The first 100 pages of “The Righteous Mind”: Reactions

It’s interesting so far! Here are some passages that caught my attention:

Emotion is a bit harder to define. Emotions were long thought to be dumb and visceral, but beginning in the 1980s, scientists increasingly recognized that emotions were filled with cognition. Emotions occur in steps, the first of which is to appraise something that just happened based on whether it advanced or hindered your goals…Emotions are not dumb. Damasio’s patients [i.e. sociopaths, -MP] made terrible decisions because they were deprived of emotional input into their decision making. Emotions are a kind of information processing. Contrasting emotion with cognition is therefore as pointless as contrasting rain with weather, or cars with vehicles.

Yes! Love this thought. Though I wonder why we should think of information processing as more global than emotion. Would it be equally possible (if somewhat radical) to say that all cognition is a kind of emotion? Would that change how we thought of thinking? (I’m thinking about this in light of Alan Jacobs’ post, titled “thinking as delight.”)

The main way that we change our minds on moral issues is by interacting with other people. We are terrible at seeking evidence that challenges our own beliefs, but other people do us this favor, just as we are quite good at finding errors in other people’s beliefs. When discussions are hostile the odds of change are slight…But if there is affection, admiration, or a desire to please the other person, then the elephant leans towards that person and rider tries to find the truth in the other person’s arguments.

And what if there is affection, admiration, and a desire to please the other than doesn’t come in the form of an argument? What if it’s just an internalized, idealized picture of this other person’s moral expectations?

Reminds me of the Talmud (Sotah 36b) which says that when Potifar’s wife demanded that Joseph sleep with her, he looks out the window. He has a sort of vision; he sees his father’s image reflected in the window. This vision tells him: “Your brothers’ names will be inscribed on the stones of the ephod, and you will be included among them. Do you wish for your name to be erased?” And, as the story goes, Joseph says no and gets thrown into prison for it.

What if holding some sort of image of a moral paragon in your head is the way to do and feel the right things?

If people can literally see what they want to see — given a bit of ambiguity — is it any wonder that scientific studies often fail to persuade the general public? Scientists are really good at finding flaws in studies that contradict their own views, but it sometimes happens that evidence accumulates across many studies to the point where scientists must change their minds. I’ve seen this happen in my colleagues (and myself) many times, and it’s part of the accountability system of science — you’d look foolish clinging to discredited theories. But for nonscientists, there is no such thing as a study you must believe. It’s always possible to question the methods, find an alternative interpretation of the data, or, if all else fails, question the honesty or ideology of the researchers.

This is immediately recognizable in others, and therefore should be something that I recognize in myself. I’m sure I do this.

If I am getting better, it’s because I’ve expanded my social circles online to include scientists and research-minded people who would hold me accountable. I would feel embarrassed to believe in a discredited theory. And I’ve incorporated this into my identity, though “identity” just seems like the individual-facing consequence of my social connections.

This is sort of a disturbing thought. Am I only open to research because of my social connections? Do I balance this openness with a skepticism of science as applied to teaching because of the educators who would expect that of me? Where does the individual begin, and the social influence end? Never, I suppose.

Anyone who values truth should stop worshiping reason. We all need to take a cold hard look at the evidence and see reasoning for what it is. The French cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber recently reviewed the vast literature on motivated reasoning (in social psychology) and on the biases and errors of reasoning (in cognitive psychology). They concluded that most of the bizarre and depressing research findings make perfect sense once you see reasoning as having evolved not to help us find the truth but to help us engage in arguments, persuasion, and manipulation in the context of discussions with other people. As they put it, “skilled arguers…are not after the truth, but after arguments supporting their views.” This explains why the confirmation bias is so powerful, and so ineradicable. How hard could it be to teach students to look on the other side, to look for evidence against their favored view? Yet, in fact, it’s very hard, and nobody has found a way to do it.

So the Humean, emotional, non-rational view of judgement leads to a social perspective on learning. It’s almost never rational argument that leads to someone changing their views. It’s rational argument used in the service of social signalling that helps people change their minds.

Or is this not his view? I have 247 more pages in which to find out!