Outthinking Ourselves

Political progress requires restraining 200,000-year-old instincts

In early 2014, when Canada’s minister of state for democratic reform, Pierre Poilievre, began making the case for tightening the vote-eligibility provisions contained in the Elections Act, he cited the problem of voter fraud, as described in a special report prepared by independent elections expert Harry Neufeld.

One problem, though: that report actually said the opposite of what Poilievre claimed. According to Neufeld, “there was no evidence of fraud whatsoever” in the cases he had examined. Poilievre was effectively just making things up. What’s worse: even when he got caught, Poilievre kept on spouting nonsense, and, indeed, proudly proclaimed his intention to continue spouting nonsense. “We are going to keep quoting Mr. Neufeld’s report because it contains the facts that obviously support our position,” he told the House of Commons, when confronted.

This is the sort of thing that drives author Joseph Heath absolutely batty. The left-leaning, hyper-rationalist University of Toronto philosophy professor looks around North America and sees dozens of important public policy problems that cry out for well-considered forms of collective action. Instead, as he complains in his new book, Enlightenment 2.0, we get simplistic solutions from intellectually dishonest politicians who dispense slogans instead of logic.

It is tempting to call Poilievre a liar. But I am not sure that is the word Heath himself would use—for he is careful to draw a clinical distinction between lies and mere bullshit. “What characterizes the bullshitter is that, unlike the liar, who at least maintains the pretense of telling the truth, the bullshitter has simply opted out of the truth-telling game,” he writes.

Another example Heath supplies is 2012 Republican presidential candidate Rick Santorum, who told the party faithful: “In the Netherlands, people wear different bracelets if they are elderly. And the bracelet is: ‘Do not euthanize me.’ Because they have voluntary euthanasia in the Netherlands but half of the people who are euthanized—ten percent of all deaths in the Netherlands—half of those people are euthanized involuntarily at hospitals because they are older and sick. And so elderly people in the Netherlands don’t go to the hospital. They go to another country, because they are afraid, because of budget purposes, they will not come out of that hospital if they go in there with sickness.” This is, indeed, complete and total bullshit. Yet when a Dutch reporter pressed Santorum’s campaign team to explain his comments, one of his staffers simply shrugged and said, “Rick says what’s in his heart.”

But Heath’s book is not one long Rachel Maddow–esque debunking of right-wing BS. For a man of the left, he is brutally honest about the degree to which leftists themselves have contributed to the rejection of rationalism. Marx fashioned himself as a sort of scientist, and purported to develop the principles of socialism through a dialectical method adapted from Hegel. But by the latter half of the 20th century, progressives became disgusted with the manner in which rationalism and science had been put to the service of totalitarian creeds and industrial capitalism. And so they began to look for alternatives.

The result is that, even to this day, in liberal arts faculties, the most appalling sort of mystical, anti-­rationalist gobbledygook often will get a respectful reception if it is couched as a quasi-mystical alternative to dominant intellectual paradigms. (In this regard, Heath provides no better example than the self-proclaimed “intergalactic” truths of feminist guru Mary Daly. Her “Gynocentric” intellectual method promised the “methodicide” of all “patriarchal disciplines” that interfered with her “entry into a New Realm of Qualitative Leaping through galaxies of mindspace.” This is mind-blowing bullshit. Yet Heath tells us that when he was in grad school, plenty of his colleagues took it seriously.) By the time Ronald Reagan became U.S. president in 1980, and began reciting homespun fairy tales as if they were true anecdotes, the anti-rationalists of the left were in no position to complain.

In fact—putting aside Heath’s conventionally leftist positions on a long list of contemporary issues—it is apparent that the author has a healthy respect for the original principles of conservatism developed by Edmund Burke in the shadow of the French Revolution. That revolution dissolved into chaos and terror, Heath argues, because its engineers conceived of rationalism in a sterile, individualistic manner: Robespierre et al. imagined they could create a perfect society out of whole cloth. Burke correctly noted that this sort of social engineering is doomed to fail because societies and economies are too complex to submit to any one person’s overarching vision. As with the British parliamentary tradition, capitalism, the scientific method and the two-parent family, successful institutions emerge gradually over time. The final product, as Burke noted, always “requires the aid of more minds than one age can furnish.”

The “Enlightenment 2.0” that Heath has in mind is progressive in the sense that he wants to harness the power of rationalism in pursuit of government-led collective-action projects such as conquering global warming, regulating banks and banning guns. But the flavour of his argument is conservative in the sense that he believes every solution must be based, in large part, on the collectively held wisdom of the past.

A few paragraphs up, I described Heath as hyper-rationalist. That is a fair description of his attitude toward politics and policy making. But he also understands that rationalism has its limits. Indeed, much of his book is devoted to ­enumerating them. For millions of years, we evolved an “old mind,” as Heath calls it, that focused largely on having sex, stalking prey, avoiding predators and killing (or fleeing from) anyone we did not know. By contrast, our rational mind—which advances methodically from evidence, to proposition, to conclusion, without bias—evolved only in the last 250,000 years (and with no clear evolutionary purpose). Since the time of the Greeks, we have exalted rationalism as the very pinnacle of human mental function. Yet in truth, modern experimentation shows that our hold on rationalism is irregular and fragile: we tend to abandon it as soon as something stressful or interesting happens, like a terrorist attack, a crime wave, a hockey riot or even an encounter with an attractive stranger.

The ultimate product of human rationalism is the emergence of large, bureaucratized societies in which millions of citizens can interact peacefully and engage in commerce with total strangers. We have come to take this state of affairs for granted. But as Heath notes, such artificial constructs are completely alien to our old mind, which evolved in tiny kin-based tribal societies. Many of the problems that plague modern societies emerge from the conflict between the one and the other—such as when modern humans are required to subsume their old-mind retributivist urges into the impersonal, bureaucratized procedures of the state-run criminal-justice system. “This is why acts of vigilantism and, more broadly, fantasies about punitive violence and retribution … are ubiquitous in our society,” Heath notes. “No matter how punitive the criminal justice system, and no matter how widely the net is cast, a large segment of society will never be satisfied … because a civilized society is structurally incapable of satisfying the thirst for vengeance that many people find viscerally compelling.”

This rift valley between old mind and new mind is fertile political ground for conservative politicians playing on our sub-rationalist fears. Here in Canada, the Conservative government rolls out new “tough-on-crime” laws with clockwork regularity, along with a steady stream of propaganda claiming (falsely) that such laws are necessary to contain a (non-existent) surge in violent crime across the country.

Heath argues that such old-mind instincts are so deeply embedded in our consciousness, and so easy for opportunistic politicians to awaken, that rationalists cannot simply ignore them: the electorate will never become so educated, so enlightened, so committed to rationalism that it will be immune to such atavistic impulses. Instead, Heath argues that we must use our “meta-rationalism” (my term, not his) to organize our society in such a way that our old-mind instincts are harnessed in a rational, new-mind way.

By way of example, consider the problem of racism. The mental habit of classifying groups of people according to their appearance is deeply ingrained in us through evolutionary programming: on the African savanna, if you had a split second to decide whether some interloper was friend or foe, the best heuristic you could fall back on was the simple question: does this guy look/dress/act/sound like me? The idea that we can simply turn off this entire part of our brain is unrealistic.

For rationalists, that is the bad news. But the good news, Heath writes, is that our natural tendency toward racism and other forms of bigotry can be diverted into “healthy” kinds of tribalism—such as cheering on a sports team that has both black and white members. The existence of a common foe also helps: in an infantry platoon, the defining characteristic of all members is not their skin colour, but the fact that they are all fighting the same enemy.

Heath refers to this type of fix as a “kluge” or “kludge”—a rough-and-ready adaptation that allows us to avoid the ill effects of old-mind atavism, without actually curing the underlying anti-rationalism (which is impossible anyway). Other kluges he describes include the Olympics (which channel warmongering nationalism into harmless cheerleading), the “house” system used to create group solidarity and healthy rivalries in private schools, laws that protect gullible television viewers by prohibiting the dissemination of false news and restaurant regulations that discourage gluttony by limiting beverage portion size.

Despite the high-flown thesis, this is a book that is really fun to read. Heath has a rare gift of soaring gracefully from high to low—from Freud to Frasier, from Heidegger to Idiocracy (Mike Judge’s excellent 2006 cult classic about a future America ruled by morons). Along the way, he presents interesting diversions into the Newfoundland fishing industry, the manner by which outfielders catch fly balls and the counting abilities of monkeys. There is a Gladwellian tinge to this material, but Heath also supplies a fair number of new nuggets. It is rare that more than a few pages go by without something genuinely interesting popping out at you.

Unfortunately, there also is an air of pessimism about this book. More than just an air, actually: in the final chapter, Heath flatly declares that “writing books about the decline of reason is not the sort of thing that is likely to slow the decline of reason. It is simply preaching to the choir. Anyone who makes it to the end of a three-hundred-page book on the subject is obviously not part of the problem.” (You might have told us this in the preface, Joseph.)

But Heath felt compelled to write Enlighten­ment 2.0 anyway, because he is troubled by the trend by which modern intellectuals have come to glorify the human subconscious as a repository of untapped energy and brilliance. (The “vulgar romanticism” of New York Times columnist David Brooks—who once wrote that “if there is a divine creativity, surely it is active in this inner soulsphere, where brain matter produces emotion”—comes in for especially forceful condemnation by Heath.) His book is meant as a reminder that, although rationalism untethered by tradition can produce monstrous politics, so too can intuition unbridled by rationalism: “Relying on our gut feelings and intuitions gave us 200,000 years of hand-to-mouth existence in hunter-gatherer societies, riven by blood feuds, incessant tribal warfare, periodic famine, an average life span of thirty, and polygamous marriage based on what anthropologists now refer to, euphemistically, as ‘wife capture.’”

As Heath sees it, our old-mind instincts are forces to be managed, monitored and, where necessary, controlled and punished—not sentimentalized. He is sober minded about the limitations of rationalism. But he believes it can reassert its place of primacy in the political sphere if we all become self-aware of the manner by which we are seduced and entrapped by evolutionarily obsolete instincts.

And, in fact—notwithstanding Heath’s own pessimism—there is evidence that this already is happening. The author opens his book with a scene from Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert’s 2010 “Rally to Restore Sanity” in Washington DC, which took place at a time when the Tea Party was very much on the rise. Signs on display at that massive event (like Heath, I was there) included “If your beliefs fit on a sign, think harder,” “I have no problem paying taxes because I’m an adult, and that’s part of the deal,” “Gay without any real agenda” and “I may disagree with you, but I’m pretty sure you’re not Hitler.” As I wrote in my own book about America’s post-9/11 flight from rationalism, Among The Truthers: A Journey into the Growing Conspiracist Underground of 9/11 Truthers, Birthers, Armageddonites, Vaccine Hysterics, Hollywood Know-Nothings and Internet Addicts, there was real panic among America’s intellectual class: apocalyptic terror, the Iraq war, the 2008 financial crisis, the rise of China and the election of Barack Obama all had created a sort of End Times mentality. Back in 2010, which is when, I gather, Heath began this book, you really did get the sense that the idiocracy was upon us.

Until it was not. In 2010 and then again in 2012, whack-job Tea Party candidates cost the GOP dearly. Many analysts believe the Republicans might have gained control of the Senate but not for the likes of Sharron Angle (“What we know is our northern border is where the [9/11] terrorists came through”) and Richard Mourdock (who proclaimed a fetus, even one resulting from rape, to be a “gift from God”). This resulted in a powerful backlash. As I write this, the GOP establishment is feverishly working to prevent Tea Party blowhards from dominating the 2014 midterms. It is their own backroom version of the Rally to Restore Sanity.

Moreover, many of the 2010-era generalizations Heath makes already seem somewhat dated. His claim that American conservatives “think that homosexuality is gross” is wrong. A full 40 percent of Republicans now support gay marriage. And that number likely will top 50 percent within a few years: in a straw poll among student attendees at the 2014 Conservative Political Action Conference, 78 percent of respondents said their main motivation was reducing the size of government. Only 12 percent said their priority was a desire to oppose gay marriage and abortion. Even on the issue of global warming, where conservative ideology has most flagrantly been at odds with mainstream science, there are signs of progress. Here in Canada, the idea that climate change is a myth has been relegated to fringe sources such as the Sun News TV network. In March 2014, Mark Steyn, the baddest ass in the U.S. conservative commentariat, emphasized on his blog that many climate skeptics are not actually flat-out “deniers,” more like “lukewarmers.” He is not about to join the Sierra Club anytime soon. But still.

These things move in cycles. Traumatic cataclysms such as 9/11 or the real-estate crash inevitably knock rationalism around for a few years. But when the fear subsides, our better angels take flight. That process is now unfolding in Canada and the United States—even if Pierre Poilievre has not yet gotten the memo.