What do these things have in common? Nerves, emotions, morality, prices.
Tuesday, April 7, 2009
The most intriguing thing about this theory, if it's right, is that it explains not merely which kinds of discussions to avoid, but how to have better ideas. If people can't think clearly about anything that has become part of their identity, then all other things being equal, the best plan is to let as few things into your identity as possible.
Thursday, April 2, 2009
I went to a public lecture last night on the question 'How do we balance freedom of speech and religious sensitivity?'. It featured four distinguished academics 'exploring legal, philosophical and cultural perspectives'. I was interested to go because I couldn't think of any reason the 'balance' should be a jot away from free speech on this one, and I thought if smart people thought it worth discussing, there might be arguments I haven't heard.
The most interesting thing I discovered in the evening was that something pretty mysterious to me is going on. The speakers implicitly assumed there was some middle of the road 'balance', without addressing why there should be at all. So they talked about how to assign literary merit to The Satanic Verses, how globalization might mean that we could offend more people by accident, whether it is consistent with other rights to give rights to groups, what the law can do about it now, etc. That these are the pertinent issues in answering the question wasn't questioned. Jeremy Shearmur looked like he might at one point, but his argument was basically 'I think I'd find Piss Christ pretty offensive if I were a Christian - it's disgusting to me that anyone would make it anyway - and so ignorant of Christianity'. More interesting discussion of the question could be found in any bar (some of it was interesting, it just wasn't about the question).
What am I missing here? Is it seriously the consensus (in Australia?) that censorship is in order for items especially offensive to religious people? Is there some argument for this I'm missing? What makes the situation special compared to other free speech issues? The offense? Then why not ban other things offensive to some observers? Ugly houses, swearing, public displays of homosexual affection.. The religion? Is there some reason especially unlikely beliefs are to be protected, or just any beliefs that claim their own sacredness? Are these academics afraid of something I don't know about? Is it much more controversial than I thought to support free speech in general? Or is the question just a matter of balancing the political correctness of saying 'yay free speech' and of 'yay religious tolerance'?
People seem to generally believe they have high romantic standards, and that they aren't strongly influenced by things like looks, status and money. Research says our standards aren't that high, that they drop if the standard available drops for a single evening, and that superficial factors make more of a difference than we think. Our beliefs about what we want are wrong. It's not an obscure topic though; the evidence should be in front of us. How do we avoid noticing? We're pretty good at not noticing things we don't want to - we can probably do it unaided. Here there is a consistent pattern though.
Consider the hypothesis that there is approximately one man in the world for me. I meet someone who appears to be him within a month of looking. This is not uncommon, though it has a one in many million chance of happening under my hypothesis, if I look insanely hard. This should make me doubt my hypothesis in favor of one where there are several, or many million men in the world for me. What do I really do? Feel that since something so unlikely (under the usual laws of chance) occurred it must be a sign that we were really meant for each other, that the universe is looking out for us, that fate found us deserving, or whatever. Magic is a nice addition to the theory, as it was what we wanted in the relationship anyway. Romantic magic and there being a Mr Right are complimentary beliefs, so meeting someone nice confirms the idea that there was exactly one perfect man in the world rather than suggesting it's absurd.
I can't tell how serious anyone is about this, but ubiquitously when people happen to meet the girl of their dreams on a bus where they were the only English speaking people they put it down to fate, rather than radically lowered expectations. When they marry someone from the same small town they say they were put there for each other. When their partner, chosen on grounds of intellectual qualities, happens to also be rich and handsome their friends remark at how fortune has smiled on them. When people hook up with anyone at all they tell everyone around how unlikely it was that they should both have been at that bus stop on that day, and how since somehow they did they think it's a sign.
We see huge evidence against our hypothesis, invoke magic/friendly-chance as an explanation, then see this as confirmation that the original magic-friendly hypothesis was right.
Does this occur in other forms of delusion? I think so. We often use the semi-supernatural to explain gaps caused by impaired affective forecasting. As far as I remember we overestimate strength of future emotional responses, tend to think whatever happens was the best outcome, and whatever we own is better than what we could have owned (e.g. you like the children you've got more than potential ones you could have had if you had done it another day). We explain these with 'every cloud has a silver lining', or 'everything happens for a reason', or 'it turns out it was meant to happen – now I've realised how wonderful it is to spend more time at home', 'I was guided to take that option - see how well it turned out!' or as happens often to Mother; 'the universe told me to go into that shop today, and uncannily enough, there was a sale there and I found this absolutely wonderful pair of pants!'.
Supernatural explanations aren't just for gaps in our understanding. They are also for gaps between what we want to believe and are forced by proximity to almost notice.