Cognitive Dissonance – why beliefs are so hard to change

A few months ago I was speaking to a friend of mine, whom I first knew professionally and then became good friends. He was a computer programmer and a science major by training but deeply religious in his views. While I typically am not the type to debate points related to religious beliefs there was this one instance where he mentioned that he did not believe that the earth was 4.5 billion years old. I think one evening we were jumping topics from work to personal beliefs and somehow ended on this topic. Our conversation went like this:

Me: You do realize that the earth is older than 6000 years and we have various methods to prove this. The Genesis account is just not true.

Him: Well, the jury is really out on Radio Carbon dating. How can you date something that is millions of years and even billions of years old? The science does not compute. It has been shown that RC dating is unreliable (and he rattles off a few recent Creationists sources).

Me: Umm I am hoping that you also realize that age of the earth is not determined by RC dating only. There are a lot of other radioactive elements that are used for larger timescales that have proved with a relatively high consistency that the age of the earth is more than 4 billion years.

And then I read this to him – (Source: http://www.tim-thompson.com/radiometric.html) –Radiometric methods measure the time elapsed since the particular radiometric clock was reset. Radiocarbon dating, which is probably best known to the general public, works only on things that were once alive and are now dead. It measures the time elapsed since death but is limited in scale to no more than about 50,000 years ago. Other methods, such as Uranium/Lead, Potassium/Argon, Argon/Argon and others, are able to measure much longer time periods and are not restricted to things that were once alive. Generally applied to igneous rocks (those of volcanic origin), they measure the time since the molten rock solidified. If that happens to be longer than 10,000 years, then the idea of a young-Earth is called into question. If that happens to be billions of years, then the young-Earth is in big trouble.

Him – well all that is fine but “you” do realize that the Bible says the earth was created 6000 years ago and we HAVE proof of the places referenced in the Bible. The Old Testament was written around the 6th century B.C. and references places and events from 4000 B.C. and these can be historically verified.

Me – Well by that logic there are a couple of Indian Epics and Books (eg: Mahabharata and Vedas) that were written around the 1000 to 500 B.C. timeframe and reference events from more than 10,000 years ago that CAN ALSO be historically verified!

But that is where I lost him and I became painfully aware that I could not make him change his position. This got me thinking about beliefs and how people hold on to beliefs even in the face of overwhelming evidence. It could be the age of the earth; the age of the universe; climate change; evolution; superstitious belief; the healing power of prayer…it does not matter if you have the knockdown evidence or proof. It is very very hard to change beliefs.

Carol Tavris in her speech on “Why we believe  – Long after we shouldn’t”  attributes this to the DISSONANCE THEORY which has three major biases:

a) The bias we are unbiased is we feel that we have no biases in our beliefs and that our beliefs are solidly grounded on facts.

b) Better than Average Bias – also known as the “American Bias” i.e. we are better, smarter and more successful than most people.

c) Finally the Confirmation Bias –  we only seek information that confirms our beliefs. Also known as the consonance bias as it keeps our beliefs in harmony and does NOT allow any dissident information in.

We typically have two options:

Option-1 we accept new evidence and recalibrate our beliefs based on the new evidence OR

Option-2: we deny the evidence and preserve the belief

and as Carol Travis states in her talk, ” guess which one we choose”?

(Source – http://alen.malhasoglu.com/2015/07/16/cognitive-dissonance/)

Changing beliefs by viewing conflicting viewpoints and evidence takes time and it is a long drawn process. It is simply unreasonable to put together a 1 hr talk to the climate deniers and expect them to “convert” just based on the merits of the evidence. And this would be the case for a myriad of topics. Cause if it was that easy they would have already done so….right??

We would not have a large swath of our county simultaneously holding conflicting beliefs. But then how would you explain the 2016 elections?

 

 

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On Morality and Faith

A little while ago I was reflecting on the Karl Marx quote, “religion is the opiate of the masses”. It got me to thinking about cognitive biases in religion and faith and specifically – Conjunction Fallacy: The conjunction fallacy is a formal fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one (Link)

In 1983 researchers Kahneman and Tversky asked a question that is now called as the “Linda Problem”. A variation of the original question goes like this:

At a dinner party this weekend, a friend introduces you to a woman named Genevieve.  He tells you that Genevieve recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a B.A. in Philosophy, where she was active in the Occupy movement and edited a literary magazine.

You’re interested in talking to Genevieve about Hegel, the subject of her senior thesis, but your friend jumps in and asks you to rank the following statements about Genevieve in order of their probability:

(1)Genevieve is a feminist.

(2)Genevieve is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.

(3)Genevieve is a feminist who is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.

Given what you know about Genevieve, rank the statements from most likely to least likely.  

The Answer (Taken from this Link):

This tests how well individuals reason using probability theory. In Kahneman and Tversky’s 1983 study, 85 percent of subjects got it wrong. Your answer was incorrect, too, if you ranked statement (3) in the first or second position. Logic dictates that (3) is the least likely scenario: two conditions being true (Genevieve is an ardent feminist + Genevieve is looking for a job as a sanitation worker) is always less probable than only one of these being true.

If you got this one right — it doesn’t matter whether you put (1) or (2) first, just that you ranked (3) last — congratulations. If not, you’re in good company: only 15 percent of Stanford business school students who had received training in probability theory got it right.  

Basically, people make conjunction fallacies when more information provided confirms their prior biases. So how does this relate to matters of faith, religion and specifically morality.

Take this example below extracted from theconversation.com:

When Jack was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing squirrels and stray cats in his neighbourhood.

As an adult, Jack found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighbourhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.

Now, knowing what I have just told you about Jack, is it more probable that Jack is: A) A teacher. Or B) A teacher who does not believe in God?

If you answered “B”, you would not be alone. An average of 50 percent of people in a recent suite of experiments gave the same answer. The wrong answer.

Wrong not because Jack believes in God – we have no way of knowing what Jack believes. B is necessarily incorrect because the entirety of group “B” the teachers who don’t believe in God, are also members of group “A”, the teachers. It is impossible for B to be more likely than A, but it is likely that a great many people in group A do not belong to B.

The article goes on to eloquently describe how people are able to use the conjunction fallacy to correlate lack of faith (or belief in God) to lack in morality. Even in the political landscape, this extrapolates to the fact that there is little or no chance for for an atheist to become the President of this country. Even though this country is built on “Separation of Church and State” there is always an overt suspicion that having no faith means lacking moral values.

While I personally have no skin on what faith (or lack thereof) a person needs to be, to be a good and moral person, I am more interested in the thought process behind the conclusion – “lack of faith equates to lack of morality”. 

Cause that is simply not true and here are the reasons why:

  • Most religious people and people of faith are already “arbitering” their morality. There are references of ” homosexuality being evil, how to treat slaves and how to control women” in most of our good books. But we sidestep those and choose the passages and verses that talk about love, charity, and kindness to organize our lives i.e. we are already cherry picking our morality from the religious texts.
  • There are material differences in what constitutes as morality between the major faiths.
  • There has not been a knock-down philosophical argument to counter Plato’s Euthypro’s Dilemma – Is a “good deed” good because the deed itself is good or because God deemed it was good. This creates two “horns” that question either  Omnipotence or Omnibenevolence. I realize that there have been multiple apologist counter arguments including the proposing of a “third option” (from William Lane Criag) i.e. God simply is good and it is God’s nature to be the ultimate good. However, these arguments have been repeatedly refuted from a philosophical standpoint.
  • We have so many examples of BOTH, institutions and individuals who do not conform to any faith, who are doing yeoman’s work in helping the world to be a better place – Oxfam, Doctor’s without Borders, Gates Foundation, Amnesty International to name a few i.e. leading a moral life of love, charity and kindness.

Hitchens Morality Challenge – name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge, think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not?

  • Finally, it plain doesn’t make sense.
    • If religion is the ONLY thing that is keeping you from being a horrible immoral person then could it be you are a horrible immoral person?

 

  • If you lead an amoral life of crime and debauchery, it seems a bit arbitrary that all you need to do is repent and ask for forgiveness prior to dying and you are at the same level as someone that lead a pious and moral life (in terms of reaping the afterlife benefits of religion).

If religion were the only durable foundation for morality you would suspect atheists to be really badly behaved. You would go to a group like the National Academy of Sciences. These are the most elite scientists, 93 percent of whom reject the idea of God. You would expect these guys to be raping and killing and stealing with abandon.- Sam Harris

Then there is the other often cited atheist fallacy argument. It goes something like this – In the 20th century, heinous atrocities were committed (by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot) because these societies gave up faith and religion. This has been debunked by multiple folks including Hitchens and Sam Harris. As Harris puts it, most of these were cargo cults which ended up looking like a perverted version of a religion with a figurehead being worshiped as a God.

Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right. H. L. Mencken

We have a pretty good sense regarding how morality within social norms have evolved over the past 2000 years. Significant progress made in civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights have been not because of adherence to religious morality but rather secular thought that began from the age of enlightenment, with philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes etc. More recently science is starting to make significant forays into this field.

So, the question to really ask is – Why would you base your morality on religious frameworks that are at most subjective; inconsistent and in many cases lack logic. Why not be good because it is the right thing to do, rather for an eternal reward?