Posts Tagged ‘science’

I spent my entire university life learning science under the roof of a very exacting and very traditional Catholic institution. The place was founded, managed, and morally guarded by priests of the Dominican order, pompous yet jolly men by the time I was there but whose history as a group is inextricably intertwined with that of the Spanish Inquisition and their infamous, now disdain-worthy, but back then holiest of holies, deeds. Every single day, for the past 400 hundred years of the school’s devoted existence, by tradition, each class to go in session is started, and then ended, with a prayer of piety addressed towards any one of the heavenly host of characters the church recognizes as godly. Every single day! Each class! And it was the duty of a random student to step up to the plate each time to face his classmates and his professor to lead the prayers and belt out his own brand of domesticated piousness in front of everybody and be recognized as keeping faith with proper, god-fearing Catholic conduct.

My problem back then was how to dodge that responsibility, each day, for four years, without creating a scene and making an ass of myself. Looking back, the daily chore became quite an exercise of creative thinking, an improv for making excuses.

Raised by a family of pious Catholics, I was about 9 years old when I began to develop what was to become my own version of a stubborn, smartass form of agnosticism nobody in my family had had any experience in dealing with prior to what they call my turning to the dark side. Seeing Life on Earth on TV daily at 5 pm after returning from a whole day of elementary school, I guess I liked David Attenborough and his romantic narrative of natural history too much that I quickly became this truth-seeking disciple of the sciences. Nobody I care about ever paid attention to that show. So when pre-teen Genghis started challenging traditional points-of-views not quite living up to the arguments supported by his emerging childhood mastery of all things biological, nobody knew how to handle his often sarcastic commentaries, barring put-downs such as “you’re just a kid” and shame-on-you polemics such as “don’t talk to your elders like that”, of course. And by the time I was slugging it out at the university, a couple of years ahead of my age group, ten or so years later, I was experienced enough in tamed intellectual altercations to know how foolish and pointless it is to go out there to try to convince intelligent people a couple of points or more below your own capacity for logical acuity to embrace your dissident demagoguery and expect anything positive to come out of the attempt. During those days when I was dodging the responsibility of leading the prayers, wiggling out of a tight spot using humor and feigned dumbassery, thus, became my tactic of choice, ahead of any confession to my proclivity towards atheism. Arguing in defense of my position in such a situation is exactly the reason why the word “futile” was invented for, I thought then, as I do now.

Life experiences like these always leads me to ponder about big questions and to seek out the most elegant answers I can find to address my penchant for learning.

Why is it that most people’s minds seem to be so immune to the effects of logic and reason?

I know, I know. The question cannot be expressed as a binary. The question is not about whether a person accepts logic and reason or not. The question is about the varying degrees of acceptance. And like almost everything else that can be tagged as complex in nature, a man’s disposition to be swayed by logic and reason exists within a spectrum, a progression scale if you will — with tenaciously unyielding on the left end to indefinitely submissive on the right end.

What causes that? What causes people to reject 1 + 1 = 2 simple-as-you-go logic in favor of unicorns-and-leprechauns-and-kingdoms-in-the-sky fantasies?

There are multiple factors at play, I am sure. Divvying them up to broad categories like nature and nurture does the job of providing for a simple answer to a complicated inquiry. But such simplification does nothing to explain away anyone’s lingering intellectual curiousity to get to some sort of acceptable understanding.

In the 1960s, a certain Paul MacLean proposed a triune model of the evolution of the brain among vertebrates. Although his hypothesis is largely considered functionally outdated today, the brain has proven to be much more complex than he assumed, conceptually, in some other way, the model seems to make a lot of sense. Down that road leading towards becoming human, the vertebrate brain has undergone series of essential expansions, additions of parts and functions, as animals progress from simple to complex. As the process of evolution meanders down that twisted path of natural selection and sexual selection, eventually leading to us, old parts of the old brain, inefficient and primitive they maybe, cannot just be replaced and here and there thrown away. All evolution could do was to keep adding new parts on top of the old but still functioning brain, give these new parts new functions, or, assign these new parts functions that assist old parts in some form of synergistic role.

This is what we see in modern brains. Primitive functions and impulses common to all vertebrates are embedded deeper inside the older parts of the brain while more advanced, less primitive functions, are embedded near the surface. Higher functions such as logic and reason are almost exclusively localized inside the most modern parts, namely the neocortex areas.

A quote from the Wikipedia entry on the subject explains something interesting:

The triune model continues to hold interest for some psychologists and members of the general public because of its focus on the recognizable differences between most reptiles, early mammals, and late mammals. Reasons for the success are its simplicity; the theory in this form recognizes three major evolutionary periods in the development of the brain that are characterized by three recognizably distinct ways of solving adaptive challenges. Under this model, the “neocortex” represents that cluster of brain structures involved in advanced cognition, including planning, modeling and simulation; the “reptilian brain” refers to those brain structures related to territoriality, ritual behavior and other “reptile” behaviors; and “limbic brain” refers those brain structures, wherever located, associated with social and nurturing behaviors, mutual reciprocity, and other behaviors and affects that arose during the age of the mammals. The three brains are said to act in coordination or competition in this variation of the model. While there is no scientific consensus on the applicability of the model at a level other than the three distinct evolutionarily distinct brain systems, some people find this to be a helpful model because of its broad explanatory value.

Could it be then that people disposed to choosing socially acceptable, nurturing behaviors, and mutual reciprocity over elements of advance cognition including logic and reason are the same people disposed to reacting stronger to the dictates of their limbic brains and less stronger to the dictates of their neocortices? If that is so, are the main causes of such differentiation in behavior¬†largely physical in nature — genetics, brain wiring, hormones, brain chemicals — rather than culturally or socially indoctrinated biases? Does nature trump nurture in this case?

Why was I, at 9 years of age, able and willing to open my mind to ideas rejected by everyone else in that same identical environment? Why is it that my university peers, some of whom are more intellectually gifted than I am, able to embrace hypocrisy so willingly and so whole-heartedly even to the degree of building their lives around those antiquated, irrational traditions?

Is it safe to conclude that these dispositions are actually pre-dispositions? That once a person is selected for by nature to become uncritical, a member of the herd whose survival is predicated upon protection in numbers, there is almost nothing anyone can do to sway this person out of this pre-built tendencies that ultimately guide his convictions?

I wish someone could explain the whole process to me. The point of this post is to invite further discussion.

~ GC

Read Full Post »