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Why human life makes sense Message Board › Why doesn't reason always work?

Why doesn't reason always work?

Philip B.
Group Organizer
Everett, WA
Post #: 186
I'm creating this discussion thread for those who may wish to continue the discussion online. I'm moving Mark's comments from the meeting page to this thread.

Mark's comments

Our conversation yesterday was very stimulating and productive to me as the catalyst of the Meetup's subject. Thanks to Philip for so thoroughly preparing a construct that framed for debate and discussion some potential answers to the question, complemented with strategies for how we may effect better outcomes when given an opportunity to persuade otherwise unreasonable people to consider reason as an alternative — to circumnavigate unreasonable objections by appealing to common goals to hopefully initiate a reasoned debate. Additionally, it is very admirable how quickly Philip analyzed the subject and presented a means of integrating it into his comprehensive theory of human life, portions of which we've reviewed in past sessions.

I particularly enjoyed the new members and their thoughtful contributions. I look forward to seeing you all again (alas, except for Nick — good luck to you, Sir, in Berkeley— a notable citadel of flawed thinking and unreason!).

There were two related important shortcomings to Philip's construct that emerged for me during the discussion.

The analysis began, for the purposes of simplification, with the special case of two individuals who sincerely and respectfully wish to resolve a disagreement. Philip convincingly showed that there is much to be gained from this analysis, including a methodology for one to be more successful in ascertaining ways to understand and thereby persuade an agreeable opponent. A methodology that may have limited application in the general case as well. Very good as far as it goes. But this special case is not what motivated the frustration conveyed behind the original question. [Mark originally suggested this topic for a meeting.]

Further, Philip postulated a convincing and plausible argument that a large majority of individuals will tend to resort to uncritically regurgitating assimilated knowledge in place of reason and thereby be unable or unwilling to engage in a reasoned debate. I submit that this is again a special case. Indeed, it is often true that one cannot begin a debate with an opponent who resorts to flawed logic and reasoning and that in many cases it seems plausible that this can arise from their over–reliance on assimilated knowledge at the expense of reason. (It emerged in discussions that another preponderant source is the underlying problems and defects of human intellect generally.)

In the real world, while it is true that reliance on assimilated knowledge will be an obstruction to reasoned debate, it is not true that superior intellect and reasoning faculties virtually assure success. In fact, I would submit that it is often the case that the more serious and frustrating (even infuriating) failures of reason are precisely with those people who populate the right–hand extreme of Philip's graph (a scale of proportionate use of assimilation vs. reason). [See meeting agenda handout at­.]

The more general and common case was neglected in these arguments, i.e., when two people come together and one or both have no interest in respectful resolution of the disagreement and when your argument is with an an equal or superior intellect whose ideas are factually and demonstrably wrong. It is these situations that create the most frustration, because reason is so ineffective in them, even though reason would seem to otherwise be the solution.

In the first instance, one may find that the goals of your debate opponent (who may insincerely claim a desire to resolve the dispute) are utterly incompatible with and impervious to reason (as is the case in Philip's personal example). In these cases, you are shut down before you can even begin, a virtually helpless victim of classic us-vs.-them group-think. For instance, if the other person's goal is fairness of outcomes, then there is no room for debate because reality is not of interest. No one can impose fairness of outcomes without serious contradictions of logic and, incidentally, fairness.

In the second instance, as Jason noted, the opponent is likely better equipped to cling to a falsehood as they possess the intellectual tools to, at least from their vantage, deny truth and reason while maintaining a fictional adherence to it. Intellectuals are just as susceptible as others to logical fallacies and flawed thinking and often much better at employing them in argumentation. In some cases, as in studies cited in past discussions by Jason, those with greater intellect are sometimes capable of amplifying flawed thinking. (I recommend the works of Christopher Chabris as a source of extensive studies, explanations of these phenomena, and numerous startling examples).

Lastly, although Philip's insights about goal analysis simultaneously partially explain "Why doesn't reason always work," and offer a potential means to triumph over a recalcitrant opponent, I find it amusing that this is also likely a form of surrender. It seems to me that employing goal analysis in the more infuriating cases is not for the purpose of introducing reason where it is otherwise absent. Rather, it is to be employed, as Chris suggested, almost like a marketing campaign to play on your opponents feelings or on their flawed thinking as a means to trick them into your camp. In other words, you abandon reason for a more effective means to your ends. I'm not opposed to this because the means may be very well justified by the ends, but I will remain frustrated that reason is so often useless amongst us "reasoning apes."

Speaking of "Reasoning Apes," here's the link to the "Skeptical Caveman" Youtube video I referenced:­

Here's the link to the nail in the head video.­

Here's the link to SGU (Skeptics Guide to the Universe):
Philip B.
Group Organizer
Everett, WA
Post #: 187

Thank you for your stimulating comments and insights. At the end of the meeting I felt like we had just begun to delve into the topic, and your comments corroborate this perspective. So why don't we continue the topic in the October meeting. The reason for delaying it till October is that you can't come to the September meeting.

I had suggested that to prepare for the discussion everyone think of two examples from their life: an instance of disagreement that they were able to resolve and an instance of disagreement that they weren't able to resolve. We never heard from anyone as to specific instances, except for the example that I gave, and I think that our understanding of the topic would greatly benefit if we talk about specific instances.

At the July meeting, you conveyed a heartening example of success in using reason to resolve a disagreement, in this case, a disagreement with your wife about whether or not to get dogs, again, after your earlier dogs had died.

In addition, during our discussion, we never explicitly got to the topic of trying to resolve disagreement when we lack a situation of mutual respect. As with you, Twila was especially interested in addressing this scenario, as she conveyed to me by email prior to the meeting. Unfortunately, due to an unexpected problem, she was unable to attend the meeting. More generally, the non-ideal situation can be non-ideal for a variety of reasons, so I think that it will be crucial that we talk about specific examples in order for us to make progress in understanding how to try to deal with a non-ideal situation.

A former member
Post #: 1
Thanks to all who attended last Saturdays stimulating meeting. After reading Mark's comment above which held many good observations from our 1st pass at this topic, I'd like to add a more structural answer to the discussion. That is, reason doesn't always work because it is structurally incapable of doing so. Reason, in the human brain, is far less powerful than the evolutionary mechanisms already in place for millions of years in mammalian brains, that actually determine how we see the world; what we are willing to believe about it or not. But we "believe" that reason can provide ultimate truths for us to apply. Hence the conundrum implied by the question.

My premise is that beliefs about what is true or not about the world we live in - i.e. things like Mark and his uncle's beliefs about geology, for example - are determined by who we are, our identity. Not by what our reasoning tells us at any particular moment. Certainly, even the most perfectly crafted logical argument by either Mark or his uncle would have been very unlikely to have swayed the other. Where significant behavior choices are at stake, logic and reasoning have limited influence on behavior choice, even when conflict and disagreement are not a factor.

(Note that that's not a bad thing. Our actual mammalian behavior choice mechanism is far more reliable and far more likely to produce good behavior choices than if our reason had absolute control. But that's for another discussion.) By "good" behavior choice I mean choices that improve our survival - or more specifically the survival of our own DNA into future generations, what scientists call inclusive fitness. Aggregated over evolutionary time, that's what is really at stake in behavior choice - not whether or not a choice can be deemed "logical", or not, by two parties who disagree.

So the question remains, why aren't we more susceptible to reasoning in cases like Mark's? To answer this question we need to understand some basic facts about human (and all animal) behavior.

1) Animal brains make behavior choices by predicting the future. It's not just an interesting way of looking at it. It's the way brains in species had to evolve for that species to be successful.

2) Every behavior choice is a prediction that the behavior it selects will benefit us (our well being) more so than any other choice available to us at that moment - or that our brain is aware of - and not necessarily our conscious brain in the case of humans. BTW this works at the species level. A particular survival event is not what evolution cares about.

4) Our brain learns to make the best behavior choice possible, within its limitations - primarily by pattern recognition. Mammalian brains especially have evolved very elegant and reliable pattern recognition brain circuits that have made mammals the most successful order of life on earth in terms of our ability to survive and adapt to a huge range of environments and situations as they arise.

At this point many would question my premise because they "believe" that humans are different from other animals, even other mammals, because we have consciousness and a brain that can logically process abstract models of our world that we create on the fly. They would say that humans, unlike other mammals, use reasoning as our primary mode of behavior selection by testing those models in our imagination. For these people, the question "Why doesn't reasoning always work?" then, remains an unanswered puzzle.

My favorite example is the US Supreme Court. Here, we have nine eminent jurists who've spent their whole lives pursuing the application of objective rules of law to human behavior. They have finally reached the pinnacle of their professions. One would think that given such a wise and experienced panel that when they are presented with the exact same evidence under very controlled conditions and when they have access to the very same codes of law - that they'd usually come up with wide majority opinions.

The fact is, the US Supreme court are humans with brains that work just like all human brains. We use reasoning very selectively, usually to justify outcomes or behavior decisions that "feel" right to us, not that are the result of some reasoning process. What experience and wisdom that the SC jurists have acquired is used to write opinions (sometimes dissenting opinions) that do just that. That their individual decisions so consistently fall on one side or the other of the conservative / liberal divide - I think proves my point.

We very seldom use reason as a basis for adopting new beliefs that could affect our survival. We assimilate new beliefs through our experiences - based on the emotional intensity of past similar experiences that harmed or helped us - and how frequently and reliably we encounter those experiences in contexts about which the brain can generalize. We do this non-consciously and without reasoning - just like all other mammals. Reasoning has little or no ability to affect this automatic process.

The predictions our brain then makes about our pending behavior choices - tested over time in repeated situations that proved successful to us in terms of our well being - then will likely determine our behavior in any similar situation. When a combat experienced squad on patrol is surprised by an ambush, they will reflexively charge into the ambush. Even though a logical brain will correctly tell them that exposing themselves by attacking a hidden enemy - rather than remain under cover - will lead to their probable death. They do so because they were trained to go against their reason and repeatedly in the past that action saved their lives - very emotional experiences. No amount of reasoning will change their emotional (not intellectual) belief about how to respond to an ambush.

But now I have raised the term "emotion" in my explanation. Unfortunately, emotion means something different to those who are not used to using it in a technical way. In this case since the signals in the brain that I propose actually produce behavior choice, are non-conscious signals, I categorize them as "emotion" signals. Experiments have shown that as our brain "considers" the possible behavior choices in a given situation - that we experience similar emotional responses to what we did in actual similar situations in our past. It is by comparing those "emotion" signals associated with various alternative behaviors that allow the brain to arrive at an optimal behavior choice - according to the actual reality it has experienced.

In that regard, we will always "do" what our non-conscious brain "believes" will result in the greatest benefit to our well being at that moment - as compared to any alternatives it (either consciously or non-consciously) is aware of - sometimes in agreement and sometimes in opposition to what out logical brain has "reasoned". We'll do this quite often without any reasoning being applied at all. And if it is applied it will most likely have been applied to frame or justify the decision that "feels" right to us but not to others.

Just as combat experienced soldiers will reliably charge an ambush, Mark's uncle will likely never change his mind about how that rock formation got there along the trail, no matter how much factual evidence, reasoning and logic is applied. Mammalian behavior is the result of aggregated emotion signals in the brain that may or may not have have been informed by reasoning.
Philip B.
Group Organizer
Everett, WA
Post #: 212
I'm moving a post made by Ray in the thread "Examples of automaticity" to this thread because of its relevance to the discussion here. Ray, if you want to be able to edit this post in this thread, please copy-and-paste it to a new post here, and I'll delete this one.

Ray's post on automaticity, 2013-11-06

Hi Phillip, From reading your examples when you say "automaticity" I interpret it as behavior that does not require conscious participation. Conversely, I also think you mean that non-automatic behavior is behavior that is controlled or directed by conscious intent. As you know I have a slightly different take on this process. I believe that all behavior in humans and other mammals is under control of an "emotion" signal processor that integrates signals from many brain circuits and arrives at a single action commitment prior to any behavior event.

For example, if a dog is attracted to a nice smelly garbage can at 2:00 in the morning, before he attempts to explore its contents there are no doubt several dog brain circuits firing synapses that represent potential benefits and rewards based on the dog's pattern recognition of previous experiences (learning) as well as instinctive signals such as "never pass up an easy food resource". The mix probably includes rewards such as the chance for a tasty snack, establishing some new territorial rights, satisfying an instinctive curiosity where food is involved, etc. It also includes negative signals; the human "owner" of the garbage might discover his presence, there could be a larger dog nearby who will attack him or chase him off, etc. At the moment of decision these and other signals are integrated into an action. All non-consciously of course. The dog will only experience an overwhelming urge to either dive in, get the hell out of there or perhaps cautiously attempt to grab some morsels while checking for danger.

A similar process occurs in human brains prior to any action. One special action a human brain might choose is "intellectual consideration" - creating a quick abstract model of the situation and exploring its ramifications logically. This is likely where (through pattern recognition) our brain senses risk. The result of that contemplation produces additional emotion signals into the mix. Depending on their strength compared to the many other signals present these could become a significant determinant in that situation or not.

The point being that the final choice is still an "automatic" response to the integration of the complete set of positive and negative signals at that moment in time. In that sense all behavior is ultimately not controlled by reasoning. Although reasoning can enter into the mix and often does, by itself, a reasoned conclusion does not determine behavior. It can only offer emotionally weighted candidates that our mammalian behavior control system might accept or reject - depending on other factors. That's why human behavior is so often objectively irrational - especially when strong emotion signals are arriving from other brain circuits.

Of course, we "believed" that our decision was objectively rational because we were only aware of our conscious brain activity. We were blind to the many non-conscious signals that were present. And so it will seem exactly as if our conscious brain made the choice and executed the behavior.
Philip B.
Group Organizer
Everett, WA
Post #: 216
Ray, thanks for contributing so richly to the discussion at the last meeting, and thanks for taking time to express your ideas here.

The overall theme of your ideas is highly consistent with my theory of the mind, as expressed in my book Human Life, Edition 2, but there is some difference in emphasis, as follows.

You and I agree that automatic, unconscious activity and volitional, conscious activity both play a role in our lives, but a salient difference is that you seem to argue that our behavior is solely determined by automatic, unconscious activity, while volitional, conscious activity is the servant of automatic, unconscious activity. This is similar to Freud's model of the mind.

In my theory of the mind, the two activities are integral and essential to the full range of achievements of humans. They work together to produce the amazingly sophisticated achievements of the human race.

To illustrate my point, if volitional, conscious activity were not integral and essential to human achievement, why are you devoting so much time coming to our meetings and posting your ideas in this forum? Isn't the point of this activity to exchange ideas using explicit reasoning and to thereby acquire new insights? Isn't this why you participate in our discussions, both in-person and online, and why you buy books on the subject and read them?

As another illustration, consider the amazing achievements of humans in the full range of their activities. Consider the technology that we take for granted in our everyday lives, such as computers, internet, and cell phones. Consider the technology that underlies modern medicine. Consider the technology that underlies automobiles of all kinds, ships, airplanes, space ships, bridges, skyscrapers, etc.

I analyze behavior in terms of goal analysis, and I agree that we tend to use reason to justify and defend the goals that we have thus far acquired. However, this applies most to high-level goals and least to low-level goals. High-level goals tend to change slowly over time, while low-level goals are fluid, changing moment-to-moment. More specifically, the higher a goal is in our goal hierarchy, the more stable it is; the less likely it is that we will modify it. So the intellectual behavior that you're citing applies with high probability to high-level goals, and it applies with low probability to low-level goals. This explains the consistency in opinions by individual Supreme Court jurists, which you cite. Note the reference to high and low probability. Behavior is not deterministic.

I agree with your numbered points except to qualify that we humans think far more abstractly than do lower animals, and we are, overall, highly empathetic creatures. As a result, our goals can be highly abstract and highly altruistic to a degree that engenders behavior for which there is nothing comparable in lower animals. To illustrate this point, see the examples cited a few paragraphs earlier.

Where do our goals come from? We develop our goals as a result of inborn propensities, such as hunger and thirst, and experiences in living. We begin acquiring goals in utero when our neural system reaches sufficient maturity, and we continue doing so until our dying day. We begin by assimilating goals from our inborn propensities and from our social environment, but in due time, we acquire the use of language and, on this basis, we acquire the ability to reason abstractly to a high degree of sophistication.

Since you are accomplished in banjo playing, I wish to use this as a metaphor. You had to practice a lot in order to acquire your current level of playing ability. Do you write your ability off as nothing more than the result of automatic, unconscious processes that are all attributed to evolution? I view your ability as the result of inborn propensities plus many hours/months/years of practice that you decided to engage in of your own freewill (assuming that your mom didn't coerce you! :) ). If you were to join a musical group and practice with them, you would be building on prior ability in order to reach new achievement goals. In my view, we can think of our overall life in these terms.

The examples that you've cited all pertain to gross behavior that is similar to animal behavior, and this allows you to ignore the refined reasoning process that guides human behavior. Try applying your theory to explain the development of refined skill in playing the banjo and in composing music. Try applying your theory to the achievements of human intelligence in developing sophisticated technology, which I referred to above.

In conclusion, I agree with you about the essential role of automatic, unconscious processing, as I explain in my book in the chapter on the mind. I view automatic, unconscious processing as the repository of our learning and, hence, the repository of our skills. But in apparent contrast to you, I view the role of volitional, conscious activity as essential in the development of our goals and in the achievement of our goals. And I view the amazing achievements of the human race as testimony to this viewpoint.
A former member
Post #: 3
Phillip, I apologize for not fully understanding your arguments. But I will try to answer them. Feel free to point out where I may have misunderstood you. You propose that my intellectual participation in this discussion is a form of proof that "conscious activity is integral and essential to human achievement". But, I don't deny that at all. What I assert is that the conclusions of our reasoning brain are subject to final approval - in terms of adopting new beliefs or acting on behalf of those conclusions - by our non-conscious mind. What I think you call our intuitive mind.

Most of us live within a "human nature" belief paradigm whereby human intellect and reason controls our behavior and makes us different from other animals. When some one does something bad or self destructive or advocates for beliefs we disagree with - we say that the person lacks critical thinking skills, or is unintelligent, or doesn't think clearly, etc. in our efforts to explain the disagreement. And we believe it of course. Glancing over the comments in any political or ideologically focused forum on the internet easily verifies this.

But, I disagree with that paradigm. The reason people disagree - as well as the reason that "reason" doesn't work very well to resolve those situations - is not that one party is a better "thinker" than the other. It is that each opponent holds beliefs that engender strong defensive emotions when challenged. In response to those emotion signals, their conscious mind is enlisted to help in the defense of those beliefs. They use their intellect not to question their beliefs but to create clever arguments to defend them. The goal (of their non-conscious mind) is to defend their beliefs, not to pursue a logical conclusion that might negate them.

This is easily seen simply by examining any heated online argument while being open to this view as an explanation for what you might see there. The same is true for analyzing decisions of the members of the USSC. It is human nature for our behavior to be subject to these non-conscious forces that are produced by our strong emotional beliefs. These are what I call "identity" beliefs - because they constitute who we are to a great extent. They are the force that directs our reasoning brain to reach conclusions that support those beliefs.

As we mature we create an elaborate self-supporting hierarchy of such beliefs and it grows over the years to become the sole window through which we interact with the world around us. It becomes a road map of beliefs that produce reliable behavior responses through which we achieve survival and hopefully, success in life. Consequently, we learn to defend those beliefs (our identity) with all our strength and can't imagine (logically) that views that contradict ours could possibly be correct. This is why younger minds tend to be more open and older minds tend to be more set in their ways.

If you are aware of this, you will be able to more readily notice when you (or your opponent) is emotionally invested in a supposedly logical discussion - indicating that their brain senses that their identity is being threatened.

(BTW - By offering this explanation, in no way am I suggesting that I am not subject to these same non-conscious forces that attempt to derail (often successfully) whatever objective reasoning occurs in this old brain ;-)
A former member
Post #: 4
I analyze behavior in terms of goal analysis, and I agree that we tend to use reason to justify and defend the goals that we have thus far acquired. However, this applies most to high-level goals and least to low-level goals. High-level goals tend to change slowly over time, while low-level goals are fluid, changing moment-to-moment. More specifically, the higher a goal is in our goal hierarchy, the more stable it is; the less likely it is that we will modify it. So the intellectual behavior that you're citing applies with high probability to high-level goals, and it applies with low probability to low-level goals. This explains the consistency in opinions by individual Supreme Court jurists, which you cite. Note the reference to high and low probability. Behavior is not deterministic.

This is a very interesting paragraph. I could have written it myself - with a few key changes:

I analyze behavior in terms of belief analysis, and I agree that we tend to use reason to justify and defend the beliefs that we have thus far acquired. However, this applies most to high-level beliefs and least to low-level beliefs. High-level beliefs tend to change slowly over time, while low-level beliefs are fluid, changing moment-to-moment. More specifically, the higher a belief is in our belief hierarchy, the more stable it is; the less likely it is that we will modify it. So the intellectual behavior that I'm citing applies with high probability to high-level beliefs, and it applies with low probability to low-level beliefs. This explains the consistency in opinions by individual Supreme Court jurists, which I cite.

The reason we can be more open to challenges to our lower level beliefs is that they are not nearly so tied to our identity as are higher level beliefs. A low level belief can be changed in the face of new evidence because it does not significantly threaten the higher level identity beliefs above it. And so there is no reflexive emotional force that emerges in the brain to come to its defense.

But changing a single high level belief at the top of our hierarchy could require that hundreds or thousands of lower level beliefs get discarded. Remember that these beliefs are a road map for behavior. When a high level belief gets changed, that may require changing hundreds of behaviors in certain situations from what we would ordinarily do. Or, could cause a crippling inability to act at all in those situations. This occasionally happens in someone's adult life - usually in response to some life-changing event such as a near-death experience or the loss of a loved one - and when it does it's an emotionally draining and and stressful experience. It can be physically painful and often requires help such as counselling. Those who go through such rare high level changes in their belief hierarchy - especially later in life - are sometimes diagnosed with PTSD.


Phillip, For me, the idea of embracing and achieving "goals" encapsulates the idea of complex behaviors over time to reach a success in some dimension. While I agree that this is part of how human behavior can be described I just don't see how the use of "goals" rather than "beliefs" applies in some explanatory sense to the current discussion of human behavior. I don't think I'm asking you to defend it. I'm just pointing out an interesting part of our difference in "beliefs" about this topic ;-)
A former member
Post #: 5
The examples that you've cited all pertain to gross behavior that is similar to animal behavior, and this allows you to ignore the refined reasoning process that guides human behavior. Try applying your theory to explain the development of refined skill in playing the banjo and in composing music. Try applying your theory to the achievements of human intelligence in developing sophisticated technology, which I referred to above.

For the music thing, many animals that have no conscious processing at all exhibit far more complex behaviors than me playing the banjo. (Believe me I'm no Earl Scruggs ;-) Take a bat that uses echo-location to snatch tiny insects out of the air at high speed in pitch darkness just for a quick example. Take a dumb trout that has a brain the size of a pea that can thwart my most elaborate efforts to trick it into thinking my artificial fly is really food.

About the technology. Humans have fine brains for technical invention. And we in the US live in a society that greatly admires and rewards such efforts. Technical development here usually does not trigger many negative emotional forces to oppose the many positive emotional rewards we can expect if we are successful. In this case, because of our built-in emotion signal processor we are highly motivated to use explicitly objective reasoning to achieve our design goals. That is, because of our cultural and economic environment our emotional signals enlist our intellectual mind at the highest possible effectiveness (objectivity) for that purpose.

This is also the case for the large majority of scientists who pursue knowledge for its own sake - because the value of being a scientific researcher sits at a high level in their belief hierarchy. Knowing several such scientists I can tell you that this is a very important part of their identity and they actively nurture and protect their reputation for objectivity. It is in such minds that knowledge is pursued and the progress of mankind eventually follows. We all benefit from this arrangement that is driven by emotion-signals in the scientists' mind.

This is not always the case. Many early scientists were persecuted and even killed by religions who's institutionalized beliefs were threatened by new knowledge. And there have always been some fake scientists who do not place objectivity as the highest value in their work. But for the majority that do, reliable emotion signals that come from their identity and motivate them to pursue the often tedious and unrewarding work often leads to a dead end more often than not. But they believe, deep down, that what they are doing is ultimately worthwhile and so they keep on, sometimes for many years, pursuing the understanding of obscure disease mechanisms for example - believing that doing that work is not just a job but a matter of who they are.

If you don't think that emotion signals control and guide this process why is it that in Arab / Muslim societies there is virtually no technological invention and hasn't been for hundreds of years? It is not because Arabs are not intelligent. It is because Arab / Muslim majority societies characteristically punish innovation (provide negative emotional payoffs) rather than reward it.

I think this (the relatively huge success of scientific discovery in Western societies vs. most non-Western societies) is very good evidence that my thesis - that all behavior is ultimately driven by brain signals that predict the emotional reward (and punishment) that the brain calculates can be expected to result from various behavior candidates - is correct.
Philip B.
Group Organizer
Everett, WA
Post #: 218
Ray, thanks for taking time to explain your ideas more fully. I think that we are in substantial agreement, and with adequate discussion between us, it may be possible for us to come to agreement about sources of apparent disagreement.

Goals vs. beliefs

You've clarified that where I think in terms of a goal hierarchy as the basis of behavior, you think in terms of a belief hierarchy as the basis of behavior. So I'd like to address this a bit.

This is a type of chicken-and-egg problem, and I think that goals come before beliefs and that beliefs are created so that we can achieve our goals.

We start life with goals — goals such as satisfying hunger and satisfying thirst — and we create beliefs in order to achieve these goals. A newborn baby is, of course, not thinking in highly abstract terms because a newborn baby doesn't understand or use language. But the baby is creating beliefs about how to achieve its goals, such as satisfying its hunger and its thirst, and it soon learns that crying or fussing can help to achieve such goals. The baby is seeking to satisfy its hunger and its thirst in order to feel good, and this, in turn, will serve to enhance its survival, although the baby doesn't understand the concept of survival.

More generally, given their current goal hierarchy, a person of any age tries to determine how best to achieve the goals in that hierarchy, and this is why the person seeks to acquire knowledge or information. Such knowledge is referred to as beliefs. Thus, when you think in terms of a belief hierarchy, I say that the reason for the belief hierarchy is the underlying goal hierarchy. The beliefs are beliefs about how best to achieve the goals.

Role of volitional, conscious activity vs. role of automatic, unconscious activity

You say:

What I assert is that the conclusions of our reasoning brain are subject to final approval - in terms of adopting new beliefs or acting on behalf of those conclusions - by our non-conscious mind.

Ray, please read pages 173-177 of Human Life (Edition 2) and let me know what you think. These pages present my model of how decision-making works, explaining the complementary roles of the volitional, conscious unit of our mind and the automatic, unconscious unit of our mind. Here are two concluding excerpts from the passage.

Overall, we have a continuous flow of information-processing for the purpose of predicting observations and achieving goals and for the purpose of improving our predictive model and improving our tree of goals.

...I encourage you to notice your daily decision-making processes as they occur. Notice the efficient way in which your automatic unit executes a smooth flow from one behavior to the next, all under the high-level supervision of your volitional unit. You can’t directly observe the operations of your automatic unit, of course, but you can observe many of the results.

[Philip Bitar, Why Human Life Makes Sense, Edition 2, 2012, p. 176-177]
A former member
Post #: 6
Phillip, Thanks for the chance to engage again on these very interesting ideas. While I see in some parts of your thesis concepts that I recognize, I also feel at a loss to pin them down in a rigorous way. After re-reading your suggested parts several times now - and some others - I have a possible explanation for why I find your narrative hard for me to understand. Please don't take this as a criticism of your thesis. I don't understand it well enough to criticize it. Instead, this is a guess on my part as to why I may not understand it.

When discussing human nature (generalizations about human behavior) I start from some basic assumptions;

a) That all living things evolve at the species level to increase that species' inclusive fitness. Inclusive fitness is the successful propagation of that species' DNA into future generations.

b) That a species' repertoire of behavior possibilities is a crucial means by which a species evolves and adapts to its changing environment and thereby attempts to increase its inclusive fitness. And

c) that neurons (and brains that are dense networks of neurons) have evolved in nature for the specific purpose of producing, modulating and governing behavior of humans and other complex animals.

This tells me that however the human brain is organized and however it functions to carry out its evolutionary mandate, it got there within the reality of a), b) and c) above. And crucially, that whatever explanation I see that attempts to describe how human brains function - it must show me how that explanation fits within that evolutionary paradigm.

But, I find almost no references to evolution in your book ('Why Human Life Makes Sense' which you've recommended as the one that should make your thesis clear to me). You do have an appendix that has two entries for 'evolution'. But when I go to the pages (43, 44) I can not find the word 'evolution' there nor even any indirect reference to the idea of evolution in the sense that it could explain how human brains are organized and how they function to produce behavior.

I trust you can see then why I have difficulty understanding explanations of human behavior that are not grounded in this paradigm, which is the enclosing paradigm for my understanding of human behavior and its mechanisms. I'm not saying that your thesis can not be shown to have these connections. But you have left me to imagine what those may or may not be.

It could be that you reject the importance of evolution as an explanatory framework for your thesis. But I haven't seen where you expicitly do that either. Could you either make this connection clear for me - or tell me why you don't think it is relevant? I think that would greatly help me understand your views on this. Thanks
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