Our brains are marvelous structures; with 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synapses, we like to think of our brains as extremely advanced supercomputers. However, while this analogy is in many ways quite apt and illuminating, it is also misleading. Our brains, despite their awesome complexity, did not evolve to do things like science and calculus. It is a wonderful thing that our brains have the surplus ability to undertake these subjects, but it is crucial to remember that environmental pressures did not conspire to produce a species that would one day attempt to describe the universe with mathematical laws or find objective answers to philosophical questions.
The human brain, in addition to its incredible abilities, is also riddled with—to continue the computer analogy—innumerable software bugs: a propensity for biases, an over reliance on heuristic tools, a proclivity for wishful thinking, etc. And the only reason that our brains can do things like science is because we have recognized these latent bugs and have constructed safeguards against them; the peer-review process, duplicate experiments, and a laborious commitment to self-criticism and skepticism are all necessary buffers against our confirmation biases and other cognitive shortcomings.
Philosophers have long pondered the limitations of human reason and intellect, but one fact of human nature is quite clear: the sphere of human intuition appears to extend most readily to medium-sized objects moving at medium speeds. This is why, incidentally, domains of inquiry like quantum mechanics (the study of the microscopically tiny) and cosmology (the study of the macroscopically immense) can be profoundly unintuitive. Even some philosophical questions appear to elude our intuitions. Our brains simply have not evolved for the purpose of intuitively grasping these subjects. However, this is not to say that we cannot know anything about these topics; it simply means that as our sphere of knowledge increases, we may have to start checking our common sense notions and intuitions at the door more often. If science has taught us anything, it is that whatever is true about our universe quite often boggles our minds and repudiates our assumptions.
Although quantum mechanics and cosmology do provide very salient examples of the limitations of human intuition, the quantum and cosmological levels are not the only ones where our intuitions and common sense fail us. Psychologists use the term “heuristics,” in a general sense, to describe the mental shortcuts our brain takes in order to make approximate decisions and surface judgements. Heuristics commonly manifest themselves in rules of thumb, educated guesses, our intuitions, our common sense, and, sadly, our prejudices and stereotypical judgements. Heuristic tools are beneficial for alleviating cognitive load and increasing efficiency, thus allowing for faster judgements under pressure; and in this sense, they provide some rather palpable evolutionary benefits. For example, the ability to react reflexively to a dangerous situation—without wasting precious moments actively cognizing—is no doubt a felicitous adaptation.
However, when we rely on heuristic tools to process complex problems, we frequently make errors. Heuristic judgements, while useful to us when we require a swift appraisal of a situation, are prone to inaccuracies. Psychologists have identified many heuristics that result in cognitive errors, with names such as the representativeness heuristic, the anchoring and adjustment heuristic, and the availability heuristic. Although we will not be delving into the details of these particular heuristic tools, the point is that they can be thought of as intuitive ways of thinking about problems—ways that frequently lead us inaccurate solutions. Since heuristics require minimal cognitive resources, we tend to rely on them more when we have little motivation to think accurately, such as when listening to an argument which we are predisposed to disagree with. Under the Elaboration Likelihood Model, this is called taking the peripheral route to persuasion. When deciding the merit of an argument, somebody taking the peripheral route might consider the speaker’s level of education, or even whether he or she is physically attractive. Thinking in this way places less emphasis on processing the actual semantic content of the message, which is why it is referred to as the peripheral route. The central route, on the other hand, is much more cognitively involved, and therefore is typically taken by someone with a higher degree of motivation for accuracy. Somebody taking the central route is primarily concerned with the content of the message, and is more likely to develop counter arguments and think critically about the subject at hand.
To be clear about what I am and am not saying: I am not saying that our intuitions are to be distrusted or that common sense usually provides us with perceptions of the world that are illusory. In fact, in many ways, our intuitive, instinctual ways of thinking can be quite useful; many studies actually suggest that our intuitions may be more useful and prescient than we realize. What I am saying is that we should be aware of our proclivity for biases and heuristic errors, and not simply take our intuitive judgements at face value—especially given the counterintuitiveness of so many domains of academia. Moreover, common sense, while often venerated in our political arena, is actually not all that great of a cognitive tool, and is used by many as an excuse to think in shallow, patently emotional ways about the issues that are most important to us.
What I am proposing is an emphasis on the higher forms of intellectual mentation such as self-criticism, a healthy skepticism, and ongoing dialogue/exchange of ideas. And if we commit ourselves to these great pillars, the rewards will be bountiful. In the political dimension, for example, we can insulate ourselves from crackpot political partisans who attempt to hijack public discourse by appealing to our most base fears and prejudices, or by wooing us with the false consolations of “common sense solutions,” or even by stigmatizing intellectual expertise by casting the label of “elitist.” Our default heuristic tools are simply not the best ones in our cognitive toolkit, and once we admit this, we can re-engage our minds at their full capacity, elevate the character of our public discourse, and eclipse the knee-deep bog of pseudo-intellectual banality and rhetoric.