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Choosing is a Bitch November 25, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Article Review.

I’m a podcast geek.  One of my favorites is called Radiolab out of public radio in New York, WNYC.  Radiolab is unique because they do a fantastic job of exploring science topics from multiple angles while making the show accessible, funny and interesting.  I really can’t recommend them enough.  Do yourself a favor and start listening to Radiolab if you don’t already.

Radiolab just released an episode titled “Choice” and as I listened to it this week I was struck by how perfectly it complements Antony’s post last week that reviewed Burton’s article on certainty.  The normal Radiolab episode is one hour (definitely worth listening to in its entirety) but to keep things manageable I’ve sliced a couple of segments off for discussion here at Valence.

So if you’re anything like me then this story plays serious havoc on your personal sense of identity.  We are a species who prides ourselves on our problem solving abilities.  Higher cognitive functions like language and logic are what we point to when faced with the question of what separates humans from the rest of the animal kingdom.  We are special because we reason.  It is then, admittedly, a tough pill to swallow to hear, “reason is pretty feeble part of the brain…it’s just one microchip in a big computer.”

The implication here is astounding.  We have far less control over the choices we make than we like to believe.  I would go so far as to say that we even need to rethink the f-word.  Kids, earmuffs please.  Freewill.  There, I said it.   How can we reconcile that our conscious reasoning selves can be utterly disabled by juggling a mere 7 numbers and still maintain that we have complete freewill over our decisions?  Life is far more complex than 7 numbers after all.

Think of the choices and distractions you are presented with at the grocery store alone: 17 whole grain varieties of cereal, now add on a budget to keep in mind, plus nutritional information, crying kids and underwear that is riding up.  Is your logic center overwhelmed yet?  Now tell me you are really choosing Cheerios and not just responding emotionally to brightly colored packaging or the warm feelings associated with eating them as a child.

I can’t help but extend this question to larger and larger and choices we make in life (beyond cereal).  Did I really choose my career?  How about my spouse?  How about my God?

One might ask, “Isn’t reacting with the emotional center in our brain still making a personal choice but just using non-logical criteria?  Is freewill really at stake?”  Well, I’m certainly not ready to completely throw out freewill here but I do think we seriously need to reconsider its limits.  Our brains construct a very elaborate experience out of chemistry and electricity and I suspect we have far less control over this experience than our common view of freewill admits.

Now some who have been skeptical of my advocacy for scientific logic (hey, doesn’t that make you skeptical too? I digress…) may use the ‘7 Numbers’ example to conclude that in fact my approach to looking for truth with a logical consideration of evidence is seriously handicapped.

At first blush I’ll admit there does seem to be a snag here but there is an important distinction between making immediate choices and searching for actual truth.  The emotional center of our brain is rightly coupled with instinct which is the result of millions of years of evolution.  We have emotional brain chemistry that is geared toward ensuring the survival of a prehistoric primate and not necessarily equipped to deal with the rigors of modern society or the need to carefully weigh evidence when searching for truth (and apparently our evolved logic centers only do so feebly!).

Choosing cake is an evolutionary ingrained response.  Sweet foods taste sweet because out in nature the sweetest foods are those that provided the best source of calories and it was to our survival advantage to stock up on high fat and calorie foods whenever we could find them.

Modern culture is a bit different though isn’t it?  We no longer need to go looking for high calorie foods and we certainly don’t have hunter/gatherer lifestyles that require us to stock up on fat at every opportunity in order to survive the winter.  Instead, we need to keep in mind the long-term implications of our choices as they relate to modern society.

Unfortunately, the emotional centers in our brains are still operating on prehistoric criteria for ensuring survival which cannot distinguish the actual truth of the situation from our instincts in the situation.  To discover the truth that eating too many saturated fats in cake may lead to obesity or that eating fruit today is part of a long-term nutritional plan for a healthier (even though more sedentary) life we need science and the logic centers in our brains, flawed as they may be.

Here’s another great example from Radiolab:

As we sense danger our emotional centers fire with an adrenaline jolt and a flight instinct without waiting around to consider the evidence of the situation.  Admittedly, our personal survival greatly benefits by acting as if as if the window will break even though the truth of the situation may be quite different.  Substitute a rustling the in tall grass that could be a stalking tiger and the consequences become even more dire. Reacting in fear becomes an immediate choice (absent of freewill mind you) which occurs without regard for actual truth. And rightly so in light of the consequence for choosing wrongly, namely being eaten or being crushed by a window.

But we should be careful not confuse the appropriateness of this emotional response in the situation for evidence as to the actual truth of the situation.  The rustling could have just as easily have been a rabbit and the sound of wind through a window is most surely benign.

Therefore, if we are really interested in truth I still maintain we need to rely on logic and evidence.  In fact, I would argue the entirety of the scientific method can really be boiled down to mankind’s effort to collectively compensate for the pitfalls associated with our rational centers competing with an overwhelming tide from our emotional centers.  Our instincts tell us that the sun is going around the earth; it is terribly counterintuitive to think otherwise.  To find out the truth of this situation mankind needed to search for objective evidence that was testable, predictive and repeatable.

For me this Radiolab episode and a book I’m reading right now (How We Believe by Michael Shermer) converge in a more tenuous discussion of faith.

Could it similarly be instinctive for humans to hold religious beliefs?  Might these beliefs be an understandable response in our situation (specifically a finite life with extremely limited knowledge of the universe) while not actually revealing the truth of our situation?  I’m interested to hear what you guys think.



1. bear - November 26, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving 🙂

2. JRAW - November 26, 2008

Here’s what I wonder…

The beginning of the Radio Lab clip is prefaced by a discussion of working memory, whereby 7 is +/-2 is the standard. Therefore, the following story about “cake” is told in the context of working memory. Working memory, however, is not the only type of memory we are endowed with; long-term memory is absent from the present discussion about choice. In order to get where I’m going, let me apply this to language production, whereby 7 is the standard as well. We are able to process and hold about 7 words at a time in working memory. However, this does not mean that we are unable to produce and comprehend infinite strings of words. In other words, we are not confined to the constraints of working memory on language; they may be a barrier but they are not the limit of what we are capable of. So I wonder, is it a leap to apply the constraints that working memory does afford us to decisions and actions that are processed with the help of long-term, not necessarily instinctive memory?

3. Emmet - November 26, 2008

Without listening to Radio Lab, mostly because I just got home and need to do other things, I’m going to make two comments that may be completely irrelevant.
1. I think that free will is the exception rather than the rule. I’m sure that the vast majority of our decision are trained, instinct, habit, or emotional responses, much as with any other animal. Free will plays when we make decisions that contradict all of those other inputs. I think that they are rare but real.
2. I have no problem with humanity being instinctually drawn to religion and holding on to religious beliefs. We are also instinctively drawn to love and care for our offspring, to survive, to join into community rather than pull away into seclusion, to procreate, etc. Granted there are individuals that are exceptions to each of these examples, but in general each of these are responses to real needs which have real solutions. A person of faith says that he or she was created with a need for something that exists and that it reveals the hand of our maker, while an atheist or sceptic states or questions that it is simply a way of coping with our own smallness or lack of “real knowledge”. Which one is right will only be known when we are dead and it doesn’t matter any more. I would also say that if religion is rooted in instinct then there is probably some real value in it, even if it can be distorted and turned into something grotesque.

4. caseyww - November 26, 2008

(RE: Comment #2)


Great comment. I hadn’t thought about the distinction between short-term and long-term memory in listening to the Radiolab clips and there is definitely some food for thought here. I’m especially interested in the correlate you brought up about human only being able to juggle 7 words. I hadn’t ever heard that.

However, I don’t think they are insinuating that we only consider short-term memories when we make decisions. It seems like their example of the 7-numbers only demonstrates that our rational-center in the brain can be derailed by juggling too much information in short-term memory. I suppose it wouldn’t really matter whether that information was numbers, words or colors.

I don’t know how long-term memory fits in here…but it’s certainly interesting. I could see long term memory going both ways…serving both the rational and instinctive (emotional) functions in decision making. I wonder if juggling 7 numbers limits our ability to rationally access our own long-term memories so that we can only operate with the emotional impression they provide?

Any neurologists out there able to chime in on memory functions and how they relate here?

5. Eric - November 27, 2008

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

Re: comments #2 and #4:

I think one should probably take this magic number seven business with a grain of salt. For example, the language-related studies that JRAW refers to (at least, the ones I’m familiar with; I could very well be ignorant of others) are similar to the number studies — for example, people are asked to memorize a list of words and then to recall them after being distracted in various ways (by presentation of other words, related stimuli, unrelated stimuli, etc.), or to repeat sentences that they’ve been asked to memorize, and seven-plus-or-minus-two figures in the results in various ways. I don’t think we’ve developed methods for actually measuring natural language production such that we can be reasonably sure that we can only work with seven words at a time, but again, JRAW may be able to correct me on that score — I don’t keep up with this literature.

I understood the point of the cake-or-fruit choice study in the Radiolab episode to be not so much about how our choices can be affected by our working memory (and thus our “rational” functions) being occupied, but more generally about how our choices can be affected, period, in some low-level and very surprising ways. I think JRAW is absolutely right in pointing out that long-term memory needs to be taken into account in our decision-making, but I have no doubt that these low-level interferences will still make their mark on how we store those memories, how we access them, how we interpret them when we access them, and so on. (The way I understand it, long-term memory is never directly accessed — instead, what you do is load bits at a time into working memory. So even when you’re accessing long-term memory, there’s still the effective limit of working memory.)

6. Philip - November 28, 2008

Probably for necessary reasons, the discussion of working memory in the RadioLab podcast seems dumbed down to me (the 7 +/-2 constraint actually varies wildly by culture and language, and I don’t even know what it means to say that reciting those numbers taxes the ‘rational’ part of your brain), but that’s probably just cause I spend most of time working or thinking about working memory.

I don’t really think it’s a big deal, but I did sniff at the contrast between the “rational” and “emotional” parts of the brain bit. Makes me think of those assessment tests that you can do online that tell you whether you’re more left or right-brained. All the Stanford researchers really needed to say was that you have limited cognitive resources, and if you’re stressed doing one thing (remembering 7 digits), you suck at most other things. This applies to not just making “emotional” decisions, but making other “logical” decisions. I don’t know why, for that matter, choosing cake or fruit isn’t a logical decision . . .

So, to be honest, I don’t think the cake/fruit experiment is so much a reflection of memory processes or even “rational” versus “emotional” thought. Instead, I just think it’s a reflection of limited resources: the high memory load subjects chose the cake more often because they were too busy remembering the digits and didn’t have the time/resources to keep thinking about it. I bet if they had the same set-up with some other “non-rational” task (again, I don’t know what this means), you’d seem the same thing.

I still think this stuff favors Casey’s argument, btw. Our decision-making process is clearly affected by environmental factors we’re not aware of. Perhaps even a better case study of this is stuff dealing with false memories. I think Daniel Schachter has a book called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Memory,” which discusses how we tend to remember things that never happened, and use those as the basis of future decisions.

7. Bill Whitsett - November 28, 2008

Very interesting stuff especially if you have lived long enough to see some of the stuff put into practical use. Most of you were not alive when phone numbers were prefixed with the city they originated in..such as “LA-2543” (LA=Los Angeles), as times changed the phone companies went to a “7” digit number (?) “823-7125” (I still remember my phone number from Jr. High School, amazing thing the memory)…then as populations increased the area code was put into place adding an additional three numbers to memorize. It just dawned on me that most PIN numbers are a “4” digit code, and of course the all important SSN a “9” digit number, but broken down into smaller easier to memorize units “111-11-1111″….I just wonder how much these psychological studies done way back in the 1950’s played into our current everyday lifestyles? Could it be that some government program dictates the number of numbers we as citiizens can accomodate, including the addresses on our homes? That does it, next house I buy will on 756845638975345678 Mockingbird Friggin Lane!

Our brain functions overloading, thereby limiting our ability of choices, and thus nixing our “freewill”. I for one will tell you, I dont care how many numbers in my head, I for one will always pick the chocolate cake!

I really like to think of myself as more than just a biological unit. And yet if that is what the truth is, then I also would like to think that I remain open to it. What is that thing though that speaks to me from the inside out…what is that need to last forever.
I cannot deny it is there either.

What a quandry.

8. Nancy O. - November 29, 2008

A silly ittle something to hopefully make you all smile 🙂

Chase after truth like all hell and it will set you free. But first, it will piss you off!

9. Antony - November 30, 2008

I want to start by praising Radiolab – it’s consistently one of the most interesting hours on radio.

Now, freewill. I’m not sure that all this really challenges freewill unless you subscribe to a very extreme, hyper-rational sense of freewill. Our environment – cultural context, physical surroundings, etc – all really influence how we think and act and we’ve always acknowledged that. But nobody ever uses examples of ‘peer pressure’ or moments of extreme danger as evidence against freewill. But in such circumstances, people will say things like “I had no choice. I had to do X.”

But if you push them on it, it’s not a matter of freewill v. un-freewill. It’s a matter of responsibility. People will claim a lack of choice to avoid taking responsibility for their actions. They never question that they were the acting agent. That means that at least a basic sense of freewill remains intact no matter the situation surrounding one’s actions.

I think that the RISK of this line of thought is that humans will increasingly deny responsibility for their actions or beliefs. If you could claim that you had been ‘primed’ without your knowledge and so that’s why you did or said X, then can you be held morally accountable for that?

Very interesting. I guess this leaves me with the question – how deep are our ‘choices’? That is, how much of them are we responsible for? And how is that responsibility related to our freedom?

10. Antony - November 30, 2008

I also want to respond to the end of Casey’s post. He said:

Could it similarly be instinctive for humans to hold religious beliefs? Might these beliefs be an understandable response in our situation (specifically a finite life with extremely limited knowledge of the universe) while not actually revealing the truth of our situation?

What I like about the in/of our situation distinction is that it really does take into account the limits of our knowledge. Our brain is impressive, but it can only work with what it’s got. That means we are always interpreting our situation and we act in it in a way that responds as best we can to what we interpret the situation to be (rather than what it ‘is’).

Of course, all postmodernists here throw up their hands, protesting that there is no reality other than the one that we create through our interpretations. I reject that totally. I’m happy to argue it at another time…

There’s something that bothers me about this in/of distinction, but I can’t really put my finger on it. I think, for example, by ‘religious belief’ Casey has to mean grand theological claims such as the creation story (sorry, stories) in Genesis. But, of course, religious belief should not be reduced to the stories. There is an ethical component to religious belief, which I think has a much more difficult relationship to truth.

That is, it’s easy to show that the Genesis creation story is contradicted by mountains of evidence, and thus, it’s at best ‘an understandable response in our situation’ though it reveals little of the truth of it.

Okay. But does this invalidate the ethics that locates itself in the Genesis creation story? And I guess, that’s where I’m stuck. Part of me wants to say absolutely. The story is not true, so the ethics are not true. But I’m not sure if that really follows…

11. caseyww - November 30, 2008

(RE: Comment #6)


Thanks for the book recommendation. The Seven Sins of Memory is now on my Amazon wish list.

I’m especially interested in memory in the context of the ways people use their personal experiences as evidence for belief. The little I’ve heard about memory is that it is almost useless for evidence in that our memories are so easily manipulated, invented, modified and forgotten. I’ll be interested to read and learn more!

12. caseyww - November 30, 2008

(RE: Comment #9)


First, freewill. I certainly agree that the issue of responsibility is paramount when we discuss freewill. However, I think we may be flirting with using a slippery slope argument here. I wouldn’t want to uphold ‘freewill’ that isn’t there just because we are afraid of the consequences there might be for responsibility if we don’t. Not saying this is what you are doing…just something I think we need to be careful with.

I wonder if it would be appropriate to consider the issues of freewill and responsibility separately. That is, the answers to the 2 questions below may be different:
1. How much room do the biological origins of thought allow for freewill? (Maybe not as much as we have thought in the past.)
2. Should society behave as if freewill exists? (I would argue yes.)

13. caseyww - November 30, 2008

(RE: Comment #10)


You said:

I think, for example, by ‘religious belief’ Casey has to mean grand theological claims such as the creation story (sorry, stories) in Genesis. But, of course, religious belief should not be reduced to the stories. There is an ethical component to religious belief, which I think has a much more difficult relationship to truth.

On one hand you are right. Factual claims made by religion are the low hanging fruit here. But I’m also interested in the ethical truth you are referencing. Let’s dwell on the Genesis creation story since you brought it up and assume that it is not factually true (which I think is an easy assumption). What is the ethical truth in this story that makes it worth keeping around in spite of it not being factually true?

14. whytey - December 1, 2008

Okay… for the sake of playing the devils advocate… I think we are glossing over something that I think is, at the very least, interesting at this point. (I’m not trying to deviate too much from Casey’s question) but there is something that I’ve wondered from time to time. If we attempt to engage with a creator (even if you don’t jibe with the account presented in Genesis) what would the actual evidence of such a creation be? I don’t know… Same goes for the miraculous… I’m not trying to take the conversation away from science, or just tell you to turn off your skepticism, I’m just wondering if we would know the evidence for a miraculous or accelerated creation if we found it… would the body of a healed cripple reveal genetic mutations? scar tissue? I don’t know…

This may be totally irrelevant, but it nags at the back of my head like an itch I can’t scratch… I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love Collins, but I just wonder

and sorry Casey, I don’t want to create a rabbit trail away from your question

15. caseyww - December 1, 2008

(RE: Comment #14)


That’s okay, I’m pretty sure that once I’ve left 3 comments in a row on my own blog that the conversation is limping along at best. No need to apologize for the rabbit trail (even though I would be interested in hearing your thoughts on the post itself:))

I think the point you’ve brought up about what kind of evidence we would expect if the Genesis account were true (or miracles like you noted) is a very interesting one. I don’t want to dodge the question, but this is a topic I’m putting on my ‘idea list’ to come back to with a longer post that may treat the subject more thoroughly.

For now I have two ideas:
1. Claiming that the Earth was created by an omniscient God supernaturally is not a falsifiable claim and is therefore outside the bounds of evidence. Further, whatever evidence is found can always just be chalked up to “That’s how God created it”. The problem is I think this line of thought is a dead-end. If we immediately assume ‘God did it’ for an observed phenomenon then we have no reason to continue inquiry. This essentially derails the entire scientific method.

2. The Bible does make specific claims that are testable. While many Christians are comfortable taking Genesis as a metaphor for a longer creation time line (a la Theistic Evolution) I think we really need to take the text at it’s word. It describes 6 days of supernatural creation which occurred roughly 10,000years ago. There is overwhelming evidence (cosmological, geological, biological, etc) to refute this claim. Another example: the Bible describes in detail an historic flood which covered the earth (for which there should be geological evidence or DNA evidence from a mass constriction in the human population).

16. Nancy O. - December 1, 2008


Do you believe in God…any God?

17. caseyww - December 1, 2008


Well, that’s quite a question :). What makes you ask that tonight?

Valence is sort of dedicated to exploring and working out an answer to the question of whether belief in God is tenable by wrestling with evidence (or the lack of evidence), doubts, skepticism and science. Honestly, I’m not sure I can give you a short answer here in the comments section without preempting that journey.

Perhaps you can help me out by clarifying what it means to you to believe and which beliefs you would like me to address and we can spend some time discussing them in an extended post sometime soon?

18. Nancy O. - December 2, 2008


After reading your comment to Whytey regarding the Bible, I am just very curious about whether you believe in God or not based on contradictions and/or errors in the bible. That is why I asked the question.

One of the complaints that have been heard throughout the ages is that everyone has a different interpretation of the Bible. Because so many people arrive at varying conclusions when they read the Bible, there supposedly is no way to get a consensus. People point to the variety of denominations as an example that there can be no unanimity of agreement between Bible believers but this idea does not take into account that the great majority of Bible readers have no problem with agreement on the central teachings of the Bible. Even some of those who do not believe the Bible to be true have no difficulty discerning the main message, for example, I think most people who consider themselves Christians usually accept the same creeds that assert that God made man in His image, with freedom of choice.

I would love to know, out of curiosity, why the question about if you believe in God can’t be answered with one word…yes, no, or uncertain. The journey to your conclusion is one that would take some time to describe I’m sure, but if you have arrived at a definite conclusion is what I am wondering. It’s like Whyney said, my curiosity about the answer is like an itch I can’t scratch!!! 🙂

19. Nancy O. - December 2, 2008


In the future I would love to discuss what some believe are errors and contradictions in the bible. Maybe when (if) we get to that point, you can choose one and then we’ll go from there! Or if you would like, I will.

20. caseyww - December 2, 2008


Yep, I agree that there are some central teachings of the Bible that most Christian’s have come to a consensus on even though many denominations still argue about the finer points. As for your last Comment #19…the next post is going to be on Joseph and Dream Interpretation so I’ll be interested to hear your thoughts.

On whether I can answer about belief in God with one word, I certainly resonate with your frustration at my sidestepping the question. Honestly, I feel like I sidestep it myself internally sometimes. I’m in this process of figuring out that many of the things I once believed are not actually true and I spend a lot of time mourning for the beliefs I once held close. The truth is that I don’t know where the line is for how many of theses beliefs have to die or survive in order for me to confidently say ‘I believe’ or ‘I don’t’.

In one sense, Valence, is a place where I’m forcing myself to actually address that question. To engage and quit avoiding internal conflict.

21. Nancy O. - December 2, 2008


Your honesty is beautiful and moving, it truly is. I believe, in the end, you will move into intellectual acceptance of what your intuition has always known.

22. Nancy O. - December 2, 2008


An explanation of my last comment:

I have found that while we examine through opinion, science, and analysis – the spiritual faculty of intuition is where we discover the truth of God’s existence.


23. Mark - December 2, 2008


Your post really hit me. It is a question I’ve been thinking about a lot lately especially after the recent photos of a planet outside our solar system. The finite nature of our existence and our limited knowledge of the universe may have something to do with religious sentiment. It certainly leads to a very simple concept of God. Lately I’ve thought about other ideas of God – Eastern, Greek (been browsing through a great book on Greek mythology)/Roman and it seems like our religious ideas are informed by human reality. To me growing up Catholic – God was explained as king over subjects – a very Western concept. The concept of God seems tied at all times to human concepts, human limitations – as human realities change – so sometimes its seems do ideas of God. Religion can function to help us make sense of our reality, or cope with the finite nature of it. I guess I just wonder whether life on another planet with a different history – different realities – would develop similar ideas of God and whether religion tied to a particular reality can act to limit our understanding of the universe and God.

24. caseyww - December 2, 2008


Thanks for the comment. Very interesting idea you bring up about life on other planets and whether they would similarly have an instinct towards beliefs. If so how similar would their conception of God be to ours? Hmm…

I suspect that a big motivation towards the persistence of belief in the supernatural is having to reconcile or escape mortality. I wouldn’t be surprised if any sentient creature aware of their own impending death wouldn’t very similarly imagine themselves surviving this ultimate end. Presto, both we and the aliens have conceived of a soul at least. I’m just not sure either of us are right.

25. Mark - December 3, 2008

Ah the concept of an eternal soul. I’m a big believer in the soul, but the idea that the soul has the characteristics of the “you” that exists now on earth – not sure I believe that. Not sure I can even fathom that – a you that exists into eternity. Scary thought. Wondering if maybe another sentient being might handle the idea of an ultimate end better or differently and come to a different concept of the supernatural or whether they would accept the idea of the supernatural at all.

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