Post Author: Bill Pratt
I have an interest in psychology and behavioral economics research. That’s why I write posts on books like Predictably Irrational and Thinking, Fast and Slow. But as I read these kinds of books, I am always keeping an eye on the big question.
Will the author say that human beings are completely irrational in our thoughts and behavior, completely rational in our thoughts and behavior, or a combination of the two? By rational I mean the use of reason, evidence, and logic to draw true conclusions about reality.
There are atheist thinkers such as Alex Rosenberg who argue that humans are completely irrational, that we are meat robots whose thoughts and behavior are 100% determined by physics. Physics knows nothing of reason, evidence, and logic. Rosenberg says that once you take science seriously, there is no other possible conclusion.
The problem with Rosenberg’s position is that it is hopelessly self-contradictory. He is saying, in essence, “I know rationally that nobody knows anything rationally.” If he knows that rationally, then his statement is false. If he doesn’t know anything rationally, then his statement is irrational and can be safely ignored.
In the world of psychological and economics literature, though, I see flirtation with Rosenberg’s position. Let’s look at two examples.
Michael Sliwinski, an entrepreneur and creator of the software application Nozbe, said this about the latest online magazine issue of Productivity:
Reading this issue provoked deep reflection within myself, and I hope it will do the same for you, too. Practically every article shows the well-known and scientifically proved (but often forgotten) fact that psychological mechanisms—usually unconscious—rule the human world.
Sliwinski says it is a fact that “psychological mechanisms—usually unconscious—rule the human world.” Is he taking Rosenberg’s position? Probably not, but he’s leaning in that direction. If he said that only psychological mechanisms rule the human world, his position would be self-contradictory as well. There is enough ambiguity to avoid the charge of Rosenberg-ism.
Dan Ariely concludes his book Predictably Irrational:
IF I WERE to distill one main lesson from the research described in this book, it is that we are pawns in a game whose forces we largely fail to comprehend. We usually think of ourselves as sitting in the driver’s seat, with ultimate control over the decisions we make and the direction our life takes; but, alas, this perception has more to do with our desires— with how we want to view ourselves— than with reality.
Let’s stop here. Ariely is skating on the edge of self-contradiction. He says that we are pawns without ultimate control over our decisions. But clearly Ariely believes that he was not a pawn when he wrote this sentence or the rest of his book. He believes that he did have control over the decisions he made to write about predictable irrationality, did he not? If he was able to pull this off, then why can’t we?
The point is that our visual and decision environments are filtered to us courtesy of our eyes, our ears, our senses of smell and touch, and the master of it all, our brain. By the time we comprehend and digest information, it is not necessarily a true reflection of reality. Instead, it is our representation of reality, and this is the input we base our decisions on. In essence we are limited to the tools nature has given us, and the natural way in which we make decisions is limited by the quality and accuracy of these tools.
Ariely almost goes Rosenberg on us again. He says that when we comprehend and digest information, “it is our representation of reality” and not “necessarily a true reflection of reality.” If he is saying that every time we digest information, we are not getting at true reality, then how is it that Ariely has managed to bypass this problem and get at true reality?
It is helpful to re-write his statement in the following way: “By digesting information, I have arrived at the true reality that nobody who digests information can arrive at true reality.” If his statement is true, then it is false, unless he doesn’t want to include himself in the population of all human beings.
In closing, consider the following:
- If we are irrational meat robots, then we can’t know rationally that we are meat robots.
- If unconscious psychological mechanisms control our every thought, then we can’t consciously (or rationally) think that unconscious psychological mechanisms control our every thought.
- If we have no control over our decisions, then we can’t control the decision to think that we have no control over our decisions.
- If we can’t comprehend true reality, then we can’t comprehend that true reality is incomprehensible.
Rosenberg self-contradiction syndrome is always lurking. We have to be careful not to stretch the findings of psychology and behavioral economics beyond where they should go. If you ever want to make any claim about reality that you think is true, then you cannot hold that we are merely meat robots. That, my friend, is a flagrant contradiction.