- Cognitive Error and Contemplative Practices:The Cultivation of Discernment in Mind and Heart
Brains are amazing organs in all creatures with central nervous systems and especially in human beings. But they are not perfect. Without forgetting the larger success story of cognitive evolution, I want to explore the way that cognitive biases sometimes produce errors in both religious and secular social settings and how such errors can be diagnosed and corrected when they occur. This will involve noticing that error diagnosis and correction is a process that certain social groups have a vested interest in resisting or neglecting, in some respects, while the very same social groups may furnish resources that support the detection of cognitive errors, in other respects.
This presents a moral quandary for both secular and religious groups. Should we educate children to be fully aware of their cognitive vulnerability to advertising, thereby learning how to resist and eventually become immune to one of the fundamental power sources of modern market economies? Should religious groups explain to young people their cognitive tendencies to posit the action of supernatural beings whether or not any such action exists, even though this may disrupt the power of religious groups to forge bracing social togetherness that supports psychologically useful coping skills? While I do not seek to answer such complex moral questions in this paper, I do argue that knowledge of cognitive biases and the resulting tendencies to cognitive error, self-defeating behaviors, and self-deception should be made available to those individuals and groups who are interested in promoting a high degree of critical self-awareness in the analysis of beliefs and behaviors in both secular and religious contexts.
The term "error" is a potentially problematic one in that it misleadingly suggests that there might be a uniquely correct way in which cognition should work. I do not wish to suggest such a binary opposition. After all, biases exist in the human cognitive system either because they have been selected in the evolutionary process for their survival benefits or because they are side effects of other traits selected for their usefulness. My concern is with the wondrous human discovery that we can analyze [End Page 61] our behaviors and beliefs with such precision that we can sometimes detect when our cognitive biases produce mistaken beliefs and self-defeating behaviors. This forms the basis for my contention that cognition can often work better than it does—more accurately, less self-destructively—when tendencies to cognitive error are diagnosed, corrected, and perhaps even systematically resisted.
The profound irony here is that the very same social groups (secular and religious) with an obvious vested interest in resisting such enlightenment in some respects can also promote processes of discernment and insight in other respects. Existing literature in the cognitive psychology of religion rarely bothers with such subtleties. It is common to assume that simply to notice the operation of cognitive biases in religion—say, in supporting belief in supernatural entities who providentially interact in human affairs, or in establishing and reinforcing people's willingness to defer to certain kinds of religious authority—is at the same time to establish the presence of rampant cognitive error, massive resistance to diagnosing and correcting it, and thus the infliction of pernicious cruelties on young children who have no way of escaping the resulting irrational indoctrination.
This moral reflex to condemn religious groups because of their characteristic reluctance to acknowledge the role of cognitive biases in their beliefs and practices is understandable given the irrationality, ignorance, or denial that such reluctance suggests. I frankly acknowledge that I share this moral concern. But the actual complexities of religious practice demonstrate that the situation demands a subtler evaluation. Resistance to awareness of cognitive biases exists both inside and outside religious groups; economic and political practices in all eras and of all types have every bit as much to gain from neglecting to enlighten people about their cognitive operations as religious groups do—just consider the techniques employed in commercial advertising and political campaigns. Moreover, religious groups also promote methods of discernment and self-awareness that have historically been, and continue to be, the dominant method by which...