Cultural Influences on Access to ‘Reality’
What does this theme mean?
Questions related to our access to ‘reality’ (or rationality) feature strongly in the top unanswered questions in science (Science 2005), for example regarding the reality of recalled memories, the ‘unreality’ of physics theories, and confirmation bias (as opposed to objective reality) in science. When we think of rational thought, we often consider processes based on an evaluation of objective facts rather than supernatural beliefs or emotions. However, recent theories by philosophers, psychologists, economists, sociologists and political scientists have focused on human ‘irrationality’ and how this may be ‘sensible’ as we live in a world of uncertainty where logic is not a perfect guide (Gigerenzer & Selten 2002; Mercier & Sperber 2017; Damasio 2018). Imagination can be considered an ability to “run simulations of counterfactual virtual realities” (Asma 2017), drawing on past experiences (Schacter & Addis 2007), enabling humans to create representations of potential future events. Likewise, the need to learn about our increasingly complex ancestral socio-ecological environment may have shaped our appetite for fictional and counterfactual narrative (Boyd 2017).
Bounded Rationality whereby humans have an adaptive toolbox of fast-and-frugal rules for decision-making under uncertainty and/or excess information (Gigerenzer & Selten 2002) is a common idea across fields. Within cultural evolution, transmission biases (a.k.a. ‘social learning strategies’) represent a variety of such heuristics (Boyd & Richerson 1985; Laland 2004; Kendal et al. 2018). Models have revealed circumstances where superstitious or false beliefs can spread through cultural evolution (Tanaka et al, 2009). In other fields it is claimed that our brains are not wired to seek truth due to ‘confirmation bias’ (Politics: Brennan 2012), ‘willful blindness’ (Business: Heffernan 2012), or ‘schema-consistency bias’ (Sociology: Hunzaker 2016). Synthesis of these fields with cultural evolution would extend understanding of constraints on human access to ‘reality’, and humans’ differing realities, with implications for current societal issues such as ‘fake news’ (Vosoughi et al. 2018) and political voting (Hänska & Bauchowitz 2017).
Reasoning may be viewed from an ‘intellectualist’ or ‘interactionist’ approach. It helps humans individually or ‘intellectually’ to arrive at accurate conclusions regarding the reality of the world, and/or is used in an ‘interactionist’ manner to retrospectively persuade others of the rationality of individual’s beliefs, evaluate others’ arguments, and justify individual’s beliefs and behaviour to themselves (Mercier & Sperber 2017). To what extent do these interpretations explain cultural evolutionary patterns of the spread of both ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ideas? For example, do people accept misinformation as ‘reality’ resulting in so-called ‘irrational’ behaviour (e.g. decisions against one’s interests regarding politics, vaccinations, violence) or do they accept and culturally transmit it to justify pre-held beliefs (Mercier 2020)? How do culturally evolved institutions influence the direction and content of future cultural evolution (e.g. Mathew & Boyd 2011)?
Cultures of forecasting, whereby how people think about the future and make decisions about it, are variable yet relatively understudied, a key omission given the current pace of change in human environments. Which information sources are favoured will vary culturally, dependent on attitudes to authority, conformity, religion, and ecology of natural hazards etc. Here, a cultural evolutionary framework can build on research in social psychology (e.g. regarding ‘cultural dimensions’ of power distance, uncertainty avoidance, and short/long term orientation: Hofstede 2011). Likewise, recent studies have identified population differences in acceptance, or seeking of, ‘new realities’ (flexibility of problem solving, Pope et al. 2019; innovation, Chang et al. 2011), explained by differences in levels of environmental uncertainty and variability experienced.
Theories of the predictive brain involve philosophers, cognitive scientists, neuroscientists, psychologists, computer scientists and sociologists (e.g. Clark 2016; Foster 2018; Friston 2012; Gopnik & Bonawitz 2015; Heyes 2018). Given our cultural structuring (through embodied cognition, situated learning, or niche construction) of the sensory information we aim to predict (Flynn et al. 2013), a key question is how similar concepts of causation, and understanding of realities, are across cultures given that culture influences not just what we think but how we think. Can the evolved similarities and differences (e.g. in supernatural causation: Boyer 1996) be explained better by synthesising theories of cognition across fields? How is today’s environment, particularly regarding social media, influencing access to reality? Children are our future yet how their access to reality is influenced by their increasing immersion in a virtual world, and the consequences for decision making through the life-course, are unknown. Are our constructs (e.g. AI) approaching better access to reality than humans? Finally, to what extent does culture influence nonhuman access to reality (e.g. Gruber et al. 2011)?