January 7, 2010

Making Ignorant Choices

EXECUTIVE SUMMARY:  We all make choices based on incomplete information, all the time, and that isn't necessarily a bad thing.  One's choice of religion is usually not a choice at all and is certainly based on incomplete information.  That goes for atheists, too.  There's also an amusing video from the Daily Show embedded in the essay.

The day before yesterday, I wrote:
...few of us have complete enough information about a few isolated subjects to be considered authorities or experts within those disciplines, but none of us know everything about everything and yet we are all expected and required to make decisions -- decisions which are inevitably based on some degree of ignorance.
I was writing to excuse a pundit's remark that backhandedly praised the pundit's own religion in a way that some might consider to have been at the expense of another world view (it is not always correct to call Buddhism a religion).  But I want to take that sentiment out of that context and consider it at a higher level of abstraction.  Making decisions in an environment in which ignorance is a palpable factor is something that I do all the time, and which I assume a lot of people do a lot of the time.  But I also assume that most people do not think of their decision-making as being done in a context of ignorance.  Most people probably think they are making fully-informed decisions about most things.  And they are deeply incorrect.

it's really not all that different from any of a number of choices, sometimes deeply personal and powerfully important life choices.  Think about these kinds of major life decisions:
  • Should I marry person X or wait for someone better to come along? You can't possibly know if dumping person X and moving on to person Y is going to be a net benefit for you. And fact is, you probably don't know half the things about person X -- whether they're good or bad -- that you'll eventually find out if you marry and never will if you don't. You must decide to marry, or not, based on limited information.
  • If your doctor tells you that you need surgery, do you take the time to undergo a study of anatomy, anatomical or epidemiological malfunction, surgical theory, and alternative courses of treatment? Generally, no. You might get a second opinion from another doctor. But even that is fairly infrequest. Generally, a patient simply follows the doctor's advice, relying on the doctor's expertise rather than their own knowledge.
  • So too with law. Let's say you've been sued and you think you've got a good case. Well, so does the guy who's suing you. So you might want your lawyer to tell you -- How much money will it cost to defend the case? How much money will I have to pay if I lose? How long will it take to finish the case? How much of my time do I have to devote to this project and how much stuff can the lawyer take care of for me? And the truth is, your lawyer can give you an educated guess but none of those questions have concrete, definite answers. So -- do you settle, or fight? You have to decide from a position of ignorance.
  • College students need to pick majors. My general advice to college students is that it doesn't much matter what your degree is in a few years after you graduate, so study something you like. But how are you going to know you're going to like the major you picked? You might get an idea based on your own preferences, hobbies, past academic performance -- but I thought I'd love geography and when I took a geography class in college, I thought I might like it so much I might switch majors. Turns out, I really disliked the class. Maybe I had a crappy professor but somehow I doubt that. I had no way of knowing in advance that this was a class I should have not taken at all; it just didn't work out. Same thing with a book or a movie or a new kind of food; you might gather clues about it before you go but really, you don't know if you're going to like it until you try it.
  • Some people seem to make risk calculations when they drive -- they pick places to speed where they believe they are less likely to get a ticket, as though the law doesn't apply to them there. Well, you can't know where a cop is going to be on speed patrol under most circumstances. This is just plain gambling. For that matter, gambling is making a decision with your money without knowing what the outcome of that decision will be. For that matter, so is investing your money in a mutual fund or a piece of real estate. You can get clues that the money will appreciate over time but there's just no way to know for certain.
So you make decisions about what to do with your money -- big investments like your home, made on credit -- without knowing (for sure) whether inflation will increase or decrease, whether credit will be easy or tight, whether property values will increase or decrease. You can get clues and experience, but you can't know for sure. You have to decide how to handle your legal affairs, your medical affairs, your business affairs, your personal affairs -- all of it, based on incomplete information.

Then, there's another problem: garbage information. The unpleasant truth is that sometimes people lie to you. Sometimes someone tells you something that you can't decide if it's true or not -- you might get a clue, but you can't know whether you're being told the truth or not. More insidiously, something gets told to you and you want to believe that it's true, and it looks like it is likely the truth but it turns out not to be so.

This means that all of us must produce and use some kind of a mental filter to block out garbage information from good information.  Some of us are better at this than others, but in fact most of us are pretty good at it and it often takes the form of prioritizing information or assigning unequal values to information we get.  Hopefully, you will assign a higher value to medical advice given to you by your doctor than to the story of what happened to that guy from the coffee shop's girlfriend's aunt's former boyfriend who once had a medical problem kind of like yours in the 1970's.  A big effort of skepticism is to train people about how to do this, particularly when some of this garbage information comes in convincing-seeming packaging.

So this starts to bring me back to the original idea -- which is, what sorts of information could possibly be more superficially appealing than the claims of religion?  "I have a way for you to live forever in paradise, and if you don't do what I say, you'll suffer eternal torture in Hell."  Talk about an offer you can't refuse!  And couple that with promises of happiness here in this life, with the social prestige that comes along with being part of a popular religious group, and the purported ability to be a good and ethical person.

Religious folks will tell you that your choice of religion is the most important, highest-stakes choice you can make, ever. Not only does that choice affect the quality of your life, they'll assure you, it affects the quality of your afterlife. And I'm here to tell you that nothing is certain -- no one can ever really know, one way or the other, whether there is a God at all, and if so how many, and if so what the right way to worship that God might be, assuming that God wants to be worshipped at all.

Now, in light of all that, let's go back and consider my initial claim, that most decisions are made from a position of deep ignorance, and do it in its original context -- a TV pundit suggests that a sports celebrity going through a difficult personal time induced by his own moral failure ought to consider a religious conversion to Christianity.  The pundit's statement was, as I and many others have argued, well-intentioned -- but it was also, as a different set of others, and I, pointed out, ignorant.  Certainly something can be well-intentioned and ignorant at the same time.  Let us then dispense with the idea that an ignorant decision necessarily equates to a bad motive.

Aren't all decisions about religious identity made from a position of ignorance?  That is, to the extent that religious identity is a "decision" at all -- I have suggested elsewhere in these pages that religion is a fundamentally emotional experience, one which does not occur on a rational level of thought.  You don't "decide" to have an emotional reaction to something. 

Example: let's say you're out taking a walk in the woods and you turn a corner and you find the bloated, dead carcass of a skunk, partly eaten by scavengers.  The smell is awful.  Your immediate reaction is of revulsion.  Even thinking about it, trying to visualize the hypothetical experience, is an exercise in turning your imagination to create an unpleasant feeling.  You haven't made a conscious choice to be revolted by the dead skunk.  You just are.  Your reaction takes place at a level of thought and experience that is not rational.

A lot of people use language suggesting that they "chose" to be of one religious identity or another.  Seems to me that if you sat down and made a dispassionate study of world religions, comparing and contrasting what it would be like to be a practitioner of the various religions, you might get something that looks like this:

Varies; some sects have no diety, others worship original Buddha or multiple Buddhas.
Can generally practice at home by meditation only; teachings compatible with other religious world views; few dietary or sexual restrictions; few holy days or required tithings.
Obscure teachings difficult to understand and more difficult to actualize in real life; putative afterlife may not exist and if it does it lacks continuity of consciousness from current life; no certain answers to theological questions; ascetic lifestyle.
Jehovah, Jesus, Holy Spirit united as Holy Trinity.  Some sects give special honors to prophets and important figures like Jesus' human mother.
Simple rituals provide ready access to forgiveness of sins; most socially acceptable religion in Western society; widely-available holy books; few dietary restrictions of note; promises immediate transition to paradisical aferlife upon death as well as avoidance of hellish alternative.
Significant restrictions on sexual activity; multiple denominations within religion often fractious with one another; frequent attendance at house of worship and tithing to support same typically required; ambiguous holy book generally requires substantial interpretation and study to extract ethical code and apply to real-life situations.
Multiple; primary dieties include Brahma, Vishnu, and Shiva; some sects suggest these gods are parts of a trinity.
Afterlife includes substantial cycle of reincarnation regardless of moral worth in life; rituals provide access to forgiveness of sins; practice of tantric sex and consumption of healthy diet encouraged.
Significant dietary restrictions; attendance at rituals in specific locations in and around India potentially requires inconvneient and expensive travel; religion potentially incorporates racist classification of society into castes.
Allah; prophet Muhammed gets special honors but is not divine himself.
Starkest and simplest moral code available makes ethical decision-making easy; holy book available in original, living language; simple rituals provide forgiveness of sins; promises immediate transition to paradisical aferlife upon death and for some sects also avoidance of hellish afterlife.
Co-religionists' violent zealotry creates significant social disadvantage in Western nations; significant dietary and sexual restrictions; attendance at rituals in Saudi Arabia potentially requires inconvenient and expensive travel; daily prayers may occur at inconvenient times of day and interfere with work; house of worship may require tithing.
Jehovah, alternatively spelled YHWH, formerly known as El and sometimes referred to as G-d.
Exceptionally good food during holy holidays; intense family and social ties creates strong community; prestige and respect generally available in Western societies; few restrictions on sexual behavior.
Significant dietary restrictions; orthodox sects require inconvenient methods to eschew technology and "work" during weekly Sabbath; tithing generally required to support house of worship; constant fear of violent anti-Semitism substantially detracts from general social acceptance of religion; unclear as to promise of afterlifes.
New Age
Varies, often an unnamed "Goddess" personifying female essence as a creator figure.
No specific days of worship; no tithing; no restrictions on sex and possible encouragement of sex; you may already be a God!  Afterlife experience varies widely.
Uncertain collection of doctrines; possible encouragement of dietary restrictions such as vegetarianism; lack of social acceptance and prestige in Western society (thought of as flaky).  Afterlife experience varies widely.
Varies, typically includes Greco-Roman, Egyptian, and/or Nordic pantheons.
Flexible styles and times of worship; no restrictions on diet or sex and possible encouragement of sex as part of ritual worship; cool costumes.
Lack of social acceptance and prestige in Western society (thought of as flaky); lack of organized groups of like-minded worshippers; lack of doctrines and uncertain ethical codes within such doctrines as exist; traditional acts of animal or human sacrifice may be considered criminal behavior.

Maybe your list would be different than mine.  Maybe you subscribe to one of these religions and think I've got an item or two on my list wrong.  But my point is, no one ever makes a list like this for real.  At least, no one ever does this for the purpose of consciously selecting what religious doctrines they will believe.  I only made this list as an argumentative device.

In fact, I'll go further, and say that very few people ever make a "choice" like this at all.

No one starts from tabula rasa, and then says, "Hmm.  Looking at the plusses and minuses, I think I'll accept the trade-offs of the Pagan lifestyle and start worshipping Zeus!"  That's not how people "choose" religions.  I submit that if people did "choose" religions this way, rationally looking at advantages and disadvantages, a large percentage of them would select "None of the above."  No one who is serious about religion has ever related having gone through such an exercise to me.  Indeed, the only way I could think of that anyone would do something like this would be as something of a joke:

What really happens is that an overwhelming majority of people adopt the religion of their parents.  In the United Kingdom, right now, there is an advertising campaign going on to encourage parents to not assign a religious identity to their children so as to allow them to grow up and choose for themselves what religion they want to be; as best I can tell, this is related to an initiative to have government money help fund schools run by religious institutions.  (Starting January 11, you can read more about the architect of this effort, who happens to be amazingly cute, here.)  The reason this campaign is necessary is because parents automatically assume that their child will be the same religion as them; if I am Christian, so is my child.  They teach their religion to their children to the exclusion of others, and children are eager to please their parents so they say they believe in [insert religious doctrine here] even though they cannot possibly have the remotest conception of what it is that they are saying.  Young children have not yet developed critical thinking skills and thus believe things that they are told simply because an adult they trust tells them they are true.  This is why many religious evangelists consciously and intentionally target very young children -- to indoctrinate them before they learn the intellectual skills necessary to resist that indoctrination. 

It is all well and good for parents to say they will let their children "decide" for themselves and then ration out information about options other than the one they prefer with miserly reluctance.  Let me address this rhetrocial question to Christian Readers in the UK, USA, and Canada:  how many of you took a comparative religion class and learned about Hinduism before you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and savior?  The "decision" about religion is therefore made in nearly complete ignorance of any of the alternatives.

The odds are excellent, my good Reader, that if you subscribe to any religion whatsoever, what I am describing in this paragraph applies to you.  If you are one of those unusual people who converted from one major religion to another (and I'm not talking about changing sects within a religion, for instance, a Lutheran Christian who starts going to a Methodist church) then you almost certainly have a story to tell of friends or family who did not or would not understand and accept your conversion.

Whether you convert religions, abandon your religion altogether, or stick with the one resulting from the accident of your birth, though, one thing you don't have is solid evidence to back up that choice.  And that goes for atheists as much as for theists of all flavors.  No intellectually atheist can claim that "there is no God" as a categorical statement.  What an atheist can claim is that "the probability that God exists is vanishingly small."  Those among the Readership who subscribe to a theistic world view make the claim that "Not only does God exist, but God exists in the form my religion teaches that God exists."  (What a coincidence.)  This is an immodest and untenable claim as well; just as the first atheist claim overreaches so too does this one.  It might not be an overreach for the theist to claim, "The evidence suggests that it is very probable that God exists."

But we can't know for sure.  None of us, no matter what we believe or don't believe or how we believe it.  There is no way to know for sure.  If you're a devout Christian, how can you be sure that you're right and the Muslims are wrong?  Or maybe the Zoroastrians had it right?   To the extent that you choose at all, your choice is made on the basis of something other than reason and evidence.  If it turns out the Muslims were right all along, my Christian friends, you'll be joining me in Hell one day.  None of us have any way of knowing for sure.  Not even personal sense data is reliable here because when you get into the realm of direct personal conversations with supernatural figures the odds are pretty good that what's really going on is a hallucination or mental illness of some sort.  The rule, again:  You talk to God, that's prayer.  God talks to you, that's schizophrenia.

But, of course, you have to choose in some way.  I suppose you can "choose" not to examine your religious identity at all (but if you've read this much of my blather chances are you aren't such a person).  But even if you do actually make a choice -- and I hope you'll consider the likelihood that you never really have made such a choice -- you can't have full and complete information at your disposal when you do it.  You just have to do the best with what you've got, which is all that any of us can really do.

So, the "choice" of one's religion is not really a choice at all, and to the extent that it is one, it is a choice that nearly everyone makes despite having limited information upon which to make it. There is no safe choice. There is no way to be certain. The only thing you can do is gather sufficient information to make a comfortable guess -- and learn to distinguish real information from garbage information.


trumwill said...

Let me address this rhetrocial question to Christian Readers in the UK, USA, and Canada: how many of you took a comparative religion class and learned about Hinduism before you accepted Jesus as your personal Lord and savior?

I did, sort of. World religion was taught in, of all places, Sunday School. Of course, Episcopalians are atypical.

I agree with just about everything you have to say except that I think you undersell the social aspect of religious choice. Not just in terms of what the country as a whole thinks, but also what the people most important to me think. I have a strong attraction to Gnosticism and every time I take that religious quiz I come up with Bahaii, but there's no way I'm converting to either of them unless they meet a standard of proof or certainty that's nearly impossible.

If I choose Christianity and I'm wrong, oh well I'm wrong (wouldn't be the first time). If I choose some outworldly religion and I'm wrong, I will have alienated my family and departed from family tradition for a lie. That trumps a great deal of what's in the scripture.

Unknown said...

I'm surprised that you would say no one makes such a chart. I thought it was pretty common among people raised religiously, in their teen years, to try doing this sort of thing.

In any case, the evidence for not only god, but all the attached concepts such as immortal souls and an afterlife, are so unlikely that none of the religions, nor any religion that has exist before, is worthy of any time whatsoever. The whole entire worldview is so wrong as to be ludicrous.

Weighting the evidence is crucuially important, and when all the evidence is garbage, it is vital to realize this and treat it appropriately.

Burt Likko said...

Seeing both comments attracts me to make a concession that comparative religious chart-making may be more common that I wrote -- but it still seems to me that even if a chart is made, it is not really used in the "choice" of one's own religion. Will's story is an example of peer pressure to conform trumping a desire to be true to one's own feelings or an economic decision about lifestyle tradeoffs.