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Kindred Spirits in a Pathless Land — Part Ten


Guest post by Kindred Spirits

Part One, Part Two, Part Three, Part Four, Part Five, Part Six, Part Seven, Part Eight, Part Nine

The Vagaries of Religious Experience

Psychology experiments showing how logic can be short-circuited in our brains:

The Vagaries of Religious Experience, Edge, 2005,by Daniel Gilbert

…First, explanations that rely on the inexplicable are not explanations at all. They have the form of explanations, but they do not have the content. Yet, psychology experiments reveal that people are often satisfied by empty form. For instance, when experimenters approached people who were standing in line at a photocopy machine and said, “Can I get ahead of you?” the typical answer was no. But when they added to the end of this request the words “because I need to make some copies,” the typical answer was yes. The second request used the word “because” and hence sounded like an explanation, and the fact that this explanation told them nothing that they didn’t already know was oddly irrelevant.

In another study, experimenters approached people in a library, handed them a card with a $1 coin attached, and then walked away. Some people received the card on the top, and some received the card on the bottom:



Although the two extra questions on the bottom card —- “Who are we?” and “Why do we do this?” — provide no information whatsoever, they do give one the sense that puzzling questions have been posed and then answered. The results of the study showed that the people who received the bottom card were, in fact, less curious and less delighted twenty minutes after receiving it than were people who received the top card because only the latter felt that something wonderful and inexplicable had happened. In short, what William Paley did not realize is that statements such as “God made it” can satiate the appetite for explanation without providing any nutritional value.

Read the full article for additional examples of how our brain sees agency in random events.

Why are We Happy?

Another example of how many of our projections of how we would react to events turn out to be wildly wrong is a TED talk by Gilbert titled The Surprising Science of Happiness:

Video Link

Or, for those that prefer reading, there is an interactive script of Gilbert’s speech. (If you click on any phrase, it takes you to that part of the video):

From field studies to laboratory studies, we see that winning or losing an election, gaining or losing a romantic partner, getting or not getting a promotion, passing or not passing a college test, on and on, have far less impact, less intensity and much less duration than people expect them to have. This almost floors me — a recent study showing how major life traumas affect people suggests that if it happened over three months ago, with only a few exceptions, it has no impact whatsoever on your happiness.

And of course, in psychological studies, there is the infamous Milgram Experiment, and the Stanford Prison Experiment, neither of which I’ll get in to, but you’re welcome to follow the hot links for more information

The overall point though is this: how our brains actually work and make decisions is not nearly as logical as we’d like to think it is. We’re all subject to these strange decision processes, and are largely unaware of them.


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    “Although the two extra questions on the bottom card —- “Who are we?” and “Why do we do this?” — provide no information whatsoever, they do give one the sense that puzzling questions have been posed and then answered.”

    “In short, what William Paley did not realize is that statements such as “God made it” can satiate the appetite for explanation without providing any nutritional value.”

    I read this yesterday and already thought: this is pretty interesting; I should comment when I’ve got a bit of time. Imagine my suprise a few minutes ago, at reading the following: “Richard Bandler suggested that one of the major blocks to creativity was the feeling of knowing you are right. When we think we are absolutely right, we stop seeking new information. To be right is to be certain, and to be certain stops us from being curious. Curiosity and wonder are at the heart of all learning.” (Healing the shame that binds us, John Bradshaw, 8-9)

    To me this is a sort of bittersweet. On the one hand, I love being creative and learning new things and I believe my curiosity got me out of fundamentalism and keeps me open to all sorts of possibilities and information. On the other hand, as I am preparing a new guest post myself on a related subject, I do find the lack of certainty I now have since losing my faith quite disconcerting at times. And so I would like to find something new, not a religion, but a world view or philosophy. Something larger than “I’m here on earth at this moment and will die when it’s my time,” something beyond that.

    The feeling that there isn’t something beyond that just makes me sad. So I’ve discovered absurdism (don’t know that much about it yet) and am thinking of writing a little about that, about absurdism, nihilism, existentialism, and the differences between them. Basically when I’m more gloomy, I lean towards nihilism and even though I don’t want that to be the actual truth, I’m inclined to think that it actually may be. It just isn’t enough for me; I sort of refuse to accept that (still). Perhaps it’s because, for me personally, nihilism sounds much too close to depression and suicidal ideation. That may just be my association though, as I also do like its clarity. Anyway, that’s for another discussion.

    But, in short, my search/want/longing for certainty is big and Christianity provided that. On the other hand, my curiosity is at times inexhaustible, so there’s that too 🙂 I guess I’m swinging between the two and perhaps that will not change (and perhaps it shouldn’t as they are both valid needs.)

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      Melody – I concur that the desire for certainty can be compelling. Perhaps the key is learning to simply enjoy the process of discovery for what it is, and not view it as a means to an end. Scientific discovery provides us a nice example here in that most scientists realize much of their work will be superseded or even invalidated. Yet many remain fulfilled with the journey itself, and not the destination. And I can’t disagree with that attitude.

      After all, the best available evidence tells us that space is expanding at a rate that moves objects farther apart at speeds vastly exceeding that of light; and that rate of expansion appears to be accelerating. The most probable scenario this leads us to is that over the next several billion years (assuming we are still around) more and more galaxies will slip beyond the cosmic horizon, never to be witnessed again. As our observational bubble continues to collapse upon us, and as long as we are generally progressing technologically, we should at some point reach the limits of scientific knowledge. Everything there is to know within the observable universe will be known, and everything beyond that will remain the realm of speculation and superstition. On that day the journey of scientific discovery will come to an end. The destination really holds no ultimate promise in itself. And then what?

      So I say just enjoy the journey of discovery for the moments it provides you. If you can be content with this I think it will go a long way in settling your uneasiness with uncertainty.

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        I’m still learning to see the journey as as important as the destination. I like learning new things and ideas but the longing for certainty is strong as well.

        Another reason may be that, for me, certainty and safety sort of go together and that, therefore, uncertainty is also seen as risky by me. Perhaps that’s part of it too. So it’s like I want to find my way to safer grounds again. That when I find a new ‘certainty,’ I can be more at ease again, something like that I think.

        I should probably not associate those two things so much with each other, certainty and safety that is, at least when it comes to ideas and philosophy. When it comes to picking a car, yes, they do belong together 😉

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    “…how our brains actually work and make decisions is not nearly as logical as we’d like to think it is. We’re all subject to these strange decision processes, and are largely unaware of them.”

    I’m an out and out determinist, in that I don’t believe we have any ”free will’, of the traditionally perceived type (libertarian free will) whatsoever. This isn’t the same as being fatalistic, it doesn’t have to include nihilism (I am not in the least a nihilist), and it doesn’t impact in any way on the way I live my life. But reading this post, which takes us into fascinating areas involved in understanding the mind, includes many hints at why we can’t believe our senses.

    I’m often reminded of interesting statistics with these sorts of discussion. Such as this; if there are more than 23 people in a room then the odds are greater than even that two share the same birthday (though not year). This is counterintuitive and runs completely contrary to what people reason; in fact, many just plain deny it, yet the statistic is absolutely right.

    There’s the McGurk effect

    Watch it and try to defeat your senses fooling you, because you won’t be able to. The word ‘bar’ changes to being heard as ‘far’ simply because the guy’s mouth is articulating ‘far’ yet the actual sound remains ‘bar’.

    These, and many more effects, show to me that much of what we perceive as real is illusion. We cannot rely entirely on our senses, though of course most of the time they work. This leads me to wonder where ‘consciousness’ fits into the equation and I’ve started to wonder if it isn’t just a sort of ‘barometer’ whereby we try and make sense of what we are doing. So instead of consciousness being something that enables us to control our lives, and guide our decisions, it’s actually just a television set, that enables us to watch what our brains are doing with our bodies.

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    Kindred Spirits

    Re: McGurk effect
    Interesting! I hadn’t seen that before. As you note, there are a lot of these types of small affects that psychologists can observe. You have to work rather diligently to overcome these effects. Furthermore, there’s massive amounts of propaganda being directed at you — religion, politics, nationalism, etc — that make it difficult.

    Re: Consciousness
    I suspect there is a subconscious that is also involved, that cannot be directly controlled but can be indirectly influenced by how we focus our attention. Meditation and solitude are one way to attempt to unwind some of the propaganda we’ve been fed. Ceremonies and symbolism can also be used to focus our attention and thoughts too.

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