When the Truth Does Not Set Us Free
Preached July 19, 2015
at Unitarian Universalist Church of Bowling Green
In his book The Righteous Mind, Jonathan Haidt writes about an experiment that was trying to get a sense of why people make the decisions that they do. Subjects in the experiment were offered two dollars if they would sign a piece of paper that said:
I [name goes here] hereby sell my soul, after my death to the leader of this experiment for the sum of $2.
If they signed the paper, they got $2. There was a line for the subjects to sign and under that line it read: “This form is part of an a psychology experiment. It is not a legal or binding contract in any way.”
They were told that they could rip the paper up as soon as they signed it and still get their two dollars. Yet only 23 percent of the subjects were willing to sign the paper. After some pressing from the experiment leader, another 17% were willing to sign the paper, but that still meant that 50% of folks were not willing to sign a meaningless paper.
When the experimenter asked people why they wouldn’t sign it – knowing that it could not possibly be real or binding, most people couldn’t really explain it. Even several atheists who didn’t even believe in souls said they just didn’t feel right signing it.
Haidt recounts other experiments like this. In some, the researchers control for plausible good reasons not to do something, and then ask people to do it, like the sign your soul away experiment. There was also one where a dead cockroach was sterilized, and quickly dipped down in some water and then out again. People were offered money to drink the water, and few would, despite the fact the researchers assured them and explained how it was impossible for any germs or cockroach pieces to be in the water.
In other experiments, they construct stories and scenarios where people do things that just “seem” wrong even though the researchers are careful to construct the stories so that there are no actually harmful consequences. Yet people continue to refuse to do things even when they cannot explain why and continue to insist that something is right or wrong just based on how it seems to them, without being able to offer plausible reasons.
It raises the important question about why we do or don’t do unreasonable things, or things that seem to make sense.
This matters to us for a couple reasons. First, most of us know people who make decisions that seem atrocious. They live lives that seem unreasonable to us, off the wall, abhorrent, or just plain wrong. We think to ourselves, “There are obvious reasons for them not to believe that or do that and they do it anyway!?!?” We also may think this about some politicians who take positions or make decisions that appear to make no sense whatsoever. While sometimes this can be attributed to pandering to their base, often it seems that the positions they take or decisions they make don’t even help them strategically. They just seem to be unreasonable positions with no apparent strategic benefit either.
So it is important – as individuals and as a church – to think about how we might respond to people when reason is not enough.
And, it may or may not be the case that some of us look at ourselves and give ourselves a little pat on the back and think to ourselves, “Good thing we are reasonable and have thought out all the pros and cons of this or that and come to a calm, measured decision about things.”
Yet, for some of us, for those non-saints among us today, we actually may have a few things in our life that we do that are counter to reason. Where we know the right thing to do, the right way to act, the right thing to say, what we really should be doing, and yet we do something different.
It might be as benign as, for instance, procrastination where we know there will be negative consequences for us in the future that outweigh the short term relief we get from putting something off. We know what the consequences will be. We know we will have to stay up late, and be tired the next day. We even know we will regret it, and yet we keep on waiting to write that memo, do the dishes, write that paper – or sermon – or make that phone call that we need to take care of.
The list goes on – we know that we are destroying our environment, but our actions are often, at best, slightly out of our comfort zone, and often they are simply token. This is both on an individual level – those of us in the room know that we live in houses that are bigger than is fair in terms of energy consumption… those of use who drive and fly more than our share, pumping out our greenhouse gasses by the ton.
And on a collective level – we want the economy to keep growing, we as a people want to live comfortable decent lives, and we kind of have this gnawing feeling that what we are doing is melting those polar ice caps, not to mention keeping lots of people in developing countries in slave-like working conditions to feed our hunger for affordable clothes from Target, yet… yet… yet… we kind of keep living mostly how we live, hoping that our diligent recycling efforts and occasional donation or protests or online petition signing on Facebook will atone for a life we know has dire consequences for others – today and in the future.
And so the question remains: what are we to do? We see others making terrible decisions that seem to defy logic and reasonableness, and yet also we ourselves are often not able to resist the sirens of a comfortable life, of addiction, of dishonesty, of yelling when it feels good even when it hurts others, of self-righteousness arrogance, of our knowledge that we know, and others do not.
The little voice in the back of our head tells us to stop, to change, to do better, yet we stuff it down, quiet it, we feel guilty and then ease our guilt with more of the same, or perhaps we have ignored it so long, that we cannot even hear that voice inside of us.
Haidt makes the argument that we are two: we are an elephant and we are a rider on that elephant. The rider on the elephant is a logical reasoning, the little itty bitty rider, and the elephant – the big big elephant – is our intuitive reasoning, our gut, our accumulated patterns of thinking and being. Haidt makes the argument that the rider often likes to think that he or she is driving the elephant around, telling him or her where to go, and occasionally maybe, it is true the rational rider can manage to get the elephant to do a thing here or a thing there. But, Haidt makes the argument that mostly the elephant is in control and our reasoning rider often believes himself or herself to be driving the elephant, but that neurologically the intuitive elephant is running the show, with the rational reasoning following our intuitive reasoning just a split second behind. Haidt makes the argument that the rider is a most often a function of the elephant. Almost as if the elephant walks to the right and the rider thinks, “Ah, yes, to the right. That’s where we need to go.” It happens so fast we don’t even realize the order it happens in.
Mostly, Haidt says, despite our fetishization of enlightenment rationality, we are what Hume called a slave to our passions. It is not that we don’t reason, but more like reason is not really a judge or teacher, weighing the evidence or guiding us to greater understanding. Rather reason is more like an attorney or a press secretary, justifying our actions and our intuitions.
There is an organization called The Frameworks Institute and they do a lot of good work with this idea. They point out that “when the facts don’t fit people’s frames, often they will changes the facts, not the frame.” That is, our feeling about what is right is so strong, our intuition – our elephant – is so powerful that when facts contradict it, people ignore the facts, they change the facts, not their frameworks and habits of thinking.
If we look at the environmental movement, it is a perfect example. For years, scientists have been telling us about the melting, the rising sea levels, the concerning weather patterns, the fact that Bangladesh will be fully under water in the lifetime of our children. They provide models, graphs, charts, studies. And yet. Go out on the streets of Bowling Green and people will tell you that global climate disruption is not a thing. It is an invention. Things are fine.
And yet, even those of us that believe that this is true, continue to live as if it isn’t so, ignoring the calls that radical change across large swaths of humanity is essential if we are to avert the destruction of the world as we know and instead we take our baby steps, hoping it is enough, but knowing that it probably isn’t.
We – we here – and we out there – are not an overall rational reasonable people despite our wishes.
And one thing that we often do is to tell ourselves that we – we good ones, we educated ones, we who listen to NPR and read The New York Times – we are different than those people out there. Yet, I want to suggest this morning that that kind of thinking simply worsens our predicament. It makes us feel good, yes, but it contributes to an us and a them, the good ones and the fallen ones, the wise ones and the unknowing ones – the very kind of separation and exclusion that so many of us have experienced in other contexts in our lives when we were told that we were other. That we were not enough. That we were not good.
I want to suggest this morning that in one way or another, we are all wrapped up in what Foucault calls the divine spectacle of humanity’s madness. But! You protest! Just like Alice in Wonderland, ““But I don’t want to go among mad people!””
Oh, you can’t help that,” said the Cat: “we’re all mad here. I’m mad. You’re mad.”
“How do you know I’m mad?” said Alice.
“You must be,” said the Cat, “or you wouldn’t have come here.”
Our madness takes different forms, yes, but we are all, in one way or another, riders on our elephants, struggling to wrestle a little control over our lives, over our collective future. Grappling to make meaning in a world that often seems mad.
And, so, again, we return: what are we to do?
The answer, of course, is not to throw up our hands and decide that reason and rationality have no place in the world. That data doesn’t matter. That our gut feelings are always right, that our collective madness is the best that we can do, but I want to suggest that we take reason and rationality off of its pedestal and realize that our world will change and our own lives will change when we realize that information is never enough and the best data will not save us. Despite our desperate wishes, the truth – or even THE TRUTH – will not set us free.
Reason is never enough because we – we in here and we out there – are a complex nexus of rider and elephants, of head and heart, of body and soul and mind and we – we who are here, we who fly gay pride flags, we who fly confederate flags, and we who fly American flags, we who support gay marriage, we who do not, we are all in this together. We are all trying to make our way in a broken, messed up confusing world where things are not fair, where things are not rational and where it feels so good to make an us and a them, a right people and a wrong people, a rational, reasonable people and those other people.
But we are all mad, my friends. We are all woven into this mad world, making decisions that do not make sense, and no matter how right we think we are, being right is not enough. Being right feels good, but being right is not a strategy to get to the world we long for.
In my classes, my students and I do deliberations. We take a contentious issue and have a short guide that frames three different options, outlining the position and then the tradeoffs of each position. The guides are designed to give a fair hearing to different viewpoints and a fair assessment of the pros and cons of each view. I ask my students, when people make a point, or a claim, even if it seems wrong, or absurd to ask what is behind the statement. You think that everyone should have a gun with them at all times? What values underlie that? What worries underlie that? The person is saying they value security. They are saying they feel insecure. Perhaps they long to feel more powerful. Perhaps they don’t feel safe. They are saying they value certain freedoms. We are not trying to agree or disagree with the values or the feelings that underlie the statement, but to hear them. To hear our neighbor where they are at. To pay attention to their elephant.
My students do not usually leave our deliberations with different viewpoints, but what they do say over and over is that they understand their classmates better. The liberals understand the conservatives better. The conservatives understand the liberals better. They are less other to each other. Which, I believe plants the seeds for hearing each other better. As one of my students said, it seems like in the U.S. we have lost the idea of an us. It seems like there is always a good us and a bad them, but we don’t have an us anymore.
We as individuals and we as a church can dig in our heals. We can insist on being right, on the truth that we know, on reason and rationality as our altar. Yet, if we cannot hear our neighbors – our most “other” neighbors, our confederate flag flying neighbor, our neighbor who thinks we are going to hell, how can we reach the world? How can we do anything but simply preach to the choir. If we are serious that we our faith is not just for some us, we must ask how can we be a church and a faith for all people who need love? Who need to be heard. Who feel like an other.
We do not have to agree with people’s elephants to pay attention to them, to speak to them, to acknowledge them, to tell them that they are inherent worthy and have dignity. And, if we are ever to corral our own elephants in the direction that we would like them to go, we must at least recognize that they are there, to learn perhaps to be friends with them, to recognize that they are part of us.
I wish that we would know the truth and we would be free.
But may we leave today, knowing we are not free. And the truth with not get us there. Freedom is a long, slow journey of learning to love ourselves, of learning to love others in all their messiness and brokenness, of listening, and reflecting, of letting go of our egos and our righteousness. Over and over again.
Perhaps it is the case that we shall never be truly free – not free from suffering, not free from our elephants, no free from our neighbors who seem crazy or drive us crazy.
Pema Chödrön says, “In life, we think that they point is to pass the test, or overcome the problem. Yet the real truth is that things don’t really get solved. They come together for a time, and then they fall back apart. Then they come together again and fall apart again. It’s just like that.”
Perhaps, if we are to taste a little freedom, it will come from this coming together, and falling apart, as individuals, as families, as a church, as a world, and not running from that. Letting go of how right we are, how much better we are, and seeing that we are all in this together, struggling together on this spinning planet to try to eek out something a little more humane, a little more beautiful, a little more worthy our years here. May we show care to ourselves in this messy journey, and care for others, even the most other others.
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