Friday, January 31, 2014

A Strange Effect of Following the Herd

A while ago I read an article about a psychological theory that explains political dysfunction in Washington. People try to see what their group approves of and then go along with the group, even if it actually goes against what the group is about! An excerpt:
Some students read about a program that was extremely generous—more generous, in fact, than any welfare policy that has ever existed in the United States—while others were presented with a very stingy proposal. But there was a twist: some versions of the article about the generous proposal portrayed it as being endorsed by Republican Party leaders; and some versions of the article about the meagre program described it as having Democratic support. The results showed that, “for both liberal and conservative participants, the effect of reference group information overrode that of policy content. If their party endorsed it, liberals supported even a harsh welfare program, and conservatives supported even a lavish one.”

Strange isn’t it? Trying to get along with what the group is thinking is nothing new and helps explain some pretty ludicrous things that religious people believe and how independent thought can make people less religious.

The Religious

I won’t belabor the point too long in talking about how the principle applies to the religious since I’m guessing most who read this agree with the principle applying to religion, but let’s take one that explicitly conflicts with science: young earth creationism (YEC). How can people seriously believe this? I know, there is the Bible, but with loads of Christians willing to take a more figurative interpretation of Genesis, and scientific evidence providing a pretty strong motivation to take the figurative route, not to mention just plain looking foolish for embracing YEC, why do so many embrace YEC?

First, we should understand the point of view of a young earth creationist (which I will also abbreviate as YEC). Most YEC’s don’t have expertise in a relevant scientific field. For most laypersons it simply boils down to “Who do you trust?” To the completely unprejudiced observer who doesn’t care about what he majority scientific opinion is, and wants to follow the evidence where it leads, but has no expertise in science, all too often whoever seems right is whoever has the last word. The disagreement boils down to (1) what the facts are; (2) how the facts are to be interpreted (e.g. a creationist or evolutionist explanation). If both sides explicitly agree on (1), item (2) can come into play and people and judge for themselves which side is offering the best explanation of the agreed-upon facts. Unfortunately we seldom have a case where everybody agrees on a set of facts and each side offers their own different interpretations, so it becomes more of a game of “Who do you trust?” and critical thinking becomes undermined before it can even begin, at least for those who don’t care about the majority scientific opinion and just want to follow the evidence. When you add this to the fact that many YEC’s lack sufficient critical thinking skills to begin with (at last when it comes to critiquing their own side), we can begin to understand why YEC still exists despite overwhelming scientific evidence against it. YEC’s greatly trust YEC scientists (and unfortunately, there some YEC’s with doctorates in scientific fields) and do not trust pro-evolution scientists because those scientists are “biased” towards evolution—just as many evolutionists trust pro-evolution scientists while rejecting the testimony of YEC scientists as biased.

A Cause for Caution for Atheists

But just as both sides of the political aisle susceptible to this phenomena, so too are both sides of the atheism versus theism debate. Consider my You Can’t Prove a Negative article. The “you can’t prove a negative” thing is the sort of drivel one would expect from a religious idiot wanting to undermine the view that God doesn’t exist. Yet I’ve seen atheists parrot this nonsense too, even when this is the sort of thing that goes against atheism.

I did a painstaking study of an atheist using bad objections instead of good ones in my Rosenberg versus William Lane Craig series, pointing out much better objections to Craig’s arguments. I had asked myself, “Why are atheist debaters employing such an intellectually inferior case for atheism?” No doubt part of it is simply lack of adequate preparation, but the atheists who tend to be very avid about their atheism could be caught up in the sort of emotional zealotry that both conservatives and liberals do. And emotional zealotry, whether in politics or religion, atheism or theism, helps breed irrationality and blind devotion to what somebody in the group says.

To take a specific example of a pro-atheism mistake that might be propagated due to people adhering to a group, consider the popular Euthyphro dilemma objection against divine command theory (the theory that what is moral is grounded in God’s commands). In some cases this objection works great, but the problem is that it is often applied incorrectly.

For those who don’t know, the Euthyphro dilemma goes a bit like this (there are some variants): is something moral because God commands it, or does God command it because it is moral? If it’s the first option (something is moral because God commands it), then what is moral becomes arbitrary and it would be whatever God commands; God could command us to rape babies and it would be moral for us to rape babies. If it’s the second option (God command it because it is moral), then morality holds independently of what God commands.

One question: would morality be arbitrary if it were grounded in God’s commands? Well, that depends on the deity being talked about. If the deity in question has the ability to arbitrarily command things like rape babies, then the objection works great. Let me repeat that: the Euthyphro objection works great against some deities. Some theists do believe that God, being omnipotent, is capable of commanding us to rape babies even if he chooses not to do so. But then if this God grounded morality, it would be possible for raping babies to be moral, when clearly such a thing is not possible. The problem is this though: the idea that God has the ability to command things like raping babies isn’t all that common among modern divine command theorists, even if God having that ability to make such arbitrary commands was popular with divine command theorists in the past. Rather, the sort of deity they believe in is different.

The idea is that God (for whatever reason) has a certain nature in every possible world, and since the sort of commands he makes flow necessarily from his nature (or at least have to be consistent with that nature) God’s commands wouldn’t be arbitrary. For example, a theist could believe that since God has a loving and just nature in every possible world, God issues certain commands such as loving thy neighbor because of this nature, and there is no possible world where God commands us to e.g. rape babies because that would conflict with this deity’s nature. To be sure, this sort of deity grounding morality has problems (such as whether a loving and just God would allow so much injustice in the world), but notice that the correct refutation here isn’t that “God’s commands would be arbitrary” because the commands wouldn’t be arbitrary with this particular deity, since this particular deity does not have the ability to make arbitrary commands and can only make commands that fit his loving nature. The atheist would need a different objection against this sort of deity. A better objection would be to note that simpler explanations are often better, and it’s simpler just to cut out the magic middleman. Sure, a magical deity could be responsible for morality, just like a magic deity could be responsible for a few modern earthquakes in some empirically undetectable way, but it seems far more reasonable to dispense with magical invisible persons if we don’t need them to explain reality, and we don’t need a magical invisible person to explain morality any more than we need one to explain modern earthquakes.

Despite the existence of this better objection that works more uniformly across various gods, the Euthyphro objection is still pushed as if it were an effective objection, when it typically isn’t against the sort of deity that Craig and other divine command theorists believe in. The Euthyphro objection shouldn’t be used against deities it doesn’t apply to, and yet it’s difficult to see the Euthyphro objection fading in popularity anytime soon even in just those cases where the Euthyphro objection doesn’t work. That said, I don’t think this error is quite as serious as those theists who embrace YEC.