Apologetics & Apostasy Pt.1- Credulity & Confirmation Bias

Posted on July 5, 2010. Filed under: Atheism, Religion, Science |

Note from the Author: This post is the first of a multi-post series on confirmation bias, credulity, and cognitive dissonance and how they affect faith, belief and apostasy.  The Signal in The Noise has a couple posts up criticizing Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion.  The original post is here followed by a follow-up post here stemming from an ongoing discussion with Hitch.   I really want to comment quite fully on this post, but must first lay out a string of arguments to lay the foundation for my full critique. The Signal in the Noise post will likely be quite stale by the time I get to it fully, but I offer this as a primer on the direction I wish to take in that criticism.  This discussion will also tie into a post from another site, which I wish to withhold until I set the foundation for my assertions.

“Give me a child till the age of seven, and I will give you the man.”-Jesuit Saying

There is a ring of truth to that old adage.

What we learn before the age of seven will lay the foundation for how we view every single thing for the rest of our lives.  Children are virtual sponges of information during their formative years, the neural pathways that we form to process information are all set during our first few years of life.

These are the years when we organize within our mind those things that are useful, credible, plausible.  It is that time in our life when the limits of our credulity are set and tools for filtering conflicting information are formed.  These last two points are the ones I want to concentrate on; what I will call credulity and confirmation bias.

Credulity: Faith without the “F” word

Faith for the purposes of this discussion can be defined as the confident belief or trust in the truth or trustworthiness of a person, idea, or thing.  ( I pulled this straight from Wikipedia, that bastion of credible information)  It is certainly a rather hollow definition, especially to those professing it.  At its most basic level though, this definition suits us well.

Credulity is defined (using the same reference) as a state of willingness to believe in one or many people or things in the absence of reasonable proof or knowledge.

These two definitions bear a striking resemblance to one another, and that is no coincidence.   They are hopelessly intertwined, semantic variations on a central idea.

Where faith sounds virtuous, conjuring images of hope; credulity is certainly seen as an intellectual vice, where hope borders gullibility.  The basics of both are the same; faith, though, resting on the virtues of the religious ideal; the promise of an abstract posthumous currency paid on receipt.

Credulity is a necessary byproduct of religious thinking, religions themselves being heuristics, but we must remember that although a strong belief in a religion requires credulity, credulity is not necessarily caused by religion.  Religions are but one of many heuristics, shortcuts of the mind used to process information that can come from any source during the development of the brain in childhood.  These shortcuts are a natural functioning of our brains, necessary for sorting and making swift use of stimuli in our environment.

Children do not easily differentiate between empirical concepts at one end of the spectrum and conceptual or anecdotal concepts at the other; the talking animals and ghosts of fairy tale lore hold virtual equal weight to any observed phenomenon.

This is especially true when those concepts are introduced by parents, that most credible of sources.

Studies into how our mind works have shown that evolutionary pressure has likely favored heuristics that are not necessarily true, but have the least consequences if they are false.  This is an important distinction to be made, and I will return to it in a future post.

Confirmation bias is the natural product of heuristic thinking, the act of skipping those steps that are unnecessary to arrive at our “shortcut” evaluation, while lending weight to those facts which bolster our preconceived outcome.  Confirmation bias is the act of being credulous. To some degree we must suppose that there is nothing at face value wrong with credulity, heuristics, and confirmation bias. They serve a real cognitive purpose, and to some degree would be unavoidable in any discussion.

The reasons for these shortcuts is simple.  Imagine a world in which every fact, every decision, every conversation required that we explore all relevant information as though nothing could be assumed to be true.  Each decision would be mired in a never ending stream of alternate actions and choices; each conversation muddled in the agreement of semantic conventions.

To make one more abstract step, these are all vestigial instincts. They are based in and formed upon those parts of our brain that once needed to make instinctual choices.  Faith in the believer can be thought of as an extension of the human instinct to ascribe causes and outcomes to stimuli. This is an interesting idea worthy of its own post, one I may cover in the future.

My hope with this post is to get some feedback from readers on these concepts as I plan to use these points as the basis for a series of posts on cognitive dissonance, conceptual bias, and apostacy; tying these into discussions of a couple posts I have read in the past week.

So to quote one of my favorite websites….

Your Thoughts?


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6 Responses to “Apologetics & Apostasy Pt.1- Credulity & Confirmation Bias”

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I think this is a very good setup. I agree with all of it.

On confirmation bias, I’m not sure if a fully evolutionary argument is sufficient to explain what we see. Remember we can always be in a state that is not an optimal adaptation, just one sufficient for survival.

I actually think that confirmation bias proves to be too rigid for the kind of world we have today. However it seems that the psychological mechanisms in place very much bias against a chance of mind and for confirming existing beliefs.

This could be as simple as neural mechanics. For example an existing pathway is easy to reinforce but hard to abandon and rewire. Just a hypothesis, but to consider in the context of confirmation bias.

I think a fully evolutionary argument is more than sufficient. Evolution does not mean the same as perfect optimization, and evolution would not expect it. Evolution can favor things indirectly, because they infer some advantage but not a particularly overt one. I actually hint at this a bit in the post in saying
“Studies into how our mind works have shown that evolutionary pressure has likely favored heuristics that are not necessarily true, but have the least consequences if they are false.”- not a perfect adaptation, but one that infers a slight advantage.
I intend to eventually expand on evolutionary functions of faith and confirmation bias but I still have a few posts before I get there. My next post is more specifically about confirmation bias, I just wanted to start by laying down my thought process. I will eventually get to the conversation between you and Signal. I originally started writing a post specific to that, but there were too many concepts I felt needed to be aggregated before I got there. The meat of these posts are handwritten in the margins of my copies of “The Greatest Show on Earth” and “Unweaving the Rainbow”, and expanded upon in the back jackets; I have been struggling to organize them into an ordered set of posts.

Anyway, I hope you keep reading the series and commenting, I always enjoy your insight.

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