Monday, April 25, 2011

May We Believe Our Thoughts? Part IV

You can read or listen to folks who claim that altruism doesn’t exist, because we get something back for all those good acts, such as enhanced reputation or a good feeling about ourselves. They seem to believe they have undermined the whole idea because no one can find an example of the Platonic Ideal of altruism on this earth. (Are Randians particularly prone to this line of argument, or has that just been my random experience?)

I consider the answer straightforward. We are all aware of times when we are less altruistic and more self-serving. This is not merely a matter of perception, because examining our motives can push the dial in either direction, no matter how deeply we dig. It then follows, as the night the day, that there are times when we more altruistic. It exists, and the lack of a pure example is irrelevant.

So too with the freedom of our will. It may turn out that our wills are only 10% free, or 1%, or 0.1%. But we are aware of instances when we are more compelled. Thus there are instances in which we are less compelled. I very much doubt, as with altruism, that there is any human action which is entirely free. I think we just like the idea of an entirely free will, an entirely altruistic person, or within the frame that “nobody’s perfect” we think of a “real” free will as being 95% free, a “real” altruistic act as being 95% selfless. Which is perhaps why we react so badly when evidence of even a few points’ loss from our total is brought to our attention. That we got snookered on that mail-order flower pot might be evidence that we fall below the 95% free designation. Our view of ourselves as free, rather than easily led persons is imperiled. Preachers who warn us that getting compliments is one way of getting paid back in this world make us uncomfortable, because if we drop below 90% altruistic, we go into the outer darkness of being a selfish person. There’s not much cushion, if that’s our mental picture.

Maybe we’ve been starting from the wrong end all along. Maybe humans never get above 5% altruistic, or 5% free. When we read the scriptures that way, our impression of what is being said changes, but I don’t know that we actually encounter contradictions. I admit, it looks at first like we’re going to encounter massive disconnects. But a lot of that is going to turn out to be feelings.


We like certainty from our leaders, and apparently our prophets as well. Perhaps we shouldn't hold it against them, because that confidence appears to be part of their jobs, but it is a bit disquieting, in terms of our references to Dunning-Kruger, to read this account of our two most recent presidents. I haven't read Bush's memoir, perhaps he lets go of more there, and perhaps Obama will when he is out of office. I don't think Clinton's did, however. Paul Ehrlich isn't the only secular prophet to be wrong repeatedly, but certainty seems to keep them in business. Watership Down fans will remember that the Threarah said something similar about lapin prophets - being wrong seemed to actually increase their credibility somehow. Dictators seem the most certain of all, which should give us pause.

(Note on Ehrlich: He was one of my reasons for quitting the Prometheus Society decades ago. However he qualified, he became a member, and other members rather fawned on him. It was hard to get people to notice that he had been dead wrong repeatedly. This among a crowd of supposedly elite intelligences.)

I wonder if being social sure decreases/increases the ability to be insightful, or if it is unrelated. I would think it increases insight, because it shows the existence of at least one field where accurate information can get in. But not sure that it actually is. I know of no data. Thoughts?

And why should it happen at all? Chicken & egg. Do those who have no receptive feedback abilities get worse at things? That could be. Do those who are not skilled fail to develop evaluative knowledge? What is the mechanism whereby it gets worse? With a denial model, it would seem increasingly painful to contemplate reality, and thus a powerful disincentive to insight. Yet anosognosia in increasingly being seen in terms of brain injury/underperformance of brain areas/physical inability.

Looking for models here.

Tangential, but I think deeply related to the entire discussion. Children develop fears, and children in religious households develop religious fears. As adults they may blame the religion for causing the fears, which is a natural conclusion (correlation) but not a correct one (causality). Evangelical friends who had grown up Catholic described their own (Catholic-tinged) fears growing up, and had been surprised at hearing about their adult children's morbid fears when young of not being saved. (What if I didn't say the sinner's prayer quite right? What if my parents didn't teach it to me quite right?) I remember this being very painful for my son Ben, and significantly, the calming answer may have worked precisely because it contained just enough uncertainty to be believable. He had encountered Augustine's answer to the morbid fear of whether one was saved: "If you want to be, you probably are." It rings true, and rings truer than all the fundies shouting at you to have confidence in your salvation, confidence in the scriptures, confidence in God.

There is a similar moment in the Xanth novels when Grundy the Golem, a built creature of wood animated by magic, works for the Good Magician Humphrey for a year to get a single question answered: Do I have a soul? When the year is up, Humphrey gives the answer in a form that contains not only assurance, but the seeds of further assurance: Only those with souls care about the answer.

Next, on to the research and philosophical questions of whether anything we think may be trusted, or whether it is all epiphenomenon, a set of narratives that we must have because that is how our brains work.


karrde said...

[sarcasm]I don't know if I believe all the thoughts that come into my head after reading this...[/sarcasm]

I've always leaned heavily away from outside-forces-are-influencing-people theories.

That might be a sign of my age (or partial self-knowledge). Or it might be that my introduction to the idea of outside influence on the mind was through B.F. Skinner. (An absolutist who never generated an explanation for the ideas in his own head...come to think of it, that might be the draw of free-will-purism. People can dispense with all notion of attempting to figure out whether or not they were influenced, and just say that such influence is imaginary.)

You've definitely got me thinking more about this subject.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Yeah, it definitely saws off its own branch. Still may be something to it.