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The mental movie is much more like Hollywood than it is like real life—it fails to respect reality constraints. That discovery, the revelation of the shallowness of our mental representations for perceptually salient processes, may be what causes the surprise in our participants. What everyone else needs is to know 1 what it is for and 2 how to use it. This comfort is provided mainly by familiarity, not understanding. Having used a can opener many times convinces you that you understand it, because you can almost always make one work, and you almost never cut yourself.

Learning how things work is usually a waste of time, from an evolutionary perspective.

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And total understanding is never even possible. We have to learn to use much sparser representations of causal relations that are good enough to give us the necessary insights: insights that go beyond associative similarity but which at the same time are not overwhelming in terms of cognitive load.

It may therefore be quite adaptive to have the illusion that we know more than we do so that we settle for what is enough.


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The illusion might be an essential governor on our drive to search for explanatory underpinnings; it terminates potentially inexhaustible searches for ever-deeper understanding by satiating the drive for more knowledge once some skeletal level of causal comprehension is reached. Conversely, my interest in Precambrian evolution is probably a pathological result of mild autism—a brain abnormality. If you look closely at a can opener in operation, you can see immediately how it works. Then you forget as soon as you look away.

Knowing that you could figure out how something works, whenever you need to, is a good reason not to bother until then—and not to remember afterward. Rozenblit and Keil hypothesized that our brains confuse vague visual memory with understanding, and that this was the source of the illusion they found. She found that most people have no clue what a bicycle looks like, much less how one works, even if they own one.

I know that sounds implausible; the results in the paper are dramatic. The bicycle-like things they do draw could not possibly work. She writes:. Since much of the information that we need in everyday life can be found simply by moving our eyes, we do not need to store it and then retrieve it from memory. This point will be important, by the way, in my explanations for how meaning works, much later in this book.


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Mistakenly, it has the chain going around the front wheel as well as the back one, which also would make turning impossible among other problems, with gearing for instance. Most people think they understand ethics reasonably well. A woman was near death from a special kind of cancer. There was one drug that the doctors thought might save her. It was a form of radium that a druggist in the same town had recently discovered. The drug was expensive to make, but the druggist was charging ten times what the drug cost him to produce.

He told the druggist that his wife was dying and asked him to sell it cheaper or let him pay later.

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Should Heinz have broken into the laboratory to steal the drug for his wife? Why or why not? This exercise may seem risky or embarrassing. However, most experts say there is no right or wrong answer, although there are interestingly different kinds of answers. It might also help to know that even professional theologians and moral philosophers are often unable to give coherent ethical explanations.

Secular academic theories of ethics are all known to be wrong. Evidently, professional ethicists are afflicted with a powerful illusion of explanatory depth. As with can openers, we know what it is for , and we know how to use it well enough to get by. The feeling of understanding is an illusion based on familiarity and comfort. We know through experience that we can navigate ethical issues reasonably reliably, and they are not going to suddenly explode.

Understanding and explanation

As with devices, this is adequate for most people most of the time. Ethics sometimes does explode on you—for example, if you are caught having an affair. Sometimes such crises lead to psychological growth, including developing a more sophisticated ethical understanding. The stages are defined not in terms of what people consider right or wrong, but what sorts of explanations they use to justify those judgements. The Heinz story was invented by Lawrence Kohlberg as a way of eliciting such explanations.

He assigned them to six stages of moral development.

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Disquietingly, research has found that most adults get stuck somewhere in the middle of the developmental sequence. The illusion of ethical understanding is one reason they may not progress. As with bicycles, if you think you know how ethics works, and can use it well enough most of the time, there seems no reason to try to understand better.

The illusion of understanding sometimes dissolves when you have to give an ethical explanation. Realizing your explanations are inadequate opens the possibility of a forward ethical stage transition. This happens only rarely, however. One reason is that it is easy to recognize that your understanding of a bicycle is wrong, by visually comparing your drawing with a real one.

It is much harder to reality-test moral understanding, because ethics are far more nebulous than bicycles. Eternalism, by promoting a reassuring illusion of ethical understanding, hinders moral development. This is most obvious in religious fundamentalism, which denies the nebulosity of ethics, stranding you in a childish moral understanding. Rationalist eternalism typically fixates some moral theory that is also obviously wrong, but does have some coherent systematic justification.

These are adolescent rather than childish; utilitarianism is a common example. That is a major topic of the upcoming chapter on ethics. This is harmful and stupid.

After subjects tried to explain how proposed political programs they supported would actually work, their confidence in them dropped. This decreased their certainty that they would work. Fernbach et al. Other experiments have found this usually increases the extremeness of opinions, instead. Generating an explanation for why you support a program, rather than of how it would work, leads to retrieving or inventing justifications, which makes you more certain, not less.

These political justifications usually rely on abstract values, appeals to authority, and general principles that require little specific knowledge of the issue. They are impossible to reality-test, and therefore easy to fool yourself with. Extreme, ignorant political opinions are largely driven by eternalism.

I find the Fernbach paper heartening, in showing that people can be shaken out of them. If they succeed, they might change your mind! If not—they might change their own. Eternalism promises to make everything make sense.

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Adjectives

It sometimes does deliver an illusion of universal understanding as in the account of conversion to communism, above. The curtain that is supposed to conceal the illusionist is translucent. How does eternalism manage that? In fact, there is no one answer; eternalism has a big bag of tricks.