We(e) Sense-makers

We, humans, are designed to try to make sense of our experience. Coherence is deemed to be necessary for rationality. Rationality is a fundamental principle of humanism. However, it is impossible to ensure that the various models of the world, which we construct and carry with us, are coherent with each other and the world.

That is the thesis of a presentation I will make at a humanist meeting at the end of April, 2018 in which I will

  1. illustrate how the human brain constructs meaning from the lowest forms of perception (e.g., from the retina onwards), through mechanisms of mind, to our personal narratives, to the construction of great works of fiction and knowledge;
  2. discuss mechanisms produced by evolution to achieve coherence, and some explicit strategies for the same;
  3. argue that people differ in their motivation, knowledge and strategies for coherence;
  4. talk about the dark side of the need for coherence (for example, it can lead to false confessions);
  5. illustrate ways in which we are incoherent;
  6. defend the thesis that human minds are necessarily incoherent;
  7. raise questions about the importance, and means to attain some measure, of coherence for human fulfilment;
  8. relate the latter point to the seventh principle of the Amsterdam declaration :

Humanism is a lifestance aiming at the maximum possible fulfilment through the cultivation of ethical and creative living and offers an ethical and rational means of addressing the challenges of our times. Humanism can be a way of life for everyone everywhere

Some related readings and notions

  • In his masterpiece, A Mind So Rare: The Evolution of Human Consciousness, Merlin Donald (2001) claims “There is a coherence, an interconnectedness, about conscious experiences that makes them very different from unconscious ones, where ideas and images can coexist in a pell-mell, disorganized manner and no drive for continuity tries to impose order” (p. 213).
  • In Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues for the importance of narratives in the evolution of humans. (Surprisingly, he doesn’t cite Merlin Donald’s A Mind So Rare).
  • In chapter 4 of my 1994 Ph.D. thesis I argued at length that the limited capacity and virtual seriality of executive processes is a means to achieve mental coherence.
  • The somnolent information-processing theory of sleep onset and insomnia proposes that as humans fall asleep, their meta-cognitive tendency to ensure coherence weakens. This I claim is not merely a consequence of sleep-onset, it is exploited in a positive feedback loop as a pro-somnolent mechanism in the sleep-onset control system (i.e., the human sleep-onset virtual machine). The “cognitive shuffle” strategy for falling asleep is based on this theory; the strategy is facilitated by mySleepButton.
  • Aaron Sloman wrote PSYCH-B newsgroup articles on consistency, in response to a post by Bernard Baars. Even information in working memory or other transient states is not necessarily consistent. Detecting incoherence is a hard computational problem as AI researchers discovered! (This is yet another example of the relevance of AI to psychology.)
  • Detecting inconsistency is a critical contributor to mirth according to Hurley, Dennett and Adams: their Inside Jokes is by far the best analysis of mirth I have encountered. (Their account of motivation, however, is wanting. A contrasting account of motivation is given in E. Tory Higgins’ Beyond Pleasure and Pain and in Cognitive Productivity).
  • The tendency to detect inconsistency is a contributor to effectance, a collection of thinking dispositions discussed in Cognitive Productivity. See also Keith Stanovich’s book, What intelligence tests miss: The psychology of rational thought.
  • The human species goes by many names, some of which are compiled in Wikipedia. The list includes “Homo Poetica”, roughly “the meaning maker”, which, I would argue, underlies many of the other attributes on the list.
  • I recently attended an excellent Defining Cognitive Science talk by SFU professor Deborah A. Connolly. She explained the psychological principles exploited by some misguided detectives to extract false confessions. They include trying to get the suspect to think they must have done it, “for it’s the only coherent explanation”. This and other pernicious implications of the human propensity for coherence are discussed in a book on “cognitive dissonance”, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).
  • In an excellent book based on research in social psychology, Redirect: Changing the stories we live by, Timothy Wilson discusses the importance of our personal narratives for improving our lives. The book shows us ways to improve ourselves by improving our narratives.
  • I need not explain why Victor Frankl’s The Will to Meaning is pertinent to this theme.

That’s more material than can be covered in one humanist meeting. Participants may choose from this menu and select material of their own.

The Cognitive Science of Coherence

Section added 2018-03-16.

I mentioned coherence several times, without discussing the relationship between coherence and sense-making, head-on, or invoking cognitive science literature that directly addresses coherence. That’s because the topic is too technical for a general humanist meeting. I’ve prepared a blog post on the topic, which I will publish when I have time.

If you’re eager, check out Paul Thagard’s 2012 book, The cognitive science of science: Explanation, discovery, and conceptual change. It has a chapter on coherence, and the topic shows up elsewhere in that book. In addition to his numerous articles on the subject, in 2002 he published a book on coherence, which I have not yet read.

Published by

Luc P. Beaudoin

Head of CogZest. Author of Cognitive Productivity books. Co-founder of CogSci Apps Corp. Adjunct Professor of Education, Simon Fraser University. Why, Where, and What I Write. See About Me for more information.

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