Hidden Motives. We all have them. We all experience them, yet often, it is far easier to see them in others, rather than in ourselves. I recently listened to the following podcast about the so-called “Elephant in the Brain“, that we all carry around with us, but try to ignore. If you have the time to listen, the podcast embedded below will take you deep sea diving into the depths of brain science, selfishness, hypocrisy, norms/meta-norms, cheating, deception/self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling/counter-signaling, and common knowledge. As with all learning, like you, I try to discern how to best apply these things to my everyday life and to my relationships. After listening to this, I came away with a strong conviction to be more aware of my hidden motives and to be conscious of not just what motivates me, but Who. Here is how I got there…
At this point, where I have alluded to God with the capital W in Who, you might find it odd that I am a Jesus Follower who listens to a podcast hosted by a devout atheist, Sam Harris. If you get to know me or read my blog, you’ll probably learn that I firmly believe that true knowledge and dare I say, true faith, is found only when we are open to listening to all the viewpoints and the vast diversity God has created. I go out of my way not to live and learn “in a bubble” and I believe we are Better Together. That means interacting, and even loving the people, outside our respective “bubbles.”
In an episode of the Waking Up Podcast, Sam Harris speaks with Robin Hanson about our hidden motives in everyday life. They discuss selfishness, hypocrisy, norms and meta-norms, cheating, deception, self-deception, education, the evolutionary logic of conversation, social status, signaling and counter-signaling, common knowledge, AI, and many other topics.
For any of you who either don’t love science or don’t have the time to listen to a podcast, just hang in there with me for a second while I attempt to set the stage. I promise we will get to the “fun stuff” soon. In this podcast, Sam Harris and Robin Hanson discuss how our brains are wired for self-deception and the deception of others. They share how our brain’s wiring creates the unconscious motives that “infect our venerated social institutions such as Art, School, Charity, Medicine, Politics, and Religion.” They allege that these institutions are in many ways designed to accommodate our hidden motives, to serve covert agendas alongside their “official” ones. By extension, they describe the same for our personal relationships.
Harris and Hanson share examples of how our behavior as individuals and our expectations of society are often in conflict, such as our wanting speed limits and wanting those to apply to everyone, in contrast to our unabashed individual want to/need for speed. Harris asks us this very pointed question: “Why do we, who say we want speed limits, because we know it keeps us all safer, also fail to want our society to make or buy cars that cannot exceed the speed limit?” This is the elephant in our brain: the contradiction between the norms and rules we want society to have and enforce, while we simultaneously look for an opportunity and/or excuse to break them.
I’d ask anyone, reading this from a faith-based point of view, to consider just how similar this is to the concept that, while we know what God wants for us, we “all find ourselves broken and living in a broken world.” In some ways, it is truly similar and other very fundamental ways, quite different; as from their point of view, there is no God to save us from our broken selves. In their view, only through the awareness of our “tricky biological dispositions” can we make good moral and societal decisions. You may agree with them, either way, I think we all have something to learn from this.
Hanson and his co-author, Kevin Simler, describe our brains as having two halves. The half that acts and the half that justifies those actions. They use the analogy of the conscious self as a sort of press secretary, continually making up good excuses for our behavior. In this way, our press secretary creates and tells the story of our lives, trying to portray us in the best possible light for success in society.
As a further illustration of this dynamic at work, Sam Harris describes a long-standing neurological finding best exemplified in patients with a split-brain procedure. In this procedure, some of those who experience severe grand mal seizures have their corpus callosum cut. According to scientists, in most people, the left (linguistic) side of our brain confabulates reasons for doing things, while our right brain does them, in an otherwise mindless, autonomic fashion. In a famous experiment, they tell these patients’ right brains to get up and walk to the door, only to observe the left brain confabulate a reason for it, such as: “I wanted a Coke.” In these experiments, the left brain keeps completing the picture based on nothing or next to no information. The press secretary covers our actions with a made-up story. Usually, that story is one that casts us as having a reasonable motive for the action, or at least a neutral one, like any good press secretary would do.
The podcasters reassure us that we should not be dismayed, they say many motives are relevant and sometimes truly noble, but that we are easily deceived about which ones are and which ones aren’t. They conclude better awareness of this tendency can help us make better decisions. Which brings me to my learning about the Who over the What. Just for fun, let’s start by asking ourselves, How. Based on all this evidence, how can we be sure the motives we think are good and pure, are truly so? How can we be sure that, even when we are trying to serve others, what we are doing is in those others’ best interest, or at least, not slavishly always in our own? What if, we can’t discern a difference?
At one point in the podcast, there is an interesting exchange between, Harris, the devout atheist, albeit with the strong contemplative and moralistic bent, and Hanson, the incredibly, indelibly neutral scientist. Hanson shares during one of Harris’ atheistic assertions, that he finds it interesting that all the scientific evidence suggests those with some sort of faith, which Harris may feel is the ultimate self-deception, tend to live, longer, healthier and more fulfilling lives. He insinuates (or maybe my press secretary just heard it this way?) that these people understand and gain something that those who are straining to rely only on their own understanding of the world, on a purely fact-based level, may not.
For instance, I was brought to tears by a story yesterday. It seems that someone in our community lost their child abruptly. That young man was working on a project before he passed with a neighbor of his. He was nearly done and ready to share it. The day after the tragedy, not only did that neighbor show up to complete the project, he was surprised to find that young man’s friends arrived at the project site with the very same idea in mind. Together, they will complete his unfinished work and share it with neighborhood children as the young man intended. (update I recently learned the Boy Scouts are posthumously awarding him his Eagle Scout rank! :)) What were the hidden motives in that scenario? What were the neighbor and friends respective press secretaries telling them and the world? Does any of that even matter to a mother who no longer has her child and needed her (and his) community to surround her and comfort her and honor her son at that moment?
Which brings us to the Who. Whether you are a believer in something or Someone greater than yourself, I submit to you that the more we learn about ourselves, the less we know whether it is all “hardware” or if there is something more. There will be disagreements on this, to be sure. From either point of view, one thing is clear, we have a choice to make. We can choose to figure this all out on our own, focusing exclusively on the mysterious What and the perplexing How, or we can choose to be in this together with some whos. True, I have put my faith in the big Who, and I would love for everyone to have what I have found. Until that day, if you are not there, I implore you to choose to find some whos to work through this crazy life with. If we are in this together, our hidden motives need not define us, nor will our press secretaries. If we play this right, in the end, our whos and our relationship to the whos, and for some of us, The Big Who, will be the one to tell our story.