Monthly Archives: May 2010

Reasoning Backwards

Originally published, last week and in a slightly different form, at Libertines Pub.

Back when I still lived in the US, I was pretty put off by American culture and the American lifestyle. I readily criticized groups who I didn’t associate with myself, like suburban Republicans. I railed against their environmentally destructive lifestyle: their giant SUVs,  giant houses far away from everything they need, their conformity, and their dogmatic belief in Christianity. Sometimes I got into conversations with them where I would attempt to convince them that their lifestyle was unsustainable and environmentally destructive. Needless to say, I never made a convert, and though my tactics could have been more tactful, I really don’t think my lack of success had anything to do with my rhetorical techniques. I was criticizing their lifestyle, their way of existing in the world, and perhaps most importantly I was criticizing the economic system that they depended on for survival, well being, and happiness.

Now that I live in Hong Kong, when I hear non-Americans criticizing those fat, self-centered Americans, I feel something stir inside me. Some part of me says, “No! You’re wrong! You’re criticizing my people, and so there must be something wrong with you or what your’e saying!” What changed was context. “Them” became “us.” Increasingly, “us” feels like Americans, or people from Western cultures, or even…gasp…white people. When I was back in the US, the stereotypical American felt like a “them” and so I had no emotional reaction to criticism of that lifestyle. For the most part, I have disassociated my identity from that stereotype (I’m not that kind of American), but I still feel this visceral push to defend the American lifestyle from what my rational mind still tells me is perfectly reasonable criticism. In some cases, criticisms that I have this emotional reaction to have been criticisms I myself made before “they” became “we.”

When we make statements like “I am an American” or “I am a liberal” or “I am a Christian” we connect our identities to a set of beliefs, beliefs about morality, human nature, history, and science: beliefs about how the world works, and how it ought to work. When we connect our identities to these beliefs, we begin to perceive attacks on these beliefs as attacks on ourselves, and often have an emotional response that compels us to defend our beliefs as strongly as we would defend our lives.

This need to preserve our identity has no limits. As anyone who has ever argued with a Christian fundamentalist about the age of the Earth knows, no amount of evidence can convince people that their identity-beliefs are wrong. So far as I can tell, there is nothing so outlandish or ridiculous that people won’t believe it if it’s attached to their identity. It seems that our faculties for reason weren’t really designed to objectively evaluate reality. They were designed to subjectively evaluate reality, through the lens of group and individual identity. It’s the difference between what’s true and what’s useful to the organism. Now to be sure, natural selection deals harshly with certain types of false beliefs (like the belief that cobras aren’t dangerous when there are cobras around, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt you) but those beliefs never spread in a population, so I believe that natural selection generally favors individuals who suspend their objective reasoning faculties when it comes to beliefs that everyone else in their group shares. The negative repercussions of disagreeing with the group far outweigh the negative repercussions of holding beliefs that are counter-factual, in the vast majority of circumstances.

This need to preserve our identity has no limits. As anyone who has ever argued with a Christian fundamentalist about the age of the Earth knows, no amount of evidence can convince people that their identity-beliefs are wrong. So far as I can tell, there is nothing so outlandish or ridiculous that people won’t believe it if it’s attached to their identity. It seems that our faculties for reason weren’t really designed to objectively evaluate reality. They were designed to subjectively evaluate reality, through the lens of group and individual identity. It’s the difference between what’s true and what’s useful to the organism. Now to be sure, natural selection deals harshly with certain types of false beliefs (like the belief that cobras aren’t dangerous when there are cobras around, or that jumping off a cliff won’t hurt you) but those beliefs never spread in a population, so I believe that natural selection generally favors individuals who suspend their objective reasoning faculties when it comes to beliefs that everyone else in their group shares.

When we reason from group identity to beliefs about empirical reality, we reason backwards.  I believe it is much more rational to choose our beliefs about the way the world works independent of our national identity, political identity, ethnic identity or any other identity.  Reasoning forward is not natural for our species in many circumstances.  Nevertheless we possess the ability to do so.  The first step toward doing so more often is to recognize the way that group identity biases our rational ability, and consciously guard against it.