Gene Expression

Logical consistency is irreligious

Jason says in a post which addresses the religion & science issue:

Either the Bible is the holy and inerrant word of God, or it is an ancient document written by people with no more claim to authority than any other document that has survived from that time. It’s hard to find a logically consistent middle ground.

I regularly made this argument until a few years ago. It generally remains my own personal view, though my estimation of the likelihood of the first possibility is so low that I don’t know if it is judgement that is worth making when social considerations are removed. I stopped making the argument Jason is pointing to when I read this:

disconforming evidence only seems to make believers try harder to understand the deeper truth and to strengthen religious beliefs. For example, after reading a bogus article on a new finding from the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to contradict Christian doctrine, religious believers who also believed the story reported their religious beliefs reinforced.


(In Gods we Trust, page 92)

I know my regular readers are sick of that particular passage, but I think it is a short and succinct summation of the problem that scriptural “rationalists” face. To a great extent religious belief simply exists outside logic. A colorful, if morbid, example of this is an orthodox Jewish girl who told me that the Holocaust strengthened her belief in God. I am sure in an alternative universe Jews managing to escape Europe because of worldwide diplomatic efforts would also have strengthened her belief in God.

The key is that though Biblical literalists on the whole assert one view of their religion, they believe and live another view. Literalism offers a nice bundle of social and psychological benefits, but I doubt that most fundamentalists are spending their days deriving inferences entailed by the axioms in the Bible. Yes, when asked if the Bible is scientifically and historically accurate of course fundamentalist Christians will aver that it is, but verbal affirmation does not imply that this is how the Bible as such impacts their day to day lives, or that they face the manifest falsity of such an assertion in how they live their faith. I do not believe they do, because on the individual scale the Bible and Christian fundamentalism (or organized religion in general) serves simply as a cultural channel for strong cognitive biases of belief.

To understand, as unbelievers, the persistence and power of belief we need to not take believers themselves at their word, but study them as if they were a natural phenomenon. The historical and social dimensions of religious belief are relevant and substantial, but they give one a fractured picture when the psychological roots are ignored. Of course, human variation also means that any expectation, or modal characterization, is subject to error. If you read the comments on Jason’s post David Heddle, a Reformed Christian physicist, shows exactly what religion can become when powerful minds are applied to it. Men like St. Aquinas can turn theology into a sophisticated systematic machine, while others like Karl Barth can generate an edifice of non-trivial philosophical sensitivity. But we can not confuse these individuals, the eloquent and cerberal voices of organized religion, for its heart, the masses who believe despite and without reflection.

Arguments over theology, interpretation of Hebrew or Greek, and the various entailments of a particular axiom, will always be the bread and butter of intellectuals, whether atheist or theist. They also serve as the basis for verbally demarcated group boundaries. But underneath the surface churns the real waters of religiosity, and logical decomposition and analysis are fundamentally orthogonal to this dynamic.

Addendum: Let me add that logical consistency is not very common in most areas of human cognition in my experience. Science is a little different because of the corrosive feedback of the culture as well as the unstinting and repeated criticisms of reality. Failures of experiment or prediction can overturn deeply held beliefs for most individuals. But even then, it does not always result in paradigm shift, Fred Holye being an exemplar of this, as he simply kept reworking his Steady State Hypothesis to keep up with the data even after it became totally discarded by the mainstream in physics. The problem with religious logical consistency is that it has a social and cultural dimension which impacts those of us who refuse to or choose not to partake.

Comments

  1. #1 Gyan
    July 25, 2006

    Is the truth value of ‘logical consistency’ subject to empirical testing? If not, it seems to be a matter of faith.

    To a great extent religious belief simply exists outside logic

    Logic is just a glue. There are axioms and then there are inferences. Unless you start with the same axioms, logic itself doesn’t dictate any particular inference. In brief, logic is not spelt Logic.

    the persistence and power of belief we need to not take believers themselves at their word, but study them as if they were a natural phenomenon

    Which is just as prejudiced.

    logical consistency is not very common in most areas of human cognition in my experience

    If the universe is logically consistent then so are the brains within it. The verdict is more likely due to ignorance of the details or not analysing the complete picture.

    Then again, the universe may not be consistent.

  2. #2 razib
    July 25, 2006

    Unless you start with the same axioms,

    don’t be a retard. did you read my post?

    a) individuals expressed a belief
    b) they read a piece of phoney scholarship with seemed to disconfirm their belief
    c) they declared that they believed in that scholarship (they didn’t need to)
    d) but then concluded that the obvious disconfirmation was confirmation of a sort

    strictly speaking there was probably semantical wiggle room to extract out confirmation, but only semantical.

    Which is just as prejudiced.

    again, positively retarded. i suppose all of social science is ‘prejudiced.’

    don’t post here again.

  3. #3 the raciest atheist
    July 25, 2006

    A colorful, if morbid, example of this is an orthodox Jewish girl who told me that the Holocaust strengthened her belief in God.

    Did she have a response for how the experience of the Holocaust caused many of it’s survivors to abandon their faith in God? I remember seeing a PBS documentary a few years back with a scene where a survivor’s grandchildren are innoncently pestering him about whether or not he believes in God, he avoids the questions for a while and then hesitates a bit, finally declaring with a disappointed sigh that he couldn’t believe in a God who would allow something like the holocaust to happen. It was a very poignant scene and watching it then I felt like nobody could ignore it’s message, but I suspect some brains are strongly biased to do just that.

  4. #4 razib
    July 25, 2006

    Did she have a response for how the experience of the Holocaust caused many of it’s survivors to abandon their faith in God?

    she did. don’t remember what it was, it was kind of convoluted, and wasn’t as crass as they-were-an-iniquitous-people. the loss of faith by many holocaust survivors was a reason that it came up. i was an op at undernet’s #jewish channel at the time….

  5. #5 Gyan
    July 26, 2006

    don’t post here again

    So do you want an answer to “did you read my post?“?

    The answer’s yes. The axiom of religious belief simply is that the core truth’s already available in some form, and any further inconsistencies are only superficially apparent, as your own boldened quote says “disconforming evidence only seems to make believers try harder to understand the deeper truth“. This would only happen if the believers did experience a dissonance due to contradiction, hence the quest for “deeper truth”.

    i suppose all of social science is ‘prejudiced.’

    If it is conducted by human subjects, any enterprise involves “subjectivity”.

    Unless you do want me to post again, don’t reply.

    [shut the fuck up! see, that’s not a reply, just an addendum – Razib]

  6. #6 Dan S.
    July 26, 2006

    “she did. don’t remember what it was, it was kind of convoluted, and wasn’t as crass as they-were-an-iniquitous-people.”

    Is this just re: their loss of faith, or the whole “why the Holocaust” bit – ’cause I was wondering what on earth she could have come up with. Certainly there are scenarios one could abstractly imagine that might make the Holocaust not inconsistent with a certain idea of God, but in terms of strengthening one’s faith – oh my. Perhaps that the Nazis were stopped before they managed to kill all of the Jews? But that seems quite weak. Maybe that the horror and despair of a world where this sort of thing can happen makes belief in God – in her view – necessary?

    Yes, yes, it sounds like I’m missing the point of your post, but I’m interested in her rationalization. The fake-article folks, too (was that recorded, or simply the belief that it was a confirmation?) .. . .

    “we need to not take believers themselves at their word, but study them as if they were a natural phenomenon.”

    Well, one assumes they are, and not, say, a supernatural one . . . sorry, sorry, I know what you mean, it’s my social science background assumptions speaking . . .

  7. #7 Dan S.
    July 26, 2006

    This all does sound somewhat like that partisan brains study . . .

    “If the universe is logically consistent then so are the brains within it”
    Now that doesn’t seem to follow, at least beyond the degree absolutely necessary for basic survival . . .

  8. #8 razib
    July 26, 2006

    dan, try and google it. her argument she attributed to a female biblical scholar who she attended a talk by. if the woman is still in circulation she’ll prolly be on the internet.

  9. #9 Gyan
    July 26, 2006

    So much for logic.

    [shut the fuck up! see, that’s not a reply, just an addendum – Razib]

    It is a reply. You just overrode the software-imposed style convention of sequential, distinct shaded blocks.

    Dan S: Now that doesn’t seem to follow, at least beyond the degree absolutely necessary for basic survival

    The brains are just products of the universe and are constrained by the underlying logical consistency. Any verdict that it is not is due to incomplete knowledge of all premises i.e. suppose you elucidate a mechanism for a certain experiment and hence predict a certain result but that doesn’t happen. That may be because some assumed background conditions changed unbeknownst to you. Your logic hasn’t failed. But unless you discover the change, you are likely to believe the logic/mechanism was incorrect.

    Anyway, don’t reply as Razib doesn’t like me to. Adios.

  10. #10 Joe Shelby
    July 26, 2006

    Let me add that logical consistency is not very common in most areas of human cognition in my experience.

    The latest Skeptical Inquirer covers just that, with an article about how Conan Doyle and Wallace, in spite of their renown for critical thinking, were both spirtualists (Conan Doyle often falling for the claims of mediums even after Houdini staged one to set him up and demonstrated in detail how it was faked).

  11. #11 DarwinCatholic
    July 26, 2006

    Men like St. Aquinas can turn theology into a sophisticated systematic machine, while others like Karl Barth can generate an edifice of non-trivial philosophical sensitivity. But we can not confuse these individuals, the eloquent and cerberal voices of organized religion, for its heart, the masses who believe despite and without reflection…. But underneath the surface churns the real waters of religiosity, and logical decomposition and analysis are fundamentally orthogonal to this dynamic.

    Obviously, as a believer, I would tend to interpret what you’re examining a little differently, though I think you’ve nailed the symptoms very well. On the one hand I completely agree with you that the approach of the vast majority of religiuos people to religion is not logically consistent at all. However, I’d tend to see thinkers like Aquinas, Augustine, von Balthasar, etc., as representing a much fuller understanding of a religious reality which most believers only dimly grasp. Not so terribly different from how a great many people claim to be fascinated by science, but when questioned turn out to have rather vague of even mistaken ideas of what current scientific consensus is and how the scientific process is carried on.

    There is a strong natural tendency towards religiosity which many people feel, and for those who have had neither the time nor inclination to persue it rigorously, this drive to believe (or perhaps inborn conviction that there must be some supernatural side to the world, even if one isn’t clear on what it is) seems to result in simply patching together a mish-mash of whatever appealing beliefs come along. But, perhaps because I think of religion as seeking to understand something real, I would tend to see the great religious thinkers as being closer to that reality, not as having distilled a basic human psychological urge into something with the appearance of rigor.

    I was also very interested in the point you quoted:
    …disconforming evidence only seems to make believers try harder to understand the deeper truth and to strengthen religious beliefs. For example, after reading a bogus article on a new finding from the Dead Sea Scrolls that seemed to contradict Christian doctrine, religious believers who also believed the story reported their religious beliefs reinforced.

    I think some of what we see here is that many people who term themselves believers are sufficiently un-used to thinking about their beliefs in any sort of scholarly (or even pseudo-scholarly) way, that anything that gives the impression of being “deep” seems to them to be in some vague sense a confirmation of their views. Thus, I’ve run into many Christians who insist that reading Da Vinci Code ‘strengthened their faith’ despite the fact that one of the premises of the book (from what I understand) is that Jesus was only human.

  12. #12 razib
    July 26, 2006

    think some of what we see here is that many people who term themselves believers are sufficiently un-used to thinking about their beliefs in any sort of scholarly (or even pseudo-scholarly) way, that anything that gives the impression of being “deep” seems to them to be in some vague sense a confirmation of their views.

    the bolded part is my overall point. many atheists who discuss/debate religion have “thought” about religious beliefs a lot in an analytic fashion. i think they go down the wrong path assuming that most religionists have done so as well (though the apologists they tend to engage with in a public or systematic fashion do process their beliefs in such a fashion).

  13. #13 Todd
    July 26, 2006

    You may be interested in perusing Cordelia Fine’s most recent book A Mind of Its Own: How the Brain Distorts and Deceives. Your original post above (skipping the comments) reminded me of one of the bias-tendencies she discusses, which is that when confronted with evidence contrary to belief, it is most often interpreted as proof that we are right! (As in, if that’s all the evidence they have, then I must be right) So in a really twisted way, our brains distort evidence as proof of our own positions. This is above and beyond the normal confirmation bias. I’ve only skimmed the book and haven’t read it in detail, but one of the things that interested me was her argument that our faulty cognition is actually adaptive, that is, we think this way because it works for our survival. This melds nicely with the work of Robert Boyd and Peter Richerson (e.g., The Origin and Evolution of Culture, who use probability models to show how a given cultural population within a particular environment favors stasis over innovation until the environment changes to such a degree that survival demands cultural upheaval to ensure survival. In that way, cultural change works in a kind of “punctuated equilibrium” (although “environment” must be broadly defined to include social and cultural factors (e.g., war, colonialism, etc.) in addition to purely obdurate environmental factors (e.g., climate change, volcanic eruption, etc.). As a cultural sociologist working to integrate a ‘naturalism’ into my work, I’m fascinated by these kinds of findings and arguments.

    That said, what science offers is a method (dependent on social interaction with other scientists who hold similar values (i.e., definitions of truth)) for cutting through the biases and natural inclinations of our minds to favor stasis over innovation and discovery, not to mention the slew of biases, which appear to be heritable and biological aspects of our cognition system. Science isn’t perfect and sometimes it takes years and a few scientific bloodbaths (think: furvor over plate techtonics in the late 1960s), but eventually as a method of truth-finding and modified empiricism, it works.

  14. #14 razib
    July 26, 2006

    todd, as you might know, i am familiar with (and have read) body & richerson’s work, so i will look into your recommendation.

    props for trying to take a naturalistic tack, i am very sympathetic to that mode of inquiry.

  15. #15 Todd
    July 28, 2006

    R,
    I thought that maybe you’d discussed it before, but I couldn’t remember. In any case, there is one weakness that I see in B&R’s work, and that is in the way they frame “environment.” I’m not sure if it would actually change the math, but it definitely affects the way I, as a social scientist, would conduct empirical research. That weakness is simply that, at least in TO&EofC, environment seems to be very narrowly defined as the obdurate environment, ignoring the social, cultural and cognitive environements. These aspects (as described by eary cognitive psychologist George H. Mead in the 1920s) are as vital to survival of the individual and group as the physical environment. That is, for example, if your survival requires converting to the religion of your conquerers (e.g., Cherokees in the 1700s) then you undergo a major cultural shift/innovation because the social/cultural environment has changes and you are adapting to survive it. Although this level of analysis is probably less important in working on the evolution of culture itself, it is vital for understanding of cultural change over time in relationship to embodied (i.e., biological) cognitive and experiential processes.

    Love your blog and always learn something from it (although I do a lot of reading in evolution and cognition, genetics are still way outside my ken).

  16. #16 montag
    July 29, 2006

    Jason says it is hard to find a logically consistent middle-ground.

    Now I consider religious statements not to be able to be proven true or false, mainly because no verification procedure exists to do so.

    If they cannot be asserted to be true or false, there is no problem with logical consistency, other than a certain fuzziness if you’re not used to this.

    Now, about disconfirming evidence, if a statement cannot be asserted to be true nor false, any evidence cannot be held to be disconfirming in the sense that the evidence is proving the falsity of the statement.
    Hence, those who hold on to beliefs despite disconfirmation seem to be acting as if their beliefs cannot be proven true or false.

    They seem to be using Faith.

    Now it seems that Faith is nothing unless it is a description of the manner in which we process statements which cannot be proven true or false.
    Most religious assertions cannot be proven, therefore you must have faith.

    We seem to be saying this already. I haven’t added anything new to this.
    I myself am a believer, if that is the term du jour. I do not require proofs nor signs nor wonders.

    Beyond the discussion here, it seems that proving something true gives us a feeling of certainty 100% of the time. So a cognitive state leads to an emotion.
    However, the emotion also leads to a cognitive state. If we possess a feeling of certainty about something without our having proved it, we conclude that the belief involved is true.
    This is probably a normal source of error.

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