The Better Letter: Prone to Wander
Human nature, truth, and trust
Larkin Poe is an amazing Roots Rock ‘n’ Roll band led by sisters Rebecca and Megan Lovell. Because this week’s TBL relies upon “John the Revelator,” here is Rebecca singing a cover of the classic song with that title and subject by Blind Willie Johnson, the long-dead blues great from rural Texas, where the official state nickname doubles as its Yelp rating.
Johnson’s “Jesus Is Coming Soon” was explicitly about the great 1918 “Spanish flu” pandemic that killed up to five percent of the world’s population. “Great disease was mighty and the people were sick everywhere,” Johnson sang. “It was an epidemic, it floated through the air.”
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David French’s excellent Sunday column about the “incredibly powerful pull of tribe over truth” served as the jumping-off point for the main argument of TBL this week.
Thanks for stopping by. And happy May Day.
Prone to Wander
“Human action can be modified to some extent, but human nature cannot be changed.” (Abraham Lincoln)
My foundational text today comes from chapter six of the last book of the Bible, The Revelation of John, wherein John sees the Lamb open the seven seals. It reads as if the apostle’s visions were drug-induced. The four horsemen of the apocalypse he describes therein were pestilence, war, famine, and death.
In the ancient world, those tribulations were largely external threats visited upon their victims. They are still around, obviously, but humans have significantly mitigated their impact thanks to cultural and scientific advances, as Steven Pinker (among others) has chronicled.
Pinker trots out powerful statistics for the proposition that everything is altogether amazing: people are living longer, healthier, and less crime-ridden lives, all due to solutions provided by the Enlightenment ideals of reason and science. His world glimmers and glistens, but it is hardly a complete picture.
Unquestionably, we live longer and better than the ancients. But we aren’t any better than they were.
The four horsemen of the modern apocalypse are human failings: confirmation bias, overconfidence, tribalism, and bias blindness. These traits fester within and remain a threat because, as science and theology agree, human nature remains as it ever was.
We humans disappoint because we are so frequently less than we think.
We are shockingly susceptible to bad ideas, ideas that grow into poor decisions and then metastasize into behaviors that undermine, damage, or even ruin our lives. Even when we think we’re on the straight and narrow path to success, we are prone to wander.
The Christian tradition is adamant in its rejection of human perfectibility. “There is no one righteous, not even one.” Within Reformed theology, Calvin, following Augustine, saw the problem in terms of our total depravity. It isn’t that we are totally bad or unable to do good, but that all of us (communally) and all of us (every part) is tainted by sin. We are radically corrupted. The Bible says the problem is our “fleshly” nature, our sinful self-interest.
Generally speaking, we cannot apply empiricism to theological issues. But anybody with the most basic understanding of history recognizes the reality of sin, whether we label it that or not. And anybody with even an ounce of self-awareness recognizes the “heart is deceitful above all things.”
The existence and power of sin are easy to demonstrate.
Because Pinker is so anxious to spackle over the ugly and broken, he marginalizes the evil and injustice that remain, most importantly in the hearts and minds of people. Pinker needs a good dose of Flannery O’Connor, for whom evil is ever-present and stares back at you from the mirror. Or he should spend an hour on Twitter.
We tend to miss a key point of every horror story, and the human story: We always offer evil an invitation to the party.
Pinker’s recitation of the progress mankind has achieved neglects the most fundamental human problem. Human nature – a complex amalgam of the base and the heroic, the compassionate and the brutal, the brilliant and the imbecilic – remains static across human history. “The worst in our nature coexists with the best, and so it will ever be,” explained sociobiologist E.O. Wilson. As Wilson said, “The real problem of humanity is … we have paleolithic emotions; medieval institutions; and god-like technology.”
Pinker is also correct to assert that science is the best tool we have for mitigating the shortcomings of our wetware. Indeed, science is specifically designed for that purpose and the scientific method is the only system with a decent track record for doing so.
However, as Yale’s Dan Kahan explains, “What people ‘believe’ … doesn’t reflect what they know. It expresses who they are.” That’s true for all of us, even scientists. Stephen J. Gould: “[This is] the most important message taught by the history of science: the subtle and inevitable hold that theory exerts upon data and observation. Reality does not speak to us objectively, and no scientist can be free from constraints of psyche and society.”
We have an enormous truth problem in the modern world. As Harper Lee reminded in To Kill a Mockingbird: “People generally see what they look for, and hear what they listen for.”
“A man with a conviction is a hard man to change. Tell him you disagree and he turns away. Show him facts or figures and he questions your sources. Appeal to logic and he fails to see your point.” So proclaimed the celebrated Stanford psychologist Leon Festinger, in a passage that sounds up-to-the-minute relevant yet was written in 1956.
The Doobie Brothers got it.
But what a fool believes, he sees | No wise man has the power to reason away | What seems to be | Is always better than nothing | Than nothing at all
In their book, The Enigma of Reason, cognitive scientists Hugo Mercier and Dan Sperber make the case that humans’ biggest inherent advantage is the ability to cooperate. Accordingly, reason developed not to ascertain truth, but to help us work collaboratively. “Reason is an adaptation to the hypersocial niche humans have evolved for themselves.” Within one’s tribe, there is little advantage to reasoning clearly, especially when reason suggests that the group is somehow in error.
The globalization of modern life guarantees that there will be many (sometimes overlapping) tribes vying for prominence in this way. The digitalization of modern life guarantees that these tribes will have inexhaustible resources to do so.
Deciding for ourselves is thus dangerous business indeed. Information may be cheap in that we carry around all of the world’s knowledge in little pocket-machines, but it is information that doesn’t become something more – it is primarily weaponized for tribal conflict – making meaning expensive and elusive. With the amplification provided by social media, information has been increasingly decentralized, and many more competing narratives have emerged. For example, Pew Research found that 80 percent of 2016 Clinton voters and 81 percent of 2016 Trump voters believed the two sides were unable to agree on basic facts.
The behavior Republicans found disqualifying in Bill Clinton was deemed irrelevant in Donald Trump. The evidential standards applied by Democrats to contest the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court are not and will not be applied to Joe Biden.
And vice versa.
When we see evidence that supports our views or tribe, we figure out a way it can be true and make it part of our case. When we see evidence that might damage our views or tribe, we ask if it must be true and start chipping away at it in order to keep the faith. Most dangerous of all is the unfortunate and shocking reality that the smarter we are, the more we deflect and defend. That’s because smart people are clever enough – especially with all the data available online – to create arguments or scenarios whereby we don’t have to change their minds.
Truth isn’t the point.
Most of the internet is fake, after all, in one way or another, and so are the metrics that measure and monitor it and many of the “people” and the businesses who populate it. Deception is kind of the point (who is the gut doctor and what vegetable does he want us to throw out?).
I keep getting asked online to prove I’m real, but miss some of the crosswalks all too often. Only the ads and the money are real (cryptocurrencies excepted) which, again and of course, is the point.
Conversely, real-live people are posting what looks like sponsored content, but isn’t, to attract attention from brand reps, who, they hope, will end up paying them real money.
And, of course, who on social media isn’t fake to some significant degree, portraying a better life than they have? “I have come to believe that this is what almost all of our culture is about now: working the refs. Trying to get the refs, whoever the refs might be in any given instance, to make calls in our favor — to rule against our enemies and for us, and therefore justify us before the whole world.”
The great casualty of the internet (and modern life) may not be truth, but trust.
Accordingly, the common-sense idea that the best approach to persuade people is through evidence and argument is highly suspect. Indeed, such attempts can trigger a “backfire effect,” such that those we are trying to influence may hold their erroneous views more tenaciously than ever.
As always, and as the Christian tradition would have it, we should focus first on ourselves, our personal errors, and our personal conduct (our sin). Here is my modest proposal. Take a few minutes to consider when was the last time you changed your mind on anything significant in your life. If you have examples, consider what might have motivated your decision other than reason (A job? A date? The will to win?). And, when considering some specific issue or problem, ask yourself what would it take for you to change your mind about it.
That sort of wandering is a very good thing.
Totally Worth It
Last week, stage performers from London’s darkened West End dropped a beautiful, aching, heartbreaking performance of a World War II classic, “We’ll Meet Again.” Actress Dame Vera Lynn, who participates in the new video (at age 103!), famously recorded it in 1942, when London was largely reduced to rubble under the constant assault of the German Luftwaffe.
Eighty seconds of three-year-old Eli might just be the brightener you need today.
Even though we are “prone to wander,” Christians are confident that, no matter how isolated we are or distant we feel, nothing can separate us from the love of God. The line comes from the lovely 18th Century hymn, Come Thou Fount, performed in the video below by the Franklin, Tennessee duo called All Sons & Daughters, who “give ear to the songs and hymns of ages past.” They provide this week’s benediction.
Contact me via rpseawright [at] gmail [dot] com or on Twitter (@rpseawright). Don’t forget to subscribe and share. Thanks for reading.
Issue 11 (May 1, 2020)