Thursday, May 1, 2008

Faith and rationality in our lives

A discussion on XGH's blog led me to post a comment, which got way too long so now I'm posting it here. In many ways this is a development of XGH's own post.

It seems to me that reasonable people use a mix of faith and rationality. You could call it rationality-on-demand. It's similar to the way that a boss trusts his employees, but once in a while he'll drop in to check that they're not messing up or causing nuclear havoc.

We're all born into this world naive and gullible. We're given simplistic explanations, and even though those explanations get better as we grow up, they're still not that great. As adults, we have the understandings we grew up with, and no matter what we do, we can't investigate them all.

What's a reasonable, rationality seeking person to do? Well, he/she should place every belief he/she has on a rationality-on-demand (ROD) status. The idea is that we currently have the faith that this notion is true, but should we drop by and check if it's a rational understanding, we want it to seem as rational as possible, unless it isn't in which case we'll correct it. (Isn't that what we have Wikipedia for?)

How do we check if our understanding is rational? We can sift through the evidence/logic ourselves, but in reality a) there's too much evidence in the world and b) we're probably not going to find anything new that experts in the topic haven't already found. After all, their job is to be the "rationality guards" for the particular topic. But we can still check on their credentials somewhat, trying to make sure that THEY did their job properly ie. that when examining the evidence, they weren't biased. We can also try to check up ourselves on some of their work and look for bias.

What if there are several camps of competing experts? Things become hairier. Going with the larger camp is usually a fairly safe bet. It's possible that the small camps have hit on some new idea that's not been accepted yet, but if the evidence is in their favor, they should be able to convince the larger group. Of course you get pockets of resistance to new ideas, but in general, better ideas prevail. The key indicator we have to try to look for again is bias that prevents one group of experts from examining the evidence openly. If we can't find bias and the groups are not disproportionate in size, then most likely there simply is no expert consensus on the item at hand.

Ultimately, we don't expect to switch any notion from rationality-on-demand (ROD) status to pure rationality status. This is because there's very little absolute evidence of anything, and we can never truly KNOW if we can trust the experts, but on the spectrum of rationality vs. faith, we'll hopefully end up much closer to the rationality end on each item we investigate.

This, at least, is the ideal. However, in reality, people have pockets of highly difficult-to-challege beliefs. There are beliefs that form the bedrock of our being, and in which we are very heavily invested. We can call them wishful beliefs (WB's), since we wish them to be true no matter what the evidence will show. Religion, the afterlife, miracles, G-d -- all of these are wishful beliefs. These beliefs can can be cloaked as ROD notions, depending on how we came to believe in them. Some of us were taught these beliefs while we were children, irrationally but through repetition. Others arrrived at them as teenagers or adults, rationally, but through the view of selective data from biased experts, and with the support of irrational factors such as emotion.

Let's see how we would apply this process to different beliefs:Can we trust that our parents were telling us the truth about us being their children? Well, our parents can be considered experts on the subject to a certain degree, but they're also quite biased since they love us. We can check up on this belief somewhat by seeing if we look like them, if we have similar patterns of behavior (other than learned patterns). We can also check with friends who knew them when we were born. If these pieces of evidence are missing, we might start to get concerned, and we may want a DNA test. But another issue here is that we may not have an interest to explore this ROD because behind it stands the WB that our parents are indeed are parents, and we don't want or really care to challenge that belief.

What about the moon landing? Well, everybody seems to think it happened, but some people also seem to think it didn't. What do experts think? Some experts think it was staged. But these tend to be the same experts who think JFK, 9/11 and a million other things were conspiracies, too. That already hurts their credentials as experts, since it indicates a high likelihood for bias. The majority of experts say the moon landing happened, and can give rational explanations for every 'anomaly' the conspiracy theorists point out. We can tell from the number of believers in cospiracy theories though, that this is a tough call. It may necessitate really examining the evidence to get an idea of which body of experts to trust, but in my personal experience, conspiracy theorists tend to have a conspiracy-based outlook at the world which makes them biased, and less believable than the more widely accepted experts. Once several conspiracy theories are examined closely, one finds a pattern of the conspiracy believers 'connecting the dots' a little too easily.

What about examining the claims of a religion like Judaism?Well, the easiest way to ascertain whether Judaism is true is to check out its roots - in Tanach and the ancient world. The first thing to realize is that rabbis are NOT unbiased experts, especially about the roots of Judaism. Those of us who have been to Yeshiva know that history is generally not taught, not even about the halachik process. Critical analysis of the Tanach is discouraged. Rabbis work under the assumption that the Torah is divine and that any flaws they might find in the Tanach are messages to be expounded upon; They rely on a tradition which makes those same assumptions; And they are mostly ignorant of history and archaeology, especially when it contradicts their basic assumptions. So having disqualified them as unbiased experts, let's turn to the rest of the experts.

Biblical and ANE experts overwhelmingly state that the Tanach is a composite document, and that biblical history didn't happen as was written in the Tanach. Some believe in the DH to some degree, some modify it, and a minority rejects it. The tiny minority, like RJM, which states that it is divine, either lacks credentials or is biased because they are required to believe it by their religion.

Where does that leave us regarding Judaism itself? Given the current evidence, which experts rely upon, it appears that its claims are false. (This isn't to say that some wavering of expert opinion will judge otherwise tomorrow. The evidence has mounted to the point that barring EXTRAORDINARY evidence to the contrary, Judaism's claims in the classic sense have been proven false) However, life isn't simple, human beings will find ways of maintaining at least a portion of their WB's, even if they don't stand up to ROD standards. Others will never get to investigate their WB's and simply assume they are functional ROD's. Personally, I don't think either option is so bad.