Jonah Lehrer is a contemporary thinker who is worth keeping an eye on. Not only has he written two excellent and accessible books, also he often posts provocative and interesting articles at his Wired blog (he's the science writer for Wired magazine). I was really happy to get a copy of his latest book, How We Decide, last Christmas. I wanted to dive right into it, but leisure reading usually only happens in the summer. So Jonah came on vacation with me.
One of the big influences on this book is Damasio's Descarte's Error. I have that book and the genius of Lehrer is to take the writings of neurologists, other scientists and even philosophers and make them accessible to a general audience. He even makes the insights of such people relevant to the lives we are living now. How We Decide is actually about how we decide. Lehrer tells the anecdote about wasting an afternoon trying to decide what kind of cheerios to buy - I can relate to the feeling of being overwhelmed by choice. What Lehrer discovers is that we decide with our emotional brains more so than our rational brains. In fact studies show that folks who sustain damage to their emotion centers are actually unable to make good decisions - you often cannot reason your way to a decision like you think you can. So much for idolizing Mr. Spock from Star Trek! This does not rule out the role of reason, but it does mean we delude ourselves when we think rational thought this is the most important part of making choices.
One of the immediate applications for this is in terms of our understanding of what is certainty. If Lehrer is right, then certainty usually indicates an emotional commitment to an idea or ideology. The idea or ideology might be good - but the emotional commitment prevents our rational interaction with those ideas. This is why ideologies are so hard to change. Challenge a preacher's favourite doctrine if you want to see what this means. Our first response to having our certain ideas challenged is to defend (and then justify) our certainty in them. Sometimes we can fight that urge down long enough to have a conversation but the presence of this urge should flag to us an emotional commitment not a rational conclusion.
I am not saying that certainty is a bad thing (although if we are certain of something wrong it could well be) but that strength of commitment does not establish truth. For me the upshot is that with a little less defense of certainty we can maybe focus instead on living out our commitments to see what ones really hold us and bring us (and others) freedom, health, wholeness, hope, and joy. Recognizing how certainty functions can also allow us to hold the less important aspects of our beliefs a little looser so that we can find better patterns of cooperation with other evangelicals to do the things that are really important to God and the world God loves. At the very least Lehrer will invite us to have this conversation about certainty with a better understanding of how our minds actually work.
I really enjoyed this book, I think that you will too.
Frank Emanuel, Freedom Vineyard