Can We Trust Our Brains?

If we are who we say we are in our secular version of the story we are in, well, we’re beginning to doubt whether we can trust our brains….

“You,” your joys and your sorrows, your memories and your ambitions, your sense of personal identity and free will, are in fact no more than the behavior of a vast assembly of nerve cells and their associated molecules.

Francis Crick, The Astonishing Hypothesis: The Scientific Search for the Soul

Philosophers consider Ockham the chief exponent of nominalism, a powerful philosophical movement which taught that universal concepts only exist in our minds – they don’t exist in reality. Thus, to take an obvious and crucial example, nominalists contend that there is no such thing as “human nature.” “Human nature” is simply the description, the name (hence “nominalism”), that we give to our experience of common features among human beings. The only things that exist are particulars.

George Weigel, The Cube and the Cathedral

That’s who we are as the active protagonists in our stories.

And that’s who man is in the story of who-manity.

Here we are, all alone.

And yet, the strange thing is, we believe and live as though there are other minds out there, inhabiting the other bodies of the other human beings in our story.

Or at least, that’s the way we usually see things.

But, like this news story from Hector Klumpp’s days in Kansas shows, not everyone is so convinced …

Cars at intersection in downtown Wichita hesitate
as they ponder the possibility other minds exist.

Intersection Indecision Increasing

(TOPEKA, KANSAS) — Norma Mineta claims she shouldn’t be faulted for the recent traffic pileup at the intersection of Highways 61 and 50 on the southern end of Hutchinson.

“What did they want me to do?” asks Mineta, 59, of Newton. “Proceed through that intersection? How am I supposed to know those cars will stop?”

The resulting pileup, which resulted in seven cars being rear-ended, numerous fistfights breaking out and a two-mile traffic backup on both highways, is only the latest illustration of what a new study by the Kansas Department of Transportation (KDOT) confirms many Kansas drivers have experienced firsthand — intersections across the state are being plagued by a strange new syndrome.

The study, jointly produced by the Bureau of Traffic Engineering (BOTE) and the Bureau of Traffic Safety (BOTS), cites testimony from both law enforcement personnel and the public at large to show “Intersection Indecision Syndrome” (IIS) is becoming more widespread in Kansas. Although the syndrome was first identified eight years ago in Marin County, California, by the Chief of Traffic Enforcement for the State of California, Dr. Erik Estrada, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) only officially recognized it two years ago after more and more states around the country brought it to their attention.

“It’s definitely a problem here in Kansas,” says Chief Intersection Intelligence Agent Quinn Wintrex of KDOT. “We’ve had increasing reports from all areas of the state.”

According to Gerhard Gabion, project manager of the study, there are telltale symptoms of the syndrome.

“Intersection Indecision Syndrome is marked by the driver’s unwillingness or extreme hesitation to proceed through an intersection when other drivers are stopped at it or approaching it. In some cases, drivers who suffer from it will refuse to enter the intersection until all other traffic has cleared. Other victims of the syndrome experience anxiety attacks in relation to it.”

Umschwade Smith, Director of the National Center for IIS Research, says he thinks researchers may only now be coming to understand the nature and gravity of the syndrome.

“What’s taken so long to get a handle on this thing is those who suffer from it just don’t want to talk about it. Law enforcement personnel who come in contact with them often report a substantial unwillingness on their part to answer even the most basic of questions. We finally had a breakthrough a few months ago when we discovered these same folks often have the habit of keeping their thoughts in a journal. And what we discovered from reading several those journals is the onset of the syndrome in an individual is closely related to creeping doubts whether any other minds exist besides their own.”

“And that made driving a scary thing,” recounts former syndrome sufferer Sol Epps, 35, of rural Wabaunsee County. “You’d be approaching an intersection in broad daylight and the light would be green, but then you’d notice another car coming from the other direction. How could you be sure they’d stop at the red light? My sis used to tease me about being childish when it would happen, but man, I used to have anxiety attacks in those situations.”

Now it appears those anxiety attacks could end up costing the United States Government millions of dollars a year. According to a ruling by a Federal District Judge in Oregon, Intersection Indecision Syndrome must now be recognized as a qualifying disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA). That means the US Department of Transportation may have to come up with new intersection designs and traffic safety concepts in order to accommodate those who are afflicted with this new disability.

“It’s a major pain,” claims one federal official. “But what can you do? We could try a promotional campaign to persuade these people other minds do exist. But then you know what would happen? We’d get dragged into court on a separation of church and state complaint. You see, nobody seems to be able to conclusively prove other minds exist, but everybody basically accepts it as a given. And you can imagine the implications this has for the idea of belief in God. We’d have some people go through the roof if we pushed that one.”

Hector Klumpp, Director of the Division of Small Business Failure, warned the federal government “not to get cute and go thinking this was a people problem when it could easily be solved by science.”

Klumpp is confident that modern science, aided by the best minds in the business community, can craft a solution which bypasses the syndrome altogether.

“This could be a chance for a new business breakthrough. It’s the kind of challenge which led men to walk on the moon. We could be on the brink of totally redesigning our transportation system. Give the partnership of science and business a chance.”

Meanwhile, for sad syndrome sufferers like Norma Mineta, the battle goes on.

“I can’t believe I’m actually trying to talk with you about this,” she moans.

So, if we really believe we are who we say we are here in the middle of our Nonplot narrative version of the story, can we really trust our brains?

Apparently, even our hero Charles Darwin struggled with this…

Charles Darwin

With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has always been developed from the mind of lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy. Would anyone trust in the convictions of a monkey’s mind, if there are any convictions in such a mind?”

Charles Darwin

And look at this short video one our team member came across, from one of the most prominent Christian apologists in the West, Dr. William Lane Craig:

Can Atheists Trust Their Own Minds?

And here’s a link to a talk about the issue from another American professor, Dr. Alvin Plantinga, who it turns out may be the most prominent Christian philosopher in America, with a fuller explanation of the matter:

An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism

And consider how the following fits with the issue Plantinga and Craig raise…

If the human mind has evolved in obedience to the imperatives of survival, what reason is there for thinking that it can acquire knowledge of reality, when all that is required in order to reproduce the species is that its errors and illusions are not fatal? A purely naturalistic philosophy cannot account for the knowledge that we believe we possess. As he framed the problem in The Foundations of Belief in 1895, “We have not merely stumbled on truth in spite of error and illusion, which is odd, but because of error and illusion, which is even odder.” Balfour’s solution was that naturalism is self-defeating: humans can gain access to the truth only because the human mind has been shaped by a divine mind. Similar arguments can be found in a number of contemporary philosophers, most notably Alvin Plantinga. Again, one does not need to accept Balfour’s theistic solution to see the force of his argument. A rigorously naturalistic account of the human mind entails a much more skeptical view of human knowledge than is commonly acknowledged.

The Closed Mind of Richard Dawkins, by John Gray, The New Republic, October 2, 2014

And look at this…

As C. S. Lewis argued so eloquently, naturalism is basically self-refuting because the assumption, the operative presupposition, is that everything came to be as a result of chance. Atoms merged at a certain point, there were chance mutations, perhaps in an infinite universe, and here we have these incredibly sophisticated humans who can develop incredibly sophisticated computers, and so on.

However, to come to that conclusion, you’re relying on a brain and a thinking process that evolved by chance. If it has evolved by chance, you have no idea whether it’s reliable. Attempt to prove to me that an organ that evolved by chance is going to be reliable to always give you the right answer to any particular question. Or prove to me that this organ has the capacity of knowledge, which is distinguishing what is real from what isn’t. The answer, of course, is that you can never get there.

Charles Colson, My Final Word

So, if our version of the story is true, can people really trust their brains?

It’s a fascinating question, because people live all the time as though they believe they can.

It shows up in all sorts of ways — like our love for reading.

You see, if ourversion of the story is true and our story begins and ends in nothingness — and we really can’t be sure that we can trust our brains  why do we, here in the middle of the story, treat reading as though it has real purpose, value and meaning?

Here are some video clips which our team came across which seem to be at least a bit relevant…

Julian Smith, I’m Reading a Book

The Wonder of Books

Fahrenheit 451

The Book of Eli

Let me give you an example of a story from our own history in China, which came up as we wrestled with this question of whether we could trust our brains.

Remember the Four Pests campaign from the Great Leap Forward? Chairman Mao initiated it as a means to enhance our survivalas a people. And one of those four pests were the sparrow. Killing sparrows became an obsession.

Here are a couple of videos about this…

Great Sparrow Campaign 1957

Mao Zedong Great Leap Four Plagues

All those millions of minds across our nation, devoted to our survival — by killing sparrows.

But what a disaster it turned into!

How come we didn’t see ahead of time the truth that killing all those sparrows would result in far more insects – especially locusts – and help lead us into the Great Famine which killed so many millions — 30? 40? 50 million? — of our people– many of whom had participated in the Four Pests campaign!

Historians have known for some time that the Great Leap Forward resulted in one of the world’s worst famines. Demographers have used official census figures to estimate that 20 million to 30 million people died.

But inside the archives is an abundance of evidence, from the minutes of emergency committees to secret police reports and public security investigations, that show these estimates to be woefully inadequate.

In the summer of 1962, for instance, the head of the Public Security Bureau in Sichuan sent a long handwritten list of casualties to the local boss, Li Jingquan, informing him that 10.6 million people had died in his province from 1958 to 1961. In many other cases, local party committees investigated the scale of death in the immediate aftermath of the famine, leaving detailed computations of the scale of the horror.

In all, the records I studied suggest that the Great Leap Forward was responsible for at least 45 million deaths.

Mao’s Great Leap to Famine, By FRANK DIKÖTTER, New York Times, December 15, 2010

And you may want to look at this video, which Shih Tzu would hate…

By the way, while we were in the middle of discussing all this, Paula Wong interjected something which took us all by surprise. “You are not going to believe this quote from Jesus I came across,” she said.

I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him. Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God. Indeed, the very hairs of your head are all numbered. Don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.

Luke 12:4-7

Your version of the story we are in is very different than ours. In our version of the story we’re no more valuable than the worthless sparrows.

But why don’t most of us ever talk about ourselves that way?

Why do we instead choose to think our identity begins with our race, or gender, or sexual orientation – all things which we believe do have value and significance?

And if our identity is ultimately something we construct by ourselves, then why don’t we openly talk about ourselves like this famous song?…

Dust in the Wind

You see what I mean? It’s like we’re unable to go there. There is some sort of strange, built-in resistance. Freaky.

And that Brownson guy is making us think…

We ought to follow reason, but we ought also to recognize its limits—and what those limits imply about the centrality of revelation. As Brownson writes, “Let philosophy go as far as it can, but let the philosopher never for a moment imagine that human reason will ever be able to understand itself.” Most crucially, the philosopher will never be able to answer, through reason alone, the most pressing question of all: Why did rational, finite beings come into existence in the first place?

Orestes Brownson and the Truth About America, By Peter Augustine Lawler, First Things, December 2002  

And when I began to talk about these disturbing things with Paula, she smiled – and then showed me this memo which Shih Tzu once wrote to me…

Intelligence Memorandum

Classified: Top Secret
Mao Tse Tongue!

To: Chow Non Phat
The Low Energy Loser

From: Shih Tzu

The Devoted Disciple of Chairman Mao
Who Will Make China Great Again

Re: Our Problem of Probabilities in
Pursuit of Our China Dream

Dear Comrade Chow,

You think you are the only one who pays attention to Sun Tzu, you pathetic loser? Your brain is totally rigged!

But there is someone you should pay more attention to — Nassim Taleb, the author of The Black Swan.

If you hadn’t been so desperate and sad when I came on the scene, you would have listened to me about Donald Trump. Because he is a Black Swan who has flown into the story of America.

But you missed more than just the Donald. Because you have not paid enough attention to the reality of Black Swans, Comrade Chow, there is something else incredibly important you have missed. And maybe you missed it because you just want the good life you once had in Hollywood. You soft, Westernized wuss! Hollywood got in your head and heart. But you need to toughen up, man! We have a wild ride ahead!

So here is what you missed, you idiot…

It’s the problem of probabilities. Look what Taleb wrote…

Black Swans (capitalized) are large- scale unpredictable and irregular events of massive consequence — unpredicted by a certain observer, and such unpredictor is generally called the “turkey” when he is both surprised and harmed by these events. I have made the claim that most of history comes from Black Swan events, while we worry about fine-tuning our understanding of the ordinary, and hence develop models, theories, or representations that cannot possibly track them or measure the possibility of these shocks. Black Swans hijack our brains, making us feel we “sort of” or “almost” predicted them, because they are retrospectively explainable. We don’t realize the role of these Swans in life because of this illusion of predictability.Life is more, a lot more, labyrinthine than shown in our memory— our minds are in the business of turning history into something smooth and linear, which makes us underestimate randomness.

Nassim Taleb, Antifragile

You see, Comrade Chow, as you continue to advocate a slow and steady approach to achieving our object of desire, our China Dream, you are depending on the probability tomorrow will be like today. You are betting the United States will continue its steady decline and we will continue our steady rise.

Remember the memo you sent to General Tso titled “An Introduction to the Secular Version of the Story We Are In”? Well, a big clue to the problem of probabilities was right there in your memo when you quoted Robert McKee…

McKee: The desire in human beings for order, for meaning, to understand causal connections, the desire to control your existence is genetic, all right? Because the underlying imperative of life is to survive, and chaos is the enemy. Therefore you must bring order. You must be able to predict, you must be able to take an action with a sense of what will probably happen when you take the action, and have some confidence that you’ll get the results you intended, or you’re out of control and therefore death is right around the corner. 


But what if momentous decisions we are faced with don’t always provide us with the ability “to take an action with a sense of what will probably happen when you take the action”?

And what if this reliance on probabilities puts us on unstable ground, you fool? Consider how Nassim Taleb speaks of his journey away from relying on probabilities…

I spent a long time believing in the centrality of probability in life and advocating that we should express everything in terms of degrees of credence, with unitary probabilities as a special case for total certainties and null for total implausibility. Critical thinking, knowledge, beliefs — everything needed to be probabalized. Until I came to realize, twelve years ago, that I was wrong in this notion that the calculus of probability could be a guide to life and help society. Indeed, it is only in very rare circumstances that probability (by itself) is a guide to decision making. It is a clumsy academic construction, extremely artificial, and nonobservable. Probability is backed out of decisions; it is not a construct to be handled in a stand-alone way in real-life decision making. It has caused harm in many fields.

The Fallacy of Probability, by Nassim Taleb, in What have you changed your mind about?: today’s leading minds rethink everything, By John Brockman

So, you fool, what if probabilities aren’t all that trustworthy, and we’d be wise to give more consideration to the reality history is instead pock-marked by unpredictable turns and surprises which have massive impacts? What if we have fallen for the probabilities trap because it’s so popular among our story allies in the West who are trying to use it to pound Christianity into the ground?

Have we once again let the ‘Westies’ influence our thinking too much? Just look at this statement from Richard Dawkins in his famous book…

Any probability statement is made in the context of a certain level of ignorance.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

But in that same book it’s very clear Richard Dawkins is putting his trust in probabilities:

God’s existence or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe, discoverable in principle if not in practice. If he existed and chose to reveal it, God himself would clinch the argument, noisily and unequivocably, in his favour. And even if God’s existence is never proved or disproved with certainty one way or the other, available evidence and reasoning may yield an estimate of probability far from 50 percent.
What matters is not whether God is disprovable (he isn’t) but whether his existence is probable.  That is another matter. Some undisprovable things are sensibly judged far less probable than other undisprovable things. There is no reason to regard God as immune from consideration along the spectrum of probabilities.

Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion

And look at this photo:

Richard Dawkins, posing with Ariane Sherine at the Atheist Bus Campaign launch in England in 2008.

What a gamble! So much is at stake for the Party if our ally Dawkins turns out to be wrong!

So, what if we’re also making a mistake? What if there is a better, more effective way forward? You see, one of the members of my ‘team within a team’ sent this to me recently…

If neo-Darwinism is true and reproductive success a measure of inclusive fitness, then every neo-Darwinian should abandon atheism immediately and become a religious believer, because no genes have spread more widely than those of Abraham, and no memes more extensively than that of monotheism. But then, as Emerson said, consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, The Great Partnership: Science, Religion, and the Search for Meaning

And that was followed by this…

John Adams, our second president, added a second point in a letter to a friend:

I will insist that the Hebrews have done more to civilize men than any other nation. If I were an atheist, and believed in blind eternal fate, I should still believe that fate had ordained the Jews to be the most essential instrument for civilizing the nations. If I were an atheist of the other sect, who believe or pretend to believe that all is ordered by chance, I should believe that chance had ordered the Jews to preserve and propagate to all mankind the doctrine of supreme, intelligent, wise, almighty sovereign of the universe, which I believe to be the great essential principle of all morality, and consequently of all civilization.

Why is this? Because if there is no truth, no argument is possible in the light of evidence. Under a regime that spouts lies, there is no way to protest in the name of truth. Where truth doesn’t count, conversation is empty. Where truth doesn’t count, persuasion can be no more than seduction or intimidation. Power rules.

Put another way, when power, wealth, and position threaten to tyrannize, people must be able to appeal to truth. Only when truth is cherished as an imperative does civilization becomes possible. Only then can human beings enter into rational conversation with one another. For civilization is constituted by conversation. Barbarians bully; civilized people persuade.

Truth and Freedom, by Michael Novak, First Things, January 2, 2009

And soon afterwards another one of my ‘team within a team’ members came across this news article connected to your despicable loser friend Hector Klumpp…

Wichita-based IDF recruiter welcomes another Kansas
high schooler into the Israeli Army.

Recruiting War Rages in Kansas

(LaCrosse, KS) – The increasing emphasis on the teaching of Darwinism in Kansas high schools is beginning to have some interesting results. In this west-central Kansas town it has led to a recruiting war between the U.S. Army and the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

“Yeah, it’s pretty unusual,” said Colonel J.D. Crawdad, spokesman for the U.S. Army Recruiting Command, based in Fort Knox, Kentucky. “We don’t usually directly compete with the IDF. But those kids out at LaCrosse have an unusual skill we both covet.”

The skill Crawdad refers to is expertise in handling all sorts of barbed and concertina wire.

“It’s a generational thing,” said Otis Timken, 85. “We’re proud to be called the barbed wire capital of the world, and it ain’t just a title we grabbed to lure tourists with. We make sure all the kids grow up knowin’ about all kinds of wire and how to make it and use it. It’s just in the blood around here. But I hope these kids hang around. We sure can’t afford to lose ’em.”

But for high school students like Alexander Hargrave, 18, the study of Darwinism has shaken their thinking.

“It is kind of confusin’,” he said while taking a break recently from practicing with the Concertina Rolling Team. “You know, we’ve been studying a lot about the survival of the fittest. And what you need to understand about kids around here is we tend to take life very seriously. Maybe bein’ around barbed wire since we were young enough to crawl through it has made us sensitive to the pains of livin’. Anyway, as a lot of us began to think through this stuff we realized the Jews are the key people in the world today. I mean, just look at history and it’s clear they know how to survive – and thrive. So, I know it sounds kinda’ odd, but if we’re gonna’ take this survival of the fittest stuff seriously, maybe we ought to consider becoming Jewish. Fact is, some of us think the path of human evolution is heading in the direction of the Jews. Or maybe they’re the ones leading us all down the path.”

Markus McCracken, a senior at LaCrosse High School who volunteers at the Barbed Wire Museum in his spare time, is considering joining the IDF as soon as he graduates in May.

“A lot of us are thinking about it now. But it ain’t easy comin’ to a decision about this,” he said. “We’re torn between love of our country and what seems to be the clear path of human evolution. And we’re not sure what to do. I mean, we instinctively love our country, but yet the more we think through Darwinism, the more we think this love of country stuff may simply be part of the religious illusion people erect to deal with the difficulties of the harsh world we live in. On the other hand, the survival of the species could be a higher calling than mere love of country.”

Meanwhile, plenty of high school girls are wrestling with the same question as they consider the possibility their sweethearts may leave town for good. But for Loretta Liebenthal, the issue is already settled.

“I told my boyfriend, ‘Honey, whatever you decide is fine with me. Just don’t ask me to leave you or turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay, I will stay.’ He was glad about that and when we talked with the IDF recruiter he said it could all be worked out. So I may end up honeymooning in Haifa.”

But it’s still too early to tell which direction most students will go, according to Colonel Crawdad.

“It’s just the beginning of the fourth quarter,” he said. “And we’re trying to readjust our recruiting strategy with these particular kids. We’re not sure the Army of One stuff is working very well there. Which frankly has us confused. If naturalism is true, then ultimately, we’re all our own little gods and the Army of One stuff should find a ready audience. And yet we’re seeing this strange allegiance to the species as a whole, almost like a religious commitment. It’s kinda’ weird, but it has sure got our attention. Some of our top ad folks are even thinking along the lines of a jingo like ‘Join the Species That Joined the Army!’”

Hector Klumpp, Director of the Division of Small Business Failure, called on the Israeli army to pull out of LaCrosse.

“We just can’t afford the continual brain drain among our young people in Kansas,” said Klumpp. “Since wealth ultimately comes from ideas, the business vitality of Kansas is tied to young people keeping their minds in state. Maybe we could make an exception for the IDF to operate in less strategic Kansas towns like Lebanon, but LaCrosse is a whole other sport.”

So wake up, Chow, you weak-willed wuss! It’s time to act. History is created by the brave!

That was confusing. Was Shih Tzu really suggesting the Party should abandon atheism and embrace Judaism?

But Shih Tzu does deserves our attention, because of our problem of probabilities.

You see, if Christianity is the story we are in, and your God is the Great Storyteller who does surprising things, then look what Paula showed us…

The past makes the future in this way: Memory builds an understanding of people and the world by recording patterns of experience, stacking them one on top of another by what they have in common, and then telling itself, “This is how the world works.” 

The mind then uses these patterns from the past in an effort to control the future by taking actions designed to make history repeat itself. But often, at critical moments, our memory-based sense of probability explodes when a tried-and-true action triggers a wholly unexpected effect, leaving us feeling that when it really matters, memory betrays us. 

As we will see in upcoming chapters, these violations of probability become the turning points that propel all stories. 

Storynomics, By Robert McKee and Tom Gerace

You can see, then, why we are worried about how our story may unfold in China.

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