14 July 2010: Evolution of Thinking

The evolution of thinking

During a recent eye examination, I asked my ophthalmologist’s assistant about the normalcy of reading the chart more clearly using both eyes as compared with deciphering a line with one eye covered.

“Yes,” she replied. “That’s why God gave you two.”

“Hmm…,” I mused, “I’ve been wondering about that in terms of which we developed first: our ability to hear or to see.”

“I don’t understand.”

“In evolution — emphasizing the word — the debate whether primordial life became aware of its environment first by sound, so by hearing, or by light, so, therefore, sight.”

“I don’t believe in that,” she crisply commented.

“Oh,” I said, already knowing that and satisfied I made my point.

Chris Mooney of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences wrote in The Denver Post about the disconnect of many Americans from available scientific data when it comes to that which one would hope most of us would have a working knowledge of, such as the Earth’s curvature and revolution around the sun, as well as more controversial, hot political topics: climate change, vaccination and nuclear energy, each of which has descended to the fluoride-in-the-water, communist-conspiracy level. Mooney cites the Pew Research Center poll that shows a higher level education is not necessarily a barometer for measuring whether one accepts verifiable data.

“Republicans who are college graduates are considerably less likely to accept the scientific consensus on climate change,” but “among Democrats and independents, the relationship between education and beliefs about global warming is precisely the opposite.”

“In fact,” he continues, “more education probably makes a global-warming skeptic more persuasive and more adept at collecting information and generating arguments sympathetic to his or her point of view.”

The reason for that is it was not scholarship that was important to those erstwhile students, but argumentation, being able to argue a point despite it lacking empirical validity.

Education offers two outcomes: illumination or affirmation. In the latter case, it affirms a priori religious, political, social, economic and other philosophical constructs, the reason otherwise intelligent and well-intentioned people continue to hold onto the equivalent of Middle Age sorcery and superstition. But when he/she becomes illuminated, a consumer of new information, he/she alters held beliefs or conclusions, like a juror being convinced of a defendant’s guilt or innocence then changing her mind in the face new evidence. Tim Masters of Fort Collins was framed as a teenager for a brutal murder, but DNA testing has proved otherwise, and 20 years later — gone from his life — he’s a free man. DNA deniers, though, are outraged.

In The Quantum and the Lotus, Matthieu Ricard raises a classic Buddhist question: Does a particle possess its properties in the same way a farmer possesses a cow or in the way we possess our bodies?

“If the former is true,” he says, “then this would mean that the electron is distinct from its properties. If the latter is right, then the properties are part of the electron, because if we say that it possesses them, then this would mean we have two bodies, the one we are and the one we possess.”

Am I the “My” that owns my mind, heart, soul, and arm?

Whether one who professes religion states, “I am a Christian/Muslim/Jew,” or “I hold Christian/Islamic/Jewish beliefs,” is indicative of the likelihood of the professor’s attitude about change. The more one identifies closely with a condition or aspect makes it less likely he/she will be open to persuasion from it, because if one’s held tenets are fallible, then he/she must be as well; and like the pope, that won’t do. It would be a sign of weakness.

What does it mean then to change one’s perspective and, thus, opinion? Does it mean the person is changing or merely the person’s outlook? Are the person and his/her thoughts one and the same much like the person’s properties or are they distinct? If we are what we eat, are we also that which we think? What is meant when one says, “I’m not the same person I was 20 years ago”?

When one changes his/her food intake, he, for better or worse, changes physically and mentally. Eating Big Macs allows for short-term survival, but try running a 5k or 10k while on a regular diet of them, toting the resulting over-inflated spare tire. It’s the same with resorting to trite sound bites and misinformation, the junk food of debate. Bloated minds are unable to discourse at length or in depth. Whether one intakes readily available data and evidence or rejects them because they conflict with preconceived notions of truth says much of a person’s intellectual integrity and acumen. As Mooney concludes, “Their underlying rationale is very different.”

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