Saturday, June 08, 2013

Mind-Monkey in the Middle

Galen Guengerich:

I describe myself as speaking for the majority in the middle: People between the atheists on the one hand and the fundamentalists on the other—people who value individual freedom when it comes to what we believe and how we live, yet reject the traditional views of God, scripture, the creeds, and all that. But I’m not convinced that individuals are the be-all and end-all, either, or that transcendence plays no role in life, as the atheists insist.

I think what we’re trying to do, what I’m trying to do, is speak for that group of people—not just Unitarian Universalists, but people from all points along the religious/non-religious spectrum who are trying to figure out how to balance what is rightly individual in our lives and in our culture with what is necessarily a communal undertaking. I think both ends of the spectrum err in one way or the other: the atheists by being radically individualist and spiritually isolationist; the fundamentalists by being radically collective and leaving no real room for individual belief. It’s a hard balance to find.

In the not-too-distant past, I might have made a predictable snarky remark along the lines of the classic XKCD panel. But honestly, I don't even care all that much about the ostensible subjects here of religion vs. atheism, individuality vs. collectivism. Now, when I read things like this, I'm interested in the cognitive bias which seems far more fundamental of an issue — namely, the Goldilocks tendency to place oneself directly in the reasonable, moderate center of an issue, beset by extremists on either side. I'd be willing to bet most atheists and fundamentalists would fail to recognize themselves in this characterization. They all likely see themselves as maintaining a healthy balance between self and community, with perfectly logical reasons for drawing the lines where they do. It's only those crazy people over there who have it all wrong, obviously. Name any issue, and you'll find the same dynamics.

One of the first things we heard in philosophy class was Socrates' assertion that people are incapable of choosing what they truly believe to be the wrong choice. Ferzample, even if you perform horrible, depraved actions with a gun to your head, it's because you feel that the greater good of preserving your life at any cost takes precedence over violating ethical standards you would otherwise uphold. Along those lines, I wonder if it's possible for most people to view themselves as societal outliers, as exceptions to the norm, without suffering either depression or delusions of grandeur as a result. Psychologically, we seem to need to envision ourselves at the median of whichever social context we find ourselves in.