Saturday, 29 April 2017

Critical effort

As for me, I will believe in no belief that does not make itself manifest by outward signs. I will think no preaching sincere that is not recommended by the practice of the preacher.
Anthony Trollope - Barchester Towers (1857)

Many ideas seem to attract widespread belief because they demand little mental effort. We are not talking of beliefs such as a conviction that the sun will rise again tomorrow morning, but beliefs which are essentially stories, tales easily told and easily learned. We like stories, especially those which reduce mind-boggling complexities of the real world to easy formulae.

Belief as a story is something we see all the time, especially when believers argue with unbelievers. So often, belief versus unbelief is storyteller versus critic where the critic has most of the problems. Criticism requires mental effort while familiar stories are easily told and retold and retold again. Critics often retire early from the field of battle because belief conserves mental energy. Sustainable thinking anyone?

The principle of least energy applies throughout the natural world, including all those busy little neurons in our big brains. Human brains use a lot of energy so conserving it is inherently useful. Busy neurons might have enough energy to work out how greasy poles may be climbed, but not enough for anything socially constructive afterwards. There must be some definite advantage to being mentally busy, otherwise slouching off down a beaten path is too easy to resist.

Nobody has political convictions in the sense that they emerged from rational analysis. Nobody has ever had political convictions in that sense. Where’s the motive, the source of energy for the neurons? Apart from their entertainment value, political stories are not worth arguing over because they are so obviously intended to control human behaviour. Apolitical critics find themselves battling with low-energy political stories, easily told, easily repeated over and over again.

Political activists are like everyone else, they are intimately concerned with the here and now because that is what matters to all of us. Life is lived now, not tomorrow. Belief in political solutions to human ills are all about now, what is most comforting what is most suited to a personal history, social niche or career.

This is why so much political debate is driven by easy stories, by low-energy thinking. This is why complex issues seem to need far more mental effort than they ever receive. This is how vested interests poison debates.


Demetrius said...

Low energy thinking. These days I am strongly attracted to anything that requires low energy. I suspect many other people are of the same mind.

Sackerson said...

You'll know Frank Davis's "Idle Theory"?

Anonymous said...

Just another way of bossing people about. Now who will organise next week's mammoth hunting trip, oh that will be Ug I guess, he likes that sort of thing.

A K Haart said...

Demetrius - I'm attracted to it too. It's slightly worrying, but not energetically so.

Sackers - interesting link. It seems to be quite a widespread idea which appears in a number of guises and also seems to be supported by neuroscience.

Roger - being bossed about saves energy. Ug is energetic so he gets the job. I am not an Ug.