview is the one sparking controversy. Paul Bloom thinks humans are not prisoners to their emotions, but have great capacity for rationality and reason. This makes him an anomaly among his fellow psychologists, and philosophers and neuroscientists, who often argue that we’re fundamentally and profoundly irrational. Paul Bloom is the author of Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.


This video is part of a collaborative series with the Hope & Optimism initiative, which supports interdisciplinary academic research into significant questions that remain under-explored. The three-year initiative will provide over $2 million for philosophers, philosophers of religion, and social scientists to generate original, high-quality, collaborative research on topics related to optimism and hopefulness. Discover the public components of the Hope & Optimism project, and how you can contribute, at hopeoptimism.com.

Paul Bloom's most recent book is Against Empathy: The Case for Rational Compassion.

The “new normal” paradox: What COVID-19 has revealed about higher education

Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?

Photo: Luis Robayo/AFP via Getty Images
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
  • It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
  • COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
Keep reading Show less

Why is everyone so selfish? Science explains

The coronavirus pandemic has brought out the perception of selfishness among many.

Credit: Adobe Stock, Olivier Le Moal.
Personal Growth
  • Selfish behavior has been analyzed by philosophers and psychologists for centuries.
  • New research shows people may be wired for altruistic behavior and get more benefits from it.
  • Crisis times tend to increase self-centered acts.
Keep reading Show less

How Hemingway felt about fatherhood

Parenting could be a distraction from what mattered most to him: his writing.

Ernest Hemingway Holding His Son 1927 (Wikimedia Commons)
Culture & Religion

Ernest Hemingway was affectionately called “Papa," but what kind of dad was he?

Keep reading Show less

How DNA revealed the woolly mammoth's fate – and what it teaches us today

Scientists uncovered the secrets of what drove some of the world's last remaining woolly mammoths to extinction.

Ethan Miller/Getty Images
Surprising Science

Every summer, children on the Alaskan island of St Paul cool down in Lake Hill, a crater lake in an extinct volcano – unaware of the mysteries that lie beneath.

Keep reading Show less

The biology of aliens: How much do we know?

Hollywood has created an idea of aliens that doesn't match the science.

Videos
  • Ask someone what they think aliens look like and you'll probably get a description heavily informed by films and pop culture. The existence of life beyond our planet has yet to be confirmed, but there are clues as to the biology of extraterrestrials in science.
  • "Don't give them claws," says biologist E.O. Wilson. "Claws are for carnivores and you've got to be an omnivore to be an E.T. There just isn't enough energy available in the next trophic level down to maintain big populations and stable populations that can evolve civilization."
  • In this compilation, Wilson, theoretical physicist Michio Kaku, Bill Nye, and evolutionary biologist Jonathan B. Losos explain why aliens don't look like us and why Hollywood depictions are mostly inaccurate.
Keep reading Show less
Quantcast