Belief-Dependent Realism

I don’t agree much with Michael Shermer but he has some categories for why folks seemingly can’t see what we think are errors, or why folks seemingly can’t change their mind on something we think profoundly wrong.

What do you think of his categories? Where do you see these categories at work?

We form our beliefs for a variety of subjective, emotional and psychological reasons in the context of environments created by family, friends, colleagues, culture and society at large. After forming our beliefs, we then defend, justify and rationalize them with a host of intellectual reasons, cogent arguments and rational explanations. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow…. I call this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it, belief-dependent realism. Reality exists independent of human minds, but our understanding of it depends on the beliefs we hold at any given time….

Once we form beliefs and make commitments to them, we maintain and reinforce them through a number of powerful cognitive biases that distort our percepts to fit belief concepts. Among them are:

ANCHORING BIAS: relying too heavily on one reference anchor or piece of information when making decisions.

AUTHORITY BIAS: valuing the opinions of an authority, especially in the evaluation of something we know little about.

BELIEF BIAS: evaluating the strength of an argument based on the believability of its conclusion.

CONFIRMATION BIAS: seeking and finding confirming evidence in support of already existing beliefs and ignoring or reinterpreting disconfirming evidence.

On top of all these biases, there is the in-group bias, in which we place more value on the beliefs of those whom we perceive to be fellow members of our group and less on the beliefs of those from different groups. This is a result of our evolved tribal brains that lead us not only to place such value judgment on beliefs but also to demonize and dismiss them as nonsense or evil, or both.

Belief-dependent realism is driven even deeper by a meta bias called the bias blind spot, or the tendency to recognize the power of cognitive biases in other people but to be blind to their influence on our own beliefs. Even scientists are not immune, subject to experimenter-expectation bias, or the tendency for observers to notice, select and publish data that agree with their expectations for the outcome of an experiment and to ignore, discard or disbelieve data that do not.

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  • I marvel that you seem to find more agreement with Michael Shermer than you do with Wayne Grudem.

  • rjs

    Daniel Mann,

    That is not a fair comment or observation – not on any level whatsoever.

    Scot put up some observations for comment – what do you think of Shermer’s categories?

  • rjs

    I see the belief dependent bias, if I understand what is meant here, in many places – including Shermer’s own exposition of his views in some of his writings.

    It is active in much of the science/faith discussion from both sides. People are afraid an argument might support faith, or that it might support racism or … and then judge the argument on the “believability” of the possible implication.

  • The categories are OK, even plausible. If you read to the end of Shermer’s article, though, he asserts that skepticism is the “escape from belief-dependent bias.”

    I don’t have time for expanding on this naivete, but it’s worth noting that “skepticism”, as Shermer describes it, is an article of faith, a supreme trust in a method. There’s no guarantee that such an approach will extricate anyone from belief-dependent bias.

    Last note: how skeptics like Shermer define “belief” can really control the discussion, attempting to section off people of faith from people who deny religious faith. The example from above on “skepticism”, however, exposes the close proximity Shermer has with Christians who “believe.”

  • Sarah

    Its kind of fair RJS…

    Scot presents Grudem’s ideas with a bit of ridicule and taints the discussion by using words like “Constantine.” Rather with Shermer, he is much more open and congenial.

    Just sayin…

  • gingoro

    Isn’t “Reality exists independent of human minds” a belief that we can’t prove? Or maybe it is an assumption?

    I expect that most of us fall into one or more of the above categories depending upon what area of thinking we are dealing with. Sometimes we rely too much on authority, sometimes we look for confirmation of beliefs etc.
    Dave W

  • Amos Paul

    What I find disturbing is this single odd premise:

    “Reality exists independent of human minds…”

    Really? Our minds aren’t already participants in reality? In fact, our thoughts and perceptions seem to literally *be* our reality. Even Cartesian Dualism doesn’t deny that our minds are a part of reality, even if it’s a part that’s distinctly separated from extended reality.

    Nevertheless, I also disagree that understanding is dependent upon beliefs. This sentiment seems to presume that we can track down discrete sort of propositions that we assent to (beliefs) for our understanding to arise out of. I’m not, personally, a fan of the epistemological view that knowledge/beliefs are reducible to discrete propositions.

    Indeed, I believe quite the opposite. That knowledge and beliefs are entirely dependent upon our understanding which is, itself, only in part represented by discrete propositions–but is certainly not limited to them. I agree that environmental cues, prior experience, and what have you create an atmosphere in which our understanding might be called ‘biased’ so that it participates in interpreting future data a certain unique way. Although in that sense, everyone is uniquely ‘biased’.

    But if our presumption that we can communicate ourselves to one another via language is at all accurate then we must necessarily conclude that, despite our nuanced differences of understanding, there’s is a core of human similarity in how we understand so that we *can* communicate.

    However, the problem in being unable to come to terms over ‘obvious’ problems or complex views in communication is, to me, rather dependent upon another flawed premise. That is, that *anyone* can change someone’s beliefs by mere verbal argumentation. As if all our thoughts and beliefs participate within the same framework so that, once its demonstrably obvious to one, it is to another.

    All we can do is present ideas via communication and let those ideas sink into each other’s understandings. I don’t think that *anyone* truly believes anything until their understanding has worked it out for themselves and have the ideas come to terms with the whole. At some point, they may or may not suddenly find the thought thoroughly reasonable. But we can’t force beliefs upon people or ourselves–even if we can influence them.

    For example, I might come to belief — “Abortion is wrong.” But would say that I *really* believe this if I simply experienced the idea and assented to it without any real, prior understanding to the thought? Or any ethical belief for that matter, such as, “Men should not walk on grass.” While you might agree or disagree with the Abortion belief, my second belief seems ridiculous does it not? Why would I believe that? Certainly I must have some prior framework of understanding, yes? It may be deep or shallow concerning this particular proposition, but certainly something is there.

    These frameworks, however, are hard to discuss and agree or disagree upon. Specifically, because they are not built by propositions–but rather complex systems of feeling, intuition, reasoning, etc.

  • rjs


    We could nitpick on the exact wording of Scot’s introductions – but that would be pointless.

    Daniel Mann said that Scot seems to find more agreement with Michael Shermer than Wayne Grudem. This is a misleading and selective statement that suggests something about the whole body of Grudem’s work and Shermer’s work.

    For example – I agree with some of Dawkins’s points about evolution and disagree profoundly with Mohler on women in ministry and Young Earth Creationism.

    I have occasionally responded positively to Dawkins and negatively to Mohler.

    But it would be a complete falsehood to turn this around and claim that I “seem” to find more agreement with Dawkins than Mohler. Mohler is a fellow Christian, Dawkins is out to demolish the faith. The intent of placing me with Dawkins (and people have at times) is to damage my credibility. It is not even sort of fair.

  • R Hampton

    “Reality exists independent of human minds…”

    Regardless of belief – Evolution, OEC or YEC – there was a time before Man during which Created Reality (a.k.a. the Universe) existed. So it’s fair to say that, barring a Matrix-like scenario, the existence of reality is independent of the mind.

  • Mike

    This is the third time (at least) this has come up in a very short time in one way or another. From a different mention of Shermer’s categories, to a discussion of why conspiracy theorists are not crazy (from a podcast by a guy who is constantly shooting down conspiracy theories).

    I think that the two work together. Our brain likes to categorize and respond quickly. Our ancestors who survived were the ones that constantly jumped when something rustled in the bushes even though it was only a lion or bear infrequently. These biases are not necessarily all wrong. But Shermer has correctly noted it as “relying too heavily” on something without critical consideration for ourselves.

    Whether it is looking for what is expected, allowing the answer to dictate the likelihood that it is correct, or putting too much stock in something or someone as always being correct without a second thought, we are prone to make “safe” conclusions. Safe to our well-being (as we perceive it, not necessarily as it is), and to our sense of self and ego. We want to be right.

    Besides, how can we be wrong when we’re “so sincere”?

  • I don’t know … it seems right to me that Reality exists completely in the Triune God’s perception. Everyone else gets partial reality, based on their narrower perception.

    I find this list a helpful thing to keep in mind — and consistent with my latest post about laziness being the mark of Original Sin. We have to always be willing to do the very hard work of clear thinking or our laziness can turn us into non-loving persons when we deal with those who do not think the way we do.

    Thanks, Scot, for sharing this.

  • DRT

    MichaelK#4 – Your comment is an excellent example of In-group Bias. Bravo.

  • DRT

    I have an inherent chicken and egg problem with the statement of our beliefs coming first. We are never in the state where we have no beliefs, just weak ones. Therefore, while technically correct about beliefs predate explanations, it is a false premise that everyone operates as this motivates.

    For example, I have many many beliefs, and I argue many of them here on the JC (and am very appreciative of this venue), but I am not really trying to find explanations for my beliefs here, I am trying to find beliefs here and I am willing to contribute by beliefs and explanations as fodder for the discussion that may reveal new beliefs, via explanations of others.

  • I can agree with many of these categories, as far as they go. However, as some others have alluded to in the comments so far, the skeptical paradigm itself can be subject to these very same categories. Unfortunately, the very same folks (namely, in this instance, the Skeptics) that so astutely point out our various sources of bias themselves often fail to heed the implications of their own insights.

    As far as I can tell, no matter what worldview one ascribes to, one has to be on the lookout for these biases. I really don’t think any of us can escape them. What it comes down to, in the end, is a confession of humility in the face of acknowledgment of our biases and the uncertainty that inevitably comes from it. As a scientist, I have to always hold this foremost in my mind when I interpret the results of my experiments. More than once I have had to correct my own interpretations because of a recognition of bias (I want a certain hypothesis to be true, and so on). As I’ve grown as a scientist, I’ve learned to spot these sort of pitfalls and be extra careful when examining results in light of a certain preconceived notion of how they “should” turn out. This boils down to a sort of humility in the face of our overwhelming ignorance of the natural world.

    Speaking as a Christian, this same humility presents itself in our profound ignorance of God’s nature and ways. The Scripture tells us that the foolishness of God is greater than Man’s wisdom. If we believe this is true, then the only proper response, in my opinion, is humility.

    I guess what I’m trying to say here is that recognition of our biases when trying to apprehend the efficacy of our beliefs is one of the steps on the road to humility. Shermer, though a nonbeliever himself, has pointed out some useful indicators in this regard.

  • DRT #12/13: Of course my beliefs are in-group: just like yours.

    Furthermore, don’t confuse my description (Shermer’s naivete) with an attempt at demonization on my part, even if Shermer wants to make that element crucial to his description of the group.

    If any belief is worth holding or is truthful- mine, just like Shermer’s- it is worth publishing it in the public, and testing it out. Just because I hold/share such beliefs with some others is not tantamount to my devaluing the beliefs of others. But inasmuch as Shermer has had the courage to share his beliefs on epistemology, I honor his beliefs by testing them out in the public square.

    How does Shermer confirm that skepticism keeps anyone from belief-dependent bias? 🙂 He doesn’t: he simply asserts that such a method will prevent any constraints (or error?) from belief-dependent bias. He does not offer any examples or history of this result. Perhaps editorial and journalistic boundaries prevent any expansion on the discussion. Maybe he didn’t have time for any fact-checking. I don’t know: but I know he didn’t offer anything for us as reader to confirm the validity of his assertion.

    At least Shermer does that which many contemporary atheists refuse to do: identify their beliefs and practices that sustain their atheism. In this regard, Shermer is to be applauded: even if I disagree with his beliefs and conclusions.

    Surely my disagreement with him doesn’t equate to demonization does it? And, btw, thanks for the reply!

  • …it’s worth noting that “skepticism”, as Shermer describes it, is an article of faith, a supreme trust in a method. There’s no guarantee that such an approach will extricate anyone from belief-dependent bias.

    Why do you conclude he puts “supreme trust in a method”, or believes in a “guarantee”? In his essay he says “skepticism is… the only escape we have from the belief-dependent realism trap created by our believing brains.” [Emphasis added.]

    Churchill once said that “Democracy is the worst form of government except all the others that have been tried.” It sounds almost like Shermer is paraphrasing that.

  • I’ve been mulling over this a few days, and from my POV, DRT #13 made a point that actually recalled an interview I watched w/ Shermer recently. Shermer – in the interview – mentioned something I’d observed which is that our brains are like lawyers (paraphrase from memory, here). He said we’re always trying to rationalize what we do with why we did it. “Our brains are like lawyers, not scientists. Our brains want to lawyer the data to fit our beliefs. …We marshal the facts to fit our beliefs that we already hold.” There is an inherent contradiction between reality & that we start w/ beliefs. Beliefs come first; explanations for beliefs follow…. I call this process, wherein our perceptions about reality are dependent on the beliefs that we hold about it, belief-dependent realism. In the interview, he says that the only way to tell the difference between the true & false patterns is through science. Shades of AJ Ayers!

    Actually, if I may gently say so, Shermer is full of baloney. I don’t know his personal background, but I’d be surprised (my tongue is in my cheek) if he parented children. Children break that rationale right down to the ground; they haven’t formed beliefs. They act before they think, and then they scramble to catch up to explain why they did what they did. You can literally see the gears grinding away as they try on one story after another. I agree w/ him, absolutely, positively, that our brains are constantly trying to rationalize our actions according to something. However, the actions come first, until we learn how to face our own “inner weasel” (as I think Michael Kruse called it, here, once [from yet another source, IIRC]) head on. Then, looking into the mirror of God’s Law (James 1, here), confessing and asking forgiveness of God & one another breaks down the cycle (kills the weasel!). Confession, ISTM, is one act included in Paul’s “I die every day” statement. (1 Cor. 15) Unless we confess our wrongs and our weasely ways regularly, our hearts get defensively hardened. There’s a lot to be said for the value in that sacrament; although James (ch. 5) says we need to confess humbly one to another. (not to a 3rd party who had no skin in the game)

    Antonio Damasio’s neurological studies that show brain work is preceded by body events also has bearing on this. It’s actually impossible to act out of beliefs instead of by the seat of our pants. We can get better with practice, yet self-protection will overrule – unless, in my humble faith (IMHF?), we die to ourselves by the power of the Holy Spirit and live to Christ.

    I was reading John Stott recently, and he said that the primary drive/need of humanity was “justification.” Yup.