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.

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