Essays

An eclectic collection of posts on secular topics.

Why We Believe

          As a psychologist I have often asked myself, why people seem to easily commit to belief systems? This predisposition is clearly evident in a wide range of human activities. It includes things as diverse as religions, conspiracy theories, political ideologies and pseudo-scientific theories.

Albert Ellis’ rational-emotive theory (see Chapter One, page 19) makes a useful distinction between what he calls rational and irrational beliefs. The former have some objective basis and depend upon evidence. The latter have no empirical basis and their adherents usually have a strong emotional investment in the belief, which is largely supported by faith in its correctness. Ellis’ theory rests upon two assumptions about human nature. First, we have a biological predisposition toward irrational thinking, e.g., over generalization and illogical association. Second, one of the major tasks of socialization is to establish a system of beliefs. It is a major developmental task because belief systems help us interpret our experiences, organize our thoughts and observation and make decisions to act.

The second assumption helps to explain why we adopt beliefs systems. They are to varying degrees useful schema for imposing order on our world, understanding the events in our lives and guiding our behavior. The first assumption indicates why many of the belief systems we adopt are irrational and without empirical foundation.

What might be the basis for the assumed predisposition for irrational thinking? Michael Gazzaniga found evidence, in his research on the brain, for what he calls the Left Brain Interpreter (LBI). Gazzaniga thinks that the LBI is a function of the brain acquired through evolutionary selection pressures. The LBI evolved because being able to organize and explain experience has survival value. Having an explanation for a phenomenon, even an incorrect explanation, makes it easier to interpret and respond quickly. If our beliefs lead to successful responses more often than not, this success would give an ability to use explanations to quickly evaluate and respond survival value. While it is often the case that our beliefs lead to successful responses, such success doesn’t necessarily make them valid. However, we usually take success as evidence confirming the correctness of our belief. For example, if you believe that people who look different aren’t trustworthy and are potentially dangerous, you will avoid contact with such people. If you then find that you are seldom assaulted, you will probably attribute your safety to avoiding contact with people who look different from you. Of course, the absence of assault experiences may be due to entirely different reasons but it will be attributed to the belief that motivated your avoidance behavior.

Since we have a strong disposition to formulate explanatory beliefs about our experiences, why do we so often formulate inaccurate and incorrect beliefs or explanations? This happens in part because evolutionary pressures favored those who quickly formulated explanations about experiences. The day-to-day struggle by our predecessors to survive allowed few opportunities for reflection. In the evolutionary environment that led to human beings the quick-witted were usually survivors and the reflective were often someone’s dinner. Thus, we acquired a disposition to formulate beliefs or explanations on the basis of little or no information and what information we had was frequently incorrect.

Frank Barron, a creativity researcher, pointed out many years ago that his research suggested that an inability to explain something made most people anxious or uneasy, which of course provides an incentive (anxiety reduction) to conjure up an explanation or accept some proposed explanation. This is possibly a motivational component to the evolved predisposition to create explanations. Barron found that most people would accept almost any explanation rather than live with uncertainty. He also found that among creative people the opposite was generally true. In short, a small minority of people would rather live with uncertainty than accept a dubious explanation. Barron would probably agree with Steven Pinker, a contemporary psychologist, who has suggested that the human mind frequently functions less like a chief executive and more like a “spin doctor” that is always busy creating post hoc explanations for our decisions and actions.

 There are many examples of this near compulsion to create explanations in human history. One need only think about the many, varied and incorrect beliefs that societies have created to explain natural events, e.g., floods, volcanic eruptions, failed crops, plagues, etc. In many cases, these beliefs have led to behavior that, from our perspective, was irrational. An irrational belief arises in one or more individuals and if it has appeal is adopted by others and often becomes a cultural belief that is perpetuated through the socialization process.

Ellis contends that our tendency to think irrationally results in distortions, flaws, and inaccuracies in our thinking. Parents, peers, community institutions (e.g., schools, churches, political parties, etc.), and the media can introduce distortions into our belief systems. Not only are distortions possible in commonly held beliefs, but personal aspects of our belief system are also prone to distortions that result from our own faulty thinking. Cognitive psychologist Yaakov Kareev’s research has identified one particularly important source of distortion in human thinking. His research has demonstrated a tendency in humans to find positive cause-and-effect associations among events. In fact, he found that people are more likely to see a positive association between two observations than a negative association even when a valid negative association is present. When we attempt to understand an event, we can usually only identify a few of the apparent components of the event. Further, due to limitations in our working memory capacity, we can only consider a small number of the apparent components at one time. Kareev and his associates have shown that our strong predisposition to find positive associations between things that appear to be associated with an event increase as the number of variables in working memory decreases.

There are differences between people in working memory capacity due to differences in cognitive abilities and due to differences in temperament, which make some people more susceptible than others to seeing false connections between events. Anyone who is susceptible to anxiety may experience a reduction in working memory capacity because anxiety has been shown to reduce working memory capacity. As the size of working memory decreases the likelihood of finding false positive associations increases. A predisposition to find positive associations among things we observe and experience has positive benefits, such as, making it easier for a young child to make associations between vocal sounds and environmental stimuli during language acquisition. It also makes it possible and even likely that we will develop cause-and-effect associations that are erroneous. This tendency to make erroneous cause-and-effect associations is sometimes called magical thinking and is most clearly reflected in superstitious and delusional behavior. In addition to our susceptibility to magical thinking, there are many other common errors in thinking that we are prone to make. In fact, Massimo Piattelli-Palmarini has investigated and compiled a catalog of errors in thinking common to human cognition.

Finally, Gazzaniga indicates that once a belief is established it is difficult to change it. There are several reasons beliefs are difficult to change. First, we find it easier to think of evidence for rather than against a personal belief; that is, validating evidence is easier to recall than contradictory evidence. Second, we also have a strong tendency to look for evidence that supports our beliefs and to ignore evidence that does not. Third, when we encounter ambiguous evidence we are disposed to interpret that evidence so that it supports our beliefs. Finally, when we are confronted with evidence that directly conflicts with our beliefs, we are inclined to discredit the evidence rather than change our beliefs. The single best antidote for irrational thinking that we have developed is the scientific method, when properly applied.

Bioethics and Life Extension*

          We all have a vested interest in matters related to biotechnology. In particular, we should be especially interested in how government and government advisory bodies are looking at biotechnology. Whether we like it or not, our future is in the hands of government and government advisory bodies that determine through legislation and regulation what is or is not permitted. A good example of how legislation and regulation impact us as individuals is the activity of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) [See FDA Review]. This agency literally has the power of life and death over each of us through the exercise of its authority to regulate what we consume whether it is nutritional or medicinal in nature and without regard to what our personal wishes may be. For example, the FDA has denied terminally ill patients access to experimental drugs because they may have dangerous side effects. What could be more dangerous than a terminal illness? I spent some time on the site for the President’s Council on Bioethics because I think that this advisory body will significantly impact future legislation on and regulation of biotechnology.

One area that has been a concern of and subject to the attention of the President’s Council on Bioethics (PCB) is the divide between what it terms enhancement as opposed to therapy. This distinction is made in a book length report on ethical considerations in biotechnology (Beyond Therapy) that was released in 2003. Therapy is viewed as current and future interventions directed at curing or controlling diseases (e.g., AIDS) and correcting defects (e.g., cystic fibrosis) as traditionally understood. Enhancement on the other hand is viewed as potential interventions directed at improving natural conditions (e.g., life span) and abilities (e.g., memory). The PCB addresses age-retardation and life extension in a working paper prepared for its members (Ageless Bodies). What the PCB has to say on life extension has the potential to impact our personal efforts to enjoy and extend our lives.

One of the concepts mentioned in the discussion of bioethics by the PCB is the precautionary principle. “Over the past few decades, environmentalists, forcefully making the case for respecting Mother Nature, have urged upon us a “precautionary principle” regarding all our interventions into the natural world. Go slowly, they say, you can ruin everything. The point is certainly well taken in the present context… (Emphasis added)

The precautionary principle asserts that any action or policy that is potentially harmful, especially to the environment or to human health, should not be taken unless there is a scientific consensus that there is no danger. Thus, the burden of proof is on those who propose an action. Critics of this principle point out that since science cannot prove a negative, the criterion stipulated in the principle would essentially give regulators absolute discretionary power. Thus, a powerful tool for blocking scientific progress in many areas, including biotechnology and nanotechnology would be placed in the hands of groups with political and ideological rather than scientific motivations.

We should be alert to attempts to incorporate the precautionary principle into legislation and regulations that bear on research and development in biomedicine and related fields. If this principle should become the guiding light for government regulation of biotechnology research, it may be much longer than any of us have imagined before advanced biotechnology techniques for life extension are developed and implemented, if ever.

A second, distinction made by the PCB is between the impact of life extension on individuals and the impact on society. The Commission admits that there is likely much potential good to be gained by individuals from biotechnology. “Powerful as some of these concerns are, however, from the point of view of the individual considered in isolation the advantages of age-retardation may well be deemed to outweigh the dangers.”

The Commission goes on to take the view that the impact of life extension and biological enhancement in the aggregate of individuals comprising society are another matter altogether. The PCB contends that society composed of citizens who are the beneficiaries of life extension may suffer as a whole even though each individual is personally benefited. “…If individuals did not age, if their functions did not decline and their horizons did not narrow, it might just be that societies would age far more acutely, and would experience their own sort of senescence—a hardening of the vital social pathways, a stiffening and loss of flexibility, a setting of the ways and views, a corroding of the muscles and the sinews…”

The Commission spends some considerable time lamenting the possible corruption by biotechnology of what it means to be human. The essence of this concern is captured in these comments from the conclusion to the working paper referred to above, “…Is human life, as our ancestors understood it and as our faiths and our philosophies describe it, really just a problem to be solved? The anti-aging medicine of the not-so-distant future would treat what we have usually thought of as the whole, the healthy, human life as a condition to be healed. It therefore presents us with a questionable notion both of full humanity, and of the proper ends of medicine (Emphasis added).”

The former Chairman of the PCB, Leon Kass, has offered the following opinions about the mortality of man, 1) “Mortality as such is not our defect, nor is bodily immortality our goal…the human soul yearns for, longs for, aspires to some condition, some state, some goal toward which our earthly activities are directed but which cannot be attained in earthly life…Man longs not so much for deathlessness as for wholeness, wisdom, goodness, and godliness.” 2) “The finitude of human life is a blessing to every individual, whether he knows it or not.” (Both quoted in Liberation Biology by Ronald Bailey. Apparently, for Kass it is not possible to have a truly meaningful and satisfying life while bound to the material world. Thus, Kass would appear to have no qualms about pressing on you the blessings of a short life so that your soul can achieve godliness.

In Liberation Biology, libertarian author Ronald Bailey points out that bio-conservative opposition to biotechnology can be found on both the left and right ends of the political spectrum. Joining Leon Kass on the political right are such figures as John Hopkins University professor Francis Fukuyama. Fukuyama has been prominent thinker among neo-conservatives but has drifted somewhat out of that orbit recently as he has become disenchanted with the war in Iraq. In his book, Our Posthuman Future: Consequences of the Biotechnology Revolution, Fukuyama argues that biotechnology will lead to radical inequality and poison the political process. Neo-conservative editor of the Weekly Standard William Kristol also fears biotechnology and supports restrictions on its development. Kristol acts on his fears in various ways including giving bio-conservatives a platform such as the following book. Writing about the stem cell debate in The Future is Now: America Confronts the New Genetics edited by William Kristol and Eric Cohen, Fukuyama claims “…the need [is] for an institutional framework for the regulation of all human biotechnology, and not just research funded by the federal government.” When asked in an interview if the government had a right to tell its citizens that they have to die, Fukuyama replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

The political left has also produced a number of bio-conservatives and activists against biotechnology. One of the earliest to emerge on the left was Foundation for Economic Trends president and author, Jeremy Rifkin. In his book The Biotech Century, Rifkin presents a catalog of reasons why we should fear biotechnology and argues that in spite of obvious potential benefits the risks far outweigh the benefits and development of biotechnology must be restrained. Another left-wing, bio-conservative is Marcy Darnovsky the Associate Executive Director of the Center for Genetics and Society based in Oakland, CA. Darnovsky, among other things, is concerned with the social justice aspects of biomedicine and argues that “…we need ways to apply the brakes…” on designer medicine and designer babies. She argues that these are technologies that will only benefit the wealthy and leave the rest of us as second-class citizens. She suggests that there are far too many more mundane problems that need resources to waste them on low priority projects such as biomedicine. A final example from the left is Daniel Callahan, Co-founder of the Hasting Center, which has a focus on bioethics. The following quote illustrates his thinking on life extension; “There is no known social good coming from the conquest of death…The worst possible way to resolve this issue is to leave it to individual choice.”

Advocates for life extension should adopt as a guiding principle the words of John Stuart Mill; “Over himself, over his own body and mind, the individual is sovereign.” One might ask, which political philosophy best embodies the above principle? In my view, the libertarian philosophy comes the closest to advocating Mill’s principle. Unfortunately, the libertarian political philosophy has not had much success in making the transition to politics. From the above discussion it is clear that there is potential opposition to life extension from both the left and the right. Thus, life extension advocates should take care to support candidates from any political party whose views are consistent with their objectives. They should also be watchful for legislation that could serve to block progress toward life extension and actively lobby against it. One certainly cannot afford to ignore politics!

*This essay reflects minor modifications to the original, which was Published in Long Life the in-house journal of the Immortalist Society.