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  1. #46
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    Quote Originally Posted by Scott Bakker
    We human beings like to simply have our beliefs, not challenge them. In fact, for a great number of us challenging beliefs is a stigma, taboo, or outright sin.

    We live in a world where about six billion people think that they, by and large, have a pretty good handle on how things are. They know 'what's what,' even though none of them can seem to agree about even the most basic things. So what makes us so special? Why do we think, each of us, that we are somehow holding the magical lottery ticket?

    Wherever one human being kills another, you find a difference in belief, so in a sense you could say this is THE most important question humanity faces. At the same time, nowhere in the vast majority of public education systems, will you find a single course, let alone unit, on belief formation. What the hell could be going on here?
    It's been a while since I've been around, but I felt like taking a shot at this.

    Being an American high schooler, I have an inside perspective on the educational system, and trust me, I could write pages on its failings. However, I think the single largest problem is the emphasis on standardized testing. Sure, it's admirable to want all students to have an adequate grasp of basic english and mathematical concepts, but there is so much lost in exchange for that.

    The social sciences, to me, are the most important thing that should be studied. Whether it be history, or belief formation, those are the subjects that have direct relevance to the actions of the student. We have people who have absolutely no idea how the government works, yet feel they're entitled to have a say in who runs it. There are people who think that Africa is a country, yet think they know the answers to the world's problems. There are people who have absolute religious convictions, yet have never so much as questioned the belief system that formed them.

    That disturbs me. Of course, there is no way to change it, because the educational system has to cater to every level of learning capability. Yet, to be perfectly honest, there is a great deal more than the system could do for the upper end of the spectrum. But anyway, to my other points.

    I don't think that society is necessarily based so much on belief in the effect of repeated actions- though that plays a role- as Rousseau's idea of the social contract. If you are going to reap the benefits of being a member of society, you essentially give your tacit consent to not only obey the laws of society, but to go along with the accepted norms of society- such as money.

    Without this sort of contract, could there be society?

  2. #47
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    Hey there, Grantaire! Haven't seen your mug around for a while!

    Contract theory (which has moved way beyond Rousseau) is simply one way of understanding the moral economy of our repeated actions (which are fundamental). It actually has little bearing on the role of belief in underwriting those actions. Where it becomes important is the interpretation of the moral significance of those beliefs and actions.

    I actually think the 'contract' is faulty metaphor since it implies negotiated consent, and so has the effect of obscuring the power relations involved. Why not just use 'implicit expectations'?

  3. #48

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    I find Scott's understanding of humanity interesting, and thought I'd make a few observations from my own experience and knowledge, which is a practical application of human behavioral traits.

    People form beliefs without realizing they are forming beliefs. There is no or little scrutiny given to them, no scientific method is applied. You merely have your beliefs, a product of society, parents, friends, random reading, TV, and all these factors variable by when and for how long one experienced the influences.

    Not only that beliefs and opinions can be negated or changed under the influence of the crowd (usually temporarily). "Never underestimate the power of stupid people in large groups." Or even intelligent people in large groups; hence group think and ineffective committees...A camel is a horse designed by committtee.

    Riding over this sea of beliefs is the ebb and flow of fashion, which is in itself a crowd effect, or more accurately, a meme. A self-replicating idea if you like. Now fashion impacts the young with more flexible mental structures than the old, but it effects the old slowly..middle aged people today do not have the same style furniture or clothing as their parents.

    Now an unshakeable belief structure translates as confidence, or over confidence. On average everybody cannot be right can they? 80% of all drivers think they are better than average, 90%+ of parents believe they are better than average parents...and so on. It might all be ultimately linked to the necessity of human survival, hence evolutionary, and is tied in to emotions being an inefficient short cut to logical action.

    Now I cannot remember where I heard/read this figure, but someone on here might have the knowledge to verify (or gainsay it), but 90% of all political, ethical and moral opinions are fixed and held for the rest of your life by the time you are thirty.

    So the beauty of humans is that they are irrational but they are consistently irrational.

    It seems to me that Scott's books have many of these themes running right through them. If you understand the herd you can control it. True today as it ever was.

    To make practical use of this knowledge one has to try to extract oneself from oneself. To regard your beliefs and the beliefs and actions of those around you with a coldly logical and rational eye, as you would a play of forces. It's not easy but it is interesting, and possible.

  4. #49
    Just had to chime in too.

    I find it kind of disturbing that the framework for this discussion has to do with how belief-formation and continuation best contributes to the survival of the species. It seems too simplistic. To see it in these terms seems harmfully reductionist. Life is too complex to boil the answer down to 'hardwiring.'

    I would agree that the educational system contributes to the tendency of people to accept dogma. Rote memorization and fact-learning and standardized testing can dull the mind without classes that encourage creative and critical thinking. The theory of evolution itself could be argued to be a dogma that few people question, in the same way some religions teach people to accept the wisdom of the popes and Mullahs, etc.

    I think (a certain type of) education is fundamental to the development of creative and critical thinking skills. The missions of most colleges are geared toward this goal, and I would go so far as to say that it is working. I would not go so far as to demean people who do not have the privilege of an education by claiming they are mindless autometons. However, college goes a long way toward encouraging students to challenge their beliefs. That's why I believe everyone should have equal access to education. It truly seems to be the antidote against an unexamined life.

  5. #50
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    What makes you think the discussion is reductionist, Oreithyia?

    And how is it that colleges actively foster critical thinking (outside the small enrollments in critical thinking classes, that is)?

  6. #51
    Scott,

    I just thought that some of the conclusions in this discussion (specifically those concerning human nature as simply being motivated by genes and nuerons) was reductionist -- reducing a human to the sum of his parts. To do so is very simplistic and overlooks the complex nature of personhood. I find that sweeping generalizations about human nature are usually wrong -- to say that humans are "such-and-such" (say, at heart, lazy and stupid) inevitably leads down the wrong path. If there is one exception among the masses that proves otherwise, than that shows that human nature is not a consistent, uniform thing that can be studied under a microscope, or which one can make broad conclusions about. If human nature does not include all humans, then it is not human nature.

    As for the college question, I think the content of most liberal arts courses stress critical thinking skills. In poli sci, philosophy, classics, etc. students are asked to read scholarly texts and break down the author's arguments. Then they are asked to analyze the arguments. The fact that professors are not teaching a dogma -- in other words, the material is fair game for criticism -- means that students develop thinking skills that ensures that they not merely accept something as true, but look at the material critically. They are asked to use careful arguments to support or refute a position. And the fact that students come from diverse backgrounds allow students to hear viewpoints they would not normally get in high school, or in the workplace. Essentially, college provides a "marketplace of ideas," but these ideas are not put in front of students for them to swallow like a pill -- they must learn to question and critique these before adoptiong or discarding them.

  7. #52
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    If there is one exception among the masses that proves otherwise, than that shows that human nature is not a consistent, uniform thing that can be studied under a microscope, or which one can make broad conclusions about. If human nature does not include all humans, then it is not human nature.
    Isn't this an oversimplication? You seem to be suggesting that if someone is missing a leg, then we can't say humans have two legs.

    Actually there are a frightful number of 'universals' that characterize human beings across cultures. But we've been primarily talking about tendencies and predispositions. Personally, I'm not a reductionist at all. I'm simply interested in which theoretical claims we can hang our cognitive hat on. It just so happens that science is the only institution that has produced anything approaching robust theoretical claims on this and innumerable other issues. But even within science, there's certainly alot of controversy on these issues.

    I think the content of most liberal arts courses stress critical thinking skills. In poli sci, philosophy, classics, etc. students are asked to read scholarly texts and break down the author's arguments. Then they are asked to analyze the arguments. The fact that professors are not teaching a dogma -- in other words, the material is fair game for criticism -- means that students develop thinking skills that ensures that they not merely accept something as true, but look at the material critically. They are asked to use careful arguments to support or refute a position. And the fact that students come from diverse backgrounds allow students to hear viewpoints they would not normally get in high school, or in the workplace. Essentially, college provides a "marketplace of ideas,"
    This sounds like an interesting idealization of what happens. And it certainly echoes those who defend the pedagogic utility of classes like English. But I would contend that although people are told to be open minded, told to make arguments, told to analyze, they are rarely, if ever, given the tools to do so effectively, or shown why open-mindedness is rational. In my opinion, they're simply taught how to go through the motions of critical thinking - enough to fool them into thinking they are critical thinkers. Since they don't know what those tools are, they don't think they exist, and thanks to the invisibility of ignorance, they assume they have all the tools they ever need.

    Have you ever taken a critical thinking course? If you have, ask yourself how much material in that course finds its way into liberal arts courses.

    Precious little, in my experience.

  8. #53
    Humans do have tendancies to act in certain definable ways. Very rarely have I encountered people who question why they think what they think. The thoughts they have can in of themselves sound very sophisticated, the mental scaffolding and architecture beneath and around that thought though is not understood, or perhaps more importantly even considered.

    This is where the line between beliefs and knowledge can become blurred. What most people consider knowledge is in fact a belief, a habit if you like.

    If one was to attempt to unravel each sentence uttered, insanity would likely be the ultimately result. Hence we have rules of thumb, intellectual shortcuts and concepts designed to allow us to function.

    Each word in the sentences above had a meaning that derives from other words, which in turn derive from yet more words. The phrases too have meanings. A constantly spreading spider web of concepts that allow just one sentence to exist.To utter one sentence as a human is to bring into play thousands of interconnected and probably circular concepts. That any sense can be made of it at all is astonishing.

    Sense structure probably derives from the architecture of the gene and your society. After all where else could it come from? Hence it is in part determined by the animal in us. We are physically recognizable as human beings, we are also behaviorally recognizable as human beings.

    Consequently we have mental patterns common to us all, and once one works out how in general they work they can be exploited. That is what advertizing is about. It is these patterns that allow us to teach; there are methodologies that work with most children most of the time. And they work with adults too....how many messiahs have there being, how many cults, how many twisted political philosophies resulting in death and torture? Look back through time, and in nation after nation these patterns re-emerge.
    Last edited by Boll Weevil; December 30th, 2005 at 09:03 PM.

  9. #54
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    It's funny how the specificity and sheer repetitiveness of human action (including speech) can be so difficult to see. It must be some kind of frame-of-reference problem...

  10. #55
    Quote Originally Posted by Scott Bakker
    Isn't this an oversimplication? You seem to be suggesting that if someone is missing a leg, then we can't say humans have two legs.
    Actually, I was assuming that we are talking about healthy human beings. I don't think, for example, you could consider people afflicted with autism as demonstrating the full/normal range of human nature. I wouldn't say sociopaths could be used as a reference to determine conclusions about human nature, as a person with one leg could not be used as a reference either.

    Quote Originally Posted by Scott Bakker
    Actually there are a frightful number of 'universals' that characterize human beings across cultures. But we've been primarily talking about tendencies and predispositions. Personally, I'm not a reductionist at all. I'm simply interested in which theoretical claims we can hang our cognitive hat on. It just so happens that science is the only institution that has produced anything approaching robust theoretical claims on this and innumerable other issues. But even within science, there's certainly alot of controversy on these issues.
    One problem I have with the "predisposition" line of thought is that you can virtually support any argument with it. How do you prove a predisposition? How do you disprove a predisposition? If I say that humans have a predisposition to murder people, how can you say that argument is flawed? Because most people don't murder is not good enough. I could reply by saying that people are hardwired naturally to murder others, but most people overcome their natural tendencies. I could argue that humans have a predisposition to run barefoot in the snow while juggling pancakes on fire, but it would be hard to disprove. Again, because most humans don't do this does not mean that they are not hardwired to do so.

    I think human prejudices can go into the interpretation and expectation of certain predispositions in scientific research and conclusions. Science has historically been rife with examples, say, with the "Bell Curve." They said black people had a predisposition to be stupider than whites. Sure, some overcame their hardwiring, but they were exceptional. We know now that the science they used was flawed, and that might be an extreme example. But in the case of "brain studies" whereby scientists tried to prove that people with larger skulls of a certain shape had a greater intellectual capacity (coincidentally, the white male scientists "proved" that white men were smarter), it was shown that they did not set out to manipulate the evidence to support their claims but that they, in fact, were so sure of their expectations for the results that they ignored evidence to the contrary.

    Science can safely say, for example, that someone has a predisposition to be obese. But when it comes to proving more complex across-the-board claims about a group (whether they be white men or humans in general), then the situation becomes murkier. I don't think any scientist would say that humans have a predisposition to be ignorant. Because humans categorize things and sometimes take mental shortcuts does not prove this claim.

    Quote Originally Posted by Scott Bakker
    This sounds like an interesting idealization of what happens. And it certainly echoes those who defend the pedagogic utility of classes like English. But I would contend that although people are told to be open minded, told to make arguments, told to analyze, they are rarely, if ever, given the tools to do so effectively, or shown why open-mindedness is rational. In my opinion, they're simply taught how to go through the motions of critical thinking - enough to fool them into thinking they are critical thinkers. Since they don't know what those tools are, they don't think they exist, and thanks to the invisibility of ignorance, they assume they have all the tools they ever need.

    Have you ever taken a critical thinking course? If you have, ask yourself how much material in that course finds its way into liberal arts courses.
    As a matter of fact, I have taken a critical thinking course. First, as for obtaining the tools for rational thinking, my college requires that students take either a critical thinking or logic course. That requirement is the same in many colleges across the country. And I personally have found that the content of those courses very much find their way into other classes. Whether it be in creating a geometric proof in math, or making a sound argument in political science, logic and the ability to make a sound argument, or to refute a bad one, is very important for excelling in those courses. And f someone does not have the tools to do this, if they speak to the professor, they can generally overcome this.

    Quote Originally Posted by Boll Weevil
    Consequently we have mental patterns common to us all, and once one works out how in general they work they can be exploited. That is what advertizing is about. It is these patterns that allow us to teach; there are methodologies that work with most children most of the time. And they work with adults too....how many messiahs have there being, how many cults, how many twisted political philosophies resulting in death and torture? Look back through time, and in nation after nation these patterns re-emerge.
    I think it is interesting that most people who buy into the dangerous cults or religions are not having their basic needs met. Take Palestinian suicide bombers, for instance. They are told by radical fundamentalists that if they go and blow themselves up and take Israelies with them, then they will experience untold benefits in heaven. To say that the suicide bombers' belief in the fundamentalists' claims proves that they are human, and humans have a prediliction to be exploited is a simplistic interpretation. One reason they are so apt to believe the religious claims and go through with violent actions is because their basic human needs are not being met. A person with a family, a stable job, and a good life cannot so easily be talked into commiting such violence, or believing in violent interpretations of religious texts. So I think your example of the belief in messiahs, etc. goes deeper than the claim that humans have a predisposition to believe everything they hear. Whether those people's basic human rights are being met plays a role in the decision to adopt radical/superstituous beliefs. Culture plays a role, too. People who grew up during the Enlightenment, which stressed rational and scientific thought, thought about religion differently than people who grew up in fifth century Greece.

  11. #56
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    Actually, I was assuming that we are talking about healthy human beings. I don't think, for example, you could consider people afflicted with autism as demonstrating the full/normal range of human nature. I wouldn't say sociopaths could be used as a reference to determine conclusions about human nature, as a person with one leg could not be used as a reference either.
    I'm not sure how this amounts to much more than a conceptual shell game. Certainly salient differences between people are as much a part of human nature as the similarities, aren't they? Why should we stipulate that only 'healthy differences' count? And what has this to do with your prior claim?

    One problem I have with the "predisposition" line of thought is that you can virtually support any argument with it. How do you prove a predisposition? How do you disprove a predisposition? If I say that humans have a predisposition to murder people, how can you say that argument is flawed? Because most people don't murder is not good enough. I could reply by saying that people are hardwired naturally to murder others, but most people overcome their natural tendencies. I could argue that humans have a predisposition to run barefoot in the snow while juggling pancakes on fire, but it would be hard to disprove. Again, because most humans don't do this does not mean that they are not hardwired to do so.
    I'm not sure I understand this either. To say humans have 'predispositions' to certain characteristics is simply to say that they tend to do this and this or to be that and that in such and such circumstances. Such claims are justified through various kinds of research, the simplest being to simply to ask sample groups, then generalize the results to larger populations. Of course, there's a problem with interpretative underdetermination - again, I take that as a given - but since this problem mires all spheres of human explanation, and to a far greater extent than in the sciences, it becomes hard to see it's relevance here.

    You're not suggesting that humans don't possess tendencies to do certain things, you're not suggesting that these tendencies are not worth studying in a scientifically regimented manner, and I certainly hope you're not suggesting that we possess other claim-making institutions that are better than science at tracking these... So the question is, just what are you saying?

    I think human prejudices can go into the interpretation and expectation of certain predispositions in scientific research and conclusions.
    I fully agree that bias finds its way into science - I take that as a given - but how does this change the fact that it's really the only credible game in town when it comes to theoretical claims? The fact is, scientific methodologies are so successful because they're designed to compensate for our many cognitive shortcomings. I guess I don't see your point.

    As a matter of fact, I have taken a critical thinking course. First, as for obtaining the tools for rational thinking, my college requires that students take either a critical thinking or logic course. That requirement is the same in many colleges across the country. And I personally have found that the content of those courses very much find their way into other classes. Whether it be in creating a geometric proof in math, or making a sound argument in political science, logic and the ability to make a sound argument, or to refute a bad one, is very important for excelling in those courses. And f someone does not have the tools to do this, if they speak to the professor, they can generally overcome this.
    The fact that you found those tools useful (when I taught critical thinking in University, usefulness in other disciplines was the heart of my sales pitch) in other disciplines only means that they assume and reward the possession of those tools, not that they explicitly teach them. And I think you would be dismayed by how poorly those 'helpful professors' would score on the very critical thinking test you yourself took! These are the people I hang out with. According to some surveys, they're just as inclined to make basic cognitive errors as their students are.

    I'm glad to hear that critical thinking classes are becoming mandatory. Where did you come by that information? How much of the psychology of cognition did your course cover?

    The bottom line, however, is that humans are powerfully predisposed to simply believe and to opportunistically rationalize after the fact, and that a tremendous amount of training is required to teach them to suspend commitment and rational evaluation. It needs to be taught in primary school on.

  12. #57
    Ori


    I have given speeches to hundreds of people on related subjects. For a bit of fun I ask three questions at the beginning:

    1. I ask how many own a car and to put their hands up. Usually the bulk of the hands rise. I then ask them to put their hands down if they are a worse than average driver. About 5% to 10% of the hands go down.

    2. I then ask people to raise their hand if they have children, about 60% of the hands go up. I then ask them to put their hands down if they are a worse than average parent. No hands go down.

    3. I then ask the entire audience to raise their hands. Then to put them down if they are worse than average employees. No hands go down.

    A number of things are happening here. This is usually a large audience, mostly composed of experienced business people with degrees. Each one of them knows that it is massively improbable that this room contains so many above average people. So they know that collectively the room is deluded, overoptimistic on their skills if you like. Yet they also genuinely believe they are not in the part of the group that they KNOW must be below average.

    Of course you could argue that peer pressure is also making them act the way they do. And you'd be right, some of them will be actively lying in order to fit in with the group. Why? Because peer pressure or the power of the crowd is a huge determinant in collective human actions.

    Many of the bulk of the audience are "passively" lying. They believe they are something they're not. The vast bulk of humans the vast bulk of the time are subject to these natural biases and act accordingly. They act because our human brains, the product of biology has the same basic architecture, this same architecture also creates the same behavioral biases in human nature. We walk in a recognizably human way, we also think in a recognizably human way. Again why wouldn't we? What do you think is so sacred about the biology of the brain that the bulk of the design and therefore the action from that design should vary massively from person to person?

    This is all verifiable Oreithyia. Simply look up behavioral psychology, or cognitive biases. I suspect that you are arguing from what you want to be true rather than what is true. We all do this, bend data to fit the conclusions we all have, we all have confirmation biases and we all downplay information that goes against our stated position.
    Last edited by Boll Weevil; January 1st, 2006 at 01:34 PM.

  13. #58
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    Great stuff, Boll. I used to do the same in my classes - it was a great way to 'shake the etchosketch,' to open students up to the possibility that even their most basic beliefs could be bunk.

    Coincidently, I just finished David Dunning's Self-Insight today. It's a veritable goldmine of research into our powerful dispositions to dupe ourselves. He notes, however, that the degree to which we're inclined to dupe ourselves seems to vary across cultures (in some cases the Japanese, it seems, are far better at accurate self-assessment than North Americans). It seems clear that we have hardwired tendencies for cognitive selfishness, but socialization plays a powerful attenuating role. Therein lies the hope.

    But I'm afraid that one term in a critical thinking class (especially given the dismal track record of 'mass learning' contexts) is nowhere near enough. According to Dunning, however, when it comes to desirable traits like 'critical thinking,' people make themselves the yardstick for what counts as enough to lay claim to that trait. They interpret criteria in blatantly self-serving ways (some of the stuff is quite hilarious to read about). So given my training it's quite natural for someone like myself to put the bar very high, and for someone like Oreithyia to put the bar down lower, and for those with no critical thinking classes under their belt to lower the bar even more. No one wants to think they can't think critically.

    And given the emphasis on self-esteem, no one in public education is going to tell their students otherwise.

  14. #59
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    Mr. Bakker, Mr. Weevil, that's a nice party trick, but not conclusive. You're playing with two meanings of "avarage" here:

    Avarage: as in neither extremely good nor extremely bad.

    And avarage: as in comparing all individual skill-levels (as in benchmarking).

    A trait of human conversations is that the meaning of words can shift mid-conversation and no-one notices. I might as well claim you're demonstrating that.

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    Obviously human conversations also have a habit of collapsing into the unintelligible.

    Since I'm not sure I even used the term 'average,' I have to say I have no idea what the hell you're talking about here, D. I'm not sure how I can bite the bullet on equivocating a word I never used.

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