Archive for the ‘Religion’ Category

David Brooks Tries to Eff the Ineffable Again

October 17th, 2016 1 comment

A friend and I were discussing Brooks’ recent column about Anthony Kronman’s new book, “Confessions of a Born-Again Pagan.” I thought I’d share my thoughts here. Full disc: I haven’t read Kronman’s book, only Brooks’ column.

Some good stuff in there. Love the focus on books and writers. (Though Brooks’ [and Kronman’s?] barely-concealed dog-whistle adulation for dead white guys’ books is both predictable and predictably infuriating…)

But this really pissed me off —  Kronman, approvingly quoted by Brooks:

“A life without the yearning to reach the everlasting and divine is no longer recognizably human.”

My response to that is: Eff. You. My life is not “recognizably human”?

Obviously: there’s loads of stuff that’s impossible to eff, much less express explicitly using expository language. That’s why we have art! To express that stuff explicitly.

Words like “everlasting,” “divine,” “eternal,” “enchanted,” and “God” do exactly nothing to extricate us from that inescapable human reality.

Those words are just lousy poetry, evading the very explicit expression that makes art spectacular in its expression of the ineffable. Which is better: “God,” or “Ozymandias”? Or the million other names for god(s) that humans have imagined. Words like “god” and “spirit” have some value if they’re used metaphorically, poetically, but only some. Because it’s the universal in the particular that makes art magnificent. They’re trying to bypass the particular, and so as metaphors and poetry they’re just bad art.

I’m only halfway tongue-in-cheek when I say that bad art is the greatest sin. The Barney Show, with its obviously false “I love you, you love me, we’re all one big family,” trains people to wallow in false, facile humanity, rather than wrestling with the deep density of paradoxes that is the collective human experience. Ditto facile words like “enchantment.”

And the aspiration to “conquer death” just seems silly to me. Even my two best efforts in that direction — my wonderful daughters — have virtue and value to me purely in the here and now. I adore them. But once I’m dead, I won’t anymore. Sad.

I do like this and agree with it, but only for me: “if you didn’t throw yourself in some arduous way at the big questions of your moment, you’d live a meager life.”


1. I am again pretty put off by the superciliousness of this assertion. If somebody just lives a simple life, works, raises a family, dies, is that a “meager life”? That’s infuriatingly presumptuous.

2 None of those eff-ing words does anything for me in my efforts to wrestle with those big questions, arduously and rigorously. QTC.

The Appalachia Map, Yet Again

July 9th, 2013 1 comment

Lots of desperation talk these days by Republicans hoping to win future national elections by increasing their share of the “missing” white vote, while ignoring all those brown people. (Sean Trende’s piece seem to be the epicenter at this moment.)

Nate Cone drives a very effective stake through the heart of that zombie ambition here, with a single map (below). Yes: that (“Southern“) strategy worked brilliantly for decades. (Johnson said that civil-rights legislation would lose the South to Democrats “for a generation,” and he was only wrong in underestimating the duration.) And it’s the only thing that’s kept Republicans from utter humiliation and abject collapse over the last decade or so. But Judis and Texeira will be right eventually; demographics is destiny, and there are only so many white people — an ever-decreasing percentage. Courting whites may be the most effective method of stemming the hemorrhage, but it’s nothing more than that.

Faithful readers will remember seeing this basic map here multiple times. This latest version shows Obama’s gains/losses in share of the white vote compared to Gore (this by a black man):

Change in Share of White Vote: Obama 2012 Increases (Red)/Decreases (Blue), Compared to Gore 2000

We saw the same basic map here in 2008, in the strong Red countermovement among Appalachians and Okies:


And here, showing where Clinton dominated over Obama among Democrats in the primaries:

Both Steve Sailer and Senator Jim Webb link this pattern directly to the dominance of (white) Scots-Irish character and culture in Appalachia:


John McCain did best relative to Bush in 2004 in Scots-Irish states like Tennessee, Arkansas, and Oklahoma. McCain is Scots-Irish himself and is very much in the Andy Jackson Scots-Irish tradition of patriotic pugnacity.


As Webb says in his 2004 book, Born Fighting: How the Scots-Irish Shaped America (here characterized by , the Scots-Irish are a particularly pugnacious people, self-reliant and hyper-individualistic, who place honor above profit.

If you want to understand that character and culture, I can’t do better than  recommend a darned good novel: The Candlemass Road by George Macdonald Fraser of Flashman and Steel Bonnets fame (himself an utterly unreconstructed reactionary of Scottish descent who nevertheless, rather paradoxically characterizes the book by saying it’s “a rather dark morality tale – at least I meant it to have a moral.”)  “Dark” hardly says it; “bleak” is more like. It portrays a Scottish border culture of unrelenting, murderous revenge battles among clans. (One of the leading clans in the novel being…the Nixons! On which subject of political reactionaries/warrior types with Scottish names — George McLellan, Douglas MacArthur, Stanley McChrystal, John McCain – see this post: Obama’s McMoment? McMaybe.)

Maybe that culture is transmitted…culturally, but reading Fraser’s fiction and nonfiction on the Scottish border wars, it’s not hard to understand how it could have emerged genetically through natural selection. The non-“pugnacious” clans simply didn’t survive; selection pressures were strong.

Or read Steven Pinker in The Better Angels of our Nature on the “culture of honor.” Here from  NYT review of the book:

Pinker argues that at least part of the reason for the regional differences in American homicide rates is that people in the South are less likely to accept the state’s monopoly on force. Instead, a tradition of self-help justice and a “culture of honor” sanctions retaliation when one is insulted or mistreated. Statistics bear this out — the higher homicide rate in the South is due to quarrels that turn lethal, not to more killings during armed robberies — and experiments show that even today Southerners respond more strongly to insults than Northerners.

Whatever the source, nature or nurture, patriotic pugnacity doesn’t seem to be making those Scots-Irish Appalachians very happy:

Self-Reported Well-Being

Maybe eventually Scots-Irish Appalachians will stop clinging to guns, religion, “honor,” revenge, and shallow, self-satisfying, supposedly “patriotic” pugnacity. Maybe they’ll accept the fact that they lost the Civil War a century and a half ago, that we’re not going to “take the country back” to that time. In other words, maybe they’ll join some semblance of the modern world. Now that would be a disaster for the Republican Party.

And arguably the single most effective long-term strategy Democrats could adopt would be somehow convincing Appalachian voters to vote their own (and everyone else’s) economic self-interests. Turn the corner on a dozen or so counties in Indiana, Virginia, and North Carolina (and Florida), and Republicans will be permanently relegated to the wilderness that they seem so hell-bent on occupying and (re)constructing.

Cross-posted at Angry Bear.

Is This Person Liberal or Conservative? In One Question.

February 20th, 2011 1 comment

The OK Trends blog on the OK Cupid dating site is pretty amazing. They pull all their hundreds of millions of pieces of data and suss out amazing facts about how people are, and how they interact. Here’s a beaut re: politics and ideology (Jonathan Haidt, take note):

The Best Questions For A First Date « OkTrends.

Why Would We Rather Be Wrong than Perceive Ourselves as Being Wrong?

November 8th, 2010 3 comments

Why would we rather perceive ourselves as right than be right? Why does believing ourselves to be right feel so good?

People hate being wrong. From an evolutionary perspective, this makes sense. If we’re wrong about the world out there, we’re less likely to survive and produce grandchildren. You’d expect being wrong to feel bad, because it discourages being wrong.

But here’s what weird: what people really hate is perceiving themselves as being wrong. They hate it so much, they’d often rather be wrong — even with all the evolutionary downsides that being wrong delivers.

Example: believing that some animal is godlike and hence untouchable for food. Result: less available food, so (in aggregate, over generations) less grandchildren.

But try to tell someone holding that belief that he or she is wrong, that it’s a false belief. You’ll encounter massive, impenetrable resistance.

What in the heck is going on there? It seems completely contrary to evolutionary logic.

Why did humans evolve so that perceiving ourselves as being right is more pleasurable — feels better — than actually being right? (Remember: in general, natural selection results in “fit” behaviors — like having sex — giving pleasure; that pleasure reward is what encourages the behavior. This is using “fit” in the technical evolutionary sense: “likely to result in more grandchildren.”)

Not surprisingly, the remarkable Robert Trivers addressed this question:

The Elements of a Scientific Theory of Self‐Deception Update: Ungated version here.

And many have built on his work since. (The paper has 133 citations in Google Scholar, which is remarkably high by Google-citation standards.)

Trivers offers a few possible explanations, and suggests several avenues for further research. I’ll just share his first suggestion, and leave the more abstruse ones for those as is interested.

Explanation #1: if we deceive ourselves, it’s easier to deceive others.

Suppose you know that your proposal is bad for the person you’re proposing it to. People are good mind-readers (or more accurately, readers of facial expressions, tone of voice, body language, etc.), so if you’re consciously aware that you’re lying, they can often tell.

So what’s the best strategy? Hide that knowledge in your unconscious, where even you can’t see it. So your conscious mind believes a lie, even though your unconscious mind knows it’s a lie. Since the truth is hidden from you, it’s also hidden from others.

This gives self-deception real evolutionary advantages — it lets you convince people of things that are bad for them and good for you — so natural selection would naturally result in a mechanism that allows for that. It would also make it pleasurable to use that mechanism — to fool yourself — so you’ll use that mechanism. Hence the widely-demonstrated joys and benefits of self-delusion.

There are (at least) two problems here, though:

• Self delusion must, on average, be beneficial to individuals, or it (and the pleasure reward for doing it) wouldn’t have evolved. But once the pleasure reward exists, it could encourage self-delusions that are not self-beneficial.

• Even if the self-delusion instinct is (overall) good for individuals’ “fitness,” it’s quite possibly bad for everyone in aggregate — depending on how you define “bad.”

This subject goes far deeper and gets almost infinitely complex, but I’ll stop here and leave others to ruminate further.

Religious Knowledge of a Devout (and Morally Committed) Atheist: 100%

October 2nd, 2010 5 comments

My results on the latest Pew survey:

Here’s how you did on these 15 questions (excerpted from the larger U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey) compared with a nationally representative sample of 3,412 adults. Read the Full Report

Your responses on the quiz do NOT affect the U.S. Religious Knowledge Survey’s results.

Take the test here. Or read all the Christianity/Bible questions below.

You’ve probably heard about it already, but short story, atheists and agnostics know more about religion than religious people.

Atheist even know more about Christianity than Christians do (despite the mealy-mouthed headline here):

White evangelicals and Mormons do know a little bit more about Christianity than atheists/agnostics (though given the overall sample size there’s gotta be pretty low statistical significance for these small slices.) But even so, they could only get 7 or 8 out of 12!? Must be a hard test.

Oh wait. Not so much. Of the twelve Christianity/bible questions in the full survey, I got 11 out of 12. Though I didn’t actually know the answer to two; on one I was able to eliminate one choice out of three, and won the toss on the other two. I also had a 50/50 chance of being “right” on the other (two-choice) one I didn’t know. So call it 10 out of 12.

I went into the survey and pulled out those 12 Christianity/bible questions. Here they are:

What is the first book of the Bible?

Will you tell me the names of the first four books of the New Testament of the Bible, that is the Four Gospels?

Where, according to the Bible, was Jesus born?

The Book of Mormon tells the story of Jesus Christ appearing to people in what area of the world?
The Americas
Middle East

Which of the following best describes Catholic teaching about the bread and wine used for communion?
The bread and wine actually become the body and blood of Jesus Christ, or
The bread and wine are symbols of the body and blood of Jesus Christ

Which of these religious groups traditionally teaches that salvation comes through faith alone?
Only Protestants
Only Catholics
Both Protestants and Catholics
Neither Protestants nor Catholics

Please tell me which of the following is NOT one of the Ten Commandments:
Do not commit adultery
Do unto others as you would have them do unto you
Do not steal
Keep the Sabbath holy

Which Bible figure is most closely associated with a. Remaining obedient to God despite suffering [no item b] c. Leading the exodus from Egypt d. Willingness to sacrifice his son for God? [questions rotated]

Would you tell me if a. Mother Teresa was b. The Dalai Lama is c. Joseph Smith was d. Maimonides was? [questions rotated]

What was the name of the person whose writings and actions inspired the Protestant Reformation?
Martin Luther
Thomas Aquinas
John Wesley

Which one of these preachers participated in the period of religious activity known as the First Great Awakening?
Jonathan Edwards
Charles Finney
Billy Graham

Don’t read this until you’ve answered the last question — spoiler:

Billy Graham was obviously not alive at the time of the The Great Delusioning. I didn’t have more than a vauge guess for the one about “faith alone” (Protestants?). Not that I care…

On That New York Mosque

August 6th, 2010 Comments off

Michael Bloomberg:

The simple fact is, this building is private property, and the owners have a right to use the building as a house of worship, and the government has no right whatsoever to deny that right. And if it were tried, the courts would almost certainly strike it down as a violation of the U.S. Constitution.

Should government attempt to deny private citizens the right to build a house of worship on private property based on their particular religion? That may happen in other countries, but we should never allow it to happen here.

I would add:

1. The moderate muslim community, which uniformly disowns and decries terrorism in the name of Islam as despicable and contrary to their religion, is the most powerful voice there is against those terrorists. There are few more effective things we can do that empower, embrace, and encourage that voice.

2. The voices against the mosque are raised not in prospect of any future good, but in angry reaction to past evils. Vengeance, revenge, should never serve as the spur to our actions, because the urge for vengeance — no matter how innate and irresistible it is to the human character — is always about looking backward, never forward.

Retribution — rooted in cold, clear, calculated reasoning and intended to prevent future evils — is often essential and inescapable. But vengeance-driven actions are almost inevitably counterproductive.

That’s what I think, anyway.

Delight and Abject Dismay on Richard Dawkins’ Birthday

March 26th, 2010 15 comments

Another of those convergences: I just joined the Richard Dawkins group on Facebook, and discovered that today is his birthday. (Happy birthday sir!) It’s a convergence because over the last week I’ve been horribly dismayed. After decades of near hero-worship on my part, I’ve discovered that he is not acting as the man I’ve always believed him to be.

The issue is his position on group selection. (Don’t go away: it matters.) The way he has defended that position seems contrary to everything I have always so admired about him.

And I have so admired him, for so long. I have to watch myself constantly to avoid the kind of wild-eyed evangelism that serves only to give aid and comfort to the creationist enemy. The Selfish Gene and The Extended Phenotype provided (some of) the fundamental underpinnings for my understanding of (human) existence, and the belief and value system that’s built on that understanding.

I didn’t really need to read The God Delusion — preaching to the choir — but I did so and greatly enjoyed it purely for the joy of his arguments — the lucidity, the cogency, the logical and rhetorical coherence.

I can’t count the number of times I’ve recounted his anecdote about an aging professor who changes his mind. (“My dear fellow, I wish to thank you. I have been wrong these fifteen years.” . . .  “We clapped our hands red.”) It still brings tears to my eyes when I read it, and epitomizes how science, for all its real-world failings, is fundamentally different from faith. (Here. Start with “It does happen.”)

So, again, I’m nearly teary-eyed at the stance he has taken, and the rhetoric he’s deployed, in response to a body of thinking that has grown over decades and came to something of a culmination in 2007. (I’m late to the party on this one.) That body of evidence and theory contradicts one of his longest- and strongest-held beliefs: that group selection is hooey, that it could not have had any role in the evolution of human altruism.

Remember the stated goal of Dawkins’ seminal book: “My purpose is to examine the biology of selfishness and altruism.”

His basic theory: genes are the units of selection, and organisms are the vehicles of that selection. If a gene causes organisms to have more grandchildren, the gene’s frequency expands in the population.

Based on this, he rightly pooh-poohed warm, mushy, poorly-reasoned notions about genes contributing to “social cohesion” and the like. No altruistic gene could survive in a group if it didn’t provide net benefit for the individual containing that gene — either by helping the individual, helping kin who have the same gene, or through reciprocal payback from other individuals.

But what about the success of groups? Could groups with more altruistic genes have more grandchildren than groups with more purely self-serving genes? Could that group selection effect predominate over individual selection within the group?

It seems plausible, and from the first time I encountered the conundrum, it has always seemed to me to be a purely statistical question.

And that’s how (a damned impressive set of) mid-20th-century evolutionists went at it. They built models, ran the numbers, and determined that no: group selection could not overwhelm the forces of individual selection. If a gene isn’t good for an individual (and/or his kin), it will die out.

That belief achieved an orthodoxy in the political ecology of scientific academe that largely prevented later scientists from even raising the question, and successfully crushed most of the few efforts to re-examine it. It’s agonizingly similar to the despicable response that sociobiology and evolutionary psychology themselves encountered over those same decades, from the likes of Lewontin, Gould, and the “Theory” humanists.

As a result, both professionals and amateurs — including reasonably diligent amateurs like me — have been unthinkingly chanting along with that orthodoxy for years, decades. I don’t know how many times I’ve discredited thinking that seemed rooted in group-selectionist thinking.

And I was wrong. At least, I was too categorical. So I was sometimes/often wrong.

Here’s what makes me so sad: Richard Dawkins has been perhaps the most powerful voice for that orthodoxy, and he seems to be clinging to that idol even when its feet — his feet — are looking resoundingly clay-like.

Cutting to the meat, simplified:

In 2007, David Sloan Wilson and E. O. Wilson (the founder of sociobiology and one of the most brilliant, diligent, and sober evolutionary biologists to ever live, as Dawkins certainly agrees) published a paper (PDF) laying out the cogent, lucid, and compelling case that group selection can indeed predominate over individual selection in the evolution of altruistic genes — that the group can be a vehicle of selection, just as the individual can. (They talk about “multilevel selection.”)

In other words, genes that benefit the group can proliferate in the larger population, even if those genes are disadvantaged within the group. Again, it’s all a matter of models and statistics, and the Wilsons (no relation) deployed and cited damned convincing models and statistics showing that the earlier evolutionists probably got it wrong.

Now if Dawkins had cogent takedowns of those models and statistics, there is nobody I would rather hear them from. But his counterarguments have all been from principles, even when those principles are not thrown into question by Wilson and Wilson — their arguments are based on those principles.

What’s more dismaying is that Dawkins’ few dozen paragraphs in reply (remember, it’s been three years since then) bear all the hallmarks of a religionist who has not a leg to stand on, lashing out in frantic, desperate defense with red herrings, tangents, inapplicable arguments, dodges, weaves, and personal invective. (I’m not a professional in the field, but I know good and bad arguments when I hear them.)

This post is already too long, so I won’t detail everything here. You can see one of Dawkins’ replies here (PDF), and you can read the whole story from D. S. Wilson — including much of Dawkins’ response — here. Wilson’s 19-post blog thread is here in a one PDF.

I’ll just quote one passage from Dawkins to give the flavor of those replies:

…as far as I am concerned, the statement is false: not a semantic confusion; not an exaggeration of a half-truth; not a distortion of a quarter truth; but a total, unmitigated, barefaced lie.

This is not the Richard Dawkins I’ve known and (intellectually) loved for lo these many decades. It is, in fact, the exact opposite of that Richard Dawkins.

I can only quote D.S. Wilson’s words, which precisely echo my most heartfelt feelings:

In my dreams, I imagine him reading my modified haystack model and saying “Well done, David! I have been wrong all these years.”

Richard Dawkins won’t you please come home?

Is Altruism Inevitable?

March 24th, 2010 Comments off

In one of those wonderful confluences, two items just came together for me. I read The Social Atom by Mark Buchanan, and my friend Steve posted a link to an Economist piece on evolution, fairness, markets, and religion.

It all circulates around a central conundrum that evolutionists (including Darwin) have been worrying at since Darwin: why do humans, in all cultures, perform selfless acts? You’d think that natural selection would weed out those fools — that cheaters who take advantage of the selfless would have more grandchildren, making the do-gooders vanish from the population.

The answer seems to be group selection: groups with more selfless types survive better than groups of cheaters. (I’ll be posting soon on the controversy over group selection, particularly Richard Dawkins’ intransigence on the issue; suffice it here to say that it makes sense to me. Can’t wait? Wikipedia.)

Which brings me to The Social Atom. Buchanan looks at systems made of of fairly simple “atoms,” and shows how those atoms’ simple properties can result in very sophisticated and often predictable system behavior. Think (my example) of flocks made up of birds with very simple algorithms — “if there’s a bird on one side of you and it moves away, move closer” — imagine flocks of birds flying, and you get the idea.

Likewise the atoms in a magnet: you can ignore all the insane complexities of sub-atomic particles and just think of those atoms as arrows whose direction affects adjacent atoms’ arrow directions. That single property explains the whole system.

This plays out in human systems too. If you had stock markets where everyone throws darts, the ups and downs of the market would map to a bell curve with a normal distribution — thin tails, with very few days of large ups and downs.

But build a system where individuals switch between strategies in response to market movements and  other individuals’ strategies, and you get the distribution we actually have: a much flatter bell curve with fatter tails — many more days with big up-and-down swings. (This is what brought down Long Term Capital Management. A one-in-five-hundred-year event on a normal bell curve was a one-in-five-year event in the actual distribution of market movements.)

That higher-volatility pattern affects the individuals’ decisions — their strategies — but the pattern remains. Because — this is what’s fascinating — it doesn’t matter what the individual strategies are. The simple fact of individuals adaptively selecting strategies is all it takes for the high-volatility pattern to emerge.

How does this all bear on non-kin altruism? In my words: Once you have a vehicle — language — by which cultural values and mores can be transmitted to others and across generations, cooperation and individual selflessness are naturally emergent properties of that system. They’re inevitable, because groups that don’t transmit and enforce those values don’t survive in competition with ones that do.

And that leads me to the study that Steve and The Economist linked to. It looks at fifteen contemporary, small-scale societies (hunters, fishermen, foragers), and asks how the selflessness that makes small groups prosper could have extended to the kind of global altruism that we see today.

They suggest that “such societies may have required norms and institutions that sustain fairness in ephemeral [one-time] exchanges.” Their findings support that: larger communities “punish” cheaters more, and groups with more market interactions and participation in world religions have more “fair” behavior by individuals.

In my thinking: these social patterns and institutions are naturally emergent properties of a species that has language. (A necessary caveat that I won’t expand on here: periodic genocide is also a naturally emergent property of such a species, for the same reasons of group selection.)

Now I don’t know about you, but my spidey sense detects a strong whiff of axe-grinding in Henrich’s conclusions, demonstrating that those favored children of the Right — markets and religion — are what accounts for fairness. (I think this may be why Steve tweeted it?)

But the study makes me wonder (and wonder why the researchers didn’t wonder): do government-like institutions in those societies also enforce fairness and encourage selflessness? Do equivalents of our three branches — strong leaders, councils of elders, and systems of group adjudication — correlate with more fairness and selflessness in a society?

This dichotomy — between market/religion-based institutions and government institutions — also makes me think again about the Jonathan Haidt research I’ve been blogging recently, showing that Republicans give much more moral weight than liberals to group loyalty. Might it be — since liberals believe more in government as the fairness enforcer — that the two groups just define “group” differently (or that liberals’ support for government is based on reasoned belief instead of “sanctity” or “moral intuition”)?

Steven Pinker has suggested that cooperation with non-kin is one of the three main attributes (along with language and tool/technology use) that distinguish humans from other animals. That cooperation put us at the top of the food chain.

Which leads me to reiterate a thought I expressed recently in the comments, in response to those who champion competition as a great good: competition is a second-order effect; its only merit is that it makes cooperation more efficient. If we’d “all just cooperate” (the woolly headed liberal’s mantra, finger twirling in cheek), we’d all be better off than if we all competed. It’s both obvious and stupid. Given a population of selfish social atoms, competition forces people to cooperate in groups.

But competition (a.k.a. “the market”) is not the only thing that improves cooperation. Henrich’s work shows that religion does as well. And it’s not at all difficult to find other instances  — government, for instance — in which cooperation is improved by . . . cooperation.

Do Moral Intuitions Change in Different Situations?

March 17th, 2010 Comments off

In response the Jonathan Haidt’s comment on Bryan’s post:

One of my biggest questions about Haidt’s work: are people’s moral intuitions consistent across different situations?

We know that behavior is often not generalized across situations. i.e. interventions in children’s homes/families have little or no effect on their behavior at school.

I wonder if survey choices distinguishing between the private and public realms would yield very different weightings in different groups.

For instance: if we looked at honesty/truthfulness (a realm I very much wish that Haidt would explore–not just “authenticity” or integrity), would we find that Conservatives value it highly (more than Liberals?) in private, especially face-to-face, dealings, but downgrade it significantly in public dealings where groups are interacting–notably in public debate–situations where group loyalty would overwhelm it?

This in general raises the thorny issue of interactions between the realms, an issue that promises to do for Haidt’s work what genetic interactions and epigenetics have done in genetics: make it extraordinarily complex (and interesting).

Reason and Intuition: Is There Really Any Difference?

November 22nd, 2009 1 comment

My sister just sent me the link to this discussion by Razib Khan on reason and intuition–timely, because it refers to Denialism: How Irrational Thinking Hinders Scientific Progress, Harms the Planet, and Threatens Our Lives by Michael Specter, who I just saw (and spoke to briefly) when he spoke at University of Washington last week on his book tour. (I found him engaging, interesting, and well-armed with fascinating facts and anecdotes, but he didn’t deliver any aha! moments for me–I’m definitely the choir, and he’s definitely preaching.)

My sister thinks Khan “gets it just about right,” and I certainly hesitate to question her sagacity. (She is older hence certainly wiser, after all.) But I came away from the post distinctly less satisfied. My basic problem: Khan–like almost everybody else that I hear discussing this subject–doesn’t seem to have any idea what he actually means by “intuition.” It’s tossed around generally in contradistinction to logical, syllogistic thinking (which is often referred to–in another example of poorly or un-considered thinking–as “linear” thinking).

To put the parenthetical aside first: logical thinking about any reasonably complex subject or problem is rarely linear. While portions of the thinking will certainly include “A leads to B which leads to C,” it also almost always includes some type of recursion and (I haven’t studied this so can’t give a good list) a variety of other decidedly nonlinear cognitive tools.

Returning to intuition, though: a definition by negation (“it’s non-logical, non-linear thought”) is useless even if “logical” and”linear” were accurate and clearly understood, because intuition can then encompass anything that isn’t that one thing. Khan exhibits this in spades. He suggests that intuition might be:

  • Innate knowledge: “These stances encapsulate the wisdom of evolution (e.g., aversion to sibling-sibling incest) and/or society (again, aversion to sibling-sibling incest).”
  • Surmise based on casual observation: “folk physics”.
  • Easily understandable explanations that are in accord with everyday experience: “Science allows us to stand on the shoulders of giants, no matter how bizarre or counterintuitive their theories are.”
  • Knowledge so ingrained through practice as to feel automatic: “Specialists in technical fields often develop domain-specific intuitions through long experience.”

There are almost endless other possibilities. (Ones you hear often involve “humaness,” “empathy,” “holism,” etc., all of which seem to grope toward something that does seem right for the definition.) Some may stand up as good definitions of intuition. But if the writer/thinker hasn’t done the thinking to even know what he’s talking about when he uses the word–or has only employed wooly, half-hearted noodling without nailing down what he means–the writing doesn’t yield much light.

I’ve always thought of intuition–in an almost equally useless definition–as “back-brain processing.” It’s the stuff we’re all familiar with, embodied in the phrase “lemme sleep on it.” We know that the mind (and the brain, though in a different way) is made up of a whole lot of semi-autonomous modules that are good at particular things. Consciousness–which is sometimes (inaptly) called “the executive function”–is only one of those modules. The operations of those modules are most often completely opaque or downright invisible to other modules–including the “conscious thought” module. For instance, we can’t perceive or much control the modules that handle various types of visual or spatial processing, even though (see Pinker’s How The Mind Works and The Stuff of Thought) those very modules and a whole lot of others are being turned to task for us (even) when we think we’re thinking consciously and “logically.” A lot of thinking, of any type (including logical thought), is farmed out to the back brain.

And those back-brain modules are no slouches. They use the same kind of complex, recursive, and yes, linear cognitive techniques that the “logical” mind does. (They may only use one or two techniques each–some use this a lot, some use that…there’s a big toolbox to draw from.) All that processing may emerge in the consciousness module with the appearance (to us) of logic and linearity, or it may appear as a flash of “intuition.” But it’s the same mass of modules that’s doing the grunt work down deep.

Now maybe “intuitive thinking” refers to a method that employs particular mind modules more, or in different ways from, those that are used for “logical thinking.” Fair enough. But I don’t know what those methods and modules might be, and I’m quite certain that 99.999% of people who talk about “intuition” don’t know either. Also fair enough–you shouldn’t be required to know intimately how the mind works to think about the issue–especially as we (even cognitive scientists) still have very little understanding of how the mind works.

But scientists are, finally, learning a hell of a lot these days–actual knowledge, tested by controlled experiments that can overcome our innate predilection for self-delusion, as opposed to the armchair surmise that has constituted the stuff of psychological “knowledge” since Freud started the courageous effort to plumb our deepest mystery. (As Steven Pinker has pointed out, the brain/mind is actually going from the status of “mystery” to the status of “problem that can potentially be solved, at least in parts.”)

It was some of that experimental knowledge–delivered in a talk by Jonah Lehrer that I attended, and in his book How We Decide–that started to crystalize the fuzzy notion I’ve always had of intuition as back-brain processing. He explains that we learn through a dopamine-feedback system. We make predictions and when they turn out right, we get a little dopamine hit. Feels good. When we get them wrong, though, the pusher holds our fix, and it feels really bad. (This goes a long way toward explaining why humans will go to such extraordinary lengths–destroying relationships with loved ones, etc.–to avoid [the self-perception of?] being wrong.) Our decisions are always based–at some fundamental level–on how something feels. (This is not an endorsement of “just trust your feelings”; see “fundamental level” in the last sentence.)

Lehrer also points to a set of experiments that seem to show that when we think we’re making a decision in our frontal cortex, in fact the decision has already been made, milliseconds before, elsewhere in the brain. (Though Daniel Dennet does a fairly convincing job of discrediting these experiments in Freedom Evolves.) The message that goes to our so-called “executive function” is not in the form of a thought, it’s a feeling: feels good, or feels bad. That’s how the back brain communicates the already-made decisions to the front brain–through pleasure and pain. (How else could we possibly know what we “want”? How could a nematode know that it wants food, or learn how to get it, aside from a pain/pleasure feedback system?)

In short, what feels like conscious decision-making really isn’t. We feed the problem back into our back brain, and ask it, essentially, “how do ‘I’ feel about this?” It responds with a “Tarzan feel bad” or “Jane feel good” signal strong enough to emerge into, be felt by, our consciousness module.

This does not negate the value of logical thought, but it casts our control over that process in a very different framework. We don’t (just?) control our “impulses” on their way out of the back-brain/id/reptilian brain/whatever you want to call it, as in the Freudian and other psychological models. Quite the opposite really: Our real power is in what we feed back into that massively multimodular brain. We can deliver it the information, experience, and experimental results (including feelings that emerge from that back brain itself, further processed consciously) that it needs to make smart decisions, or we can feed it pablum and pap, well-processed or not. It’s a true garbage-in-garbage-out situation. We can, to some extent, manage the process that sometimes looks (to us) like logic and sometimes looks like intuition, but that is mostly made up of the very same back-brain stuff.

In other words: intuition is reasoning. And logical reasoning–except of the simplest sort–inevitably relies on intuition.

At this point I think I should throw the baton to a writer who has done his thinking damned carefully (though without the benefits of experimental knowledge that we have). In a long-favorite passage of mine, Milton in Paradise Lost has the Angel Raphael (speaking to the as-yet-unfallen couple of their blissful state) comment on two types of reason:

Discursive, or Intuitive; discourse
Is oftest yours, the latter most is ours

Raphael knows: humans aren’t very good at intuitive reasoning. It’s the stuff of angels. (Partly because we’re forever polluting it with various combinations of the stuff that Khan vaguely thinks of as “intuition.”) We should should stick to the the lowly, earthly discursive stuff that our measly frames are fit for.

But when we do achieve it, that divine intuitive reasoning, the results are downright angelic. Even heavenly.

This is all still feeling like pretty loosy-goosy thinking to me. But I hope it at least shows an effort towards actually knowing what I mean when I talk about “intution.” I think I’m gonna have to sleep on it.