I used to think I was in almost total control of nearly every aspect of being. From learning to emotions to anything mental I felt like I was astutely aware of all the processes, variables and influences that affected me and could control them at my will. That was, of course, my wild teenage brain running amok with its abnormal chemistry and time has shown me that there’s an awful lot going on inside my head that I have absolutely zero control over. Indeed the more research we do into the brain and our genetics the more we find things that we aren’t consciously in control of and that raises some really perplexing questions.
The more we chip away at the apparent control we have over our own being the more the idea of free will starts to look like some form of cruel joke played upon us by our own biological systems. I’ve wrestled with this idea before when I tried to overcome some subconscious beliefs that I didn’t consciously agree with and I’m still struggling to rationalize it today. Indeed the evidence keeps mounting for some form of hard determinism being the absolute truth here but it seems that one of those nigh on unshakable beliefs is the fact that we have some kind of will that is not controlled by our chemical/biological processes.
Things start to get really weird when you start looking at some real world examples of subconscious processes at work. Studies have shown that judges in Israel are far more likely to grant parole right after they’ve been fed with the approval rating tapering off steadily until their next meal. Whilst it may sound obvious when explained to you (it’s a Egg of Columbus type of thing) these kinds of influences pervade every nearly every aspect of our lives and it’s shocking just how little control we have over some of them. Indeed even being aware that those biases there isn’t enough to overcome them requiring a substantive effort to overcome.
I find this particularly interesting because it feeds into some of my other casual interests, namely the process of learning. There’s the oft repeated saying that it takes 10,000 hours to master something and understanding that our subconscious is doing most of the heavy lifting gives you insight into why that is. Rather than the 10,000 hours being training for our conscious selves it is in fact more to do with training our subconscious to take on all the tasks required for mastery that, at the beginning, reside only in the conscious part of our brain. It’s exactly why you can seemingly zone out when driving somewhere and not end up wrapped around a tree; the process of driving is largely a subconscious act. The same reason is behind why everyone has trouble with this seemingly ubiquitous skill at first, your subconscious just simply isn’t up to the task.
There’s also that rather sticky wicket of whether or not this means we actually have an agency at all, I.E. whether we truly are responsible for our actions. For what its worth I don’t have a good answer for this as society is very heavily predicated on the fact that we do have agency and I can’t seem to fathom how that idea could come about without it being true at some level. Of course this could just be a form of common delusion which just happens to work since it increases our survival rate and therefore allows our soma to continue on. Like I said, I don’t have a good answer to this and even my conjecture on the matter feels half baked.
Honestly I’m not altogether sure what this means for us as a species or society at large but I feel like its an important thing to understand. Awareness that we’re largely subconscious beings has helped me better understand the learning process and why people might say one thing then act in completely different ways. It’s a perplexing issue, one I’m sure that philosophers and scientists will struggle with for centuries to come and even then I’ll doubt that we’ll ever get a conclusive answer: scientifically or philosophically.
I can’t say dogmatic beliefs always bugged me as I was your typical non-practising Christian up until the age of about 13. At that age though, soon after my (voluntary) exodus from an Anglican high school, things about religion stopped making sense for me. Whilst I didn’t call my atheist then I was definitely without a religion but it wasn’t until some years later that I came across the identifier. For me the process of becoming atheist was one of mounting evidence overwhelming the scripture that was presented to me as gospel truth, pushing me down a path of rational thinking. Since then I’ve tried to focus much of life on evidence based ideals rather than succumbing to dogmatic ideas.
Since then the atheist movement has come a long way with many on and offline communities sprouting up. For someone like me who grew up not knowing any other atheists it’s been great to know that there are so many like minded people out there. Honestly though it’s not like I had much of a hard time with the idea, Australia as a general rule is pretty secular and someone’s religion is never really a topic of conversation. The only time I was close to some potential trouble was when I was meeting my now wife’s family who were devoutly religious, but even they were accepting of someone who was not of their faith (and to their credit didn’t even try to convert me).
What has started to irk me though is the rise of what I like to call Reddit Intellectuals. Don’t take the name too seriously (I’ve already had a couple long time Redditors take offence to it, but I mean no harm) as it’s not a rule I apply to all Redditors generally. More it’s symptomatic of communities and the group think that they generate, not something that I directly blame on Reddit itself. No the Reddit Intellectuals are those who have taken up the generally held beliefs of the wider Reddit community, usually under the atheist subreddit, as dogmatic principle without undergoing any kind of pragmatic process. For these people the ideas of the Reddit community are simply a straight up replacement for religion, held in the same high regard as believers hold in their faith.
The reason this rubs me the wrong way is because instead of rationally deciding that faith is not for them they are instead adopting someone else’s world view, in essence becoming dogmatic atheists. For me this greatly undermines the principle of the atheism, eroding the idea that we’ve looked at the evidence, decided that religion doesn’t make any rational sense and then left it on our own volition. To just simply “believe” the ideas of atheism means that you’ve put no rational thought into the idea and would just as likely have joined the Church of Cthulhu had they made a shiny website with an active community.
Indeed the problem isn’t just isolated to atheist circles, I could have easily coined the term Wikipedian Intellectuals to the same effect. Any online community has the tendency to generate individuals with dogmatic beliefs that reflect the majority’s opinion and depending on what that community is centred around that will determine what kind of followers they generate. Reddit and Wikipedia are just 2 examples of communities that generate people who believe they’re smarter than others simply because they can look up (or have already read) something on a website. In reality true understanding comes from being able to read those sources and then verify them with others. Just simply reading a site and not doing at least some rudimentary fact checking on it (and for something like Wikipedia that’s incredibly easy to do, they give you the links!) is akin to accepting dogmatic beliefs because you read them in a book that that nice guy at church gave you.
Thankfully people like this are the minority and are relatively easy to weed out once you start probing their knowledge. These communities also tend to be somewhat self correcting as once new evidence comes out that refutes a popular stance the rational actors amongst them will shift their view point much quicker than the dogmatic ones, making their identification quite easy.
Maybe its the engineer in me or the IT professional who’s run up against the saying “because this is the way we’ve always done it” far too often but I find dogmatic beliefs have a tendency to be harmful for both the individual and the group. The Reddit Intellectuals are just the symptom of those who have not developed the critical thinking skills to come to the same conclusions by themselves. I don’t pretend to know of a solution to this but if you find yourself believing something that’s been written on the Internet holistically without verification you might want take a step back. You could be one of the Reddit Intellectuals.
I’ve always been fascinated by people who are incredibly smart and religious. To me they seem to be diametrically opposed as education goes up the evidence for God’s existence starts to come under question, usually to the point of pushing people to be either agnostic or atheist. For me it was mostly my distaste for the study of religion (I found it boring) and the ham fisted approach that my science teacher had to reconciling the Anglican school teachings with actual science.
For those both gifted and religious the most common explanation I get is the things we can’t yet explain come under the purview of a god or the God. I watched a video of an interview with Neil DeGrasse Tyson recently that sums up why that approach is fundamentally flawed:
Taken to its logical extreme, as in as our knowledge approaches the limit of all we can ever know, God then can only exist in infinitesimally smaller gaps. Logically then the belief in such an entity seems irrational as God is then just an ever shrinking pocket of ignorance. You can of course neatly sidestep this argument by saying you fully believe in your faith regardless of what science says and I’ll neatly sidestep any argument with you on the matter because I’m sure neither of us will walk away happy from it 😉