What’s It Like To Live Without Illusions? Tough, And It Sucks

illusion

About 6 months ago, I decided to do a bit a self-experimentation. I tried to identify as many of my illusions as I could, and then see if I could lose them one by one. Readers of this blog – those who are still around – may have noticed one of the first: that this is an interesting blog. I stopped writing after decades of what often seemed like talking to a wall. After all, if few other people like what I do, then why should I? Wisdom of the crowds, and such. But that’s hardly the most important illusion I tried to get rid of. (“Tried”, since here I am, writing again…)

Over the last years, I read a lot about free will, blame and moral responsibility. My writing on human rights made me conscious of the harm we inflict on each other while trying to hold “wrongdoers” to account: capital punishment, mass incarceration, police brutality and so on are well-documented human rights violations, but the interesting thing about them is that they imply beliefs – in the minds of the perpetrators – about victim accountability and responsibility. The belief that people should be held accountable for their misdeeds – and should suffer for them – wraps around another belief: that people possess some form of free will.

The growing consensus in the fields of psychology and neurology (including evolutionary psychology, brain imaging and the study of systematic biases) is that free will is an illusion. “Illusion” is probably too strong a word in this case, but the literature has certainly convinced me to be more generous to “wrongdoers”. Not only should we avoid harsh punishment for consequentialist reasons – we do more harm while punishing people than the good that may come from often imaginary deterrent and protection effects – but also because punishment has become little more than an overly theatrical way of blaming people who seem decreasingly blameworthy.

finger_wag_hypnosis

So let’s say that in general I’ve tried to rid myself of the illusion of judgment. Negative judgment at least. I try to no longer blame people for their shortcomings. (Sorry for the split infinitive here, but let’s face it: grammatical rules are often used as a theatrical means of blaming people and of signalling our own superiority relative to the blameworthy. Communication is about understanding, and if rules can assist in understanding then they are good. If not, lose your illusion.)

Avoiding blame may seem dangerous: if we no longer blame people for their mistakes and misdeeds, then how will they learn and become better people? Is mutual improvement also an illusion that should be abandoned? I don’t think so. But there’s a large space between blame and indifference. You can tell people about their mistakes without judgment. It’s tricky, but doable.

What about positive judgments? Do I no longer appreciate beauty, music and art? To the extent that beauty is an illusion, that’s probably the hardest one to shed. A sensation of beauty just comes over you, unexpectedly. You can’t fight it or reason yourself away from it, as you can with free will. You can try to tell yourself that a beautiful body is just a bag of bones, meat and human waste made to look appealing because bodily attraction has helped humanity to survive during our difficult early evolution. However, you often can’t keep fooling yourself into believing this, at least not in the sense of immediate, intuitive belief.

What about music? As an adolescent I became enchanted by Wagner and I started to read a lot about him, including a lot of critical stuff arguing against his method: how silly it is to use leitmotivs, as if we can’t see that Wotan comes on stage and need to hear his tune as well; how Wagner did not respect “classical” rules of composition; how repetitive he was; how loud, bombastic and Teutonic; how the German language was unfit for opera, especially when littered with alliteration. And so on. All of this made me doubt, and I almost gave up being a Wagnerian because of it. But I couldn’t. The music is just magic, and it blows you away no matter how much you rationalise against it, at least if you’re open to being blown away. The beauty of it may be an illusion. In the narrow sense that you get tricked by a cunning and scamming composer. Or in the broader sense: beauty is no more than brain stimulations that have developed over the course of human evolution because individuals who are receptive to these kinds of stimulation are happier and therefore more likely to survive.

wagner quote

So far so good, you may say. Get rid of the noxious illusions, if you can, and keep the pleasant and harmless ones. Good work Spagnoli! But then why do you tell us that it sucks? Because illusions are like faces in things. Once you train yourself to see faces in things, you start to see them everywhere. Same for illusions. Friendship starts to look like an illusion. You try to ignore your friends to see whether they really care about you. Do they show you that they care by asking you why you ignore them? Nah. They just ignore you back because you’re being such a dick.

And then there’s LOVE: there’s a long history of love bashing. Do we really love the people we love? Why do we love that particular person and not another one? Seems a bit arbitrary to us all, at some points in our lives. Just admit it. It could just as well have been someone else. What is love really? Perhaps not a lot more than just another evolutionary adaptation inherited from early humans who were frail and needed to stick together in small family type groups that cared for each other and their offspring in a hostile prehistoric environment. Maybe. But if so, then love is no longer relevant since that kind of frailty has been largely overcome. Love is reduced to companionship and sex, both of which I’ve argued may be just as illusory (albeit in a pleasant way as long as you manage to avoid thinking below skin level.)

And now for the most dangerous illusion of all: are you actually alive? You’re losing your friends and loved ones. You’re counting the times that you were ignored during meetings at work; that the girls on the bus didn’t look back at you; that you had to repeat yourself; that your email went unanswered. You remember the accident you were in as a child, and start to wonder whether you’re Bruce Willis. At best you come under the impression of slowly fading away, quite literally. Needless to say that this is dangerously self-destructive. From a medical perspective, it looks like an illusion or delusion. But it may just as well be the product of fanatical and self-reinforcing opposition to illusion.

How to get out of this trap? I’m not sure you can, but an old analytic philosophy trick seems to help: define your terms, analyse the meaning of words. If you feel overwhelmed by the loss of illusions, start to define “illusion”. You’ll probably notice that the term is vague and overly inclusive. Which would account for the tendency to see illusions everywhere. A precise definition of the word can help you get out of the anti-illusory maelstrom. Perhaps.

Human Rights Promotion (22): What Hope is There For Persuasion?

The ability to persuade other people is important for human rights in at least two different ways:

  • How do we achieve respect for human rights? Since a lot of human rights violations are caused by ideas and opinions – for example by harmful moral judgments or political ideologies – respect for human rights depends at least in part on our ability to change minds, other people’s as well as our own.
  • Why do we need human rights? Certain human rights in particular, such as the right to free speech, are justified by our need to persuade others. We want to express ourselves and we express ourselves for different reasons: to communicate our identity, to signal what we think about something, but most importantly to persuade others of the goodness of our opinions, compared to their opinions. That’s a universal human need. Ideally, we also believe that expressing our opinions improves those opinions. We prepare our opinions in advance of expressing them, and – knowing that we will be criticized for those opinions by other agents freely expressing themselves – we try our best to prepare our opinions for this criticism. We consider possible counterarguments in advance and how to reply to them. This brings with it the possibility that we refine our opinions or even replace them with better ones, based on our inner reasoning in preparation of our expression. Free speech – our own free speech and that of our critics – helps us improve our opinions. Persuasion – both of others and of ourselves – is therefore an important reason why we need human rights. (This is the theory behind the notion of the marketplace of ideas).

The problem is that people don’t seem to be very good at persuading each other or themselves. The description of communication that I’ve given here is highly idealized. If we can’t dramatically improve our ability to persuade, then we’ll have a hard time fighting for rights because we’ll lose weapons as well as reasons necessary for this fight. There are other non-communicative means to increase the levels of respect for human rights (reciprocity, self-interest, the law etc.), and the need to improve our opinions and to persuade isn’t the only possible justification for human rights (other justification are offered here). But in such an important fight a restricted arsenal or rationale is a net negative. So it’s worth the effort to try and remove some of the things that make it hard to persuade.

So what are we up against? Apart from the obvious and uninteresting fact that some people are immune to persuasion – good luck talking to the Taliban – there are other and perhaps even more damaging causes of a lack of persuasion: confirmation bias, the importance of emotions rather than reasoning or argumentation as a basis of our beliefs, polarization, and a whole set of other psychological biases (e.g. the belief that beautiful people make better sounding arguments).

What to do about all this? We should avoid the obvious conclusion that humans are merely bias machines governed by unconscious reflexes, responses to stimuli, emotions and prejudices formed through ages of human evolution. Or that rational argument based on facts and sound reasoning never plays any role. Many but probably not all our opinions and decisions are biased by prejudice and emotive reactions created by a mind shaped by evolution. There’s certainly no hope of radically removing those parts of our minds that work that way, but we can hope to reduce their effect. If we are conscious of our confirmation bas, for instance, then we can try to counteract it by actively seeking out disconfirming information or by making an effort to read people from the opposing side. Rational persuasion can and does occur, and we can make it occur more often than it does today. For example, here and here are two examples of cognitive scientists pushing back against the current trend in their profession. They show how strong arguments can indeed persuade people and how group reasoning in particular is helpful.

More posts in this series are here.

What is Freedom? (14): Do We Have Free Will?

The evidence seems to say “no, there is no free will”. The notion of free will has been the object of criticism and even ridicule for as long as it exists, but it has recently become the target of a truly continuous and seeming devastating scientific onslaught. Study after study argues that we really don’t want what we do or do what we want, that we have no choice in a lot of things we do, and that we don’t decide to act the way we act and can’t act otherwise even if we want to. Here’s a short summary of the evidence:

  • Priming. People in advertising have long known that exposure to certain images – perhaps even subliminally – can change behavior. Studies have shown that American voters exposed to the American flag are increasingly supportive of the Republican Party, even if they identify as Democrats, and even if the exposure is fleeting. And it’s not just images. If a person reads a list of words including the word table, and is later asked to complete a word starting with tab, the probability that he or she will answer table is greater than if they are not primed (source). If it’s this easy for other people to decide how we act, then we can assume that we often act in ways that they decide.
  • Stereotype threat. When the belief that people like you (African-Americans, women, etc) are worse at a particular task than the comparison group (whites, men, etc) is made prominent, you perform worse at that task. Again, this makes it easy for others to change how we act.
  • Anchoring. In one study, German judges first read a description of a woman who had been caught shoplifting, then rolled a pair of dice that were loaded so every roll resulted in either a 3 or a 9.  As soon as the dice came to a stop, the judges were asked whether they would sentence the woman to a term in prison greater or lesser, in months, than the number showing on the dice.  Finally, the judges were instructed to specify the exact prison sentence they would give to the shoplifter.  On average, those who had rolled a 9 said they would sentence her to 8 months; those who rolled a 3 said they would sentence here to 5 months. Yet another example of how we often act not because we freely want (or “willed”) our actions but because of external pressure and manipulation.
  • Learned helplessness. Rather than try their best to escape oppression, subjugation and other predicaments, people often give up and accept their situation. A failure of the will, but a failure determined by outside forces.
  • Adaptive preferences. We settle for second best and call it the best, not because that is our free choice but because the thing that we really believe is best is out of reach. Free will? Meh.
  • Peer effects. Group membership and the presence of role models determine what is the “natural” way to act.
  • Justificational reasoning. When we defend our so-called free and freely willed actions, we tend to do so after the fact and with special attention to the good or bad reasons justifying our actions, at the expense of reasons justifying other kinds of actions. This suggests that we didn’t weigh all the reasons for all possible actions beforehand, and that our actions are therefore not actions we chose to want on the basis of good reasons. Perhaps then our actions are caused by something else, such as habit, conformism, reflexes, tradition etc. Free will is incompatible with those causes.
  • Poverty of willpower. Power of the will seems to be a finite resource that can be depleted. No willpower means no free will.
  • And then there are Benjamin Libet’s infamous studies showing a consistent build-up of electrical activity from the brain’s motor cortex before people are consciously aware of their desires.

I could go on, but this will do. Of course, none of this proves that there is no free will. At most, it makes us realize that free will is severely constrained: if it exists at all, it’s only a partial and intermittent faculty, present in unequal degrees in different people at different times in their lives.

And yet, despite all this evidence, we continue to act as if all people, , with the exception of minors and the mentally handicapped; have free will all of the time. We constantly blame people, we punish and praise them, and we say that they deserve what they get. If I – being a mentally healthy adult (at least according to some) – were to hit the person sitting next to me now, I would be castigated because everyone agrees that I could have acted otherwise. I probably could have, but perhaps I couldn’t. Who’s to tell? Perhaps a little less blame and praise could be one good outcome of psychological research. But I’m not holding my breath. We can follow this advice, or we can all act otherwise, unfortunately.

More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (51): Nature or Nurture?

Are we born as blank slates, and do we get our violent and malevolent inclinations through upbringing and social contact? Or are we born evil? I can’t possibly answer those questions in a blog post, or anywhere else for that matter. But we can get some clues if we focus on one type of rights violation, namely racism.

The available evidence seems to suggest that people are not naturally racist. I’ve discussed some recent findings here. Human evolution has indeed fostered a strong sense of group solidarity, and the dark side of this solidarity is a natural tendency to define outsiders as enemies. This is problematic from the point of view of human rights because it means that the interests and rights of outsiders are routinely discounted. However, “groupism” isn’t necessarily the same as racism. Outsiders can be virtually anyone: foreigners, heretics, infidels, Manchester United fans etc. Race can but doesn’t have to determine the inside-outside border. In fact, throughout much of early human history, when contact between races was the exception, groups have defined insiders and outsiders on other grounds than race. Racism is a relatively recent phenomenon. In the words of Robert Wright:

So it’s not as if the human lineage could have plausibly developed, by evolutionary adaptation, an instinctive reaction to members of different races. (source)

It seems we are ourselves responsible for the rights we violate. We can’t accuse nature or evolution.

More on groupism here. More posts in this series here.

Racism (29): A Natural or An Acquired Vice?

We now have strong evidence that human evolution has produced natural tendencies to favor members of the same group and to distrust and disadvantage outsiders. Insider-outsiders distinctions seem to be innate. This is the consequence of the substantial benefits of group solidarity in early human evolution, and we still live with it today.

Psychologist Catherine Cottrell at the University of Florida and her colleague Steven Neuberg at Arizona State University, argue that human prejudice evolved as a function of group living. Joining together in groups allowed humans to gain access to resources necessary for survival including food, water, and shelter. Groups also offered numerous advantages, such as making it easier to find a mate, care for children, and receive protection from others. However, group living also made us more wary of outsiders who could potentially harm the group by spreading disease, killing or hurting individuals, or stealing precious resources. To protect ourselves, we developed ways of identifying who belongs to our group and who doesn’t. Over time, this process of quickly evaluating others might have become so streamlined that it became unconscious. (source)

So, to some extent, our brains are wired for bias. Even the most liberal among us show some level of implicit bias when tested for it. All we can do is try to be aware of our prejudices as much as possible, and then correct for them.

Some want to extrapolate from these relatively uncontroversial findings and argue that racism as well is innate, even though racism is a relatively recent phenomenon unknown to early humans who almost never met members of other races.

Those who argue that racism is a natural tendency can appeal to certain findings to back up their claims. Studies have found that when whites see black faces there is increased activity in the amygdala, a brain structure associated with emotion and, specifically, with the detection of threats (source).

The problem with this sort of argument is that a biological fact doesn’t have to be innate. In fact, in this case, it has been shown that the detected brain reaction – a biological fact – does not occur in young people:

In a paper that will be published in the Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, Eva Telzer of UCLA and three other researchers report that they’ve performed these amygdala studies–which had previously been done on adults–on children. And they found something interesting: the racial sensitivity of the amygdala doesn’t kick in until around age 14. What’s more: once it kicks in, it doesn’t kick in equally for everybody. The more racially diverse your peer group, the less strong the amygdala effect. At really high levels of diversity, the effect disappeared entirely. The authors of the study write that ”these findings suggest that neural biases to race are not innate and that race is a social construction, learned over time.” (source)

In a sense, this is good news, because it means that people can be taught not to be racist, even if we can’t be taught to be completely unprejudiced.

More on race as a social construction is here. More posts in this series are here.

The Causes of Human Rights Violations (43): Disgust

Disgust can be good or bad for human rights. It’s probably true that no amount of rational argument against torture, incest, cannibalism etc. is as strong as the feelings of disgust produced by such actions. Some, such as Leon Kass, have therefore conceptualized disgust as a kind of moral wisdom: wisdom which can’t necessarily articulate itself or reason about itself, but which nevertheless guides our actions in a morally sound direction and guides them better and more effectively than rational argument. Disgust or nausea often makes us shudder, literally, at the immorality of others or ourselves. As a result, it helps to bring about a better world, and it does so more effectively than reasoning or persuasion (in this sense, disgust is similar to other emotions such as sympathy and shame).

Disgust is not an argument, but that’s a strength rather than a weakness if you believe the likes of Kass. It grips us, whereas arguments can be boring or unconvincing. (This can also explain why many of us have a love-hate relationship with disgust: we’re disgusted by some things, but at the same time we relish this disgust). Because of its gripping force, disgust is the human psyche policing itself and other psyches, keeping desire and passion in check and in the process making life in society a lot easier.

That is why some view disgust as the evolutionary origin of morality and law. Initially a protection mechanism against putting bad, rotten or infected stuff into our mouths, disgust quickly evolved from an emotion focused on physical health to one including morality. Moral disgust came about as one of society’s self-preserving forces, and human evolution favored the emotion because it produces social benefits such as taboos, rules and order. Human evolution favored this extension of the feeling of disgust into the realm of morality because it made social life easier, more orderly and more peaceful. These supposed evolutionary origins of moral disgust give it an added advantage compared to more rational approaches to morality: the latter can be unconvincing but most people in the world will even fail to hear them, whereas the evolutionary origins of moral disgust means that it drives all people, even those who will never hear a moral argument in their entire lives. Moral disgust therefore delivers immediate, reflexive and almost universal moral judgments.  

Complicating this simple evolutionary theory is the fact that disgust doesn’t seem to be innate, at least not in all cases: children are notoriously lacking this emotion and don’t develop it until they are three years old or something. This diminishes the strength of the evolutionary part of the argument. However, a more important problem with the argument is the fact that the objects of disgust are not the same throughout history and across societies. What was disgusting centuries ago isn’t anymore – or vice versa – and different societies find different things disgusting. Agreed, the range is somewhat limited: disgust is mostly about things related to the human body (e.g. torture), and more specifically to metabolism (eating and excreting disgusting things with our disgusting intestines), sex (doing disgusting things with each other with our disgusting organs) and mortality (being a disgusting corpse). But within this range many different things can be viewed as disgusting, and it’s not obvious that all the things we would label immoral from a reasoned point of view are always and everywhere disgusting, or that everything that is seen as disgusting by some is also immoral upon reflection.

For all these reasons, we have to conclude that disgust isn’t a very reliable moral faculty. It can make mistakes, and often has. Not so long ago, the supposed body odor of blacks, their curly hair and facial features routinely provoked disgust among whites (still today but less commonly so). And I’m convinced that this disgust was a major cause of the subjugation of blacks. The same is true for some, now less pervasive beliefs about the disgusting nature of homosexual activity.

So it’s clear that disgust can be either beneficial or detrimental for human rights. Lack of disgust where disgust would be appropriate can lead someone to violate someone else’s rights, but inappropriate disgust can have the same result. One would therefore be wrong to label disgust as a kind of moral wisdom, superior to rational thinking about morality. 

The problem is then how to distinguish good disgust from bad disgust. For example, why is disgust directed at pedophilia appropriate, whereas disgust about interracial sex is not? Whatever the answer, we won’t get there without reasoning. Hence, reasoning reclaims its position at the top of moral faculties. Disgust, rather than a type of moral wisdom, seems to be a socially transmitted and culturally specific substitute for the absence of reasons.

This is why many argue against the use of disgust as a tool for human rights protection. In theory, it could work, just as the incitement of shame and sympathy can work. But it’s dangerous:

maybe we should try portraying racism and racists as disgusting. The powerful influence of this emotion might help push racism to the edge of society or eliminate it altogether, but my response is that we still shouldn’t do it. It’s not ethically appropriate to deliberately depict any group of people as disgusting because disgust makes it very easy to dehumanize, and that would do the very thing we seek to undo. (source)

More posts in this series are here.

Racism (12): Implicit Racism in Criminal Justice

Overt manifestations of racial or other types of group-based hate, prejudice or discrimination are relatively rare these days because they have become increasingly unacceptable. However, the racist or prejudiced ideas that form the basis of such overt manifestations aren’t necessarily less common than they used to be. Or perhaps the word “idea” is too strong. “Unconscious biases” or even “instincts” may be more appropriate terms. “Instincts” in this context is a term used to link contemporary racism and prejudice to lingering aspects of early human evolution encouraging distrust of other groups as a survival strategy.

Indeed, certain psychological experiments have shown how easy it is to induce people to hateful behavior towards members of other groups, even people who self-describe as strongly anti-prejudice. There have also been some notorious cases of the effect of hate propaganda on people’s behavior.

On the other hand, there are some indicators that suggest a decrease in the levels of racism, and there are theories that say that it should decrease. However, other data suggest that “unconscious biases” are still very strong:

[T]his Article proposes and tests a new hypothesis called Biased Evidence Hypothesis. Biased Evidence Hypothesis posits that when racial stereotypes are activated, jurors automatically and unintentionally evaluate ambiguous trial evidence in racially biased ways. Because racial stereotypes in the legal context often involve stereotypes of African-Americans and other minority group members as aggressive criminals, Biased Evidence Hypothesis, if confirmed, could help explain the continued racial disparities that plague the American criminal justice system.

To test Biased Evidence Hypothesis, we designed an empirical study that tested how mock-jurors judge trial evidence. As part of an “evidence slideshow” in an armed robbery case, we showed half of the study participants a security camera photo of a dark-skinned perpetrator and the other half of the participants an otherwise identical photo of a lighter-skinned perpetrator. We then presented participants with evidence from the trial, and asked them to judge how much each piece of evidence tended to indicate whether the defendant was guilty or not guilty. The results of the study supported Biased Evidence Hypothesis and indicated that participants who saw a photo of a dark-skinned perpetrator judged subsequent evidence as more supportive of a guilty verdict compared to participants who saw a photo of a lighter-skinned perpetrator. (source)

Maybe racism hasn’t decreased but has just become more difficult to spot, including for the racists themselves. Swastikas and KKK hoods aren’t so common anymore, and instead we have to look for unconscious biases, implicit racism or even unintentional racism.