Are creationists rational?

My Synthese essay has finally been published [paywall], in which I argue that on the basis of the more realistic notion of rationality devised by Herbert Simon, called "bounded rationality", certain heuristics are liable to lead people to rationally choose to believe in creationism under the right conditions. It's a conceptual developmentalist perspective. Here's the abstract:

Creationism is usually regarded as an irrational set of beliefs. In this paper I propose that the best way to understand why individual learners settle on any mature set of beliefs is to see that as the developmental outcome of a series of “fast and frugal” boundedly rational inferences rather than as a rejection of reason. This applies to those whose views are opposed to science in general. A bounded rationality model of belief choices both serves to explain the fact that folk traditions tend to converge on “anti-modernity”, and to act as a default hypothesis, deviations from which we can use to identify other, arational, influences such as social psychological, economic and individual dispositions. I propose some educational and public policy strategies that might decrease the proportion of learners who find creationism and anti-science in general a rational choice.

It's Online First at Springer for now.

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What is "arational" supposed to mean?

If it's supposed to be a neologism of a Greek prefix with a Latin noun (for shame, what language thuggery!) meaning "without reason", well, that's what "irrational" already means.

If it's not mixed language and is using the Latin preposition/prefix "a/ab" to indicate "from" or "by", than it doesn't mean anything more than rational does already. Anyway, that would be "abrational" for harmony as the "r" is a continuant sound.

Either way, this unwelcome turd of a word does not mitigate my prejudice that a lot of philosophical debate is verbal minestrone where metaphorical parmesan is sprinkled around to mask the absence of literal precision.

Can you point us to some early version or variant of the paper that isn't behind a paywall?

Try here.

Sam, the Language Police were on holiday that day when I first learned English, or they'd have pulled over most of those I heard speaking it...

[Added: And if I weren't so tired, I'd have noted that "ratio/nis" is a Latin word too. Damn Language Police.]

it relies heavily on
these social cues for the basic epistemic commitments on which it basis its further
conceptual development.

views develop, and
argue that it we are to teach people science

Heuristics, got to love cog-sci.

By Language Police (not verified) on 28 Apr 2009 #permalink

Everyone seems to have some mechanism for selecting what to do or pay attention to and what to ignore or overlook for a time. Some people feel compelled to pick up a stray piece of paper and others barely notice it and could contemplate it for hours without feeling any need to do anything about it.

My parents had/have laundry. When one or more relationships are dysfunctional or they are generally frustrated or something outside the realm of physical needs really needs to be discussed they do laundry. Not getting along with the spouse? Rip the linens off all the beds and give them a good wash. Worried about what the kids are up to but don't know how to talk to them? Grab all the towels and drapes and run them through the machines.

Yes, this does fulfill some psychological needs. Cleanliness next to Godliness makes laundry a virtue unto itself. It is busy work that is just mentally demanding enough to keep a person from thinking too much. It is just physically active enough to feel like your 'doing something'. It fills a day with virtuous action and leaves you tired enough to get to sleep quickly so there is little tie for the anxiety and worry to become conscious.

Religion, and fighting evolution, can serve the same purpose. Religion might be construed as a virtue unto itself. Going to church, working the prayer group, and the woman's committee fills hours of time. It is just mentally and physically demanding enough to feel like your accomplishing something and tiring enough to tie one out so you sleep well. Fighting evolution is a hobby/job/calling. There is no more need to understand it than there is any need to deeply understand dirt if your doing laundry. Stuffing a machine and adding detergent is a simple mechanical act.

I sometimes play old computer games. Many of these games were designed to run the CPU wide open. On an old 386 with 50 MB of memory the game was just a touch slow. On a modern computer the action is blindingly fast and unplayable. So I use a program that inserts clock cycles or otherwise slows the program.

Laundry and religion and creationism are empty clock cycles. The opposite of a manta intended to allow meditation and reflection. These are activities intended to prevent reflection and meditation. Busy work that feels like it is addressing an immediate need while redirecting energy away from the deeper issues.

Creationism isn't irrational and more than brutalizing pixels in a video game to compensate for being mad at your boss is irrational. Or masturbating because you lust after an inappropriate person.

It is a coping mechanism. A way of dealing with an untenable situation, modern life and the failure of traditional cultural mechanisms to provide answers, by ignoring it. Or fighting against it. Darwin is the enemy because he provides an easy figure to represent the intrusion of modernity into what is mythologized as a better time.

It is a way of coping with what cannot be handled directly. Unfortunately such behaviors can become a habituated and a reflexive response. Too often once set in their way there is little if any further change. You can't change them. At best all you can do is limit the spread by poking holes in their world view so few people are trapped and providing alternative coping mechanism for those still able to change. For those set in their ways there can be no change and their influence disappears when they die off.

Luckily major blocks in the conservative world view are far less prevalent in the next generation. As always, it is the young who save the society.

Language Police, I gather you never make any typing errors. I also gather you have never put together a published document. I did for 30 years, and I can tell you errors creep in, do what you may, irrespective of discipline. Hell, even Language Police make mistakes.

They should be "bases" and "if". Two single letter typos are not enough to dismiss an entire field.

Of course it is mixed language ... it's English and we are still trying to get in the metaphorical bloomers of Saxon tavern wenches. Arational was most likely formed on an analogy with "amoral," as in this citation from Wiktionary:

2001, Ronald De Sousa, "Moral Emotions," Ethical Theory and Moral Practice, vol. 4, no. 2, p. 109:
On the first view, emotions are purely biological phenomena. . . . They are arational and amoral, like other natural bodily functions.

Irrational has obtained a connotation of wild illogic that arational does not carry. It's a useful word which is all the justification it needs.

In retrospect, one of the most valuable parts of my high school education was in my first physics class, the nights spent plotting the planets, and the days spent seeing how well those fit to Ptolemy's epicycles. At the time, I thought it a bit silly that we were learning something that was outdated and long known to be wrong. Everyone in the class "knew," because they had been taught it from elementary school, that the planets didn't circle the earth.

But we learned what doing science was about. So... I concur with your conclusion.

Having means at work to poke behind the paywall, I took a look. While I'm merely a computer geek with odd hobby reading, two things occur to me.

1) You might wish to examine the concepts in Psychology of the reflexive "x-system" of cognition versus the reflective "c-system" of cognition, discussed here [PDF]. It seems humans are most reflective when the reflexive system encounters some degree of cognitive dissonance between pre-established "reflex" level ideas.

2) Since you don't seem to be particularly intimidated by random obscure math, you might look at this blog post I made (meta to another by someone else) and consider how a catastrophe surface model (probably in the x-system) may be involved. I'm not sure exactly how my observation that effective verbal intelligence increases as childhood progresses ties to your observations on conceptual development, but I suspect a link.

Amoral, arational, asocial... Think "outside the bounds of": atheist in a world of Christians and pagans, "up" in the psychology of Flatland. It's consistent and, more importantly (at least to cyberneticists), it gets the point across.

Leaving aside the professed beliefs of most of their followers, I think that the leaders of the ID movement are perfectly rational. For values of rational that include gettings themselves into a position of power at all costs.

They should be "bases" and "if". Two single letter typos are not enough to dismiss an entire field.

Who dismissed any field? That's a huge bow to draw. I think cognitive science and cognitive psychology are great. I think your paper was great. I wish I could write such a thing.

I knew what those errors should be, I only posted them as a bit of an extra larf on Sam C's comment. Humour is, of course, subjective. My prose and spelling are shiteful, so I wasn't even critiquing you because I'd smash too many panes of glass in such a hypocritic effort.

I guess this paper is your baby, and you can't see a joke when it isn't accompanied by smileys because of that emotional involvement. Nice heuristic to use in reasoning about my post. ;) <-- (smiley indicating joke)

By Language Police (not verified) on 29 Apr 2009 #permalink

Sorry, yes, that was humorless of me. I thought you were making a general attack on cogsci (which, incidentally, is not my speciality). My apologies. I blame jetlag.

John -

Thanks for writing this paper. While I have yet to do more than peruse it (I'm almost done with the semester - so close), I am really excited and will definitely be using it as a reference (note to idiot language cop, some of us rather appreciate specificity - especially in an abstract) in both discussions and if my proposal is accepted, in a book I want to write.

For a lot of reasons, I think it is important to recognize the arationality of creationism and other religious claims, for a lot of Believers. While I think there is a point where the arational becomes irrational (such as my last pastor, who understood the evidence for evolution well enough to resort to Satan did it, to explain it away), by and large I don't think most fundamentalists ever cross that line. They accept and believe what they have believed all their lives - never seeing a reason to question it, or try to learn about the evidence that contradicts that belief.

Most people just don't care. And that's not limited to creationists. It is remarkable how often (when I have these conversations at all) I run into people who accept science and accept evolution, who grossly misunderstand evolution - who most commonly assume that evolution is simply survival of the fittest. People who, when you explain that they're characterization is wrong, shrug their shoulders and say "whatever." They accept evolution and common ancestry, but really could care less about how it actually works.

So is it really that unreasonable for people who have been raised to believe in creationism and had it constantly reinforced, not to care either?

For my own part, my religious beliefs started out arational and became increasingly irrational over the years, until it was virtually pathological irrationality at the end. I was so very desperate and some parts terrified, that I turned in all sorts of directions attempting to reconcile and justify my Faith in the face of reality (people like I was, btw, being the target audience for the book I may get to write). The reason I think it behooves us to understand and recognize the arational, in comparison to the irrational, is that the arational are unlikely to change their beliefs, while the irrational are already moving in the right direction. Or put simply, talking to the arational is like talking to a post, while talking to the irrational may eventually get you somewhere.

DuWayne makes a great point about people who believe in evolution without understanding it. I have lived in Texas for quite a while, where the debate over teaching evolution in schools never seems to end, and I have observed the same thing.

For the most part, people who support teaching evolution do not do so because they have examined the evidence and come to a rational conclusion; instead, they have made a decision about who they are going to trust to have done the thinking for them. The same goes for the creationists. Only a handful of them have come to their conclusions from their own study of the Bible; usually, someone they personally believe in has told them how the Bible should be interpreted. In some sense, I disagree with John that there is very much rational about the process at all.