Think You’re Rational?

You’re not.

That might be putting it a bit strongly. Too bad. Human beings are plagued with irrationality, and if you don’t believe me, well, it’s probably good to not to take my word for a whole lot. Let’s instead exchange likelihood ratios in the comments. That wasn’t a come-on, I promise.

If you really believe that humans aren’t irrational, or that in particular, you’re immune, you won’t mind making that belief pay rent.

So if your birth date (the day of the month on which you were born) is odd, click on this link: Rationality Quiz A

If it’s even, click on this link: Rationality Quiz B

Please try to take the quiz in full faith, and only take one.

They shouldn’t take you more than 10 minutes at the very most. Then come back and share your answers, thoughts, analysis, criticisms and guesses as to what exactly those questions were trying to suss about about common causes of human irrationality.

Next post, which will be up in just a few days, will go over the quiz, what the answers are, and the research behind these types of human irrationality. I’ll also be sharing some gems from when I gave this quiz to a highly specialized focus group a.k.a. The Secular Alliance at the University of Chicago

Identity Confusion Part 2: Wading out of the mud

I realize that my last post was pretty incoherent, and so I want to write a follow-up piece, one I hope will be shorter and actually have a thesis. In particular, I want to respond to some excellent criticisms that my mother has levied at me.

She pointed out, to begin with, that I didn’t even bother to define ‘identity’ and that’s true. I thought I had good reason not to, given that I was trying to explore intuition rather than give an exhaustive account, but perhaps I was wrong. So to begin with, I’d like to define identity as a composite of three major elements: the psychological and philosophical phenomenon that is a result of memory and consciousness, the sense of ‘I’ that traces out a path through time and space, that is consistent and coherent and develops in a continuous fashion (by the way, note the last sentence of the first paragraph of the Wiki article); the sociological position of existing at the intersection of various communities and societies which help us define ourselves and choose our paths in life; and then the intuitive notion of identity as a deeply significant emergent property which is inherent in us from birth, which comes about as a result of the other two.

The argument I’m proposing is that we gain a better understanding of where our intuitions about identity come from and acknowledge the utility and disutility that come about as a result.

To the best of my knowledge, our psychological and philosophical conceptions of self and identity come mainly from consciousness, that state of being self-aware and having the capacity to recognize an autonomous self, and memory, the capacity to recognize this self as the same self that has existed at other times, in other forms and in other places. This psychological quirk of humans (and possibly other animals) is, one might argue, the defining characteristic of our species. Even if it’s not unique to humans, it is what makes possible the vast majority of what we do. Without a conception of being individuals, of being autonomous beings, I can’t say that I know what humanity would look like. Without a doubt, then, this inborn identificatory mechanism does a great deal of good. Of course, this has a lot of problems. Where, for example, does consciousness come from? Well, the brain, but to be honest, we don’t really understand it (though Dennett thinks he does), and it seems difficult to say what is and is not important. When does someone in a vegetative state cease to be a person? If you are copied and one copy is killed, is it murder? Of whom? More on this later.

Then there’s the sociological conception of identity, in which we are defined by the communities to which we belong, whether we are born into them or we choose them. This could be religion, ethnicity, subcultural interests, place of birth or something else. These are also important to humans, to being human. They give us communities of people similar to us in a variety of ways, they make us feel happy, they give us a sense of belonging. There is no doubt that a humanity without partitioning into subsections based on a number of characteristics would either be a singular community, one that some feel is the future of humans, or a vast network of unconnected autonomous agents, which would probably be undesired by most people. 
So far, everything seems fine. Identity is shown to exist by natural and social sciences alike, it makes us human, and it does a great deal of good. Well, sure, but it’s what we do with that information that begins to disturb me. I mentioned a third aspect of identity above and it’s that one I think I was discussing last time. The intense significance identity holds in our lives bothers and frustrates me when it appears that we are giving it far more power than it ought to have. So let’s problematize the issue. 
Who are you?
Make a list, if you like, of all of the things you are. Maybe they’re nouns, maybe adjectives. Some of them will be capitalized. I’m sure you’ll object that there’s an immaterial general sensation of being yourself that is impossible to convey in a list, and that’s fine, write that down, too. 

Now, let’s play Armchair Philosophical Thought Experiment. If you turned out to be a brain in a vat, would you still be you? If there were a brain in a vat that had all of your memories but was physically distinct from your brain, would that be you? How would you feel about being cloned? Would someone with all of the characteristics on the list be you?
I hope what becomes clear is that what matters is the sense that you are you, not any ‘actual fact’ of being you, and that is really only in your brain. Which does not I repeat does not mean that you are not real, or that your identity isn’t real. As Dumbledore says, “Of course it is happening inside your head…but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?”. It just means that given the logical reasoning you’re able to accomplish, your identity is only based on you thinking you have one, having the ability to consider having one. And that means that your identity is a self-constructed object, pulled from selectively chosen and carefully framed memory, tempered and modified as contexts change. There’s certainly something real about your history, but what your mind chooses to recognize as itself is another thing entirely. Or else do you never feel like you do things that are ‘out of character.’ Are you you when you’re drunk, or high? When are you most quintessentially you, then?
More Thought Experiments. What kind of person are you? Are you kind, decent, nice to people? Above average in most ways? Intelligent, thoughtful, prone to changing your mind when you need to? Do you act in approximately similar ways at most times? Are you a special snowflake? Are you good at imagining what it is to be other people? Are you a tolerant, unprejudiced individual?

Well, probably not, or at least not at all times. We think that we’re consistent, but we in fact behave in wildly different ways depending on our circumstances. We hate changing our minds, rationalizing to infinity to avoid it, especially when it challenges any deeply or emotionally strongly held identity. We care about being kind to people in our in-groups more than people in our out-groups. And none of this makes a bit of difference when you’re asked to describe yourself to others. Want more evidence? You’ve probably heard of the study in which people are given psychological profiles, which they rank as highly accurate, not knowing that they all got the same one. We’re all pretty similar, even though we don’t like to admit it, and furthermore, in the ways in which we are different, we just imagine what we would do in any given situation and work based on that. All of these things we consider ourselves to be, all of these traits we pride ourselves on, they don’t appear to be all that true. And you’re probably a racist.

Finally, what do the groups you count yourself a part of say about you? Does being Jewish really say anything substantive about you? What does it even mean to be a woman, or a man, or neither? There are countless words that we use to refer to concepts that seem to be simply indescribable; they simply are, and we associate powerful identities with these things we can’t explain. But given the vast diversity within the people who identify in a certain way (do Democrats all agree? What about neo-Platonists?), what are we really saying? Or are we muddling through, hoping people understand that intangibles we’re trying to get across?
Some answers:

Clearly, we have much more to learn about psychological identity, but it does seem that our intuition does alright by us, that generally our bodies circumscribe our identities, that our brains are the locus of self and that we are the same people as we move through time. So that’s not so bad. We’ve never really had to deal with aliens, Star Trek or teleportation, and so perhaps it doesn’t matter. But it should really be acknowledged that we don’t have good answers to these questions, and so maybe we shouldn’t put so much stock into the answers we have.

As for how we think of ourselves in terms of positive characteristics, there are very good reasons for favorable self-conceptions. It’s how we stop ourselves from being depressed, it’s how we have the psychological immune system that keeps us happy most of the time, no matter what happens. And yet, if we ignore the facts about the ways we think and the ways we treat and think about other people, we’ll never be able to improve ourselves. If we think we’re excellent, rational thinkers, how will we overcome our biases? If we think we’re consistent and need to be, how will we change our minds when we need to? If we think we are the same around different types of people, how will we learn to act appropriately in different situations, or learn not to judge others for doing the same? And if we think that none of us are racists or sexists anymore, then we won’t respond well to being called out on it, and feminism will stay middle-class and white and no one will think objectification is a problem.
Also, while communities and identity labels are important and feel good and give us a sense of belonging, we can’t be giving up anything just to belong to an incoherent cluster concept. Most identities really are empirical dense spots in concept-space, but there’s plenty of variance in there, and while identifying yourself publicly can make an excellent political statement, there’s no reason to subscribe to the whole list just because you already fulfill a lot of it. If you’re a woman you don’t need to dress a certain way, look a certain way, have sex with men. If you’re a Jew you don’t need to believe in Biblical inerrancy just because you believe in god, or be halachically observant just because your mother was Jewish. These get pretty complicated, of course, but the point is that there’s no need to appropriate a whole set of characteristics for yourself just because they happen to be highly correlated over a population.
In the final analysis, identity is an emergent property, and the thing about emergent properties is that they vanish when you dig in a little. They are real, they are important, but they are not unquestionably fundamental aspects of our lives, unless we make them so. For all of the benefits they give us, there are drawbacks, and we should question these identities whenever they unduly affect us.

Identity Confusion

This is kind of about subcultures, kind of about narratives, kind of about self-deception, and mostly about me just trying to sort through a few things. I’m still not satisfied with this. It might be the kind of thing that arises from a wrongly asked question, and so all I need to do is yell about it for a while and it will cease to trouble me, but for now, this is what I have.

I’ve written about stories a few times, now. I think of them differently than I used to, giving them less inherent value but maintaining my belief that they are a deeply important element of a certain kind of affective human existence. Both from the perspective of wanting to understand humans better and to participate in that type of existence, I find that their critical role as a nexus of much of what humans do and are pops up again and again in my thinking.

I also wrote about subcultures once or twice, and in looking back, I find it frankly astounding that I didn’t connect the two. Because I can’t think of anything more predicated on the telling, imbibing and engendering of stories than subcultures. I’m not even sure that’s the word I want anymore. What I really mean, I suppose, and this word choice makes the connections much clearer, is identities. Identity is this strange beast of notion that grips us, consciously and subconsciously, that feeds itself on our every thought and action, and in doing so becomes powerful enough to effect those of our future.

So what is identity? Not sociologically, historically, politically, academically, religiously. The thought-catalysts for this piece have come from all of those sources, and those are important, too of course, but because I’ve never heard a rationalist account, I have to assume that much of the less rigorous writing about this topic has come out of unacknowledged intuition manifesting itself in all sorts of ways.

Let’s see, then, if I can’t create a mental image of what an identity is. Small town white man. What does that make you think of? It doesn’t matter, really, except that I bet it wasn’t just a small town white man. You knew maybe what a set of possible names could be, hair color, political and religious affiliation. And that’s all fine, given that there are good statistical, rational reasons to expect all of those things to map onto each other. But the power of that image is such that it may override other rational considerations. Because this image of small-town America may be, if such is your image, a god-fearing Christian, a loving husband, maybe several kids, probably right-of-center politics. You could construct a whole story, narrative, existence out of so little information. Maybe Bobby Hunter was the varsity football player in college but his dad died so he never got to fulfill his dreams. How does he feel about his wife? Does he vote Republican? You know him as well as I do, and I bet you’d feel pretty comfortable answering those questions. You not only know him, you have feelings, positive or negative about him. You can think of songs written about him. That’s crazy. Almost as crazy as if I offered you an alternate narrative, forcing you into a gestalt shift. So maybe instead of small town white man, say, from Kansas who has a blond wife and hates immigrants, it’s small town white union man. Now, Bobby might still have xenophobic tendencies, but I’d be willing to bet your feelings about him just changed. Now he’s running with a whole different crowd, and he represents an entirely different facet of America. More than that, a different narrative, a different tone, and a different trajectory. Now you’re thinking Pete Seeger and Phil Ochs. And all sorts of other identities come popping up. The first Bobby Hunter was considered perhaps on his own, or maybe in contradistinction to the urbanite Jew, an indigenous peasant farmer, a young black family. The second, existing with the help of the contrasting image of evil capitalists with aquiline features and a healthy sense of greed. And that’s not even the half of it.

I’m not talking about stereotypes and the harm they do. That’s too simple. Stereotypes aren’t just problematic because they’re untrue, but also because they’re incomplete, and moreover, have devastating power over our brains, as illustrated above. We are each composed of uncountable threads of existing archetypes. A better way to put it, perhaps, is that we all are simply ourselves (as distressingly cliche as that sounds), and archetypes, stereotypes, identities are built out of statistically relevant and/or psychologically salient facets given a life of their own and rent-free lives in our heads.

And these identities, these little nuggets of intuition generation with all their emotional power, they give us a deeply misguided sense of being whole, coherent selves. It’s actually probably more accurate to say that we create our sense of archetypal identity because our psychologies tell us we are in fact, these consistent beings, but the causality is irrelevant. The point is that we enjoy these psychological ticks so much, we derive such meaning from them, but they feel to me so arbitrary and based on such an incorrect conception of human identity.

People on twitter, tumblr and other blogging platforms have the chance to write a very short autobiography, and what many, myself included, write, is a series of identifying labels, descriptors meant not only to evoke an activity, lifestyle or set of beliefs, but an overarching sense of the ‘kind’ of person your friendly neighborhood blogger is, to be all of these things in one. People talk that way, too, and it’s at once easy to understand and empathize and on the other hugely irritating, and I would be lying if I didn’t admit that those dual reactions map all too well onto how much I already like someone. But the point remains that we seem to act as if we were composed only of identities, rather than the other way around, and so to feel or feign surprise at their clashes within us is unimaginative and uninsightful at best, and actively harmful at worst, priming us to again and again think of ourselves as entirely consistent wholes.

This is where cognitive dissonance comes from, and also fashion and styles. We have senses of who we are, of these one things that we are, and we do not want to give them up. So we talk about them, and act like them, dress like them and see them in each other. When we say we want to be like some badass movie character, let’s take Trinity as an example, is that true? Is it true in any sense? Do we want her characteristics, her moves, her life? Or do we want to feel about ourselves the way we are made to feel by the entire contextual reality evoked in our brains by the limited and carefully calculated information given to us by a movie? We go shopping and buy the things we buy because they feel right, because they fit into our senses of who we’re supposed to be, according to ourselves.

I’m not saying it doesn’t matter. But these considerations have begun to make the feelings of identity ring false in my ears. especially when such grave importance is placed on tradition, on birth, in religion, in identity politics, at rock shows, I question these consistent wholes. It’s one thing to respond to power with resistance. It’s another to not change your mind in the face of evidence because what would that mean to the kind of person you imagine yourself to be. It’s one thing to spend time with those most like you and come up with a language, hand signals, an understanding of each others’ behavior. It’s another to use the immensely meaningful sensation of the weight of millenia to justify certain actions.

Far be it from me to judge or deny the power of meaning, the deep wells of happiness and intensity that can arise from an objective consideration that one’s life fits a desirable or undesirable mold, however much I may question the provenance of the mold. I think the notion that it is irrational to derive joy from things that are arbitrary is a misunderstanding both of rationality and human happiness. But I do want to problematize the questions: “Who am I?” and “What sort of person am I?” and think about what we might replace them with.



Sources of thought: Blu Greenberg’s On Women and Judaism, Michel Foucault, Wendy Brown, friends, people, the world.

I have so much more to say. What do we tell ourselves everyday? How and when do we rationalize? How much do most people define themselves out loud? How does that affect things? Does it make it better or worse? Can we have an identity, a history, without narrative? Does ideology always accompany narrative? When are these things beneficial and when not? How does this work at the group level, with collective memory? I am so confused.