I went to an interesting talk on mental shortcuts, part of “Skeptics on the Fringe” – a series of talks in a small cinema in the basement of a pub off the Cowgate where skeptical audiences drink beer, laugh heartily at others’ credulity, and go away feeling good. It feels oddly like church. 😀
This talk illustrated the evolutionary advantages of our ability to fill in the blanks, recognise patterns and make judgments and decisions based on incomplete information – and of course how this tendency can backfire too. This very balanced look at mental shortcuts actually made me question all sorts of things about what it is to be a skeptic/humanist… the derision we can easily have towards believers (where is the humanist compassion in that?), the predictable belly laughs from these audiences when naivete is mocked, the over-zealous desire not to be fooled by trick questions… is it yet another type of “groupthink”? I will freely admit that I’m pointing the finger at myself here, and this talk forced me to question both whether independence/going against the flow is such a clear virtue and whether it even is what it says on the tin. One particularly interesting point made in the talk was that a sense of certainty grows with time as our opinions become more entrenched for various reasons. Something a true skeptic needs to beware of, I think!
I think there is an appropriate level of confidence or certainty associated with any belief; the key is not to let yourself exceed that level, or at least, to freely admit it when you do make such a mental shortcut – as someone I spoke to after the talk did in humbly saying he was an atheist because he was brought up that way, not because he had done any rationalising about it.
I am particularly aware of how easy it is as skeptics, if we don’t have this kind of honest humility, to jump from valuing objective truth – via a mental shortcut – to absolutising that value and imposing it on others without reasoning, which is exactly the sort of thing we dislike about religious behaviour! It may be that you can derive a belief that “objective truth is best for you” by reasoning from more basic human values that are common to all – in other words, that widespread skepticism would result in happier humans. This is something I have been mulling over painstakingly, and although I do tend towards that view at the moment and certainly feel it holds for myself, I resist the peer pressure to come to any definite, sweeping conclusions about it yet… I mean, it’s an idealistic view, and I don’t believe in ideals!
I have to admit that the varied, colourful, unconventional life I have been almost ashamed to have lived has exposed me to something of the complicated variety of effects that different beliefs and world-views have on people, and made it difficult to be too certain – but that’s honest realism, and skepticism, isn’t it?! Confronting and owning up to some of my own mental shortcuts and overly simplistic judgments has made me extremely wary of repeating the mistakes. So I guess in the end, what I am saying is that I think we all start out pretty naive. As long as you don’t stay naive, it really doesn’t matter which variety of naive you came from.