Before Supersense – Supersense and Simon’s scissors

Posted on May 6, 2009


As I write this I am on the train to Lublin, where I teach. For the last couple of weeks I have been carrying around in my bag a particular book that I had been very much looking forward to reading for quite a while – Bruce Hood’s Supersense. As it is, however, I have hardly cracked open the cover thus far and only read the first couple of chapters. I find that I simply do not have the time to get into it because of all of my commitments. I could read it on the fly but I want to concentrate on it properly as it is discussing many of the issues that are central to my own research. Bruce’s approach is very similar to mine in many ways – he also bases a lot of his conclusions upon evolutionary considerations, in particular his claim that being superstitious is an unavoidable human trait. One claim that I find extremely interesting is that, I gather, he thinks that there is a profound link between being superstitious and human values. As part of reading the book, I want to blog my impressions of it, chapter by chapter, same as I did for Vyse’s and Jahoda’s books that I saw as the classics in the area. Bruce and his publisher keep talking about Supersense as a popularisation but, given the profound ideas contained within it, that may well be selling it somewhat short, I suspect. Definitely, once I am lining up a publisher for my yet to be finished inclined book, I’ll have to consider Bruce’s book as falling within the same broad area. Which makes me all the more anxious that it does well.

One thing that Bruce talks about a lot that I have been thinking about recently is that people prefer originals to what, they are told, are exact physical replicas. The conclusion that Bruce draws is that we implicitly think things have some sort essence in addition to their physical properties and I have found his argument very convincing. Yet, I am not so sure any more and I might as well express my doubts before reading his book and having the doubts dissolve in the face of his detailed argumentation in much the way that fog dissolves in the hard light of day. After all, blog posts are supposed to be all about poorly informed opinions!

My worry goes back to Simon’s metaphor of the scissors, where one blade is our mental abilities and the other is the environment we use them in, the scissors only working if the two fit with each other. The thing is that our notions of identity and the related ways in which we value items have been formed in the very particular environment in which we have lived. This is an environment in which the creation of physical duplicates in actually impossible. Even things that appear at first to be exactly the same, never are. Therefore, we are living in a world in which it is perfectly rational to assume that an item that seems identical to something we value actually is not identical. This realisation may be conscious and expressed in the way that I have or it may implicit in our various instinctual responses. In particular, it may be implicit in what Bruce sees as our essentialist thinking.

A couple of examples may be of use here.

Let’s first consider a physical duplicate of my daughter, exactly the same down to atomic scale. I think that in such a case, I would and I should treat that girl as my daughter and am actually glad that such a thing is impossible as the extra kindergarden costs might be prohibitive. The intuition that people have that such a child would be a doppelganger (consider all those horror movies!) comes from the intuition that such a child could not be the same, no matter what someone tells them – a very reasonable thought given what the reality of creating duplicates is, I stress. Of course, the theoretical child would not have to be an exact duplicate to create an issue. Indeed, a less than exact duplicate creates a morally more complex problem.

To make things simpler, it may be useful to consider a less than perfect copy of a treasured item – let us say a wedding ring – that is functionally the same. This is something that is actually perfectly possible, unlike the previous example. Why do people prefer the original, in such a case, to the functionally equivalent item? Again, I think the reason may be found in understanding the circumstances under which our cognitive abilities have formed. In this case, the relevant fact is that in our environment there is no incorrigible source of information so, when told that something is functionally the same, we will intuitively discount that claim given the possibility that our source of information is incorrect.

In the case of the wedding ring, we may consciously understand that we are considering a fictional scenario and be able to appreciate on that level that there is no reason to distinguish between the rings, given that they do not actually carry their history around with them like an ephemeral tail. However, the intuitive evaluation of the situation need not be completely overridden by the conscious evaluation. And the intuitive evaluation is made on the basis of simpler heuristics (I am not running a dual process account of cognition here, just distinguishing between different kinds of heuristics). The heuristics in this case may be something like – do not readily accept exchanges of valuable items, even if they appear the same, as they might not be.  This is really reminiscent of loss aversion, as that seems to me to be a case where much the same mechanism as may be working here has already been identified by Johnson-Laird and Gigerenzer. Significantly, prior to their work, it used to be thought that people’s loss aversion was irrational. The same basic strategy is at work here – when it looks like people are being silly, think about the other blade of the scissors.

I am very curious to see whether Bruce says anything concerning this issue in his book – it may well be that he’s heading toward a somewhat similar conclusion – and, if not, I hope he might comment on this blog as he sometimes does. As for me, I had better quit writing about a book I have not yet read before I make myself look silly (even if there is a good evolutionary reason for me doing it!)