Friday, November 30, 2012

Appealing our Convictions

Our mental limitations prevent us from accepting our mental limitations,” writes Robert Burton, M.D., in his thought-provoking book, On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You’re Not. He explains the power of “deep down conviction,” that “feeling of knowing” we have about cherished convictions that enables us to shake off seemingly any contradictory facts that threaten them.

Does your stomach clench in a knot when reading or hearing viewpoints contrary to your own? That is a threat response. Your brain has invested a lot of time, if not effort, toward establishing sets of strong beliefs about many important things–religion of course, but also politics, relationships, your own special place in the world–and it wants to defend them.

Of two minds

Intellectually, you may recognize that the objective truth is more important than your established viewpoints, but there is far more lurking within our brains than what we have conscious awareness of. Burton: “Because our minds have evolved to operate largely outside of consciousness, it may not be possible to gain direct access to unconscious processing.”

Consciously or otherwise, we just don’t want to lose the sense of purpose and meaning we get from our deepest convictions. We “are nearly always aware of the sickening feeling when we don’t possess them,” he says. “This isn’t an intellectual misapprehension; it is a gut sense of disorientation and a loss of personal direction. Rarely are brute mental effort and self-help pep talks able to rekindle the missing feeling.”

I have experienced this not just with religion but also in other aspects of life. One example is my urgent advocacy to family and friends several years ago of “peak oil” apocalypticism. On sites like The Oil Drum and Energy Bulletin (recently renamed), I read for hours about limited petroleum supplies, about the prospect of declining yields from the big oil fields of Mexico and Saudi Arabia. The facts seemed to fully support the sense of panic that was fostered by eloquent authors like James Howard Kunstler (The Long Emergency), and I wondered why people weren’t talking about it, doing something.

No peak in sight, at least not as of April 2015

Well, many of those facts still seem compelling, but we are still here, driving our cars, buying container loads of cheap plastic trinkets from China, with no dystopian nightmare in sight. New extraction technologies have boosted the yields of old fields and there are drilling rigs in places that were once thought unpromising. The number of barrels pumped per day is at an all-time high. The environmental travesties of oil sand mining and the BP oil spill have barely put a bubble in the relentless flow of crude.

I look at all this and wonder, was I so wrong? Was I led along a path of alarmism by people who I thought knew what they were talking about? Or should I still cling to the belief, slightly adjusting aspects of it to maintain the general idea? The temptation is also there to restrict my reading to those who continue beating the drum for my erstwhile beliefs (and there is no shortage of such writers), but I have learned all too well that a painful truth is ultimately far more useful than a comforting falsehood.

My answer for now is not to have a clear answer, and that is a difficult state for the human brain to maintain. It craves decisiveness, the neat packaging of convictions in a box, a satisfying end to the difficult work of questioning. The brain’s structure and the reinforcement it experiences over a lifetime makes us highly value the “feeling of knowing,” Burton says. Any search for objective truth must override our innate bias, and often causes us pain in the process–cognitive dissonance, hurt to our self image, sometimes even social rejection. Small wonder that we so often choose to shrug our shoulders and plod onward down the well-trodden path.

Adapted from a Facebook posting on 11/30/​12.
Update, August 30, 2015: The graph was generated from EIA Total Oil Supply data (link) from January 1994 to April 2015. As the graph shows, world oil production has gone even higher in the nearly three years since I first posted this.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

San Juan Summer Afternoon

Recalling an August afternoon in Washington’s San Juan Islands

She is shopping in Friday Harbor, and I have escaped the tedium of feigning interest in trinkets, returning on my own to the pebbly beach on the island’s south end. The little three-wheeled “Scoot Coupe” gives a bracing ride at the speed limit, a bit more than twice the top speed that was so sternly warned about in the rental instructions. Slow down a bit into the turns, and then let the pavement fly on by, inches away, at fifty tree-lined miles per glorious hour of summertime afternoon.

The green canopy gives way to an open vault of flawless blue, the evergreen scent fading into the fresh air. Up and over the ridge we go, this ridiculous machine and I, and then descend to the parking lot by the beach. I check the time; just a few minutes before it’s time to head back, turn this thing in, and meet her at the ferry. Better make them count.

I walk over the driftwood logs and rocks again, sniffing at the breeze and taking it all in. As everywhere, there is life poking through, a variety of humble plants elbowing their way between pebbles, leaves waxy and small grabbing their share of the sunshine. We are all just doing the same thing in our own way, sprouting briefly in the sun.

Now the water’s edge stretches out before me, a vaguely defined interface between the rocky shore and glassy swells. They break on the pebbles in miniature, vigorous from the breeze but stunted from the short fetch between all these islands. Tiny oceans spawning baby surf, leaving the pebbles clean, round, and visible beneath water without much foam. It all looks and smells so clean, even the green hills of shoreline faded into the miles on both sides, its houses and No Trespassing signs rendered invisible by the benign kindness of distance.

It is, for this moment, a world primeval and pure. I kneel, putting my hand into the coldness and movement of the water, picking up a few of the rounded stones. Ebb and flow, wind and wave. Summer sun falling, falling on warm skin. And all of it suffused with the contented glow of fatigue, the sense of a day well spent.

The moment is nearly over. I drink in the beauty through every pore, my eyes roaming over every detail, my ears recording the splash and scratch of water over rock. A deep breath: This is now, and in seconds will be then. But it is enough.