Mental shortcuts

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.

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6 Responses to Mental shortcuts

  1. I totally feel the same way. In fact I stopped reading a lot of atheist and skeptic stuff because it had no where to go. Once the basic points were made and we’d had a good laugh at the believers, we were still left with the same fundamental questions about life and meaning that we all, believers and non-believers, grapple with.
    I’m learning to curb my sarcasm at religious people and not see them as a threat. I want to be as nice as the nicest Christians I know. I realise that debates I get into with believers are often attempts to organise my own thoughts. I recognise that I am a mass of contradictory ideas (some of which I want to resolve) and that not all my motivations come from a rational place!

  2. Lorri Scilini says:

    It seems obvious to me that absolute skepticism would be completely exhausting. Any one of us can only be operating at some specific level of skepticism, so it’s even more important to avoid labeling one’s particular level as the optimal one.

    In all honesty, my reaction to the people from the other night isn’t hugely different from how I react to fundamentalist Christians. I still enjoy them both, the skeptical kids for their intelligence and passion and most Christians I know for their humility and kindness. But when gathered in groups, it can be a little alarming; the certainty and smugness come through loud and clear.

    But of course, that’s just from my own, clearly enlightened, point of view 🙂

    • Sarah says:

      Lorri, I think age tends to mellow us… I’m sure I thought I had it all figured out at 18! Of course some people stay pretty dogmatic, but it seems the more you think, the less sure you become about anything…

  3. susanne430 says:

    Enjoyed this, Sarah! Glad you shared about your meeting and what you learned from it. 🙂

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