Why We Should Try Reason as an Alternative to Belief

Image by Corbis

The human brain is small and evolved to cope with the challenges of the African savannah and the primordial forests of Eurasia. As complex organs evolve relatively slowly in comparison to individual lifespans our brains are pretty much the same as those of people who lived 30,000 years ago.

Most of our brain is occupied with mundane tasks like keeping the heartbeat regulated, making sure our lungs fill and then empty as needed, ensuring we don’t fall over when we’re walking, and interpreting the myriad inputs from our sensory organs. There’s not much of the human brain that’s actually dedicated to thinking and that’s because for the most part throughout our evolutionary history there wasn’t much benefit to be had from burning up precious calories on reasoning.

Our brains have inbuilt heuristics about associating effects with causes, seeing intentionality everywhere, and identifying important patterns. While these heuristics are frequently fallible, back in our ancestral environment they were adequate enough to ensure overall that the species survived.

For the most part, blind acceptance of what we were told by authority figures and subsequent unquestioning belief was enough to see our ancestors through their short and difficult lives.

The human brain today operates on exactly the same basis: we default to belief and we almost never engage in any form of reasoning. Of course, we don’t realize this because we don’t see ourselves from the outside. From the inside our thoughts and actions seem perfectly adequate to us. When reality differs from our beliefs we studiously ignore reality. Sometimes this strategy causes us problems but mostly it works well enough that we can carry on imagining that we’re smart and stable and doing alright in this strange game of life.

Most of us are content to go from cradle to grave without ever once attempting to reason about anything. We accept what we’re told, we believe it, we go through life trying to ignore the fact that many of our beliefs are contradicted by empirical evidence and are often not only internally contradictory but also quite incoherent. None of this bothers us because we’re hardwired not to notice. Cognitive dissonance back on the African savannah would have resulted in doubt and hesitation and back then doubt and hesitation would frequently have been lethal. Thus we evolved to bumble along confident in our beliefs even when they are risible and absurd.

Today however many of us live in environments where doubt and hesitation are not likely to be fatal, especially if experienced in the relative security of one’s own home. This means that, should we wish to make the attempt, each of us individually can try our hand at this reasoning thing.

How does reasoning work? There have been surprisingly few studies, but from what we do know it seems the most reliable way to reason from facts and arrive at coherent conclusions is to begin not as we almost always do with assumptions and beliefs but with an attempt to imagine we don’t already know the “obvious” answer.

This is actually very hard to do because we hate the feeling of not knowing something. Back in our evolutionary history, not knowing something was often fatal. If we didn’t know how to make fire or spot the tracks of a predator or know who in the tribe was scheming against us, the consequences were quite often lethal. The discomfort we feel when we realize we don’t know something is an evolutionary adaptation that drives us to seek an answer as rapidly as possible. Thus we embrace the first easy-to-understand “explanation” we encounter in order to rid ourselves of discomfort.

But if we want to reason rather than merely believe, we have to train ourselves to accept temporary discomfort. We need to create the space in which reasoning can occur.

Let’s look at a simplified model of how reasoning works. First of all we identify the problem: what is it we don’t know? Then we consider what information we will require in order to begin to reason about the problem. After this we set out to acquire the information and understand it adequately. Finally, we can begin to reason about the implications of the information we’ve digested. Once we have formed a hypothesis about the problem, we check to see if the elements of our hypothesis are internally consistent as well as being externally consistent with all known real-world facts. If our hypothesis passes these tests we can have some modest confidence that it may be a reasonable conclusion.

We can use this model to perform a compare-and-contrast case study. Back in 2016 the people of the United Kingdom (England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland) were asked to vote on a binary referendum question: did they wish to remain part of the European Union or leave that Union? Those in favor of remaining presented abstract arguments while those in favor of leaving told simplistic emotionally-resonant lies that were basically children’s fairytales about golden palaces and free ice-cream forever. Not surprisingly, when confronted with a choice between having to attempt to reason versus embracing free ice-cream, a slender majority of people voted for the ice-cream.

Those who voted for free ice-cream did the following: they accepted unquestioningly the unfounded assertions of the pro-Brexit campaigners, they never performed any primary research, and they never asked themselves whether the claims being made in favor of Brexit were internally consistent and consistent with publicly available information. Brexit voters responded as humans generally do when presented with claims by purported authority figures: they accepted and believed automatically. After all, what child of any age would be silly enough to turn down free ice-cream forever?

Reasoning, however, would have led the UK down a very different path. Commencing with a position of not knowing, a reasoning voter would have ignored the claims of the two sides and looked instead for publicly available information relevant to the decision: the dependence of the UK on the friction-free single market, the size of this dependence, and the total economic impact of this dependence (number of jobs, impact on GDP, etc.). A reasoning voter would have looked at issues such as immigration and assessed what the true impact had been to date. A reasoning voter would also have considered the complexity of the relationship between the 28 EU member states, the treaties binding them together, and the probable difficulty of unwinding those treaties. A reasoning voter would have looked for data which would indicate whether severing this long-standing relationship would yield gains greater than the costs, or vice-versa.

A reasoning voter would then have examined the claims being made by both sides and would have assessed these claims in light of actual facts. A reasoning voter would have ignored empty emotional claims such as “take back control” because a reasoning voter would have identified them as meaningless. What could “take back control” possibly mean in a global inter-connected world in which all parties to a transaction must conform to mutually agreeable standards? Indeed, a reasoning voter would have seen that the entire Brexit campaign was based on false claims and empty promises and would have concluded that those making these claims and promises were either insincere or abjectly stupid (or both).

Finally, a reasoning voter would have formed a hypothesis: “leaving the EU will be an extremely complex undertaking, will result in the UK economy being harmed significantly for a very long period of time, and the claimed benefits of this action are implausible or downright illusory.” Checking this hypothesis for internal consistency would have shown it to be consistent. A reasoning voter would therefore have voted to remain in the European Union because all the publicly available information, plausible scenarios, and evident costs consistently indicated this was the most favorable choice.

In real life, of course, we don’t reason.

This is why most people even today, after the extraordinary efflorescence of fact-based knowledge we’ve enjoyed over the last two hundred years, continue to believe in gods and goblins and ghouls and ghosts, in spirits and souls and precognition and all manner of other nonsense. The amount of nonsense we are prepared to believe is evidence in itself of the incapacity of the human brain to do even the slightest reasoning. That’s because all of these notions, when examined for more than a fraction of a second, instantly fall apart in a jumble of incoherence and self-contradiction.

Our tiny human brains are evolved to infer intention, because for all of our existence it has been very important for us to guess what those around us are thinking and planning. If Mary gives Jane a sly sideways glance that may well mean they are plotting harm against Sally. Inferring this can give Sally a chance to form her own alliances in order to combat that harm. We’re hardwired to see everything from a me-centric perspective. Everything that happens in our lives appears to happen around us so we feel as if we’re the center of the universe.

This solipsistic view of the universe was for the most part beneficial: we steal food from our neighbor because our survival is more important than his, and we are the first to run from the leopard because our survival is more important than that of the slower members of our tribe.

A solipsistic view of the universe is, however, inconsistent with reality. The universe is vast and impersonal and non-teleological. The universe is not our own private butler, nudging us to learn lessons and making things happen for a reason. These vapid ideas are merely the consequence of the fact our brains are tiny and unsuited to grasping the impersonal immensity of reality. That would have had no evolutionary benefit whatsoever, so our brains never evolved to do it.

We believe in “souls” because primitive people knew nothing about neuroscience and they wanted to explain the strange feeling we have that there is something “inside” our bodies that “makes us us.” Today we know the illusion of a consistent internal self is manufactured by the brain and we know how partial it is. Just as we’re unaware of the two holes in the center of our vision (where the optic nerves exit the back of the eyeball) because our brains fabricate the illusion of completeness, so too we are as individuals unaware of the many gaps in our consciousness and the fallibility of our sensory inputs. We imagine we are coherent and complete when in fact we’re an inconsistent patchwork of highly fallible sensations.

This understanding, however, would require us to go out and read scientific journals and acquire the necessary knowledge. It would also acquire us to set aside our childish preconceptions and the various myths we’ve absorbed uncritically over the years. It is far easier to believe whatever we happen to believe because belief requires no effort. And so that’s what we do. We continue to cling to our gods and ghouls, our spirits and souls, because not-reasoning is the default option for the human brain.

Unfortunately, in our modern technological world not-reasoning now has terrible consequences. Because we invariably multiply our gods and goblins we go to war with those who believe in fractionally different imaginary magical creatures. We vote for blustering incompetents because it’s easier to believe their lies than to expend the effort required to consider whether those lies are plausible or not. We believe that people with different hues of skin are better or worse than we are, and act accordingly. We believe our gods and goblins have a plan for us and we embrace that plan. And all the while our astonishing technologies amplify our folly, wreaking harm on a scale unimaginable to our ancestors who clung on to existence on the African savannah and in the primordial forests of Eurasia.

Although the human brain is very small and largely unequipped to perform reasoning tasks, it is now essential that we make the effort to attempt to reason, at least on those occasions when we’re confronted with choices that have large consequences. The work of a relatively tiny number of clever people has given us technological marvels by means of which we can do great things or do great harm. Increasingly we’re doing the latter because we’re continuing to operate as we did tens of thousands of years ago when our technologies consisted merely of flints and wooden spears.

The human race doesn’t have much time remaining in which to grow up. Our path to mental adolescence is via reasoning. Very few people have ever attempted this path but it is imperative that more of us begin the journey today for if we continue down the road of belief we most likely will end by exterminating ourselves and whatever is left around us.

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