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 no 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, at 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 being.
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, a love of reason has not been a foregone conclusion. Lest you take the reasonableness of reason for granted, 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 brains that give us so many cognitive lies, biases and distortions in the first place. These brains tell 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 bit of 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? Every argument against reason blows 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.
A potent and pervasive legacy of our Paleolithic brains is unfalsifiable thinking. To say that someone’s belief is “unfalsifiable” is to say that there is nothing, not even in principle, that could ever change their mind. In science, to say this to someone is an insult far worse than merely saying that they’re wrong.
Karl Popper, who coined the term, identified unfalsifiable thinking to be the difference between real science and pseudoscience, as well as between the “open society” and the totalitarian society.6 Unfalsifiable thinking is the common thread uniting all whack-jobs, lynch mobs, dogmatists, fascist dictators, cult leaders, internet trolls, and so on. They only look for evidence that verifies their beliefs and dismiss (or violently persecute) anything that might falsify them.
But the first 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.
Someone 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.
A tendency to have a negativity bias, to focus disproportionately on the bad side of life, 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; it’s the problems that need to be solved. Yet while focusing disproportionately on the negative may help you survive it will not help you live.
A negativity bias can affect us all. But for those who let it get out of hand, life can truly become a prison of paranoia and fear as everyone and everything comes to be interpreted in the worst possible light. They ruminate and analyse and compare, picking apart everything that people say and do, reiterating all the reasons why their life is bad.
Where one person might see someone helping another, a person struck with a severe case of negativity bias might see a someone being used by another. Yes, really.
Here, reason is a light in the darkness. Put your Paleolithic brain on trial and cross-examine it using the epitome of critical thinking tools, the Socratic Method: Question the underlying assumptions of your negative thought (like “everyone is out to get me”); question the validity of the evidence supporting your negative thought, and whether you’ve left anything out; question what alternative explanations there might be to your negative thought, and so on.
Taking the negativity bias to the extreme, a habit of blowing things out of proportion no doubt also had survival value for our prehistoric ancestors. A small cut could get infected and kill you; a rustling sound in the bushes could be a lion getting ready to make you their dinner.
But it will also 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. At its worst, catastrophic thinking can lead to the truly paranoid.
One person might take the slightest criticism from someone else as meaning that that person is out to get them. Another (I’m sure you know one) drops down the rabbit hole of their algorithm-manipulated social media feed, believing the smallest government public safety measure to be the tip of the iceberg of a vast nefarious conspiracy to control us all.
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.
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 we 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 gaslighted 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 and 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 think you’re an 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 our work, it must be because they don’t like us. Someone is not enjoying a party, it must be because of something we did. Someone breaks up with us, it must be because there’s something wrong with us. And while caring about what other people think of us is normal, we worry about it far more than we should.
But what appears to be insecurity, on the face of it, 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 worrying about themselves, not you.
THE just world hypothesis
Finally, a hard one for many of us to admit at the best of times, but life’s not fair. Many of us do seem to walk around with an expectation that life is – more or less – just and fair, that people generally get treated as they deserve. The good are rewarded and the bad are punished. The just world hypothesis is a nice, comforting belief that helps us get through the day.
Until it isn’t. For one thing, it’s just not true; each and every day there are instances in the world, too many to count, where the good are not rewarded and the bad are not punished. And because it’s not true, bad things happen when our gentle illusion of a just world shatters against the cold, hard, unjust reality; things like anger, disillusionment and despair.
Not to mention, of course, the wider social impacts. This includes a lack of basic human compassion for the less fortunate, since we believe they somehow deserve their fate; or a tolerance of corruption amongst the more fortunate, since we believe they deserve theirs. Only by acknowledging the world’s unfairness can we begin working on making it fairer.
But at least the just world hypothesis has the virtue of being falsifiable; reason will approve. It’s just that has been falsified. And many times throughout the world, I’m sure, since you began reading this sentence.
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.
It is the human brain that can reason.
- 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