I Know Because I Know

This is from Part 3 of 6: I Know Because I Know in the series called Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science over at the HuffingtonPost. I’ll let some of Valerie’s words speak for themselves, though I want to quote first the excellent point made at the end.

When we overstate our ability to know, we play into the fundamentalist fallacy that certainty is possible. Burton calls this “the all-knowing rational mind myth.” As scientists learn more about how our brains work, certitude is coming to be seen as a vice rather than a virtue. Certainty is a confession of ignorance about our ability to be passionately mistaken. Humans will always argue passionately about things that we do not know and cannot know, but with a little more self-knowledge and humility we may get to the point that those arguments are less often lethal.

I agree with Valerie that certitude is a vice and arguments over things we do not know can be dangerous to our health, or at the least our mental health. Isn’t it sad that ideas could be lethal? Here is a little more of the article worth quoting…

For many reasons, religious beliefs are usually undergirded by a strong “feeling of knowing.” Set aside for the moment the question of whether those beliefs tap underlying realities. Conversion experiences can be intense, hypnotic, and transformative. Worship practices, music and religious architecture have been optimized over time to evoke right brain sensations of transcendence and euphoria. Social insularity protects a community consensus. Repetition of ideas reinforces a sense of conviction or certainty. Forms of Christianity that emphasize right belief have built in safeguards against contrary evidence, doubt, and the assertions of other religions. Many a freethinker has sparred a smart, educated fundamentalist into a corner only to have the believer utter some form of “I just know.”

Does this mean that rational argumentation about religion is useless? The answer may be disappointing. Religious belief is not bound to regular standards of evidence and logic. It is not about logic but about something more intuitive and primal. Arguments with believers start from a false premise — that the believer is bound by the rules of debate rather than being bound by the belief itself. The freethinker assumes that the believer is free to concede; but this is rarely true. At best the bits of logic or evidence put forth in an argument go into the hopper with a whole host of other factors. And yet each of us who is a former believer (we number in the millions) reached some point in our lives when we simply couldn’t sustain our old certainties. Our sense of knowing either eroded over time or abruptly disappeared. So sometimes those hoppers do fill up.

Given what I’ve said about knowing, how can anybody claim to know anything? We can’t, with certainty. Those of us who are not religious could do with a little more humility on this point. We all see “through a glass darkly” and there is a realm in which all any of us can do is to make our own best guesses about what is real and important. This doesn’t imply that all ideas are created equal or that our traditional understanding of “knowledge” is useless. As I said before, our sense of knowing allows us to navigate this world pretty well — to detect regularities, anticipate events and make things happen. In the concrete domain of everyday life, acting on what we think we know works pretty well for us. Nonetheless, it is a healthy mistrust for our sense of knowing that has allowed scientists to detect, predict, and produce desired outcomes with ever greater precision.

The scientific method has been called “institutionalized doubt” because it forces us to question our assumptions. Scientists stake their hopes not on a specific set of answers but on a specific way of asking questions. Core to this process is “falsification” — narrowing down what might be true by ruling out what can’t be true. And to date, that approach has had enormous pay-offs. It is what has made the difference between the nature of human life in the Middle Ages and the 21st Century. But knowledge in science is provisional; at any given point in time, the sum of scientific knowledge is really just a progress report.

Now go back and read the first paragraph I quoted that belongs after this last one. I am Agnostic because I do not overstate our ability to know such things.

Why God Has A Human Mind

I’m following this series called Christian Belief Through the Lens of Cognitive Science over at the HuffingtonPost. It’s an exploration of religious belief that I think gives some very good ideas on why religions persist in the face of a lack of evidence or an honest assessment. I want to quote some passages from the series here and will pick it up with Part 2 of 6: Why God has a Human Mind.

Because our theory of mind is so rich, we tend to over-attribute events to conscious beings. Scientists call this hyperactive agency detection. What does that mean? It means that when good things happen somebody gets credit and when bad things happen we look for someone to blame. We expect important events to be done by, for and to persons, and are averse to the idea that stuff just happens. We also tend to over-assume conscious intent, that if something consequential happened, someone did it on purpose.

This set of default assumptions explains why the ancients thought that volcanoes and plagues must be the actions of gods. Even in modern times, we are not immune from this kind of attribution: Hurricane Katrina happened because God was angry about abortions and gays; the Asian tsunami happened because he was disgusted with nude Australian sunbathers. If gods are tweaking natural events, then we want to curry their favor. Around the world, people make their special requests known to gods or spirits by talking to them and giving them gifts. Athletes huddle in prayer before a game, just in case those random bounces aren’t random. After a good day at the casino, a thank-you tip may go into the offering basket. Or it may be that the offering goes into the basket beforehand.

All of this builds on the idea that gods or other supernatural beings are akin to us psychologically. They have emotions and preferences. They take action in response to things they like and dislike. They experience righteous indignation and crave retribution. They like some people better than others. They respond to our loyalty by being loyal to us. They can be placated or cajoled. They like praise, affirmation, and gratitude. They track favors and good-will in a kind of tit-for-tat reciprocity.

Abstract theologies are a fairly recent invention in the history of human religion, and they tend not to govern religious behavior. Even people who describe their god as omniscient or who insist that everything is predestined actually behave as if they need to communicate their desires and can influence future events by doing so. The god of Christian theology and the god that ordinary Christians worship are two different creatures.

If the structure of our minds predisposes us to certain kinds of religious beliefs, it also precludes others. Nowhere in the world is there a supernatural being who exists only on alternate Tuesdays, or who sees everything but forgets it all in ten minutes, or who rewards us for ignoring and disobeying him. Nowhere is there a god who knows the future, but only the next hour, or a god who starves people to death whenever he is pleased with them, or who is exactly like an ordinary person in every way. Some ideas are simply not interesting to us. They may be counter-intuitive in ways that make them forgettable instead of “sticky.” Maybe they don’t make good stories or maybe we don’t have good places to file them in our index of memories.

According to Pascal Boyer, a good religious concept must strike a balance between being interesting and expected. It must activate an existing ontological category (let’s say “river”), add some counterintuitive tag (when dark and bubbling river turns to blood and heals people), and retain the default assumptions of the category except those that are otherwise specified (river is wet, flows, is longer than it is wide, has a bottom, etc.) We start with a familiar class of being or object then tweak it to pique our interest but leave intact our other basic assumptions about that kind of object or being. If the supernatural thing we are discussing is a conscious being, it also needs to have a basically human mind. Only under these conditions will it stick and get passed from one person to another. (Religion Explained)

Christian beliefs are highly successful at getting retained and transmitted. They fit our information processing structures and yet are counterintuitive in intriguing ways. They capitalize on our tendency to attribute events to human-like causal agents who have minds much like our own. They allow us to take machinery that is designed for processing social information and apply it to the problems of understanding inanimate objects and natural phenomena. They leverage our tendency to see patterns in ambiguous or random events. Consequently they are intuitive and broadly applicable and are easily remembered.

Atheism and Agnosticism

I know I keep touching on this subject, but it is a common topic among freethinkers to try to figure out if agnosticism really exists. I obviously believe it does so I like bringing in anything that speaks to that viewpoint. I found a good article at Atheism and agnosticism… again.

It starts with a criticism of the wishy-washy “weak” and “strong” labels for theists and atheists and an article showing these thrown on a 2-axis graph of belief and knowledge. I agree with the author’s conclusion and reworking of the graph that I will copy here. (my thanks to John at ScienceBlogs)

<%image(20090613-agnostic-atheist-theist-axis.gif|400|303|Agnostic Graph)%>

The writeup from John on this graph is:

Each axis is in effect a question: can we know God or facts about God? (the Gnosis axis), and does god exist? (the Atheist/Theist axis). Here is my concern – can we say anything about God’s existence or not if we deny that the question of God is a knowable one, which is the agnostic position or perspective? I say that we cannot. I have absolutely no idea what a “weak theism” could be – do they believe in God’s existence but think that the question is unanswerable? It’s not enough to say they have faith God exists but think that is not knowledge – they are taking a firm position, and that counts as an epistemic commitment.

If the axes are simple binary choices, then no theist can be “below” the line of knowledge. If they believe God exists, then they have implicitly or explicitly taken a position on the knowability of God. But more realistically, if we treat the axes as degrees of certainty or likelihood (from -1 for complete rejection to 0 for ambivalence, to 1 for complete acceptance) then anything “below” the line is agnosticism. And if you think that you cannot know what the strue about God (as I do) then neither atheism nor theism are positions you will take.

Why agnostics like myself reject the appellation of “weak atheism” is that we do not take any position on whether God exists or not, because we think it is simply an unanswerable question. And being told, as we are, by atheists who do take a position on the existence of God, that we are atheists is to basically deny our most fundamental commitment – that these questions admit of no reliable, knowable or testable solution. Hence, we get a bit snarky.

My usual attempt to get someone to wrap their mind around agnosticism involves simple binary choices as well. Usually I define it as 1 is belief, 0 is disbelief, and agnosticism is the variable being undefined. So when you look at this graph and arguments over the supernatural you see atheism and theism on opposite sides of a belief question with the agnostic up on their own axis of unknowing.

The one point I would differ on with John is the unanswerable question of the capital G version of God as he writes it. That one usually means the Christian God that’s most often found in the english speaking world that would read this. That specific known definition of the supernatural and possible creator of the universe would be something the rational open-minded agnostic would have very good reasons to reject. We could very easily agree with the atheist position on the Christian God, Hindu gods, Norse gods, et al. as I do and still not be 100% atheist. The “god” that could exist up there on the agnostic scale for me that makes me not entirely an atheist is an unknown supernatural possibility of a creator that defies our ability to know or understand such a concept. I would not label such a concept as God since I don’t believe in the God with a capital G.