Dec 01 2009

The Ultimate Argument from Authority

If you want to know the mind of God – look in the mirror.

That is the conclusion of Nicholas Epley and his team who studied people’s beliefs about God’s beliefs. They asked subjects a series of questions about controversial moral issues, such as the death penalty and abortion, and also asked them about beliefs on those issues of famous people and of God. Not surprisingly, subjects’ own beliefs mirrored the beliefs they attributed to God.

This, of course, can have multiple interpretations. It may indicate that people tend to attribute to God their own moral beliefs. But it may also result from people acquiring their moral belief from the teachings of their faith. Also, culture or other factors may influence both moral beliefs and beliefs attributed to God.

So Epley added a control – he used an already established technique to alter the beliefs of the subjects. People are more malleable than we would like to think – our beliefs can be manipulated simply by asking leading questions. In fact, political campaigners have applied this to what is called “push polling” – conducting a poll or survey, the purpose of which is not to gather information but to plant thought in the minds of those polled. “Are you bothered by the accusations of a sex scandal with candidate X?” We are more susceptible to such suggestions when we are not aware that they are being made – when we think we’re just answering a survey, not the target of attempts to change our opinion.

Epley used these techniques, for example having subjects write an essay espousing the opposite opinion to the one they expressed on initial questioning, on the subjects. On re-questioning about belief he found that subjects shifted the beliefs that they attribute to God, but not to other famous people. This means that beliefs about what God believes can be shifted by the same techniques used to shift our own beliefs.

Epley’s team then did an fMRI study (I guess no psychological study today is complete without some fMRI correlate) and they found that when contemplating their own beliefs and the beliefs of God the same part of the brain became active, and that this was distinct from when they were contemplating the beliefs of the “average American.”

These two lines of evidence both suggest that people tend to project onto God their own moral beliefs. This, of course, does not mean people of faith make up their moral beliefs without any influence from faith or culture – it’s likely a dynamic process. But it does imply that people can change their moral beliefs first, and then attribute those changing beliefs to God after the fact. People of faith synchronize their moral beliefs with those they attribute to God, and the influence is at least partly from the faithful to the imagined deity.

This, of course, becomes the ultimate argument from authority for the faithful – you cannot argue with an omniscient deity.

I suspect, however, that the same psychological processes are at work even in those without faith. It would be interested to repeat this study but substitute some other authority for God, like the scientific consensus, leading experts, or Einstein. The reason for my suspicion is other psychological experiments that show that we tend to arrive at conclusions for mysterious (to us) subconscious reasons and then rationalize those conclusions, mainly to convince ourselves that we are rational beings.

This is why questioning our own motives, and our own process, is critical to a skeptical and scientific outlook. We must realize that the default mode of human psychology is to grab onto comforting beliefs for purely emotional reasons, and then justify those beliefs to ourselves with post-hoc rationalizations. It takes effort to rise above this tendency, to step back from our beliefs and our emotional connection to conclusions and focus on the process. The process (i.e. science, logic, and intellectual rigor) has to be more important than the belief.

38 responses so far

38 Responses to “The Ultimate Argument from Authority”

  1. daedalus2uon 01 Dec 2009 at 10:59 am

    One of the very interesting (but also quite scary) things about current political events is how it clearly illustrates the principle of people justifying their feelings with post-hoc rationalizations. For example the “death panel” meme, and the “Obama = Hitler” meme. People hate Obama, and then attribute that hatred to positions and policies that Obama doesn’t have.

    Obama’s “death panel” policy could not have been the “cause” of that hatred because Obama does not have a “death panel” policy. People have feelings of hatred toward Obama equivalent to those against Hitler, so they attribute Hitler-like malevolent actions on Obama’s part, actions for which there is no evidence.

  2. banyanon 01 Dec 2009 at 12:33 pm

    This conclusion strikes me as tautologous. All you need are subjects that believe the following:

    (1) My moral beliefs are correct.
    (2) God exists and holds all and only correct moral beliefs.

    and it necessarily follows that…

    (3) My moral beliefs are also held by God.

    Of course this will still hold after you convince them that some other moral beliefs are correct after all. It just changes what “My moral beliefs” are.

    Based on how the data is presented, I’m under the impression that they screened subjects to make sure they believed the first two statements, although even if they didn’t you would still get a correlation since lots of people do. So why even conduct the study?

  3. eiskrystalon 01 Dec 2009 at 12:42 pm

    I have long said that the study of the brain will do much more harm to religion than a few fossils.

  4. medmonkeyon 01 Dec 2009 at 12:51 pm

    I guess while the results of this study are not surprising, it is sure nice to have some good hard evidence to point to during my debates with true believers. Many of my conversations with believers end up on the topic of the origin of morality and absolute morality. The idea that there is an absolute morality seems to be very appealing to people. Apparently it is very difficult to grasp the concept that morality is a dynamic process and relative to situation and perception.

    As daedalus2u suggests, maybe this confusion on morality is a byproduct of the brain’s predilection to associate emotions with concepts and memories via the limbic system, and then getting multiple concepts confused when the same emotion is attached. This would account for a physiological mechanism for post-hoc rationalization that, as Steve says, convinces us we’re rational beings even when we are clearly being irrational.

  5. Steven Novellaon 01 Dec 2009 at 1:48 pm

    banyan – you are correct, which is essentially what I said about people “synchronizing” their moral beliefs with God’s.

    The point of this study was to demonstrate that the beliefs can come first and the attribution to God second. This is different than what religious people say – which is that they get their morals from God or their religion.

    Also – the study showed that people think about God’s moral beliefs in the same way that they think about their own, and not as they think of the beliefs of other people.

  6. Karl Withakayon 01 Dec 2009 at 3:22 pm

    It would be interesting to see if this applies to things other than God that individuals closely identify with, such as political parties, religious denominations, cultures, etc. It would also be interesting to see if this applies to opinions/beliefs outside of morals.

    If you slant the question by asking about the moral beliefs of the average patriotic, conservative, or liberal American, would the person more closely attribute the beliefs of the group they identify with to their own?

    Is it a desire to attribute their beliefs with a group or being they identity with? How much does the fact that God does not release position clarification statements to contradict them influence this attribution of morals?

  7. eiskrystalon 01 Dec 2009 at 5:17 pm

    -It would be interesting to see if this applies to things other than God that individuals closely identify with, such as political parties, religious denominations, cultures-

    I believe some of that research has been done (I remember seeing it, but damned if i would know where to look again), and as individuals we align to the political party’s ideals.

    It stands to reason that real organisations have a real effect on you as an individual, whereas a mythical figure can be changed on a whim by you.

  8. Karl Withakayon 01 Dec 2009 at 5:37 pm

    “as individuals we align to the political party’s ideals.”

    I was thinking more along the line of whether people tend to attribute their morals, positions, and opinions to a group they identify with, even if it is an erroneous or demonstrably false attribution.

    Off the top of my head, an example could be the belief that the US is in favor of encouraging democracy across the world and opposes all dictatorial regimes . During the second half of the 20th century, most Americans would have agreed that statement applied for for themselves as well as for the US Government. It can be argued that the US’s track record for most of the period following WWII shows it was more concerned with opposition to Soviet communism and commercial and trade interests rather than an altruistic interest in spreading democracy.

  9. Fred Cunninghamon 01 Dec 2009 at 5:56 pm

    To paraphrase Ben Franklin, man is a reasonable being, he can think of or make up a reason for doing whatever he pleases.

  10. tmac57on 01 Dec 2009 at 7:05 pm

    KarlWithakay-“It can be argued that the US’s track record for most of the period following WWII shows it was more concerned with opposition to Soviet communism and commercial and trade interests rather than an altruistic interest in spreading democracy.”
    Very true, but I would bet you that the average U.S. citizen was almost totally unaware of what the actual political positions of the supported governments of the various dictatorships were. There was, and still is, a sometimes blind acceptance by many,that what ever the U.S government does, must be moral and correct, because Americans are by nature, moral and correct people in general. The government, however was always operating on a more ‘pragmatic’ scale: The ends justifies the means.
    Maybe we are all trying to synchronize our collective nationalistic beliefs with our previous foreign policy failures, rather than to learn from our mistakes. Spreading Democracy just sounds so much nicer.

  11. GHcoolon 01 Dec 2009 at 10:33 pm

    This isn’t exactly news, but its interesting to discuss anyway. “Natural law” (whatever that means) was cited often during American Revolution, as though nature or God deemed republican government to be preferable to monarchy and, more specifically, that the colonies ought to be independant of England.

    Steve’s idea for an experiment is a very good one. I can imagine asking a non-believer how he thinks Benjamin Franklin would view same-sex marriage. It would have to be a beloved hero of the past confronting an issue that would not have been in the context of his own life/time.

  12. […] Creating God in your image A new study on religious Americans by Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago suggests that the will of God bares remarkable similarity to one’s own personal beliefs. It’s almost like a person is taking their own biases and projecting them onto some imaginary ultimate authority in order to justify their positions. I know. Shocking. Steve Novella also wrote a great blog on this as well. […]

  13. Calli Arcaleon 02 Dec 2009 at 11:16 am

    I’m not sure why this should be surprising. Most religious folks lack good critical thinking skills. (Heck, most people *in general* lack good critical thinking skills.) I think it’s a little to simple to just say they become religious because they lack good critical thinking skills, because the term “religious” covers an awfully large area. But it’s still important.

    A person who lacks good critical thinking skills is less likely to critically examine their preconceptions. If the person has a religious conviction, then they will be even *less* likely to examine that particular preconception. We all know what happens next: they look for evidence which fits their view, and become progressively more convinced that it is absolutely correct.

    For most views, they start with something outside of their heads. Maybe they saw a funny light in the sky, and became convinced it was an alien spacecraft. But that’s rarely the case with religious views. Apart from people who witness what they believe to be a divine miracle, they have not really observed anything of God at all. Their conception of God exists largely, and often entirely, inside their own heads. It is inevitable, then, especially since religious people want very much to be accepted by God (whatever that may mean to them), that their conception of God will be heavily shaped by their own preconceptions. After all, they are unconsciously looking for things which support their views, and there is precious little to contradict their views on God, given the total absence of concrete evidence on the subject.

    Much the same is true of other supernatural beliefs. They tend to betray a great deal about the believer. But it’s also true in how we think of others. I think it’s why we get so outraged when someone disagrees with us about something we feel very strongly. On some level, we find it incomprehensible that they’d reach another conclusion, and try to either reject the evidence that in fact, they do disagree, or rationalize it away (they don’t understand, they’re stupid, they’re mean).

  14. M. Davieson 02 Dec 2009 at 12:26 pm

    Calli Arcale
    We all know what happens next: they look for evidence which fits their view, and become progressively more convinced that it is absolutely correct.

    I see this confirmation bias too! Many people look for evidence of ‘irrational’ religious people to fit their view that religious people are irrational and disregard all behavior of religious people behaving rationally.

    Of course, I rarely see such arguments make even the basic distinction between religious practice or religious belief. Furthermore, plenty of religious practices and beliefs are not grounded in a theistic commitment. Some people go to church because it provides community and kinship ties, they say that is why they go (i.e. they aren’t duped by the threat of hell of something) and this is quite ‘rational’ in their circumstance.

    So I guess if you define religious practice/belief as inherently irrational, than people manifesting those things are irrational when they manifest them. But it doesn’t prove that irrationality in one sphere (religion) engenders irrationality in any other. Many have a hypothesis to that effect (those being irrational in one sphere will be irrational in others) but it just begs the question – it asserts as true what it has yet to prove by evidence.

  15. daedalus2uon 02 Dec 2009 at 1:28 pm

    What a person being religious does prove about them is that they are unable to analyze their religious beliefs with logic and reason. If they are unable to analyze one belief with logic and reason, there is no reason to suppose that any other particular belief they hold has been analyzed with logic and reason.

    A lack of the ability to analyze a particular belief rationally does imply a generic lack of an ability to analyze beliefs rationally. One doesn’t know if a particular belief is then held for rational or irrational reasons, but there is no basis for taking rationality as the default when there is an example of irrationality.

  16. M. Davieson 02 Dec 2009 at 1:32 pm

    daedalus2u
    If they are unable to analyze one belief with logic and reason, there is no reason to suppose that any other particular belief they hold has been analyzed with logic and reason.

    So if I can show that you hold one belief that you have not analyzed with logic and reason, then I can assume you have a generic lack of an ability to analyze beliefs rationally?

  17. daedalus2uon 02 Dec 2009 at 1:37 pm

    Yes.

  18. daedalus2uon 02 Dec 2009 at 1:47 pm

    M. Davies, what my yes means is that you are not able to delegate thinking logically and rationally about a belief to someone else. You can’t take someone’s “word” that they have logically and rationally analyzed a particular belief, you have to analyze it for yourself. You have to start with facts and work your way from those facts with logic to conclusions. If you don’t do that, then no, you can’t assume that the belief was arrived at via a rational process.

    That is how skeptics treat their own ideas, they analyze them with logic and reason. That is how I treat Dr Novella’s ideas; check his facts, check his logic, check his reasoning. I certainly wouldn’t default to assuming logic and reason to someone who I knew held irrational beliefs.

  19. M. Davieson 02 Dec 2009 at 2:30 pm

    Tell me where I’ve read your argument wrong then.

    Say a belief is holding a proposition to be true, where a proposition is something of the form “God exists” or “it rained here today” or “M=FA”.

    One can arrive at a belief, according to you, through the practice of reason (e.g. ‘checking facts, logic, reasoning).

    It is possible to hold an ‘irrational belief’, which I assume is holding a proposition to be true when logic or reason do not support it, or when one has not exercised reason prior to holding that proposition to be true.

    You have said that if someone holds such an irrational belief, then it means that person has a generic lack of an ability to reason about his or her beliefs.

    What this means is that once one has committed the original sin of holding one ‘irrational belief’ then their very ability to reason, to arrive at ‘rational beliefs’, is suspect.

    Since everyone I know adheres to something incorrect, I can only conclude that I should suspect everyone I have met of lacking the ability to reason about propositions they hold true. It’s not just that someone who is wrong about one thing is likely wrong about others, but that their very ability to ever be right is questionable. It’s not simply skepticism about the truth of others’ propositions, but skepticism about their ability to produce true propositions. This seems to be the conclusion of your argument. Am I correct?

  20. daedalus2uon 02 Dec 2009 at 2:55 pm

    Yes. That is how skeptics treat themselves and everyone else. But it doesn’t require an “original sin” of one incorrect belief; an inability to know if an idea is correct or not is the same.

    This is why True Skeptics (as in True Scottsmen) keep all ideas in a state of provisional belief, nothing is held to be 100.000000% true (excepting things defined to be true such as things which are logically equivalent, i.e. 1+1=2 is true from the definitions of “1”, “+”, “=”, and “2”).

    For the most part we don’t see when skeptics apply skepticism to their own ideas because that happens in private. We only see the final product when they have beaten the idea around enough to be willing to go public with it.

    This is the fundamental difference between those who live in the “reality based community” and those who don’t. We check our beliefs by comparing them with reality. Those who don’t have their beliefs dictated to them by an “authority”. In the case of religious beliefs, that “authority” is a self-proclaimed religious person. Skeptics have no “authority”. We check ideas against reality, if they work, then provisionally accept them and ideas that logically follow from them. If not, then discard the idea and start over.

    These are two fundamentally different ways of addressing knowledge, from an “authority” or by comparison with reality. Religious people are (for the most part) incapable of even conceiving of knowledge coming from somewhere other than an “authority”, which is why they call evolution “Darwinism”, as if people who accept evolution as the best explanation so far do so simply because the authority Darwin said so.

    I understand this in terms of a “theory of mind” vs. a “theory of reality”. One comes from the top-down as dictated by an “authority”, the other is built from the bottom up, starting with facts and strung together with logic.

  21. M. Davieson 02 Dec 2009 at 3:09 pm

    Which is why I am skeptical of the hypothesis “those being irrational in one sphere will be irrational in others”. If, as you say, We check our beliefs by comparing them with reality, I have yet to see someone here check their beliefs about religious people with reality, with the exception of confirmation bias, selective sampling, and question begging.

    The hypothesis may very well be a good one! To assuage my skepticism though, to do as you say and check these claims against reality, someone would have to at least: define ‘irrationality’; observe whether those exhibiting religious irrationality exhibit irrationality in other spheres; compare the irrationality of non-religious people; control for other variables; and to do so in a way that someone else could replicate their method and check their results.

    Of course, no one here has done this, they have simply begged the question and uncritically restated their intuitions (but presenting them as the outcome of ‘reason’). It certainly sounds like some skeptics retreat into private and say ‘Hmm, what can I attribute to religious people…’ in a way that confirms their anecdotal experience, rather than, you know, testing it in the real world.

    Religious people are (for the most part) incapable of even conceiving of knowledge coming from somewhere other than an “authority”

    Yeah, this is the kind of thing I am talking about.

  22. tmac57on 02 Dec 2009 at 4:53 pm

    daedalus2u- Don’t you suspect that religious people who seem to be otherwise very rational, are just compartmentalizing their belief systems to accommodate their cognitive dissonance?

  23. daedalus2uon 02 Dec 2009 at 5:39 pm

    tmac57, yes exactly. But to a skeptic, cognitive dissonance is something to examine and figure out because it shows that our cognition is wrong and needs to be corrected. The presence of cognitive dissonance reduces the likelihood that something is correct so it worth trying to figure out.

    M. Davies, there are many religious people who do consider people who accept evolution the same way that they consider religious people who accept something on faith. They even use the same terms, “it takes more faith to believe in evolution than creation” for example. Are you saying there are no such religious people?

    If you want to take as a default that “everyone is rational”, that is fine for you, but you don’t have a basis for that belief. The default of a skeptic is “I don’t know”. Until there is some evidence, the skeptic remains at “I don’t know”. It is the non-skeptic who makes stuff up and applies a default other than “I don’t know”. The topic of this post is the fMRI data showing that it appears that ideas someone attributes to God are actually the same as the ideas that the person has. Ideas arrived at not via facts and logic, but by feelings and emotions; ideas that are not immutable and unchanging, but that change with the emotional state of the individual.

    The YECs assert that “the Bible is the error-free word of God, which is by definition correct”. The only basis they have for this is the assertions of self-proclaimed religious people that it is correct. I don’t need to disprove anything to know that this belief is not grounded in data. It is grounded in assertions by self-proclaimed religious people.

  24. M. Davieson 02 Dec 2009 at 6:06 pm

    Are you saying there are no such religious people?

    No. Of course there are religious people who say that subscribing to evolution takes more faith than to subscribe to creationism. We can stand around all day and shoot YEC fish in a barrel and feel like champion free-thinkers. I’m not sure what the conclusion is supposed to be, it certainly isn’t ‘therefore religious people are on the whole deficient in reasoning about any subject”.

    If you want to take as a default that “everyone is rational”

    Never said this, at all. I said (again) that a lack of the ability to analyze a particular belief rationally does imply a generic lack of an ability to analyze beliefs rationally. is not a priori true. My default position is “I don’t know”. I don’t know if it is true, and I am still waiting for evidence to prove it. Just because it fits your worldview or you can rationalize it doesn’t mean it is true.

    If I were to subscribe to what you’ve said in this thread, I could say “I’ve come to the conclusion that you hold an irrational belief about what my position is, and I can therefore conclude that you have a generic inability to analyze things rationally.” This is obviously nonsense.

    To go back to this claim of yours:

    Religious people are (for the most part) incapable of even conceiving of knowledge coming from somewhere other than an “authority”

    So it is not simply that Jews, Sikhs, Unitarian Universalists conceive that knowledge comes from an authority, but they are incapable of conceiving otherwise. A few billion religious people in the world, and you assert that they are for the most part incapable of even conceiving (let alone believing) that knowledge could come from somewhere other than an authority. Shouldn’t a good skeptic ask for the evidence?

    The topic of this post is the fMRI data showing that it appears that ideas someone attributes to God are actually the same as the ideas that the person has. Ideas arrived at not via facts and logic, but by feelings and emotions

    It is entirely possible from the study as I read it that someone could arrive at a moral position through reasoning and then attribute the same position to God.

  25. daedalus2uon 03 Dec 2009 at 11:07 am

    M Davies, one of the observations of the paper was that an subject’s moral position can be manipulated by context. The perception of the moral position of a real entity by a subject is not shifted by manipulating the subject’s context but the moral position attributed to God is shifted.

    Yes, a person could arrive at a moral position through any process and then attribute that position to God. Unless God actually exists and that God actually communicated that position to the individual, attributing that moral position to God can not be considered “rational”.

    If (as this paper shows), the moral position attributed to God is manipulatable via manipulating the subject’s context, then how is that a reasoned position?

  26. M. Davieson 03 Dec 2009 at 11:31 am

    Yes, it may not be rational to attribute a moral position to God, but that does not make one’s moral position or the process by which one arrived at the position irrational.

    If (as this paper shows), the moral position attributed to God is manipulatable via manipulating the subject’s context, then how is that a reasoned position?

    How is ‘what’ a reasoned position? If you mean the attribution to God, then no, that is not a reasoned position. But if you mean the changed moral attitude of the subject, how could that not be a reasoned position? If someone favours the death penalty, and I ask her to write an essay arguing the opposite, how is that not implicitly encouraging the subject to engage in a rational analysis of her beliefs? That she might then soften the position she attributes to God doesn’t determine how she arrived at her changed moral opinions.

  27. daedalus2uon 03 Dec 2009 at 12:04 pm

    If she “thinks” that her moral position is the same as the moral position of God, then unless she also thinks that God is at her beck and call and modifies His Moral Laws to fit her moral positions as they change, then no, her moral position is not arrived at via a rational process.

    If she does think that God modifies His Moral Laws at her whim, then she has a completely idiosyncratic definition of “God”, and not one that most religious people would agree with. I appreciate that according to this paper, that is how people use the concept of God, but I think most would not admit, even to themselves, that this is the case.

    If a person uses arithmetic to add numbers together, but then rolls dice until the sum comes up on the dice and then attributes the obtained sum to rolling dice, the answer is not arrived at via a “rational” process even if the answer is correct.

    The person may be rational in applying arithmetic, but is then irrational in tacking on to the process the extra and unnecessary step of rolling dice until they agree.

    In the context of how people use the God concept, they may have a well reasoned moral position, but in putting the imprimatur of God on it, they make their position irrational, even if the position has not changed. By attributing their position to God, they have (in effect) reduced the “error bars” to zero by their attribution. Disagreeing with their position now becomes not a dispute with a human, but a dispute with God, and the human who’s position is aligned with that of God’s is justified in using any and every means to turn the other side to God’s side. This was the essence of the Butter Battle.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Butter_Battle_Book

    Where eating bread butter side up, or butter side down was the whole point of the conflict. Once the bread eating style is attributed to God, not conforming to God’s plan becomes heresy and an affront to God and people who offend and affront God must be killed because to allow an affront to God is also an affront to God.

  28. M. Davieson 03 Dec 2009 at 12:36 pm

    Well, I guess we will have to disagree. If someone comes to a moral position through reasoned reflection, and one day I ask them “What is God’s stance on this position” and it turns out they match, I’m not going to say that their moral position is irrational.

    I get the feeling you’re conflating ‘attributing to God the same belief one has’ with ‘asserting that one’s belief is derived from God’.

    I’m pretty sure the study deals with the former.

  29. Calli Arcaleon 03 Dec 2009 at 3:20 pm

    M. Davies:

    Of course, I rarely see such arguments make even the basic distinction between religious practice or religious belief. Furthermore, plenty of religious practices and beliefs are not grounded in a theistic commitment. Some people go to church because it provides community and kinship ties, they say that is why they go (i.e. they aren’t duped by the threat of hell of something) and this is quite ‘rational’ in their circumstance.

    Absolutely. The term religion covers a tremendous amount of ground, making generalizations dangerous. I knew an atheist who used to attend church regularly, because he enjoyed the music and fellowship. He would sleep through the sermons. 😉 Truthfully, I think for most believers, the fellowship is more important than the faith. By my theology, I think God would be okay with that. I’m sure many would disagree, though.

    Me, I go partly for the fellowship, partly for the fantastic sermons (our pastor is a scholarly type enamored of comparative religion and historical context, and as he’s fluent in Greek and Hebrew, often has some extra insight that I could never get on my own), and partly out of manners. I believe God gave His only son to die for us. The least I can do is say thank you, and church is a vehicle for that. 😉

    I hope that my belief is not solely a product of my own imaginings, but of course I have no way to know that*, and it is very likely that in many cases I am merely reflecting my own desires and whims. I’m not entirely sure this is theologically wrong…. “Thou art God,” perhaps? If God’s spirit really does dwell in us, would it really be wrong to think He resembles us in some way? Not an answerable question; I’m just posing it as food for thought.

    *Well, almost no way. Though the data set is very limited, critical thinking doesn’t need perfect data. It can be applied to one’s own beliefs. The results are sometimes disturbing, but I think that’s healthy.

  30. lrhon 03 Dec 2009 at 7:55 pm

    There are at least two fundamental errors on this article. First, a philosophical error: considering that there is a God, nobody can know His mindset completely. Therefore, the point is not that God changes its “beliefs”, but exactly the other way around: people try to understand who God is, and can only reach it by analogy, approximation, logical reasoning. Faith and revelation not even need to be taken into account, Plato and Aristotle can provide very good arguments without much effort. The fact that people change their perception of “God’s belief” when faced to leading questions only proves that… people are not God. The second mistake, which happens throughout the paper and shows again a profound ignorance about the concept/reality of God is: there is no such a thing as “what God believe is”. This sentence doesn’t make any sense at all. If this article has the best atheism can give, I’m afraid atheists are not in good hands.

  31. Steven Novellaon 03 Dec 2009 at 8:46 pm

    Irh – the article and my analysis of it have absolutely nothing to do with whether or not a god exists. Your comment about atheism is just a non sequitur.

    It is also not a premise of this research that anyone can know the mind of God. People have a belief about God’s moral commandments, and they will change that belief to match their oral morality. The point is, that people just assume God has the same moral outlook they do, rather than assuming that they do not or cannot know the mind of god.

  32. eiskrystalon 04 Dec 2009 at 4:25 am

    -First, a philosophical error: considering that there is a God, nobody can know His mindset completely. –

    In other words, you, as religious person, are in fact just guessing about what god wants by your own words.

    I fail to see how this hurts us more than people who has based their lives around what they think god wants from them.

  33. Calli Arcaleon 04 Dec 2009 at 12:42 pm

    lrh: “the best atheism has to offer”? I didn’t read the article as a conversion attempt. It’s merely a discussion of some interesting (though in my opinion not surprising) research into how people come up with opinions about God, and how such beliefs are usually just mirrors* for the person’s own prejudices.

    Actually, I think this is research that you and I, as believers (I assume you believe in God, anyway), should take a very close look at. The potential for self-deception in these matters is vast. Do you reject the Devil** and all his empty promises, as the ritual of baptism asks you to do? (If you are not Christian, I apologize for using this for the analogy, but it’s the one most familiar to me.) If so, then you must think very hard and carefully about how the Devil promises you things. Where does temptation come from? Only from without? Many moralizers would claim so. These are the people who blame their own impure thoughts on scantily clad ladies, for tempting them. But I would submit that this is actually a pretty low-level temptation. The really nasty temptations come not from without but from within. When we start to believe our own conclusions about God. When we, unknowingly, put ourselves before God, and justify it by saying, “well, we’re believers, we know God, so this must be right.”

    Jesus himself warned against that sort of thing. Listen to the spirit of God within you, not the Devil. Sorting out which is which is not easy, but hints are given in the Bible. If it tells you you are smart, you are right, you are good, you are *better* — distrust it. These are all compliments, and compliments are a source of bias. Just as in scientific research, bias is a reason for suspicion. Are you agreeing because it has merit, or because it makes you look smart or moral?

    This is one element of critical thinking. Scientists are taught (not always successfully) to dispassionately examine their own sources of bias and design experiments which eliminate those biases. That’s the origin of the double-blind, for instance. Even the best-intentioned scientist can fall prey to bias, and the history of science is littered with examples. Fortunately for the state of scientific research, scientists are highly competitive and eager to point one another out as fools, so this sort of thing rarely goes unnoticed for long.

    The most insidious bias is the confirmation bias, in my opinion. The way the human mind works, we seek confirmation, not contradiction. It’s a useful shortcut, and for basic stuff like figuring out where to get food, it’s generally reliable. (“I’m hungry. Maybe there’s food over there. Oh look, there is! Let’s eat.”) But for more complex things, where truth isn’t easy to see or isn’t an either-or proposition, it can get us into trouble. People used bloodletting for *centuries*, convinced it worked, because they were only noticing the people who got better afterwards. Those who died were believed to be either too sick for bloodletting to help, or just flukes. You will rarely see things that you’re not looking for.

    And you will rarely detect a falsehood if you don’t question it. Confirmation bias plagues theology, because it is so hard to test our beliefs. Indeed, we are warned against doing precisely that, and with good reason — most of the tests would be hugely unethical (don’t try and pull an Abraham), and in any case, unrevealing. Instead, we end up testing them against what we feel is right. While this isn’t fundamentally bad, it leaves us extremely vulnerable to error. If our yardstick is what we feel is right, then we will, inevitably, see only the things which confirm our beliefs about how the world is supposed to work. This explains why people who don’t like gays have no problem with Scripture prohibiting homosexuality, while people who are fine with gays think that the anti-gay stuff in the Bible should be lumped in the same category as the pro-slavery stuff.

    Make no mistake: even the strictest of Biblical literalists do this. It is very human. If it was indeed atheists who did this research, then I am ashamed, as a Christian, that we never noticed it in ourselves. We were too proud to notice the log in our own eyes.

    *I’d actually go a step further. These aren’t just mirrors of a person’s prejudices. They’re rationalizations and justifications. People want to know that their prejudices have merit, which really is quite a reasonable thing; it’d be terrible to hold an unjustified prejudice, wouldn’t it? But then people unintentionally rationalize their prejudices by ascribing them to God. A dangerous, but very natural and very human practice.

    **I do not believe in the Devil as a sentient entity; I consider that a holdover from the dualistic beliefs which competed with Christianity as it attempted to spread into the pagan Roman world in the first few centuries AD. But I do think it’s a very good analogy for the baser parts of our own nature. The devil is in ourselves, which is why for a Christian, critical thinking shouldn’t be feared. It should be mandatory.

  34. HHCon 05 Dec 2009 at 2:00 am

    I find the fMRI hypotheses involving brain-sidedness and rational argumentation a bit difficult to believe. I wonder from which side of Epley’s brain is his conclusions coming, perhaps he can specify.

  35. lrhon 05 Dec 2009 at 2:36 pm

    Non sequitur? Well, it is not the impression I get after reading some comments on this post. For example, this one made by eiskrystal:

    “In other words, you, as religious person, are in fact just guessing about what god wants by your own words.”

    eiskrystal, did you really expect that a religious person would have a complete knowledge of the mindset of God? It seems a little bit too naive for me.

    Calli Arcade, about your comment “If it was indeed atheists who did this research, then I am ashamed, as a Christian, that we never noticed it in ourselves”, I have to say that there is nothing new about it at all, except for a naive approach by the researcher himself.

    Religious people have been searching for understanding God’s will for a long time, in a daily basis, while getting it wrong throughout their lives for not a few times. The research only shows it. Religious people believe (or should believe) that God holds the truth. Being religious, they believe that they should believe in the truth. If something they used to believe happens not to be true, it means that they were wrong and a new step on the “understanding God” business is taken, changing their understand of God and, consequently, their beliefs. I’d be surprised if the results of such a research would be any different.

  36. HHCon 06 Dec 2009 at 1:51 am

    I cannot conceive of how the concept of egocentricity as presented by Epley’s work can be imaged on the physical brain.

  37. HHCon 07 Dec 2009 at 1:34 am

    I read Epley’s six page work of art. His arguments pertain to an 8mm area, generally referred to as the medial prefrontal cortex. He attributes the mPFC to be the center of self-other processing in the brain. Based on his postage stamp images, I noted there was greater range of variability of signals for Average American compared to signals for self or God concepts. Was this is an artifact of his unique 21 year old, right handed subjects, all 17 of whom were busy pressing one of five response buttons, just waiting for that 6 second delay which told them about which target they were to think?

  38. Tracy Won 07 Dec 2009 at 11:42 am

    What this means is that once one has committed the original sin of holding one ‘irrational belief’ then their very ability to reason, to arrive at ‘rational beliefs’, is suspect.

    Shouldn’t someone’s ability to arrive at a rational belief be suspect even without the “original sin” of holding one irrational belief?

    Even if you somehow examined all of an individual’s beliefs, including all the ones they held in the past, and discovered that they were all held rationally, that in itself would not be proof that all their future beliefs will be rational. The person might develop an undetected brain tumour and lose their ability to reason soundly, or they might come across something they feel more strongly about than they ever did before. Or they just might slip from perfection one day.

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