15 October 2007
Patterns and stories
I used to be a dues-paying member of the Skeptics' Society, which (IMHO) is made up of a lot of people who have really good and smart and helpful things to say, but who perhaps spend an inordinate amount of time being cynical and bitter. This sounds familiar - I think I know another group like this. Oh yeah - emerging Christians.
Anyway, when I was officially a skeptic, I bought and read an excellent book by the society's director, Michael Shermer. It's called How We Believe, and it explores the physiological, psychological, and sociological mechanisms behind religious belief and belief in other things that haven't been independently verified by the scientific method. One of the main things I remember from the book is that Shermer characterized human beings as "pattern-seeking animals". As we observe and interact with the world around us, we talking monkeys have a very deep need to make sense of the world in which we live. When we observe events or behaviors, we unconsciously and naturally try to discern order in those events - we seek to form a mental structure or pattern within which those observations fit. Once we've formed such a mental pattern, we naturally seek to fit future, similar observations into that framework. The pattern has become part of our apparatus for understanding and making sense of the world, and so we naturally seek to reinforce that pattern. It becomes easier for us to fit observations into our existing patterns than to modify our patterns to fit new observations, so we tend to err on the side of the former behavior.
In other words, scientific empiricism isn't really our natural mode. We like to think that as we observe the world and the behavior of our fellow humans, every new data point we take in contributes to our ever-changing understanding of the ways the world works and the story of our lives thus far. But very often this is far from the case, especially if we've developed a well-established mental pattern for understanding a particular situation, or a particular person. Very often, the question we unconsciously ask when someone we know acts in a particular way is not, "What does this behavior mean for my understanding of this person", but "How can I interpret this behavior in such a way that it harmonizes with my existing understanding of this person?" All too often, we more or less cease getting to know someone (or something) once a coherent pattern of understand for that person (or thing) has formed in our minds. This is, no doubt, a survival adaptation. It's great to keep an open mind about Groog, but eventually you really need to decide whether it's more likely that Groog has got your back, or that instead he's going to stab you in it with his flint knife - and act accordingly.
Here's the thing, though - sometimes we can really get way too attached to our patterns. You're familiar with the expression "story of my life." As in, "You drowned your cell phone AGAIN?" "Yep, story of my life." Well, sometimes the patterns we form really can become the story of our lives. Sometimes they can get so big and well-entrenched in our minds that they become the lens through which we interpret everything that happens to us. They can become the leitmotif that underlies every single chapter in the ongoing story of our lives (as told by ourselves, to ourselves).
I think this is probably inevitable. It certainly happens with our religious beliefs - or the equivalent. Whether we're Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, skeptics, Marxists or atheists, if we're serious about those thought-patterns, they'll color every interaction we have. This is the nature of such beliefs, and the nature of us humans. Same thing with other deeply-held beliefs: conservative? progressive? family values champion? green? feminist? pacifist? free-market capitalist? social justice activist? If you're committed enough to a pattern of beliefs for it to make a practical difference in your life, then you're committed enough to it to let it shape the story you tell about your life - and therefore to let it handicap your capacity for empirical observation. To let it close your mind, at least a little.
So I feel like I just used a crapload of words to state the obvious, and as my lovely wife reminded me just today, I have a real problem with GETTING TO THE DAMN POINT. Do I have a point? Yes, yes I do.
My point is this: we all have these patterns, and the best we can do, I think, is to be aware of them. Take a critical look at each of them, and ask, "Is this pattern generally contributing to the health and happiness of myself and those around me, or not? Is it just making me, and those I share my life with, miserable? Is it contributing to my ability to be a gift to other people, or is it only contributing to its own reinforcement?" Even if we judge a pattern generally worthy, we would do well to remain skeptical of it, as much as we can. George Box said, "All models are wrong; some models are useful," and as much as we love and need our patterns, I think the same goes for them, too. Even the useful ones are wrong. If we completely lose sight of that, then we're the proud creator of a newly minted graven image.
Turning it around, we may ask ourselves, "If I am unhappy, and I think it's because of an external pattern in my life - could it instead be an internal pattern? Is it possible that I've developed a relentless habit of fitting the events of my life into a mental framework that is not generative of the things that make life worth living?"
I know folks who seem to have got themselves in that kind of trap. I'm sure I do it too. And though I think there's probably no silver bullet for this kind of thing, I think the best hope we have is in friends who are loving and brave enough to help us question our patterns, even when we really, really don't want to. Because even if I spend a ton of time in self-reflection, I might never really question my patterns - even my destructive ones. They're the hills and valleys of my mental landscape. They're just there. They hide in plain sight.
So if you're my friend, and you've actually slogged through all of those words I just spewed into your poor, unsuspecting feed reader (I mean, you'd have to be my friend to have done that, right?) - then please, please, please, I beg you - help me to see and be critical of my patterns. I don't want to be stuck seeing the world - and the people in it - in calcified, distorted ways. Your caring honesty is my only real hope to avoid that fate. So, both in retrospect and in advance, I thank you for that honesty.