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Irrational Man: An Analysis (Part 1, Chapter 3: “The Testimony of Modern Art”)

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In the previous post in this series on William Barrett’s Irrational Man, I explored Part 1, Chapter 2: The Encounter with Nothingness, where Barrett gives an overview of some of the historical contingencies that have catalyzed the advent of existentialism: namely, the decline of religion, the rational ordering of society through capitalism and industrialization, and the finitude found within science and mathematics.  In this post, I want to explore Part I, Chapter 3: The Testimony of Modern Art.  Let’s begin…

Ch. 3 – The Testimony of Modern Art

In this chapter, Barrett expands the scope of existentialism, its drives and effects, on the content of modern art.  As he sees it, existentialist anxiety, discontent, and facing certain truths resulting from our modern understanding of the world we live in have heavily influenced if not predominated the influence on modern art.  Many find modern art to be, as he puts it:

“…too bare and bleak, too negative or nihilistic, too shocking or scandalous; it dishes out unpalatable truths.”

Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these kinds of qualities in much of modern art are but a product of existentialist angst, feelings of solitude, and an outright clash between traditional norms and narratives about human life and the views of those who have accepted much of what modernity has brought to light, however difficult and uncomfortable that acceptance is.

We might also be tempted to ask ourselves if modern art represents something more generally about our present state.  Barrett sheds some light on this question when he says:

“..Modern art thus begins, and sometimes ends, as a confession of spiritual poverty.  That is its greatness and its triumph, but also the needle it jabs into the Philistine’s sore spot, for the last thing he wants to be reminded of is his spiritual poverty.  In fact, his greatest poverty is not to know how impoverished he is, and so long as he mouths the empty ideals or religious phrases of the past he is but as tinkling brass.”

I can certainly see a lot of modern art as being an expression or manifestation of the spiritual poverty of our modern age.  It’s true that religion no longer serves the same stabilizing role for our society as it once did, nor can we deny that the knowledge we’ve gained since the Enlightenment has caused a compartmentalizing effect on our psyche with respect to reason and religious belief (with the latter being eliminated for many if the compartmentalization is insufficient to overcome any existing cognitive dissonance).  We can also honestly say that many in the modern world have lost a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, and feel a loss of connection to their community or to the rest of humanity in general, largely as a result of the way society (and in turn, how each life within that society) has become structured.

But, as Barrett says, the fact that many people don’t realize just how impoverished they are, is the greatest form of poverty realized by many living in modernity.  And we could perhaps summarize this spiritual poverty as simply the lack of having a well-rounded expression of one’s entire psyche.  It seems to me that this qualitative state is tied to another aspect of the overall process: in particular, our degree of critical self-reflection which affects our vision of our own personal growth, our ethical development, and ultimately our ability to define meaning for our lives on our own individual terms.

One could describe a kind of trade-off that has occurred during humanity’s transition to modernity: we once had a more common religious structure that pervaded one’s entire life and which was shared by most everyone else living in pre-modern society, and this was replaced by a secular society that encouraged new forms of conformity aside from religion; and we once had a religious structure that allowed one to connect to some of the deeper layers of their inner self, and this was replaced with more of an industrialized, consumerist structure involving psychological externalization which lended itself to the powers of conformity already present in the collective social sphere of our lives.

Since artistic expression serves as a kind of window into the predominating psychology of the people and artists living at any particular time, Barrett makes a very good point when he says:

“Even if existential philosophy had not been formulated, we would know from modern art that a new and radical conception of man was at work in this period.”

And within the modern art movement, we can see a kind of compensatory effect occurring where the externalization in modern society is countered with a vast supply of subjectivity including the creation of very unique and highly imaginative abstractions.  But, underneath or within many of these abstractions lies a fundamental perspective of modern humans living as a kind of stranger to the world, surrounded by an alien environment, with a yearning to feel a sense of belonging and familiarity.

We’ve seen similar changes in artistic expression within literature as well.  Whereas literature had historically been created under the assumption of a linear temporality operating within the bounds of a well-defined beginning, middle, and end, it was beginning to show more chaotic or unpredictable qualities in its temporal structure, less intuitive plot progressions, and in many cases leaving the reader with what appeared to be an open or unresolved ending, and even a feeling of discontent or shock.  This is what we’d expect to occur if we realize the Greek roots of Western civilization, ultimately based on a culture that believed the universe to have a logical structure, with a teleological, anthropomorphic and anthropocentric order of events that cohered into an intelligible whole.  Once this view of the universe changed to one that saw the world as less predictable and indifferent to human wants and needs, the resultant psychological changes coincided with a change in literary style and expression.

In all these cases, we can see that modern art has no clear-cut image of what it means to be human or what exactly a human being is, for the simple reason that it sees human beings as lacking any fixed essence or nature; it sees humans as transcending any pre-defined identity or mold.  Lacking any fixed essence, I think that modern conceptions of humanity entail a radical form of freedom to define ourselves if we choose to do so, even though this worthwhile goal is often difficult, uncomfortable, and a project that never really ends until we die.  Actually striving to make use of this freedom is needed now more than ever, given the level of conformity and the increasingly abstract ways of living that modern society foists upon us.

Another interesting quote of Barrett’s regards the relationship between modern art and conceptions of the meaningless:

“Modern art has discarded the traditional assumptions of rational form.  The modern artist sees man not as the rational animal, in the sense handed down to the West by the Greeks, but as something else.  Reality, too, reveals itself to the artist not as the Great Chain of Being, which the tradition of Western rationalism had declared intelligible down to its smallest link and in its totality, but as much more refractory: as opaque, dense, concrete, and in the end inexplicable.  At the limits of reason one comes face to fact with the meaningless; and the artist today shows us the absurd, the inexplicable, the meaningless in our daily life.

This is interesting, especially given Barrett’s previous claim (in chapter 1) about existentialism’s opposition to the positivist position that “…the whole surrounding area in which ordinary men live from day to day and have their dealings with other men is consigned to the outer darkness of the meaningless.”  Barrett’s more recent claim above, while not necessarily in contradiction with the previous claim, suggests (at the very least) an interesting nuance within existentialist thought.  It suggests that positivism wants to keep silent about the meaningless, whereas existentialism does not; but it also suggests that there’s some agreement between positivism’s claim of what is meaningless and that of existentialism.  Both supposedly contrary schools of thought make claims to what is meaningless either implicitly or explicitly, and both have some agreement as to what falls under the umbrella of the meaningless; it’s just that existentialism accepts and promulgates this meaninglessness as a fundamental part of our human existence whereas positivism more or less rejects this as not even worth talking about, let alone worth using to help construct one’s world view.

Barrett finishes this chapter with a brief reminder of the immense technological progress we’ve made in modern times and the massive externalization of our lives that accompanied this change.  But there is a growing disparity between this external power and our inner poverty; an irony that modern art wants to expose.  Tying this all together, he says:

“The bomb reveals the dreadful and total contingency of human existence.  Existentialism is the philosophy of the atomic age.”

And that pretty much says it all.  Originally, life on this planet (eventually including our own species) was born from the sun, in terms of its elements and its ultimate source of energy.  Now we live in an age where we’ve harnessed the power that drives the sun itself (nuclear fusion); the very power that may one day lead to the end of our own existence.  I find this situation to be far more ironic than the disparity between our inner and outer lives as Barrett points out, as we are on the brink of wiping ourselves out by the very mechanism that allowed us to exist in the first place.  Nothing could be a more poetic example of the contingency of our own existence.

In the next post in this series, I’ll explore Irrational Man, Part 2: The Sources of Existentialism in the Western Tradition, Chapter 4: Hebraism and Hellenism.

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Predictive Processing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mind & Body (Part V)

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In the previous post, part 4 in this series on Predictive Processing (PP), I explored some aspects of reasoning and how different forms of reasoning can be built from a foundational bedrock of Bayesian inference (click here for parts 1, 2, or 3).  This has a lot to do with language, but I also claimed that it depends on how the brain is likely generating new models, which I think is likely to involve some kind of natural selection operating on neural networks.  The hierarchical structure of the generative models for these predictions as described within a PP framework, also seems to fit well with the hierarchical structure that we find in the brain’s neural networks.  In this post, I’m going to talk about the relation between memory, imagination, and unconscious and conscious forms of reasoning.

Memory, Imagination, and Reasoning

Memory is of course crucial to the PP framework whether for constructing real-time predictions of incoming sensory information (for perception) or for long-term predictions involving high-level, increasingly abstract generative models that allow us to accomplish complex future goals (like planning to go grocery shopping, or planning for retirement).  Either case requires the brain to have stored some kind of information pertaining to predicted causal relations.  Rather than memories being some kind of exact copy of past experiences (where they’d be stored like data on a computer), research has shown that memory functions more like a reconstruction of those past experiences which are modified by current knowledge and context, and produced by some of the same faculties used in imagination.

This accounts for any false or erroneous aspects of our memories, where the recalled memory can differ substantially from how the original event was experienced.  It also accounts for why our memories become increasingly altered as more time passes.  Over time, we learn new things, continuing to change many of our predictive models about the world, and thus have a more involved reconstructive process the older the memories are.  And the context we find ourselves in when trying to recall certain memories, further affect this reconstruction process, adapting our memories in some sense to better match what we find most salient and relevant in the present moment.

Conscious vs. Unconscious Processing & Intuitive Reasoning (Intuition)

Another attribute of memory is that it is primarily unconscious, where we seem to have this pool of information that is kept out of consciousness until parts of it are needed (during memory recall or or other conscious thought processes).  In fact, within the PP framework we can think of most of our generative models (predictions), especially those operating in the lower levels of the hierarchy, as being out of our conscious awareness as well.  However, since our memories are composed of (or reconstructed with) many higher level predictions, and since only a limited number of them can enter our conscious awareness at any moment, this implies that most of the higher-level predictions are also being maintained or processed unconsciously as well.

It’s worth noting however that when we were first forming these memories, a lot of the information was in our consciousness (the higher-level, more abstract predictions in particular).  Within PP, consciousness plays a special role since our attention modifies what is called the precision weight (or synaptic gain) on any prediction error that flows upward through the predictive hierarchy.  This means that the prediction errors produced from the incoming sensory information or at even higher levels of processing are able to have a greater impact on modifying and updating the predictive models.  This makes sense from an evolutionary perspective, where we can ration our cognitive resources in a more adaptable way, by allowing things that catch our attention (which may be more important to our survival prospects) to have the greatest effect on how we understand the world around us and how we need to act at any given moment.

After repeatedly encountering certain predicted causal relations in a conscious fashion, the more likely those predictions can become automated or unconsciously processed.  And if this has happened with certain rules of inference that govern how we manipulate and process many of our predictive models, it seems reasonable to suspect that this would contribute to what we call our intuitive reasoning (or intuition).  After all, intuition seems to give people the sense of knowing something without knowing how it was acquired and without any present conscious process of reasoning.

This is similar to muscle memory or procedural memory (like learning how to ride a bike) which is consciously processed at first (thus involving many parts of the cerebral cortex), but after enough repetition it becomes a faster and more automated process that is accomplished more economically and efficiently by the basal ganglia and cerebellum, parts of the brain that are believed to handle a great deal of unconscious processing like that needed for procedural memory.  This would mean that the predictions associated with these kinds of causal relations begin to function out of our consciousness, even if the same predictive strategy is still in place.

As mentioned above, one difference between this unconscious intuition and other forms of reasoning that operate within the purview of consciousness is that our intuitions are less likely to be updated or changed based on new experiential evidence since our conscious attention isn’t involved in the updating process. This means that the precision weight of upward flowing prediction errors that encounter downward flowing predictions that are operating unconsciously will have little impact in updating those predictions.  Furthermore, the fact that the most automated predictions are often those that we’ve been using for most of our lives, means that they are also likely to have extremely high Bayesian priors, further isolating them from modification.

Some of these priors may become what are called hyperpriors or priors over priors (many of these believed to be established early in life) where there may be nothing that can overcome them, because they describe an extremely abstract feature of the world.  An example of a possible hyperprior could be one that demands that the brain settle on one generative model even when it’s comparable to several others under consideration.  One could call this a “tie breaker” hyperprior, where if the brain didn’t have this kind of predictive mechanism in place, it may never be able to settle on a model, causing it to see the world (or some aspect of it) as a superposition of equiprobable states rather than simply one determinate state.  We could see the potential problem in an organism’s survival prospects if it didn’t have this kind of hyperprior in place.  Whether or not a hyperprior like this is a form of innate specificity, or acquired in early learning is debatable.

An obvious trade-off with intuition (or any kind of innate biases) is that it provides us with fast, automated predictions that are robust and likely to be reliable much of the time, but at the expense of not being able to adequately handle more novel or complex situations, thereby leading to fallacious inferences.  Our cognitive biases are also likely related to this kind of unconscious reasoning whereby evolution has naturally selected cognitive strategies that work well for the kind of environment we evolved in (African savanna, jungle, etc.) even at the expense of our not being able to adapt as well culturally or in very artificial situations.

Imagination vs. Perception

One large benefit of storing so much perceptual information in our memories (predictive models with different spatio-temporal scales) is our ability to re-create it offline (so to speak).  This is where imagination comes in, where we are able to effectively simulate perceptions without requiring a stream of incoming sensory data that matches it.  Notice however that this is still a form of perception, because we can still see, hear, feel, taste and smell predicted causal relations that have been inferred from past sensory experiences.

The crucial difference, within a PP framework, is the role of precision weighting on the prediction error, just as we saw above in terms of trying to update intuitions.  If precision weighting is set or adjusted to be relatively low with respect to a particular set of predictive models, then prediction error will have little if any impact on the model.  During imagination, we effectively decouple the bottom-up prediction error from the top-down predictions associated with our sensory cortex (by reducing the precision weighting of the prediction error), thus allowing us to intentionally perceive things that aren’t actually in the external world.  We need not decouple the error from the predictions entirely, as we may want our imagination to somehow correlate with what we’re actually perceiving in the external world.  For example, maybe I want to watch a car driving down the street and simply imagine that it is a different color, while still seeing the rest of the scene as I normally would.  In general though, it is this decoupling “knob” that we can turn (precision weighting) that underlies our ability to produce and discriminate between normal perception and our imagination.

So what happens when we lose the ability to control our perception in a normal way (whether consciously or not)?  Well, this usually results in our having some kind of hallucination.  Since perception is often referred to as a form of controlled hallucination (within PP), we could better describe a pathological hallucination (such as that arising from certain psychedelic drugs or a condition like Schizophrenia) as a form of uncontrolled hallucination.  In some cases, even with a perfectly normal/healthy brain, when the prediction error simply can’t be minimized enough, or the brain is continuously switching between models, based on what we’re looking at, we experience perceptual illusions.

Whether it’s illusions, hallucinations, or any other kind of perceptual pathology (like not being able to recognize faces), PP offers a good explanation for why these kinds of experiences can happen to us.  It’s either because the models are poor (their causal structure or priors) or something isn’t being controlled properly, like the delicate balance between precision weighting and prediction error, any of which that could result from an imbalance in neurotransmitters or some kind of brain damage.

Imagination & Conscious Reasoning

While most people would tend to define imagination as that which pertains to visual imagery, I prefer to classify all conscious experiences that are not directly resulting from online perception as imagination.  In other words, any part of our conscious experience that isn’t stemming from an immediate inference of incoming sensory information is what I consider to be imagination.  This is because any kind of conscious thinking is going to involve an experience that could in theory be re-created by an artificial stream of incoming sensory information (along with our top-down generative models that put that information into a particular context of understanding).  As long as the incoming sensory information was a particular way (any way that we can imagine!), even if it could never be that way in the actual external world we live in, it seems to me that it should be able to reproduce any conscious process given the right top-down predictive model.  Another way of saying this is that imagination is simply another word to describe any kind of offline conscious mental simulation.

This also means that I’d classify any and all kinds of conscious reasoning processes as yet another form of imagination.  Just as is the case with more standard conceptions of imagination (within PP at least), we are simply taking particular predictive models, manipulating them in certain ways in order to simulate some result with this process decoupled (at least in part) from actual incoming sensory information.  We may for example, apply a rule of inference that we’ve picked up on and manipulate several predictive models of causal relations using that rule.  As mentioned in the previous post and in the post from part 2 of this series, language is also likely to play a special role here where we’ll likely be using it to help guide this conceptual manipulation process by organizing and further representing the causal relations in a linguistic form, and then determining the resulting inference (which will more than likely be in a linguistic form as well).  In doing so, we are able to take highly abstract properties of causal relations and apply rules to them to extract new information.

If I imagine a purple elephant trumpeting and flying in the air over my house, even though I’ve never experienced such a thing, it seems clear that I’m manipulating several different types of predicted causal relations at varying levels of abstraction and experiencing the result of that manipulation.  This involves inferred causal relations like those pertaining to visual aspects of elephants, the color purple, flying objects, motion in general, houses, the air, and inferred causal relations pertaining to auditory aspects like trumpeting sounds and so forth.

Specific instances of these kinds of experienced causal relations have led to my inferring them as an abstract probabilistically-defined property (e.g. elephantness, purpleness, flyingness, etc.) that can be reused and modified to some degree to produce an infinite number of possible recreated perceptual scenes.  These may not be physically possible perceptual scenes (since elephants don’t have wings to fly, for example) but regardless I’m able to add or subtract, mix and match, and ultimately manipulate properties in countless ways, only limited really by what is logically possible (so I can’t possibly imagine what a square circle would look like).

What if I’m performing a mathematical calculation, like “adding 9 + 9”, or some other similar problem?  This appears (upon first glance at least) to be very qualitatively different than simply imagining things that we tend to perceive in the world like elephants, books, music, and other things, even if they are imagined in some phantasmagorical way.  As crazy as those imagined things may be, they still contain things like shapes, colors, sounds, etc., and a mathematical calculation seems to lack this.  I think the key thing to realize here is the fundamental process of imagination as being able to add or subtract and manipulate abstract properties in any way that is logically possible (given our current set of predictive models).  This means that we can imagine properties or abstractions that lack all the richness of a typical visual/auditory perceptual scene.

In the case of a mathematical calculation, I would be manipulating previously acquired predicted causal relations that pertain to quantity and changes in quantity.  Once I was old enough to infer that separate objects existed in the world, then I could infer an abstraction of how many objects there were in some space at some particular time.  Eventually, I could abstract the property of how many objects without applying it to any particular object at all.  Using language to associate a linguistic symbol for each and every specific quantity would lay the groundwork for a system of “numbers” (where numbers are just quantities pertaining to no particular object at all).  Once this was done, then my brain could use the abstraction of quantity and manipulate it by following certain inferred rules of how quantities can change by adding to or subtracting from them.  After some practice and experience I would now be in a reasonable position to consciously think about “adding 9 + 9”, and either do it by following a manual iterative rule of addition that I’ve learned to do with real or imagined visual objects (like adding up some number of apples or dots/points in a row or grid), or I can simply use a memorized addition table and search/recall the sum I’m interested in (9 + 9 = 18).

Whether we consider imagining a purple elephant, mentally adding up numbers, thinking about what I’m going to say to my wife when I see her next, or trying to explicitly apply logical rules to some set of concepts, all of these forms of conscious thought or reasoning are all simply different sets of predictive models that I’m simply manipulating in mental simulations until I arrive at a perception that’s understood in the desired context and that has minimal prediction error.

Putting it all together

In summary, I think we can gain a lot of insight by looking at all the different aspects of brain function through a PP framework.  Imagination, perception, memory, intuition, and conscious reasoning fit together very well when viewed as different aspects of hierarchical predictive models that are manipulated and altered in ways that give us a much more firm grip on the world we live in and its inferred causal structure.  Not only that, but this kind of cognitive architecture also provides us with an enormous potential for creativity and intelligence.  In the next post in this series, I’m going to talk about consciousness, specifically theories of consciousness and how they may be viewed through a PP framework.

Predictive Processing: Unlocking the Mysteries of Mind & Body (Part I)

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I’ve been away from writing for a while because I’ve had some health problems relating to my neck.  A few weeks ago I had double-cervical-disc replacement surgery and so I’ve been unable to write and respond to comments and so forth for a little while.  I’m in the second week following my surgery now and have finally been able to get back to writing, which feels very good given that I’m unable to lift or resume martial arts for the time being.  Anyway, I want to resume my course of writing beginning with a post-series that pertains to Predictive Processing (PP) and the Bayesian brain.  I’ve written one post on this topic a little over a year ago (which can be found here) as I’ve become extremely interested in this topic for the last several years now.

The Predictive Processing (PP) theory of perception shows a lot of promise in terms of finding an overarching schema that can account for everything that the brain seems to do.  While its technical application is to account for the acts of perception and active inference in particular, I think it can be used more broadly to account for other descriptions of our mental life such as beliefs (and knowledge), desires, emotions, language, reasoning, cognitive biases, and even consciousness itself.  I want to explore some of these relationships as viewed through a PP lens more because I think it is the key framework needed to reconcile all of these aspects into one coherent picture, especially within the evolutionary context of an organism driven to survive.  Let’s begin this post-series by first looking at how PP relates to perception (including imagination), beliefs, emotions, and desires (and by extension, the actions resulting from particular desires).

Within a PP framework, beliefs can be best described as simply the set of particular predictions that the brain employs which encompass perception, desires, action, emotion, etc., and which are ultimately mediated and updated in order to reduce prediction errors based on incoming sensory evidence (and which approximates a Bayesian form of inference).  Perception then, which is constituted by a subset of all our beliefs (with many of them being implicit or unconscious beliefs), is more or less a form of controlled hallucination in the sense that what we consciously perceive is not the actual sensory evidence itself (not even after processing it), but rather our brain’s “best guess” of what the causes for the incoming sensory evidence are.

Desires can be best described as another subset of one’s beliefs, and a set of beliefs which has the special characteristic of being able to drive action or physical behavior in some way (whether driving internal bodily states, or external ones that move the body in various ways).  Finally, emotions can be thought of as predictions pertaining to the causes of internal bodily states and which may be driven or changed by changes in other beliefs (including changes in desires or perceptions).

When we believe something to be true or false, we are basically just modeling some kind of causal relationship (or its negation) which is able to manifest itself into a number of highly-weighted predicted perceptions and actions.  When we believe something to be likely true or likely false, the same principle applies but with a lower weight or precision on the predictions that directly corresponds to the degree of belief or disbelief (and so new sensory evidence will more easily sway such a belief).  And just like our perceptions, which are mediated by a number of low and high-level predictions pertaining to incoming sensory data, any prediction error that the brain encounters results in either updating the perceptual predictions to new ones that better reduce the prediction error and/or performing some physical action that reduces the prediction error (e.g. rotating your head, moving your eyes, reaching for an object, excreting hormones in your body, etc.).

In all these cases, we can describe the brain as having some set of Bayesian prior probabilities pertaining to the causes of incoming sensory data, and these priors changing over time in response to prediction errors arising from new incoming sensory evidence that fails to be “explained away” by the predictive models currently employed.  Strong beliefs are associated with high prior probabilities (highly-weighted predictions) and therefore need much more counterfactual sensory evidence to be overcome or modified than for weak beliefs which have relatively low priors (low-weighted predictions).

To illustrate some of these concepts, let’s consider a belief like “apples are a tasty food”.  This belief can be broken down into a number of lower level, highly-weighted predictions such as the prediction that eating a piece of what we call an “apple” will most likely result in qualia that accompany the perception of a particular satisfying taste, the lower level prediction that doing so will also cause my perception of hunger to change, and the higher level prediction that it will “give me energy” (with these latter two predictions stemming from the more basic category of “food” contained in the belief).  Another prediction or set of predictions is that these expectations will apply to not just one apple but a number of apples (different instances of one type of apple, or different types of apples altogether), and a host of other predictions.

These predictions may even result (in combination with other perceptions or beliefs) in an actual desire to eat an apple which, under a PP lens could be described as the highly weighted prediction of what it would feel like to find an apple, to reach for an apple, to grab it, to bite off a piece of it, to chew it, and to swallow it.  If I merely imagine doing such things, then the resulting predictions will necessarily carry such a small weight that they won’t be able to influence any actual motor actions (even if these imagined perceptions are able to influence other predictions that may eventually lead to some plan of action).  Imagined perceptions will also not carry enough weight (when my brain is functioning normally at least) to trick me into thinking that they are actual perceptions (by “actual”, I simply mean perceptions that correspond to incoming sensory data).  This low-weighting attribute of imagined perceptual predictions thus provides a viable way for us to have an imagination and to distinguish it from perceptions corresponding to incoming sensory data, and to distinguish it from predictions that directly cause bodily action.  On the other hand, predictions that are weighted highly enough (among other factors) will be uniquely capable of affecting our perception of the real world and/or instantiating action.

This latter case of desire and action shows how the PP model takes the organism to be an embodied prediction machine that is directly influencing and being influenced by the world that its body interacts with, with the ultimate goal of reducing any prediction error encountered (which can be thought of as maximizing Bayesian evidence).  In this particular example, the highly-weighted prediction of eating an apple is simply another way of describing a desire to eat an apple, which produces some degree of prediction error until the proper actions have taken place in order to reduce said error.  The only two ways of reducing this prediction error are to change the desire (or eliminate it) to one that no longer involves eating an apple, and/or to perform bodily actions that result in actually eating an apple.

Perhaps if I realize that I don’t have any apples in my house, but I realize that I do have bananas, then my desire will change to one that predicts my eating a banana instead.  Another way of saying this is that my higher-weighted prediction of satisfying hunger supersedes my prediction of eating an apple specifically, thus one desire is able to supersede another.  However, if the prediction weight associated with my desire to eat an apple is high enough, it may mean that my predictions will motivate me enough to avoid eating the banana, and instead to predict what it is like to walk out of my house, go to the store, and actually get an apple (and therefore, to actually do so).  Furthermore, it may motivate me to predict actions that lead me to earn the money such that I can purchase the apple (if I don’t already have the money to do so).  To do this, I would be employing a number of predictions having to do with performing actions that lead to me obtaining money, using money to purchase goods, etc.

This is but a taste of what PP has to offer, and how we can look at basic concepts within folk psychology, cognitive science, and theories of mind in a new light.  Associated with all of these beliefs, desires, emotions, and actions (which again, are simply different kinds of predictions under this framework), is a number of elements pertaining to ontology (i.e. what kinds of things we think exist in the world) and pertaining to language as well, and I’d like to explore this relationship in my next post.  This link can be found here.

The Brain as a Prediction Machine

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Over the last year, I’ve been reading a lot about Karl Friston and Andy Clark’s work on the concept of perception and action being mediated by a neurological schema centered on “predictive coding”, what Friston calls “active inference”, the “free energy principle”, and Bayesian inference in general as it applies to neuro-scientific models of perception, attention, and action.  Here’s a few links (Friston here; Clark here, here, and here) to some of their work as it is worth reading for those interested in neural modeling, information theory, and learning more about meta-theories pertaining to how the brain integrates and processes information.

I find it fascinating how this newer research and these concepts relate to and help to bring together some content from several of my previous blog posts, in particular, those that mention the concept of hierarchical neurological hardware and those that mention my own definition of knowledge “as recognized causal patterns that allow us to make successful predictions.”  For those that may be interested, here’s a list of posts I’ve made over the last few years that I think contain some relevant content (in chronological order).

The ideas formulated by Friston and expanded on by Clark center around the brain being (in large part) a prediction generating machine.  This fits in line with my own conclusions about what the brain seems to be doing when it’s acquiring knowledge over time (however limited my reading is on the subject).  Here’s an image of the basic predictive processing schema:

PPschema

The basic Predictive Processing schema (adapted from Lupyan and Clark (2014))

One key element in Friston and Clark’s work (among the work of some others) is the amalgamation of perception and action.  In this framework, perception itself is simply the result of the brain’s highest level predictions of incoming sensory data.  But also important in this framework is that prediction error minimization is accomplished through embodiment itself.  That is to say, their models posit that the brain not only tries to reduce prediction errors by updating its prediction models based on the actual incoming sensory information (with only the error feeding forward to update the models, similar to data compression schema), but the concept of active inference involves the minimization of prediction error through the use of motor outputs.  This could be taken to mean that motor outputs themselves are, in a sense, caused by the brain trying to reduce prediction errors pertaining to predicted sensory input — specifically sensory input that we would say stems from our desires and goals (e.g. desire to fulfill hunger, commuting to work, opening the car door, etc.).

To give a simple example of this model in action, let’s consider an apple resting on a table in front of me.  If I see the apple in front of me and I have a desire to grab it, my brain would not only predict what that apple looks like and how it is perceived over time (and how my arm looks while reaching for it), but it would also predict what it should feel like to reach for the apple.  So if I reach for it based on the somato-sensory prediction and there is some error in that prediction, corroborated by my visual cortex observing my arm moving in some wrong direction, the brain would respond by updating its models that predict what it should feel so that my arm starts moving in the proper direction.  This prediction error minimization is then fine-tuned as I get closer to the apple and can finally grab it.

This embodiment ingrained in the predictive processing models of Friston and Clark can also be well exemplified by the so-called “Outfielder’s Problem”.  In this problem, an outfielder is trying to catch a fly ball.  Now we know that outfielders are highly skilled at doing this rather effectively.  But if we ask the outfielder to merely stand still and watch a batted ball and predict where it will land, their accuracy is generally pretty bad.  So when we think about what strategy the brain takes to accomplish this when moving the body quickly, we begin to see the relevance of active inference and embodiment in the brain’s prediction schema.  The outfielder’s brain employs a brilliant strategy called “optical acceleration cancellation” (OAC).  Here, the well-trained outfielder sees the fly ball, and moves his or her body (while watching the ball) in order to cancel out any optical acceleration observed during the ball’s flight.  If they do this, then they will end up exactly where the ball was going to land, and then they’re able to catch it successfully.

We can imagine fine-grained examples of this active inference during everyday tasks, where I may simply be looking at a picture on my living room wall, and when my brain is predicting how it will look over the span of a few seconds, my head may slightly change its tilt, or direction, or my eyes may slowly move a fraction of a degree this way or that way, however imperceptible to me.  My brain in this case is predicting what the picture on the wall will look like over time and this prediction (according to my understanding of Clark) is identical to what we actually perceive.  One key thing to note here is that the prediction models are not simply updated based on the prediction error that is fed forward through the brain’s neurological hierarchies, but it is also getting some “help” from various motor movements to correct for the errors through action, rather than simply freezing all my muscles and updating the model itself (which may in fact be far less economical for the brain to do).

Another area of research that pertains to this framework, including ways of testing its validity, is that of evolutionary psychology and biology, where one would surmise (if these models are correct) that evolution likely provided our brains with certain hard-wired predictive models and our learning processes over time use these as starting points to produce innate reflexes (such as infant suckling to give a simple example) that allow us to survive long enough to update our models with actual new acquired information.  There are many different facets to this framework and I look forward to reading more about Friston and Clark’s work over the next few years.  I have a feeling that they have hit on something big, something that will help to answer a lot of questions about embodied cognition, perception, and even consciousness itself.

I encourage you to check out the links I provided pertaining to Friston and Clark’s work, to get a taste of the brilliant ideas they’ve been working on.

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 3 of 3)

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This is part 3 of 3 of this post.  Click here to read part 2.

Reactive Devaluation

Studies have shown that if a claim is believed to have come from a friend or ally, the person receiving it will be more likely to think that it has merit and is truthful.  Likewise, if it is believed to have come from an enemy or some member of the opposition, it is significantly devalued.  This bias is known as reactive devaluation.  A few psychologists actually determined that the likeabillity of the source of the message is one of the key factors involved with this effect, and people will actually value information coming from a likeable source more than a source they don’t like, with the same order of magnitude that they would value information coming from an expert versus a non-expert.  This is quite troubling.  We’ve often heard about how political campaigns and certain debates are seen more as popularity contests than anything else, and this bias is likely a primary reason for why this is often the case.

Unfortunately, a large part of society has painted a nasty picture of atheism, skepticism, and the like.  As it turns out, people who do not believe in a god (mainly the Christian god) are the least trusted minority in America, according to a sociological study performed a few years ago (Johanna Olexy and Lee Herring, “Atheists Are Distrusted: Atheists Identified as America’s Most Distrusted Minority, According to Sociological Study,” American Sociological Association News, May 3, 2006).  Regarding the fight against dogmatism, the rational thinker needs to carefully consider how they can improve their likeability to the recipients of their message, if nothing else, by going above and beyond to remain kind, respectful, and maintain a positive and uplifting attitude during their argument presentation.  In any case, the person arguing will always be up against any societal expectations and preferences that may reduce that person’s likeability, so there’s also a need to remind others as well as ourselves about what is most important when discussing an issue — the message rather than the messenger.

The Backfire Effect & Psychological Reactance

There have already been several cognitive biases mentioned that interfere with people’s abilities to accept new evidence that contradicts their beliefs.  To make matters worse, psychologists have discovered that people often react to disconfirming evidence by actually strengthening their beliefs.  This is referred to as the backfire effect.  This can make refutations futile most of the time, but there are some strategies that help to combat this bias.  The bias is largely exacerbated by a person’s emotional involvement and the fact that people don’t want to appear to be unintelligent or incorrect in front of others.  If the debating parties let tempers cool down before resuming the debate, this can be quite helpful regarding the emotional element.  Additionally, if a person can show their opponent how accepting the disconfirming evidence will benefit them, they’ll be more likely to accept it.  There are times when some of the disconfirming evidence mentioned is at least partially absorbed by the person, and they just need some more time in a less tense environment to think things over a bit.  If the situation gets too heated, or if a person risks losing face with peers around them, the ability to persuade that person only decreases.

Another similar cognitive bias is referred to as reactance, which is basically a motivational reaction to instances of perceived infringement of behavioral freedoms.  That is, if a person feels that someone is taking away their choices or limiting the number of them, such as in cases where they are being heavily pressured into accepting a different point of view, they will often respond defensively.  They may feel that freedoms are being taken away from them, and it is only natural for a person to defend whatever freedoms they see themselves having or potentially losing.  Whenever one uses reverse psychology, they are in fact playing on at least an implicit knowledge of this reactance effect.  Does this mean that rational thinkers should use reverse psychology to persuade dogmatists to accept reason and evidence?  I personally don’t think that this is the right approach because this could also backfire and I would prefer to be honest and straightforward, even if this results in less efficacy.  At the very least however, one needs to be aware of this bias and needs to be careful with how they phrase their arguments, how they present the evidence, and to maintain a calm and respectful attitude during these discussions, so that the other person doesn’t feel the need to defend themselves with the cost of ignoring evidence.

Pareidolia & Other Perceptual Illusions

Have you ever seen faces of animals or people while looking at clouds, shadows, or other similar situations?  The brain has many pattern recognition modules and will often respond erroneously to vague or even random stimuli, such that we perceive something familiar, even when it isn’t actually there.  This is called pareidolia, and is a type of apophenia (i.e. seeing patterns in random data).  Not surprisingly, many people have reported instances of seeing various religious imagery and so forth, most notably the faces of prominent religious figures, from ordinary phenomena.  People have also erroneously heard “hidden messages” in records when playing them in reverse, and similar illusory perceptions.  This results from the fact that the brain often fills in gaps and if one expects to see a pattern (even if unconsciously driven by some emotional significance), then the brain’s pattern recognition modules can often “over-detect” or result in false positives by too much sensitivity and by conflating unconscious imagery with one’s actual sensory experiences, leading to a lot of distorted perceptions.  It goes without saying that this cognitive bias is perfect for reinforcing superstitious or supernatural beliefs, because what people tend to see or experience from this effect are those things that are most emotionally significant to them.  After it occurs, people believe that what they saw or heard must have been real and therefore significant.

Most people are aware that hallucinations occur in some people from time to time, under certain neurological conditions (generally caused by an imbalance of neurotransmitters).  A bias like pareidolia can effectively produce similar experiences, but without requiring the more specific neurological conditions that a textbook hallucination requires.  That is, the brain doesn’t need to be in any drug-induced state nor does it need to be physically abnormal in any way for this to occur, making it much more common than hallucinations.  Since pareidolia is also compounded with one’s confirmation bias, and since the brain is constantly implementing cognitive dissonance reduction mechanisms in the background (as mentioned earlier), this can also result in groups of people having the same illusory experience, specifically if the group shares the same unconscious emotional motivations for “seeing” or experiencing something in particular.  These circumstances along with the power of suggestion from even just one member of the group can lead to what are known as collective hallucinations.  Since collective hallucinations like these inevitably lead to a feeling of corroboration and confirmation between the various people experiencing it (say, seeing a “spirit” or “ghost” of someone significant), they can reinforce one another’s beliefs, despite the fact that the experience was based on a cognitive illusion largely induced by powerful human emotions.  It’s likely no coincidence that this type of group phenomenon seems to only occur with members of a religion or cult, specifically those that are in a highly emotional and synchronized psychological state.  There have been many cases of large groups of people from various religions around the world claiming to see some prominent religious figure or other supernatural being, illustrating just how universal this phenomena is within a highly emotional group context.

Hyperactive Agency Detection

There is a cognitive bias that is somewhat related to the aforementioned perceptual illusion biases which is known as hyperactive agency detection.  This bias refers to our tendency to erroneously assign agency to events that happen without an agent causing them.  Human beings all have a theory of mind that is based in part on detecting agency, where we assume that other people are causal agents in the sense that they have intentions and goals just like we do.  From an evolutionary perspective, we can see that our ability to recognize that others are intentional agents allows us to better predict another person’s behavior which is extremely beneficial to our survival (notably in cases where we suspect others are intending to harm us).

Unfortunately our brain’s ability to detect agency is hyperactive in that it errs on the side of caution by over-detecting possible agency, as opposed to under-detecting (which could negatively affect our survival prospects).  As a result, people will often ascribe agency to things and events in nature that have no underlying intentional agent.  For example, people often anthropomorphize (or implicitly assume agency to) machines and get angry when they don’t work properly (such as an automobile that breaks down while driving to work), often with the feeling that the machine is “out to get us”, is “evil”, etc.  Most of the time, if we have feelings like this, they are immediately checked and balanced by our rational minds that remind us that “it’s only a car”, or “it’s not conscious”, etc.  Similarly, when natural disasters or other similar events occur, our hyperactive agency detection snaps into gear, trying to find “someone to blame”.  This cognitive bias explains quite well, at least as a contributing factor as to why so many ancient cultures assumed that there were gods that caused earthquakes, lightning, thunder, volcanoes, hurricanes, etc.  Quite simply, they needed to ascribe the events as having been caused by someone.

Likewise, if we are walking in a forest and hear some strange sounds in the bushes, we may often assume that some intentional agent is present (whether another person or other animal), even though it may simply be the wind that is causing the noise.  Once again, we can see in this case the evolutionary benefit of this agency detection, even with the occasional “false positive”, the noise in the bushes could very well be a predator or other source of danger, so it is usually better for our brains to assume that the noise is coming from an intentional agent.  It’s also entirely possible that even in cases where the source of sound was determined to be the wind, early cultures may have ascribed an intentional stance to the wind itself (e.g. a “wind” god, etc.).  In all of these cases, we can see how our hyperactive agency detection can lead to irrational, theistic and other supernatural belief systems, and we need to be aware of such a bias when evaluating our intuitions of how the world works.

Risk Compensation

It is only natural that the more a person feels protected from various harms, the less careful they tend to behave, and vice versa.  This apparent tendency, sometimes referred to as risk compensation, is often a harmless approach because generally speaking, if one is well protected from harm, they do have less to worry about than one who is not, and thus they can take greater relative risks as a result of that larger cushion of safety.  Where this tends to cause a problem however, is in cases when the perceived level of protection is far higher than it actually is.  The worst case scenario that comes to mind is if a person that appeals to the supernatural thinks that it doesn’t matter what happens to them or that no harm can come to them because of some belief in a supernatural source of protection, let alone one that they believe provides the most protection possible.  In this scenario, their level of risk compensation is fully biased to a negative extreme, and they will be more likely to behave irresponsibly because they don’t have realistic expectations of the consequences of their actions.  In a post-enlightenment society, we’ve acquired a higher responsibility to heed the knowledge gained from scientific discoveries so that we can behave more rationally as we learn more about the consequences of our actions.

It’s not at all difficult to see how the effects of various religious dogma on one’s level of risk compensation can inhibit that society from making rational, responsible decisions.  We have several serious issues plaguing modern society including those related to environmental sustainability, climate change, pollution, war, etc.  If believers in the supernatural have an attitude that everything is “in God’s hands” or that “everything will be okay” because of their belief in a protective god, they are far less likely to take these kinds of issues seriously because they fail to acknowledge the obvious harm on everyone in society.  What’s worse is that not only are dogmatists reducing their own safety, but they’re also reducing the safety of their children, and of everyone else in society that is trying to behave rationally with realistic expectations.  If we had two planets, one for rational thinkers, and one for dogmatists, this would no longer be a problem for everyone.  The reality is that we share one planet and thus we all suffer the consequences of any one person’s irresponsible actions.  If we want to make more rational decisions, especially those related to the safety of our planet’s environment, society, and posterity, people need to adjust their risk compensation such that it is based on empirical evidence using a rational, proven scientific methodology.  This point clearly illustrates the need to phase out supernatural beliefs since false beliefs that don’t correspond with reality can be quite dangerous to everybody regardless of who carries the beliefs.  In any case, when one is faced with the choice between knowledge versus ignorance, history has demonstrated which choice is best.

Final thoughts

The fact that we are living in an information age with increasing global connectivity, and the fact that we are living in a society that is becoming increasingly reliant on technology, will likely help to combat the ill effects of these cognitive biases.  These factors are making it increasingly difficult to hide one’s self from the evidence and the proven efficacy of using the scientific method in order to form accurate beliefs regarding the world around us.  Societal expectations are also changing as a result of these factors, and it is becoming less and less socially acceptable to be irrational, dogmatic, and to not take scientific methodology more seriously.  In all of these cases, having knowledge about these cognitive biases will help people to combat them.  Even if we can’t eliminate the biases, we can safeguard ourselves by preparing for any potential ill effects that those biases may produce.  This is where reason and science come into play, providing us with the means to counter our cognitive biases by applying a rational skepticism to all of our beliefs, and by using a logical and reliable methodology based on empirical evidence to arrive at a belief that we can be justifiably confident (though never certain) in.  As Darwin once said, “Ignorance more frequently begets confidence than does knowledge; it is those who know little, and not those who know much, who so positively assert that this or that problem will never be solved by science.”  Science has constantly been ratcheting our way toward a better understanding of the universe we live in, despite the fact that the results we obtain from science are often at odds with our own intuitions about how we think the world is.  Only relatively recently has science started to provide us with information regarding why our intuitions are often at odds with the scientific evidence.

We’ve made huge leaps within neuroscience, cognitive science, and psychology, and these discoveries are giving us the antidote that we need in order to reduce or eliminate irrational and dogmatic thinking.  Furthermore, those that study logic have an additional advantage in that they are more likely to spot fallacious arguments that are used to support this or that belief, and thus they are less likely to be tricked or persuaded by arguments that often appear to be sound and strong, but actually aren’t.  People fall prey to fallacious arguments all the time, and it is mostly because they haven’t learned how to spot them (which courses in logic and other reasoning can help to mitigate).  Thus, overall I believe it is imperative that we integrate knowledge concerning our cognitive biases into our children’s educational curriculum, starting at a young age (in a format that is understandable and engaging of course).  My hope is that if we start to integrate cognitive education (and complementary courses in logic and reasoning) as a part of our foundational education curriculum, we will see a cascade effect of positive benefits that will guide our society more safely into the future.

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 2 of 3)

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This is part 2 of 3 of this post.  Click here to read part 1.

The Feeling of Certainty & The Overconfidence Effect

There are a lot of factors that affect how certain we feel that one belief or another is in fact true.  One factor that affects this feeling of certainty is what I like to call the time equals truth fallacy.  With this cognitive bias, we tend to feel more certain about our beliefs as time progresses, despite not gaining any new evidence to support those beliefs. Since the time with a particular belief is the only factor involved here, it will have greater effects on those that are relatively isolated or sheltered from new information.  So if a person has been indoctrinated with a particular set of beliefs (let alone irrational beliefs), and they are effectively “cut off” from any sources of information that could serve to refute those beliefs, it will become increasingly more difficult to persuade them later on.  This situation sounds all too familiar, as it is often the case that dogmatic groups will isolate themselves and shelter their members from outside influences, for this very reason.  If the group can isolate their members for long enough (or the members actively isolate themselves), the dogma effectively gets burned into them, and the brainwashing is far more successful.  That this cognitive bias has been exploited by various dogmatic/religious leaders throughout history is hardly surprising considering how effective it is.

Though I haven’t researched or come across any proposed evolutionary reasons behind the development of this cognitive bias, I do have at least one hypothesis pertaining to its origin.  I’d say that this bias may have resulted from the fact that the beliefs that matter most (from an evolutionary perspective) are those that are related to our survival goals (e.g. finding food sources or evading a predator).  So naturally, any beliefs that didn’t cause noticeable harm to an organism weren’t correlated with harm, and thus were more likely to be correct (i.e. keep using whatever works and don’t fix what ain’t broke).  However, once we started adding many more beliefs to our repertoire, specifically those that didn’t directly affect our survival (including many beliefs in the supernatural), the same cognitive rules and heuristics were still being applied as before, although these new types of beliefs (when false) haven’t been naturally selected against, because they haven’t been detrimental enough to our survival (at least not yet, or not enough to force a significant evolutionary change).  So once again, evolution may have produced this bias for very advantageous reasons, but it is a sub-optimal heuristic (as always) and one that has become a significant liability after we started evolving culturally as well.

Another related cognitive bias, and one that is quite well established, is the overconfidence effect, whereby a person’s subjective confidence level or feeling of confidence in his or her judgements or beliefs are predictably higher than the actual objective accuracy of those judgements and beliefs. In a nutshell, people tend to have far more confidence in their beliefs and decisions than is warranted.  A common example cited to illustrate the intensity of this bias pertains to people taking certain quizzes, claiming to be “99% certain” about their answers to certain questions, and then finding out afterwards that they were wrong about half of the time.  In other cases, this overconfidence effect can be even worse.

In a sense, the feeling of certainty is like an emotion, which, like our other emotions, occur as a natural reflex, regardless of the cause, and independently of reason.  Just like other emotions such as anger, pleasure, or fear, the feeling of certainty can be produced by a seizure, certain drugs, and even electrical stimulation of certain regions of the brain.  In all of these cases, even when no particular beliefs are being thought about, the brain can produce a feeling of certainty nevertheless.  Research has shown that the feeling of knowing or certainty can also be induced through various brain washing and trance-inducing techniques such as a high repetition of words, rhythmic music, sleep deprivation (or fasting), and other types of social/emotional manipulation.  It is hardly a coincidence that many religions often employ a number of these techniques within their repertoire.

The most important point to take away from learning about these “confidence/certainty” biases is to understand that the feeling of certainty is not a reliable way of determining the accuracy of one’s beliefs.  Furthermore, one must realize that no matter how certain we may feel about a particular belief, we could be wrong, and often times are.  Dogmatic belief systems such as those found in many religions are often propagated by a misleading and mistaken feeling of certainty, even if that feeling is more potent than any ever experienced before.  Often times when people ascribing to these dogmatic belief systems are questioned about the lack of empirical evidence supporting their beliefs, even if all of their arguments have been refuted, they simply reply by saying “I just know.”  Irrational, and entirely unjustified responses like these illustrate the dire need for people to become aware of just how fallible their feeling of certainty can be.

Escalation of Commitment

If a person has invested their whole lives in some belief system, even if they encounter undeniable evidence that their beliefs were wrong, they are more likely to ignore it or rationalize it away than to modify their beliefs, and thus they will likely continue investing more time and energy in those false beliefs.  This is due to an effect known as escalation of commitment.  Basically, the higher the cumulative investment in a particular course of action, the more likely someone will feel justified in continuing to increase that investment, despite new evidence showing them that they’d be better off abandoning that investment and cutting their losses.  When it comes to trying to “convert” a dogmatic believer into a more rational, free thinker, this irrational tendency severely impedes any chance of success, more so when that person has been investing themselves in the dogma for a longer period of time, since they ultimately have a lot more to lose.  To put it another way, a person’s religion is often a huge part of their personal identity, so regardless of any undeniable evidence presented that refutes their beliefs, in order to accept that evidence they will have to abandon a large part of themselves which is obviously going to make that acceptance and intellectual honesty quite difficult to implement.  Furthermore, if a person’s family or friends have all invested in the same false beliefs as themselves, even if that person discovers that those beliefs are wrong, they risk their entire family and/or friends rejecting them and then forever losing those relationships that are dearest to them.  We can also see how this escalation of commitment is further reinforced by the time equals truth fallacy mentioned earlier.

Negativity Bias

When I’ve heard various Christians proselytizing to myself or others, one tactic that I’ve seen used over and over again is the use of fear-mongering with theologically based threats of eternal punishment and torture.  If we don’t convert, we’re told, we’re doomed to burn in hell for eternity.  Their incessant use of this tactic suggests that it was likely effective on themselves contributing to their own conversion (it was in fact one of the reasons for my former conversion to Christianity).  Similar tactics have been used in some political campaigns in order to persuade voters by deliberately scaring them into taking one position over another.  Though this strategy is more effective on some than others, there is an underlying cognitive bias in all of us that contributes to its efficacy.  This is known as the negativity bias.  With this bias, information or experiences that are of a more negative nature will tend to have a greater effect on our psychological states and resulting behavior when compared to positive information or experiences that are equally intense.

People will remember threats to their well-being a lot more than they remember pleasurable experiences.  This looks like another example of a simple survival strategy implemented in our brains.  Similar to my earlier hypothesis regarding the time equals truth heuristic, it is far more important to remember and avoid dangerous or life-threatening experiences than it is to remember and seek out pleasurable experiences when all else is equal.  It only takes one bad experience to end a person’s life, whereas it is less critical to experience some minimum number of pleasurable experiences.  Therefore, it makes sense as an evolutionary strategy to allocate more cognitive resources and memory for avoiding the dangerous and negative experiences, and a negativity bias helps us to accomplish that.

Unfortunately, just as with the time equals truth bias, since our cultural evolution has involved us adopting certain beliefs that no longer pertain directly to our survival, the heuristic is often being executed improperly or in the wrong context.  This increases the chances that we will fall prey to adopting irrational, dogmatic belief systems when they are presented to us in a way that utilizes fear-mongering and various forms of threats to our well-being.  When it comes to conceiving of an overtly negative threat, can anyone imagine one more significant than the threat of eternal torture?  It is, by definition, supposed to be the worst scenario imaginable, and thus it is the most effective kind of threat to play on our negativity bias, and lead to irrational beliefs.  If the dogmatic believer is also convinced that their god can hear their thoughts, they’re also far less likely to think about their dogmatic beliefs critically, for they have no mental privacy to do so.

This bias in particular reminds me of Blaise Pascal’s famous Wager, which basically asserts that it is better to believe in God than to risk the consequences of not doing so.  If God doesn’t exist, we have “only” a finite loss (according to Pascal).  If God does exist, then one’s belief leads to an eternal reward, and one’s disbelief leads to an eternal punishment.  Therefore, it is only logical (Pascal asserts) that one should believe in God, since it is the safest position to adopt.  Unfortunately, Pascal’s premises are not sound, and therefore the conclusion is invalid.  For one, is belief in God sufficient enough to avoid the supposed eternal punishment, or does it have to be more than that, such as some other religious tenets, declarations, or rituals?  Second, which god should one believe in?  There have been thousands of gods proposed by various believers over several millennia, and there were obviously many more than we currently have records of in history, therefore Pascal’s Wager merely narrows it down to a choice of several thousand known gods.  Third, even if we didn’t have to worry about choosing the correct god, if it turned out that there was no god, would a life with that belief not have carried a significant cost?  If the belief also involved a host of dogmatic moral prescriptions, rituals, and other specific ways to live one’s life, etc., including perhaps the requirement to abstain from many pleasurable human experiences, this cost could be quite great.  Furthermore, if one applies Pascal’s wager to any number of theoretical possibilities that posit a possible infinite loss over a finite loss, one would be inclined to apply the same principle to any of those possibilities, which is obviously irrational.  It is clear that Pascal hadn’t thought this one through very well, and I wouldn’t doubt that his judgement during this apologetic formulation was highly clouded by his own negativity bias (since the fear of punishment seems to be the primary focus of his “wager”).  As was mentioned earlier, we can see how effective this bias has been on a number of religious converts, and we need to be diligent about watching out for information that is presented to us with threatening strings attached, because it can easily cloud our judgement and lead to the adoption of irrational beliefs and dogma.

Belief Bias & Argument Proximity Effects

When we analyze arguments, we often judge the strength of those arguments based on how plausible their conclusion is, rather than how well those arguments support that conclusion.  In other words, people tend to focus their attention on the conclusion of an argument, and if they think that the conclusion is likely to be true (based on their prior beliefs), this affects their perspective of how strong or weak the arguments themselves appear to be.  This is obviously an incorrect way to analyze arguments, as within logic, only the arguments themselves can be used to determine the validity of the conclusion, not the other way around.  This implies that what is intuitive to us is often incorrect, and thus our cognitive biases are constantly at odds with logic and rationality.  This is why it takes a lot of practice to learn how to apply logic effectively in one’s thinking.  It just doesn’t come naturally, even though we often think it does.

Another cognitive deficit regarding how people analyze arguments irrationally is what I like to call the argument proximity effect.  Basically, when strong arguments are presented along with weak arguments that support a particular conclusion, the strong arguments will often appear to be weaker or less persuasive because of their proximity or association with the weaker ones.  This is partly due to the fact that if a person thinks that they can defeat the moderate or weak arguments, they will often believe that they can also defeat the stronger argument, if only they were given enough time to do so.  It is as if the strong arguments become “tainted” by the weaker ones, even though the opposite is true since the arguments are independent of one another.  That is, when a person has a number of arguments to support their position, a combination of strong and weak arguments is always better than only having the strong arguments, because there are simply more arguments that need to be addressed and rebutted in the former than in the latter.  Another reason for this effect is that the presence of weak arguments also weakens the credibility of the person presenting them, and so then the stronger arguments aren’t taken as seriously by the recipient.  Just as with our belief bias, this cognitive deficit is ultimately caused by not employing logic properly, if at all.  Making people aware of this cognitive flaw is only half the battle, as once again we also need to learn about logic and how to apply it effectively in our thinking.

To read part 3 of 3, click here.

Learning About Our Cognitive Biases: An Antidote to Irrational & Dogmatic Thinking (Part 1 of 3)

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It is often surprising to think about the large number of people that still ascribe to dogmatic beliefs, despite our living in a post-enlightenment age of science, reason, and skeptical inquiry.  We have a plethora of scientific evidence and an enormous amount of acquired data illustrating just how fallacious various dogmatic belief systems are, as well as how dogmatism in general is utterly useless for gaining knowledge or making responsible decisions throughout one’s life.  We also have an ample means of distributing this valuable information to the public through academic institutions, educational television programming, online scientific resources, books, etc.  Yet, we still have an incredibly large number of people preferably believing in various dogmatic claims (and with a feeling of “certainty”) over those supported by empirical evidence and reason.  Furthermore, when some of these people are presented with the scientific evidence that refutes their dogmatic belief, they outright deny that the evidence exists or they simply rationalize it away.  This is a very troubling problem in our society as this kind of muddled thinking often prevents many people from making responsible, rational decisions.  Irrational thinking in general has caused many people to vote for political candidates for all the wrong reasons.  It has caused many people to raise their own children in ways that promote intolerance, prejudice, and that undervalue if not entirely abhor invaluable intellectual virtues such as rational skepticism and critical thought.
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Some may reasonably assume that (at least) many of these irrational belief systems and behaviors are simply a result of having low self-esteem, inadequate education and/or low intelligence, and it turns out that several dozen sociological studies have found evidence that supports this line of reasoning.  That is, a person that has lower self-esteem, lower education, and/or lower intelligence is more likely to be religious and dogmatic.  However, there is clearly much more to it than that, especially since there are still a lot of people that obtain these irrational belief systems that are also well educated and intelligent.  Furthermore, every human being is quite often irrational in their thinking.  So what else could be contributing to this irrationality (and dogmatism)?  Well, the answer seems to lie in the realms of cognitive science and psychology.  I’ve decided to split this post into three parts, because there is a lot of information I’d like to cover.  Here’s the link to part 2 of 3, which can also be found at the end of this post.

Cognitive Biases

Human beings are very intelligent relative to most other species on this planet, however, we are still riddled with various flaws in our brains which drastically reduce our ability to think logically or rationally.  This isn’t surprising after one recognizes that our brains are the product of evolution, and thus they weren’t “designed” in any way at all, let alone to operate logically or rationally.  Instead, what we see in human beings is a highly capable and adaptable brain, yet one with a number of cognitive biases and shortcomings.  Though a large number (if not all) of these biases developed as a sub-optimal yet fairly useful survival strategy, specifically within the context of our evolutionary past, most of them have become a liability in our modern civilization, and often impede our intellectual development as individuals and as a society.  A lot of these cognitive biases serve (or once served) as an effective way at making certain decisions rather quickly, that is, the biases have effectively served as heuristics for simplifying the decision making process with many everyday problems.  While heuristics are valuable and often make our decision making faculties more efficient, they are often far less than optimal due to the fact that increased efficiency is often afforded by a reduction in accuracy.  Again, this is exactly what we expect to find with products of evolution — a suboptimal strategy for solving some problem or accomplishing some goal, but one that has worked well enough to give the organism (in this case, human beings) an advantage over the competition within some environmental niche.

So what kinds of cognitive biases do we have exactly, and how many of them have cognitive scientists discovered?  A good list of them can be found here.  I’m going to mention a few of them in this post, specifically those that promote or reinforce dogmatic thinking, those that promote or reinforce an appeal to a supernatural world view, and ultimately those that seem to most hinder overall intellectual development and progress.  To begin, I’d like to briefly discuss Cognitive Dissonance Theory and how it pertains to the automated management of our beliefs.

Cognitive Dissonance Theory

The human mind doesn’t tolerate internal conflicts very well, and so when we have beliefs that contradict one another or when we are exposed to new information that conflicts with an existing belief, some degree of cognitive dissonance results and we are effectively pushed out of our comfort zone.  The mind attempts to rid itself of this cognitive dissonance through a few different methods.  A person may alter the importance of the original belief or that of the new information, they may change the original belief, or they may seek evidence that is critical of the new information.  Generally, the easiest path for the mind to take is the first and last method mentioned here, as it is far more difficult for a person to change their existing beliefs, partly due to the fact that a person’s existing set of beliefs is their only frame of reference when encountering new information, and there is an innate drive to maintain a feeling of familiarity and a feeling of certainty of our beliefs.

The primary problem with these automated cognitive dissonance reduction methods is that they tend to cause people to defend their beliefs in one way or another rather than to question them and try to analyze them objectively.  Unfortunately, this means that we often fail to consider new evidence and information using a rational approach, and this in turn can cause people to acquire quite a large number of irrational, false beliefs, despite having a feeling of certainty regarding the truth of those beliefs.  It is also important to note that many of the cognitive biases that I’m about to mention result from these cognitive dissonance reduction methods, and they can become compounded to create severe lapses in judgement.

Confirmation Bias, Semmelweis Reflex, and The Frequency Illusion

One of the most significant cognitive biases we have is what is commonly referred to as confirmation bias.  Basically, this bias refers to our tendency to seek out, interpret, or remember information in a particular way that serves to confirm our beliefs.  To put it more simply, we often will only see what we want to see.  It is a method that our brain uses in order to be able to sift through large amounts of information and piece it together with what we already believe into a meaningful story line or explanation.  Just as we expect, it ultimately optimizes for efficiency over accuracy, and therein lies the problem.  Even though this bias applies to everyone, the dogmatist in particular has a larger cognitive barrier to overcome because they’re also using a fallacious epistemological methodology right from the start (i.e. appealing to some authority rather than to reason and evidence).  So while everyone is affected by this bias to some degree, the dogmatic believer in particular has an epistemological flaw that serves to compound the issue and make matters worse.  They will, to a much higher degree, live their life unconsciously ignoring any evidence encountered that refutes their beliefs (or fallaciously reinterpreting it to be in their favor), and they will rarely if ever attempt to actively seek out such evidence to try and disprove their beliefs.  A more rational thinker on the other hand, has a belief system primarily based on a reliable epistemological methodology (which uses empirical evidence to support it), and one that has been proven to work and provide increasingly accurate knowledge better than any other method (i.e. the scientific method).  Nevertheless, everyone is affected by this bias, and because it is operating outside the conscious mind, we all fail to notice it as it actively modifies our perception of reality.

One prominent example in our modern society, illustrating how this cognitive bias can reinforce dogmatic thinking (and with large groups of people), is the ongoing debate between Young Earth Creationists and the scientific consensus regarding evolutionary theory.  Even though the theory of evolution is a scientific fact (much like many other scientific theories, such as the theory of gravity, or the Germ theory of disease), and even though there are several hundred thousand scientists that can attest to its validity, as well as a plethora of evidence within a large number of scientific fields supporting its validity, Creationists seem to be in complete and utter denial of this actuality.  Not only do they ignore the undeniable wealth of evidence that is presented to them, but they also misinterpret evidence (or cherry pick) to suit their position.  This problem is compounded by the fact that their beliefs are only supported by fallacious tautologies [e.g. “It’s true because (my interpretation of) a book called the Bible says so…”], and other irrational arguments based on nothing more than a particular religious dogma and a lot of intellectual dishonesty.

I’ve had numerous debates with these kinds of people (and I used to BE one of them many years ago, so I understand how many of them arrived at these beliefs), and I’ll often quote several scientific sources and various logical arguments to support my claims (or to refute theirs), and it is often mind boggling to witness their response, with the new information seemingly going in one ear and coming out the other without undergoing any mental processing or critical consideration.  It is as if they didn’t hear a single argument that was pointed out to them and merely executed some kind of rehearsed reflex.  The futility of the communication is often confirmed when one finds themselves having to repeat the same arguments and refutations over and over again, seemingly falling on deaf ears, with no logical rebuttal of the points made.  On a side note, this reflex-like response where a person quickly rejects new evidence because it contradicts their established belief system is known as the “Semmelweis reflex/effect”, but it appears to be just another form of confirmation bias.  Some of these cases of denial and irrationality are nothing short of ironic, since these people are living in a society that owes its technological advancements exclusively to rational, scientific methodologies, and these people are indeed patronizing and utilizing many of these benefits of science everyday of their lives (even if they don’t realize it).  Yet we still find many of them hypocritically abhorring or ignoring science and reason whenever it is convenient to do so, such as when they try to defend their dogmatic beliefs.

Another prominent example of confirmation bias reinforcing dogmatic thinking relates to various other beliefs in the supernatural.  People that believe in the efficacy of prayer, for example, will tend to remember prayers that were “answered” and forget or rationalize away any prayers that weren’t “answered”, since their beliefs reinforce such a selective memory.  Similarly, if a plane crash or other disaster occurs, some people with certain religious beliefs will often mention or draw attention to the idea that their god or some supernatural force must have intervened or played a role in preventing the death of any survivors (if there are any), while they seem to downplay or ignore the facts pertaining to the many others that did not survive (if there are any survivors at all).  In the case of prayer, numerous studies have shown that prayer for another person (e.g. to heal them from an illness) is ineffective when that person doesn’t know that they’re being prayed for, thus any efficacy of prayer has been shown to be a result of the placebo effect and nothing more.  It may be the case that prayer is one of the most effective placebos, largely due to the incredibly high level of belief in its efficacy, and the fact that there is no expected time frame for it to “take effect”.  That is, since nobody knows when a prayer will be “answered”, then even if the prayer isn’t “answered” for several months or even several years (and time ranges like this are not unheard of for many people that have claimed to have prayers answered), then confirmation bias will be even more effective than a traditional medical placebo.  After all, a typical placebo pill or treatment is expected to work within a reasonable time frame comparable to other medicine or treatments taken in the past, but there’s no deadline for a prayer to be answered by.  It’s reasonable to assume that even if these people were shown the evidence that prayer is no more effective than a placebo (even if it is the most effective placebo available), they would reject it or rationalize it away, once again, because their beliefs require it to be so.  The same bias applies to numerous other purportedly paranormal phenomena, where people see significance in some event because of how their memory or perception is operating in order to promote or sustain their beliefs.  As mentioned earlier, we often see what we want to see.

There is also a closely related bias known as congruence bias, which occurs because people rely too heavily on directly testing a given hypothesis, and often neglect to indirectly test that hypothesis.  For example, suppose that you were introduced to a new lighting device with two buttons on it, a green button and a red button.  You are told that the device will only light up by pressing the green button.  A direct test of this hypothesis would be to press the green button, and see if it lights up.  An indirect test of this hypothesis would be to press the red button, and see if it doesn’t light up.  Congruence bias illustrates that we tend to avoid the indirect testing of hypotheses, and thus we can start to form irrational beliefs by mistaking correlation with causation, or by forming incomplete explanations of causation.  In the case of the aforementioned lighting device, it could be the case that both buttons cause it to light up.  Think about how this congruence bias affects our general decision making process, where when we combine it with our confirmation bias, we are inclined to not only reaffirm our beliefs, but to avoid trying to disprove them (since we tend to avoid indirect testing of those beliefs).  This attitude and predisposition reinforces dogmatism by assuming the truth of one’s beliefs and not trying to verify them in any rational, critical way.

An interesting cognitive bias that often works in conjunction with a person’s confirmation bias is something referred to as the frequency illusion, whereby some detail of an event or some specific object may enter a person’s thoughts or attention, and then suddenly it seems that they are experiencing the object or event at a higher than normal frequency.  For example, if a person thinks about a certain animal, say a turtle, they may start noticing lots of turtles around them that they would have normally overlooked.  This person may even go to a store and suddenly notice clothing or other gifts with turtle patterns or designs on them that they didn’t seem to notice before.  After all, “turtle” is on their mind, or at least in the back of their mind, so their brain is unconsciously “looking” for turtles, and the person isn’t aware of their own unconscious pattern recognition sensitivity.  As a result, they may think that this perceived higher frequency of “seeing turtles” is abnormal and that it must be more than simply a coincidence.  If this happens to a person that appeals to the supernatural, their confirmation bias may mistake this frequency illusion for a supernatural event, or something significant.  Since this happens unconsciously, people can’t control this illusion or prevent it from happening.  However, once a person is aware of the frequency illusion as a cognitive bias that exists, they can at least reassess their experiences with a larger toolbox of rational explanations, without having to appeal to the supernatural or other irrational belief systems.  So in this particular case, we can see how various cognitive biases can “stack up” with one another and cause serious problems in our reasoning abilities and negatively affect how accurately we perceive reality.

To read part 2 of 3, click here.