Friday, 18 May 2012

Over- rationalisation

I am reading The social animal by David Brooks at the moment. It is full of so many interesting snippets but this morning's reading set me cogs off! Particularly this bit......

It all started with Plato. He said that the higher, more rational functions that the human brain were capable of, were the best bits and the 'underlying,' more basic passions and sentiments were brutish and unruly. He said, the conscious part that could reason and apply logic was the part that should be nurtured. Then the dark ages came along and that section of the brain took a back seat and more irrational superstition and folklore were in charge again. Then along can the renaissance and the higher thinking returned and pretty much stayed. Logic, science and theories of prediction prevailed. Of course there is nothing wrong with this kind of thinking. It has brought about huge health and technological benefits for example. But then we might have become a little over-zealous with our scientific principles and in our quest for certainty, applied it to too many things - even things that are fundamentally about (and as unpredictable as) human nature (including values, passions, motivations) - like economics. The science of economics, for examples assumed that human reason is nearly all consciously controlled. We do currently live in a society that is comfortable with things that can be logically proven and yet so many things can't -especially human behaviour which has so much impact on our day to day existence. Anyway.....

Scientific thought's domain is the conscious mind (level 2 thinking). However, this completely overlooks the huge part that makes up a human: the unconscious mind (which does level 1 thinking). In some ways our unconscious mind is a bit simple. It harbours stereotypes, makes us have reactions that are simply based on prior experiences, looks after simple bodily functions etc. But in other ways, our over-looking of it does us absolutely no favours. The unconscious mind has a hundred thousand times more processing capacity than the conscious mind. There is lots of scientific evidence showing how the subconscious can process much more information to arrive at a decision (for example). When we make a decision using our subconscious, it is more likely to feel like a gut reaction than a logical process. But when we have let our unconscious work on a decision, we will have unknowingly considered far more information to arrive at our conclusion. And that is what science (level 2) thinking is missing. It looks for patterns and predictions found in components of the whole, as the whole usually includes too many parts to create neat and predictable patterns. Level 1 thinking, however, can process the whole but because it's not conscious, it's hard for our 'needs hard evidence' minds to appreciate.

A good example of level 1 and 2 thinking is given in the book. Suppose a farmer wants to know when to plant his corn. Well he could consult with scientists to look at the weather patterns and predictions, the types of corn etc. This will give him worthwhile information and he can make a logical decision. However, farmers in the States have always successfully planted their corn 'when the oak leaves are the size of a squirrel's ear'. I see the first type of thinking as level 2 thinking - based on conscious reasoning and the folklore as result of centuries of observation and processed intuition - or the result of allowing level 1 thinking to make your judgement.

Throughout history societies have moved from being predominantly rationalist (described as simple-minded by Alfred North Whitehead) as we are now in the western world and predominantly romantic (described as muddle-minded). During simple-minded times, it was attempted to interpret people as simple mathematical models and during muddle-minded times intuition and imagination guided the way. As the book says 'sometimes imagination grows too luxuriant and sometimes reason grows too austere'.

The trick therefore is to know when and how to marry the level 1 and level 2 thinking. Lots of things boil down to balance. If we have too much trust in rational thinking then we overlook a more intuitive process - a less tangible process but a process that has been busy taking in far more data than we ever knew we could. We never fully know ourselves any more than we can others so when it comes to wise decisions - sleep on it or take some time - and let your subconscious do the work for you!


  1. Did you read about the zoo primate that recently did some level 2 thinking? It enjoyed throwing stones at human visitors, but realized that humans would see him gathering up rocks to throw. So when no one was around (forethought), he hid rocks under hay next to the fence, then waited patiently.

  2. Have you moved Eric?
    And is there some cryptic message in the primate with level 2 thinking?
    I certainly have grown to expect the latter from you!

  3. A balance is needed and it is a good thing. If everything was rational, it'd be a boring world.

  4. Hello! 1st-time visitor to your blog. Much impressed by good use of humor and reason. Joining.


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