Thursday, 3 March 2016

Cognitive bias in the search for God

Lent 2016: Day 23

Half way through this year's Lent, more than ever before a true journey with a goal - to spend the 46 days not just avoiding pleasures such as alcohol and meat, but also focusing more intently that ever on the spiritual dimension, thinking about the metaphysical, about the purpose of life.

And this year, my brother Marek is helping me along the way by asking the tough questions that require deeper thought - and research. Marek questions whether Fr Heller is prone to cognitive bias arising from System 2 thinking. This refers to Daniel Kahneman's 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, which posits that there are two systems of thought in humans:
  • System 1: Fast, automatic, frequent, emotional, stereotypic, subconscious
  • System 2: Slow, effortful, infrequent, logical, calculating, conscious
Both systems, says Kahneman, give rise to cognitive bias, though of different types. Marek says that Fr Heller's cognitive bias arises from System 2 thinking. But then any number of philosophers, even those holding views contrary to Fr Heller, would tend to be System 2 thinkers. However, the need to sift through cognitive bias in the search for meaning in our human lives is an entirely valid one. Richard Dawkins is as likely as Fr Heller to suffer from cognitive bias associated with System 2 thinking.

An exhaustive list of cognitive biases as demonstrated by people is to be found on this Wikipedia page. It features the cognitive bias that I most associate with people who are actively seeking metaphysical answers to life's mysteries - wishful thinking.

At the heart of spiritual quests is the hope, the yearning, for life beyond death. In my long experience with flashbacks, anomalous memory events, deja vu, I am associating this phenomenon of my consciousness with the possibility of life before birth, of human awareness being able to transcend one's time and one's body. Wishful thinking? I was aware that this type of thought, ascribing this particular answer to this very personal phenomenon is indeed a form of wishful thinking. Which is why I tend to reject a simple religious-based answer such as reincarnation. The sensations are too infrequent in regularity, happening on average once or twice a week, too fleeting, and too weak.

But they are there, and very real, and very consistent over the decades. I want to fine-tune my observations, cut out any false colour, any exaggerations, and seek with increased finesse in the rest of my lifespan the nature and origin of these flashbacks. Wishful thinking is a cognitive bias I have long identified as being an obstacle to cross.

I have a current theory, and reading Fr Heller's book is proving extremely useful as a means of fine-tuning the theory. Namely, that our spiritual growth as a species is something that has been going on, and will continue to go on, before and after our lives' duration. Our bodies are carrying eyes and ears and a brain that is aware of the passing of a tiny fragment of a continuum of a process of spiritual evolution, and we - tiny shards, echoes of who we are today - may yet witness the process unveiling in the future.

If there is a purpose to the Universe, it is towards an ever-greater consciousness, an ever higher state of awareness, until all is united in a Universal Singularity; the evolution from beast to angel, the journey from Zero to One.

All this is merely sentiment, feelings, inspirations, poetic yearnings - not hard science. But it is also a part of my thinking that science and the spiritual - the metaphysical - will encroach upon one another's domains.

The purpose of Lent is to test beliefs and subject them to rigorous examination from all side. Neurological, cosmological - logical even.  Half of Lent has passed, more reading, more thinking, more reflection and more - I hope - dialogue on these matters to come.

This time last year:
A spiritual frame of mind

This time two years ago:
Sunday in the City

This time three years ago:
God's teachings

This time seven years ago:
A week into Lent

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