Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Irrationality and Compartmentalization

Over at Pharyngula, in the comments to this post, there's a debate about whether holding religious beliefs impairs the ability of scientists to do good scientific work. Some say no, that scientists, like others, can compartmentalize their beliefs, so that while they may hold irrational religious beliefs they still are rigorous in their scientific work.

Empirically, I would say this is true. There have certainly been some theists and religious believers who have produced excellent scientific work without their irrational beliefs tainting it. The evidence is there.

However, the fact that some people can and have been good scientists despite the cognitive dissonance of working in a rational field and holding irration beliefs doesn't mean that it is a good idea. Because, logically, once a person believes one thing despite a complete lack of evidence, there is no rational basis on which to reject others. That is not to say that they don't; many people cling to their irrational beliefs while (correctly) pointing out the flaws in others'. However, while having one irrational belief does not always lead to others, I would contend that it often does. Once a person rational filters have been breached, even if they haven't been completely disabled, it will be easier for others to get through.

An anectodal example: I knew a guy who used to be, if not an atheist, definitely highly skeptical of religious faith. He once even mocked C.S. Lewis' arguments in Mere Christianity during a discussion with me. Then, after he screwed up his life but good, he suddenly found God.

(Aside: my personal opinion is that since he'd done something pretty bad, he felt like he needed a supernatural man in the sky to "forgive" him and thus relieve him of the guilt he rightly felt for what he had done. But I hate it when Christians try tell me why I'm an atheist -- they always frame it in terms of their belief structure and are always wrong -- so I will give him the benefit of the doubt that I don't actually know why he found Jesus right then).

Now, I'd found him to be fairly rational on most issues up to then. But, after he found Jesus, his entire outlook on many subjects changed. For instance, he'd never once said a word about homosexuals to me until after his conversion, but then, suddenly, he was against equal rights for gays and against gay marriage. When I asked him why, he said, "I don't know. I don't have a good reason, I guess, but I'm still against it."

Now, you might say this part and parcel of accepting Christianity, and thus isn't a separate irrational belief but part of the same one. But no, I disagree. Because it wasn't his sudden opposition to gays and gay marriage that was a new, additional irrational belief. Heck, for all I know, he always felt queasy about the gays and always, somewhere, wished they would go away. I don't know because we never talked about it prior to his conversion. No, what I think is the additional irrational belief that penetrated his rational filter is the idea that "Because I don't like it, it must be wrong, and therefore should be illegal." He had never expressed such a sentiment before his conversion.

I know that I am making a "Slippery Slope" argument here. Of course, despite what you may have heard, the slippery slope isn't always a logical fallacy. But I don't think I am making a slippery slope argument, because I'm not saying that having one irrational belief inevitably leads to others, just that it makes it easier. Not because people consciously think, "Well, I believe this crazy thing, I might as well believe a bunch of others." Obviously, few people believe that their irrational beliefs are irrational (which is the topic for another post sometime). But, I contend, that accepting one irrational belief makes it harder to recognize and reject others. Because whatever false logic one used to accept the first irrational belief probably applies to others, and so once one irrational belief looks rational to you, others can too.

So, while there are good scientists who are also theists, I'd bet that being a theist has rarely helped someone be a better scientist, while I guarantee that it has made a lot of people bad scientists. (William Dembski, just off the top of my head). Over at Pharyngula they're arguing over the wrong question. They're asking whether being a scientist is compatible with being a theist. Clearly, they're not incompatible, so strictly the answer is yes. But the real question is whether being a theist is more likely to improve one's work or detract from it, and I would say, firmly that is much more likely to detract. Ergo, while mixing science and theism isn't impossible, it's just not a good idea.


At 11:34 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I guess I do not agree here. As you point out, it is a slippery slope argument you are waging ... I cannot say the extent to which the theistic beliefs of individual scientists have (in general) hindered or advanced science.

As you point out, some of the greatest scientists in history hail from such beliefs. Moreover, science itself germinated in a context that was (in some ways) deeply religious.

On the other hand, most modern scientists are not religious ... and I can't say that I believe that is a bad thing.

Still, there is no perfect rationalist (not even the great Dawkins himself). We are prone to irrationality inherently. Perhaps it is on a different scale, but we all buckle under belief somehow or another. I'd like to think that my irrational belief that American Idol is a harbinger of the end of modern civilzation as we know it is not interfering with my ability to conduct research in machine learning. Perhaps so, I don't know.

I do know that facing our challenges typically makes us stronger. So scientists who are aware of the tension between their non-rational beliefs and the process by which they grow the body of scientific knowledge in the world are probably better off for that awareness.

I know a lot of scientists ... non-theistic ones, as well as theists. Most of the scientists I know who are Christians (not Christian Scientists, mind you ... and certainly not Christian Scientists who like American Idol) are aware of the difficulty of this position and spend some time trying to understand the boundaries between these two pieces ... how and why they differ, how to "compartmentalize", etc. I respect their ability to do this ... and understanding the nature of this is almost certainly a good thing for science in the end.

My concern would be that non-theistic scientists would not be as attentive to their own rationality challenges. I wonder if Dawkins is as aware of his? Me too, for that matter (aside from the whole American Idol thing, that is).

On the other hand, as a non-theist scientist, I will say that I do not understand how a scientist can be Christian. But then, I do not understand how anyone can be. Even worse, I do not understand religion in general. But I've no evidence that scientists who hold such beliefs are any more or less qualified to be scientists.

Fortunately we don't have to put denominational information in our bios when we submit our publications (hopefully no reviewers follow the link from my website to your blog).

My point is that science is a distributed and decentralized process that admits the frailty of individual human logic. The hope is that the body of knowledge is gradually refined by the body as a whole. If we have been relying on the perfect logic and reason of individual scientists, we are in real trouble.

I'm for peer review and replication. The belief, rationality, and even the intelligence of the men and women conducting science is not that important to me. Every single one of them, the greats alike, make poor choices and mistakes.

Of course, most of a scientists' peers are not theists ... but then they weren't hundred years ago either (see Nature 394, 1998).

I guess I am saying that I believe your thinking is flipped. You seem to suggest that the attribute that makes a person religious makes them a poor scientist. Rather I think the attribute that makes someone a good scientist makes faith particularly difficult.

Some scietists make it work for them, some don't. The question should not be "Is relgious scientist A a better contributor to the body of knowledge than non-religious scientist B" The question is, "For those scientists who are religious, would they be better scientists if they were not religious?" I can't say that I've seen any evidence that this is so.

At 12:13 PM, Blogger mooglar said...

To quote McLaughlin: WRONG!

Okay, just kidding.

Well, you certainly know more scientists than I do, so I respect your (nonscientific) sample. And you do have a good point about how having religious beliefs could make one more aware of the tension between rationality and irrationality, thus making him or her more scrupulous about being rational in terms of his or her scientific work.

Though I would say that the irrationality displayed by religious fundamentalists, UFO abduction "victims", holocaust deniers, conspiracy theorists, homeopathic medicine advocates, Intelligent Design advocates, and those who deny that Def Leppard is the greatest band ever do that for me without me actually having to subscribe to any of those beliefs. That is to say, the examples of what irrational beliefs cause people to say and do has driven me toward greater rationality and greater scrutiny of my own beliefs.

And yes, it is true that no one (but me, of course) is perfectly rational. But the difference between me and a scientist who is also a Christian is that I don't intentionally or willingly subscribe to irrational beliefs. I have actually changed my position on issues when I realized my position was logically inconsistent and not rational. And that hasn't been easy emotionally, in some cases, as the position I had staked out is still the one that emotionally I feel is right, even though I know it is wrong. I continue sifting through my beliefs, such as they are, to weed out the irrational ones. I haven't decided that I'm going to stick with any that I know are irrational.

Maybe it's the choosing to continue holding an irrational belief despite knowing it is irrational that is really the heart of my problem here. And, if so, you may be right that I have it flipped, in that those (scientists or not) who knowingly hold irrational beliefs have a better chance of being able to compartmentalize and keep those beliefs from affecting other ares of their lives (like scientific work) than those who don't realize their beliefs are irrational. I have to admit, when I wrote this post, I did feel like I was on kinda thin ice, and you might be right about this.

Of course, if you're right and I admit it, then I've proven my earlier point about refining my beliefs and subtracting irrational ones, thus proving my point that one doesn't need to be a theist to be aware of the need to avoid irrationality... :^)

Believing that American Idol is a harbinger of the end of civilization isn't irrational, by the way, but clearly true.

And, of course, I don't think that scientists (or anyone else) should be discriminated against because of their religious views. Scientific arguments stand or fall on their own merit regardless of who produced them.

In any case, I think I agree with what you are saying here. Perhaps what I'm really arguing for, unknowingly, is fewer theists to become scientists. If I take it back a step, maybe, in light of what you have said, I just can't understand why a theist would choose a career in a field so founded in rationality and reason if they have chosen to believe in the irrational beforehand. I mean, why don't they go work at Fox News or somewhere else where being rational is not only not a requirement, but is discouraged?

At 2:19 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You can't just call someone's beliefs irrational. I believe you're an idiot sometimes and I have proof. I find it hard to believe that someone who believes in George Lucas' mystical energy field can't find room to believe in God.

Joking aside. Funny thing about atheistic persons or non-believers. You can't convert them. Faith is believing in something you can't see, the reward of faith is seeing that which you believed in. That's not my quote but I think it illustrates religion rather well.

I can't convert you to Christianity any more than you can convince me there is no God. I believe in Him, and have felt him move in my life. If you choose to ignore Him, then He will go away. God is not an intrusive supernatural being who is hell-bent (pun intended) on controlling every aspect of your life and sucking all the fun out of it. In order for you to see that though, you have to experience God. I can't do it for you, my experiences would be of no use to you. All I can say without reproach is this. You will not find God. He will find you. He doesn't move from us, we move from Him.

Even Einstein believed in God, and what would the scientific community even the world be like without his contributions to the explanation of the world around us? I have a degree in Physics and to the scientist who is a believing Christian, science is a man-made attempt to explain the nature of our surroundings. It serves us well but it fails to explain why. Science is the where, what and when. God is the how and the why. I can't convince you of that, you'll have to discover it for yourself but even my professors admit that we don't know concentrate on how and why but rather what. This was frustrating in school to me!

Also insofar as your friend who found God and suddenly hates homosexuals is concerned, don't confuse the zealous convert with the new believer. The Bible doesn't preach hate. My sin of hatred is just as much of a sin as homosexuality or murder or coveting my neighbor's wife and so on. Again the leveling of sins based on their social consequences is a man made convention. A sin is a sin. Many people forget that when they point their newly righteous digits at someone else. However I can say that when we start assigning benefits to a group based on their sexual preferences, where do we draw the line? At the Chicken Bangers? I think homo/hetero or whatever should be able to have insurance benefits for anyone who shares their home and they should be able to will their possessions to whomever they choose. That would solve the gay marriage dilemma and any other partner crisis.

Certainly whoever frames your atheism in terms of their belief structure is wrong. It isn't their belief but yours that must be seen if you are to experience God. You can believe in God or not, it won't change His existence. To do so would be like imagining the world is figment of my imagination and disappears when I sleep. I challenge you to do this. I don't question your beliefs because you don't have any obviously. I ask you to question mine. Attend the church of your choice, become involved with a bible study group at your comfort level and ask them, "Why do you believe?" You might think they're all idiots or hypocrites (we are all hypocrites by the way, no one is perfect). Maybe you won't. Otherwise you're just afraid to learn something different from the way you see things. I've evaluated your beliefs and find them wanting. Come and see mine.

At 7:50 AM, Blogger mooglar said...


You can't just call someone's beliefs irrational.

Actually, I can. I do not believe that a person's religious beliefs should automatically be respected and get a free pass not to be scrutinized. In addition, I don't just call theism irrational, I support that position in many of my posts by pointing out exactly how it is irrational. That is one of the points of this blog, in fact.

Faith is believing in something you can't see, the reward of faith is seeing that which you believed in. That's not my quote but I think it illustrates religion rather well.

I agree, that does illustrate religion rather well, though I disagree that "seeing" things that don't exist simply because you want them to exist isn't so much a "reward" as a delusion. Living one's life believing in a delusion is not a good thing.

If you choose to ignore Him, then He will go away. God is not an intrusive supernatural being who is hell-bent (pun intended) on controlling every aspect of your life and sucking all the fun out of it. In order for you to see that though, you have to experience God. I can't do it for you, my experiences would be of no use to you.

I agree, your experiences would be of no use to me, since extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and since you have none, it is far more likely that your "experiences" are a result of wishful thinking, temporal lobe epilepsy, or the confirmation bias than that an immaterial, omnipotent being actually "touched" you (whatever that means, given that He is immaterial).

And, the fact that if I choose to ignore Him, He will go away, is another way of saying that His existence or lack thereof makes no practical difference one way or the other. Which is another way of saying something doesn't exist, which I wrote a whole post about some time ago (check it out).

Also, Einstein didn't believe in a personal God. That's a myth. But, even if he did, it wouldn't make any difference, because his genius in one area (relativity) doesn't make him a genius in another (the supernatural). Geniuses can be wrong just like everyone else. Bringing this up is just run-of-the-mill argument by authority.

The Bible doesn't preach hate.

It does. It preaches almost anything anyone wants it to, because it is incoherent and inconsistent.

However I can say that when we start assigning benefits to a group based on their sexual preferences, where do we draw the line? At the Chicken Bangers?

No. We draw the line at couples composed of two persons who are both able to consent to the relationship for themselves. Okay? That rules out bestiality and pedophiles who want to marry children, since neither of them can consent.

You can believe in God or not, it won't change His existence.

That is entirely true! God's existence or lack thereof is not based on my belief or anyone else's. Since the concept of the Judeo-Christian God is incoherent and since the evidence for His existence is lacking, I have no reason to think he exists and no matter how many believers try to convince me otherwise in the basis of their own faith and beliefs, but without evidence, the fact that God almost certainly does not exist continues to be true.

I ask you to question mine. Attend the church of your choice, become involved with a bible study group at your comfort level and ask them, "Why do you believe?"

It is a common mistake to assume that the atheist or non-theist hasn't done this. Because most Christians assume that if you read the Bible and went to Church and learned about the "Truth", you would, of course, see it and convert.

Guess what? I have done these things, and none of it was the least bit convincing. Because, as I already noted, the Christian God is incoherent, immoral, and on the merits of the evidence, almost certainly does not exist, the illogical arguments of armchair theologists notwithstanding.

At 6:46 PM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Regarding: "Funny thing about atheistic persons or non-believers. You can't convert them."

I understand the spirit of Anon's reply, but I think the generalization is not just false ... it is unfair.

The implication here is that the Christian cannot be convinced of non-theism because the "T"ruth of God is known to them ... but that a non-theist cannot be converted to Christianity simply because they are stubborn and closed-minded.

I cannot speak to the former ... God does not move in my heart, so I've no way to address the issue. The latter is clearly false.

First, many non-theists have become believers (and many believers have lost their faiths to become the most outspoken atheists). The proof that "conversion" can happen in both directions is clear from such cases. Obviously you mean something more specific.

Second, the suggestion that non-believers cannot be converted simply because their minds are closed is a gross generalization that you cannot back up. You do not know all non-theists, and you certainly do not know their motivations.

I am a challenging example for what you imply, I believe. I am profoundly and distinctly agnostic (I can define this for you if you need me too, but it suffices to say that it does not mean "uncertain"). I am clear and as certain in what I believe as anyone is, yet I remain completely open to the possibility that the supernatural exists. I just need to be convinced. Having a stable position that must be unseated before being replaced is not the same as being closed-minded.

I attend church every Sunday, participate in the church, read the Bible, go to Bible studies (have even been known to lead a Bible study or two). I tithe, even. I work to better my community, both through community programs and otherwise. I've even been known to pray.

Indeed, I respect people of many beliefs ... I find them fascinating. I don't understand it, but I don't (by default) disrespect it. I have studied a great deal about many religions in my lifetime, and the more I study the more comfortable with my own beliefs I become.

I simply don't believe.

It is easy to say, "Oh, you are closed-minded. If you just opened your heart you'd know the 'T'ruth" ... too easy ... and not falsifiable. Like conspiracy theories, I cannot claim otherwise because you will simply suggest that my denying it is proof positive that I am guilty of it.

Quite simply: If I'm not open minded about the issue, I flat-out don't know how to be more so. I am ripe for the spiritual picking ... all God has to do is grant me the one final piece to make me convert: Faith.

Believe what you will ... I am far less inclined than the Markiarky blog to advise you on how you should or should not believe. But if you think that an unbeliever's lack of faith is automatically a result of a closed mind, then you've oversimplified the matter greatly on many fronts.

Not the least of which is:

John 6:44 "No one can known me unless drawn by the father"

At 11:35 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

No I didn't mean that anyone who doesn't believe is close-minded. I simply implied that faith and belief are personal and must be personally experienced in order to have a relationship with God. I've never been a big fan of conversion stories, because I think the conversion has to be more personal than that. My thought doesn't have to be the right one of course.

It is close-minded to assume that just because the non-believer has never experienced God that He must not exist at all. That's like saying that I've never bathed so soap must be a myth.

God must be a personal matter. On the accusations of incoherence. Of course there is! Most religious texts are 2000 years old or more. They've suffered many translations and more than a few editing sessions and overall embellishments. The general point remains. God is on His throne, He desires a relationship with us, and He will have one if we want Him to. If we don't want one, we can have it our way. We were made in His image to worship Him but we don't have to. Because of the sin nature of mankind which takes our focus off of God, the path to a relationship with him is Jesus Christ. God took on human form in Jesus and in being crucified, paid the penalty for this sin nature, which would mean being forever separated from God.

Muslims refer to Jesus as merely a prophet, Allah being the one true god. Buddah refers to life as an endless cycle of rebirth (Man I hope not, I am tired!), Hindu and ancient Egypt worshiped a pantheon of gods but the common fiber is there is more to this world than what we see and we must undergo a conversion in order to understand that. However only Jesus Christ offers the gift of the grace of God. We cannot earn it, we do not deserve it but it is freely given for those who believe, and that is all that is asked of us. Believe. You might even say that Christians are lazy because all we do is believe and ask for something and we get it. Many other religions make it much harder to accomplish such things!

I don't doubt that Markiarchy has already tried what I suggested, but I'm sure he did it in his own egocentric style, utterly convinced o f the supremacy of his opinions before the first bell rang on Sunday morning. The research that I'm asking him to do is a deeper one. Some churches can honestly be more of a turn off than a turn on. They're full of zombified "Believe what we say" folks. The Southern Baptist Convention is a valid example of this. They're more concerned with policy and burning homosexuals at the stake than actually doing God's will in the world. It gives God a bad name. I'm not a good Baptist because I don't believe in forcing people to accept my world view. To be a good Christian is to share God's love. That concept supercedes the denomination. I digress.

Saying Einstein didn't believe in God is a myth won't cut it. I require more proof than that. I've read a great deal of his works and quotes. Most of what I've read asserts that he was a religious man. Please offer proof of your concept here. In the mean time, I'll do the worst thing I can possibly do to you Markiarchy, I'll pray for you. That must really burn you up.

At 4:57 AM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

Regarding: "It is close-minded to assume that just because the non-believer has never experienced God that He must not exist at all. That's like saying that I've never bathed so soap must be a myth."

If you believe you can perceive God working in your heart, more power to you. I will not combat that, your experiences are your own.

That is not the issue. The issue is what you suppose Mark (and others) should believe ... more precisely, the issue is what you suppose Mark (and others) should think about your beliefs.

Your analogy is a terrible one. I have evidence that soap exists, whether or not I bathe. I can, through natural observation deduce conclusively the existence of soap, whether or not I stink. The only axiom I must suppose (not believe, suppose) is that reality is objective and measurable.

Evidence of God's existence beyond such a personal experience cannot be found ... by me at least ... and I've spent a long time looking. People can talk of their personal experiences, but there is no definitive way for me, from the outside to distinguish these from other factors.

Nor could there be ... unless there is no such thing as "Faith."

It is not closed-minded, egotistical, or arrogant to suppose something to be false until proven otherwise, it is the way virtually all people are about virtually all things ... and the way we must be. The alternative is chaos. To select one or two particular things and hold them apart from this viewpoint is your choice, and I respect that ... but it is inconsistent.

To judge others because they will not select the same subset of things with which to be inconsistently skeptical is arrogant. Why not alien abduction? Why not George Lucas' all-pervading force that moves through all things?

Regarding: "I'm sure he did it in his own egocentric style, utterly convinced of the supremacy of his opinions before the first bell rang on Sunday morning..."

It is also arrogance to assume that someone else must not be giving a serious attempt at believing if they've not been convinced. You don't know anything about Mark's effort (nor do I) ... you suppose this because you cannot conceive that someone could search in earnest and come up empty.

I'm sorry, but you're wrong; they can.

Saying this isn't arrogance because now I am speaking from my personal experience ... and, as far as I am aware, I am the expert on that particular subject.

In some ways I stand between the two of you. Though it is clear I stand closer to Mark in my theology (such as it isn't), I agree with Anon that we should respect one another's beliefs to the extent that we can live together in that respect. That last caveat is a huge, messy, and cumbersome issue that I shall not unpack at present.

Strong advocates of theism (e.g., Pat Roberts) and non-theism (e.g., Dawkins) can each be intolerant and disrespectful ... sometimes with cause, sometimes without ... sometimes for useful ends, sometimes for naught. Still, it is possible for a non-theist to respect theistic beliefs. I do ... I even admire some theistic beliefs. I don't understand them, but there are certain aspects of theology that are, indeed, admirable.

Still, I have come over the years to understand that even the most respectful Christian is foundationally incapable of respecting non-theism at its core because they have such a strong need to have others also believe (litteraly, a call).

What you are reacting to in the tone of Markiarchy, a call for others to disbelieve ... a proselytory message of unbelief, if you will, is exactly the tone that Mark is reacting to in Christian theology: the assumption that your belief is so much greater and more correct that others should also believe.

Rhetoric aside, one of Markiarchy's most basic messages seems to be true to me, and not inconsistent with Christian theology: One cannot come to believe in God through reason. Can we not, all three, accept that statement? For Mark it is a judgement ... those that believe are not being reasonable. For me it is a mere observation ... the supernatural is, by definition, outside the scope of natural reason. For Anon, it is a matter of Faith ... if reason were sufficient, what role would faith have?

What Mark thinks of your belief is not terribly important, is it?

At 5:51 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

On the Einstein matter:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

--Albert Einstein, in a letter March 24, 1954; from Albert Einstein the Human Side, Helen Dukas and Banesh Hoffman, eds., Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1981, p. 43.

At 6:17 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

It doesn't "burn me up" that you, Anon, or anyone else is going to pray for me. It really doesn't matter much to me at all what people say to imaginary beings.

As far as the incoherence of the concept of the Christian God, I really meant the general concept as usually put forth: omnipotent, omnibenevolent, omniscient, existing somehow outside of time and space and yet able to interact with them. The main one being the problem of evil, of course, also known as theodicy, and the problem of free will.

As far as textual incoherence, if you admit that the texts are unreliable, how can you be sure that the "general point" you think remains is true? Which parts of the text should you follow and which ones have been corrupted? How can you know and be sure?

I disagree with Paul in that I do not feel obligated to show a respect for others' beliefs. People deserve respect. Unfounded, irrational beliefs don't.

As Paul noted, I arrived at this conclusion because of the fundamental lack of respect theists have for the beliefs of non-theists. I would love to live in a Jeffersonian society where what another man believes doesn't affect me and what I believe doesn't affect him and wasn't an issue. But we don't. Theists don't even respect the beliefs of other theists and are willing to fight and die over which imaginary sky-fairy is the right one, and I just can't stand by and not say anything. It would be morally and ethically wrong for me to do so.


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