Wittgenstein, Identity-Protection Cognition, and Understanding Rather than Persuading
Ludwig Wittgenstein spent the first part of his career attempting to provide a definitive foundation for logic, meaning, and language. This work was best represented by Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, written with Bertrand Russell. In it they attempt to give mathematical precision to human experience. Wittgenstein was altered by his experiences in World War I, in which he served for Austria-Hungary. He spend the second part of his career refuting his earlier work, culminating in Philosophical Investigations. In Philosophy Weekend: Thinking Like Wittgenstein, Levi Asher thinks this a nifty trick, and lauds Wittgenstein for embracing “the ultimate incomprehensibility of existence itself.”
Human beings believe things for which they have insufficient evidence, or which are simply untrue. While we believe, particularly in Western cultures, in an Enlightenment view of reason, that objectivity is crucial, and that we can exercise reason and objectivity, we find this very difficult to do and tend instead to decide matters more on the basis of our biases. In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman posits two thought pathways which he calls fast and slow. Many others, independently or following Kahneman, have described similar dual pathways in our thinking. In Moral Tribes, Joshua Greene, in analogous fashion, describes a dual process theory of moral judgement. The one pathway, like Kahnemann’s “fast”, is emotional and intuitive; the other rational and calculated. It takes effort to step back into the rational mode when making moral choices (in fact, sometimes our intuitive choices are the best; knowing when to switch to rational mode is key to making the best choices). Reinforcing this dual-path understanding, J. David Smith of the University of Buffalo has found the strongest evidence yet that humans have distinct cognitive systems by which they conceptualize the world, one implicit, one explicit.
We tend to be more heavily influenced by the implicit, emotional, fast pathway. This reinforces our biases, and leads to being heavily influenced by the irrational, as proposed by Dan Ariely. George Lakoff believes that we live our lives and process the information we receive in terms of central metaphors, most notably the “strict father” and “nurturant parent” modes. He derides Democrats, for example, for refusing to acknowledge that political discourse is more heavily processed by these metaphors than by our reasoning faculties. Drew Westen similarly schools Democrats to tell stories which touch people’s emotions, this being a more effective tool for communication than resorting to reason and logical argumentation.
These are all part and parcel of the “How politics makes us stupid” syndrome. We are subject to what is variously called motivated reasoning and identity-protective cognition, where challenging one’s opinions with logic and facts leads to the backfire effect, where we dig in our heels and become even more sure of our views when presented with contradictory information. So is there anything we can do to keep the discussion open? As Maria Konnikova describes it, Brendan Nyhan, professor of political science at Dartmouth, performed some experiments to see what elements of a pro-vaccination campaign would most effectively overcome opposition. None of the ways of presenting information, including stories designed to touch emotions, changed any anti-vaccine outlooks. Once we have a belief, even a false one, it is difficult to dislodge it. As Dan Kahan has found with identity-protective cognition, challenging our beliefs is challenging our self-worth. So Nyhan used a technique pioneered by Claude Steele to have individuals perform exercises in self-affirmation, and discovered that individuals were then less resistant to the challenging information. Having a better sense of self gives us confidence to grapple with opposing information. Taking a different approach, Yale University’s Leonid Rozenblit and Frank Keil, over a decade ago, came at the matter with what is called “the illusion of explanatory depth.” Humans, it seems, are very confident in their understanding of how things work…until asked to explain. Philip Fernback of the University of Colorado found that when individuals who had strong opinions on matters of political importance, Iran sanctions, healthcare, and climate change, were asked to give reasons for their opinions, their opinions hardened. But when asked to explain in a detailed way how a policy works or how the consequences of a policy would play out, in step-by-step detail, the individuals were stymied, and as a consequence their opinions moderated.
If people having a debate on issues can start by affirming the self-value of their adversaries, and ask for explanations of how their views actually work, they can set up the parameters for a more reasonable discussion.
Which is where Wittgenstein comes in. If rather than presenting a hard-fast view of human experience as he had set out in the Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus one sees philosophy as more of a communication in which individuals of potentially differing opinions seek mutual understanding, a true conversation can take place. Levi Asher imagines that this mindset can apply to the more political issues of our day as well. Of course, if we wish to foster an openness to differing opinions in those with whom we engage, we must also be open to other opinions not currently our own. The end result might be a rapprochement of our differing opinions; at least we might have a more modest view of the rightness of our views, as might those we are debating with, and a reduction in antagonism.