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Tim Urban’s What’s Our Problem?
Tim Urban has a new book, What’s Our Problem?, whose main thesis is that our minds have two modes, and high and a low mind. The high mind more seeks truth, while the low mind more seeks loyalty via confirming sacred beliefs. The high mind thinks like a scientist, especially in an “idea lab”. It realizes that it might be wrong, avoids bias or idea attachment, is open to stumbling and backtracking, and systematically collects hypotheses and data to carefully compare the two.
In contrast, the low mind prefers “echo chambers” and is hypocritical, overconfident, oversimplifies, dislikes skepticism, uses fallacies, has confirmation bias due to motivated reasoning, prioritizes conformity and loyalty, treats ideas like sacred objects, sees those who disagree as bad people, and divides the world into us vs. them.
Sometimes our high minds run us, and at other times our low minds do. But we find it hard to tell which of these situations applies at any one moment. High minds join together into “genies”, while low minds join into “golems”. Low mind thinking was necessary long ago, but not today; once the world was full of power games, where low minds rule, but recently it has created liberal games, where high minds can thrive. Such as when free speech laws create a marketplace of ideas. One can argue politics using high minds, but politics tends to pull toward using low minds, especially lately in US, because it has been longer since international conflicts unified the US.
Most of the book reviews US society and media becoming more politically polarized. Urban reviews the bad “golem” side of both right and left, but spends far more time complaining about the “woke” “social justice” left. He quotes many left thinkers to paint a picture of how extreme they’ve become, but doesn’t really show how representative or influential are those particular thinkers.
At the end, after explaining in great detail how there can be social equilibria that greatly discourage the high mind use, at least near politics, Urban finally offers his solution: “awareness and courage”. We should just defy our social incentives and “climb” to our higher minds. First, stop saying what you don’t believe, then start saying what you “really think” in private, then say it in public. After all, “for many of us, the fear of putting it all out there is mostly in our own heads.” Sure some will like you less, but you should more respect the others who will like you more.
Alas, this seems to me to not take seriously how deep such problems go. What you “really think” is substantially created by your social world, and need not come from your high mind. So encouraging everyone to ignore social context and just say what they “really think” just isn’t obviously going to induce a world dominated by high minds. Nor does it have much chance of actually happening.
We might try to create and enforce social norms that encourage use of high minds, relative to low. Unfortunately, this distinction just isn’t identified very well in terms of clear enough observables, of the sort that social norms require for successful enforcement. And the problem is more that we are going the other way: no longer enforcing what once seemed like sufficiently-enforceable norms, such as free speech.
I suggest that what would really help are better social institutions, such as prediction and decision markets, which by their structure encourage more use of high minds. Alas, I think most people oppose such changes exactly because they realize that they’d have that that result. So what we first need is for people to actually want to displace low minds with high. Not just as a sort of nice thing to have sometimes. But as a deeply sacred thing in itself, more sacred than the political loyalty which encourages low minds. Hence my efforts to study and change the sacred.