This is point of inquiry for Thursday, October 30 1st, 2013.
Welcome to the inaugural episode of the newly revamped Point of Inquiry podcast, which we are broadcasting live from the Senate floor inquiry’s annual summit in sunny Tacoma, Washington.
I’m skeptical about that.
Our first guest, it’s an honor to have Lindblom love here. It was allocated. I mangle that too much, Malana. Perfect. Molad enough. Thank you. He’s saying he’s a physicist. He’s an author and a screenwriter. Best known for coauthoring with Stephen Hawking, The New York Times number one vessel up the grand design and the international bestseller, A Brief History of Time. His other books include The Drunkard’s Walk How Randomness Rules Our Lives and Heal Times notable book of the E.M.. And the new book is Subliminal How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior for Which He Won the 2013 Pen. E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. You may notice that I am neither DJ Grothe nor Chris Mooney. My name’s Josh Zepps. I’m founding host and producer of Huff Post Live, which is laughing in Post’s new online streaming talk thingummy. Bob. I asked Ron before this a long we should go for here with Leonard.
And he said it really depends on how how good I am that if I’m as good as Chris and D.J., then, you know, I can feel free to go for quite a long time. And if I’m not, then we should really keep it short. So, Leonard, thanks for your time. That concludes this episode of one of Inquirer Subliminal. The book. It’s basically about how there are behaviors that we recognize as being unconscious. That when I go to my drive on a route that I know very well, I recognize that I’m not thinking through all of those steps. But you said it goes a lot further than that. That, in fact, things that we think are conscious, things that we’re convinced are conscious, freely made choices are in fact governed by our subconscious. Right.
In your brain, there are different structures that some of which you are aware of their operation of some of which you’re not. And they’re, of course, very highly interconnected. And every time you experience something, every time you perceive something, every time your mind takes in data, your unconscious brain is processing that and it’s feeding the results of the processing to your conscious mind. But you’re not aware of that processing error that the results are coming. It’s just it’s a conclusion that your conscious mind seems to reach without you being aware of how you got there.
Now, a lot of people would would have a kind of basic assumption that all my instincts are going to be right. My gut is probably good to know things that my brain, my rational mind can’t produce. Your conclusion is kind of the reverse. Well, yeah. And there was a famous book written on that a few years ago. And what to what book are you referring? Well, in just a blink, I could tell you all I say.
And, you know, sometimes your hunches are correct. I’m I’m not saying at all that that your instincts and your unconscious mind gives you wrong answers because of your your conscious mind is is there for a very good reason. You couldn’t survive without it. It helps you process all the data that helps you get along in the real world to perceive your vision, your hearing, your surroundings, and to know how to react when things happen to you. So you don’t have to stop all the time and to say, stop, stop the action and think about things. Right. But because we evolved in the wild and we’re now living in, quote, civilization, there are times where your unconscious mind lead you astray. So I would say that as opposed to an author like her, Gladwell, who takes one position. I’d say that there are times for your conscious mind, unconscious mind helps you and gives you the right answer. And there are times when it gives you the wrong answer. And what’s important is to realize how it works so you can try and tell the difference.
How does it work? Well, you know how fibroids.
Yes, it as I love you’re being very direct and I think there’s a sign that this interview will go a long time.
Your cut, your your your mind takes in data in various ways, through your hearing, through your vision, and also more complex data about people, about financial decisions.
And your unconscious mind has the job of taking all that complex data and processing it in a way and digesting it in a sense, to give your conscious mind a clear picture of what’s going on. So it does various things to the data that comes in. It fills the fills in gaps. It draws conclusion. It makes his own calculations. And it’s the role. How it works is to take the limited data that comes in and to process it and to offer your conscious mind some simpler conclusions that you can chew on. And your conscious mind is which is willful and which you’re aware of, takes in these these these feelings and these this input from your unconscious mind and makes a conscious decision. So there’s an interplay between the two, but most of the thinking in your brain comes from the unconscious.
We all, I think, recognize that other people are biased and confused and influenced by their own presuppositions and expectations and experiences and past experiences.
We tend not to recognize. It in ourselves, is that part of the problem?
Well, if we don’t know ourselves and we’re not aware of how we come to our decisions, our feelings are conclusions, then that’s suboptimal. I would say yes.
I come to mind completely, consciously with absolutely no liar. Yes, I’m 100 percent objective at all times. You’re like classical economic theory that works really well. So how do you do better in the process of writing this book? Have you thought to yourself, what? Here are some ways, some rules of thumb that I should deploy more in my everyday life? Well, it’s difficult.
I wrote a book to raise your consciousness on the unconscious so that you are aware that subliminal influences are coming to you through your environment and that they’re affecting you. But there is really no way to tap into the unconscious because it is outside your awareness because of the structure of the brain. But what you can do is learn about it and learn about yourself and how you behave and try to use that to make conscious decisions. For example, something very simple.
I talked in the book about a study that was done in in England in a grocery store where they sell wine and they sell French and German wine on the wine aisle. And the researchers convinced the people there to play on alternate days to play German music and French music. And if you ask people and they and they certainly did ask the shoppers afterwards. Is a choice about what wine to buy, influenced by the music playing in the background? People will say, no, I hey, I use the data on the wine. I know I like this grape or this type of wine or I want to pay this price. I’m having such and such for dinner so that the cakes, the wine. But actually when they study the data on who bought what, what they found was it on the days that the French music was playing, two thirds of the wine bought was French. On the days of the German music was playing, two thirds of the wine bought was German. So the these people were making an unconscious decision to buy their wine. At least a number of them seem to have been without note, without they didn’t know that they were doing. There was something coming from their environment. However, if you’re conscious of these uncac of the way your unconscious mind works and you and you and you actually noticed the music, you could stop and say to yourself, wait a minute, is it is it really my taste in wine that’s making me buy this German wine, or is it the music?
Is it this strange Bulgarian that is playing in the background?
What about confirmation bias as. As a trick that our minds play on us? In other words, our tendency to cherry pick evidence that supports everyday existing beliefs and ignore other evidence. I think this sort of plays into people’s sense of superstition as well, maybe even spirituality and religiosity. You know, I was I prayed about my mother and then she called me. It’s miraculous that it must be telepathy. You just forget the fact that she didn’t call you the past 10 times you prayed.
Yeah, well, there’s two factors there. One is the confirmation bias is the idea that when people have a theory about the world and they they look around at their environment to test that theory, they tend to look for confirming factors rather than trying to poke holes in their theory. So we all have a natural tendency, if we believe something, to try and confirm it rather than to try and poke holes, which is really much more efficient.
We like looking holes in other people’s theory. Yeah.
Well, Frances, let me give you an example. Let me see if I can think of the famous example is I’m going to give you a sequence of three numbers and I want you to think about what will be the next. I want to have a theorist who I’m generating the sequence. OK, so what what kind of numbers I’m talking about. So let’s see. It’s two, eight and 10. OK. Now you can all think about it and you all have a theory about how I got those numbers, let’s say. OK, and now I want you to test your theory and you can ask me. Pick a number and ask me, is this number fit? Now, most people will say that’s what I say to eight and 10. Most people will have the theory that these are even numbers and they’ll throw out twelve. And I’ll go, yeah. And then they’ll say, OK, OK, that one would have worked. Give me another one that would have worked. They’ll say 20. And I’ll go. Yeah. That would have worked too. And eventually they confirmed that they’re even numbers. But actually the rule that I generated this sequence by was simply increasing numbers. So my rule was numbers are getting larger. You happen to pick ones that were getting larger and you were testing your theory that it’s even. But if you if you have a theory that the numbers are even and you aren’t tested well, you should have proposed was an odd number to see if that works or doesn’t work. You should try to poke a hole in your theory. And if you would, I said to eight in 10, you would’ve said, what, about 13? I would have also said yes. And you’d have realized your theory was wrong. So that’s called confirmation bias. Now, motivated reasoning is the other thing that you said, which is that when we approach the world and we look at it, we try and make sense of what’s going on. Well, we tend to not look at the data and then draw a conclusion. But we tend to have a conclusion that we already know we want to reach and try to find data that supports it. So that’s what we call thinking as a as a lawyer, as opposed to thinking as a science.
And that’s when I say that we tend to do that, I don’t mean on a conscious level. It’s not that we sit down and say, you know, I would say I believe in the death penalty and I’m going to sit down and look at all the literature and try and find studies that support that belief.
No, you think you’re objective and you’re going to look at all the studies. But when you come upon a study that supports it, you go, what a beautiful study. What wonderful methodology. Look at the crisp data. And when you find a say that that that goes against it, you go look at that crap. Look at. What kind of method is that? They’ve actually done they’ve actually done studies on the death penalty, where they they have fakes.
They create fake scientific articles. And they divide people into different groups. Some are for the death penalty if some are against it. And they give these people scientific articles. These, quote, scientific articles to look at. And the articles are actually they come in pairs where they take the same methodology and the same kind of data, but they make it support a death penalty in one version and be against it in the other. And then they hand out these out to all these people kind of randomly. And what they find is that the people that you would think that if people didn’t have this motivated reasoning, if they were objective, that you’d get maybe 70 percent think this methodology is good and 30 percent think that methodology is going to be across the board, whether you support a death penalty or you’re against it. But that’s not at all what they find. What they find is that the people who support the death penalty like this methodology. One is that when they read the paper where that methodology was used to support it and they don’t like the other one when it was used to debunk it. And it’s exactly the opposite among the other people. So this illustrates the fact that we when we taken the data, we were really acting like lawyers. So that’s called motivated reasoning.
So how do we ever change our minds then? I mean, you know, one of one of my favorite books of yours is the one you write with Deepak Chopra, that war of the worldviews where each of you come at spirituality and religion from a different perspective. You as a physicist, him as whatever. He is a spiritualist, I suppose.
I didn’t mean I’m quite as kind of spiritual as as someone who sits at a table. What does it mean? That’s a religious thinker, a quasi religious thinker.
But what you’re really trying to do is sort of sway one another towards your own take on what the nature of the cosmos is. It’s very, very difficult to do. I mean, people on the way we’re here obviously under the enterprise at a summit like this in trying to spread our ideals and our beliefs about what the world is like and what the universe is like and how we should live. Do we have any hope? What are we all doing here? In other words, if what you say is true and people are obstinate and won’t have their minds changed?
Well, let me say a couple of things. First of all, that process that I’m talking about is an unconscious process. So people are sincerely believe that they are looking at the data objectively and they’re sincerely believing the results of their unconscious mind when it pokes holes in the data. And and it leads them to the conclusion that they want. But that doesn’t mean that you can change your mind, because this is an effect. This is a tendency. This is the kind of thing the way we think.
But but at times or if the data is strong enough, people, people can change their minds. I’m not saying that you can never change your mind, but it’s much more difficult than it would be if people were objective, I guess.
And what what about scenarios where there is no data? I mean, religious beliefs strikes me as one of those. It’s not like you’re trying to reason someone out of a position that they didn’t reason themselves into in the first place.
Right. There’s a lot of motivated reason going on in religion where people feel intuitively or because psychologically want to believe in a religion or they were brought up that way. And then they they perceive evidence in the world to support that belief.
I want to read something that Deepak writes in that book, and I want to get to take more of the world view of the world.
If you like, at my take on, it was probably in that book I try to recall it. My take on it was he writes, Although the I beholds rocks, mountains, trees in the sky.
This is only a veil drawn over a vast, mysterious, unseen reality. Beyond the reach of the five senses lies an invisible realm of infinite possibility. And the key to unfolding its potential is consciousness. Go within the sages and see as declared, and you will find the true source of everything. Your own awareness. Spirituality has been around for many thousands of years, and its researchers were brilliant. The very Einsteins of consciousness. Anyone can reproduce and verify their results. As with the principles of science, so religious thinkers are being depicted as researchers. Spiritualists are Einsteins. Their claims can be reproduced and verified. Does it bother you as a physicist, as a scientist when scientific language gets used in that way?
Well, it does bother me when scientific language is misused. I don’t think the word researcher is a sign of scientific term that I think that what he’s doing in this case is carrott mischaracterizing certain individuals that he’s talking about. And does that bother me? I don’t know. I mean I mean, the book was a debate. Where he states his points in the nine state mine and I were 10 when I came to a passage like that to just say and I don’t remember exactly what you said, but that, you know, to call someone an Einstein of consciousness doesn’t make, for instance, what they say. Correct. That’s just a very easy name to give it right to to to call some of the singers and sages he talks about researchers is against us, an easy term that you can put on but has no content. So it’s it doesn’t really have any meaning. It’s just a pretty term. So it doesn’t really bother me. But I feel that, you know, in a conversation we ought to talk about clarifying, you know, what we mean and seeing if there’s anything behind it.
Well, also, I mean, the scientific terms about reproducing results and verifying results mean different things in the physical world than if what you’re talking about is that if one of the things he said he had a oneness with the cosmos.
One of the things he said in the book that that I objected to was he called Jesus a scientist. And I said, well, I don’t know. And maybe he was maybe he was. I’m not aware that Jesus went around, let himself, you know, get slapped by 200 people for one hundred. He turn the other cheek and three other hundred, he hit him back and then he goes to see, which works better. I’m not aware that he did that. So is he a scientist or not? You know, I question that characterization.
You were talking just earlier about falsifying results rather than trying to verify results with the two eight ten number thing. How important is that to science to understand that methodologically, though, it’s more important to try to falsify a theory than it is to verify it?
Well, it’s not at all important to science. Science. Science is a subject that will progress. And what will you know, the Fortunati has a certain methodology that will carry it forward. But it’s important to a scientist because if you want to be successful, then you’re going to spend less time on the theories that don’t work and more time uncorrect theories and the way to to insure or raise the probability that the theories you’re working on have some truth to them is to try and poke holes in them, not to try and look to see how how great they are. And, you know, of course, everyone who has this comes up with a theory, always loves the theory, their theory, whatever their idea is that that’s just human nature. But if you want to be a professional scientist and move forward in your career, you identify the wrong stuff. You say as quickly as possible and move on. And as a theoretical physicist, I know that most of what you say and think is wrong. So it’s good to get efficient at weeding it out.
What do you make of the of the extent to which people swallow theories that they don’t do that towards? I’m thinking of vaccine people who don’t believe in vaccines because they think there’s an autism link. People who might go to homeopaths, that kind of slightly irrational sphere of of activity where there’s no not really any number of false positives that would dissuade them.
Right. So these people are not scientists or people in general public. And, you know, when they’re doing very harmful things like not letting their kids get vaccines, it really annoys me. And I think the government ought to step in.
But in general, I don’t really care if vaccination.
Well, that’s a hard see.
I don’t know how I would do something that’s that’s a risk. I feel so impotent.
But, you know, it generally doesn’t annoy me when people are simply ignorant and there’s a lot of ignorant people out there. And you will go through life being unhappy if you get annoyed every time you run into one. But but, you know, on the other hand, when when someone doesn’t get their child medical care because they have these strange beliefs or when not, you know, when a as I say, a flu vaccine gets a bad reputation based on totally false information, then that annoys me because it hurts people and hurts society.
Do you think the media has a role to play? I mean, when you say do something, the first thing that I think is will change the media. So the media doesn’t think that good journalism means giving two sides to every opinion, regardless of whether or not one is true and the other one is bias.
Right. So I guess I maybe would vote for you as being the model of the great journalists. But but it’s not a model that I see very often. I think that the media gets a very low grade in that.
Yeah. Yeah, definitely. How much of your book The Drunkard’s Walk about? About randomness. I wonder how much you think that religious belief is partly a consequence of misunderstanding, randomness and probability. I’m thinking of probably the most popular reason why people believe in God, which is the teleological argument, the argument that everything is just so finely tuned and so perfect. Why are we all here? How would the laws of physics so finally tweaked to make existence possible? How would that why the laws of evolution the way that they are? It must have some grand designer. You get into this a little bit with Deepak. What’s your take on that argument?
Well, that’s a very interesting issue that you bring up. And you brought up two common examples. Well. Evolution is a common example. The. Tuning a physics is something that Stephen Hawking and I wrote about that I think before we wrote about it wasn’t talked about that much. But the answers are very different. We understand evolution pretty well. And no one who. Very few scientists, people who really study the details of evolution and take it seriously, believe that there’s any fine tuning going on that needs a creator that needs any kind of adjustment or guidance. There are a lot of phony arguments about how that’s necessary. And there are people who track down the phony arguments and refute them. And I think after, you know, I don’t know, five, 10, 100 of those things, pieces just shut up, go home and let people think what they want.
But can you just like just the other about the other issue that Stephen and I wrote about is a much more serious intellectual issue, because nobody knows why the laws of physics are so finely tuned to allow the universe to exist. Now, we in that book, The Grand Design, we propose one argument, but we also explain that this is a speculation and it’s a belief in worth theories are going. But there is. And what is that argument, can you about the mole? And I thought, well, I can take a while. That’s why we wrote a whole book about it. But there are many theories of modern physics and modern cosmology that predict a multiple universes. And it’s possible that the universes could have different laws. And and there’s a whole spectrum of laws, therefore. And of course, people will exist in the universes that have the laws that allow people to exist. Which sounds tautological, but it explains why we would obviously, if we are people and we exist, we would find that the laws are the laws that allow us to exist. And so there’s no mystery, however, that, you know, that’s very speculative.
And it’ll be a long time before physicists really know whether how seriously to take the multiverse arguments. So if you don’t take those arguments, the fact remains that if you tweak almost any part of modern of what we know is the laws of physics today by just a small amount, in some cases, a change to, say, the mass of the electron by half a percent or the strength of the week force by two percent. Things like that people have done. We have a pretty good theory of how those forces work people, and we end with a pretty good idea of how the universe evolved. And people have done computer models to see what would happen with them. So it’s a long story. But, you know, with galaxies have evolved, with stars have evolved. Could there be planets, et cetera? Could there be matter as we know it? And with almost any of these little tweaks or so many of them, the answer is no. So the laws of physics are very finely tuned in a way to allow human beings or living beings such as us to exist and to be fair and honest and objective. I would say that that’s probably the best argument I know for God, because we haven’t shown that that’s not true. And it is certainly a huge mystery. We don’t know why it is. So I think you have to be fair and say, yeah, that’s that’s an argument. And had Depok made that argument in our book, I would have embraced that argument and I would have said, what does it mean? I’m saying that we’ve proved there’s God. You know, just because there’s a mystery that needs to be explained doesn’t mean you have to call up the God word and explain it.
But if you decide to do that, that’s you know, that’s a less of a, I think, choice that you quite can criticize the one you’re justifying God through a phony argument by evolution and on that phony argument about evolution.
People will often make the analogy of if you’re walking along a beach and you say you found a watch. You wouldn’t just assume that it had been thrown together. It would have to have a watchmaker or, you know, there’s the analogy of a 747. I mean, these things require an explanation. And humans are so complex that they’re they require an explanation.
Just speak to us about that misunderstanding of of of what natural selection is, what randomness is, and perhaps mentioned that Richard Dawkins thing about him, him writing the computer program that would create, you know, that would mimic evolution.
Well, see, the people who use a watchmaker are argument that don’t don’t understand how evolution works, because in evolution, the organisms are not simply do not simply appear and become are designed by you know, they they don’t just appear, but they they change from one to another. So you start from a simpler organism and then all kinds of changes occur. And there’s a selection process by nature itself or by things die out. And and then and then other organisms occur and so forth. It’s evolution. Right. And very complex things can be formed by evolution and people who make the arguments that that a watch couldn’t just appear. Don’t address the fact that all that that that watch watches being inanimate objects don’t go through a process of evolution.
But if watches were animate objects and had to compete for they’re being wound up or for their batteries or and and how there’d been little watch components floating around in a bath of of, you know, primeval of primordial fluid, then I think watches would have evolved and you would find them there. So the people who make those arguments just don’t understand it.
Now, what the dockings program was he was addressing, I believe people who say that is merely a milk type of Shakespeare. Yeah. And of course, I you wouldn’t get Shakespeare in the age of the universe if the Monkees were simply typing. And again, that’s a misunderstanding of evolution because evolution has natural selection and has genetic changes that occur gradually that are selected. So I say that it’s nonrandom. It’s precisely it’s not exactly that that that the wrong ones don’t survive and go on to branch out of millions of other wrong ones.
But but the but there is a selection going on. So all those arguments have to do with the fact that there’s natural selection and the Dawkins program, the computer program.
Just explain, because I think it’s a.
Oh, I don’t remember the details.
Go ahead. Why? I think it was basically that he put a natural selection. He put. He even created a computer program that mimics natural selection. Right. And it only took maybe forty three tries or something to come up with the Shakespearean line that he had been hoping it would come up with. Right. Rather than the age of the universe. And forty three tries versus the age of the universe is pretty good. It’s pretty good.
Yeah. Well, did you lose your faith at any time?
Did you ever have faith in what I created? God. Well, I don’t usually talk about my my personal religious beliefs. I come to a point inquiry. I’m sorry. Welcome to Point of View. I’ve been called out before and on CNN, I would say that I haven’t lost that.
I don’t think they’ve evolved very much.
I think that what I believe about the the nature of of God and the need for a creator is pretty much the same that it was when I was in high school. And it’s most similar to what Einstein believed.
And people quote Einstein a lot. Well, you know, trying to keep. He always invoked the name God, but he didn’t really mean the God of the Bible. And it’s just this as a physicist who as you see tremendous regularities and miracles in nature, not not just the fine tuning, but just the fact that you write down a few dumb equations and then build a billion dollar accelerator and do some crazy electronic measurements and it all matches up. You know, it seems a bit beyond what the imagination. And so I think that there’s a feeling that, you know, there’s something something out there very vague. And, you know, it’s not really relevant for everyday human life. It’s something maybe if you were a philosopher you think about. But that I don’t actually think about too too often.
Good answer. What are you an optimist about? About our fate. Well, how do you think things are unfolding?
Well, I you know, it’s I have no question at all that that the fate of human races become extinct. And, you know, along the way, the question is how and how long. And that’s a more difficult question. So you can start with the far future when the sun will turn into a red giant and swallow up the earth. Probably won’t survive that. But if you Google it even sooner. For instance, there is these things called mantle plumes that I think every seven hundred fifty thousand years blow up the entire roughly the entire western half of the United States.
That’s not all of humanity. But but those people certainly won’t enjoy it. And it will make a lot of clouds that will will damage.
So I think the, you know, most of the earth and then who knows if humans will survive that.
And that’ll be the point at which I moved back to Australia, I think. Yeah. And I forgot how much did I say.
I forgot how many years exactly it is. But but the point is that it’s we’re just due for it now. But since it’s so many years that, that the, you know, expect the uncertainty in our measurements could be a million or, you know, a hundred thousand years off. And I don’t remember the exact numbers now, but that could kill us. You know, there’s people who speculate about asteroids. There’s a history of asteroids colliding with the Earth. And I know that there are some schemes now to try to deflect them. But that could get us to. And then there’s all the more mundane things, you know, global warming, probably why?
I don’t think it’ll really kill us. I think the earth minds global warming is not going to be a big problem for the earth. And it will certainly cause a reshuffling of species. And I think it caused a lot of pain among humans. I don’t think make humans extinct at will, cause them to want to move, you know, from place to place. Always isn’t always so easy to cause food shortages, because the places that we grow food won’t be capable of growing food anymore, et cetera, et cetera. But, you know, in the big scheme of things, you know, the cockroaches won’t mind at all and they’ll eat our bodies and then all be there for what will probably survive global warming.
This is such an optimistic vision of the future. Cockroaches will eat our bodies. It’s gonna be fine, Josh. Well, you know what?
Somethings that end up eating your body anyway unless you cremated. So just learn to live with it.
The ever Sunny Leonard long enough. Thank you so much for being on point of inquiry. Thank you.