Thursday, September 22, 2011

Religiosity May Correlate to a Strong Reliance on Intuition

Yahoo news has an article discussing a study that looks at the relationship between religion and intuition. Surveying 882 Americans, the findings show that those who profess religious belief seem to rely more on intuition than those who are not religious. We non-religious folk apparently use "reflective" reasoning more than intuition, which means that instead of just going with our gut, we dissect something, analyze it, and try for a solution. As someone who has been on both sides of the fence, I can easily say that intuition steered my life much more as a believer than it does now as a non-believer.

Intuition is at work behind many aspects of faith. We can see it in creationism, when its proponents often intuit incorrect errors in the theory of evolution, such as a conflict with the second law of thermodynamics, the mistaken association of a scientific theory with a guess, and so forth. We can see it in apologetics, when believers intuitively assume that eyewitness testimony is of the utmost reliability, despite many psychological studies that indicate otherwise. We can see it even in specific dogmas, like the goodness of god, which believers often claim is affirmed to them via their own personal experiences.

Faith is also an exercise of intuition, not only because it functions in spite of reason and evidence, but because one has to intuit that faith itself is a virtue to begin with. Why is faith a good thing? Most believers will give you some touching story about how it's benefited them, how it can benefit you, and so forth. But these are additionally grasped by intuition. How do you really know that faith was behind that anonymous check you received? How do you really know that faith will gain you entry into paradise after death? You don't - you just hope, and guess. It's intuition at work again.

But is it true that, as the article concludes, "neither intuition nor reflection is inherently superior"? It depends on the problem to be solved. I would argue that intuition, even if it arrives at the right answer, is inferior to reflection when it comes to the math problem mentioned in the article. How many times have you made a lucky guess, had your confidence level increase exponentially, only to have it dashed to pieces again when you don't do so well the second time around? The difference in reflection and intuition is that enough reflection will help us find the answer, while stronger intuition can offer no comparable advantage.

Sure, intuition has its place, especially in the emotionally charged realm of relationships, but the best use of intuition is when it's tempered by reflection. The problem with applying intuition to the cosmos is that, as I've stated numerous times before in my writing, the cosmos is usually counter-intuitive. Earth is round; Earth orbits the sun; water vapor is lighter than air. Many of the arguments for god rely on one or more components of intuition: everything that exists has a cause; complexity and order imply design; laws require a law-giver. Why should we feel justified in making these intuitive assumptions about the way that reality works?

Think about what god is asking us to do by demanding that we have faith in him to be saved. If we have to intuit our way to the right answer, is that really praiseworthy? No decent educator would knowingly reward a child for a blind guess. In fact, most high school teachers are likely to scold students who do give some lazy estimate, because it shows that they haven't been applying the concepts and working to find the real solution. Even if someone has earnestly tried to grasp things and failed, a guess is an opportunity for learning, it's certainly not the end of the line. Some theists actually believe god wants us to shun methods for ascertaining truth, like reason, and rely solely on the intuitive mishaps of faith.

Pascal's Wager is the ultimate evidence of intuition's place in religion. It dares us to make a guess, to put down a wager, for nothing less than the eternal destiny of our soul, according to believers. If something is of such dire importance, wouldn't it be better to reflect and contemplate it - to use reason instead of faith? After all, we wouldn't want to be 5 cents short of the truth.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Three God-of-the-Gaps Arguments for God

Immanuel Kant noted that there are three primary forms of argument for the existence of god: cosmological, teleological, and ontological. Cosmological arguments are based on our general experience of existence, or the nature of causality to be more precise. Teleological arguments are based on our experience of the universe, specifically the appearance of "design" in nature. Ontological arguments use abstract experience of concepts to make an a priori case for god's existence.

Today it occurred to me that all of these arguments fall under god-of-the-gaps reasoning. The cosmological argument designates god as its "first cause." The teleological argument assumes that god is behind the appearance of complexity and order in the universe. The ontological argument attempts to define god into existence by imagining the greatest possible being. In none of these do we find a clear and sufficient explanation for why god is involved. It's as if god is simply tacked on because the theist can't imagine any other possibility.

British biologist and geneticist J.B.S. Haldane said, "My own suspicion is that the universe is not only queerer than we suppose, but queerer than we can suppose." Intuition once led us to believe that the world is flat, that the sun orbits the earth, that heavier objects always fall to the ground before lighter ones, and other 'common sense' musings that have now been undermined by scientific study. Even if we ignore all the additional flaws in the three argument forms, there is no justification for applying the god label to the first cause, the appearance of design, or the greatest conceivable being.

The god-of-the-gaps fallacy is a fallacy because it does simply tack on god to whatever the believer can't make sense of (or whatever they think only an explanation of god can make sense of). In the past, we have made this mistake by attributing lightning to the gods, putting god's realm above the clouds, and crediting god with the creation of the human species. It stands very likely that what these arguments put forward in the name of god may be explained by some as yet unknown natural phenomena. Or they may never be explained. But nonetheless, a gap in understanding does not make any old answer as good as the next.

It's interesting to me to reflect on how common this god-of-the-gaps reasoning is among theists. Our tendency to plug god into the unknown may show just where the concept of god originates from. In our desire to understand and find comfort in the chaos, we created an explanation in our own image. Is it not ironic that some of us still continue to use distinctly human traits, like reason, to attempt a justification for the reality of our 'pet theory'?