On Unsolved Problems

Imagine a book review:

The authors present convincing evidence that since 1947 aliens from beyond Earth are here on Earth, can pass as humans, have been living among us, and increasingly influence human affairs. The authors plausibly identify the industries, professions, and geographic regions where aliens have the most influence, and the primary methods of alien influence. Furthermore the authors have made their evidence analysis accessible to a wide audience in a readable and entertaining book, and have published it via a respectable academic press to enable its conclusions to be believed by a wide audience.

Unfortunately, the authors only offer vague and general plans for dealing with these meddling aliens. They offer no cheap and reliable way to detect individual aliens, nor to overpower and neutralize them once detected. What good is it to know about aliens without a detailed response plan? Save your money and buy another book.

Or imagine deleting that last paragraph, and adding this instead:

The authors go further and offer plausible physical mechanisms by which we might detect individual aliens and neutralize their influence. The authors also offer a ten point plan and outline a rough budget for a project to implement this plan.

Unfortunately, they give no detailed schematics for physical devices to detect and neutralize aliens, nor do they offer a specific manufacturing process plan. In addition, they don’t say much about how to fund or staff their proposed project. This project would be international in scope and probably continue for decades. Yet the authors don’t bother to address how to guarantee gender, racial, and national equity when choosing personnel, nor how to achieve national and generational equity in funding. They don’t even give a detailed plan for managing the disruption should a war break out.

What good is it to know about aliens, physical mechanisms to detect and neutralize them, and a ten point plan for managing this, if we lack a detailed device schematics, manufacturing processes, plans to ensure equitable hiring and funding, and war contingencies?  Save your money and buy another book.

I could go on, but you get the idea. You should want to learn about problems you face, even if you don’t yet know how to solve them. The above snark was inspired by this review by Samuel Hammond of Elephant in the Brain. He starts with kind praise:

An entertaining and insightful book that sheds light on a diverse collection of perplexing human behaviors. …

And then he details this criticism:

The book is largely an exercise in simply convincing the reader of the elephant’s existence by hammering away with example after example. As a result of that hammering, The Elephant in the Brain ends up being light on public policy upshots — far more Theory of Moral Sentiments than Wealth of Nations. That’s unfortunate, since the ideas in the book are bursting with potential applications. Worse, however, is the scant attention paid to helping the reader pick up the pieces of their shattered psyche. Instead, Simler and Hanson simply highlight the need to better align public institutions with our hidden motives, leaving the all-important “how” question relatively untouched. …

It at least seems possible to tame the social aspects of our adaptive unconscious with the right self-help techniques, from classroom exercises to mindfulness meditation. This was essentially the strategy developed by the Cynics of ancient Greece. Through rigorous training, the Cynics managed to forgo the pursuit of wealth, sex, and fame in favor of mental clarity and rational ethics.

This is the direction I had hoped The Elephant in the Brain would lead. After all, the elephant in the brain is located squarely in what psychologists call our brain’s “System 1,” or the automatic, noncognitive, and fast mode of thinking. That still leaves our “System 2,” or analytical, cognitive, and slow mode of thinking, as a potential tool for transcending our lowly origins. By failing to give our System 2 mode a balanced consideration, The Elephant in the Brain inadvertently falls into the expanding genre of pop-psych books that simply recapitulate David Hume’s famous assertion that “reason is, and ought only to be the slave of the passions.” …

Haidt’s more recent book, The Righteous Mind, helps to illustrate the pragmatic problem. … Without denying Haidt’s empirical findings, an inviolable application of this theory raises an obvious question: How does one could ever hope to hold to a rational political philosophy at all? …

It seems like Simler was ultimately able to transcend the Silicon Valley rat-race with the employ of his System Two, or cognitive, mode of thinking. That is, he was rationally persuaded to pull the elephant by the reins and steer his life towards truth-seeking.

Our book mainly identifies hidden motives via explaining patterns of behavior that are poorly explained by our usual claimed motives. These patterns result from the usual mix of automatic and reasoned thinking, of impulse and self-control. I’ve seen no evidence that these patterns are weaker for people or places where reason or self-control matters more. This includes the example of my coauthor’s choice to write this book.

Without any concrete evidence suggesting that hidden motives matter more or less when there is more reason or self-control, I don’t see why discussing reason and self-control was a priority for our book. And I doubt that merely promoting reason or self-control is sufficient to reduce the influence of hidden motives.

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