The Louisville Area Skeptics, the organization that I should have started long ago but never did, had our first meeting this past Saturday at the New Albanian bar/pizza place. It was a fun event, and though there were a few small problems that most events like this are bound to have their first time out, it showed a lot of promise for the future. I’m very happy that someone has taken the initiative to start this group up, and I hope that I can help out as school and work allow in the future.
The first meeting was a Skeptics in the Pub-type event, where Dr. David Ludden of Lindsey Wilson College gave a presentation putting forth the idea that superstitious belief is a byproduct of the higher level of consciousness that humans have evolved. Unfortunately, the discussion got somewhat stuck on the definition of consciousness, though I will argue that Dr. Ludden’s ultimate point doesn’t hinge primarily on whether or not one accepted his definition consciousness. If fact, I think it was something of a mistake for him to even bring that up, though it did make the conversation more lively.
For the sake of his argument, Dr. Ludden put consciousness on a scale. He went on to make a case that at the lowest levels of consciousness, a simple programmable machine is indistinguishable from a simple life form, using a thermostat and a fruit fly as an example.
Colin (aka Ticktock) at Science-Based Parenting points out that this definition of consciousness diverges from the dictionary definition of the word, and I see his problems with it. But I think we can reconcile Ludden’s definition to some extent with the actual definition. If we take the definition “the quality or state of being aware, especially of something within oneself,” we can put Ludden’s minimal consciousness at “the state of being aware” and the higher levels of consciousness being defined as to what extent the object is aware. That is, a thermostat, like a fruit fly, is aware of external stimuli (temperature or hunger) and reacts according to hardwired instructions. The fruit fly has more variables to deal with, but a computer program could likely produce behavior indistinguishable from that of a fruit fly.
Taking that concept further, one can then place various “higher” forms of life on relative a scale. That is, objects further up the scale are aware of more than objects lower on the scale. Those at the minimal level are aware of stimuli. Those at a higher level might be aware of themselves and other beings as individuals. Dr. Ludden did a fair job of illustrating this point, using mental aspects like pattern recognition, memory, logic and extrapolation as sort of benchmarks by which we can measure an object’s consciousness to place it on the scale. It’s not exact, and the lines seem to blur a bit as to where something might fall. Ticktock argues that what Dr. Ludden put at the minimal level of consciousness is not conscious at all, and if one agrees with that sentiment, the rest of Dr. Ludden’s argument gets a lot messier. Despite some possible problems with the definition, however, I was willing to go along with it to see where the discussion was headed.
With this framework established, Dr. Ludden spent the bulk of his presentation climbing that hierarchy of consciousness until he reached humans. He focused first on pattern recognition, which had the unfortunate effect of derailing the conversation again, as he used an optical illusion to make his point. The crowd got hung up on the illusion itself, and I think many missed the point that our brains will change what we see to fit the patterns we already recognize. So if we’re used to seeing two parallel lines converge in the distance, when presented with lines that do not converge, our brain will say, “These must be diverging” and change the image to suit that. We fall victim to false pattern recognition all the time in the form of pareidolia, where we see Jesus in a piece of burnt toast or hear voices in a random series of sounds. So, pattern recognition, a tool we evolved over time, lends itself to being mistaken about reality at times. Fair enough.
Dr. Ludden then went on to discuss pattern recognition as it relates to causal relationships. For example, he mentioned a Skinner experiment where birds would push a button for food. Some of the birds found a pattern, such as holding up one foot while pushing the button, that they associated with the food. In a bird, this isn’t really superstitious thinking, because the bird just sees a pattern and repeats it. Higher-consciousness organisms, such as humans, will fall victim to superstitious thinking by ascribing a causal relationship between the pattern and the result. E.g., I won three straight chess matches because I was wearing my lucky socks. This is a fine distinction to be made, and it gets sticky when deciding what constitutes causal thinking and what is just repeated behavior.
That was pretty much the crux of the argument: we’re hardwired to find patterns whether or not they exist, and we apply causal thinking to events to connect them. This is, in essence, superstitious thinking. And because we seek to confirm our beliefs, rather than disconfirm them, we get set in our ways and continue believing falsehoods despite evidence to the contrary.
I do not, in the end, think that Dr. Ludden made his case in the best way possible. The biggest problem is that we didn’t even need to get into the theory of consciousness. There are many competing theories on and definitions of consciousness, but regardless of what theory of consciousness one follows, it doesn’t change the fact that we’ve evolved certain mental behaviors and capacities. To get into theories of consciousness just adds a layer of conjecture to a topic that doesn’t need it. It’s enough to show that superstitious thinking is a byproduct of our greater mental capacity for memory, extrapolation, pattern recognition and causal thinking.
Despite any problems I had with the presentation itself, it was engaging. The open-floor format made it easier for the conversation to be derailed a little bit, but it also lets more ideas be voiced. I’m interested to see how these meetings will develop in the future. I very much look forward to future meetings and hope to meet more of my fellow local skeptics.