Thursday, April 30, 2009

The Case Against Christ

Here's the text of a presentation I just did for a student group at UC Davis. The Powerpoint slides are linked here.

• You shouldn’t be here.
• What I’m going to say is just going to ruin everything.
• You should be in church.
• Seriously, some of you really should go to church instead.
• Ok, I warned you.

What you believe:
 The chances are very good that you consider yourself to be a Christian.
 If you are a Christian, then you believe that Jesus was a real person.
 So you probably also believe that Jesus was resurrected from the dead.
 That is, Jesus was a supernatural being of some sort and the most important event concerning him was his execution then his magical revival from the dead.
 But believing that Jesus was resurrected is irrational for you.

Believing in Jesus’ Resurrection is Irrational for You:
 The body of evidence is small, weak, and riddled with unanswered questions.
 There are other alleged supernatural events about which you have far more substantial evidence, yet you reject those beliefs on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence.
 So by rejecting those better supported claims and accepting the magical claims about Jesus, you are employing a grossly inconsistent epistemic standard.
 You engage in an ad hoc lowering of the bar about Jesus, yet in other comparable cases you sustain a higher level of proof that would lead you reject Jesus.
 My goal: to get you to acknowledge that your continued believing in the resurrection of Jesus is unreasonable and inconsistent with your epistemic policies.
 What’s the evidence we have concerning the resurrection?

The Gospels: some history
 Jesus is thought to have been executed about 35 A.D.
 The first four books of the New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are our only source of information about the events.
 Mark was written around 65 A.D.
 Matthew was written between 70-100 A.D. and Luke was written around 70 A.D. The agreement is that they were based largely on Mark and another source, now lost, called the Q source.
 John was written around 90-100 A.D.
 None of these works were written by eyewitnesses, and none of them were written by the disciples Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.
 The authors of the books heard the stories from others. We do not know how many people the stories passed through from the events to their being recorded. It could have been 2, 20, or 200.

Problem #1: The Paucity of Evidence
 So if we are being careful about what we know and what we don’t, this is what we have:
 3 hearsay sources (Mark, Q, and John) written 30-90 years after the fact with an unknown number of transmissions before.
 This picture is brief and rough; the discussion of the details is vast.

#2: The 3 Stories are Surprisingly Contradictory:
 Luke: Mary Magdalene, Joanna, and Mary (James’ mother) and other women go to the tomb, find it open, talk to two men in shining garments, and then go tell what they saw to the other disciples.
 Mark: Mary Magdalene, Mary (James’ mother), and Salome go to the tomb, find it open, and find one man sitting there in white inside. They talk to him, then they run away in fear and they do not say “any thing to any man; for they were afraid.”
 Matthew: Mary Magdalene and the other Mary go to the tomb. A great earthquake opens it by rolling the stone away. They go inside and find an angel of the Lord in white. Then they leave with fear and joy and run to bring the disciples word.
 John: Mary Magdalene (by herself) finds the tomb open. She goes and gets Simon Peter and the other disciple “that Jesus loved.” The two of them go to the tomb and find it empty. They leave, but Mary stays crying. Then two angels appear to her. Then Jesus himself appears to her. She talks to him and then goes to tell the rest of the disciples.

#3: Probability, Reliability and Transmission:
 Suppose the police must escort $10,000 in drug money across the country from New York to Los Angeles.
 The money will be in police custody for the whole trip, but it will change hands between three different cops for different legs of the journey.
 There is corruption in their police departments so that the general likelihood that a given cop is honest is .8.
 If a corrupt cop gets custody of the drug money, he or she will take some.
 If an honest cop gets custody, he or she will deliver it to the next leg of the trip without taking any of it.

Question: What are the odds of all the money arriving in Los Angeles?
 Answer: .51. (.8 x .8 x .8)
 If you add two more cops at the .8 honesty rate it goes down to .32 (And that’s despite the fact that majority of cops in each department are honest.)
 That is, even if the links in the transmission chain are individually probably reliable, the cumulative effect quickly undermines the result.
 The cops here represent the people who transmitted the Jesus story from the alleged eyewitnesses to the authors of the Gospels.

How Reliable are Eyewitnesses to Miracles?
 What about the original reports of Jesus’ resurrection? (Do we have $10,000?)
 Can we determine the reliability of eyewitness miracle testimony?
 We can.
 Lourdes, France: 80,000 pilgrims a year for over a century= more than 8 million people.
 Suppose, charitably, that half experienced something they took to be supernatural.
 66 miracles have been declared to be real by the official investigating body of the Catholic church.
 Miracle testimony reliability= 66/4,000,000 or .0000165
 (A probability needs to be greater than .5 to be reasonable.)

Odds on the Jesus Story?
 Now we can improve our account:
 .0000165 x .8 x .8 x .8= .000008
 That’s about 8 in 1 million.
 If we reduce the number of “real” miracles at Lourdes, as we should, to a still generous 5, and lower the reliability of the transmitters or add a few more links, then the result is
 .000000021 or about 1 in 5 million.
 The point: our confidence in the Jesus story is orders of magnitude smaller than it needs to be for us to take it seriously. Given what we know about the original reporting and the transmission of these stories it is exceedingly unlikely that they are true.

It Gets Worse
 Question: Would the early followers of Jesus have been more or less reliable about reporting miraculous events than the people at Lourdes?
 Answer: Much less reliable.

#4: You reject supernatural claims with more evidence:
 We have even more reasons to doubt the reliability of the original believers because of who they were and when they lived.
 Several important differences between them and us undermine their reliability even more:

Supernatural Belief Threshold
 How disposed is a person, in general, to accept or reject claims about supernatural entities, forces, or events?
 Low SBT = they are more readily disposed to believe that supernatural claims are true. Their error rate with regard to supernatural claims would be high: they would conclude that miracles were more common than they really are, for example.
 If there were supernatural ideas circulating about that were false or unfounded, this person would be more likely to believe them and repeat them.
 The person with a low SBT would mislead you in the direction of accepting more of those claims than are true and well-supported.

 If someone is largely ignorant of the important background information concerning a topic, then their lack of information reduces their reliability.
 So my ignorance about it should diminish the confidence you have about one of those claims being true, all other things being equal.
 That’s why you shouldn’t believe me when I insist that the Detroit Lions will win the Superbowl.
 And that’s why you shouldn’t get your political views from Lindsay Lohan.

Religiousness and supernaturalism are inversely related to education:
 We have good empirical evidence that as a person’s education level increases, their belief in survival of the soul, miracles, heaven, the resurrection, the virgin birth, hell, the devil, ghosts, astrology, and reincarnation drop off dramatically. (
 Gallup Polls have consistently found similar results. (
 Religiousness, superstition, and supernaturalism are positively correlated with ignorance. When people have more education, they are less likely to believe.

We can make the same sort of projection back across time:
 Consider the difference between your education level, or the general level of knowledge that the average American with a K-12 education has and the level of ignorance of a simple fisherman or a beggar living in the first century in Palestine.
 Almost all of the information that you take for granted, the technology, and the methods for acquiring information were unavailable to them.
 A tiny fraction of the population would have been literate.
 Their mathematical abilities would have been worse than today’s average 3rd grader.
 They did not know that the Earth moves, or what the Sun was.
 They did not know what electricity, hydrogen are.
 They did not know what caused disease, or pregnancy, or death.
 If religiousness, superstition, and supernaturalism rise as education goes down, then they must have been rampant among the people who had contact with Jesus (if he was real at all.)

Were they skeptical?
 How much skepticism, doubtfulness, or disposition towards critical scrutiny does a person have?
 If a person habitually reflects on the evidence carefully, makes a conscious and careful effort to gather the broadest body of relevant evidence, and actively seeks out disconfirming grounds for a claim, that, all other things being equal, is favorable with regard to their trustworthiness as a source of information.
 If a person whose skepticism is high becomes satisfied that X is true, then you could be more confident that it is true, all other things being equal, than you would be if your source for the same claim was someone who is generally gullible, uncritical, and who does not reflect or seek out disconfirming evidence.

The Point
 The early believers would have had a low Supernatural Belief Threshold, a high level of Ignorance, and a low level of Skepticism.
 SBT: For Iron Age people 2,000 years ago, the world would have been full of mysterious forces, magical events, spiritual entities, stories about supernatural happenings. Hundreds of the events that you observe every day and know the causes of would have been complete mysteries to them. For all they knew, headaches were caused by magic. The possibility that someone could come back from the dead would have seemed like common sense to them. (Bereavement hallucinations)
 Ignorance: They were ignorant of the information that we have concerning religious tendencies, religious group dynamics, psychology, alternative explanations for paranormal beliefs.
 They were ignorant of the 2,000 years of examples of allegedly supernatural events that turned out to be easily explainable in natural terms.
 In that 2,000 years, we have learned a staggering amount about how human psychology works, errors in reasoning, problems in eye-witness reports, gullibility, mistakes, social-religious phenomena, and so on.
 Skepticism: They would have been much less skeptical overall than many people who are good sources of information now are.
 They would not have been trained or practiced or even familiar with the notions of disconfirming evidence, alternative explanations, bias, and justification.
 They were deeply committed religious converts.

#5: You already reject supernatural claims with more evidence
 The early Christian stories are often defended as reliable on the grounds that:
 there were multiple eyewitness accounts,
 the story would have been too difficult to fake given the public nature of Jesus’ execution,
 the witnesses would not have had any ulterior motives about reporting something that would get them persecuted,
 the followers were so convinced that they gave up their jobs and their possessions,
 many of the events of the New Testament have been historically corroborated: the reign of Herod, the destruction of the temple, the growth of the early church.
 and so on

The Salem Witch Trials
 Between 1692 and 1693, dozens of people were accused, arrested, stood trial, and were tortured or hanged for “Sundry acts of Witchcraft,” possession by devils, and other supernatural ill deeds.
 Strange behavior in some little girls fed suspicions. They would dash about, freeze in grotesque postures, complain about biting and pinching sensations, and have violent seizures.
 Ultimately over 150 people were accused.
 William Phips, the governor of Massachusetts got involved. A court was established.
 Thorough investigations were conducted. Witnesses were carefully cross-examined.
 Evidence was gathered. Many people confessed.
 The entire proceedings were carefully documented with thousands of sworn affidavits, court documents, interviews, and related papers.
 In the end, 19 people, including Sarah Goode, and Rebekah Nurse had been sentenced and executed.
 Today, the Salem Witch Trials are a frightening example of how enthusiasm, hysteria, social pressure, anxiety, and religious fervor can be powerful enough to lead ordinary people to do such extraordinary and mistaken things. “Witch hunt” has come to be synonymous with an irrational and emotionally heated persecution.

What evidence do we have that the women in Salem were really witches?
 First, hundreds of people were involved in concluding that the accused were witches.
 They testified in court, signed sworn affidavits, and demonstrated their utter conviction that the accused were witches.
 Furthermore, they came from diverse backgrounds and social strata.
 They included magistrates, judges, the governor of Massachusetts, respected members of the community, husbands of the accused, and so on.
 These people had a great deal to lose by being correct—men would lose their wives, children would lose their mothers, community members would lose friends they cared about. It seems very unlikely that they could have had ulterior motives.
 The trials were thorough, careful, exhaustive investigations. They deliberately gathered evidence, and made a substantial attempt to objectively sort out truth from falsity. In the court trials, they attempted to carefully discern the facts.
 That there were witch trials in Salem and that many people were put to death has been thoroughly corroborated with a range of historical sources.

We have a great deal of historical evidence about Salem
 The trials were a mere 300 years ago, not 2,000.
 We have the actual documents; we do not have any of the original Gospels, only copies from centuries later.
 We have the actual, sworn testimony of people claiming to have seen the magic performed; the Gospel stories are retellings of stories that were passed by word of mouth through an unknown number of people.
 For the Salem witch trials, we have enough evidence to fill a truck. Some of the original documents:

Evidence for Magic in Salem >> than Evidence for Magic in Jerusalem
 By any reasonable measure of quantity and quality, the evidence we have for concluding that there were real witches in Salem is vastly better than the evidence we have for concluding that Jesus was magical.
 Yet it is simply not reasonable to believe that the women in Salem really were witches or really performed magic.
 It is obvious to any reasonable person that even though they were tried, convicted, and executed for witchcraft, they were not witches and they did not perform any magical acts. You don’t think they were witches.
 Nor do I need to defend any particular alternative explanation, such as the rotten rye grain/hallucination theory, in order to reasonably conclude that they weren’t witches. I can be sure that they weren’t witches even if I don’t know all of what really happened.
 The Salem Witch Trials show that it is possible to meet an even heavier burden of proof than what we have for the resurrection of Jesus, and it remains unreasonable to believe that anything magical happened.
 No clear headed person should accept the claim that the historical evidence makes it reasonable to believe that Jesus came back from the dead.

Conclusion: Believing in Jesus’ Resurrection is Irrational for You
 The evidence you have smaller, weaker, and too riddled with unanswered questions.
 We have good reasons to think that the people who originally told the stories were not reliable. 1/ 5 million.
 If you think it is reasonable to believe that Jesus came back from the dead, you’re employing a grossly inconsistent double standard: There are many other alleged supernatural events that you have better evidence for, yet you adopt a high level of skepticism and proof and reject them. (Salem Witch Trials)
 It is unreasonable to engage in an ad hoc lowering of the bar about Jesus, and accept a tiny, tenuous group of hearsay stories from a group of Iron Age religious converts about outrageous magical events.

The Problems:
 Problem 1: Only three hearsay sources.
 Problem 2: The stories about the resurrection are contradictory.
 Problem 3: The probability of a claim equals the factorial of the reliability of all points of its transmission
 Problem 4: The early believers would have been highly receptive to supernatural claims, their ignorance of relevant alternative explanations would have been high, and they would have had a low level of skepticism.
 Religiousness and supernaturalism are inversely related to education.
 We can make the same sort of projection back across time.
 Problem 5: Your evidence for magic in Salem (and other supernatural events) is better than your evidence for magic in Jerusalem. (Reject them both!)
 Amen.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Putting Odds On Jesus

Suppose several police departments are transferring $10,000 of drug money across country from New York to Los Angeles. Along the way, the money will change hands three times. We have independent evidence that there is corruption in the three police departments that the cops are from. On the whole, the likelihood that a cop from any of those departments is honest is .8. If a corrupt cop gets custody of the money, then he or she will take some. If an honest cop gets custody, they will deliver it to the next leg of the journey without taking any.

Question: What are the odds of all of the money arriving in Los Angeles?

Probability theory says that the answer is .51. Or .8 x .8 x .8. If we add two more cops at the .8 honesty rate it goes down to .32. And that’s despite the fact that majority of cops in each department are honest.

The majority of Americans consider themselves to be Christians. And if you consider yourself to be a Christian, then you believe that Jesus was a real person and he was resurrected from the dead.

Your only source of information about this event is the first four books of the Christian New Testament, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Jesus is alleged to have come back from the grave around 35 AD. Mark was written about 30 years later at 65 AD. The consensus seems to be that Matthew and Luke were written between 70-100 A.D. John was written around 90-100. How many links in the chain of transmission are there between the events in question and when the authors of these books wrote down the story? We don’t know. They were not eyewitnesses; they heard the stories by word of mouth, most scholars believe, and there could have 2, 20, or 200 links between them and the original events. How reliable was each one of those links? We do not know.

We do know this. Eye witnesses are quite poor, especially when they are extraordinary events.
They mix the orders up, the miss important details, they revise, they augment, they embellish, and so on. Even moments after an event, they make serious mistakes.

What do we know about testimony? We know that when a person testifies that some claim is true and all we have to evaluate is the testimony, we can attach a value to the probability that what they are saying is true. In general, when people assert that x is true, and they mean it, we can and should ask, what is the probability that it is true, given that Smith, for instance, asserts that it is. For most of us, it would mean something for Smith to say it earnestly. And if Smith says he is utterly convinced of its truth—he says he’s 100% certain that it is true—then that should count for a lot in my assessment of whether or not x actually is true.

What do we know about people’s confidence levels and the real accuracy of their claims? In general, people are over-confident. They will claim to be accurate and certain more often than they are. In one study, subjects were asked to spell a word and then indicate how confident they were that they had spelled it correctly. When they were “100% certain” in fact they only spelled the word correctly 80% of the time. You’ve had this feeling of certainty many times about a spelled word. When you have it, it would be very hard to dissuade you without substantial proof, that you were wrong. But there are the real rates. (Adams and Adams, “Confidence in the recognition and reproduction of words difficult to spell,” American Journal of Psychology, 73, 544-552)

Other recent work has shown a remarkable level of change and choice blindness in test subjects. Have subjects pick the most attractive person from a group of pictures of people, surreptitiously switch the picture on them, and then ask them to explain why they think the switched picture is of the most attractive person, and they don’t miss a beat. They start explaining why without even noticing the switch. Have shoppers taste a range of tea samples and have them pick their favorite. Then switch it without their knowing and ask them to taste it again and explain why they think it is the best. Even when you replace their favorite, say apple cinamon, with a completely different flavor, 2/3 of the subjects don’t notice the change and the confabulate a justification for why that’s their favorite.

The data in change blindness cases is even more remarkable. Here’s a video of two teams of people passing a basketball, one group in white shirts and one group in black shirts. Watch the video carefully and try to count the number of times that the white team passes the ball.

A surprising number of subjects do not notice what should be obvious. In some of these studies, 75% of the subjects do not notice. (Change Blindness)
So robust empirical evidence shows us that change and choice blindness, and overconfidence cast substantial doubt on the reliability of eye witness testimony. Volumes of other studies document the problems with eye witness accounts.

Do we have any way to attach a reliability estimate to the first person in the chain, the individuals who are alleged to have witnessed the resurrected Jesus himself? We do. Every year at the shrine at Lourdes, France, more than 80,000 pilgrims visit. The spring waters there are alleged to have healing powers, after a woman claims to have seen the Virgin Mary. Over the course of a century, then, that is more than 8 million visitors.

The official representatives of the Catholic church have been conservative about the real occurrence of miracles there. They have officially recognized 66. Let’s be generous and grant that 66 real miracles have actually occurred there.

Let’s also be conservative and suppose that of the 8 million visitors, half of them felt that they had observed or felt a real supernatural or spiritual event. This number is conservative because the vast majority of people going there do so with the strong expectation that miracles have occurred there in the past, and that they will be miraculously healed as well.

So for the visitors at Lourdes, what is their reliability for reporting miraculous events? 66/4,000,000 or .0000165. That is, even setting the number of felt miracles low and agreeing with the church about the number of real miracles, the probability that the miracle claim from any given pilgrim is true is .0000165.

Should we think that the general reliability of the early Christians who spread the Jesus story was greater or less than the pilgrims at Lourdes? I should think it would be much lower. The pilgrims are modern, educated, scientific era people. Many of them are doctors, lawyers, and scientists, people who are trained in making good decisions and being skeptical. They have the benefit of 2,000 years of investigations into the natural causes of allegedly supernatural events. The early Christians, by contrast, would have been largely illiterate, poor, uneducated. They would not have the benefit of the huge body of scientific and empirical knowledge that we take for granted.

But let’s be exceedingly charitable and grant that the early Christians were 10 times more reliable about reporting miraculous events than the modern visitors to Lourdes. And let’s suppose that there are only 3 steps of transmission between the events in 35 A.D. across 30 years to when Mark first wrote the story down. And let’s suppose that those three links were much more reliable than the cops in the story above. What are the odds that the resurrection story is true:

.00165 x .9 x .9 x .9 = .00012

That is, on a vastly charitable estimate, there is a one in ten thousand chance that the story is true.

Should we be that charitable? No. We should not be generous about the 66 miracles at Lourdes. Many of the cases in support would crumble under any serious, objective scrutiny. I would be surprised if 5 of them didn’t have an obvious natural explanation. And I suspect that many more people than 4,000,000 thought they felt or saw something spiritually significant there. If there have been 6 million of them, and 5 real miracles, then the reliability rating of Lourdes pilgrims is 0.00000083333. And the reliability rating for early Christians should be much lower given that they did not have the advantage of 2,000 years of science and a modern education to augment their analysis of miracles. Nor should we grant that all of the tranmission links in the story to Mark would have a .9 reliability. There are too many unanswered questions, too many doubts, and the human propensities to embellish, omit, revise, and confabulate are too great.

Still granting only 3 steps, a more reasonable estimate is:

.000000833 x .7 x .7 x .7 = 0.0000002858

or about 1 in 5 million. According to the U.S. National Weather Service, the odds of your being struck by lightning in your lifetime are 1 in 5,000.

When people take the Jesus stories seriously and make comments like, “Why would the early Christians lie?” or “what incentive could that have for making it all up?” or “how could they have perpetrated such a deception?” they are simply ignoring the strength of the tendency in the human mind to see miracles or events of spiritual or supernatural origin at every turn. We don’t need to have a better, alternative explanation to be quite sure that Jesus was not resurrected from the dead. The reliability of the information transmitted in those stories to us is just too low.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Dead as a Doornail

Here are the slides for a presentation at CSUS this week. I argue that the prospects for using out of body or near death experiences as evidence for the existence of some transcendental realm are very dim. People often have OBEs when they are clinically dead (18%!), but brain activity can continued then since "clinical death" only means that heartrate and respiration have stopped. If someone had an OBE during complete brain death, it would be important, but no one comes back from complete brain death, and even if they did we would have a Timing Problem.

Dead as a Doornail

UCDavis presentation

Friday, April 10, 2009

The God Projector

At this point in the many decades that I have been contemplating the question, the non-existence of God or any other gods is quite clear to me. I’m as confident about that conclusion as I am about any philosophical, abstract, or non-observable matter. God’s non-existence seems as sure as oxygen’s existence. Perhaps that is the result of my being too impressed with the power of my own logic. But there are some other powerful indicators that I take as corroboration. In the last 50 years, serious theistically minded philosophers, for the most part, have abandoned evidential or “natural” approaches to the problem. The emergence of alternative characterizations of religious belief like process theology, existential theology, fideism, reformed epistemology, mystical and religious experience accounts, Wittgensteinian accounts, and others all implicitly or explicitly concede the point that attempting to gather evidence or produce arguments that are sufficient to render belief in God reasonable is doomed to fail. It is also clear that neither arguments nor evidence were the source of it in the first place. They never led people to love, tithe, build cathedrals, sacrifice themselves, strap on suicide bombs, go to war, or embrace cults. Religious beliefs do, however. That is to say that whatever is going on in the vast majority of people who are religious, it is not a matter of thoughtful reflection on the evidence. They became religious without that, and the sustain a high level of belief withou it. I also take the widespread consensus among my philosophy of religion students over the years to be significant: in their view, the whole philosophical project of inquiring into the evidence that could provide epistemic justification for the existence of God is perverse and alien. Many of them were 22 or 25 or older before they had ever heard someone even pose the question, “What is the evidence that we have that would make believing in God reasonable?” That strikes them as odd because that never had anything to do with God beliefs that they knew of.

So to sum up, these reasons lead me to think that belief in God for most people is not a matter of accepting a reasonable conclusion based on an evaluation of the evidence: first, there are lots of powerful arguments for thinking that there is no God that I have detailed in scores of blog posts; second, even the theologians and philosophers have abandoned evidential or natural approaches to belief in God; third, the level of devotion (and insanity) that is common among religious believers suggests that something more passional or psychological is going on; and fourth, most people, including believers, seem to think that religious belief is a matter of faith, or personal preference, or disposition, but not reasoning.

That all leaves us facing an incredible question: why then do so many people believe, and believe and act they way they do about God? Our inquiry into possible rational grounds has not produced any results that can reflect the passionate commitment, or the consuming power of religious belief in the human psyche. So we are left with trying to suss out the non-rational causes of belief, the psychological, sociological, neurobiological, and evolutionary forces that have shaped this monster in the human mind. Many of my recents posts have pursued these hypotheses. Here’s an interesting possibility.

The human visual system is constructed to produce a stunning illusion when it is confronted with a rotating mask of a face. As the mask rotates and the back, concave side comes into view, it will appear at first that the inside of the mask curves out away from you. But as it continues to rotate, the inner surface that should be curved away suddenly pops forward so that it looks like the face is bulging out normally towards you. What should be the inside looks like a normal face looking at you. Look at this example:

The cognitive dissonance of the effect is striking because you know that the inner surface is curving away and that the nose should be in reverse image, but it looks just like a normal convex face. And no matter what cognitive effort you exert, you can’t not see the face sticking out. You are unable to look at the inside of a mask and see it as the inside.

Daniel Dennett (Breaking the Spell, Darwin’s Dangerous Idea, Explaining Consciousness, Sweet Dreams) has argued that evolution has equipped the human mind with an intentionality projector, a mind endower, or a self broadcaster. We are highly prone to endow other entities, particularly ones with complex and difficult to predict behavior, with a mind. We don’t just see another organism as an object that moves, we see a self there, a being with a perspective. There is some way that the world appears to it and it has plans, desires, knowledge, and beliefs. Modeling other entities behavior in terms of its possessing intentionalilty has enormous predictive value. If I can think about what the wolf wants, what it knows, what plans it has, and what it will do next then I have a much better chance of thwarting those plans. (That’s good if it wants to eat me.) I don’t recall Dennett putting the point this way, but isn’t this propensity to endow certain kinds of entities with an intentional mind very difficult to supress? Isn’t it very hard to us to not see certain kinds of beings as possessing a mind? It would be very hard, for example, to see another human being who is talking to me and acting normally the way I would see a tree blowing in the wind, or a rock sitting on the path. I can’t help but see you as a self—a center of consciousness that is navigating the same world I inhabit but by a different path and set of experiences.

What if believing in God, feeling God, or experiencing God in the world and in our lives is a forced cognitive illusion that is a product of our wiring the way the rotating mask illusion is? What if we can’t help but believe, or experience God or some near analog?

Many people find this new agey idea quite charming—there’s the same element of the divine in everyone. We should see all different religions and spirituals experiences as manifestations of the same divine inspiration in all of us. All different spiritualities are accessing the same fundamental force or energy. Of course, when the point is put this way, it is celebratory. Religious feelings are a good thing to be encouraged in all, and the common thread to them all is a confirmation that there is something larger and more powerful than all of us.

I am suggesting a darker analysis. The God Illusion (yes, that’s very close to Dawkins’ The God Delusion) is a cognitive error, a throw back, side effect, or kludgey by product of our believing and perceptual systems. We are naturally endowed with propensity to project God out into the world as one of the things we experience, or an answer to our questions, or the cause of some events. We’re like a cavefish that dangles a glowing light in front of its own face, but has no clue that its coming from its own head. Everywhere we go, we keep seeing or feeling God, or arriving at God as the underlying cause or explanation of it all. “Surely God is great, powerful, and omnipresent!” Every time something tragic happens, our thoughts turn to God. And when something great befalls, then God must be praised and thanked. “God is infinitely wise and has a plan for me. And God is unimaginably good too. We should praise him!”

But those feelings and beliefs are illusions. He’s not really there. There is no face pointing out at you, but you just can’t help but think that there is. You can’t not think God is real.

Saturday, April 4, 2009

The Forbidden Conclusion

Human beings are psychologically incapable of simultaneously holding two contradictory propositions in mind at once and having an attitude of assent or belief towards both of them. That is, we can't believe an outright contradiction. Nor do we have much voluntary control over which claims we believe. We can't, through the force of our will, start believing something new or stop believing something that we previously assented to. Try it. Get yourself to actually believe that Barack Obama is not the president of the United States, 2 + 2 = 5, or that Matthew McConaghey is not the sexiest man alive. Ok, just kidding on the last one.

"But people believe contradictory, irrational things all the time!" will be the objection. Here's what's really going on. An occurrent belief is one that is in conscious awareness now. In many cases, we have an occurrent belief that contradicts with some other claim that we believe or believed, but it is not occurrent. There are all sorts of things buried in my mind that I am not currently thinking about that could conflict with something that I am thinking about, but I just haven't made the connection and seen the problem. In other cases, a pair of beliefs we have are only implicitly contradictory. The two claims are not an outright contradiction, but were we to supply some other beliefs and draw out some of the logical implications of them, a genuine contradiction would emerge. But again, if I haven't thought it all out, I won't have an occurrent contradictory belief pair.

There are other sources of cognitive tension. Some groups of propositions are probabilistically contradictory--one asserts what another declares to be exceedingly improbable. If I won the lottery three days in a row, it would strike me as exceedingly improbable that the lottery was really a fair, million to one game.

Now some relevant points from neuroscience and philosophy of mind. The current picture of the world that occupies consciousness from moment to moment is a construction where what I am seeing, hearing, feeling, or thinking now is threaded together with my memories of the recent and not so recent past. What I am sensing now with the keyboard under my fingers is not the same as what I was feeling 10 minutes ago, but consciousness builds a continuous narrative that bridges those sensations and makes causal and psychological sense of the transitions. There was an entity, the I, who was in the kitchen then, and after that, I walked up the stairs and sat down at the computer. A world of continuous, causally regular objects that is also inhabited by the continuous subject is constructed (unbeknownst to me) out of the meaningless raw feels of thought and sensation.

This fleeting, perpetually forward rolling window of consciousness is discontent, as we have seen, with a picture of the world and the self that doesn't make sense. It abhors contradictions in the story of the world and the self that it creates. Concerning the world, this disposition manifests as a set of expectations that events and objects are regular, predictable, and sensible. The aversion to contradiction creates a forbidden conclusion about the self. It is profoundly disturbing for us to think of our selves as irrational. Seeing contradictions in the words and actions of others comes easy--consider how starkly some conflict between two claims from your husband or girlfriend leapt out at you the last time you were in an argument. Now consider how it felt when she accused you of first saying X was true and then contradicting yourself 5 minutes later by saying not-X. When you heard those two claims put together, your mind scrambled for an account that would diminish the seeming conflict. You quickly found an explanation whereby saying both of those things makes perfect sense. See? It is profoundly difficult, if not impossible to acknowledge about oneself that your own beliefs are at deep logical odds with each other. "I am irrational," is the forbidden conclusion that we cannot face, even when it is plainly obvious.

Experimentally, the refusal to accept it displays itself in revisions, confabulations, memory editing, and misrepresentations. In one study, subjects were asked to pick the most attractive person from a stack of pictures. Then the subject's choice was swapped for another picture without their knowledge. The researchers then asked the subjects why they picked that picture instead of the others. Without missing a step, and without even knowing they did so, subjects promptly confabulated a justification for why the new picture was of their most attractive original pick. The fact they cannot accept: I made a mistake--the picture I picked is not the most attractive one in the stack. Goethals, G. R., & Reckman, R. F. (1973). The Perception of Consistency in Attitudes. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 9(6), 491-501.

In another study, high school students were tested to determine their attitude about a topic. Then a confederate in the study discussed the topic with them and subtley affected an attitude change in them. The subjects were assessed again and it was found that as a result of the confederate, they had a different view about the topic. But when asked to recall their view from before, they recounted their original position to make it consistent with their new one. Unknowingly, they made recall errors that rendered the new views as the one that they had believed all along. The perception of consistency in attitudes, George R. Goethals and Richard F. Reckman

In a now famous study by Nisbett and Wilson, shoppers were asked to evaluate various clothing items for quality. Multiple trials and randomization revealed that no matter what the arrangement of the articles of clothing, the subjects had a bias for the right hand items. When they were asked to justify their choice, however, they would construct an explanation on the basis of various features of the item. That is, subjects tended to pick the right item no matter which one was put there, and then they would make up a story about why it was the best one. Nisbett, R.E. and Wilson, T.D. "Telling more than we can know: Verbal reports on mental processes".Psychological Review, Vol 84 pp 231-259.

Other studies show that when people have a strong conviction that a claim is true, they will heavily filter the evidence to make it fit. They will accept evidence that appears to confirm their view readily and with little scrutiny, but they will subject disconfirming evidence to high levels of criticism and analysis. So when they encounter contrary evidence to what they believe, it tends to actually reinforce their view and polarize them further into it. Biased Assimilation and Attitude Polarization: The Effects of Prior Theories on Subsequently Considered Evidence, Charles G. Lord, Lee Ross, and Mark R. Lepper. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 1979, Vol. 37, No. 11, 2098-2109

Ziva Kunda, a psychologist from Princeton, describes two impulses that are at odds in us. We have a motivation to be accurate--to form correct views about the world. But we also possess substantial motivation to arrive at particular favored conclusions. She says, "There is considerable evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they want to arrive at, but their ability to do so is constrained by their ability to construct seemingly reasonable justifications for these conclusions." The Case for Motivated Reasoning, Psychological Bulletin 1990, Vol. 108, No. 3, 480-498.

What's the relevance of all of this to religious beliefs? Nowhere in our lives is the powerful conflict between a set of desires or psychological needs on one side and the goal of having an accurate, coherent, justified description of the world on the other more evident than it is about God. We want God to exist. We want the religious doctrine of our childhood to be the correct picture of reality. From the numbers, it is nearly impossible for us to shake off the transcendental temptation. But we can't accept about ourselves that this belief is the product of some invisible forces in our nature, or that it is driven more by desire than by reason. So we go through logical gymnastics and contortions of reason to fabricate "seemingly reasonable justifications." If we find ourselves believing it, we can't help but construct a back story that render that belief a reasonable one. If we didn't, we'd have to face the forbidden conclusion. (Thanks to Randy Mayes for the idea and the title.)

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.