Thinking fast and slow

As submitted to Daily Maverick

Two quite peculiar experiences stand out after returning from the Global Atheist Convention, held in Melbourne earlier this month. The first was at the instigation of Sam Harris, who guided the roughly 4000 atheists present in a session of mindfulness meditation. The second was watching our news cycle (or rather, social media commentary on it) from afar and at 8 hours remove.

The latter experience had the effect of highlighting the perception that little seems to change – that the same people kept saying the same things and the same entrenched positions kept leading to the same misinterpretations and squabbles. But in light of the quite alien – and for some, alienating – exercise in mindfulness, I couldn’t help but wonder whether we can do better and if so, how we’d go about it.

Harris’s talk was about death. The inevitability of death, and the absence of some sort of way of cheating it via an immortal soul, was used as a vehicle to ask us to reflect on wasted time and effort. We sometimes appear to live as if we might be immortal, deferring important decisions to quit smoking or patch up some relationship.

More crucially, some of us could be accused of not realising the full implications of our mortality – if this is the only life we have, it falls to us to improve our world, and we’ve neither unlimited time nor supernatural help to do so. An obvious, yet powerful, comment made by Harris was that it’s quite likely that many of us will spend our last months or years in regret for what we failed to achieve – but that being able to anticipate this regret seems to have little motivational force in the present.

The disjunction between thoughts of mortality and the significance of life, versus noticing that South Africans were again, and still, talking about whether Cape Town was racist or whether respect for cultural norms precluded criticism of polygamy was quite stark. I’m not suggesting that these conversations are unimportant. I’m rather observing that in having these conversations nobody ever seems to change their minds, or admit that they don’t have a well-justified position. And the debates never seem to take place with a greater degree of mutual understanding than in their previous iterations.

Part of the problem might be that we forget how young we are, and therefore how little experience we have of making sense of each other. While modern humans originated around 200 000 years ago, most of us still lived as nomadic hunter-gatherers until around 10 000 years ago, when agriculture started allowing for the formation of permanent settlements, trade, cooperation and the formation of complex societies.

If you start the clock those 200 000 years ago, we’ve only lived in societies for 5% of our existence, and in complex societies for less than 2%. The skills most useful for flourishing during the other 95% of our history aren’t equally useful today, yet they continue to determine many of our responses to modern challenges. Essentially, we’re pattern-making creatures, who survived through being able to do things like predict the movements of animals and the changes of seasons. We look for structure, and we’re so well-trained and efficient at this that it happens without thinking – and perhaps often in ways that are entirely inappropriate to a more complex modern world.

Daniel Kahneman’s recent book Thinking fast and slow details many of the ways in which our cognitive habits let us down through placing undue weight on surface over substance. He refers to System 1 and System 2 thinking to explain this, where System 1 sees patterns, and generates an “obvious” (and time-saving) answer.

But this answer is often wrong, because it’s mostly designed by humans who lived during that other 95% of our existence, and not by us. We need to remind ourselves to think more slowly and to be suspicious of the first, intuitive response. System 2 isn’t as easily fooled by misleading patterns because it’s a more careful judge of available evidence rather than impressions, and we can force it into action simply by being a little more patient and a little more cautious.

Besides reminding ourselves to think a little slower, I’d also suggest that there’s room for improvement in the way we talk. Tallyrand said that “language was invented so that people could conceal their thoughts from each other”, and while that might often be true, it also seems true that our language often serves to preclude rather than encourage debate, whether through the use of lazy, stereotypical categories or through moralistic outrage.

If we want to get better at understanding ourselves and cooperating to improve our world, we need to realise that we constantly make mistakes. Not only mistakes related to particular choices, but mistakes that involve how we choose, because they’re a feature of how we think. And we perhaps give too little thought to training the mind versus simply acquiring information.

This was the point of the meditation exercise described above. As Harris pointed out, while most accounts of practices such as these are contaminated by metaphysics, that shouldn’t prevent us from recognising that it’s possible for us to weigh evidence less subjectively and to do a better job of distinguishing between the significant battles and the petty squabbles.

A joke sometimes told about philosophers is that we’re inclined to say things like “we know it’s possible in practice, but is it possible in principle?” While watching the Groundhog Day-debates take place from my hotel room in Melbourne, I couldn’t shake the feeling that sometimes our principles seem immune to revision, regardless of the evidence. And that maybe, we should start by throwing them away – or at least by remembering that they are products of brains that were evolved to cope with a different world to the one we actually live in.

By Jacques Rousseau

Jacques Rousseau teaches critical thinking and ethics at the University of Cape Town, South Africa, and is the founder and director of the Free Society Institute, a non-profit organisation promoting secular humanism and scientific reasoning.