Sunday, February 24, 2008

Rational Voters?

Most of us, including myself, like to think that we are pretty rational thinkers, and that we make our decisions on the basis of facts and common sense. So whether it's choosing the brand of peanut butter we buy or who to vote for for President, we claim to have reasons and to have thought the whole thing through.

But actual experimental evidence shows that we are actually pretty irrational in what we do much of the time. Game theory and economics are based on the idea that we are rational actors who can determine what's to our own benefit and who will act on that information. However, people don't act like that in real life. For a quick example, $1 saved is $1 saved, regardless of how we come by it. So if $2 toothpaste is $1 off or if a $20,000 car is $1 off, it's the same benefit. But I would bet that there's no one who would care about saving $1 on a car, while almost everyone would be glad to save 50% of the cost of a tube of toothpaste. And if a $1 item is offered for free, we'd all get excited. And yet in terms of our finances, it's still just $1.

Advertising is built on the fact that we tend to like and trust things that we are familiar with. Advertising long ago gave up on giving us factual data, and instead it works almost entirely at causing us to feel some sort of emotional attachment to a brand. We all like to think that we're not swayed by advertising, but the evidence is against us. We might react negatively rather than positively, but on the whole, advertisers pay big bucks because their stuff works.

Psychologically, we all tend to divide the world into "us" and "not us." This is an essential survival strategy left over from our tribal past, when our survival depended on generalizing quickly and acting instinctively thereafter. For example, if I meet one grizzly bear and it attacks me, the next time I see a bear, I don't have to stop and wonder if this bear is as bad as the last one. I just run. And if I meet a member of another tribe who might kidnap me, I run as well. So we quickly size up whether a person is "one of us" or a dangerous alien.

In politics as well, while we offer reasons for who we choose to vote for, our reasons are likely to be rationalizations rather than real logical reasons. We want someone we can identify with, someone who is "one of us." We respond at a level below the rational to advertising of all sorts, and most of politics is conducted through advertising. Sensible candidates know this, and they go to a lot of trouble to "identify" with us in various ways. We may be reacting to candidates as images of parents or potential spouses or bosses or friends. When Christian conservatives vote for Bush or Huckabee, they are not doing so because they necessarily agree with a flat tax or an opposition to nation-building. It's because they feel, "That's me. That guy represents me." When people hate Hillary Clinton, it's not really because of the details of her health plan. It's because she reminds them of a teacher who humiliated them in 4th grade or the smart girl in class who wrecked the curve in Soc 101.

Our rational brain is the weakest link in our mind. Anything that we have to think about, we do poorly. As long as we're thinking about how to drive a car, we can't really drive. If we have to think about grammar rules, we can't speak fluently. Geniuses in math and science "see" patterns in a flash of insight, and then have to laboriously try to reason their way to a proof after the fact. We are very good at seeing patterns. We are very poor at reasoning analytically. We actually feel the strain of trying to think something through, whereas things that are below the level of consciousness, like speaking our native language or walking or driving a car, are effortless.

One of the arguments against Obama is that people's attraction to him is not based on good solid policy reasons. But no one ever became a Democrat or a Republican or a Libertarian or a Green by a careful cost/benefit analysis. We identify with a certain position at subliminal levels. Those who choose McCain may be responding to his courage in North Vietnam, which tells us almost nothing about how well he'd do as president. Those who choose Hillary may see her as embodying their hopes for a gender-equal society. So what does Obama represent that is so attractive to so many? He's part Tiger Woods and part Robert Kennedy and part Morgan Freeman and he's young and vital and new. He's black and white, he's rich and poor. He's American and foreign. And a lot of people find that more attractive, at a gut level, than a Vietnam vet or a Mormon or a pastor or a nagging mom or a 911 mayor or an actor or a southern populist. They say, Yup, that's us.

And then we hope to God that the person we've projected our hopes into can do the job.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Gunmen and Demons

Once again, we have a story about a man who had some sort of psychological issues or mental illness who snapped and ended up killing 5 innocent people plus himself. In this case, the gunman in question seemed on the surface to be quite normal, and no one ever imagined that he'd go out in a blaze of mayhem like this. How can we explain such incidents? Was he evil? Was he sick? Was he demon-possessed?

In biblical times (and in fact in much more recent times and in pretty much every society on earth, regardless of their theology), the explanation for unreasoned evil has been that a force external to the person, a force that is non-material and malignant, known as a demon, somehow took control or gained influence over the person and drove them to commit an act of violence that cannot be explained by the ordinary vices and passions that occur in everyone. We all understand why a person might take a gun and rob a bank, or why she might kill in a jealous rage. But we don't have any explanation for why a person would cut himself, or why he would not only end his own life but plan ahead to take as many strangers with him as possible. We understand selfishness and lack of self-control and greed. But we don't understand pointless evil like this.

So until recently, the best possible explanation has been that there is some spiritual creature, a non-material source of evil, and that this evil power (or even God himself) sends evil spirits to trouble people and to goad them into doing evil, simply for its own sake. People who are possessed by demons might have to be restrained in some manner, and they might be subjected to aversive treatments, or they might be prayed over or exorcised in some way, but their own lack of culpability is relatively clear to most observers.

Demonic influence was blamed not only for insanity and depression in biblical and other societies, but also for epilepsy, deafness, and many other illnesses. Little by little, the biological basis for epilepsy and deafness and leprosy and paralysis and even depression has come to be understood by western science. We realize that people don't fall into seizures because a demon troubles them but because of chaotic electrical activity in their material brain. We know that nerve damage, and not spiritual factors, are responsible for deafness. We know that it is not sin that causes children to be born blind, but various genetic or developmental factors. While we can't prevent all these diseases, we do know where to look for the origins of them, and it's not karma or the parents' sins or anything else, but simply disease processes in the material body.

In the case of depression or psychosis or suicide or other "mental" states, we are a little less clear. We still believe that not only do we have a body, which includes a brain, but we also have a disembodied "mind" or "soul" or "spirit" of some kind, and if it behaves in destructive ways, maybe it is the fault of the person himself, rather than a biological disease. Or maybe, if we are a fundamentalist, we think there may be an evil spirit involved somehow.

One thing that is interesting to me is that "demon" as an explanation works just as well as "virus" or "chemical imbalance." Until recently, no one anywhere on earth had any ability to see a virus or a brain chemical, and so it made perfect sense to think of these as "spirits." They are invisible, they act in arbitrary and unintelligible ways, and once in a while the placebo effect is strong enough to over-rule them, but most of the time, God's will is done and we suffer the ravages of whatever malign forces run amok in the world we inhabit.

If the Bible were actually God revealing otherwise unknowable facts to mankind, I would expect God to have explained these things. On the other hand, if the Bible is a record of some people doing the best they could to grope towards God and towards justice and righteousness and fairness and an understanding of life, then we could expect just what we have--an intuitive guess that some unknown evil power is at work in some people, to be known as demons. There is nothing in the biblical revelation that goes beyond what all people figured out for themselves about the cause of mental and physical illnesses.

So call it a demon or call it an imbalance in dopamine and seratonin, or whatever the cause of such breakdowns turns out to be. Already we have some drugs that can work on these chemicals in a crude way. Some day in the not too distant future, the diagnosis and treatment of brain states that cause destructive outbursts will improve, maybe to the place that the treatment of leprosy and deafness is at today. Another demon will have been driven out.

But it will be human effort, not an act of God, that will have done it. And both the cause and the cure will be biological, material, not spiritual. Even the placebo effect, that seemingly magical ability of the body to respond to worthless cures, is a biological fact about human brains--that the brain's influence on the body is stronger than we thought, that the brain, being part of the body, effects the rest of the body. It is not an ethereal thing called "mind" somehow magically affecting matter. Mind is what brains do, just as heartbeats are what hearts do.

Thursday, February 14, 2008

Conservatives and Progressives

First, I think Progressive is a more accurate term than "liberal" (and not just because talk radio has made the word "liberal" sound like a curse word.) The two terms--conserve vs. progress parallel each other in an interesting way.

And that points to a very interesting thought about why and how people think in conservative or progressive ways. There has been research done recently that actually suggests that these two approaches are brain-based and maybe even genetic> I don't think it's necessary to go that far, since people, including myself, do change their positions.

But I was wondering about what accounts for the linkage between evangelicalism and conservatism. Part of it is related to questions of sexual morality, but the link between laws about sexual morality and conservatism as a political and economic doctrine aren't all that sensible in the first place. So let's leave abortion and gay rights out of it, and look at more classic forms of conservatism, and see why it appeals to the same people who tend to be biblical fundamentalists.

My theory is that both religious fundamentalism and political conservatism are based on the same impulse or under-lying belief: that somewhere, at some time, the truth and standards that should be followed for all time have been written down, and that our role is to take these written rules as the basis for how we behave.

Thus the Constitution and the Bible have the same kind of authority. It is authority that can be read and understood by anyone, that we all have access to and don't need priests or judges to interpret for us, and the ideal state would be one in which we all adhere to what was written in the past in as straightforward a way as possible. (Mormonism takes this to its logical conclusion and actually teaches that the US Constitution is divinely inspired, but most conservatives implicitly believe much the same thing.)So the desire for "strict constructionists" is the same as the desire for biblical literalism.

Thus the same people who believe that the ideal church would be one that was just like in the days of Paul tend to believe that if we just went back to the way things used to be in 1800, our country would be pure and free.

On the other hand, progressives are more like Catholics in some way, in that they believe that as conditions change, our response to them ought to change as well. Not only is it not possible to go back to some idyllic pristine past such as the early church or the early republic, it would not be desirable either.

The church grew from a small local persecuted minority to a world-wide dominant belief, and the US grew from 13 small isolated states to a world power, and as realities change, so must our laws and our way of living, and this is as it should be. Just as the early days of Apple computers, in someone's garage are not the Platonic ideal of Apple, neither is the incipient stages of the United States or the church an ideal state.

The desire for a clear written document that can directly guide our lives, as opposed to a living group of human beings who re-interpret and apply principles to changing conditions is based, I think, in a kind of awe of writing. Writing is so permanent, so seemingly immutable and not subject to change. But in fact, I think it is more the case that written documents are actually less stable than they seem, since they cannot simply be read and applied, but must always be interpreted, and who we are and how we live will necessarily change what we see in a written document.

So this Read-and-obey mentality seems naive to me. It doesn't really understand how reading works, and it doesn't understand how much we impose our own preconceptions on anything we read. It also gives tremendous weight to the ideas of people who are no longer with us, and overlooks the fact that the original writers, whether they were Paul or Jefferson or Shakespeare were fallible men no different than our current leaders (really!). But once their words are enshrined in writing, they take on an authority that would never have been given to the spoken words of the very same individuals.

My conclusion is that the real difference underlying two approaches to government and religion is a different concept of authority. Is authority best held in adherence to a written document that should be simply read and followed in as literal a way as possible? Or is authority inevitably vested in people who re-interpret and re-apply principles to new and changing conditions, perhaps even questioning and changing some of the original ideas as they go?

Addendum: One further bit of evidence of this being an underlying approach to things is that conservatives tend to approach even things like grammar from this same point of view. For example, the understanding of the role of a dictionary probably splits along the same lines, with conservatives seeing the dictionary as a permanent and infallible guide to how we should speak rather than something that changes as our language changes. And they would probably hold out for old shibboleths such as proper use of whom as a standard that, even if they don't meet it, "ought" to be met for philosophical reasons. They also have a visceral attraction to "phonics" as a rule-based and unfailing means of teaching reading.