Apologetics & Apostasy Pt.1- Credulity & Confirmation Bias
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….