You are Not so Smart — Priming

[photocommons file=”Armored-car-Manila.jpg” width=180]Derren Brown has produced a number of British TV Shows about priming that are really fascinating to watch. Even though he is a public figure, he is able to use priming to get people to do things they wouldn’t normally do, including, in one show, robbing an armed car.

I just started reading You are Not so Smart, and the first chapter was on priming, appropriately enough.

Priming is all about the subconscious — the extra-rational — something that, over the millennial, religions have adapted to. In the West, though, we don’t really seem to value things we can’t reason our way towards. You can see this in Christianity before the Enlightenment and even before the Protestant Reformation — even before the advent of Thomism — in the Roman Catholic dogma of transubstantiation.

The Church saw “This is my body” and dogmatized the premise that made that statement literally true. Eastern Christians, who have been more comfortable with a mystical understanding of truth, simply accepted the statement as true without the need for philosophical and dogmatic exercises.

Over time, I’ve come to the opinion that the different directions the Eastern and Western churches took on the idea of what has come to be known as the “real presence” are reflected in a lot of other areas — including what I have been calling the modern Cult of Reason.

So, what does all this have to do with psychological priming?

Priming is what happens when you act in a way that is largely influenced by your extra-rational mind. Priming is dependent upon cues that come from your environment. Derren Brown is adept at creating these sorts of cues for people, but you can also see these cues in the Liturgy of any Eastern Church. The smells, sights and sounds (which have all been developed over the centuries) all prime the person and provoke an extra-rational response.

In the West, many protestant denominations explicitly shy away from creating this sort of “heavenly” environment. Many Mennonite churches, for example, explicitly shy away from any environmental cues. While they certainly are not as explicit in their rationalism as others – Presbyterians, for example — they’re like so many in the West who don’t seem to see any use in anything that cannot be rationally explained.

But, as You are Not so Smart makes clear, even in the first chapter on Priming, we are not the rational, thoughtful creatures we imagine ourselves to be.

My one-man crusade against the rebirth of the Cult of Reason

[photocommons file=”Alter_of_reason.jpg” width=”180″]I recently read When Atheism Becomes Religion under its more provocative original title: I Don’t Believe in Atheists.

The author, Chris Hedges is becoming one of my favorite authors. The first book that I read of his, The Death of the Liberal Class was a great history of classical liberalism — something that all political ideologies today could learn from.

Chris Hedges is a fascinating writer and the perfect author for a book that offers a critique of the modern Cult of Reason. (It is important to note that the use of the word “cult” here reflects the thinking in this footnote of that article: The word “cult” in French means “a form of worship”, without any of its negative or exclusivist implications in English; its proponents intended it to be a universal congregation.)

In fact, although I had this blog post in mind, it wasn’t till I started looking for a picture to accompany it (the Alter of Reason was perfect) that I learned about the Cult of Reason from the time of the French revolution.

That period of time is a great precedent for what happened since September 11, 2001 in the New Atheist movement.

Some people saw religion itself as the cause for the violence inherent in the terrorist attacks. If religion didn’t exist, the movement seems to say, no one would have an excuse to slaughter any group of people.

Chris Hedges’ book is a powerful antidote to this fantasy. Not only does he remind us that the greatest genocides of the 20th century were secular in nature, but he also asks us to consider human limitations in any solutions we propose: No ethical stance, no matter how pure it appears, is moral if it is not based on the reality of human limitations.

Humans — whether created by God 6000 years ago, or just some random chance of the universe — have some very stark limitations. Making religion a demon while deifying reason will not solve anything.

I came across another book today while browsing the bookstore, You Are Not So Smart, that really began to drive home the point of our limitations. As the book points out, Even when we think we’re being rational and thinking things through carefully, our emotional brain, our subconscious, is the one really running the show. (I’ve requested a copy of the book from my local library, so I’ll post more about it after I’ve read more.)

Amusingly, Penn Jillette’s God, No! was nearby and I had time to read the introduction where he talks about the humility of Atheism. He’s right: we should all be able to say “I don’t know”.

But he says that saying “I don’t know” makes you an atheist and here I disagree. I know we haven’t done a great job of celebrating doubt, but even as great a Christian as Mother Teresa had doubts. That didn’t make her less of a Christian — it was simply part of her humanity. You have the chance to say — like Christopher Hitchen’s did — that this makes her a fraud, but I prefer the title “human.” Not knowing, doubting is a fully human thing to do.

It is fine to celebrate everything that reason gives us — and we’ve been able to accomplish a lot through the use of the rational mind — but, as Hedges rightly points out in When Atheism Becomes Religion, as much as reason has helped us reach new heights, it has empowered evil to new depravity.

There is no scientific utopia and efforts to create one only end in destruction. Achieving Utopia must mean destroying everyone that you can’t convince to join you. St Isaac the Syrian put it this way: “If zeal [using passion to convince others of the truth] had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did Jesus use gentleness and humility?”

Nuture Shock for Parents

American culture — especially American middle class white culture — is neurotic about parenting. From the idea of permissive parenting that Doctor Spock supposably espoused to the use of Baby Einstein to increase language — because a 1997 study suggested that language development was aided by the sheer number of words a child heard. The funny thing about both these ideas is that neither one is true. Dr Spock said “I’ve always advised parents to give their children firm, clear leadership”. Later studies (as Nurture Shock shows) showed that direct interaction with a child — not the number of words heard — helped language development. But even the revelation that scientific studies show children do not recognise recorded speech as words will not affect the sale of Baby Einstein products. (For its part Disney, the makers of Baby Einstein, has distanced itself from any claims that its products provide an educational benefit.) Myths about parenting continue to live and get spread through parenting culture. Which is why every parent should read Nurture Shock. Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman take on a number of subjects that many parents think are settled issues — spanking, for instance — and show how empirical studies have flipped conventional wisdom on its head. I think, though, that much of this book is aimed at relatively affluent, white, middle class parents. When I shared some of the bits about race or sibling rivalry with my wife, who was born in Vietnam, she laughed at the “crazy Americans”. Vietnamese culture does not share some of the foibles the book addresses. But there is a lot that any parent, regardless of cultural background or parenting style, will appreciate. In a chapter titled “Can Self Control be Taught?”, for example, the authors reveal how a new program, Tools of The Mind, is enabling pre-schoolers to develop intrinsic motivation and self-regulation far sooner and far more predictably than previously thought possible. Even better, the chapter titled “Why Hannah Talks and Alyssa Doesn’t” shows a nine-month-olds vocal skills and, later, vocabulary, can be improved just by providing an immediate response (like a touch) when they burble something. For those who want to go further, the book provides 80 pages of end notes and references. But, since they avoided marking up the text with footnotes or super-scripts, it doesn’t affect the readability of the book at all. If you’ve got a child living at home — or if you’re just interested in child development — you should read this book.

Review: Genome

The crude distinction between genes as implacable programmers of a Calvinist predestination and the environment as the home of liberal free will is a fallacy.

This sentence is the sum of what Matt Ridley does so well in Genome. He takes conventional wisdom and turns it on its head. He doesn’t shirk from the most dangerous ideas that can accompany genetic determinism — eugenics, selecting for ability — but he also wraps up his book with a very good argument that free will and determinism are compatible. Yes, you may have a gene that makes it means that likely develop Alzheimers. But that doesn’t have to run your life. And then he flips it around: isn’t it better for you — including your genes — to determine what you become than for someone else — the state, your peers, or even your parents — to proscribe a path for you? I have my own Libertarian tendencies (strongly tempered by communitarian Orthodox Christianity), so I find his reasoning pretty compelling. Matt Ridley is a special kind of journalistic genius. He can wade through volumes of technical arcana and create something like Genome, a very readable, very enjoyable, book. If you want an overview of what we know about genetics (or what we knew 10 years ago, at least) this is a great place to start. But, the book is over 10 years old. A lot has happened. He hints as much when he talks about developments in genetics that happened in the decade leading up to the publication of the book — sometimes dramatic developments. The story wasn’t finished when he wrote it and I am starting to look around for something more up-to-date than this. Like any good author, he has captured me and left me wanting more.


I’ve been reading Terry Pratchett recently. I suppose you could say this is like reading through John Grisham’s œuvre, but he writes funny, entertaining books that are hard to put down. And he doesn’t divide them into chapters. So I have a hard time stopping. I also discovered that much of Akira Kurosawa’s work in film is in the public domain and available from the Internet Archive. I just finished Ikiru (To Live) and he really got me in the end. Thought he was going for easy, but he didn’t.

Book Critics

Anytime a popular fantasy book is published, the critics come out of the woodwork.  The Harry Potter series is a one such target.  They’re mediocre books:  Easy (for me) to read, but not very compelling.

Still, some people get worked up about them because they contain “magic”.  Now, the magic in these books is little more than some sort of special technology.  “Wave your wand if you want your toast buttered.”  There are magical creatures, but they seem incidental.

In any case there is absolutly no spiritual aspect to the books at all.  Some people look at this and say “Oh no! I can’t find God!  These are evil books!”   Others (me) look at this and say “So?”

In any case my favorite review of the Harry Potter series is from (retired) Bishop Seraphim: Harry Potter books can’t suck enough!