Irrational Beliefs As Blind Spots

I’d like to make something clear. I don’t think that religious believers or superstitious people are stupid. Far from it. In fact, contrary to what believers may feel, most atheists don’t think that religious people are stupid. They just think that they’re wrong about one particular thing.

Part of the reason this blog exists is my curiosity with the fact that intelligent people sometimes believe weird things. Intelligence doesn’t seem to be any guarantee that a person will be free of irrational beliefs.

elvis-glassesI’ve debated with people who believe a variety of apparently irrational things, from palmistry to faith healing. By and large the people I disagree with are not stupid, they’re usually pretty intelligent. I’ve even worked with people whom I’d judge to be more technically proficient than myself, only to be shocked to discover that they’re creationists who believe that dinosaurs and humans coexisted. It’s rather a staggering revelation, as if they’d suggested that Elvis was still alive or that photographed orbs were really spirits.

It seems this kind of weird belief coupled with intelligence is not unusual. I’m sure there are many more examples, but two spring to mind. Isaac Newton, one of the brightest minds in the history of science, spent less than half his time on the physics for which we remember him, the remainder of his efforts being devoted to Biblical study and alchemy. In more recent times, Larry Wall, the inventor of the programming language Perl, is reputed to be highly religious.

[As an aside, Rules 1 & 2 describing how Perl development takes place have an uncanny religious undertone, in my opinion.]

All of which makes me wonder – are these people not as smart as they seem, or are they right in their weird beliefs?  Is it me who is lacking something between the ears?

In considering why even intelligent people believe weird things, Michael Shermer concludes,

Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons.


I suspect he’s right about that, but it raises further questions. Such as why smart people are taken in by “non-smart reasons” in the first place?

After Googling this subject it seems I may have missed the point. Intelligence is thought to be independent of rationality. Intelligent people can be irrational or not, likewise the less intelligent. For example, Kurt Kleiner examines Professor Keith Stanovich’s take on rationality and intelligence:

“[Stanovich] proposes a whole range of cognitive abilities and dispositions independent of intelligence that have at least as much to do with whether we think and behave rationally. In other words, you can be intelligent without being rational. And you can be a rational thinker without being especially intelligent.”

I’ve long thought that there are many functions of the brain which are outside of the traditional definition of intelligence. Physical co-ordination, the ability to understand and reproduce melodies and rhythms, social skills, observation skills, emotional control, personal motivation and probably many more. I don’t want to get into whether or not we should broaden the definition of intelligence to include these things. What I take from this is that rationality appears to be yet another aspect of the brain’s unrecognised work.

Pirate_eyepatch180I’m reminded of a guy I knew at school who was usually top of the class in all subjects. Certainly he was a gifted scientist and quite competent with languages. Anyone would’ve said the guy had a good brain. What was surprising was watching him try to play tennis. He could barely hit the ball – even when it was thrown slowly towards him. Apart from making the rest of us feel better about our mediocre academics, this shows how people with generally highly effective brains can have blind spots in their mental abilities. Similarly, other people might be tone-deaf , socially awkward or like me, slow with numbers. In the more obvious and severe cases these “blind spots” are diagnosed and given names such as Dyslexia or Asperger syndrome, but the gaps in people’s abilities are no less real for the lack of scientific names.

As you’ve probably guessed, I think that irrational beliefs such as religion, superstition or pseudoscience can be considered blind spots in a person’s thinking in the same way that having “two left feet” or never getting the joke can be. These things are independent of intelligence as it is usually defined.

I guess the next question is whether these blind spots are innate or something that can be developed or reduced. Some of us are probably innately more rational than others, automatically looking for all possible explanations. And perhaps certain irrational ideas are accepted at such a young age that they’re not given much critical thought. Nevertheless, critical thinking is something which can be improved with practice, so there’s still hope for those of us who don’t naturally think of all the alternatives.

I faired only slightly better than average on rationality tests recently, so it’s something I plan to work on.

Being A Curious Skeptic


The thoughtful Christian blogger Demian Farnworth asked me recently,

…what do you hope to get out of talking to me? I’m seriously curious.

Which is a fair question. I’ve been asked similar things by other believers. I’m sure I’m not the only atheist who has been told to ask God to open their spiritual eyes. I know I’m not the only person who spent years trying this and got nothing but their own thoughts (aside:  If God actually opened your eyes it might be somewhat more shocking).

I spend a fair bit of time commenting on other people’s blogs. Often I think believers are unsure if I’ve come to mock and argue or whether I really want to know all about their beliefs. Am I just arguing for the sake of argument? Do I want to change their minds? Am I genuinely willing to change my mind? Why do I get into these debates?

For the sake of argument

I don’t actually like heated arguments. So I try to stick to the Socratic method, asking questions to help me understand and reveal flaws in other people’s arguments.

Changing other people’s minds

Yes, I admit I’d like to change people’s minds. Doesn’t everyone? Most of the beliefs I discuss here and on other blogs I consider to be mistaken. I feel an instinctive desire to put people right, educate them if possible. Whether they’ve said that atheists have no morals or that testimonials are a good indication of truth I’d at least like to encourage them to think a little more critically about their beliefs. Although some believers have expressed shock that atheists might want to convince people that they’re right, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make a case for what you believe and express your opinion. Others can do the same, maybe we’ll all learn something.

I know many non-religious people think it’s unrealistic to try to de-convert believers by debating with them. Believers seem impervious to reason. In many cases, I’m sure that’s true, but there’s also clear evidence that atheist and humanist writing on the web can have a positive influence on readers’ thinking. Perhaps my blog and comments haven’t yet changed anyone’s mind or pointed them in the right direction, but it is something I aspire to. Somebody said that false beliefs lead to bad decisions, which is one reason I try to find out what is true and help others do the same.

Changing my mind

I am absolutely willing to change my mind. If I see that there is good evidence of something I have no choice but to change my mind. For example, let’s say I see a specific prediction made by a psychic looking at a human hand. Something that could not have been influenced or come about by chance like, “In three weeks time an asteroid will crash outside your house causing you to spill leek and potato soup on your trousers”. I’ve already changed my mind about palmistry once, I’d have to do so again if the evidence was there. The same is true of religion. If believers can provide me with satisfactory answers to the many gaping holes and paradoxical illogicalities in their religion and provide me with some reasonable evidence, I’d be happy to reconsider. Alternatively, if a god or gods show up in an unambiguous way making it clear which religion they represent (an intricate flower could represent any religion or none), then I’d be a believer.

Yes I’d have to admit that I was wrong, but I think it would be worth it to then be right. I wonder if the people I debate with would say the same?

cat_curiousThat said, I’m reasonably confident that I’m right about philosophical naturalism. I’d say I’m about as certain that there are no gods nor genuine psychic fortune tellers as I am that the Earth orbits the sun. Not 100% certain by any means, but pretty close. I don’t expect to see amputated limbs regrow before my eyes or orbs of light behaving intelligently, but I’m keeping my eyes open. Keeping your eyes open is the reasonable thing to do and in the long run is more likely to lead you to the truth than grabbing an idea and sticking to it unquestioningly. Being skeptical means being open-minded as well as critical.


However, the main reason I get into philosophical debates online is my curiosity.

I’m curious to learn about the diversity of people’s beliefs and how they justify them. I’m curious about the psychology of apparently healthy, intelligent people who believe things which seem ridiculous to me. How do they do it? Imagine you met a regular-seeming person who genuinely believed that the Earth was flat. Wouldn’t that make you slightly curious about what goes on in their head to make that work? How could they manage it with all the evidence to the contrary?

I don’t know if this is an unusual fascination, maybe it’s just me. Either way, I want to know what people believe and why. The more illogical the belief and the more mentally normal the believer, the more interesting it is.

Desirability bias

I Buddhism, A Very Short Introductionnoticed a booklet recently that came free with a copy of The Independent newspaper. They’re doing a series entitled “The Great Religions” and today’s religion was Buddhism. I was curious and ignorant, so I picked it up.

Like many humanists, I find Buddhism more interesting and humane than most other religions. Maybe it’s because it actually encourages critical thinking and discourages all violence or perhaps it’s because it has the most enlightened view of ethics for its time that I know of. OK, perhaps “enlightened” is a bit value-laden, maybe I should say “Modern western liberal view of ethics”.

The eight-spoked Dharmacakra. The eight spokes represent the Noble Eightfold Path of Buddhism.That’s not to say I’m a Buddhist – I’m not and this booklet wasn’t aimed at changing my mind. I still find things to disagree with in Buddhist teachings. There are some ill-defined mystical ideas, fantastical stories and wild stabs in the dark without a scrap of evidence to back them up. So familiar territory to the sceptical religiophile.

What struck me wasn’t so much the content of the book, but how my opinion changed as I read. I couldn’t help but make some judgements about how plausible it was that Buddhist beliefs were true as I went along. The idea of Karma which I was already aware of appealed to my sense of justice (especially poetic justice) and so I warmed to the ideas, almost thinking there could be some truth in it, despite the six mystical realms of rebirth and the five elements theory of the world. OK, I was probably never going to become a believer, but you could have expected me to do a lot less eyebrow raising when meeting Buddhists.

But then I came to the Four Noble Truths. Namely,

“(1) Life is suffering, (2) Suffering is caused by craving, (3) Suffering can have an end, (4) There is a path that leads to the end of suffering” – The Independent: The Great Religions, Buddhism (extract taken from Buddhism, A Very Short Introduction by Damien Keown).

At which point I started to think to myself that the whole thing was a bit ridiculous.

Then I caught myself and asked why I’d changed my mind. I’ve only read a few things online about critical thinking and this is the first time I’ve really caught myself.

I didn’t like this idea which seemed to imply that about life was about suffering and the aim being to end it. I’m fortunate that I haven’t experienced any great suffering so I may be biased, but I think the majority of people have a healthy sense of self-preservation and are glad to be alive. To sum up life as suffering seems woefully pessimistic.

Young Buddhist monks of TibetActually, ending a life of suffering isn’t quite what Buddhism says. It preaches a great respect for all life which should not be destroyed through carelessness or deliberate action. In any case, they expect most creatures to be reincarnated so death wouldn’t bring an end to their existence.The “end” is reaching a peaceful state of enlightenment. On further consideration, it may be that the Buddha wrote the four noble truths as he was shocked by suffering and saw it as a problem which needed to be resolved, both practically and philosophically.

But I could see how some people could read it in an unfortunate way. So it didn’t ring a bell with me. In fact in my mind the four noble truths rang like a soggy cloth.

But whether or not I personally find some of the ideas presented by Buddhism unsettling or likely to have unpleasant consequences says nothing of their truth. Even if I don’t like some of Buddhism’s interpretations of the world, that doesn’t mean that the six realms of rebirth don’t exist. That isn’t a reason to believe that Karma doesn’t cause the morality of our actions to somehow affect us in our present or future lives. The reason it’s almost certainly not true is because there’s no good evidence for it. The evidence for reincarnation is sketchy at best and the six realms are one of many unfalsifiable propositions.

The undesirable-sounding implications of an idea however can make us less likely to believe it. Conversely, I’ve heard plenty of believers, when asked why they find their beliefs convincing, respond “It’s a comforting thought”. This is a kind of argument from consequences.  Put simply it says:

X implies Y and Y is desirable;
therefore X is true

If you’d asked me, I would have said that I was as suspectible to this kind of fallacy as anyone else and that we all fall into these traps.  However, I think we all secretly like to think we’re above it.

So for now my critical thinking school report reads, “Must try harder”.