Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite by Robert Kurzban, 2010

hypocyrite.pngThere are no general-function artifacts, organs, or circuits in the brain because the concept itself makes no sense.  In the same way that if someone told you to manufacture a tool to “do useful things,” or write a subroutine to “do something useful with information,” you would have to narrow down the problem considerably before you could get started.  In the same way, natural selection can’t build brains that “learn stuff and compute useful information.”  It is necessary to get considerably more specific. pp.41

Kurzban argues that the brain consists of modules that evolved to complete certain tasks (vision, memory, hunger and sex drives, etc.).  There is no reason why modules should be expected to share information freely or completely (modules, due to selection pressures, are on a need to know basis), so modules may hold contradictory beliefs, desires, or perceptions.  These conflicts are have traditionally been labeled as “hypocrisy” or “self-control”, but Kurzban asserts that these labels don’t make sense once you acknowledge that there is no “true self” or “control center” (homunculus) supervising all the other modules.

Furthermore, he argues that in a social context beliefs that have traditionally labeled “self-deception” (a term he rejects as incoherent—who is doing the deceiving and who is being deceive, exactly?) can be adaptive; in the words of Trivers “we deceive ourselves the better to deceive others.”  If we can convince people that our prospects are better than they truly are, we may bring advantages or resources that we wouldn’t have secured otherwise.

I like and agree with the ideas presented in the book: the idea of no-self, no “true” self, the questioning of concept of “true” preferences.  Similar concepts arise in discussions of meditation, free will, and behavioral economics, here they get support from evolutionary psychology and cognitive science.

The book is a bit too long for the content it covers, perhaps it should have been 25% shorter.  The writing style is clear and conversational, but a bit too casual with unfunny jokes littering the pages.

I enjoyed his discussion of how these mechanism might manifest themselves in modern social issues surrounding sex, abortion, drugs, etc.  Not a book I plan to reread, but good to see the ideas pointed out in a new way.

Ideas per Page:1 4/10 (medium)

Related Books: Inside Jokes by Matthew Hurley et al; The Moral Animal by Robert Wright; How the Mind Works by Steven Pinker

Recommend to Others: If you’re new to the topic it would probably be a lighter place to start

Reread Personally: No

Quotes:

3 “our brains are built to exploit the fact that being knowledgeable, right, or morally consistent is not always to our advantage.”

6 “…the mind consists of many, many arts, and these pars have many different functions.  Because they’re designed to do different things, they don’t always work in perfect harmony.”

12 “Yes, that part that talks has no experience of sight.  This does not mean that no part of the brain does.

17 “…normal human brains can have mutually inconsistent information in different parts.”  [italics in original]

24 “A module is an information-processing mechanism that is specialized to perform some function.”

34 “…to the extent there is a problem whose solution has regularities, an efficient solution to that problem will embody those regularities, making the mechanism specialized for the task and efficient in solving the problem. …natural selection will favor designs that reap the advantages of specialization because efficiency of design is crucial in the context of evolution.”

62 “On this view, selves are not things at all, but instead are explanatory fictions.  Nobody really has a soul-like agent inside them: we just find it useful to imagine the existence of this conscious inner “I” when we try to account for their behavior (and, in our own case, our private stream of consciousness).  We might say indeed that the self is rather like the “centre of narrative gravity” of a set of biographical events and tendencies; but, as with a centre of physical gravity, there’s really no such thing (with mass or shape of colour).”  -Humphrey & Dennett 1998, pp.38-39

73 “Yes, I’m suggesting that it’s not, in principle, impossible, that all of us are carrying around parts of our brains that have experience but can’t communicate anything about those experiences.”

81 “Having information—especially information others know you have—changes how your choices—and consequently, actions—are evaluated by other because there is the reasonable sense that you now have a duty to act on that information.”

85 “[when] there are no people involved, ignorance is typically not going to be useful.”

149 “‘self-deception’ doesn’t need some special explanation.  It just happens because of the way that the mind is organized, with many different compartments, strategically wrong representations in one place, more accurate representations in another.”

212 “[pro-lifers] say that their opposition is based on the principle that a new life begins at conception, even though their intuition is really that a female bird who is promiscuous ought to be punished.”

212 “From an evolutionary point of view, sex is fundamental, and if there were going to be some area in which people wanted to set the rules, this would probably be among the first.”

215 “If you think of morality as all of us holding sticks that we beat rule-breakers with, then when the rules apply to everyone, no one is, to a first approximation, worse off  But if we use our sticks on some people but not on others, that’s just naked aggression.”


1 A measure of the number of new or distinct ideas introduced per page. 10/10 would be conceptually dense, like a textbook. 1/10 would be almost completely fluff.

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