Investment in Beliefs

by Siegfried Othmer | October 13th, 2005

The other day I was buying a shirt for myself, and because mine is a popular size, I often encounter the “donut hole” in the selection, namely that my size is in short supply. I rummaged at length and found my size at the very bottom of the pile. Just at that moment, my eye was drawn to the shirts on the adjacent pile, and I decided at once that I actually liked the new one better. Not only that, but my size was right on top. I was done with my male shopping experience–beeline for the goods and get out. But then a surprising thing happened. I walked off to the sales counter with the shirt that I had spent some effort in locating. It already had my name on it more than the one I had just discovered. I had made an investment of time with this shirt, and the return on that investment lay in the purchase.

This relatively trivial vignette might not even have gotten my own attention were it not for the fact that I am enjoying the book “Blink” at the moment, which speaks about such “instant” judgment formations. But I am not going where Malcolm Gladwell went with “Blink,” which is perhaps grist for another newsletter. Yes, the decision was made in the “blink”-ing of an eye, and its basis was obscure at that moment. However, what really interests me here is the role of that sense of investment in our decision-making. Consider some other examples.

Gillette is coming out with a new razor, but industry analyst William Chappell said that any major shift in allegiances between Schick and Gillette were not forthcoming, despite any new bells and whistles. “…those who buy Schick will always buy Schick, and those who grew up on Gillette will always buy Gillette.” Even when it comes to razors? Apparently so. Marketing people know these things. The purchase of the new Gillette in some sense validates all of the prior decisions to purchase a Gillette. It is another installment payment on our prior investments.

When we take our seat at a movie theater and then find that the person behind us has a cough, do we move? Not likely. What only a moment before was a totally random decision has over just a few moments become our turf. Mere squatting in the seat for a time already rises to the level of a vested interest. Jodie Foster just related her own experience in that regard when she took her inquisitive four-year-old to a Sunday matinee. He insisted on asking questions throughout the movie, and four-year-olds aren’t necessarily quiet about it. The person just in front expressed her irritation, and Jodie helplessly suggested that the person might simply want to move… Not happening. This was her seat!

When attachments of this kind form so readily, and on such a slender basis, and if they are immediately resistant to extinction, should it be any surprise that most New Orleans residents will want to return to their soggy and mold-infested homes, that Jews want to return to their ancestral home, and Palestinians want to hold onto theirs, that team loyalty is so all-consuming and persistent, and that something like racial prejudice, the flipside of some of our dearest attachments, should be so persistent. Closer to home, and the point of my bringing all this up, is it any surprise that scientists should be resistant when new-fangled ideas that challenge their most cherished, and most thoroughly internalized, beliefs?

This persistence of belief in the face of contrary evidence was illustrated by hurricane Katrina in yet another way. It appears that all who witnessed it were further confirmed in their pre-existing political position. The government failed in its response, and hence should gear up to do better to serve the public in the future. Yet others saw this failure of government as the natural state, and want to ratchet down expectations that government is even capable of doing better.

When it comes to science, it is less controversial to talk about scientific revolutions past rather than present. The theme is well illustrated in a piece titled “The Stubborn Pull of Dogma,” by David Barash, Professor of Psychology at the University of Washington. He recalls the case of Tycho Brahe, Danish astronomer and mentor to Johannes Kepler. He achieved great accuracy in determining the position of planets, and in that capacity only confirmed the Copernican finding that the simplest and most elegant mathematical description of these orbits had the planets revolving around the sun in simple orbits. (Copernicus postulated circular orbits, but Brahe’s data were sufficiently precise to allow Kepler to determine that the orbits were really elliptical.)

Nevertheless, Brahe was troubled by the new cosmology that removed earth from its privileged position in the universe. His solution was ingenious, and permitted a kind of synthesis between the new data and the old worldview. Brahe simply proposed that the sun and all its planets continue to revolve obediently around an earth fixed in the firmament. The proposition has come to be known as Brahe’s Blunder. Until the law of gravity became established by Newton, however, there was no violation of laws of nature involved. In the words of Barash, this “theory” allowed him to “accept what was irrefutably true while still clinging stubbornly to what he cherished even more: what he wanted to be true.”

The matter is still of interest to this day because it is a “reflection of a basic, widespread human tendency: to accept what you absolutely must, but whenever possible, continue to retain your core beliefs, whether true or not and regardless of how much mental gymnastics such retention demands.” Russell Barkley comes to mind. But the tendency is on exhibit whenever our field brings forth one or another advance.

Another aspect of intention is illuminated by the early research of Jose Delgado, reviewed in the October 2005 issue of Scientific American. One subject clenched his fist upon electrical stimulation of his brain, a response he could not override. “I guess, doctor, that your electricity is stronger than my will.” But another subject, who was stimulated to move his head from side to side, rationalized that he was actually doing this voluntarily, saying “I am looking for my slippers.” There was the need to reconstruct experience in such a way as to leave the person in charge of his affairs, to be directing his own actions.

Further illuminating the matter of intention and beliefs is the story just now being told by Joan Didion of the loss of her husband of forty years. (She also lost her daughter, aged 39, after a year of illness, but the finality of death in that case occurred only after Joan had concluded the book.) In “The Year of Magical Thinking” Didion relates that in going through the routine of disposing of her husband’s clothes, she was stopped in her tracks:

“I could not give away the rest of his shoes.”

“I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need them if he was to return.”

“The recognition of this thought by no means eradicated the thought.”

“I have still not tried to determine (say, by giving away the shoes) if the thought has lost its power.”

There was the clear need here to make an accommodation in defiance of the observable facts. Continuity was needed in Didion’s life, which now included continued engagement with the man, John Dunne, who had been the other half of their creative partnership over so many years. It could not be otherwise. At another point she says, “I am sort of religious, but I don’t believe in a personal God.” Another accommodation.

As someone who has lost an adult child, I understand the accommodations that one needs to make. In talking about Brian to my body-worker, a healer, shortly after his death, she suggested simply that I arrange times to talk to Brian. There was an unfinished conversation which now assumed more importance than it ever had before. So I talked to Brian. Les Fehmi would say that I was establishing a phase boundary within my brain in which my self-awareness was sustained on one side of the phase boundary, and the image of Brian was being constructed on the other side of that boundary. Gary Schwartz would say that his scientific evidence would allow for the possibility of actual communication with the dead. And an Elmer Green would say that we are always living on both sides of the boundary. No matter. My needs at that time were being met, just as Joan Didion needed to hold on to her husband’s shoes. We were both resisting the “black ice of objectivity” (Durs Gruenbein). We were allowing for what William Faulkner has called “the truths of the heart.” And these truths are being recognized in the neurosciences today. As Antonio Damasio has said, the “absence of emotion appears to be as pernicious for rationality as excessive emotion.”

The contention of discordant realities is further illustrated in the life of Episcopal Bishop John Spong. Having abandoned faith in a transcendent God who intervenes in human history, he still prays. This seems like another case of Brahe’s Blunder. Just what would be the point? Says Spong: “I pray for my daughter not because I think my prayers are going to stop her jeep from hitting a land mine….But I do know that positive energy can flow from life to life and maybe make a difference.” When Spong prays, he is at that moment fully in relationship, and the externalities are no longer important. As for connectivity between life and life, perhaps he is merely ahead of our current science, not adverse to it.

Now the motivation for Barash’s piece on Brahe’s Blunder was to say that Intelligent Design is another case in point, an attempt to carry forward a belief system that no longer has intellectual support. But on this matter I demur. The shoe is in fact on the other foot. The dominant paradigm is now the scientific worldview, despite all the ruckus from the fundamentalists, and the question is whether “completeness” of that worldview can be legitimately claimed. Intelligent Design is not another kind of science. It is not “pseudo-science.” It is not any science at all. When the Intelligent Design people were asked to testify in the Georgia case, a number of them decided not to participate. There is no position to be defended with “scientific data.” In fact there is nothing much to say at all beyond the assertion that Intelligent Design cannot be ruled out. Do with that what thou wilt.

Intelligent Design is a statement about the limits of the scientific method. It is a statement about epistemology. No matter how many questions are answered with scientific models, and quandaries resolved, completeness of the scientific worldview will always remain beyond proof. Charles Darwin knew this. Along with a naturalistic explanation of our origins came the realization that God was not a necessary agent in the creative process, but also could never be ruled out. The intellectually rigorous position was that of an agnostic, which is what he became after having started out his scientific career as a firm and even fervent believer.

But Darwin was apparently also moved by another event in his life, the death of his daughter at the age of 10. He came to see God as a remote technician at best, a Deus ex machina, as opposed to someone who intervenes benignly in the lives of men. And he had little interest in such a God. On the other hand we see even Holocaust survivors strengthened in their belief as a result of their experience. And in German prison camp, Lutheran minister Dietrich Bonhoeffer (imprisoned for his involvement in the attempt on Hitler’s life, and ultimately hanged just before the liberation) similarly had his faith both challenged and strengthened, seeing “Christ edged out of the world and onto the cross.” These were defiant and resolute affirmations against the visible chaos and inhumanity in which they were immersed. They were asserting themselves mightily against the grain of the facts on the ground.

Physics Nobelist Steven Weinberg can look up at the night sky and declare that this proves to him “how meaningless it all is.” This comes naturally when all that he beholds is seen as a simple scaling up of quarks banging up against other quarks in the choice-less dance of existence. There is no room for purpose here, or for intelligent agency. Everything is happening according to physical law. What else is there to say?

At yet another level we observe that on a given morning a father is roused from his sleep with the certainty that his daughter has been wounded or killed in Iraq. Hours later, the marines show up at his door. This “knowing” was different from the usual worrying that parents go through with their children abroad as soldiers. A similar event started Hans Berger on his journey to discover the human EEG. Quark interactions don’t cover this ground. Our science is incomplete. And even when the gaps are filled in here, as they surely will be, there will be other gaps beyond. The incompleteness of science is built into the very hypotheses of science.

Albert Einstein capsulized the choice nicely: The universe can be regarded in one of two perspectives. Either nothing in nature is a miracle, or everything can be regarded as a miracle. Einstein himself could have gone either way and still functioned as a good scientist. The choice therefore is made on other than rational grounds. In Einstein’s case, he made room for the mystical dimension in our human experience, asserting that “spirituality is the religious possibility for the scientific mind.” Some five hundred years ago the Church was rebuffed in its assertion of proprietorship over the soul. The human spirit should not be yielded up some five hundred years later to another aspiring hegemonist, the Church of Science. It cannot yield to the reductionist perspective, or to any kind of encapsulation by rational constructs.

Intelligent Design, in its defensible formulation, is a call to humility from outside of the Dominant Paradigm. There is no doubt that some more humility would be a good thing. The scientific debates are occurring on ever narrower grounds, and the presumptive verities are asserted with ever more stridency. As scientists, we still gain sustenance to this day from the abuse that the Church visited upon Galileo. But now the role of victim and victimizer must be reversed. Now it is the Church of Science whose acolytes are claiming completeness, and who are banishing critics to where they can no longer be heard. The sins are not those specifically of the Church or of Big Science. They are, however, the natural propensities of the Dominant Paradigm.

To return to Barash: The biggest Brahean Blunder of all may be the refusal to admit to the possibility of Brahean Blunders in our modern preoccupations. “The best view in Warsaw is from the top of the Palace of Science and Culture, because that is the only place in the city from which one cannot see this hideous example of Stalinist architecture at its worst.” The best vantage point from which to speak in the modern world is the scientific one, simply because it is assumed to have resolved its contradictions, and to be rendering judgments unsullied by human emotions. In fact, however, when we speak with certainty from that vantage point we will simply have over-reached with our parochial perspectives, and obscured our own blunders past and present.

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