Thursday, December 16, 2004

Two Powerful Reasoning Errors

Humans are reasoning machines, but not very good ones. We make a lot of errors in reasoning. Some we tend to make over and over. The error of Correlation without Causation, seeing X as the cause of Y just because X and Y seem correlated, is one of the common reasoning errors humans make. I once satirized this type of reasoning error by writing a fake news article blaming the rise in the use of bicycle helmets for the rise in gun crime. Both have, after all, risen at a fairly consistent rate over the past ten years.

I notice that when dealing with mental illness, this sort of error is made a lot. For instance, I have found many times that when dealing with therapists and psychiatrists regarding my own depression, my lack of religious faith is often brought up as a possible cause and/or exacerbating factor. But most mentally ill people do have religious faith. And yet, these same therapists and psychiatrist never question whether belief in the irrational is the cause of the illnesses of those with faith. In this case, those therapists and psychiatrists, having religious faith themselves, see the causation in a correlation they want to see, lack of faith being related to depression. But, without studying the rate of mental illness in the Christian and non-theist populations, there is no more reason to correlate lack of faith with mental illness than faith with mental illness.

In fact, since there are many more Christians with mental illnesses in the US than non-theists, there is more evidence for faith being a correlative factor with mental illness than lack of faith, though, since there are also more Christians than non-theists in America, the rates of mental illness in both populations would be needed to really make any judgments. And even then, were depression found to correlate with lack of faith, we still would not have proven causation.

It is just as possible, were such data found, that depression causes one to be less likely to believe things because he or she wants them to be true rather than has evidence they are true. Depression may be the cause of lack of faith rather than the other way around. Perhaps it was important, in an evolutionary sense, to have a few pessimists around to point out the flaws in the optimists' plans to keep the optimists from failing to notice they're leading everyone off a cliff.

Another reasoning error humans often make is equating descriptions with explanations, and proximate causes with root causes. The first error is often used in making the second. For instance, those suffering from depression often make a mess of their lives by making impulsive decisions and failing to plan for the future. As such, they are often labeled as having "poor impulse control" and being "immature" or "unable to delay gratification." As if these things explain something. Saying someone has "poor impulse control" is just another way of describing that the person makes impulsive decisions. It does nothing to make the cause of the impulsive behavior clear while implying that the sufferer could solve the whole problem by ceasing to be impulsive, ignoring the fact that the impulsive behavior has an unidentified root cause. The critic is confusing the obvious proximate cause, that having poor impulse control leads to impulsive behavior, with the root cause.

Both these errors, falsely seeing causation in correlation, and confusing proximate causes with root causes, are common, I think, because these faulty lines of reasoning allow critics to see what they want to see rather than what is true. If you want to believe lack of faith leads to depression, you interpret a perceived correlation between lack of faith and mental illness as causation. If you want to believe that those suffering from depression should just "get over it" and stop "acting so immature," you conflate proximate cause with root cause in order to make it appear simple for the person suffering from depression to solve his or her problems. Both errors allow the critic to claim a certain moral superiority over others, and are thus attractive.

But, as a sufferer and student of the illness of depression, I don't think depression causes lack of impulse control. I think depression makes each and every day a struggle to survive that day, which makes it all that much harder to worry about the future consequences of one's actions.

This is not as maladaptive as it might seem at first. If your boat sinks in the middle of the ocean during a storm, you're not going to worry too much about whether struggling to stay afloat is going to make you too tired for your date tomorrow night. Most would consider this a good thing, as holding back to be fresh for the date might cause you to drown.

Similarly, when it's all you can do just to make it through today, doing things to make tomorrow better is not going to be high on your priority list. Saving for tomorrow doesn't make a lot of sense when you feel that there won't be a tomorrow if you don't find a way to get through today. And, of course, in our society, the most readily available method of soothing one's self is spending money, or rather, the things available to soothe one's self generally cost money.

When you look at the root cause rather than the proximate cause, it's more obvious that the solution is not "just to stop being impulsive" or whatever, but to make getting through each day less of a struggle by treating the depression. Depression makes getting through the day a terrible struggle. The terrible struggle causes impulsive behavior. As such, does it make sense to diagnose the problem as "lack of impulse control" and focus on solving that, or diagnose the problem as depression and focus on solving that?

I read once that humans are not thinking machines that feel, but are feeling machines that think. This is why humans' reason is so easily corrupted and clouded by our feelings: we tend to use reason to justify what we feel, rather than basing our feelings on reason. Then, we make things worse by lying to ourselves in order to believe that we arrived at our opinions by reason, rather than emotion, as we actually did.

This is why we have to guard against basing opinions on "common sense" and what "seems right." Common sense is different for each person, and what "seems right" is often just a feeling with no basis in truth.

Most people living today, as well as most who have lived throughout history, believe that heavier objects fall faster than lighter objects. It "seems" right. But it is exactly wrong. For many, intelligent design "seems right," even though it is logically indefensible. Depression can't be a real illness because it "seems right" that sufferers could just "get over it" if they wanted to. But we can't.

Reasoning errors of these sorts have led Hitler to try to exterminate the Jews, Muslims to murder in the name of their religion, Christians to try to tear down science in the name of faith, and Holocaust denial. Mistaken reasoning is not benign, but can be the most malignant force guiding human history. That is why it is important to refute false reasoning whenever confronted with it. When theists try to defend their faith on rational grounds, they have opened themselves up to rational critique, and false reasoning must be pointed out for what it is. The fact that bad reasoning is being used to bolster someone's religious beliefs should not give theists immunity. If a theist tells me they believe because of "faith," and that's all, I will tell them that I think it is unwise to believe things "on faith," but at least they aren't trying to tear down reason in defense of his or her faith. But, when the theist advances a supposedly rational argument with reasoning errors in it, rational people must attack those errors lest they be allowed to stand and destroy the very idea of reason entirely.


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