Keith Stanovich and The Robot's Rebellion

Listen to this fascinating interview with Keith Stanovich, a cognitive psychologist at the University of Toronto, and the author of the book, The Robot's Rebellion.

Stanovich starts by assuming that Richard Dawkins is correct in his universal Darwinian view of human psychology - that humans are vehicles for self-replicating genes and self-replicating memes, and that these genes and memes act in their own interests - to replicate themselves - rather than in their hosts' interests.

The rebellion in the title comes from the optimistic assumption, shared by both Dawkins and Stanovich, that, uniquely in the animal kingdom, humans can become aware of their robotic programming, and can choose to over-ride it through higher level rationality.

This strikes me as a view of human psychology very close to that found in ancient Greek spirituality, as found in Socrates, Plato, Epictetus or the Sceptics, or in modern thinkers like Gurdjieff.

Stanovich says in the interview:

We can say we have a meaningful life because we can lead an examined life [compare to Socrates' famous saying, 'the unexamined life is not worth living']. We can know that the desires we have are self-chosen in a way they wouldn't be if they were first order desires.

What does he mean by first order desires? The idea is from the philosopher Harry Frankfurt, who compared first versus second order desires. First order desires are where we simply follow our automatic or base instincts, and become what Frankfurt called a 'wanton'. But we can reason about our choices and preferences, and 'prefer to prefer' something or 'prefer not to prefer something'.

A heroin addict, for example, might prefer to do heroin, but might reason about this, and decide it's not in their higher interests to follow this preference, so they over-ride it. They prefer not to prefer heroin.

So we start to climb the ladder of higher order preferences [the metaphor of the ascent of desire, from Plato]. We have goals we select reflectively. As Robert Nozick put it, we achieve the 'rational integration' of our desires.

So being rational is a type of robot's rebellion, when we rebel against our genes' or our memes' suboptimal choices for us. The discoveries of science, logic and decision-making are about ways of optimizing at the level of human beings.

Our machine often substitutes quick affective reactions, like the fight or flight instinct, which might work well in some situations, but not in more complex situations, like when we're trying to negotiate our office politics, or choosing investments for our pension plan.

In those instances, cultural inventions of rationality come into play.

The same is true at the level of memes. You can carry around memes you have picked up from your environment, but which don't serve your best interests. If the goals you're optimizing are non-reflectively acquired memetic goals, they might not be optimal for you.

So how to rebel?

The most important lesson is: be rational. Make sure the choices you make are personal and not chosen for you by your genes or your mimetic environment.

If you install memes, make sure that they accurately reflect reality.

Only install memes that do not preclude the installation of other memes in the future. And avoid memes that resist evaluation.

[This is actually a fascinating way of viewing schizophrenia - as a person becoming host to a parasitic meme that installs itself and then resists all attempt at evaluation. So this meme model of psychology is actually not so far from the old demonic model of psychology.]

He concludes:

We are rational self-evaluators. By rationally self-evaluating, we become self-determining.

All well and good. But why does the interviewer keep on saying that this view of human psychology does away with ideas of the self? It seems to be shot through with ideas of the self: choice, agency, preferences, goal selection, self-evaluation, self-determination.
Of course, a difference between Stanovich's view and that of most ancient Greeks is that the latter thought that becoming rational was a fulfilment of our nature, rather than a rebellion against it.
Closer to Stanovich's view were some Gnostic schools, in the first, second and third centuries AD, who thought achieving self-awareness was a rebellion against one order of nature, or rather, an escape from the evil ruler of the world, the demiurge, to fulfil our higher divine nature.
This more Gnostic view of 'nature as prison' is shared by modern wackos like the Scientologists and David Icke, who also wrote a book called...The Robot's Rebellion. Gadzooks, could Icke be right???