Two questions are begged by the fact that each of us lives in our own private reality constructed for us by our own brains.
- Which realities best correspond with actual reality?
- How would we know?
The answer to the second question is, in a word, science. More broadly, it is the scientific method, in which falsifiable theories are proposed, tested as objectively as possible given the circumstances, and then submitted for review by the scientific community at large.
The scientific method is, in my opinion, one of the two greatest inventions of mankind. The other is the rule of law. Both are designed to leverage for mankind’s mutual benefit the “flaws” of reason that allow us to see the speck in each other’s eyes while remaining blind to the log in our own. Both lift all boats by raising the tide of human understanding and social interaction. The first yields technologies and awareness that improve the quality and longevity of life. The second yields social standards that improve “liberty and justice for all.”
Speaking of “given the circumstances,” in the study of human nature it’s not possible to do the sort of experiments and destructive testing that are possible in the “hard’ natural sciences. This is why the social sciences seem to be moving in the direction of interdisciplinary research; gathering and synthesizing all possible information from all possible sources to create a “Nomological Network of Cumulative Evidence” from which new theories might be generate and the evidence with which to refute or confirm them might be found.
The answer to the first question is, in a word, conservatism.
Hear me out.
According to my Cognitive Theory of Politics:
Just as there are different physical body types like ectomorph, endomorph, and mesomorph, so too, I propose, are there different cognitive processing types – operating systems, as it were, like Mac and PC, or brain types – that operate on essentially the same inputs only to produce starkly different outputs. It is counter intuitive, amid all of the variation we see among humans, to assume that we’re all born with identical wiring schemes
The two main brain types are liberalism and conservatism. Note that these are NOT THE SAME as the ideologies, principles, and policies that are ALSO called liberalism and conservatism. My contention is that liberalism and conservatism are, first and foremost, psychological profiles, from which follow the patterns of thought and behavior – the ideologies, principles, and policies – commonly called liberalism and conservatism.
Also note that in any discussion about human thought and behavior we’re talking about statistically significant trends and tendencies, averages and aggregates. We are talking about spectrums of thought and behavior, bell curves that often overlap. We are NOT talking about binary dichotomies. We are NOT saying anything like “All conservatives think this way” or “All liberals behave that way.” For a superb discussion of this idea, and of the idea that left and right are primarily psychological profiles, see the book Predisposed: Liberals, Conservatives, and the Biology of Political Differences.
I believe that, were my Cognitive Theory of Politics to be tested by the scientific community with the scientific method, interdisciplinary research, and peer review it would be found to be largely true.
I contend that brain types are defined by two core parameters; 1) Cognitive Style, and 2) Moral Foundations.
Cognitive style comes in two basic flavors, described in the book The Cave and the Light: Plato Versus Aristotle, and the Struggle for the Soul of Western Civilization, by Arthur Herman, in which Plato and Aristotle serve as metaphors for them. In a nutshell, Herman describes them in these two excerpts from his book:
Despite their differences, Plato and Aristotle agreed on many things. They both stressed the importance of reason as our guide for understanding and shaping the world. Both believed that our physical world is shaped by certain eternal forms that are more real than matter. The difference was that Plato’s forms existed outside matter, whereas Aristotle’s forms were unrealizable without out it. (p. 61)
The twentieth century’s greatest ideological conflicts do mark the violent unfolding of a Platonist versus Aristotelian vie of what it means to be free and how reason and knowledge ultimately fit into our lives (p.539-540)
In short, Plato believed that everything in the real world, including individuals and societies, are but a pale shadow of their potential ideal selves, and it is the role of the enlightened among us to help us see the ideal and move toward it. Aristotle agreed that humans should always strive to improve, but human nature has real limits that place actual constraints on what’s possible. and we risk doing more harm than good if we try to shape it into something it cannot be. Rather, we must work within those constraints, and maybe even leverage them to our advantage, as we continually strive to do better.
In other words, it is NOT TRUE that the ideological spectrum is defined by change and progress vs order and stability, or reason vs faith. Everyone, equally, regardless of ideology, wants change and progress. Rather, it IS TRUE that the spectrum is defined by brain type, from which follow beliefs about the source and nature of knowledge, and HOW BEST TO ACHIEVE progress. The platonic cognitive style tends to place its faith in abstract reason, called “technical” knowledge by Michael Oakeshott, as the path to moral truth, whereas the Aristotelian cognitive style tends to place its faith in the combination of reason AND empirical experience, Oakeshott’s “practical” knowledge, as the surest guide.
Moral Foundations come in many flavors, but so far six have been identified as the most influential, described in the book The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, by Jonathan Haidt. They are Care/Harm, Fairness/Cheating, Liberty/Oppression, Loyalty/Betrayal, Authority/Subversion, and Sanctity/Degradation.
Moral foundations are evolved psychological mechanisms that operate like automatic, subconscious, social radars, constantly scanning the social environment around us for patterns of thought and behavior that represented opportunities or threats to our genetic ancestors, and sending flashes of affect forward into consciousness when such patterns are detected. We experience them as gut feelings, or intuitions, of like or dislike, approach or avoid, and fight or flee.
The liberal psychological profile leans toward the Platonic cognitive style and the first three moral foundations The conservative psychological profile leans toward the Aristotelian cognitive style and all of the moral foundations in equal balance. Note that there are Aristotelian liberals and Platonic conservatives, but the general tendencies are as I’ve described. Remember, too, that these are statistically significant trends and tendencies with lots of overlap. Platonic vs Aristotelian is not a binary, either/or, dichotomy.
In terms of both parameters, by virtue of its tendency toward empirical experience and its employment of all of the social radars, the conservative psychological profile is better connected to actual reality – that which the scientific method tells us is true about human nature – than is the liberal psychological profile.
This explains a lot. It explains, for example, why…
- Conservatives understand liberals better than liberals understand conservatives.
- Conservatives have a better innate grasp of fundamental human nature than do liberals.
- American popular culture misunderstands conservatism.
- The public policies of the liberal unconstrained vision “have the worst track record in the history of ideas”.
- The public policies of the conservative constrained vision have the best track record in the history of ideas, both in forms of government, and in economics.