The Righteous Mind; Overcoming blind intuition


Why Won’t The Listen? ‘The Righteous Mind’ by Johnathan Haidt

Great article and sounds like a great book!

Some quotes from the article, and some of my thoughts.

people are fundamentally intuitive, not rational.

Which is why it takes effort: we need to be constantly on our guard to make sure we’re not committing logical fallacies, because we are prone to doing so! But the first step is being self-aware, the first step is ACKNOWLEDGING that we’re prone to… all these things the article mentions. Only then you can start to evaluate yourself. Think about your own thinking, behaviours, beliefs.

“We were never designed to listen to reason. When you ask people moral questions, time their responses and scan their brains, their answers and brain activation patterns indicate that they reach conclusions quickly and produce reasons later only to justify what they’ve decided.”

Because in a historical context, if we were to always logically and painstakingly weigh all the pros and cons before acting, we’d be dead. We’ve evolved to make quick, snappy judgements. So again, once we’re aware of this we can guard against it, now that we have the luxury of time and knowledge to weigh the pros and cons properly.

Evolution pushes us to give us what works in a given environment. It doesn’t push to give us the truth or the most factually accurate answers. Just what works (at that time).

“The problem isn’t that people don’t reason. They do reason. But their arguments aim to support their conclusions, not yours. Reason doesn’t work like a judge or teacher, impartially weighing evidence or guiding us to wisdom. It works more like a lawyer or press secretary, justifying our acts and judgments to others. Haidt shows, for example, how subjects relentlessly marshal arguments for the incest taboo, no matter how thoroughly an interrogator demolishes these arguments.

To explain this persistence, Haidt invokes an evolutionary hypothesis: We compete for social status, and the key advantage in this struggle is the ability to influence others. Reason, in this view, evolved to help us spin, not to help us learn. So if you want to change people’s minds, Haidt concludes, don’t appeal to their reason. Appeal to reason’s boss: the underlying moral intuitions whose conclusions reason defends.”

Is your belief holding up your reasons? Or are your reasons holding up your belief?

Admittedly, because no one is a blank canvas, it’s pretty difficult to erase all beliefs and start with reasons (as decartes tried to do), from the ground up. No assumptions. Not very possible in the practical sense. So probably, a compromise: acknowledge that most of the time it’s your belief propping up your reasons. So be on the look out for beliefs that keep having the reason knocked out (and keep scrambling for new ones) yet continues to float in your psyche without reasons. Maybe for those you should make a closer inspection and knock away all assumptions and start from ground up. See what you get.

“Liberals don’t understand conservative values. And they can’t recognize this failing, because they’re so convinced of their rationality, open-mindedness and enlightenment.

This reminds me of the article about more education and intelligence making people, ironically, more set in their (wrong) views. Honestly? I’m in constant fear that I’m making this mistake. That I’m being as hypocritical and close-minded as the people I charge with being hypocritical and close minded.

“In his view, for instance, liberals can teach conservatives to recognize and constrain predation by entrenched interests. Haidt believes in the power of reason, but the reasoning has to be interactive. It has to be other people’s reason engaging yours. We’re lousy at challenging our own beliefs, but we’re good at challenging each other’s.

I totally agree with this. While I like to hope that I read all decent, well thought out articles indiscriminately, the truth is obvious that most of the time, I will gravitate towards articles that share my views. The chances of me getting to a well thought out article that challenges my view is slim– not because they don’t exist, but because my tolerance for not-well-thought-out articles that support my view is much higher than for articles that don’t support my view. Meaning I would wade through several mediocre or lousy articles if they share my view to get to that one good one, but I probably wouldn’t do the same for an opposing view.

If 90% of the view points I hear are similar to my own, that means my views are not only not being challenged, they’re being affirmed. And that produces a subconscious effect whether I like it or not. So to friends who don’t share my views… please help me by challenging my beliefs.

“First, we need to help citizens develop sympathetic relationships so that they seek to understand one another instead of using reason to parry opposing views. Second, we need to create time for contemplation. Research shows that two minutes of reflection on a good argument can change a person’s mind. “

To truly want to understand an opposing view point– that’s really difficult. You may say, “I want to understand why you think that.” but at the back of your mind, a voice adds, “so I can correct your mistake/so I can show you why I’m right.” Even if you’re not interested in correcting others… there’ll still be a small voice going, “… but I know I’m right.”

It’s not too difficult to admit that you can be wrong– after all, we know our limits; we’re only human. But to go from that abstraction to being able to admit that you may be wrong about a specific belief of yours– that’s harder. If you’re sure of that belief– you think it’s something you know— it’s pretty difficult to get rid of that voice at the back of your head reminding you that you ‘know’ it. And if you can’t let go of that, it would be pretty difficult to ever be able to see how someone ‘knows’ something that is the opposite of what you ‘know’. You can’t truly see through someone else’s eyes, can’t truly walk in their shoes, if you’re standing firmly in your own shoes, in your own skin. You’d still be postulating and projecting what you think they see from over there, while you’re over here.

I know I’ve moved away from truly wanting to understand and closer to just wanting to defend my own views. Mainly because i got too frustrated and impatient. Hopefully I can move myself back to that point.

Keep reminding myself of this lesson: You have nothing to lose.
If your view is right, you have nothing to lose by gaining a deeper understanding of why other people don’t think so.
If your view is wrong, you have everything to gain by being able to correct your view.
So don’t hold back.

If someone holds a different view from you, the best testimony to your view is if you can understand 100% why they think that, and be able to point out were they ‘went wrong’. Rather than dismissing it as ‘they’re just deluded/not being honest with themselves/ignorant.’ They certainly don’t think that. Which means you’re still not thinking what they’re thinking. And therefore not fully understanding why they think it.

” Evolution itself has evolved: as humans became increasingly social, the struggle for survival, mating and progeny depended less on physical abilities and more on social abilities. In this way, a faculty produced by evolution — sociality — became the new engine of evolution. Why can’t reason do the same thing? Why can’t it emerge from its evolutionary origins as a spin doctor to become the new medium in which humans compete, cooperate and advance the fitness of their communities? Isn’t that what we see all around us? Look at the global spread of media, debate and democracy.”

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Richard Dawkins and Archbishop Rowan Williams


So I watched this today:

 

I felt that Richard Dawkins did most of the talking and that the archbishop didn’t really go in depth into his own views nor really explained or pushed any point. He mostly posed questions, clarified what his views are not, and gave very vague diplomatic sounding answers. At least, vague to me, someone who is not familiar with his positions.

In summary, I have to agree with the top comment on the video: Richard Dawkins made some clear points, the archbishop made some vague points, and they both come across as very nice and altogether too civilized and polite people. Sorry, no locking horns or bloodshed at all.

Some ideas that were discussed and my two cents:

The part I liked was the exploration of the idea of the first human, or rather, the lack of a first human. Highlighting the point that there may not be a distinctive point where are new species emerges. Exactly! Taxonomy, the classification of biodiversity, is an arbitary, human-created system. It’s a classification system created by us to allow us to conveniently describe the world we see. The world, more often that not, tends not to fall obediently into the nice distinct categories we draw up, at least not without plenty of exceptions to every rule.

The part about language was interesting too– whether it was a sudden change in those particular genes, something that arose gradually or arose as a side-effect result of some other ability.

I wish they had gone more into the issue of consciousness though, and I wish the archbishop had elaborated more on his view (I assume?) that science may not be able to explain consciousness. Personally, I don’t see a problem with a gradual consciousness arising from brains. It seems completely plausible and even likely to me that the gaining of consciousness and self awareness (and ‘god awareness’?) could have been a gradual evolutionary process as well.

I mean, we can see all sorts of different ‘levels’ of consciousness and self awareness in the living things around us; From plants (completely unconscious, unintelligent and unaware) to simple organisms to insects (are insects conscious?) to birds and mammals like cats and dogs which have discernible personalities even but probably don’t self reflect too much, to elephants, apes and dolphins that are definitely conscious and probably self aware to some extent at least, even if we can’t tell if they ever reflect on the meaning of life or question why they do things.

I also agree with Dawkins that self-awareness would probably be gained way before we would call it human, and I’d add on that I think any ‘god awareness’ would probably come quite a bit after what we would likely call human.

The archbishop wondered about the problem of getting something non-physical (ie consciousness) from something physical, and coincidentally I had recently discussed some similar ideas with a friend. Again, I don’t see a problem, but maybe I’m missing something, making a mistake somewhere.

I don’t see why what we know about how the physical brain relates to non-physical processes doesn’t solve this problem. When certain physical parts of the brain are damaged, there is a resulting damage to memory, or speech. When you stimulate parts of the brain, there is a resulting sensation. Specific chemicals (neurotransmitters) result in certain feelings or emotions. Doesn’t this close the gap between the purely physical and the non-physical?

Then the question of whether computers can have consciousness and free will.

Dawkins imagines if you were able to programme a computer so well that it could behave as though it were conscious well enough to fool people, and while he hesitate to call that consciousness, it seems like he has to committed to that view.

The response to that was that it’s pretty ridiculous to commit to such a view, since computers are mere tools; they can’t even add 2 and 2 or tell the time, they can only do what you tell them to.

I think an answer such a question depends fully on your underlying assumptions about what consciousness is and how it comes about.

If we were really able to, one day, programme a computer to be so human and life-like, like in science fiction (I, Robot? A.I.?) where computers for all purposes appear exactly like they have a unique personality and free will, then how could you say they weren’t conscious? If we were really able to reach that point, you wouldn’t find it so ludicrous an idea. Of course, if you think they couldn’t possibly be conscious, that would also mean you think it’s impossible for computers to ever reach that stage, that it’s impossible for something programmed by humans to cross that line, to truly have consciousness or free will.

Free will is indeed a tricky one; I think most people would disagree about determinism? and Richard Dawkins is understandably hesitant about his position too. But in recent months, I’ve found myself tending very much towards that sort of thinking: everything that we do or feel happens as a result of millions of factors that we have no control over; from my innate personality or temperament to the weather on a particular day affecting my mood to my education and upbringing that affect the way I think and see the world… is there still room for free will?

It seems incredibly counter-intuitive to think that I do not have free will, and yet maybe that’s just due to… reactionary prejudice to the idea? I mean, saying you have no free will… seems to eliminate self (that we cherish so much) altogether: you’re nothing but a robot or simple animal merely reacting to (external) stimulus in accordance to the abilities and tendencies of  your hardware (ie your brain and body).

Yet, even if I did believe that I don’t truly have free will… the ‘no free will’ universe and the ‘free will’ universe would be indistinguishable– I’d have no way of telling because in practice there are so many billions of factors involved that go into causing any emotion or decision-making in me that the illusion of free will would still remain.

The experiment Dawkins mentions about your brain ‘deciding’ to make a decision before ‘you’ do is interesting, but I think it’s difficult to draw any real conclusions from it. Couldn’t it just mean that there is a time lag between when you actually decided and when you’ve realize you’ve decided? or between when you actually decided and when you’ve managed to convey to the experimenters that you’ve decided. On it’s own i don’t think it really shows determinism, or whether souls exist or not. On it’s own it’s just… interesting.

I don’t think investigating only “small scale, short term and uninteresting decisions” is a problem though, as the archbishop thought it was, unless you mean to draw a distinction that in picking up a glass of water you exercise less free will than when deciding whom to marry, which I don’t think is coherent.

I like the idea Dawkins put forward about the human brain going beyond what one would expect for mere survival, that in order to build a brain to survive in a mundane world, it is difficult to build a brain that is not also capable of doing more advance things like mathematics and philosophy. I’m not sure I agree fully because I think all the complicated bits of our brain could have evolved just like the simple bits: because they DID give us an advantage.

What advantage could the tendency to philosophize about metaphysical issues possibly give to animals whose main concern is to find food, shelter and mates? Well, wouldn’t an inquisitive mind capable of seeking explanations have benefited those that did manage to come up with answers that could improve their hunting abilities or survival? And of course there the social aspect: we’ve evolved to live in groups.  Surely that way of living could results in the selection of much more complicated mental states.

Things the archbishop said that I found surprising

1. Immortality is a matter of faith and not something that can be proven by reason. He even seems to discount near death experiences.

2. I’m not sure if I’m understanding what he said in reply to the question “was the universe designed” but this is what I got:

The fact that there is a universe that is intelligible, that hangs together, that has processes that converge to certain ends is part of what he means when he says that god created the universe and that god is an intelligent god.

Involving god in the micromanagement of the processes is problematic because of the moral question, ‘if god can do that (stop suffering), then why doesn’t he do it more often?’

Is that what he’s saying?

3. There is no first human and no adman and eve.

I suppose I haven’t read up much on views that assume parts of the bible as myths or allegory, so I don’t understand it much.

But the inevitable question is: once you give up the claim of the inerrancy of the bible, once you decide some parts aren’t properly true, then how do you decide which parts are and which parts aren’t? If you can give up the story of adman and eve, what’s stopping you from giving up the story of Jesus’ resurrection? Doesn’t the bible give a genealogy all the way from Adam to Noah? Abraham? Jesus? So if Adam isn’t real, how do you know where ‘real’ starts?

… argh, this post is altogether too long. Xp