Disambiguating Faith: Can Rationality Overcome It?

Disambiguating Faith: Can Rationality Overcome It? August 28, 2009

Evangelos asks another excellent question in reply to my latest installment of the ongoing “Disambiguating Faith” series:

I hope you can do an entry on the practicality of rationality. As you know, human beings are by default not rational beings; as a psychology professor once told me, “our brains have evolved for survival, not calculus”. We make many assumptions, deal with heuristics, and jump to conclusions for the sake of expediency; there are a significant number of cognitive biases that influence every decision that we make. Since humans are so conditioned to these cognitive biases, which certainly contribute to inclinations towards faith, and against pure reason (what is that anyway? perhaps a definition of rationality and reason is in order in light of this entry especially), what do you think the practical implications are, well, of disambiguating faith? Are some people more capable of rationality and reasoning than others? Is reasoning and rationality teachable?

I think that, somewhat ironically, our sub-rational, automatic, naturally and socially conditioned, unconscious, subconscious, pre-conscious, and prejudicial habits of thinking are so strong because they prevent us the daunting and dangerous task of having to think too much.  Joshua Greene compares our tendencies to reflexive, automatic, pre-reflective, emotionally influenced evaluative judgments to the automatic settings on a camera.  Most of the time, the settings will serve us well by successfully assessing situations far more simply and efficiently than conscious reasoning could.

Our fast, prejudicial, and subrational thought processes will be liable to numerous errors because of they are so automatic and fast.  But they afford us a tremendous amount of success that makes the risk of errors usually preferable to more cautious thinking that makes fewer errors but which also makes fewer overall assessments because it takes longer to adequately confirm simpler judgments that snap-judging minds complete quickly, efficiently, and usually correctly.

So, reason is cumbersome and complicated.  If I had to do the physical calculations to figure out the angle at which I should approach a door I intend to walk through, it will take me far longer to get through the door than if I rely on my remarkably trusty automatic navigation devices in my brain.  Without understanding all the calculations it makes, it gets me through the door, down the street, and everywhere else in life without my having to do a single calculus problem or even understand anything about calculus.

So, our automatic pilot brains probably do us far greater good than harm even though their settings are imprecise and are troublingly over-conditioned to respond to the power of irrational tradition and biologically ingrained prejudices.  For reasons about which I have already speculated some, I think that traditions keep people all united and on the same page, both co-temporaneously and down through the generations,  by inculcating an excessive willingness to defer to tradition for tradition’s sake (what Nietzsche called the “herd instinct.”)  And since tradition is one of our most exceptional guides 99% of the time, this makes a lot of sense.

So, I think that the first thing we need to do is give our automatic settings a grateful round of applause.  They are not our enemy and without them, with the burden of judgment and decision fully on the shoulders of reason alone, our lives would be much, much harder (and maybe even impossible.)

But, of course, it’s clear I think that faith, traditionalism, emotionalism, and other forms of prejudicial or irrational thinking to be deeply problematic.  Whenever our automatic settings which defer to tradition or biology can be scrutinized and found to be systematically wanting by discursive reason, I think they should be deliberately reset to conform to reason instead. We should also scrutinize rigorously both the literal and metaphorical worth of those myths our religious minds make for synthesizing ideas and emotions in structures that are more easily and quickly grasped than difficult philosophical arguments.

In other words, our myth-making minds, just like our art-making minds, think in complex structures which it would take a long time to break down into rational connections but which it can think up as whole structural sets of connections.  And these convey truth indirectly through symbols.  But they can also convey misunderstandings or bad sorts of emotions more than truth.  We need to investigate our myths and reassess, rewrite, or (my preference) outright abandon them as truth indicative when they prove inherently flawed by rational investigations into their structures.

Call me a hopelessly naive Enlightenment man but I believe rationality has a real future.  Despite the amazing recalcitrance of religion over the last several hundred years, Western civilization has drastically secularized itself.  It has certainly not been able to vanquish dogma, superstition, or other forms of irrationalism yet but a lot of progress has been made towards stigmatizing faith as an invalid source of truth and prejudice towards “out-group” members as immoral.  Average members of religious traditions in the West are far closer to outright consciousness that when they say they “believe” things their religion teaches that this word does not mean remotely the same thing that it does when they say they believe other facts in life.

I think the use of the word betrays that statements of belief are increasingly empty code phrases for indicating they come from a certain tradition and belong faithfully to it.  Except for zealous conservatives and the philosophically conscious, there is hardly any problem in the West in acknowledging the equal (or near equal) validity of other religions’ beliefs which differs from those of one’s own.  Why is this, don’t Islamic and Christian beliefs outright contradict each other?  How can lay believers in both traditions blithely say that it’s fine for each to have his own beliefs?  Isn’t this like saying that I think x is true and y is false and that it’s a good thing to me if you think y is true and x is false?  Why would someone be so indifferent to the truth and simply interested that each have whatever wacky religious beliefs that their own tradition gives them?

Because for most Western, secularized lay religious people, belief professions function like cultural identity markers.  You have your “beliefs” and I have mine the same way you have your cuisine and I have mine.  Why would we fight about what we should eat or the details of our particular traditions’ mythic stories and empty platitudes about spiritual matters?  It all means the same basic soup of “love one another” and “be a good person” or something moral like that, right?  So, who cares if your stories and expressions and rituals differ, it’s all really about being nice to each other.  And anyone who reads the texts literally and sees the good old fashioned inter-faith genocide and exclusivism is just a wild-eyed extremist.  So, in some ways, I have hope faith is dying.  I think it’s intellectual credibility is widely understood to be bankrupt.  People give up trying to defend the rationality of it all rather quickly.

But they still cling to the word, out of a deeply ingrained default deference to traditional ways of speaking and showing their loyal identity.  The content is further and further emptied of meaning and yet the forms remain.  Faith is seen more readily as irrational and yet the assertion “that’s why you just need faith” keeps flying off people’s lips precisely when you point out how irrational faith is.  It’s like a creepy horror film.  Why does this vacuous rationale keep getting offered?  It’s as though people when made uncomfortable with their existential identity being threatened by ideas that would involve separating themselves from their faith phrases have arranged among each other each to back off of the whole irrationality thing whenever one of them pulls the “that’s why you just need faith” or “it’s just my beliefs” cards.  It’s like the “safe word” that those who are barely serious about faith use to stop conversations when they actually threaten to force them to uncomfortably treat their faith tradition’s platitudes as actual, serious opinions subject to criticism, revision, and even rejection.

So I think that human minds are increasingly capable of becoming better habituated towards reason and away from first impression errors.  Our minds might jump to certain conclusions, but we’re good at learning, understanding, and incorporating counter-intuitive facts as long as they are drummed into us from when we are little.  We just need more classes in statistics and to learn to trust some of the counter-intuitive natures contained therein against our faulty gut intuitions.  This video is the kind of teaching tool necessary:

Or this one, also on probability:

I might be a dreamer, but I think that if we replaced the inculcation of superstition with more drills in probability we would learn how to correct our gut intuitions with a deference to principles of probability.  I think the more religious beliefs get forced to justify themselves as propositions that either admit of defense as true or must be abandoned, the less influence they will have.  I think the more that the psychological and sociological mechanisms of religion get exposed, the more people can self-consciously investigate the real sources of their religious feelings and see their lack of justification.  I think the more that secularly accessible sources of morality prove humane and beneficial and exclusively religious moral claims prove ethically repulsive and exclusivist, the less indispensable (and more counter-productive) to morality that religion will be seen to be. I think this process is already happening.

All of this requires education.  While the less educated will always lag behind the more, as our overall culture becomes more rational, I think the effect should trickle down more and more.  In many ways I think it already has.  In other ways, the two kinds of powerful institutions that depend on irrationalism (religions and authoritarian states) are retrenching themselves against reason.  I think those forces are all purely reactionary, they are the last gasps of dying empires whose emperors now rule only from embarrassed exile.

Science has too powerfully vindicated human reason for irrationalism’s assault on it to be remotely credible.  And faith is too often exposed as incapable of stopping the moral and intellectual corruption even (or especially!) of those alleging themselves to be the conveyors of God’s will on earth.  In fact there is so much corruption of the moral and intellectual will directly traceable to faith-based logic, recognizable to anyone with eyes to see, that it’s only a cowardly political correctness, herd instinct, and fear of terrorism that keeps waves of people from just denouncing religion itself already and being done with it.  All the evidence of just how religion can contribute to moral and intellectual corruption rather than be the prime force against it is on the table.  “Organized religion” has a terrible name.  If religious institutions’ influence keeps waning, the vice of faith that it propagates will lose its life-support in time.

The ethos of secularization has already doomed the prospects for overt theocracy in the West for a long, long time and secularization already has some roots in the Middle East which hopefully will in the end accomplish the same overthrow of Dark Age oppression.  Today fundamentalisms in every religion are lashing out and becoming more and more extreme, desperate, and furious the more that they are marginalized from the mainstream.  They’re scary.  And it’s irritating to see our military become a theocracy, to see editors censor cartoons, and to learn of leftists who would rather denounce women’s rights activists and atheists than endorse our attacks on misogynistic religious violence and faith in general.

But as far as I can tell, the tide of history is against the fundamentalists.  Nothing is guaranteed and who knows what awful backlash-induced setbacks we might endure along the way, but if we make it to the years 2109, 2209, and 2309, I’d bet money they’d be as far further secularized than we are as we are far further secularized than our heirs alive in  1709, 1809, and 1909.  It takes 20 year spans for generations to shift and 80-100 years for populations to completely overturn and so the process of changing the cultural mind is a long range one.  But mainstream faith is dying the slow death of steady dilution and severe, old fashioned, theocratic faith is starving to death and lashing out violently.

Or am I just a deluded idealistic Enlightenment man who underestimates the ineradicable power of human irrationality to destroy or permanently retard (rather than merely setback) humanity’s progress towards justice, equality, and prosperity?


Your Thoughts?


For more on faith, read any or all posts in my “Disambiguating Faith” series (listed below) which strike you as interesting or whose titles indicate they might answer your own questions, concerns, or objections having read the post above.  It is unnecessary to read all the posts below to understand any given one. They are written to each stand on their own but also contribute to a long sustained argument if read all together.

Faith in a Comprehensive Nutshell


How Faith Poisons Religion


What About The Good Things People Call “Faith”? (Or “Why I Take Such A Strong Semantic Stand Against The Word Faith”)


How Religious Beliefs Become Specifically *Faith* Beliefs


Faith There’s A God vs. Faith In God

Trustworthiness, Loyalty, And Honesty

Faith As Loyally Trusting Those Insufficiently Proven To Be Trustworthy

Faith As Tradition

Blind Faith: How Faith Traditions Turn Trust Without Warrant Into A Test Of Loyalty

Faith As Tradition’s Advocate And Enforcer, Which Actively Opposes Merely Provisional Forms Of Trust

The Threatening Abomination Of The Faithless

Rational Beliefs, Rational Actions, And When It Is Rational To Act On What You Don’t Think Is True

Faith As Guessing

Are True Gut Feelings And Epiphanies Beliefs Justified By Faith?

Faith Is Neither Brainstorming, Hypothesizing, Nor Simply Reasoning Counter-Intuitively

Faith In The Sub-, Pre-, Or Un-conscious

Can Rationality Overcome Faith?

Faith As A Form Of Rationalization Unique To Religion

Faith As Deliberate Commitment To Rationalization

Heart Over Reason

Faith As Corruption Of Children’s Intellectual Judgment

Faith As Subjectivity Which Claims Objectivity

Faith Is Preconditioned By Doubt, But Precludes Serious Doubting

Soul Searching With Clergy Guy

Faith As Admirable Infinite Commitment For Finite Reasons

Maximal Self-Realization In Self-Obliteration: The Existential Paradox of Heroic Self-Sacrifice

How A Lack Of Belief In God May Differ From Various Kinds Of Beliefs That Gods Do Not Exist

Why Faith Is Unethical (Or “In Defense Of The Ethical Obligation To Always Proportion Belief To Evidence”

Not All Beliefs Held Without Certainty Are Faith Beliefs

Defending My Definition Of Faith As “Belief Or Trust Beyond Rational Warrant”

Implicit Faith

Agnostics Or Apistics?

The Evidence-Impervious Agnostic Theists

Faith Which Exploits Infinitesimal Probabilities As Openings For Strong Affirmations

Why You Cannot Prove Inductive Reasoning Is Faith-Based Reasoning But Instead Only Assert That By Faith

How Just Opposing Faith, In Principle, Means You Actually Don’t Have Faith, In Practice

Naturalism, Materialism, Empiricism, And Wrong, Weak, And Unsupported Beliefs Are All Not Necessarily Faith Positions

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