Are We Trapped in a Cognitive Arms Race?

The word “progress” is modern. By that, I mean it became significant around the time of the enlightenment when folks started to believe that when we understand reality better, we will live better as well. We believe that progress is possible, and so we strive to make progress possible.

As we strive in this way, we produce something that economists like to call “value added”. We create stuff (either physical stuff or ideas) that enables people to live better. We get rich when we sell that stuff. Everyone else gets richer when they use that stuff. It is a virtuous circle.

But you might notice a peculiar aspect of this virtuous circle. In several key respects, it is driven by belief. For example, I may not strive to create anything better if I do not believe that it is possible or that it will be actually used. Nor will people buy what I have created unless they believe in its benefits for the price. And they may be tricked into buying other stuff that adds no benefit.

So it is not a bad idea to see more clearly what goes into forming beliefs. Are our beliefs the product of something we control, or are they the product of things that are beyond our control? Consider this paragraph written by Thomas David Kehoe

I had a Golden Retriever. We’d go to the park and I’d throw his tennis ball. Sometimes children would throw his ball a few times, then they’d pretend to throw the ball. The dog would run out and then become confused when he couldn’t find the ball. The children delighted in this and would do it over and over, and the dog did his thing over and over. I concluded that Golden Retrievers are hardwired to chase tennis balls and humans are hardwired to deceive.

Tom expands on this idea to propose a theory of human activity based on the notion that lies work until they are discovered. Then new lies are needed, created and used successfully, until — well, you get the idea.

It is a fun read and I highly recommend it. As you read it, you might note that human capacity for belief often exceeds human capacity to understand why we believe.


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