27 January 2013

Thinking it Through

I haven't felt the urge to blog lately because I've been caught up in various things. At the same time I've been involved with a desultory discussion about the value of inter-religious dialogue with Elisa Freschi on her blog. In response to something I wrote, Elisa responded:
"But I do not think that one's religious beliefs are tantamount to the degree of psychological "biasedness" or to one's lack of insight. What about being sincerely trying to think through one's beliefs?
Don't you believe in the possibility of theology (i.e., rational thinking within the framework of some key beliefs)?" 
My reply is the comments on that post, but I thought it would be worthwhile to expand on my answer. My response consisted of a critique of the idea of "rational thinking". I began by invoking a paper by Daniele Cuneo (who is currently working on the Sanskrit Manuscripts Project at Cambridge University). In Thinking Literature: Emic and Etic Approaches, Daniele makes an interesting point about emic and etic viewpoints. Most people who study religion will be be familiar with this distinction which might be summed up as "insider" and "outsider" views. We will almost certain be familiar with the idea that Buddhism cannot be understood from the outside and one must practice it to understand it. I'm no longer convinced of this and why this is so may become clear as I proceed.

Daniele makes the excellent point that when we study a religion or a textual tradition as an outsider (and etic approach) we tend to project our own emic assumptions onto the subject. For instance we may refer to Buddhist literature, but "literature" is an emic concept for us. It comes loaded with cultural baggage. It is never the case that we can stand outside a tradition and study it objectively, we can only stand outside it and study it in terms of other traditions. There is no god-like positionless position. Or in other words we always make assumptions when we interpret information.

What I said about "rational thinking" was that it is an emic concept. Rational thinking is an idea about how humans process information that owes a great deal to the European Enlightenment. It's a modernist concept. But in recent years that very idea of rational thinking has come under heavy fire (to invoke the argument is war metaphor) from rational thinkers. I'm interested in at least two strands of the arguements against the idea of rational thinking - both of which have featured heavily in blogs of the last few years. The first is from neuroscience, particularly (for me) in the popular works of Antonio Damasio and Thomas Metzinger (though I've delved into Metzinger more deeply as well).

Antonio and Hannah Damasio have both looked at the consequences of damage to the medio-ventral prefrontal cortex (MVPC: see my blog here) and discovered that minor damage disrupts out ability to make certain kinds of decisions. The theory is that we don't just judge how true a proposition is, but that we judge how important it is to us (or at least how important it is to the decision at hand); which is to say we judge the value or salience of the information. And we experience the value of the information somatically as emotional states or feeling. When MVPC is disrupted then the link between information and its value or salience is disrupted and thus while we know what is true, we can no longer decide which true facts are more important than others. Thus we lose the ability to make decisions. It is my informal suggestion that we generalise this - that we experience the salience of all kinds of information as emotions.

Allied to this is something that a highly successful advertising expert once told me: "People don't make rational decisions, they may emotional decisions and then rationalise them." It doesn't take too much deconstruction of the adverts of top companies to realise that they all behave as if this were implicitly true. And if it wasn't their ads would not work. Pragmatism suggests that there is something in this - whatever Myers and Briggs say.

The second strand of critique of rational thinking comes from philosophy. I usually confess that I don't like philosophy and have not read any. This is not entirely true. I did have a period of reading the books of Geroge Lakoff and to some extent his coauthor Mark Johnson. Lakoff is a philosopher of language whereas Johnson is a philosopher of the mind (more or less). The thesis here is that language reflects embodied consciousness. They argue for instance that all abstract thought is metaphorical in nature, and that the metaphors we use draw on our physical experience of being embodied and interacting with the world. To give a very simplistic example or their very sophisticated idea: when we say "things are looking up" or "I'm feeling down" we invoke a spatial metaphor related to our bodies orientation in space. "Up is good" because when we are alive, healthy and alert we are upright; "down is bad" because when we are dead, ill or unconscious we are prostrate. Lakoff's more indepth work on categories in the wonderfully named "Women, Fire and Dangerous Things" shows that we tend to construct categories based on how we physically and mentally interact with the world; and we tend to understand relationships between members of categories metaphorically based on our own embodied experience. The broader category for these ideas (more associated with Johnson I think) is Embodied Cognition.

In short all thought is embodied, all thinking involves working with metaphors that rely on our experience of being embodied. "Rationality" -- as disembodied abstract thought -- is like Harold Bloom's joke about Freudian Literary Criticism being like the Holy Roman Empire... not Holy, not Roman, and not an empire. Empirical support of these theories has been found in the form of types of brain cells known as mirror neurons and canonical neurons. Mirror neurons are part of the motor cortex that controls voluntary muscles and are active both when we perform an action and we observe someone else performing an action. The implication is that we understand our observations in part by using the same part of the brain that we would use if we were performing the action. Canonical neurons are also part of the motor cortex and they are active when we perceive an object - the theory here being that in understanding an object we assess how we might physically interact with it, how we might manipulate it.

So to sum up "rational thinking" doesn't really exist. We can't think without using our emotions to assess the importance of information to us; to assess the salience of the information for the issue at hand. Similarly we can only think in abstract terms by employing metaphors that relate to how our body feels and functions; how we physically interact with the world. When we "grasp" an idea (a metaphor also available to Sanskrit speakers) we are invoking the felt experience of grasping. When we choose one idea over another, it is always because one feels right, or more right (i.e. of more value to us, and more salient to the issue).

With regard to the issue of sincerity I reported on a BBC Radio 4 interview with creationist Malcolm Bowden (the interview is archived here). Mr Bowden is eminently sincere, and as an engineer he knows how to think, but his conclusion is that all science is mistaken: that the sun goes around an earth created in 6 days by God about 6000 years ago. Mr Bowden sounds calm, reasonable and rational. He argues his case based on a series of assumptions that I certainly do not share, but argues logically from those assumptions. He says, and I believe him, that he has examined his assumptions about the world and this is his conclusion. He acknowledges the difficulties his confession has caused him, but is committed to his view.

How can someone like me make sense of someone like Malcolm Bowden? I think the foregoing argument shows one way to do it. Mr Bowden is sincere and rational and using reason to assess the information available to him, but he is giving certain information a much higher salience than I am. I give the bible no salience as a set of facts, so it plays no role in my decision making. He places the highest value on it. I don't need to think of the man as an idiot or to feel angry about it as many people might. I do feel a bit angry, but I'm aware enough to suppress it for the greater good. On the other hand Mr Bowden could use the same argument to understand what I've just written. After all, what am I doing but telling readers what kinds of stories about experience feel right to me; what kinds of metaphors help me to grasp my situation in life; to make sense of what is going on around me. I believe what I say I believe in this essay not because it is absolutely true, but because my life experience predisposes me to feel that way. I would not say that there is nothing I can do about it, but the conditioning is both strong and largely transparent.

I think this notion of transparency is vitally important. On the whole we don't think our own thoughts, we think the thoughts of our culture. "Rational thinking" is a very good example. The concept is so transparent that we don't even see it as a social construction. "Rational thinking" is an emic concept. We just assume that there is a function we do called "rational thinking", and some people are better at it than others. But no one does rational thinking in the sense that we generally mean. There's no doubt that some people are more articulate and better at justifying their decisions; better at persuading others. But again persuasion is not a simple matter of presenting the facts and leaving it at that. Malcolm Bowden is an engineer who despite being capable of disproving his own belief, maintains a Ptolemaic view of the universe - he rejects all astronomical observation since Galileo discovered moons in orbit around Jupiter. Presumably Mr Bowden is fully cognisant of the facts. He just doesn't care about them in relation to what's in the Bible. And I would argue that though Mr Bowden is a fairly extreme example, he is not qualitatively different from any other human being.  He's doing what we all do to make sense of our worlds. And our worlds do seem to need making sense of!

So is there scope for inter-religious dialogue? Does it achieve anything? I'm very doubtful. The very nature of belief makes it difficult to discuss with non-believers precisely because of the salience problem. However in my response to George Adams (in the Journal of Ecumenical Studies, 47(2), Spring 2012. 282-287 [paywalled unfortunately]) I realised that I shared some fundamental values with him. I could certainly empathise with his desire to see his loved ones no cease to exist, though as I pointed out it is Adam's eternalist views that cause him pain with regard to this prospect - because he believes the only alternative to eternal (after)life is annihilation and is thus caught in the trap outlined over 2000 years ago by Buddhists. Never-the-less I felt that despite his false assumptions, poor/circular logic and unreasonable conclusions I could connect with him as a human being. But this is not an inter-religious dialogue - its only possible when we set aside our respective religious doctrines and meet as human beings who love other human beings. Religion only gets in the way of this discussion. I said that my interest in dialogue was with precisely the people I have mentioned in this essay: with neuroscientists and philosophers who help me to see through the transparent conditioning I've taken on board and thus to potentially free myself from it. Conditioning causes us to think and act in ruts. This helps us fit into a society, but it restricts and limits our ability to respond creatively to experience.

The issue I have not addressed is "insight". I may come back to this, but usually it is expressed in culturally specific forms. On the other hand I am a great fan of Jill Bolte Taylor's Stroke of Insight on TED.
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