Sunday, April 25, 2010

Bias and Rationality

In the debate between believers and skeptics, each side often accuses the other of holding their positions for reasons other than the unassailable rationality of their worldview. To be blunt, each side accuses the other of holding the position they do due to a failure of character. The skeptic accuses the believer of being intellectually lazy and dishonest, of holding onto his belief because it is comforting, or because of his biases and upbringing, or because he has too much invested in his religion, or, most often of all, because the believer has simply never given his beliefs any real thought. The believer accuses the skeptic of denying the existence of God and the truth of his religion because the skeptic is angry at God, or because he has too much invested in being a non-believer, or, most often, because by denying God and religion the skeptic is then free to live a amoral hedonistic lifestyle.

It is interesting to note that the believer’s accusation is more vicious than the skeptics’ equivalent. The skeptic accuses the believer of wanting to hold onto his culturally-indoctrinated beliefs and of never bothering to challenge beliefs that he was taught to regard as self-evident. We all have unexamined beliefs, and most of us have neither the time nor the interest to investigate them all. You might even think of it as pragmatic laziness. While unexamined beliefs may leave one with an inaccurate perception of reality, assuming that the world is as our culture teaches us it is is not a moral failing.

The believer on the other hand accuses the skeptic of being an amoral hedonist, blinded to the Divine Truth by his base desires. What’s more, this is not the empirical consensus of the believing community, arrived at through their interactions with skeptics. It is instead a religious dogma that dictates only an immoral person would deny God’s existence. It can be found in sayings and anecdotes: One must be a slave to God or to his desires; There are no kashyos, only teirutzim. The skeptic, then, is a disgusting person who wallows in the base fleshly pleasures of the material world and tries to fool himself into believing there is no God so that he can indulge himself without feeling guilty. Such a person should be shunned, cast out of the community to protect the innocent and pious, and kept away from our precious impressionable children.

As insulting as the believer’s characterization of the skeptic’s motives is, I thought that it might be prudent to investigate whether the core claim has any merit. Stripped of its invective, the believer’s accusation is that the skeptic rejects God and religion not because he has come to the conclusion through rational inquiry that God doesn’t exist, but because he desires to do things which if God existed would be unwise. Rejecting God is therefore a direct result of the skeptic’s desires and a necessary step for his fulfillment of those desires.

In this conception of the skeptic’s motivation, the skeptic’s method of reaching conclusions mirrors that of the believer. The believer accepts on faith that God exists, and then rationalizes that belief. The skeptic “accepts on faith” that his desires should be fulfilled, and then rationalizes away God. (All right, it’s a little more subtle than that, as the claim is usually that the skeptic’s desires are unconsciously influencing him rather than an explicit statement that his desires must be fulfilled, but the parallel stands.)

Is there any merit to this? Might my desires be influencing me and blinding me to the existence of God and the Truth of Judaism?

I like to think of myself as rational, but I am all too aware that people, as a species, are not nearly as rational as we think we are. We all like to think that we’re the exception, but objectively I must admit that I’m probably not. While I was in school from time to time professors would present examples of how our minds trick us. In the back of my mind I always assumed that I would be able to see through the trick, that I was in some way superior to the plebes who suffered from the illusions of their own minds. Again and again, I was dismayed to find that I was as susceptible as anyone else.

Objectively, then, I cannot claim that I am wholly rational. As much as I may try to approach everything rationally, inevitably I am limited by the same human frailties as everyone else. I have my biases and preconceptions, my culturally-influenced worldview, and yes, my desires.

So, is my rejection of God’s existence wholly rational?

Surprisingly, I have to conclude that it’s not.

This is not to say that it is irrational. I think I have a sound rational basis for my skepticism. But had I been perfectly happy with all aspects of frum life, I would never have gone this route. My rejection of Judaism’s truth-claims does not stem wholly from a dispassionate evaluation of the religion, but from a base that includes a distaste for certain communal norms and the related desire to disregard them. This was one of the many factors that contributed to my skeptical stance, and I cannot disregard the likelihood that it influences my judgment.

Does this mean my conclusions are invalid? Not at all. To quote Philip K. Dick, “Reality is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn't go away.” Do my biases, my “desires,” lead me to favor certain conclusions? Yes. Does that mean that those conclusions are wrong? No. I try to remain aware of my biases and to examine all arguments objectively, even though my instinctive reaction may be to dismiss theistic arguments out of hand. What we must all remember, believer and skeptic alike, is that whatever our desires, whatever our biases, reality is what it is. Brute facts are care nothing for our desires. And it is upon the facts that we must base our conclusions.

So while I didn’t arrive at my current worldview wholly through dispassionate rational inquiry, I think I am justified in rejecting the believer’s characterization of the skeptic’s motives. My conclusions, while undoubtedly influenced by my desires and biases, do not rest upon them but upon the facts.


  1. The believer on the other hand accuses the skeptic of being an amoral hedonist, blinded to the Divine Truth by his base desires. . . . The skeptic, then, is a disgusting person who wallows in the base fleshly pleasures of the material world and tries to fool himself into believing there is no God so that he can indulge himself without feeling guilty.

    It sounds as though you've been reading Jewish Philosopher!

  2. I don't read his blog on principle, but yes, he did come to mind. He’s a caricature of the believer’s position, and demonstrates what it looks like when taken to its logical conclusion and divorced from both common sense and compassion.

  3. Very well put. I had misgivings about making explicit reference to him in my comment (I would rather not attract his attention to my own blog), but I wanted other readers to be able to tell whom I was talking about. Setting aside the bizarre character of his philosophical commitments, he exhibits a consistently cold-blooded hatefulness such as I have never encountered in any other blog on Jewish concerns.

  4. This seems related to the 100% problem. That is, it is frequent for believers to argue that if one isn't 100% certain in something then they are justified in their belief. This is just silly. There's a similar issue here: yes, I'm biased but it doesn't mean that therefore everything I say should be thrown out. Note also that skeptics in general don't assert that they are biased as a matter of pride. Claims that they have strong amunah or faith or what-not are seen often as positives. That's very different than skeptics who are at least trying to be unbiased (that isn't to say that all believers fall into this category but a large quantity do).

  5. That’s an interesting point. If the skeptic is influenced by his biases, that’s enough of a reason for the believer to disregard the skeptics conclusions. The believer, on the other hand, calls his biases faith and proudly claims it as a virtue.

  6. What Joshua says about "the believer" seems to me better to fit a Christian than a Jewish context. Is there any rabbinic tradition of regarding faith itself as a virtue? I certainly don't know of any. It seems to me that in the Orthodox perspective, what matters is that God Gave Us the Torah Through Moses at Sinai; whether our relation to that fact is "faith" or something else is secondary. The Orthodox believer might call it knowledge. I think it is only the Christian who takes faith itself to be a virtue. And if faith is understood not as trust but as a kind of contempt for or defiance of empirical evidence (or a determination to interpret all counterevidence as confirming evidence), then I think it is only the fundamentalist Protestant who thinks that way.

  7. Good points.

    I think we all agree that no one makes a decision in a vacuum. Especially in matters concerning religion, which are very sensititve, people ought to respect other people's opinions and try not to be too disrespectful of the other's views (especially in personal interactions, less so in impersonal media such as books or one's *own* blog), particularly because we are all aware that we are not free of biases. Though you'll always have the fundamentalists and radicals who are by definition intolerant (in most cases, at least) who act so sure that they have access to Higher Knowledge everything pales in insignificance. Though I notice those types tend to be a lot more enthusiastic to direct suicide bombings, they don't seem to want to do the dirty work themselves.

  8. MKR: >Is there any rabbinic tradition of regarding faith itself as a virtue?

    Isn't that what the Thirteen Principles of Faith are all about?

  9. MKR, it does seem to be an inherently Christian thing but I've met multiple frum people with near identical claims. I don't think many frum people realize how much they've been influenced by Christianity. On the other hand, the last two people I heard some form of this argument from who were frum were both BTs (well one of them isn't exactly a BT but it would be fair to say that family was not what one would call frum) so maybe they are just picking this sort of thing up from the general culture without realizing it?

  10. OTD, I have done a little study of Maimonides' Thirteen Principles, using a very instructive book by Menachem Kellner called Must a Jew Believe Anything? Yes, Maimonides held that a Jew had to believe these things in order not to lose his share in the world to come; but I'm not sure that Maimonides thought that we were limited to mere belief regarding those propositions. Unfortunately, Kellner's book is no longer in my possession, but I seem to recall that it addressed this sort of question.

    Joshua, your comment is so balanced as to leave me nothing to add.

  11. MKR, technically, you’re right. Judaism doesn’t recognize faith as a “thing” the way Christianity does, and doesn’t hold it to be virtuous in the same way. Faith – that is, belief in God, His influence on the world, etc. - is just a byproduct of buying into the religion rather than the focus of the religion. But I think it’s important to differentiate between formal theology and what people actually do. The person who believes in and trusts in God despite everything is held up as an example to be emulated.