Belief and Knowledge Post

I think that before we can decide what beliefs should be respected or not, we need to define exactly what it means to respect a belief. I think there are different possible levels of respect we can have. Do I have to think your belief reasonable, rational, and possible for me to respect it (similar to how I would respect a person)? Do I have to allow you to do whatever you believe is right? Do I have to be polite to you about your beliefs? Do I have to simply not try to change your beliefs to be respectful of them? I think that in regard to racism and sexism, the first two do obviously not apply. We shouldn’t be expected to find these beliefs rational or really consider them. In addition, we can’t allow people with extreme prejudices to act on them however they wish. There are many, many examples of hate crimes that we simply cannot let happen on the basis of “belief”, one example being a recent racially-motivated vandalism in Chelan, Washington against a group of Muslim men ( In addition, the last criterion is really a null point because people’s beliefs are not so easily changed. However, the issue of respect and of politeness is very difficult to consider. In an ideal world, this would be a nonissue, but I think that if there are beliefs that are actively disrespectful to certain people, they don’t have an obligation to be respectful to those beliefs in return.

There are very many beliefs throughout history that have been misguided or dangerous or often both. Some of the beliefs that fall under both of these categories have historically belonged to leaders, and this makes the misguided very dangerous. One belief with many, many examples of horrors that have resulted from it is the belief of a certain race, religion, ethnicity, or gender having superiority over another. In addition, old medical beliefs, such as leeching and using unsterilized equipment, was misguided and dangerous for very different reasons.

Outside of class, I watched the TED talk about how cults rewire the brain. I thought it was very interest, especially coming from a former cult member rather than someone who only had done research. However, I did wish there had been more data in the presentation. The speaker claimed she was sure a cult member’s brain function would look different than that of an average human, but provides no proof or reasoning. I think it would be very interesting if different parts of the brain function when you are thinking “rationally” or are under the influence of viral memetics. Speaking of which, I had never heard that definition of the word meme previously.  I think this video had a lot to say about how our brains can believe completely irrational things and, perhaps more importantly, commit horrible acts because of these irrational beliefs. I think it was really interesting how she emphasized the “us versus them” mentality that can come of this, and how it is one of the more powerful and dangerous beliefs.

This I Believe: There Is No God

The “This I Believe” essay that I chose to review is both the most viewed essay and one that we listened to in class, and I can imagine that it’s generated a fair amount of controversy. It’s the essay from the speaking half of the magic duo Penn and Teller and I believe that its main message cannot be summed up better than in the sentence Penn Jillette used to title his piece: “There Is No God”.  However, the piece didn’t focus on proving this belief, which is what one might have initially expected. Jillette does use the argument of the impossibility of proving a negative to justify his atheism, but he claims that he goes beyond atheism in a “leap of faith”, a somewhat ironic phrasing. However, what his essay delves into is really the way this belief in an absence of god influences his life. This is where I found the essay to be really interesting. Many atheistic pieces are focused solely on justification and it is left to the religious pieces to explain how life can be lived with that belief and how it positively impacts the individual. It almost has a similar feeling to a religious essay, speaking about how knowledge of God has ameliorated their life.

Jillette does not attempt to make this essay extremely personal. He doesn’t spend time on anecdotes or characters from his life. He uses general terms like “family” which anyone can apply to themselves, which I think is perhaps more powerful. Instead of a very personal story which may only be applicable to him, he allows us to see his general reasoning in the way a belief in no god could affect anyone. He also doesn’t talk about his belief being challenged, which I found interesting, because it doubtlessly has been, especially by others.

I think the most interesting part was the section about suffering. We often hear stories about people turning to religion in times of suffering. To paraphrase Karl Marx, “Religion is the opiate of the masses”. However, Jillette says that, “Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family…isn’t caused by…[a] force that isn’t bothered to help…but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.” I thought it was really inspiring to hear his motivation to make the world a better place instead of relying on an exterior force. Especially in comparison to some more stereotypical, cynical atheist pieces, I found Jillette’s to be very positive.

Wrapping up the Brain

The film that we watched discusses the brain from many different angles, giving us a little peak into the whole new wealth of knowledge that has been discovered about the human mind fairly recently. Of course, there are always complex implications of such knowledge. For example, the section about the Navy Seals, though it could seem traumatizing and endangering, the training they go through now that they understand the brain helps better prepare them for what they will have to face. When we know how the brain works naturally, does this mean we should be working counter what we have evolved to do? Could there be negative repercussions of this?

The film made many claims, mostly from cited studies or experiments. In fact, they even showed us how they study the brain of prison inmates in that particular study. However, some of the studies were not completely reliable. For example, the study of the brain during sex only had 24 subjects. That doesn’t seem like nearly enough to make strong claims about the difference between men and women. 

When discussing how knowledge is stored, they really seemed to villanize fear, making the amygdala red and pulsing. It seemed like the rest of the brain was trying to overcome this in order to make use of knowledge, or that the rest of the brain was more knowledgeable. Perhaps, base emotions are just a different kind of knowledge? 

Of course, within studies there are naturally going to be problems. I think that something that wasn’t really addressed within the film was assumptions and biases when studying psychopaths, specifically serial killers. Because they’ve done such horrible things, we want them to be completely different from us, perhaps having actually physical different brains. Since we didn’t see very much about the data compiled, we can’t assume this had any effect on the study, but it is something to think about. In addition, the conclusion that they drew from the sex study seemed really problematic to me. First, of course, there is the limited subject bank. Secondly, the idea that early humans were killed off so frequently during sex that males retaining more brain function would be a trait advantageous enough to evolve is hard to believe. I think that until more testing is done into the area, confirming hypotheses is difficult.

I think that when we talk about the brain and learning more about it, ethics naturally comes up. If one out of a hundred people are psychopaths, should we be doing more psychological testing on individuals? Should this information be necessary when, for example, applying for a job? Should individuals be required to undergo psychological testing? How private should this information be?

Of course, it is inevitable that a film such as this will only bring up more questions. The film focused a lot on the amygdala and how it processes fear. However, I wondered if more complex emotions than fear were also processed through this center of the brain. If not, what center are they processed through and how does this interact with the amygdala? 

Are Politicians Psychopaths?

From the film, one of the things that most interested me was the section pertaining to psychopaths. I found it particularly interesting that 1 out of 100 people may be psychopaths, even though that many clearly do not fit our initial idea of a serial killer. It got me wondering what paths nonviolent psychopaths may take in their lives, and so I found this article:

Are Politicians Psychopaths? 

The article discusses the idea that the reason political scandal (anything from financial lies to adultery) is so common is that politicians are more likely than the general populace to be psychopaths. Instead of asserting their power over others through violent means, the auther hypothesizes that this is a different kind of domination. Dr. Martha Stout is interviewed, who claims that politicians do have a higher rate of psychopathy and suggests that politicians be made to submit to testing before running for office.

It also raised several questions for me:

1. Is there a distinct psychological difference between a nonviolent psychopath and one who may become a serial killer? Are there “categories”?

2. What is the difference between sociopath and psychopath (if there is one)?

3. How can Dr. Stout definitively say that politicians are more likely to be psychopaths than the general population without solid statistics? Is she using anecdotal evidence? Her own ideas on what qualities a politician “tends” to have?

4. In what situations would the qualities of a psychopath be beneficial, and in what situations would they only be negative? Which is more important?

5. Is it ethical to demand psychological testing of politicians? Are they sacrificing that right to privacy when they run for public office? If we demand psychological testing of our politicians, should other people in positions of power be forced to submit to testing as well?