Cognitive Dissonance: April 2012

Cognitive Dissonance

Cognitive Dissonance: a discomfort caused by holding conflicting ideas simultaneously The theory of cognitive dissonance proposes that people have a motivational drive to reduce dissonance. They do this by changing their attitudes, beliefs and actions. Dissonance is also reduced by justifying, blaming and denying.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The problem(s) with deism.

I am going to split this up into 3 or 4 parts, this topic could turn out to be lengthy, and one of the best writers I know reminded me to keep it short or risk losing people's attention, or boring them to death, and I don't want to do either of those things. Anyway, last nigh we discussed confirmation bias, tonight we launch into the facts about why there isn't actually any proof, at all, that any gods exist. Yes, this includes your god too, if you're unfortunate enough to still believe in magic.

The only way to establish the existence of anything, supernatural or not, is through evidence of some sort. Very few religious people actually acknowledge they don't require evidence for their beliefs, those that do are called presuppositionalists, and/or Calvinists and they're a special brand of arrogant. Anyway, the majority of Christians, if asked would provide reasons, or evidence for why they believe what they believe. This fact provides a common ground for us to work from actually, we both believe that evidence is required to support an assertion. The problem lies in how we define evidence, but I think with just a little open mindedness we can get past this.

Why is evidence important? Why I'm glad you asked! For the sake of this discussion I am going to compare and contrast religion and science so if you don't understand the differences, you soon will. Science puts forth falsifiable theories that can be tested and proven to be wrong and this is done by making predictions. A scientific theory (such as atomic theory, or evolutionary theory, the theory of gravity, etc) puts forth predictions that, if the the theory is correct, we should expect to find certain conditions to also be true. Predictions about how chemicals will interact with each other, for example, are based off of atomic theory and electron behavior. While we have never seen an electron, our falsifiable theory makes consistent and reliable predictions about how electrons will behave in chemical bonding and we have used this theory to produce everything from medicine to household cleaners. These predictions are useful in helping us to understand the nature of the universe and behavior of elements of nature, and make advances with this knowledge. Religion on the other hand is not a falsifiable theory that produces useful predictions, it is a belief system. Religions look at areas where we do not have answers (or complete answers, or where we didn't used to have answers and now we do, but they don't accept them) and believes things about those subjects. It does not know things, it believes thing. When science doesn’t know, religion believes. The delusion caused by religion is when believers mistake their belief for knowledge. And we know, as I said earlier, we can't actually know anything without evidence, the absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. Is there any positive evidence for the existence of god, any god? The answer is a resounding, unequivocal, no, there is no positive evidence that any of the thousands of gods humanity has put their faith in over the millennia exist, or ever did. The thing most commonly cited as "evidence" by believers is what is referred to as the "god of the gaps" argument, or argumentum ad ignorantiam. For example, life exists, we can't account exactly for how life began, therefore god did it. This is not evidence, this isn't even logically sound. To assign responsibility for the existence of life on this planet to god(s) take a HUGE and skips over a nearly endless list of other possibilities. Using that logic it is equally likely that aliens put us here, or that we're fecal matter from our friends the extinct pink unicorns... The bottom line is, it isn't evidence, no matter how bad you want it to be.

All of the arguments for the existence of god rely on negative evidence, usually stemming from gaps in scientific understanding, again this is belief, a fairly silly belief at that, it's not knowledge. This makes belief in god non-falsifiable, and as we now know a non-falsifiable hypothesis is not testable, and falls flat as evidence or "proof". Some people resort to another, and even more ridiculous tactic they call evidence, which is saying "you can't prove he doesn't exist" this is known as onus probandi. You can't disprove the existence of the flying spaghetti monster, invisible pink unicorns, a computer simulated universe, Russell’s teapot, or any of the thousands of gods and mythological creatures in existence either, again this is not positive evidence. I also can't prove you’re not joking about your belief in god, and you can't prove I'm not god, or that I can't fly, or that I don't have omniscience or that I can’t predict the immediate future with 100% accuracy. Without positive evidence for these things, there is no reason to believe in them. There is no reason to believe god is responsible for the things we do not understand any more than there is a reason to believe the flying spaghetti monster might be, or that everything is just a dream. No one can disprove these positions because they are non-falsifiable, but there is no reason to believe in them either, without evidence.

This logic is why religion is flawed compared to the scientific method, faith asks you to ignore evidence based on foregone conclusions and it is almost always non-falsifiable - that is to say there are no parameters that could be met or conditions that would exist to show that the argument is wrong, making it non-testable. Faith also offers no reliable predictions and is therefore functionally useless. Good science, on the other hand, draws conclusions after the evidence has been examined, is falsifiable and testable, continues to examine it’s validity when new evidence is presented, and is useful in that it makes accurate predictions. Much to the dismay of the faithful around our planet, as our understanding of the universe increases, the gaps in which god can exist become smaller. This leads to things like limiting education, access to books, television and the internet and other deplorable tactics religious leaders use to keep people hooked. We're seeing some of this today in our country, look at the ridiculous assertions made by people like Bachmann, Santorum and this new "war on women" phenomena.

Again I've probably written too much, so in conclusion I believe it's important to remember that the absence of evidence IS evidence of absence. If I were to claim that there is an invisible dragon breathing heatless fire in my garage, the skeptic should consider three conditions. Has the area where evidence would appear has been exhaustively examined? Does no evidence exists, or is all of the evidence is inadequate? The thing being proven to not exist, is the type of thing that if it existed evidence would show. If these three conditions are met, then the thing either does not exist, or it is functionally useless to believe in it's existence. Until positive evidence for the existence of a god is brought to light, it is not only functionally useless to believe in one, it's dangerous, it's downright harmful to spend your life investing your time and energy into something that doesn't exist. I heard someone say this once and I think it rings true now, "why be born again, when you can just grow up?"


Monday, April 16, 2012

Confirmation Bias.

Confirmation bias (also called confirmatory bias, myside bias or verification bias) is a tendency of people to favor information that confirms their beliefs or hypotheses. People display this bias when they gather or remember information selectively, or when they interpret it in a biased way. The effect is stronger for emotionally charged issues and for deeply entrenched beliefs (such as religion). For example, in reading about gun control, people usually prefer sources that affirm their existing attitudes. They also tend to interpret ambiguous evidence as supporting their existing position. Biased search, interpretation and memory have been invoked to explain attitude polarization (when a disagreement becomes more extreme even though the different parties are exposed to the same evidence), belief perseverance (when beliefs persist after the evidence for them is shown to be false), the irrational primacy effect (a greater reliance on information encountered early in a series) and illusory correlation (when people falsely perceive an association between two events or situations, for example: the existence of humans 'therefore god' argument).

A series of experiments in the 1960s suggested that people are biased toward confirming their existing beliefs. Later work re-interpreted these results as a tendency to test ideas in a one-sided way, focusing on one possibility and ignoring alternatives. In certain situations, this tendency can bias people's conclusions. Explanations for the observed biases include wishful thinking and the limited human capacity to process information. Another explanation is that people show confirmation bias because they are weighing up the costs of being wrong, rather than investigating in a neutral, scientific way. This explains why hell/eternal torture and the fear that those threats instill is such a powerful motivator.

Confirmation biases contribute to overconfidence in personal beliefs and can maintain or strengthen beliefs in the face of contrary evidence. Poor decisions due to these biases have been found in military, political, and organizational contexts.  This is one of the main reasons people cling to their religious beliefs, even though they have been comprehensively proven to be false, and not only proven false but shown beyond a shadow of a doubt to be downright ridiculous. For example, the erroneous belief that the earth is about 6,000 years old, or that the universe was created in 6 days, this is absolutely false, there is no doubt about this fact. Any argument to the contrary is done out of ignorance or because some other psychological force is in control, such as fear.

The implications here are pretty plain, in matters of religious faith/superstition, if you believe something is true, the tendency is to work from the conclusion instead of working towards a conclusion. This is counter-intuitive, in most areas of your life you probably use evidence to establish facts about the world around you, but in regards to religion and faith, there is no evidence, that is the nature of faith. Faith is believing something is true in spite of the fact there is literally 0 evidence to support the belief. So you see why this is problematic, I hope. Consider why you believe what you believe, if you are religious that is. In every case you're working away from a presupposition, you've already decided the answer so by nature the ONLY way for you to support your conclusion is to make inferences that you think would lead to the conclusion.  For example, the universe exists, therefore, god did it. Or I feel happy when I sing songs on Sunday morning, therefore, Jesus did it. It is a HUGE step to say the only answer to why you feel joyful when you sing or why we exist is because a magical, invisible man in the sky did it. If you have one reasonable bone in your body, you must acknowledge that using this logic absolutely anything is permissible as the reason "why". I could say the reason I feel happy when I hear music is because it was invented by a race of now extinct pink unicorns and they knew how to make a person smile. There is exactly the same amount of evidence to support my pink unicorn theory as there is for your theory about god, none. Confirmation bias is one of the major reasons you draw the conclusion that god did it instead of extinct pink unicorns.

I am going to lay out the problems with prepositional logic and confirmation bias as simply as I possibly can and attempt to show why and how you must approach your beliefs if you want to do so rationally.

If you are a theist - you are claiming that the nature of god is knowable, and, indeed, you know it. However there are thousands of other god’s you easily disregard, and have never even considered seriously.  For example the pagan gods such as Abellio the Celtic tree god, or Malakbel the the Arabian vegetation god or the gods of other contemporary religions, such as Islam (Allah) or Hinduism (too many to list).  Also, you must consider the fact that there are millions of people who easily disregard your god/mirror your feelings towards their god who are outsiders to your faith or members of other faiths (aka they believe the same way you do, using the same "proofs" yet you regard their beliefs as unreasonable, impossible or likely even ridiculous). You must also consider that your choice of god is very likely determined by culture and birth location and a result of simple childhood indoctrination. This is evidenced by localized religions, such as salt lake city's Mormons, the bible belt's protestant Christians, India's Hindu's, Ireland's Catholics etc.  Furthermore, children are not religious, they are only the children of religious people. They do not have the mental faculty, life experience, or knowledge to contrast with what they are being told is true of the world. Look, for example, at the children of the Westboro Baptist Church who stand with signs at protests saying that “God Hates Fags” and “Thank God for Dead Soldiers.” I doubt any of those children would have been doing that if they had not been born into such a sick, sick family.

Another method one can use to test the validity of their beliefs, or religious faith in general is called, The Outsider Test for Faith (OFC) as defined by John Loftus: What if you had been born in Saudi Arabia as a Muslim baby and were able to examine the Christian faith with a healthy amount of skepticism as a Muslim? If yours is truly the religion designed by god, shouldn’t it hold up to skeptical scrutiny? “Test your beliefs as if you were an outsider to the faith you are evaluating." (Loftus) If you acknowledge you probably would have remained a Muslim in these circumstances - there is a high probability your belief is simply an accident of birth and culture, or at the very least not the result of careful, objective reasoning. If you believe the "evidence" would have convinced you to convert to Christianity, that means one of two things: (1) You believe you have solid, objective and falsifiable evidence that can be examined through the eyes of a Muslim and still be self-evident. Why then don't more Muslim's convert or consider the Christian religion as a serious alternative to Islam? Where is this evidence and why doesn't it seem to convince people who aren't born into Christianity by accident of birth? (2) You are delusional in regards to your faith, which is not so much a virtue as willingness to believe something that there is no evidence for whatsoever. In fact, this is not a virtue at all, this is willful ignorance and frankly I find it despicable.

Another way to approach this is to assume that I have never heard of god, Jesus, or the bible. I ask you to explain to me what make your particular brand of magic somehow superior to all of the others? Remember, I have never even heard of god so you will have to start from scratch and explain this in a way that will seem reasonable to someone who is not familiar with the basic premises of your religion. I am curious how it all began, so you’ll need to start by telling me about how god spoke the universe into existence in six days, created Adam from dust, created Eve from Adam's rib and placed them in the Garden of Eden before they ate the fruit from a forbidden tree of knowledge, causing god to cast them out of the garden so that he could guard the tree of eternal life with a flaming sword and a cherubim, because if they ate of it they would live forever. Be sure to explain how we can know this is actually factual but the Samoan creation story is just mythology.

Anyone who is willing to consider their faith (Christianity/Islam/Mormonism/Jehovah's Witness/Judaism, etc) critically can only come to one possible conclusion, that is that there is no evidence to support their beliefs, and therefore the only justification is blind faith. Regardless of what some people say, blind faith is never, ever a good thing. September 11th is evidence of that fact, as are the crusades, the inquisition, the wholesale murder of women accused of witchcraft, hatred towards homosexuals and the current assault on women and their rights from the religious right. These are only a few of the reasons why blind faith is dangerous. So if you believe that a magical sky man invented by primitive Shepard's and desert nomads created the universe 6,000 years ago. And a talking snake tricked a woman made from a rib into eating a magical apple that doomed billions of good people to an eternity of torture in hell, or anything equally as ridiculous, I beg you to take a critical look at WHY you believe what you believe.