Tuesday, June 22, 2010

The Dogma Reflex and Time Pressure

In the 20th century, dogma was mostly understood as a form of intellectual resistance to new ideas. Thanks to new discoveries, we understand dogma better. There is very little that is intellectual about it. The nature of dogma is to form a reflex, an ability to react without thinking. Dogma works its way into the reptilian brain, the rapid and simplistic part of the brain where routine responses occur but no recognizable thinking takes place. There is some essential value in this, so we do not want to do away with dogma completely, but most dogma in pure manipulation.

Dogma has been described as an emotional reaction, but this too turns out to be a misconception. Emotions do come out of the reptilian brain, just as words do, but the reptilian brain itself is too simple to hold emotions, just as it is too simple to hold words. The emotions that occur in a reflexive response occur, like the thoughts, after the fact — after the actions have already taken place.

One of the scary things about dogma is how convincingly it can mimic the full range of human responses. It creates “emotional” reactions, “Like hell,” “Oh, shit,” and so on, that may or may not be accompanied by the emotions that they supposedly express. The next time you find yourself saying something like “Like hell” or “Oh, shit,” stop yourself in the middle of the process. You’ll discover that there is a moment between the reptilian-brain reaction and the emotion, roughly the moment when the echoes of those words are dying away. In this moment, the emotion that supposedly has just been expressed does not yet exist. Freeze this moment, and you have the opportunity to choose a different reaction.

Dogma is even more convincing in the way it simulates an intellectual response: “I know that’s not true because . . .”

Imagine that the video cuts off so that you can see and hear only the words, “I know that’s not true because.” Can you judge the intellectual soundness of the assertions that will follow based on only this much video? You can, because the reptilian brain has its own rhythm, which is distinct from the mental rhythm of a thinking person. The dogma reflex spouts out a series of assertions that appear to be logically connected in the manner of an argument or a proof, but the connections cannot necessarily be demonstrated. It is the rhythm, not the logic, that makes the argument convincing to a susceptible person.

Most dogma is created intentionally. Ideas are selected, planted, and justified without regard for whether they are true or false, then converted to dogma through a process that very few people outside of politics, advertising, and art understand. And the whole purpose of this is to program people to react to a selected stimulus without thinking, using the dogma reflex.

This new understanding has profound implications for science and religion. Most of the “thinking” in both fields is dogma. The dogma in religion ranges from “theology” to “What would Jesus do?” In science, references to “laws” and “settled science” point to dogma. To be fair, there is a great deal in science and religion that can be demonstrated at the drop of a hat. But most of it cannot be. The role of dogma could be reduced by finding more direct ways to demonstrate principles, but most people who work in science and religion are not interested in the problem of creating better demonstrations of “known” principles. Part of the reluctance comes from a fear that some “known facts” will turn out to be inconveniently false under closer inspection.

This fear must be part of what keeps dogma in place. Yet we also know that dogma can dissipate in moments in the face of the right kind of demonstration of contrary information.

Dogma seats faster in people who are under time pressure. This also means that people who are under time pressure are more easily manipulated. They are the ready victims of advertisers, politicians, artists, scientists, and others. It almost makes you wonder if the fast pace of modern life is itself a form of manipulation, created to make us all easier to program. Of course, I know that’s not true because . . . No, I won’t say it. Almost everything we know about the fast pace of modern life is dogma. In reality, we know almost nothing about why life moves so fast.