Lucky Number Seven
From Michael Shermer’s new book The Believing Brain:
During the run-up to the 2004 presidential election, while undergoing a brain scan, thirty men — half self-described “strong” Republicans and half “strong” Democrats — were tasked with assessing statements by both George W. Bush and John Kerry in which the candidates clearly contradicted themselves. Not surprisingly, in their assessments of the candidates, Republican subjects were as critical of Kerry as Democratic subjects were of Bush, yet both let their own preferred candidate off the evaluative hook. Of course. But what was especially revealing were the neuroimaging results: the part of the brain most associated with reasoning — the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex — was quiescent. Most active were the orbital frontal cortex, which is involved in the processing of emotions, and the anterior cingulate cortex… active in patternicity processing and conflict resolution. Interestingly, once subjects had arrived at a conclusion that made them emotionally comfortable, their ventral striatum — a part of the brain associated with reward — became active (p 260).
The original study is D. Westen, C. Kilts, P. Blagov, K. Harenski, and S. Hamann, “The Neural Basis of Motivated Reasoning: An fMRI Study of Emotional Constraints on Political Judgment During the U.S. Presidential Election of 2004,” Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience 18 (2006):1947-58.
The study doesn’t necessarily implicate everyone or all political reasoning, but it does suggest that those who strongly identify with a party or a faction are not always thinking rationally, even if they think they’re thinking rationally. We don’t necessarily know when rationality shuts off. If only it would tell us!
Now, I can’t expect you to consider that your own political beliefs are likewise held arationally and are therefore almost certainly false. This would be a possible inference from the study, but it’s also way too much to ask.
So let’s consider for the sake of argument that your political views — yes, yours, the ones you hold right this moment — just happen to be the selfsame political views of God. They are the highest, supremest, extra-specialest truth.
Suppose, though, that you hold these utterly true views through an arational process: The light of the moon comes from the sun. And you know it because you threw some dice, and up came the lucky number seven.
Even if your political beliefs are true, which none of us should ever permit ourselves to doubt for a moment, we believe them because at some point, up came the lucky number seven. It made us happy, and we believed.
Now how do you feel about that? If it were true, what would you change about your beliefs? What would you change about how you think about them? About how you defend them? About how you evaluate the beliefs of others?