Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Employee of the Month: God

We have a more comprehensive empirical picture of how humans form beliefs now than we have ever had in history. There are countless pitfalls and errors that we fall into, and detecting them can be very difficult, particularly since we are using our cognitive faculties to evaluate the reliability of our faculties. Despite the difficulties, there are a number of procedural questions that we can ask about a particular case where we search for evidence, evaluate it, and draw a conclusion about it. Considering these questions as part of the evidence gathering and evaluation procedure can dramatically improve the accuracy of the resulting conclusion. Habitually considering these issues can develop the epistemic virtues that will make a person a far better thinker and decision maker. Here are the questions, in no particular order.

Is there any data?
What exactly is the data?
Have I conducted an exhaustive search?
If there were significant counter evidence, would my search have found it?
What else could it be?
What would disprove the hypothesis?
Has my enthusiasm for any particular hypothesis affected the evidence I have searched for or emphasized?
Have I adequately considered other alternatives?
Has search satisfaction led me to stop looking prematurely?
Have I thought about it long enough?
Has my enthusiasm for a hypothesis led me to relax evidential standards for it or increase them for competing hypotheses?
Am I prepared to change my mind in light of new or different evidence?
If there are personal, psychological, or social factors that tilt my evaluation of the evidence, would I be aware of it?
Have I given more or less important pieces of information their appropriate amount of weight?
Has the order of my consideration of the evidence affected my evaluation when it shouldn’t have?
Has the recency or remoteness of some evidence in time affected my evaluation when it shouldn’t have?
Is my memory supplying me with a representative picture of the relevant experiences?
Are there external factors that may be giving me a tilted picture of the facts?
Am I applying principles of justification here that are consistent with the ones I use normally?
Did I sustain a high level of open-mindedness during the search and evaluation phase?
Are the estimates of likelihoods or probabilities that I am employing accurate or realistic?
Would the conclusion drawn withstand a reasonable level of skepticism?

There is no question that the systematic application of these standards of evidence and inference will produce better justifications and better conclusions. Consider ten types of belief formation that would benefit:

A doctor gathers and evaluates diagnostic evidence in order to identify and treat a life threatening disease.
A jury member tries to decide whether or not a defendant is guilty of a capital offense.
A mechanic considers a potentially costly problem in the engine of a car.
A student reflects on which college to attend.
An investor decides how best to spend investment capitol on the stock market.
A couple tries to buy a house that best suits their various needs.
A wife considers what appears to be evidence that her husband is cheating.
A historian attempts to determine the sequence of events surrounding an important battle in an ancient war.
A journalist gathers evidence about a corporation’s involvement in bribery of a corrupt politician.
A plumber tries to figure out what’s wrong with the sink.

This all appears to be belaboring the obvious, but there’s a larger point here concerning religious belief. In every ordinary circumstance, it is trivially obvious that the questions concerning evidence gathering and belief formation from above make the difference between a good and bad decision, or a rational or irrational belief formation. It is also trivially obvious that in the vast majority of cases, a person’s belief in God would fail horribly by the same measures. That is, for most people who believe in God, that belief and the procedure that produced it would not pass muster for the minimally acceptable standards that we employ everywhere else in our lives. The anomaly is even more conspicuous when we consider that the God belief is, arguably, the single most important decision that a person can make in their life. For the most profound question, we employ the worst procedure for finding an answer. If your doctor, mechanic, investment broker, or plumber drew conclusions in the fashion that you drew your religions conclusions, you’d fire them without hesitation. If a jury member, wife, or journalist made decisions that way, they would do irreparable harm.

At a minimum, the believer needs to close the gross double standard gap here. At a minimum, if the believer wants the rest of us to take them seriously, he needs to subject his belief to the same general standards of justification that are vital everywhere else. Suppose the boss is romantically involved with a woman in the office who is, by most accounts, one of the worst employees. And it appears that as a result of her special relationship, she gets raises, special benefits, time-off, and lowered performance expectations. Then the boss announces that she has earned the Employee of the Month award, and he expects the rest of us to acknowledge her worthiness for the honor. Imagine how much worse it would be if there were no grounds at all for the award, but he insisted that we should all take it on faith that she is truly the most outstanding employee.

The hanky panky between you and your God is obvious to the rest of us, but you haven’t been able to get your head clear and see the situation with sufficient objectivity.

19 comments:

Ketan said...

Matt, I'm totally convinced by what you've implied in your post. But what still prompts me to reply is my extremely recent experience (1 hour back) of debating with my friend of 6 years on matters concerning theism v/s atheism. When I questioned him about the need to believe in the veracity of scriptures as against considering them mere fiction, he got into all the expected circuitous explanation about how God's ways are mysterious and can't be fathomed by us, humans as we're the ones living in a "bubble" created by God.

When I accosted him with the PROBLEM OF EVIL and a simpler possibility that there's no God, and in fact all the phenomena and issues become more directly explicable by just doing away with the existence of God, he became very uncomfortable with the whole discussion.

I was very tempted to believe that his discomfiture had something to do with realization that his belief was rationally unsustainable if he were to keep his objectivity intact.

Then he asked me why does it bother me so much if he was keeping his beliefs to himself and not really fanatical in following them? I tried to point out that how it's unfortunate that because of their beliefs, people worship a nonexistent God and revere his fraudulent agents, and people like Edward Jenner and Joseph Lister get totally neglected who've had much greater contribution in betterment of human life. His approximate reply: "Jenner developed vaccine, and Lister, aseptic surgery, but the God created the Universe! So I can't worship the other two!" totally frustrated me. That was my encounter with the "stone-wall" yet again.

It's not that I'd had this debate with him for the first time. Each time we've had this discussion, he's ended up clinging to hrs beliefs even tighter as if I were going to snatch away something that belonged to him.

I've not encountered a single conversion to atheism only on the grounds of logical argument. Rather, believers tend to get more protective of their beliefs.

I'm sure nothing in this account must be new to you, but I was wondering if I should stop arguing with theists in this matter.

Also, I know you've not been much into forecasting, but I was curious what do you think is the global trend in atheism in view of so many educated people fervently holding onto their faith? I'm also worried how in my country, people take pride in being religious and educated at the same time... continued...

Ketan said...

Doing so is deemed as something noble and courageous--sustaining one's belief and warding off any moral "contamination" by education. Had I persisted a bit longer with my friend in the debate, our rapport would have surely been affected. That's another problem with such discussions.

Take care.

Matt McCormick said...

Interesting issues and case, Ketan. The scenario to describe is pretty common-the skeptic chases the believer round and round across a wide range of issues, with the believer throwing out the "God is a mystery" catchall to cover their irrationality, or changes the subject to "Why does it matter to you?" Neither one of these is an acceptable justification for irrational belief. "God is a mystery," is a tacit admission that their belief is unfounded and their view is incoherent. "Why does it matter to you?" is off the topic. An individual in the community doesn't get to just reject the standards of rationality, decision, and behavior whenever it suits them. All of our lives are deeply affected by the beliefs they adopt and the choices they make. Believing in God matters.

Are people convinced by atheist arguments? Sometimes. We plant the seed, but if the soil is rocky, it is difficult to find purchase, to co opt Jesus' analogy. It made a difference ultimately when people argued tirelessly for civil rights, for gay rights, for women's rights, and so on. But I hear you, it's a hard, thankless battle.

This blog gets thousands of hits a month. Some are just trolls who are sent into a rage by the arguments and flame me. But the message gets through to some. And I hope that people can make use of my arguments.

The point in this post is very simple: Your religious beliefs wouldn't satisfy the minimal levels of justification that you require everywhere else in your life. Therefore, your religious beliefs aren't justified, even by your own standards.

MM

Matt McCormick said...

The best sort of friend is one who doesn't politely let bullshit slide.

Ketan said...

I'm not sure, but did you read my comments on your blog "hundred seasons to believe..." and the last week's blog? The former I point out as it's a very old post, and you might be not having an eye on it. TC.

Ketan said...

I hope this does not sound too escapist, but I concluded that if I apply even moderately stringent criteria of rationality, honesty, helpfulness and strength of character all at once to people I come across, I'd be left with no friend, but only acquaintances. Since I'm replying through my cell phone, I can't quote your exact message, but I'm sure you'll know to which one am I replying. TC.

Toby said...

Ketan,

Much of human behavior is not based on rational thought, but purely a result of reward and conditioning. Your friend has been rewarded for his delusion thinking, therefore is unwilling to confront his current behavior. However, that frustration (cognitive dissonance) that you spark is the fuel of change. Just because you don't feel as though you made an impact today, give it some time. While he may have an effective denial system, our brains don't shut out all information that makes us uncomfortable. It is amazing to see how logic is infectious and your friend may begin to adopt some of your points without meaning to. I never had anyone sit me down and explain to me the delusion I was trapped in, but I suspect that it would have only been in more recent years that I would have really listened. Even worse, I think it would have taken someone fairly knowledgeable about why the Bible can't be trusted to convince me to consider an alternate viewpoint.

Explicit Atheist said...

I am much more optimistic than some people about the feasibility and effectiveness of arguing of atheism. I argue for atheism and I find that it has an impact, I can see the impact in the retreats made by some theists in the course of the discussion. But there are mistakes that skeptics and atheist make that we should avoid. One such mistake is spending too much time and effort focusing on arguing for skepticism or atheism with just one person. Its much better to put the argument out there in a context where there are multiple people reading/listening or where we discuss with one person and then move on to other people. People are different and some religionists are much more open to persuasion than others.

Matt McCormick said...

This is dead on the money, Explicit Atheist. Thanks. We're engaged in consciousness raising and publicly refusing to let bullshit slide. Whether they acknowledge it or not, pressing back does have an effect.
Thank, EA.
MM

Toby said...

Yes, having the facts on your side does help.

M. Tully said...

Matt,

What a great set of questions! They should be handed out to all college juniors and career people after about, I don't know, 10, 12, 15 and 17 years into their careers.

My favorite, "Am I prepared to change my mind in light of new or different evidence?"

That has to be the toughest one to approach honestly.

M. Tully said...

EA,

"I can see the impact in the retreats made by some theists in the course of the discussion."

Great point. I try to not argue with the theist as much as lay before the observer the idea that it is not as obvious as my overconfident friend would like you to believe.

And just reducing the theist from absolute certainty in tone and words is a powerful argument in and of itself.

Ketan said...

Hi all! The reason I believe my friend didn't acknowledge the possibility of nonexistence of God is the primal fear instilled in him that his each and every thought is being watched by the God, and the moment he even momentarily considers God to be absent would be certain kind of sin. There's, I think another fear, though it wasn't verbalized this very way: "what if there's inodeed a God? Will that not lead me to lose out on the free gifts on offer (by God to his believers)?" I think it must be apparent how overcoming the above-mentioned paranoia requires a certain kind of risk-taking behavior! It actually takes a leap of faith (in one's senses, reasoning and judgement) to stop believing in God.

I know since long that my friend has started fearing that he's taken a stand vis-a-vis God less honest than is possible and that was the cause of his discomfort. But would he honestly acknowledge this doubt to himself? No, because of the above fears.

I'll be honest above one thing. Even though I'm really pained to see people have the religious beliefs they have, I engage very few people in such discussions as most are not prepared to take a jolt in what they so firmly believe in as this kind of discussion requires certain "baseline" level of reflection on life, which is missing is most cases. Second, I haven't tried, but if were to broadcast my views in public, outside of my friends' circle, I face a somewhat small, but real risk of being beaten up! I'm not prepared for that. Third, most people just don't have the intellectual ability (sorry, if this sounds arrogant as I'm implying I do possess it myself, but I stick to my stand) to even for a moment imagine that such a complicated Universe did NOT have a creator. I think human minds are wired to think like if something exists, it has to be created. I do know the arguments beyond this point, too, in particular, how this creator would also require a creator in turn then, but the point is a real theist would shut off the mind at this point.

Earlier in the reply I said that I'm PAINED to see the kind of religious beliefs people hold is because they lead their lives as if "this" life as if it were just an "elimination round" before another life that's awaiting them, fully discounting the possibility in the process that this is the ONLY life they have...

Ketan said...

...That's what I find most unfortunate, and I'd be very happy if all the believers would be "liberated" by the truth, but I have other concerns, too. I want professional (which is totally unrelated to philosophy) and academic satisfaction, too. I want to achieve a few less abstract things too, like earning money and resources for leading life happily. So, I can't afford to make converting people to atheism a single-point agenda of my life.
This is maybe, escapist way of living, but I consider it a pragmatic course to take against the other more extreme option possible... I discussed atheism with my friend at least for 4 hours yesterday, when I could've spent that time studying to get ahead of competition. I've an exam to crack at the end of this year, the selection ratio in which practically is 1:40000 of (yes, better than 99.99 percentile), and on it my career hinges. So, when I look back at such debates, not always, but sometimes, I end up finding myself silly for "wasting" time like this. Though, it's Matt's blog, I wish to thank you all for responding to my reply, and would be happy to receive some feed back on my blogs, viz., "communalism", "free will" and "answers to criticism of atheism". Thanks, and take care.

Styxdweller said...

A great set of questions and I suppose I could be Ketan's believing friend. But I'm not sure, au fond, what I actually believe in. I remember hearing Lord Winston (here in UK), a scientist and medical man of great distinction say that he was a practising, non-believing, Jew. Suddenly, I realised all these years that I was the equivalent Anglican.

There is an enormous amount of accumulated wisdom and goodness in the best of our faiths (yes, a lot of dangerous stuff in some sects etc too) and the whole sense of being an important part of a culture and community. I think if we followed our rational minds to their logical conclusions and threw it all out, society would loss something profound.

This sounds trite - and contradictory - as I would usually argue against most other irrational and useless things such as homeopathy, acupuncture, various other quack, usually Eastern, remedies or precepts were not just harmless as the kindhearted often claim. They play a part in addling people's minds, adding fog to any kind of debate on serious issues like health, say, to the general detriment of good decision making. And the sheer waste of time.

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