Today is the natal anniversary of a certain Shanna who regularly haunts the comments here. I asked her if she wanted anything for a gift, and, well, you know young girls — she wanted a bunch of fluff that had to do with hearts, flowers, stuffed animals and the color pink. Thankfully, I managed to convince her that Brian Eno’s Oblique Strategies cards might be something she can make use of for her woo purposes, and she was absolutely delighted by my perceptive thoughtfulness.
Monthly Archives: May 2011
What’s all this stuff about motivation? If you ask me, this country could do with a little less motivation. The people who are causing all the trouble seem highly motivated to me. Serial killers, stock swindlers, drug dealers, Christian Republicans. I’m not sure motivation is always a good thing. You show me a lazy prick who’s lying in bed all day, watching TV, only occasionally getting up to piss, and I’ll show you a guy who’s not causing any trouble.– George Carlin
Newly published research points to another factor that feeds this ingrained confirmation bias: Our “Just do it!” culture. In both overt and subtle ways, Americans are constantly being encouraged to take action, and exposure to such messages makes us more liable to ignore dissenting ideas.“The growing need for activity in the United States may contribute to a loss of objectivity in the way citizens gather information,” University of Alabama psychologist William Hart and University of Illinois psychologist Dolores Albarracin write in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science. They found that when people’s minds are attuned to the idea of action, their opinions tend to harden, making them less likely to seek out opposing viewpoints.
The surest way of ruining a youth is to teach him to respect those who think as he does more highly than those who think differently from him.– Nietzsche
Here we have a radically different idea that stands apart from the common wisdom in psychology, cognitive science, and even in philosophy. In Western thought, for at least the last couple hundred years, people have thought that reasoning was purely for individual reasons. But Dan challenged this idea and said that it was a purely social phenomenon and that the goal was argumentative, the goal was to convince others and to be careful when others try to convince us.And the beauty of this theory is that not only is it more evolutionarily plausible, but it also accounts for a wide range of data in psychology. Maybe the most salient of phenomena that the argumentative theory explains is the confirmation bias.Psychologists have shown that people have a very, very strong, robust confirmation bias. What this means is that when they have an idea, and they start to reason about that idea, they are going to mostly find arguments for their own idea. They’re going to come up with reasons why they’re right, they’re going to come up with justifications for their decisions. They’re not going to challenge themselves.And the problem with the confirmation bias is that it leads people to make very bad decisions and to arrive at crazy beliefs. And it’s weird, when you think of it, that humans should be endowed with a confirmation bias. If the goal of reasoning were to help us arrive at better beliefs and make better decisions, then there should be no bias. The confirmation bias should really not exist at all. We have a very strong conflict here between the observations of empirical psychologists on the one hand and our assumption about reasoning on the other.But if you take the point of view of the argumentative theory, having a confirmation bias makes complete sense. When you’re trying to convince someone, you don’t want to find arguments for the other side, you want to find arguments for your side. And that’s what the confirmation bias helps you do.The idea here is that the confirmation bias is not a flaw of reasoning, it’s actually a feature. It is something that is built into reasoning; not because reasoning is flawed or because people are stupid, but because actually people are very good at reasoning — but they’re very good at reasoning for arguing.
Although the idea of green burials in wildlife preserves or park-like settings is not new, and it’s likely a desirable prospect for certain future dead soul who’d prefer absolute oblivion, it seems to me that this is not going to appeal to most individuals because we human beings tend to have a pressing need for “symbolic immortality.” This was a term coined by the cultural anthropologist Ernst Becker in his book, The Denial of Death (1973), but which has since been empirically elaborated by scientists working on terror management theory. The basic idea behind the construct of symbolic immortality is that cultural artifacts that survive the individual’s literal death while also containing some reminder of the person’s special existence can meaningfully reduce human death anxiety.
While discussing the failed May 21 Rapture prediction on MSNBC’s The Last Word Monday, Obery Hendricks of New York Theological Seminary said that people like Rep. Michelle Bachmann and Glenn Beck, who focus on the end of the world, divert attention from the real message of Jesus.
Adam claims that there “simply is no controlled, experimental[ly] verifiable information” regarding life after death. By these standards, there is no controlled, experimentally verifiable information regarding whether the Moon is made of green cheese. Sure, we can take spectra of light reflecting from the Moon, and even send astronauts up there and bring samples back for analysis. But that’s only scratching the surface, as it were. What if the Moon is almost all green cheese, but is covered with a layer of dust a few meters thick? Can you really say that you know this isn’t true? Until you have actually examined every single cubic centimeter of the Moon’s interior, you don’t really have experimentally verifiable information, do you? So maybe agnosticism on the green-cheese issue is warranted. (Come up with all the information we actually do have about the Moon; I promise you I can fit it into the green-cheese hypothesis.)Obviously this is completely crazy. Our conviction that green cheese makes up a negligible fraction of the Moon’s interior comes not from direct observation, but from the gross incompatibility of that idea with other things we think we know. Given what we do understand about rocks and planets and dairy products and the Solar System, it’s absurd to imagine that the Moon is made of green cheese. We know better.We also know better for life after death, although people are much more reluctant to admit it.
I certainly hope IOZ’s cryptic post is just announcing a hiatus rather than an end to his blogging career. He’s long been one of my favorite writers on the web. His prose is alternately highfalutin and comfortably familiar, but always highly enjoyable and sometimes even breathtaking (I can easily find several instances in my own writing where I can clearly see his stylistic influence). I love his calm insouciance and even his disdainful sneering, especially when answering angry hecklers with quotations from The Big Lebowski. (I even watched that movie for the first time years ago so I could understand all the references.) And most of all, even though it was an acquired taste, I deeply appreciate the fact that he often forced me to think about things in a new way, not by being cheaply provocative or predictably contrary, but by being a genuinely iconoclastic thinker. I’ve often found myself uncomfortable and even pissed off by the things he wrote, especially early on, but I quickly came to realize that in many of those instances, it was because he was forcing me to confront my own intellectual laziness, that he had essentially zeroed in on something that I had been complacently accepting without careful scrutiny. It was the same sort of irritation that you feel when you’re comfortable on the sofa, and you’re asked to get up and move. Eventually, I came to eagerly anticipate and delight in the provocation, and even when I still disagree with him, I’m glad for having had the chance to be challenged. I imagine he must be a fun person to shoot the breeze with.
Psychologists refer to this as the paradox of power. The very traits that helped leaders accumulate control in the first place all but disappear once they rise to power. Instead of being polite, honest and outgoing, they become impulsive, reckless and rude. According to psychologists, one of the main problems with authority is that it makes us less sympathetic to the concerns and emotions of others. For instance, several studies have found that people in positions of authority are more likely to rely on stereotypes and generalizations when judging other people. They also spend much less time making eye contact, at least when a person without power is talking.…But here’s the catch: We still think we do care, at least in the abstract. That’s because power quickly turns us into hypocrites.…The larger lesson is that Foucault had a point: The dynamics of power can profoundly influence how we think. When we climb the ladder of status, our inner arguments get warped and our natural sympathy for others is vanquished. Instead of fretting about the effects of our actions, we just go ahead and act. We deserve what we want. And how dare they resist. Don’t they know who we are?
But the atheist’s statement was not simply about the Nobel-winning poet. Had I retorted with the information that I have a wonderful relationship with my tarot card reader, with whom I have sessions every three months or so, or that I know the house placement and sign of Mars in my horoscope and that I have had entire conversations complaining about that placement and sign, or that I am a lapsed atheist who has strayed back into belief and my belief is actually very important to me, his sadness would have spread to all of humanity and our silly, superstitious ways.…And yet the atheists keep on, telling us that we don’t have to believe in God. It maybe never occurred to them that perhaps we want to.…Informing neo-Druids of their falsified lineage is probably not going to do much to sway them, anymore than an advertisement on a bus proclaiming, “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life” — like the recent campaign that ran on London buses — is not going to do much to sway me. I’ll still be reading my Maud Gonne. In a time of great grief, having lost her son at the age of 1, right around the time Parnell died, she decided to use her will to fight against the current sad circumstances in her life. She began to research how she might reincarnate her dead son back onto the earthly plane. After a night of ritualistic sex on his grave (Yeats reports in his Memoirs, disapprovingly), a daughter was born nine months later. Maud was convinced that Iseult, as she named her daughter, contained the soul of her lost son. Those needs — for solace, for change, for order, for a little magic and irrationality — are not met with the ideals of the Enlightenment, and pretending those needs don’t even exist is not the way to win converts.
Indeed, an exponent of the I Ching might give us quite a tough argument about the relative merits of our ways for making important decisions. We feel that we decide rationally because we base our decisions on collecting relevant data about the matter in hand. We do not depend on such irrelevant trifles as the chance tossing of a coin, or the patterns of tea leaves or cracks in a shell. Yet he might ask whether we really know what information is relevant, since our plans are constantly upset by utterly unforeseen incidents. He might ask how we know when we have collected enough information upon which to decide. If we were rigorously “scientific” in collecting information for our decisions, it would take us so long to collect the data that the time for action would have passed long before the work had been completed. So how do we know when we have enough? Does the information itself tell us that it is enough? On the contrary, we go through the motions of gathering the necessary information in a rational way, and then, because of a hunch, or just because we are tired of thinking, or because the time has come to decide, we act. He would ask whether this is not depending just as much on “irrelevant trifles” as if we had been casting the yarrow stalks.In other words, the “rigorously scientific” method of predicting the future can be applied only in special cases – where prompt action is not urgent, where the factors involved are largely mechanical, or in circumstances so restricted as to be trivial. By far the greater part of our important decisions depend on “hunch” – in other words, upon the “peripheral vision” of the mind. Thus the reliability of our decisions rests ultimately upon our ability to “feel” the situation, upon the degree to which this “peripheral vision” has been developed.Every exponent of the I Ching knows this. He knows that the book itself does not contain an exact science, but rather a useful tool which will work for him if he has a good “intuition”, or if, as he would say, he is “in the Tao”. Thus one does not consult the oracle without proper preparation, without going quietly and meticulously through the prescribed rituals in order to bring the mind into that calm state where the intuition is felt to act more effectively.
American believers, then, need both clarity and humility about hell. Denying the reality of hell might suit modern tastes, but it doesn’t stand up to the overwhelming weight of the Christian scriptures and historic tradition. But confidently asserting that bin Laden is now in hell also treats this fearsome, mysterious reality with far less sobriety than it warrants.
Treating fairy tales with sobriety: that’s what makes USA Today the greatest newspaper in our planet’s 6,000 year history.