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Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite 4,5: Modular Me, The Truth Hurts


Kurzban Uses the analogy of the conscious mind as a press secretary whose job demands a certain amount of ignorance in order to avoid lying to the public. Sometimes it’s better if that mind doesn’t know things. This flies against philosophers like Jerry Fodor who (Kurzban claims) say that the mind is made only for discerning truth. I find it hard to believe that any thoughtful person would think such a thing, so I feel like Kurzban may be oversimplifying Fodor’s beliefs, but then again, I’ve been steeped in this mainstream cognitive science stuff for so long that maybe I just find it hard to believe that anyone could believe differently than I do.

The benefits of ignorance seem to be most evident in the cases of moral expectations. If someone knows that you know there is a child in a burning house, suddenly you’re a jerk for not rushing in and risking your life. You knowledge is a burden. Same can be said for vegetarianism (how many hold ignorance as an excuse?), the source of our products (whoops), the effect our money would have for the poor, especially in other countries (son of a. . . ), and I’m sure there are plenty of other examples that I’ve never had the burden of having to think about.

To Kurzban, the main benefit of ignorance  is the improved ability to present the most positive picture of oneself to others. In fact, he criticizes the idea of cognitive dissonance, claiming that there’s only dissonance when our self-contradictions are made public. He claims that people don’t really have a big problem with contradicting themselves when they’re alone, or when their hypocrisy is private. So. . . does that apply to me too? Do I only care about creating a consistent worldview because I feel bad about being found to contradict myself? That certainly would account for some of my motivations. I picture all those smart people I respect and have interacted with me who have also called me out on my wrong thinking.

In the end though, how much does it matter? If a person is motivated, and succeeds, in being morally upright or philosophically consistent because they want to appear so to others, do their motivations matter that much? The danger is in people who act morally to others, but then do really immoral things in secret. I wonder if religious hypocrisy is widespread and representative enough to consider this a real problem.

Kindle Notes:

In the same way that I think it’s a mistake to be content to say “John believes X”—because different modules of John might believe not-X—there’s a problem with “is aware of,” “is conscious of,” and “is in control of.” To the extent that only some modules have consciousness associated with them, it’s also a problem to say that “John is conscious of Y.” Really, it’s going to turn out that more precision is required, and that some of John’s modules are conscious of Y (1408).

Yes, I’m suggesting that it’s not, in principle, impossible, that all of us are carrying around parts of our brains that have experience but can’t communicate anything about those experiences (1426).

If I’m going to claim that some modules are actually designed to be wrong, I’d better have a good argument (1666).

The first assumption I need is relatively uncontroversial. If you compare humans to nearly any other species on the planet, we’re incredibly social (1667).

These ideas suggest that the modules that cause the speech and behavior that lead to others’ impressions should be designed to generate as positive a view as possible of our traits and abilities (1765).

if it were possible to maintain one set of representations that were designed for “public consumption,” to maintain the most positive possible information about one’s traits and abilities, and keep unfavorable representations “walled off,” to be used only when necessary, that would be the best of all possible worlds (1825).

As Steve Pinker put it, “People are embraced or condemned according to their beliefs, so one function of the mind may be to hold beliefs that bring the belief-holder the greatest number of allies, protectors, or disciples, rather than beliefs that are most likely to be true” (1856).

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