Friday, January 26, 2007

Faith-based mentality: God’s little short circuit?

There’s something very bizarre about the ability of religious faith to stop a person from reasoning at even a simple level. It’s quite an alarming phenomenon, potentially very dangerous to self and others (especially when mixed with politics), but also quite fascinating.

I was recently monkeying around on Richard Dawkins’ website, and saw a discussion on a message board that included some comments from a Christian activist, “Frosty,” who was campaigning for creationism. This activist had counted the generations between Jesus and Adam and determined how long humans have allegedly been on earth. The problem with this procedure, as the activist acknowledged, is that Matthew 1 and Luke 3 give two entirely different genealogies of Jesus. But Frosty had a solution – one lineage is through Joseph and the other is Mary’s lineage. Problem solved.

Bizarre! Never mind that both books explicitly state that the lineages given are for Joseph. Never mind that they don’t even agree whether Joseph’s father was Jacob or Heli (after all, maybe he had two names). What strikes me as strange is that the two lineages are of very different lengths. Between Joseph and David alone they differ by ten generations. If a generation is twenty years on average, this might mean a discrepancy of 200 years. What is it that happens to a person’s brain when religion is involved – why can’t even such simple mathematics and logic suggest themselves? Between David and Joseph the two lineages are almost entirely different, except in the middle, where both agree that Shelaltiel begat Zerubabbel. And even if the Christian misses these problems, why would he suppose it makes any sense at all that the links from David to Shelaltiel would be different for Mary than for Joseph?

My point isn’t that the Bible is full of contradictions; that’s quite well established and incontrovertible. Rather, how is it that so many people who seem to be able to function and reason relatively well in most setting can read things in a religious context and suddenly become incapable of detecting the most obvious contradictions? This is particularly noticeable in religion, but it also appears in politics.

I don’t have any particular answer at the moment, but I note that this sort of phenomenon is impossible in the standard neoclassical economics models of the individual agent. “Rational” agent is defined in a particularly narrow way, to be an agent who has correct models of how the world works, and also is hyper-rational, able to calculate perfectly and see all implications of any starting assumptions and data.

There can’t be any reasonable doubt that this sort of rationality is a purely fictional, and that agents – e.g. real people – have entirely different brains, and consequently choose and act very differently. An interesting question, then, is what the minimum mental requirements are for some economic institution to function, e.g. a free market. Chimps don’t seem to have markets of any note (although bonobos do have simple prostitution). Some humans do. While lack of a market system is usually attributed to problems with formal institutions, what is the role of individual consciousness, if any, in making a market work? No answer here – but standard neoclassical economics is utterly incapable of addressing the question, since the question can’t even arise in a hypothetical world where agents like Frosty are assumed not to exist.

I stand amazed at such things myself. Most engage in some bizarre form of circular reasoning. The Bible is true so it can't have contradictions so therefore it doesn't have contradictions. And we know it is true because it doesn't have contradictions. Talking to a Christian is like talking to a socialist. The faith they hold in the face of reality is utterly astounding.
Thanks for your comment.

Chrsitianity and socialism have great deal more in common that most Christians realize... a topic for future posts.
The problem is not Jesus. It is the nitwits that claim to have telephone or Internet access to Him. People are not compelled to believe in Jesus. As free moral agents people can choose or choose not to believe.

If a Christian cannot clearly explain his or her reason for believing in Jesus, without sounding like an idiot, that person's faith is shallow. To demand that others believe in his or her God or their Theology, makes God out to be tyrant. This is a misrepresentation.

As far as Creationism or Intelligent Design are concerned. There is no need to use the federal government to mandate government schools to teach such. If people subscribe to such a theory, it can be easily taught outside of the government school schedule in church or bible school.

Charles, I agree with you that over the centuries Christianity and Socialism has had a lot in common. Too much, to be honest.
Charles, did you ever read Julian Jaynes? - "The origin of Conciousness in the Breakdown of the Bicameral Mind"...?

Interesting theory and largely discredited, but his theory that what we call the modern human mind is a relatively recent development in history does haunt me.

And his idea that religion and mysticism in general are hangovers from an earlier mentality are, how should i say...interesting.

I'm as equally baffled by the bizarre beliefs and behaviour of otherwise intelligent people.
Yes, people do twists their minds to hold onto cherish beliefs; even when those beliefs are innocuous for everyday human interaction, they do great damage to the cognitive process. The discipline of self-honesty is the key to cultivating a robust reasoning capacity.

Godlesszone is right that the same thing happens with socialists. I’ve told this story before but perhaps not here. I was sitting in the Fermi-lab cafeteria talking to the few physicists who head a 500-person team of scientists and engineers when the conversation turned to politics. One fellow said that he opposed the “flat-tax” because the rich should pay more; the others nodded in agreement. I’m not an advocate of the “flat-tax” but I thought this an odd position and took the opportunity to explain.

I said that they were using waitress-logic. When I was an undergrad in the 1970s a waitress-friend once told me that people should pay a higher percentage (for a tip) because of inflation. I told her if food prices rise with the general price level, the same percentage would increase her income in proportion. She thought for a minute and said “Nah, it doesn’t work that way.”

In a similar way, a “flat-tax” means that the rich pay more in direct proportion to income. This, I explained to my physicist friends, was the nature of the simple mathematical concept of a percentage. At that point they look embarrassed but not enough to correct themselves by saying that the rate should increase with income. “Oh, I said, you want the rich to be taxed out-of-proportion to their income!” They gave up as you know I can put up a good argument.

Some time remind me to tell you the story about how I convinced the same group of physicists that given all the laws in this country I could find one to send them all to jail.
Thank you to all of you for your comments. In sequence:

C. Banks:I am largely in agreement with you. The problem isn't any particular religious belief, but rather an epistemological standard, whether implicit or explicit, under which one maintains beliefs that one ought to be able to see are logically inconsistent, falsified by facts, or both. Religious faith particularly lends itself to this for some reason, but we all know examples of libertarians, objectivists, and Austrian economists (to name a few groups of which I consider myself a member) who do the same thing.

LeeLion: yes, I've read Jaynes' book -- I loved it. I wrote so many notes in the margin that I may have exceeded Jaynes' text. I know that his work doesn't seem to have progressed and seems to have no influence among psychologists, but I don't know why. As I recall, Jaynes was proposing a program of empirical research to test his ideas. Do you have any info/cites regarding subsequent research? If so, please let me know.

Jason: Fermi story -- great stuff!! yes, I'd like to hear more. But this returns me to C.Banks point. Your physicists at least were reachable by your argument, and -- I suppose -- embarassed. The religious mentality, OTOH, wouldn't budge, and would discard logic and evidence before a cherished belief. The religious mentality is thus much more susceptible to the "short circuits" I lament.

This actually raises a point on which I disagree with Dawkins -- the status of Deism -- but I'll tackle that in some later post.
I've just received a copy of "Reflections on the Dawn of Consciousness" 2006, edited by Marcel Kuijsten, founder of the julian jaynes society (

It's a series of articles on Jayne's work and looks good though I haven't read it yet.
In relation to the debate between Science vs. the Bible or Reason vs. Faith, we consider the following questions. What percentage of the human population can understand the Bible? Answer: Almost all the people can understand the Bible. What percentage believes in the Bible? About 40%. What % understands science? A very tiny %. What % believes in science? Almost 100% of the educated population. Of the Bible and science [even worse for post-science], which one is more accepted based on faith? Accepting that the foundation of knowledge is based on faith, not reason, according to the late Prof. Paul Feyerabend (Against Method, Farewell To Reason, etc.) and Prof. Thomas Kuhn (The Structure Of The Scientific Revolution), would be a first step into post-science, which lacks the destructive power of science to assert itself on to the society in military competition. [Chien Yi Lee]
Thanks for your comment, Lee.

I don't buy Feyerabend's position at all. His argument, or any argument, that faith is the foundation of knowledge is undercut by its implicit acceptance of logic, of reason. As soon as anyone argues X, they are assuming that argument has force, that logic compels.

The foundation of knowledge isn't faith. Instead, there are two sorts of foundations: a priori and empirical. A priori knowledge -- as in the idea of axiomatic concepts, concepts that cannot be denied without implicitly accepting them -- arguably has a sort of empirical basis (Mises and rand differ on this point, for example). But regardless, this is different from empirical evidence, which remains contextual and less ceratin, subject to falsification but never verification, as Popper has it.

Does nearly everyone understand the Bible? No. There are many interpretations of what it means, almost as many as there are readers, it sometimes seems. It isn't a clearly written book.

But my point is more fundamental. Faith and reason are two very different modes of thinking.

As for the alleged "destructive power of science to assert itself on to the society in military competition," I am not sure what you mean. Economic science doesn't justify zero-sum competition, quite the contrary. Nor does the physical science that gives us weapons, etc. The tendency to zero-sum competitions comes from faith-based mentalities, such as Marxism, Nazism, and various religious fundamentalisms.
Lee Chien Yi, I'd like to ask if you could give me some sort of brief explanation of post-science. I have looked at the links you left on Lynne Kiesling's blog, but I don't understand at all.

If yes, post a quick note here, and I'll get a new post and thread going on the subject.

P.S. If you are interested, I'll have you do the first "guest post" ever on this blog.
Post-science is knowledge beyond physical science, dealing with social and life or computer sciences. It is more complex and more rigorous than physical science, which deals with problems of about five variables and accepts solutions based on empirical verification. Post-science contains the solutions of value, which involve a minimum of fifty variables and satisfies mathematical rigor, and complete automation. Value is defined as the sum total of all the benefits and losses to infinity in time. Complete automation is based on the solution of completely automated software, which involves around five hundred or an unlimited number of variables, solution of touch, which is missed by Isaac Newton and all the scientists since Newton and will enable the construction of robots with the ability of touch for replacing human labor, and homotopy graph theory, which should replace the current prohibitively resource demanding graphics based on triangulation. The founders of post-science are Dr. T. L. Kunii (graphics, touch), Prof. C. V. Ramamoorthy (software), Dr. Hugh Ching (value, software, and touch), and the late Dr. Ta-You Wu (touch). Dr. Kunii is the founder of Computer Graphics Society with headquarters in Geneva. Prof. Ram (Ramamoorthy) is the founder of software engineering. The solutions of value and of software are described technically in Dr. Ching’s two patents: “Quantitative Supply And Demand Model Based On Infinite Spreadsheet” (Pat. No. 6,078,901) and “Completely Automated And Self-generating Software System” (Pat. No. 5,485,601), respectively. Dr. Wu is the Father of Chinese Physics and a former President of Academia Sinica in the Republic of China. A recent book Knowledge explains post-science in a discussion format with non-technical language. The main web site for post-science is [Chien Yi Lee, Editor and student of post-science]
Charles, I agree that all claims of post-science should be subjected to public scrutiny. I’d suggest that you and your viewers be allowed to question any item in this blog and in post-science web sites and posts in other forums. Thank you for setting up this forum for public debate under your expert guidance, which is the reason for doing it in your blog. [Lee, Chien Yi, call me Chien (first name)]
Thanks for your comments, Chien (xie xie...I did teach econ in Beijing for a little while... in English, luckily).

Your comments do make post-science is a little clearer now, but still not entirely. I'll check out the various sources you've mentioned.

If you do decide you'd like to do a post here on the subject (rather than just comments) feel free to email me at steele_econ(at)

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