I recently came upon this quote from the social-news aggregator reddit:
“What I’ve seen is that in the museums and in the textbooks, whenever they claim to show the evolutionary differences from one species to another, it relies on illustrations and drawings… not any material evidence.” – Wendy Wright
The comments mock the obvious hypocrisy of rejecting evolution because of the lack of “material evidence”, yet accepting creationism. From the critics’ perspective, how could anyone not see the obvious contradictions in their beliefs?
The answer may be because it’s really hard to debug self-contradictions, even those as apparently obvious as this one.
The Brain of a Hypocrite
In the book, Inside Jokes, Matthew Hurley hypothesizes that our sense of humor is an evolved trait, designed to reward the effort of debugging our knowledge.
The full theory is complex and technical, but one interesting feature is the proposed brain architecture for why humor works. In order for humor to make sense, beliefs naturally fit into two categories: active and long-term.
Active beliefs are the beliefs you have, implicit or explicit, in your mind consciously at this moment. For myself, an active belief is that I’m currently writing this sentence. For you, an active belief might be that you’re definitely reading this sentence, or sitting at your computer.
Long-term beliefs are all the other beliefs you hold, and are stored in memory. I have a belief about how the earth orbits the sun, but until this moment, it wasn’t in my conscious thinking.
The key difference is that you can only notice contradictions between active beliefs. Contradictions between long-term beliefs will go unnoticed unless they are both activated and consciously assessed.
This distinction is just a hypothesis, but it does have intuitive appeal. The reason we’re so full of self-contradictions is that rarely do both those contradictory beliefs get activated simultaneously so that we can consciously observe the hypocrisy.
This is probably not the only reason (identity-entangled beliefs are probably another culprit) but it helps explain why being intellectually consistent is so difficult.
Debugging Intellectual Hypocrisy
If Hurley’s theory suggests why it’s easy to be full of contradicting ideas, it also suggests a possible solution. If you can activate beliefs that normally don’t get activated simultaneously, that would go much of the way in helping you debug them.
One way to do this is to think original thoughts. If you have chains of reasoning which connect the gaps between ideas that are normally separate, you can notice contradictions and fix them.
This too, it turns out, is more difficult than it appears. Although we tend to believe that each segment in our stream of consciousness is new, they too may reflect more habit than original insight.
Eleizer Yudkowsky suggests here that the brain may use a method known as caching in cognition. Caching is a process used by engineers, in which answers are pre-computed to save time. Multiplication tables are a type of caching, where you recall memorized products rather than compute them.
If cognitive caching exists, it means that our thoughts are rarely original. Thinking about the premise, leads you down the garden path of familiar arguments until you reach your predetermined conclusion.
Thinking Original Thoughts
The notion of thinking original thoughts is very similar to holistic learning. In fact, I think there’s probably a relationship between the two ideas. Creating connections between disparate ideas allows you to not only root out contradictions, but also to create new insights.
Thinking original thoughts, which avoid the cached answers we’ve generated, isn’t easy. In fact, it’s probably impossible to do so most of the time. But the more you can think original thoughts, the better, both for exposing your self-contradictions and for gaining new insights.
I don’t have a specific answer for thinking more original thoughts, but here are a few practices I’ve tried to adopt in my own life, to encourage that goal:
1. Read books to change your mind.
If you already agree with the conclusion, it’s probably not worth reading the book. Unless the author exposes a new theory or thinking pattern in the middle, why invest time just to confirm your cached thoughts?
2. Have intelligent debates with people.
I appreciate when people offer well-thought critiques of the ideas in my articles. Although sometimes it can be frustrating when I feel we aren’t discussing the same concept, I appreciate the challenge of someone dissenting to my viewpoint. Of course, the goal needs to be to inspire original thinking, not to “win” an argument.
3. Don’t write the same idea twice.
This is a hard goal (with over 1000 articles already published), but I strive to write about a new idea each time. Or, if I take a similar conclusion, I need to take a different path to reach it. As a writer, I feel this forces me to think more original thoughts, even if the price is more frequent frustration deciding what topic to pursue.
4. Learn across multiple genres.
I recently had a conversation with Cal Newport, where he pointed out how non-fiction authors subtly conform their books’ appearance and style, as a signal to their audience. Self-help titles, therefore, tend to look the same intentionally—so self-help readers will gravitate to them.
While stylistic conformity may be inevitable, as a learner this should encourage you to span genres. I’m trying to add biographies, essay collections and foreign fiction to the categories of books I normally read, with this goal in mind.
Is all this effort to root out intellectual inconsistencies worth it? I think so. With each debugged inconsistency, comes a new insight. Just one “Aha!” moment, properly placed, can change everything.