22 April 2012

Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite - Robert Kurzban (2010)

Robert Kurzban is associate professor of psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, and his 2010 book entitled Why everyone (else) is a hypocrite is a view of the modular theory of mind.  The basic idea is that the forces of natural selection have resulted in humans having a brain that supports a variety of functions, which are not necessarily united or made consistent.  Kurzban writes: "A module is an information-processing mechanism that is specialized to perform some function."  They key is that the modules are not all sharing information with each other, which throws into question the notion of a singular "you".

As a simple example of this notion, he cites various optical illusions, such as one where lines with different arrow point endings appear to be of different lengths, but are actually the same - our perceptions 'tell' us one thing about what we're seeing, while we can 'know' via measurements what the situation actually is. There are a variety of modules which serve different purposes, and the claim is that these modules are acting essentially independently at least in some circumstances.  That in some ways is not so different from what we may be used to from discussion of the conscious mind and the unconscious.

This view of mind leads Kurzban to question the notion of the unitary 'self' - and thus there are many passages along these lines:
It's often appealing to talk about what "I" "believe," or what "you" "believe" - and , in real life, it's often good enough.  But when you're trying to figure out how the mind works, it's important to think about modules, even when making seemingly simple claims that Person X believes p.(p. 72)
He covers a number of different experiments and findings to support this modular view - and one of the key ideas is that context matters in how we process various situations.  For instance, it is very difficult to support the notion that people have fully rational and describable preferences - they seem to vary based on the context of the choice, such as whether it's known to the chooser that other people are involved and that the choice will be known by those others.

Relating things to the title of the book, the concept is that the various modules may have functional reasons for having contradictory 'views' - and if the information is never brought into one resolved view, then we all have various tendencies toward hypocrisy.  Depending on the situation and context, different functional aspects may come to the fore.

Kurzban introduces the notion of the 'press secretary' module of mind - that which communicates to others.  Extending the metaphor, it is often good for the press secretary to be unaware of certain activities, so that no falsehood is given and strategic goals are advanced - and this is tied into some evolutionary arguments of why this may have developed.

Overall I found this to be quite an interesting take on the subject.  But I do have my quibbles.  For one, Kurzban seems to equate 'mind' and 'brain' - and I believe this erases some very important distinctions.  I see mind as an experiential concept - one which may be 'hosted' in the brain, but is not itself aware of all the inner workings of that brain.  So when Kurzban writes things like "I'm not going to talk at any length about where putative modules are, physically, in the mind" (p. 47), I think the reference should be to the brain, a physical object.  And I believe the mind is what provides enough stability and consistency to our experience and our presentation of ourselves to other people for the concept of a 'self' to be important.  Which is not to say our conscious experience is aware of all the modular functions going on in the brain - indeed we are blissfully unaware of much of the goings-on in the brain.

I saw that he includes a note on his use of the word 'design' in terms of brain functions:  "Some people don't like the word "design" to be used in the way that I am using it here.  As the material in this chapter should make clear, I intend no consciousness or intention when I use the word." (p. 224).  I can't help feeling that the word 'design' implies a designer and an intention (as well as the potential for designed things to be used in ways they were not designed for), so I am one of those people who don't like its use in this way.  I think it would be sufficient to talk about functional aspects of modules that evolved however they evolved.