The “developmental hypothesis” of belief acquisition

In the last two posts I have discussed why members of belief-groups have silly beliefs (that is, beliefs that the wider population finds silly), and why those particular beliefs, whatever they are, are the ones they believe. In broad terms, the answer is that these are arbitrary, costly hard-to-fake signals of group membership which tend to be historically contingent “frozen accidents”. In those posts I mentioned, and appealed to, something I call the “developmental hypothesis of belief acquisition” or DHBA for short. In this post I want to outline that view. It is not something I have directly lifted from others, so any flaws in it are entirely my own.

We are developmental organisms, which means that we change our morphology and behaviour as we mature, and as part of the typical life cycle of our species. Many organisms do not have a developmental cycle, although there is a lifecycle of their species: single celled organisms often simply divide into progeny cells that are in all relevant respects identical to the “parent” cell. However, contrary to common belief, this is not the norm. Many single celled organisms reproduce in a cycle of cell forms. For example, many bacteria have distinct stages between reproduction events, where they merge genetic material, in a form of sex. So the normal behaviour for living things is to have a developmental sequence.

Development is maintained by many things, but the most obvious, prima inter pares as it were, is genetic control. Genes modulate when and how these steps are taken. In organisms of our kind (multicellular eukaryotes), this is a very complex process, but the sequence is generally obvious. We go through fertilisation, division, invagination, birth, maturation and enculturation in a relatively stable and predictable fashion. It is not a great leap to see the process of belief acquisition as being a part of that process.

Nobody is born knowing very much, if anything. It makes more evolutionary sense when an organism can live in many variable environments, both in a single lifetime and in the range of the species, for organisms to be able to acquire beliefs from local cues, such as (in humans) culture and practice, as well as by personal experience. So instead of humans being born with a set of “Pleistocene” beliefs (which the sociobiologists mark 2 think), we are instead born with dispositions to acquire beliefs. These are sometimes called “fast and frugal heuristics”; ways that allow us to get just enough of a belief-set that is liable to increase our survivability to mating.

Now beliefs are slippery things. I think of them as “cognitive stances” (Olson) in which our cognition leads us to adopt attitudes to certain inputs in ways that lead to action when necessary. We can think of them as sentences here, though. A belief is a sentence that we are inclined to assert the truth of; that is, take as a reason for action.

We typically discuss belief-sets as static entities, as logically or rationally connected lists of things we believe, either at the individual level or the group level (“Christians believe that…”). But this is misleading. Beliefs are dynamic entities. They grow or shrink, connect to various other beliefs in different ways, and form networks as we mature. A Christian friend once thought that the Bible, as the Word of God, was a timeless writing; he now still thinks it to be the Word of God, but has a more nuanced historical view in which it underwent many redactions over time. This represents the dynamism of belief-sets. They are the outcome of constant revision and acquisition, and a shuffling of their relative weights and connections.

W. V. O. Quine once wrote a book (with his student J. S. Ullian) entitled The Web of Belief, in which he argued that we do not have foundational beliefs, but rather a web, or as I prefer, a network of beliefs that give mutual support to each other. As a result, he argued that we can revise, rationally all our beliefs. Objections to this followed, employing the cutely named theorem of mathematics, the hairy ball theorem, that once you start combing a fuzzy ball, there must be at least one point where all the adjacent hairs radiate out from that point. Using the analogy of hair direction to rational revision, Quine’s view suggests that there must be one single rational foundation. However, if revision is done on the basis of the current weighting of beliefs, and these are dynamic, as I have suggested, then the process of revision can go on indefinitely.

Quine’s and his critics’ view was that the beliefs are static, but connected. If we think of them as the current state of our beliefs, a time slice through our belief-set right now, then we begin to see that we may rationally revise in some future stage the current “foundational” belief. And this is exactly what happens as we develop our belief-set. What we took to be a coherent set of beliefs at, say, age ten, no longer need be now, as we test our beliefs, including our beliefs about the real world, against our experience, utilising the in-born heuristic disposition trust your experience. And so we have a more plastic notion of beliefs than Quine et al. But there are constraints.

As we adopt our beliefs, these become entrenched in the dynamic set, and so an early belief will tend to be implicated in giving support to more and more beliefs as we age. Call these cognitively entrenched beliefs. An entrenched belief acts as a modifier of all kinds of later beliefs, and so to revise an entrenched belief is to force the revision, potentially, of many others, and the earlier the belief is acquired, the more “damage” is done to the belief-set. Consequently, the likelihood that a belief will be revised over time depends upon how many subsequent beliefs it adds weight to. It’s not that we cannot revise it, only that there is a cognitive cost to it. I’ll get back to costs in a bit.

So what we have is a probabilistic “cone of possible belief-sets” that we might expect to achieve in the future, and that cone narrows the choices the older we get. Here is a diagram I used in my essay on creationism. The arrows represent pro-science or folk-belief influences as the person matures:

Creationist rationality
The cone of possible beliefs at birth

Each of the dark lines represents an individual trajectory of development. Since the influences have to be greater to move a trajectory from one place in the space to another some distance away, the more entrenched views get less and less likely to shift in a mature person the earlier the belief was acquired.

So getting back to “costs”, we can think of the belief-set as an investment of time, energy and resources in belief acquisition. The more time and resources you have expended trying to acquire you beliefs, the less inclined you are to abandon them (a kind of cognitive Gresham’s Law). So if there is a cost to getting a belief, then the probability you will abandon it is inversely related to that cost. As an example, if someone has learned all the Linnaean names for plants, then any proposal to abandon this scheme in favour of another will be resisted the more effort you have taken to learn the old one, especially if the beliefs are themselves not really a matter of practical outcome.

So what drives changes of belief, for we often see people undergoing “conversions” from one belief-set to another? To understand this, I think we need to consider the quality of the beliefs we acquire early on. By definition, a novice in some field is uncritical of what they are being taught. Five year olds will accept whatever any suitably authoritative source teaches them (like parents or peers). Consequently, assuming (as I think we can) that one acquires beliefs from a disparate range of sources, not all of whom are consistent with each other, we will tend to have a complex of as-yet-unramified belief-sets which will likely include ideas that are mutually unsupportive or even contradictory. These are maintained by compartmentalisation, in which contradictory beliefs are never brought into conflict in the life of the person.

But people do live their lives, and occasionally they will enter a cognitive crisis, in which they must decide which of two contradictory beliefs they will act upon. These can be social crises, or experiential crises, or moral crises, and so on. When they do, a process of “belief warfare” begins, and so people find themselves evaluating and dropping various beliefs. This can happen quite rapidly, and is the foundation for what some refer to as “conversion” experiences. These conversions can be partial (affecting only some beliefs) or global (affecting all or most beliefs).

When conversions occur, typically the believer is left with gaps in their belief-set. For example, losing their religion might leave them bereft of moral rules. They must then, to the degree that these gaps are urgent, find replacement beliefs. And these are typically on offer. If you become a non-Christian in favour of, say, skeptical views, there are many ethical systems out there you can select from, ready-made, as it were. There is an additional cognitive load to acquiring them, but often it is enough to just get the basics and then learn more as needed. The choice of ethical system, for instance, might be that scheme that most closely matches the ethical values you have abandoned (for example, a western bourgeois Christian might adopt bourgeois freethinker ethics).

This also plays into the costly signalling claim: you may choose a system that marks you out as a member of some new group, in order to have support and community with that group.

Creationist rationality2
How cognitive dissonance causes a conversion event.

So if we think of belief acquisition as a developmental or DHBA process, we can understand why it is that costly signal beliefs are so critical; they offer a way to do a lot of cognitive acquisition easily, but they at the same time signal one’s communal identity in an honest manner, especially if your new beliefs are going to undercut your engagement with those of rival belief-sets.

30 thoughts on “The “developmental hypothesis” of belief acquisition

  1. Cool, this helps to explain why many people believe that successive activity (A) exists without a beginning or (B) does not exist at all despite the strong evidence of successive cause and effect within light cones.

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  2. “. . . silly beliefs (that is, beliefs that the wider population finds silly) . . . .”

    According to that definition, creationism is not a “silly” belief! In the U.S. at least, creationists vastly outnumber nontheistic evolutionists. (Perhaps one could redefine “wider population” to get around this inconvenient datum.)

    A quick Google check turns up this definition of “silly”: “having or showing a lack of common sense or judgment; absurd and foolish.”

    Given that young-Earth creationists include Isaac Newton, Robert Boyle (etc., etc.), and many PhD scientists today, it seems absurd (silly!) to believe that a strong conviction held in common by many such individuals can simply be dismissed as just a lack of common sense — or pontifically explained as a developmental “accident.” Might such approaches be just sophisticated ad hominem ploys to avoid arguing the actual issues?

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    1. I deliberately did not define “silly” here, because I am primarily concerned with the dynamics of silly beliefs, not the specific examples. However, I do not take “silly” to equate to “not held by most people” unless you are able to restrict the scope of the operator “most” to “educated and informed”.

      At the time of Boyle, Newton and Harvey, creationism was not a contrastive idea: there was no alternative in play. As soon as there was, though, creationism was relegated to the realm of silly beliefs, as it manifestly fails to account for the empirical evidence. And the faux appeal to “many PhDs” is as you know quite bogus. I know a PhD from Cambridge who disbelieves in germs, but his PhD is not in medicine or biology, but neo-Platonists of the 17th century. The quality and focus of the PhD is what counts.

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      1. “Educated and informed” people actually hold lots of “silly” ideas (under any definition), as this Wall Street Journal article notes (including a reference to previous research published in Skeptical Inquirer):
        http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB122178219865054585

        In a similar vein, see this additional Skeptical Inquirer article:
        http://www.webcitation.org/5aB9ifeL6

        “. . . disbelieves in germs . . . .” — wow, that is silly, I agree. Cambridge, eh? But anyway, I specifically referred to PhD scientists, not philosophers or historians.

        Now, for the record, I don’t accept your (condescending?) use of the phrase “as you know.” And may I suggest that my appeal to PhD scientists is no more “faux” or “bogus” than your appeal to the “educated and informed.”

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        1. No need to restrict this discussion to biologists. We’re all aware that the origins controversy spans many scientific fields. Daniel Dennett’s “universal acid” has eaten its way through lots of disciplines (scientific and other).

          Having said that, there are of course PhD biologists who are creationists — same as for other branches of science. For example, plant geneticist John Sanford, inventor of the “gene gun” and Cornell professor for over 25 years.

          So, no “rub” after all.

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  3. Wow one guy – I am so impressed! – how many biologists in the world are there Richard? And what proportion do you think are creationists? I would bet it is less than 1% – medical doctors are not biologists.

    No Richard, those who understand the science best are mostly biologists and geologists. If you look at the dissent against Darwin list at the DI – the few biologists on it are almost all at Christian colleges of dubious repute and I can’t remember a geologist on the list, but there may be one or two.

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    1. Now, Michael, when someone says “for example,” he is not normally implying that there is only one such example. So your comment strikes me as a bit puerile.

      The number or proportion of “scientists” who believe something is not necessarily a pointer to the actual truth. (Based on John’s hypothesis, I suggest it might often be more just a function of group-adherence.)

      At various times throughout history, the majority of “scientists” have believed in phlogiston, caloric, cosmic ether, astronomic epicycles, spontaneous generation, etc., etc. That is why we should consider actual evidence as much as that is within our power. The “appeal to popularity” and “appeal to authority” are both logical fallacies. We are all entitled to be (owe it to ourselves to be) rational, skeptical critical thinkers.

      And what definition of “biologist” are you using that would exclude medical doctors? Dawkins described biology as “the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose” — in which study medical doctors are certainly engaged. Does your reason for wanting such an exclusion involve the inconvenient fact that many medical doctors are Christians?

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      1. You are too funny Richard. So why appeal to some authority in every post? After whining about it, you immediately turn around and appeal to Dawkins. I am surprised you didn’t quote the Bible. Medical doctors have a very limited education in biology – it is primarily focused on humans. If you only study one species, it is impossible to see the similarity among living things that underlie evolution.

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        1. oh and Richard, can you name any other area of biology or even chemistry and physics, where 99% of the practicing scientists in that field are wrong? Germ theory of disease? Particulate inheritance? atomic theory?

          The MD curriculum is very rigid and specific, noting like a PhD program in any science.

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          1. I’ve already named several examples where the scientists were pretty much all wrong. See the third paragraph of my Feb. 1 post. There are lots of other instances, such as the former easy-going removal of “vestigial” structures that we now recognize have functions. And estrogen treatments that turned out to be harmful. And the consensus that gastric ulcers were caused by acid. And the wrong number of human chromosomes that was repeatedly confirmed by observations. Etc. Etc.

            Your comparison of MD and PhD programs is interesting. Medical doctors actually have to work in the real world, and their mistakes directly cause observable harm. PhD physicists can work on abstract concepts like string theory, multiverses (etc., etc.) for years without required real-world results.

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            1. >I’ve already named several examples where the scientists were pretty much all wrong.

              >Medical doctors actually have to work in the real world, and their mistakes directly cause observable harm. <

              Like if MDs understood evolution, we wouldn't be stuck with so many anti-biotic resistant bacteria. Too bad many MDs don't understand basic science. If MDs were scientists, they would be so ignorant.

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              1. One doesn’t have to accept macroevolution in order to understand how antibiotic resistance can spread. (I.e., through the mass die-off of nonresistant individuals and the consequent proliferation and predominance of resistant individuals — all within a given species.)

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              2. What is your point Richard – many MDs don’t even accept microevolution or at least they neither understand how it works nor the consequences of its action. This is a major crisis and people are dying because of it. There are plenty of creationists who reject even microevolution because of the the taint of evolution and of course even with microevolution you have to invoke the mystical “brake on change” at the edge of species to prevent speciation.

                As to your other comment on similarity – of course – convergence can create similarity, but common ancestry is by far the best explanation for similarity. What I can’t understand is why you could believe that genetic similarity within a species is evidence of common ancestry – i.e. DNA testing for paternity, but not between species. How is this possible?

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              3. “… many MDs don’t even accept microevolution ….”
                “There are plenty of creationists who reject even microevolution ….”

                Seriously, Michael? So-called “microevolution” is nothing more than a change of gene frequencies within a population of a given species. Everybody accepts that.

                “… of course even with microevolution you have to invoke the mystical ‘brake on change’ at the edge of species to prevent speciation.”

                Many evolutionists themselves don’t think macroevolution can be explained by mere microevolution extended over a long time. See the examples in my article: http://www.creationbc.org/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=130&Itemid=54
                Also, Douglas H. Erwin, “Macroevolution is more than repeated rounds of microevolution.” http://classes.seattleu.edu/biology/biol491/hodin/erwin2000.pdf

                “As to your other comment on similarity – of course – convergence can create similarity, but common ancestry is by far the best explanation for similarity.”

                No, evolutionists keep both common ancestry and convergence in their toolkits, and they employ one or the other as each situation suits them. But actually, the best explanation for similarity is not common descent but a common Designer.

                “What I can’t understand is why you could believe that genetic similarity within a species is evidence of common ancestry – i.e. DNA testing for paternity, but not between species.”

                Creationists do accept the concept of related “species” (all within an original created “kind”). For example, the various so-called “species” of the dog family (Canidae) are interfertile and so likely represent one created kind.

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        2. To quote Dawkins is not to consider him authoritative.

          Similarity does not inevitably require common ancestry.

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          1. You used you’re own ‘expertise’ in ancient languages to cut down a rather sloppy remark on biblical translation a few days ago.

            It was half an answer and rested on you’re claim of greater authority. You can’t see any issue with the claims you are making but unless you have no expertise and are unaware of academic approaches to studying ancient texts it was a dishonest response when you had the opportunity to correct an error.

            You are increasingly using this tactic. You may disagree I think you need to seriously review how you are responding to people.

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            1. “You used you’re own ‘expertise’ in ancient languages to cut down a rather sloppy remark on biblical translation a few days ago. It was half an answer and rested on you’re claim of greater authority.”

              Jeb, if it was indeed a “sloppy remark” (your description), then why isn’t “half an answer” good enough?

              Furthermore, that comment of mine appeared under some other post within John’s blog, not this one, so why bring it up here?

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  4. John, your “developmental hypothesis” is offered as an explanation of “silly” beliefs (which you have now said you are deliberately not defining).

    I’m wondering why the same hypothesis would not also “explain” conventional beliefs (i.e., beliefs not considered “silly,” however that may be defined).

    So then, if all beliefs are nothing more than “historically contingent ‘frozen accidents'” bearing some ulterior relationship to group membership, what basis is there for rational discussion about truth-value of things believed? If I change my view about something (ex hypothesi), am I not simply opting to change my group connection, for who-knows-what-actual reasons?

    To put it another way, why are my beliefs subject to highfalutin academic explanation/dismissal of this kind, while yours are not?

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    1. Reread the post, this time with a view to the sense, not your prior expectations, Richard. I did not say this was the case only with silly beliefs, but with beliefs. But beliefs that all may trick upon because they are useful or reliable can be, as a first approximation, said to be not silly (and in the case of science, this means that careful investigation will trick upon them, not any old belief). The same heuristics apply to any beliefs unless there are specialists who can do it better (like a hunter who knows where the animals roost).

      As to truth value, be careful. Talking about truth in a scientific context means little more than “reliably observed or used”, a view known as “instrumentalism”. But if I know that a certain drug will treat a malady reliably, then whether or not there is any metaphysical value to the claim, it is still knowledge, and I have a warranted belief. And we acquire these one of two ways: either we have experienced that reliability, or we are told by those who we can have confidence in that they have.

      My point here is that the vast bulk of our personal knowledge is not experiential. It is acquired through a division of cognitive labour.

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      1. OK, John, I have carefully read the post again, and I acknowledge that, for the most part, you are exploring belief development in general.

        Nonetheless I would point out that your opening paragraph focuses strongly on what you call silly beliefs. You wrote, “In the last two posts I have discussed why members of belief-groups have silly beliefs (that is, beliefs that the wider population finds silly), and why those particular beliefs, whatever they are, are the ones they believe. In broad terms, the answer is that these [i.e., silly beliefs] are arbitrary, costly hard-to-fake signals of group membership which tend to be historically contingent ‘frozen accidents’.

        So are you now saying that such a sentence applies not only to “silly” beliefs, but to all beliefs? If so, then you have not actually explained why people hold specifically silly beliefs. If not, then, once again, I’m wondering why such an explanation wouldn’t apply to all beliefs.

        Regarding your distinction between beliefs acquired by experience or by being told, I had in mind only the latter. If I experience something, I don’t usually call it a belief; it’s experiential knowledge (ignoring issues of how well my memory works!). Things that I haven’t personally experienced — including all views or reconstructions concerning the past, such as the various proposals on the origins of the universe and life — would then be categorized as “beliefs.” In this understanding, evolution and creation would both be “beliefs.”

        But if “truth” in a scientific context means merely “reliably observed or used,” then it would appear none of the following are scientifically “true”: biological macroevolution, abiotic origin of life, “Big Bang,” “inflation,” “dark energy,” “dark matter,” Oort cloud (etc.). Or am I misunderstanding you? (My view of “truth,” whether in science or philosophy, is simply “correspondence with reality.”)

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        1. So are you now saying that such a sentence applies not only to “silly” beliefs, but to all beliefs?

          No, to beliefs that the wider population finds silly. Beliefs everybody has because they are functional, empirically supported or have some other utility do not function as signals (other than “I am not a danger to myself and others”).

          A belief, which I defined early on as a “conceptual stance” if you’ll recall, includes experiential concepts. Animals have beliefs that what tasted good last time will taste good this time, and so on. Truth in a scientific concept only means reliably observed or used. Anything else is metaphysics, not physics. There is a large literature on truth.

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          1. OK, thanks for the clarification.

            But then I would say evolution, since it is a speculative historical reconstruction rooted in a particular philosophical framework, is neither “reliably observed” nor “reliably used,” and is therefore (in your term) metaphysics.

            (To say the least, it is not a belief that “everybody has.”)

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  5. “To put it another way, why are my beliefs subject to highfalutin academic explanation/dismissal of this kind, while yours are not?”

    Richard I can I think to some extent understand you’re unease. Johns ideas have to be subject to serious scrutiny.

    Was no surprise to see a cultural anthropologist starting to chew through issues it raised for her.

    If I was playing contemporary cultural games I would want to see aspects of it strangled at birth. As it could be used to support problematic ahistorical perspectives that have certainly plagued the subject I trained in.

    These things are never simple. To suggest Johns views will be accepted uncritically is a mis- observation but an easy one to make. You’re background is in science not anthropology or ethnology.

    If I saw a psychological assessment or an anthropological study of my own beliefs, I would have a very emotional and negative reaction to it.

    Its a standard issue and a problematic one. Historical revision poses similar problems and aside from new atheists and the more over- competitive academics who relish destroying the opposition, no one enjoys having to stand up and make a Santa does not exist type statement.

    The fact you have to write and think in a different way which inevitable leads to difference does not stop you from being human or having empathy with people.

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    1. Jeb, your suggestion that I’m experiencing “unease” is an ad hominem slur, not an argument. I prefer to keep the discussion to the comments rather than try to psychoanalyze the commenter.

      “[Your] background is in science not anthropology or ethnology.” Are you then implying that anthropology is not a science? 🙂 I’m inclined to agree (depending on which branch of anthropology), but you may get some flak from others.

      “‘If I saw a psychological assessment or an anthropological study of my own beliefs, I would have a very emotional and negative reaction to it.” Yes, we all would, probably. To some extent, though, that may not reflect on the falsity of our beliefs; it might have more to do with our justifiable suspicions regarding psychological and/or anthropological methodologies!

      Regarding Santa, we all agree (as adults) that there is no such entity. The evolution/creation debate is of a very different order. (But . . . why in the world do people lie to their kids and get them to believe in Santa? That drives me crazy — when they knowingly and lovingly teach their own children falsehood! What a way to lose your credibility!)

      I appreciate your final paragraph. That’s very kind.

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      1. “Jeb, your suggestion that I’m experiencing “unease” is an ad hominem slur, not an argument. I prefer to keep the discussion to the comments rather than try to psychoanalyze the commenter.”

        I may not have put it well but its not intended as an attack. I studied ethnology looking at folk beliefs within my own culture. It throws up a number of ethical concerns I take very seriously (just had an argument with an editor and have had to remove key material from a paper for this reason). Anthropology traditionally studied distant pre-literate societies, more of a distance, they do not have the opportunity for example to attended lectures in Europe and may not have the same accesses to written material.

        When that is the case you have to start thinking about the subject very differently. Not dealing with passive objects of study but flesh and blood.

        “it might have more to do with our justifiable suspicions regarding psychological and/or anthropological methodologies!”

        That is partly true. But misunderstanding arises as doing ethnology is a very different processes than for example being Scottish. You use a different language and come to different conclusions.

        In regard to Santa, He is a creature with significant and legendary surveillance skills. These sort of areas I would focus in on if I was looking at a belief. One I am most familiar with is the evil eye. The fact it is used by people (largely non-urban) and a proportion of that group would identify themselves as agnostic or atheist in regard to Christianity (the role of christian belief and the countryside is a vexing issue historically) would lead me to believe it may be deployed for social reasons rather than supernatural ones.

        But exploring inter-personal relationships within a group, I know the people providing me with accesses to intimate parts of their lives would have objections. No mind reading necessary its a perspective drawn from observation and experience. Although I may of course be communicating poorly.

        “I appreciate your final paragraph. That’s very kind.”

        Its based on exactly the same knowledge and experience of dealing with this matter that the opening sentence you objected to was.

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        1. p.s with regard to the ethics surrounding such things. Many atheists involved in these type of debates are untroubled by such matters and indeed have no experience of the issues.

          The same is true of creationists. You are not on home turf here and something of a strange in a strange land (sloppy but I will leave it in).

          Not an attack. Something I hope you would think on.

          Issue with the standards involved in this debate that is notable on both sides at times. Difficult to avoid being human and these are people problems. It is a good idea to at least think and form conclusions here whatever they may be.

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