Built-in bias

This week I want to talk about the relationship between the Gospel Hypothesis and the Bible, but before we get to that there’s one more set of consequences I want to look at. In many ways it’s the most important set of consequences we’ve looked at so far because of its subtle yet pervasive influence on how we perceive the very question we’re investigating.

If the Myth Hypothesis is true, if the Christian God does not exist and the Christian Gospel is merely the product of centuries of myth-building by well-meaning (or not so well-meaning) mortals, then the inescapable consequence of God’s non-existence is that His absence from real life is going to be universal. Every moment of every day of every human life is going to be lived in the absence of God, no exceptions.

Such absolute consistency of experience carries with it a unique peril for the honest inquirer, because we are not born omniscient. We have no innate knowledge of how the world is supposed to be, we merely discover how the world is, and this discovery determines what we will consider “normal.”

Thus, the peril for the honest inquirer is that learning from experience will cause us to become biased in favor of the conclusion that it’s perfectly normal and natural for God to be absent. Who needs to think about whether or not God should show up in the real world when our whole life, and everyone else’s, clearly demonstrates that God’s absence is the default condition? We do not question it because we do not perceive it. It has always been there, since before our individual brains were mature enough to reason, and therefore it becomes part of our broad, unthinking premise of how the world is.

This produces a unique paradox: the Christian who believes in God will also believe that it is perfectly normal and natural for God to fail to show up in real life. No thinking or reasoning is involved in this assumption, because we don’t acquire it by logic, we acquire it by universal and consistent experience. This assumption is so pervasive and fundamental that Christians have difficulty even discussing the possibility of God showing up without perceiving the idea as absurd. JP Holding can’t discuss the idea without re-casting it as a whiny demand that God come wipe every runny nose; cl presents it as demanding that God show up to drink beer with us. One fellow I was discussing this with even went so far as to suggest that I wanted Jesus to show up in his bedroom to watch him have sex with his wife!

Yet there is nothing remotely absurd about the idea of showing up, in person, to spend time with someone you love when given the opportunity to do so. Christians find it absurd merely because it is so inconsistent with universal human experience. The Christian faith is built on the paradoxical juxtaposition of faith-based belief in God’s existence, and experience-based belief that His absence is normal and therefore unsurprising.

As we discussed before, this falls squarely in the category of functional rationalization, because it has the effect of depriving us of the ability to tell whether God is real or not, by making the consequences of the Gospel Hypothesis indistinguishable from the consequences of the Myth Hypothesis. The Myth Hypothesis predicts that God’s absence will be universal, and having learned from universal human experience that it is indeed normal for God to be absent, we innately assume that this is the natural state of affairs. For Christians, this means that we should not expect God to show up, and thus that we should not expect the Gospel Hypothesis to have consequences that are any different from those of the Myth Hypothesis.

We are thus innately and inherently biased against the possibility of using reason to discover the truth about God. Unless and until we can break through this bias, and can consider, from a rational perspective, whether current conditions are indeed those which would flow from the Gospel Hypothesis, our experience will blind us to the significance of the facts. We will take for granted the very things that should be shouting out to us, the glaring inconsistencies we cannot see because our eyes are so accustomed to the glare.

This is why I have begun by making a separation between the Bible and the Gospel Hypothesis. The Bible was written long after God’s failure to show up in real life was a dominant factor in human experience. Oh, superstition was still there, as was credulity, and a tendency among some to exploit the superstitious credulity of others in order to obtain some social, political and/or financial gain. But the basic, universal observation of God’s absence was there, and has formed an important part of the mythology since then.

Before we consider the Bible, therefore, we need first to consider the Gospel Hypothesis, so that we can know whether the Bible’s most fundamental assumptions are true. Is there indeed a logical reason to expect God’s alleged love for mankind to result in His universal absence from objective, real-life experience? If not, then it would be very ill-advised to approach the Bible on its own terms, because it is going to be biased by the expectation that God’s absence is normal, and will draw us into the same bias by appealing to our common experience of His absence.

How can the reasonable, objective reader know that I am telling the truth? By looking at the Gospel Hypothesis and working out what consequences really would result from such a powerful deity having such a strong love for us all. Try making the analysis without making the experience-based (yet unfounded) assumption that it is normal and natural for God not to show up. Ask the question, proceeding from the first premises, of whether such an assumption is really justified. Ask whether we ought to expect God to be as absent from Heaven as He is from earth. And if not, ask why.

 
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Posted in Evidence Against Christianity, Unapologetics. 21 Comments »

21 Responses to “Built-in bias”

  1. R. C. Moore Says:


    No thinking or reasoning is involved in this assumption, because we don’t acquire it by logic, we acquire it by universal and consistent experience. This assumption is so pervasive and fundamental that Christians have difficulty even discussing the possibility of God showing up without perceiving the idea as absurd.

    This is very close to what I meant in an earlier discussion about heuristic knowledge. Maybe exactly what I meant.


    The Christian faith is built on the paradoxical juxtaposition of faith-based belief in God’s existence, and experience-based belief that His absence is normal and therefore unsurprising.

    This is exactly the position of the clone on Mars in the thought experiment I proposes. It automatically arrives at the conclusion a creator exists, even though the creator is not in evidence, and finds this a totally normal basis for its reality.


    As we discussed before, this falls squarely in the category of functional rationalization, because it has the effect of depriving us of the ability to tell whether God is real or not, by making the consequences of the Gospel Hypothesis indistinguishable from the consequences of the Myth Hypothesis

    And this is where my thought experiment diverges from yours. From the exact same starting position, using the exact same assumptions, your logic leads to a non-existent God.

    But my clone actually does have a Creator (God), even though it cannot prove it. The default position is always “there is a Creator”. With no evidence to the contrary, a position of belief is justified (though possibly not correct).

    To be clear however, I am addressing the general concept of “God”, not the specific instance of a God that humans may believe in. Those can always be proven false, and each of DD’s points in that regard I find valid.

  2. Arthur Says:

    Maybe I don’t understand the thought experiment, but isn’t your Martian clone justified—in a way we are not—in deducing a creator from the evidence around her?

    There is the lab itself; and there is the Martian environment outside the lab, in which she’s unable to live, and from which the necessary labor and materials do not appear to have been derived. There is nothing else like her, or like the lab, in evidence (and, I’m assuming, she doesn’t know how the lab works).

    She could justifiably assume that her presence there, and the lab’s, is not a result of natural processes. Would she not be justified in deducing that the lab was deliberately designed and constructed? And that whoever or whatever was behind the construction of the lab is also behind her construction (indeed, that her construction is the apparent purpose of the lab)?

    Now, the nature of the lab might well give away that she was created in the image of the lab’s functionaries, depending on what she can figure out from the equipment; but note that she can’t reasonably derive many details about her creator(s)—how many there were, how they feel about her, whether or not they’re still around, whether or not they made others like her—although she could reasonably assume they don’t want to spend time with her, since they stuck her on Mars all by herself (but maybe they just haven’t shown up yet!) Anyway, nonetheless, it seems like we could forgive her conclusion, even if it weren’t correct.

    But that would mean that the clone didn’t use “any of the processes present in the FISH acronym,” not because the acronym is incomplete, but because she reasoned well. Unfortunately, it would also mean her situation isn’t really like ours, and we can’t necessarily justify the conclusion the way she can.

    If I understand things correctly.

    P.S. I was thinking that, perhaps, by “heuristic knowledge,” you might mean something like “blind entitlement”: the idea that one is entitled to apply the epistemic system one finds in one’s possession, without having to justify it first. Your caveats apply, of course—it can’t be inconsistent or self-contradictory, and it has to be open to new information and improvement—but it doesn’t require up-front justification (since that would require access to an epistemic system, which would require its own justification, etc… paralysis!).

  3. R. C. Moore Says:


    isn’t your Martian clone justified—in a way we are not—in deducing a creator from the evidence around her?

    But how does the clone differ from the very first human to suddenly ask the question of “what is all of this, and how did it and I get here?”

    The default position is “Creator”

    And the conclusion is not the result of “fantasy, intuition, hearsay, or superstition. It is the result of whatever knowledge is intrinsically available.

    There is no requirement for the Creator to visit the clone, ever. And yet from the clone’s standpoint, this is not a justification for a change in the clone’s belief in the Creator.

    But to pull the analogy closer to that of religion, what if the Creator left behind a journal that the clone could read. That described the creation of the clone, gave it instructions for how it was to spend its time, and contained the promise the creator would someday return, if the clone remained faithful to its tasks. (Perhaps its task is to maintain a teleporter needed for the creator to return)

    But the Creator never returns. What is this very long-lived clone to think? That there never was a Creator (this would be an erroneous conclusion). Perhaps the Creator is busy, or dead. Or the clone got lazy, and did not maintain the teleporter, and it broke.

    My point is not whether belief is correct of not (I cannot possibly know), but whether we can call it unjustified, or classify it via FISH, or even successfully defend the dichotomy of MH and GH.

    Again I stress. At the moment real knowledge about the Creator is claimed, then my though experiment falls apart. Any claims can be tested and proven true or false. All specific supernatural claims I know of are falsifiable and have been proven false.

  4. ThatOtherGuy Says:

    “And the conclusion is not the result of ‘fantasy, intuition, hearsay, or superstition.’ It is the result of whatever knowledge is intrinsically available.”

    Yes, but it’s a hypothesis made by someone who knows literally nothing…

    Which reminds me, wouldn’t someone with an absolutely blank slate for a brain act like a newborn baby? They don’t have the sort of cognitive ability you’re giving your clone…

  5. R. C. Moore Says:


    Which reminds me, wouldn’t someone with an absolutely blank slate for a brain act like a newborn baby? They don’t have the sort of cognitive ability you’re giving your clone…

    Yes, it is a pretty unrealistic thought experiment. But hey, wouldn’t a clone laboratory in a cave on Mars be cool anyway?

    I wonder how a human clone would react in that situation though. Maybe we could put cameras everywhere, like that movie “The Truman Show”.

    A better thought out analogy might be Theodore Sturgeon’s short story “Microcosmic God”, where a scientist creates a very small species of intelligent beings with a rapid temporal existence, and then challenges them with disasters to see what they invent (Religion is one of the first things, of course). Lot’s of parallels to this discussion, if I remember correctly.

  6. Jor-El Says:

    Modern day Christians seem to answer the apparent absence of God argument by flatly denying it. Hitchens has dubbed it the “Hallmark Moment” response: when they cite birds and bees and rainbows and the flavor of vanilla and the scent of flowers as their claim to the presence of God. In my opinion these are the puddle describing the perfection of its hole (using Douglas Adams’s analogy). This makes them no less beautiful, mind you. It’s one of the slanders against skepticism that they must be the dour buzz killers.
    Then, of course, there is the nearly universal reply about knowing or feeling God, which of course is utterly unsubstitutable to us unfortunates outside the God groupies group.
    If you grill them hard enough, they’ll eventually confess to a slight consternation over the fact that God doesn’t seem to be quite as active these days as he was in the Bible, but this is quickly followed by the retort that time has no meaning for God, and 2000 years ago was the mere blink of the cosmic eye.

  7. Jor-El Says:

    I mean “drill” them. Well, you can grill them too; considering the history, it only seems fair…
    :-)

  8. Arthur Says:

    …how does the clone differ from the very first human to suddenly ask the question of “what is all of this, and how did it and I get here?”

    She’s not part of a self-sustaining population of animals, living in a supportive environment. She’s isolated and (evidently) unique. If she were to speculate about other animals like her, she could be forgiven for deciding that they must be individually produced by other labs.

    From the exact same starting position, using the exact same assumptions, your logic leads to a non-existent God. But my clone actually does have a Creator (God), even though it cannot prove it.

    But Deacon’s Gospel Hypothesis includes a knowledge of the Creator’s desires and abilities. If the Martian clone somehow arrived at the conclusion that her creator(s) wanted to be with her (and was/ were unstoppably powerful) then she would have to jump through the same sort of fishy hoops as we do, in order to connect that conclusion to reality. Wouldn’t she?.

    If we suppose that folks are, in general, unable to stop their brains from speculating on questions of ultimate origin, then such speculations are reasonable—right?—as long as they’re consistent with themselves and with observable reality, and as long as they admit of correction and improvement. This is as true today as it was when the first human “asked the question”; there’s just a lot more knowledge of our circumstances to take into account. And, of course, you have to remember that you’re speculating.

    The default position is always “there is a Creator”.

    I would offer apeiron as a reasonable alternative (for animals—like Greeks!—who find themselves in more complicated environments), but I’m not sure if presenting alternative hypotheses is relevant. It does seem to me, though, that we could as easily imagine the “first human to ask” arriving at conclusions other than “conscious agency.”

  9. Dominic Saltarelli Says:

    Regarding apeiron, see ‘plasma cosmology’. I found the similarities to be rather amusing, myself.

  10. R. C. Moore Says:

    Arthur said —


    If the Martian clone somehow arrived at the conclusion that her creator(s) wanted to be with her (and was/ were unstoppably powerful) then she would have to jump through the same sort of fishy hoops as we do, in order to connect that conclusion to reality. Wouldn’t she?.

    I suggested that the clone had available “instructions” from the Creator, akin to a Holy Book, that would define the attributes of the Creator, since the clone would be very limited on such knowledge. This would in theory remove the need for any FISH.

    But you do bring up a good point, in that while the clone (IMO) may be justified in the Creator hypothesis, if the clone used the machinery in the lab to create more clones, it would be forced to use the FISH approach to justify the Creator story to any new members of the population.

    In other words, FISH is absolutely necessary to create converts. They cannot use the first clones justification, as they know their creator, the first clone.

    And once the first clone dies, and the remaining clones carry on, creating more clones and more converts, mythical elements are sure to creep in, and the clones begin to debate the MH vs GH scenario.

    Ideally, the very first clone would hold off all judgements until evidence presented itself. But its immediate evidence is quite compelling. It is a clone. It sees a clone making machine. It can see the complexity of such a machine could not arise from the rocks around it without an intelligent agency. So it assumes a Creator.

    Wow. I am sounding like an ID proponent aren’t I? The difference of course is that we know the laws of physics can turn rocks into people, but they can’t turn rocks into clone machines directly.

  11. Arthur Says:

    …this is where my thought experiment diverges from yours. From the exact same starting position, using the exact same assumptions, your logic leads to a non-existent God.

    My only point is that the divergent results shouldn’t be surprising. Your clone is entitled, in a way we are not, to assume that her existence is the result of artifice (she’s alone, and unique, in a hostile environment, with access to the tools that made her).

    She is all the more so entitled if “the Creator left behind a journal that the clone could read.” That revision would make her even less like us, since all our creatorly documents were written by other people (or that’s what I hear).

    For a better match with the Gospel Hypothesis she would have to decide, for whatever reason, that her creator both wanted to be with her and was unstoppably powerful.

  12. jim Says:

    R.C.-

    Regarding your thought experiment, I’m not quite sure what conclusion your clone would draw. Without the context of a society of some sort, lacking human relationships, lacking communication of ideas which have developed through cultural participation, lacking language which seems to be the origin of most if not all abstract thought, would the clone draw ANY conclusions beyond the most immediately necessary?

    Theists claim that we have an innate, individual knowledge of the divine. This belief flies in the face of all the evidence that deity-based beliefs emerge from cultures, not individuals in isolation (as well as probably most abstract takes on reality; at least, those of relative complexity). Plop a newborn baby onto Mars, or its clone equivalent, and if it manages to survive, I think what you’ll wind up with is a somewhat smarter ape, and that’s about it. What sets us qualitatively apart from our evolutionarily distant cousins isn’t as much the size of our brains, in my view. I’ll admit that’s a necessary starting point, and I don’t mean to underplay it. But all that’s merely the biological underpinnings of a humanization process that really only starts when people come together. THAT’S when the show really gets started!

    People make rules necessary if a society is to survive. Those rules get internalized as a sense of morality, and codified in ethical philosophy and the laws which are outgrowths of that. Thus morality is born. God as invisible cop on the beat.

    Toolmaking develops, and other sorts of artisanship. THEN people begin wondering, “Well, if I made this, who made the world?” God as artist and manufacturer.

    I guess I’m just trying to say that God is the result of societal imagination, and that an individual in constant isolation, without the context of human relationship to inform his anthropomorphisms, probably wouldn’t come up with the sorts of conclusions we might expect had it been otherwise. IMHO, of course.

  13. Tacroy Says:

    R.C. Moore: Maybe I missed it, but I don’t understand the mechanism by which your clone comes to the conclusion that there is a creator. Could you explain how that happens, or point me to where it was explained?

    With humans it’s easy enough, after all – “I was created by my parents; most of the things I see around me (like the house I live in, the tools I use, the food I eat) have either a creator or a caretaker of some sort; wouldn’t it make sense, therefore, that everything has some creator or caretaker?”

    Your clone, on the other hand, has (personally) witnessed no creation at all, nor does it have access to knowledge of that sort. As far as the clone knows, the universe began when it became conscious, and will remain like that forever (after all, how can it know of mortality?). You could argue that the clone might realize that something must have existed before it was conscious, and this thing must have created the clone, but how could the clone arrive at this conclusion? It has no access to information from before it awoke, and no reason to think that such information exists. To the clone, the question “what happened before you were conscious” is like the question “what happened before there was time” – it’s simply nonsensical.

    Basically, I suppose my question boils down to: how can the clone believe in the noun “Creator”, when (as far as I can see) it has no concept of the verb “creation”?

  14. R. C. Moore Says:

    Good questions. My scenario is totally falsifiable, so all we need to do is create a lab on Mars, put a clone in it, and see what happens….

    Ok, no budget for that. So I will have to do this using logic, which I hate, because it will be totally contrived, but then again that is my standard complaint against all things philosophical.

    1. Given: A lab on Mars, in a cave, with equipment to make a clone, and a clone who has just awoken, alone on a table attached to the equipment by wires and tubes and such.

    2. Axiom (not proven, but considered obvious) All humans (even newborn children) can distinguish rocks and dirt from shiny boxes with lights and whirring noises using heuristic knowledge.

    3. Assumption: The clone will seek an explanation for why the equipment is in the cave, and will attribute its presence to its own origin.

    4. Conclusion: The clone will decide on a non-present Creator who made the equipment, and be extension, the clone.

    Ok, are we saying this logic is unlikely or impossible?

    If unlikely, it is still possible, and I assert the clone is justified in his reasoning, and it was reached without FISH.

    If impossible, then why?

  15. R. C. Moore Says:

    Oh by the way, does anyone remember a sci fi short story (by Isaac Asimov I think) where apes are given greater intelligence by some scientists, and everything is great, they have technology and advanced socialization, etc.

    Then someone introduces them to God and religion.

    It all ends in tears.

  16. John Morales Says:

    R.C.:

    A lab on Mars, in a cave, with equipment to make a clone, and a clone who has just awoken
    [...] Ok, are we saying this logic is unlikely or impossible?
    Unlikely by virtue of implausibility.

    How is the clone gestated? Matured? Educated?
    There is no technology that can do it, and it would be unethical to boot.

  17. jim Says:

    R.C.-

    Oh fun! Thought experiments; I LOVE ‘em…hehehe! Ok, here goes:

    2. I’d agree that the clone can distinguish between rocks and shiny illuminated boxes. But having no experiential data to draw on regarding science, manufacturing and the like, or even other people for that matter, I’d say the perceived differences would be like those between rocks and lightning bugs. Seems to me it would all appear part of the clone’s natural environment. Of course, if he gets out of the lab and explores the rest of the planet, he might find the equipment to be anomalous. That I’ll grant. But I’m not sure if that would make much of an impact, since he has no context in which to place that anomaly.

    3. Being part of its natural environment, I’m not sure if the clone would question the origin of the equipment beyond, say, asking itself ‘Why is that mountain over there?’ As far as attributing its presence to its own origin, I doubt it. The clone might develop a very basic sense of ownership, like a fox in its den.

    4. From my viewpoint, this doesn’t follow at all. Having absolutely no experience with things being made, constructed, or otherwise ‘created’, I can’t imagine that the anthropomorphic jump would ever occur to the clone. I imagine it going on about its life the best way it knows how, utilizing the equipment as part of its environment the best way it knows how, like any animal does. There certainly are some interesting questions, however, having to do with innate human capacity and potential minus any cultural impact whatsoever.

    So on the whole, I find this this scenario implausible, though whether or not its absolutely impossible I wouldn’t say, since there might be something I’m overlooking. But let’s assume it happens anyway. Would the clone be justified in attributing the presence of the equipment to some ‘creator’? If justification comes by the disclosure of facts, then no. Until then, it seems to me the matter is up in the air. I guess that’s the difference between tentative belief, and knowledge. But now we’re down to the parsing of word definitions, and how they relate to epistemology.

    Anyway, it really is a fun thought experiment. I’ve often been curious about cases concerning feral children. I’ve heard some anecdotal stuff, but don’t know how accurate it is. Maybe I’ll do some research. Thanks for all the postulating, R. C. !

    3.

  18. Deacon Duncan Says:

    R.C. —

    You’ve raised a fun and interesting prospect. I might suggest that your clone is not sufficiently independent of the cultural perceptions and assumptions that we all take for granted as a result of our experiences in human civilizations, surrounded by religious beliefs and concepts. You and I know what the concept of “Creator” refers to, but where would an isolated clone come up with such a specific and personified symbol? Would not step 4 be more likely to result in the clone deciding that its origin was due to the machinery, and that the machinery had some unknown cause?

    If the clone decides that some invisible, supernatural Person(s) used magic to poof the equipment into existence, then that’s superstition: arbitrarily attributing visible phenomena to magical and unverifiable agencies. But if the clone merely observes the evidence and concludes that some natural agency is most likely responsible, then it’s not FISH because the clone isn’t drawing false conclusion, she’s using reasonable inference to derive probably conclusions based on the evidence.

    The FISH acronym (fantasy, intuition, superstition and hearsay) covers the four main categories by which people derive specific information about magical things for which there is no evidence-based source of information. Thus, your clone doesn’t need to rely on FISH if she is merely drawing such conclusions as are reasonably consistent with the visible evidence, and cannot avoid relying on FISH if she goes beyond the reasonable conclusions into “knowledge” that cannot be traced back to any factual basis.

  19. R. C. Moore Says:

    Ok, I will give that one a FAIL.

    But I wish someone could explain who taught this crow to make tools:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rd3vUeULZIk

    I find the subject of how we know things we are not taught fascinating.

  20. cl Says:

    DD,

    JP Holding can’t discuss the idea without re-casting it as a whiny demand that God come wipe every runny nose; cl presents it as demanding that God show up to drink beer with us.

    You yourself said God should show up on the evening news to tell us the right interpretation of scripture, so don’t make it sound like me and Holding are the ones who postulate the absurdities here! My caricature was entirely facetious, and I have plenty of drinking buddies, but you apparently seriously believe God should show up on the evening news to hold our hand and tell us how to read the Bible! Come on now.

    This is why I have begun by making a separation between the Bible and the Gospel Hypothesis.

    This is where reasonable believers stop taking this exercise seriously. It’s like, “To hell with the Bible’s claims, I’m going to disprove my version of God!” Who cares?

    Is there indeed a logical reason to expect God’s alleged love for mankind to result in His universal absence from objective, real-life experience?

    Now we’re starting to get to the real point of my OxyContin analogy, which had everything to do with your own bias and not as much to do with my mistake. Presuming my friend’s story truthful – yes – I was an idiot and saw the wrong thing, but that was only part of the point. The part I feel you either missed or ignore is: As my bias towards the fiending hypothesis precluded recognition of the methadone hypothesis, you are so set in your views of what God should do that your hypothesis either completely overlooks any logical reasons for God’s absence – or just presumes them to be rationalizations like everything else that doesn’t fit your pre-approved Gospel Hypothesis. And you said you weren’t laying down dictu!

    I say yes, there are logical reasons for God’s absence, and so would most “Christians” I know. I also think it’s reasonable to claim the Bible supports this position. Maybe you’ll chalk it up as more rationalization – I don’t know – but that’s the reason this rhetorical exercise of yours will fail to persuade reasonable believers, because you don’t evaluate what they actually believe. Jayman and myself have been saying this for weeks, maybe longer, and our voices are completely marginalized.

    I’m still working on my formal response.

  21. cl Says:

    DD said,

    Such absolute consistency of experience carries with it a unique peril for the honest inquirer, because we are not born omniscient.

    This is just a side issue, but presuming he’s read the above, I submit that commenter jim has not been consistent in his address of statements containing the word ‘omniscience,’ choosing to dispute them only when made by his opponents.