Gene Expression

Pretend that ghosts don’t exist

A week ago I interviewed cogntive psychologist Justin L. Barrett. Dr. Barrett studies religion as a natural phenomenon, and I asked about the nature of individuals who are atheists. He responded:

As self-proclaimed atheist Jesse Bering has observed it can be very hard to identify true atheists. He even suspects that they comprise a very tiny number of people. By true atheists, I mean people that consistently hold no belief (cognitive commitment that motivates behavior) in superhuman agency. Lots of people say they don’t believe in superhuman agency (including gods and ghosts) but will still modify their behaviors around cemeteries on spooky nights (“just in case”).

I’m not scared of cemeteries. When I was in high school a friend of mine, a fellow unbeliever, would always ask that we meet in the cemetery which lay between our houses. I would wait behind a gravestone (usually we’d meet at dusk), and jump out when he walked past. My friend would run on a straight shot all the way back to his house. I must have done this about a dozen times, it was great fun. He knew what I was going to do, and he told me he’d prepared himself so he wouldn’t run when I would jump out from my hiding spot, but my friend could never control himself and he just always bolted.

Just because I’m not scared of cemeteries doesn’t mean that I don’t have fears. When I walk home at night sometimes it’s dark out on the streets I get nervous. I know rationally that there isn’t anything to fear, I don’t live in a dangerous town, and the streets are familiar to me. But when the wind rustles some dried leaves I will look around without hesitating. What am I scared of? I don’t know, demons in the dark? I don’t believe in demons. I can jog myself out of the fear by imagining that the sun is out, I just visualize the streets as they are on a hot summer’s day, and the fears evoporate. Fear is a state of mind.

So where do these fears come from? Some of you might assume that fear of the night is something we’re taught by our parents. If that’s true, then it has a powerful functional role in that to my knowledge all children fear the night more than the day (correct me here if you know of many individuals who welcome the night and dread the day as youngsters). If something has a strong functional implication then that suggests over the long term evolution will select for that bias so that we are “preloaded” with hair trigger reflexes toward a particular set of inputs. When it comes to the fear of the night I can tell myself that rationally I have nothing to fear, but my inner engines are still huffing and puffing along, spewing out “scared! scared! scared!” signals because of the sensory inputs. I can mask this tendency by generating pseudo-input from within.

How does this relate to Justin Barrett’s comments above? Cognitive psychologists like Barrett would contend that God-belief, acceptance of the existence of supernatural agents, is plausible because our mental architecture is biased to detect signs of such agency. Just as I have irrational a priori sensitivities to the coming of the darkness, so most humans have a priori intuitions and sensibilities which easily accept the existence of divine supernatural beings operating in the background. God-belief can just be thought of as a flavor of the same “problem” as belief in the law of small numbers, you can scientifically, rationally and empirically show that x has a low probability of being likely, but in your bones you feel otherwise.

A stark example of this problem can be illustrated by a visual illusion:

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You know that the squares in the middle are the same color, but nonetheless your visual cortex often doesn’t send you the signals you “should” be getting. It is encapsulated and insensitive to conscious input.

As human beings, I suspect we have many of these subprocesses working and humming away without our knowledge. They simmer under the surface and operate in the shadows of our implicit informational soup. These background processes, and their tugs and influences, are why I believe humans often behave in an inconsistent manner. Consistency is a function of the reflective mind, a working out of inferences from rock hard axioms. The background processes are ignorant of such subtlies. Some of them, like our visual perception, or our hunger pangs, are clearly decoupled from conscious tinkering. Just because you “tell” yourself that you aren’t hungry doesn’t mean you aren’t hungry. But I think these subprocesses are at work in many other situations.

Why is this important? Because I think many conscious decisions are not all that conscious, and that an acknowledgement of our non-conscious (“offline”) cognitive processes can help us in think more clearly and communicate more precisely. I’m not talking in a vague Freudian Id, Ego and Subconscious sense. Nor am I wedded to an explicitly biological massive modularity. Rather, I’m trying to assert that cognitive integration is loose at best, and a lot of our mental processes work on autopilot and we don’t notice and have a bias in attributing all of our impulses and acts to conscious volition.

Cognitive psychologists, especially those biased toward evolutionary psychology, often speak of “mental organs.” They refer to folk psychology, folk biology, intuitive physics or social intelligence. These integrated mental organs operate somewhat independently, and sometimes at cross-purposes. I’ve seen these at work many times, and sometimes I exploit them in arguments. Rhetoric is not won by logic alone, it leverages innate biases and mental blind spots.

Consider this post over at my other weblog, for instance, see the post We Have Met the Enemy, and He Is Us. It dealt with trying to understand Islamic fundamentalists in a rational way. To be delicate about it many of the readers flipped out and turned into animals. Just remembering how people behaved makes me so disgusted that I want to withdraw from the internet entirely. The rage, anger and emotional response overwhelmed the rational faculties of many individuals. It wasn’t a total waste, it gave me information on who I should consider for future cullings of the readership and which animals I have to keep an eye on in the future. It isn’t like I don’t have personal feelings, and it isn’t like I don’t give vent to those feelings on occasion…but there is a time and place for everything. There are times when the heart must be set aside in its own interests, to build a better, more just and secure society sometimes it is best to put to one side our passions and cooly do the sums. This does not mean that the doing the sums is superior, better or more worthy of our consideration, but a further appreciation of the Good Things in life which our aesthetic and emotional sensibilities draw upon are preconditioned on a rational and secure ordering of the world around us.

On the other side, look at the recent debate over immigration, legal and illegal. Recently I participated in the discussion on the Radio Open Source message boards. I listened to the program. Hearing the stories of the last two individuals, young illegal immigrants who were attempting to scrape together money for college and justify in state tuition, I felt for them. As a human being I wish them well, my heart rejoices in their victories. But this is an issue where sometimes the heart needs to be set aside, we must do the sums.

I noted above that humans are not totally consistent because our mental subprocesses work at cross-purposes. Some of those subprocesses are innate and hard-wired (eg., early language acquisition), while others are learned and internalized through repetition and built atop of simpler mental architectures. As human beings illegal immigrants often have inspiring stories, and our empathy cannot but be triggered. If you ask yourself “What would I do?” you know you would do as they do in the same circumstances. I believe humans do have an innate sense of justice, fairness and fellow feeling, these aren’t learned, they were adaptively beneficial in a social species with a high degree of cognitive functioning.

And these mental biases result in strange comments on occasion. I’ve been to a CATO Institute event, and I consider David Boaz an acquaintance of mine. If I am anything politically I am a libertarian, though I am a tepid one at best. When I read some of the comments by ostensibly Left-liberal individuals about “the economy needs cheap labor” or that “we won’t pay for more expensive groceries” or “we can’t stop population growth” I am a bit confused. I’m also one who read The Population Bomb, have seen my liberal friends buy organic and bemoan the endless drive for economic efficiency and worship at the feet of the God of the Market. And yet all of a sudden good liberals have become Cassandras of economic inevitability, comparative advantage of labor, and so on. What’s going on?

It’s all about the little brown people and their struggles. Overpopulation is bad, but weighed against the quality of life of little brown people it seems less of a concern. A living wage is important, but the little brown people need to be able to offer lower wages to compete against more productive American labor (or compensate for their negatives in terms of language fluency, etc.). Manicured suburban lawns, veritable fields of herbaceous elysium, and waste water are displays of gross affluenza in riotous excess, but little brown people need that work. One thing I always point out that is that this emphasis, this concern for little brown people loses the Benthamite forest in the clutter of nearby trees. If you look at a metric of misery, infant mortality for example, you will see that much of Latin America isn’t that badly off compared to South Asia or Africa, but these populations are not benefiting from the opportunity to work in the fields and restaurants (there are many South Asians in the USA, but even the cab drivers are often the brothers of middle class professionals and businesspeople). I pointed out on Radio Open Source that Mexico has a per capita GDP of $10,000, while Bangladesh, where I was born, has one of $2,000, and I would be happy to bring many Bangladeshis here to do the dishes, mow the lawns and other such work that “needs to be done.” The utilitarian calculus seems clear. The suffering in places like The Democratic Republic of Congo is on the order of millions, it seems that if we are to open the gates of this fat nation to the world we should prioritize those in most need, not individuals from middle income countries. But those from the middle income countries are here, they are flesh and blood before our face.

It isn’t abstract laws which fire our passions, it is human beings. We are a nation of laws, not of men, but the ancient Chinese turned their backs on abstract Legalism for the benevolence of cultivated Confucian mandarins. A polity of laws, like Rome or the United States, is highly unstable and is contingent upon the reverence that the populace renders to the law, the abject idolatry and faith which abstraction triggers because of its association with custom, tradition and history. The death of 3,000 Americans on 9/11 resulted in a significant fraction of Americans on the Right (including me) losing sense of proportionality, of wishing to smash the world because of our loss, our rage and fury. The passions which we lived for consumed us and now we find ourselves in a quagmire in Iraq, throwing lives down into a bottomless pit of our hopes and dreams dashed. Similarly the laudable identification with the down-trodden leads many liberals to echo the rhetoric of neoclassical utility maximizers for the love of humanity if not the God of the Market.

Where does it leave us? We all have values, opinions and interests. We are all somewhat modular machines, subprocesses buttressing our opinions and confounding our chains of causation. Sometimes we are a bit sneaky, using tools which we find distasteful, making arguments because of their expediency & utility rather than their “rightness.” There is a time for passion, for feeling, for appreciation and unreflective living. The ghosts of our lives hover around us, but sometimes we need to close our eyes and pretend as if they don’t exist. Dancing with the ghosts might be the end of life itself, but, there is also a time for dispassion and calculation of the sums. Is a temporary prioritization of the latter just to the ghosts? Well, that depends on what ghosts you hold dear, for they come in all flavors.


  1. #1 Bokneckht
    April 9, 2006

    “I believe humans do have an innate sense of justice, fairness and fellow feeling, these aren’t learned.”

    I like that visual illusion:)
    Yes, i agree with that statement but it actually means very little in the real world.The problem is lies in whom one considers a fellow, & what one sees as just & fair.
    Usually, the fellow feeling only applies to family, friends, the in-group, in other words, a very small bunch. Young children will sometimes bully & taunt each other to no end without intervention. If humans do have an innate sense of justice, how do the profiteers not sense the injustice in the system’s gears(gears that revolve for them disproportionately), or the middle/low class not sense the unfairness & injustice of the system that exploits them almost for life? If we innately know what is just & fair, why do we, in large measure, allow the rich to control our lives, for most of our lives? They(capitalists) either do not feel guilt, or they do but is insignificant in effect . I believe the the capitalist is in a sense in the same position as the slave owner, & is perfectly aware of this as well. You’ll even hear slaves say “i am a slave because this is what God wanted & i must obey my master”, as slaves in Mauritania or India, Thailand believe. Our intelligence & acceptance of ideas in a way make us the weakest, dumbest, most self-defeating of the apes. You can get a man to believe that injustice is good for him, but you’d never get a lower ape to. Memes can make men vulnerable & weak, accepting, tolerating, revering & unquestioning the wicked.

    “The death of 3,000 Americans on 9/11 resulted in a significant fraction of Americans on the Right(including me) losing sense of proportionality, of wishing to smash the world because of our loss, our rage and fury. The passions which we lived for consumed us and now we find ourselves in a quagmire in Iraq, throwing lives down into a bottomless pit of our hopes and dreams dashed.”

    Yea, hopes & dreams. Soldiers(US Gov. Robots) are yet more examples of why humans seem like the dumbest of apes. Lower Apes don’t have unrealistic hopes & dreams. Lower apes don’t overestimate(positive illusions) their strength in war. Lower apes don’t throw away their lives for “the state” either(a state which really “uses” them more than anything else). What do you honestly believe this war was about anyway?
    The very men who dictate to us that war is necessary are the same men who’d never dream of the Armed Forces & their offspring in the same sentence. Yes, they’re very patriotic, but only with others’ children. And the reason we now find ourselves in a quagmire in Iraq has not to do with national threat, justice, terrorists, or the removal a dictator, but with the interests & passions of the omnipotent Businessman & his cronies in government, i believe.

  2. #2 Corkscrew
    April 10, 2006

    Thank you for producing one of those rare essays that leaves the world making a bit more sense.

  3. #3 matoko_incipient_theist
    April 10, 2006

    yes, bokneckht, but you also have to understand that mostly the god-in-the-genes benevolent traits don’t extend outside your immediate kinship group or memetic tribe. ;)

    razib, i found the” We have met the Enemy” thread incredibly hopeful myself, in that some of us, at least, were able to to use scientific observation and analysis to support Matt’s thesis. I think science may yet save us all.