Thursday, July 16, 2009

Will this put you to sleep?

I'm reading this book, "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast" about the evolutionary origins of belief. I've been reading it for ages because each time I pick it up, it puts me to sleep.

Same with philosophy books. I find it fascinating and soporific all at the same time. A couple of pages into something like Schopenhauer, or the evolutionary origins of belief and it's lights out. This also happens to me at the opera. Not sure what that is.

This book is really interesting, and I got it at the suggestion of a reader when I wrote about wanting to know why people believe in things (like religion) without any proof. I have figured that human beings, even logical ones, are like any other species. Train them to sit or play dead or fetch at an early age, and they'll hang onto it forever. Does the same go for belief?

Last night I read how human beings, when making decisions, rarely test their beliefs on evidence that might show it to be wrong. It appears that we've evolved to seek confirmation of our beliefs, rather than trying to falsify them. Check this out:

In Peter Wason's classic experiment, subjects are asked which card to turn over to test the rule that if there is a vowel on one sside, there is an even number on the other. The four cards are Ace, King, 2, and 7. Most turn over the ace, just trying to confirm the rule. But then they can try one more card, and most turn over the 2 which tells us nothing; only 4 percent turn over the 7, which could falsify the rule. Negative evidence is too often neglected.

A simple example, but telling. Is that like an ego thing? I wonder what advantage, evolutionary-speaking, we have/had in not looking for counter-examples; usually attempting not to discredit, but to support our own thinking. I presume this tendency is one of the reasons we always think we're right, why I don't consider gay-conversion therapy, and why it's easier to see an image of the Virgin Mary in your toast than to discredit mythology we've been raised to believe.


Dominick said...

Love it!

youyong28 said...

People have the need to believe in things. The average American holds on to his religion because it's "his". People don't want to have things proven wrong. The fact is that the world's two largest religions, Christianity and Islam, control people through emotions (either love or fear). I am Buddhist, yet I was still concerned that Jesus' body had been found a few years back when it was claimed that a coffin bearing the worlds "brother of Jesus" had been found. I thought of all the people whose faith would have been crushed and felt bad . Unfortunately, people can't always think for themselves, and gays and other people are hurt because of that.

Tony said...

Hey Jesse -

The following is likely to put you and anyone else who reads it right to sleep. But here goes anyway...
When you first mentioned some months ago that you were reading "Six Impossible Things," by Lewis Wolpert, I got a copy and read it.
See what a positive influence you are?
However, due partly to my aging brain, and also because I felt at the time that Wolpert's account of the basis of belief was incomplete, I didn't retain a lot of what he said. Forgot, is more like it.
But because of your post I looked at the book again at lunch today.
The passage you quote in Wolpert is an example of what is called "confirmation bias." It's one of 27 cognitive biases listed as "essential for evaluating our perceptions and beliefs about the world," by Andrew Newberg MD in his, to my mind, more thoroughly explanatory book, "Born to Believe."
He approaches the subject from the latest neuroscientific findings on how our brains work and form beliefs.

Here's what he says about confirmation bias:
"We have a tendency to emphasize information which supports our beliefs, while unconsciously ignoring or rejecting information that contradicts them. Since beliefs become embedded in our neural circuitry, contradictory evidence often cannot break through the existing connections in the brain."
An example of how some beliefs might become embedded in our neural circuitry would be from constant repitition by our parents or other authority figures when we're very young, like, "you're going to catch cold if you run out in the snow without a jacket." Or pick your own favorite from when you were a kid.
Another bias Newberg lists is Outgroup Bias:
"We generally reject or disparage the beliefs of people who are outside our group... In addition, we have a biological propensity to feel anxious when encountering people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds..."

Dr. Newberg would agree with youyong28's statement that "people have the need to believe things." I find Newberg's explanation of why that is more helpful than Wolperts.
But that's just my own belief.