Monday, October 18, 2010
A plea for more cognitive dissonance
Cognitive dissonance refers to the discomfort that is experienced emotionally and intellectually when there is recognition of two or more competing ideas that seem to be opposites and yet are true. A simple example is that I want to lose weight and I make food choices that contribute to weight gain. We need to have more cognitive dissonance in our global thinking, our national thinking, our local thinking, and most of all in our inner awareness. I submit that the person who experiences little or no cognitive dissonance is not paying attention, or is operating strictly out of an emotional or intellectual domain.
Most of us humans want life to be a fill-in the blank proposition: there is one right answer. In 10th grade science class, I can still see the teacher telling us that the atom was the smallest possible particle and later another scientist earnestly telling me that there was no longer anything new to be discovered in the world. We had arrived. We now knew it all. Well, that was in the 60s and of course, we, as a human race, have become considerably "dumber" than we were then. Life certainly wasn't really so simple then and it is even less so now.
We have begun to recognize that the world we live in materially, conceptually, and relationally is far more complex than we ever dreamed possible. At least part of the wide conflicts with which we struggle today at every level derive from our desire to still cram life into a fill-in the blank test. Like opposing armadas on stormy seas we fling ourselves against one another in the name of religion, nations, gender, (take your pick of the possible conflicts), believing that if we can simply defeat and/or annihilate the other, life will finally be like it is supposed to be. (Witness both the right and the left in the US claiming to "take our country back.")
The truth is that while "the other" certainly offers challenges to our way of thinking and being, it is the stormy sea itself which is really tossing us about. When we lived in relative isolation, holding on to our way of thinking and being was easier. Some of my ancestors lived their lives in the isolated mountains of North Carolina, where a "furriner" was anyone who lived more than a couple of miles away. With all our many modes of obtaining 24/7 instant information, we no longer have the luxury of such narrow thinking. It simply won't work anymore.
Thus comes my plea for more cognitive dissonance and a stronger capacity to live with it. I can hold on to my narrow view that my religion is the only right one only if I make absolutely no room for dialogue and respect. If I begin to recognize that the other is as sincere and devout in his/her faith as I am in mine, I am going to feel some measure of discomfort. Religion is a simple example and there are myriads more examples of our various conflicts with one another that are far more complex and demanding. Our choice is to continue to charge one another, weapons rattling, or to bring in dialogue, discernment, and critical thinking in order to gain better and more effective tools for learning how to live in this world.
My concern for the US citizenry in particular is that we seem, on the whole, to be deeply fearful of critical thinking. There is the complaint that "you can't trust what you read because one paper or news show says one thing and another says its opposite." Well, yes, there is some truth that we cannot simply trust what we read or hear. However, that truth does not free us from the responsibility and obligation to study, learn, and think critically about the issues at hand. It is not an excuse for saying "to hell with it." We have to be willing and able to tolerate the cognitive dissonance that emerges from conflicting information, ideas, and emotions.
There is no one truth out there. There are only pieces of the truth that we can grasp. When my 10th grade science teacher declared that the atom is the smallest possible particle, it was "true" then because it was all we knew. Despite how fond we are of our human abilities, we are, after all, as humans extremely limited. Critical thinking allows us to recognize our limitations. No matter how carefully the question is worded, we should much more frequently assume that we have no clue what answer to write on a fill-in the blank test . We should demand more varied and complex "answers" as options.
Will this make living easier? No, but it will make it richer and hopefully less noisy and acrimonious. Personally I have become totally bored with conversations in which the participants get into screaming matches because each person insists on the correctness of their own point of view. Often what I would like to do in such situations (if the decibel level ever died down enough that I thought I could be heard) is say "You know what, folks, the real answer is probably some of all of the above." A measure of cognitive dissonance is not a bad thing. Indeed, it is a healthy way of being.