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Thanks for interesting article :) For me it nicely bridged On Intelligence and the book I'm currently reading--Influence.

I really enjoyed Hawkins' book (On Intelligence) as it managed to somehow describe a lot of things in one easily digesteable package.

For example according to Hawkins' theory the deck of cards trick would be explained by information flow coming from the upper layers of neocortex--where information is stored in more higher level--when the subject is observing the cards.

What your article really put me thinking is how the Cialdini's 'click'n'whirl' relates to Hawkins' neocortex theory. Maybe the relation is that the automatic reactions are build when same small bit of information is always realted to the same higher level information.

Like when you are walking on street you can spot your friend very far away even from the slightest bit of information. Some times this fails too, you though you saw someone you knew even if it was not.

Also my personal experience tells me that I tend to take these shortcuts more when I'm more emotional. Like sad or worried for example.

Do you think Popper, Kuhn and Feyerabend should be required reading (studying) for people who want to learn to be scientists/philosophers/theologists? I know Kuhn feels that this cognitive dissonance serves scientists well since most of them end up just doing the dirt work of filling out the details of some theory; I don't agree with Kuhn.

Intriguingly, physicists have somehow managed to hold on to two conflicting theories for almost a century now: Theory of Relativity and Quantum Mechanics. Can this phenomenom by adequately explained by Kuhn's theory of scientific revolutions?

Mikko: I find myself with little additional to offer, as I haven't read either of the books you mention. :) Thanks for sharing your viewpoint, though! I'll check out those two books - I'd like to stay abreast of current ideas in this field.

Suyi: I do believe philosophy of science should be an essential part of a scientist's education, yes. I'd like to see philosophy added to the curiculum in general: should we not teach future generations how to think clearly?

I don't think the presence of incompatible theories c.f. quantum mechanics and general relativity is inconsistent with Kuhn's model. One should not necessarily think of science as consisting of a single paradigm, but rather collections of paradigms. The paradigm of the "new synthesis" in evolutionary biology does not relate to either of the physics theories mentioned, for instance; it could be replaced with a different paradigm with no significant effect on theories of physics whatsoever.

This was Feyerabend's view too, that while we sometimes mistakenly think of science as a single body of knowledge, it is in fact a collection of disparate and often utterly unconnected models.

I tend to agree with you that Kuhn may have been a touch naive on this point, but if there was not something to act as a brake on the rate of change of ideas it might be difficult for science to make any useful progress at all! :)

Best wishes!

"Until we learn to effectively communicate with each other despite the massive variations in our respective belief systems there is little hope of serious social progress. And this communication will doubtless flounder unless we manage to keep our own cognitive dissonance on a tight leash."

some language analysis:
"doubtless" is a word hard to accept by any sceptic, even those inclined to accept your proposition.

"to keep on a tight leash" seems like a recommendation that may cause a lot of resistance in and by itself. libraries are shock full similar forms of an "ultimate appeal" - most (if not all) people will accept this recommendation only if they've already accepted the original premise i.e. they "believe in" the premise... People are suspicious of any such appeal that does not offers immediate personal benefits - a suspicion not entirely misguided...

So how do you put forward an ethical recommendation while avoiding this type of circularity?

The answer may be: you can't - at least not by using the way of teaching common to the western tradition of philosophy.

A philosopher that has spent most of his life smashing his head against this paradox that lies at the foundation of the ethical dilemma you hint at is Jürgen Habermas from Germany. He gives recommendations similar to yours but he avoids most of the neuro-psycho metaphors ("cognitive dissonance" is probably missing from his vocabulary, but i'm not sure 'bout that...).

Comparing your rationale with Habermas'may be quite useful to move forward by finding additional angles on this cirtical issue.

One more question: Do you discover cognitive dissonance just by yourself, in isolation, or du you need a partner with whom you communicate... as in the test you cite: how would any participant find out if there were no scientist to tell him?

And there must be mention of one of the most famous appealing examples of cognitive dissonance in literature: Lizzy Bennett once again.

"few people seem to appreciate that cognitive dissonance is not a rare event experienced only by those with strong religious beliefs, but rather a known flaw in the operating system of the human mind"

I don't think it should be called a flaw. As, Daniel Schacter says in The Seven Sins of Memory*, the 'seven sins' are the flip sides of the features that allow memory to work well as it does. Similarly, assuming that the human mind strives to be content, cognitive dissonance is a necessary byproduct of that operation i.e. until there's a preponderance of evidence against, the path of least resistance is adopted and contradictory evidence is ignored or rationalised as neatly as possible.



your recommendation on self-observation echoes an earlier proposal that did have some success:

"Dewey felt that Alexander taught him how to stop and think before acting. He said that his study of the Alexander Technique enabled him to hold a philosophical position calmly once he had taken it or to change it if new evidence appeared."

... and the various /meditational) practices aiming at "mindfulness" seem to be related too ...

There is also a long tradition which tries to alleviate the destructive effects of "cognitive dissonance" rather than trying to "avoid" or "control" it. It's called humour.

So I would propose the following recommendation as a starting point:

to observe your own cognitive dissonance carefully - with the help of friendly (but not necessarily totally likeminded!) people - and then try to laugh about yourself and your shortcomings,

try to laugh away and thus overcome the "intense emotional responses such as anger, fear or hostility" works a lot better than many contemporary rationalists may think ;-)

Many thanks for the feedback!

Gyan: a salient point, to be sure. Still, I feel that my philosophical agenda is not hurt by characterising it as a 'flaw' for the time being. Whilst I agree that such problems can be seen to result from beneficial functional properties, much of the human behaviour resulting strikes me as undesirable. This is why I choose to characterise it as a flaw, I suppose, and doing so (helpfully?) shifts the focus onto a common cause and away from assigning blame.

translucy: another explosion of ideas! :) Your criticisms strike me as valid, but as you observe yourself, perhaps we must indulge in such tricks if we are to assert a helpful opinion. It sounds like I should check out Jürgen Habermas - can you recommend a book? I'm considering 'The Future of Human Nature', but welcome your input!

(As you may have noticed, I'm moving towards ethics as my next philosophical port of call - I just had to put the metaphysics into perspective first, and there's a few issues still to resolve on this front.)

We keep coming back to Pride & Prejudice, don't we? :) Austen was a keen observer of human nature, which is perhaps why her novels have aged so well.

And I am in hearty agreement of the value of humour in alleviating cognitive dissonance! :) (And for that matter the value of meditation/mindfulness training for the same). They have certainly worked wonders in my own life.

Take care!


"such tricks" are valid tools if one realizes their "performative", "aesthetic" or simply "game-like" dimension, but that goes far beyond what western tradition has been dwelling on for so long.

Habermas in my view is best understood as someone who tries to find an answer to the "german catastrophy" between 1933 - 45, including the shocking inability or even unwillingness "to realize what is going on around you".

So my starting point would be his discussions of some of the thinkers he tried to answer to, from Heidegger to Arendt in
"Philosophical-Political Profiles" - basically a blog in the form of a book :)

His observations on the practical conditions under which "such tricks" may or may not work on a global scale are widely known under the headline "theory of communicative action" - but his style is famously cryptic, so most of the introductions (e.g. on the web) may be good enough, just try out 2 or 3 and look for the inconsistencies ;)

In order to grasp the ethical dimensions of his attempt to found some form of practical or even pragmatist's rational, deliberative practice of discourse and "ethics after Auschwitz" (which is distinct from over-simplifying utilitarian or "scientific" pragmatics) it is important to understand how he tries to find extensions to Arendt's observations on totalitarianism.

So an introduction (e.g. On Violence) to Arendt's thoughts on power, violence and the communicative dimension of action may help you a lot in accessing Habermas' ethical recommendations. A lot of people in Germany really discuss Heidegger-Arendt-Habermas as a package, with Habermas and his disciples (like A. Honneth) being those who finally brought the analytical-linguistic tradition into the picture.

Habermas' thoughts on bioethics are of course also concerned with the possibility of bio-totalitarianism (which is feared deeply in Germany), and a suspicion towards the current bio-tech-optimism, led by industry rather than democratic institutions ... i can't really tell if that's a good starting point or not.

It's funny that you should mention Arendt; her book 'The Human Condition' is currently at the top of my reading list (it was recommended to me by Anne Galloway); I expect to be ordering it later this week. Should I consider getting 'On Violence' as well, do you think?


my reading of "on violence" is as a more politically focused treatment of the chapter on "action" from "human condition" and some thoughts from "Origins of totalitarianism", therefore "human condition" should be fine if you want to dive right into the whole "Arendt cosmos" rather than focus on practical/political aspects of ethics and moral.

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