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Friday, February 17, 2006

Questioning the Conscious Mind

New Scientist has an interesting article questioning the reliability of our conscious decision making processes:
Complex decisions are best left to your unconscious mind... research suggests the conscious mind should be trusted only with simple decisions, such as selecting a brand of oven glove. Sleeping on a big decision, such as buying a car or house, is more likely to produce a result people remain happy with than consciously weighing up the pros and cons of the problem, the researchers say.

Thinking hard about a complex decision that rests on multiple factors appears to bamboozle the conscious mind so that people only consider a subset of information, which they weight inappropriately, resulting in an unsatisfactory choice. In contrast, the unconscious mind appears able to ponder over all the information and produce a decision that most people remain satisfied with.

The basic gist of the article is simple: for all our claims of objectivity, our rational decision making processes aren't actually all that, well, rational or objective. In other words, when humans try hard to make a rational, well informed decision that simply takes into account all the facts, they don't actually succeed very well.

This may be news to scientists, but Scripture's been saying this type of thing for ages. We are selective in determining which "facts" we favor. We are not neutral - we are actually biased in our own favor, so much so that even in our best efforts at rational objectivity, we still end up drawing conclusions that are influenced by our presuppositions and desires. When it comes to making decisions, we have a bad case of selective hearing combined with vested interests.

In practice, however, this lack of objectivity doesn't really hinder us all that much - after all, very few people actually chart a course of action or embrace a system of belief by trying objectively analyze all the data. We are much too lazy for that. Besides, we already know what we want the answer to be anyway. So most of us start at the other end - we have a "gut feeling" what we want the conclusion to be, and only as our premise is challenged to we try and "rationally" interpret the "facts" to support our decisions.

For most of us, the "illusion of objectivity" is all that matters. As long as it looks like I'm being objective, then I can justify my decisions to others. And for most of us, that's good enough. Think of it as massive codependency. You don't challenge my decisions, and I won't challenge yours. This system is "objective" as long as everyone agrees and no one rocks the boat.

The scientist who conducted this research were looking primarily at "ordinary" decisions - should I buy this brand or that? A minivan or a sports car? But what about really important matters - matters of ethics (what should I do)? or religion (what must I believe)?

If our conscious reason is unreliable for the simple things, how on earth can we trust it for weightier matters. If my mind can barely be selected to choose an oven mitt, what on earth leads me to believe I can reason my way to eternal things?

It sounds like what we really need is someone with a little better capacity and a lot less bias to tell us how to get there. We need someone who can see all the data clearly, someone who is fair and just and absolutely unbiased one way or the other. It sounds like what we really need is for God to come speak to us.

Hmm, I think Scripture has something to say about that too...


At 12:17 PM, February 17, 2006, Blogger Brian said...

Very interesting post Christian. Being someone somewhat fresh out of college, with a new job, new town to live in, new condo, new vehicle, etc., these ideas are really relevant to most of the last year of my life. But, I think I am willing to say that I would agree with your post in light of my recent experiences.

It seems like this would place even more importance on what and how our pastors preach to us. It also reminds me that we are to "seek first the Kingdom of God . . . and then all these things will be added unto you." Which fits, I believe, because if we are focused on God's Kingdom then we really have free reign to ask for whatever our heart desires, and probably without needing to put a whole lot of thought into it. It's just the constant focusing our heart on His Kingdom part that takes the most time and effort.


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