Road to Damascus


Recently I demonstrated a significant shift in my views on a topic. When asked how that came about I gave a couple of answers. Like Keynes, when I was exposed to evidence that showed my previous position wrong, I changed my views. More precisely, I told them that observing their life had given me a deeper emotional understanding, which lead to a shift in my feelings about it. The combination of reason and emotion (or intuition) was at play.

In fact, changing ones viewpoint on almost anything is quite an accomplishment. Our brain is not wired for us to readily listen to evidence. We have built in to our unconscious (where most of thinking likely occurs) all kinds of bias. Confirmation bias is a major factor— we tend to only listen to evidence that confirms what we already believe. Indeed, when presented with contrary evidence we filter out the contradictory parts and re-enforce our own opinions with what is left.

This can be overcome using introspection, calculation, logic and so on but that is hard work. And our brains are inherently lazy. They like to decide on things with the least effort and at the lowest level of awareness. They had to be that way in order to survive in the harsh environments that they evolved in. People who thought too long about the dangers of predators were often eaten.

The second method of changing our minds is much more powerful if not necessarily more common. We undergo an emotional shift that changes our perspective on a person or an idea or a cause. Remember that moment when you stopped looking at a person as an acquaintance and started to think of them as a friend or a lover. You may have known them for a long time but the moment of transition is swift —in the blink of an eye.

Similarly, there is the ‘road to Damascus‘ moment when entire world views change. One minute we believe this and are the cynical Saul and the next we believe something quite differently and are the faithful Paul. These changes are dramatic and often terrifying.

My mother used to say — none so pure as the purified. And don’t we know that to be true. The convert is more willing to follow the true cause than those who may have grown up with it. It is no wonder that many of the lone wolves — whether we are talking about radical politics or fundamentalist religions — are converts to the cause. The role of conversion has always been to sweep away what has existed and replace it with a new way of thinking.

But in the process, the anchors that hold people to a moral worldview are shattered and what is produced is not a convert but a monster. It is not lost on me that the road to Damascus these days is filled with converts to dangerous thinking. But we don’t have to look to other countries to be warned. Extremism in any cause is always fraught and converts to any cause — from communist anarchism to Tea Party militarism — frequently need a reality check so their legitimate grievances don’t boil over into illegitimate actions.

But that’s ten minutes.


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