Good Reason

It's okay to be wrong. It's not okay to stay wrong.

Category: perception (page 2 of 4)

I’m in the Trib.

Well, hot dog. Good Reason has been noticed by the Salt Lake Tribune, with a snippet of the ‘Flame-Retardant Tabernacle Jesus‘ post appearing within its august pages.

Not everyone was so impressed. Former Utahn Daniel Midgley, an ex-Mormon atheist who writes the blog Good Reason — — argued that those who find anything miraculous in the fire are “cherry-picking” the facts.

“One might wonder why the Mormon god would allow a church building to be destroyed by fire as he watches, pitiless and indifferent to human affairs,” Midgley wrote. “One might even wonder what message he intends to send. Perhaps an Old Testament-style message of anger and vengeance! The fire and destruction symbolic of the wrath to come. … But wait! It’s a Christmas miracle!”

In Midgley’s view, those who saw God’s hand in the scarred painting of Christ were using the same sort of broken logic that would allow some to see a “miracle” in a plane crash in which hundreds die and one person survives. Believers are quick to make such connections, Midgley wrote, “because in the face of disaster, there are only two possible outcomes — either your faith is boosted or your faith is boosted more. You have to admire their optimism, at least.”

I like the sound of ‘Former Utahn’, but does it count if you were only going to BYU? Will my LDS relatives notice my name and discover I’m an ex-Mormon atheist? Of course not. They all read the Deseret News.

Anyway, a big hello to all Tribune readers! I hope you either chortle with unholy mirth, or are offended. Either way, have a look around and comment if you wish.

The role of disgust in opinion-forming

How do we go about forming opinions? As for me, when a moral or political decision comes up, I rationally sit down, weigh up the pros and cons of the options, and take the view that I think is best based on the evidence.

No, just kidding. I probably do it the other way around like everyone else. Form a snap opinion, and then hunt around for evidence to justify it. I don’t like the idea that this is how we operate, but it’s probably true all the same.

My first experience with political opinion-forming was the US election in 1972. My entire Republican family was voting for Nixon, but I thought I’d vote for McGovern. I didn’t even know what voting was. I’d seen the primaries, and I thought that when you voted, you had to go and stand next to your candidate so they could count you. There I imagined my family, standing with Nixon (with his fingers in ‘V for Victory’ pose), while on the other side of the room it was just George and five-year-old me. Why did I take the view I did? Why did they? I don’t know, but it is funny that no one in my family has changed voting patterns since then.

Sometimes my opinions lead on from prior opinions, or from values that I have, but where did they come from? I can’t say it’s anything more conscious than my ‘voting’ for McGovern all those years ago. I’ve often suspected that my opinions are based on some tendency, a leaning one way or the other that tips other decisions. But what tendency? Looking out for in-group v sympathy for out-group? Fearful or fearless? Authoritarian or democratic? Or something more primal?

New research highlights the role of simple ordinary disgust.

This is the argument that some behavioral scientists have begun to make: That a significant slice of morality can be explained by our innate feelings of disgust. A growing number of provocative and clever studies appear to show that disgust has the power to shape our moral judgments. Research has shown that people who are more easily disgusted by bugs are more likely to see gay marriage and abortion as wrong. Putting people in a foul-smelling room makes them stricter judges of a controversial film or of a person who doesn’t return a lost wallet. Washing their hands makes people feel less guilty about their own moral transgressions, and hypnotically priming them to feel disgust reliably induces them to see wrongdoing in utterly innocuous stories.

Psychologists like [Jonathan] Haidt are leading a wave of research into the so-called moral emotions — not just disgust, but others like anger and compassion — and the role those feelings play in how we form moral codes and apply them in our daily lives. A few, like Haidt, go so far as to claim that all the world’s moral systems can best be characterized not by what their adherents believe, but what emotions they rely on.

Primal emotions as atoms in the periodic table of our moral chemistry. Maybe these simple reactions are too simple to explain the complex range of opinions that grow out of them, but if opinion-forming goes back to something simpler, then disgust seems like a good candidate. I’ll be looking forward to more of this research.

Revelation is not good evidence

I had an exchange with a Mormon friend a little while ago. His interesting but ultimately vacuous argument went something like this:

“You say you rely on evidence for the things you believe. But you’re only relying on physical, tangible evidence. You’re not relying on spiritual evidence, and so you’re only getting part of the picture. I’m using the full range of evidence available to us.”

My response is two-fold:

1) There is no empirical evidence for the claims of religion, including the existence of a god, the reality of an afterlife, or various details such as a Tower of Babel, gold plates, or Lamanites. The key doctrines of religious belief systems are either unsupported by evidence, or refuted by evidence. (Occasionally a religion will teach a principle that turns out to be valid — the Mormon prohibition on smoking seems worthwhile on its face — but these are things that could have occured to someone without requiring revelation.)

2) What my friend was calling ‘spiritual evidence’ is actually not good evidence at all. I think he was referring to something Mormons call ‘personal revelation’ — messages that people think they’re getting through prayer.

This is not a good way of finding out what’s true. How you feel about a proposition has nothing to do with whether it’s true or not. You can feel great about things that are completely false. Yet this method is at the very heart of the Mormon conversion experience — and other forms of Christianity also place an emphasis on emotional reasoning.

Let’s take a step back and see how this plays out in LDS missionary work.

LDS missionaries encourage investigators to ‘experiment upon the word‘. And the experiment that they propose is that you can pray and receive answers about the truth of their message telepathically from a god.

They rely on a scripture from the Book of Mormon, Moroni 10:4, which says to ask God, and the Holy Ghost will tell you if it’s true. By doing this, the missionaries commit the fallacy of begging the question — they claim that a god will tell you that the religion is true, but the existence of said god is the very premise under consideration.

And how does the Holy Spirit let you know?

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, goodness, faith,

Meekness, temperance: against such there is no law.

That’s a pretty big list of fruits. Almost any feeling could qualify as a confirmation, especially if that’s the conclusion you want to come to, and you wouldn’t be asking if you didn’t have at least a glimmer of hope that it was true.

It should be obvious that this is not a real scientific experiment, and not just because it falls back on supernatural explanations.

  • Scientific experiments use evidence that is empirical — involving sense data that could be observed by anyone
  • Experiments try and control for bias
  • Experiments are replicable — anyone can repeat the experiment, and they should get about the same result. Ideas are verified by multiple points of view.

But so-called personal revelation doesn’t follow these controls.

  • Your feelings can’t be directly observed by other people. That makes it impossible to evaluate someone else’s religious claims, and that means that religious people have to ‘agree to disagree’ when they get conflicting revelations.
  • There’s no way to tell whether the feeling you’re getting is a real live revelation from a god, something from your own mind, or (worse) a temptation from an evil spirit, if you go for that. Or Zeus, Krishna, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It’s easy to distinguish between two competing natural claims, but it’s impossible to distinguish between two competing supernatural claims.
  • A scientific experiment attempts to control for bias, but here, the missionaries are subtlely biasing their subjects by telling them what they should expect to feel. It’s sort of like when you’re playing records backwards for satanic messages — it’s hard to tell what the message is until someone gives you the words.
  • The goalposts for this test are defined very vaguely and can be shifted. A confirmation can be ginned up out of the most meager of subjective data — or no data at all. Many are the members who ask for a revelation, get none, and continue in the church anyway, figuring that if they have real faith, they don’t need a spiritual confirmation. It’s a hit if you have good feelings, and hit if you don’t.
  • In a real experiment, we would try to account for both positive and negative results. But here, no attempt is made to add negative results to the sample. People who report a positive result show up in church, but people who get no result don’t, and are effectively deleted from the sample. In fact, if someone doesn’t get a revelation, it’s assumed that they are to blame for not being ‘sincere’ or trying hard enough. They are encouraged to repeat the test until they get a result that the experimenter will like.
  • Worse still, once someone is convinced that they’ve received a message from a god, Latter-day Saints then make a series of logical leaps to show that the whole church is true, from the Book of Mormon to Joseph Smith to Thomas Monson and beyond. All from good feelings and not from anything solid.

Not everyone is convinced by this test, but the church doesn’t need everyone to buy it — just enough people to keep the system going. And I can tell you from personal experience that when you think you’ve been touched by the divine, it can be very difficult to balance that against real evidence. No good evidence is going to come out of this kind of test. This is not a valid experiment. It is a recipe for self-deception. It is just asking to be fooled.

Illusion of the Year 2010

How do you get a ball to roll uphill?

This fascinating device won first prize for Best Illusion of the Year, held by the Neural Correlate Society. The other illusions are great too.

I love optical illusions. They make me say, “Wow, I must have had some really bad assumptions back there.” We do the best we can with our pretty-good brains.

Tone trolls

I don’t know what it is about atheism, but we sure do get a lot of tone trolls. A ‘tone troll‘ is like a concern troll, but is especially concerned about the lack of civility in the discourse. The tone troll wants everyone to be nice. That, and to make everyone else be the same kind of atheist that he is.

I’ve had to deal with atheist tone trolls, and even a theist tone troll or two. Here’s how this plays out.

Atheist tone troll: Atheism can be polarising. Don’t make it ‘us’ vs. ‘them’ — they’ll only resist us harder. We need to take a more conciliatory approach. We need to work together with people on issues where we agree.

That’s a good aim. If someone wants to take that approach, I think that’s fine. We need more ‘nice atheists’.

But we also need ‘mean atheists’ like me, who take opportunities to call out religious foolishness with ridicule and a sledgehammer, and who explain about good reasoning and critical thinking. (Of course, you pick your battles, and sometimes the best thing is to say nothing. I don’t always walk around in my stomping boots, but I’m not afraid to pull ’em on if I think the time is right.)

Think of these approaches as complementary. Or perhaps evolutionary. We don’t know what will work in each case, so let’s try everything. I want lots of atheists putting the heat to religion in all kinds of ways. Mockery, sympathy, calumny, there’s no wrong way to do it.

The wrong thing to do, however, is wring one’s hands in dismay, and lecture other atheists on how they’re doing it wrong. Oh, my ears and whiskers! How teddibly uncivil! Theists will never agree with us if we challenge them! (See also: ‘I’m an atheist, BUT…’)

Well, frankly, not challenging them doesn’t do much to move their opinion either. How well did not challenging them work for the last 50 years? Dumping your religion and becoming an atheist is hard. What could possibly be the impetus for someone to do it if all they hear is comforting church hymns, along with the song of the non-confrontational atheist? I know people don’t like hearing that their religion is wrong. But I do say it from time to time because I think it’s important to keep pushing the Overton Window in that direction. I don’t know whether my sledgehammer wakes people up, or whether it just attracts the newly awakened, but more and more people are becoming aware of the absurdities of religion, and we’re forming a vibrant and noisy community of non-believers.

I also had to deal with a theist tone troll once. It went like this:

Theist tone troll: You can say whatever you want. But you should realise that it’s not respectful to say mean things about religion. It hurts people’s feelings. It’s your tone I object to.

I don’t worry too much about these folks. There’s literally no way to talk about religion in less-than-laudatory terms without some people getting butthurt. The only thing they want is for atheists to shut up.

Pick your approach. Choose the kind of atheist you’re going to be. But having chosen, please spare the rest of us the lecturing about tone. It’s just a way of trying to control the communication of other people. Letting go of that need for control can be freeing.

People think god agrees with them

It’s not a new idea that people construct their god based on whoever they are. Nice people, nice god. Horrible people, horrible god. Homophobic people, homophobic god. The god of the Hebrews was obsessed with details about animal sacrifice. The Christian god is obsessed with the sexual behaviour of other people. What else do you need to be convinced that gods are a creation of their people?

But even if you’d already cottoned on to this idea, it’s still exciting to see it verified experimentally.

For many religious people, the popular question “What would Jesus do?” is essentially the same as “What would I do?” That’s the message from an intriguing and controversial new study by Nicholas Epley from the University of Chicago. Through a combination of surveys, psychological manipulation and brain-scanning, he has found that when religious Americans try to infer the will of God, they mainly draw on their own personal beliefs.

Religion provides a moral compass for many people around the world, colouring their views on everything from martyrdom to abortion to homosexuality. But Epley’s research calls the worth of this counsel into question, for it suggests that inferring the will of God sets the moral compass to whatever direction we ourselves are facing. He says, “Intuiting God’s beliefs on important issues may not produce an independent guide, but may instead serve as an echo chamber to validate and justify one’s own beliefs.”

When people changed their opinions, they thought god changed his opinions, too.

In another study, Epley got people to manipulate themselves. He asked 59 people to write and perform a speech about the death penalty, which either matched their own beliefs or argued against them. The task shifted people’s attitudes towards the position in their speech, either strengthening or moderating their original views. And as in the other experiments, their shifting attitudes coincided with altered estimates of God’s attitudes (but not those of other people).

And finally, they used fMRI to detect any differences in brain activity when considering their opinion and god’s opinion. The difference being ‘none’.

The takeaway: people get themselves and their god mixed up. You’d think it would be a warning sign when your god agrees with you all the time. Maybe they just think they’re really ‘in tune’.

Three/four colour illusion

It’s almost time to get going on my Linguistics 102 class, ‘Language as Cognitive System’. It’s about brain, language, and perception. What better way to start than a fascinating optical illusion. Your eyes tell you that the big swirly lines are alternately blue and green. But your eyes are mistaken. They’re really the same colour. If you’re not convinced, pull down the file to your desktop and zoom in on it until the context is gone and the two colours merge into one.

Our visual system — indeed our human brains themselves — are pretty amazing devices that work pretty well most of the time. They work by showing us a view of reality not as it is, but close enough to be useful to us. Optical illusions exploit the bugs in our system.

This has a certain degree of relevance to me right now. I’m visiting with my family. They’re True Believers™, who rely on ‘spiritual experiences’ for evidence of their religious beliefs, which they are convinced cannot be wrong. This optical illusion is compelling evidence that our experiences, convincing though they seem, can be illusory.

Is there an owl on the American dollar bill?

Owl-spotters: Have a look at a US simolean, and see if you can spot the owl.

I noticed this item on Tom Ellard’s site, and I was intrigued. I happened to have a nice crisp US dollar bill in my possession, so I set my scanner to ‘insane’ setting (19200 dpi), and here’s the scan. Click to enlarge.

So… is it an owl? I don’t know. To me it looks like a place where a bunch of curlicues intersect. The ‘head’ has three holes in it, which to our human brains might look like two eyes and a nose (or beak). And maybe a couple of bumps for ears. Too bad the corresponding pattern on the other side of the bill is covered up.

What’s more interesting to me is why most people who have a web page on this topic are either loopy about Masons, Jesus, or the Illuminati. I suppose if you’re spending your nights looking for sinister symbolism in money, you’re heading for one of two options: John Birch meetings, or muttering to yourself in bus stations. Not much difference, really.

Backlash! The Freak-Outening

It’s been nothing but bad news for Christian bigots. First the ARIS poll shows that the percentage of self-identified Christians has dropped by 10% — oh my lack of god! from 86% to 76%! It can only mean one thing: the end of Christian America! Which is funny, because that’s the title of the Newsweek article.

Turning the report over in his mind, Mohler [president of the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary] posted a despairing online column on the eve of Holy Week lamenting the decline—and, by implication, the imminent fall—of an America shaped and suffused by Christianity. “A remarkable culture-shift has taken place around us,” Mohler wrote. “The most basic contours of American culture have been radically altered. The so-called Judeo-Christian consensus of the last millennium has given way to a post-modern, post-Christian, post-Western cultural crisis which threatens the very heart of our culture.”

I hope I’m around when they get down to 50.

But that’s not all. It’s been an amazing week for marriage equality in America. Iowa allowed gay marriage, then Vermont, and finally D.C. has decided to accept the marriages of same-sex couples from out of state. I think the religious haters are used to thinking of the world as a cesspool of evil, and they love to imagine that (like Abraham in Sodom) they’re the only reason god is forestalling judgment on the nations. But I don’t think they’re used to seeing setbacks like this.

And predictably, they’re freaking. Never mind the laughable NOM ad. There’s a lot more crazy out there. Try this article on for size:

‘Gay marriage’ in Iowa more damaging than a 500-year flood

Flood waters erode the soil. “Gay marriage” erodes the soul. A flood impacts for a decade. “Same-sex marriage” destroys generations. A flood draws a community together. “Homosexual marriage” tears the family apart. Communities recover from floods. The promotion of un-natural unions has an eternal consequence.

As always, vague on details. How does homosexual marriage tear anyone’s family apart? How does it destroy generations? Aren’t you worried of running out of scare quotes?

As a native Iowan and as a pastor, I cannot remain silent. In light of this, I would exhort the church in Iowa to do three things:

— First, we must honor biblical marriage in the church and in the home.

Hawt! Polygamy and concubines! Oh wait, that’s Old Testament. What about New Testament marriage? Hmm. Paul says don’t bother. Hmm. The bible doesn’t sound too traditional to me.

But the prize for delusional pattern matching goes to Morality in Media President Bob Peters in his essay ‘Connecting the Dots: The Link Between Gay Marriage and Mass Murders’. He argues that mass murders are caused by things he’s afraid of: black people (and their rap music), sexual liberation, and gay people.

The underlying problem is that increasingly we live in a ‘post-Christian’ society, where Judeo-Christian faith and values have less and less influence. Among other things, Judaism and Christianity taught that murder was wrong and that included murder motivated by anger, hatred and revenge. Both religions also taught that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves and to forgive others.

People God kills in the Bible: 2.3 million plus.

“For many citizens, what has replaced Judeo-Christian faith and values is the secular value system that is reflected in films, rap/music lyrics, and videogames and on TV and now the Internet, where the taking of human life for just about any reason is commonplace and is often portrayed in an appealing manner and in realistic detail. Murder motivated by hatred and revenge is also justified.

Yeah, I was just getting ready to watch some murder on the Internet.

“This secular value system is also reflected in the ‘sexual revolution,’ which is the driving force behind the push for ‘gay marriage;’ and the Iowa Supreme Court decision is another indication that despite all the damage this revolution has caused to children, adults, family life and society (think abortion, divorce, pornography, rape, sexual abuse of children, sexually transmitted diseases, trafficking in women and children, unwed teen mothers and more), it continues to advance relentlessly.

Yep, an unbroken line straight from gay marriage to mass murder.

People see what they want to see, of course, but religious people are especially skilled at it. The defense of their illusory worldview depends on being able to see illusory patterns, and they must defend the worldview because without it nothing makes sense to them. And it’s even worse than usual because, like I say, the latest setbacks on gay marriage has hit these believers especially hard, leaving them without a feeling of control. There’s a pretty interesting psychological study on the effects of lack of control here. From the abstract:

Participants who lacked control were more likely to perceive a variety of illusory patterns, including seeing images in noise, forming illusory correlations in stock market information, perceiving conspiracies, and developing superstitions.

It’s making them even more delusional than even they would otherwise be.

I hope the next state to allow gay marriage does it within the next month or so. The bigots will be so rattled, you’ll be able to hear them coming down the street.

Quick links

Blind people use facial expressions in the same way as sighted people do, including those strained smiles you use when you’re not really happy. This provides more evidence that facial expressions are innate and not learned.

Where do you think love comes from, Mr Atheist? Can’t see love in your microscope, can you? Actually, you can, if you’re doing brain scans. And what they find is that some people still feel twittery about each other after 20 years, instead of the 18 months most of us get. They call these couples ‘swans’, but that’s not a good name. Swans are cranky critters. But I think Ms Perfect and I will still be swanning about, still coursing with dopamine in each other’s presence, even after 20 blissful years.

Fear the hammer of Thor! A man dressed as the God of War after a costume party frightened off a burglar. Maybe the burglar was a philosophical theist who realised that you can’t discriminate between two supernatural claims — it doesn’t matter whether the god is Christian or Norse, you’d better book. Personally, I’d be much more frightened of Thor than of Jesus. People in sandals are easier to outrun. On the other hand, if Jesus has come as that psychopathic Old Testament god, then all bets are off. Best to run first and ask theological questions later.

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