Truth is Truth: the Affect Heuristic and Temptation

“All truth is Christian truth” is a phrase often attributed to St. Justin the Philosopher (d. ca. 165AD).  It is an axiom which has influenced many Christian thinkers through history.  It is based in a belief that truth is truth – there isn’t one truth for Christians and a different one for scientists and yet another for Buddhists.  Truth is from the one God.  We are in search of truth.  Jesus claimed to be the truth.  All truth thus has the same source and reveals to us the underlying unity of the universe which is our Creator.  Whatever the science is that explains how it is possible for life to exist on earth, is the same science that allows God to become incarnate.  The universe is one, just as God is one, and truth is one.

Such thinking has also allowed many Christians to be at peace with the truths about the universe that science has uncovered, including the origins of the universe and its evolution through billions of years of history.

While I believe the Bible is true, I don’t look to Genesis to give me a scientific explanation of the origins of the universe.  But sometimes I am amazed how the truth presented in an ancient religious document like Genesis resonates with modern scientific ideas.

Jason Daley in the 8 July 2011 issue of DISCOVER magazine writes an article about how humans assess risk entitled, “What You Don’t Know Can Kill You.”   It is a fascinating article but here I want to focus on one quote and compare it with something presented in the Book of Genesis.   Daley wrote about the findings of psychologist Paul Slovic and how we make decisions which involve a choice with some type of risk:

“But of all the mental rules of thumb and biases banging around in our brain, the most influential in assessing risk is the ‘affect’ heuristic (note: a heuristic is a mental shortcut or bias which our brains use in making choices which allows us to make instant decisions).  Slovic calls affect ‘a faint whisper of emotion’ that creeps into our decisions.  Simply put, positive feelings associated with a choice tend to make us think it has more benefits.  Negative correlations make us think an action is riskier.  One study by Slovic showed that when people decide to start smoking despite years of exposure to antismoking campaigns, they hardly ever think about the risks.  Instead, it’s all about the short-term ‘hedonic’ pleasure.  The good outweighs the bad, which they never fully expect to experience.”

Speaking about risks and warnings, long before there were anti-smoking campaigns, we can think about the story of Eve in the Garden of Eden, contemplating the forbidden fruit:

 “So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.”  (Genesis 3:6)

The mental mechanics of decision making and weighing risks has not changed in humans in the past couple of thousand years.  Health campaigns and even dire warnings from God do not stop humans from giving in to the “affect heuristic”, aka as temptation.   We may have much more information than the ancients, but our brains work the same.  Despite highly informational warnings, we take risks because we convince ourselves the pleasures outweigh the negative consequences.  The story of Eve is the story of us all.   We don’t read Genesis to discover ancient history and or modern science.  We read it because it offers us insight into what it means to be human, and why the world is the way it is.  Despite the Enlightenment’s optimism that all humans need is to be better educated, information and education don’t always outweigh our desire for pleasure and self-satisfaction.  What science calls the “affect heuristic” is called temptation to sin in Christianity.   Same concept in different contexts.  And on issues such as smoking, despite huge differences in assumptions, much of science, Buddhism and Christianity agree:  it is bad for you and you need to learn to say no to your desire.  Truth is truth.