Skepticism

Afternoon Inquisition 9.27

There are a number of people in my life who, despite being smart, intellectual, and questioning people, seem unable to apply this same questioning attitude to the arena of faith. You probably know someone like this as well.

Do you think it’s just that they haven’t ever had reason to question, or is there something deeper (perhaps genetic) going on that prevents them from thinking about certain topics in a more skeptical way? In other words, are some people just wired to believe?

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28 Comments

  1. I think woo in otherwise skeptical people serves as a sort of relief or escape from reality. In this way, its would be a psychological mechanism for peace of mind (and maybe even staying sane).
    As I explore creative venues frequently, I think sometimes people can be fooled (or overflown) by the endless possibilities or explanations for phenomena. Even if it starts like a “game”, it can become permanent mind boggling.
    So i guess I am saying its only psycho mech.

  2. I haven’t seen any evidence to suggest that good intellectual habits are the result of anything but practice. While it’s certainly probable that there are big genetic “knobs” related to temperament that could play a role-openess, fear, tribalism, etc. the fact that the skeptical ranks seem to be quite rife with people from less rational backgrounds, and the well-documented degree to which people can compartmentalize their thinking, suggests to me that skepticism is emminently teachable, and that the tough going is more a result of meeting the already committed in unpersuasive open combat than it is about the intrinsic nature of a viewpoint.

  3. It probably has a lot to do with when they were indoctrinated, but as this appears to be a fairly complex phenomenon XD there are probably many underlining factors coming into play here, probably none of which can take full responsibility. I tend to look at skepticism as a type of mental vaccination protecting one from all things supernatural, faith included.
    Like any bad habit, faith is hard to break, easy to justify.

  4. We are ALL wired that way. Its just how we evolved, to see the rustle in the bushes as a tiger. We’ll never get rid of woo, like rage the best we can hope to do is try and contain it.

    Besides, if Woo includes any “understanding” of natural philosophy a person has not based on a solid scientific grounding, then ~99% of the human race is walking around with a head full of Woo.

    We all have that rationality deficit. Hell, even people who should know better, fall for the monty hall problem (most famously a university maths prof from a leading UK university) or, in my case, reach for that second chocolate biscuit.

  5. I’ve never actually sat down and rationally thought out or gotten up and investigated what happens to food before it gets to the supermarket, or what happens to my ballot after I put it in the box in an election. I know I probably should, but I can’t work up the interest, and am not sure where to start, or how to trust the various sources of information on these subjects.

    I assume some people are the same way in regards to their religion.

  6. russellsugden beat me to mentioning the first thing that occurred to me, here. Woo is definitely intrinsic to the human condition.

    One of the impressions I get from woo-people when I talk about wooey things skeptically is a sense of “hey, you’re ruining our game.” Almost as if a lot of people know it’s all just made up, but they find it entertaining so they run with it.

    I think part of the process of advancing skepticism is making it more fun in a positive, non-snarky way. I mean, I know it’s fun, but they haven’t ridden the ride yet.

  7. Speaking from personal experience, as someone who has sometimes been sliiiightly taken in by some woo or another, I think it’s because some propositions are so appealing to people that they want to believe, and won’t let this little thing call reality get in the way.

    For example, on the subject of free will—people don’t usually want the future to be pre-determined and set in stone. They want unpredictability. So they buy into ideas such as “quantum filaments in neurons” and other such magic charms that make the brain “special” and ineffable. At the same time, many people want to have advance warning of what’s coming to them, so they take stock in fortune tellers and psychics, because it’s comfortable and they want to believe in a universe that is benign and willing to surrender its secrets to those who want it badly enough.

    Back to the free will topic, right now I’m a compatibilist, but I can still see myself influenced by my desire to be a spontaneous, indeterminable agent. In time, I may have to revise my views depending upon what reality shows.

  8. I had an interesting conversation about this with my Genetics professor once. Supposedly there are people out there that are trying to investigate such a question, but I’m not entirely sure how it would be done.

    I think that believing in -something- is an inherit part of human nature. In the way the human race evolved, people had to account for things that they couldn’t explain. I am in the process of reading the Clan of the Cave Bear series, and it addresses similar issues. The main character was taught certain traditions through her “people” (she was an outsider raised by a different race). It wasn’t until she left her people that she began to seriously question the explanations given to her for a series of unexplainable events in her life.

    I think it is simply how the human race evolved, and only lately has that been changing. It is harder to question something/someone than to simply let it lie in peace.

  9. Lets be honest. If you’ll accept Quantum Mechanics or Relativity (I wont even mention string theory) and all the “crazy” stuff they entail you can’t really decry other people for thinking/hoping that grandma is sending them messages or that they have a lucky pair of socks that helps them win football games.

    There are plenty of Woo ideas knocking about in the Skeptical commuinty too. Some chap tried to tell me that people know best how to spend their own money when its clear that given the chance they’d blow it all on beer, cigarettes and junk food. Direct Debits were invented to get the money straight out of the bank account before it could be spent at the bookies.

    Or democracy. Give everyone a vote you say? With no more qaulifications than being over 18 years old. Half the population are below average intelligence, 40% are clinically obese (so they havent even got the jugdement to STOP forcing cakes down their throats despite not being able to eat without sweating), then there’s the 120,000 people in prison (would you let them babysit your kids? no, let them decide who runs the country, oh no problem), then theres the people who believe in homeopathy, the junkies, the alcoholics, the child abusers, the racists (and that just the Royal bloody family). And they’re the one’s who take an active interest in politics, or at least read the Daily Mail, so have some idea about whats going on (usually its the wrong idea) in the first place.

    Democracy is the most efficient means by which men decide how best the reward themselves gifts from the public treasury.

    Sadly the Jeremy Kyle show is a representative sample of the great british public, who sit at home every day of the week, watching TV, drinking beer…and waiting to vote.

  10. @nighean_ruaidhe:

    “I think it is simply how the human race evolved, and only lately has that been changing.”

    Evolution DOES NOT work like that. Its far too slow a process to say anything has changed “Lately” or for us to be able to positively identify any changes taking place. Truth is, there is no (or less) more woo about in the human race today there ever was.

    You could say that only recently (say the last 300 years give or take) have we been able to develop a means to identify what is woo and what isn’t.

  11. Russell, I think that might be an unnecessarily pessimistic view, and not in line with the evidence. The positive demographics for democracies consistently outperform other forms of government, and have for a long time. Democracies are profoundly imperfect, but it doesn’t take much systems theory to recognize that integrating a cybernetic feedback loop-the vote-into governance, no matter how crude, improves the quality of governance.

    Now, the fact remains that the line between selfish mobs and informed electorates is small, and an issue that has plagued architects of democracies from the beginning. It might simply require, in all the various categories of judgment, a person is really profoundly offbase in only a few, and possesses opinions within sight of begrudging, workable compromise in the others, and the vote works to line up your given class of crazy opinion with the tolerable sense of your fellows, with the filter of elected representatives, dedicated to actually dealing the execution of the voter’s wishes, to round off the soft edges.

    Not that this system can’t slip from its moorings and feedback itself over a cliff. Weimar Germany, anyone?

    Sorry for the thread hijack. Back to topic.

  12. Our society asks very little of “believers”. You just have to nod your head and say, “I am spiritual and not too religious,” and people leave you alone. Perhaps, that is the goal of your friends. Ride the Agnostic Fence. I think at least a significant slice of your intelligent, critical, “believing” friends fall into that category… the “Don’t bug me” category.

    Declaring oneself to be an out-n-out atheist has potential social costs, as many people mistakenly “believe” that atheists are Satanists. So, we have developed polite ways of saying, “Don’t ask me, and I won’t ask you, and together we will keep this Arby’s running smoothly.”

    Then there are Unitarians.

  13. Reality is a bitch. It just is. in the same way that Elmer Cogen isn’t. The world is a hard place. The unicerse is trying to kill us. Birth is a death sentence. In one hundred years no one will even remember who Mark Twain or Lewis Carrol, or Isaac Asimov, or Charles Dickens was. We are all of us finite.

    Even when your dick is as big as mine you will be forgoten.

    I don’t want to be forgoten. I don’t want to disapear and rot away. I don’t want to die.

    But I will. I will die someday.

    So I convince myself that I will die but I will be reborn, either in another form (heaven), or I will be reborn as something else (reincarnation) or I never die at all (immortality) (my personal favorite). This is so much better than reality.

    Any time I think that I might not beleive I talk to my fellow beleivers and they help me past my “crisis of faith.”

    Or I know that it isn’t real but I know that pretending to belief gives me power and money so I pretend.

    Or I’m an idiot and drunk and misanthropic and everyone should ignore me.

  14. I have a friend whose belief in God is marverling. He’s a staunch believer, despite being, so he claims, “scientifically-oriented”. He’s a great mathmatician, and an even greater well-reasoned man. Despite that, he completely fails to use his great critical analysis skills to the question of God’s existence.

    The reason, as I see it, is that he’s afraid of a drastic change in his life. This is what he have been used to, and he surely don’t want to change his life. It was the case with me, but I’ve changed over time.

    I see a similar pattern of what I and him have been through in other people. People are afraid, in my humble opinion, to abandon their childhood beliefs. I just hope he and others will overcome their setbacks and become more critical of their own belief system.

    Have a good one everyone!

  15. Many people believe in a god that does nothing but provide an afterlife (relieve fear of death) and loves them (fulfills need to belong) and that is it.

    So they get some squishy feeling from it, but it never contradicts or inflicts itself in their secular lives. They never have to think about it, so they don’t. They passively accept it because there’s nothing to suggest they shouldn’t.

  16. @Gabrielbrawley: Really? I think you’re wrong. Mark Twain is known a hundred years later, why shouldn’t Asimov? The popular fiction of Dumas is still well known, and his name is recognized by much of the Western world. Even older, the works Cervantes are still remembered. Shall we go back further? Homer. You are overly pessimistic. Much that we know will be known and remembered centuries hence. Our ability to preserve information is far beyond that of previous times, and the authors whose names we still remember stand as counterexample to your assertion..

  17. Commenting without having read the rest: The question is set up as somewhat of a false dichotomy. In my experience, people have had reason to question, but questioning is much less comfortable than shoving that doubt aside and believing. I don’t think that makes them wired to believe. It’s just a coping mechanism. Although, there could be other explanations as well.

  18. I have only recently discovered the skeptical movement when I started listening to the SGU in January. For most of my life I was a woo-woo, and believed in just about anything anyone said was possible. As the years went by and the evidence failed to surface I reluctantly abandoned my beliefs in ESP, ghosts, past life regressions, crystals, cryptids, aliens and UFO’s, etc. But the one thing I cannot shake, even though I have major doubts, is a belief in God. I cling to the scientific precept that it is impossible to prove something doesn’t exist, so rather than allow myself to categorically state ‘there is no God’, which is a scientifically unsound premise, I hide in agnosticism and say ‘I don’t know’. The reason for this is simple, old-fashioned fear. I don’t think there is a God, but I’m afraid to say so in case there is. Even admitting this here, which the first time I’ve committed these words to any sort of medium, is making me uncomfortable. I don’t know if this is hard wiring, or indoctrination, but to borrow from a former comment, like Mount Everest, it is.

  19. I have 2 brothers who are fundamentalist christians. One of them has a couple degrees, one in law, one in engineering – he is a highly educated, intelligent and logical person. He actually taught me the concept of Occam’s Razor.

    We hadn’t spoken for years and we are currently trying to rebuild our relationship through emails – actually, I think I’m trying to rebuild our relationship and he’s trying to convert me.

    I genuinely do not understand how a man with an otherwise scientific mind truly believes without question that the bible is the literal word of god, but he does. I bring up the contradictions and testable claims that are obviously false…and he says I’ve taken it out of context, I don’t understand, or that part isn’t important.

    I think religion may function for him the same way that skepticism functions for me. It’s a big, scary world with lots of confusing information and religion helps him sort it out. It doesn’t make sense to me – but then again, it doesn’t have to. His life works for him.

    I constantly go back and forth about whether I should challenge his belief structure or not, cause I don’t want to rock his mental stability – but since I am trying to rebuild that relationship, I don’t think it’s going to help if I weave and dodge when the subject of religion comes up, so these days I just tell him what I think. So far that hasn’t been a deal-breaker. We’ll see how it goes as the conversation gets deeper.

  20. @Gabrielbrawley: The problem with the statement about not being remembered in a hundred years is that unless you have no family to speak of who will exist after you do, or you don’t do something significant, that simply is not the case. Sure if the human race were wiped out tomorrow, you might be absolutely correct unless an intelligence comparable to ours arrives or arises. Asimov will more than likely be remembered a hundred years hence, probably will live on as one of the forerunners of modern sci fi for many hundreds of years. Mark Twain? He isn’t going anywhere, he’ll be remembered as long as there are books (in whatever form they ultimately take) and humorists, and as @Rystefn: previously mentioned, there are many others that continue to be remembered. He didn’t even mention Shakespeare and most people try to avoid reading him. And as for me, or others here who do not do something of a social or historic nature that will be remembered by all in a hundred years, we all probably have relatives, or maybe even children and/or grandchildren, and amongst those there is bound to be at least one amateur genealogist who will probably be building a family tree, and that will be how you are remembered, maybe as only a footnote, but it’s still a memory of sorts.

  21. I don´t think we´re somehow “hard-wired” for woo, but we´re certainly hard-wired for believing our parents (and possibly our extended family, the society), and that´s for mighty good reasons. As has been pointed out by Dawkins and others (see “The God Delusion”), a child might in principle learn all things in life from experience… but when it comes to things like eating hemlock, jumping from high cliffs, or playing with rattlesnakes, you´d better take your parents´ word for it that it isn´t healthy. As a matter of fact, when you´re at it, you might as well buy the whole package and believe everything they say!
    Not that there is any guarantee that all their claims be true. Probably they´re not. They might, indeed, contain a lot of “woo” (=unsubstiantiated beliefs handed down unto them from their forefathers). But none of those claims are likely to, when applied to everyday life, have absolutely lethal consequences, given that your parents have actually managed to survive! So, as a rule of thumb, you should believe what they tell you is true.
    There´s another side of this too, which (to my knowledge) hasn´t been stressed by any author. If you are a parent, how should you raise your children? A pretty good way to do it would be to somehow “copy” your own childhood onto your offspring! Your upbringing may have been far from perfect, but, after all, if you have managed to reach sexual maturity and get children of your own, it cannot, per definition, (in a biological sense) have been a total failure! So, to ensure the survival of your own genes, you should teach your children what you were taught yourself (and at approximately the same age!)
    I am aware that there is a formidable problem with this last hypothesis. Most people have precious little, if any, memories from their days of early childhood. So it would be almost impossible to somehow use them as a “template” for their own children. I leave this problem as an exercise to the reader.
    So if we´re all hard-wired to believe, are we hard-wired to believe anything? Obviously, no. Evidently contrafactual beliefs, like the belief that you can breath underwater, is and has always been strongly selected against. I guess, if our species will last like a thousand million years, the belief in homeopathic remedies will be selected out of history. The tendency to believe false, or at least unsubstantiated things can only manifest itself when it comes to “little” things, things of minimal everyday concern. Stuff like “who made the earth?”, or “what makes the sun move?”. And that´s where we find them!

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