Stories We Tell Ourselves

During my travels to and from ALA I read a fun new book, Will Storr’s The Heretics: Adventures with the Enemies of Science. This is the latest example I know of in the genre of books about pseudoscience, although it differs significantly from the ones I read over Christmas break and blogged about here. Storr’s book is more informal, with his personal views and demons inserted alongside the reporting about various groups, from parapsychologists to alleged Morgellons sufferers (that was a new one to me).  This turns out to be a good thing, as his troubled mind and basic decency come through to allow the subjects of investigation to be seen with as much respect as possible. People who claim to suffer from Morgellons, for example, may indeed actually suffer from delusional parasitosis, but they get a fair shake from Storr.

Also, while he is clearly on the side of science and the skeptics, he’s not afraid to expose  dogmatic skepticism when it rears its supposedly rational head. A number of skeptics loudly declaring homeopathy to be bunk (which Storr and I both agree it is) don’t like to be asked whether they’ve read actual scientific studies on homeopathy, and if so which ones.  The harshest treatment anyone gets in the book (and that isn’t very harsh) is when Storr catches James Randi up in a number of potential lies about his past. Apparently the hero of the skeptics isn’t always a paragon of honesty. None of us are, though, which is one of the points the book makes. A tour of concentration camps with the Holocaust denier David Irving is less disturbing than it might have been because of Storr’s focus on the illogical rather than the horrific. At one point Irving declares that a gas chamber couldn’t have been used for executions because there are handles on the inside doors, although he fails to notice that the locks to the room are all on the outside. Another luminescent moment is Irving’s declaration the he doesn’t want to be anti-Semitic, but “the Jews don’t make it easy for” him. We see what we believe.

The Irving chapter is an outlier of sorts in a book devoted to science and pseudoscience, but that’s because unlike some such studies, Storr is very much concerned with how the mind works and the tricks it plays on us. Even the skeptics can become quite dogmatic without being able to point to evidence for their beliefs. Storr tries to take the perspective of the agnostic, saying in effect, “I believe I’m right, but I could be wrong, and if possible I withhold judgment until I have real evidence.” It’s not very easy to do, if it’s possible at all, but Storr does a better job than I’ve seen in books like this. (His book Will Storr Versus the Supernatural, which I started reading after enjoying this, is much the same.)

The conclusions he reaches through readings and interviews regarding cognitive psychology I found the most interesting, and reminiscent of several articles I have read about such studies. Instead of explaining, I pulled out a few representative quotes summing up some of what he found out about cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, confabulation, the Hero-Maker, and the stories we tell ourselves that make us out to be better and more moral than we really are. I pulled selectively in the order they appear in the book:

Humans are subject to a menagerie of biases, a troubling proportion of which hiss seductive half-truths in the ear of our consciousness. They tell us that we are better looking, wiser, more capable, more moral and have a a more glittering future in store than is true. (110)

 

We typically have a bias that tells us we are less susceptible to bias than everyone else. Our default position tends to be that our opinions are the result of learning, experience and personal reflection. The things we believe are obviously true–and everyone would agree if only they could look at the issue with clear, objective, unimpeded sight. But they don’t because they’re biased. Their judgements are confused by ill-informed hunches and personal grudges. They might think they’re beautiful and clever and right but their view of reality is skewed….

Most of us think we are the exception. This most disturbing of truths has even widely demonstrated in study after study. When individuals are educated about these ego-defending biases and then have their biases re-examined, they usually fail to change their opinions of themselves. Even through they accept, rationally, that they are not immune, they still think as if they are. It is a cognitive trap that we just can’t seem to climb out of. (112)

 

Just as the knifefish assumes his realm of electricity is the only possible reality, just as the hominin believes his tricolor palette allows him to see all the colours, just as John Mackay is convinced that lesbian nuns are going to hell, we look out into the world mostly to reaffirm our prior beliefs about it. We imagine that the invisible forces that silently guide our beliefs and behavior, coaxing us like flocks of deviant angels, do not exist. We are comforted by the feeling that we have ultimate control over our thoughts, our actions, our lives….

There are seven billion individual worlds living on the surface of this one. We are–all of us–lost inside our own personal realities, our own brain-generated models of how things really are. And if, after reading all of that, you still believe you are the exception, that you really are wise and objective and above the powers of bias, then you might as well not fight it. You are, after all, only human. (113)

 

But all this is not enough. Cognitive dissonance, confirmation bias, the brain’s desire to have the outer, real world match its inner models of it–it takes us part of the way there. It tells us that a properly functioning brain cannot be trusted to think rationally and, because our minds play these tricks without telling us, that owners of brains cannot be trusted to judge their own rationality. (224)

 

We are natural-born storytellers, who have a propensity to believe our own tales…. A series of remarkable scientific discoveries, going back to the nineteenth century, have bolstered this view. They have assigned it a word, which describes what we do when we unknowingly invent explanations for behaviors and beliefs whose causes we are actually ignorant of: confabulation. (234)

 

The stories that we tell ourselves are another essential component to all this. The model of the world that we build for ourselves to live within is made of observations of cause and effect that are soaked in emotion. These micro-stories, whose purpose is to explain and predict the world, can grow into staggering tales of magnificent drama and complexity. In _The Political Brain_, Professor Westen writes ‘research suggests that our minds naturally search for stories with a particular kind of structure, readily recognizable to elementary school children and similar across cultures.’ In this structure, a crisis strikes a settled world, heroic efforts are begun to solve it, terrible obstacles are surmounted and dreadful enemies are battled, until a new and blissful state is achieved. According to Professor Westen, the political left and the right each has a ‘master narrative’ that relects this structure–a grand, over-arching plot that comes loaded with a set of core assumptions, that defines the identity of heroes and villains and promises a paradisiacal denouement. (254)

 

The Hero-Maker tells us why intelligence is no forcefield and facts are no bullets…. Facts do not exist in isolation. They are like single pixels in a person’s generated reality. Each fact is connected to other facts and those facts to networks of other facts still. When they are all knitted together, they take the form of an emotional and dramatic plot at the center of which lives the individual. When a climate scientist argues with a denier, it is not a matter of data versus data, it is here narrative versus hero narrative. David versus David, tjukurpa* versus tjukurpa. It is a clash of worlds.

The Hero-Maker exposes this strange urge that so many humans have, to force their views aggressively on others. We must make them see things as we do. They must agree, we will make them agree. We are neural imperialists, seeking to colonise the worlds of others, installing our own private culture of beliefs into their minds. (384)

 

*Tjukurpa: Every Aboriginal newborn is assigned a ‘tjurkurpa’–a story from the time of the world’s creation which, in its details, will tell them everything they need to know about where to find food, medicine and water for hundreds of miles around. It will teach them about magic and spirits and detail an elaborate moral code. (372)

We all tell stories about ourselves where we’re the heroes, other people are the villains, and our heroic acts save the day somehow. Well, we don’t all tell such stories. Apparently, really depressed people tend to have a more realistic understanding of their own lives than the majority of us who can believe our own hero narratives. There are a couple of ways to look at this. Modern psychology seems to be in the business of tricking our brains back into believing we’re living meaningful lives and not thinking about what relatively insignificant specks of matter we are in the universal scheme of things. The other way out is to try to back away from conventional views and interpretations of the world and just accept it as it is, understanding as Nietzsche put it that “it’s only as an aesthetic phenomenon that the world and existence are continually justified.”

What we shouldn’t do is believe that modern psychology is coming across something so startlingly new about our self-narrative skills that the knowledge is completely unprecedented. It seems to me like we’re finally starting to understand the details of things that even some ancients understood in very broad terms. At least two ancient philosophical traditions–the Daoist and the Stoical– seem to have been aware of just how tricky and biased the mind can be when interpreting reality, only instead of being suspicious of reality as the Platonic tradition was and positing some more real reality beneath the appearances, they recommended not allowing conventional knowledge and prejudice to judge that reality.

For example, here’s a passage from the Stoic Marcus Aurelius’s Meditations (the OUP Farquharson translation), Book 8, section 49:

8.49. Do not say more to yourself than the first impressions report. You have been told that some one speaks evil of you. This is what you have been told; you have not been told that you are injured. I see that the little child is ill; this is what I see, but that he is in danger I do not see. In this way then abide always by the first impressions and add nothing of your own from within, and that’s an end of it….

Marcus’s point seems to me to be a similar understanding of the ways we bring our prejudices and biases automatically to help us interpret the world. Say something bad about me? I’ll hate you for harming me! The relevant Greek here is: μένε ἀεὶ ἐπὶ τῶν πρώτων φαντασιῶν, literally “always stay with first impressions,” or perhaps “appearances.” (I double checked that one with our Classics librarian. Thanks, Dave!) If the scientists Storr consulted are right, that might not be possible to do, since even our awareness of our biased brain isn’t enough to make us think we’re not biased. It also seems true that intelligence as such is no corrective. Even philosophical training, which helped shake loose a good number of my childhood prejudices, doesn’t keep up from telling biased and heroic stories about ourselves. (For some evidence, follow the self defensive moves in the Colin McGinn scandal within philosophy. You might conclude, as I did, that sometimes a handjob is really a handjob.)

The same general idea shows up in the Handbook of Epictetus (translation from the Everyman edition)

45. Does someone take his bath quickly? Do not say that he does it badly, but that he does it quickly. Does any one drink a great quantity of wine? Do not say that he drinks badly, but that is drinks a great quantity. For, unless you understand the judgment from which he acts, how should you know that he is acting badly? And thus it will not come to pass that you receive convincing impressions of some things, but give your assent to different ones.

The Daoist tradition makes what to me looks like a similar demand to the Stoics. Here’s a passage from stanza 3 of the Dao De Jing (the Ames and Hall translation.)

They weaken their aspirations and strengthen their bones,

Ever teaching the common people to be unprincipled in their knowing (wuzhi)

And objectless in their desires (wuyu),

They keep the hawkers of knowledge at bay.

It is simply in doing things noncoercively (wuwei)

The key term here is wuzhi, which Ames and Hall translate as “unprincipled knowing,” although based on their explanation I prefer the phrase “unprejudiced understanding,” as in trying to understand something without the biases and judgements we bring to everything. In the introduction, they analyze the “wu forms”:

Wuzhi , often translated as “no-knowledge,” actually means the absence of a certain kind of knowledge–the kind of knowledge that is dependent upon ontological presence: that is, the assumption that there is some unchanging reality behind appearance. Knowledge grounded in a denial of ontological presence involves “acosmotic” thinking: the type of thinking that does not presuppose a single-ordered (“One behind the many”) world, and its intellectual accoutrements. It is, therefore, unprincipled knowing. Such knowing does not appeal to rules or principles determining the existence, the meaning, or the activity of a phenomenon. Wuzhi provides one with a sense of the de of a thing–its particular uniqueness and focus–rather than yielding an understanding of that thing in relation to some concept or natural kind or universal. Ultimately, wuzhi is a grasp of the daode relationship of each encountered item that permits an understanding of this particular focus (de) and the field that it construes. (40-41)

At least as I’m understanding it, practicing wuzhi would be akin to relying upon Marcus’s proton phantasion, or first impressions. This might be ultimately impossible, and after his investigations Storr seems to think so. Even if we’re aware that we have biases, prejudices, or “principles,” we can’t necessarily be aware of what they are, and it could be we’re no better off than we were before.

This is the point at which I’m torn. Perhaps we are the center of the stories we tell about ourselves and we tend to dismiss those unlike us and secure ourselves in a cocoon of self-congratulatory good feeling, but couldn’t an awareness of that as constant as possible be helpful in our dealings with others as well as our understanding of ourselves in relation to the world? We might not be able to escape the mind’s trap, but if we know we’re in a trap we’re maybe a little better off, or at least a little less arrogant and cocksure. An awareness of the problem all round can only help communication.

I was going to apply some of this to various library disagreements I’ve encountered recently, but I’ve gone on long enough and will save that for another post or column. It does have application to problems in the profession and the workplace, but right now I’m still pondering. It’s a lot to think about.

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