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RS 186 - Tania Lombrozo on “Why we evolved the urge to explain”

Release date: June 11th, 2017

Tania Lombrozo

Humans have an innate urge to reach for explanations of the world around us. For example, "What caused this tragedy?" or "Why are some people successful?" This episode features psychologist and philosopher Tania Lombrozo, discussing her research on what purpose explanation serves -- i.e., why it helps us more than our brains just running prediction algorithms. Tania and Julia also discuss whether simple explanations are more likely to be true, and why we're drawn to teleological explanations (e.g., "Why does the sun shine? So that plants can grow.")

Tania's Website: Tania Lombrozo

Blog #1 Tania Contributes to: "13.7 Cosmos and Culture"

Blog #2 Tania Contributes to: "Explananda"

Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy

Tania's Pick: "Language and Thought" by Noam Chomsky

Tania's Other Pick: "The Language Instinct" by Steven Pinker

Edited by Brent Silk

Music by Miracles of Modern Science


Full Transcripts 

Reader Comments (13)

The mp3 download link is linking to the previous episode right now.
June 12, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
When I was little, I asked "What for" a lot, like "What do trees sway for?" I thought trees create wind like a hand fan. My parents explained that I had cause and effect backwards, and that I should ask "Why" instead of "What for." They also told me about a centipede that tried to explain how it walks and immediately tripped. Seems related to verbal overshadowing and to overthinking in sports.
June 15, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterMax
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June 15, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterearn to die
Humans have an innate urge to reach for explanations of the world around us. I agree with you. Sometime i have question seem like crazy such as why some human is selfish but another not same? Want to go far, go together but want to go fast, go alone ? People successful should go alone or go together? Thank this article make me information clearer.
June 20, 2017 | Unregistered Commentertrump twitter
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Thank you for very stimulating discussion! Of course you realize, brave thinkers, you are dispersing ammunition that might be used to challenge your explanations of explanation -- which still are explanations bordering on nonsense too! -- either to defeat you or make you stronger, which is the finest in critical thought. So here is my highly respectful but I think serious challenge.

I think, while you graciously hone and distribute tools for our self-defense, you -- perhaps semiconsciously to rally our own faculties, which will help you learn and grow -- conjure up some of the problems of explanations you astutely note --

like the fact that you speak very quickly --and I imagine that by packing in examples etc. you're able to create the same effect in reading --and I'm listening, and I don't have time to cogitate fully myself, so that when I agree with you I feel affirmed, and it elicits trust, and where you're ahead of me, I tend to defer to the expert's knowledge, and am happy to let this trained pilot fly such a complicated craft to new insight, as if no layman could possibly know enough.

And this is how you learned from your teachers, which creates a body of knowledge perhaps subtly contaminated by the mesmerizing effects of authority. What are the dangers of mixing up professionalism and critical thinking? Are the benefits worth the dangers? A flaw I detect makes me wonder. Here it is:

If you're always looking for the simplest explanation --not because you think that things are simple, but because you can easily debunk your explanation, but then you just replace your last over-simple explanation with another over-simple explanation, then you're always veering toward the over-simple explanation --

so OK maybe at one point you've exhausted every possible simple explanation, and suddenly the quite possibly complicated explanation appears right before your eyes --but how often or possible is it to exhaust every single simple explanation?

Plus by now your brain is so conditioned to deal in simple explanations you can't even read or see complicated ones. Those who suggest them are called mad or purposely trying to confuse and bamboozle you, or are hedging -- that is your over-simple explanation.

Meanwhile it's interesting how well this works to keep alive a very comfortable business. Professionals can get paid forming and debunking simple explanations indefinitely, and because these explanations are simple, they can be sold to the public now on Ted talks etc. What's sold is the infinite superiority of the new simple explanation to the old one -- such that everybody then decides it is basically true, forgetting the fact that its simplicity and salability pretty much eliminated all more complicated examples.

But sufficiently complicated views can't be sold and are hard if not impossible to deconstruct, so more and more no-one will fund them.

You honorably begin to complicate the study of explanation, but how far will you go? What psychological defenses kick in when there's need for a paradigm shift that challenges basic assumptions on which you've built your world view?

The experts on challenging the experts aren't experts, but general practitioners who philosophize in the public square until people start listening, and the authorities decide they are too dangerous.

Women can you hear me? The empowerment of the arguably biologically less competitive gender offers hope for another approach. Let's use this power, such as it is, while we still have it. The implications of this discussion are profound.
July 7, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterVeronica
I would like to mention one more thing. To simplify the formal expression of a complicated phenomenon helps to comprehend it. This I think is what Einstein observed and why he believed in simpler explanations. Obviously relativity isn't simple, it is intractably complex, but he found a simple way to express it. The argument endorsed here for simple explanations, by contrast, hopelessly mixes up form and content, then rationalizes this degraded fare, and this becomes an excellent example of how explanation borders on nonsense, or worse than nonsense, for reasons I outline above. Simple content takes the place of simple form, which is very difficult to achieve to represent complex realities. The simple content is justified because it is easily debunked, and the best and the brightest then spend all their time debunking simple content that has very little to do with complex reality, but creates a culture of debunking and deconstructing. The creative regions of the brain atrophy, relatively. The doctors here have excellent tools, they just need to apply them not just to the lowly public, but to themselves. How can we see our own eyes though? We need to be humble enough to listen to what outsiders tell us they see when they look at our eyes. It takes one who is not one to know one too.
July 8, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterveronica
Human evolution is all about intelligence - IQ. A new comprehensive theory :
September 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterToba
Your article is detailed, thanks to it I solved the problem I am entangled. I will regularly follow your writers and visit this site daily.
September 27, 2017 | Unregistered Commenterabcya
Reminds me of the Training Doctrine, "Watch one, Do one, Teach one". Perhaps to get the benefits of explanation, but at the same time avoid some of the problems of explanation, include as possibles in your explanation results such as "need more information" and "this is too random to infer much of anything".
November 30, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterJameson
Good Post
December 16, 2017 | Unregistered CommenterAnne
On your idea of rationality evolved so we could persuade others - I am reminded of the idea of financial counter-party risk. The ability to persuade relies on other's ability to put ideas together. It needs a "raw material" to work on. Maybe persuasion was part of an evolutionary loop, but I think the other part of the transaction needs some emphasis. If anyone knows of anyone who has written on this, it would be great to know.
May 13, 2018 | Unregistered CommenterJohn August (au)

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