Biological Constraints on our Ability to Know What we Know

In On Being Certain, Robert Burton writes, “Since beginning this book, I have increasingly found myself asking a single question of any idea – be it the latest scientific advances, a pop psychology book, or personal opinions (mine as well as those of others): Is the idea consistent with how the mind works?”

One book Burton endorses is Timothy Wilson's Strangers to Ourselves, from which he quotes the following passage -- “The bad news is that it is difficult to know ourselves because there is no direct access to the adaptive unconscious, no matter how hard we try... Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.”

Burton comments, “Wilson suggests that we are better off by combining introspection with observing how others react to us, and deducing the otherwise inaccessible nature of our minds from their responses. If others see us differently than we see ourselves, we need to incorporate this alternative view of ourselves into our personal narrative. He warns us that introspection without looking outward at how others see us can actually be counterproductive.”

The “rational” neocortex sometimes generates good beliefs, sometimes bad; the “emotional” amygdala sometimes generates good beliefs, sometimes bad. On Being Certain warns us that we are more inclined to trust the beliefs that rise from the depths of our unconscious, precisely because these beliefs come to us imbued with a physiological feeling of certainty.

Blink is summed up simply: use intuition when it makes sense, except when it doesn't.”-- a comment by Ben Casnocha on a venture capitaist's negative review of Malcolm Gladwell's Blink. Gladwell characteristically writes books that, while full of fascinating case studies, generally amount to less than the sum of their parts. Blink is one book Burton takes to task: while Gladwell admires Timothy Wilson's work, in Blink Gladwell succumbs to the temptation of suggesting we can train ourselves to make better intuitive “snap” judgments – when all we can really do is accept that our snap judgments may be right, may be wrong, and evaluate them accordingly, accepting that the final best answer we reach by these means is still not infallible. Put it that way of course, and it doesn't sound so sensational on the blurb.

Burton argues that we should raise future generations on the idea that there are biological constraints on our ability to know what we know. But perhaps our biology renders us disinclined to raise our kids this way? Is it possible that, in Paleolithic times, a false sense of certainty turned out overall to be evolutionarily adaptive?

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