Questionable Motives

April 20, 2010

Why is attribution to link cause with effect so important to determining what’s true?

I would have thought this question was pretty easy to answer but I have come across many religious believers who have serious difficulty understanding why. For example, I am told repeatedly (and I presume honestly) with great assurance that testimonials and revelation lead to a transformative experience that itself is strong evidence that god (or some ‘outside’ agency) exists and intervenes in meaningful ways in our world. When we unpack the meaning of this claim, we find that the link is very tenuous between having an experience and attributing some outside supernatural agency to what caused it.

I have found that believers in supernatural agencies are quite willing to attribute to these supernatural agencies to whatever cause is currently unknown, misunderstood, or poorly informed – what many call the god of the gaps, referring to assigning god to whatever gaps we have in our knowledge. But it goes much further than that, I think.

From demonic possession to the building of the pyramids, from the ghostly squeak in the floorboards in the dead of night to the influence of the stars on our fate, far too many people attribute these things or events or imaginings to a single, easy, completely unjustified source: it was oogity boogity! (Fill in whatever name to some supernatural agency you may wish here)

So what’s the harm, right? If people want to believe oogity boogity links cause to effect, who cares? People have a right to believe in whatever they want, so the excuse goes. And I agree… as long as this belief stays within the private domain where it belongs. People are allowed to delude themselves and pretend that their attributions to supernatural agencies are as valid an explanation as any repeatable, testable, measurable, falsifiable and reliable explanation that clearly links cause to effect by means of a consistent mechanism, one that works here as well as there today and tomorrow. But when that supernatural explanation is inserted into the public domain and people support the insertion because they happen to agree with the attribution rather than causal truth value, then we are opening the door to lunacy.

Many women who do not dress modestly … lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes,” Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi was quoted as saying by Iranian media (brought to us by Yahoo News). Sedighi is Tehran’s acting Friday prayer leader. “A divine authority told me to tell the people to make a general repentance. Why? Because calamities threaten us,” Sedighi said. Referring to the violence that followed last June’s disputed presidential election, he said, “The political earthquake that occurred was a reaction to some of the actions (that took place). And now, if a natural earthquake hits Tehran, no one will be able to confront such a calamity but God’s power, only God’s power. … So let’s not disappoint God.”

Minister of Welfare and Social Security Sadeq Mahsooli said prayers and pleas for forgiveness were the best “formulas to repel earthquakes. We cannot invent a system that prevents earthquakes, but God has created this system and that is to avoid sins, to pray, to seek forgiveness, pay alms and self-sacrifice,” Mahsooli said.

When we allow attribution between a cause and effect to have no natural mechanism to measure its truth value but, instead, allow for whatever supernatural explanation people want to be inserted in its place, we are setting the stage for exactly this kind of lunacy. There is no known way to link dress to tectonic activities, so the attribution to god is as good as one that attributes the link to the nefarious deeds of intergalactic mushrooms.

So next time a politician tells you that he or she will support some oogity boogity to be inserted into public policy, take issue with it. Don’t allow your private preferences for assigning a favoured supernatural attribution to sway you; religious or not, your civic duty to all your neighbours is to keep all oogity boogity out of public policy altogether.

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1 Comment »

  1. For an update on putting the earthquake theory caused by immodesty to the test, we have this story.

    Comment by tildeb — April 24, 2010 @ 12:47 pm | Reply


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