Sunday, January 3, 2010

Search Judaism – A Critique: Chapter Two, section two

The Human U-Turn (Chapter Two, section two)

The author quotes Drs. Wade and Travis (who, coincidentally, were the authors of the textbook I used in my Intro-to-Psych class in college) as saying that our crowning achievement as a species is that, “We are the only species that tries to understand its own misunderstandings.” The author interprets this as meaning that only humans have the ability to think about their past behavior and try to correct what we did wrong. He then says that, “only the human soul has the faculty to choose between right and wrong.” He is guilty here of the equivocation fallacy, as understanding our misunderstandings and correcting them implies changing what we got wrong in the practical sense, not in the moral sense. Yet the psychologists’ statement doesn’t imply even that, and in point of fact other species are capable of learning from and correcting “wrong” behavior by trial and error. Rather they are saying that we are the only species that thinks about why we got it wrong in the first place.

Further, even if the quote was about moral right and wrong, our ability to determine which is which does not by itself imply a soul. I suppose that at this point the author is assuming that he has adequately proven the existence of the soul in the last chapter, and so I will have to put up with the constant leaps of logic assigning cognitions, emotions, and instincts to the soul.

In the very next sentence the author again commits the equivocation fallacy when he states that animals are capable only of genetically programmed changes while humans are capable of changes through introspection. The examples he uses to illustrate his point are tadpoles changing into frogs and caterpillars into butterflies. The pre-programmed physical changes these animals go through are not the same kind of change we are talking about when we speak about someone turning their life around.
{equivocation fallacy x2}

As an example of someone turning his life around we have another glurgy story, this one about an active KKK member who renounced his former racism and anti-Semitism as a result of, “the remarkable unconditional love of a local Jewish couple.” This is meant to illustrate the ability of the human soul to, “engage in self-examination and make unexpected U-turns.

What can I say except, once again, there is no reason to say this had anything to do with any supposed soul. What if far more likely is that the KKK member was put in the uncomfortable position of holding conflicting beliefs: 1) “Jews are evil.” 2) “A Jewish couple are the nicest people I know and have helped me considerably.” The psychological stress caused by holding two conflicting beliefs is called cognitive dissonance, and inevitably one of the beliefs is discarded in order to maintain a coherent perception of the world. In this case it was the anti-Semitic beliefs that were jettisoned, leading him to renounce his former attitudes in order to maintain his friendship with the Jewish couple. This is a well-documented psychological mechanism whose functioning does not require a metaphysical soul with a divine sense of morality.

I also want to point out that once again the story seems chosen to evoke an emotional response in the reader. Any tale of someone deciding what they had been doing was wrong and changing their life would have worked. What we get is the quintessential modern-day anti-Semite reformed through the love of a Jewish couple. Granted, the author is entitled to choose stories he feels would appeal to his readership, but at a certain point it crosses the line from interesting to manipulative.
{emotional manipulation, violation of Occam’s Razor}

The author ends this section by stating that only the human soul is, “driven to greater and greater accomplishments,” and then claims that Maslow said that, “no sooner does a human being fill a lesser need than he aspires to actualize the next level.” His use of “the human soul” when “human” alone would suffice is becoming annoying. And if I remember correctly, Maslow says that each level of needs has to be fulfilled before one can fulfill needs on the next level. That is, satisfying a lower level is necessary to attempt to satisfy needs on a higher level, but it is not sufficient. Not everyone aspires to fulfill all of the needs in the hierarchy. [There is also some research that shows people try to fulfill needs at multiple levels as the opportunity arises rather than fulfilling them hierarchically, but that may be beside the point]

The author has demonstrated that humans are capable of change through introspection, spurred along by psychological mechanisms. He also continues to claim that only humans are driven to accomplish as much as they can, a claim about which, as I’ve said previously, there is no real data. He has not demonstrated a soul is necessary to account for these factors, and at this point seems to be taking it for granted that all positive human traits are a product of the soul.

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