Useful fragile accidents

March 1, 2011 | By | 42 Replies More

I have long struggled to understand how it is that otherwise intelligent adults can make religious claims that make no sense at all. For instance, otherwise intelligent people will claim that Jesus walked on water, or that Mary had a baby even though she was a virgin. These claims have no factual basis. To my ears, these are ludicrous claims. How is it that the human intellect allows these things to be uttered? Well, perhaps the intellect barely tolerates this. The human intellect is a relatively weak Johnny-come-lately to our cognitive apparatus. What really drives our decision-making is a big elephant underneath a tiny lawyer. Each of us is a tiny lawyer riding a big elephant.

It turns out, however, that the elephant has almost irresistible power to reach up and invade the lawyer’s ability to articulate. It takes great training to resist the elephant and to maintain disciplined abstract self-critical thought.  When we speak words, then, it is rarely the lawyer in full command of the mouth. That elephant is smart in the sense that it was evolutionarily honed over many millions of years to allow us to survive; most of those years, we survived even though we were not even conscious. And that elephant is still powerful, compelling decision-making based upon millions of years of trial and error. And the intellect? We give it far too much credit, even though this is where humans can sometimes shine above and beyond the other animals. After all, other animals cannot calculate a 15% tip, and they cannot figure out how to invent medicines or discover DNA.

The abstract human higher intellect is quite impressive, but it is fragile-one big half by the elephant and the “pure” intellect dissipates. The fact that abstract thinking works at all is an accident. It was not purposely designed such that we could figure out algebraic equations or compose music we intend to share on YouTube.

What I’m proposing is an idea that it’s taken me years to fully get my head around. The fact that we can think abstractly, including our abilities to play chess and to make iPods, was not an endpoint for which evolution strove. We happened to get this ability to think abstractly in modest doses, but we shouldn’t make too much of this ability, because the elephant usually runs the show and the elephant repeatedly commandeers our use of words and symbols. You see, both the elephant and the lawyer struggle to make use of words and symbols, and the elephant usually wins. As David Hume argued, “Reason is and ought only to be the slave of the passions, and can never pretend to any other office than to serve and obey them.” [From A Treatise of Human Nature, (2nd Ed.), Book II, Part I, Section III (“Of the Influencing Motives of the Will”) (1739)].

Once I really, finally, understood that the evolutionarily-honed elephant is still very much in command, and that it still craves the conduct and habits that got us through the Pleistocene era (without the use of sophisticated language), this allowed me to see that bizarre religious utterances are words being spoken by elephants who crave the comfort of the groups and who quite often tremble at the use of self-critical thought.

Frederick Nietzsche clearly saw this dichotomy, and wrote about it in The Gay Science. The following selection is from an aphorism titled “Origin of Knowledge” (this passage is aphorism # 110, from Walter Kaufmann’s translation, dated 1974):

Over immense periods of time the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and helped to preserve the species: those who hit upon or inherited these had better luck in their struggle for themselves and their progeny. Such erroneous articles of faith, which were continually inherited, until they became almost part of the basic endowment of the species, included the following: that there are enduring things; that there are equal things; that there are things, substances, bodies; that a thing is what it appears to be; that our will is free; that what is good for me is also good in itself. It was only very late that such propositions were denied and doubted; it was only very late that truth emerged–as the weakest form of knowledge. It seemed that one was unable to live with it: our organism was prepared for the opposite; all its higher functions, sense perception and every kind of sensation worked with those basic errors which had been incorporated since time immemorial. Indeed, even in the realm of knowledge these propositions became the norms according to which “true” and “untrue” were determined–down to the most remote regions of logic.

Thus the strength of knowledge does not depend on its degree of truth but on its age, on the degree to which it has been incorporated, on its character as a condition of life. Where life and knowledge seemed to be at odds there was never any real fight, but denial and doubt were simply considered madness. Those exceptional thinkers, like the Eleatics, who nevertheless posited and clung to the opposites of the natural errors, believe that it was possible to live in accordance with these opposites: they invented the sage as the man who was unchangeable and impersonal, the man of the universality of intuition who was One

image by ecophoto at dreamstime (with permission)

and All at the same time, with a special capacity for his inverted knowledge: they had the faith that their knowledge was also the principal of life. But in order to claim all of this, they had to deceive themselves about their own state: they had to attribute to themselves, fictitiously, impersonality and changeless duration; they had to misapprehended nature of the knower; they had to deny the role of the impulses and knowledge; and quite generally they had to conceive of reason as a completely free and spontaneous activity. They shut their eyes to the fact that they, too, had arrived at their propositions through opposition to commonsense, or owing to a desire for tranquility, for sole possession, or for dominion. The subtler development of honesty and skepticism eventually made these people, too, impossible; their ways of living and judging were seen to be also dependent upon the primeval impulses and basic errors of all sentient existence.

This subtler honesty and skepticism came into being wherever two contradictory sentences appeared to be applicable to life because both were compatible with the basic errors, and it was therefore possible to argue about the higher or lower degree of utility for life; also wherever new propositions, though not useful for life, were also evidently not harmful to life: in such cases there was room for the expression of an intellectual play impulse, and honesty and skepticism were innocent and happy like all play. Gradually, the human brain became full of such judgments and convictions, and a ferment, struggle, and lust for power developed in this tangle. Not only utility and delight but every kind of impulse took sides in this fight about “truths.” The intellectual fight became an occupation, an attraction, a profession, a duty, something dignified – – and eventually knowledge and the striving for the true found their place as a need among other needs. Henceforth not only faith and conviction but also scrutiny, denial, mistrust and contradiction became a power; all “evil” instincts were subordinated to knowledge, employed in her service and acquired the splendor of what is permitted, honored, and useful – and eventually even the eye and innocence of the good.

Thus knowledge became a piece of life itself and hence a continually growing power – – until eventually knowledge collided with those primeval basic errors: two lives, two powers, both in the same human being. A thinker is now that being in whom the impulse for truth and those life-preserving errors clash for their first fight, after the impulse for truth has proved to be also a life-preserving power. Compared to the significance of this fight, everything else is a matter of indifference: the ultimate question about the conditions of life has been posed here, and we confront the first attempt to answer this question by experiment. To what extent can truth endure incorporation? That is the question; that is the experiment.


Category: Evolution, Psychology Cognition, Religion, Science, scientific method

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (42)

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  1. Karl says:


    Everyone has memories filled with how they believe others have personally responded to them. More often than not, these people are also responding to the memories of how they believe others personally responded to them in the past as well. It is a viscious cycle.

    These all stem back to historical events that specific people experienced. These people then saw a need to make sure others also knew how their involvment in some matter affected them personally as well. Divorce between your parents, estrangement between family members, or even frustrations between friends can all be examples of how cyclic memory formation influences what types of memories we pass onto others.

    Some still can't grasp the fact that when Cain slew Able that Cain could not see how much God continued to care for, and even protect him from others taking vengence. God didn't make Cain an outcast from specific people, that was either Cain's choice, or the choice of those other specific people.

    It seems all Cain cared about was his own memories from which he could not, or did not want to forgive himself, nor did he want to receive the forgivness of others.

    I didn't say directly that a person must always be careful not to say or do something that another person might not agree with, although this usually is a reasonable approach to life. There are times when one must speak what is on one's mind and do what is legally within their power to do. However if one is speaking and acting upon a cycle of painful memories one should really try to figure out what they should do about it.

    I consider an emotionally health persons to be one that will let offenses roll off their shoulders like water on a duck. They will not let offenses form a memory that prevents ongoing positive interactions from occurring.

    We all have done things that have made others sad – frankly, we even make ourselves sad. We do not have to equate these feelings in others or ourselves to a conclusion that others are angry or upset with us.

    I try to pin the anger upon the cycle of memory formation that we pass from one person to the other.

  2. Karl writes:—"Some still can’t grasp the fact that when Cain slew Able that Cain could not see how much God continued to care for, and even protect him from others taking vengence. God didn’t make Cain an outcast from specific people, that was either Cain’s choice, or the choice of those other specific people."

    Oh, so that mark Yahweh laid on him so everyone could identify him was "taking care" of Cain?

  3. Miles says:

    Factual realism and practical realism to me sound exactly like a technical, obscurantist renaming of justified beliefs and adaptive beliefs. D.S. Wilson is just trying to pass off an old idea as a new one here, and he's butchering language to do it.

    The distinction (and often the overlap) between justified beliefs and adaptive beliefs has been out there for a long time, and people would do well to remember it as it helps to make understandable philosophy of knowledge, skepticism, and the mind. I wish I didn't object to D.S. Wilson's terminology as I definitely consider skepticism and understanding to be worthy ends.

    On a related note, Karl is always commenting here, but his arguments and evidence on a whole host of issues are so consistently irrelevant word salad that I often wonder if he's trolling. I'm tired of fighting with myself whether to let something slide or waste an hour debating evolution or something when in all likelihood neither side mind will change their mind. I know Erich just said he dislikes "we're at an impasse" talk, but Karl is just one of those people, I think. Ban him and… yea, then he'll just start his own blog and reach even more people. Screw it, I dunno what to do with people like him. Drink maybe?

  4. Karl says:


    In your addendum you state that your "medicine" would help people to stop hallucinating and finally see "reality." You also state that people will then "be happy being different than most other folks."

    Isn't the purpose behind medicine to make people not be out outside of the norms of human statistics? Is this proposed medicine of yours shifting the norms of the people or are the norms of perception themselves being shifted? Either way, it seems you want to encourage people to seek after being happy knowing that they are not within the norms of human behvior.

  5. Karl says:


    Cains encounter with God was emotion filled to say the least. People can and do read into it all manner of things which were not there.

    14 "Behold, You have driven me this day from the face of the ground; and from Your face I will be hidden, and I will be a vagrant and a wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me."

    15 So the LORD said to him, "Therefore whoever kills Cain, vengeance will be taken on him sevenfold " And the LORD appointed a sign for Cain, so that no one finding him would slay him.

    It was not God's desire for Cain to be overcome with grief and fear to the point of death, nor God's purpose to have the rest of humanity hold a grudge.

    • Erich Vieth says:

      Thanks, Xtech, for the summary of experiments testing Festinger's principle: "Festinger predicted that when someone’s beliefs are challenged, they would try to raise support for those beliefs with paradoxical enthusiasm."

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