Apophenia, Religious Apologists, No True Scotsman

I maintain a Word document where I compile links and quotes from online articles I intend to comment on in this blog, and as I post each one, I gray out the text of that section of the Word doc. Here are a couple from September that I don’t seem to have yet posted.

Slate: It’s All Connected: What links creativity, conspiracy theories, and delusions? A phenomenon called apophenia.

Apophenia is the human tendency to see patterns in random events. It’s the tendency to see patterns in clouds, or to see Jesus or Mary in tree stumps and tortillas, for example — to detect whatever one is already culturally attuned to, in the random patterns of nature. It has an evolutionary explanation.

This interesting Slate article sees this tendency as an element of creativity.

In statistics, a problem akin to apophenia is a Type I error, or false positive. It means believing something is real when it isn’t, based on a misleading pattern in the data. The equal and opposite misstep, a Type II error, involves attributing a true relationship to chance. Defaulting to Type I thinking may have once conferred a survival advantage: Assume every rustle in the grass is a tiger, and you’ll last a lot longer than the carefree naïf who chalks each disturbance up to the wind. So, the theory goes, human brains evolved into “belief engines” and “pattern-recognition machines,” keen to organize jumbled sensory inputs into meaningful data.

Yet apophenia can also lure us into false and damaging convictions. Take the gambler’s fallacy, which states—erroneously—that in a sequence of random events, past outcomes will affect future outcomes.

So apophenia cuts both ways—it’s a profoundly human habit of mind that can underlie adaptive behaviors and reward flights of fancy, or induce all kinds of paranoia and silliness.

And then a long post by Jerry Coyne about how religious apologists — including President Obama — discount ISIS, or the Islamic State, or whatever it’s called, as not “true Islam”. It’s a variation of the no true Scotsman fallacy. Coyne points out how there is no “true” religion…

Everyone who is religious picks and chooses their morals from scripture.  And so, too, do religious apologists pick and choose the “true” religions using identical criteria: what appeals to them as “good” ways to behave. The Qur’an, like the Bible, is full of vile moral statements supposedly emanating from God. We cherry-pick them depending on our disposition, our politics, and our upbringing.

In the end, there is no “true” religion in the factual sense, for there is no good evidence supporting their truth claims. Neither are there “true” religions in the moral sense. Every faith justifies itself and its practices by appeal to authority, revelation, and dogma. There are just some religions we like better than others because of their practical consequences. If that’s what we mean by “true,” we should just admit it. There’s no shame in that, for it’s certainly the case that societies based on some religions are more dysfunctional than others. Morality itself is neither objectively “true” nor “false,” but at bottom rests on subjective preferences: the “oughts” that come from what we see as the consequences of behaving one way versus another. By all means let us say that ISIS is a strain of Islam that is barbaric and dysfunctional, but let us not hear any nonsense that it’s a “false religion”. ISIS, like all religious movements, is based on faith; and faith, which is belief in the absence of convincing evidence, isn’t true or false, but simply irrational.

This issue has gotten much hotter in recent weeks, with controversy about Bill Maher’s comments about Islam. Is criticizing the tenents of a religion tantamount to racism against its adherents? I say no. My inclination is that *ideas*, including the ideas of Islam, or Christianity, or any other ideology, or for that matter any scientific thesis or tenant, are always open to criticism, without necessarily impugning those who, for the moment, subscribe to any one of them. We should all be constantly re-examining our ideas and beliefs, against the evidence of reality, and making corrections as we can.

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