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Coffee & Wisdom 02.79: Naive Optimism and Stone Walls Part 5

David Breeden is speaking all week about Naive Optimism


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Hello, I’m David Breeden. I’m the Senior Minister at First Unitarian Society of Minneapolis, a historically humanist congregation. And this is Coffee and Wisdom. This week we’ve been considering the ideas of naïve optimism and the truth shall set you free. What are the differences and what’s the reality of all of this? Naive optimism, just as a reminder, is the belief that your chances are always better than 50/50. We’ve been bouncing that off against a very old idea. Veritas liberabit vos: “The truth shall set you free” a saying of Jesus that’s reported in the Gospel according to John. Well, how does this comport with the idea that naïve optimism is good for you? Well, that’s always been a good question. Here’s just the opposite meme. The strongest weapon in the world is truth because truth is indestructible. Well, that’s a very nice thing to think. But is it true? Here we have a poor fellow handing to a woman he is about to date, apparently, a bouquet of flowers, to which he says, “Here I found some beautiful things and killed them so you can watch them decay.” Well, yep that’s one way to look at the situation of handing someone’s beautiful bouquet of flowers. Is it perhaps the best way to express this particular truth? Also, we have to keep in mind always an idea that is fairly recent in the psychological literature and in studies that are going on, something called the illusory truth effect. The more you hear it, the more you believe it, even if it’s false. So the illusory truth effect, something becomes true because it is endlessly repeated. Also, another part of the illusory truth effect is that, even though, after we hear it over and over again, we take it on as truth if it is easier for us to process, because it already fits into our world views. So the illusory truth effect, it is a real thing. Here we have Donald Trump talking with the philosopher Plato. Donald Trump is saying, “But surely you agree that truth can be created by the repetition of a lie?” Well, Plato wouldn’t agree with that, but Plato didn’t know about the illusory truth effect. And so Plato would be confused by what’s going on in our world today. He didn’t know the psychology as well as we do. Here is some research by Dr. Patrick R. Heck, who says, “65% of Americans believe they are above average in intelligence: Results of two nationally representative surveys.” The abstract from this research is, “Psychologists often note that most people think they are above average in intelligence. We sought robust contemporary evidence of this “smarter than average” effect by asking Americans in two independent samples …whether they agreed with the statement, “I am more intelligent than the average person. After weighing each sample to match the demographics of U.S. Census data, we found that 65% of Americans believe they are smarter than average, with men more likely to agree than women. However, overconfident beliefs about one’s intelligence are not always unrealistic: More educated people were more likely to think their intelligence is above average. We suggest that a tendency to overrate one’s cognitive abilities may be a stable feature of human psychology.” Meaning, yeah, we all think we’re a little bit above average, sometimes at least, don’t wait. And I’ve been bouncing that off against an idea that Friedrich Nietzsche had in the last two centuries ago in the 80s from his famous book, The Gay Science. In The Gay Science, he is leading up to the argument that God is dead and we have killed him. And one of the things he’s looking at in that book is how natural selection has bred us toward an idea of seeing illusion as real. And Nietzsche said this, “Over immense periods of time, the intellect produced nothing but errors. A few of these proved to be useful and help to preserve the species.” Now, Frederick may be overstating it a bit that it was nothing but errors. What he is doing is seeing this from a very scientific worldview. But we do have, I think, a real truth here, little t truth, that indeed, human evolution would argue for certain illusions being very advantageous to our well-being and survival as human beings, as a species, and that is probably what is leading toward this illusory truth effect, and also this, everybody is above average, belief. Nietzsche also said this, “truth emerged as the weakest form of knowledge. HIs argument here is that truth is very, very difficult for us to understand. It’s not the first thing we think of when we begin to think about reality around us. So we have to remember this when we go into situations in which we are trying to come out of it knowing the actual truth, the truth that, theoretically anyway, will set us free. I’ve also mentioned this week, yesterday, if you want to go back and review that one, some very interesting and very game-changing research by Dr. Albert Bandura, very much cited a set of facts here, apparently facts, that self-efficacy is good for you. His book, Self-Efficacy, the Exercise of Control. He looks at this and he defines “self-efficacy” as the personal assessment of the chances of success in a given set of circumstances.” I’m thinking about how can I deal with this challenge, this problem, what tools do I have, what knowledge do I have? And that is my self-efficacy dealing with a set of issues. He says this, “A strong sense of efficacy enhances human accomplishment and personal wellbeing, in many ways. People with high assurance in their capabilities approach difficult tasks as challenges to be mastered rather than … things they can’t get away with.” (Sorry, I got off a little bit on my slides there.) But yes, “…as threats to be avoided.” So he also goes on to say. “People’s level of motivation, affective states and actions are based more on what they believe than what is objectively the case.” Again, Bandura, Dr. Bandura arguing in this groundbreaking research that indeed self-illusion is not a bad thing. As a matter of fact, he directly says, “To succeed, one cannot afford to be a realist.” Well, interesting that he would say that because we have to again balance that off against does this truth set us free? Does it actually set us free? I guess the answer we will have to come up with is, it depends …on the situation, doesn’t it? So, yeah, in the Gospel of John, as we established earlier in the week, Jesus was actually talking about the idea of escaping from sin, one of the truths that he was preaching anyway, another questionable truth, shall we say, but in the larger view of what truth will set us free, it’s a little more complicated than that. And it doesn’t make as much of a good meme, but it’s a little bit complex. A book that just came out that I just heard about, this is a podcast some of you know about from National Public Radio called The Hidden Brain by Shankar Vedantam. And he just came out with a book called Useful Delusion, the Power and Paradox of the Self-Deceiving Brain. And the blurb for that book says this: “Self-deception does terrible harm to us, to our communities and to the planet. But if it is so bad for us, why is it ubiquitous?” Remember that’s what Nietzsche asked in 1883. “In Useful Delusions Shankar Vedantam and Bill Mesler argue that paradoxically, self-deception can also play a vital role in our success and our well-being. The lies we tell ourselves sustain our daily interactions with friends, lovers and coworkers. They can explain why some people live longer than others, why some couples remain in love and others don’t, why some nations hold together while others splinter. Filled with powerful personal stories and drawing on new insights in psychology, neuroscience and philosophy, Useful Delusions offers a fascinating tour of what it really means to be human.” I’m going to get this book as soon as possible, and I do definitely highly recommend the podcast Hidden Brain. He does look at some absolutely fascinating research about how our brains work. And he does try to keep up with the latest neuroscience as we’ve discovered some amazing things about the human brain and how that we can affect that through various means, including now artificial intelligence. So, again, not as really clear cut as we might think because the little engine that could we learned long ago that having a positive attitude is very, very good for your ability to get up that hill. I would recommend that one idea that comes from the Ashtavakru Gita, not as well known as the Bafa Gita, but also from that time period in Indian writing from the 500s before the Common Era, one of my favorite sayings which says this. “One believes in existence. Another says, ‘There is nothing.’ Rare is the one who believes in neither. That one is free from confusion.” That’s really kind of the heart of the Ashtavakru Gita, that everything, frankly, is going to tell you two different truths and that truth, falsehood, illusion, delusion, well, that’s just part of being alive. One believes in existence. Another says there is nothing. Rare is the one who believes in neither. That one is free from confusion. The trick is how do we get to a place where we can believe neither? Well, that continues to be a question. Thanks for listening this week. Our theme at First Unitarian Society for the month of April is Becoming and I’ll be back next week with some more questions for Coffee and Wisdom. Thank you for listening this week.

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