April 07, 2005

Cognitive Dissonance

I was once told, in a tone of contempt, that observant Jews who live in the "modern world" live with cognitive dissonance: How can they believe those "Bible stories" and also believe evolution, geology, astronomy?

Well, as I have said before, Judaism is not too particular about how you believe the "Bible stories"-  though, most would say that you do have to believe them. Here are some of the most common answers:

1. Don't answer. Most people don't feel the need to answer this question.

2. Believe them literally. In other words, disbelieve the answers that science gives to evolution, geology, astronomy.

3. Believe them allegorically. In other words, the stories have a deep meaning, and are not meant to be taken literally.

4. Reconcile them. In other words, the Bible stories aren't really in conflict with science, if you understand them correctly.

None of these are my answer. Instead, I embrace cognitive dissonance. You see, there are two kinds of thought: rational and associative, and I see no particular reason why they both have to give the same answers in order for both of them to be true. Rational is: X implies Y. Associative is: X reminds me of Y. Science uses rational thought to establish its truth, and it is a very powerful method, for if we can prove X, or choose to accept it axiomatically, then we can know with surety that Y is also true. But associative thought is also powerful. It it the result of the workings of billions of neurons, and it is where those hypothetical Y's come from, which we prove by X. It is also the reason that we appreciate art, recognize our friends, and love our spouses. It is also, in my opinion, the way to understand the Bible. The truth of the Bible is literal, but not in describing the external world. Instead, it describes our inner world, the world of a hundred billion neurons.

Posted by David Boxenhorn at April 7, 2005 09:33 PM
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A couple of years ago I was asked to sit on a panel with a topic of "Orthodox Jews in Academia". The other three panelists were Israelis on sabbatical in the US. They were in all in the humanities, I was the token non-Israeli scientist. The common theme was exactly a kind of congnitive disconnect. At some level, the observant Jew seems to have to partition off some of his Torah learning and outlook in order to be able to function within academia.

P.S. Thanks for the link. I've reciprocated in my newly established blogroll.

Posted by: The Observer at April 7, 2005 10:20 PM Permalink

I understand that a set of associations between key ethical ideas and the stories in a holy text could be useful. It's a way of organising those ideas in memory, facilitating conversations with those who do likewise, and transmitting the ideas to the next generation.

But how is it a separate kind of thought? Yes, a trial theory Y is usually generated by analogy with existing knowledge but to qualify as thought there additionally has to be a testing phase. This is the part where one tries to render what the world looks like if Y is actually true.

If there is no logical connection between the holy text and the ideas (which is my position as an atheist), then the intricate map of associations is going to be somewhat arbitrary. This suggests that the trial Y’s are no more likely to be fruitful than random fragments of movies, books, conversations, math, etc (which pop into my head as new problems arise).

It's true that the way our knowledge is structured is important in generating new ideas, or impeding their generation.

Perhaps pigeonholing one’s philosophical theories within a lengthy and complicated text can be understood not only as a sort of metaphysical tattoo (identifying membership of the collective), but also as a brake on change -- a safeguard which helps to conserve important traditions.

A great deal of spaghetti has to be untangled before any morally significant memetic mutation can get established.

Embracing cognitive dissonance doesn't seem like a sound policy, but rather a form of self-coercion, and rather painful! I don't want to live my life through gritted teeth.

Posted by: Tom at April 8, 2005 02:58 AM Permalink

Cognitive dissonance, yeah! Is that anything like the ATQ (I just invented that one)? The ATQ is the Ambiguity Tolerance Quotient. A would think with a low ATQ sees the world in a polarized way - good/bad, white/black, yes/no, etc., and someone with a high ATQ could, like you, spend more time investigating and wondering about ambiguity and cognitive dissonance. The modern world just gets more and more complicated, don't it?

Posted by: savtadotty at April 8, 2005 09:36 AM Permalink

Savtadotty: I think you are right. The bottom line is not that it "makes sense" in a rational way, but that it works as a way of life.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at April 8, 2005 10:22 AM Permalink

Observer: What's your answer? If you answer on your blog, I'll link to it.

Posted by: David Boxenhorn at April 8, 2005 12:36 PM Permalink

Wow impressive post and great blog! I added you to my blogroll please visit my site. Toda, JP

Posted by: HasidicG at April 9, 2005 01:06 AM Permalink

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