Feb 5 JDN 2459981
I recently finished reading Steven Pinker’s latest book Rationality. It’s refreshing, well-written, enjoyable, and basically correct with some small but notable errors that seem sloppy—but then you could have guessed all that from the fact that it was written by Steven Pinker.
What really makes the book interesting is an insight Pinker presents near the end, regarding the difference between the “reality mindset” and the “mythology mindset”.
It’s a pretty simple notion, but a surprisingly powerful one.
In the reality mindset, a belief is a model of how the world actually functions. It must be linked to the available evidence and integrated into a coherent framework of other beliefs. You can logically infer from how some parts work to how other parts must work. You can predict the outcomes of various actions. You live your daily life in the reality mindset; you couldn’t function otherwise.
In the mythology mindset, a belief is a narrative that fulfills some moral, emotional, or social function. It’s almost certainly untrue or even incoherent, but that doesn’t matter. The important thing is that it sends the right messages. It has the right moral overtones. It shows you’re a member of the right tribe.
The idea is similar to Dennett’s “belief in belief”, which I’ve written about before; but I think this characterization may actually be a better one, not least because people would be more willing to use it as a self-description. If you tell someone “You don’t really believe in God, you believe in believing in God”, they will object vociferously (which is, admittedly, what the theory would predict). But if you tell them, “Your belief in God is a form of the mythology mindset”, I think they are at least less likely to immediately reject your claim out of hand. “You believe in God a different way than you believe in cyanide” isn’t as obviously threatening to their identity.
A similar notion came up in a Psychology of Religion course I took, in which the professor discussed “anomalous beliefs” linked to various world religions. He picked on a bunch of obscure religions, often held by various small tribes. He asked for more examples from the class. Knowing he was nominally Catholic and not wanting to let mainstream religion off the hook, I presented my example: “This bread and wine are the body and blood of Christ.” To his credit, he immediately acknowledged it as a very good example.
It’s also not quite the same thing as saying that religion is a “metaphor”; that’s not a good answer for a lot of reasons, but perhaps chief among them is that people don’t say they believe metaphors. If I say something metaphorical and then you ask me, “Hang on; is that really true?” I will immediately acknowledge that it is not, in fact, literally true. Love is a rose with all its sweetness and all its thorns—but no, love isn’t really a rose. And when it comes to religious belief, saying that you think it’s a metaphor is basically a roundabout way of saying you’re an atheist.
From all these different directions, we seem to be converging on a single deeper insight: when people say they believe something, quite often, they clearly mean something very different by “believe” than what I would ordinarily mean.
I’m tempted even to say that they don’t really believe it—but in common usage, the word “belief” is used at least as often to refer to the mythology mindset as the reality mindset. (In fact, it sounds less weird to say “I believe in transsubstantiation” than to say “I believe in gravity”.) So if they don’t really believe it, then they at least mythologically believe it.
Both mindsets seem to come very naturally to human beings, in particular contexts. And not just modern people, either. Humans have always been like this.
Ask that psychology professor about Jesus, and he’ll tell you a tall tale of life, death, and resurrection by a demigod. But ask him about the Stroop effect, and he’ll provide a detailed explanation of rigorous experimental protocol. He believes something about God; but he knows something about psychology.
Ask a hunter-gatherer how the world began, and he’ll surely spin you a similarly tall tale about some combination of gods and spirits and whatever else, and it will all be peculiarly particular to his own tribe and no other. But ask him how to gut a fish, and he’ll explain every detail with meticulous accuracy, with almost the same rigor as that scientific experiment. He believes something about the sky-god; but he knows something about fish.
To be a rationalist, then, is to aspire to live your whole life in the reality mindset. To seek to know rather than believe.
This isn’t about certainty. A rationalist can be uncertain about many things—in fact, it’s rationalists of all people who are most willing to admit and quantify their uncertainty.
This is about whether you allow your beliefs to float free as bare, almost meaningless assertions that you profess to show you are a member of the tribe, or you make them pay rent, directly linked to other beliefs and your own experience.
As long as I can remember, I have always aspired to do this. But not everyone does. In fact, I dare say most people don’t. And that raises a very important question: Should they? Is it better to live the rationalist way?
I believe that it is. I suppose I would, temperamentally. But say what you will about the Enlightenment and the scientific revolution, they have clearly revolutionized human civilization and made life much better today than it was for most of human existence. We are peaceful, safe, and well-fed in a way that our not-so-distant ancestors could only dream of, and it’s largely thanks to systems built under the principles of reason and rationality—that is, the reality mindset.
We would never have industrialized agriculture if we still thought in terms of plant spirits and sky gods. We would never have invented vaccines and antibiotics if we still believed disease was caused by curses and witchcraft. We would never have built power grids and the Internet if we still saw energy as a mysterious force permeating the world and not as a measurable, manipulable quantity.
This doesn’t mean that ancient people who saw the world in a mythological way were stupid. In fact, it doesn’t even mean that people today who still think this way are stupid. This is not about some innate, immutable mental capacity. It’s about a technology—or perhaps the technology, the meta-technology that makes all other technology possible. It’s about learning to think the same way about the mysterious and the familiar, using the same kind of reasoning about energy and death and sunlight as we already did about rocks and trees and fish. When encountering something new and mysterious, someone in the mythology mindset quickly concocts a fanciful tale about magical beings that inevitably serves to reinforce their existing beliefs and attitudes, without the slightest shred of evidence for any of it. In their place, someone in the reality mindset looks closer and tries to figure it out.
Still, this gives me some compassion for people with weird, crazy ideas. I can better make sense of how someone living in the modern world could believe that the Earth is 6,000 years old or that the world is ruled by lizard-people. Because they probably don’t really believe it, they just mythologically believe it—and they don’t understand the difference.