Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Interesting study

A study was recently done by Nicholas Epley of the University of Chicago that I find very interesting. They asked their subjects their opinions on a variety of subjects, and then asked them how they thought Bill Gates, God, President Bush, and the average American would answer those same questions. They calculate how closely the subject's views match to each of those. Not surprisingly, the subjects views matched their perception of God's views much better than their perception of anyone else's. (Humorously, nobody's views matched poor bush's views-- except on the subject of the death penalty).

OK, that's great, you say, but it doesn't prove anything: They could genuinely be changing their minds to start believing what they think God believes, in which case it's no wonder they correlate well.

Ah, but that's where they get tricky:

... We investigated this in Study 5 by
influencing participants’ own attitudes about affirmative action
through exposure to persuasive arguments. In a pro-policy
condition, participants read one strong argument supporting
affirmative action and one weak argument opposing it. In an
anti-policy condition, participants read one weak argument
supporting affirmative action and one strong argument opposing
it (see SI Text). Participants then rated the strength of each
argument they received. Finally, participants reported their
attitude about affirmative action and did the same for God, the
average American, Gates, and Bush. ...


They have the subject read a paper designed to shift their view in some point, and administer the survey again. The paper does indeed shift the opinions of the subject, and it also shifts what they think God's opinions are, and what they think Bill Gate's are (though to a lesser extent), but not Bush or the average american.

In another study,

Study 6 sought convergent evidence by using a
different experimental manipulation that relied on internally
generated arguments rather than on externally provided ones. In
particular, participants were asked to write and deliver a speech
either consistent or inconsistent with their own preexisting
beliefs in front of a video camera. Under these circumstances,
people tend to shift their attitudes in a direction consistent with
the speech they deliver (21, 22). Participants first reported (in a
dichotomous choice task) whether they generally supported or
opposed the death penalty, among other issues. Approximately
30 min later, a new experimenter told participants that videotapes
were needed for another study of people evaluating
speeches about the death penalty. Participants were then asked,
depending on random assignment, if they would be willing to
deliver a speech in favor of or opposed to the death penalty. This
meant delivering a speech consistent with preexisting attitudes
for some participants and inconsistent with preexisting attitudes
for the other participants. All but five participants (two in the
consistent condition, three in the inconsistent condition) agreed
to the experimenter’s request. After delivering the speech,
participants reported their own attitude about the death penalty,
and then did the same for God, Gates, Bush, and the average
American.


They did a similar thing, only with a different method of modifying the participants' beliefs, with the same result.

Finally, they did a comparison in an fMRI which confirmed that people use the same brain areas to process questions about their own beliefs and God's beliefs-- but they use different areas to process other people's beliefs. (In my mind, until we know more about the brain, this sort of thing is of limited use in proving anything)

So what does this prove, and what doesn't it prove?

They do seem to have shown fairly convincingly that these people do not maintain separate categories in their mind for their own opinions and God's opinions. This implies that these people are or could be serving as their own God: their perception of God's opinions are probably just echo boxes for their own opinions.

OK, so the sample sizes are adequate but not huge; I'd be willing to bet that there's one personality type that would probably break this mold, at least occasionally: the theology geek and/or pastor. The sort of person who would say something like "I wish I didn't have to believe this, but the bible says blah blah blah..."

I suspect a common Christian response to this will take the general form of claiming that that the individuals in the study were not *good* Christians, that, in fact, the majority of Christians in the country are not good Christians and do tend to remake God in their own image. So the people in the studies were sinful/backslidden/uninformed/idolatrous/fake Christians. I find this to be a very unpalatable response; what reason do we have for supposing those who propose this kind of argument are actually among the good/real Christians?

So how do you know if you are doing this yourself? I can only speculate, but chances would seem pretty good that if there's nothing you and God disagree on, you're doing this.

Here are two other takes on this study. I'll add other links to responses to the study if you have them and they're interesting.

12 comments:

Andrew Smith said...

Perhaps I misunderstand the study, but I'm not sure it really poses an issue.

Obviously, if someone believes in God, they're not going to disagree with him. After all, if he's all-knowing, you can't disagree with God and still be right. Conversely, God can't believe in anything false, either (which forces a person to change their mind on what God thinks when their own mind has been changed).

So the question of figuring out where God "stands" on an issue is trying your best to figure out the issue itself (presumably, that is why discerning God's beliefs makes your brain examine your own).

For example, let's say I'm a big supporter of the "war on drugs". At this point, I think that illicit substances are totally evil, and anyone who uses them should be promptly imprisoned. Naturally, since I'm convinced this policy is just, and I think God can't be unjust, my only option here is to assign this position to God as well.

But suppose I start reading too much libertarian propaganda and come to the conclusion that people own themselves and it's no business of mine to control what they ingest into their own body, regardless of my negative opinion of weed/meth/crack/paint thinner.

Now that my mind has been changed, how could I not believe that God has the same position? I don't see anything hypocritical about that.

daniel the smith said...

OK, that's a response I wouldn't have anticipated. :)

I'm afraid I can't really agree, however. The reasoning is fallacious. Let me restate it:

1. I think the war on drugs is good/bad.
2. I am smart and know a lot about the issue.
3. God is smart and knows a lot about the issue.
4. Therefore, God also thinks that the war on drugs is good/bad.

The problem, of course, is that there is no reason to believe that two smart people, even given the same data, will come to the same conclusion. Unfortunate, but true.

This argument also assumes comparable levels of intelligence and knowledge between you and God. While this may not strictly speaking be a logical problem, I think it's a big problem nonetheless, for reasons which I'm sure you can guess.

Really, the only way you can know someone's view is if they tell you what it is, and it's risky to guess. I know I feel a little insulted when people ascribe to me positions I don't hold; presumably God does not suffer the same character flaw, but I still wouldn't recommend it.

Thanks for the comment :)

Andrew Smith said...

Heh, I've been looking forward to responding to this all day :)

"1. I think the war on drugs is good/bad.
2. I am smart and know a lot about the issue.
3. God is smart and knows a lot about the issue.
4. Therefore, God also thinks that the war on drugs is good/bad."

Oops, and we've hit a snag! That's not what I meant, but after re-reading my comment I understand why you interpreted it that way.

Even if that is how the people in the study came to their own conclusions, it just shows that their issue is with internal reasoning (and hubris), not with sincerity.

Here's how I would have put it:

1. God knows everything and is always right.
2. If X is true, God must know it.
3. I think X is true.
4. I must not contradict myself.
5. If I think God knows X is false, I contradict myself.
6. Therefore, I must think God knows X is true.

Notice that the last line isn't "therefore, God knows X is true". The distinction between what is actually true and what I think is true needs to be drawn here. I could be totally wrong about X, but I can't rationally doubt X unless I have reasons to.

It's all about being consistent with yourself.

Look at this the other way—what did you expect the participants of the study to do? Once they change their minds about an issue, say "I actually don't know what God thinks about this"? Then they must not have been very convinced, or they were fine with disagreeing with God.

Or they could say "it is impossible to know what God thinks about this", then they must have thought it was impossible to know what the truth of the matter really was.

"Really, the only way you can know someone's view is if they tell you what it is, and it's risky to guess."

This applies to humans, but with God you have a handy rule for reference (see premise 1). Of course, this rule is not completely helpful, since the question immediately becomes "is issue X true or false?" but I think you get the idea :)

daniel the smith said...

Apologies in advance if my comments are a little blunt, I have a bunch of stuff I need to do today.

> Even if that is how the people in the study came to their own conclusions, it just shows that their issue is with internal reasoning (and hubris), not with sincerity.

I don't think they used that reasoning; I don't think they used any reasoning. They just answered the question.

> 1. God knows everything and is always right.
> 2. If X is true, God must know it.
> 3. I think X is true.
> 4. I must not contradict myself.
> 5. If I think God knows X is false, I contradict myself.
> 6. Therefore, I must think God knows X is true.

OK, but really I don't see much difference between this and what I said. This argument also doesn't allow for the possibility that you might be mistaken; 6 doesn't follow from the others. Your opinion (I think X is true) doesn't inform you in any way about God's view, because your opinion could be wrong, and you've just defined God's view to always be correct. You are only constrained by 1-5 to think that God knows X if you yourself are 100% certain about X. I would maintain that very few if any facts merit that level of certainty.

> The distinction between what is actually true and what I think is true needs to be drawn here. I could be totally wrong about X, but I can't rationally doubt X unless I have reasons to.

Right; you could be totally wrong, therefore you should NOT think that God agrees with you as a matter of course. Not that you should think he disagrees with you; you just don't have information on the subject.

> Look at this the other way—what did you expect the participants of the study to do?

They ought to have either said all along that they had no way of knowing, or assigned God a position that did not change with their own opinion. Presumably, the only way to change their minds about God's opinion should be an argument from the bible (all the people in the study were Christians IIRC).

> > Really, the only way you can know someone's view is if they tell you what it is, and it's risky to guess.

> This applies to humans, but with God you have a handy rule for reference (see premise 1).

The rule isn't helpful at all because you have no way of knowing for certain that you're correct.

A theme here is certainty; beliefs are not black and white. E.g., I'm 60% (not actual percentage) certain the death penalty is barbaric. Even if you hear me express a belief without qualifiers, I probably only hold it with 95% certainty (mean one out of twenty such beliefs I expect to be wrong in some way).

Anyway, this is long and kinda rambly, so I hope it makes sense. I have a busy day going on here, so I'd better go.

Andrew Smith said...

> I don't think they used that reasoning; I don't think they used any reasoning. They just answered the question.

Were they asked to explain why they came to their conclusions? If not, then of course "they just answered the question". I'm just giving these folks the benefit of the doubt here. Neither of us really knows what they thought.

> OK, but really I don't see much difference between this and what I said. This argument also doesn't allow for the possibility that you might be mistaken;

Yes, of course it doesn't allow for the possibility I'm wrong. But that's not the point of the argument. It's not a proof of X!

> 6 doesn't follow from the others. Your opinion (I think X is true) doesn't inform you in any way about God's view, because your opinion could be wrong, and you've just defined God's view to always be correct.

Yes, of course my opinion doesn't inform me about God's actual view, just as my opinion doesn't inform me about the actual truth of the matter. Again, not the point of the argument.

But 6 does follow from the rest. Go back to 3; I said "I think X is true", so I'm assigning X total certainty. If I think with any certainty other than 100% that God thinks X is true, I am contradicting myself.

> You are only constrained by 1-5 to think that God knows X if you yourself are 100% certain about X. I would maintain that very few if any facts merit that level of certainty.

That's true. For the sake of the argument I dealt with boolean values. But even so, if I think X is 50% certain, I must also think God thinks X is 50% certain. Any other certainty value assigned to God's position conflicts with my own.

For example, why would I think X is 80% certain but think it's 50% certain that God thinks X is true? That doesn't make any sense.

> Right; you could be totally wrong, therefore you should NOT think that God agrees with you as a matter of course.

Again, this is not about actual truth, it's about internal consistency.

> Not that you should think he disagrees with you; you just don't have information on the subject.

1. God's position is always true. If I have no knowledge of God's position, I have no knowledge of what is true.

2. If I have some knowledge of the truth, I have some knowledge of God's position.

Even though there are so many things I don't know, and (probably) so many things I'm wrong on, I still place a tiny claim on #2.

>> Look at this the other way—what did you expect the participants of the study to do?

> They ought to have either said all along that they had no way of knowing...

See #1.

> ...or assigned God a position that did not change with their own opinion.

"I think the death penalty is probably wrong, but God thinks its okay. I think we can agree to disagree."

Andrew Smith said...

> Presumably, the only way to change their minds about God's opinion should be an argument from the bible.

Well, in that case, the only way to change their minds about the death penalty should be an argument from the bible. Why would they knowingly disagree with what they think God thinks?

>> This applies to humans, but with God you have a handy rule for reference (see premise 1).

> The rule isn't helpful at all because you have no way of knowing for certain that you're correct.

Well, to me it's helpful at least a little bit, because you can be somewhat certain that you're correct. But the point of my statement was mostly that guessing God's position on something is not a matter of considering his personality or tastes, like you would do for a human ("Is God the sort of person who would like the death penalty or not?").

> A theme here is certainty; beliefs are not black and white. E.g., I'm 60% (not actual percentage) certain the death penalty is barbaric. Even if you hear me express a belief without qualifiers, I probably only hold it with 95% certainty (mean one out of twenty such beliefs I expect to be wrong in some way).

Right, I'm not omniscient and so what I believe can be reasonably doubted on that point alone. But until I find out I made a mistake on issue X or issue Y, I've no choice but to carry on.

Anyway, the only way to interpret what the study means is to know how the participants came to their conclusions. As far as I know, this was not mentioned in the study itself. But I hope what I've argued for presents an alternative to the "we are all hypocrites" explanation.

Thanks for your reply :)

daniel the smith said...

I think this is getting a little unfocused, so let me try to narrow it down a little.

My major problem with your position is that it depersonalizes God and turns him into a truth-bot. Modern American Christianity has carried over from Modernism or the Enlightenment this love for propositional truth, and I think it does god and the faith a great disservice. For example, it causes people to read Genesis and somehow think it's a science book.

As far as certainty goes. Suppose Omega (the hypothetical non-god omniscient, omnipotent entity who is convenient for illustrations such as this) offers you a bet. The thing in question is some belief of yours, e.g. the war on drugs is just. If your belief is correct, Omega will give you a dollar. If incorrect, he will destroy the planet. If you are 100% certain about something, you rationally SHOULD take this bet (it's a free dollar).

On any issue for which you would not take the above bet, you are not required by your argument to believe anything in particular as to God's beliefs.

I'm honestly not sure I could think of any item for which I'd take that bet. In fact, I have a hard time imagining anyone taking such a bet for anything. This is why I don't think your argument works: "I believe X" rarely includes a "with 100% certainty."

daniel the smith said...

P.S. The bet's consequences are extremely lopsided in your favor. The math breaks down when there's a 0 in the equation. Try to imagine an infinitely bad thing instead of the destruction of the planet to make the bet fair.

Andrew Smith said...

Okay, so I admit I got a little long-winded there :)

The discussion started out being about the study, but it seems to have morphed into a philosophical forum about truth (changing from "how can they make this claim about God's position on X" to "how can I be sure of anything?")

> My major problem with your position is that it depersonalizes God and turns him into a truth-bot.

Well, when you're only talking about omniscience, it kinda has that effect. If you're looking at something through a microscope, you'll only see a small part of it. If we talk about granite, we won't be talking about the entire earth. How can I help that?

Either He is omniscient or He isn't. I have to pick one, and I must be consistent with my choice. I have no other options.

> On any issue for which you would not take the above bet, you are not required by your argument to believe anything in particular as to God's beliefs.

Hmm, I don't get it. So even if I'm 70% sure of something, I still shouldn't ascribe the belief to God, because there's a 30% chance Omega will annihilate the planet? But how does that relate to real life?

Is it that bad to incorrectly hold an opinion of God's opinion of X? That really doesn't make sense to me. It feels like this:

(Note: exaggeration and/or jocularity ahead)

Alexander: "...so that's why I think God is against cannibalism."
Diogenes: "Oh really? Would you risk your soul in a bet with the devil about that?"
Alexander: "...not really?"
Diogenes: "Then you shouldn't hold the position at all."
Alexander: "..."

daniel the smith said...

OK, so just to recap:

This study demonstrates that (at least some) people do not keep their beliefs mentally separated from what they think are god's beliefs.

You maintain that this is reasonable behavior, because to believe that an omniscient entity disagrees with you is to believe that your belief is false, a contradiction.

My response thus far has been to point out that the argument you give for that only works if you're 100% certain about your beliefs, and I don't think you reasonably can be that certain, which is why it got philosophical.

OK, it seems I have at least one unstated assumption: it is really, really, really bad to ascribe to god a position he does not hold. On the order of it'd be preferable to tie yourself to a millstone and jump off an ocean liner.

OK, now let me show you an unfortunate (?) consequence of your current line of reasoning. Given that god's knowledge is identical to the set of things that are true, you may never (or, if you prefer, it is superfluous to) appeal to god's opinion in an argument: something like "God supports the death penalty" now means "the death penalty is correct," which of course does not substantiate the argument in any way. Phrasing one of your opinions in "god says" language, instead of helping your case, becomes an underhanded way of shutting down your interlocutors.

I maintain that it's not responsible to go around claiming god does or doesn't believe X. Innumerable people have provided evidence for this by claiming something on god's behalf that's obviously wrong or stupid (Bethany knows one lady whom god helped make a very crappy website). Your arguments are getting a philosophical response because I think they have a philosophical problem: I cannot be sure that I'm right. Even if I have 100% certainty in some opinion, I do not have 100% certainty in my reasoning process. Therefore, I am not obligated by self-consistency to suppose that god also holds that opinion.

Speaking of internal consistency, it's vastly overrated. My life got so much easier when I realized I believed contradictory things (because when you realize that, your subconscious stops doing such amazing back-flips to reconcile everything). Sometimes I deal with them by changing my mind to eliminate the contradiction, sometimes by letting both beliefs remain and using the appropriate one at the appropriate time.

P.S. By the way, I possess the fairly rare ability to debate for a long time without getting angry or taking things personally. Sometimes this makes my statements blunt. I also actually listen to arguments and consider that I may be wrong, an even rarer ability. Lastly, when I say "you" I'm probably speaking generally, not to you in particular.

P.P.S. The bet was only intended to illustrate the rarity of 100% certain beliefs, it was not saying anything about the consequences of incorrectly ascribing to god his opinions (so Diogenes' final comment is nonsensical).

P.P.P.S. I know I'm hammering on the certainty thing; I've gotten the impression that you think you are obligated to think god's opinions match your own. If this is mistaken, I'll drop that point as we'd be in agreement.

P.P.P.P.S. Thanks for debating :)

Andrew Smith said...

> My response thus far has been to point out that the argument you give for that only works if you're 100% certain about your beliefs, and I don't think you reasonably can be that certain, which is why it got philosophical.

Well, I'm willing to guess some people are 100% certain about a great many things (which would let them off the hook in this case). But like I've shown earlier, even if you believe X with 60% certainty, you have to think its 60% certain that God thinks X, too.

> OK, it seems I have at least one unstated assumption: it is really, really, really bad to ascribe to god a position he does not hold. On the order of it'd be preferable to tie yourself to a millstone and jump off an ocean liner.

I think I get where you are coming from here. So what I've been arguing I've been arguing in just theory alone. In practice I'm not going to go around saying I'm 60% sure God thinks the drug war is bad, because it makes me sound very hubristic and it's just a weird thing to claim. Also, it will make atheists laugh at me and call me names.

This is not because I secretly think my reasons are false, but rather because arguing by stating God's "position" will not be effective (and probably lower other people's opinion of me).

> OK, now let me show you an unfortunate (?) consequence of your current line of reasoning. Given that god's knowledge is identical to the set of things that are true, you may never (or, if you prefer, it is superfluous to) appeal to god's opinion in an argument...

EXACTLY! Who goes around appealing to God's opinion in an argument? Probably a lot of christians. Never mind.

Besides the social perception reasons, that's exactly why I won't go around claiming this or that about God's position. It's superfluous.

I think the disconnect here is about context. I was talking about just general theoretical abstractness (I think I tend to do this a lot), while you were considering, with creeping horror, the effects of publicly making claims about God's position. And I agree, it's a Bad Idea™ to tell other people what God "thinks" about the drug war.

> Speaking of internal consistency, it's vastly overrated...

Not so sure I understand this paragraph. To me, being consistent is about realizing you believe contradictory things, and then trying to resolve them.

I think it's pretty safe for me to say that I'll never figure everything out. But if I'm aware of contradictions in my own beliefs, I don't want to stop trying to resolve them (and doing mental acrobatics to fit stuff in doesn't count as a resolution to me).

P.S. Yes, sometimes my statements are kinda blunt, too. But it's all good.

P.P.S. I see, I misunderstood your illustration then. I kinda like that Omega character. He and Cthulu should hang out. You probably know this, but I got the Alexandar/Diogenes thing from here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Diogenes_of_Sinope#In_Corinth

P.P.S. I realize very few beliefs are 100% certain, but like I've said before, it doesn't make sense to think X has a 60% certainty, but that it's 20% certain that God thinks X is true. Again, this is completely different than suggesting I should go around telling other people what I think God thinks.

P.P.P.P.S. You're welcome!

P.P.P.P.P.S. You should read Economics in One Lesson. You can find it online :)

daniel the smith said...

There's a half-written response on my computer at work. It was a hectic day.