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Logically Consistant ≠ Rational

I stumbled on a 2006 paper from Christopher Achen and Larry Bartels of the Center for the Study of Democratic Politics that further confirms my attitude toward voters in general.

Most of the time, the voters are merely reaffirming their partisan and group identities at the polls. They do not reason very much or very often. What they do is rationalize. Every election, they sound as though they were thinking, and they feel as if they were thinking, as do we all. The unwary scholarly devotee of democratic romanticism is thereby easily misled.

This of course shouldn’t be too surprising to people who study how our brains work. Human brains make shortcuts by seeking patterns and putting things in categories. This is a useful and necessary tool so that we can make any sense of a complex and chaotic world. Often it’s hard to break those intuitive theories and stereotypes (and very easy to reinforce them). So as the Achen and Bartels paper helps us see, I’d argue that partisanship and group identity politics is a quick natural substitute, a mental shortcut, for rigorous and rational thinking. Steven Pinker writes in How the Mind Works

[The] mind has to get something out of forming categories, and that something is inference. Obviously we can’t know everything about every object. But we can observe some of its properties, assign it to a category, and from the category predict properties that we have not observed.

When something doesn’t fit our categories we tend to ignore the evidence or alter it to fit our preconceptions instead of the other way around.  Pinker writes,

A third reason we are so-so scientists is that our brains were shaped for fitness, not for truth. Sometimes the truth is adaptive, but sometimes it’s not. Conflicts of interest are inherent to the human condition, and we are apt to want our version of the truth, rather than the truth itself, to prevail. 

Everyone else excited for the 2010 midterms!?


(photo from Wired)

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Belief is Belief

October 1, 2009 Leave a comment


Sam Harris and other UCLA researchers published a study of religious and nonreligious thinking in the brain using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Lisa Miller at Newsweek reports on the study.

What Harris, his fellow researcher Jonas Kaplan, and the other authors of the study want to address is the idea, which has been floating around in both scientific and religious circles, that our brains are doing something special when we believe in God—that religious belief is, neurologically speaking, an entirely different process from believing in things that are empirically and verifiably true (things that Harris endearingly refers to as “tables and chairs”). He says his results “cut against the quite prevalent notion that there’s something else entirely going on in the case of religious belief.” Our believing brains make no qualitative distinctions between the kinds of things you learn in a math textbook and the kinds of things you learn in Sunday school. Though the existence of God will never be proved—or disproved—by an fMRI scan, science can study a thing or two about the neurological mechanisms of belief. What Harris’s study shows is that when a conservative Christian says he believes in the Second Coming as an undeniable fact, he isn’t lying or exaggerating or employing any other rhetorical maneuver.

In honor of yesterday’s International Blasphemy Day, here is an image of believers’ and atheists’ brains responding to blasphemy.


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