Category Archives: self-deception

Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs. Intuition


This post begins with, what I would call, an easy dilemma:

If God did not exist, and this was known, should a person still believe in God?

Most people would probably say ‘no’ (there are some who would say ‘yes’). But the answer to that question isn’t the whole story. I guarantee that there is a version of that question where you would be willing to lay on the side of anti-truth for the good of morality.

What is your threshold for anti-truth? Are there any facts that are too dangerous to know? Are there some other things besides god-belief where it is virtuous to believe in the belief?

One of the downsides of having a brain designed by a blind idiot [me: Yaldabaoth?] is that said idiot hasn’t done a terribly good job with limiting input or anything resembling “robust filtering”. Hence that whole bias thing. A consequence of this is that your brain is not a trusted system, which itself has consequences that go much, much deeper than a bunch of misapplied heuristics. (And those are bad enough on their own!)

This gets to my favorite posts that I’ve written about The Thief and the Wizard (intuition vs. rationality), and the unreliable feeling of certainty. One of my now go-to little cocktail party intuition games is a short scenario that goes like this:

There’s a really beautiful woman at a bar. She’s nursing her drink, talking to the bartender. A really handsome man walks in and whispers in her ear. She laughs.

That’s it. Simple, right? Well, as I explained in my post The Thief and the Wizard linked above, your intuition takes something like the above italicized scenario and creates an elaborate story from it. I use the above to gauge what people’s intuitive – or biases for – standards of beauty are. What did your “beautiful woman” look like? Was she white? Indian? Black? Long hair? Short hair? Wearing a dress? Jeans? What kind of bar did you place her in? An upscale lounge-like place? A seedy juke joint? What about the handsome man? Et cetera.

(The most amusing output a friend of mine gave for this game was me as the “handsome man” and another girl at the party as the beautiful woman. Talk about bias lol.)

Because it’s intuitive, because it’s a bias, it’s automatic and unconscious. The same bias/immediate response for standards of beauty apply to much wider range of topics than the simple beautiful woman/handsome man tidbit above. What’s your standard of X CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC? What you learn about said topic unconsciously dictates how you react when placed in that scenario or discussions about that scenario. So there really might be facts that are too dangerous for the average person to know; at least without knowing about — and actively trying to overcome — bias.

If free will did not exist, and this was known, should a person still believe in free will?

Intuition plays a huge role in morality. Most of our moral judgements are intuitive judgements:

Greene and Singer give other examples of things that have no inimical effect on society are nevertheless rejected via intuition as immoral. Three examples are a man who masturbates with a grocery-store chicken before cooking and eating it, a woman who cleans her toilet with an American flag, and a man who reneges on a promise to his dying mother to visit her grave every week. Such judgments are instinctive—deontological and not consequentialist. They stem from an innate outrage that something is wrong. Yet their consequences for society are nil.

Why do we make such moral judgments about situations that have no negative consequences, and which we’d probably retract were we to think about them? All the authors think that instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution. But of course these judgments must then be justified. When pressed, people who think about the chicken-masturbation or grave-visitation scenarios think up reasons—often not convincing—why these behaviors are immoral. All three authors suggest that these post facto rules are examples of confabulation: making up stuff post facto to rationalize your instinctive feelings.

That’s that feeling of certainty rearing its ugly head again!

And that’s the kinda scary part. If certain facts can change someone’s intuitive responses to things, and intuition plays a huge role in moral judgements… and we tend to rationalize what conclusions our intuition arrives at unconsciously like any good apologist does… then maybe there are actually some facts that are too dangerous to know. And if there are facts that are too dangerous to know, this necessarily creates a rift between ontologically true facts, and morally/ethically true facts.

Anecdotally, a lot of people have a hard time distinguishing between description and prescription. Maybe if our education system were better about teaching critical thinking and not so much about guessing the teacher’s password we could teach both ontologically true facts and (possibly eventually) morally/ethically true facts; teach the difference between descriptive facts and prescriptive facts.

If black people or women were intellectually inferior to white people or to men, and this was known, should a person still believe that the races/sexes were equal?

If an ontologically true fact being widely known conflicts with a morally true fact, that is, if knowing some fact about reality conflicts with promoting the good of a society, what should the ones in power do? Would be be back to Plato’s Noble Lie?

At a party I was at a few months ago, for some reason the topic of conversation navigated towards the shortage of women in STEM fields. A female friend overheard the conversation and interjected “That’s a stereotype!”. It’s factually true that men outnumber women in STEM fields, but that wasn’t what her concern was. Her concern was the explanation for that fact and thus any sort of negative prescription from that description. She rejected her own inferential leap from the description of women being underrepresented in STEM fields to the explanation for why that was so (e.g. women aren’t as smart as men). I rejoined that no, it was not a stereotype and that it was a fact, but she left in a huff before I could explain that she was confusing the data for the hypothesis.

Her even thinking that women aren’t smarter than men — her own inferential leap based on that STEM fact — would be its own bias, and would even become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts:

People are aware of the stereotype that females have less aptitude at math and spatial skills than men. In fact, almost half of females endorse this stereotype. This awareness matters. When asked to imagine themselves as a stereotypical male, females perform much better on a mental rotation task than when they are not given such an instruction. Additionally, when women are asked to report their gender before taking a mental rotation test, they perform much worse on the test than if they identify themselves as a “private college student”.

So it’s possible that even knowing that women are less represented in STEM fields than men would prompt the inferential leap of my female friend and produce that limiting bias.

This inferential leap, confusing data for hypothesis, or conflating description with prescription, brings me back to the first question: If god didn’t exist, and this was known, should one still believe in god? I think a lot of theists are conflating description with prescription when attacking atheist over their nonbelief. Some of their underlying critique is an air of “why don’t you want god to exist?“. Sometimes this is even made explicit in many evolution vs. Creationism debates; Creationists reject evolution because of the moral implications of evolution. The same could be true of all other controversial topics e.g. free will; black vs. white IQ. Someone who argues that free will doesn’t exist could possibly be attacked by a non-insignificant number of detractors for the inferential leap of arguing that free will shouldn’t exist.

So what truth are you sacrificing for the good of morality? Of course I don’t know what mine is; I think by definition I can’t be aware of something that I have belief in belief about. That level of self-deception for the good of ethics is at a level of introspection I don’t have access to. A secret that my own intuition guards jealously. But a good first step is realizing the distinction between description and prescription and should always be kept in mind in order to overcome bias.


Are Science and Religion Compatible?


On the face of it, most people assume the positive, since there are religious scientists. Or because there are many scientific discoveries that were uncovered by religious people. Et cetera. But this is a massively simplistic view of the problem.

First of all, this phenomenon of religious scientists is, in my opinion, adequately explained by thinking of science, or the scientific method, as a sort of social ritual. In this view, the scientific method is just another social forum, like playing football. You don’t use the rules of football for religion, duh! That would make no sense; you don’t bring footballs to church and you don’t bring Jesus to the football field (unless you’re Tim Tebow…). Just like football has a bunch of rules designed only for playing football, religious scientists also believe that there are social rules for doing science. And again, you don’t bring the social rules, the agreed upon social contract for “doing science”, to church anymore than you bring the social rules for churchgoing to the lab.

Play the rules of the game — whether the scientific method or football — according to the letter, and you will be successful in that arena. Falsifiability is restricted to the domain of science just like not going offsides before the snap is restricted to the football field. So in this sense, religion is compatible with science just like religion is compatible with football.

Secondly, this papers over the pretty uncontroversial human activity of rationalization. Much like a vegetarian who eats meat but uses some rationalization to explain away why their meat eating isn’t inconsistent with their vegetarianism.

If my reasoning above is true, then they both explain why science and religion are “compatible”. Of course, this means “compatible” in only the most superficially coincidental ways. Much like being a nice guy is compatible with being a rapist. Of course, if my reasoning above is true, then this in and of itself means that science and religion are not compatible. Why? Because when we talk about compatibility, we means occurring at the same time at the same place. Religious scientists do not practice both religious thought and scientific thought at the same time because they consider them to be two separate social contracts; they’re no more compatible than oil and water. Just because you can have both oil and water in the same glass this doesn’t mean they’re compatible.

The pithy saying (and equivocation fallacy) “science tells us how the heavens go, religion tells us how to go to heaven” is itself a ringing endorsement of the bullshit idea that science and religion are compatible. Not only that, but as an aside, “heaven” is the translation of the word οὐρανός (ouranos) which was transliterated into Latin as Uranus. Which is how I feel about the whole thing ;-).

So really, if you want to bypass all of this argumentation when we get to the question of whether science and religion are compatible, instead of asking that question one should ask whether religious claims are falsifiable. If you say yes, then that answers your question of whether science and religion are compatible. If you say no, then this is also the answer to whether science and religion are compatible.

But if we look at the fundamental premises behind the epistemology of religiosity and the epistemology of the scientific method, there is a massive, irreconcilable contradiction.

Science, more than just assuming the natural, assumes reductionism. Big things can be broken down into their constituent parts and analyzed bit by bit. And then those constituent parts themselves can be further broken down, and those parts can be analyzed. The budding engineer who takes apart a radio or computer is assuming the necessary precursor for scientific thinking. Religion, on the other hand, is vehemently not reductionist. The fundamental particle in religious thought is not the quark, gluon, or Higgs-Boson. It’s the mind. Of course, this doesn’t apply wholesale to modern religions like Christianity but for older religious thought like animism. But Christianity still has the mind as the fundamental particle for living things.

So not only are science and religion incompatible, they will never be compatible due to reductionism. Unless and of course the mind actually is a fundamental particle instead of being an emergent property of the reducible brain.

Of course, I don’t think that science is just some sort of social ritual. I think things like falsifiability follows necessarily from the laws of logic. So religion isn’t just incompatible with science. It is incompatible with logic.


Why Faith Is Not A Virtue

Let’s look at a thought experiment to see what the nature of faith is.

Say you are in a steady relationship with a significant other. There have been the usual ups and downs of a relationship, but overall things are going pretty good. Let’s say, however, that one day you do the one thing that your significant other would possibly break up with you over. What do you do? Let’s say there’s no chance of them ever finding out. What now? Do you risk it and tell them, being honest? Or do you keep it from them, so that they remain faithful to you?

I admit this is a pretty tough decision. But what is underlying this is whether you simply want to possess the person, or if you love and respect them.

Actually, don’t even answer the question. Your particular character isn’t what I’m trying to point out here. What I would like to know is: What would a person who values [your] faith over everything else do in this situation? What will they do necessarily? That’s right; they would have no second guesses about lying to you to maintain your faith in them.

Now, what if there is no second party involed. No significant other. What if it is just you confronted with a decision to face something that might make you lose faith in someone/something or to ignore that thing? What would a person who values faith do? That’s right. They would have no qualms about lying to themselves to maintain their faith.

So what exactly is the difference between faith and self-deception? I don’t think there is any difference. If a person cares more about faith than honesty (or “the truth”) then any other option is necessarily some form of deception.

Hope vs. Faith

What about hope? Isn’t that the same thing as faith? Wouldn’t that mean that hope is also self-deception? Let’s look at another thought experiment to see if there is a subtle difference between the two.

You have just taken a math test. You’re not sure if you did well or did poorly. When you get back to your dorm, your roommate asks you how you did. How do you respond?

“I hope I did well on the test”. This, to me, seems like approaching the uncertainty about the math test from a point of humility. It acknowledges the doubt inherent in your uncertainty on the math test. It fully embraces the uncertainty. As in, “I hope I did well on the test, but I might not have”.

“I have faith I did well on the test”. This, to me, seems like approaching the uncertainty about the math test from a point of… well, no uncertainty at all. From an arrogant perspective; a perspective of [self] deception about the state of uncertainty you earlier had about the math test. 

Faith vs. Trust

If faith is such a negative virtue to me, how do I go about navigating the world and maintaining interpersonal relationships? The key difference is between faith and trust. Who are some of the people in your life that you can say that you trust? Chances are, these are people that you have known for a long time, and know their character very well. In essense, this sort of trust is an inductive inference.

Induction, in logic, is making a prediction about future behavior based on past behavior. Your buddy Joe has always been a person of integrity the entire four years that you’ve known him, so you can trust him to maintain his integrity the next time it is put to the test. He almost certainly will hold on to your prized collection of Star Wars die-cast collectibles while your apartment is being fumigated.

In essense, you can think of induction as a statistical argument. If Beth has gotten hammered 89% of the times that you two have went to the bar, the chances are the next time she goes to the bar with you she will get hammered. You can trust her to get completely wasted and have to carry her home.

Faith vs. Doubt

Some have said that faith seeks understanding. But after looking into the above thought experiments, I cannot see how this can be the case. Doubt, on the other hand – by its very nature – seeks understanding. Look at how all of our “knowledge seeking” statements begin: Who? What? When? Where? Why? How? These words are all “doubt” words. They are “uncertainty” words. “Question” words. Without these words, we would have no straightforward means of discovering knowledge about the world we live in.

Every single modern convenience is built on the foundation of doubt. This is because every single modern convenience follows from some sort of rigorous methodology, which only functions because of doubt. This is why there are peer-reviews, double blind studies, external controls, independent verification, etc. They are all predicated on the concept of doubt.

The entire school system is built on doubt. This is why we take tests. This is why we defend theses. We don’t get end of year exams because our professors have faith in us, we get end of year exams because of the concept of doubt. We don’t stand in front of boards and present an oral defense of our thesis because of faith. It is presented under the pretense of doubt.

We’ve been conditioned to think of doubt as a negative virtue. But doubt is the only reason why we even know anything to a high degree of certainty. Well, doubting and then testing; but we would never test something unless we doubted it first. Conversely, we’ve been conditioned to think of faith as an across the board positive virtue. But it isn’t. From the starting point of faith, we have no reason whatsoever to test something. This is because test implies doubting.

If I have faith that it is 9:31am, does this mean that I actually know what time it is? Would this faith prompt me to actually check the time? Of course not; actually checking the time implies doubt on my part.

“Embracing uncertainty is one of science’s great strengths–it allows new information to modulate judgments and correct mistaken beliefs. The skill is in distinguishing between what is certain and what isn’t (or at least what lies closer to one end or the other of that spectrum). Editorial, SCIENCE NEWS Dece. 4, 2010

A system built on doubt is a system that encourages self-correction. What system of self-correction is there in one predicated on faith? Self-correction itself implies doubt; I do not see how any faith system can self-correct without outside influence.

The Role Of Faith

It seems as though faith really only has currency in religious discussions. But why even allow it currency there? Liberal religionists try to distance themselves from their more fundamentalist or conservative bretheren. But would this even be necessary if faith was not seen as a virtue? Liberal religionists who recognize that faith is a virtue are the springboard for the fundementalists. “See?”, say the fundamentalists, “Faith is a virtue, and I am exercising my virtuousness just like you are”. It is only a difference in scale.

It seems the easiest way to rob the extremists of their power would be to remove the idea that faith has some sort of inherent value. Unfortunately, it seems as though even the most liberal religionists believe the same – so they would in effect be removing their only reasons for believing. Faith is the common thread between the liberal and fundamentalist religionist.

As long as faith is seen as a virtue, we can continue to encounter people who think that faith based actions such as 9/11 are virtuous.

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Posted by on January 12, 2011 in faith, self-deception

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