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Is This How We Became A Cooperative Species?

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Human cooperation is what has made us as successful a species as we now are. Henry Farrell wrote a post that I think suggests why that might be.

I’m not fond of analyses that claim that our intellect developed solely to justify ourselves to our compatriots and our collective to other collectives, but I can’t deny that that is part of our world. Farrell points out that in addition to this characteristic, we are very good at critiquing each other, even as we justify ourselves. Just look at social media.

The problem is that our individual reasoning processes are biased in ways that are really hard for us (individually) to correct. We have a strong tendency to believe our own bullshit. The upside is that if we are far better at detecting bullshit in others than in ourselves, and if we have some minimal good faith commitment to making good criticisms, and entertaining good criticisms when we get them, we can harness our individual cognitive biases through appropriate group processes to produce socially beneficial ends. Our ability to see the motes in others’ eyes while ignoring the beams in our own can be put to good work, when we criticize others and force them to improve their arguments. There are strong benefits to collective institutions that underpin a cognitive division of labor.

If we combine our good ideas and confidence with criticism from our fellows, we can figure out some pretty effective paths forward. It’s not enough to be one brilliant guy.

Seems to me that this interplay is the basis of our cooperativity.

So what this all points to is something very different than the pursuit of bias-free reason that’s still popular across much of the Internet. It’s not about a radical individual virtuosity, but a radical individual humility. Your most truthful contributions to collective reasoning are unlikely to be your own individual arguments, but your useful criticisms of others’ rationales. Even more pungently, you are on average best able to contribute to collective understanding through your criticisms of those whose perspectives are most different to your own, and hence very likely those you most strongly disagree with. The very best thing that you may do in your life is create a speck of intense irritation for someone whose views you vigorously dispute, around which a pearl of new intelligence may then accrete.

Anyhow, read the whole thing. It’s very good and has implications far beyond this little idea of mine.

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