The Pursuit of Solid Answers

The Pursuit of Solid Answers

Human’s have egos, and that causes a lot of problems. To be clear, it is often not the ego itself that causes problems, but our feeling that we need to be right, that we need to be powerful, that we need to have important friends and connections that becomes problematic. Humans evolved in small tribes where survival often depended on being high status. Men had to be high status to pass their genes along and being high status meant that people would come to your aid if you needed help. Knowing useful things, being physically imposing, and having useful skills all contributed to make us higher status. Today, the drive for higher status is often understood as ego, and it is still with us, even if survival and evolutionary pressures toward super high status have declined.
One way in which this status and ego pursuit manifests to cause problems in our lives is in our intellectual discussions and debates. We often pursue our own ego rather than accurate knowledge and information when we are in debates. We are both signaling to our tribe and trying to dominate a conversation with our strong convictions rather than trying to have constructive discussions that help us get to correct answers.
Mary Roach writes about this phenomenon in her book Spook when discussing paranormal phenomena. She writes, “hasty assumptions serve no one. To make up one’s mind based on nothing beyond a simple summary of events – as believers and skeptics alike tend to do – does nothing to forward the pursuit of solid answers.” When we get into debates on religious topics, questions of psychic or paranormal phenomena, and complex social science questions, we often fall into reductive arguments that are mostly aimed at people who hold the same assumptions and beliefs that we already hold. We make hasty assumptions because our ego wants us to appear decisive and correct without spending time in ambiguity carefully considering the truth. The goal for us should be to become less wrong, but that is not a mindset that is generally rewarded by the ego, which for much of human evolution was rewarded by conviction and demonstrations of loyalty. Making changes so that more considerate thought is rewarded over ego-centric thought is crucial for us to move forward, but it runs against evolution, our self-interest, and what gets the most attention on social media today. Hasty assumptions may not be helpful, but they do get strong reactions and generate support among like-minded individuals.
The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums - Kevin Simler - Robin Hanson - Mary Roach - Joe Abittan - Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife

The Elephant in the Brain with Psychics and Mediums

In the book The Elephant in the Brain, Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler argue that our own self-interest drives a huge amount of our behavior. On the surface this doesn’t sound like a huge shock, but if you truly look at how deeply our self-interest is tied to everything we do, you start to see that we like to pretend that we don’t act purely out of our own self-interest. Instead, we lie to ourselves and others and create high minded reasons for our beliefs, behaviors, and actions. But our self-interest is never far behind. It is always there as the elephant in the room (or brain) influencing all that we do even if we constantly try to ignore it.
This is likely what happens when people visit psychics and mediums with the hopes of learning about their future or reconnecting with the spirit of a lost one. Mary Roach describes what is going on with psychics, mediums, and their clients in her book Spook, and I think her explanation is a strong argument for the ideas presented by Hanson and Simler in The Elephant in the Brain. She writes:
“It seems to me that in many cases psychics and mediums prosper not because they’re intentionally fraudulent, but because their subjects are uncritical. The people who visit mediums and psychics are often strongly motivated or constitutionally inclined to believe that what is being said is relevant and meaningful with regard to them or a loved one.”
Both psychics/mediums and their subjects are motivated by self-interests that they don’t want to fully own up to. They both deceive themselves in order to appear to genuinely believe the experience. If you can fool yourself then it becomes much easier to fool others, and that requires that you ignore the elephant (your self-interest) in your brain.
Clients want to believe they are really interacting with the spirit of a lost one and not being fooled or defrauded. Critical thinking and deliberately acknowledging that they are susceptible to being fooled are ignored and forgotten. Instead, the individual’s self-interest acts behind the scenes as they help create the reality they want to inhabit with the help of the psychic or medium.
The psychics and mediums also don’t want to be viewed as fraudsters and quacks. They hide the fact that they have economic and social motivations to appear to have special powers and signal their authenticity. If a client is uncritical, it helps the entire process and allows both parties to ignore their self-interest acting below the surface. Ultimately, as Roach argues, the process is dependent on both practitioners who are willing to believe their subjects are having authentic experiences and on subjects to then believe their psychics and mediums are genuinely communicating with the dead. Without either, and without the self-deception for both, the whole process would fall apart.
Mary Roach on Reincarnation in India

Mary Roach on Reincarnation in India

In the book Spook, Mary Roach writes, “People don’t seem to approach life with the same terrified, risk-aversive tenacity that we do. I’m beginning to understand why, religious doctrine aside, the concept of reincarnation might be so popular here. Rural India seems like a place where life is taken away too easily – accidents, childhood diseases, poverty, murder. If you’ll be back for another go, why get too worked up about the leaving?” Roach is joking of course, but this quote comes at the end of a lengthy description of dangers and risks that she experienced in India that we would find appalling in the United States. Her travels to India brought her face to face with cyclists moving through heavy traffic and breathing diesel smog. She was afraid of large trucks overflowing with potatoes and cauliflower that threatened to spill over onto the vehicle she was riding in. And she was also afraid for the lives of more than one woman riding precariously on the back of a fast moving Vespa.
While the quote is funny, it does get at some interesting ways of thinking about life, death, and how we go about our days. I’m not sure how much of our differences in risk tolerance in the United States versus India comes down to beliefs in reincarnation, but I can see how ideas of reincarnation would be comforting in a dangerous society. I don’t know if reincarnation would be enough to create a moral hazard scenario where people were intentionally negligent about safety because they expected to come back in another life, but I’m sure there is some impact that could be studied.
The quote from Roach also seems to suggest that Americans value our lives differently than individuals in India. She highlights how risk averse Americans tend to be, referring to how much we go out of our way to ensure everything we interact with is safe, and how we try to limit risk in everything from roller coasters to strollers. I think that what is likely going on is a difference in culture that stretches back years and is fraught with technological limitations and differences in population density. I am currently listening to an audiobook with an author who interviewed friends from her childhood in rural Ohio in the 1960’s and 70’s. Her dad was a doctor, and she notes how many individuals, including children, died in accidents involving farming equipment. Today we have adopted technology within everything we do, allowing us to make the world safer. Risk stands out more than in the 1960’s and 70’s when we didn’t have the technology to make everything as safe as we can now. Perhaps the difference that Roach noted, that she jokingly attributed to belief in reincarnation, is simply due to limitations in technology and a need to earn money.
More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

More Information Can Make the World More Confusing

“In my experience,” writes Mary Roach in Spook, “the most staunchly held views are based on ignorance or accepted dogma, not carefully considered accumulations of facts. The more you expose the intricacies and realities of the situation, the less clear-cut things become.”
This quote from Mary Roach is something I have experienced in my own life over and over. I have met many people with very strong views about subjects, and they very often oversimplify an issue and reduce arguments against their position to a straw man. Rather than carefully considering whether their opinions and perspectives are valid, they dismiss arguments against their favored position without real thought. And to be fair, this is something I have even caught myself doing.
I generally seem to be one of those people who can talk about challenging subjects with just about anyone. I think the reason why I am able to talk to people about difficult topics is because I always try to understand how reach the perspective they hold. I also try hard to understand why I hold my own opinions, and I try not to reduce either my own or another person’s opinion to a simple right or wrong morality judgment. I think we come to our opinions through many convoluted paths, and straw-manning an argument does an injustice to the opinions and views of others.
At the same time, I have noticed that those who hold the most oversimplified beliefs do so in a dogmatic manner, as Roach suggested. They may be able to consider facts and go through deeper considerations, but they ultimately fall back on simple dogma, rather than live with the complex cognitive dissonance required to accept that you believe one thing in general, but cannot always rely on that one thing to explain the particulars. Personally, I have found that I can have conversations with these people, but that I feel frustrated when they then turn around and post things on social media that are reductive and ignore the complex perspectives we previously talked through.
Like Roach, I find that those with more detailed and nuanced views, built out of an accumulation of facts, generally are less emotionally invested in a given topic. Perhaps it is a lack of passion for a topic which allowed them to look at facts in such detail, rather than adopting a favored view and immediately dismissing anything that doesn’t align with that view.
Ultimately, I think much of this behavior can be understood by reading Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson’s book The Elephant in the Brain. We are all smart and capable of self-deception in order to more strongly believe the thing we want to believe. Over simplified dogmas simply help us do that better. I think we are often signaling our loyalty to a group or signaling some characteristic that we think is important when we make reductive and dogmatic statements. We recognize what identity we wish to hold and what is in our self-interest, and we act our part, adopt the right beliefs, and signal to others that we are part of the right in-group. In this way, the dogma is a feature and not a bug.
Science and Facts

Science and Facts

Science helps us understand the world and answer questions about how and why things are the way they are. But this doesn’t mean science always gives us the most accurate answers possible. Quite often science seems to suggest an answer, sometimes the answer we get doesn’t really answer the question we wanted to ask, and sometimes there is just too much noise to gain any real understanding. The inability to perfectly answer every question, especially when we present science as providing clear facts when teaching science to young children, is a point of the confusion and dismissal among those who don’t want to believe the answers that science gives us.
In Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, Mary Roach writes, “Of course, science doesn’t dependably deliver truths. It is as fallible as the men and women who undertake it. Science has the answer to every question that can be asked. However, science reserves the right to change that answer should additional data become available.” The science of the afterlife (really the science of life, living, death, and dying), Roach explains, has been a science of revision. What we believe, how we conduct experiments, and how we interpret scientific results has shifted as our technology and scientific methods have progressed. The science of life and death has given us many different answers over the years as our own biases have shifted and as our data and computer processing has evolved.
The reality is that all of our scientific fields of study are incomplete. There are questions we still don’t have great answers to, and as we seek those answers, we have to reconsider older answers and beliefs. We have to study contradictions and try to understand what might be wrong with the way we have interpreted the world. What we bring to science impacts what we find, and that means that sometimes we don’t find truths, but conveniently packaged answers that reinforce what we always wanted to be true. Overtime, however, the people doing the science change, the background knowledge brought to science changes, and the way we understand the answers from science changes. It can be frustrating to those of us on the outside who want clear answers and don’t want to be abused by people who wish to deliberately mislead based on incomplete scientific knowledge. But overtime science revises itself to become more accurate and to better describe the world around us.