Have you ever considered that one of your biggest problems might be your own brain?
Not because there’s anything wrong with you, per se, but because there’s something off about the way we’re hardwired as a species. The problem is that the human brain didn’t evolve over millions of years to be happy, it evolved to help us survive the harsh Paleolithic environment.
As such, our brains are adapted not to “seeing things as they really are” but to imagining catastrophe, to focusing on the negative, to blowing things out of proportion. We evolved to see lions where there is only brown grass, and panthers where there is only shadow, because it was always “safer” to assume the worst and be wrong than vice versa.
But while this Paleolithic brain may have helped our ancestors’ survive, today it is doing us few favours. Although it has been thousands of years since most of us needed to worry about lions leaping out of the bushes, our brains still keep us stressed out and anxious as though, any minute now, we might need to jump up and start running from one.
I guess this is why we need “philosophies of well-being” in the first place. After all, if well-being and perfect perspective were natural then we would just do it as a matter of instinct. We wouldn’t have to be taught it, we wouldn’t bother to write books or blogs about it, we wouldn’t create religions out of it; it would just be our default way of thinking.
But that is not the situation we find ourselves in. Our situation is that we are stuck with this Paleolithic brain and the steady diet of neurotic lies, biases and distortions it feeds us. And in combating it we have only one true friend: reason.
the necessity of reason
Historically, the reasonableness of reason has not always been a foregone conclusion. Let me introduce you to the ancient Greek Sceptic Metrodorus, who declared the impotence of reason with this somewhat paradoxical line: “None of us knows anything; not even this, whether we know or we do not know.”1
But a lack of faith in reason is one thing; outright hatred of it is completely next level. I give you Protestant reformer Martin Luther, who famously declared that “Reason is the Devil’s whore”2 for failing to confirm his personal religious beliefs.
You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s impossible to go further than that. But you’d be wrong. As much as I respect the Romantics, some of them characterised reason as cold, calculating, stripping nature of beauty and wonder, and life of everything that makes it worth living. Reason, it seems, wants little more than to suffocate the human spirit. Instead, emotion is the “true” path to knowledge.3
Yet somehow, even they don’t win top prize for the most cynical view of reason of all time. That would go to the Postmodernists; for whom all knowledge is political and reason is little more than a weapon wielded by one social group to assert their “will to power” over others.4 Here, you may be asked to swallow the claims that “history is fiction” and that the very concept of universal truth is “cultural imperialism.”
Then there’s modern science, pointing out the inescapable fact that reason is, itself, a product of the same Paleolithic brain that gives us so many cognitive lies, biases and distortions in the first place. This brain tells us to only listen to information that confirms what we already believe (confirmation bias), and that we’re experts at things we know almost nothing about (the Dunning-Kruger effect).5 The list of flaws that make us all terrible people is long. How can we trust any line of reasoning that comes out of such a brain?
So yes, reason has taken a battering from almost every possible angle over the centuries. And yet, we can acknowledge the limitations of reason, acknowledge that there’s some truth to some of the above arguments, and still feel that reason must somehow come out on top. After all, any attempt to criticise reason must, itself, use reason to make its case.
Whether you want to claim that reason is impotent, or that it’s Satan’s whore, or that it should take a back seat to emotion, or that it’s an assertion of a “will to power,” or that it’s a product of a flawed Paleolithic brain, you must prove your argument with reasons in the first place. How else could we know that a cognitive bias is a bias at all?
This is why every argument against reason must blow up in its own face in the very act of being uttered.
And there is a lot at stake here. If it’s impossible say who’s “really” right or wrong – about anything – then it’s impossible say that Hitler, Stalin, or any other monster you can name are wrong. This should give even the most smug reason-sceptic out there some pause.
How might a conversation go between Metrodorus and the Nazi Führer? “Oh, you believe Jews are vermin and should be exterminated? Well, you have your perspective, I have my perspective, and I guess we’ll never really know who’s right.”
I’m sorry, but no.
Closer to home, we need reason to face the monsters spawned by our Paleolithic brains; all those cognitive lies, biases and distortions. Yes, against these monsters, reason is a flawed friend, a frustrating friend, a friend you sometimes argue with and get fed up with. You may curse this friend, fight this friend, occasionally abandon this friend. You may even stoop to calling this friend bad names (right, Luther?).
But it is also your only friend.
The gravest sin against reason – and, by extension, the greatest bastion of cognitive lies, biases and distortions – is unfalsifiable thinking. To say that someone’s belief is “unfalsifiable” is to say that there is nothing, not even in principle, that can ever change their mind (in science, to say this to someone is an insult infinitely more devastating than merely saying that they’re wrong).6
Karl Popper (who coined the term) identified unfalsifiable thinking to be the difference between the totalitarian society and the open society, as well as between pseudoscience and real science. It’s the common thread uniting almost all kinds of people you don’t want to know; all dogmatists, cultists and fascists, lynch mobs, internet trolls, and many more.
But the first dogmatic pseudoscientist to combat is the one inside yourself. This pseudoscientist is the one who insists not only on negative thought spirals or on putting you down, they also insist on dismissing or disqualifying any and all evidence to the contrary. Your colleague says something positive about your work; the pseudoscientist says they’re just trying to be nice. You get a promotion; the pseudoscientist says it’s a fluke.
Yet if there’s a pseudoscientist inside you then there’s also a real scientist, and they can use reason to put the pseudoscientist in their place. Identify the belief that you’re holding, like “My life sucks,” and ask yourself, “What is it that would change my mind?” Suddenly, instead of just chasing the evidence that verifies the hypothesis that your life sucks (like a pseudoscientist) you are finding the evidence that falsifies it (like a real scientist).
And you might just find it easier to find that evidence than you think.
negative & catastrophic thinking
A tendency towards a negativity bias, to focus more on the bad than the good, may well have had an adaptive survival value in the Paleolithic. After all, it’s the threats that pose a danger to you, your family and your community, not the things that are going well. That’s why if you go on a beautiful hike and see a snake, the snake will dominate your memory more than the beauty of the hike.
But if you’re spending more time thinking about that guy that said that nasty thing about you than about what is going well in your life, or more about the litany of disaster in the evening news than about what is good in the world, then you’re not setting yourself up for a balanced perspective on things.
Nevertheless, a common “next step” is to blow it all completely out of proportion with catastrophic thinking. And this will make a wreck of your life for no good reason, turning small mistakes into irreparable disasters, minor setbacks into the end of the world, and so forth.
Here, reason gives us “Occam’s Razor,”7 the principle that, all things being equal, we should go with the simplest explanation that fits the evidence; where “simplest” roughly means “requiring the fewest number of assumptions to make it work.” If you hear the sound of hooves, think horses, not unicorns.
Whenever you catch yourself catastrophising, just ask yourself, are your imagined fears really the simplest explanation of whatever is going on? Is your fear proportional to it, or are you just making dramatic assumptions on top of it?
Because please, there’s enough real problems in the world without creating new ones out of nothing.
black & white thinking
A tendency for black-and-white (or all-or-nothing or absolutist) thinking can be a wrecking ball through your life.
Your neighbour says something you don’t like, and you immediately throw them into the “bad person” bin. Your colleague isn’t an angel, and so they’re the Devil incarnate. Your life isn’t perfect, so it sucks. Relationships are abandoned in a rush and life is condemned in haste.
Studies of people with depression have even found that one of the most dominant features of their language, of the very way they speak, is the use of “absolutist words” like “always,” “never,” “everything,” “nothing,” etc.8 More astonishing is that such words appear to be even more prevalent than “negative emotion words” like “sad” or “lonely.” Clearly, black-and-white thinking takes its toll.
Again, reason is at least part of the antidote here. The world is not black-and-white, it is a thousand shades of grey. Most people are neither perfect angels nor devils. Take the time to work out where people and things sit on a spectrum of possibilities, instead of reflexively casting them into one of two binary categories.
A very common lie our Paleolithic brains tell us is that our feelings are facts, that if we feel it, it must be true. If you feel that your partner is looking at someone else, it means they are looking at someone else. If you feel that your life is over, it means it is over. If you feel that you have a deep connection to Scarlett Johansson, or to Brad Pitt, it means there is a deep connection…
Ok, that’s the more extreme version of emotional reasoning, but you get the picture.
Some will defend their emotional reasoning. After all, why would you feel something if it isn’t true? But the thing to understand about emotions is that they’re not about truth and falsehood, they’re about desire and aversion, hope and fear. Otherwise all scientific investigation would be about getting in touch with your feelings. Does E = mc2? What does your heart tell you?
And if anything will turn you against the Romantic notion that reason must take a back seat to emotion, it is seeing what happens when someone actually does this. To someone in the grips of their emotional reasoning, someone who has essentially gaslit themselves into believing their own hopes and fears, it is extremely difficult for actual reason to get through; because it doesn’t matter how illogical or inconsistent they’re being, they still feel that they’re right.
Emotion is not your enemy. It’s more like your drunk friend; you like them, you care for them, you wouldn’t want to be without them, but under no circumstances should you let them drive you home. Keep reason in the driver’s seat.
mind reading & fortune telling
Somehow, we fall into the strange trap of believing we have magical powers.
First, we seem to think we have the power to read minds. Because it’s not enough to just take the simplest explanation for why someone said what they said or did what they did; no, in our insecure moments we tear ourselves apart trying to guess what they really meant, or what they’re really thinking behind our backs.
But that’s not the end of our imagined superpowers; we behave as though we have the power to foretell the future. Trying to guess what could happen, what might happen, how things may turn out, is a hard habit to break. Yes, some things can be rationally predicted but much of the future is unknown and unknowable, and trying to predict it all is just going to drive you insane.
I don’t think I need to explain how reason should be applied here. Just stop behaving like you’re some kind of omniscient psychic warlock who knows things you can’t possibly know, and you’ll be fine.
Sometimes we just take things way too personally. Someone doesn’t like your work, it must be because they don’t like you. Someone is not enjoying a party, it must be because of something you did. Someone breaks up with you, it must be because there’s something wrong with you. And while caring about what other people think of us is normal, we worry about it far more than we should.
Studies of people with depression show that, in addition to using more “absolutist words,” they also use significantly more personal pronouns like “me,” “myself” and “I.”9 And again, these words are more commonly used than “negative emotion words.” It turns out that constantly thinking about yourself and how everything relates to you is not doing you any favours.
Because what appears, on the face of it, to be simple insecurity, is really disguising a kind of solipsism. You’re behaving like you’re the centre of the universe, that everything that happens is in some way about you. Someone might actually have a constructive criticism of your work and it has nothing to do with you. Even if someone breaks up with you it might just be their problem, and there was nothing you could’ve done differently.
Reason might just give you a bit of tough love here, telling you that it’s not all about you. Don’t forget, everyone else also feels like the centre of their universe, and for the most part they, too, are thinking about what others think of them, and not about you at all.
Errors in reasoning, or logical fallacies, usually take the form of “if this, then that” when actually there is no logical or sane connection between “this” and “that.”
Much of the rumination that plagues us is of this type. “If I mess up this project then I will look bad, then the boss will be mad, then I will get a bad performance review, then I could be let go, then I won’t be able to pay the mortgage, then…” is an example of the Slippery Slopes fallacy, or irrationally assuming that one bad thing will always lead to another worse bad thing, in a harrowing snowball effect.
The Hasty Generalisation fallacy is when you assume that because one thing goes wrong, then everything must be wrong. If you make one mistake at work then you’re lousy at your job in general. If you screw up that one date then you’re terrible at dating in general.
And appeals to Authority, Tradition, Popularity or Nature will have you looking for answers in all the wrong places. Just because “The President said so,” or “It’s always been this way,” or “Everyone believes it,” or “It’s natural,” it by no means follows that whatever you’re talking about is true or good.
In case it needs spelling out, Hitler had “authority,” human sacrifice was once a respected harvest-time “tradition,” “everyone believed” once that the earth was flat, and of course there’s nothing more “natural” than malaria or typhoons or bubonic plague.
Then on the flipside there’s the Genetic Fallacy, where you reject the right answers just because you don’t like where they come from; as in you dismiss crucial information that could genuinely help you because you think the person who gave it is a bit of a dick.
Worse, the Sunk Cost Fallacy will see you clinging to your precious falsehoods – even after you’ve learnt better – just because you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into them.
The full list of logical fallacies is far too long to cover here, but this should give you an idea of how they can ruin your day… and much, much more. But knowledge is power, and simply knowing them empowers you to identify them in your own thinking, and to reason your way out of the darkness.
combating the lies
All of the above are some of the main abuses of reason prevalent in our lives, contributing enormously to crises of well-being as well as crises in society, politics and the environment. And yes, to learn about the kind of lies, biases and distortions that the human brain is prone to can be enough to make you despair for the human race.
However, in a way they also give me courage. It is, after all, the human brain that is able to figure out that these lies, biases and distortions exist in the first place. It is the human brain that can therefore take steps to combat them, to live more in line with reality.
It is the human brain that can see beyond its Paleolithic shackles, beyond its ancestors’ mere survival mode; allowing us to actually, finally, live.
- Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy. (2018). Ancient Scepticism. https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/skepticism-ancient/
- Dragseth, J. H. (2011). The Devil’s Whore: Reason and Philosophy in the Lutheran Tradition. Augsburg Fortress Publishers.
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (2005). Romanticism. http://www.britannica.com/eb/article-9083836
- Cook, D. (1991). History as Fiction: Foucault’s Politics of Truth. Journal of the British Society for Phenomenology, 22:3, 139-147.
- Association for Psychological Science. (2018, August 13). The Cognitive Biases Tricking Your Brain. https://www.psychologicalscience.org/news/the-cognitive-biases-tricking-your-brain.html.
- Popper, K. (1945). The Open Society and its Enemies. Princeton University Press. (2020).
- Encyclopedia Britannica. (n.d.). Occam’s Razor. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Occams-razor
- Mohammed Al-Mosaiwi. (6 Feb 2018). People With Depression Use Language Differently. Big Think. https://bigthink.com/the-present/people-with-depression-use-language-differently-nil-heres-how-to-spot-it/
- S. Rude, E. Gortner, J. Pennebaker. (18 Aug 2010). Language Use of Depression and Depression-Vulnerable College Students. Cognition and Emotion. https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02699930441000030