Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Religious Thinking: Faith

When a religious person attacks an atheist, proclaiming that they're the ones who are blinded by faith, they are being ridiculous, but they are not necessarily wrong. They are being ridiculous, because their entire belief system values faith, and when they use faith as a criticism of atheists, they're criticizing themselves at the same time. To them, isn't faith a good thing?

But they may not be wrong. Consider the atheist child whose parents are atheist. This child has missed out on an important life-experience: that of changing his mind on a very cherished belief. I used to be a Mormon, but over the course of several years I gradually retreated, finally declaring myself a full atheist who nevertheless can take elements of spiritual philosophy into my own framework. Taoism is a great philosophy regardless of its spirituality, and I think many atheists can learn a lot of "the Tao". A slightly lesser experience though still important is discovering that Santa Claus doesn't really exist.

So take those children, who grew up just being told religion is wrong. How are they any different from the counterfactual versions of themselves that grew up in a Muslim environment, simply being told that Islam is correct and atheism is wrong? They're not. The atheist parents may give reasons for their view, the Muslim parents may give reasons for their view, but until the young atheist makes an honest, critical examination, their beliefs are formed from two places: their parents word, which children trust pretty highly, and what is called "faith". They don't have much in the way of evidence apart from what their environment says, they just hold their belief, haven't given it serious thought, and faith is holding a belief without requiring justification for that belief. They don't need justification, they just believe it. (Sure, justification is given to them, but after taking the belief they no longer need it unless faced with strong counterarguments.)

Here's a recent example I read today: Does Text Shadow Increase Text Legibility? In it, Zed Shaw makes this tweet:

text-shadow is the <blink> tag of 2011.

When challenged, he replies back:

Got proof? As in, actual usability studies with real people where they read pages and pages of shadowed text that I can replicate?

It's clear that Zed's opinion in his first tweet is just a belief he has that requires no justification. And yet, and I assume he's an atheist, when confronted with an opposing belief he demands evidence, justification, "Why do you take your opposing belief on faith?!" The author of the article showed some rationality by actually doing a simple test, which while having its flaws produces no unexpected results. He's right, for his particular case. And yet Zed can also be correct, there are many abuses of text-shadow. The important distinguishing factor is that the author found justification for his belief, he no longer needs to take it on faith. How about Zed? Perhaps he can do some scientific study, even if it's flawed, so that he too can have some basis for belief instead of just sticking with his opinion.

I may be muddying faith and opinion here. The problem that faith presents is that it's not just mere opinion, but actively restrains the person from changing opinions. Faith is a set of behaviors as well as a class of beliefs. Even the most rational people have beliefs that haven't been seriously examined, but what distinguishes a rational person from an irrational person, what distinguishes simple opinion from faith, is what the person does when he realizes that his belief is unjustified. Does he seek justification, even if weak or wrong? Does he blow it off, for example in a case of movie preferences, saying he doesn't understand his own values well enough to explain why he likes movie X? Does he just ignore it, and say the belief stands on its own? A mind trying to be rational will seek justification, while a religious thinking mind entrenched in faith will let the argument stand on its own, and spend its time criticizing the other side rather than examining itself.

Lastly, I mean no disrespect to Zed Shaw, but it is silly to state an opinion with no justification, then as a first step demand justification when presented with an opposing view. I'd be surprised and honored if he ever read this.

Posted on 2010-11-12 by Jach

Tags: religious thinking


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mcantor November 12, 2010 11:34:26 AM Obligatory:

I have been thinking along these exact lines lately; it's nice to see that someone else out there is reaching similar conclusions.

I like your use of the term "rational" and "irrational," because it allows us to draw a distinction between a very important pair of behaviors that are shared, as implied by the xkcd comic, by atheists *and* theists:

Rational people accept that they might be wrong.

Irrational people believe that they couldn't possibly be wrong.

Suddenly, it becomes obvious why some atheists & Christians get along and some don't:

Rational atheists are capable of saying, "Well, I don't believe in God or the afterlife... but it would suck if I'm wrong, because then I'm probably going straight to hell!"

Rational Christians are capable of saying, "My morality is partially founded on my fear of divine retribution, and it worries me that my non-Christian friends and loved ones are going to hell. But, I understand that it's not worth destroying relationships over."

IRRATIONAL atheists sound like this: "If you believe in God, you are propagating a facile delusion. Only science is worth believing because only science can be proven beyond the shadow of a doubt[1]."

IRRATIONAL Christians sound like this: "If you don't believe in God, you are going straight to hell, and everything else about your life is meaningless because you have already precluded yourself from achieving the REAL goal of existence, which is to do God's bidding."

Trying to have a conversation with an irrational person will always result in an infinite loop. An irrational person will always come back to this: "But you're *WRONG*!"

I feel like you're getting at a similar point when you mention the difference between "being raised religious and becoming atheist" and "being raised atheist and staying that way." However, I think the most important distinction is not how you were raised, but simply *whether you have examined your faith*. For example, a Christian child who "becomes atheist" solely as a method of youthful rebellion can hardly claim that his beliefs are as "valid" as someone who searched their soul for what felt right.

We ought to make sure we're talking about the same thing here.

What is faith?

I believe that the faith you are referring to in this blog post could be more thoroughly described as "blind, irrational, unexamined faith." However, there is another kind of faith, which I will refer to as "self-evident faith":

[1] - "Self-evident faith" could be described as, "That which we take for granted, and use as an anchor from which we can make decisions in this universe filled with uncertainty."

Christians have faith in God. They have faith that, when things get rough, it will "be OK," because it's all a part of His plan. Without God, nothing is certain. Nothing has meaning.

What do atheists have faith in? It depends on the atheist. Atheism is the *lack* of faith in God, not a belief system in of itself.

Some atheists have faith in science, in their senses, and in rational morality. Without science, nothing is certain. Nothing has meaning. They will swear up and down that this isn't "faith" because science can be unambiguously PROVEN! It doesn't count as... "FAITH" (they spit the word out, with vitriol, like a rotten grape)... because it can be PROVEN!

But the fact is, we could be in the Matrix right now; your senses could be lying, and "science" is built to constantly prove itself wrong. In the strictest, most brutally rational sense of things, you just can't be certain about anything! You just have to take it on "self-evident faith" that things are the way they seem, just like science says they are.

If you don't have faith in God, or your senses, or science, or rational morality... why bother with anything? Why not just kill yourself? Why does anything matter? Why bother making decisions if your most basic assumptions about the universe are no more valid than a hallucination?

"Self-evident faith" is a necessary mechanism for humans to function. It's the answer to the question "Why?". Atheists love to talk about how they don't need "faith," but they're talking about "blind, irrational, unexamined faith." Everyone needs "self-evident faith," they just don't call it that.

I should really just start a blog already, instead of writing guerrilla essays on other people's websites... ;-)

- Max
Jach November 12, 2010 12:40:03 PM Your guerrilla essay is appreciated. :) I love how everyone links that XKCD comic, too; I had linked it in my "Arrogance Labels" post.

I totally agree with you in substance, where I disagree is mostly in terminology and technical matters. I really think we should stay away from using "faith", even "self-evident faith", since it lumps two very distinct and separate categories into one. Even if people read the distinction, they're still going to be substituting their "irrational faith" in for "faith" whenever they see it, and it will just confuse the conversation. This is one of my problems with Objectivism, how it "hijacks" many words to use in non-common ways.

Anyway, I like to think of "self-evident faith" as more of "your subjective prior". Where do prior probabilities come from? Good question, hell if I know... Probably a mixture of evolutionary history, environments where you grew up, people you talk to, the content of your thoughts, beliefs, feelings, motivations, biases, etc... It's not that you have trust in your prior, necessarily, but you have to have one to make any probability judgments and updates when you navigate the world around you. A prior of 100% or 0% certainty doesn't make sense mathematically or epistemology: if you believe in something absolutely, then there should be no finite amount of evidence that could change your mind. (This comes out in the math quite intuitively when you convert probability to log odds.)

Of course, I trust in Bayes, more than I trust in Science, more than I trust in my intuition, and Bayes is pure math.

Another part of "self-evident faith" seems to be your subjective utility function. Why did I eat that sandwich? Well, eating's pretty high on my utility function, and sandwiches rank higher than worms, I happened to have a sandwich, so why are you examining my diet? If I didn't have a sandwich, I would have searched for something else. People's utility functions are shaped by the same forces as their vague "preferences" and priors, it's something human.

It's useful to ask a person who trusts in science or trusts in rationality, "Why do you believe what you believe?" If they don't have something to protect, if science and rationality have no other purposes but themselves, they are going to lose and collapse into infinite recursion.

Anyway, I like how you mentioned the fact that science is designed to become less wrong, it's not mentioned that often. Religion doesn't progress, it just has its elder rabbis who mourn for the days when people were much more Righteous, and people drift further and further away from the strict interpretations as they find themselves trapped in a belief in belief... Its heroes are still worshiped though, to contradict a hero is sin. Science meanwhile progresses by slaughtering its heroes and stepping over their corpses. Einstein showed Newton's theory was wrong, we've moved on. (Though another interesting point of science is that the new theories tend to encapsulate the old theories as special cases.)
Anonymous June 17, 2017 03:32:22 PM I think these point of view, in the main message and both comments before this one, is insightful.

Not all rational and irrational atheists and Christians are like that, although at least the rationals are being rational! Still those thing about the hell, is in my opinion is not the point. Many people (both atheist and religion) are just seeing shallowly religion.

Either way I don't mind if you are atheist or Christian or whatever else, and I think there is many thing to learn (including of Tao, like you mentioned; that is good thing to learn too, I certainly agree).

"I think the most important distinction is not how you were raised, but simply *whether you have examined your faith*" I agree too, is no good to just be blind faith or blind anti-faith (is "blind anti-faith" even a real word?).

"Why bother making decisions if your most basic assumptions about the universe are no more valid than a hallucination?" Science is not perfect but is best way we have; they are not absolute proving, only the best way we can know. Mathematics are the perfect way, and can be proving (although it is still possible to make all kind of mistakes; I am not perfect). Maybe all of your observation are just hallucination. Maybe all of your thoughts about mathematics and whatever else also is all hallucination. But if that is hallucination, how to argue anything, and even so, even if your knowledge of the universe is all hallucination, even if universe is all hallucination, then, maybe can also be your decision is all just hallucination too, so it is OK (for certain values of "OK").
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