Saturday, January 21, 2012

Oh the Thinks You Can Think!

I've been attempting, over the last few posts, to steer this blog in a different direction. But, like a ship at sea, it doesn't turn on a dime. The majority of what has filled the pages over the past year are not topics of immediate interest to me; rather, as I have said before, they are things I thought about quite a long time ago now, but, due to various factors, felt like they could use a saying in the here and now.

Readership is down, not surprisingly, as I am sure I have offended a number of my initial readers with my perspective on their religious/ spiritual beliefs, or else they've grown tired of my thinly-veiled arrogance or my intellectual pretense. I don't blame them. And it is convenient for me, as it allows me to move in a far more interesting, for me anyway, direction. So while religion/ spirituality will often come up as an example of certain modes of thinking, I hope to avoid it as a central theme from here on out (we'll see how I do.)

What I have been really fascinated by, and the give and take on this blog and others as well as several books and articles I have recently read have fueled this interest, is not what people think so much as why. A large part of the illusion of consciousness is that it convinces us that we are fully autonomous agents, making rational, lucid choices in our own best-interest. Nothing could be further from the truth.

We all walk around fairly convinced that we are liberal or conservative, spiritual or naturalistic, religious or atheistic because We chose this mode of thinking as the best of all possible choices. Not so much. In fact, an overwhelming amount of the thinks we think are decided for us- by other previously or concurrently held ideas, by the personality traits defined by our genes and the influences of the first few years of our life, by the culture around us, by the beliefs of those closest to us, by the historic position of our birth, and many other factors.

Some of these above factors are obvious; someone raised in a Muslim household is overwhelmingly more likely to practice Islam as an adult than Christianity, and vice-versa. And it is becoming pathetically easy in the United States to predict someone's political affiliation based on whether or not they believe in evolution or are terrified of GMOs. Similarly, no matter how much you wanted to, you couldn't accept the weirder aspects of quantum mechanics in 1066 AD. 

And yet, as much as we "know" these facts, we persistently, stubbornly, insist that our own beliefs are rational and autonomous. Now, at this point, we run into a bit of a paradox. For the rest of what I have to say presumes a scientific world-view, as most of the rest of what I refer to is evidence that has been dredged up by the methodical effort of psychologists and neuroscientists. So, if you are someone who rejects this understanding of things, we diverge from the outset. However, I hope you stick around, as you may find it interesting nonetheless.

I am going to approach the rest of this discussion in a linear fashion, as I think it makes it easier to understand, but in reality, I think it is far more circular, a chicken-and-an-egg question, if you will. This may be my own amateur reading of the findings I am discussing, as the authors of the papers I will cite don't seem to think so.

When we are presented with a new idea, or a revision of an old one, there are two essential factors that seem to dictate whether or not we ultimately accept or reject that idea. One is the make-up of the other ideas held in the same brain. This factor, as fascinating as it is, is not the subject of this post. There are, however, many other worthwhile discussions to be found, and although they all use different nomenclatures, they are all essentially talking about the same thing. In an appendix to his seminal work The Selfish Gene, Richard Dawkins refers to these ideas as "memes" and although there is probably other literature more current than 1976 on the topic, I still find that few people can explain virtually any topic as clearly as he. George Lakoff, in his The Political Mind refers to essentially the same thing as "frames" or "narrative frames" and a good friend of mine also just wrote an interesting post on the same thing (sort of- it is a setup for something else) and he refers to this idea simply as "narrative."

But I actually want to approach this from a different angle today. I happened to be thinking about this one afternoon when I ran across this post (there is a link there- I know they barely show up on the published blog, but I am too lazy to figure out how to change the color of links... sorry :). Chris Mooney and his wife authored a book I read over the summer Unscientific America which was a good read. As you can tell, he wears his political affiliation on his sleeve, which I think gets in the way, because while it is certainly true that there are a number of issues on which the right's denial of the best scientific evidence is ludicrous, and occasionally dangerous (evolution, climate change, etc), there are roughly an equal number of fads on the left (the anti-vaccine movement, the organic fetish and GMO fear) which are equally absurd and equally dangerous.

However, I don't believe the biases of the post's author invalidate the findings that he links to, which is the reason I linked to it above. As you can see, he compiled a number of different studies which attempted to examine the decision-making patterns or personality traits of people who self-identified as liberal or conservative. While political affiliation is just one small aspect of who we are and how/what/why we think what we think, it is an interesting factor to isolate and examine. Also, it should be noted, I used the term "self-identified" above, because almost all of the studies used the same single point measurement, on the same scale (-5= Very Liberal to +5= Very Conservative) to categorize the participants. While this seems a simplistic way to approach a complex issue, this single self-identifying scale has shown to predict someone's voting record with 75+% accuracy, so it's actually a fairly accurate measure for a complex phenomenon. 

I don't expect the reader to slog their way through the several pages of each of the seven studies above, as I did, but I do hope you will at least skim one or two that sound interesting. Also, you can kind of cheat and read the Introduction, skim the Method, and skip to the Discussion, if you trust that authors didn't pull a fast one on you in the middle there. So, for those of you who have a life, I will attempt to briefly summarize the findings and put a bit of my own take on them.

Across each of these studies, the research consistently showed significant differences in both the decision making patterns and (what I can best term) "personality traits" of liberals versus conservatives. Specifically, they found that conservatives (I am just picking one to frame this in), as opposed to liberals, showed:
  • A greater response to negative stimuli, i.e. threatening images or sudden, loud noises. By "greater response" what is meant is more actual reaction in the brain- on a semi-conscious level, this means they are "affected" more by such stimuli.
  • A follow-up study showed that they are more likely to respond to negative stimuli with aggression, either verbal or physical.
  • A greater fear of death and threats.
  • Less likelihood to try new experiences, more likelihood to stick with known positive stimuli, rather than seeking out novel experiences.
You can take each of those bullets above and frame it in the reverse for liberals- less affected by negative images, less likely to respond with aggression, less fear of death or threats, more likely to try new things, even at the risk of a negative experience. 

Admittedly, from my point of view at least, this doesn't paint a terribly flattering picture of conservatives. However, similar studies have found conservatives to be more loyal, more dependable, more duty-bound, which are all positive traits, at least in my mind. So I would like to move past the knee-jerk response that many will have to those statements and discuss them rationally.

You probably noticed the same pattern I did- conservatives are more deeply affected, on an emotional level, by the unknown and by the threatening (which are often the same thing) and their response thus tends to be more emotional. (This fulfills a whole slew of stereotypes, but I will leave it up to you to recall them.) These behavioral patterns identified in these studies do line up with another set of findings mentioned in that link; that conservatives tend to have a thicker amygalda, one of the brain's emotional-response centers, whereas liberals tend to have a thicker anterior cingulate cortex (ACC), which handles uncertainty, nuance and resolves conflicts. In other words, the brains of liberals and conservatives are actually, physically, different.

Further, these brain-differences line up with another study I had run across a year or so ago, (another link there) that found that identifying as liberal and atheist each accounted for roughly a 6 point increase in IQ. (There were actually a bunch of such studies at the same time which all found the same thing, and the first one I read was actually conducted by Christian Republicans, which makes claims of "bias!" less convincing.)  Since IQ is related to an individuals ability to decipher nuance in logic, spatial and linguistic problems, this finding of the thickness of the ACC makes a lot of sense. Further, coming to atheism as an ideological stance requires the cognitive ability to resolve the logical conflicts inherent in any religious belief. In contrast, a brain with a thinner ACC is more capable of holding on to two mutually contradictory propositions, such as "God is Good," and "Sinners are punished in Hell for all Eternity."

Well, my wife is shuffling me out the door to our nephew's birthday so I have to wrap this up, and I would rather get it published. Anyway, I hope you can see my point. (And it is not, simply, that liberals and atheists are smarter than religious conservatives... if you have an issue with that, take it up with the people behind those studies, not me.) My point is twofold. One, that as much as we like to hope that our ideological convictions are made from a purely-rational, fully-conscious place, they are actually far more like our tastes in food- they are shaped by our genes and the environment we are raised in, and are only changed with sustained, deliberate effort.  Two, the next time you are in a pointless shouting match with someone over an irresolveable issue, try to remember that their brain is probably just shaped different than yours.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Theater of the Comforting Narrative


I have done my best, in these pages, to try to lay out why I believe there are substantial reasons to doubt the claims of anyone or anything that claims to have discovered Truth. The last few posts have discussed how several thinkers over the last century or so have pointed out fundamental paradoxes in any attempt to develop a complete and consistent set of ideals, because once something is complex enough to be self-referential, it inevitably contains a self-nullifying paradox.

In simpler terms, as mere mortals, we don't have much to go on. There are people all over this world who would lead you to believe that they have the Perfect way to organize human society, or that they have the Perfect way to live your life, or that they Know Exactly what God wants. They are all full of shit.

However, most of us are more realistic. Most of us, on some level, recognize how much we know, but more importantly, how much we don't know. For most people, they are content to go about their daily lives viewing knowledge as a utility; when a certain set of ideals works, great, when it doesn't, fine, they'll just try something else. This isn't surprising, for this is precisely how evolution designed us to be. If everyone in your tribe believes that the shaman's Rain Dance brings the rain, it is generally much more practical to accept it, even "believe" it, than it is to be the one who points out that yes, it did rain a few hours after this dance, but the last sixteen times he did it, nothing happened. In ancient hunter-gatherer societies, social ostracism meant death, either directly or indirectly through banishment. We evolved a tendency towards looking at those around us and getting in line.

But like many other deviant traits, there is room for a certain percentage to sneak through the filter of natural selection, because there is often some advantage to be found in playing a different game than everyone else. For example, it is estimated that around 1% of human beings fit somewhere on the spectrum of "psychopath." (Among CEOs it's four times that. I'm not kidding.) In other words, you probably know at least one person who has some psychopathic tendencies. In evolutionary terms, this fits in almost exactly with how many "cheaters" game theory predicts a society as large as ours can sustain. (In game theory, a "cheater" is an individual who does not play by the same rules of tit-for-tat, or some version thereof.) If too many more individuals were cheaters, we would all be forced to be less trusting and altruistic than the average person generally is.

In the same way, there are some people whose natural curiosity is too strong to be subsumed by the commonly accepted beliefs of the culture around them. This curiosity, this desire to pursue truth, often at the expense of social acceptance, led to many of the most important ideas in history. Sadly, it also often led those individuals, if they pushed a bit too far, to a cup of hemlock or into the grasp of the Inquisition, or some equally unfitting end. 

So there remain those among us who are not content to accept what everyone else believes simply because it is easier. And we are all better off because of it. But there is another sort. There are those who are born with the same deep curiosity, who pursue Truth with fervor, only to discover, inevitably, that it is not to be had. And that doesn't sit well with them. 

For someone in this position, there aren't many choices left. It is impossible to go forward. It is impossible to go back. (Imagine, now, as an adult, deciding to believe in Santa Claus again. Impossible.) What alternatives remain?

One option is to put on a play.

When confronted with the fact that everything that used to give your life meaning, everything you used to believe which gave value and purpose to the world, is not made of sturdy stuff, it can be difficult to find a way to go on. The idea that our existence is a lucky accident, that there is no greater purpose or meaning for us, in this world or an imagined next, and that our Gods and Truths, Myths and Stories are just our own dull fictions, is simply too much to bear.

So some choose to put these cadavers back on stage, in costume and makeup, prance around them and call them by name, holding their nose against the rotten stench exuding from their decay. These would-be thespians can even manage to put on quite a show, from time to time, getting so into character that they seem to almost forget that they are, in the end, just on stage, paying homage to a corpse in lipstick and a wig.

Sadly though, this isn't even noble enough to qualify as a tragedy. It rather more neatly fits the bill as a farce. I am reminded of the second theater scene in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen, the actors running around desperately trying to keep the cardboard props upright, as the set crashes down around them.

I have to admit, I don't understand it. As often as I have heard, "Well, yes, but I choose to believe this because it makes me happy," or "... it helps me make sense of the world," or "...I prefer my Myths," is as many times as I have bewilderedly shaken my head. It seems like an incredible amount of wasted effort, that could be much more enjoyably spent appreciating what we do have.

Nature is not a stage. It needs no props, no Director, no costumes, no Narrative. It simply is. And we are simply fortunate to be a part of it. Isn't that enough? Why would you place a cardboard cutout of a tree in front of the real thing?

It is human nature to Name things, to try to fit them into a Narrative that makes sense to us. First we observe, then we name, then we understand, then we control. This trait is what took us from the savannas of Africa to every inch of this planet and to begin to reach its satellite and its neighbors. But the universe is not a species of domesticatable flora or fauna, or an arable track of land. We can pointlessly struggle to bring it under our heel like we do with so much else, or we can simply let it be, appreciate our place it in, and enjoy the time we have in it.

And it is sooo much less work. 

(But maybe I am just lazy. Who knows?)