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Sunday, March 4, 2012

Type II Cognitive Errors and Ignosticism: Why Belief in God is Meaningless







In this essay I argue that God definitions stem from Type II Cognitive errors and that theological opinions are based on these wrong assumptions. Establishing  this, I therefore contend that theological opinions regarding the nature of God must continually shift in the believers mind in order to allow them to retool their supernatural/religious beliefs to fit their definitions of God. If true, definitions of God will perpetually be shifting as the brain continues making Type II errors. This predicts a genesis and engine by which religious belief can arise and spread.

The second part involves the thesis that the continually shifting theological opinion as to the nature of God, and how to define God, ultimately leads us to erroneous explanations and descriptions that are completely without meaning. That is, any explanation of God, or any description supplied, must by necessity regress to either something or else nothing. When explanations for God regress to something tangible, data and evidence can be collected and tested. If they regress to nothing, or that which equates to nothing (such as an intangible, transcendent being) then the explanation of God is unfalsifiable and so meaningless.


If the prior claim is true, and explanations regress to something tangible, then Ignosticism holds that the definition of God must be both coherent and falsifiable, as it would be based off of an actual object. As such, all similar terms would seek to define the same thing, with little to no variation in description, and they would agree with relative success. If the latter is true, and the explanation of God fails to meet the first prerequisite, then definitions of God are superfluous and without meaning, and by extension any experience of a meaningless thing that could not be understood would be unintelligible and therefore equally meaningless.


Type II Cognitive Errors
Now as it is, every religion defines their God and/or gods differently. This is in part due to how we percieve causal events. That is, according to Shermer, Foster and Kokko, individuals lack the ability to assign causal probabilities to all sets of events that occur around them and this deficiency causes them to lump causal associations with non-causal ones.

Superstition, then, arises as an evolutionary mechanism to explain events by creating causal links between the event itself and the response--even when there is no direct causal link between the two. In other words, human brains have evolved to favor strategies that make many incorrect causal associations in order to establish those that are essential for survival and reproduction.

Simply put, our innate patternicity, that is our ability to detect patterns in the real world, often times leads to wrong inferences about reality. These mistaken inferences about casual events explains the development of superstitious reasoning. Superstitious reasoning, in turn, explains many facets we see within the development of religious belief. Not only the highly ritualized customs and practices, but also the very way in which religious believers think about God.

One of the defining attributes of a religion is that believers often times believe that they are privy to supernatural knowledge. That is, they are under the impression that they have access to revealed information or knowledge that cannot come about through any other way but supernaturally.

This is a testable claim. One which makes the a priori assumption that supernatural experiences cannot be explained naturally. That they come from beyond, or they are divine, and so external to us. This assumption, however, is false.



Koichi Ono of Komazawa University in Japan, inspired by Skinners classic experiments on revealing the supernatural inclination of pigeons in what is called a Skinner box, recreated the experiment using humans and casino slot machines. Instead of one lever, however, the test group was given three levers. They were told they would get points for pulling the levers. Little did they know that they were being run through a Skinner box sort of experiment. The points were distributed randomly and varying intervals. The experiment revealed that the individual human's inclination to develop supernatural habits, or ticks, such as rubbing the nob of the lever each time, or pulling the levers in a certain sequence, or touching their nose or tapping their fingers, to try and increase their luck to get more points was exactly the same patternicity exhibited in pigeons which developed similar quirks in their belief that it would increase their chances of getting food.

This supernatural reasoning leads to the belief that these actions, rituals, help increase the favor of the participant. Revealed knowledge functions in the same way. A religious person practices a religious right, and if it seems to work, the custom becomes ritualized. Theological knowledge then follows as an ad hoc explanation for why and how the religious observers arbitrary actions relate casually to their causal events of their everyday experience. In other words, revealed knowledge is merely an ad hoc explanation which comes after the practitioner experiences a type of positive gain in following a certain religious ritual. Since they fail to find casual links to the events in reality, they attribute them to supernatural events. Revealed knowledge!

Ancient religions, as well as modern ones, seem to evolve out of this type of supernatural reasoning. "Revealed" knowledge shows us precisely how.

Imagine a primitive tribal society living on a volcanic island. If the volcano on this tropical island spurts some lava, the tribal Chief might order a virgin be sacrificed to appease the rumbling, obviously angry, Volcano God. An innocent girls gets thrown in, probably against her will. Low and behold, the volcano doesn't erupt! Therefore more innocent virgin girls get sacrificed. 

The superstitious mind, and so too the religious one, makes a Type II error. Sacrificing virgins appeases the Volcano God. Then wrongly, they assume that there is a direct relationship between virgin sacrifices and the temperament of their god.

Thus they are able to make an inference about the character of their god. The Volcano God likes virgins. His will is that one be sacrificed every year. If he is not appeased, his wrath follows with a violent volcanic eruption which will surely devastate the village tribe below.


A little while later, someone thinks, hey--this sacrificing virgin thing is fine and all, but we're running out of young women to marry. Pretty soon, we'll have no women and no families. So the next season, the tribe splits on the theological issue of how to appease god. The traditionalists persist that they continue on with the virgin sacrifices, just to err on the side of caution. Meanwhile, the heretical group decides to save their women for more important needs, and instead sacrifices a goat.


The traditionalist tribe is furious. Not only is it improper to sacrifice valuable livestock, rather than mere women, it flies in the face of the Volcano God's very nature! Everyone damn well knows he likes virgins!

Low and behold, however, the goat sacrifice works! The heretical group creates a new definition of their god. Not only does god like virgin sacrifices, but he also accepts goat sacrifices. Their new definition, however, reveals a theological shift in reasoning based on the Type II error in reasoning. Although there is no relationship between the animal sacrifices and the timing of the volcanic eruption, the inclination to reason with a supernatural bias, causes the tribe to change its theological stance with regard to the nature of their god.

Now the traditionalists have a problem. Their theology is flawed. Some see reason, and realize that the women are more valuable than goats, and many new converts are made. The new religion grows due to the success of their definition of god and by correctly (or so it seems) studying his nature and creating the best definition for his godly attributes. Meanwhile, the die hard traditionalists chock it all up to a fluke, and continue their old ways, until they have no women left and their religion dies out due to the fact that they never learned how to compensate for their Type II cognitive error in reasoning. In other words, they made a false positive, they believed something was real when it wasn't. They relied on a non-existent pattern, wrongly assuming their god was appeased by the habitual practice of virgin sacrifice.


The only thing, however, is that the second group of heretics, now the victorious defenders of a new orthodox belief system, are also wrong about their goat sacrifices. They are, in fact, making the same Type II error as the first group. Why? Because Type II errors always override Type I errors. A Type one error is the belief that nothing is there when something really is. Oh, that's just the wind rustling the tall grass, you think. Wrong! It's a tiger. You're lunch. Thus Type II errors always override Type I. We have evolved to jump at unexpected noises and shadows precisely for this reason. Better safe than sorry.

But always being safe means we are prone to making invalid causal associations. The second tribal group's causal association is no more valid than the first groups. They have just changed the definition of their god to fit their need to attribute patterns to the events. Now instead of virgins appeasing the Volcano God, it's goats.



When a group of people tell or write down a story which explains something, these stories often take the form of myths. One of the functions of a myth is to explain, for example, why the Volcano God might be angry. And, moreover, why he might like virgins. And later, why he prefers goats over virgins. Religious texts often serve this same theological function of trying to define god according to the experience of the individual or group of individuals. If their experiences differ, then so too will their understanding of god, and likewise their definitions of god.


Enter Ignosticism.

Ignosticism Re-examined: Your God is not my God
For those that might be unfamiliar with the Ignostic position, premise one of Ignosticism states:


1) The view that a coherent definition of God must be presented before the question of the existence of god can be meaningfully discussed


As you may already know, Christianity and Islam both stem from the Abrahamic religious beliefs which led to the development of Judaism. One may think of Christianity and Islam as brother and sister religions which are the related cousins of the Jewish faith.


Yet they all three define God differently, even as it is purportedly the same deity.


Let's take the belief in Jesus Christ as an example. Christians believe he is the begotten Son of God. The New Testament, they say, makes this abundantly clear. Although this is debatable, this is the belief they subscribe to. It is by this belief that they develop a faith based on the theological premise that God gave his only Son, Jesus, as a sacrifice for the collective sin of all mankind. Therefore, we are redeemed in Christ.


Muslims, adhering to Islam, balk at such a suggestion. For the Koran specifically states that Allah (i.e., God in Aramaic) specifically does not beget sons! Furthermore, they are quick to point out that nowhere does Jesus ever claim to be the Son of God, and that if Christians would only read their own Bibles, they would know this.


Right now there is a conflict in how each group defines God. One group believes God has a son. The other group believes God does not and never will. Both groups cannot be right.


Either God can have a son or he can't. But it can't be both since both would equate to a negation of the term. The Ignostic observes that, if the description of God here provided negates itself, then the term is meaningless.


Both the Christian group and the Islamic group object. They say, wait a minute, it could be that we are right and they are simply mistaken. Many of our other definitions of God seem to match up. So maybe they are just interpreting it wrong.


The Ignostic says, it does not matter. Your definition is in conflict. Therefore inchoherent. You can't have it both ways. God can't have a son and simultaneously not have a son. Incoherent!


 The Christian protests. But we know Jesus Christ is Lord.


The Ignostic points out that within the Christians own religion, there are over 32,000 different sects alone which seem to disagree as to the exact definition and description of Jesus and God. If they agreed, they would never have split off in the first place. How can they be so certain that they are correct? Are all the other Christians wrong? How do they know? What's more, they still haven't resolved the conflict between their definition and the competing definition of Muslims, which are technically about the same God.

Finally, the Ignostic adds, there are other gods that neither the Christian nor the Muslim has even considered. Their monotheistic faiths claim there is only one god. But again, how do they know this? What if they are wrong? What if the Hindus are right and their are thousands of gods? What if the atheist is right and their are none?


The theists retreats to the anecdotal claim that, "I know God is real because I experience God in my life. I see him working through me and all around me!"


The Ignostic says, "Well, that's fine and all, but you still haven't defined what God is. So how do you know what you're experiencing is in fact the same thing which you cannot articulate coherently? Don't you find that it is unintelligible to claim you have had an experience, but you can't claim to know what that experience was?"


"But I know it was God! I know it in my heart!"


"Then tell me what God is--describe him to me."


"I don't need to. The Bible describes him just fine!"


"But you forget, the Bible's definition of God is in conflict. It doesn't count because it is negated by other competing definitions, not only from other religions, but within your own religious sphere as well!"


The theist will either give up on the Ignostic, claiming their objection is not really a valid objection, or they will retreat to the excuse that, "We cannot define God. How can our minds comprehend the infinite? God is beyond our understanding. It would be ridiculous to even try to define God."


This is where the second premise of Ignosticism comes in.
2) If the definition provide is unfalsifiable, the ignostic takes the theological noncognitivist position that the question of the existence of God is meaningless.

Theological Non-Cognitivism
Theological noncognitivism is the theological position that if the definition of God is unfalsifiable then it cannot mean anything. This would render God's entire existence meaningless. How so? Well let's think about it. 


If I said, for example, that I had a magic genie in a lamp, and you asked what is a genie, then I would be burdened with the obligation to explain what a genie is and what it does. Even so, if these claims cannot be tested, then whatever I claim a genie is would not matter.


For example, pretend you have never heard of my genie before. You ask me, "What does a genie do?" 

I say, "Well, genies love to live in oil lamps." 

Your curiosity piqued, you ask, "Well, how do you know that a genie lives in a lamp?" 

"You see, it's like this..." I say, "there's this magic lamp, and if you rub it three times, then the genie pops out and grants you three wishes!"


"Wow!" you say. "That sounds pretty cool. So let me get this straight, what you are saying is: A genie is a magical being that lives in oil lamps and grants wishes."


"Yes, that is the definition of a genie!"


Being excited, but rather skeptical, you exclaim, "Let's test it!"


"No," I say. "Regrettably my genie is beyond space and time. He is an infinite, transcendent, genie. You can't just summon him at will."

"But I thought you said you could rub the lamp and--"

"Actually, I don't have a magic lamp. They don't exist anymore. But I have a book which talks about them. It's called A Thousand and One Arabian Nights! There is a lot of history in there," I inform. "It involves real palaces that existed in ancient Arabia. So we know it happened."

"Whether or not the book is historical is besides the point," you rightly inform. "Your belief in magic lamps with genies in them is based on unfalsifiable evidence. Furthermore, your magic genie is, by your definition, unfalisfiable. Even if it existed, it would be rendered meaningless because you can't ever hope to explain it since you claim there can be no evidence of it and that it is outside all understanding anyway. We can't test to see if it exists, and even if it does exist, we can't understand its existence. So should it exist its existence is irrelevant and, even then, it may not even exist because you have no way of establishing its existence in the first place. That's your claim. So my question is this, what good is your definition of genies? More importantly, what good would be holding the belief in such a thing?"

Even if I did not like your tone, you'd be right. The only regress left for my genie belief would be to abandon it or else continue living comfortably with the delusion.


This goes a long way to help explain Theological noncognitivism in layman's terms. The objection to Theological noncognitivism is called a verifiable proof. What this means is the claim must be tested and verified, and only then would there be proof of the existence of said magic genie (or whatever else you might be claiming exists). Many theists protest to this line of reasoning being applied to God, however. Verificationism, they say, cannot always provide adequate proofs for things. Take the mind, for example. Can you prove there is such a thing as a mind?


Actually, this objection isn't really an objection at all, because it rests on a misconception about what the human mind really is. The body mind dualism, as modern neuroscience reveals, is merely a perception which is generated by the brain. But impede brain function and the perception of self, and of the mind, terminates. Thus there is no such thing as independent minds. There are only brains.


Ignosticism Applied to Theistic Belief in God
By making God an incomprehensibly infinite, transcendent, eternal being, existing out of space and time, the theist is simply semantically twisting their definition of God into an unfalsifiable description. Not based on observation or evidence, mind you, but based on their trying to validate their beliefs, which are in turn, predicated on a Type II error in cognition.


Since they have shifted the definition of God to mean something that is unfalsifiable, there definition is not feasible for the very reason it cannot be validated and confirmed, and therefor their definition is rendered meaningless. Thus any conversation they wish to have about their God is equally as meaningless, because to talk about God is to talk about a meaningless subject.


By extension, they cannot talk about their experiences as meaningful, since they are merely anecdotal. Michael Shermer points out in his new book The Believing Brain, that the only way to circumvent a false positive is through science and the only way to prove an anecdotal claim is to test it. 


Grandma's cancer was cured by drinking seaweed extract, you say? Well test that hypothesis! Take some cancer patients and do a study. Give some of them the seaweed extract, and don't given any to the control group. Instead, feed them a placebo of green Kool-aid, or whatever. Now, write down what happens. Oh, the seaweed didn't actually cure anyone with cancer and they all died alongside the Kool-aid victims? Well then, it's not likely Grandma's daily dose of seaweed extract saved her from her hideous bout of cancer. Prayer, seaweed extract, same difference. Both are failed hypothesis.

When a theist claims their God transcends all, this means that their experience is void, because there would be no feasible way to test the claims of their experience(s) against this transcendent God. In other words, they have obscured their definition of God so much that it has become unfalsifiable. 



Ergo, the theist could never know if their claims about God were real or imagined. Unable to know anything about God, his existence, or how he interacts with us means to talk about God at all would prove meaningless. Belief in God is therefore meaningless.


Conclusion
In conclusion, Type II cognitive errors seem to be the basis for shifting theological opinions, which, in turn, lead the believer to generate varying definitions of God. I contend that this, followed to its rational conclusion, means that definitions of God will perpetually be shifting and generated anew as the brain continues making Type II errors. Definitions of God being superfluous, Ignosticism states that in order for the definition of God to be meaningful, or experience to be comprehensible, a coherent description of God must be provided. This description providing satisfactory definition, then, must digress to something falsifiable or it appears there is nothing at all to base the description on.

If there is something rather than nothing, all similar terms would seek to define the same thing, with little to no variation in description, and they would agree with relative success. This not being the case, all definitions of God would be the equivelent of a fancy, a random arbitrary description based not on evidence but the transitory desires of the believer. Thus Ignosticism predicts that no meaningful definition for God can ever be found. Therefore questions of God are proved meaningless and the beliefs in a meaningless concept are likewise rendered meaningless. 

Note: If experiences of God were real--they would converge, not diverge. The divergent properties of experience are predicted by the Type II errors in reasoning. As such, different experiences lead to different definitions of God. A point I cannot stress enough.

In the end it appears that Ignosticism is an indefeasible position as long as no clearly defined universal description of God can be settled upon. The only way to overcome this obstacle is for the theist to find a definition or description of God which can be tested, which means their terms must adhere to something more than a shifting theological opinion. Therefore, they require evidence to validate their claims as to what God is or might be. If they cannot provide adequate evidence which can be held up to testing and scrutiny, then their definitions of God are merely a byproduct of their Type II errors in reasoning, and therefore are irrelevant.


It is a controversial conclusion to be sure, and I would be willing to listen to any objections anyone might have, but as far as I can tell, Ignosticism remains the strongest and most devastating argument against, not only God, but all gods. 


Recommended Reading
For an introduction to Type I and Type II cognitive errors and the science behind determining them I highly recommend Michael Shermer's Believing Brain.


Rather than a hypothetical tribal community, some real anthropological case studies of superstitious beliefs in primitive tribal cultures can be found in Pascal Boyer's Religion Explained and David Eller's Atheism Advanced.


For more on Evolutionary theory and pigeons in Skinner boxes see Richard Dawkins' The Greatest Show on Earth. 

To learn more on the relationship between the brain and the body and how the brain generates the perception of mind and self, read the highly informative book Self Comes to Mind by Antonio Damasio.





Advocatus Athesit

Advocatus Athesit