Ideology, Reason, And The Brain

My friend and Joplin blogger Jim Wheeler recently wrote a short review of Edward O. Wilson’s book, The Social Conquest of Earth. Jim commented:

…I often find myself amazed at the depth of ignorance about science in the modern general public. It is almost as if we were two species, one cognizant and rational and the other, larger one, superstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose. There is some evidence that groups of humanity may be evolving apart in those regards.

That’s interesting because on “Up with Chris Hayes” this past weekend, we were treated to an absolutely fascinating discussion about ideology and brains, featuring Chris Mooney, author of The Republican Brain, and Jonathan Haidt, who wrote The Righteous Mind: Why Good People are Divided by Politics and Religion.

Hayes introduced the two authors  by stating that an “insidious” feature of our current political polarization is that it is “difficult, if not impossible, to relate to people at the other end of the spectrum. They seem irrational, detached from reality, outright crazy.” He then posed this question:

If through evolution we’ve all inherited the same moral intuitions, then how do we end up so far apart on so many basic political issues?

Given the nature of our modern life, this question is one of the most important we can ask. Just what makes some of us seem, as Jim Wheeler suggests, “cognizant and rational,” and others seemsuperstitious, primal, tribal, and bellicose“?

Now, anyone interested in this topic should follow the link above and watch the segment (I can’t post it here at the moment), but the answer to that crucial question seems to be pretty much how Hayes summarized the current “social-psychological research” on the subject:

“Reason” is essentially constructed ex post to come up with reasons to justify things that we already arrive at viscerally and through intuition.

In other words, all, or at least most, of us are led around by our emotions, by our gut, and we essentially adopt some form of reasoning after the fact to support our emotional preferences. If that is true, it has profound implications, no? It would mean, for instance, that in order to change someone’s mind, the appeal should be an emotional one rather than a logical, rational one.

Consider this story on NPR this morning:

When pollsters ask Republicans and Democrats whether the president can do anything about high gas prices, the answers reflect the usual partisan divisions in the country. About two-thirds of Republicans say the president can do something about high gas prices, and about two-thirds of Democrats say he can’t.

But six years ago, with a Republican president in the White House, the numbers were reversed: Three-fourths of Democrats said President Bush could do something about high gas prices, while the majority of Republicans said gas prices were clearly outside the president’s control.

The flipped perceptions on gas prices isn’t an aberration, said Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan. On a range of issues, partisans seem partial to their political loyalties over the facts. When those loyalties demand changing their views of the facts, he said, partisans seem willing to throw even consistency overboard.

Nyhan suggested that,

partisans reject facts because they produce cognitive dissonance — the psychological experience of having to hold inconsistent ideas in one’s head. When Democrats hear the argument that the president can do something about high gas prices, that produces dissonance because it clashes with the loyalties these voters feel toward Obama. The same thing happens when Republicans hear that Obama cannot be held responsible for high gas prices — the information challenges their dislike of the president.

In other words, Nyhan continues, “partisans reject such information not because they’re against the facts, but because it’s painful.”  Now we can see why it is so hard to change someone’s mind with “the facts.”

All of which has now compelled me (!) to soon post a piece I have withheld due to its personally disturbing implications. The tease:

In his latest book, philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris tackles the issue of free will. He says,

Free will is an illusion. Our wills are simply not of our own making. Thoughts and intentions emerge from background causes of which we are unaware and over which we exert no conscious control.  We do not have the freedom we think we have.

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27 Comments

  1. Duane, I look forward to comments on this and to your forthcoming post on free will. I sign in here to get comment notification. (Note to readers: the link to my post will take you to the comment section. Page up to see the post.)

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  2. Geoff,

    I agree with almost everything you presented above. There are many reasons why this dilemma is the case, but I’ll put our education system near the top. In this Bloomberg article (http://www.bloomberg.com/news/2010-12-07/teens-in-u-s-rank-25th-on-math-test-trail-in-science-reading.html), the 34 country Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development (OECD) reported that in 2009, the U.S. ranked 25th in math and 17th in science. Compare that with OECD’s 2003 rankings where we were 12th in math and 9th in science. R-uh, r-oh. Seems we’re going in the wrong direction.

    There is a lot of blame to go around for this failure in education – teacher’s unions, lack of parental involvement, decline in funding levels, the “No Child Left Behind Act,” etc. etc. Mine is not to go into all of that, rather mine is to point out that the failure in this very important institution is a causal factor in the average adult’s ability to understand the world around them, to make appropriate value judgements (ideology), and to apply critical thinking (reasoning).

    Today, if you talk about a black hole, people think you’re being racist. Many states, in spite of having been rebuked by the courts and the science community itself, are still trying to get creationism and intelligent design into the curricula of our public schools. And athletics, more often than not, take precedence over the classroom. Sadly, we are rapidly becoming a society of flat earthers. And, unfortunately, it will only get worse over time as these relatively ignorant students enter society and then, gulp, become our leaders. How long, for example, will it be before the majority of Americans become Holocaust deniers?

    Herb

    p.s., Having worked some on the idea of Free Will over the last few years, my only caution there is to be careful of the definition. That’s were a lot of people get in trouble when they bring up this subject.

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    • Herb,

      I don’t disagree with you that education has some problems. But after thinking about what you wrote:

      his very important institution is a causal factor in the average adult’s ability to understand the world around them, to make appropriate value judgements (ideology), and to apply critical thinking (reasoning)…

      I just don’t know if we can attribute to our education system per se all of those ills. I mean, as far as I am concerned (and it appears you feel the same way), religious indoctrination is much more responsible (causally) for a failure to understand the world or to think critically. If we could get religious folks to stop doing things like undermining our education system by attacking evolution and devaluing higher scholarship (as, say, it is applied to scriptural texts), I think our system would work much better.

      Sure, there are problems with how we educate our kids (Jim Wheeler’s complaint about the one-size-fits-all approach is an example), but as long as there are millions upon millions of folks (many of them school teachers) who fanatically believe that the most essential knowledge about human beings was codified during the Iron Age (or thereabouts) and remains unchanged, then no matter what reforms we could implement, we would still not be able to overcome the subversion of the system represented by fundamentalist religion.

      I think the reformation has to come first by making America unsafe for religious fundamentalism, of all kinds. And by unsafe I mean it should be made a cultural badge of shame to believe in things like a young earth or Adam and Eve or divinely engineered virgin births.

      Duane

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      • Duane (NOT Geoff),

        At the beginning of my post I wrote, “There are many reasons why this dilemma is the case, but I’ll put our education system near the top.” The operative phrase being “many reasons.” Then, in the paragraph you quoted, i used the indefinite artilce “a” rather than the definite article “the.” So, I meant the problem with education is only ONE of the many issues contributing to the subject of your post.

        Now, I did consider jumping on religion but there is hardy enough cyberspace for all I could say about that particular cause of our ills and its negative impact on our society, our government, our economy, and our culture.

        Anyway, just sayin . . .

        Herb

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        • Herb,

          I guess I was focusing on the “near the top” phrase. Or maybe it was just that I was so damned upset over your failing to adequately differentiate me from that other guy. Man, that still hurts.

          Duane

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          • Duane,

            Again, my apologies for the name mixup. I hope it doesn’t rise to the level of a FUBAR. Anyway, at a minimum, I owe you a drink. OK, more than one, And dinner too. Maybe a lunch? Well, I’m not THAT sorry.

            Herb

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  3. Oops! I meant Duane, not Geoff. Damn computer.

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  4. Duane, good post and important stuff. I heard that conversation on Chris Hayes and was mesmerized. I’ve seen stories about brain studies that reveal how libs and cons react differently and hold diffrerent beleifs.And perhaps it was always so – but now money interests and ideologues have found a way to use it, to play to it, to strengthen its power. To make it destructive of the ‘other’.

    By the way, Chris Hayes is the only show I can watch on MSNBC any more. I really like that he draws in younger and new voices and they discuss such a variety of topics. Great stuff. Great listening.

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  5. The principal aim of Duane’s post is trying to understand partisanship or divisiveness in politics and other areas of social interactions. That is also the principal aim of Edward O. Wilson’s book, the understanding of the human condition, who we are and why we act like we do. To try to summarize his conclusions in a sentence or two would not do his work justice, but I can’t fully resist a stab at it. Sorry, E. O.

    Our species, homo sapiens, is programmed by the co-evolution of both genes and culture, however Lamarckist that might sound. We are not so far removed from our more primitive, tribal natures. Wilson calls it being “eusocial”. Individually we like a good fight, we like aggressive leaders, we love to be partisan, but group cooperation has strong survival value. That mix produces an almost infinite variety of possible directions that groups can take, but once those directions are taken, partisanship and group passions take over. Wilson asserts that religion will never solve the problem of our nature, which is to be contentious. He says that until we evolve differently we are destined to be in tension between our individual competitive natures and our instinct for group (tribal) cooperation.

    In the meantime though, our best hope may lie in education. But there again is the problem of culture. In my opinion, teacher pay is only part of the problem with education; the greater problem is culture. In this country, as in the fictional Lake Woebegone, we insist that all children are above average. Not only that, we insist that they all learn the same things at the same pace, which when you think about it is absurd.

    Wilson offered one example of the incredible complexity and variability of the genetic side of gene/culture co-evolution. Consider the human hand, and then consider fingerprints. Hands (almost) always have five fingers, but fingerprints have 100% variability! The genes that control fingerprints have what he calls “plasticity’, an amazing variability within rigid parameters. Does that mean that we might accelerate changes in culture? There’s that complexity again. I can’t even seem to change my own descendants’ behaviors.

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    • Jim,

      You inspired my latest post. Thanks.

      Duane

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    • Jim – I think a good example of how we work our way out of ‘tribal identity’ can be found in the immigrant experieence. Ethnic and national groups cluster when they first arrive (Little Italy etc) – maybe for comfort or a sense of safety from a frightening, new and unknown landscape. But their descendants integrated themselves into the larger society – unlike their elders, they didn’t feel threatened. They were open to other motivating factors plus they’d learned the value to themselves of societal cooperation.

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      • I agree, Moe. Such blending just might be evidence of cultural evolution.

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      • Moe,

        For another prospective on “Multiculturalism,” you might be interested in an essay on my blog, “The Myth of Universal Human Rights — Part 4,” which can be found at http://theabsurdityindex.wordpress.com/2011/12/17/the-myth-of-universal-human-rights-part-4/

        Herb

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      • @Moe and Herb,

        Herb’s essay where he discusses tribalism and the difficulties of diversity and superstition made me think again of Edward O. Wilson’s book. In one of his final chapters, Wilson says this (emphasis supplied):

        A good first step toward the liberation of humanity from the oppressive forms of tribalism would be to repudiate, respectfully, the claims of those in power who say they speak for God, are a special representative of God, or have exclusive knowledge of God’s divine will. Included among these purveyors of theological narcissism are would-be prophets, the founders of religious cults, impassioned evangelical ministers, ayatollahs, imams of the grand mosques, chief rabbis, Rosh yeshivas, the Dalai Lama, and the pope. The same is true for dogmatic political ideologies based on unchallengeable precepts, left or right, and especially where justified with the dogmas of organized religions. They may contain intuitive wisdom worth hearing. Their leaders may mean well. But humanity has suffered enough from grossly inaccurate history told by mistaken prophets.

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        • Jim,

          You know you are after my own heart by posting such a stunningly well-reasoned paragraph such as that. It represents one of the reasons I began doing this blog in the first place.

          Thanks.

          Duane

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        • I’m with Duane Jim. You plucked out the perfectly synthesized paragraph. It goes on my QUOTE page.

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        • Jim,

          Excellent summation of the issues. Love the E.O.W. Kinda reminded me of another quote:

          “Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?” – Epicurus circa 300 BCE

          Herb

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          • And yet another quote I must add to my ‘quotes’ page, Herb. I’d heard it before, but could never remember it accurately. So thanks!

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          • ansonburlingame

             /  May 11, 2012

            In other words do away with religion of any sort. And replace it with…….? Should we as well do away with the ancient texts, the Bible, the Koran, etc.?

            And all of the values expressed in various religions, some good and some bad will be replaced with……..?

            Abandon matters of faith, even some insights into the “human spirit” and replace that store of knowledge with some form of secular “truth”?

            Just who will form the basis for such secular truth, the will of the majority perhaps? Maybe government will know best instead? And if the governed happen to accept the Communist Party, well of course we know the “truth” created by such a Party.

            Remember when society chooses to follow such a secular path, we give up the “teachings of Christ” for sure. The Golden Rule goes away as well, does it not?

            Many sane people accept that the Pope is “infalible” in matters of understanding the Divine Will of God. You of course disagree and call it Iron Age ideaology.

            Now what is the poor sucker that is caught in the middle of such disputes supposed to do? My call is the poor sucker must make up his own mind about such prinicples. Last time I checked that was imbedded in our Constitution as well.

            But what the hell let’s abandon religion(s) and simply let someone else provide all the secular truth needed to sustain civilization.

            Or did I misread all of the above?

            Anson

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            • You assume that moral and ethical behavior can be found only among those who are religious? Really? So, did priests and rabbis write our laws?

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              • ansonburlingame

                 /  May 11, 2012

                Moe,

                Now you sound like Duane. I said nor suggested anything of the sort. My point of course is that religions have provided a mass of ideas about things humans still do not understand or are able to control.

                I am not a student of the Bible but would suggest that many things in the Sermon on the Mount are valid for ALL humans to consider as guides. “What if” we all found a way to comply with the Golden Rule? I could go on and on.

                You and your fellow commenters above seem to call for rejecting religion, all religion as some form of terrible instincts that drive men and women to do crazy things.

                Sure that happens, just like some governments do the same thing. But I do not call for abandoning governments or rejecting leaders within government as a matter of principle.

                It is called, biblically, free choice, to follow that which one believes is God’s will or not do so, again as a matter of choice

                As a human I am just as capable of rejecting “God’s Will” as espoused by a crazy, manical minister, as I am to reject “government will” espoused by say Hitler, etc.

                You, Duane and many others seem to believe that those “poor red necks” just can’t make good choices in their religions. I think those “poor lefties” are incapable of the same in deciding a form of government that tries to do no harm, to anyone!

                Not ALL religion is bad nor is all government bad as well. But it is up to us to make those choices, in both areas and not call for the abolishment of either.

                Anson

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            • Anson,

              Rather than limiting focus on meta-physical trivialities, I hope you dive deeper and expand on this underbelly: “And all of the values expressed in various religions, some good and some bad, will be replaced with…? My guess is Lexapro; call it a hunch. If nothing else the answer creates a starting point for future existential binges, such as who is afraid of Virginia Woolf and why did Ginger pack all those cocktail gowns for a three hour cruise? Or why am I never invited to these three hour cruises? I’m dying to find out the answer to this mystery, even if it involves enduring tough love techniques.

              “Now what is the poor sucker that is caught in the middle of disputes supposed to do?” Possible solutions are joining a bowling league or sun-bathing (always a cost-effective alternative).

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          • Excellent quote from Epicurus, Herb. That captures the conundrum in a nutshell! (I think they should have called him “Epicurious”.)

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  6. ansonburlingame

     /  May 9, 2012

    To all,

    Go very far into this subject and eventually we will get back to “Nature vs. Nuture” issues. Just how much do genes dictate our behavior as opposed to culutre?

    As well, focusing just on human behavior, instincts, etc. opens up the issue of the instincts and behavior of all “life”..As I understand that point, “life” is first and foremost an instinctual drive to LIVE and propagate the specis, all “life” not just human life.

    Take any life form, starve it to the point of death, then put two life forms together with a single “meal” between them, then get out of the way and see which one survives, brutally.

    Maslov’s hierarchy of needs applies, certainly to all humans. I don’t know if science has tried to show the same hierarchy in other life forms, at least mammals. Certainly I would expect it to apply at least in terms of food and shelter, both necessary to support life, though “shelter” can be simply a “thick skin or warm fur” in some mammals.

    However to delve into why politics is partisan, wow, there are many very primitive layers to go through to even beging to touch that subject.

    Anson

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  7. ansonburlingame

     /  May 12, 2012

    The string above is getting too narrow, thus this final reply to all of the above.

    This blog loves to focus on the “craz.y” evangelical movement, the movement that has exceptionally arrogant views of just what God DEMANDS and the consequences of failling to meet such demands.

    I for one pay no heed to such religious views, politically or personally. They can wave their arms in church, sing, chant, listen to outragous sermons, etc. all they like. I simply choose not to join in.

    But I also believe, based on long experience, that such churches are the significant minority of “main stream” Christian religious worship. Most of my adult life and all of my younger years I attended Christian worship services, traditional Christian worship services.

    There were no political rants from the pulpit, no petitions to sign, no radical, arm waving calls for essentially anything in such churches. The whole focus was on quiet thought and reflections, some traditional music to swell the heart, some prayer with the soul purpose of seeking some sense of right and wrong and how to live a better life, spiritually and morally.

    To me I always found some serenity in such forms of worship, a sense of renewal and committment to a better way to view the world and react to the daily trials of life.

    The vast majority of folks that I know NEVER wear their religion on their “sleeves”, promoting ideaology that actually contradicts many of the things promoted by most religious organizations.

    Quote the ancient Greeks all you like. I have found some ways to improve the “peace” in my life through quiet, calm, and thoughtful worship and I believe millions, hundreds of millions of lives have been improved over time through such worship.

    To call for a broad social condemnation of such worship, is simply nuts in my view. You will throw out many “babies” in your attempt to clean up the bath water in doing so, in my view.

    Anson

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