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How We Believe January 7, 2009

Posted by caseyww in Uncategorized.

how-we-believeSo I’ve put the holidays to good use and finished reading Michael Shermer’s book How We Believe: Science, Skepticism and the Search for God.  You may have noticed his quotes creeping into Valence over the past couple of months as one or two of his ideas stood out to me.  In How We Believe Shermer challenges us to consider that the origins and practices of belief themselves reveal a natural explanation for what many hold to be supernatural or paranormal experiences.  That is, understanding ‘how we believe’ is essential to correctly evaluating if ‘what we believe’ is true.

Refreshingly, Shermer treads the landmine littered battle ground that is the science-religion war by questioning faith without overtly attacking it.  That is, his experience as a fundamentalist Christian believer (he’s now a renowned skeptic and no longer a believer) enables him to speak with a subtle compassion towards faith while still illuminating the many ways it goes wrong.  Confronted by statistics showing that the vast majority of Americans maintain a belief in God and the paranormal, Shermer is interested in asking:

…why, in the most secular society in history, when God is supposedly dead, belief in Him has never been so high?

I suspect that many Christians would answer this question by assuming that belief in God is on the rise for the undemanding reason that God is simply a reality.  It’s logical for an ever increasing majority to recognize His existence, right?  In fact, this increasing majority of the faithful may even be seen as evidence for God’s existence itself. Thy kingdom come?

I’m not so sure.

Shermer sees ample evidence that the tendency towards mystical and supernatural beliefs is a product of our evolutionary origins instead of an actual measure of reality.  Humans are pattern seeking animals who have survived by our ability to connect causal relationships between events (ie. learning!).  However, our stunning ability to construct patterns from our environment has a down side in that we often find ourselves seeing patterns that aren’t real.

Just think, your brain is equipped to recognize and sort hundreds of faces in an instant (family, friends, enemies), however, it’s this same cognitive equipment that makes it easy for you to pick out faces or shapes from random patterns in clouds.  One is real, the other imagined.   The rub here is that there is such a strong evolutionary benefit to being right about our family’s faces that it’s worth the risk of being wrong about seeing faces in the clouds.  Extending this example a little deeper into the origins of religious belief, could it be that the benefit of, say, recognizing the real pattern of seasonal rains may have been worth the cost of also seeing an imagined pattern between them and our dances or sacrifices to deities?  Shermer argues yes:

We make…errors because we need to make…hits.  We have magical thinking and superstitions because we need critical thinking and pattern-seeking.  The two cannot be separated.  Magical thinking is a…necessary by-product of the evolved mechanism of causal thinking.

Add to our pattern seeking tendency strong communal involvement and an uncanny ability to mimic our elders and it’s not hard to imagine how full-fledged beliefs and superstitions can start to propagate through the generations.  In fact, Shermer outlines a natural progression from pattern-seeking to religion.

Humans may be well adept pattern-seekers but our information is useless in a social context unless we can communicate it.  Shermer thus notes that the first step towards religion from pattern-seeking is the act of storytelling.  Storytelling allows us to frame complex arguments or hide raw useful data in the context of easy to remember narratives.  We are often drawn to let our stories extend into symbolic communication which explain events in supernatural or extraordinary ways, that is, mythmaking.

Anthropologists studying modern hunter-gatherer societies, for example, have found that problems are often couched in the language of stories, myths, and other symbolic narratives, such as songs and poems.

The next component Shermer adds to the mix is morality which he asserts “most likely evolved in tiny bands of 100 to 200 people as a form of reciprocal altruism, or I’ll scratch your back if you’ll scratch mine.”  The problem is that keeping track, person by person, of who you can trust to reciprocate generosity or good deeds is nearly impossible in a society any larger than a couple hundred people.  As human society grew we needed a more general yet still reliable method for determining who deserved our trust.  As mythology and morality intersect, presto, we get religion.

Religion is a social institution that evolved as an integral mechanism of human culture to create and promote myths, to encourage altruism and reciprocal altruism, and to reveal the level of commitment to cooperate and reciprocate among members of the community.  That is to say, religion evolved as the social structure that enforced the rules of human interactions before there were such institutions as the state or such concepts as laws and rights.

Shermer argues that this entire transformation is knitted together by the strong idea, even if imagined, of God.

God is a pattern, an explanation for our universe, our world, and ourselves…  God is a myth, one of the most sublime and sacred myths ever constructed by the mythmaking animal.  God is the ultimate enforcer of the rules, the final arbiter of moral dilemmas, and the pinnacle object of commitment.  And God is the integrant of religion, the most elemental of all components that go into the making of the sacred…  People believe in God because we are pattern-seeking, storytelling, mythmaking, religious, moral animals.

Lest we try to separate ourselves from this humble heritage, Shermer includes examples of modern day beliefs that are actually ancient myths being replayed countless times over.  Most interesting is his evaluation of multiple messiah myths, including the Ghost Dance and Cargo Cults, and their striking similarity to the Jesus narrative.

I find myself really intrigued by what to make of this recycling of messiah myths (and Shermer’s similar treatment of apocalyptic myths).  Is it because we all supernaturally share a ‘God shaped hole’, a la Christian ethnocentrism, wherein all people unconsciously yearn for the Christian messiah specifically?  Or is it because there is a natural similarly evolved tendency to hope for miraculous rescue when in crisis or oppression which is common to the human animal?  In light of the compelling case Shermer makes for the natural origins of belief itself in How We Believe I have to admit that I tend toward the latter.


Drum Roll Please November 17, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Uncategorized.

Everybody knows that newborn giraffes are up and walking around after like 2 hours after being born, right? Insane.

Well Valence has had 6 weeks to find it’s legs and like a doting mother (yes I am that comfortable with my feminine side) it’s time for me to let Valence walk on its own for a little while.

This is all to say that this week I will be surrendering the posting helm.  In Invitation I hinted that there would be an effort towards making Valence a multi-contributor brand of blog.  Granted, I envision that for the most part I will still be the main contributor for the foreseeable future but I also stick by my assertion that … “the value of our conversation is directly proportional to the diversity of opinions represented.”

In that light please welcome Antony as this week’s Valence poster!

Antony will be posting on a Salon article titled “The Certainty Epidemic” written by Robert Burton.  If you have time please check it out before he posts.

As you may guess I have some strong opinions on the article but I don’t want to preempt Antony’s post so you’ll have to wait for the comments section to hear them!

As an aside, since it will require a bit more reading to engage in the conversation, referencing an entire article is a bit of an experiment here at Valence but something I can see us doing now and again in the future. Let me know what you think of the format.

Truth and Evidence October 22, 2008

Posted by caseyww in Essays, Uncategorized.

This week I’d like to dwell just a little longer on this topic of skepticism and adequate evidence.  I know, nothing like beating a dead horse right?  Well, there are a couple of reasons I think it will be valuable to linger here just a little longer.

First, there were some great ideas and questions posed in the comments section of the last post that I would like to highlight/summarize.  Second, I realize I haven’t quite answered the question of what constitutes “adequate evidence” myself even though I was cracking the whip for everyone else to answer.  Mush skeptics, MUSH!

We ended the last post with my somewhat optimistic call for a consensus on what constitutes ‘adequate evidence’ for belief.

Like W. standing on the USS Abraham Lincoln I’d like to declare “Mission Accomplished!”  Okay, grant me a bit of sarcastic irony now and then.  While, we didn’t quite get to a unified consensus on the requirements for evidence I do think we made some great strides towards defining the issue better.

One issue that kept resurfacing was that people were very apprehensive about defining a ‘single standard’ for what constitutes adequate evidence for belief.  On this we seemed to agree: Truth just seems too slippery to nail down with one kind of evidence for all time.  One idea raised was that maybe there are different types of truth which each carry their own standard for what constitutes good evidence.

By my count there were 4 classes of truth posed.  I’ve taken the liberty to apply some titles:

  1. Objective Facts
  2. Subjective Experience
  3. Cultural Truth
  4. Untestable Truth

Each class of truth seems to require a somewhat unique approach to belief and evidence.  Let’s explore what makes them different in the context of a thought experiment yours truly shared: the color red.

Objective Facts

Objective facts are the kind of truth that most of us associate with scientific inquiry.  One commenter referred to this class as “concrete phenomena.”  I would expand that to include any claim that has physical effects and is falsifiable.*  In the context of red we can speak of a particular wavelength of light on the electromagnetic spectrum.

If I claimed objects that are red emit electromagnetic radiation with a wavelength of about 650nm, what would adequate evidence for belief in this statement be?

Well, for most of us a quick visit to Wikipedia or a physics book would be enough evidence to satisfy us that this claim is true.  Pretty easy, huh?  We often rely on a specific type of evidence that I would call a consensus of scientific authority. This is important because not all of us can be experts on every topic that requires a verdict and it’s certainly appropriate to know when to trust those who are.

(A brief note here: blindly following authority can be dangerous which is why I included the operative word consensus.  Science operates on healthy debate which generally moves toward consensus.  Yes, rarely there is an Einstein or Galileo who comes along and revolutionizes scientific understanding but generally the fact that one PHD is willing to deny the effects of global warming is certainly is not adequate evidence to doubt its effects in the face of the rest of the scientific community.)

The critical characteristic of objective facts is that if anyone of us wanted to verify a truth before investing in belief we could personally test for evidence ourselves.  But how do we make sure the evidence we are getting from our test is good or adequate evidence?  We might institute simple rules like:

  1. Good evidence stays consistent even when we run the test over and over again.
  2. Good evidence stays consistent even when a different person altogether runs our test.
  3. Good evidence stays consistent even when the variables of our test are changed (A simple example of a variable would be whether we ran our test in San Diego or Moscow.)
  4. Good evidence would probably fit in the framework of already established science.  (Admittedly this isn’t always the case.  But if our test found evidence that overturns whole areas of expert understanding we had better be sure the evidence is ironclad.)
  5. Good evidence would be able to withstand others trying their hardest to disprove it.

Subjective Experience

The subjective experience of red is the human sensation of warmth, vibrancy or anger that each of us has in response to the color.  We turn a frequency of light into actual experience.  Admittedly, this type of truth is a bit harder to nail down than the objective fact of red photons.

Can we really prove that each of us is seeing the same color when looking at red objects?  Probably not.  However, that doesn’t mean that we can’t determine an adequate level of evidence that would allow us to infer an operational truth.

We may point to the evidence that the vast majority of humans think the color of oak leaves in fall is strikingly similar to the color of a stop sign.  We could also include the evidence that from human to human there is negligible difference in the way our eyes and brains are wired.  It is certainly reasonable to infer here that we all see red similarly.  Even for the colorblind man who may not be able to share this experience the evidence reported to him by the rest of us should be sufficient for belief in the color red.

Another quick note: A couple of commenters asked about the adequate evidence I would seek when trying to ‘prove’ the quality of my decision to marry my wife.  I would class marriage as a subjective experience type of truth (maybe even a cultural truth, see below) for which I cannot ‘prove’ truth.  However, the affection, commitment, interest and generosity Jess showed me is certainly still evidence which I observed and deemed adequate to invest in the belief that she in fact loved me and would make a great partner.

Just because truth as subjective experience may not be ultimately provable doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be asking for adequate evidence from which we can infer an operational truth for a situation.

Cultural Truths

We could ask the question, “Do you believe it is good to paint your child’s nursery red?”  The answer to this question is a matter of belief in a cultural truth that is fairly fluid and open to a diversity of opinions.  In western cultures I think we would usually answer that no, blue and pastels are better for babies.  But we can’t necessarily say why and we would be hard pressed to ever prove this point.

Evidence for beliefs in cultural truths does exist but it’s extremely transitory and open for debate.  I would imagine evidence here could include studies of the effects of room color on child temperament or imagination or development, but still the moral question of what is ‘good’ temperament or ‘good’ development would still remain.

That being said there is an operational truth that cultures tend to agree on so evidence must exist which points in the direction of truth.  Even though it may not be conclusive, evidence can still be deemed adequate after the moral component of these types of questions have been vetted.

Untestable Truth

I would define untestable truths as those questions that we can conceive of but for which we currently do not have (or can never have) any evidence to help guide our belief.  Admittedly, it’s tough to stretch my red example this far but here is my best shot.  Examples of untestable truth would be something like:

Our entire universe is simply an elementary particle in an atom on a very large red apple. (Evidence can’t be gathered from outside our universe by definition.)


Flying red elves smart enough to evade all scientific detection control the weather and punish the Pacific Northeast with too much rain because they hate grunge music. (What sounds like an absurd statement, yes, but if the elves can avoid all detection then we can’t really disprove it, can we?)


There were exactly 34 species of red striped dinosaurs. (Not an absurd statement but effectively all the evidence has been destroyed.)

Many commenters asserted that belief was a matter of “personal desire”.  If there is a place for personal desire in determining truth and belief this is certainly it.  However, ideally I would argue we should remain agnostic (ie. indifferent) to propositions for which can have no evidence.  That is I think the appropriate response to mystery is, “I don’t know.”

However, probability and our ability to reason do play an important role here in that we can functionally rule out some untestable claims.  Example: There are simpler explanations for weather patterns which science uses to tackle observed phenomena naturally without invoking the existence of flying red elves.  Can I prove to you they don’t exist?  Nope.  However, is it probable and reasonable for me to assume flying red elves don’t exist?  I believe so.


*(text amended per comment #7 and #8 below)