Wednesday, December 20, 2017

Metaphorical Truth / Practical Reality vs. Hyper Rationalism

Post modernism injected a lot of new energy into academic thinking.  Some of it for the better.  Some of it for the worse. Coming to grips with the "irrational" side of human nature is a major challenge for social science.

Some approaches try to get at this by extending game theory interactions while holding onto homo-economicus reasoning.  Behavioural economics is one field that does this. Other approaches assume everything is subjective to some degree or another and figure free-hand explorations curtailed by progressive moral guidelines will lead to just neo-marxist ends. Many "studies" departments do this.

Here's a list of how different researcher's I'm familiar with have tackled the question of the adaptiveness of human "irrationality".

BRET WEINSTEIN: Metaphorical Truth

Bret Weinstein raised the achilles heel of hyper-rationalism in a recent interview with Sam Harris.  The issue is whether things like religious belief (which are non-factual) can still be adaptive.  Unfortunately Harris didn't push the debate too much. But that is alright, they covered a lot of ground. I suspect Harris didn't want to get antagonistic in a conversation that was going so well.

Bret's reasoning on the adaptiveness of counter-factual religious beliefs was entirely evolutionary. His logic, as far as I can remember it, goes like this:

  1. Religion is adaptive.  It is a universal human expression up until the era of modernity.
  2. Religious beliefs are adaptive. The weak form of this argument is that the belief system as a whole is adaptive.  The strong form of this argument is that individual beliefs which have persisted are in and of themselves adaptive. Bret took the strong form of this argument, much to Harris' surprise.
  3. Beliefs which have persisted for a "long" period of time are not just memetically fit, but are gene-culturally (culturegen) fit.  They provide a real fitness advantage for group members.
  4. If the beliefs were not fit, they would have been selected out by competing, lower cost beliefs.
  5. Only beliefs which are stable enough over time are likely to have been adaptive.
  6. We can not infer that any of this applies to modern beliefs.  Modern beliefs have not necessarily been stable enough to justify point 4. You might only be able to say that a certain belief lineage is likely to have been adaptive, and even then, only for past conditions.
It is really nice to see Bret taking dynamic evolution into play here.  When combined with his caveat to modernity you escape many of the easy criticisms people have with respect to evolutionary thinking.

I think the main counterpoint to this argument is that one can never guarantee that any idea is in fact adaptive.  Can't maladaptive memes and culturegens persist over time?  Yes. But Bret's argument makes it a case of probabilities.  What is the probability that any meme or culturegen stable over a "long time period" is maladaptive? This is a productive area of discussion.  Nowak's work on virulence seems informative.  Viruses moderate their virulence over time.  The steady state solution for parasitic behaviour exists in tension between high virulence and low longevity vs. low virulence and high longevity. Moderation in both is Nash stable.  Mutation rates also decrease to match moderation.

DAVID SLOAN WILSON: Practical Reality

Wilson spent pretty much a whole book expounding his view on how religion is adaptive.  Darwin's Cathedral is an under appreciated work of art.  If the arguments aren't convincing, read Norezayan's Big Gods and then go back to it.

Here is D.S. Wilson's take on adaptively false belief.  In Darwin's Cathedral he states:

If there is a trade-off between the two forms of realism [factual & practical], such that our beliefs can become more adaptive only by becoming factually less true, then factual realism will be the loser every time. … Factual realists detached from practical reality were not among our ancestors. 

For context, here's how he frames the two forms of realism:

What do I mean by factual and practical realism? A belief is factually realistic when it accurately describes what’s really out there (e.g., there are no people up there sitting on clouds). A belief is practically realistic when it causes the believer to behave adaptively in the real world.

Wilson's approach in inexorably tied to multi-level selection theory and the biological reality (real-enough reality) of human groups.

As of 2002 he said "Thinking of religious groups as adaptive units comparable to guppies and finches is so new that it is impossible at present to identify the appropriate spatial and temporal scale."  And,

The concept of local adaptation allows religion to be studied from an evolutionary perspective using the same methods employed on nonhuman species, as I discussed in chapter 2.  If the environment changes over time and space, and if religions adapt human groups to their environments, we should be able to predict the properties of religion at a fine spatial and temporal scale as surely as we can predict the properties of upstream and downstream guppies.
Belief systems must cope with
  • Justification
  • Cheating
  •  Economical (easy to understand)
  •  More motivating than a real system
  •  More efficient at producing behaviour
An adaptive belief systems must be economical.  The beliefs that justify the behaviors must be easily learned and employed in the real world.  A fictional belief system that is user-friendly and that motivates an adaptive suite of behaviors will surpass a realistic belief system that requires a Ph.D. to understand and that leads to a paralysis of indecision.

Wilson explicitly states that "religions [or any group] adaptiveness must be judged by the behaviours they motivate not by their factual correspondence to reality."  The counterpoint to this is that over time, correspondence to reality is usually more fit than a-factuality.  While this is likely true, it is pragmatics not theory that is the ultimate arbiter of what is fit.

This is where things get messy with hyper-rationalists.  New atheists like Harris take a utopian position here, arguing that our ability to chose enables us to pursue transformative paths that can exceeds the cold hearted calculus of nature (evolution).  Weinstein explicitly mentioned this in his conversation with Harris.  All organisms have the same ultimate goal - spread their genes.  Thus, evolution's goal may not be what we actually want - maximal domination.  Instead what we might want is some balance.  This means a conscious limiting of fundamentally insatiable proclivities.

Thus, I am sensitive to Harris' stance. But, like many others, I smirk at the ironically "religious" utopian aspects he has to make. While they might be rational, they are still dogmatic.  But, ultimately, the question comes down to who do we want to be in control, us or nature?

The real issue then becomes over what time period do we need to "supress" out genetic proclivities to get benefits which outweigh the real human costs a quick change to hyper-rationalism might entail?  After all, most people aren't likely to give up the yoke of pro-social religion for the yoke of pro-social hyper-rationalism without a fight.  Pro-social hype rationalism hasn't yet shown itself a very adept, very friendly hegemon.  Pro-social religion, though messy, is at least a known entity with evolutionary robust mechanisms and norms (like inescapable eternal damnation and Big God arbiters who can't be fooled nor bribed). 

Here's a final quote from Wilson (p. 156)

along with Durkheim, I predict that most enduring religions survive on the basis of their secular utility…  What will not be observed, or rather seldom observed, are major beliefs that have no function other than to satisfy the human urge to explain, or that actually handicap the believer by motivating dysfunctional behaviors.

a sect or cult doesn’t senesce [decay] as it grows into a church; it adapts to the changing wealth of its members caused by its own success.

JORDAN PETERSON: Darwinian Truth

Peterson takes a very Jungian approach to his idea of Darwinian Truth.  He views religion as a meta-truth as per a Joseph Campell monomyth.  However, Peterson adds some evolutionary colour to the monomyth.  Here is his logic (as near as I can tell)

  1. Stories emerged amongst early humans as a way to convey information, especially information that was morally/evolutionarily important. In other words, stories conveyed classically adaptive information.
  2. These stories have been refined for millennia, producing a series of near universal monomyths. 
  3. The length of refinement ensures fitness payoffs are stable over long time periods. While there may be competing payoffs, such as low cost commitment beliefs, the payoff of these cheaper beliefs are uncertain and are less likely to have been as (evolutionarily) vetted.
  4. These Darwinian truths are fit because they keep us in contact with basic aspects of human nature which are so deep seated that they only change on long genetic time scales.
The challenge about this view is its unfalsifiability and avoidance of dynamic evolution.  Is the "deep seated enough" inference enough to obviate modernity?  I doubt it.  But I also worry about the "just so" critique sloppy functional evolution is subject to.  How do you tease out that which is "deep seated" from that which is superficial and potentially maladaptive?  I interpret Peterson's likely answer to be that of probabilities.  If you find that the ideas and tensions which are most fundamental to long-lived human moral cultural, you increase the probability that any leaven added to these ideas is less maladaptively significant that any leaven added to modern dogma and hyper-rationality.  In essence, you need connection to deep metahistories to temper the forward-predicting blinders hyper-rationality and modern quasi-secular religion necessarily has.

To be honest, I'm sympathetic to this last critique. Purposeful recreation of secular religion has a bad track record. Marxism is a classic example. I think Animal Farm critiques are apropos here.  It is very hard to re-invent all the human dynamical checks and balances necessary to keep self-interest at bay.  While we get better at social engineering all the time, eons of "arms races" on this front make for a very nuanced and sophisticated space. In fact I suspect our hubris with respect to rational atheistic moral quasi-religion is akin to 19th century biological engineering.  What could possibly go wrong with cane toads?


  1. I should add, the Scientific Study of Religion is having a future directions conference over in Italy this May. I think factual vs. practical reality would be a great topic for future research. A bunch of key evolutionists familiar with these questions are going to be there - Atran, Wilson, Norezayan....

  2. An interesting paper on utilitarianism which I think connects nicely with this debate

  3. Following up the references from that last paper led me to this nice one by Greene on deontology (rule based morality) vs. consequentialism (outcome based morality).

  4. Looking forward to seeing how Sperber's new book on the Enigma of Reason relates to this topic

    1. Ended up fairly disappointed about that book. It didn't really confront any of the major questions discussed in this post. And, while it's been a few months since I read it, I thought it was fairly basic.

  5. Another good summary of Peterson's position - is scientific rationalism enough...

  6. Looks like Harris actually has a pretty engaging conversation with Dave Rubin around Harris' view of religion. He is no longer the strident atheist he was once and seems to be coming around more an more to accept how religious and quasi-religious experiences are part of human nature and represent another avenue of self introspection. Of course he suggests that rational control of these tools is the ultimate aim - sort of the "understand that useful mythic tendencies are part of our nature and learn to harness it in areas where it is goo (introspection, creativity) and to limit it in areas where it is bad (pretty much everything, especially things that have any group nature to them). From 1h 13min on

  7. Just heard about a great reference in this area Don D Hoffman.

    I picked this up from the 1st Dublin Harris Peterson debate