The Delusion of Reason

Scottish Enlightenment philosopher David Hume (1711-1776) wrote that:

“Reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.”

Treatise on Human Nature

This is a radically different view than most of us have about thinking, reason, and how our minds work – who and what we are. I don’t know that I agree 100% with Hume, but he was definitely on to something important.

We think of our reason and our mind as being in charge of things. Hume says not really. Our mind is more like a lawyer that tries to justify and defend the desires of the passions.

Another useful analogy is that of an elephant and a rider from the work of social psychologist Jonathan Haidt. The rider is the conscious mind and the elephant is all of that below consciousness; emotions, instincts, intuitions, and who really knows what else – much perhaps the product of physical and social evolution.

The rider and the elephant

The elephant is much more powerful than the rider. The rider often uses reason not to guide our actions, but to justify them after the fact.

The rider, like a lawyer, is very prone to seeking out that which justifies the actions and beliefs of the elephant rather than trying to look objectively at all the facts before coming to a conclusion. Often our conclusions are a foregone conclusion. This is called the confirmation bias:

“Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that affirms one’s prior beliefs or hypotheses. It is a type of cognitive bias and a systematic error of inductive reasoning. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for desired outcomes, for emotionally charged issues, and for deeply-entrenched beliefs.


Everyone is susceptible to some degree to the confirmation bias. In the New Testament Jesus says:

“… why do you look at the speck in your brother’s eye, but do not consider the plank in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me remove the speck from your eye’; and look, a plank is in your own eye? Hypocrite! First remove the plank from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck from your brother’s eye.”

Matthew 7:3-5 New King James Bible

As humans we are very good at seeing the defects in the reasoning of others. Because of the confirmation bias are we not so good at seeing the defects in our own reasoning. If people can work together respectfully and be willing to accept constructive criticism this negative can be turned into a virtue. The collective reasoning can be used to find the flaws the individual often cannot see.

This is how science is supposed to work (but sometimes does not!). Even well-trained scientists are susceptible to confirmation bias. This is the purpose of rigorous peer review in science. When many minds with different biases look at the same problem the weak conclusions are winnowed out and the collective view that emerges is more likely to mirror reality.

Jesus is right that we need to find the “planks” in our own eyes. It is difficult and will take some time to re-train the elephant!

This is where I disagree with Hume. He was absolutely right that we have a strong tendency to use reason to justify our passions. What I don’t think he allowed for was that we can change and the rider can learn to have much greater influence over the elephant. I didn’t say that would be easy, did I?

Copyright © 2019 Lawrence W. Kennon

Human Beings

Human beings were social beings before they were human. For most human beings the mental apparatus for social connection appears to be “wired in” to the brain. Some scientists believe that as the neocortex in the human brain evolved it played a large part in helping humans develop more complex language and social skills. Those skills facilitated connecting with other humans on higher and higher levels of complexity. 

Human Beings
Early humans

Being social beings has it upsides and its downsides. One of the more important social skills is detecting deception in others. The modern field of evolutionary psychology has shed light on just how much of our mental resources have evolved to evaluate and predict the behavior of other human beings. In a world where cooperation and trust are important factors in our dealings with other human beings, being able to reliably predict the behaviors and motivations of others is a critical life skill.

There are some really important upsides to being social beings. For one, and as our pre-human ancestors obviously figured out, you are likely to be a lot safer in a group than alone. On the open savannas of Africa a group of hunters together were safer from predator attack than one alone. The ancient Roman symbol of the Fasces perfectly symbolized this.

Roman Fasces symbolized the strength of the group.

The meaning was that the sticks individually could be easily broken, but bound together (or as humans cooperating together) the collective bundle was strong and very hard to break. There are other nuances of this symbol too, but for now let us just focus on this idea of strength through collective binding into groups. 

Primitive hunter gatherers like our ancient ancestors did not have the great differences of material wealth that we see in many modern societies. In societies like these not tied permanently to a piece of land (like farmers later on) you had to carry all of your wealth with you so extreme disparities were not very practical. Most likely you wouldn’t have seen any of those folks carrying around heavy bags of gold.

There were almost certainly differences of rank and stature in those early groups, but from outward appearance the differences would have probably looked fairly small to modern humans. In reality there almost certainly were real differences, for example, the more powerful members almost certainly got more sex with desirable mates than the less powerful.

Hunter gatherers were probably closer to a form of Socialism than just about anything that has existed since. Communal living, sharing resources like food, and common defense seem to be the hallmarks of these societies. When you consider how close they lived to nature and the relatively small size of their bands that probably shouldn’t be too surprising. Life was hard and you had to stick together for safety, both from human and animal predators, and individual shortages.

Think on this. Human beings and their immediate ancestors have been hunter gatherers for perhaps a couple million years at least. Farming and more advanced societies have been around maybe 10 thousand years. Why is that important?

If you accept the idea of human evolution then what we inherit from hunter gatherers, both physically and mentally, is probably a lot more important than what we inherit from the farmers and city builders who were late comers in human evolution. Living in the modern world of airplanes, automobiles, computers, and vast metropolitan cities a lot of our mental tools may still be more tied to those hunter gatherer societies than we know.

If we feel some alienation from this modern world perhaps it has its roots in our ancient hunter gatherer minds, minds adapted to very different world than we live in now.

Copyright © 2019 Lawrence W. Kennon

Is Reality Real?

Is it real, or is it a dream?

Is reality real? Do the senses provide reliable information about reality? Can we know reality directly or is true knowledge of reality impossible? These are questions that some ancient, and some modern philosophers have asked.

One very important point is that anyone claiming that knowledge of a “true” reality is impossible is making an absolutely unprovable claim. They are claiming to have absolute and true knowledge that ultimate reality is ultimately unknowable. Well, if it is unknowable how in the hell do they know that? Doesn’t the fact that they claim to know something about that reality contradict their claim that it is unknowable?

From the scientific point of view, and philosophy was once viewed as part of science, this is an unfalsifiable claim about reality. A falsifiable claim or theory can be tested by experiment or observation. Any claim that is not, at least in theory, falsifiable is not science (and probably not good philosophy).

My view is that proper philosophy should be based on the principles of science and not contests in imagination untethered to a real world. Science assumes a real world exists. So should philosophy.

Looking at the modern world and all the technology in that world it should be obvious that the human mind is pretty damn capable of finding out a lot about that reality and using that knowledge to make life a lot more comfortable than it was just a few centuries ago (or even decades – we didn’t have air conditioning when I was a child in the 1950s).

Nevertheless, no one can say that the human mind can know every detail of whatever the “ultimate” reality is. That is to make exactly the same mistake that those who deny our ability to know reality make. We don’t know. It is an adventure and we don’t know what we will know, or when we will know it.

We don’t know if the human mind can come to understand everything about reality at some point in the future. We will know that if at at some point in the distant future we do in fact come to the point of knowing the true nature of reality. But the track record of humanity, and the power of its collective mentality united under the principles of science has a pretty good track record so far.

There is an important phrase I used above, that is, the “collective mentality.” That is what science is all about. One person makes observations and experiments trying to reveal some secret of nature. Individuals and individual senses can be deceived or simply misinterpret their results. But scientists take their results and submit their data and procedures to many others to double check. Often it is found the original scientist made a mistake or misunderstood their results.

It is the collective mentality of many eyes looking at the same thing that winnows out those results that actually say something about how the real world works. It is that collective mentality that proves the power of the human senses to come to know reality, at least in part.

Is the world “real”? What do you mean by “real”? How do we know we are not in some variation of “The Matrix” and it is all a dream?

In the above I have argued that we can’t claim to know that reality is unknowable, and on the other hand we can’t claim to know that is ultimately knowable either. How do we know if it is even real?

We don’t know that. All we know is that we are in whatever it is and actual observation should tell us that ignoring the possibility of it being real can be painful. Doubt that? Try this, go play on the freeway in rush hour traffic and let’s see how that works out for you.

Here is my personal conclusion. The world is real enough. It can hurt you if you don’t pay attention.

One last thought – all of those academic philosophers who consider the possibility that reality is not real act as if reality is real in their “real” life. They get paid to profess their skepticism and doubt but know they have to have enough money in their bank account to cover the checks they write in the real world.

Copyright © 2019 Lawrence W. Kennon