Why Doubt Is The Adult Attitude And How Science Helps Us

Anyone who understands the slightest bit about human rationality knows enough not to claim he or she knows too much with any high degree of assuredness. Doubt is a virtue. It's the adult attitude. It's the attitude we must develop since we're not born with it. As children we believed whatever we were told, until we become adults. Even as adults it isn't very easy at all for most people to doubt what they were raised to believe. Most adults still believe a large part of what they were taught as children, especially when it comes to their religious faith. It doesn't even occur to most of them that they should doubt their inherited faith. I have repeatedly made the distinction between affirming a claim and doubting it. And there is a continuum for doubting a claim based on how out-of-the-ordinary that claim is to us. The more out-of-the-ordinary a claim is then the more evidence we need to accept it. There is nothing controversial about this at all.

Christians are making out-of-the-ordinary claims of the most extreme kind that are out on one end of that doubting continuum, the one that requires the most objective evidence. The adult attitude is to doubt them until there is sufficient objective evidence. Christians will respond by (1) Disputing the need for sufficient objective evidence; (2) Arguing that out-of-the-ordinary claims are in the eye of the beholder since they experience God in an out-of-the-ordinary way in their lives; and by (3) Asking doubters like me to define an out-of-the-ordinary claim so we can know the exact point on that continuum of doubt where an ordinary claim becomes an out-of-the-ordinary one.

Against (1) the obvious answer is that without sufficient objective evidence then anyone can believe anything, a sure recipe for failure if they really want to know the truth. Against (2) all other religious believers who hold to mutually exclusive out-of-the-ordinary claims will argue in the same way for their faith, another sure recipe for failure if they really want to know the truth. Against (3) all we need to do is talk in terms of concrete examples, like a virgin birthed incarnate God, and a man resurrected from the dead, claims made in an ancient superstitious pre-scientific past. Such out-of-the-ordinary claims are enough to cause doubt. That they were made in an ancient superstitious pre-scientific past probably doubles the doubt demanded by reasonable people in the modern world.

Doubt therefore is the adult attitude to this faith malaise, and sufficient objective evidence is the antidote if believers really want to know the truth. Believers will go on to cast doubt about science, saying (4) There is no scientific method and/or whatever it is, their own theological method operates in the same way; (5) That the results of today's science might be overthrown by future science, leaving room for their faith; and concluding that (6) Science is based on just as much faith as they have in their religion.

Against (4) the obvious answer is that if there is no scientific method then we can't explain why science continues to advance knowledge without one, nor can we explain why the theological method doesn't do this if it operates in the same way. Against (5) the present probabilities are against this and probabilities are all we have to go on. Against (6) it is crystal clear that believers who conclude this are not scientists. Look at this chart and it becomes clear the only people saying these kinds of things are delusional people.

I could write a lot more in arguing against 1-6 above and I have. I can never say all that I know, certainly in these few short sentence rebuttals. But I think they should provoke doubt just the same.

I find Christian attempts to defend what they were enculturated to believe as children inside a largely Christian culture to be nothing more than unjustified rationalizations, all of them. But since it appears I cannot usually argue people out of their faith who were never argued into it in the first place, let's simply point them to several books based on solid science showing that in almost every other area they do not think rationally much at all. My question becomes this one: Why do Christians think they are being rational in believing when scientific studies show that in almost every other area they don't think rationally? As human beings we are not all that rational. And we are surprisingly ignorant about our own ignorance, as Daniel Dennett told us.

It will not do to say doubters are not rational too, since the following books will lead us all to doubt. It is rational to doubt, you see. Given what they say, doubt becomes the adult attitude and sufficient objective evidence from science becomes the only way to know the truth about our place in the universe and the possibility that one's inherited religion is the true one. So not only are the cosmological, biological and brain sciences doing away with religion, so are psychological findings that tell us why people believe and justify their beliefs.

I simply doubt the Christian out-of-the-ordinary claims, and the following books should give Christians an insight into why this is the reasonable thing to do. How we think even affects our behavior, as these books point out.

- Why We Make Mistakes: How We Look Without Seeing, Forget Things in Seconds, and Are All Pretty Sure We Are Way Above Average, Joseph T. Hallinan.

- You Are Now Less Dumb: How to Conquer Mob Mentality, How to Buy Happiness, and All the Other Ways to Outsmart Yourself, by David McRaney.

- Subliminal: How Your Unconscious Mind Rules Your Behavior, by Leonanrd Mlodinow, co-author with Stephen Hawking of "The Grand Design."

- What Makes Your Brain Happy and Why You Should Do the Opposite, by David DiSalvo.

- You Are Not So Smart: Why You Have Too Many Friends on Facebook, Why Your Memory Is Mostly Fiction, and 46 Other Ways You're Deluding Yourself, by David McRaney.

- Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman.

- The Believing Brain: From Ghosts and Gods to Politics and Conspiracies---How We Construct Beliefs and Reinforce Them as Truths, by Michael Shermer.

- On Being Certain: Believing You Are Right Even When You're Not, by Robert Burton.

- How We Know What Isn't So: The Fallibility of Human Reason in Everyday Life,by Thomas D. Gilovich.

- Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts, by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson. I have recommended this book before.

- A Mind of Its Own: How Your Brain Distorts and Deceives, by Cordelia Fine.

- Sway: The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior, by Ori and Rom Brafman. I have reviewed this book.

- Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions, by Dan Ariely.

- How the Mind Works, by Steven Pinker.

- The You You Don't Know: Covert Influences on Your Behaviour, by Webster Riggs.

- Don't Believe Everything You Think: The 6 Basic Mistakes We Make in Thinking, by Thomas E. Kida.

- The Invisible Gorilla: And Other Ways Our Intuitions Deceive Us, by Christopher Chabris, and Daniel Simons.

- Willful Blindness: Why We Ignore the Obvious at Our Peril, by Margaret Heffernan.

- Welcome to Your Brain: Why You Lose Your Car Keys but Never Forget How to Drive and Other Puzzles of Everyday Life, by Sam Wang and Sandra Aamodt.

- The Seven Sins of Memory: How the Mind Forgets and Remembers, by Daniel L. Schacter

- The Neuroscience of Fair Play: Why We (Usually) Follow the Golden Rule, by Donald W. Pfaff

- The Accidental Mind: How Brain Evolution Has Given Us Love, Memory, Dreams, and God, by David J. Linden.

- Kluge: The Haphazard Evolution of the Human Mind, by Gary Marcus. I reviewed this book before.

- Neither Gods Nor Beasts: How Science Is Changing Who We Think We Are, by Elof Axel Carlson.

- See also Eliezer S. Yudkowsky's writings on rationality.


The lesson from these books and writings is that Dr. Peter Boghossian is right, Faith Based Belief Processes Are Unreliable.

What's there not to understand?

[First posted with a different title on May 5, 2008 (now deleted).]