Good reasoning, bad information

There seems to be a general consensus among modern atheists, including myself, that religious belief is irrational. It would seem to follow, then, that attempts to defend religious beliefs are fine examples of bad reasoning. And sometimes, they are.

But recently, when I was watching QualiaSoup's outstanding videos on morality, I took notice when he raised a provocative point in the first video that I think has broader implications for rational inquiry.
"Sound reasoning won't lead to valid assessments if we're operating with flawed information; nor will sound information if our reasoning is flawed."
I think that if we take a close look at apologetics, we can see precisely that: good reasoning based on flawed information. I've mentioned in the past that one of the catalysts for my rejection of Christianity was C.S. Lewis' book The Case for Christianity [link]. To his credit, Lewis attempts to substantiate Christianity without making the initial assumption that God exists. He initially refrains from any arguments from ignorance, such as suggesting that God is required to explain the origin or structure of the universe, though unfortunately he stumbles into those blunders later in the book.

Instead, Lewis begins with the moral argument. We're selfish, greedy, impulsive, etc., yet we also seem to have some intuitive notion of what behaviors are right and wrong, and an understanding that we have often fallen short of the behavior we desire and expect from others. Lewis summarizes:

These, then,  are the two points  I wanted to  make. First, that  human
beings, all over the earth, have this curious idea that they ought to behave
in  a certain way, and cannot  really get rid of it. Secondly,  that they do
not in fact behave in that way. They know the Law  of Nature; they break it.
These two facts are the foundation of all clear thinking about ourselves and
the universe we live in.
He later concludes,
It begins to look as if we shall have to admit that there is more than
one kind of reality; that, in this particular case, there is something above
and beyond the  ordinary facts of men's  behaviour, and yet quite definitely
real-a real law, which none of has made, but which we find pressing on us.
It may be tempting to dismiss this as poor reasoning, but I think Lewis' initial assessment is more a case of bad information. We now have good, scientific explanations for our desires to be treated fairly and to help others [1], our empathetic impulses [2], and even our capacity to erode that empathy [3]. In Lewis' time, much of this information was simply unknown. Lewis incorrectly assumes that since we share certain behavioral intuitions, there is some sort of universal law which governs us – and while the concept is easy to digest, it's just not that simple. But note that if Lewis' assumptions about a moral law are correct, the reasoning that follows is, for the most part, quite valid.

Or, take the greatest punching bag argument of them all, the Kalam cosmological argument:
  • Everything that begins to exist has a cause
  • The universe began to exist
  • Ergo, the universe has a cause
Now, obviously there are some issues related to the concept of causality, which I've discussed on this blog extensively [4]. But the greater error is that the first two premises are simply wrong. We've observed quantum phenomena that quite conclusively defies Newtonian causality, and we've developed many mathematical models that show that the question of the universe having a beginning is far from a known reality. If the information is incorrect, it doesn't matter how sound the rest of the reasoning is.

I believe this sort of thinking operates on a more practical level. Frankly, most theists simply do not concern themselves with philosophy or science – they're concerned with day-to-day matters of faith. They may pray for a promotion, for their loved ones to recover from illness, or simply to have the fortitude to endure emotionally difficult experiences. They enjoy the social cohesion of the church and the sense of fulfillment they find in doing charitable work or simply counseling their friends and loved ones.

Imagine, for example, that a congregation prays for a member who is in the hospital with pancreatic cancer. The odds of survival in pancreatic cancer are quite slim. But, sure enough, the cancer goes into remission and the person makes a full recovery. The congregation declares their prayer to be answered. This is sound reasoning operating on bad information. A certain percentage of people will survive pancreatic cancer, and improbable events of that sort happen all the time; point of fact, we tend to greatly underestimate just how often highly improbable events actually occur. If one makes the assumption that God rewards faith with answered prayers, it's a reasonable conclusion that the prayer had something to do with the person's recovery. It's only when a proper understanding of probability undermines that assumption that the reasoning can be changed.

One final example. Theists operate under the assumption that their holy texts are true. Mohammed, Jesus, Moses – these were real historical figures that did what is described in the books. But this is poor information. We have many, many reasons to be skeptical of the historical validity of such texts [5], and if we correct the mistaken assumption that they are reliable historical texts, then any reasoning derived from their reading becomes invalid.

I bring all this up because I've had a difficult time pinpointing exactly where theists go wrong. In my previous post, I mentioned Francis Collins who by most accounts is a very smart fellow who has contributed greatly to the scientific community. But he's also guilty of adhering to some rather foolish beliefs. On close examination, I found that it was not necessarily the rationalizations of the beliefs that were poor, but the information used to arrive at the underlying assumptions in the first place.  I don't think it's any exaggeration that a large culprit in the proliferation of religious belief is the poor science education we face in this country, and the lack of critical thinking skills that allows people to be easily persuaded by cognitive errors. As Michael Shermer says, intelligent people are still prone to irrational beliefs – they're just better at rationalizing them.


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