Thursday, March 09, 2006

Wide but shallow   posted by Razib @ 3/09/2006 11:33:00 AM

When I was in high school a friend of mine told me that my AP English essays had no substance, and I would reply, "Yeah, as wide & deep as the Platte river" (a common saying in regards to the Platte is "a mile wide and inch deep"). At my other blog I posted something titled The important things in life, where I reflect on the reality that even though in many ways evolutionary science isn't that important (compared to more proximally pragmatic areas, like materials science for example), it tends to suck up a lot of public oxygen, so you would think that people are passionate about this topic. But are they? The public knowledge of evolution on anything more than a superficial level, whether pro- or anti-, does not suggest a genuine deep interest in evolution, as compared to how fat Britney Spears is at the current moment in time.

One point I was trying to get across is that the beliefs people claim to hold can be more shallow than we might assume based on the ardor with which they express them, even in light of extreme or shocking actions they suggest are driven by them. This includes religious beliefs. Marxists have long reduced religious motivations toward material interpretations, so this sort of dismissal has an old history. Though shoehorning everything into a "materialist" or "class" paradigm is simplistic, the point is that even though an individual may sincerely offer one parameter as the sole causative component, there are likely other forces lurking underneath the surface. This can apply to politics, I have observed this with Christopher Hitchens. I assume that the religious conservatives with whom he is allied with now abhor is anti-religious zeal (in Free Inquiry Hitchens says: "I'm an atheist. I'm not neutral about religion, I'm hostile to it. I think it is a positively bad idea, not just a false one. And I mean not just organized religion, but religious belief itself"). But, coalitional politics matters, and all of a sudden there is a greater indulgence of Hitchens' reflexive anti-Catholicism in places like NRO.

Which brings me to a question, is there a word for something which people hold to be of great importance, but behavorial evidence over the long term indicates is not as important as one might claim in a particular point and time? ("we should judge people by what's on the inside") In other words, fanatically avowed beliefs which are nevertheless held in a shallow fashion so that they are brushed aside in the interests of expediency?

Addendum: By the way, what I'm talking about has a relationship to the Fundamental Attribution Error, though in the attribution isn't to a personality, but to the relationship between an idea and a set of behaviors.

Addendum II: I appreciate the responses so far, it has helped clarify some confusions in my own head. This post was in part a response to the issue that I've been having of late in that there are particular mental states which I conceive of which I don't have really good terms for. It might be that I haven't read enough cognitive science...and time permitting, I will remedy that situation soon.

But, what exactly am I talking about when I mean heartfelt feelings that are held fanatically but only superificially? I recall reading a chapter out of a memoir a few years back by an atheist in Pakistan. He recalls how as a young man he was a devout Muslim, and when partition occurred his father came to their home and explained that it was agreed that they were going to kill their neighbors. With his father he hunted the neighborhood Hindus and Sikhs, and he himself managed to killed an old man who had crawled into an alcove of his family's house.

Years later, in the 1950s, this individual read the Koran for himself, and when reading a section where God abrogates a set of commandments in the case of the prophet he had a "eureka!" moment and thought to himself, "Muhammad made this up in a self-serving fashion!" After this point he quickly fell into total unbelief. He explains that he began his memoir by recounting how he killed his Hindu neighbor because he wanted to show the warping effect that religion had, and that his remorse haunts him to this day though he is now well advanced in age.

But did Islam give him the power to kill his neighbor? Did Hindus and Sikhs far to the east also somehow coincidentally take succor from their religion to slaughter their Muslim neighbors? Did the God that all the believers accept as true just go insane and drive the faithful to madness?

Another story. Years ago in college I had a friend who was a sincere liberal from a long line of liberals. There was an international corporation which was considering building a factory in our region, and there were protests and concerns in regards to its environmental impact. My friend's girlfriend told me that he was so distraught and angry about the factor being built that my friend woke up in the middle of the night because of his worries. As it is, 2 years after this my friend was out of college and he had one year between graduation and grad school. He needed a job. Well, guess who was hiring? Why yes, my friend ended up getting a job at that factory that he found so distressing 2 years before. I would joke to him that he'd raise his kids so that they would go work for Exxon, but make sure to protest for 30 minutes before they went into the office.

In these situations they aren't "rationalizations" in the classic sense where I think people know they are making excuses or justifying their action. They sincerely belief, they sincerely feel, and they sincerely act (in the first case). From the outside it seems that everything is rock solid. After all, the man in the first story killed a neighbor because of a religious difference. Obviously his religion meant a lot to him! And yet he recounts 10 years later having a "eureka!" moment, and becoming a dissenting atheist in a country sliding toward fundamentalism. WTF? He killed someone for a religion, but that religion dissipates just like that? Obviously there were likely other things going on in his head back when he killed his neighbor, and likely there were things going on in his head before the eureka moment....