In Defense of Skepticism

November 14, 2009

Skepticism is the chastity of the intellect, and it is shameful to surrender it too soon or to the first comer. George Santayana (1863 – 1952)

Once I wrote an article about making decisions, political and otherwise. The quoted authors, Antonio R. Damasio and Jonathan Haidt, argued that our decisions are partly or mostly emotional and we use rational thinking to justify what has been already decided on a very basic level.

Antonio R. Damasio, David Dornsife Professor of Neuroscience at the University of Southern California, where he heads USC’s Brain and Creativity Institute, states just that. He argues that all our decisions are emotional even if we try to deny it. Damasio introduced “somatic marker” hypothesis and insists that emotions are integral part of our decisions in everyday life and politics.

According to this hypothesis people make decisions by evaluating and comparing various, sometimes competing, goals and outcomes. For example, buying a car, one must consider myriads of variables including the price, model, efficiency, repair records, friends’ recommendations, and many others. Trying to analyze these data dispassionately, as a computer, would take forever and will never lead to satisfactory results. But here come emotions that let us cut through the chase, make a decision to buy the Jaguar and then justify our decision with the best of our rationally abilities.

Jonathan Haidt, associate professor of psychology at the University of Virginia, takes our emotional decision-making analysis even further. His Moral Foundations Theory names five shared fundamental moral values that govern the process:

1. Care for others
2. Fairness and Justice
3. Loyalty to your group family and nation
4. Respect for tradition and legitimate authority
5. Purity of thoughts and actions

In Edge magazine article, What makes people vote Republican? Dr. Haidt contrasts emotions of excitement for the new and openness to experience in voting Democrats with the dread of unknown, comfort of tradition and stability in Republicans. When it comes to politics, according to Dr. Haidt, it’s the battle of emotions and less so of ideas.

That concept was further advanced by Michael Gazzaniga, Ph.D., a Professor of Psychology and the Director for the SAGE Center for the Study of Mind at the University of California Santa Barbara. In his book, The Ethical Brain, published in 2005, he writes about the brain’s  left-hemisphere interpreter , which allows us to take “the inputs we receive every moment and weaves them into stories to form the ongoing narrative of our self-image and our beliefs.”  Our brain turns both, internal and internal events, into a plausible narrative that makes sense.

This phenomenon is particularly manifested in Korsakoff’s Psychosis, also known as amnesic-confabulatory syndrome. Patient with this disorder create fantastic and seemingly coherent stories describing events that never took place. In case of another neurological disorder, reduplicative paramnesia – a delusional disorder resulting from brain injury or degenerative disease – patients believe that a place or location has been duplicated, existing in two or more places simultaneously. These patients’  intact ‘interpreter’ attempts to reconcile erroneous messages from damaged brain.

It is also not hard to envision how we can ‘fool’ ourselves in daily lives by seeing what we expect to see and believing in what we already learned to believe. Reconciliation between observable and learned usually resolves in favor of the latter. Our left brain not only knows how to create the belief but also sticks to it in face of contradicting evidence turning private, scientific and  political debates into futile exercise.
I want to finish this column with another quote, by Bertrand Russell: “The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts.”

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3 Responses to “In Defense of Skepticism”

  1. relativeculture Says:

    The segment that struck me was when you discussed the brain composing a plausible narrative that “makes sense”. This can lead to the common statement “If so many people believe something, it must be true.” With this in mind, a belief will manifest itself wherever, and whenever it is sought out.

    “It is always easier to believe than to deny. Our minds are naturally affirmative.”
    -John Burroughs

    Extremely interesting read; thank you for writing it. I had never heard of the Moral Foundations Theory by Haidt until today, nor amnesic-confabulatory syndrome. There is always something new to learn.

  2. doctormisha Says:

    Thanks for the comment. I would recommend two books that helped me shape understanding of the ways our brains shape the reality:

    Stumbling on Happiness by Daniel Gilbert, PhD

    A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives by Cordelia Fine, PhD

    Both books are in paperback and are easy read.

    Also, you may check out TED.com for Haidt short lecture on his theory – most entertaining.

    • relativeculture Says:

      Awesome, I need to pick those up.

      I am a big fan of TED, the last one I watched was Vilayanur Ramachandran discuss phantom limbs and brain damage; it was very interesting. I will watch Jonathan Haidt’s tonight. Thank you for the recommendations.


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