Choosing is a Bitch November 25, 2008Posted 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.