Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Keith Stanovich: The Robot's Rebellion

Keith Stanovich, in his book The Robot's Rebellion , takes the stance that we are vehicles driven by our genes and memes, and tries to give us the tools and a place to stand to figure out what matters to us. (The metaphor is that we are robots driven by these influences, and we should want to regain control for ourselves.) Since the only tools we can use to reason with and all of our values are held by and in the control of our genes and memes, this is a daunting task.

Without explicitly recognizing that he's discussing epistemology, Stanovich does a commendable job of presenting a summary of the current research on standard biases in human reasoning. Once you understand the predilections of the tools you rely on, you can try to compensate for them, and start to figure out what you want. Stanovich's proposal is fundamentally consonant with Pancritical Rationalism. (Which is the source of the name of this blog.) The metaphor he uses is that of repairing a ship plank-by-plank while at sea. Regardless of how much or how little confidence you have in the current framework, you have to stand somewhere in order to start the process of examining what's there and replacing parts you don't have confidence in.

Much of the book repeats stories and results that have been widely reported in such popular books as Stumbling on Happiness, Adapting Minds, The Mating Mind, and The Blank Slate, but this material is easy to skim. Stanovich spends a lot of ink explaining that some of our analysis is done by mechanisms that are built-in and harder to introspect on or to change. This is relevant later when he talks about reconciling different desires.

One example of meta-rationality that Stanovich presents well is the point that introspection on your values may lead you to find apparent conflicts: you enjoy doing something, but wish you enjoyed it less, or you don't enjoy it and you wish you did. He provides a notation for talking about this kind of situation which I found kind of clumsy, but the idea of thinking about such things and having a language for analyzing them is valuable. He explains why you might have these conflicts, and why it is valuable to reason about the conflict from a viewpoint that is meta to both. Once you decide which desire is more important, he also shows that it's possible to use that understanding to bring your values into alignment, even when it's the more basic, inbuilt drive that you want to change. (I blogged last year about goals and meta-goals as ends and means).

Stanovich only spends about 20 pages on identifying and defusing opinions and desires that serve to protect your memes from your introspection, but these sections are his most valuable contribution. The memes that set up a self-reinforcing structure that forbid evaluation of the meme-complexes themselves are the ones that most deserve concentrated attention. I think he explains this point well enough that people in the grip of religious (or other defensive) ideas would be able to see how the prohibition on introspection only serves the meme-cluster, which might help them get over the hurdle and start down a reflective epistemological path, and figure out what their own goals are.

Unfortunately, Stanovich ends the book by trying to show that markets subvert the goal of reconciling our desires and meta-desires. His argument is that markets only pay attention to money, and so the people with the most money get what they want and everyone else gets nothing. What this misses is that of all the actually possible social institutions, markets are unique in not giving a few people complete control of the economy. In a market, some people have more money and therefore get to command more resources, but anyone who has some money can still use it to buy some of what they want. The great failing of socialism is that only the politicians get a voice. But this is a minor failing of the book. On the whole, it's nice to see a book that learns from Evolutionary Psychology, and uses those ideas to help people learn how to think about what they want.

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