Sunday, October 31, 2010

Moving the Goalposts

Moving the goalposts is a logical fallacy in which the arguer changes the original claim without acknowledging the changes have been made. The arguer also does not respond directly to the evidence presented against his or her original claim.

Similar efforts have been undertaken with the Bible. This varies from person to person but similarly it has generally moved from the inviolable word of god, to an accurate historical account, to a collection of myths mixed in with a bit of history. Attempts to hang onto the tattered remnants of false hopes and beliefs even though those beliefs have no resemblance to the original position of any given individual.

Even though the original premise utterly collapsed years ago people still hang onto the tattered remnants of belief. This is based on the goalpost that now only requires the Bible (or Koran if you prefer) to be a morality tale. So even though the apologists are trying to prove a very different hypothesis than they were years ago the quest is somehow still valid. I would argue that the game ended the first time the goalposts moved. What has actually happened over the last several decades is the equivalent of not only moving the goalposts down the field but planting it in a different country and using it for a different game.

Magical Thinking

There are so many ways that we deceive ourselves. It would appear that humans are actually very bad at correctly viewing the world. From an evolutionary perspective many things really did not matter. The key factors were finding food and shelter in addition to successfully reproducing.

If a person's concept of the factors that influenced the course of his or her life was radically wrong it would not generally make any difference in their ability to survive. Questions such as "Is there a god?", "Does my god want me to pray to the east or in the evening" mean absolutely nothing in terms of survival. The answers that he or she would find would be heavily influenced by identifying patterns (that do not exist) in largely random data. As time progresses the answers would be pre-determined and taught by his or her culture from childhood. In more primitive societies belief would then have a survival advantage because of the need to have the support and protection of the society.

Given our complex, multi-faceted world I used to think that magical thinking was less likely to occur. It would appear from the behavior of billions of people (including me) that magical thinking is still the norm rather than the exception. Upon further reflection, this would seem to be the most logical state. In reality, as mentioned previously, magical thinking does not have much influence on survival in real terms. There is really no evolutionary pressure to not think magically. Even in today's world reproductive opportunities are not significantly reduced by magical thinking. In fact, if a particular magical belief is predominate; magical thinking may even increase a person's opportunities to find a sexual partner or partners. Furthermore, it is becoming less likely with improved standards of living and health care that any given person will not reach an age where reproduction is a viable option.

There are also the pressures imposed by various elements in any given society. We, on this board, have observed this numerous times. Challenging religious beliefs often results in someone or many someone's engaging in very strenuous efforts to defend the challenged beliefs. The defenses expose the underlying mechanisms used to justify continued belief in what has become unbelievable. Every argument can take many specific forms but a brief sampling:

1. Appeal to antiquity: "Our faith has been around for 150 years, or 1500 years, or 2000 years, ...; therefore my beliefs are correct."

2. Appeal to authority: "These experts (followed by a list of highly educated and successful people; physicists, biologists, financiers, etc) believe; therefore our religious claims are accurate."

3. Sunk costs: "Our ancestors gave so much for our religion thus sealing their beliefs in their sacrifice; therefore my religion is correct and denying that it is god's one true way would be disrespectful to my ancestors and their sacrifice."

4. False dilemma: "Either we continue to believe in my god and my religion must continue to exert pressure on society, or society will degenerate into immorality and lawlessness."

5. Negative proof: "You cannot prove that my god does not exist ; therefore there is a good chance that my god exists."

6. Package-deal: "Because my religion has always been an integral part of my family's culture; then my religion must always be part of my culture. If I separate my beliefs from my culture my culture will no longer be viable."

“...many human beings prefer certainty… matter how oppressive and primitive, to the risks and responsibilities of freedom." - Ralph Peters

Many religious texts are filled with an unbelievable number of rules. These rules range from the macro to the micro and can cover any aspect of life. For example if one were to follow all of the rules in the Bible, the follower's world would be devoid of decision-making and the associated risks for many things.

The result would seem to be people who are not accustomed to the responsibilities of being free and are severely weakened. Among those in the Abrahamic faiths, many believers do not take a literal view of their canonized scriptures. Thus they are not burdened with the micromanaged lives of the more fundamentalist among their ranks. Fundamentalist and literalistic lifestyles are similar to strapping a person to a board and not allowing them to exercise his or her muscles. The muscles are never allowed to develop and the person would end up being weak, uncoordinated, and physically unskilled.

The punitive god of these belief systems creates a following that views freedom and mistakes as a negative. The believers point at this danger of "sinning" or making errors as a reason to remain strapped to the board. They are afraid to stand up, learn to walk, and develop coordination. While learning to walk children stumble and fall. This is essential for growth and not something to avoid. Fundamentalists have been conditioned to believe that even some simple mistakes can be catastrophic and should be avoided at all cost.

The Emergence of Ethical Behavior

Some within various belief systems seem to struggle with the concept of ethical behavior from atheists and agnostics. There seems to be a belief that people with gravitate toward selfish and destructive behavior without direction from a deity and that deity's spokespersons.

In the book "Emergence" Steven Johnson writes:

"We're naturally predisposed to think in terms of pacemakers, whether we're talking about fungi, political systems, or our own bodies. Our actions seem governed for the most part by the pacemaker cells in our brains, and for millennia we've built elaborate pacemaker cells into our social organizations, whether they come in the forms of kings, dictators, or city councilmen. Much of the world around us can be explained in terms of command systems and hierarchies..."It amazes me how difficult it is for people to think in terms of collective phenomenon..."

The same inability to understand seems to exist in the minds of many people living within hierarchical religions and societies. How, they wonder, can people not descend into debauchery, criminal actions, and anti-social behavior without the guidance of religion or a strict set of laws? It is anathema to them that people can actually cooperate and show compassion on a daily basis without someone standing over them to keep them in line.

The questioner fails to see the regression issue with this concept. If it takes an authority figure to keep a person living ethically then who keeps the leaders in check? If they point to a god or divine being, who keeps god or the divine being in check? If civil and productive behavior cannot arise from within then all societies would have descended into chaos long ago. Indeed, they never would have been able to organize into a meaningful, cooperative entity.

Even something as simple as slime mold is able to organize and work cooperatively without frequent readings from the Bible, Torah, or Koran. The slime mold also does not need to attend regular services at their local church, synagogue, or mosque in order to keep from going rogue. Perhaps there is something in the complexity of humans that renders us in need of constant guidance. However, where is the evidence of such a need?

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Evolution and religious belief

There is no reason why humans would evolve to think logically. Humans are definitely pattern matching animals which is a low effort method of making sense of the world. It is efficient and it often works well. This is particularly true for hunter gatherers when it is necessary for survival to figure out the patters in the seasons, vegetation yields, migration patterns of animals, etc.

Religious thinking and magical thinking may also have an evolutionary advantage. Because natural selection favors those who are able to adapt and cope with their environment then the ability to find some plausible explanation for hardships can be adaptive. Stated directly, the people who get depressed and give up are going to starve to death. However those that exhibit hope and perhaps faith may be more inclined to press forward and thus are more likely to survive.

Chimps do not have sufficient neural matter to think in the abstract ways required for religious belief. However chimps, dogs, cats, mice, etc can exhibit superstitious learning. This is a result of the pattern matching nature of all animals. When a stimulus and response are linked via some other mechanism or happen at a high enough frequency separately that they appear to be connected superstitious learning can take place.

A belief system does not necessarily need to be true or necessarily based in reality to be advantageous. Religion seems to fall into this category. Religion seems to fail all logical tests but it helped to cement communities together which had survival advantages and as mentioned above it provided hope in the face of daunting challenges. There are some negative side effects when the hope and faith placed in a deity leave the person in a dangerous situation that they should rightly escape. However our planet and our interactions with our environment are complex enough that a degree of erroneous decision making is not catastrophic or necessarily harmful in many instances.

So on question might be what role should religion play including what level of commitment, and what particular belief system or systems are adaptive? It really depends on the state of the world at any given point in time. I think it also depends on the belief system. Fundamentalist belief systems often lead to intolerance and destructive behavior. I am not convinced there is any perfect balance between believers and non-believers percentage wise at any given time either. Even in our modern world where religion is not so essential for dealing with troubles the more liberal faiths seem to provide benefits for many people. We have yet to fully address all of the challenges facing society (i.e. poverty, illness) thus there is often a role for the support and hope that can be provided by religion. Atheism and agnosticism are more logical but can be difficult positions to hold when faced with a serious illness or the death of a close friend or family member. Some people have the emotional resources to cope sans religion and others not.

There is also the issue of societies regressing as well as progressing. During the stable and advanced states of ancient civilizations such as Rome, Greece, Egypt, and Persia the religious tenor seemed to be more liberal and somewhat on a par with liberal mainstream Protestants, liberal Judaism, etc in terms of acceptance of others and general lack of dogmatism. Definitely differences but overall rather liberal in comparison to some of the surrounding societies. When each of these societies slipped back into a more primitive state it seems that religion regained a state of importance and level of interpretation fitting to the society.

A more fundamentalist approach likely created survival advantages in situations where there were not enough resources to feed and shelter two separate populations for instance. The moral issue is important but from a pure issue of survival defense of the in group at the expense of the out group resulted in the survival advantage. I am not convinced that we have seen such a situation in the last several centuries although we as a species continue to act in many instances like that is the case.

So a short answer would be it really depends on each individual's current internal and external state in addition to the general state of the society. It also depends on the belief system in question and the level of adherence to the given belief system.

Creating a dangerous world

Reminding believers that they are in a dangerous world increases stress and emotional arousal.

"...stress and emotional arousal narrow attention, making people 'more susceptible to poorly supported arguments, social pressure, and the temptation to derogate nongroup members'" this in turn leads to the loss of "access to counterarguments....Because the cult frowns on or punishes disagreements, the apparent consensus helps eliminate lingering doubts." (Meyers, 2004).

It is an ever tightening spiral into reinforcement of illogical and indefensible arguments. This is common in many belief systems and also in politics.

Answers to prayers and intelligent/successful believers

Here is a potential reason that many believers are intelligent. An intelligent person is more likely to "receive answers to their prayers." Not because there is a supreme being answering those prayers but because they are able to make things happen in their lives. They may also have better metacognitive skills and perhaps subconsciously chose to pray for things that they implicitly know are within their capabilities.

People who prayed and ended up homeless, chronically unemployed, institutionalized, or generally failures by society's standards generally do not have a voice in society. So we hear the small fraction of one percent of the population that have been "blessed"/lucky/won the genetic lottery and the other 99.99% of the population does not have a voice.

A similar situation likely occurs in those who become religious in a war zone. People return from a war zone or other calamity and recite how they prayed and their lives were spared. We do not hear about those who were "righteous" and prayed during these calamities and died because they are...well...dead.

Magic? Blessings? Nope...just luck and having a chance to talk about said luck.

Religion and Evolution

There are many crosscutting issues in this topic. Some of the preposterously untrue items within religion can be likened to junk DNA. There are segments of DNA that do not accomplish anything. They do not cause problems for the organism so there is no selection pressure to eliminate the junk DNA. The preposterous things in most religions are often similar to junk DNA in that they are little more than curiosities in terms of actual behaviors in a person's day-to-day existence. They do not cause any harm but they also do not do any good. People tend to lump most things from a belief system together and do not have access to the correct type of information or the analytical and scientific tools to successfully parse the various components of their religion.

Religion provides hope and help people overcome very difficult times in their lives when they may just give up and perish because of external factors or at his or her own hands. Religion often provides a tight-knit community including emotional and material support in times of want.

As humans we are not very good at determining true causal relationships. The beneficial aspects of religion are very difficult for even a very fastidious observer to parse from the erroneous. The scientific method is so new and little more than a century has passed since the advent of robust social science studies. Even with this scientific toolkit and the research findings that have amassed over the preceding decades, it is difficult for people to separate fact, fiction, logic, and their own emotions.

Religion did and does have some survival advantages. The challenge is for the believer and nonbeliever alike to determine what factors help, those that harm, and which are benign but relatively useless.