Decisions beyond compare

Decisions, decisions, decisions. We make them every day, and, for the most part, we make them rationally. Untrue, I fear. Most of our decisions – correct or otherwise – are arational.

 This is because our brains are very efficient at minimising their processing power by using a system of measuring difference. That is, we make our judgments by comparing new information with the information already stored – fallible information and patterns and stereotypes which have been built up by experience modified by our inherited characteristics. What we notice is change.

 This is easy to see at the biological level. We notice a moving object where we do not notice a static one. Watch the cat, who has needed to evolve this characteristic to a high degree. We screen out the ticking clock but we notice its chime. We pick up the smell of tobacco because it is now unusual: a generation ago we would have been scarcely aware because tobacco was so often the ambient smell.

This attention to change is evolutionarily valuable. Change warns us, and the animals, of threat or opportunity. Those who did not respond to it tended to have short lives, and so few progeny.

 Conversely, we are insulated against small changes, even if they add up to big change over a period of time. We may not notice small, but frequent, rises in bills but we do notice an infrequent substantial hike. We inveigh against growing political correctness, yet the range of remarks which we ourselves now think unacceptable has extended enormously.

 The changes in the Church have taken place over so many centuries and, with some exceptions, by such small steps that we are often unaware of how considerable they have been. For example, the meaning of the proposition that outside the Church there is no salvation has subtly changed over history. If a time machine could take us back to the Middle Ages we might be very shocked by much of the common teaching and general assumptions which were taken for granted.

 At the secular level we have, for instance, begun at last to realise that our personal freedom has been substantially reduced by a series of regulatory changes, each one small in itself but which, taken as a whole, have brought about a revolution in the relationship between government and citizen.

 Such comparisons are open to deliberate manipulation by the skilled persuader. He sets the starting point for the comparison. The story, so old that it has grey whiskers, is about the Jesuit and the Benedictine who sought permission to smoke while they said their offices. The Benedictine failed because he asked if he could smoke while be was praying: the Jesuit succeeded because he asked if he could pray while he was smoking. Same question but different comparison.

Once I had given them a little instruction, I asked a group of actuaries (clever people) how they would persuade their spouses not to object to them buying a fast motorbike. The best answer given was to proclaim an intention to take up motorcycle racing, and then to allow themselves to be talked into settling for a road bike.

Another way of setting the basis for comparison is through analogy and metaphor. These can of course lead us usefully towards the truth (many of Christ’s parables provide examples). But we need to be on our guard. Professor Dawkins’s presentation of belief in fairies as an equivalent to belief in God has appealed to so many that it has become a standing argument to defeat the credulous Christian. (Bertrand Russell used a flying teapot as his example.) Only a moment’s thought will show that we have no reason to believe in fairies or flying teapots while the existence of God is necessary as the only answer to fundamental questions of meaning. 

 In fact there is always hazard in speaking about God because we have no way of describing him other than through an extension of human knowledge. That is, by analogy – useful as far as it goes, but no further. It is only too easy to forget his reality lies outside human understanding.  As he says, through Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, my ways are not your ways.” 

So what is the best defence? For the most part we cannot avoid making our judgments through comparisons.  Otherwise we would have to devote all our time to analysis, and probably never reach a decision. But we do need to take stock from time to time. Are these small changes cumulative? Does each one provide a precedent for the next? What is the direction of change, and do we think it to be good?

 Beware the persuader who presents us with a basis for comparison. He has chosen it, so should we accept it?  You might try the exercise of noting how many comparisons are suggested to us in television advertisements. Or in any politician’s speech. Or, perhaps, in every Sunday homily. Look at the analogies and metaphors which others present. Are they really appropriate, and just how much do they really explain?

 To take a contemporary example, Cardinal O’Brien has compared aspects of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill to Nazi practices. To what extent are there, or are there not, relevant similarities in this case? Analysis may confirm or weaken his comparison.

 The pursuit of truth is an unending duty in every sphere of our lives. Being aware of the instinctive ways in which we make our decisions, and then raising our level of alertness to reduce the amount of bilge we are ready to swallow is a habit we should cultivate.

 Do contribute more examples of how arational decisions are made. I have only skimmed the surface. Perhaps you have some anecdotes.

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About Quentin

Science Editor, Catholic Herald. Portrait © Jacqueline Alma
This entry was posted in Catholic Herald columns, Moral judgment, Philosophy. Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Decisions beyond compare

  1. Trident says:

    Actually I do believe in flying teapots in space. Or at least flying handbags. Recent story about an American astronaut who dropped her handbag while working outside the spaceship. It’s presumably in orbit indefinitely now.
    Typical woman! Oh dear, that’s a stereotype.

  2. Brighton says:

    One issue Quentin doesn’t mention is how we are trapped by the need to be consistent. It must have been very difficult for Antony Flew, who was an atheist philosopher all his life, eventually to admit that he had come to believe God existed.
    It’s a continual problem with the Church which feels the need to be never seen to change. Things have been a little better recently – apology on Galilieo, admission that we promoted anti semitism etc. All far too late of course. As far as I can see no one thinks that the story of Adam and Eve was literally true, but I wonder how often that gets proclaimed from the pulpit.

  3. RBlaber says:

    The computer is the ideal rational ‘black-box’ decision-maker (to use system theory jargon). It operates according to an algorithmic flow diagram, where at each stage in the decision-making process it is confronted with an ‘If X then Y, if not X then Z’ choice. The choice of Y or Z leads on to the next box or stage in the flow diagram, until it reaches the end of the algorithm’s iteration.
    Some human decision-making can be modelled like that – the stages of CPR would be an example (‘Is the patient breathing? If not, check to see if there is a blockage in the airway…’, etc.). In general, the simpler and more mechanical the decision-making, the easier it is to fit into the rationalistic model.
    The logic involved is always unfuzzy and strictly Aristotelian – i.e., the Principle of the Excluded Third applies (If P then not not-P). It is interesting to note that, in a recent series of psychological tests comparing healthy students with volunteers with Asperger Syndrome (mildly autistic, with average or well above average IQ), the latter consistently demonstrated more rational decision-making than the former (see ‘Science Daily’, 15/10/2008).
    Many famous scientists, mathematicians and engineers have been, or are, mildly autistic – including Albert Einstein. Autists have a great many problems when it comes to social interaction and communication, and especially with things like understanding non-verbal communication.
    So – many of our decisions are non-rational, intuitive. Some are frankly irrational. Why do we insist on buying National Lottery tickets when we know the odds against winning are 13 million to 1? Why do we climb mountains, when climbing mountains is so dangerous? Why do we write poetry, or fall in love? I doubt Mr Spock, of ‘Star Trek’, would understand any of that – but all these things are very human things to do, and we would be less human if we didn’t do them.
    Btw, in answer to ‘Brighton’s’ comment, I know someone who believes in the literal truth of Adam and Eve, and who thinks that the Earth was created 6000 years ago. He also (God bless him) thinks that dinosaurs roamed the earth at the same time as the first human beings did, and that there was a literal Universal Flood and a literal Noah’s Ark! He belongs to a group calling itself the Northampton Creation Society, and they all hold the same views. Anyone who agrees with Charles Darwin is anathema and is thought likely to be destined for the flames of Hell – unless they repent, of course.
    There’s nowt so queer as folk, as they say in Yorkshire!

  4. Horace says:

    RBlaber’s analysis is perfectly correct until we come to “The logic involved is always unfuzzy and strictly Aristotelian – i.e., the Principle of the Excluded Third applies (If P then not not-P).”
    As an exS/L in AI I can’t let him get away with this! See, for example Lofti Zadeh who pioneered ‘fuzzy logic’.
    OK – so computers don’t climb mountains or fall in love (yet anyway) but is this really relevant to Quentin’s problem?

    Here is an alternative analogy:-
    I receive between one and two hundred SPAM emails a day. The vast majority of these are diverted to a ‘spam bucket’ by a program on my email service.
    This program is an example of what is known as ‘unsupervised learning’ and almost certainly uses some variant of Lofti’s fuzzy logic.
    My only input to it is to indicate whenever it either fails to stop one or more SPAM messages or erroneously places a valid message in the ‘spam bucket’.
    It has been working perfectly for several months until the last couple of weeks when it suddenly started letting certain SPAM messages through; curiously this coincided with a decrease in the total number of SPAM messages from nearly 200 to less than 100 – obviously either new spammers have replaced the old or the old ones have learnt new tricks!
    I simply have to tell it where it is going wrong and quite soon it will return to almost perfect performance.
    So with humans; we mostly rely on experience or teachers or both to tell us when we are going wrong.

  5. Iona says:

    A smattering of random thoughts on the above:

    Quentin said: Beware the persuader who presents us with a basis for comparison. He has chosen it, so should we accept it?

    I heard an example of just this on radio 4 a few days ago – came across it by accident and unfortunately can’t remember what the programme was. A scientist specialising in working with embryonic stem cells had been invited to speak to an Anglican congregation about why he wanted to use human/animal hybrid embryos in his research. He launched into this by presenting a comparison: either we harvest human eggs directly from women, which puts the poor young things through a lengthy and uncomfortable procedure, or we use cow eggs and insert a nucleus taken from any old human cell.

    Not one of his audience queried the comparison.

    Aspects of the HFE Bill and Nazi practices:

    While firmly of the opinion that life begins at conception, I am a bit dubious about comparing abortion to the Nazi attempts to exterminate Jews, gypsies, people with disabilities etc. Destruction of early embryos probably causes no pain to the embryo, and does not disrupt established families, groups of friends, colleagues etc. Killing of adults and already-born children was accompanied by physical pain, extreme and prolonged mental distress, distress and long-term damage to surviving relatives and friends, and disruption of whole communities.

    As for Trident’s comment: What on earth was that woman doing taking her handbag out of the spaceship with her? Was she afraid someone back on board might steal her money or credit cards if she left it behind? Did she think she might need to comb her hair or re-apply her make-up while out in space?

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