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.

March 13, 2011

Why is suffering a fatal flaw for belief in a benevolent creator?

Most of us know of Epicurus’ succinct summation evil causes belief in a benevolent god:

“Is God willing to prevent evil, but not able? Then he is not omnipotent. Is he able, but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Then whence cometh evil? Is he neither able nor willing? Then why call him God?

The slippery term in this paradox for believers is ‘evil’. I think we can reveal the same fatal paradox without the metaphysical baggage that accompanies such a term by replacing it with the word ‘suffering’. I am certainly not the first to do so and I think it tears away the comforting veil of ignorance that infuses belief in a benevolent god when we look at how the world actually and factually operates.

Life and death on this planet has come about as we know it by the process of evolution, a system Lord Tennyson accurately describes as “red in tooth and claw.” Suffering by sentient beings is simply part and parcel of this mindless, unguided, undirected, indifferent biological mechanism. This is a problem for those who would prefer to believe in a benevolent creator. As blogger and ex Anglican priest, Eric MacDonald so eloquently describes the problem evolution creates for the believer this way:

If this is a consciously designed process (evolution by design as held by many notable people such as Francis Collins and those allied to the same notion endorsed by the rc church and many other denominations), as Christians must maintain — for, from the Christian point of view, god’s first priority is the creation of human beings and their redemption — then all the suffering is an intentional part of god’s purposes. And this is simply intolerable. It cannot stand a moment’s moral reflection, and certainly the doctrine of double effect won’t change the mind of a reasonable person on this matter, for you cannot not intend suffering if you create by means of natural selection.

From an academically and scientifically honest standpoint, evolution is fact that is fatal to the argument that a creator god is benevolent.

So what’s a believer in a benevolent creator to do? In England, an imam with the audacity to suggest evolution is compatible with islam if the Koran is interpreted just so, one must apologize and retract such a statement if one wishes to avoid being killed as an apostate. In the US, one must contend with repeated attempts by the religiously misguided to keep creationism from being inserted into the science classroom, spending untold millions  of taxpayer dollars to continue this separation intact. The latest attack against science is in Tennessee. The one is Kentucky has just died… for this session. The one is Texas is still going strong as it works its way towards approved legislation. Florida tries every year and this one is no different. Louisiana has already passed it’s anti-evolution bill as if this will magically improve the state’s dismal showing in student science knowledge. And so on, and so on, and so on, even after creationism has been soundly defeated in every federal court case brought against its insertion into the public school science curriculum. (The latest was in Dover in 2005.) Religious beliefs about a creator – no matter under what recent title it tries on for public acceptance – have no scientific credibility nor validity. This is not a preference or belief by people who would prefer this not to be so: it’s a fact… and a fact that far too many religious people seem unable and unwilling to grasp. When such facts are contrary to what is believed to be true by those who respect faith-based beliefs, then obviously the facts must be wrong! There’s nothing like a legislative act to set the facts on the path to redemption.

Good grief.

The world, however – and  no matter where we look at it – continues to offer up the brutal fact that creationism is not only a fairytale but that its supposed benevolence is identical in all meaningful ways to that of a delusion. For example, the latest and devastating earthquakes in New Zealand and China and  Japan is accompanied by undeniable indiscriminate death and much human suffering.  Tsunamis add their additional effects. Plate tectonics and the accompanying geological and hydrological effects are just as mindless, unguided, undirected, and indifferent a physical mechanism as biological evolution is and the resulting human suffering just as obvious. The physical evidence for mindless cause and effect of these mechanisms is overwhelming. Where is the evidence for benevolence versus the suffering these mechanisms cause?

No where.

Let us now turn to the pious who feel some level of compassion and empathy for the suffering of their fellow creatures in the wake of these disasters. A.C. Grayling offers us this glimpse into the reasoning that is avoided by those who decide to offer up their prayers to some benevolent creator for these distant folk suffering from calamity. Following the same reasoning of Epicurus’s paradox, he wonders about why anyone would show fealty to such an obvious metaphysical monster some think of as a benevolent creator:

For if he is not competent to stop an earthquake or save its victims, he is definitely not competent to create a world. And if he is powerful enough to do both, but created a dangerous world that inflicts violent and agonizing sufferings arbitrarily on sentient creatures, then he is vile. Either way, what are people thinking who believe in such a being, and who go to church to praise and worship it? How, in the face of events which human kindness and concern registers as tragic and in need of help – help which human beings proceed to give to their fellows: no angels appear from the sky to do it – can they believe such an incoherent fiction as the idea of a deity? This is a perennial puzzle.

Indeed it is.

This desire by the pious to believe in a literal Santa Claus-ian benevolent creator is not just foolishly childish and comforting as only a delusion can be; it is a faith-based belief that incessantly gives god-sanctioned motivation to those who directly attack both evidence-based fact as apostasy and intellectually honest reason as some kind of evil plot to undermine god. That some continue to insist that we can accommodate religion and science – allow respect for what some believe is true as well for what IS true – is foolhardy as well as intentionally dishonest. It is foolhardy because it interferes with folk who think there is a legitimate choice to be made between accepting what is factually true and faith-based beliefs as some kind of equivalent source for knowledge in spite of no evidence for this to be the case (and much evidence in stark contrast to this case), and dishonest because for these same folk it reduces  what is true to be conditional on some collection of faith-based beliefs they have chosen to accept as true first. Yet faith-based beliefs add nothing honest to our understanding of the world nor any true appreciation for the dependent role we suffer for our lives on it and much disinformation and misrepresentation of how the world actually is and how it actually works and how we actually cause effects in it.

May 31, 2010

What has David Sloan Wilson misplaced?

I get tired of the same old crap from religious apologists who claim to be atheists but respectful of religion. The two notions, like so many other notions snuggled up against religion, are simply incompatible. Be that as it may, the religious apologist tends to miss the point of their own atheism: non belief. And one maintains non belief because the reasons and justifications for the belief are held by the atheist to be insufficient to be considered probably true, probably correct, probably accurate.Wilson seems to have misplaced that notion regarding other atheists.

Most of us don’t apologize if we think the followers of astrology are wrong in their beliefs about the effects of stars and planets guiding our destinies. Most of us don’t grant respect to the idea that because some people believe lead can be made into gold by the incantation of magic words, the idea has merit simply by the fact that these folk find comfort in believing in transubstantiation. Most of us don’t lend credence to dowsing because of the utility the belief brings to those who wish to dig to the water table and who – miracle! – find water. Yet there is a veritable army of people who use this kind of flimsy thinking to excuse those who wish to maintain their religious beliefs and enter them into guiding public policies that directly affect the rights and freedoms of others.

One such apologist is David Sloan Wilson who proposes that that natural selection can operate on traits that improve the success of groups rather than individuals. Groupthink is a sociologist’s wet dream and I have always found those who construct mental definitions based on selected group criteria who then in turn define the ‘group’ behaviour as an explanation for that common group criteria to be sloppy thinkers. Sloan does not disappoint me. He responds to a question about why those like he is who argue the evolutionary utility of religion helps to explain its value in terms of group advantages are treated with less deference in the scientific world of biology than he believes they ought. The entire article is here, but the part that pisses me off is his answer to the question:

Does your approach annoy atheists?

I piss off atheists more than any other category, and I am an atheist. One of the things that infuriates me about the newest crop of angry atheists, such as Richard Dawkins, is their denial of the beneficial aspects of religion. Their beef is not just that there is no evidence for God. They also insist that religion “poisons everything”, as Christopher Hitchens subtitled his book. They are ignoring the scientific theory and evidence for the “secular utility” of religion, as Émile Durkheim put it, even though they wrap themselves in the mantle of science and rationality. Someone needs to call them out on that, and that person is me.

Angry atheists? We deny benefit to those who share religious belief? Our beef? Ignore secular utility? Wrap ourselves in science and rationality? What nonsense.

How does this intentional gross misrepresentation of some of the New Atheists deal with what matters most to honest atheists: is the notion being brought forth as a truth claim actually true, and if so, based on what good reasons with evidential support? Sloan doesn’t tackle this point because he can’t; instead, he call more famous atheists names. Yes, what a champion of the droll.

Put another way, Sloan is undermining exactly that approach concerned about inquiring into what is true and focuses on these piddling caricatures of those who do so with more groupthink that has no bearing on truth claims. For example, he seems to think that the inquiry into what is true needs to lend some weighted value to a ‘happy’ factor. He thinks if a belief has some benefit, that must increase it’s truth value. Surely if an idea has utility, he insists, that has to grant some weight to its truth value. And obviously those who insist that truth be determined in as objective way as possible must do so out of some hidden egoism. Regarding what is true, what atheists actually care about, Wilson shoots off his mouth well wide of the mark and thinks himself a real champion of the religious underclass for doing so.

What bunk.

With willing minions like Wilson to tackle the job of undermining atheism by intentional misrepresentations and really stupid and weak arguments like these, David Sloan Wilson becomes just another religious apologist aiding and abetting those who don’t care about what’s true. Although I have no doubt that in Wilson’s mind he has ‘called out’ these atheists who own up to caring about what is true, all he has really accomplished is called into question his own intellectual integrity with such proud prattle. But that will happen when you disconnect from your own higher faculties.

April 1, 2010

What is cultural maladaptation?

From The American Scholar comes this article about historical change and the need to for historians to study and assess it not by perceived successes and failures but in evolutionary terms: how sustainable has the cultural adaptation become or is the practice maladaptive?

People have developed strategies to meet changes in climate, in energy sources, or in the diseases they confront. In some cases they have developed, through thoughtful observation, ways to avoid degrading or depleting their environment. They have learned how to become more resilient in the face of change.

But adaptation, even in nature, has never been perfect or sufficient. Before Darwin, naturalists like Bishop William Paley, author of the 1802 religious classic Natural Theology, liked to talk about the marvelous fitness of plants and animals to their environments; a world that was perfectly harmonized and perfectly adapted showed, they believed, the handiwork of a rational God. They insisted that everything in the world is perfectly organized and perfectly adapted, that every creature has its assigned place. But Darwin’s theory of evolution overturned the notion that we live in the “best of all possible worlds.” Darwin, for all of his admiration of natural selection, forced us to begin paying attention to the reality and frequency of maladaptation.

After him, the science of adaptation could no longer claim to reveal a perfect world in which everything works for the best or where nature always achieves the ideal solution to a problem. Nature cobbles together solutions from whatever material is available. When those solutions fail, the costs of mal-adaptation can be severe. Contrary to modern critics like Stephen Jay Gould and Richard Lewontin, the so-called “adaptationist program” in modern biology does not teach that we live in the best of all conceivable worlds. Nature shows us many examples of failure, impoverishment, dysfunction, and death as much as fitness, functionality, and good health. And this maladaptation is certainly evident when we examine human cultures through history.

Historians need to acknowledge the importance of the environment and to embrace the theory and worldview of evolution for the dazzling light it sheds on the origins, development, and fate of humanity.

March 10, 2010

Why not contrast the teaching of evolution with a little creationist “cdesign proponentsists” in biology class?

Excerpts indented from this article at the New Scientist:

One of creationists’ favourite claims is that an organ as intricate as the eye could never have simply evolved. Fresh evidence to the contrary has now arrived, courtesy of a creature related to jellyfish.

The tiny freshwater hydra has no eyes but it will contract into a ball when exposed to sudden bright light. David Plachetzki and colleagues at the University of California, Santa Barbara, have found that hydras “see” light using two proteins closely related to those in our own eyes.

“If you look at something as complex as an eye, you might be at a loss to explain how the whole structure evolved at once,” says Plachetzki, now at the University of California, Davis. “But if you look at its components you can start to piece together how it happened.” That’s especially feasible now that genes from the earliest animals, such as the hydra, are being sequenced.

Rod and cone cells in the human retina contain proteins called opsins that change shape when light strikes them. This causes another type of protein, an ion channel, to generate an electrical signal along nerves connecting the eye to the brain – a process called phototransduction.

Hydras have the same types of opsins and ion channels as we do.

Why? Why does a critter with no eyes have the same opsins and ion channels as we do? According to creationists, the ‘explanation’ is that god made the freshwater hydra this way, an explanation empty of meaning because it is empty of evidence to inform it. “God made it this way” is an unverifiable assertion, an assumption that the hypothesis is true without any means to test that truth claim. “god made it this way” is not a meaningful explanation because it provides no meaningful answer. Its explanatory power is zero, the equivalent of a null set. Many people think that this null set approach is legitimate ”science’ (creationists call it by another name in the world of scientific education: Intelligent Design, a term substituted into newer texts from older creationist tracts to present a different more modern face to this very old theological belief). Proponents of ID pretend that some ‘force’ must have produced the complexity we find in nature, making it, they claim, a legitimate alternative scientific theory to evolution without also proving us an explanatory framework within which we can find various ways and means to produce testable, verifiable, falsifiable, and predictable causal and correlational answers informed by evidence rather than meaningless assertions of supernatural intervention and divine design based on an assumed belief that such an assertion is true. On this scientific scale, ID is theological creationism repackaged and re-branded.

The theory of evolution offers an explanatory framework in which we can deduce that because both humans and freshwater hydras possess the same opsins and ion channels, we therefore should share a common ancestor. Critters who have different opsins and ion channels should not.

If biologists accepted this assertion and assumed that the word should means the same thing as the word does, without any further investigation to inform the assertion, then they would be open to the legitimate charge of merely holding a different belief than creationists. But real scientists don’t stop their investigations with assertions and simply assume them to be true. Real scientists must inform their hypothesis with something more than assertions and assumptions… a little thing called evidence. In the case of the freshwater hydra, real biologists ask the important question How might we determine, even indirectly, if we do share a common ancestor? and then attempt to account for any evidence that supports or refutes the hypothesis.

One avenue of investigation: as already mentioned, gene sequencing.

Plachetzki’s team then built a family tree of opsin gene sequences from 22 highly diverse creatures, and found that opsins in hydras and humans evolved from those in a common ancestor. Another line of descendants from the same ancestor gave rise to somewhat different opsins and ion channels in insect and mollusc eyes. This supports other indirect evidence, says Nilsson, that the hydras’ light-sensing equipment was the original model, and the insects’ came later.

The hydra is the most primitive animal with functioning opsins, so the team concludes that it represents “the very origin of animal phototransduction”, which was incorporated into more complex eyes as they evolved.

This finding is more evidence of the power of explanation that the theory of evolution offers us. That god made insect eyes to rely on a mutated version of the opsins and ion channels common to the freshwater hydra and humans is no explanation whatsoever answering the related question of why they are different so-called ‘designs’; using the theory of evolution, we do find an explanation that accounts for the evidence. The theory works. Again.

To those who promote creationism as an alternative explanation so beautifully explained by evolution’s overwhelming multi-branched mutually supporting natural evidence as just a different way to ‘know’, who wish to teach the next generation of citizens that a belief that offers no meaningful explanation is as good as one informed by one that consistently does, I say Shame. Shame on you for choosing to promote your supernatural beliefs as if they were equal methods to the harder but more rewarding obtainment of real knowledge through informed biological science. Shame on you for equating that the two explanatory approaches are equal in the quality their respective inquiries. They’re not, you know it, and you as the responsible adult and parent and citizen should know better than to lie to children to soothe your conscience in maintaining your superstitious beliefs as a legitimate but different kind of attainable knowledge about the natural world when it is no such thing: creationism in all its disguises that answers questions with “Because god made it so”  is an unjustified belief in the legitimacy of supernatural causation. The explanation contains no  evidence in which to inform it. Foisting that unjustified belief on the next generation masked as an equally valid scientific theory, implying without cause that there actually exists some imaginary scientific controversy, is an exercise in promoting and teaching willful ignorance.

March 3, 2010

What about UNnatural selection? Evidence for the genetic effect of memes?

Filed under: Biology,Culture,Evolution,Genetics,Natural Selection,Science — tildeb @ 2:44 pm

From The New York Times Science:

As with any other species, human populations are shaped by the usual forces of natural selection, like famine, disease or climate. A new force is now coming into focus. It is one with a surprising implication — that for the last 20,000 years or so, people have inadvertently been shaping their own evolution. The force is human culture, broadly defined as any learned behavior, including technology.

Where might we look for evidence in support of this hypothesis?

People adapt genetically to sustained cultural changes, like new diets. And this interaction works more quickly than other selective forces, “leading some practitioners to argue that gene-culture co-evolution could be the dominant mode of human evolution,” Kevin N. Laland and colleagues wrote in the February issue of Nature Reviews Genetics.

Such as?

Lactose tolerance is now well recognized as a case in which a cultural practice — drinking raw milk — has caused an evolutionary change in the human genome.

Amylase is an enzyme in the saliva that breaks down starch. People who live in agrarian societies eat more starch and have extra copies of the amylase gene compared with people who live in societies that depend on hunting or fishing.

A third group of selected genes affects brain function.

How might we differentiate between genetic mutations from natural selection and those from cultural practices?

In the last few years, biologists have been able to scan the whole human genome for the signatures of genes undergoing selection. Such a signature is formed when one version of a gene becomes more common than other versions because its owners are leaving more surviving offspring. From the evidence of the scans, up to 10 percent of the genome — some 2,000 genes — shows signs of being under selective pressure.

Can we base predictions on this information and test the hypothesis? Well, not so much, because our ability to compare changes to a baseline is very limited, which means we must rely more on statistical and other mathematical models rather than hard data. But the evidence clearly suggests that our genome is affected by established cultural practices.

Mathematical models of gene-culture interaction suggest that this form of natural selection can be particularly rapid. Culture has become a force of natural selection, and if it should prove to be a major one, then human evolution may be accelerating as people adapt to pressures of their own creation.

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