I made a reference to this book by Chris Wilson earlier and started a more thorough review … below.
Chris responded before I had published … so appended below is our initial exchange to my incomplete review. We can use the comments below to continue the public dialogue.
Psybertron asked “What am I missing ?”
I mentioned briefly earlier that I had started to read Chris Wilson’s “Healing The Unhappy Caveman”. Chris (the Enlightened Caveman) is someone I’ve communicated and corresponded with before, so I know we have a lot of common ground, but we are approaching our agendas from opposite ends.
Chris here is writing a self-help book for people who need enlightening that human brains evolved long before our cerebral minds, and that reasonable thought requires mental effort if we are to avoid being slaves to our genetically programmed emotions. Assuming people need that advice, Chris’ main thesis is that such effort is worth it, and the reward is a more reasonable outlook on achievable happiness, than the conflict and frustration we might achieve if we allowed primitive animal competition alone to drive our lives. Can’t argue with that.
Writing for the layman in a brief book Chris describes much mental and behavioural evolution involving collaborative economic models, as well as critical rationalism. Presented simply, no doubt this might appeal to his target audience. As a reviewer, the problem for me is continually having to discount my own starting position – namely that most decision-makers in the current world are too rationally sure of their own rationality – I’m approaching the problem from the hyper-rational end, not the absence-of-reason end.
Socrates had long since told us that the unexamined life is not worth living, but there are plenty of clues that Chris is on the right agenda. The idea that rationality requires evidence, the need to understand what is evidential, and that actively “embracing” life is crucial to gathering such evidence. That reasoning requires “discernment” of what actually matters, and the fact that there is a kind of economics at work in deciding when the effort is worth it and when to take a holiday. Chris uses an “ages of man” device in the life story of a maturing individual called Hank to illustrate his points. Lots of good stuff simply presented.
But now, an admission – I’ve only read half the book; the whole of the first half, plus the final chapter “Bringing It All Together”. I found quite a few sentences to baulk at in his deliberately simple presentation of human mental evolution, but I was stopped in my tracks by this “[In criminal trials] prosecutors present concrete evidence, defense lawyers present extenuating circumstances, and voila, sympathy takes over in the minds of jurors, rendering them helpless to see the truth.”
Surely we have more respect for the average juror than that ?
In my agenda truth is far more than “concrete” evidence.
So I skipped to the summary chapter to see where we were headed with this.
And my disagreerment seems to remain … we have some problem around the concepts of Happiness / Reasonable / Good. As a simple self-help starter the book succeeds … but are some of the messages so simplified as to ultimately wrong or am I missing something ?
The Enlightened Caveman responded
Hey – finally some legitimate criticism!! Whoopee! Here goes…
To your most pressing issue, I can only say that I am using the emotionally-swayed juror as an example – one that we’re all familiar with, if only anecdotally – of a situation in which someone pressed the right stimulus button and the amygdala and its ancient processes blocked the cognitive mind out of the decision-making loop almost entirely. It certainly wasn’t meant to be a generalization of all jurors. It also wasn’t meant to imply that no emotion should ever come into play in a court room, so if others also take those ideas away from it, I’ll mark that as a MISS in the effective communication category.
In general, I think your sense that you may be somewhat distinct from the target audience may be correct. The vast majority of examples of how evolutionarily evolved emotions might manifest themselves – both in hunter/gatherer groups and in modern groups – are deliberately simplistic, almost cartoonish, if you will. My only real alternative there was to go down the usual path of science writers, which would have meant describing a bunch of experiments and results and then tying them to modern characteristics and behavior. I actually sort of tried that at first. It made the narrative seriously tedious and took the focus off the bigger point – that our specific emotions evolved to solve social problems and those emotions often render our more modern cognition mute. So I opted for over-simplification in the hopes that readers might seek out the references to gain more detail. (The references are the next level down in detail – the pop-science writers, who themselves cite actual papers and actual researchers.)
To your concern about having to discount your hyper-rational position, I’m not sure why you have to. I share the exact same belief, but mine is based upon the notion that most of us go through life thinking we know who we are and why think and feel the way we do – thus, that we are rational agents for our own ends. The central argument of my book is that our evolutionary baggage says different. More, a big source of the frustration and unhappiness that many feel is directly attributed to that misunderstanding. This means we really do need to understand more about where our minds came from and how they react to our modern world in order to be the rational beings we think we are, which ultimately leads to happiness or at least a reduction in unhappiness.
I guess I need a specific example or two of how my descriptions of evolution challenge your views of human economic interaction. The core of my discussion has to do with hominids who worked together in groups succeeding while others who did not dying out. The effects of kin selection, reciprocal altruism, and status-seeking on that are pretty well established – at least in the evolutionary psychology field. So are you disturbed by the assertions or simply my communication of them?
And then…if we have disagreements about happiness/reasonable/good, upon what grounds? I’m building on the likes of Bertrand Russel, Immanuel Kant, and Karl Popper, so did I get something wrong, or do you disagree with them?
Not to make this more work than its worth for you, but more info will help me better clarify my work. I remain convinced that the content in the book is valuable to the layman (or anyone, for that matter). I am not, however, even remotely sure of whether I’ve succeeded in getting the content across effectively. By the state of your review – and reading – it’s probably fair to say I haven’t, at least in your case. That’s ok – everyone tells me the first book is the hardest to write and is often the worst;-) The second is already brewing…
I do want you to know that I greatly appreciate your willingness to share even this with me. You’re the first to come back with anything I could actually respond to.
Psybertron continued with this suggestion
Simplest first response Chris …. If you don’t feel my starting point is too negative … is it OK is we do this debate in public – it might add more value. I post my “initial review” on the blog and I paste in your initial response – and we use the comments to develop it …. ?
As you describe it our central view is still remarkably similar – my perspective / drivers are a little different, and I am making more distinction between bio/genetic evolution and mental/memetic evolution than you seem to want to …
I can see your readings of Russell, Kant and Popper all too clearly … I’m saying those guys arguments fail – good in parts, clearly, but not good enough.
Russell remained emprisoned in logic (Wittgenstein showed him the way out of the fly-bottle, but Russell never got it – oh how we laughed.)
Kant also remained too sure of goodness and happiness (morals) being logically tractable – very Germanic 😉 (Godel shows us that is an impossible dream.)
Popper got it in fact, but most readings ignore his better / important (ethics) stuff (Nick Maxwell picked-up where Popper left off – a philosopher of science who was a student of Poppers)
More coherent stuff later. This is worthwhile for me too.
And the Enlightened Caveman agreed to continue in public
Sure – I’d welcome a public discussion. I’m intrigued to learn how the failings of the three philosophers relate to my arguments.
So what next ? I guess the ball is in my court having questioned the value of the philosophers that Chris cites. Continued in the comment thread below …