Monday, January 13, 2014

An example of faith as a cognitive bias

I feel like I've been vindicated regarding my take on faith as a cognitive bias via the ongoing Faith Discussion with Tom Gilson, et al. Allow me to quote Gilson from this comment on his blog:
I disagree. The Bible is evidence for the reality of God. Anyone can see that.
The definition of evidence is something like this:
Some information E is evidence for some belief B, if E’s being true, and E’s being known to be true, provides good reason for a reasonable person to judge it more likely that B is true, compared to the situation where E is not in existence, is not true, or E is not known to be true.
The Bible exists and speaks of God in ways that can be assessed for truth. This information E increases the likelihood of belief B, “the God of the Bible exists,” being true, compared to the case where there is no Bible.
First, note that Gilson's working definition for evidence is pretty good. It's not hard, though, to see where this line of reasoning goes awry. I'll briefly illustrate a few points.
  1. It assumes God exists.
  2. It assumes that the Bible is a reliable source (which, among even more things, also depends upon the assumption that God exists).
  3. The claim that the evidence that the Bible exists and speaks of God in ways that can be assessed for truth increases the likelihood of belief that the God of the Bible exists compared against the case where there is no Bible is, at the least, rather controversial. More than one person has noted that the Bible, if read in full, is one of the most potent books in existence for creating formerly Christian atheists.
  4. I'm not so smug as to add a rejoinder that "anyone can see that."
My case in calling faith a cognitive bias (which I think I could argue even better now, and which, for whatever it's worth, is quoted on p. 36 of Boghossian's Manual for Creating Atheists) is that faith distorts in the believing mind the way evidence is assessed, tipping it unjustifiably in favor of the pre-existing beliefs. I hope that points 1-3 above illustrate how Gilson may be engaging in this bias.

He's not trapped permanently by it, though. This is why I go on and on in this Faith Discussion about falsifiability (and really, then, informed skepticism as an extension). If one's default position about the evidence is to doubt that it supports the belief, and if one's chief effort is to look for ways to see how it may fail to constitute evidence, and if one's effort is redoubled and trebled by the efforts of others seeking to help you keep from misinterpreting evidence and jumping to erroneous conclusions, the trap can be avoided. Gilson knows this. He's a psychologist that relies heavily upon statistics, the foundational premises of which depend exactly upon this. Faith is used as a justification to avoid all of those possibilities, or rather to pretend that one need not engage in them and can still trust the conclusions that are drawn. (Hence, pretending to know what one doesn't know.)

Before I get another boring and predictable tu quoque ("you also!") to this, I'll make another point. I'm aware of this bias, which is ultimately mainly based upon confirmation bias, and I know I fall victim to it sometimes. That's why I am an informed skeptic and have worked hard to reset my default position on claims to doubt. I still fall prey to it, of course, but actively reassessing and having others help me reassess is an important part of my thought process on claims, particularly important or consequential ones. This is why the honesty of being willing to say "I don't know" about one's beliefs is so important and so respectable.

To be clear, I'm always open to something that would constitute proper evidence for belief in God (or even Christianity, but that's a really long shot given that I don't think the foundational premises--original sin and atonement, especially via a brutal human/deistic blood sacrifice--make any sense at all), but the evidence has to be really good and non-circular. Unfortunately for Christians, particularly, they've made their God unfalsifiable (axiomatic, really), and thus even they claim that the only evidence for him is necessarily circular. They're always welcome to let me know when that changes.

Allow one more short diversion here before I close this to elaborate on (3) above. Let me grant Tom Gilson's dubious claim that the Bible does constitute evidence for God for the sake of argument (something I normally don't do because that's the main thing apologists aim to get people to do so they can keep talking).

If the Bible is evidence for God, it's abysmal evidence. The manner of attaining salvation--its main job--is utterly unclear, spawning many contradictory denominations. The moral injunctions are utterly unclear (and often depraved), spawning many contradictory denominations. Most of the Bible has to be apologized for (e.g. God's genocides, slavery, the mistreatment of women, and violations of human dignity throughout) or ignored not just because it's patently horrible (as mentioned) but because it's so apparently nonsensical and impertinent. It's disastrously local to both time and place, filled with issues that would completely undermine its reliability by today's standards (like doctored texts by anonymous authors), and oddly unhelpful at addressing any technical concern arising from a later than a third century understanding of the world (with some of those being quite bad, like the instruction on how to get multicolored livestock). All of this would lead people away from believing in the reliability of the Bible, raising the issue of why such a loving God would pick such a poor way to communicate the most important information in the universe.

Again, though, because I doubt, my burden is simply to provide potentially equally more plausible accounts than the one I'm trying to help Tom and his followers see through. I do not have to prove that I'm right about all of that. Anyone who wants to take the Bible as evidence has it upon their shoulders to explain (not just explain away) those issues without pretending to know anything they don't along the way.

Incidentally, for those interested in the discussion with some time on their hands, Gilson's two most recent posts have rather a lot of comments on them now, including (perhaps as a mistake on my part) several from me in which I try to address their specific concerns more directly. They are stunning to behold and almost a textbook example of their retreat into doxastic entrenchment (complete with vigorous attempts to shift the burden of proof and change the subject). If you're particularly interested in some (relatively) short answers from me to the specific kinds of questions Gilson is raising a fuss over, among others, it's worth a look for that reason too. It isn't because I can't answer them that I haven't been.


  1. I couldn't make this stuff up. In response to a line of inquiry which is, and only is: how do you know your religious beliefs are true? Tom Gilson finds himself writing this monstrosity:

    "Let me simplify it this way:
    The system of thought S includes the proposition P.
    There is a set of persons E who identify themselves with system S.
    There is a set of persons F who affirm some proposition R.
    R shares some language with P but is in fact antithetical to it.
    The set of persons E who affirm R include some members of E and some members of not-E.
    Critic C claims that R tends to invalidate S’s entire belief structure.
    Christianity affirms that faith is not the sort of thing that could be just “true for me.”
    There is a set of persons (E) who identify with Christianity.
    There is a different set of persons (F) who affirm that “my faith is true for me.”
    Set F includes some Christians and some non-Christians.
    The belief, “my faith is true for me” is antithetical to the Christian belief that faith cannot be true “just for me.”
    Boghossian claims nevertheless that the fact that persons in set F use that phrase counts toward invalidating all of Christian belief.
    You can see (can’t you?) that this doesn’t follow?"

    You are right and correct to continue to hold their feet to the fire. But if Tom (et al.) thinks the above is a reasonable response to, well, anything, then I can only hope you (extraordinarily) good luck in your continued efforts. You have the patience of a mountain. Not one of those fancy, new, Himalayan mountains. One of those old, been-there mountains.

  2. Okay, I checked in to see how everyone's reacting to you on TC and I read the following:

    Tom Gilson: "Oh, and by the way, if you’re wondering why I haven’t commented more on your site, I hope it’s not hard for you to figure it out now. You have a very active commenter who is a whole lot more interested in conducting personal attacks than engaging in productive discussion. There’s not even any pretense of it being otherwise on your site."

    Two things: I have been brutally honest in my assessment with Tom Gilson, and I have aggressively called him out for what are obvious inconsistencies (and for much more) that I see as reprehensible. For those actions, I make no apology -- I think he does the same, condones the same, plays a double standard, etc.

    But, I admit that my blunt comments to him have provided him with some cover to pretend that you are condoning everything t I have written, that you are encouraging incivility, and that I have made your blog an unsuitable place for discussion. Like I said, I would disagree strongly with that assessment (and could point to his blog for the same and worse), but I have to admit that I have provided him that opportunity. And for that I would simply like to apologize to you.

    I do disagree (quelle surprise!) with his excuse about my incivility being the reason he won't comment here is an obvious crock, btw. While I disagree with Phil Vischer, for instance, about how he tests his beliefs, etc., he has been fairly forthright and engaged, commenting at some length and showing some actual willingness to engage here. I think Tom et al. could learn something from that.

    Lastly, if Tom would agree to actually respond to your challenge forthrightly, I would gladly agree not to comment on those posts (or at all, if you prefer). I somehow suspect that the response from Tom will be exactly the same, though.

    Thanks for hosting and going through all this, btw. I'm sure I'm not the only one who appreciates what you're doing.

    1. My turf, my rules. He browbeats people on his blog for failing to capitalize "bible" and "god," for instance, and more power to him. That kind of thing nearly keeps me from commenting there--because I think it's ridiculous and petty--but that's up to him on his turf.

      You're fine. If he doesn't want to comment here, that's rather his problem as he's perfectly entitled to tell you that he's ignoring you for those reasons and asking you to try a different tone with him. That's the Adult Table.

      The conversations here in the past have all been lively and open with two exceptions. Neither is Tom Gilson--though as you point out, he'd do well to learn from Phil Vischer, who has been ever cordial and positively positive. He's invited and encouraged to comment here as are you and anyone else who isn't ridiculous about it.