The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   173

Enlightenment 2.0

Restoring Sanity to Our Politics, Our Economy, and Our Lives

by Joseph Heath New York: Harper Collins, 2014

Enlightenment is Other People

This is a very interesting but also somewhat-dated book and highly-debatable book; I decided to review it in part to figure out what I think about it.

Heath is, as I've said, notable because he has a good claim to being the world's only rational-choice critical theorist, at once an acute student of the Frankfurt School, especially Habermas, while simultaneously devoted to game theory. Both these traditions lean very heavily on notions of "reason" and "rationality". (The specific gyrations of the interpretive dance through which Heath tries to unite Habermasian "communicative reason" with von Neumann's "selfish and treacherous" sociopaths with supercomputers for brains need not detain us here.) This book is Heath grappling with two sets of ideas: (1) according to the psychologists, people are not very rational at all, and (2) politics throughout the rich democracies, but especially in the US, seemed to be going crazy, and be increasingly detached from reason. (Remember Heath is writing c. 2013; we hadn't seen nothing yet.) At first sight, these have nothing to do with each other; if the psychologists are right, after all, we've always been stupid, which can hardly explain why some of us seemed to be getting more crazy. (You can't explain a variable with a constant.)

Heath ingeniously ties these two ideas together, and connects them to his game-theoretic/Habmerasian concerns, by adopting a "dual process" or "dual systems" view of human cognition, explicitly (but not exclusively) following the great Daniel Kahneman. One system consists of our faculties for pattern recognition, primate social interaction, etc., etc. This is parallel, fast, intuitive, pre-linguistic, inaccessible to introspection, and run by fast and frugal heuristics which worked well for our evolutionary ancestors but were not tuned to the environment of post-industrial, media-saturated capitalist representative democracies. It is also incorrigible to correction: knowing that a visual illusion is an illusion doesn't stop you from seeing it, and knowing that your judgments of frequency are subject to the availability heuristic doesn't stop you from relying on that heuristic.

All of this is in contrast to the other system, which is reason or rationality. Reason is serial, slow, explicit, articulated in language, self-reflective, and capable of self-correction. It is also, and this is absolutely vital, culturally and socially mediated.

For Heath, we have in turn two ways of being rational. The obvious one is to explicitly rely on the second system, which he presents as a matter of consciously, and with pains and effort, using it to over-ride the responses on the first system. (That higher faculties work by inhibition is an old theme in the history of psychology and neuroscience, not much explored by Heath.) Our capacity to do this --- to, as it were, white-knuckle our way to human freedom --- is very limited and easily over-taxed.

The other way to be rational is to arrange our environments so that our first system responds in ways our second system would approve of, were the latter given the time and resources to work things out. This is, in Heath's account, vastly the more common and important source of rationality. In many cases, inherited customs, traditions and institutions, which have (literally) evolved through a long process of selection, create situations where our intuitive or habitual reactions are, in fact, rational and adaptive. To this extent, as he says, conservatism is right.

Thus one way in which rationality is (for Heath) social: we build environments, including formal and informal institutions, where the choices we are apt to make line up with the choices we ought to make. The other way in which rationality is social is that even when we are relying on explicitly, articulated, second-system reasoning, we are a lot better at criticizing others than ourselves, so argument and debate actually improve ideas, at least when conducted with a minimum of honesty, and some actual thought.

Rationality matters for Heath because, in addition to its intrinsic value, he sees it as being essential to solving large-scale collective action problems. Small-scale collective action problems and social dilemmas can be solved by our first-system human tendencies to reciprocity and enforcing norms, even at cost to ourselves, but beyond the scale of a foraging band, we need some combination of thinking through "what if everyone acted this way?" and formal organizations (especially states*), which needs reason.

And now we get to what was worrying Heath c. 2010. He was very concerned that our built environments, including our social institutions, were deteriorating, in ways that made rationality increasingly difficult. Among the specific issues he discusses, I will single out advertising and, relatedly, the news media. Heath traces out how, as advertising technique has progressed since the mid-1800s, it has moved further and further away from offering arguments for wanting or preferring some product. This is true even when the product is a political party or candidate. He present the techniques of modern advertising as an attempt to use the first, intuitive system to short-circuit considerations from the second, rational system. Turning to the media environment, he leans very heavily on the idea that reason is necessarily linguistic. The increasing role of imagery and movies/video undermines reason, because it keeps prodding the visual system. The rise of 24 hour news, which, as he says, is really nearly the same 15 minutes of news on looped over and over, is deleterious here, because the intuitive system takes repetition, confidence and frequency as cues to truth, in highly exploitable ways. More generally, he is very concerned that (to quote a phrase he doesn't use) deceiving us has become an industrial process, that we are constantly surrounded by artifacts produced by corporations which carefully use rational procedures to activate our intuitive cognitions in ways which will pump money from us to them ***. Even if those acts have no overt political content, Heath worries that the effort required to resist them will undermine our capacity for rationality and self-control. The increasing wide-spread recognition by sophisticated and rational political operatives that it is possible to simply evade rational criticism by means of innuendo and sufficiently shameless lying only makes a bad situation worse.

I should say at this point that I endorse many of Heath's positions outright, and sympathize with many of the rest. As a devotee of Herbert Simon (of blessed memory), naturally I agree that creating environments where our favored heuristics work well is a key to rationality. Moreover, as a follower of Dan Sperber (to say nothing of Karl Popper --- a lot of this in his "Towards a Rational Theory of Tradition", which Heath oddly doesn't mention), I am already persuaded that criticism and argumentation is crucial to improving ideas, and that the standards of discussion and other tools of thought are themselves culturally transmitted social products. And I am very worried about the quality of our built environment, institutions included, and what it is doing to our capacity to think effectively together about our common life. I entertain particularly grave suspicions about the effects of television and of social media ****.

But --- of course you could tell there was a but! --- I find myself with a lot of doubts about Heath's rendition of this theme. Some of these concern theory, and others the specific application to our present troubles.

Starting with more intellectual, longer-duration issues first, I am unconvinced that Heath's dual-system account is necessary, or even helpful. As to its being unnecessary, Mercier and Sperber, in their great Enigma of Reason (precis), give a not-obviously-absurd account of "reason" as an intuitive capacity, rooted in our evolutionary history as social, communicative animals. (Specifically, they argue reason is an intuitive capacity for gauging the relevance of one representation to another, evolved for argument and justifying ourself, or our proposals, to others.) I don't insist that Mercier and Sperber are right and Heath, following Kahneman, is wrong. (I have my suspicions, but what are those worth?) My point is that if Heath were to be convinced that Mercier and Sperber were right about the psychology of rationality, most of what he has to say as a political philosopher and social critic would stand just fine, because it doesn't really need a dual-systems basis.

This brings me to Heath's reliance on the psychological literature. Paying attention to empirical findings about human thought and behavior is obviously the right approach for a project like his. But the early 2010s were a rather unfortunate time to do that, since this was just before the replication crisis, i.e., the recognition that a lot of the psychological literature was really the Journal of Evidence-based Haruspicy. Thus Heath talks a lot about social priming to illustrate the foibles of system 1. (Well, even Kahneman did!) When discussing the limits of self-control, what I called "white-knuckling it" above, he repeatedly refers to Roy Baumeister's work on "ego depletion" --- famous, influential, widely cited, and a famous failure to replicate. (Cf.: "One of my earliest conference memories was talking to some other self-control researchers about how we all had tried to replicate ego depletion in our labs and none of us could.") When discussing how our evolved appetites are manipulated by corporations, Heath repeatedly, and favorably, appeals to the work of Brian Wansink; these citations have (to put it kindly) not aged well. Even the issue of whether our heuristics lead to irrational biases in the wild, or whether we are on the contrary generally "ecologically rational", is not without controversy, with figures of considerable authority going so far as to claim psychologists suffer from a "bias bias". (I also have my issues with Heath's approving noises in the direction of Thaler/Sunstein-style nudging, but that's another story.)

I further worry that he doesn't adequately appreciate the depths, and cultural specificity, of "anti-intellectualism in American life" (despite his nod of recognition in the direction of Burkean conservatism and his perfunctory citation of Hofstadter). I am simply not at all convinced that if Heath were to go back and immerse himself in the cultural environment of the US (or Canada) c. 1955 that he'd actually find all that much more reason, in his sense, on display. We are, after all, talking about the period of McCarthyism, actual white supremacy being violently defended, moral panic over comic books, etc., etc.

Obviously, for someone like me or Heath, in light of both 2016 and 2020--2021, the thesis that a substantial portion of the populace of the rich democracies have detached themselves from reason has a lot going for it. (Incidentally: I think the book benefits from not being able to point to those events.) But the real question is whether more of that electorate is detached from reason than before, and if so whether that fraction is more politically effective than before. My suspicion --- no more, I'm genuinely unsure about all of this --- is that the bulk of our fellow citizens are about as coherent and reality-based as they ever were, maybe more, but that modern communications makes us all better able to coordinate our irrationalities, to condense into substantial blobs of delusion, rather than pulling in fifty million different directions and canceling each other out. (Hence the probably-never-to-be-written joint project with Henry Farrell on how Actually, "Dr. Internet" Is the Name of the Monster's Creator.) I don't insist this is the right picture, but it suggests a very different diagnosis and set of prescriptions than Heath's view, and I think we genuinely don't know enough to judge between them.

I opened by saying I wasn't sure what to think of this book. Let me close by saying that writing this has clarified that, at least for me. Aiming to do no less than to re-vitalize the Enlightenment project is grandiosely ambitious. (But, again: Heath is very attentive to Habermas.) Unlike some popular writers who say they share that aim, Heath doesn't just preach to the choir and say "Enlighten harder!" Indeed, he pretty much says that doing so lacks intellectual seriousness, and as such betrays the most important values of that project. Rather, and correctly, he takes seriously not just many relevant things that we've learned about reason, experience, nature and society since that project began, but also the history of failures, even disasters, which have attended that project. The book is stimulating and thought-provoking, and its core concerns and insights are (in my supremely unqualified opinion) valid, even essential. If my remarks have been mostly critical, in the end that is largely by way of tribute.

* I will not do justice** to Heath's discussion of why it is rational and necessary for the state to take over the punishment of wrong-doers, rather than leaving it to private vengeance or even inflicting punishments that would satisfy the feelings of the wronged, or the populace at large. But I will say that he is, if not quite in so many words, arguing that the state is the form of rationality on Earth, and that I can't remember ever having read so Hegelian a book that had quite such a manifest disdain for Hegel. (To be clear, I share that disdain!) ^
**: Involuntary puns are involuntary.^
***: He even suggests that money pumps and Dutch books, in the decision-theoretic sense, are relevant for how people get taken advantage of by corporations. I confess I am utterly unable to follow his argument at this point, since none of the examples he presents seem to involve Dutch books, or even intransitive preferences, so much as hyperbolic discounting and over-confidence, which are very different issues. But then I have never found Dutch book arguments convincing. (I am not alone.) ^
****: Why, yes, my parents did raise me with a disdain for TV, and social media did become a big deal after I turned 35, however did you guess? ^

Cognitive Science; Cultural Criticism; Philosophy; Politics, Political Thought, Political Science
Drafted 26 December 2021, posted 6 March 2022