Tuesday, January 26, 2021

How we think we're driving when we're really just along for the ride

The Hidden Brain: how our unconscious minds elect presidents, control markets, and save our lives
Shankar Vedantam
Nonfiction, 270 pages

What a concept. We think we’re reasonable. Shankar Vedantam thinks maybe we’re not. His book explores the ways in which we fool ourselves into thinking that we make rational decisions — when in fact much of the time, we follow our unconscious biases, rather than reason.

Vedantam uses the term “hidden brain” to describe mental processes which affect our behavior without our conscious awareness of their influence. These result from errors in attention and memory; mental shortcuts we form and follow; relationships and social dynamics.

In some cases, it’s possible to train ourselves to identify and become aware of these hidden influences. In other cases, the influences remain hidden. American society however operates as if human behavior is primarily based on reason.

Vedantam presents an example involving a rape conviction based on false identification.  The woman, who identified the wrong man as her rapist, became convinced of his guilt while she was praying in church. Initially uncertain, her doubts dissolved in the safety of her church.

Emotions can affect our memories and convictions — and that’s what happened in this case. After DNA evidence had proved his innocence, the woman met the man. Upon meeting him, the first thing she noticed convinced her that she’d been wrong.

Vedantam discusses how social scientists test for racial bias — and find it even among people who claim to be unprejudiced. We believe we live in a fair society, yet experimental evidence shows that people tend to recommend the harshest penalties to those whose skin is darkest.

Sexual bias is common as well. Transgender individuals report receiving greater respect and higher salaries when they change from women to men. The opposite is reported by those who change from men to women.

Recently controversy has arisen over the possibility that a mosque might be built close to “Ground Zero.” Implicit to the controversy is the association between the terrorists who brought down the World Trade Center and Islam. Former President Bush declared a war on terrorism, not a war on Islam. To some people it means the same thing. But, you don’t have to be a Muslim to be a suicide bomber.

Vedantam reports that during the closing days of World War II, Japanese kamikazes flew suicide missions for their country. Those chosen to be kamikazes felt themselves to be among a privileged elite.  Psychologist, Masami Takahashi, son of a former kamikaze, reports that most of those who volunteered for suicide missions were not religious. It was the chance to be a hero that motivated them. Interviews with present day terrorist recruits have uncovered the same motivations.  Many of these recruits aren’t particularly religious. Vedantam quotes Marc Sageman, “People want to be suicide bombers because they are the rock stars of militant Islam.” So, what’s really needed is a war on rock star wannabes and not on moderate Muslims.

Vedantam compares the viewpoint of those who join cults or elite military units to being in a tunnel. Such people narrow their mental focus, attending to the views and aims of their particular group, and not on the world at large.

A few hours before more than 900 Americans died after they drank the Kool-Aid in Jonestown, Guyana, five others died at Guyana’s Port Katuna Airstrip.  These were gunned down by Larry Layton, another People’s Temple member. Larry had volunteered for a suicide mission to bring down a plane returning to the United States. The mission went awry — Larry survived, but five of the plane’s passengers did not.

Why had Larry Layton volunteered? He was living in a tunnel: “As he sat in his prison cell in Guyana, it slowly became apparent to Layton that the world he had inhabited for so long was not the real world, that it was only a tunnel that had appeared to be the whole world.”

Today the phrase, “drink the Kool-Aid,” refers to an uncritical acceptance of what another person or group tells you. You don’t have to be a cult member to “drink the Kool-Aid” — merely an uncritical thinker, influenced by the “hidden brain” rather than its more rational side.   

The “hidden brain” is useful because it helps us make decisions quickly. However, those decisions are not always correct. By becoming more aware about how the hidden brain works, we can begin to make better decisions both as individuals and as a society. Reading this book will get you started on the road to expanded awareness.

Friday, January 22, 2021

Science, religion, physics and God

Bernard Haisch
Nonfiction, 222 pages
New Page Books. 2010

In this follow-up to “The God Theory,” Bernard Haisch argues that the findings of modern physics tend to support, rather than refute, the existence of God. Haisch believes in a God that neatly fits in with the theory of evolution. Unfortunately, to the extent that Haisch makes the notion of God acceptable to scientists, he also envisions a God who is unacceptable to fundamentalists.

Let’s examine how Haisch attempts to convince scientists of God’s existence and then look at why his argument might repel fundamentalists.

Haisch reports that according to some surveys, atheists account for the majority of scientists. Their atheism, Haisch believes, is partially due to the way that some have defined God. Haisch, himself rejects a God that, “… littered a 6,000-year-old earth with phony fossils to fool the arrogant archaeologists …” Such an act would be dishonest on God’s part, and therefore, un-godlike.

Isaac Newton created physics “almost single-handedly” when he published his Principia in 1687. Although Newton was a deeply religious man, his physics had an unfortunate side effect. It worked too well. Newtonian physics made it theoretically possible to determine the cause of every event that ever happened and predict the occurrence of every event to come.

In a Newtonian universe everything is predetermined. Western theology tells us that God gives us freewill. Not in a clockwork universe, he doesn’t. In fact, God isn’t even required, except perhaps to set the clock in motion. And so, God fell out of favor in the scientific community.

But then, in the twentieth century, quantum physics came along. The quantum universe is not predetermined — there’s an element of chance involved. Once again, there’s room for freewill.

Haisch describes ten ways in which the universe is finely tuned to support life. It looks as if there may be a creator after all. Not so, claim some scientists. There are a multitude of universes. This one just happens to support life. Haisch replies that the probability of our universe having occurred by chance can be described by a one followed by at least 500 zeros. That’s an enormous number of universes. Furthermore, there is no evidence to support a theory of multiple universes and no possibility of acquiring evidence. The possibility that God exists is at least as likely as the possibility of multiple universes.

Writing in the first half of the twentieth century, Sir James Jeans popularized astronomy. In his book, The Mysterious Universe, he writes of a universal mind “… the universe begins to look more like a great thought than like a great machine.”

A number of experiments have shown that particle behavior is influenced by what an observer intends to measure. The act of measuring determines the reality. Some have concluded that it is not reality that gives rise to consciousness, but consciousness that gives rise to reality.

Haisch believes that God, who exists outside of time, manifested a conscious universe, in which we are conscious actors, who will ultimately return to God.

If this doesn’t convince atheist scientists that there’s a God, it at least gives them something to think about. Now, how about those fundamentalists?

Well, they don’t like evolution or the possibility that the earth is millions of years old. But suppose we could overcome that obstacle, could we bring them around to Haisch’s view? Probably not.

Haisch’s religious views echo a mystical thread found in all the major religions. Aldous Huxley, in his book of the same name, calls this thread, The Perennial Philosophy. Although this thread is found in every religion, it is emphasized more in some than others.
Meister Eckhart is perhaps the best known Christian proponent of the perennial philosophy. The Christian tradition generally teaches that God is outside of His creation. Yet, Eckhart said, “The more God is in all things, the more He is outside them. The more He is within, the more without.”* Saying that sort of thing during the Middle Ages could get you charged with heresy, as indeed, Eckhart was.

People who have had mystical experiences tend to report, like Eckhart, that God is both within themselves and outside themselves. During such experiences, words are irrelevant. However, after the experience, verbal contradictions may come into play. While Hindus may not have difficulties with such contradictions, some Christians might.

Religious beliefs, like poetry and dreams, can be understood on several levels. Although that thread of meaning, called the perennial philosophy, can be found in Christianity, it does not occupy its mainstream. Some fundamentalist and mainstream Christians may have difficulty accepting Haisch’s elaboration of his God theory.

Regardless, Haisch’s attempt to reconcile science with religion is admirable. What Haisch does not address, yet I feel compelled to add, is that if religious believers were to be more tolerant of other faiths, than atheists would be less likely to condemn them for their beliefs.

*As quoted in Huxley’s The Perennial Philosophy.

Monday, January 18, 2021


He’d been a popular comedian in his day,
But Alzheimer’s took all that away.
"Tell me if you’ve heard this one, he’d say."
I’d say I had, then he’d tell it anyway.

A news channel lied to people every day.
When their lies were exposed,
They’d tell them anyway.
With false boasts, these news hosts,
Viewers minds would sway.

When sued the channel fought hard
Not to pay.
They lost.
They paid and fresh lies put in play.

When awful lies are oft repeated,
Our country’s aims
Will be defeated.
Aging minds repeat old thoughts.
False ideologies cause social rot.

Fox Settled a Lawsuit Over Its Lies. But It Insisted on One Unusual Condition. Why did the network insist an agreement with the family of a murdered young man remain undisclosed until after the election? - Ben Smith, New York Times, January 17, 2021

Friday, January 15, 2021

True news is good news

 “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” ― Karl Rove

Mainstream news sources and some politicians are calling it “the big lie.” By this they refer to a phrase that Adolf Hitler used in “Mein Kampf” to describe an untruth so enormous that no one would dare to question it. This time around, the lie under discussion is President Trump’s preemptive claim that if he lost the election, it would be due to voter fraud, and his follow-up claim that voter fraud cost him the election.

The mainstream news cites court rulings and election officials to defend its claim that the 2020 election was  fair. Those who claim it was stolen typically consider mainstream news to be fake. In some of their minds a cabal of leftist pedophiles has infiltrated powerful institutions and gained control. Less than five percent of men are estimated to be pedophiles. No matter how perverse lefties might be, it’s likely that fewer than one in 20 is a pedo. How did so few pedos manage to gain control of everything?

Regardless, both sides can’t be right. One side must be lying. The First Amendment, of course, guarantees Americans’ right to lie their asses off. Or does it? Actually, telling some types of lies can bring legal problems. But many other types of lies are legally bullet proof. Perhaps it’s time to change that up a bit.

Between the years 1949 and 1987, TV and radio stations were bound by the “Fairness Doctrine.” This policy required broadcasters to devote a portion of their programing to issues in the public interest. It also required them to air opposing views.

With no policy like the Fairness Doctrine to restrain them, some broadcasters now freely spew bullshit. With no rules at all, bullshit rules the internet. Take “likes.” When a user likes a  Facebook post, that signals Facebook to feed the user other posts offering the same viewpoint. Social scientists say many innate biases influence our behavior. One of these is called “confirmation bias.” This bias describes a human tendency to look for information that confirms what one already believes. Facebook willingly feeds us what we already believe. When we don't consider other viewpoints we cannot grow. 

When Russia tries to influence our votes and when its users make hateful statements, Facebook responds with too little too late and promises to do better next time. Suppose instead, Facebook stopped manipulating its feeds and provided its users a stream of mixed viewpoints? That might work somewhat like a Fairness Doctrine. This alone wouldn’t restore a common, more-or-less factual news narrative, but along with fresh, well-conceived laws, Americans might once again share the same reality.

Sunday, January 10, 2021

The New Arabian Nights


The New Arabian Nights
Robert Louis Stevenson
Fiction, 186 pages

The "Arabian Nights" first appeared during the 10th century before evolving into its final form during the 14th. It’s said that this lengthy work is the greatest expression of fiction from the Islamic Golden Age, an age which arose during the reign of Baghdad caliph, Harun al-Rashid who ruled from 786 until 809. This golden age ended when Mongols overtook Baghdad in 1258. Harun al-Rashid had been dead several centuries by the time he was fictionalized as a ruler who intervenes anonymously in the lives of his subjects.

Robert Louis Stevenson created a more modern version of Harun al-Rashid in his Prince Florizel of Bohemia. The prince appears in stories set in France and England, and told in a mystery/espionage tone. The tale of the Suicide Club begins two cycles of stories involving the prince. After those stories, Stevenson addresses other characters and themes. In one story a scholarly scoundrel eaks out his living during the Middle Ages,

“The poet was a rag of a man, dark, little, and lean, with hollow cheeks and thin black locks. He carried his four-and- twenty years with feverish animation. Greed had made folds about his eyes, evil smiles had puckered his mouth. The wolf and pig struggled together in his face. It was an eloquent, sharp, ugly, earthly countenance. His hands were small and prehensile, with fingers knotted like a cord;”

While the story cycles featuring Prince Florizel resemble the mystery/espionage genre, the collection overall is genre free — or perhaps hinting of genre without being confined by it. The stories also have a fairytale-like quality as do the original Arabian Nights. However, fairytales tend to generalise, but these tales come with the details filled in. Still, like fairytales, they tug at the corners of reality enough to matter. Each story finds an unexpected destination, yet one that evolves naturally from what comes before.