Michael Shermer is a man of strong atheistic convictions. I appreciate and respect that. He is brilliant, but even beyond brilliancy he thinks clearly and clarity is a treasure. Of course, some of his stuff can be hard to read, since he takes Christianity on by name, and pretty aggressively, but that's OK with me. I enjoy his piece every month, and usually learn quite a bit from it.
In his latest Skeptic article for Scientific American, Shermer talks about what it takes to change our minds. (The article will be available at the supplied links about a month from now, I think. They keep their site intentionally behind the paper version for obvious if misguided reasons.)
It is an article about "Confirmation Bias".
[Before I go any further, I am not writing this because I am unhappy with anyone who might not have changed their minds on any subject due to this blog or on any other blog. :-) I am delighted with everyone's comments and input here and everywhere else I frequent. I just want to talk about why we don't change our minds.]
Confirmation Bias is the habit of the human mind to seek and retain facts that confirm what we already believe, and to explain away facts that unsettle that belief. I am a Calvinist, so verses that are clearly anti-Calvinist get the "what he really means is..." treatment from me. We all do this, and I think most of us know that we do it. What we don't know is why we do it.
Shermer's article recounts a scientific experiment that measured the brains of 10 or 20 avid political junkies - half Republican, half Democratic. Both groups were exposed to Bush and Kerry making erroneous statements. The results were as expected. Each agreed with his man, and rejected the other. Boring.
The "man bites dog" part of the story was what the instruments connected to their brains found.
As these junkies listened to their hero and enemy speak, and as they objectively analyzed their gaffs the logical portion of their brains stayed dormant. It was three other systems that were lighting up like Christmas trees. The emotional, conflict resolution, and moral judgement portions were firing on all cylinders. As they logically analyzed the arguments, they never employed logic. They were not deciding between facts, but between 1) feelings, 2) fighting, and 3) whether changing their minds would be immoral.
Doggone, but I recognize those feelings!
Even more, once they reached a conclusion that made them comfortable, their pleasure/reward brain center lit up. They got happy juice from their own brains for confirming what they already believed!
I'm not saying this is something broken in us. God made us this way. I would bet we were this way before the fall, and that we will be this way after the redemption of all things. Confirmation Bias is a good psychological strategy. It keeps you from having to rehash all your beliefs every time some huckster comes along with a good sales pitch. Once you have a truth in your heart, it is going to take some genuine force to get you to abandon it. Confirmation Bias will keep us from following every whim of doctrine.
Still, we are not right about everything, so we need to think about how our minds should change. One thing I note is that the closer we get to the truth, the harder it is for us to make further changes.
Sure, if we believe that God hates poor people, it's easy enough for the facts to overcome our Confirmation Bias. But when you get to things like Calvinism versus Arminianism versus "The Unnamed Truth," you can see how hard a time simple facts can have. Everyone believes a portion of the opponent's arguments, but redefines them by the smallest degree - and the argument is lost.
So, what do we do about it?
It's a little too late for me to give my opinion on that tonight, but I'll hang the question out here for a day or two and look forward to everyone's ideas.
For now, I have to go pay some bills. See ya'll tomorrow!
(Was this post broken last night?)