How we’d like things to be vs how they are

Posted by on Sep 1, 2008 in Uncategorized | One Comment


As I stirred into life on Sunday morning I caught an interesting piece on the radio by one of our favourite modern philosophers – Anthony Grayling.

He is part of that tradition of useful philosophers that stretches back at least as far as Bertrand Russell – engaging with the real stuff and dilemmas of everyday life rather than the arcana and walled garden of much that passes for philosophy today…and as such is rapidly becoming a national treasure. Go here or here to sample his humanist wisdom and his lovely prose.

That said,…

I think he gets it wrong (e.g. on Sunday a.m.) in the way he places thinking and reasoning above the influence of others as preferred sources of influence on individual behaviour; those whose trade is thinking always do. I've done it myself.

Like a good Enlightenment warrior, he encouraged us to resist the lure of conformity to other people's opinions and behaviour – to think for ourselves. To think things through. To be guided by Reason.

Now it may make you feel a bit better to feel that you've thought something through, but in general it is an entirely impractical suggestion – we do not have the bandwidth or mental computing power to do this all or even much of the time (we need the shorthands that Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemann describes here) to navigate our way through the world; one of the most important shorthands is what other folk do (and think) as we've argued for (ooooh) ages

And this other stuff doesn't just produce the bad stuff, the madness of crowds: it's a key strand of who we are and how we negotiate our way through the world together. Indeed, a growing consensus of behavioural and cognitive scientists are seeing this 'sloppy' unthinking approach as the key to our success as a species. Remember that homo mimicus letter in NS recently?

“I propose a hypothesis, summed up by changing our name from Homo sapiens, "wise man" to Homo mimicus, "mimicking man". Many animals mimic each other's behaviour but we do it more often and with greater fidelity. Our compulsive copying encodes collective knowledge into our society, and it is really our society that possesses humanity's "intelligence"…

Of course, trapped in the prison of an individual's consciousness and in a culture which rewards thinking so highly, it's not surprising we want to imagine things are other than this. The truth is that thinking is much rarer than we (and those paid to do it) imagine…and that's just fine. Humans are to thinking as….

1 Comment

  1. Brian Young
    September 2, 2008

    Interesting tie-in: Time on Gut Decisions May Not Be Smart research