Don’t believe everything you think

with Rev. Clay Nelson

Don’t believe everything you think

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Clay Nelson © 28 February 2021

Optical illusions are fun. In part because they are universal as far as I know. The word illusion comes from the Latin word illudere, meaning “to mock”. These illusions trick our brains into perceiving something different from physical reality. Three common ones are illusory motion (images that appear to be moving), double pictures (images that contain two pictures in one), and impossible objects (images that make sense when drawn on paper, but which could never exist in real life!).

Since everybody’s brain is fooled by them even when we understand why they are fooling us we don’t mind being mocked. So, anyone who has ever tried to make sense of an Escher drawing gets this joke:

But there are other ways the brain is fooled to think something is reality when it isn’t that aren’t so humorous. These are called cognitive biases, errors or distortions. While we are universally capable of making them, we aren’t equally susceptible to the same ones as we seek to understand the reality we find ourselves in. Nevertheless, it is entirely likely there are times we will all be equally wrong for different reasons.

Cognitive scientists, logicians, and behavioural economists have only recently begun to sort out and name these cognitive errors, and disputes about them are common. But unavoidable mistakes have been demonstrated in test after test, and given names like anchor bias (you want to stick to your first estimate, or to what you have been told), ease of representation (you think an explanation you can understand is more likely to be true than one you can’t). On and on it goes— online there is an circular graphic display of cognitive errors .

The hundreds of errors are grouped by situations we find ourselves in. When we have too much information to process we notice things already primed in our memory or repeated often — the sun rises not the earth turns. Or we find bizarre and funny things stick out more than mundane or unfunny things. Or we are drawn to details that confirm our own existing beliefs. God exists/God does not exist. Perhaps most common is that we notice flaws in others more easily than we notice flaws in ourselves.

The situation where we are susceptible to the most cognitive errors is when there is not enough information to interpret reliably. Then we tend to find stories and patterns even when looking at sparse data. The bible tells me God created man in his own image. We fill in the blank space from stereotypes, generalities, and prior histories. A rough sleeper is lazy and deserves his circumstances. We imagine things and people we’re familiar with or fond of as better than others. White people are the smartest race. It gets worse. We simplify probabilities and numbers to make them easier to think about. We presume to think we know what other people are thinking. Lastly, we project our current mindset and assumptions on the past and future.

The hundreds of errors these situations invite are exacerbated when we have to act fast and then remember what we did and what was important.

The graphic itself is a funny example of a cognitive error — unwarranted over-confidence — in that it pretends to know how we think and what would be normal. As with perceptual illusions, knowing that cognitive errors exist doesn’t help us to avoid them when presented with a new problem. On the contrary, these errors stay very consistent, in that they are committed by everyone tested, tend toward the same direction of error, are independent of personal factors of the test takers, and are incorrigible, in that knowing about them doesn’t help us avoid them, nor to distrust our reasoning in other situations. We are always more confident of our reasoning than we should be. Indeed, overconfidence is one of the most common illusions we experience. No doubt this analysis is yet another example: do we really know any of this? Oh dear! What do these recent discoveries in cognitive science mean? Some say they just mean humans are poor at statistics. Others assert they are as important a discovery as the discovery of the subconscious.

“Consider the nature of ideology, that necessary thing, which allows us to sort out the massive influx of information we experience. Could ideology also be a cognitive illusion, a kind of necessary fiction? Yes. Of course. We have to create and employ an ideology to be able to function; and we do that work by way of thinking that is prone to any number of systemic and one might even say factual errors. We have never been rational. Maybe science itself is the attempt to be rational. Maybe philosophy too. And, of course, philosophy is very often proving we can’t think to the bottom of things, can’t get logic to work as a closed system. And remember also that in all of this discussion so far, we are referring to the normal mind, the sane mind. What happens when, starting as we do from such a shaky original position, sanity is lost. Enough now to say just this: it can get very bad.”

Robinson, Kim Stanley. The Ministry for the Future [pp. 87-89]. Orbit. Kindle Edition

How bad? Eliezer Yudkowsky posits that

“all else being equal, not many people would prefer to destroy the world. Even faceless corporations, meddling governments, reckless scientists, and other agents of doom, require a world in which to achieve their goals of profit, order, tenure, or other villainies. If our extinction proceeds slowly enough to allow a moment of horrified realisation, the doers of the deed will likely be quite taken aback on realising that they have actually destroyed the world. Therefore [he concludes], I suggest that if the Earth is destroyed, it will probably be by mistake.”

One cognitive error that may bring us closer to that end than is comfortable to contemplate is teleological thinking. It is not uncommon to hear someone espouse the idea that “everything happens for a reason” or that something that happened was “meant to be.” Now, researchers have found that this kind of teleological thinking is linked to two seemingly unrelated beliefs: creationism, the belief that life on Earth was purposely created by a supernatural agent, and conspiracism, the tendency to explain historical or current events in terms of conspiracy theories.

Sebastian Dieguez of the University of Fribourg writes,

“Although very different at first glance, both these belief systems are associated with a single and powerful cognitive bias named teleological thinking, which entails the perception of final causes and overriding purpose in naturally occurring events and entities.”

A teleological thinker, for example, will accept as true propositions such as “the sun rises in order to give us light” or “the purpose of bees is to ensure pollination,” he says. “This type of thinking is anathema to scientific reasoning, and especially to evolutionary theory, and was famously mocked by Voltaire, whose character Pangloss believed that ‘noses were made to wear spectacles.’ Yet it is very resilient in human cognition, and we show that it is linked not only to creationism, but also to conspiracism.”

The researchers hope that their findings may help in formulating policies that “discourage the endorsement of socially debilitating and sometimes dangerous beliefs and belief systems” in a post-truth era.

Over the next year I intend to join them in their efforts. I will be seeking opportunities to explore and consider our actions as we counter those who would deny climate change calling it a hoax. In my mind it is the most likely way we will destroy the planet by accident. TS Eliot suggested that the way the world ends is
not with a bang but a whimper. While not ideal, it is considerably more preferable than with “oops!”

Conversation starter:


Welcome includes “The Folded Lie” By Maureen Killoran

Chalice Lighting is “Divine Spark From Sacred Dark” By Kathy A Huff

“Spirit of Life” by Carolyn McDade. Performed by TheGWVibes,
Harmonies by: Grace Lewis-McLaren
Audio by: Nina Feliciano (’22) Video by: Gary Wu (’23)

Time for All Ages is “A Pig Parade is a terrible idea” by Michael Ian Black

Koha Hymn:- “We Would Be One”,
Words by Samuel Anthony Wright Music by Jean Sibelius
Guitar, Vocals, and editing by Eli Sauls.
10 Optical Illusions that Will Blow Your Mind
Closing Hymn: “There Is More Love Somewhere”,
Traditional Spiritual / arr. Adam and Matt Podd,
performed by First Unitarian Brooklyn Choir

Closing Words:- “Blessed is the Path” By Eric Williams

From John Maindonald – Thinking Critically about Data – mentioned in the afterwards discussion