This post is an elaboration of #2 from a list of things I’ve learned late in life.
Assessing the tool of assessment is the first step of assessment.
Prior to the understanding of the microscopic dynamics of neurons, the brains of cadavers were prodded and poked at with nothing uncovered that would suggest anything other than the widespread assumption that the folds of gray matter merely housed an immaterial agent of beliefs and the will. And this was intuitive. After all, we feel like we are more than neurons; that we are an immaterial soul that transcends the prison of our physical existence. In conjunction with our intuitive feelings of soulfulness, the nature of this soul was usually defined by a top-down ideology, most commonly a religion.
However, as scientific tools and method allowed us to more deeply examine the physical tissue of the brain, we began to realize that an enormous amount of neurological power was generating the bulk of our mental worlds. Today, there are very few things about our mental lives that we cannot be traced to a material source in the physical brain.
Throughout the development of cognitive science, many nearly universal assumptions were brought into question such as those in the following list.
- The brain is a container for an immaterial mind, rather than the mind being simply an introspective abstraction of the sensations we feel that are emerge from physical processes of the brain.
- There are no (or few) mental processes that operate beneath our conscious minds.
- The human mind can efficiently ask the correct questions and arrive at truths though an innate intuition without training and practice in critical thinking skills.
- Human moral intuitions have an immaterial source beyond emotional causes.
- Humans have counter-causal free will as opposed to being ultimately determined.
In my opinion, one of cognitive science’s greatest contributions was to disqualify the intuition as a reliable source of knowledge. Affirmations of objective purpose and meaning are generated by emotions as well as generate reinforcing emotions. The certainty we evoke by such affirmations is an emotion, and has nothing to do with truth.
So our exploration of our world is handicapped by the limitations of the tool of exploration; our minds. Not to acknowledge this is to employ a tool without first reading the manual. Unless our new metal detector is first understood and calibrated correctly, any search for gold is guaranteed to result in a lot of wasted digging and rusty tin cans.
Here are some things you might consider.
- Objective truths do not come naturally or though our intuitions. Our intuitions are largely emotional. If we want to become objective, it will take considerable focus and practice in critical thinking skills for our minds to reach proficiency. No short-cuts.
- Much of who we are lies far below our conscious thoughts. And our consciousness, being tied closely to our egos, has a vested interest to deceive us when reality does not correspond to the perception of our egos. Bringing our consciousness into submission so as to minimize self-deception is essential to living life as close as possible to the superior predictability of reality. Self-deception does not provide accurate predictability, and decisions based on an source of knowledge with an inferior record of predictability more commonly end in misery that surpasses that of a bruised ego.
- The evidence that warrants a belief generally emerges in linear increments. However, human minds tend to believe or disbelieve discretely. This tendency is a product of our emotions, and specifically the emotion of confidence. Confidence gives us warm fuzzies that emotionally “validate” a position. While not conventionally belonging to the set of emotions, confidence is arguably one of the most dangerous emotions in the arsenal of truth-distorting emotions. Dogmatism as a way to pick up the evidential slack in an argument is not something to be proud of. The man who defends a delinquent girlfriend or an ineffectual god may feel good about his certainty, but he is trading truth for emotions.
- The choice between reason and emotions is a false dilemma. We can have both. The electrical power (emotions) supplied to a computer usually does not affect the logic (reasoning skills) of the processing chip. Emotions are needed to power the reasoning skills, but do not need to distort them provided the mind is properly assembled. This mind can then be used to come to a close-to-accurate understanding of self as a foundation for other more emotional pursuits. Those who spend too much time on the computer and don’t enjoy all the other electrical appliances at their disposal such as [insert imagination here] are condemned to boring lives. Balance is important.
So prior to any successful search for truth will be a meticulous assessment and calibration of our primary tool in the search.
Check out “Brain Science Podcast” and other cognitive science podcasts on iTunes.