Monday, December 24, 2018

Cognitive Schema

What would make me believe again? I encounter this question often. It's an important question, but it's also a simplistic one.

It's important because it demands a substantive answer. If the answer is “nothing,” then I'm as unreasonable as the believer who says that nothing can shake them from their faith. To say that I arrived at my current position rationally is to say that I have weighed the evidence for and against my position, and have concluded that the evidence for it outweighs the evidence against it. If there is nothing that could convince me I'm wrong, no evidence this could get me to believe again, then I can't say that I have fairly weighed the evidence for and against my position, and I can't say that I rationally arrived at my current conclusions.

It's simplistic because the person asking the question, ”what would make you believe again?” Is usually looking for a single, simple answer. Yet the question is not nearly so simple as it seems. Believe again in what? In the supernatural? In God? In the literal truth of Judaism's tenet's? In frumkeit? Each of these would have different answers.

 it's simplistic also because it assumes that there could be some single experience or piece of evidence that could, on its own, convince me that from frumkeit is the truth. Someone recently asked in a facebook group, “if God appeared to you personally and told you that Orthodox Judaism is true, would you be frum?” I answered no. If I experienced God speaking to me, I would assume that I was hallucinating. I think that the person who asked the question took this to mean that there was nothing that could shake me from my disbelief . I think it seemed to him that I was irrationally certain that Orthodoxy is incorrect and that there is no God, and so I would disregard and explain away even what he regarded as overwhelming evidence. But that's not why I would think I was hallucinating. I wouldn't assume I was hallucinating because I'm obstinately refusing to accept overwhelming evidence. I would assume I was hallucinating because there's no slot for God my cognitive schema, the interconnected webs of information, inferences, rubrics, and heuristics that I use to make sense of the world.

Cognitive schema are a conceptual model from cognitive psychology that explains how we organize information about the world:

“schema…[are] mental structures that an individual uses to organize knowledge and guide cognitive processes and behavior. People use schemata (the plural of schema) to categorize objects and events based on common elements and characteristics and thus interpret and predict the world. New information is processed according to how it fits into these mental structures, or rules. In social science, particularly in cognitive science, it is understood that humans retrieve knowledge from various areas to draw conclusions about missing or non-evidential information, such as during decision making or political evaluation. Schemata represent the ways in which the characteristics of certain events or objects are recalled, as determined by one’s self-knowledge and cultural-political background. Examples of schemata include rubrics, perceived social roles, stereotypes, and worldviews.”[i]

A single experience, no matter how grand and overwhelming, is not enough to restructure the entirety of one’s cognitive schema. In order for me to accept that God exists, rather than that I was hallucinating, I first would need to have many small experiences that restructured my cognitive schema and open a slot for “God” to fit into.

In the same way, “ God” is woven through believers’ cognitive schema. It takes many small experiences, many bits of information learn over a long time to unweave God from the way one perceives and process the world, and even longer until God no longer fits into one’s schema at all.

This is why there is no single knock-down argument that can convince a believer that their faith is mistaken, or which can convince an atheist that God is real. It's why even world shattering, life-changing experiences rarely cause people to lose their faith, and why a personal experience of God speaking to me and telling me that Orthodoxy is the truth wouldn't convince me to be frum.

[i] Schema,
Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved from


  1. "If God appeared to you personally and told you that Orthodox Judaism is true, would you be frum?" I think you grant too much legitimacy to the hypothetical condition "if God appeared to you." One has to ask what that means. The question is not frivolous. How is God supposed to *appear*? What would constitute an "appearance" of God? These questions must be answered before one can answer the hypothetical question. If thunder and lightning and a voice from the sky are supposed to be sufficient for an appearance of God, then perhaps your answer would be: "I might be frightened and confused and unable to explain what was happening, but I see no reason why I should take it to be God appearing to me." If the questioner says, "Well, what if it *did* convince you?" Then, I think, the question is like asking, "What if you changed into a believer?" or "What if you changed into a different person altogether?" Then the question is just an empty speculation that has no bearing on your actual thinking.

    I think that for the question "What would it take to make you believe?" to have a clear purport, it would have to be rephrased as "What *evidence* would it take to make you believe?" But to put the question that way is to admit that there is no good evidence supporting theistic belief---which is presumably the very reason why you lack such belief. To ask whether God's appearing to you would change your mind is to assume that this lack of evidence is merely temporary or accidental. But it's not. It's permanent and incurable. That's why people who base their beliefs and judgments on evidence cannot be theists. Of course, one might reasonably ask why you base your beliefs on evidence. There, I suspect, is where the true divergence in what you call cognitive schemata lies.

    By the way, "schema" is the singular form only. The plural is "schemata" (accented on the same syllable).

  2. Reorganisation of the stars to form clear unambiguous messages visible to all.

    “Message from God. 2nd Son start believing in me or I shall start smiting (and you know that nobody smites like Me).”

    How about that?

    1. How do I know it's not aliens playing a trick on me?

      It's wildly implausible that there are aliens who would know who I am and play such a trick, but that's still more plausible than God.

      It would make me think about it, though.

    2. Ok, but to all intents and purposes you could consider such powerful aliens as God. Your questions would be around why they are interested in you etc, but the same questions you could have of God anyway.

    3. "God" means something specific: A tri-omni Being Who created the universe, cares about what people do, intervenes in the world, rewards and punishes, and gave the Torah at Har Sinai.

      Some other type of being may be *a* god, but not God.

      Anyone who has the technology to travel across space would likely also have the technology to eavesdrop on our electronic communications, and it's plausible that they would have the technology to create the illusion that the stars rearranged to spell out messages.

      This is what I meant in the post. At this point, God, or anything supernatural, is so far outside my heuristics for understanding the world that no one piece of evidence could make me think, "God is probably the best explanation for that."

    4. What if instead, the stars spelled out "USE SNIVELY'S SOAP"?

      Let's see who gets the reference

  3. I thought that sounded like something from Douglas Adams's *Hitchhiker's Guide* series, but when a Web search informed me that it comes from a story by Frederic Brown called "Pi in the Sky," I seemed to recollect reading such a story during my days as a reader of science fiction, more than forty years ago.

  4. What would make me believe again? Here is a partial answers that would strongly get me to reconsider: If certain of the 'proofs' I have written about were not full of holes. If there was a scientifically verifiable miracle. If there was a scientifically verifiable mass revelation.If solutions were provided to certain problems in math or science by a NDE. ACJA

  5. A religious person once told me - that if you could prove Mt Sinai did not happen they would cease being Jewish. Now of course you could never do this to their full satisfaction, so they have totally insulated themselves. The larger problem is their thinking is infected. One should not assume something just because it has not been proven to be false. Rather, one should accept beliefs for which there are good reasons to accept their likely truth. ACJA