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The Inevitable Illusions of Daily Life (book review)

dmckeever's picture

Neurobiology and Behavior is a class based on the desire of the students to explore their existence in the world: how do we interact with our surroundings? How do we interact with each other? How do we act as autonomous beings? And the main goal of the course is to make the answers to these questions accessible to all students. Likewise, in Inevitable Illusions, by Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini, the author attempts to help readers understand the universal illusions from which we all suffer on a daily basis. In  so doing, Piatelli-Palmarini unknowingly wrote a book that would greatly benefit a course like Biology 202.


Piatelli-Palmarini addresses many disturbing illusions that one encounters from  day to day, but the “Probability Illusions” in Chapter 4 were most interesting because of its very mathematical approach. I truly enjoy math and I am quite confident in my handle on probability theories, and yet I commit these crimes of misjudgment everyday. The author discusses illusions like the “conjunction effect,” in which most people judge a conjunction of two events as more probable to occur than each event individually. In many of these cases of misjudgment, people are also suffering from “misplaced causation.” In fact, one might judge the two events as more probable when in conjunction with one another because it seems that one incident can cause another, so the caused event is more likely after the other event occurs. But in fact, pure mathematical analysis disproves this reasoning which turns out to be the intuitive reasoning of most people when faced with such a choice. What strikes me most is my great desire to deny that I do not commit these acts of misjudgment because then I am in some way admitting that I am irrational. It is human nature to want to be  viewed as a rational, intelligent human being; realizing that I am not always the rational person that  I want to be is  just another part of the  human condition. The human condition is a core focus of Neurobiology and Behavior,  and so the book seems very fitting for such a course.


This course was presented to us as one appropriate for anyone curious about his/her existence on earth, and in fact it was. During class discussion, we evaluated all aspects of this existence—the biological, the literary, the psychological, the artistic, etc. It was obvious that everyone could in some way relate to the topics and how they were discussed. In the same way, Inevitable Illusions applies to the human experience in general. According to the author, all people (even experts) suffer from the cognitive illusions he presents, and more importantly, suffering from their affliction causes people to be irrational. When Piattelli-Pamarini uses the word “irrational,” he does not mean it in the emotional sense (i.e. when someone is enraged/crying/intensely and unjustifiably emotional), but in the logical sense. Everyday, we make inaccurate judgments about both common and important situations, judgments that can be proven false by mathematical analysis. And here is another connection between this book and this class: the author uses something other than science to explain scientifically significant phenomena, just as we explored the multi-faceted and eclectic aspects of neurobiology. Furthermore, the mantra of this course seems to be “let us work towards getting things less wrong,” and interestingly, Piattelli-Pamarini set out to reveal these inevitable illusions so that his readers could use the information they gain from his book to get things less wrong in their daily lives. In general, what struck me most was the author’s mission to lay out for anyone curious the illusions that plague our daily lives, just as Neurobiology and Behavior seeks to uncover mysteries and connections that exist for everyone to help the class gain understanding of its presence in the world.


In general, the book was quite interesting and since I began reading it, I catch myself evaluating the judgments I have just made, or that I am about to make. In that way, the book is effective and achieves just what the author intended. However, this is not a book to read cover-to-cover: the subject matter is a bit dull and Piatelli-Palmarini uses some technical language that actually defeats the purpose of the book—to bring the information to the common people. Inevitable Illusions would be more effective if read in sections, or not in totality. With that in mind, the course would be more effective if supplemented with recommended/required readings, of which excerpts from this book would be appropriate. Then, discussion in class could clarify the technical language that the author uses, while the subject matter would complement the goals of the class. In addition to this book, the class would greatly benefit from supplemental readings from a neurobiology textbook, so that those who want the anatomical knowledge and a more scientific approach to the topic of neuroscience can get it, and those who may not want it can still benefit from it. The biggest critique I have of this course is that it was not scientific enough. Though it is meant to be accessible to all, one cannot deny that neurobiology is in fact science, and outside readings with a scientific flavor may enhance that characteristic of neurobiology, while allowing the class discussion to focus more on other elements of that same topics.


Overall, the book and the class go hand-in-hand  because both are based on the same philosophies and both  have the same  goals in mind. Inevitable Illusions by Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini would complement Biology 202 very  well and would be a great start in  filling in the holes that exist.


Paul Grobstein's picture

some thoughts on illusions ...

Glad you found Inevitable Illusions; its a very interesting book that sparked a lot of thinking in me too. Among those for me was the question of whether one ought to think of the intuitive ways we do some things as "illusions." Presumably they exist for reasons, are ways of making sense of the world that work under at least some circumstances?

Glad too to have your reading of the book trigger some useful comments on the course. Its interesting to have the course characterized as "not scientific enough" and the book as "uses some technical language that actually defeats the purpose of the book." Is a "scientific flavor" the same thing as "a bit dull" and "technical language"?