Our brains evolved on the African savannah, but are now expected to deal with complex statistical information and other intricate concepts every day.
The human mind is a wondrous thing. It has uncovered the innermost secrets of the natural world; it’s created art and democracy; and even explored the depths of its own operations. But human minds can be filled to the brim with superstition, prejudice, and all kinds of falsehoods. Which brings us to today’s topic: Beliefs Gone Wild!
Where do all these false beliefs come from? Why are so many of our beliefs out of sync with reason, evidence, and argument? And, what, if anything, can we do to guard against falsehood, while at the same time increasing the stock of the true things we believe? This is an age-old question -- one taken up by Socrates, Plato, Descartes, Hume, James, Dewey -- to name just a few. With all that accumulated philosophical wisdom -- not to mention the advances of science, the decline of superstition, the fall of tyrannical regimes that tried to bludgeon their citizens into believing lies -- with all that intellectual progress, you might think that nowadays we believe a lot more truth and a lot less falsehood than we used to.
And you might think that the election of Barack Obama to the Presidency shows that. I mean if I think back to my own youth -- not all that long ago, in the great scheme of things -- I’m astounded at the false things your average white American used to believe about your average black American. And now look where we are!
But I wouldn’t get too carried away with the thought that Obama’s presidency is proof that we’re slowly, but surely replacing old, worn-out false beliefs, with bright new shiny true beliefs. False beliefs and true beliefs always seem to co-exist in the human mind. Maybe we can shift the balance a little here and there, but I doubt we can totally eliminate falsehood. That’s because the human mind has two sides – a light side that invented science, the arts, and democracy, and a dark side prone to prejudice, self-deception, and other forms of irrationality. And that fact raises the question: If our minds are so messed up, how is it we dominate the planet and know more than all the rest of the animal kingdom combined?
“Dumb luck,” I can hear John responding. But I think it has much more t do with the social structure of cognition. By that I mean to point to the fact that once in a while some genius pulls off an amazing feat of cognition -- like inventing the calculus. And thanks to our ability to learn from other people -- and the social structures that make that more and more possible -- the rest of us schmucks get to go along for the ride.
But of course, the very social structures that enable us to learn the truth from other people also enable us to learn false things from other people. Think of the ways stereotypes or superstitions are handed down from generation to generation. And to make matters even worse, the dirty little secret about our minds is out. And that knowledge allows some people to be in the business of exploiting our mental foibles to make us believe all manner of crazy things.
You see, we’ve gotten ourselves into a fine philosophical mess here. We’ve shown that the human mind is equal parts darkness and light. And there isn’t any obvious way to ensure the light wins out over the dark.
To help us out, we invited our guest, Michael Philips, who calls himself the Undercover Philosopher, to share some insights. He claims to have discovered the philosophical key to detecting shams, lies and delusions. And he put them in a book.