Identity-Protective Cognition: Science Finally Discovers Original Sin?!

Identity-Protective Cognition: Science Finally Discovers Original Sin?! May 19, 2015
Discord in background to follow on the picnic in the foreground (Paul Schad-Rossa, Paradise, circa 1900; Wikimedia Commons, PD).
Discord in background to follow on the picnic in the foreground (Paul Schad-Rossa, Paradise, circa 1900; Wikimedia Commons, PD).

Aquinas said something to this effect many times in his copious publications:

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All that Aquinas wanted you to know in about 300 pages.

The eternal Father’s Word, comprehending all things in his immensity, in order to recall human beings weakened by sin to the height of divine glory, willed to become small by taking on our smallness, not by laying aside his majesty. He compressed the teaching on human salvation in a brief summary for the sake of those who are busy.

Conveniently enough, this passage comes from his Compendium on Theology, which is a book he composed on pretty much his deathbed for those who punted via TL;DR on his Summa (YOU CAN’T stop Aquinas, you can only hope to contain him). In turn, he presents the life of Jesus as the Father’s guide for living for those who TL;DR’ed the endless philosophical debates on how to live their lives. You know, for those of us, pretty much all of us, who cannot afford but be busy with living our lives right now without being able to philosophically bracket them off.

Augustine’s development of Original Sin from St. Paul’s theology is one of those convenient shortcuts for life. Human fallibility, especially your own, is sure to impinge upon relationships and throw them into turmoil. It is one of the most fundamental experiential facts of human life, which is why Leszek Kolakowski is fundamentally right about being wrong when he says in his Religion: If There is No God…on God, the Devil, Sin and Other Worries of the So-Called Philosophy of Religion, that is, if my fallible memory serves me right:

I can understand people who do not believe in God, but the fact that there are people who do not believe in the devil is beyond my comprehension.

Something like Kolakowski's argument from sin and imperfection.
Something like Kolakowski’s argument from sin and imperfection.

You’d have to be totally deaf to the reality around you not to hear the demonically atonal music all around you. Science has finally gone on to study the cognitive dissonance of Original Sin (without knowing it). I first ran across “Identity-Protective Cognition” in an article with the best troll title ever, “The Most Depressing Discovery About the Brain, Ever.” Here’s how the scientists themselves summarize their findings, again without using the theological shortcut, “Original Sin,” to identify them:

Why does public conflict over societal risks persist in the face of compelling and widely accessible scientific evidence? We conducted an experiment to probe two alternative answers: the “Science Comprehension Thesis” (SCT), which identifies defects in the public’s knowledge and reasoning capacities as the source of such controversies; and the “Identity-protective Cognition Thesis” (ICT) which treats cultural conflict as disabling the faculties that members of the public use to make sense of decision-relevant science. In our experiment, we presented subjects with a difficult problem that turned on their ability to draw valid causal inferences from empirical data. As expected, subjects highest in Numeracy — a measure of the ability and disposition to make use of quantitative information — did substantially better than less numerate ones when the data were presented as results from a study of a new skin-rash treatment. Also as expected, subjects’ responses became politically polarized — and even less accurate — when the same data were presented as results from the study of a gun-control ban. But contrary to the prediction of SCT, such polarization did not abate among subjects highest in Numeracy; instead, it increased. This outcome supported ICT, which predicted that more Numerate subjects would use their quantitative-reasoning capacity selectively to conform their interpretation of the data to the result most consistent with their political outlooks. We discuss the theoretical and practical significance of these findings.

It turns out that, contrary to Yeats, the best are full of passionate conviction. Of course, the most ordinary peasant believers from the Dark Ages could’ve told you this. They knew it from experience and Original Sin was a place-marker for identifying the core of this experience.

alison joy of being wrong
Alison and I know you’ll probably even overreact to this post.

In turn, the sorts of practices of prayerful silence that Kevin M. Johnson talks about in his Cosmos the in Lost interview were designed to short-circuit these very real human tendencies. The Girardian theologian James Alison even talks about Original Sin in terms of The Joy of Being Wrong, because being aware of it opens up the possibility of deconstructing our biased, self-centered, and in-group protecting cognition by reinforcing humility through practices of repentance.

Yes, spirituality and theology are really that mundane and practical. They are shortcuts to the essentials for the sake of those who are busy (busy trolling, for example).

Goodness, it took science long to figure something this simple out. Science was so late on this that it must be drunk on Identity-Protective Cognition, wanting to look all purely rational and stuff.

Come on scientists, get your act together! (Granted, that exhortation might just be my IPC talking).

Read some theologians for Insight and shortcuts.

The two disciplines aren’t competitors. You might not know it, because of your own identity-protective cognition, they frequently work together.

You might also be interested in reading my piece on a related topic: confirmation bias and the fate of the pastor who stopped going to church for a year, and, it comes as no surprise, became an atheist.

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