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The Most Insidious Enemy of Truth

In my second post I wrote that in order to make a claim convincing we must justify it, and do so in accordance with to some basic principles. My assertions may have seemed obvious and intuitive enough: of course we cannot go around making claims about whatever we want with no justification and expect others to believe them. But while I think such a rational approach to belief is necessary to give our arguments epistemological structure, it omits the equally pertinent but unfortunate reality that belief is a messy business.

I challenge you now to think of even a single belief you hold (that has implications beyond your own experience) which you came to believe through a purely rational and structured process of justification of the sort I discussed in the earlier post. You may find it surprisingly difficult, and this difficulty reflects an important truth about the nature of belief: we rarely follow such a process to come to any belief whatsoever. I’ve already mentioned that we take many, if not most of our beliefs for granted from some kind of authority; but even those that need not (or should not, as I argued last time) be taken for granted in this way can be hijacked by what I consider the truth’s most insidious enemy: bias.

By definition, bias undermines our ability to justify our beliefs rationally by influencing us to to see, hear, and remember that which conforms to our preconceived ideas about reality. Bias enters our minds through our media, books, relationships, emotions, personal interests, upbringing, and personal identity, among other sources. These are all sources of intellectual influence that, in principle, have nothing to do with the justifiability of the beliefs themselves which they support.

Rather than write a small book about every manner in which bias affects our beliefs, let’s consider its effects on another subject which is comparable to religion in significant ways: politics. The analogy is perhaps more poignant today than ever; just think back on our most recent election cycle. If you yourself did not engage in any heated political disputes, you probably at least witnessed such an exchange. (Social media, to the agitation of many, was an excellent place to find them.) You probably noticed the tendency of these conversations to devolve into an emotionally charged shaming match in which neither side is able to get their ideas through to the other, no matter how clearly or reasonably they articulate their arguments. Neither side wants to cede any ground; even when its seems obvious that one side has lost and should give up, they seem to be willing to say anything—to employ even the most outrageous fallacies—just to cling to what they already believe… and they don’t even realize it!

The smallest amount of critical analysis reveals that this kind of discourse, this process of determining what is true and what is not, is not based on a cool, rational process of justification; there is something much deeper tugging at the strings of our beliefs—something more emotional, more irrational, more inscrutable.

But why is this analogy to political bias so relevant to our discussion about religion? There is a reason why it is said that religion and politics are the two subjects one should never discuss in mixed company. Both subjects seem to empower the greatest impetuses of bias that I mentioned above: they bear heavily upon our personal identities, upbringing, and experience. The same kind of bias that hijacks political disputes between staunch republicans and a democrats, for example, affects disputes between committed Christians and Muslims, Hindus and Buddhists, and so on. If you have ever tried to have a rational dispute with a believer of a different religion, you have probably already noticed this. (Unfortunately these conversations rarely happen because we too often consider it taboo to challenge another person’s religion.) It is easy to see bias in our opposition, but extremely difficult to see it in ourselves.

This is not at all to say that no political position can be more accurate than another, or that the existence of bias proves that all religions are false. I simply want us to acknowledge that we are all susceptible to it, especially when it comes to our religious beliefs (or lack thereof). It must be part of the conversation. Trying to find religious truth without acknowledging the power and inevitability of bias is like looking for buried treasure without a shovel. It is, unfortunately, a powerful and unavoidable fact of the human condition… You are biased. I am biased. The media is biased. The scientologists are biased. Your strange opinionated uncle is biased… Everyone is biased!

But if everyone is biased, what’s the point of talking about it except to say that we should all “be careful” to not let ourselves be influenced by it? Presumably, many people have already done that, yet we still all believe in different faiths. No—bias affects us in far more insidious ways than can be counteracted by simply “being careful,” or, “thinking harder about it”. So what can we do?

There is no “rational vacuum” where we can go to be completely free from bias, but there are methods of thinking that we can employ to counteract it. This is where I think the skeptical approach to knowledge (not the “atheist” approach per se) becomes helpful. Bias still plays a role, of course, but I think that epistemologically speaking, it is the best way to prevent us from holding false beliefs. I will explore what I mean by the “skeptical approach to knowledge” and how it counteracts bias in my next post… so don’t miss it!

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Two Powerful Reasons to Doubt Your Religion

In my last post I went over some basic epistemology, beginning with the basic assumption that all claims, in order to be convincing, must be justified—that is, they must be shown to be the most reasonable claim among all the alternatives.

One insightful reader, writing under the name “Philonius,” pointed out in the comments that the great majority of “every-day” beliefs go completely unjustified. For example, I believe that I was born on November 14th, 1994, but I have not justified that belief. I could, in principle, ask my parents to prove to me that I was born on that date, or check the hospital records, but practically speaking, it would be absurd to say that in order to put forward the claim that I was born on that date, I must first justify it in this way.

The same goes for claims in other realms of knowledge in which we are unable to justify claims directly including, for example, nearly everything we read in school textbooks. To claim that dinosaurs existed, we need not have dug up the fossils ourselves; to claim that George Washington was the first United States president, we need not have investigated the historical evidence as the history-writers did. We believe these claims, as well as our birthdates, the existence of places we’ve never been to, and many, many other basic claims purely based on the testimony of secondary sources.

Obviously this kind of justification, which we might call a practical trust in certain kinds of testimony, is not only rational but necessary. Not to take certain claims basic beliefs about ourselves and the world for granted would make it impossible to function normally in conversation and in society. (That said, this blog is meant to encourage critical thinking, a significant part of which involves determining which claims we can take for granted and which we should not.) But what about religion and the existence of God? Are these claims that we can take on the basis of testimony alone? There are a number of reasons why I think they are not, and two of them are worth mentioning explicitly at this point:

1) The stakes are infinitely high… and I’m not using the word “infinitely” hyperbolically. Belief in God and religion usually come with some belief about the afterlife—our permanent, eternal fate. If there is an afterlife that involves, as most major religions claim, the possibility of eternal suffering or eternal happiness; and if there is any possibility whatsoever that we could increase our chances of attaining the latter by believing in and acting upon the true religion; then we would have to be either insane or tragically ignorant not to do everything in our power to figure out which one, if any, is true and act according to it.

I find it incredible and perplexing how few people seem to contemplate this reality. I can’t resist a quick thought experiment to try to make the concept of eternity a bit more “real”: imagine that your fate, either your perfect happiness or perfect suffering, for the next 100,000 years—a length of time that already pushes the limits of our imagination—depends upon how many pushups you can do over the next 24 hours. How does that change the way you approach the next 24 hours? Would you not suddenly become the most enthusiastic push-up machine the world has ever seen? I certainly would.

Now, replace the 24 hours with your short lifetime, replace doing pushups with whatever the true religion says is required to attain happiness after death, and multiply the 100,000 years by infinity—not by 300 billion, or 10 to the power of 500 octillion, but infinity… The point here is not to capture the nature of eternity (which is non-temporal), but to communicate the infinite significance of what we are doing now, in the short life that we have, in terms of how it affects our eternal fate. Should we not be doing everything possible to ensure that we and everyone we care about make it to heaven (or its equivalent)? Is it not likely that determining which religion, if any, is the correct one will help towards that end?

2) There are many religions; only one of them can be true (or none of them). If there were only one religion that claimed to know the truth, the believers of that religion could more confidently assume that if the atheist is wrong, their religion can be taken for granted. But this is not the case. Theists should recognize that the majority of people in the world hold religious beliefs that compete with their own, and that most of these “others” are honest, intelligent believers who are as certain about their own religion as anyone else is about theirs.

Theists should ask themselves, “What is it about my particular religion that makes it the right one, and all the others the wrong ones?” This question demands a powerful answer: as I mentioned in my last post, it’s not enough to vindicate a claim by showing it to be reasonable; it must be shown to be the most reasonable among alternatives. The amount of competition, and the significant influence on religious belief by factors having nothing to do with the truth of the religions themselves (the subject of an up-coming post), raise the bar for justification of any particular religion extremely high.

We may all believe in contradictory accounts of JFK’s assassination, or whether GMO’s are healthy; but compared to the claims of religion, these issues are infinitely trivial. Given what we realize is at stake, the presence of so many competing religions and the difficulty of justifying any one of them against all the rest should awaken in every intellectually comfortable theist a sense of urgent skepticism and curiosity.

Looking back on these two reasons, I think they do more than show why religious belief should not be taken for granted; they give us good reason to actively scrutinize them. Do you agree?

Debating 101: Justifying Claims

One of the primary motivations for creating this blog was my observation of the tendency of many people, even famous intellectual atheists, to get caught up in the details of their opposition’s beliefs without ever examining or establishing the fundamental assumptions held by either party. As a result, they miss the opportunity to constructively exchange and engage with each other’s ideas. My first few blog posts will attempt to take a more prudent and structured approach to this complex debate.

To do this, we need to delve into some simple epistemology, which is the philosophical inquiry into how we know things. This kind of philosophizing may seem tedious and obvious at first, but if we clearly establish rules about how we should go about the conversation before we start, it will pay off in big ways once we get to discussing the actual content of our beliefs.

Let’s start with the following basic assertion: Every claim we make about reality must somehow be justified in order for us to accept it as true. It doesn’t matter what claim we make—whether we claim that smoking is unhealthy, that aliens exist, or that Elvis Presley is still alive—we must always do so with the understanding that in order to convince others that our claim is true, we must properly justify it.

But what does it mean to “justify” a claim? One might say it means demonstrating that it is reasonable. But if our goal is to actually convince our opposition that our claims are true and theirs are false then this will not suffice, for claims that can be shown to be reasonable are not necessarily always convincing. This we can deduce from the simple fact that one could judge several incompatible claims to be “reasonable,” yet since they are incompatible they cannot all be true.

For example, “life exists outside the solar system,” and “life does not exist outside the solar system,” might both be shown to be reasonable, yet we know only one of them can be true. In this example, most of us admit that we just don’t know which claim is true (yet), which is to say we are “agnostic” on the question of whether life exists outside the solar system. But for the kinds of mutually exclusive claims with which this blog will be concerned, like “God exists,” and “God does not exist,” I will proceed with the assumption that those who argue for either claim are not agnostic in the same way. In other words, we believe that our claims are actually convincing and ought to be believed, and are not just reasonable.

So justifying claims, for the purpose of this blog, will be synonymous with making them convincing. As we’ve shown, convincing someone entails more than demonstrating the claim to be one of several reasonable possibilities. Instead, to convince someone that a claim is true, one must demonstrate it to be the most reasonable among the possible alternatives.

But how does one go about justifying a claim (i.e. demonstrating that it is the most reasonable among alternatives)? We can agree that there are certain legitimate methods to justify claims: empirical and historical evidence, reason, logic, and personal testimony, to name a few. But how such methods should be applied in particular circumstances differ widely from person to person and claim to claim. There are also some methods of justification, such as “faith,” that both sides may not agree are legitimate. Because the methods we use to justify claims fundamentally shape our arguments, we must always critically examine what they are and whether or not we are using them legitimately.

Of course, what justifies a claim for one person will not always justify it to another. That’s ok. The point here is not to determine what precisely ought to convince someone that a claim is true in any situation; the complex nature of belief seems to me to render this question difficult if not impossible to answer definitively. Despite this limitation, there is one essential acknowledgement that I think we should all make: that the more extraordinary a claim is, the stronger the argument that should be required to justify it—“extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence,” the saying goes. For example, I could easily convince you that I went to the Grand Canyon by showing you a realistic photograph of myself at the Grand Canyon, but to convince you that I took a rocket to the moon would require far more than a photograph of me on the moon, no matter how realistic it looks.

We can begin to see how these epistemological ideas about justifying claims map onto the debate between theism and atheism. Theists and atheists make specific claims about reality that must be justified. But if we want to convince each other that our claims are true, we can’t just state our reasons for why we believe what we do and expect that to be enough. Rather, we must demonstrate why it is more reasonable to believe in our claims than any claims that disagree with our own. To do this we can use a variety of methods (empirical evidence, reason, logic, etc.), and which methods we deem legitimate and how we apply them are a fundamentally necessary component of the argument—for example, whether or not faith is a legitimate means of justifying belief in God and why is an essential question that we must address. Though we can’t definitively determine when a person “ought to be convinced” that the other side is right, we can acknowledge that extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and that we ought to justify them appropriately.

Do you think these are legitimate principles that should guide the rest of the conversation? Did I get something wrong? Did I leave something out?

It is essential to a productive and meaningful debate that we settle such questions now, or we will inevitably fall victim to the same kind of bickering that this blog was created to rise above. Let me know your thoughts.

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Skeptic’s Point: Introduction, Intentions, Invitation

“There is no God.”

 

This was the final line of an op-ed I wrote in my predominantly Catholic university’s newspaper in October of 2016 in the hopes of provoking greater engagement with the question of God’s existence on campus. It now marks the beginning of a new project that will pick up where that article left off, only this time with an infinitely wider audience: the internet.

 

I have grappled with the question of God’s existence ever since I was a young teenager. Though the skeptic in me eventually prevailed, my large Catholic family and small Catholic college never let the question escape completely from my mind; and like anyone who grapples with a particular challenge long enough, I have developed something of a passion for it. Surely if there is any big question worth investigating, it is this one? I can think of no subject with greater implications, philosophically speaking, on the way we understand the world and our place in it.

 

But as someone who cares about the question of God, I am frustrated by the senselessness of the discourse that commonly surrounds it, and that surrounds religion in general. Like politics, religion bears heavily upon personal experience and identity, which hinders our ability to analyze it intelligently. Neither believers nor nonbelievers seem to honestly wrestle with other perspectives, or scrutinize their own. We often get caught up in the details without examining fundamental assumptions. We fail to recognize external, non-rational influences of belief. We fall victim to silly fallacies. There is a general unwillingness to truly understand or meaningfully engage with the other side.

 

What we need is a new way to discuss God and religion that is based on sound reason, intellectual integrity, and genuine curiosity. As a philosophically inclined, ex-Christian skeptic who is part of a devout family and tight college community of believers and who is passionate about the subject, I have taken it upon myself to start that discussion by presenting my own skeptical point of view as honestly and effectively as I can.

 

Though I will argue, sometimes perhaps fervently, for my perspective, I will do so with an eye on the primary purpose of this blog: to encourage everyone, including myself, to think clearly and critically about what they believe in regards to God and religion. I am more concerned with how we think, not necessarily what we think. A change of mind on either side is unlikely, but for all those who honestly and intelligently engage with the opposition, a widening of perspective and a deepening of understanding is inevitable.

 

A few notes on how the blog will operate: I will write at least one “formal” post per week, with smaller posts throughout the week to respond to your thoughts and ideas, or to share a post from one of you. As for my own approach to the discussion, I do have specific points to make, but beyond that I intend to keep things open-ended. I will not restrict my arguments to any particular philosophical or religious version of God, though since I am an ex-Catholic and most religious readers will (I suspect) be Christian, I will probably lean in that direction. I mostly look forward to engaging with all of you in the comments and by email and seeing where the conversation leads us.

 

If you are content to remain complacent in your belief or lack thereof—if you feel that the questions of religion and God’s existence are unimportant—, Skeptic’s Point is not for you. For the rest of you: if you want to engage with your beliefs, to abandon your intellectual comfort zone, to challenge and be challenged… I believe you have come to the right place.
 
Welcome!

 

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Proceed to the next post.