A Talk at the Rock: How to Instantly Polarize a Crowd and End a Discussion

AreopaguslImage from Wikipedia

The Areopagus is a large rock outcropping in Athens, not far from the Acropolis, where in ancient times various legal, economic, and religious issues got a hearing. A Bible story about something that happened there two thousand years ago provides surprising insight on today’s hyper-polarized world.

Backstory:  A Dualistic Worldview

In the 17th Century, Frenchman René Descartes sorted reality into two categories: (1) the natural, physical world and (2) the unseen world of ideas, feelings, and beliefs. This duality was born of the times:

“Toward the end of the Renaissance period, a radical epistemological and metaphysical shift overcame the Western psyche. The advances of Nicolaus Copernicus, Galileo Galilei and Francis Bacon posed a serious problem for Christian dogma and its dominion over the natural world.

“In the 17th century, René Descartes’s dualism of matter and mind was an ingenious solution to the problem this created. ‘The ideas’ that had hitherto been understood as inhering in nature as ‘God’s thoughts’ were rescued from the advancing army of empirical science and withdrawn into the safety of a separate domain, ‘the mind’.

“On the one hand, this maintained a dimension proper to God, and on the other, served to ‘make the intellectual world safe for Copernicus and Galileo’, as the American philosopher Richard Rorty put it in Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature (1979).

“In one fell swoop, God’s substance-divinity was protected, while empirical science was given reign over nature-as-mechanism – something ungodly and therefore free game.”[1]

Descartes articulated this dualistic framework, but it had been around from prehistoric antiquity. It still persists today, and neurological research suggests the human brain comes pre-wired for it. This is from Psychology Today[2]:

“Recent research suggests that our brains may be pre-wired for dichotomized thinking. That’s a fancy name for thinking and perceiving in terms of two – and only two – opposing possibilities.

“Neurologists explored the activity of certain key regions of the human forebrain – the frontal lobe – trying to understand how the brain switches between tasks. Scientists generally accept the idea that the brain can only consciously manage one task at a time….

“However, some researchers are now suggesting that our brains can keep tabs on two tasks at a time, by sending each one to a different side of the brain. Apparently, we toggle back and forth, with one task being primary and the other on standby.

“Add a third task, however, and one of the others has to drop off the to-do list. Scans of brain activity during this task switching have led to the hypothesis that the brain actually likes handling things in pairs. Indeed, the brain itself is subdivided into two distinct half-brains, or hemispheres.

“Some researchers are now extending this reasoning to suggest that the brain has a built-in tendency, when confronted by complex propositions, to selfishly reduce the set of choices to just two.

“The popular vocabulary routinely signals this dichotomizing mental habit: ‘Are you with us, or against us?’ ‘If you’re not part of the solution, you’re part of the problem.’

“These research findings might help explain how and why the public discourse of our culture has become so polarized and rancorous, and how we might be able to replace it with a more intelligent conversation.

“One of our popular clichés is ‘Well, there are two sides to every story.’ Why only two? Maybe the less sophisticated and less rational members of our society are caught up in duplex thinking, because the combination of a polarized brain and unexamined emotional reflexes keep them there.”

“Less sophisticating and less rational” … the author’s ideological bias is showing, but the “unexamined emotional reflexes” finger points at both ends of the polarized spectrum. And because our brains love status quo and resist change, we hunker down on our assumptions and biases. True, the balance can shift more gradually, over time – the way objectivity ascended during the 18th Century’s Age of Enlightenment, but Romanticism pushed back in the 19th — but usually it takes something drastic like disruptive innovation, tragedy, violence, etc. to knock us off our equilibrium. Absent that, we’re usually not up for the examination required to separate what we objectively know from what we subjectively believe — it’s all just reality, and as long as it’s working, we’re good. If we’re forced to examine and adjust, we’ll most likely take our cues from our cultural context:

“Each of us conducts our lives according to a set of assumptions about how things work: how our society functions, its relationship with the natural world, what’s valuable, and what’s possible. This is our worldview, which often remains unquestioned and unstated but is deeply felt and underlies many of the choices we make in our lives. We form our worldview implicitly as we grow up, from our family, friends, and culture, and, once it’s set, we’re barely aware of it unless we’re presented with a different worldview for comparison. The unconscious origin of our worldview makes it quite inflexible.

“There is [a] potent force shaping the particular patterns we perceive around us. It’s what anthropologists call culture. Just as language shapes the perception of an infant as she listens to the patterns of sounds around her, so the mythic patterns of thought informing the culture a child is born into will literally shape how that child constructs meaning in the world. Every culture holds its own worldview: a complex and comprehensive model of how the universe works and how to act within it. This network of beliefs and values determines the way in which each child in that culture makes sense of the universe.”[3]

Culture has been sculpting the human brain ever since our earliest ancestors began living complex social lives millions of years ago. It’s only when the cultural balance runs off the rails that our brains scramble to reset, and we’re stressed while they’re at it. We would do well not to wait until then, and learn how to embrace both ends of the dualistic spectrum, argues one computational biologist[4]:

“Neuroscience was part of the dinner conversation in my family, often a prerequisite for truth. Want to talk about art? Not without neuroscience. Interested in justice? You can’t judge someone’s sanity without parsing scans of the brain. But though science helps us refine our thinking, we’re hindered by its limits: outside of mathematics, after all, no view of reality can achieve absolute certainty. Progress creates the illusion that we are moving toward deeper knowledge when, in fact, imperfect theories constantly lead us astray.

“The conflict is relevant in this age of anti-science, with far-Right activists questioning climate change, evolution and other current finds. In his book Enlightenment Now (2018), Steven Pinker describes a second assault on science from within mainstream scholarship and the arts. But is that really bad? Nineteenth-century Romanticism was the first movement to take on the Enlightenment – and we still see its effects in such areas as environmentalism, asceticism and the ethical exercise of conscience.

“In our new era of Enlightenment, we need Romanticism again. In his speech ‘Politics and Conscience’ (1984), the Czech dissident Václav Havel, discussing factories and smokestacks on the horizon, explained just why: ‘People thought they could explain and conquer nature – yet … they destroyed it and disinherited themselves from it.’ Havel was not against industry, he was just for labour relations and protection of the environment.

“The issues persist. From use of GMO seeds and aquaculture to assert control over the food chain to military strategies for gene-engineering bioweapons, power is asserted though patents and financial control over basic aspects of life. The French philosopher Michel Foucault in The Will to Knowledge (1976) referred to such advancements as ‘techniques for achieving the subjugation of bodies and the control of populations’. With winners and losers in the new arena, it only makes sense that some folks are going to push back.

“We are now on the verge of a new revolution in control over life through the gene-editing tool Crispr-Cas9, which has given us the ability to tinker with the colour of butterfly wings and alter the heritable genetic code of humans. In this uncharted territory, where ethical issues are rife, we can get blindsided by sinking too much of our faith into science, and losing our sense of humanity or belief in human rights.

“Science should inform values such as vaccine and climate policy, but it must not determine all values…. With science becoming a brutal game of market forces and patent controls, the skeptics and Romantics among us must weigh in, and we already are.”

That’s probably good advice, but we need to push through a lot of cultural status quo to get there. That’s especially true because the 20th Century brought us change at ever-accelerating rates — objective reality went spinning away and we crashed into the extreme belief end of the spectrum:

“Each of us is on a spectrum somewhere between the poles of rational and irrational. We all have hunches we can’t prove and superstitions that make no sense. What’s problematic is going overboard — letting the subjective entirely override the objective; thinking and acting as if opinions and feelings are just as true as facts.

“The American experiment, the original embodiment of the great Enlightenment idea of intellectual freedom, whereby every individual is welcome to believe anything she wishes, has metastasized out of control. In America nowadays, those more exciting parts of the Enlightenment idea have swamped the sober, rational, empirical parts.

“Little by little for centuries, then more and more and faster and faster during the past half century, we Americans have given ourselves over to all kinds of magical thinking, anything-goes relativism, and belief in fanciful explanation—small and large fantasies that console or thrill or terrify us. And most of us haven’t realized how far-reaching our strange new normal has become.”[5]

When we can agree that our conflict is a matter of my data vs. yours, we can debate rationally. But when it’s my beliefs vs. yours, what used to be discourse dissolves into stonewalling and shouting. Belief seeks its own perfection by eliminating doubt, and therefore devolves into fundamentalism, where discussion is a sign of doubt, punishable as heresy. Fundamentalism can be secular or religious – it’s the dynamic, not the content, that matters

“Fundamentalism is a mind-set. The iconography and language it employs can be either religious or secular or both, but because it dismisses all alternative viewpoints as inferior and unworthy of consideration it is anti-thought. This is part of its attraction. It fills a human desire for self-importance, for hope and the dream of finally attaining paradise. It creates a binary world of absolutes, of good and evil. It provides a comforting emotional certitude. It is used to elevate our cultural, social, and economic systems above others. It is used to justify imperial hubris, war, intolerance and repression as a regrettable necessity in the march of human progress. The fundamentalist murders, plunders and subjugates in the name of humankind’s most exalted ideals. Those who oppose the fundamentalists are dismissed as savages, condemned as lesser breeds of human beings, miscreants led astray by Satan or on the wrong side of Western civilization. The nation is endowed with power and military prowess, fundamentalists argue, because God or our higher form of civilization makes us superior. It is our right to dominate and rule. The core belief systems of these secular and religious antagonists are identical. They are utopian. They will lead us out of the wilderness to the land of milk and honey.”[6]

Fundamentalism is where the open mind goes into lockdown. Objectivity loses its grip and the question “Are you with us, or against us?” gives way to its declarative version, “If you’re not with us, you’re against us.”[7] Dualistic thinking ceases to be more than a source of “popular clichés,” and becomes instead a rigid disincentive to public discourse, as competing polarized beliefs dig in for a grinding, maddening war of attrition. What used to be public discourse is lost in a no-man’s land of intellectual wreckage created by each side’s incessant lobbing of ideological bombs at the other’s entrenched subjective positions. Each side is convinced it has a God’s-eye view of reality, therefore God is on its side, which motivates securing its position by all necessary means.

A Talk at the Rock

The Christian scriptures illustrate how all this works in a story from one of the Apostle Paul’s missionary journeys.

“Now while Paul was… at Athens, his spirit was provoked within him as he saw that the city was full of idols. So, he reasoned in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Some of the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers also conversed with him. And some said, ‘What does this babbler wish to say?’ Others said, ‘He seems to be a preacher of foreign divinities’—because he was preaching Jesus and the resurrection.  And they took him and brought him to the Areopagus, saying, May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? For you bring some strange things to our ears. We wish to know therefore what these things mean.’[8]

The Epicureans and Stoics were the materialists of their day – their thinking leaned toward the objective side of the dualism. When Paul came to town advocating ideas (the subjective end of the dualism), their brain patterning couldn’t process Paul’s worldview. They needed time, so they invited Paul to a Talk at the Rock (the Areopagus).

At this point, the author of the story –- widely believed to be the same “Luke the beloved physician”[9] who wrote the Gospel of Luke – inserts a biased editorial comment that signals that nothing’s going to come of this because “all the Athenians and the foreigners who lived there would spend their time in nothing except telling or hearing something new.”[10] I.e., reasonable consideration — public discourse – was going to be a waste of time. But Paul had prepared some culturally sensitive opening remarks:

“So Paul, standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious.For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription: To the unknown god. What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.’”

He then offers up the idea of substituting his ‘foreign god’ for the Athenians’ statuary, altars, and temples:

“The God who made the world and everything in it, being Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in temples made by man, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him.”

You can sense the crowd’s restless murmuring and shuffling feet, but then Paul goes back to cultural bridge-building:

“Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for ‘In him we live and move and have our being’ [referring to a passage from Epimenides of Crete], and as even some of your own poets have said, ‘For we are indeed his offspring.’[{From Aratus’s poem Phainomena].”

Nice recovery, Paul. So far so good. This feels like discourse, what the Rock is for. But Paul believes that the Athenians’ practice of blending the unseen world of their gods with their physical craftmanship of statuary, altars, and temples (a practice the church would later perfect) is idolatry, and in his religious culture back home, idolatry had been on the outs since the Golden Calf.[11] At this point, Paul takes off the cultural kit gloves and goes fundamentalist:

“Being then God’s offspring, we ought not to think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone, an image formed by the art and imagination of man. The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.”

That’s precisely the point where he loses the crowd — well, most of them, there were some who were willing to give him another shot, and even a couple fresh converts:

“Now when they heard of the resurrection of the dead, some mocked. But others said, ‘We will hear you again about this.’ So Paul went out from their midst. But some men joined him and believed, among whom also were Dionysius the Areopagite and a woman named Damaris and others with them.”

“Some men joined him and believed….” That’s all there was left for them to do: believe or not believe. You’re either with us or against us.

Paul had violated the cultural ethics of a Talk at the Rock. It was about reasonable discourse; he made it a matter of belief, saying in effect. “forget your social customs and ethics, my God is going to hurt you if you keep it up.” With that, the conclave became irretrievably polarized, and the session was over.

Paul triggered this cultural dynamic constantly on his journeys – for example a few years later, when the Ephesus idol-building guild figured out the economic implications of Paul’s belief system[12]:

“About that time there arose no little disturbance concerning the Way.  For a man named Demetrius, a silversmith, who made silver shrines of Artemis, brought no little business to the craftsmen. These he gathered together, with the workmen in similar trades, and said, ‘Men, you know that from this business we have our wealth. And you see and hear that not only in Ephesus but in almost all of Asia this Paul has persuaded and turned away a great many people, saying that gods made with hands are not gods. And there is danger not only that this trade of ours may come into disrepute but also that the temple of the great goddess Artemis may be counted as nothing, and that she may even be deposed from her magnificence, she whom all Asia and the world worship.’ When they heard this they were enraged and were crying out, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’”

Jesus had previously taken a whip to the merchants in the Temple in Jerusalem.[13] Apparently Demetrius and his fellow craftsmen saw the same thing coming to them, and made a preemptive strike. The scene quickly spiraled out of control:

“So the city was filled with the confusion, and they rushed together into the theater, dragging with them Gaius and Aristarchus, Macedonians who were Paul’s companions in travel.  But when Paul wished to go in among the crowd, the disciples would not let him. And even some of the Asiarchs, who were friends of his, sent to him and were urging him not to venture into the theater. Now some cried out one thing, some another, for the assembly was in confusion, and most of them did not know why they had come together.”

A local official finally quelled the riot:

“Some of the crowd prompted Alexander, whom the Jews had put forward. And Alexander, motioning with his hand, wanted to make a defense to the crowd. But when they recognized that he was a Jew, for about two hours they all cried out with one voice, ‘Great is Artemis of the Ephesians!’

“And when the town clerk had quieted the crowd, he said, ‘Men of Ephesus, who is there who does not know that the city of the Ephesians is temple keeper of the great Artemis, and of the sacred stone that fell from the sky? Seeing then that these things cannot be denied, you ought to be quiet and do nothing rash. For you have brought these men here who are neither sacrilegious nor blasphemers of our goddess. If therefore Demetrius and the craftsmen with him have a complaint against anyone, the courts are open, and there are proconsuls. Let them bring charges against one another. But if you seek anything further, it shall be settled in the regular assembly. For we really are in danger of being charged with rioting today, since there is no cause that we can give to justify this commotion.” and when he had said these things, he dismissed the assembly.”[14]

It Still Happens Today

I spent years in the evangelical church – we were fundamentalists, but didn’t want to admit it – where Paul’s Talk at the Rock was held up as the way not to “share your faith.” Forget the public discourse — you can’t just “spend [your] time in nothing except telling or hearing something new,” you need to lay the truth on them so they can believe or not believe, and if they don’t, you need to “shake the dust off your feet”[15] and get out of there. These days, we see both secular and religious cultural institutions following that advice.

Will we ever learn?

[1]How The Dualism Of Descartes Ruined Our Mental HealthMedium (May 10, 2019)

[2] Karl Albrecht, “The Tyranny of Two,” Psychology Today (Aug 18, 2010)

[3] Jeremy Lent, The Patterning Instinct: A Cultural History of Humanity’s Search for Meaning (2017)

[4] Jim Kozubek, “The Enlightenment Rationality Is Not Enough: We Need A New Romanticism,” Aeon (Apr. 18, 2018)

[5] Andersen, Kurt, Fantasyland: How American Went Haywire, a 500-Year History (2017)

[6] Hedges, Chris, I Don’t Believe in Atheists: The Dangerous Rise of the Secular Fundamentalist (2008)

[7] The latter came from Jesus himself – see the Gospels of Matthew 21: 12-13, and John 2: 13-16. Jesus was a belief man through and through. More on that another time.

[8] The Acts of the Apostles 17: 17-20.

[9] Paul’s letter to the Colossians 4: 14.

[10] Acts 17: 21.

[11] Exodus 32.

[12] Acts 19: 23-41

[13] Mathew 21: 12-17; John 2: 13-21

[14] Acts: 23-42

[15] Matthew 10:14.

Knowledge, Conviction, and Belief [4]: The Brain vs. the Eternal Soul

brain - illuniated

The period of roughly 2010-2016 apparently was a breakthrough time for neuroscience and the study of consciousness. About then, a scientific consensus began to emerge that the conscious human mind was generated by the brain — or, as some put it, “the mind is what the brain does.”

In a 2016 article[1], University of Sussex professor of cognitive and computational neuroscience Anil K. Seth wrote that,

“In my own research, a new picture is taking shape in which conscious experience is seen as deeply grounded in how brains and bodies work together to maintain physiological integrity – to stay alive.”

Since then, other brain researchers have added a third essential component:  our environment, particularly our cultural setting and its institutionalized belief systems.

Brain, body, environment — that’s it, that’s what brain science has come up with. It went looking for the soul and didn’t find it. As physician and researcher Paul Singh also wrote in 2016[2]:

“The idea of a transcendent self is a myth; the truth is that the self is a constructed self.”

Not only that, but when a consciousness based purely in physicality replaces traditional belief in an eternal, transcendent soul temporarily at home in a physical human body, other companion notions about the self, consciousness, and free will also come tumbling down. Singh admitted this wasn’t going to be easy news to swallow:

“I will be the first one to admit that the debates about the nature of free will, consciousness, and the self are far from over. It is not, however, because we don’t know the answers, but because we are not at a stage of human evolution and progress yet for people to accept such radical ideas. Such truths are scary in the sense that they undermine our ordinary and commonsensical beliefs about human nature and seem to threaten values that we hold dearly — one of the most important of which is moral responsibility.”

Difficult, yes, but not impossible if you can suspend allegiance to the things you’re convinced of and convicted about, and instead give scientific knowledge a try. Singh makes his case with impassioned advocacy of science and the scientific method:

“I believe, however, that the truthfulness of a fact should be judged on its own merit rather than based on its social and emotional implications for the well-being of an individual or society. Truth should be acknowledged first and then solutions sought that will be implemented in light of the good and bad that truth has revealed, not the other way around. Truth is about truth and not about convenience or about making us feel good about ourselves.

“We should never believe a claim to be true simply because on one can prove it to be false. Theologians are experts at this kind of nonsense. Are delusional people making things up? Evidence shows that the human brain is universally delusional in many ways and therefore people who promote superstitions are not particularly more delusional that the rest of us. It is just that examples of religious delusions are rather classic examples of how the brain creates illusions and delusions. The use of logic and scientific skepticism is a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains. This skill is like any other skill such as learning to play the piano. It involves training in metacognition as well as basic education in basic sciences.”

Frankly, that kind of rhetoric invariably come across as bombastic and opinionated and therefore easy for those convinced otherwise to dismiss. The well-worn neural pathways of our own brains are deeply rutted with their own notions of what is true, and not about to change to a new paradigm just because someone else is convinced it is the “Truth is about truth.”

On the other hand, in my personal experience, I’ve found that the precursor to scientific knowledge — “scientific skepticism” — is in fact a “a skill that can be used to overcome the limitations of our own brains.” I’ve been developing the skill gradually for years, without intentionally doing so. I was no scientist; I’d spent a lifetime in the humanities; my allegiance was with Romanticism, not the Enlightenment. I was not out to find or prove truth, or convince anybody of it. But I was looking for new thoughts, and years of reading and reflecting — like water carving sandstone — slowly brought my thinking to a new place.

The first time I read about the “materialist” version of consciousness I thought it was just plain odd, which made me highly skeptical. Ironically that skepticism eventually sharpened into a practice that brought me where I don’t find the materialist idea odd at all; in fact, it seems odd to think the way I used to. It now seems simple and obvious that everything we experience is processed within the confines of our largest organ — our skin — and that it has to be that way because, as a biological organism, there’s no other place where it can happen. Even if we think about an eternal, transcendent soul, we do so from our ephemeral, fleshly point of view. That’s all the equipment we’ve got.

Continued next time.

[1] The Real Problem:  It looks like scientists and philosophers might have made consciousness far more mysterious than it needs to be, Aeon Magazien (Nov. 2, 2016)

[2] The Great Illusion:  The Myth of Free Will, Consciousness, and the Self.