The Brain’s False Idols

4 December 2011

I’ve been exploring the subtleties of human cognition for nearly two years now.  The most amazing and persistent lesson I’ve learned is that our ability to understand the world is limited by the way our brains work.  All of us are constrained by fundamentally flawed cognitive processes, and the advanced studies of human cognition, perception, and neuro-anatomy all reveal this to be true.  Although this lesson feels incredibly fresh to me, it is not new news to mankind.   Long ago, serious thinkers understood this to be true without the aid of sensitive measurement devices (e.g., fMRI) or statistical analysis.

 

It pains me a bit to have been scooped by Sir Francis Bacon, who knew this well in the early 17th Century.  After all, It took me two years of intensive, self-driven investigation, 18 years after getting a PhD in psychology, to come to grips with this.  I have to ask “Why isn’t this common knowledge?”  and “Why wasn’t this central to my training as a psychologist?”

 

Bacon, an English lawyer, statesman, and thinker, who devoted his intellect to advancing the human condition, astutely identified the innate fallibility of the human brain in his book entitled New Organon published in 1620.  He referred to these cognitive flaws as The Four Idols.  The word idol he derived from the Greek word eidolon which when translated to English means a phantom or an apparition, that he argued, blunts or blurs logic and stands in the way of truly understanding external reality.  What we know today, adds greater understanding of the mechanisms of these errors, but they stand intact.

 

The terms Bacon used to describe these flaws probably made more sense in his day, but they are opaque today.  My preference is to use a more current vernacular to explain his thoughts and then back-fill with Bacon’s descriptors.  My intention is not to provide an abstract of his thesis, but rather to drive home the notion that long ago the brain’s flaws had been identified and acknowledged as perhaps the biggest barrier to the forward progress of mankind.  Much has changed since Bacon’s day, but these idols remain as true and steadfast today as they were 400 years ago.  It is important to note that Bacon’s thesis was foundational in the development of the scientific process that has ultimately reshaped the human experience.

 

I have previously written about some of the flaws that Bacon himself detailed long ago.  Bacon’s first idol can be summed up as the universal transcendent human tendencies toward Pareidolia, Confirmation Bias, and Spinoza’s Conjecture.  In other words, humans instinctively: (a) make patterns out of chaos; (b) accept things as being true because they fit within their preconceived notions of the world; (c) reject things that don’t fit within their current understanding; and (d) tend to avoid the effort to skeptically scrutinize any and all information.   These tendencies, Bacon described as the Idols of the Tribe.  To him the tribe was us as a species.  He noted that these tendencies are in fact, universal.

 

The second set of attributes seem more tribal to me because although the first set is universal, the second set vary by what we today more commonly refer to as tribes.  Cultural biases and ideological tendencies shared within subsets of people make up this second idol – the Idols of the Cave.  People with shared experiences tend to have specific perspectives and blind spots.  Those within such tribal moral communities share these similarities and differentiate their worldviews from outsiders.  People within these subgroups tend to close their minds off to openness and diverse input.  As such, most people innately remain loyal to the sentiments and teachings of the in-group and resist questioning tradition.  Cohabitants within their respective “caves” are more cohesive as a result – but more likely to be in conflict with out-groups.

 

The third idol is more a matter of faulty, misguided, or sloppy semantics.  Examples of this include the overuse of, or misapplication of, vague terms or jargon.  Even the perpetual “spin” we now hear is an example of this.  In such situations, language is misused (i.e., quotes used out of context) or talking points told and retold as a means to drive a specific ideological agenda regardless of whether there is any overlap with the facts.  It is important to note that this does not necessarily have to be an act of malice, it can be unintentional.  Because language can be vague and specific words, depending on context, can have vastly different meanings, we are inherently vulnerable to the vagaries of language itself.  These are the Idols of the Market Place where people consort, engage in discourse, and learn the news of the day.  Today we would probably refer to this as the Idols of the 24 Hour News Channel or the Idols of the Blogosphere.

 

The final idol reflects the destructive power of ideology.  At the core of ideology are several human inclinations that feed and sustain many of the perpetual conflicts that consume our blood and treasure and in other ways gravely harm our brothers and sisters.  Deeper still, at the root of erroneous human inclinations, is this tendency that makes us vulnerable to the draw of ideologies that sustain beliefs without good reason.  Such is the Idol of the Theater, where theologians, politicians, and philosophers play out their agendas to their vulnerable and inherently gullible disciples.  Beliefs ultimately filter what we accept as true and false.  This is how the brain works.  This proclivity is so automatic and so intrinsic that in order to overcome it, we have to overtly fight it.  What is most troubling is that most people don’t even know that this is occurring within them.  It is this intuitive, gut-level thinking that acts as a filter and kicks out, or ignores incongruity.  And our beliefs become so core to us, that when they are challenged, it is as if we ourselves have been threatened.

 

It takes knowledge of these idols and subsequently overt efforts, to overcome them, so that we don’t become ignorant victims of our own neurology: or worse, victims of the cynical and malicious people who do understand these things to be true.  We are inherently vulnerable – be aware – be wary – and strive to strike down your brain’s false idols.

 

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