Intelligent Design

Materialism and popular culture: But … you’re not nearly smart enough to tell me how to run my life

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From an apparently unsigned Health column in The Hindu, courtesy The Guardian news service, “Our ideas of brain and human nature are myth,” we learn

Perhaps that sounds a little overblown, but it’s not. Who, dear reader, do you think you are? Do you think your mind is capable of independent judgment and largely directs the course of your life? Do you think that most of your decisions in life have been the product of your rational, conscious self? Do you believe you are in control of your life? Do you cherish ideas such as self-expression, a sense of autonomy and a distinct, self—authored identity? The chances are that, albeit with a few qualifications, most of your answers are yes. Indeed, given a pervasive culture which reinforces all these ideas, it would be a bit odd if you didn’t.

But the point about this new explosion of interest in research into our brains is that it exposes as illusions much of these guiding principles of what it is to be a mature adult. They are a profound misunderstanding of how we think, and how our brains work. They are fairytales, about as fanciful and as implausible as goblins.

Does it indeed? Further,

It’s not an accident that many of the biggest bestsellers in this territory are about decision-making — Blink, Nudge and The Decisive Moment. The image which comes to mind is that they are all sticks of dynamite dug in to explode the great sacred mythology of our time: namely that individual freedom is about having choices, and that progress is about the constant expansion of those choices.

Read these books and you discover that people are useless at making choices. We are lazy, imitative, over-optimistic, myopic, and much of our decision-making is made by unconscious habits of the mind which are largely socially primed.

Ah, I see. Any guesses as to how this thesis will be used?

It’s intriguing how much attention the thesis has attracted from many parts of the political establishment, such as policymakers in pensions, health and the environment, because often the gains from nudging seem pretty small — it is fanciful to think it can solve the environmental crisis.

Well, where’s the feather I knock myself over with when I am totally astonished? This is a thesis perfectly attuned to authoritarian government. It’s also nonsense.

Freedom is about having choices, whether to start a business, leave a religion, or vote the government out.

And, while people have a variety of reasons for making choices, good or bad, if these theories are really as represented here, they would be far too simplistic to even approach the reality of how people make choices.* Our brains are more like an ocean than a machine, and schools of fish move about. As intellectual projects, they probably won’t last nearly as long as behaviorism and maybe not even as long as evolutionary psychology. But while they’re hot, the bat fairy must have delivered them to intrusive government. I can’t think who else would.

*Maybe they’re not; I haven’t had time to read the books. What’s significant to me is that that’s the conclusion so swiftly drawn. By the way, the title phrase is from Kathy Shaidle at Five Feet of Fury.

5 Replies to “Materialism and popular culture: But … you’re not nearly smart enough to tell me how to run my life

  1. 1
    Lenoxus says:

    “much of our decision-making is made by unconscious habits of the mind which are largely socially primed.”

    As a “materialist”-atheist-what-have-you, I agree with this bit but strongly disagree with the idea that it robs us entirely of free will, or that it means we should give up on life having meaning and purpose. I’m quite comfortable with having many “drivers”.

    Conversely, I’ve never quite understood how a non-material creator would automatically “add” purpose to existence. Why mightn’t that creator be, say, selfish or crazy (or simply lonely)? If I have emotions, and senses, and the ability to make choices that variously ease the sufferings and fulfill the desires of others (and occasionally myself), what difference does it make if my “father” is a man, an ape, an alien, or a god?

    The way I see it, there can be no possible universe in which beings with emotions and minds are somehow “meaningless”. There is no universe in which nihilism is warranted, if it has beings with the capacity for nihilism. (Unless, I suppose, they have the capacity for nothing else. But that’s another universe’s discussion.)

    Something I’m confused by: The OP says “As intellectual projects, they probably won’t last nearly as long as behaviorism”; “they” seems to be referring to brains. Huh?

  2. 2
    DATCG says:

    All your “brains, thoughts, behavior, comments, materialism, intelligence” are belong to us…

    Obama Whitehouse seeks to Track Social Networking sites

    Gee, thats not “fishy” at all.

    O chang O
    O rwellian O
    O hopey O

    Gee, I long for the day of sterilized water of the masses. Science will reach its zenith!

    With friends like this, who needs Al Qaeda?

  3. 3
    Phinehas says:

    @Lenoxus

    I’ve never quite understood how a non-material creator would automatically “add” purpose to existence.

    A non-material creator wouldn’t automatically add purpose to existence. On the other hand, a non-material creator who created you for a purpose would.

    If I have emotions, and senses, and the ability to make choices that variously cause the sufferings and subvert the desires of others, what difference does it make if my “father” is a man, an ape, an alien, or a god?

    The above is not what you said, but is it less valid than how you worded it? The immediate difference would seem to be not so much which “father” you had, but whether you were accountable to him. And if you are accountable, then qualities like omniscience, love, mercy, grace, truth, justice, etc. in your “father” tend to start to make a difference as well, do they not?

    The way I see it, there can be no possible universe in which beings with hatred and minds are somehow “meaningless”.

    Again, this is not what you said. I merely switched out the ambiguous “emotions” with a particular one from the set of those that are possible. I did this to point out that “emotions” can give us no less “meanings” than there are emotions. It seems to me that an infinite number of meanings from an infinite number of emotional perspectives ends up nearly as meaningless as if there were no emotional perspectives at all.

    Most people are not merely looking for meaning, they are looking for transcendant meaning–a meaning outside themselves–precisely because what they find inside themselves doesn’t give them the meaning they crave.

  4. 4
    Lenoxus says:

    A non-material creator wouldn’t automatically add purpose to existence. On the other hand, a non-material creator who created you for a purpose would.

    What if its intention is more me to suffer extremely and indefinitely? Should I passively accept that as “my purpose”? (Maybe, since I’d probably have no other choice. But I wouldn’t freely praise such a creator.) Also, how do I know that a given creator is the ultimate one — what if mine is a demigod disobeying the True Creator? Evaluating a creator’s morality seems more logical if done by standards other than whether it is in line with the Original Purpose of the Original Creator.

    The immediate difference would seem to be not so much which “father” you had, but whether you were accountable to him. And if you are accountable, then qualities like omniscience, love, mercy, grace, truth, justice, etc. in your “father” tend to start to make a difference as well, do they not?

    In fact, I would entirely agree with that, but in reverse. If a being is loving, or merciful, then I am indeed “accountable” to it. I am, at least to some tiny degree, responsible for its well-being. (If such a being is omnipotent, I don’t owe it much of anything, because it can always serve its own needs.)

    It seems to me that an infinite number of meanings from an infinite number of emotional perspectives ends up nearly as meaningless as if there were no emotional perspectives at all.

    Well, that does make ethics tricky business! But, IMHO, do-able. I see a similar conundrum when a Creator is brought in to explain morality/purpose — which Creator? Which text?

    Most people are not merely looking for meaning, they are looking for transcendant meaning–a meaning outside themselves–precisely because what they find inside themselves doesn’t give them the meaning they crave.

    But of course my form of “meaning” is very much outside myself. I don’t think that emotional and conscious experience is mine alone! The world of beings is something much, much bigger than me.

    By that particular standard, I kinda feel sorry for God. Is he allowed to find life inherently meaningful, or only himself, and life by extension? Is he only allowed to be meaning-solopsistic?

  5. 5
    Lenoxus says:

    should be ~ for me to suffer indefinitely

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