Monday, July 5, 2010

Denialism

In the latter half of the 20th century, an important development in religious epistemology changed the sort of debate that theists and atheists have been having.  This much was not new:  for centuries, when believers were confronted with challenges, it has become common to simply deny that evidence, reason, logic, arguments, or justifications are relevant or applicable to something as marvelous and transcendent as God.  That anti-intellectual and arational trend in religious circles has been tempered by a more sober view in natural theology that God’s existence and nature can be known and understood through reason and that successful arguments for God’s existence can be given. 

But for many, including people who were once in the tradition, the natural theological project is dead.  The vast majority of philosophers, even ones who believe, do not think that a successful argument for God’s existence can be given.  Knowledge of God can be had by other less conventional methods, however.  Plantinga and the reformed epistemologists now claim that they know God by way of an inner voice, a sensus divinitatus, or the “witness of the Holy Spirit,” that informs them of God directly, non-inferentially, and they say, the knowledge comes in a way that external appeals to evidence, reason, or empirical facts cannot undermine.  The details need not concern us here. 

What should concern all of us, theists and atheists alike, is a strong disposition in human beings to get caught up in an ideology that renders us incapable of reasoning clearly, particularly about that ideology itself.  Beware of positions, like conspiracy theories, that build answers to why they don’t appear to be true into the essential claims of the ideology itself.  We are organic beings, with kludgey equipment that is prone to go off the rails frequently.  Given our fallible cognitive faculties, it is an enormous challenge to sustain any level of intellectual freedom and cognitive integrity.  We’re more prone by our natures to get it wrong, and get it wrong in a big way, than to get it right. 

One of the ways that an ideology infects our minds and consume us is by exploiting our propensity to explain away any counter evidence in order to hang onto views we are emotionally commited to.  We’ve all seen it, of course, and we’ve all felt the urge to hold onto some pet idea even when it is clear that it’s a mistake. 

But the nature of this impulse is coming into focus with recent efforts in empirical psychology.  Geoffrey Munro of Towson University recently showed that when we are confronted with scientific, empirical evidence that challenges a position we favor, we are more likely to reject science altogether and claim that it cannot be employed to address questions of that type at all. The Scientific Impotence Excuse:  Discounting Belief-Threatening Scientific Abstracts.  Munro took test subjects with views about stereotypes, such as homosexuality.  Subjects were tested beforehand to determine what views they held.  Then they were given fake abstracts of scientific studies that purported to either prove or disconfirm the stereotype.  So some studies indicated that homosexuals had a higher rate of mental illness, for example, while others indicated that their rate of mental illness was lower.  Not surprisingly, the subjects who read abstracts that supported their preconceived views concluded that their views had been vindicated.  But something remarkable happened with the the subjects who had their prior views challenged.  Rather than acknowledge that they were mistaken and change their minds, these subjects were much more likely to conclude that proving (or disproving) the thesis simply couldn’t be done by science.  They rejected science itself, rather than give up their cherished idea. 

Contradictions, counter-indications, improbabilities bother us.  They create cognitive dissonance.  See The Forbidden Conclusion.  Our minds need resolution to the conflict.  One way (the poor way, in this case) is to just reject the source of information that is creating the dissonance.  If scientific methods themselves are suspect, then there is less strain on my belief system when I continue to hold views that it rejects. 

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with seeking to have a more coherent, less contradictory worldview. Quite the contrary, we should all be doing more of that.  But the model of reality that we construct in our heads should be as consonant and responsive to as many of the known facts as possible.  One can have a highly internally consistent picture of reality that is detached from reality.  But what we should be striving to do is to incorporate as much of what known into whatever worldview we adopt. 

We can imagine some scheme whereby one of the subjects in the study might think their way out of the problem.  “Sure, this authentic looking and authoritative sounding scientific study says that homosexuals have a lower rate of mental illness, but I know different from my own experience.”  (Other studies have demonstrated how strong our tendency is to accept anecdotal and personal experience over abstract, scientific analyses.  See Jonathan Baron's  Thinking and Deciding.  But what our subject has failed to realize is how unreliable reasoning about general epidemiological and stratitistical trends from personal and anecdotal evidence can be.  Even if the scientific study is a fake, it’s methodology is superior to our subject’s method.  So it should have lead him to reject his prior view, not science itself. 

The application to religious belief is obvious.  Sustaining the view that there is an invisible, undetectable, almighty, all knowing, and infinitely loving being who exists in another plain of reality from ours is incredibly difficult in an age where science has shown us so much and when naturalism has “won” as the theologians lament.  Believing in God cannot be had easily or readily given the other things we know.  So for many people who believe, the answer is to simply reject the source that is telling them different. 

Recently in some of the debates about the resurrection, beleivers confronted me with the works of N.T. Wright, a Christian historical apologist.  One of Wright’s theses is that the New Testament Jews simply could not have come up with the idea of a bodily resurrection on their own.  The only way they would have ever produced the idea is if Jesus himself gave it to them by actually returning from the dead.  Wright presents a masterful argument filled with historical arguments and citations.  As long as the historical evidence appears to be in favor of his view, he’s eager to employ its methods.  But deep within his works, the truth about his commitment to historical methods and the resurrection comes out.  Ultimately when he is faced with serious historical challenges to making the case for the resurrection, Wright recommends that the real problem is the historical method and that we should put the belief in Jesus first. 

“If we attempt to argue for the historical truth of the resurrection on standard historical grounds, have we not allowed historical method, perhaps including its hidden Enlightenment roots, to become lord, to set the bounds of what we know, rather than allowing God himself, Jesus himself, and indeed the resurrection itself, to establish not only what we know but how we can know it?” (Jesus' Resurrection and Christian Origins)

That is, since we  know that Jesus was real, then we can be assured that the only acceptable historical methods for proving that Jesus was real must be ones that prove that he was real.  If our historical methods do not produce the correct conclusion, then it must be the methods, not the conclusion that are wrong. 

Wright gives us just one example of an academic scholar dressing the fallacy up to make it seem more presentable.  Putting lipstick on the pig, as it were.  The other instances of the comparable mistake in the religious rationalizations are countless. 


The hazards of simply rejecting reality when it doesn’t suit our preferences should be equally obvious.  The Munro study gives us a stern warning about the cognitive pitfalls we are prone to, and the application to religious cases shows us how seductive a supernatural ideology can be. 

Frequently, people make the charge against atheism or science that it is some form of religious faith too.  Perhaps they are thinking that if science is just as much an ideology, then there’s nothing so wrong with adopting an equally groundless religious one instead.  That would be a mistake.  But more important, what Munro and Wright show us is that there is a fundamental difference between science and religion that people are missing.  The point of religiousness is to believe particular doctrinal claims.  Believing is the whole point of religiousness as Wright’s drawing his line in the sand makes clear.  But science is a method for acquiring beliefs that is neutral with regard to what they are.  It tells us how to confirm or disconfirm what we think might be true.  Much of what religious institutions strive to do is to implant belief and then equip us with the means to reject anything that would conflict with them.  Preachers, priests, and rabbis cultivate believing of certain claims in their flocks.  Their charges are in need of protection; they need their faith strengthened against doubts that would undermine them.  Sermons, prayers, devotionals, and cermonies serve to fortify beliefs and behaviors in them that would not be sustained otherwise.  Doubt, criticisms, and objections are the point of the scientific method.  Finding reasons to reject a hypothesis makes it possible for us to make some provisional claims about what is true.  Without some methodological procedure for vetting hypotheses and separating the good from the bad, we can’t claim to have any justification for them.  The method of doubting is what justifies and keeps the floodgates of failed views closed.    


20 comments:

howerymd said...

(Good to see you're still posting Prof M!)

It makes me wonder:

-If that scientifically observed effect is a desire for control. It seems on a very basic, individual, level, humans desire to control what is around them. By the same token there appears to be a desire to control what we think about what is around us.

A farmer in a field needs to plant crops. He needs to make "order" out of "disorder."

He does not have a modern tractor. So he takes the only tool he has, a oxen-powerd plow and proceeds to plow his field.

As I stated, the farmer did not have a tractor. If he did, it would not help much, as he is untrained in how to use it. One of the things I enjoy so much about (basic) philosophy is the cognitive tools that it provides and the training in how to use them to process information.

What I'm getting at is it seems these people who are "guilty" of congnitive dissonace are only guilty of not having the proper tools, and/or not being trained in how to use them.

I have to be honest, the more I learn (still scratching the surface) about dialogue, debate and reason, the more I dislike debating people.

Going back to the psychological desire for control thing, I suppose what I'm hypothesizing is that the cognitive dissonance is simply a matter of not having the advanced tools required to analyze and dispassionately reason about experiences.

I suppose I have the same worry as a philosopher a couple thousand years ago, that we as a culture are forgetting how to reason. We are marginalizing the tools that brought us into the modern era. Pop culture has an incredible ability to take great concepts and ideas and utterly destroy them.

Even today, I cannot read or hear the word, "logic" without thinking about pointed ears...

howerymd said...

That should have read "Pop culture and religion."

It all boils down to education. When you refuse the tools, you cannot expect to be able to adequately reason. Any ideology that marginalizes or dismisses knowledge is inherently dangerous for that reason.

meekerdb said...

" Even if the scientific study is a fake, it’s methodology is superior to our subject’s method." I would never have put it that way. A fake study has no methodology; although I understand the point. And one way the subject might have thought his way out of cognitive dissonance is to reflect that (according to a scientific study) 90% of all published scientific papers are wrong. Of course they are mostly in medicine and they are found to wrong by subsequent studies, but still skepticism is not irrational.

meekerdb said...

" Even if the scientific study is a fake, it’s methodology is superior to our subject’s method." I would never have put it that way. A fake study has no methodology; although I understand the point. And one way the subject might have thought his way out of cognitive dissonance is to reflect that (according to a scientific study) 90% of all published scientific papers are wrong. Of course they are mostly in medicine and they are found to wrong by subsequent studies, but still skepticism is not irrational.

Toby said...

Meekerdb,

I agree with your comment on the methodology of a fake study being unreliable. I also think the "90% of all published scientific papers are wrong" is likely a fake study. Of course, there's a 90% chance the study claiming 9/10 studies are wrong is wrong itself. ?

However, I think you missed Matt's point altogether, and your post seems to prove his position well. What I interpret him to mean about a person trusting a fake study more than their own judgement is this: If you are shown a peer-reviewed study that presents data that conflicts with your own worldview (remember at this point you don't know the study is fake), you shouldn't automatically dismiss the study. Instead, because the study comes from a "supposed" peer-reviewed source you should think, "Peer-reviewed sources generally only support rigorous methodologies therefore I should probably question my own initial assumptions rather than simply reject this study as being false. At this point you aren't accepting or rejecting the study, but you are putting up your old beiefs that are in opposition of the study for review.

Which position is more likely to lead a person to truth:

1. I disagree with this study therefore it is wrong.

2. I disagreee with this study therefore I need to take a look at my beliefs and research this further because I may be wrong.

To finish, although your "9 out of 10 studies are wrong" is a load of crap, it does lead (kind of) to a good thought. It is best to look at all of the research in an area and weigh the evidence out. If the the majority of the evidence points in one direction, then that is where your thinking should be leaning too.

Toby said...

Matt,

I absolutely love your material and I think its applicable beyond religion. For example, I'm going to use this "lesson" in both my Domestic Violence group and Substance Abuse group. In both of these groups we are trying to teach new worldviews to the participants. Often the group members reject what they are being taught because of the same principles you outline here. Teaching this will help build the kind of humility necessary to get them to better question their previous beliefs and hopefully adopt new beliefs that are healthier.

Thanks Matt for the wonderful work!

Brenda said...

"The point of religiousness is to believe particular doctrinal claims."

Nope. The purpose of religious belief is not to believe. It is that by believing we submit ourselves to a higher authority, a power greater than ourselves. Thereby suppressing and regulating one's selfish desires, one's Will to Power.

People are right to criticize the past errors of some religious faiths. What we need then is not no faith, but better religion.

Atheism as a model for society will always fail because it simply does not suppress the individual's own will to power. Indeed most atheists revel in their own selfish desires as if that were a good thing.

No, what is needed is a way to join people together in a collective intentional social group, a religious organization, so that we can go about the business of building a civilization.

In the long run arrogant, self centered atheists will lose and the meek, those who submit, will inherit the Earth.

Toby said...

Hi Brenda,

You wrote, "Atheism as a model for society..."

I think you might have a misunderstanding of atheism because atheism is not, by definition, a model for anything. Let me put it this way, I don't believe in magical fairies. In this sense, I am an "afairianist." I cannot purpose a model for society that is built on "afairianism." Nor could a model for society be build on lack of belief in Zues (or Vishnue, Yaweh, Shevah, etc.).

In a similar vein, you go on to state, "Indeed most atheists revel in their own selfish desires as if that were a good thing." There are no studies, that I'm aware of, showing atheists to be less moral that theists. I'm not exactly sure how one would define "selfish desires" though. When does a desire become selfish? Certainly desires can be selfish, but this would be difficult to measure. Without a standardized objective measure to quantify this rather abstract construct it is difficult to say with accuracy that "Most atheists revel in their own selfish desires" as compared to their theist counterparts.

Personally, I tend to see atheists falling on a fairly normal distrubution pattern that is typcial to humanity in terms of their "goodness." Meaning, if one had large random samples of both a group of atheists and a group of theists, they would likely be very comparable in most areas outside of religious beliefs.

Or conversly, compared to atheists, do theists have:
less DUI's?
less affairs?
less substance abuse problems?
less divorce?
less abortions?
less murder?
etc...

I don't have a definitive answer to these questions, but here is an interesting read
http://www.deliriumsrealm.com/delirium/blogview.asp?Post=259
Toby

cipher said...

In the long run arrogant, self centered atheists will lose and the meek, those who submit, will inherit the Earth.

The meek? You mean, like Falwell, Roberston and their ilk? You mean the Texas SBOE, who think they know more about evolution then those who actually study it, because they have a 2,500 year-old book that tells them so? You mean all of those who are absolutely certain that we're going to burn in a lake of fire for all of eternity, while they stand around and toast marshmallows? Are those the "meek" you're talking about?

DM said...
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DM said...
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Matt McCormick said...

Brenda, I appreciate your reading the blog and offering up your ideas. But you have consistently attacked me and atheism in general with some pretty harsh language. And the criticism is often in the form of "atheism cannot provide us with an adequate social system or model of society." That's an interesting assertion. But first: where did I ever argue the contrary? That is, when I am offering an objection to a particular form of religious irrationality, or arguing that God doesn't exist, how is it even relevant to the point to go off on this tangent? Suppose you're right (I don't think you are, but I haven't detected any arguments from you for the conclusion to actually support the view), how would that address the argument I am making in this point that ideological commitments that lead us to ignore plain facts are bad? Suppose that atheism cannot offer a viable social system, whatever in the world that means, does it therefore follow that these mistakes in religious thinking are not mistakes? Are you arguing that they are excusable? Atheism is arrogant, you say, so therefore it's reasonable to be a religiously irrational as you want? I am just baffled by the gross non sequitur here. What the hell does any of what you have been saying have to do with the point? Second: given your repetition on this strange tangent, I have to ask, can you engage in a discussion on this topic that doesn't veer off onto the "arrogant atheists can't provide us with a viable social system," rant?

MM

DM said...
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DM said...

FAITH!

DM said...
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Matt McCormick said...

DM, if you'd like to offer some constructive and respectful comments, please do. But all abusive, threatening, raving lunatic posts will be deleted. MM

GearHedEd said...

Brenda said,

"...Atheism as a model for society will always fail because it simply does not suppress the individual's own will to power."

Religion as a model for society will always fail because heirarchical authoritarian systems are built on the premise of power to dictate behavior to the have-nots. This is not in dispute: the religious side has had the upper hand for millenia; and what a stellar record of enlightenment they have achieved!

And don't try the old counter that it's not religion's fault but the fault of the sinful, power-hungry practitioners.

Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.

The Roman Catholic Church is the sole responsible party for the European Dark Ages, that lasted 1,000 years until the reformation, the enlightenment and the rennaissance.

Free thought unchained humanity from the abomination of Catholicism.

son of gaia said...

Toby and Matt,

I hope that someday you might re-evaluate your attachment to the Denialism meme. My purely anecdotal and therefore inherently valueless observation, is that this meme has an association with expression of very unfortunate and discrediting attitudes.

"If you are shown a peer-reviewed study that presents data that conflicts with your own worldview (remember at this point you don't know the study is fake), you shouldn't automatically dismiss the study"

Fair enough. I agree with that, but:

"Instead, because the study comes from a "supposed" peer-reviewed source you should think..."

You SHOULD think? Presuming a right or even a desire to instruct others on what they should or should not think could, in my opinion, reveal elitist and/or authoritarian attitudes likely to incite people to do the opposite of what you wish just to spite you.

"We can imagine some scheme whereby one of the subjects in the study might think their way out of the problem. “Sure, this authentic looking and authoritative sounding scientific study says that homosexuals have a lower rate of mental illness, but I know different from my own experience.”

"But what our subject has failed to realize is how unreliable reasoning about general epidemiological and stratitistical trends from personal and anecdotal evidence can be. Even if the scientific study is a fake, it’s methodology is superior to our subject’s method..."

"...because the study comes from a "supposed" peer-reviewed source you should think, "Peer-reviewed sources generally only support rigorous methodologies therefore I should probably question my own initial assumptions rather than simply reject this study as being false"

Are you aware of how self-serving this might sound to many people? In the context of referring back to Munro's study about people choosing to believe that "the thesis simply couldn’t be done by science", these statements make sense.

Yet they also appear, to me, disquietingly near to stating that people should always and reflexively accept whatever a document which purports to be a peer-reviewed study asks them to believe - even if they suspected the document to be fake, even if the purported conclusion wildly contradicted their personal experience of the subject matter, even if it was apparent to them that the data cited in the study didn't support the conclusions drawn from it - simply out of a FAITH in peer-reviewed sources only supporting rigorous methodologies and BELIEF in the inherent fallibility/inferiority of their own powers of reasoning.

It could be extremely convenient for research scientists, if the public were to consistently follow such a behavioural prescription, and that might make research scientists proposing anything like it appear suspiciously self-serving to some.

son of gaia said...

Toby and Matt,

I hope that someday you might re-evaluate your attachment to the Denialism meme. My purely anecdotal and therefore inherently valueless observation, is that this meme has an association with expression of very unfortunate and discrediting attitudes.

"If you are shown a peer-reviewed study that presents data that conflicts with your own worldview (remember at this point you don't know the study is fake), you shouldn't automatically dismiss the study"

Fair enough. I agree with that, but:

"Instead, because the study comes from a "supposed" peer-reviewed source you should think..."

You SHOULD think? Presuming a right or even a desire to instruct others on what they should or should not think could, in my opinion, reveal elitist and/or authoritarian attitudes likely to incite people to do the opposite of what you wish just to spite you.

"We can imagine some scheme whereby one of the subjects in the study might think their way out of the problem. “Sure, this authentic looking and authoritative sounding scientific study says that homosexuals have a lower rate of mental illness, but I know different from my own experience.”

"But what our subject has failed to realize is how unreliable reasoning about general epidemiological and stratitistical trends from personal and anecdotal evidence can be. Even if the scientific study is a fake, it’s methodology is superior to our subject’s method..."

"...because the study comes from a "supposed" peer-reviewed source you should think, "Peer-reviewed sources generally only support rigorous methodologies therefore I should probably question my own initial assumptions rather than simply reject this study as being false"

Are you aware of how self-serving this might sound to many people? In the context of referring back to Munro's study about people choosing to believe that "the thesis simply couldn’t be done by science", these statements make sense.

Yet they also appear, to me, disquietingly near to stating that people should always and reflexively accept whatever a document which purports to be a peer-reviewed study asks them to believe - even if they suspected the document to be fake, even if the purported conclusion wildly contradicted their personal experience of the subject matter, even if it was apparent to them that the data cited in the study didn't support the conclusions drawn from it - simply out of a FAITH in peer-reviewed sources only supporting rigorous methodologies and BELIEF in the inherent fallibility/inferiority of their own powers of reasoning.

It could be extremely convenient for research scientists, if the public were to consistently follow such a behavioural prescription, and that might make research scientists proposing anything like it appear suspiciously self-serving to some.

pensiveblake said...

Two things:
(a) After quoting N.T. Wright's explanation of, what he calls, "the problem I associate with Hans Frei and others", you condescendingly paraphrase Wright as having said: "That is, since we know that Jesus was real, then we can be assured that the only acceptable historical methods for proving that Jesus was real must be ones that prove that he was real", and spend the rest of the article criticizing him.
But Matt, that wasn't a paraphrase of N.T. Wright, that was a paraphrase of N.T. Wrights paraphrase of Hans Frei (and its not even a good paraphrase of Frei). N.T. Wright says he *disagrees* with Frei. So whence this strange paraphrase of Wright? *Directly* after the quoted section, Wright gives two solid objections to Frei, prefaced by "On the one hand", and then "On the other hand":
"On the one hand, the resurrection did not for the first Christians, and does not today, ‘prove’ that Jesus was and/or is ‘divine’. [...]"
"On the other hand, the Frei school have overstated their case about the nature of historical investigation. [...]"


(b) In concluding, you write: "Believing is the whole point of religiousness as Wright’s drawing his line in the sand makes clear. But science is a method for acquiring beliefs that is neutral with regard to what they are. It tells us how to confirm or disconfirm what we think might be true."
We saw that the representation of Wright was off, but I think this representation of science is off too. Matt, aren't philosophers supposed to be the ones who are acutely aware of the *methodological* naturalism employed by the sciences (as opposed to metaphysical naturalism)? Science doesn't give you "neutral beliefs" with respect to God because it's not even allowed to consider the hypothesis! Even if God were the best and most logical explanation for a given phenomenon (and the truth), the job of science would be to come up with the *next* *best* thing. Right or wrong? It's surely a mistake to portray science as a, or the, 'quest for truth'. Instead it's an awesome tool to help in the quest.