Faith vs. Facts

First of all, they have noticed that the very language people use changes when they talk about religious beings, and the changes mean that they think about their realness differently. You do not say, “I believe that my dog is alive.” The fact is so obvious it is not worth stating. You simply talk in ways that presume the dog’s aliveness — you say she’s adorable or hungry or in need of a walk. But to say, “I believe that Jesus Christ is alive” signals that you know that other people might not think so. It also asserts reverence and piety. We seem to regard religious beliefs and factual beliefs with what the philosopher Neil Van Leeuwencalls different “cognitive attitudes.”

Second, these scholars have remarked that when people consider the truth of a religious belief, what the belief does for their lives matters more than, well, the facts. We evaluate factual beliefs often with perceptual evidence. If I believe that the dog is in the study but I find her in the kitchen, I change my belief. We evaluate religious beliefs more with our sense of destiny, purpose and the way we think the world should be. One study found that over 70 percent of people who left a religious cult did so because of a conflict of values. They did not complain that the leader’s views were mistaken. They believed that he was a bad person.

Read more at The New York Times

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Posted by on May 18, 2015 in cognitive science


The Enemy Control Ray

Originally posted on Thing of Things:

Imagine your worst ideological enemy– the people whose blog posts you read and go “why are you WRONG about EVERYTHING.” For many transhumanists, it might be bioethicists; for a disability rights advocate, Peter Singer; for an effective altruist, a philanthrolocalist; for a feminist, a social conservative.

Now, imagine that a mad scientist has invented a device called the Enemy Control Ray. The Enemy Control Ray is a mind-control device: whatever rule you say into it, your enemy must follow.

(Let’s pretend for a moment that the moral problems of mind control don’t exist. This is a thought experiment.)

However, because of limitations of the technology, any rule you put in is translated into your enemy’s belief system.

So, let’s say you’re a trans rights activist, and you’re targeting transphobes. If you think trans women are women, you can’t say “call trans women by their correct pronouns”, because you believe…

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Posted by on May 15, 2015 in religion


Beheading Ishmael: Islamic Extremism and the Denial of History

Originally posted on The New Oxonian:

The pathology of the religious movement called Islamic State (ISIS) is a flesh-wasting disease that erupts out of the attempts of conservative Islam to correct its recent record of failure.

Its iconic moment, September 11, 2001, is now more than a decade past. The leaders of al-Qaeda are aging, disorganized and easily upstaged by more robust and glamorous moments—beheadings, cultural brigandage, mass executions, rape, and Blitzkrieg raids on unsuspecting towns and villages. The Taliban have had a run of bad luck; franchise groups like Boko Haram or Al Shabab perform piratically, on the fringe, and at a distance. All of them are fueled by ignorance, demonic forms of enthusiasm, and a perverse idealism that appeals, strangely, to a world where the more ritualized forms of dualistic warfare have become unfashionable or relegated to science fiction. In a world that has become morally lazy and predictable, an evil cause that can…

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Posted by on May 11, 2015 in religion


The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving

What’s most interesting about João’s story, though, is that his new outlook resulted not from a spiritual awakening but from brain damage caused by a stroke. Among other symptoms, he became a chronic insomniac and lost his sex drive; he started forgetting things and had trouble focusing; his movements slowed. And, his neurologist says, he became “pathologically generous”—compulsively driven to give. His carefree attitude toward money led to confrontations with his family, especially his brother-in-law, who co-owned the french-fry cart. But even when his family berated him, and the cart went out of business, and he was reduced to living on his mother’s pension, João refused to stop. Giving simply made him too happy. (João died of kidney failure in 1999. His doctor provided only his first name, to protect the family’s privacy.)

The history of neuroscience is littered with patients whose behavior changed in bizarre ways after they suffered brain damage. Some people could no longer recognize animals, or couldn’t speak but could still sing. For neuroscientists, these cases offer opportunities: by studying how people’s behaviors change after brain injuries, they gain insight into what role the injured areas play in everyday tasks. And so it was with João—researchers hoped that his compulsive giving could shed light on normal generosity, helping them understand why human beings give and why, biologically, giving feels good.

This work does raise uncomfortable questions, though. We normally think of generosity as pure and noble—evidence of the soul, not evidence of brain damage. But what if giving is largely a reflex or an instinct or even, sometimes, a sign of mental derangement? We also think of generosity as uniquely human. If other species evolved to be generous too, does that devalue the trait?

These aren’t idle questions. João’s case shows that generosity isn’t part of some ethereal “human spirit”—it’s hardwired into our brains. And while acts of generosity do engage our “higher” brain regions—the areas responsible for rational thought—they cause equally strong activity in the animalistic pleasure centers, circuits normally associated with food, sex, and drugs like cocaine.

Read “The Man Who Couldn’t Stop Giving” at The Atlantic

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Posted by on April 27, 2015 in cognitive science


Contemporary Fundamentalist Attitudes Towards Sexuality Are Surprisingly Modern

I’m not saying that the Middle Ages was a great period of freedom (sexual or otherwise), but the sexual culture of 12th-century France, Iraq, Jerusalem, or Minsk did not involve the degree of self-loathing brought about by modern approaches to sexuality. Modern sexual purity has become a marker of faith, which it wasn’t in the Middle Ages. (For instance, the Bishop of Winchester ran the brothels in South London—for real, it was a primary and publicly acknowledged source of his revenue—and one particularly powerful Bishop of Winchester was both the product of adultery and the father of a bastard, which didn’t stop him from being a cardinal and papal legate.) And faith, especially in modern radical religion, is a marker of social identity in a way it rarely was in the Middle Ages.

Read more at The Stranger

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Posted by on April 23, 2015 in religion


SBL Pacific Coast Region Conference 2015: Dennis MacDonald

Originally posted on Κέλσος:

Earlier this month I attended the SBL Pacific Coast Region conference at Azusa Pacific University. For those who have been following the Bible blog sphere, this conference was particularly prominent, since Richard Carrier defended his new book On the Historicity of Jesus Christ during the meeting, which is the first academically published book defending the Christ Myth Theory. I do not agree with the mythicist position, as I have discussed in a previous article, but I do think that Carrier’s new books is the best defense of the theory published yet. Unfortunately, I actually had to miss Carrier’s defense due to a scheduling conflict, but Simon Joseph has posted a (fairly critical) review of Carrier’s presentation, and Carrier himself has also written a post responding to Kenneth Waters Sr., who critiqued Carrier’s thesis during the conference. Each post provides a good summary of the arguments on either side.

MacDonaldIn this post, however, I…

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Posted by on March 26, 2015 in religion


Unfalsifiable Beliefs Are More Attractive When We’re Threatened

Phalanx from 300


When people hear the phrase “unfalsifiable” it’s usually in a scientific context. It was one of Karl Popper’s definitions of science, which he crafted in opposition to Freud’s method of psychoanalysis. In this case, religious people aren’t really concerned that their beliefs are unfalsifiable; religion is not science.

But the appeal to the unfalsifiable isn’t restricted to religious belief. It seems to apply and appeal to people in a general moral domain, and the largest sample of unfalsifiable beliefs outside of religion are found in the realm of politics.

From Friesen, et al. (2014):


We propose that people may gain certain “offensive” and “defensive” advantages for their cherished belief systems (e.g., religious and political views) by including aspects of unfalsifiability in those belief systems, such that some aspects of the beliefs cannot be tested empirically and conclusively refuted. This may seem peculiar, irrational, or at least undesirable to many people because it is assumed that the primary purpose of a belief is to know objective truth. However, past research suggests that accuracy is only one psychological motivation among many, and falsifiability or testability may be less important when the purpose of a belief serves other psychological motives (e.g., to maintain one’s worldviews, serve an identity). In Experiments 1 and 2 we demonstrate the “offensive” function of unfalsifiability: that it allows religious adherents to hold their beliefs with more conviction and political partisans to polarize and criticize their opponents more extremely. Next we demonstrate unfalsifiability’s “defensive” function: When facts threaten their worldviews, religious participants frame specific reasons for their beliefs in more unfalsifiable terms (Experiment 3) and political partisans construe political issues as more unfalsifiable (“moral opinion”) instead of falsifiable (“a matter of facts”; Experiment 4). We conclude by discussing how in a world where beliefs and ideas are becoming more easily testable by data, unfalsifiability might be an attractive aspect to include in one’s belief systems, and how unfalsifiability may contribute to polarization, intractability, and the marginalization of science in public discourse.

As an sort of aside, just because a belief is unfalsifiable doesn’t mean that it’s false. A belief can be unfalsifiable but yet still be true. Falsifiability is a problem for epistemology, not ontology. For example, there’s no possible observation I can make where I’m not alive. So from my point of view, being alive is unfalsifiable.

Anyway, retreating to unfalsifiable beliefs once you feel you’re under attack seems like it’s a pretty good example of a Mott and Bailey tactic. If you recall, Mott and Baliey behavior, as Scott describes, is when:

I feel like every single term in social justice terminology has a totally unobjectionable and obviously important meaning – and then is actually used a completely different way.

The closest analogy I can think of is those religious people who say “God is just another word for the order and beauty in the Universe” – and then later pray to God to smite their enemies. And if you criticize them for doing the latter, they say “But God just means there is order and beauty in the universe, surely you’re not objecting to that?”

The result is that people can accuse people of “privilege” or “mansplaining” no matter what they do, and then when people criticize the concept of “privilege” they retreat back to “but ‘privilege’ just means you’re interrupting women in a women-only safe space. Surely no one can object to criticizing people who do that?”

So someone presents evidence that the type of god that the average religious person believes in doesn’t exist and a sophisticate rejoins with a completely unfalsifiable version of that god, saying that “of course” no one believes in the first type of god. But you can bet that once the sophisticate feels like they are no longer under attack, they will go back to believing in the “falsifiable” version of that god again.

So what we have here seems to be basic human psychology. When we feel threatened, we retreat to our Mott: The unfalsifiable version of our cherished belief(s). Maybe in the future we’ll read psychology articles about the Mott & Bailey Effect that describes people’s tendency to retreat to the unfalsifiable version of their beliefs when they feel like they’re under attack.

Related, if you want to try persuading someone, try to make sure they don’t feel like you’re attacking them.

(h/t Epiphenom)

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Posted by on February 8, 2015 in cognitive science, religion

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