Doxastic biases and arguments for religion (and other things)

Helen De Cruz has the results of a fascinating survey on how various arguments for and against the existence of God are treated by philosophers… according to their general stance – atheist, agnostic, or theist. Basically it considers not whether people think the arguments are right (a common mistake scientists make about philosophical arguments) but whether they think they are strong. An argument is strong if, given that the premises are true, the conclusion is made very probably true or correct. Of course a philosopher can think that a strong argument is nevertheless incorrect or that its premises are false. If you give a strong argument that the universe doesn’t exist, I might go looking for the error in your argument given the (ahem) reality check I can perform on it, but I might appreciate the subtlety and expertise of the argument the way a high diver might appreciate a flubbed difficult dive that almost worked.

What De Cruz discovered, though, is more interesting: there is a difference in the way that atheists, agnostic and theists treat the different types of argument (e.g., arguments from miracles, evil or morality). In one sense this is unsurprising: one would not be an atheist if one thought many of the arguments for God were strong, and one would not be a theist if one thought the arguments against God were strong. But she shows that atheists think arguments against God are stronger (note again: not right) than agnostics and they than theists. Likewise, theists think arguments for God are stronger than agnostics and they than atheists. This raises an interesting question, first raised by Jennifer Faust [pdf]: do we evaluate the strength of arguments based on our prior doxastic biases? This means, do we choose to accept arguments (which are supposed to be neutral and rationally compelling) based on what we already are inclined to believe?

There is ( as my correspondent Jocelyn Stoller has shown me) a stack of literature about the height of a large oak tree on cognitive bias, but this is somewhat more restricted a problem. It goes to the role of reason itself. We are told that a reasonable (or rational, but that word is too loaded) person will be convinced by a strong or sound argument that is based upon shared premises. This is the basis of teaching critical thinking and logic. Our entire educational system rests upon it. Is it true?

It seems that when one is already committed strongly to (has a high degree of confidence in, or subjective probability assigned to) some prior belief, any argument that challenges this conclusion will be deprecated, even if the argument is strong and the premises agreed upon. So theists call those who dispute arguments for God cognitively deficient and atheist return the favour in reverse (citations in Faust’s paper). This is in general what I think of as the “my opponent is not fully human” strategy: if you just can’t see that what I believe is true, there must be something wrong with you. You are irrational, or have some spiritual, psychological or moral lack. This is what Christians so often state outright that unbelievers are unable to experience the full range of human emotions and moral actions, and the atheists (less often) declare that Christians are child-abusers and ignorant unreasoning fools. Agnostics, being a group defined not only by what they don’t believe but also by what they don’t think they can declare on, are not so exclusivist, or so I would like to think. If you aren’t an agnostic, there must be something wrong with you.

We also see these doxastic biases in debates to do with politics – climate change, abortion, welfare and all the other high-emotion arousal topics of human social interactions. People are rarely argued into or out of their commitments. I was one of the Christians argued (by Barth, Thielicke, Lewis and Schaeffer) into religion (and I argued myself out of it as well), but I was a very rare exception. Most people were born into their religion, or converted through high emotional arousal. In that respect religion is a lot like one’s choice of operating system.

What does this mean for a rational society? What does this mean for reasoning? On the face of it, we might be despondent about either possibility, but I like to think of it this way: we are not computers or Turing machines. We are organisms that evolved in a jury-rigged fashion, and we do things well enough to get by. Our cognitive skills are natively quite good, but they have some biases that are either fit in the past, or are side-effects of capacities that are fit. In evolutionary contexts we tolerate a lot of false positives and false negatives when they don’t result in our being dead before we pass them on to Junior.

Consequently the acquisition and teaching of logical reasoning is not something we do natively. Kant thought otherwise:

Everything in nature, whether in the animate or inanimate world, takes place according to rules, although we do not always know these rules. Water falls according to laws of gravity, and in animals locomotion also takes place according to rules. The fish in the water, the bird in the air, moves according to rules. All nature, indeed, is nothing but a combination of phenomena which follow rules; and nowhere is there any irregularity. When we think we find any such, we can only say that the rules are unknown.

The exercise of our own faculties takes place also according to certain rules, which we follow at first unconsciously, until by a long-continued use of our faculties we attain the knowledge of them, and at last make them so familiar, that it costs us much trouble to think of them in abstracto. Thus, ex. gr. general grammar is the form of language in general. One may speak, however, without knowing grammar, and he who speaks without knowing it has really a grammar, and speaks according to rules of which, however, he is not aware.

Now, like all our faculties, the understanding, in particular, is governed in its actions by rules which we can investigate. Nay, the understanding is to be regarded as the source and faculty of conceiving rules in general. For just as the sensibility is the faculty of intuitions, so the understanding is the faculty of thinking, that is, of bringing the ideas of sense under rules. It desires, therefore, to seek for rules, and is satisfied when it has found them. We ask, then, since the understanding is the source of rules, What rules does it follow itself ? For there can be no doubt that we cannot think or use our understanding otherwise than according to certain rules. Now these rules, again, we may make a separate object of thought, that is, we can conceive them, without their application, or in abstracto. What now are these rules ?

He thinks that the laws of thought and understanding are the laws of logic, a view that was most popular in the mid-nineteenth century. The problem is that we are trying to run a computer program on an abacus made of straw, or more exactly a discrete Turing machine on a wet chemical network of noisy signalling. It is, in short, a skill that must be learned and practised rather than being, Spocklike*, something that we do natively. Like any such skill that is not native, whether it is plumbing or reading, it takes a lot to impart this skill to developing children. I suspect it is nearly impossible to teach it to an adult who does not already have it.

We do not, I think, start by following logical rules of reasoning unconsciously as Kant thought. Nor is logic like the grammar of language if by that he means we know the rules without being taught explicitly. Reasoning is a social skill that has to be taught (like, pace Chomsky and Pinker, language). This is why fields of philosophy like philosophy of religion are so barren: mostly what is happening is not reasoning but cheerleading. A philosopher, who appreciates subtle arguments and enjoys deconstructing and examining them, will find a Plantinga or a Swinburne fascinating, but they are unlikely to convince that philosopher. Arguments about religion, like those about climate change, evolution or choice of Windows over Mac or Linux, are fruitless in ground level doxastic change.


Faust, Jennifer. 2008. Can religious arguments persuade? In Ethics of Belief: Essays in Tribute to D.Z. Phillips, edited by E. T. Long and P. Horn: Springer Netherlands:71-86

*Yes, I know Vulcans had to train to be impassive. But not logical.

75 thoughts on “Doxastic biases and arguments for religion (and other things)

  1. Critical reasoning isn’t quite what it ought to be, huh? Always suspected unseen ‘narrative’ made part of compelling rhetoric.

    John, you have touched a swath of salient features. In particular you say that reasoned methodology is a higher order abstraction learned in due course. Despite wrinkles, rational thought remains productive persuasive and efficient.

    You have taken considerable effort pop a question while staking out it’s domain of application. This topic cries out to be continued.

    (Now if this were my blog, I would develop things further along the lines of … [self-censored] … Lead onward host!)


  2. It might be said that ‘philosophy’ has fallen into a longstanding malaise.

    If the situation be so, the root cause is ‘over emphasis’. The philosopher argues too well! Confirmation bias intrudes.

    My premise can only be plausibly proposed by including with it therein, a plausible and reliable mechanism of resolution..

    The topic needs all three parts …

    existence of malaise + root cause of limitation + viable immanent remedy


    1. I get quite annoyed when people make broad generalisations about “philosophy”. Which philosophy? Whose philosophy? I know philosopher who pay close and immediate attention to cognitive psychology, neurobiology (Pat Churchland comes to mind here), experimental studies on how people reason (of which De Cruz’s is an example). I know people who think reasoning is a mistake, and that we should not attend to it (sometimes wrongly called “postmodernism”). I know people who think every word that dripped from Kant’s pen is golden, and people who think Kant was fundamentally mistaken. I know logicians who care deeply about the importance of the material conditional and whether truth is merely bivalent, and people who think anything more than first order logic is unhelpful in real argument.

      I know philosophers who think that atheism is self-evident, and philosophers who think it isn’t. I know philosophers whose only focus is science (and any other type of philosophy’s worth depends on how it bears on science) and those who think science is not philosophical at all. And every variety imaginable in between. Critics of “philosophy” are almost always critiquing a strawman of their own construction, usually based upon their prior biases.

      Let’s have no more criticism of “philosophy” – if you have criticisms of a philosopher’s arguments, critique those arguments specifically.


  3. Arguments about religion, like those about climate change, evolution or choice of Windows over Mac or Linux, are fruitless in ground level doxastic change.

    I know this was a throwaway line, but the nature of argumentation in the second and third examples is qualitatively different from the first (well, perhaps not on the Internet). As regards operating systems, we all need something to be harmlessly cranky about.


      1. “…no amount of strong reasoning, facts or consequences will convince…”

        In the case of climate change, I think most naysayers would be willing to admit that if temperature increases over the next 20-30 years in line with IPCC predictions, then they will change their minds. It is possible there are some individuals who will persist in saying that any change in temperature, no matter how large, is purely due to natural forcing, but I suspect they would be a minority.

        With respect to evolution, there are more noisy individuals who state that there is no level of evidence that would change their beliefs. But I think a larger proportion are relatively indifferent, and will accommodate an old earth and evolution with religious beliefs that would seem contradictory.


      2. ‘Doxastic’ pertains to a person’s individual innate+derived savant skill-set+experience. The ‘doxastic feature’ represents a person’s essential quality or point-of-view. It is a person’s finest and most worthwhile attribute.

        When a person’s doxastic ability is challenged, they become annoyed because the person perceives that their essential (doxastic) quality is being belittled. The irritation is met with a generous demonstration of doxastic expertise, vigorously communicated in a plain and modest manner.

        When presented facts are perceived as being a threat to a person’s essential doxastic identity, the attack is inferred so as to strengthen the recipient’s doxastic belief.

        Alternately those facts are either ignored as irrelevant, re-inferred to be commensurate, or induce corrections to make them coherent within the person’s own doxastic expert knowledge set.


  4. David Duffy: I know this was a throwawayline, but the nature of argumentation in the second and third examples is qualitatively different from the first (well, perhaps not on the Internet).As regards operating systems, we all need something to be harmlessly cranky about.

    But I don’t think they are qualitatively different. Obviously debates between worldviews like atheism vs. theism will have a greater import, or at least cast longer shadows, but I think precisely the same mental (mal)functions are being thrown at it. As someone who was a bemused bystander in the olden days of Amigas vs. classic Macs, and then spent far too long debating Creationists and have on occasion debated AGW sceptics, while the particular pieces on the board may be different, the underlying game seems to be the same. It’s clearly that exactly the same processes are being invoked.

    So while I agree that operating system choice is relatively trivial (unless you happen to be the poor bastard in the purchasing department when a true believer demands the PC of their choice), it is very much the same thing.


  5. John S. Wilkins:
    I don’t have an opinion about physical multiverse hypotheses. Modal realism is about possible worlds, which is a logical-metaphysical argument. I’m not a modal realist, but that’s like a car driver not being in favour of electrical cars – I don’t know enough to be authoritative.


    Thank you for clarifying that. Also, How do your theories of a block universe fit into this?

    For example, are you without opinion about a block universe and merely work the philosophical theories?

    Or do the theories somehow help you to make sense of the world from a apathetic agnostic perspective?


    1. As I understand it, most block theories are necessitarian – everything in the actual block must happen because it exists in the block. No trousers of time here… Of course if time does branch (say, with each quantum event) then the universe multiplies and so every (physically) possible event is actualised in the block multiverse (a different sense of that term, however).


  6. A necessary question is how we assess the strength of an argument. My introspection says that to know how strong an argument is, you must momentarily allow it to persuade you. (I don’t know whether this analysis has any scientific support.)

    From this, it’s fairly straightforward to expect atheists to fail to appreciate the arguments of theists and theists the reverse.. Agnosticism is where it gets interesting. True agnostics—in their degree of willingness or ability to suspend disbelief—won’t discriminate between theist and atheist arguments, but they could achieve this impartiality whether they refuse to suspend disbelief for neither or for both. The agnostics in the study would likely have consisted of both “types” of agnostics (actually a continuum), muddying the pattern.


  7. Thony C.: Your question is loaded through your choice of words. I do not think that I and all my loved ones will be “annihilated” a highly emotive and negative term. I simply think we will all cease to exist and I mean all, loved ones, enemies, known, unknown and Uncle Tom Cobley and all. Quite honestly the thought doesn’t disturb me at all. That’s life!

    There’s nothing “loaded” about my question: “annihilate” means “[t]o reduce to nonexistence.” The fact that you find it an “emotive and negative term” perhaps suggests that you might not be as comfortable with this ceasing-to-exist business as you think you are. Quick: You find out that the most beloved person in your life is about to die “cease to exist.” Is your reaction in that moment, and all things considered, really just, “Hey, no worries—that’s life!”? Or wouldn’t you perhaps (again, in that moment, and all things considered) rather that things could be different?


  8. Michael Drake: There’s nothing “loaded” about my question: “annihilate” means “[t]o reduce to nonexistence.”

    I find it interesting that you try to manipulate the argument by choosing the least emotive of the many possible definitions of the word annihilate. The argument that you now try to force falls apart if you had instead chosen the much more common definition “to destroy completely”. Most user of language consider annihilate to be an escalation of destroy which definitely have massive negative connotations.

    Having had you first claim taken apart you now indulge in the common tactic of moving the goal posts. From the general statement that all in life is transient, a thought with which, as I stated, I can and do live with without any great qualms, you now wish to know my reactions to the sudden imminent death of the, your description, “most beloved person in your life”. Actually its not a person but my dog, however the situation, which I have already faced several times in my life, would and does fill me with sorrow.

    Would I rather have things different? In what way? If you mean would I rather that we were all eternal, no not really. If you mean would I wish for life after death, no not really. All things must pass. It really is as simple as that.


    1. So I “manipulated” the argument by choosing a less “emotive” definition of “annihilate”? That’s pretty rich coming from a guy who just one comment earlier opted for “cease to exist” over “die.” Whatever.


  9. Michael Drake: That’s pretty rich coming from a guy who just one comment earlier opted for “cease to exist” over “die.”

    I deliberately chose ‘cease to exist’ and not ‘die’ because they have different connotations. For many who follow one or other religion when people die they do not cease to exist. Some Christians, for example, believe that after death people go to heaven or hell, whatever that might mean. Some Buddhists and Hindus believe that people are reincarnated in another body after death. I, however, truly think that we cease to exist after death.

    On further consideration your whole argument is actually a more generalised version of the “there are no atheists in a foxhole” cliché, which I think reveals more about yourself than you are aware.

    The whole tenure of your argument says very clearly that you, like the majority of people, cannot conceive of, let alone confront, the concept of your own non-existence. The very thought causes you anxiety and to cope with this you create a fantasy of some sort of further existence after death. You then try to project your thoughts onto other people in order to rationalise your own fears. “If everybody thinks the way I do, then I don’t have to feel bad about it” You seem to be incapable of accepting that there are people out there who think differently.


      1. My “armchair psychology” is not way off. Your original comment here (to which I responded, which response you tried through your own very amateurish armchair psychology to negate) and the post from 2009 to which you now link stand in total contradiction to each other.


  10. “Jeb,
    If you are up for it, I would like to tailor my comments to you.”

    If you find it helpful as a means of structuring feel free. Very much look forward to reading it, hopefully some of my own beliefs may shatter and move on.

    I think from my time spent in ethnological sound archives and the frustration and limitations of working with a tape machine in the field. I would add human social interaction and environment alongside, thought, emotion, perception, memory and imagination.

    An interconnected web.

    Hoping you might also revisit you’re discussion on simians and the history of such thought as part of this or a future post. When you look at 18th century philosophy on this subject doxastic biases are somewhat interesting. My own bias was to think some of the more sensational aspects of this theme relating to the sexuality and blood drinking habits of French wild girls were reinforced in memory primarily as memorable entertainment in cheap print. Reading Herder and others on the subject elite anxiety seems the key, he gets so emotive on the issue he has to stop writing on the subject.

    The manner in which he focuses in on and can’t get passed what are to modern eyes the weakest, sensational, aspects of the narrative, I found surprising at first. Pattern of reinforcement and repetition with memory and belief is highly context sensitive and intimately bound to a wider environment and range of cultural objects, which populate and cluster in the imaginative spaces of thought and play.

    What I am trying to say in a somewhat long winded way is that I don’t think doxastic biases are simply a case of being unable to move from a previously held deep rooted belief. Its the present environment rather than the past that belief and tradition live in and have a context in which they can replicate and thrive.


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