(Me in a panel discussion, 2015)
Over the years I have engaged in debate with many people over many issues but politics is one that has been truly frustrating. Consistent with my belief in being as objective and transparent as possible I have tried to argue fairly and logically to the extent I am able. However, my ability to convince others of politics with what I feel with unassailable logical arguments has been met with little success. I would be very surprised if anyone has been successful.
I consider myself quite independent and strive to be objective but nobody can truly be. I don’t claim to know everything, so I try to constrain what I know and don’t know and only argue those things I feel I “know.” What has astonished me is even when in discussions with what seems like other extremely open minded people it has been hard to have a decent discussion that leads to any conclusions.
Recently I read an article that described how biology students were unable to distinguish true biology science statements from bogus ones any better than completely untrained individuals. The problem was compounded because the educated biology students had much more reasons why the untrue statement was true. The uneducated simply said they thought it was true. The educated had reasons it was true which were all wrong. The fact is that people reason and think by using their own internal common sense and NOT true scientific facts. I have seen this in spades in many scientific publications recently. It seems even scientists have trouble separating what they know and what is simply possibly unfounded and incorrect reasoning and facts.
I read a book maybe 15 years ago or so that talked about memes or evolutionary psychology. While I don’t accept what evolutionary psychology has to say en masse I did find several ideas very compelling. One in particular has stuck with me over the years.
The Group Identity Meme
There is clearly an evolutionary advantage to belonging to a group. Whether based on religion, nationalistic sentiment or political having a group identity would be beneficial in some scenarios. For instance, being part of a group means that people you don’t know immediately band to your side to defend you and help you when distress is around. So, there is a survival aspect that is clearly true. If you don’t belong to a group, in a conflict or stressful situation you may find yourself in a position of being ostracized and in the worst case dying.
There is also a thing that happens to people as they go on in life. They become more and more accustomed to the set of beliefs they’ve had. The more one has intellectualized your beliefs and thought about them the more rigid you can become because you feel like you have focused a lot of work on defending and rationalizing all your beliefs so it becomes hard to consider unraveling all that investment.
So, there are 3 good reasons, whether you call them biologically built-in to humans or not, 3 very powerful reasons why it is nearly impossible to change someones mind on deeply held political views for instance.
1) People want to belong to a group
If belonging to that group means I have to have cognitive dissonance many will accept a great deal of dissonance to belong to the group meme.
Some people are not as smart and don’t think through all the logical contradictions of their viewpoints (the cognitive dissonance). Possibly they are fearful of what thinking through the issues will mean. They don’t trust themselves to make the correct conclusion so they prefer to spout the group meme regardless. These people tend to be the ones when challenged immediately resort to anger and vitriol.
I am frankly astonished how people can believe in things simultaneously which are clearly in conflict or in some cases may find their behavior and their beliefs in dramatic opposition. There is a huge ability of the human mind to deceive it’s owner or to construct reality to make life sensible and comfortable. An example of this related to how we perceive reality is described in my series on Roger Penrose and Twistor theory. I think in many cases people may be aware of the conflict of their stated beliefs and behaviors and simply be too cowardly to bring them into sync with each other. I am reminded of how preachers have been caught numerous times with prostitutes or with little boys or how people like Al Gore can simultaneously lecture us about energy conservation as he spends $800 heating his home swimming pool or flies in private jets around the world. However, such extreme examples are simply examples of something that is unavoidable. We can’t think through all our actions and all our beliefs and make them consistent, so a certain amount of cognitive dissonance is inevitable. Some do seem to have an amazing tolerance for it whether because of stupidity or conscious effort or some artifact of their brains operation.
The intelligent I have found can rationalize almost any belief system. I have been astonished how brilliant people can be and creative in defending what seems an unassailable logical point. As each point they make is assaulted and proven false they find a trick or way of thinking about it that defends an alternate view or rationale. The more brilliant the more they are able to invent counterarguments.
2) Your life Identity
Over time people start to build an identity of who they are. Part of that identity is what I believe. Do you think that any casual debate with someone will unseat that person from their life identity? To do so would put the entire foundation of their lives at risk. If one part of the facade of their belief system fails then they would have to rethink everything. They might have serious depression. They might lose who they are. It is daunting to consider that and to imagine all the change in who you think of as yourself, everything you’ve believed. So, as a result consciously or subconsciously people will fight any challenge to their identity which is related to the things they believe regardless of how illogical they may be.
It is hard for many people to let go of their ego and accept someone else’s argument for anything. It doesn’t have to be as significant as politics. It could be what toothpaste is best. Some people never will lose an argument. They will never admit to being wrong. I’ve always seen this as a weakness and seems obviously to imply the person is insecure. It is a highly secure person who can admit they don’t know something, that they were mistaken about something. There are a good number of people who are insecure enough that they will never admit another argument is right.
Society is divided neccessarily
Society is composed of those people who have a high group meme association and a few that don’t. There can be many reasons for this but for those that have this there is no point in argument or debate with them. It’s a waste of time. Not everyone has a political group meme affiliation. It is not known why people choose certain affiliations. There is some evidence it is genetic. Something about the way your brain is constructed could cause you to favor certain arguments or ways of thinking, leading you for instance to be favorable to the arguments of one set of ideas over another. It could also be that early childhood experiences affect deeply the way you think about different things.
If you do have a genetic predisposition to having a strong group meme affiliation then whatever genetic or early life experience that causes you to follow one group identity or another tends to become reinforced with time regardless of the arguments or problems.
It has been noticed for instance in the US that about 35% of people are solid Democrats and 35% are solid Republicans. They will always vote for the Democrat or Republican regardless of how bad the candidate is, how badly they present their case or their arguments. They may even say they are independent thinkers but in fact they always find some rationale to vote for the same group every election.
These people are undoubtedly important to their power bases and power brokers but they can also be dangerous because these are people for which nothing would change their mind and so they provide support for leaders who ultimately could be very bad.
The remaining 30% or so of people are truly independent meaning they have actually voted in one election or another for a candidate of a differing party. The party stalwarts will always deride these people. They look unprincipled, unintelligent. Sometimes these people actually have no interest in politics. Likely they have chosen an alternate group identification, possibly religious or even something like they identify themselves by profession or something like sexual identity. As a result they are malleable and will listen to arguments. They can be fickle. They may not understand the issues. They may not be as educated about things related to politics or economics. It is just not as interesting to them and they don’t associate their whole identity to one political group or another.
The entire democratic system depends on these 30% to make the crucial shift during the election to decide who will actually win the election.
It is possible that of the 100% of the electorate many change their affiliation and vote for the “best” candidate, but survey after survey shows it is not the case. 70% of the electorate is locked into a group identity on one side or another and ALWAYS vote that way.
Being truly independent, logical and not to have a strong group identity is hard and potentially dangerous. Not having a group to back you up means that when you are not able to support yourself or things go awry you may find yourself as the evil one, the outsider, the one who can be disposed of. Yet, we depend on science to be as “independent” as possible. Recent evidence is that even scientists suffer from a terrible problem with being truly objective.
Hegel described what he called “dialectic’s.” My description of this is similar to the group meme idea. A dialectic is a belief around a set of related ideas that one group feels is the correct way. Hegel predicted that even as one dialectic is defeated another dialectic will replace it. Before the era where humans had worldwide communication and travel was easy these dialectics frequently play themselves out in individual countries or regions.
As the 20th century unfolded and worldwide dialectics could be in play they came front and center. For many years the United States and Russia/China pushed a capitalist vs communist agenda. When communism collapsed what people didn’t anticipate was that something had to replace it. There is no such thing in the human condition where 100% of people will believe in one dominant dialectic. So, as one dialectic loses out something has to replace it. After the collapse of communism many didn’t realize (including myself) that one ancient dialectic, namely religion could rear its head.
Quietly while Communism and Capitalism, Democracy vs Dictatorship of the proletariat were fighting there was a re-emergence of a religious fanaticism and identity. These people were quietly building their base and when communism failed they started to really fight to gain prominence.
Humans seem to have a genetic need to divide into groups and for conflict. So, it is not just the need to be in a group but there is a need for me to be in a group that is fighting because it is right over the other group. People line up on either side. No matter how compelling the case for one side due to the ability of people to suppress cognitive dissonance, the group genetic predispositions and some need for conflict has driven human history with this constant warring. Is there a way to stop this? Biology and genetics suggest it can’t stop. The human animal short of genetic modification can’t be all convinced of one idea.
Many science fiction books predict a society in the future of extreme harmony of humans. Star Trek being notably one of the most successful. In the Star Trek meme or dialectic humans had found ways to eliminate all want and for people to put their free time to good use always being productive even though it was presumed that everything was provided for. Many episodes of Star Trek allude to this lack of materialism and socialistic underlying ideology.
I realize now that such an ideal is impossible. Humans will always need a way to compete, for some to gain advantage. This is not a belief in competition and this constant need for humans to be in conflict but I now see it as something inevitable, unassailable, part of our genetic code or possibly even more basic. Maybe this is not genetic but simply a reflection of reality.
I have noticed that regardless of how uniformly something is obviously “good” (Good art, good music, good food) there is always people who will disagree. There will always be resistance to any one “idea” about anything. The more the society tries to enforce this unassailable “idea” the more it will drive the contrary alternative dialectic. If that weaker dialectic fails then something else will emerge, possibly worse than the first dialectic.
It was my belief that given this human need for constant struggle and fighting that if this battling could be reserved to positive ends, i.e. if it could drive economics then this would be the best. People with different ideas, different group identities, could compete economically in different systems with different rules. I think we have to accept there will be this diversity no matter how we might individually believe one dialectic is right we can never have humans agreeing 100% on any idea.
So, it is best if we accept that and if there is a “second foundation” guiding human kind as in Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy series then it would be best for this “second foundation” to work to keep two dialectics that are relatively benign as the competing forces.
There is a good chance that the reason humans have gotten to where we have is due to this biological need for conflict. It will be very interesting when and if we create “artificial intelligence” if these AI’s will also have a need to fight or to have dialectic’s in competition? Will these AI’s have different conclusions from the data? How will they handle cognitive dissonance and how will they handle incomplete information?
In the book (I recommend highly) Hyperion Dan Simmons describes the origination of artificial intelligence and how factions in the AI’s fight and evolve. I believe Dan has it right.
Whatever your beliefs I ask you to consider these things when you think about what you believe, why you believe them and consider if other viewpoints possibly have some legitimacy. People are generally very arrogant and think they know far more than they do. They do this for fairly obvious self-survival reasons. To admit lack of knowledge or not being certain about something means bringing doubt to many people. Doubt is associated with failure.
In spite of our predispositions to ego, arrogance, conflict, cognitive dissonance we have gotten to where we are today. This last 100 – 150 years has shown a remarkable evolution of human civilization. However, we might project that the future will be dull and everyone will finally agree on everything as if scientifically we could decide these things.
What I’m saying is that it is impossible for humans to reach that uniform condition. That may doom us or it may be the spark that keeps us alive. I don’t know how these conflicts and what ideas will emerge but I do know that we have a lot of problems ahead. We are on the verge of many technological possibilities that have both huge benefits and huge potential abuse and danger (see this other blog if you want to see my musings on these things).