Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Interpretive Dissonance

I've noticed recently how sure everyone seems to be that their worldview- and all necessary conclusions flowing from that worldview- are correct.  And I've noticed that after a worldview makes a truth claim about reality, adherents of that worldview act as if this claim is unavoidable, inevitable, and unquestionable.  They act- and worse, argue- as if this claim stands on its own, and is not derived from or dependant on their particular worldview.

I'm calling this phenomenon Interpretive Dissonance, because it's advocating that we take as an axiom a truth claim that was arrived at only after the facts had been looked at.  It's a reversal of the proper order of reasoning- going from "I believe A, which implies B" to "B is axiomatically true, therefore A must be true because it implies B".

For example, I recently had a conversation with one of my fundamentalist evangelical friends where I asked her if she  had ever considered Catholicism.  She told me she could never be a Catholic because "Catholics don't see the relationship with Jesus as personal.  They think you need to go through a priest and through Mary to get to God."  Now, leaving aside the question of whether or not this is accurate to Catholic theology, what was really interesting to me was this presumption that the only conceivable God of the universe would be her specific conception of a personal, relational God with Jesus as the go-between.  It struck me was that the question in her mind wasn't "is Catholicism true?", but rather "does Catholicism conform to my current beliefs?"  She had this idea that God must be personal, and (her understanding of) Catholicism didn't fit that arc- so she rejected Catholicism out of hand, before even considering that it might actually be true.

Not too long ago, I got into a debate about gay marriage with an old Bible teacher of mine.  I am happy to listen to arguments against gay marriage (or homosexuality in general), and there are some decent ones (mostly centered around the natural law and preserving same-sex friendship).  His position, however, was that the old testament explicitly set up the idea of "traditional" marriage Christianity advocates for today.  I pointed out that, in the Old Testament, Eve is created as an afterthought to Adam, only once no other suitable partner could be found, and further that pretty much the entirety of the Old Testament promotes polygamy (and, in many cases, keeping a harem of concubines) as the proper ordering of sexual relationships.  But he had reached this conclusion- that heterosexual monogamous marriages are the proper expression of human sexuality- and flatly could not conceive of a reality where this was not true.  He had interpreted the New Testament and modern Protestant teaching (both of which do give a legitimate basis for "traditional" marriage) and was convinced that the Old Testament must not only be compatible with, but actually advocate for this same teaching.  He wasn't looking at evidence and arriving at a conclusion, he was starting from the conclusion and working his way back to how to interpret the evidence.

But I think the most obvious incarnation of Interpretive Dissonance is in the Christian idea of needing a savior.  I've been told repeatedly that I need to "recognize my need for a savior", and that my rejection of Christianity is really just a prideful rejection of my need to be saved.  But here's the thing- the conclusion of our need for a savior comes only after our conclusion on the character and nature of God.  I freely admit that if the Christian worldview is true, I absolutely need a savior- I am a sinner more than most.  But it's ludicrous to say that I need a savior a priori to deciding what I believe about God.  It's crazy to say that our knowledge of reality is so precisely calibrated that the only conception of God that could possibly exist would be one that sent his son as a savior for mankind.  I have no problem with people who find that theology the most compelling, but I have a huge problem with people who assume I secretly agree with them.

I think there's a really easy proof against this a-priori-savior concept. Consider the people who lived before Christ.  These people lived in the same world as us, but there was no savior yet.  The necessity of a physical, relational, personal savior can't be an ontological imperitive, unless you're claiming a rational human being in this period would arrive at the conclusion without divine revelation that a savior must be coming in the future.  Other religions talk about needing to be saved/forgiven/recieve grace from God (notably Islam, which basically says it's God's volitional forgiveness that gets believers into heaven, since no human acts are good enough), and there's nothing about reality that inherently requires a physical human incarnation of God to act as our eternal savior.  That may be the most compelling narrative- and it may in fact be true- but a claim that it is necessary is either a claim of divine revelation of its necessity, or a claim of a complete and unflawed understanding of the character, nature, and choices of God.

I've found Interpretive Dissonance to be really common among evangelicals, but this is by no means a flaw unique to protestants, or even unique to the religious. For example, I've been really disappointed with the response to Leah's conversion. Scant few of the comments I've read have been reasonable objections to her epistemology or challenges to specific Catholic beliefs. Mostly, it's been condescending Catholics playing the "a real search for truth always leads to Catholicism" card, and frighteningly dogmatic atheists railing against the stupidity of religion. Both groups (definitely not everyone involved, but a significant portion) are taking this position that the other side is absolutely nuts. They don't seem interested in looking at the evidence and seeing where it leads, but rather have decided where the evidence should lead, and are going to interpret the evidence in such a way, no matter what the evidence is.

And that's the real problem with Interpretive Dissonance.  It stops asking the question "is this true?" and starts trying to conform evidence to the hypothesis.  It's every bad scientific and statistical methodology rolled into one.  Once we believe something to be true, we shouldn't be locked into it to the point where everything we see must support that conclusion.  All that is is a recipe for believing  in perpetuity the first thing that happens to clear our Bayesian threshold.  It's OK to have conflicting evidence.  In fact, any position that reasonable people disagree on should have conflicting evidence.  If you legitimately don't see the conflicting evidence in the cases where reasonable people disagree (even within your own worldview), then you probably need to jettison your interpretive practice, because you're doing it wrong.

I do want to be clear that I'm not advocating that everyone "play nice and get along".  These are important questions, and we should be trying to convince each other of what we think the truth is.  But we need to do it by rationally weighing the evidence the other side presents and actually updating our priors when we find good evidence in either direction

Finally, in the interest of using actual scientific terminology, I should point out that the idea I'm trying to get at with Interpretive Dissonance is really some combination of anchoring bias, the backfire effect, confirmation bias, the observer-expectancy effect, and (most directly) belief bias.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Holy Unexpected Development Batman!

So, Leah's a Catholic

I have to be honest- I'm not shocked by this.  Surprised, absolutely- I did not wake up this morning thinking the next Unequally Yoked post I read would be in Patheos' Catholic portal.  But Leah has held what I consider internally inconsistent beliefs for quite some time (and she knew it).  I've been quite vocal about the fact that I can't rectify virtue ethics (or really any other ethical system) and the materialism I think necessarily follows from Atheism, so I'm not surprised that someone who I agree with a lot couldn't rectify them either.  She's just a lot more sure of the former than I am.

That said, this is a staunch departure from some of her comments as recently as 8 months ago.  I'm really interested to see how she goes about dealing with all of the reasons she's given in the past for why Catholicism isn't compelling to her.

In point of fact, she seems concerned with much different features of religion than I am- she is concerned mostly with morality and telos, whereas I spend a lot more time looking at the less attractive parts of various religions (like the Old Testament, or the Buddhist doctrine of detachment, etc.) under the assumption that if you reject one pillar of a given religion, you must reject the entire religion.  I don't know that one method is categorically better than the other, but I am really interested to see how she defends her new position.

Ultimately, I'm really excited for Leah.  I legitimately hope she's found truth- but even if she hasn't, this will be a tremendous learning experience for her (My understanding is that she's a cradle Atheist, but I could be wrong there).  I obviously don't think she's right- at least not at the moment- but I've read enough of her blog to be convinced that she is legitimately looking for truth.  And if her search for truth has lead her down a path that I don't quite agree with, then at the very least it should be taken as a clue to me to take the position seriously.

I know from personal experience how hard a conversion can be.  You need a certain level of intellectual honesty to admit that you've been wrong your whole life.  For someone as well known and influential as her, I'm sure it was even more difficult than I realize in light of the reaction she knew her hundreds of Atheist readers would have. That takes a great deal of moral fortitude.

I'll certainly be challenging her on her new beliefs in the coming months, but for today, I'll just say good for her.  I don't agree with her conclusion, but I do agree with the way she went about getting there- and I'm definitely rooting for her.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

Ideological Turing Test Complete! ... you failed.

So, it turns out I don't make a very convincing Atheist or a very convnicing Christian.

Unequally Yoked recently concluded it's (annual?) Ideological Turing Contest.  You can find the preliminary Athiest results and Christian results posted already, with a promise of more in depth statistcal analysis on the way (I can't be the only one who gets excited at the words "statistical analysis", can I?).  And if there is such a thing as a winner and loser (it is a contest, after all), I most certainly lost (twice).  I was the only entrant who scored below 50% both in my real answer and my fake answer (no, that's not pride you hear in my voice).

First, a brief description of my strategy: for my Athiest entry, I tried to describe reality as I see it if Atheism is true.  I can't really be upset that most people found it not very compelling- I don't find it very compelling myself.  But I do find it the most internally consistent.

What did surprise me- though I suppose it shouldn't- is how many people thought I was a Catholic.  Certainly I've done a fair bit of religious reading over the last several months, so some of the Catholic verbiage has probably entered my vocabulary through Osmosis (references to "Authority" and Chesterton's "truth-telling thing" ostensibly gave me away as a Catholic sympathizer).  But I think my real problem is that I didn't present Atheism as a compelling framework that anybody would ever want to believe in- and that's because I legitimately don't think it is.

For my Christian entry, I made the monumental mistake of trying to immitate a fundamentalist evangelical.  I had some good reasons for doing this- I grew up in fundamentalist evangelical Christianity, the vast majority of my friends are fundamentalist evangelicals, and I frankly didn't think I could hack it as a Catholic immatator.  I don't know any of the cool Latin phrases, and I was afraid I'd be given away when I launched into a paragraph-long explanation of why we can't rely on scripture in a vacuum, not realizing that a real Catholic would reference sola scriptura in any such discussion (hey look, I do know one!)

That said, I really should have realized a couple of flaws in my diabolical plan. 

First, I no longer think like a fundamentalist.  That different type of thinking is what led me to reject it in the first place, and it's only gotten worse in the last three years as I've stopped going to church and Bible study regularly.  For every question, I tried to ask myself "what would my friend so-and-so say to this?", but it turns out I failed pretty miserably at that.  While I don't think my answers were necessarily too far off from what my fundamentalist friends believe, they're waaaaaaay off from what my fundamentalist friends would have answered (this came out pretty clearly in the comments section of my Christian post.)  I care about really different issues than most fundamentalists, and I got caught red handed.

Second, there's not a lot of fundamentalists on Unequally Yoked.  I tend to think that a legitimate fundamentalist answer would not have done particularly well either (though this is pure speculation on my part)

Third, I apparently no longer know how to talk like a fundamentalist either.  Even in trying to answer in the voice of my fundamentalist friends, some Catholic ideas wormed their way in (I blame Jennifer).  In particular, the idea of the Church as a truth-telling thing once again reared its ugly head (though interestingly, Chesterton has been recommended to me by several pastors/friends/relatives who are decidedly not Catholic- and for the record, I have read Orthodoxy, but nothing else from Chesterton.  The Everlasting Man currently sits gathering dust on my shelf, 15th or so in line)

In retrospect, I wish I had either tried my hand as a Catholic (though I suspect I woul have done just as poorly), or else given my best approximation of reality if God is in fact real.  At least that would have made for a more interesting read.  Instead, I tried to tow a party line, and didn't do it particularly well.

Finally, I proffer two quotes from the comments I thought were worth mentioning:

"Plus, like math_geek says, an even moderately educated Christian would have talked of homosexual behaviour rather than homosexuality per se"

This one actually really surprised me.  I lived my whole life in fundamentalist Christianity, and this was (obviously) not drilled into me nearly so well as readers thought it would have been.  Not sure if this is a reflection of my upbringing, or of the unequally yoked community, or of how far I've lost touch with my Christian roots.  Regardless, an interesting introspective for me.

"Totally atheist. Probably just about died writing the words “I wouldn’t defer to any holy book that advocated violence or oppression.""

This one made me laugh.  He's correct in saying I don't agree with this stance- but in all my conversations with my fundamentalist friends, the majority of them definitely believe this.

I really like Eve Tushnet's conclusion on this- humility humility humility!  Even though I like to think I have a pretty good idea of all the major players at the table, it's pretty clear- both from the degree of difficulty this assignment presented me and from how objectively poorly I did at convincing people I was playing for their side- that I don't understand nearly so much as I think.

Big thanks to Leah for running the turing test, and for letting a schmuck like me have a go.  I wish I could say I would do better next time- maybe she could add an agnostic category.  I think I'd nail that one.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Making Predictions

I'm a huge fan of making testable predictions.  There are several reasons why it's important that beliefs we have (particularly beliefs that are important enough for us to act on) make predictions.

First, if a prediction comes true, it means that in this specific case, the world behaves as if our model is correct.  That's not the same as saying that our model actually is correct, but as we accumulate more and more instances of reality behaving as if our model is true, we become more and more confident that our model is at least a good approximation of reality.

Second, beliefs that make predictions are allowing themselves to be falsified.  This is either a sign of great confidence, or a desire to find truth, even at the expense of preference.  I don't trust anything that doesn't allow itself to be falsified.  If there is no set of evidence that could contradict a given position, then that position cannot be rationally held (I speak here of "evidence" in the broadest sense.  For the purposes of metaphysics, personal experience can count as evidence too)

Third, any model fuzzy enough to explain any conceivable evidence isn't actually making any claims about reality.  And any model that doesn't make claims about reality just isn't very useful.  The geo-centric model is a good example here.  As planetary orbits were observed, the data flat out didn't fit with a geo-centric model.  So, people made up increasingly complex orbits, where planets were looping around themselves, to explain the observed data.  The theory was no longer predicting results and then observing outcome, rather it was changing its underlying assumptions based on the data it observed.  Not terribly useful for anyone who wanted the model to generate any information that wasn't already known about reality.

Ex post facto predictions are sort of a can of worms- since we all know what reality is actually like, we all have a tendency to try to explain how and why our belief system would have predicted reality to be this way.  Often times we feel that if we admit that our model would make predictions that we don't see in reality, that's tantamount to admitting that our model isn't true (I don't think this is the case at all, since its possible, even likely, that we just don't understand all the ramifications of our model.)  Hindsight predictions suffer from a lot of rationalization, so they don't make great scientific tools.  However, I still think it's an interesting excercise to talk about what we think a given model of reality would predict, a priori to actually experiencing that reality.

That are really three questions worth answering in the context of this blog:
1. What would we expect a hypothetical world without God to look like? 
2. What would we expect a hypothetical world with God to look like?
3. What does the world actually look like?

1. What would we expect a hypothetical world without God to look like?

If God is not real, I would not expect life to exist.  Much, much more likely to me would be a universe of inanimate matter (or no universe at all).  However, given that life does exist (particularly the complex life we observe to exist), we would expect there to be a reasonable way life could have arisen, propogated, and grown in complexity.  We find exactly that in evolution- and we find good evidence that it has actually happened.  I would expect that the universe, and the earth, would have existed for billions of years to allow time for evolution to progress far enough to give us the current level of complexity.  We find exactly that as well.  I would also expect life to have arisen on other planets in the universe.  Surely it is too much to think that there is exactly one habitable planet in the universe, or that of all the habitable planets, one and only one actually generated life.  Unfortunately, we are a long way away from exploring the billions of planets in the universe (and unless we flip physics on its head and discover a way to travel faster than light, we will never get there).  However, if we do someday find life on other planets, this seems like a death knell for religion (although some claim that Islam predicts extraterrestrial life forms)

If God is not real, I would not expect conciousness to exist.  Even if we admit that life could arise without divine intervention, it's a staggeringly long way to go from a biological machine to a self aware moral agent.  The very fact that we question why we're here, that we even have the faculties to look for purpose, is something I would never have predicted from a Atheistic universe.

If God is not real, I would not expect morality to matter in the slightest.  We may speak of evolutionary psychology and us being social animals- and these do a decent job of explaining things after the fact- but there's absolutely no way I would have predicted that.

If God is not real, I would not expect guilt to exist.  As social animals, it makes sense that we would need something to curtail our selfish desires in favor of what benefits society.  But guilt seems to be a horrible mechanism to accomplish this.  It's an after-the-fact disappointment in our own behavior, but it's not very good at stopping us from doing the bad behavior in the first place (at least it's not for me.  Perhaps others have had a different experience).

If God is not real, I would expect cheaters, liars, and selfish people to succeed disproportionally to the rest of society.  To have a functioning (read: evolutionarily stable) society, you need to have some critical mass of people willing to play by the rules.  If you don't, then the social fabric will break down, and the resulting free-for-all is detrimental to the survival of all individuals within that group.  But, presuming you have enough of those people, there's a clear survival advantage for those willing to break the rules if the payout is good enough.  This seems to be what we observe in reality- there are lots of corrupt rich people (But perhaps we just hear about the corrupt ones?  Perhaps rich people actually are more honest, as a percentage, than non-rich people?).

If God is not real, I would expect worldly success to yield greater happiness.  Evolutionarily speaking, people should be hardwired to not be happy in low social standing, and to be happy (though vigilant) in high social standing.  This does not seem to be the case- the affluent seem to manufacture artificial problems for themselves, while the destitute often maintain a happy lifestyle.  The things we want are not the things that make us happy.  This market inefficiency should not exist in a world of evolution.

2. What would we expect a hypothetical world with God to look like?

There are actually two cases here- one is that God is real and wants us to know the specifics about him.  The other is that God is real and doesn't really care if we know anything about him.  Since pretty much all religions deal with the first case, that's the position I'll be assuming.

If God is real, I would expect it to be obvious.  It isn't.  Not only is his very existence not obvious, but even if we were prepared to take God's existence as a brute fact, it's not clear which if any of the hundreds of versions of God humanity has come up with is correct.  The fact that there is no dominant religion, some 1500 years after most of the major religions have been formulated, is totally unexpected.

If God is real, I would expect people to share a common base of morality.  C.S. Lewis makes a big deal out of the argument from natural law, but the more I've thought about it and the more I've read about it, it seems that we humans have wildly divergent beliefs about what is right and what it wrong.  Individual freedom, the value of human life, gender equality, anti-slavery sentiment, gay rights- all of these are relatively modern ideals.  We don't share a common morality with our forefathers, we don't share a common morality with our neighbors in the Middle East, and we don't even share a common morality with the various other religious groups in our own modern industrialized countries.  If there is an objective moral standard, our view of it seems totally inadequate to be making any even remotely difficult moral judgements.

If God is real, I would expect love to exist.  Particularly if God is real and deemed humanity worth creating, love- the interaction of two totally foreign beings somehow yielding an intimate relationship- seems like the engine that drives it all.  This is exactly what I find in reality (Perhaps it's too strong to say that a God-based reality would predict love, since love is a little bit absurd.  Let's say instead that it fits the framework amazingly well, admittedly after the fact)

If God is real, I would expect living things to have a consciousness.  You can't love if you aren't aware.

If God is real, I would expect only beings with a moral consciousness to exist.  I would not expect ants, mice, bats, birds, lions, or even apes to exist.  Why create a complicated biological machine that does not fulfill the purpose of love?  But we do find such machines, and we don't hold them accountable as moral agents

If God is real, I would not expect evolution.  Why go to all the trouble of creating just the first life, and letting it morph and mutate over the next 3 billion years- especially if you're capable of snapping your fingers and making it happen?  But we find excellent evidence for evolution.

If God is real, I would expect him to be living and active.  This is not living and active in the way some Christians mean- God working all things behind the scenes for the good of those who love him- but rather obvious, apparent, and actively intervening in every day life.  I would expect God to engage humanity in a relationship, and a relationship is necessarily bi-directional.  Having a bunch of puny humans sing some songs isn't a relationship.  If God wanted to be friends, if he wanted to be a ruler, if he wanted to be a confidant, he could be any of these things- but my experience in reality is that he acts as none of them.  Or rather, any one human conception of God works just as well for these purposes as any other human conception, and it's impossible to distinguish, in practice, the role of Allah in the Muslims life from the role of Yahweh in the Christians life.  They believe different things about their Gods, but they believe it on essentially the same kinds of evidence.  If one were real and the other false, I would expect one to be a demonstrably better relationship- and therefore one religion absolutely wiping the floor with the other.  And that's not what we see in reality.

If God is real, I would expect holding to moral principles to matter.  I would expect kind, generous people to be successful, and crude, selfish people to fail.  This does not always (or even often) seem to be the case.

3. What does the world actually look like?

I am surprised, in writing this post, that this is the question I'm getting stuck on.  I honestly see two different worlds, depending on which lens I look through.  I see one world where morality and justice prevail; a sort of karmic rightness, at least on a large scale.  I see another where people who lie and cheat and steal get ahead.  I see a world where love matters, where people overcome the baseness of their humanity to do amazing (and often self-sacrificing) things.  I see another where idealistic dependance on love strangles a right view of reality; we are born alone and we die alone, and everything else will eventually be stripped away.

I don't think I've made any real progress here- I still see the existence and complexity of humanity, purpose, love, etc. as the primary problem for Atheism, and I still see the existence of other religions with equally staunch adherents as the primary problem for any organized religion.  But I am curious if anyone disagrees with me about what predictions these world views would actually make a priori.