We have a view of the world that we try to make consistent. There may be inconsistencies that we do not see, or if we do see them, we strive to get rid of them. Getting rid of them be actually mean murdering them, but I’ll try to build an argument to that speculative conclusion later.
If you look at ISIS, you may wonder how people who strongly believe their womenfolk must be loyal and pure, and not have “relations” with any other man, will also believe that having sex slaves is perfectly fine. You may see an inconsistency. Why would a person who values modesty in his own 4 wives then turn around and rape other women who simply do not belong to his religion?
Mohammad and his early followers would attack towns, kill the men, and take the women as slaves, and since Mohammad was the perfect man, and the prophet of Allah, that is good enough for ISIS.
To me this is interesting. They have a “fixed point” around which everything bends to fit. The fixed point is that Mohammad is the prophet of Allah, and all that is good and just comes from Islam, and they reason from that fixed point. If it was not such a fixed point, and if revulsion to making women suffer was a strong emotional point, they might question their religion, and modify or even discard it.
Cognitive dissonance was first investigated by Leon Festinger (1957), arising out of a participant observation study of a cult which believed that the earth was going to be destroyed by a flood, and what happened to its members — particularly the really committed ones who had given up their homes and jobs to work for the cult — when the flood did not happen.
While fringe members were more inclined to recognize that they had made fools of themselves and to “put it down to experience”, committed members were more likely to re-interpret the evidence to show that they were right all along (the earth was not destroyed because of the faithfulness of the cult members).
But for there to be cognitive dissonance, one has to notice a contradiction with a strong belief, or belief to which he has a strong emotional attachment.
In science, sometimes contradictions (or anomalies) give rise to better theories that don’t exactly invalidate the earlier theory completely, but explain more and explain deeper. But even in everyday life, we may find contradictions that we either dismiss as a misperception or a mistake or a lie, or that we take seriously enough so that we have to revise assumptions. Of course it is easier if the assumptions are not emotionally important to us.
Based on work by V.S Ramachandran and others, it seems that the right hemisphere of the brain has a “discrepancy detector” and when the right hemisphere is damaged, the left hemisphere has no brake on coming up with fanciful explanations to explain contradictions and dissonance. Ramachandran sees a need to balance stable theories about the world with anomalies we sometimes encounter that might overthrow them. To take a personal example, I once heard that a Rabbi who I respected and seemed principled had many extra-marital girlfriends. I dismissed it as a rumor, but I didn’t make an effort to find out who was saying it, and on what basis. I did not take this piece of evidence and suddenly decide that the man was a hypocrite, and that all I had believed about him was false. And in general, we have to achieve a balance.
This raises a question to me about normal, non-brain-damaged persons.
What if people vary in the strength of their discrepancy detector. What if some people are more likely than others to embrace an anomaly? What would be the characteristics of such people? Would we call them open-minded? Would they be more tolerant of ambiguity? Would be they be more tolerant of different opinions? Would women, whose brains are somewhat different from men (for instance, the thick fiber of neurons connecting the hemispheres is thicker in women) react differently to contradictions and ambiguity on the average than men do?
Perhaps there are people who react violently when their world view is threatened.
consider the following:
I spoke with an old Italian woman who told me that a Nazi soldier shot her mother, who had been sheltering Jews. He had tried to argue with the mother and her mother made the mistake of arguing back that Jesus was Jewish.
Another example was in a book by neuroscientist Kathleen Taylor where she recounts the story of a Nazi who demanded a baby from its Jewish mother, and when the mother refused, he seized the baby and tore it apart.
Says Taylor “Faced with inputs that would force less committed others to adjust or abandon their ideas, a strong believer may find it less painful to adjust (or sometimes abandon) that bit of the world which gave rise to the offending inputs. World-shaping may lead to abhorrent cruelty, self-protective for the perpetrators.”
So here, she is saying that for some people, if they find the idea of you or me outrageous, or humiliating, or impinging on the way they think the world is, or should be, they may attack you or me. Actually she is saying more than this – if you simply threaten the coherence of their world view, they may attack.
We could ask another question at this point. Is intelligence correlated with the ability to see contradictions? I think it must be. An active mind that understand concepts on a deeper level than most is also more likely to spot contradictions.
The rest of this post is a bit more biological, it’s not on evil per se, but it is somewhat relevant. I include simply because it is interesting, not because I really understand the implications.
Charles Brack (of neuropolitics.org) says this:
The left-brain seeks to avoid internal contradictions in its analysis of the environment…The left-brain tends to bend reality to fit the way it wants to process it. There is a certain expectation that the left-brain has of reality, and pre-determinism in responding to the environmental clues is its natural operating mode….
In contrast, the right brain has a lower propensity for pre-determinism, and is not as inclined to drive the information analysis to a particular outcome…However, it can lead to more ambiguous and complex outcomes.
Walter Freeman Jr., is a professor at Berkeley who found evidence of mathematical chaos in the brain. He analogizes our landscape of meaning to a landscape of craters on the moon. If a concept or perception falls within one of these basins, it spirals to the bottom. If it doesn’t, it falls into a a kind of catchall area that ends up in a trajectory that eventually learns a new basin. He also believes that our entire world view is based on building hypotheses, expecting a result, and seeing what happens. In his own words:
Every sensory cortex maintains a landscape of chaotic attractors that correspond to the perceptual categories that the subject is capable of discriminating. When the subject attends to an expected event, the landscape is created, and a known stimulus gives access to the proper basin. After the dynamics converges to the selected attractor, the specific details of the stimulus are removed. The raw sense data by which category selection is performed are discarded after they are no longer useful. These properties of chaos are most in evidence when a hypothesis is disproved by testing, because the resulting stimulus is novel. Upon this failure, the prediction is changed by creative activity in the limbic system and disseminated by corollary discharges, so that a new hypothesis is tested. The process is repeated by the creation of new attractors by trial and error, until a reward is forthcoming and a hypothesis is proved.
There are belief systems where even to question any of the tenets makes you a traitor, or a oily corrupting influence. One of the great things of the West is the tradition of questioning and free speech. Our worldviews have to be susceptible to revision, when facts or logic require it. Unfortunately, there is a trend to shutting down “hurtful” speech, which is ridiculous, because of course we are going to be hurt if our cherished beliefs are challenged. Better to have hurt feelings than to spend your life being wrong.
A Theory of Cognitive Dissonance – Leon Festinger (1957)
Imaging Brain Function with EEG – by Walter Freeman and Rodrigo Quiroga (2013)
Ramachandran tells you some of the biological evidence a YouTube video: