Questionable Motives

January 19, 2012

Why do we still believe when we know it’s probably not true?

Filed under: belief,Evolution,Natural Selection,Neuroscience — tildeb @ 11:41 am

It’s not about the benefits we gain from believing in this or that. Or the supposed reality of the objects these beliefs describe.

It’s all about cost.

There is a compatibility problem between science and religion that isn’t going to go away no matter how often many earnest people assure us is no problem at all. There is, in fact, a very real problem of compatibility. This compatibility problem has everything to do with how we arrive at conclusions, what method we use to get there, and whether or not the two methods are indeed compatible. This is where the method of science and the method of religion come into conflict. These different methods are contrary to each other.

In Victor Stenger’s new book, he writes

“Science and religion are fundamentally incompatible because of their unequivocally opposed epistemologies–the separate assumptions they make concerning what we can know about the world.”

This is just it, opposing – and not compatible – epistemologies.

So knowing the tremendous benefits and reward granted to us by trusting the method of science, how is it that so many of these same people continue to hold religious beliefs?

The religious believer must temporarily suspend trust and confidence in the methodology of science that s/he knows works for everyone everywhere all the time when conflict arises between on the one hand these trustworthy conclusions and on the other hand those from religious belief that compete and contrast with them. It is here – in this temporary suspension of what we do trust – where we have to wonder how anyone can do this and still consider one’s self intellectually honest and respectful of a method of inquiry that has produced so much practical and reliable knowledge… knowledge the believer will still trust his or her life to.

Martie G. Haselton of UCLA (and David Buss) along with and Daniel Nettle of the University of Newcastle have come up with what they think works at explaining just this. They call it Error Management Theory, which seems to offer a very convincing explanation described here in Part I of Psychology Today and Part II here):

Their theory begins with the observation that decision making under uncertainty often results in erroneous inference, but some errors are more costly in their consequences than others. Evolution should therefore favor an inference system that minimizes, not the total number of errors, but their total costs.

Among engineers, this is known as the “smoke detector principle.” Just like evolution, engineers build smoke detectors in order to minimize, not the total number of errors, but their total costs. The consequence of a false-positive error of a smoke detector is that you’re woken up at three o’clock in the morning by a loud alarm when there is no fire. The consequence of a false-negative error is that you and your entire family are dead when the alarm fails to go off when there is a fire. As unpleasant as being woken up in the middle of the night for no reason may be, it’s nothing compared to being dead. So the engineers deliberately make smoke detectors to be extremely sensitive, so that it will give a lot of false-positive alarms but no false-negative silence. Haselton and Nettle argue that evolution, as the engineer of life, has designed men’s inference system similarly.

Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may have come from such an innate cognitive bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors, and thus overinfer personal, intentional, and animate forces behind otherwise perfectly natural phenomena.

Religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid.

This explanation makes good sense to me. It helps to explain to me how otherwise rational and reasonable people – even some very accomplished scientists – believe in absurd religious notions incompatible with the world we know and the natural processes it contains. They believe because it appeals to a part of their reptilian brain… to which they must then spend considerable time and effort attempting to justify (to make compatible with) with their rational and reasonable faculties! Hence, we immediately see why the incompatibility in religious methodology to that of science is really based on nothing more than a feeling that the belief might be true. This explains the need of the religious to then cherry pick whatever seems to fit the belief while ignoring or belittling strong evidence of what doesn’t. Evidence doesn’t matter to a feeling. The cost of rejecting the feeling might be too high.

One might think it rational and reasonable for people dedicated to science to stop undermining public trust and confidence in its methodology to support beliefs that are almost certainly not true, but the personal cost of rejecting the impulse to believe seems to be too high; this feeling – this emotional urge – to err on the side of reducing potential cost, too often wins the day in the compatibility battle while transferring the actual cost of widespread but inaccurate belief – the very real cost of not allowing reality (like recognizing anthropomorphic global warming) to arbitrate what is true about it – on to all of us.

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1 Comment »

  1. [...] There is a compatibility problem between science and religion that isn’t going to go away no matter how often many earnest people assure us is no problem at all. There is, in fact, a very real problem of compatibility. This compatibility problem has everything to do with how we arrive at conclusions, what method we use to get there, and whether or not the two methods are indeed compatible. This is where the method of science and the method of religion come into conflict. These different methods are contrary to each other. Why do we still believe when we know it’s probably not true? | Science News | Scoop.it [...]

    Pingback by Religion & Spirituality | Pearltrees — January 25, 2012 @ 3:14 am | Reply


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