Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 42 — Intelligence, Rationality, and Wisdom (Summary & Notes)

Mark Mulvey
8 min readFeb 22, 2023

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”The way you frame yourself—the way you identify with your processing—has a huge impact on your problem-solving ability, your proclivity for self-deception, and your need for cognition. Rationality is an existential thing, it is not just an informational processing thing.”

(In case you missed it: Summary & Notes for Ep. 41: https://markmulvey.medium.com/awakening-from-the-meaning-crisis-by-john-vervaeke-ep-41-c086303bf136)

Ep. 42 — Awakening from the Meaning Crisis — Intelligence, Rationality, and Wisdom [56:53] https://youtu.be/H1yDgjQdRHw

  • The definition Vervaeke puts forth for ‘psychotechnology’ (this concept will be important as we move forward): “Psychotechnology is a socially-generated and standardized way of formatting, manipulating, and enhancing information processing that’s readily internalizable into human cognition, and that can be applied in a domain-general manner. It must extend and empower cognition in some reliable and extensive manner and be highly generalizable among people. Prototypical instances are literacy, numeracy, and graphic.”
  • Stanovich’s notion of active open-mindedness (AOM) refers to a set of skills, psychotechnologies, sensibilities, and sensitivities that will help you in a domain-general manner, note, and actively respond to the presence of cognitive bias. Intelligence alone is not sufficient for this, and it is learnable.
  • The need for cognition is an important predictor — the degree to which you are motivated to go out and look for/formulate/solve problems. (Two ways we can think about this are curiosity and wonder). Arlin (in 1990) calls this “problem-finding,” and argues that problem-finding is central to wisdom.
  • What makes someone a good problem-finder? They don’t just add new problems to the collection of problems, they can find a problem that, if solved, would make a significant impact on the existing problems. A good problem-finder can generate a problem nexus. This will later come back and illuminate some of the latest findings on the nature of understanding as well.
  • The affective side of the need for problem-solving is where wonder and curiosity are. Curiosity is more in the ‘having’ mode (e.g. manipulating, controlling things) and wonder is more in the ‘being’ mode (e.g. encountering mystery, calling into question worldview & identity)
  • Socrates said “Wisdom begins in wonder.” What did he mean by that? There are two different interpretations, which we can see by understanding wonder from the perspectives of Plato and Aristotle. For Plato, the point of philosophy was to develop and extend that sense of wonder — too deepen wonder into awe. Plato felt that this sense of awe has the greatest capacity for transforming us. Aristotle also believed that wisdom begins in wonder, but sees wonder more in line with curiosity and trying to ‘figure things out’. Aristotle felt that what you’re ultimately doing in philosophy is shaping wonder into curiosity and then resolve the curiosity in some answer to some question. For Plato, wonder sets you on a quest of anagoge. (He was pushing for meta-accommodation) For Aristotle, wonder gets you to formulate questions that you then answer. (He was pushing for meta-assimilation)
  • We saw that Stanovich persuasively refuted a number of critics, but what was his positive account of what rationality is? He overlaps with a convergent theory in psychology, this notion of a dual-processing theory: S1 & S2. The main idea is that these are two main ways in which we process information. S1 works largely intuitively, in a highly associational fashion, involves more implicit processing, and is very fast. (This is the system employed when coping, for example) S2 operates more deliberately, working inferentially by leveraging argumentation (in the philosophical sense), involves more explicit processing, and is very slow. (for more on this see the book Thinking Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman)
  • Stanovich tries to distinguish these two systems by factoring in the degree to which they are making use of working memory: S2 really relies on it, and S1 relies much less on it (and so is much more automatic)
  • S1 and S2 are in a tradeoff relationship. S2 puts more demand on your working memory and is slower, so you can’t rely on it for most of your behavior. But we have it because it is supposed to override the quicker, more automatic/intuitive S1. Stanovich views S2 as having a corrective function for S1.
  • Stanovich’s theory of foolishness is what he understands as dysrationalia. S1 is where all the assumptions and biases are, and therefore causes you to leap to conclusions. “What active open-mindedness is teaching you is to protect [S2] processing from being overridden by the way S1 makes you leap to conclusions. You are foolish (you have dysrationalia) if you are highly intelligent and yet you have not trained S2 to be properly protected from the interference from S1.” This is how Stanovich ultimately responds to Cohen.
  • Vervaeke’s central criticism of Stanovich’s model is that it’s an insufficient account of rationality. Let’s begin by looking at the notion of “leaping to conclusions.” Is leaping always a bad thing? In the work of Baker-Sennett and Ceci (1996) they investigated what they called inductive leaping but Vervaeke prefers the term cognitive leaping. This is where, for example, you guess what image is being revealed as more dots are added:
  • This allowed Baker-Sennett and Ceci to operationalize an aspect of the ineffability of insight. (Often you don’t know what’s going on in an insight, there’s this “leap”) They operationalized it by stating this: you’re a good “cognitive leaper” if you can use fewer clues and accurately say what the final pattern is going to be. You have this skill/facility with pattern detection & pattern completion. This is directly predictive of insight.
  • “The tension here is that if I try to shut off too much leaping to conclusions I’m also shutting off the machinery that makes me more insightful. We have to give up naïve, simplistic notions of rationality.”
  • If you turn to a domain outside the academic/theorizing, there are domains where what you need a radical re-construal of the problem to come up with a transformative insight. Jacobs in his work (e.g. his book The Ancestral Mind) explores the context not of theory but therapy. In therapy very often you’re feeling existentially trapped what’s needed is a fundamental, transformative insight and you cannot infer your way through it. The problem in therapy is people try to think their way through it. So in therapy the overriding mechanism is actually best done the other way around, with S1 working to shut down the interference of S2 and relegate it to the background. (With theorizing you want S2 in the foreground protected from S1 in the background.)
  • The cognitive style that works best in this type of therapy context is one we’ve already talked about: mindfulness. (e.g. meditation) Mindfulness is a cognitive style that is opponent (but not adversarial) to AOM. “They are both sharing the training of attention.”
  • S2 is great for planning, but especially when the planning is epistemic. i.e. when we are planning for truth. S1 is good for coping, but especially the kind of coping that is therapeutic.
  • One way to understand Stanovich is this: when I use intelligence to learn, I can actually use intelligence to improve the way I am using my intelligence, and can therefore overall enhance my capacity for relevance realization. And we can think of that as rationality. But Vervaeke goes a step further and suggests that we may be able to use our rationality to improve our rationality, and that this is going to be crucial to wisdom.
  • Carol Dweck’s work on mindset says there are two views to this topic: you can have a fixed view or a malleable view of your intelligence. A fixed view assumed intelligence is set early on, maybe at birth, and once it’s locked in there’s not much you can do with it. (like height) Or you can have a malleable view and assume it can be changed over time (like weight).
  • Depending on your view your behavior will be different. If you think intelligence is fixed, then your attitude toward error is that error will reveal that you have a defect in a non-changeable trait — permanently disclose that you are not smart. (permanent revelation) If you have a malleable view of intelligence then error points towards the skills or effort being used. Error suggests you need to make some changes. “Notice how the fixed view focuses you on the product (the error), and the malleable view focuses you on the process (skills/effort).”
  • As an educator or manager or parent, you can trigger the mode that people are in by how you praise them. Praise using trait language (“You’re so smart”) makes the traits salient and triggers a fixed orientation, while praising people on the process (“Wow, you’re putting in a lot of effort.”) makes the process more salient and triggers the malleable mode.
  • “The way you frame yourself, the way you identify with your processing, has a huge impact on your problem-solving ability, your proclivity for self-deception, and your need for cognition. Rationality is an existential thing, it is not just an informational processing thing.”
  • One question that still arises: is intelligence fixed or malleable? (Dweck is not clear about this) There is some evidence that measures of general intelligence can be improved slightly but by and large intelligence is fixed. But this doesn’t mean that by getting people to think of intelligence as malleable is lying or deceitful. A better way to talk about it is that intelligence is fixed but rationality is highly malleable. One of Stanovich’s main points is that we care way too much about intelligence and not enough about rationality.

Next up: Awakening From the Meaning Crisis by John Vervaeke, Ep. 43 — Wisdom and Virtue (Summary & Notes) https://markmulvey.medium.com/awakening-from-the-meaning-crisis-by-john-vervaeke-ep-43-cdb2b2a5e8ba

List of Books in the Video:

  • Daniel Kahneman— Thinking Fast and Slow
  • Gregg D. Jacobs — The Ancestral Mind
  • Carol S. Dweck— Mindset: The New Psychology of Success
  • Edited by Robert J. Sternberg — Why Smart People Can Be So Stupid
  • Keith E. Stanovich — What Intelligence Tests Miss: The Psychology of Rational Thought

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Mark Mulvey

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