Conscious reason is a double-edged sword. It helps and it harms. Today I’m focusing on how it harms.
My brother-in-law passed away on January 29th, 2020 from pancreatic cancer. Afterward his wife related an insight she gained from being his primary caregiver during his final months. She said “Our brains expect today to be like yesterday, and tomorrow to be like today.” It takes a long time for it to recognize a new reality and an even longer time to adjust to it, if it ever does.
If the new reality is nasty, her word, as the prognosis of pancreatic cancer certainly is, our brain strongly resists even contemplating it. She said “It doesn’t like going to the nasty place. And when it does it spends as little time there as possible.” Consciously my brother-in-law knew what was happening and could dispassionately prepare for it. But subconsciously some part of him never really accepted it. He tried to carry on as if he would recover. At some deep level his brain fought and fought for normalcy until literally his final breath.
I think my-sister-in-law is right. I think that somewhere deep in our minds we want, expect, need, fight for, today to be like yesterday and tomorrow to be like today.
I think this applies to the way we’ve reacted to the Corona Virus.
Evolution shaped our brains to be pattern recognition modules. We tend to favor patterns that feel comfortable and safe, and we tend to recoil from patterns that feel uncomfortable and dangerous. It’s not an accident, for example, that we are attracted to patterns and shapes that look like hearth and home and we recoil from patterns and shapes that represent danger, like the those of spiders and snakes.
And we’re slow to pick up on new patterns that we aren’t pre-programmed by evolution to recognize. We too-often blithely blunder into dangerous situations. We’re predisposed to want today to be like yesterday and tomorrow to be like today.
A second aspect of our evolutionary programming is our groupishness. We’re the only species that is ultra-social; the only one that forms into groups of like-minded individuals which then compete with other groups for scarce resources and political power. Our groupishness came along relatively late in the evolutionary process, long after our pattern recognition modules were fully formed and deeply ingrained in the oldest parts of our brain.
Probably not coincidentally, conscious reason showed up around the same time. It is an evolutionary adaptation “designed” by natural selection to facilitate our groupishness in two distinct ways. First, it helps us to cooperate. We needed to be able to share our intent with one other so that we could work together toward common goals. Second, it helps us manage our reputations. We needed to be able to persuade the other members of our groups that we belonged in the group and deserved to stay in it.
The evolutionary purpose of reason was not to take over the reins of control from our long-evolved instincts and intuitions. Rather, it was to serve and obey them.
each individual reasoner is really good at one thing: finding evidence to support the position he or she already holds, usually for intuitive reasons. – Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion, p. 105.
A funny thing happened on the way to modernity.
Collectively, as a culture, we forgot, to the extent that we ever really knew, that reason is the slave of the passions, and we came to believe, contrary to fact, that the exact opposite is true: that reason rules our actions.
Since we’re aware of conscious reason, and since instinct and intuition are effectively beyond its reach, we came to believe that reason, rather than the passions, is in charge. This is known as The Rationalist Delusion. A delusion is “a belief in something that has no existence in fact.”
The rationalist delusion is exacerbated by the fact that under very specific, very controlled, circumstances reason can be used to improve our standard of living. Those circumstances have come to be known as the scientific method, in which we crowd source our ideas by allowing them to be picked apart by other people, thus exposing their flaws and whittling away the wrong bits until only the truth remains.
This method has worked so well that we’ve come to conflate it with our own personal reasoning as individuals, absent the crowd sourcing aspect. We have a very strong tendency to believe that our own personal reasoning is self evident common sense based in objective facts and unassailable logic, and that therefore anyone who sees things differently from the way we see them either doesn’t have all the facts, is bad at logic, or, and here’s the important part, is motivated by nefarious purposes. The rationalist delusion has so completely taken over our lives that the idea that we humans act primarily out of instinct and intuition is simply not part of our cognitive universe. People do things only because they consciously choose to.
The rationalist delusion is real. In many respects our society is based on it.
Enter the Coronavirus.
It was a pattern heretofore not part of the experience of those of us who are alive today. Sure we’d seen the flu before. And we were aware of that plague thing that happened in what to us is ancient history. But we’d never, not really, experienced first hand a true, deadly pandemic.
And since our brains have a strong tendency to want today to be like yesterday and tomorrow to be like today we either downplayed it or ignored it entirely. We didn’t, couldn’t, automatically and intuitively grasp the looming threat.
This is not anyone’s fault. It’s not something anyone did wrong. There’s nobody to blame. It’s a natural, nearly inevitable, relatively ubiquitous, aspect of our evolved nature for us to not see danger coming until it’s already upon us and the opportunity to nip it in the bud has passed. A few of us might see it and try to warn the rest of us, but their numbers are typically small and the force of cultural momentum usually rolls over them. Winston Churchill saw the looming danger of Hitler but the consensus was against him until late in the game and even then he had to fight like hell.
Our second reaction to Coronavirus, after we finally did begin to grasp what was happening, was for the rationalist delusion to take over. We circled the intellectual wagons around the groups to which we belong and we employed our reasoning to point out how our group got it right and the other group got it so very wrong.
Contrary to the notion that a common threat can unite, at least temporarily, people who normally are at odds, the common threat of the corona virus has been a wedge that’s driving us further apart.
We’re so completely invested in the rationalist delusion, we have such complete and utter faith in the idea that our own personal reasoning is the path to truth, that it never, ever, occurs to us to even consider the possibility that maybe, just maybe, the way we’ve reacted to the situations in which we find ourselves might be perfectly natural; simply humans being human.
So all-consuming is our unquestioned, unquestionable, faith in the god of reason, that we don’t allow each other the emotional space to be human. Our capability for empathy is quashed. The virtue of forgiveness boxed out from out lives. Our faith in reason, combined with our innate evolutionary need for our own group to win out against all others makes us intolerant, vindictive, mean, cruel.