Saturday, August 04, 2007

And we thought we are clever... :(

Some recent discussions and readings are about cognitive science and behaviour. Behaviour sciences and anthropology are very interesting study areas where some people like to draw similarities between behaviours of animals and humans.

When we're young, we learn that humans are the superior intelligent species, given that we are able to apply rationality and reason to cases. The very idea of intelligence is a bit of a loose concept in my opinion. I find it a bit difficult to truly define what intelligence means, even not in words.

To give examples about the daftness of human beings, just look at war. When you really think about it, war is a very foolish concept, you could make analogies with male leaders of animal groups like moose or elephants that are struggling to come out as a leader of a group. A very simple and basic animal activity. I liked the book Humanity by Jonathan Glover. It shows how far we as humans still need to go to really exceed ourselves and to really become the intelligent species on this planet.

Actually, somewhere in this book I read about an occurrence in the first world war, where soldiers of different sides got together for a Christmas mass and the other day buried their dead and played soccer in the battlefield. The film is called "Joyeux Noel" and really shows you how still close to basic animalistic behaviour (and instinct?) we get. As soon as people found out that the people on the other side were equal, they discovered it didn't make any sense whatsoever to shoot one another. This created quite a difficult situation for the officers, because it means a total impasse of the war situation! How else to resolve a conflict than through violence?

Recent technological improvements in warfare were mostly aimed at increasing the distance between the killer and the victim. The objective to better guarantee the killer's life. From a psychological perspective, killing from a distance is much easier and comfortable. You don't have to drive a knife in the other guy's belly, the guy doesn't scream in your ear, so it's easier to be done with it. The objective being....... ..... ? It's all about deprivation of the resources on the other side, whether these are human resources or material resources. There are warbots on the market now that can be armed with guns and have the ability to fire. Will we see largely mechanized armies in the future, where robots do the fighting for us? If this is the case, then it really gives us new information about ourselves. How boy-ish we actually are in the resolution of conflicts (or starting them). Yes, humans fight on both sides, although their political and cultural development may significantly differ. The same existential rules apply however.

Jonathan Glover talks about moral resources. Think of them as your capability to apply rationality to a given discussion or event. Tribalism (the sense of belonging to a group) can overwhelm these resources, which can thus lead to very severe levels of violence that in other occasions would be deemed totally inappropriate (read: when applying common sense in regular situations). Some psychological experiments put very good friends into different groups to analyze their behaviour. In no time, they turned enemies to one another if their motives couldn't be aligned any longer (motives that are in opposition with the group to which they belong).

Belief is also a factor. Belief. It's a very dangerous thing that can have enormous consequences, especially when certain people are not willing to consider alternatives to whatever they believe. Belief is highly influenced by propaganda and as such, propaganda is a strong tool to (knowingly) influence your disposition towards other people. The trick in this case is to de-rail the enemy or the other side and reduce their status or value. Dehumanize them. Once dehumanized and reduced to second class, the killing becomes a lot easier.

So, if we see how easy it is for our minds to fall into a certain trap of extreme simplistic and animalistic behaviour... how much of our reasoning is really governed by reason and intelligence? I reckon that a lot of arguments in discussion are raised in defense of the continuation of our instincts. Even though they sound intelligence, they do not necessarily take (sufficiently) into account what all the important factors really are.

Our beliefs and emotional disposition towards a subject and morality changes due to worldly events. One could argue that countries that had more problems (war) to deal with historically are also the countries that are now in the first world. Maybe this is also caused by behaviour in general. In Brazil for example, people absolutely hate conflict and do everything in their power not to have to tell someone what they think or that changes in jobs for example need to take place. Compared to Holland and the UK, anybody that steps out of line of generally accepted practice will very quickly be pointed out, or appropriate steps will be taken to conform. Maybe this kind of behaviour leads to more wars (to force other countries to behave similarly or "in line with common sense"), whereas other countires seek to avoid conflict and "live with it".

All in all, the whole point of this post is to re-consider the fact of rationality and intelligence. We cannot assume that we are 100% rational thinkers by reason, morale and so on. There are definitely some animalistic factors involved that influence our beliefs (beliefs influencing our decisionmaking process). After all, how strongly you feel about something being true is how strongly you react to a certain event. I'm not sure whether us humans are able to deal with this in full at some point in time. We'll probably need to emotionally detach ourselves and think like Data, of Star Trek. :)

Maybe it's all part of being human.... :)


Pablo said...

Regarding the "occurrence in the first world war where soldiers of different sides got together for a Christmas mass", I disagree that it simply shows us "how close to basic animalistic behaviour (and instinct?) we get".

I think it shows the human being behind the animal. Yes, we can behave like animals, but I believe we have kind of a different light inside, something that was given to us by God. We can use it or reject it.

The Bible says: "I also thought, 'As for men, God tests them so that they may see that they are like the animals. Man's fate is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; man has no advantage over the animal." (Ecclesiastes 3)

Gerard Toonstra said...

Hi Pablo,

It's not very clear what I mean at this part, it's my use of language :). Of course I mean that the war activities itself are basic animal behaviour and that the mass gathering shows the total opposite of what a human is capable of by reasoning and applying their intelligence, thereby ignoring and superseding these basic instincts theoretically (to the certain degree in which this is possible).

I can't help but notice a clear contradiction in your comment however. Please allow me to point it out:

The citation points out:
man has no advantage over the animal.

But before you have said:

Yes, we can behave like animals, but I believe we have kind of a different light inside, something that was given to us by God. We can use it or reject it.

Which seems to indicate that there is, indeed, a certain advantage of man over animals. (what we call our intelligence)

So, I am not disagreeing with this comment. The article is not an attempt to point out that we are like animals all of the time, but that still we are very easily (partly) guided by basic animal instincts and emotions. They impact our decisions, activities and reasoning.