This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

January 15, 2008 - are we rational?

Since way back in grade school, I've been enamored of the scientific method. The idea is that we are rational creatures, delighting in growing our understanding of the marvelous natural world.

True, we often start out with ideas that are a little looney. They don't fit the facts. But that's the whole point of the scientific method: you frame a hypothesis to explain some phenomenon, then you test it. If the hypothesis is wrong, you throw it out the window and come up with one that does a better job of standing up to the evidence.

It's a powerful thing. Using the scientific method, we have pushed back the darkness of human ignorance, and made incomparable gains in everything from our own ability to survive, to remarkable works of civilization.

I've also long been a fan of science fiction. What young person -- or any person of imagination -- wouldn't want to sail out into space on the starship Enterprise?

But there are frontiers that are closer to home: the study of our own brains.

Often, we learn about how the brain operates when something goes wrong -- catastrophic injury, for instance. I've read about several cases now when blows to the cerebral cortex suddenly deprive people of emotion, of their very capacity to feel.

On the one hand, how tragic. Never again to know the exaltation of love, the tenderness of parental affection!

On the other hand, well, it would be kind of like being Star Trek's Spock. You'd be able to think, to analyze, without that cloud of feeling that so often distracts us from the plain data in front of us. You could just objectively consider things, and decide intelligently, unclouded by childhood trauma, emotional bias, or unreasoning prejudice.

And here's the first bit of stunning news: the people who have no emotions suddenly find that they can't decide anything at all. Why? Because there's no end to analysis. What if this? What if that? On the plus side ... on the negative ... round and round.

It turns out that, almost always, we decide things emotionally. We literally make gut decisions. Then we arrange the evidence to support our conclusions.

It gets worse. Often, our decisions happen far below the level even of feeling. For instance, a recent study found that taking birth control pills affects the attraction that women feel to various men.

Women who don't take birth control pills tend to be drawn to men who smell ... different. Scientists theorize that this is because that smell (the information encoded in pheromones) means that the man comes from a more diverse gene pool, thereby building broader immunities in offspring.

But when they take the pill, women are drawn to men who smell more like themselves. At some chemical level, maybe because birth control pills mimic a kind of pregnancy, women are now drawn to people who smell like family, who will stay around and look after young 'uns.

Still with me? We decide such things as life mates not with our brains, but with our noses.

There are a host of almost independent systems within our bodies: the brain, the immune system, our genes, bacteriological responses, and more. Over them all, we impose what may well be a fiction of personal narrative. That is, we explain our decisions -- made at some cellular level, and quite unconsciously -- with reasons we dream up after the fact that seem consistent with our stories of self.

So here's this week's conclusion: We aren't rational beings. Mostly, we just pretend to be.

Next week: letting go of what you know to be wrong.
LaRue's Views are his own.

No comments:

Post a Comment