Cognitive Dissonance: From Flat Earth to Round Earth
In cognitive science, the term cognitive dissonance is often used. Cognitive dissonance is interesting because it refers to what happens in your brain when information is presented to it which doesn’t seem to fit.
For example, just suppose the current state of information in your brain (the balance of memes) was such that you believed the earth was flat. Just suppose your brain was a happy co-operative of flat earth memes filling your brain and dominating your outlook.
This, of course, seems naive to us now but not long ago most smart people saw things this way. Now, suppose someone called Fred comes along and says, “No, the earth is round!” and tries to explain to you why you should change your view. You would begin to experience cognitive dissonance.
If, though you thought the earth was flat, you were not superstitiously committed to that view you might only experience a mild case of cognitive dissonance. Then, as you followed the evidence Fred presented, you might find your view evolving from flat earth to round earth.
If, on the other hand, you not only believed the earth was flat but you also PTV-believed your flat earth view was absolutely right, then you might have a dose of strong cognitive dissonance, so strong that it might be easier to burn Fred at the stake than to change your view from flat earth to round earth.
The Father of Modern Science
This kind of thing is not just a silly story but actually does happen. One of the most notorious examples was that of the Father of Modern Science, the brilliant 17th century mathematician, Galilei Galileo.
Galileo had constructed his telescope to show how the earth revolved about the sun and not the sun around the earth. Since Copernicus advanced this hypothesis it had caused great controversy. Galileo now had proof.
When he demonstrated this, many highly intelligent people even refused to look through the telescope, so frightened were they of what they might see. Some people had such a strong dose of cognitive dissonance that they forced Galileo to his knees and made him withdraw his evidence and recant his discovery.
In 1633, Galileo, now 70 years old, sick and completely blind, was forced by the pope to make the arduous journey to Rome to stand trial for ‘heresy’. Urban VIII, taking time off from cannibalising the Colosseum to build his Barberini palace, accused Galileo of causing “the greatest scandal in Christendom” for contradicting the Scriptures.
Galileo thought of himself as a devoted Catholic. He argued that the bible was not a scientific text and that we should not expect its ‘scientific statements’ to be taken literally. He argued that it presents no challenge to faith that both nature and the bible are divine texts and cannot contradict one another.
On 21 June, after a long trial, he was found guilty of heresy, by the Inquisition. Not only that, he was bullied and actually forced into covering up his evidence. The pope demanded that he be tortured if he did not obey: The said Galileo is in the judgement of the Holy Office vehemently suspected of heresy, namely, of having believed and held the doctrine which is false and contrary to the Sacred and Divine Scriptures that the sun is the centre of the world and does not move from east to west, and is not the centre of the world.
Weary and broken, the old man knelt before the pope and made his confession: “I, Galileo, son of the late Vincenzo Galilea, Florentine, aged seventy years … must altogether abandon the false opinion that the sun is the centre of the world and immobile”.
His trial was a grave and solemn milestone in the history of the Church perhaps only surpassed, in poignancy, by the trial of Jesus before Pilate.
Galileo was a brilliant mathematician and a pioneer of science which tries not to rely on superstition. He advocated the idea that “The Book of Nature” is written in mathematical characters, a view which is enough to make him a founding father of the scientific method.
The universe which Galileo observed at the end of his telescope totally dwarfed the one that people were seeing with their ordinary vision. He tried to show that it was important to consider the value of new observable phenomena as a way of escaping from weak truths and moving to better ones.
The 17th century, superstitious, ecclesiastical, Roman brainusers experienced such cognitive dissonance from Galileo’s discoveries that, to their everlasting shame, they chose to abuse and bully an old man rather than to change their own mind.
The cognitive dissonance endured so strongly that it was only in 1993 (after a 12-year Pontifical Commission!) that, in a belated burst of Christian charity, the Vatican brainusers finally forgave Galileo for letting the sun out of the closet.
Better late than never, I suppose.
So, I would like to promote, seriously, the cause of the canonisation of Galileo Galilei.
If the Vatican really wanted to square the ledger with Galileo they could not only ‘forgive” him but also add him to the roster of saints.
Perhaps Santo Galileo could become the Patron Saint of Science.
Surely, x10 ‘miracle’ of his telescope (actually x20!) and the objective revelations it has given to all mankind surpasses the small subjective miracles that seem to satisfy The Vatican to qualify most contemporary candidates for canonisation.
Dosage of Dissonance
It may be that some of the material in this training gives you a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. It is difficult to design the ideal dosage of dissonance. What is fine for some readers and is just enough to help them to open up their mind will, on the other hand, be too strong for
others and cause them to close down.
For example, earlier drafts of this training were more provocative in tone and probably too much so. So I sought the opinions of a fairly wide range of brainusers – different ages, different cultures, different professions, different backgrounds.
After receiving the generous and valuable feedback of hundreds of readers (especially that of my father who was the fairest man I ever met) I completely rewrote the training and tried to find a better balance between the information I have left in and the information I have left out. Thanks to them it’s a better training course but the faults and mistakes you may find are still mine.
At the end of the day, dear brainuser, my own goal for this training has always been to generate enough cognitive dissonance to make it interesting reading but not so much as to close your mind.
Post here an example of cognitive dissonance you have experienced in your life recently?
Why was it so difficult for you to change your mind?