You automatically believe whatever you think…therefore you believe what I just wrote

You probably think that thinking and believing are two separate things. First, we consider a thought. Then, we deliberate on it. Finally, we either believe it as true, reject it as false, or abstain from judgement. Then we file it away for safe keeping.

Not even close! says Harvard professor Eric Mandelbaum. I just read an eye opening article from an interdisciplinary philosophy journal. The article, “Thinking is Believing,” by Eric Mandelbaum, argues that whenever you think, hear, consider, or read something (e.g. “unicorns are pink”), your brain has the default setting of automatically believing it (so I guess now you believe unicorns are pink, sorry about that). In other words, everything is true unless you consciously reject it, override it–which takes extra effort so rarely happens. What makes all this worse, he says, is that we are not even aware we are doing this–it all happens unconsciously, in the background processing of the brain (mostly perception and memory). In other words, this is an extreme thesis: we are not rational creatures–not by a long shot. Although he is arguing for a particular philosophy of mind, he is not just doing armchair philosophy here; he is drawing from a body of scientific studies (which all philosophers ought to do).

This big idea explains a number of things:

  1. evolutionary speaking, it makes sense. A tiger is coming! You will be much safer if your brain simply believes that statement without having to think it over. But does the same principle apply when someone tells you the universe is composed of invisible harmonic strings? He thinks so.
  2. this explains why we have so many conflicting, contradictory beliefs. As Whitman said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself. I am large; I contain multitudes.” Well, it’s really because we believe every damn thing we hear! And we just file it away, unaware of how many other beliefs it conflicts with (until we consciously pull out all the files, sort them, deliberate, reject some, strengthen others…something that is incredible hard to do because memory has it’s own problems…sometimes we can’t even remember what we believe! Hard to believe, huh.)
  3. several psychological experiments seems to confirm this. I don’t remember them exactly, but here’s the gist: you can have test subjects memorize a bunch of random statements like “Jim likes ice cream” “the car is purple” “the equator is 57,000 miles long”. Later, even if you tell them those statements were all false, they will remember them as being true.
  4. confirmation bias: this refers to the fact that we seek out things that support what we already believe. It goes deeper. Not only do we seek positive truth rather than debunking negative truth, but we have trouble processing negative information to begin with. For example, “Jill is not male” is very hard for us to process. “Jill is female” is extremely easy. Studies show that when we hear “Jill is not male,” we unconsciously switch is to “Jill is female”…and file it away. Or we could fuck it up entirely and believe that Jill is male. This is why it’s always a good idea to communicate in positive terms, so people will understand you better.
  5. everyone who watches Fox news believes it, even when it’s not “news” or “factual.” I added this one. Not to pick on conservatives, this really goes for all news. Why do most people think we live in a violent world, even though we don’t? Because the news only reports violent news. And what about those nasty political attack ads? We all know these ads are probably not true, but heck do they work! It’s like once an idea gets “mainstream,” it becomes true by virtue of existing.
  6. This explains why parents are so important in the development of childrens’ beliefs, and why kids are pretty much set on a particular path by the time they become adults. We are sponges, a blank slate as Locke said. This also makes you really think hard about what ideas you want to even expose your children too. Shit, forget children: yourself! If you flood the mind with tons of ideas, is that the best thing to do? Or does that make you the biggest hypocrite ever (according to this theory).

But is this idea true? Do we believe everything we think?

Well, what a question! Notice that by posing that question–is this article true?–I have, in a way, debunked the very conclusion of the article. I do not have to accept the conclusion, even if I don’t find evidence to the contrary. I read his ideas. I consider them. I accept, deny, or forget them. I was exposed to them but don’t believe them. I do find them very interesting and somewhat convincing. Later, perhaps in a year, I will mention this article to someone at a party: “I read this article once that argues we believe everything we read. I’m not so sure about it.” An agnostic approach, something he predicts can never happen.

Either way, I just don’t see how this could be correct for the more intellectual beliefs that matter in our lives, the ones we actually think about and care about. For all those other beliefs, however, which the mind passively accepts for survival/evolutionary reasons–sure I think he’s probably right. Psychology is good at telling us trivial truths about how our minds act when we are not looking. Perhaps this is another example. Perhaps the author is a victim of his own belief–perhaps his underlying belief in the irrationality of human nature is being fueled and puffed up by a couple of psychology experiments he read about. Which made him write this article.

You automatically believe whatever you think…therefore you believe what I just wrote

Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound

If a tree falls and nobody is there to hear it, does it make a sound?  After you’re done laughing, let’s think about this. This is not a stupid question: it brings up fundamental questions that are still fundamental, even for scientifically minded people.

Before indulging in The Matrix hypothesis and talking about how the external world doesn’t exist, I’m going to start with what’s not controversial. First, animals perceive the world differently than humans (some drastically different). Second, among humans there is variation (due to various physical and psychological causes). Conclusion: the external world and the world we actually perceive are two different things. It is interpreted, processed, constructed, measured–by our sense organs and brain. In other words, the diagram above is a fiction; we do not see an exact copy of the tree “out there”; our eyes are not giant gaping windows that “let the tree in” so to speak. Naive Realism is false. Again, not controversial so far.

And if you’re still not convinced that your eyes are playing tricks on you and that your sense organs are all sacks of shit, consider two more facts: (1) sense organs evolved (like everything) and thus survival are their main concern–truthful representation of the external world is not necessary their concern at all. Whether you see the berry as white or red, all it cares about is what works. As Williams James would say, the truth is what works. For us believing folk, a nice way to put it would be: God made you so that you would survive rather than be an astrophysicist–be happy He did. (2) sense organs detect change more than anything. Vision is not like a video camera that is always recording everything like a faithful steward, not even close.  Not to mention that memory, state of mind, personality, beliefs, language, societal norms–they can all affect the way we perceive things, literally. Let’s stop here.

Representational Realism

So what is happening here? Most common sense people will say there is a physical tree “out there”, made of physical stuff (atoms) having certain fundamental properties: size, shape, texture, mass. Those properties are “really out there” and our sense organs pick up on them the best we can. Okay, cool. But notice color is not on that list. Green is nothing more than the way light reacts with our retina/brain. Color is not “out there,” light is. The tree has the potential to be perceived as green and brown when light bounces off it and hits our eyeballs, that’s all. This isn’t controversial either. Qualities like color, heat, loud, bitter, the smell of a fart–they are all quasi-real, in limbo, secondary, dependent. I hope you feel the world crumbling. Color seems pretty fucking real to me thank you very much!

Enter the Idealists

Some people just scrap the whole idea of an external world altogether. We don’t need it. When I’m dreaming, I see green trees, I move through space, I eat cake, I cry (hell, I even have sex and ejaculate sometimes). All in the mind, mental, not caused by physical objects. There is no external tree causing my perception of a tree in the dream. So why can’t reality be the same way? Well, it can. The Matrix, although improbable, is possible. We could all be “plugged in” right now. Descartes imagined a powerful Evil Demon that might be tricking us, pulling this fake reality over our eyes just for the hell of it. George Berkeley simply replaced the external world with God. God doesn’t need physical matter, a useless middle man, when He can just implant sense experiences directly to our mind. We are living in God’s dream, God’s mind; God holds up reality. As a believer, this is a very tempting position to take. There is a simplicity to it, sort of. Kant replaced the external world not with God, but with an unknowable world, a foundation, a world that causes our perceptions but one we can know nothing about–except that it must exist.

So does a tree make a sound if nobody is there to hear it? No. Or, sure, God hears it. Or, the question itself makes no sense. That’s really the point here. What do we mean by a tree, after all? Green, brown, particular shape, particular feel, particular smells, etc. A tree is nothing but a group of sense experiences or possible sense experiences, therefore to talk about an unperceived tree makes no sense at all. To be is to be perceived in some way. Yes a tree has size, shape, texture, and mass. All those qualities are real. But notice those qualities, just like color, are qualities we perceive the tree to have. They are real because we perceive them, simple as that. Yes we can say the tree is made of atoms, but that just means if we look in a microscope we see it’s made of smaller stuff, and smaller stuff, etc. We can speculate about what’s really “out there,” but all we really have is our perceptions, all we have access to is the end product (in my diagram above, it’s the thought bubble). We can only look at the world through eyes, smell the world through noses, and feel the world through touchers. We cannot float above our body and brain to see what the world really looks like when nobody is looking at it. Human reality is human reality. There is something out there, but who knows what that is? Perhaps it’s really a pink, squishy ball that’s causing my perception of a green, hard Sugar Maple. As long as we all perceive the tree, nobody cares.

Let me convince you that a tree doesn’t make a sound