Fallible and Illusionary Reasoning Instincts

Though conceptualizing is of course integral to survival, some of our interpretive tendencies can lead us astray.  Everyone knows something about sensory fallibilities, such as those of vision called ‘optical illusions’: our sight enhances the contrast of boundaries between light and dark, distorts lines and shapes depending on their surroundings, and awareness of depth can easily be fooled by the interplay of shadows.  Just as our senses evolved to manage wilderness environments and prove treacherous in other contexts, our conception developed to function within a hunter-gatherer lifestyle of small, simple, age-old communities, which place demands on the psyche that differ greatly from modern civilization with its dense populations, written communication, high technology and rapid transformations.  The biology of our minds is similar to the species’ ancestors, but our epistemic milieu, a vast assortment of facts, theories and methods, is utterly unlike prehistory, resulting in pervasive error and even delusion. 

a. Analogies are unequivocal realities rather than conditional conceptualizations 

When we see parallels between objects or other phenomena, we analogize them as if they are related, operated upon by the same principles.  This tactic of knowledge formation is vital as scientific correlating, but despite our reliance on advanced investigation, it remains necessary to reiterate that correlation often does not indicate a cause with certainty or any actual cause at all.  Knowledge of causality only meets contemporary standards after analysis has determined that statistical significance and explanational validity obtains, in research and everywhere.  

Compared to previous eras, we have trended towards sophistication in analogymaking.  Even a few centuries ago most human beings believed that macroscopic features indicate medicinal value, so cauliflower was thought to be beneficial for the brain due to their similar shape, and animal genitalia or fluids an aphrodisiac.  Similarity in appearance of a substance to gold was thought by alchemists to suggest chemical likeness – they were so close to transmutation! – and before telescopes the human mind was contemplated by some as a microcosm of the universe, existing in congruence with the formgiving mind of God.  Even today, near superstitions exist about the efficacy of purified substances such as supplements in providing health benefits, as if a direct route always exists between contact with the digestive system and its function in an organ such as the brain instead of unmetabolized, ineffectual passage through the body, or dubious claims that animal and plant products we have rarely as a species consumed are salubrious and lack potential for negative side effects, as in all the herbal stimulants purported to promote concentration, something unverifiable without careful case studies and examination of the chemistry.  

It is as if we assume everything peddled as organic is of benefit to us, as if it is intrinsic of the “natural” to cure us, but it must be admitted that ill-considered ingestion might be the root of all medicine.  Despite this credulity, the placebo effect is strong, the human body resilient, and most phenomena are harmless when engaged moderately, so error is rampant and sometimes an accidental prerequisite of successes, though with mass production of most medications, initial accuracy has become crucial for avoiding disasters.

b. Metaphors are unconditionally real rather than conditionally perceptual and conceptual 

Human consciousness tends to concretize imagery, experiencing the qualitative phenomena stimulated by symbols as exhaustively signified or consisting in definite content though perhaps with some ambiguity, rather than transiently and often fallibly cognitive.  This is innocuous enough in the context of literary metaphor meant for informal, recreational meanings: “a hurricane force glare” might suggest anger or some intense passion, a facial expression or blue eyes for the purpose of a memorable diversion that does not require readers to assess precision or uncertainty; picturesque portrayals such as this certainly fulfill a worthwhile artistic function.  The statement “structure of an oxygen atom’s outer electron shell facilitates bonding into O2” similarly evokes imagery but is technical, with the image being in essence a structural model, not metaphorical but rather an embodiment of ‘true’ and ‘false’ in chemistry, differing from the literary trope in that it functions by evolving systematically.  

Even though literary language is meant to make a sensory and emotional impression that works strongly upon the reader’s subjectivity, independent of procedures for justification like those of science, and the theoretical one is different, designed to be modifiable with explicit logic for deliberate progressions in what we regard as objective, universalizable truth, we tend to neglect the rational evolution aspect of the technical when we communicate, conflating metaphor and epistemic form.  As a consequence we say things like “the elegant nature of oxygen’s electron sharing affinity for other substances”, as if a molecular model is for emotivity, or lifelike, or generalizable to all possible theorizing of the physical, as though it is representation of something tangible as a feeling or sensation rather than a mechanistic concept constructed and revised in a formal way by our thinking in order to augment and surpass the intuitions of any given moment.  

Much more insidious is the ‘force’ metaphor, which reifies both the experience of resistance to actualizing our purposes and the notion of antagonistic causes, implying existence as an overpowering of what is external.  The subliminal effect of this ideation on conceiving of the world runs deep, to the point of being almost unanalyzable, perhaps a root of war and institutions of domination that plague human communities.          

Basic forms we experience as we perceive and think – space, time, color, sound, feel – are indispensable to our survival, tailored for a working baseline of interpretative ability, but when we slide into the realm of technical abstractions, metaphorical expression can become deceptive rhetoric, beguiling communicators into an inflexible or oversimplistic certainty.  In modern discourse, vivid imagery is useful because it assists in analogizing theories while providing the spice of artistry, no doubt important facets of popularizing science and technology, but when facile expressiveness piles up and ossifies, with instruction too often neglecting to both convey reasoning practices near a professional level and stimulate consideration of flaws, shortcomings and possible modifications, vitiated thinking can render alternatives alien and unimaginable, or more often misunderstood.  The degree to which science has been misconstrued and troubled during paradigm shifts by confounding of the metaphorical, theoretical, factual and perceptual due to literary gloss, imprecision, glibness or the dumbing down of theory is inestimably large, and it can be a monstrous battle to fight confusion that delays change, obfuscating decisions about public policy and fragmenting society.

c. Unexplained motion suggests intention or agency and by extension nature is essentially animate

The mystery of animateness in humans and animals has fascinated Homo sapiens, and since it is not at all clear where the line should be drawn between inanimate mechanism and intention, especially in prescientific worldviews, we have tended to attribute soul to nature in general.  Prehistorically, humans interpreted unexplained motion, in phenomena such as the sunrise and the weather, as instigated by invisible spirits, with perception of calls, voices and apparitions in nature reinforcing this inclination.  We see and hear signs of vitality in ourselves and creatures in relation to which the ability to anticipate intention proves fruitful for our existence – avoiding territorial haunts of predators, or hunting – and our psyches presumed intention in the atmosphere, water and all motivity.  Cosmos seems to be an expression of spirit rather than a mechanistic system of interrelated variables in the absence of ubiquitous technologies that stimulate our discernment of material desiderata such as natural resources as inanimate appendages of our own mentality.  Without technical concepts of self, psychology and matter, everything seems as alive as we are.

d. Everything has a beginning

We can with no trouble imagine an interminable future, but it is impossible to comprehend what an eternal past would be in comparison to the content of experience; we know of nothing that has no origin, with our cognition being hardwired to look at everything as caused.  An infinite regress of causes defies our mental makeup to seek the root of things, which in circumstances of the ordinary leads us by increments to a closed system of mechanisms that further phenomena fit into as progress.  This enigma is reinforced by incipience of our own perception at infancy; to have existed forever as potential in a past that never began is nearly inconceivable.  

We thus look to creational explanations for even the universe as a whole, that it is a cycle of big bangs or some other kind of cycle: the closest we can get is a notion of perpetual rebirth.  Myths and scientific accounts of the cosmos, even those of the greatest profundity, presume a beginning, even though the idea is based on reflexive presuppositions of our thinking, that what is permanent but changing must come from something or somewhere.  There may be a conceptual null set but there is no null substance, and there is a conceptual infinite set but no perceivably infinite substance, the paradox that forces us to choose philosophically between spontaneous generation out of nothing or an uncaused cause, or remain suspended in uncertainty.

e. No significant mutations or inaccuracies in the oral transmission of narratives

All ancient cultures give a central role to mythological narratives; these stories explain the origin of the world and workings of nature with symbolism.  They are full of fantasy and superstition, and it is easy to understand how this could derive over many millennia from descriptions of even real events: memory makes information self-coherent at the expense of fidelity, performances for others are embellished to dramatic effect, and as already discussed, we have a tendency to ascribe agency rather than mechanism to nature in the absence of technological proficiency.  As error crept into accounts of historical events, humans failed to note inclination towards inaccuracy, and a pantheon of the spiritual ascended to primary importance in ritual and art that had little connection with anything observed as plain fact.  

Even though we think less mythically about our world since the advent of civilized empiricism and education, disinformation is still rampant, leading to panic, hatred, or zealotry for questionable causes, one of the antecedents of fascism’s potential to wrest power from rational and egalitarian institutions.  The compelling narratives of demagogues can whip up society into a frenzy of misplaced allegiance and extremity to this day in ways much more perilous than most prehistoric valuations.

f. Ancestors are cause and justification of the world and social practice

For hunter-gatherers, age denotes experience, understanding and authority, so they lean heavily on contributions of elders in decision-making and all sorts of cultural continuity.  As many millennia passed, the distant ancestors of tribes acquired significance as progenitors of their ways of life, becoming honored as protector spirits, ultimately merging with additional aspects of spirituality such as the supposed intentionality intrinsic to natural and numinous forces to become demiurges, beings of the spirit world with intense interest and influence in the course of human affairs.  

Population increased and consequently so did large-scale contact with death and consideration for the dead, a trend accentuated as diseases became epidemic, more salient to these vast collectives.  As a result, supplication of demiurgic entities for health and well-being in this life and the afterlife grew into traditions of ritual, and eventually into a primary social institution forming one of the pillars of religion.  Security of society was viewed as dependent on these pleromic wills, and allegiance to them could be enforced severely.  Successful precedents were interpreted as endorsed by ancestor or creator spirits, and resistance to change in cultural practice has been the norm as anxiety spreads throughout a society in which apotropaisms have been transgressed.  Only the most prolonged of catastrophes could shake deference to spiritual sovereignty.  

g. Dreams are supernatural products of a spirit world

Prior to the science of psychology, and especially before philosophical and scientific analysis of the way humanity attains knowledge, the self was conceived as a direct line to the world in all its forms; there was no intermediary of ‘psyche’ mechanisms in the human view of perception.  As a consequence, visions of various types, especially dreams, were viewed as equal in their verity to experiences had while in more lucid states, and hallucinogenic substances seen as connecting humans to another domain of the real world rather than our modern view that they scramble brain chemistry, in the majority of cases doing no more than propagating delusions.  

Most vision experiences are disregarded due to indistinctness or desensitization, but some are vivid enough and seem of sufficient profundity, including voices and appearance of the dead, that they are interpreted as of great portent, defining moments of life or culture.  In combination with ancestor worship and its blending into spirituality as the anthromorphized demiurge, visions auguring the will of gods or the future held an important place in making decisions for oneself and one’s tribe.  Shamanic rituals were organized around experiencing and inducing visions in an attempt to acquire guidance from what seemed to be existence beyond this one, even beyond death.  For most of Homo sapiens’ history, vision interpretation has been integral in forming beliefs, and many still seek insight from altered states, sometimes attempting to impose epiphanies on others without objective verifiability, responsible for the appeal of religious cults and many instances of fallacious conjecture considered premonition.

h. Illnesses and misfortunes are deserved, and all potentially contagious

With all of this numinosity conceived as operative in nature, mind and supernatural realms, it was perhaps inevitable that humans would think of their own bodies and fates as profoundly linked to spiritual happenings.  Sicknesses and misfortunes were viewed as divine judgements, the means by which deities made known their approval or disapproval of lives, with the ill and destitute often ostracized.  Coupled to guttural fear of contagion and associated pains of an excruciating degree that persists to this day, still bringing on paranoid and persecutory acts even in a civilization of modern medicine and robust explanation by science, we see the ill as outcasts throughout much of history, as in the lepers of ancient times or the pesthouses of plague-afflicted Europe.  Debtors were formerly imprisoned regardless of circumstance or level of culpability, and the poor were an economy of criminal mischief unto themselves for portions of European history, for poverty relief was not yet available.  The rich supposedly deserved to dominate the poor, a viewpoint brought into stark apparency by squalor precipitated at the start of the Industrial Revolution, when mass production enmeshed an entire lower class in the role of soot-besodden, economic unit.  

Tendency to demean the unfortunate is certainly not incapable of being overcome, as much investment has been made in recent times towards fighting impoverishment, deformity and pandemics at high cost and risk to many individuals.  Even in more primitive societies and ancient ways of thinking, the belief that adversities such as diseases are fair or retributive can diminish with habituation: in sub-Saharan Africa there are regions where Elephantitis, a severe disfigurement from a parasite carried by the Tsetse fly, is so common that no imploration of the numinous is undertaken, but indifference prevails to a condition that leaves Westerners aghast.

A free download of the book Standards for Behavioral Commitments: Philosophy of Humanism, also available for preview below.  Topics covered include chemistry, biology, genetics, neuroscience, epistemology, the history of Western philosophy, cultural evolution, theory of cognition, ethics and much more.

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