Beliefs Are Not Always in the Driver’s Seat

I am not a religious person. I can explain to you all the reasons why I don’t believe there is a deity who created the universe or interjects into our lives, but according to Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, that might not be a particular meaningful thing to try to communicate. If I set out to explain what I believe about the world as a rational for the beliefs that I hold, I might be missing a more fundamental but less appealing reason for my atheism. I don’t come from a religious family, and to be a good part of my familial group and our friend groups, I adopted their beliefs and have found justification for those beliefs through the years. I may think those justifications are sound, but that doesn’t mean I should ignore the part of my brain that set me down the path I am on.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain, Simler and Hanson write, “as we’ve seen throughout the book, beliefs aren’t always in the driver’s seat. Instead, they’re often better modeled as symptoms of the underlying incentives, which are frequently social rather than psychological. This is the religious elephant in the brain: We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.”

 

Hanson and Simler explain the ways in which both theists and atheists approach religion following a belief-first model. In this model, we develop beliefs about the world and universe from what we see and experience and then we adjust our behaviors to align with those beliefs. This is the model, the authors suggest, that is at work in debates between most theists and atheists. This is why we argue over the veracity of religious claims and the implications of ever growing scientific understandings of the universe.

 

But what might really be going on, and this is a view you might see from an anthropologist but might not hold front and center in your views, is that religious views help us be part of a social group and community of people who cooperate, share common values, and can provide support to one another. Religion has social values that can draw people toward it, and increasingly today, atheism seems to have many of  the same social qualities.

 

I have been in very religious contexts and circles though I am most comfortable among atheists. In both groups I have noted a tendency to characterize the other group as deviants. Religious people are mocked as morons while atheists are scoffed at as selfish and amoral trouble-makers. Both groups use the other as an out-group of villains to create more cohesion internally.

 

There is surely a part of religious beliefs that is driven by our experiences and how we think about and understand the world, but whether we want to admit it or not, a large part of our religious identity is shaped by our relationships and social groups surrounding the idea of religion. We can use religion as a model and a guide for our lives that provides us with social connections and social benefits, and we can also use our lack of religious beliefs to do the same. The true nature of the universe and the reality of the world around us often come second, and that is part of why it is so hard to change someone’s religious beliefs and why we tend to hold the same beliefs as our parents and family.

The Argument That College Isn’t About Learning

In The Elephant in the Brain, Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson make an argument that we create stories and narratives around how our world operates that make us look as good as possible. We have systems and structures in place that provide us with convenient reasons for behaving the way we do. These convenient reasons are socialable, put us in the best possible light, and make us feel good about ourselves. Simler and Hanson argue that below this surface lie our true reasons and our hidden motives for our behaviors.

 

One area they look at is education. Nominally, we tell everyone that we are going to school to learn something, to prepare ourselves for the future, to build new skills, to make new connections, and to gain new experiences. What we don’t say is that we are going to school to check a box, to gain a credential, and to simply look more impressive to other people. Education is supposed to be about learning and information, not about padding a resume and trying to simply gain something in a personal and selfish manner. Their argument about education relies on a lot of research that is also discussed in Bryan Caplan’s book The Case Against Education, which I have not read but is referenced in The Elephant in the Brain and who I have heard on several podcasts. To suggest that education is about something other than just the learning we are supposed to do, the authors write,

 

“Consider what happens when a teacher cancels a class session because of weather, illness, or travel. Students who are there to learn should be upset; they’re not getting what they paid for! but in fact, students usually celebrate when classes are canceled. Similarly, many students eagerly take Easy A classes, often in subjects where they have little interest or career plans. In both cases, students sacrifice useful learning opportunities for an easier path to a degree. In fact, if we gave students a straight choice between getting an education without a degree, or a degree without an education, most would pick the degree-which seems odd if they’re going to school mainly to learn.”

 

Sometimes we do learn useful things in school. Sometimes we really do gain new perspectives, have new and meaningful experiences, and grow though our coursework. But students don’t seem as focused on the learning in most areas (some technical degrees at the university level might be different) as simply getting through and getting a diploma. Education includes a lot of signaling aspects that are just as important (if not more important) than any learning we might do.

 

Education tells people we are the kind of person who can earn a degree. Good grades tell potential employers that we are the kind of people who can figure out what is demanded of us, and we are the kind of people who will then do what is demanded. Much of what we learn we will forget, and once we get on the job we will be expected to do a lot of training to learn how to do the actual thing we were hired to do based on our education. We learn a bit in school, but we also signal a lot about ourselves in the process.

Buying Experiences

I’m not big into materialism and I notice a lot of problems in trying to purchase ever greater and more expensive things. I’m one of those people who would probably repeat the trite line of “I’d rather buy an experience than a thing” or “I want to use my money to purchase memories and things that will stick with me rather than things that wear out.” What I need to remind myself, however, is that purchasing experiences over material objects does not remove me from the human drive to use our purchases to show off.

 

In The Elephant in the Brain Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson write about making experience purchases. Part of why we make these purchases is to enjoy a new experience, see something new, and get away to make new memories as we claim, but part is about something else. “Buying experiences also allows us to demonstrate qualities that we can’t signal as easily with material goods, such as having a sense of adventure or being open to new experiences,” the authors write.

 

Our experience purchases never happen in a vacuum. We come back from Hawaii with a great tan. We post pictures of the waterfall at the top of our hike on social media. We tell our friends and coworkers about the great meals and the amazing show that we went to. Our experiences don’t stay in the place we visited (sorry Vegas!), and in some ways, that is the point. Part of why we go on vacations, sign up for running events, take fishing trips, or visit the big city is so that we can have new stories to tell when we get back. This is part of the appeal and part of the value of our journeys.

 

This makes sense to me when I think about how we evolved. Even for those of our ancestors who were more predisposed to be home bodies taking care of the local tribal and group needs, a journey away could provide new insights and stories for others. Possibly a warning of traveling away, possibly of news of something new that might be on its way, and possibly just stories about something different. These tales and stories could help build group cohesion as a whole, and could help the story teller rise in terms of social status in the group to pass on their genes.

 

In the world today we should remember this. When we take a trip, we should consider our desire for sharing every detail, and we should consider whether we are sharing for others or for our own gain. We might still brag a bit about where we went, but we should do so with a conscious understanding of what we are doing, rather than denying our (potentially) true motives.

Most Trouble is Temporary

One thing I have been working on recently is better seeing and understanding the opportunities around me in my life. Often times when I have made a decision to do something, my choice has felt as though it is final, as if there is no going back. In reality, most of our choices are never really final. We can start over, go back, or try something different as if we had put on an outfit, walked outside, and decided t hat the weather wasn’t going to fit what we had grabbed.

 

This same idea of more opportunities than we realize also applies to how we think about success and failure. Things for me have often felt like an ultimatum, either I succeed at this thing in front of me, or I will never be successful in life. This is my only shot and if I don’t get it right this time, then I will never have another chance in the future. However, most of the time a failure is either a temporary set back or an opportunity for us to change course. Unless we are competing in the Olympics or are at the end of a college sports career, we will have more opportunities to find success. Ryan Holiday writes about this in his book Ego is the Enemy, “Only ego thinks embarrassment or failure are more than what they are. History is full of people who suffered abject humiliations yet recovered to have long and impressive careers.”

 

Yesterday I wrote about the ways that our work has become tied with our identity. As part of our identity, a workplace failure takes on new meaning, and almost grows to represent some type of moral failure of us as a human being. However, this pressure is just a story created by our ego. In reality we will have more avenues for success in the future and our failure is only permanent if we allow it to drag us down. We can experience terrible failure and grave mistakes and still take steps forward. We may need to be creative and find new avenues to move forward toward success, but we never need to live with failure in a way that prevents us from ever having goals and dreams in the future. Our Ego prefers to avoid potential failure altogether by never trying or by continually deflecting any criticism to others, so that we never have to accept any blame or reveal any flaw in our own skills and abilities. By failing to accept failure and by failing to move forward from failure, we stop ourselves from learning and probably put ourselves in situations where we make bad decisions and drive ourselves toward the failure we fear.

Time For Ourselves

Early in the book The Miracle of Mindfulness, by Thich Nhat Hanh, a story is recounted and includes a conversation between two people about time. The story specifically looks at how we think about our time and the story we tell ourselves about our time. Jumping right into the middle, the story goes:

 

“Then Allen said, “I’ve discovered a way to have a lot more time. In the past, I used to look at my time as if it were divided into several parts. One part I reserved for Joey, another part was for Sue, another part to help with Ana, another part for household work. The time left over I considered my own. I could read, write, do research, go for walks.” The story continues,
“But now I try not to divide time into parts anymore. I consider my time with Joey and Sue as my own time. When I help Joey with his homework, I try to find ways of seeing his time as my own time. I go through his lesson with him, sharing his presence and finding ways to be interested in what we do during that time. The time for him becomes my own time. The same with Sue. The remarkable thing is that now I have unlimited time for myself!”

 

I really like this story because it shows how much our understanding of time is influenced  by the stories we tell ourselves. There truly is not anything that breaks up the segments of time that we have throughout our days. There is no real barrier that we transition through as we go from one hour to the next and even real demarcated time shifts, like the shift from day to night, are gradual without an exact point where one can say, we have officially moved from day to night. With our day, we simply transition out of daylight into twilight, and then from twilight into night, and at a certain point we can all agree it is night time, but not at a specific identifiable point. What is more, the time of day at which these transitions occur constantly changes, not adhering to the stories well tell ourselves about 5 p.m., 7:30 p.m. or 9 p.m.

 

Recently I have been focusing on the stories we tell ourselves and the narratives we create for ourselves as we live our lives. I am fascinated by the fact that the reality we experience hinges on the interpretations and experiences we have within that reality. We construct narratives and stories that fit what we want to be true and live within these stories. Time is just another example of how the stories we tell impact the way we experience the world. Our views and perspectives of time take something that is truly concrete and fundamental in universe (even if not fully understood), the phenomenological ordering of events, and creates stories and structured ways of perceiving it.

 

Allan is simply pulling back the stories he tells himself as he goes about his days. He has recognized that there is nothing that determines that something is time for him versus time for anyone else. There is simply the moment and his experience and consciousness. That time is his as long as he does not try to force the time to conform to a specific narrative. Recognizing the power that narratives hold in our lives gives us a chance to feel more free as we recognize which parts of our day and existence are built from concrete facts and empiricism and which parts are built by our interpretation, imagination, and the stories we tell ourselves about what everything means.

What Coaching Does

Michael Bungay Stanier explains why coaching is such a positive force for those receiving coaching, and why we should invest more of our time and effort into learning to be a great coach. He writes, “Coaching can fuel the courage to step out beyond the comfortable and familiar, can help people learn from their experiences and can literally and metaphorically increase and help fulfill a person’s potential.” The three areas he identifies in which coaching makes an impact on our life are key to growth and development and are some of the hardest areas in life to harness and improve.

 

Bungay Stanier’s book, The Coaching Habit, demonstrates ways to develop other people and outlines the benefits that coaches, teams, and individuals receive from good coaching. As I wrote before, it is not just the individual who benefits from good coaching, but also the coach who develops a stronger team and is able to empower the individual to do and take on more. Good coaching maximizes the individual and helps them take what are often scary steps toward improvement.

 

When I think about the three areas that Bungay Stanier identifies in good coaching, I think about how anyone becomes successful and how often as individuals we fail to take big steps toward our goals and fail to learn from our experiences. Research has shown that many people, particularly people of color, do not actually apply their talents to the best of their ability and do not step out to take on new and larger roles for themselves. I study political science and one of things that researches have found is that there are many good candidates out there from minority populations, but that many of them never think they have a chance and never run for office. A simple invitation and a little coaching to encourage political participation makes a big difference in terms of who runs for office and who steps out of their comfort zone to try running for office. Simply on our own it is hard to step forward and drive toward the things we want when the future is muddy and complicated.

 

I think we also fail to learn well from our experiences. It is not that we are ignorant, self-centered, and think we are flawless, but rather that life is busy and distracting, and pausing to think critically of an event from our past is hard to do. As Bungay Stanier explains, good coaches ask more questions than they provide answers, and their questions are often reflective in nature. Good coaches encourage us to think about our experiences in a way that we normally would not, and they help us make new connections and discoveries from the things we have done and experienced. Encouraging us to take chances and helping us think more critically about our past is what allows us to unlock our potential, and it is why good coaching is so valuable and should be practiced by more people.

The Traveling Experience

I am not good at traveling. I find it difficult to begin planning far enough in advance to travel and I don’t know how to put together and organize a travel budget. Colin Wright on  the other hand, is an excellent traveler and has lived across the world based on the suggested locations of his fans and audience. His most recent book, Come Back Frayed, is a reflection of his time in the Philippines where he explored the worlds we build for ourselves and looks at his experiences moving through different cultures. Looking specifically at travel, he writes, “A key part of the traveling experience is leaving yourself open to possibilities you can’t imagine yet and recognizing that there are many unknowns you’ll likely never know. But you still scramble to find as many of them as possible, despite that knowledge.”

 

I really enjoy what Wright has to say about travel, experiencing new places, and being in unfamiliar surroundings. I am truly motivated by his work to become a better traveler and to have a chance to learn about and experience new cultures, but I am still challenged by my own lack of planning. I recognize how much I simply don’t know about other people and cultures just within the United States, and I have a great desire to go to new places and meet new people.

 

I love the idea seeing new possibilities through travel. Engaging with new people and seeing the ways that different areas of the world interact gives us a sense of what is truly possible, beyond the existing realities of the place we currently live. Having a chance to simply walk and experience a new place is something I greatly enjoy, and Wright highlights the benefits that come from exploration.

 

For me, routines are powerful drivers to help me achieve my goals of fitness, surviving graduate school, and performing well at work, but they do limit my ability to plan for exploration through travel. I become so comfortable and feel successful within my routines here in Reno, Nevada that I don’t remember to explore and venture into the world beyond. Wright’s quote, especially for someone who strives to be genuinely curious about the world, is a great reminder of the importance of travel and spontaneity. His writing helps explain the benefit of changing our perspective through changing our actual physical and cultural place in the world.