Saturday, March 5, 2011

Irrational Things Atheists Believe

We all believe irrational things--things that are subjective and not empirically testable.  

Is this such a bad thing? Is it even possible to live without the scaffolding of these ideas and many, many others? What would life be like without these kind of ideas? Can noticing these ideas give us humility and more level playing field when dealing with/thinking about/talking to people that believe things that seem utterly foreign and ridiculous to us?

  • Epistemological Beliefs
    • Reality is Coherent--As Einstein famously put it, "God does not play dice."
      • How we live like reality is coherent: 
        • Science invests billions of dollars into research.  Many of our expectations about what life will be like on a given day are met.
    • Reality Is Not an Illusion--Is what you see what you get?
      • How we live like reality is not an illusion: 
        • We find love and life meaningful.  
    • Continuity of Reality-- "We have no logical reason to assume that anything we've learned from science will be true tomorrow." --Cameron Green
      • How we live like reality has continuity: 
        • We act according to our experience.
    • Causal Relationships--One thing leads to another--cause and effect. How do we know that when one cue ball hits another that the two events are actually connected? The philosopher David Hume wrote much on this conundrum.  
      • How we live like causal relationships are determinable:
        • We administer medical treatments.  We write and read history books.
    • Memory Is Accurate--How do we know our most trust and dearly held memories are accurate?  How do we know our brain didn't just make them up and they seem real?
      • How we live like memory is accurate:
        • We go up to and kiss our loved ones when we see them again.  We cherish fond childhood memories.  We recall and use information like directions to get to work.
    • Senses Are Reasonable Facsimiles of Reality--How do we know that we can trust our senses?  How do we know they correspond to reality at all?
      • How we live like our senses are accurate:
        • We follow traffic signs and lights.
    • You’re Not Completely Crazy--Is it so crazy to think we're not crazy?
      • How we live like we aren't completely crazy:
        • We make decisions and live by them.
    • Solipsism Is False--How do we know others are thinking, feeling, volitional beings?
      • How we live like solipsism is false:
        • We care for the needs of others.

  • Existential Beliefs 
    • Life Has Value--Funerals suck.  War sucks.  Abuse sucks.  Why?  Because life is precious.
    • Life Has Meaning--What we do with our lives has some value otherwise we wouldn't keep doing it.
    • Identity/Consciousness/Mind--We believe in ourselves and others as a whole, independent being rather than a talking set of individual neurons and atoms.  Attributing a volitional personality to a human is the same thing on a different scale to giving the random occurrences of 'life' and 'the universe' to 'God'.  
    • Contiguity--Many have said (controversially) that every atom in your body is replaced every ten (or seven) years. Assuming something close to that is true, how can it be said that we're the same person? Yet we still believe it every time we see an old friend! 
    • Free Will--Our choices are our own and not a mechanistic predetermined byproduct of things outside of our control. 
    • Love--It's more than a hormone. It's more than a pre-programmed mechanism to create and rear young. We believe and behave like love is real.
    • Justice Beliefs
      • Virtue/Vice and Good/Evil--Every time we resist evil and do good we show that we believe in moral obligation/virtue/vice/good/evil.
    Brenner Emmanuel Michel's "Hercules Between Virtue and Vice"
    My point:

    Of course all of the above has rightly been questioned and doubted by philosophical luminaries, but I bring it up to point out that both you and I have sacred ideas and that we all hold things true without proof everyday. That, by in large, is a very, very good thing. You may well cognitively doubt every idea above, but you still believe them functionally if you use them. Just as many believers deal with doubts about their religion's teachings so can an atheist doubt the list above, but still be counted as a believer on the basis of how they live--actions speak louder than words.

    What is religion at its most very basic? Ideas. Ideas about life, morality, metaphysics, origins...etc. Just in the same way that believing life has value has existential and social utility so can other religious ideas--even if we deeply doubt their veracity. Ideas are tools--tools that can help improve our lives by being the scaffolding on which to build a life. What I'd like to show with the above list of things is that there is common ground between atheists and theists to discuss ideas, values and meanings. We all are subjective. We all are biased. We all operate with ideas that are unfounded. We all have memes.  It's a level playing field between atheists and theists in this regard. We all make assumption leaps and some of these ideas are vital to living a fulfilling life.

    Pictures from here, here and here.


    1. To be honest Lee, I dislike the message of this post. It's hard for me to explain exactly why, but I know I'm not on the same level playing field as a young-earth creationist. Again, I'll try to ramble my reasoning out in front of you.

      First of all, I don't subscribe to several of the beliefs you mentioned (reliable memory or senses, free will, love), but as you said, in some cases I subscribe to them functionally, so it's probably not important.

      The strongest argument you made is probably the problem of induction in science. Most people don't realize this, but the entirety of science is based on an ostensibly flimsy premise. We have no logical reason to assume that anything we've learned from science will be true tomorrow. And yet, science is our most powerful truth finding tool ever invented. So how do we reconcile these two facts? I guess we swallow the pill and accept the fact that induction and therefore science is based on an illogical premise, but then reflect upon the fact that the laws of nature have remained constant and unchanging since the dawn of recorded history. The number of verified inductive statements made in this time probably reaches the billions or trillions. This fact, coupled with the extreme utility and success of science makes me feel "justified" in trusting it, despite its illogical premise.

      A young-earth creationist, on the other hand, seems to be no where near my playing field. He has forsaken all of the tenets of science as well as many rules of logic and argumentation in order to form his beliefs (and to maintain them as well).

      So yes, it's true that everyone has some irrational/illogical/unjustified beliefs, but not all irrational beliefs were created equal. Also, individuals can differ in the amount and consequentiality of their irrational beliefs.

    2. First of all, most of these things are believed by theists and non-theists alike. By contrast, a list of crazy things that theists believe would contain things that only theists believe.

      Second, I would say that belief in most of these things is not irrational. Rather, most of them are based on a form of evidence other than sense perception. For example, a belief in causal relationships is, plausibly, a *way* of perceiving sensory data that our minds presuppose. That we can trust our basic means of knowing--memories, senses, introspection--is again a sort of presupposition we tend to make about our experiences of the world. So is the tendency to presuppose that there is a self. But nothing about atheism commits one to believing one way or the other on these issues.

      (Non-theists may or may not think that the material world is an illusion. One famous theist who thought the material world was an illusion was the philosopher George Berkeley.)

      Other things in your list seem to be (arguably) self-evident deliverances of intuition, such as that half of thirty is the product of three and five, or that cruelty is a vice, or that the love between a mother and son has value.

      By contrast, those like me who criticize superstition do so not because the form of evidence used is non-sensory. Rather, it is because the particular body of evidence used for the belief is *inadequate*. People who believe literally in Noah's Ark or that Jonah lived in the belly of a whale tend to believe so simply because they were taught it when they were young--or (often) because they were additionally intimidated into believing, on pain of eternal fire, that the storybook containing these tales was an infallible word from on high. Relying on that flimsy testimony is not a reliable way of getting to true beliefs.

      Now, granted, some non-theists do rely on flimsy testimony in such a way. Instances of that include non-theists (and theists alike) who avoid placing credence on controlled studies when such are available, with the result being belief in weird things from astrology to homeopathy.

      Then again, that much is a criticism of superstitious pseudoscientific belief, not belief in a God per se. Some people say that the existence of a God is self-evident to them. All I can really say in response are things like [i] there are a lot of people who don't find that self-evident, and [ii] those who find the particular sort of God to be self-evident tend to live in the same regions; that's fishy.

      What your post is dead right about is that knowing things is difficult, and many of us don't know how to justify our own beliefs. And this should cause us to be epistemically humble.

    3. Cameron, you bless me with a great comment. I'm going to reply to it in a way that I wouldn't if I didn't respect your intellect so much.

      You're not special. Regardless of what your momma told you growing up, you're not special. And you're not all that different from any irrational religious person you want to list. The difference (which is, however, real) is in degree and not kind. That's an important distinction. Let me take you through a perfectly reasonable, internally consistent line of reasoning for your example--a young Earth creationist.

      (Start creationist line of reasoning.)

      The universe needed a beginning, even the Big Bang evolutionist believe that. It makes the most sense that God started it. Life couldn't have formed on its own--it's too complicated. Even the simplest life needs to have a membrane, a form of genetic code, a way of metabolizing energy, etc. Those, even in their simplest form, are stunningly sophisticated. So, there must be a God. It would make sense that God, who went to all the trouble of creating the universe, life, and humans, must want to be in some kind of relationship with them. Therefore, he must have wanted to reveal himself through some religion. Well, Christianity seems to make the most sense considering the prophecies of the Bible that came true, the fact that the early Christians gave their life for their beliefs and claimed to have seen Jesus raised from the dead and because Jesus's teachings are brilliant. That being the case, the Bible is true. That being the case, the universe must be about 6,000 years since that's how old it probably is based on the genealogies going back to the first man, Adam. On top of all that, all the people I love and care for believe in Christianity. I've seen the difference it's made in their lives. I've seen how they're better people, their families are stronger, and their lives are more meaningful and fulfilling.

      (End creationist line of reasoning.)

      So, is all that so crazy? Even if you totally disagree with it and wanted to scream at multiple points while reading it, "No! You're making assumptions and ignoring facts! STOP IT!" it's internally sound. And, really, based on a very similar type of trust that all of we who love and believe in science hold--that the people we trust aren't lying.

    4. Jay, I loved everything you said. Especially about the above list being not limited to atheists. And extra-extra-specially about the humility aspect. For goodness sake, we're just apes. We didn't evolve to think logically or rationally. We evolved much more for collective thinking and action. Ergo, it shouldn't be surprising that we believe some ridiculous things...and, if I may be so bold, maybe there are advantages to believing some "irrational" things. :)


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