Depth & Complexity Deception

Walking over an open grate is scary for most children and even some adults.  Even though part of the brain understands that the grate is secure, part of the brain is reflexively scared by the vision of depth.

Likewise, swimming in deep water can be more scary than swimming shallow water for similar reasons — even if you can see the bottom.  Part of the brain knows that you won’t “fall” to the deep bottom, but another part reflexively fears a fall.  Depth is reflexively feared and respected and that “depth” can be perceived in terms of both quantity or complexity.

Astrology, Buddhism, Homeopathy, Biblical Studies, and Evolution all share something in common: depth. Volumes of material are written on these subjects. You could fill your walls with impressive book titles on these topics.   These deep walls of information protect your beliefs.  For if someone told you that your beliefs were nonsense, your mind would flash a picture of libraries of counter arguments — not the specific arguments, mind you, but just the image of a deep layers of books. This is one version of depth deception — depth of quantity. It is the illusion that if something you embrace has lots of fellow believers and writers, it must have believable substance.  And depth illusion can also be caused by deep complexity.

Astrology is complicated — it has deep complexity.  Sure, the average astrology fan only occasionally reads superficial daily horoscopes, but enthusiastic believers use complex computer programs to generate sophisticated charts showing the intricate alignment of planet positions and influences. Smart people write these programs. The different perspectives and calculations needed for making an accurate ‘scientific’ reading is mind-bogglingly deep.  This is depth of complexity. It takes lots of time to learn this highly detailed material. In doing all this, the believer’s mind uses such depth in and of itself to support  the believer’s confidence, even if Astrology is complete nonsense.

Believers are usually unaware that depth deception is strengthening their emotional resolve to protect their beliefs. We all do it.

Question to Readers:  Have you ever wondered if your book collection itself offers you more support in your beliefs than they deserve?


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

18 responses to “Depth & Complexity Deception

  1. In my field of engineering, I’ve seen this depth deception in practical application. In one case, decades-in-development proprietary algorithms and fleet design experience predicted that there would be no problems with a widget. However, the shape of this widget was a little too different from its predecessors, and so when it was in operation it experienced a failure mechanism which was different than anything seen on past designs.

    In another case, someone had designed another widget using a complex model in a finite element analysis program (a computer program used to analyze stress, strain, and fatigue life among other things). The program generated lots of colorful charts suggesting that the design would withstand the rigors of service. However, in real life, it broke apart. It turned out that the engineer had used incorrect constraints in the model.

  2. 1minionsopinion

    Terry Pratchett’s fiction makes up the bulk of my book collection but I can’t really say for sure if they influenced my thought processes or beliefs in any way (Small Gods or Pyramids for example) or if I was just a person “destined” to find them clever and funny and couldn’t help getting hooked. I’d always had a love of science fiction and fantasy.

    In terms of reading non-fiction, though, I tend toward books that will bolster my own opinions of social issues (consumerism, body image) rather than challenge my biases. I’m never quite as skeptical as I know I should be.

  3. I think it depends on how you acquired your book collection on a subject.

    If it’s a subject in which you investigated both sides of an issue, your collection might have varying views.

    If you buy books for the edification of a particular belief/idea/viewpoint that you already have then your collection will represent that and provide the “depth deception” to which you allude.

    I don’t think that people purposely develop depth deception because they are consciously trying to protect their beliefs. I think that people who have a belief hear, or read, something by someone who shares the same belief and there is this feeling of familiarity and validation that takes over. They say, “Aha…that’s exactly how I thought about the issue, but I wasn’t sure what the answer was until I heard what they had to say about it!”

    I don’t know if there is a solution to his problem. Some things a person can’t just dismiss without really spending time in the “depths” of what interests them.

    There are certain things now that I feel I can dismiss and ignore because I have explored the depths and I know that no matter how many more books are written on the subject, it’s all just the same idea being rehashed by different people. I can dismiss it because I already know the subject and its weak points.

    Beforehand, I would have felt unprepared to make a judgement.

  4. @ The Wise Fool:
    Fantastic analogy of secular issues. I included Evolution in my list to help readers see that we can even have accurate beliefs for the wrong reasons. Your examples are fantastic. Thanx

    @ 1minionsopinion:
    Nice confession — I think it is common. I never heard of Terry Pratchett — so I looked him up. Impressive. I will introduce him to my son.

    @ terri:
    I think very few people investigate both sides of an issue. And most who think they do, only read evaluation of the other side by those on their side. I think you are exceptional — and that style is to be applauded.

    I agree that selection bias is usually not intentional.

    Your last point is one I had intended for a coming post. Some times you just have to take a stance and say “enough, I am acting on my decision.”

  5. CRL

    People tend to be lazy, so if we can outsource our thinking to someone else, we will. Your depth deception seems to be one form of this outsourcing: it is enough for many us to know that “smart people” (or “holy people.” or “enlightened people”) share our beliefs, and surely cannot be mistaken in them. This works even better if there are arcane details associated with the field in question, such as the many paradoxical doctrines of Christianity (such as the trinity) or the chalkboard-filling equations that are stereotypical representations of advanced physics.

    I can’t call myself too guilty of this, at least in regards to my bookshelf (and the metaphorical extension of my bookshelf which includes things borrowed from and returned to the library.) While I have read quite a few books on evolution, this isn’t really in any sort of attempt to bolster my belief in the subject, but to gain a deeper historical perspective on the topic, or to learn about how evolution relates to more advanced genetics, as I generally try to avoid evolutionary apologetics, since the science in them is generally pretty basic. While people, myself included on the rare occasions on which I read political books, are certainly unlikely to read books written by those with opposing political viewpoints, this is often because it is really quite hard to make it through hundreds of pages of what we consider to be untrue/immoral etc, and reading such a work often only goes to strengthen our own beliefs, as we start to mock the opposing work.

  6. @ CRL
    I agree, if you read something from the “other side”, you usually mock it and can’t finish it. This is why I ask for recommendations from friends on that side to tell me what they think is the best example of their works. They recommend knowing my background. Thus I read works that actually are interesting, though counter my thoughts. I have done this with politics, religion, medicine, linguistics, history ….

  7. Yes, we all do it. I just wanted to let you know how much I enjoy your open-minded posts, especially on contoversial and questionable belief systems.

    As for your question, my library contains many more books about things I don’t really buy into it than books reinforcing my ideas about things.

  8. @ Doug B
    Wow, thanks for the compliment. I try to keep us open to our own foibles and thus allow us to have a little different tone about systems we dislike.

    “Books about things” — I have some, but I should expand those!

  9. I don’t like walking over grates, partly because of the depth as you describe – but more a mistrust of people having done their jobs right in terms of maintenance or construction. I expect that people have taken short cuts and I don’t care the pay the price for other people’s mistakes.

    It takes a lot to commit to beliefs – not just learning -but the storage space dedicated to the books.

    I have a lot of books, a whole room dedicated to books – sci fi, reference, crafting, Elvis, cookbooks, lesbian and mythology/folklore.

    but, I guess if you can wrap up a belief in sciencey seeming things like planet positions and math – it makes the belief seem more real.

    But there’s no basis in science for woo, no matter how much it gets tarted up in science sounding language or appearing methods.

  10. @ Random Ntrygg

    if you can wrap up a belief in sciencey seeming things like planet positions and math – it makes the belief seem more real.

    — I agree

    But there’s no basis in science for woo,

    — I disagree.

    Those kind of blanket statement are mere demagoguery.
    We can often find things of values in what we may otherwise flippantly call “woo”. Such black & white thinking is unbecoming of a skeptic.

  11. rautakyy

    I agree whith Random Ntrygg about the mistrust to people. Not that I was affraid of grates, but in many similar instances, it is not the depth itself but the device and people behind it, that I find frightening. Take nuclear power plants. It is allways about people and it is natural, that people make errors. And a seemingly minor error might lead to a catastrophy. Because societes recognize this risk at some level it is strictly controlled by whom and where they are built. There are safety measures upon safety measures and even so there is a severe risk that something might go wrong.

    I do not know if it is the amount of literature I hold on particular subject, that makes me reassured about my view on a particular subject. While one becomes more aware of a particular phenomenon, the more one realizes how much crap has been written about the subject. If all your books lead you to one singular truth, you should take the time to think how you choose your books. And if you only choose to read books that support your preassumptions, then I guess, that may give you “depth deception”.
    The fact that something was written, does not make it so, though there are strong cultural traditions to lead us to assume so.

  12. Earnest

    @ Ntrygg: Grasshopper, you must read Sabio’s many posts on his woo experiences and return properly educated on the non-zero amount of truth to be found in woo explorations. Notice I did not say woo is truth! Looking forward to your post-study thoughts.

    @ Sabio: wow what I just said to Ntrygg sounds like a sort of cult of personality statement! I think a smack upside my head with a bamboo stick would set me aright again.

    Anyway, my bookshelf is filled with scientific fact books and pre-teen fiction. So I’m not sure how I fit in the matrix here.

    In general, I am attracted to what I would call riff books, or books that seem to show a new spin on an old idea. These gel well with my scattered distractible diverse personality. I generally flip randomly through such books on the bookshelves of other people’s homes, rarely finishing anything from cover to cover.

    I am often a belief chameleon. I take on the beliefs of those around me and am limited in my defense of my own beliefs. I consider this a personality flaw that I need to work on.

  13. @ Earnest

    non-zero amount of truth?

    I like that pithy phrase

    but whatever grains of truth and false hope and comfort that woo provides

    isn’t enough to forgive the harms, the undermining of critical thinking across society

    it’s one thing when the psuedo-science is in it’s infancy and may be a productive inquiry line – it’s another when it’s been decades of debunking and still clung to by the desperate and hopeful

  14. Earnest

    @ Ntrygg:


    I wonder aloud what books are on your shelves?

  15. Earnest

    @ Ntrygg: Sorry, I just found them in the center of the first post. Interesting blend.

  16. @ Earnest

    I have 9 large Ikea bookcases through my house, so we have thousands of books, the major categories are

    Cookbooks (over 600)
    Elvis Presley (over 200 books)
    Film, TV production, analysis, fan books of particular programs/actors
    Queer/Lesbian/Sexuality/Gender Studies
    Science Fiction (over 600 classic pulp novels)
    English Literature & Poetry (norton anthology etc)
    Supernatural Rom Coms/Chick Lit
    Cartoon Strip books and other humour
    Arts n Crafts: Sewing, polymer clay, photography
    DIY: gardening, house reno/maintenance
    Reference: History, Desktop Publishing/Writing,

    I’ve just started purging my children’s books, since I don’t have any – but these are my childhood books – mostly animal and survival tales – King of the Wind, Call of the Wild, Gammage Cup

  17. rautakyy

    I also have metres of books. One whole room is my “library” with three walls covered from floor to sealing, and yes I have read almost every single one. I know people who buy books, with the intent on reading them some time in the future, but never do.

    Most of my books are about history research and archeology. I have some classic novels, but majority of my fictional books are sci-fi or fantasy. (Not generic fantasy or “space opera”, mind you.) And I also own a large collection of mainly European graphic novels. (No superheroes.)

    The history books alone give such a many contradicting views on historical events, that they require the reader to form an opinion by one self. They challenge what one thinks as true over and over again. But of course like with religions it would be possible to just pick the first one offered and defend it to the bitter end regardless of contradicting evidence.

    I think here lies the difference between true scientific world view and beliefs. Scientific world view is open to numerous possibilities, while a believer always chooses the one supporting the faith. In science the truth is not presupposed, but the most likely explanation within examinable knowledge is enough, before someone comes up with a better explanation.

  18. I was fortunate enough to live around Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon for much of my life. I still make pilgrimage there when in town. It’s amazing to compare the size of various sections… The skepticism shelf is a tiny appendix to the colon of metaphysics. Metaphysics is just hovering at the edge of the cesspool of religion. Alternative medicine seems to take as much space as scientific medicine. Buddhism dwarfs Taoism. Seeing what makes it to the rare book cases is also informative…

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