Category Archives: Critical Thinking

Beliefs: truth vs function

Don-Quixote-WindmillFaulty thinking feeds not only religious thinking, but also thinking on medicine, politics, linguistics and more. How should we approach faulty thinking?  Charging at the faulty logic of someone’s particular beliefs is one approach. But if this is one’s only approach, then ironically their understanding of the human mind and human behavior may be faulty. Rationality crusaders may have false beliefs about human behavior.

Yes, improving logic and knowledge (education) has been shown to decrease superstitious religion. Yet highly educated people still consume bad thinking. Well, I do, how about you?  Faulty thinking thrives even in educated, prosperous countries.  So it appears that faulty thinking may have benefits for which otherwise educated people are willing to sacrifice rationality.  So, to attack wrong beliefs as if they were mere stupidity is to misunderstand how people use beliefs.

truth_functionBesides frontal attacks on wrong beliefs, a better strategy can sometimes be created by understanding a faulty idea’s function: how an idea serves people rather than just the truth of the idea. Since all thoughts are tied to emotions, ideas and beliefs are far more than just cognitive truth maps. Ideas, even when they are false can still offer hope, comfort, inspiration and more. Watch people buy lottery tickets, suck up infomercials, sign up for pyramid schemes, run to healing services.

Today I read Steven Novella’s blog “Science-Based Medicine” which is devoted to fighting ineffective medicines pushed in the supplement and alternative medicine industries which he cleverly labels with the pejorative acronym: “SCAM” (supplements and complementary and alternative medicine). In today’s post Steven wondered if he needs to develop a new strategy for fighting SCAM.

“My perspective of most SCAM has been focused on the truth and reality of their claims, but truth and reality have little to do with advertising…”

“The tools of rational thought and science may not be the best approach for a industry, SCAM, that is based advertising. I need a different perspective to analyze SCAM, that of the psychology of desire. Not why people believe weird things, but why they buy weird things.”

Japanese newspaper clipping of Sabio doing acupuncture.

Japanese newspaper coverage of Sabio doing Acupuncture: “Look at the foreigner!”

Please remember that I am an ex-practitioner of both Oriental Medicine and Homeopathy. This post is not intended to discuss the merits or shortcomings of either alternative nor orthodox medicine.

Whether it is religion, medicine, politics or investments, in order to change people’s faulty behavior, rather than focusing on their illogical, irrational, inconsistent and faulty beliefs, it is sometimes more effective to understand how people actually think-feel-act.

Often, more effective than surgically isolating a person’s belief from their life and arguing against its irrationality, sometimes it is more important to understand how their faulty thinking serves them. Rather than relentlessly hammer on the thoughts you think people should have or should not have, it may be helpful to understand how their beliefs actually work in their lives.

This post is part of a series on the nature of belief.


Filed under Critical Thinking

Circling the Wagons: A Dialogue Challenge

I have had a recent encounter with two different bloggers (one Christian and one Buddhist) that reflect a common obstacle to dialogue. Let’s call it “Circling the Wagons”.

When someone outside a group makes a critical statement about some key word or concept used by that group, a group member may run to inordinate defense of that word. “Inordinate” in that they give a full-blown whole-package defense instead of admitting that controversy on the issue exists even within the group or that they themselves have debated the issue.   Not only that, but they then pull together everything in the group and defend it as if it is a whole package. Heck, they may even defend other sects within their larger group which they may normally criticize.

Group members are more comfortable discussing doubt and controversy within their group. So if someone is perceived as outside the group, criticism can be perceived as full-go attacks and the wagons are circled to be sure to keep the enemy totally out.

Imagine the following triggers that may cause the wagons to circle:

  • Buddhism –> Merit, Enlightment, Mindfulness
  • Christianity –> Faith, Miracles, Religion
  • Americans –> Patriotism, Freedom
  • Clevelanders –> Lake Erie, Football

To avoid this unproductive block in communication, the outsider can try establish trust with the listener — this takes time and hard to do in the blog world without facial expressions and tone of voice. The Insider, on the other hand, can improve dialogue by recognizing this reflex and allowing more vulnerability, gentleness and openness–not that I am good at that. 😦

Questions for readers:

  • Can you give other examples of other key words for certain groups that trigger the “Circling of the Wagons”.
  • What are other solutions to this unproductive block in relationship that you have tried?


  • Laager: another term for “Circle the Wagons”


Filed under Blogging, Critical Thinking

How Unique is Your Religion?

In my post entitled “We aren’t a religion“, I tried to illustrate how this phrase is used by some folks to, somewhat deceptively, declare themselves to be unique.  A Christian commentor then claimed just that: “Christianity is unique.”  I started debating with him but thought about critical questions that may be best to answer before continuing.  Deciding how unique Christianity or any religion is, comes with several problems to address before even trying to delineate what traits do or don’t make something unique:

  1. What is the definition of unique?
  2. Why are we having the discussion?
  3. Even if it were unique, why should we care?  Is uniqueness a virtue?

Below is a diagram addressing only the first question.  I illustrate 5 possible “uniqueness-positions” on the graph but here are an infinite number of possible curves, of course.  To aid in dialogue, I am OK with negotiating the meanings of abstract words like “unique” — I do not hold a Platonic view of language.

Questions for Readers:

  • Which curve is closest to Christianity, Islam or Buddhism — give us your thoughts.
  • Does this graph help you see some of the inherent issues behind uniqueness?
  • Is declaring one’s religion unique an empirical claim or an emotional claim?  (oooops, that is point #2 above)


Filed under Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

“Why I” Delusions

We all have dozens of “Why I …” stories which we use to repeatedly explain who we are.  We become secure in these stories as people have nodded to them in agreement over the years.  Here are just a few examples of “Why I” scenarios for which a person may have wonderful stories to explain away:

  • Why I am shy
  • Why I am afraid of spiders
  • Why I take charge in most situations
  • Why I don’t like my food mixed
  • Why I like slow movies
  • Why I don’t like country music
  • Why I think it is important to be neat
  • Why I think it is important to state your opinion strongly
  • Why I think we should guard other people’s feelings
  • Why I think logic is so important
  • Why I am suspicious of others
  • Why I feel we should learn to trust people

But with a little introspection, it becomes clear that many of our “Why I” stories are false.  To illustrate the potential self-delusion on such explanations, let me give an example from the famous 1990 Minnesota Twin Family Study.  Part of the study examined identical twins who were separated at birth and raised in different families so as to help tease out the role of genetics and environment in trait development.  One trait they examined was “fastidiousness”–how neat and organized a person is.  Here is a case study:

Two twin boys were adopted out to different families and never had communication with each other.  Both of the boys (now adults) were fanatically fastidious.  When asked to explain their fastidiousness, their “Why I …” explanations varied immensely:

Boy 1: “It is obvious.  Just look at the parents who raised me — they are sloppy pigs.  I became fastidious to compensate for all the messy chaos in my life.”

Boy 2: “It is obvious.  Just look at the parents who raise me — they are neat freaks.  I simply imitate them until it is now my habit too.

Question to Readers:  Can you share a “Why I …” story that your brain fabricated for you but that you now realize is contrivance to explain basic inborn traits?


  • I understand that personality theories which look at traits are fraught with challenges.  But this example has been useful to me in understand my own mind and those of others.
  • I wrote that many of our “Why I …” stories are false but I wanted to say “most” and another part of me wanted to say they are “ALL” are false.  But I was modest in my claim in order to appear reasonable to my readers and to assure that they stay open to the possibility that some of their self-stories are false.  😉
  • I considered “Our Bull***t” as the title for this post, but decided to keep it kid friendly.


Filed under Cognitive Science, Critical Thinking

The Obstacle of Common Sense

Common sense is often our enemy.  Our intuitions often blind us.  Yes, I am aware of recent popular books pointing out the values of these unconscious heuristics in terms of their speed, and their uncanny accuracy, but intuition also has its dark side.  In this post I want to illustrate the dark side using three areas where common sense opinions can comfortably delude us: economics, language & religion.


Yesterday, “Overcoming Bias‘s Robin Hanson gave us Americans a badly needed taste of economic hopefulness.  Click on the graph below to see how the USA has significantly better ratings for firm management than most other countries.

Hanson’s article goes further with lots of other important economic facts.  Yes, I know, this sort of gives away some of my political leanings.  I know that politics and economics is very divisive and I absolutely don’t want a thread to develop on economics or politics.  But I do want to say that I feel a big problem with economics is that everyone has an opinion about it — and those opinions are largely based on intuitions.  And unfortunately, large scale economic systems are so complex, that common-sense intuitions are usually wrong.  In fact, Robin Hanson (a CMU professor of economics) has an earlier post (“Ignorance about Intuitions“)  discussing the complexity of intuition.

Robin Hanson

In that post, Hanson contrasts his image of beliefs with his intellectual boxing partner Byran Caplan.

We find ourselves managing complex networks of beliefs. Bryan’s picture seems to be of a long metal chain linked at only one end to a solid foundation; chains of reasoning mainly introduce errors, so we do best to find and hold close to our few most confident intuitions.  My picture is more like Quine‘s “fabric,” a large hammock made of string tied to hundreds of leaves of invisible trees; we can’t trust each leaf much, but even so we can stay aloft by connecting each piece of string to many others and continually checking for and repairing broken strings.

It was fun to read this paragraph because it is exactly how I envision my web of beliefs.  And it is for this reason that I have named my blog “Triangulations”.   Hanson does a good job showing his cautious use of intuition and hints at methodologies to check it.

On the blogs of both believer and non-believer we see people arguing positions based on their intuitions.  “Pooling of Ignorance” is one of our favorite habits.  It is, however, important to realize the limits of our intuitions — be you an Atheist, a Christian and any other opinionated person (ie., all of us).

You see, since people tend to deal with economic issues daily in their practical life, they also tend to have strong opinions about economics even thought they may have not studied the various differing views of economics.  “After all,” they may think, “I do it every day and I am successful.  How wrong can I be?”  But we can be surprisingly wrong about our opinions and still very successful or happy.  Similar to economics, language and religion are areas we form opinions because we have encountered and made decisions about them our whole lives.  Yet, could our common sense opinions be wrong?


Steven Pinker shows how our intuitions about something as simple as language can be very wrong.  I love the following opening in Pinker’s book.  His paragraph ensnared me and then challenged me and I had to finish the book.

Most educated people already have opinions about language. They know that it is man’s most important cultural invention, the quintessential example of his capacity to use symbols, and a biologically unprecedented event irrevocably separating him from other animals.  They know that language pervades thought, with different languages causing their speakers to construe reality in different ways.  They know that children learn to talk from role models and caregivers.  They know that grammatical sophistication used to be nurtured in the schools, but sagging educational standards and the debasement of popular culture have led to frightening decline in the ability of the average person to construct a grammatical sentence.  …..

Steven Pinker

In the pages that follow, I will try to convince you that every one of these common opinions is wrong!

Steven Pinker (Cognitive Scientist: “The Language Instinct: How the mind creates Language“, 1994 , pg 17-18)

The rest of Pinker’s book does a superb job illustrating and arguing his points.  In my next post I will explore one of these false language intuitions.


Pascal Boyer opens his book with a similar observation about the obstacle common sense notions have set up for his research in religion.

What is the origin of religious ideas?  Why is it that we can find them wherever we go and it would seem, as far back in the past as we can see?  The best place to start is with our spontaneous, commonsense answers to the question of origins.  Everybody seems to have some intuition about the origins of religion.  Indeed, psychologists and anthropologists who like me study how mental processes create relion face the minor occupational hazard of constantly runn

ing into people who think that they already have a perfectly adequate solution to the problem.  They are often quite willing to impart their wisdom and sometimes imply that further work on this question is, if not altogether furtile, at least certainly undemanding.  If you say “I use genetic algorithms to produce computationally efficient cellular automata,” people se quite clearly that doing that kind of thing probably requires some effort.

Pascal Boyer

But tell them that you are in the business of “explaining religion,” they often do not see what is so complicated or difficult about it.  Most people have some idea of why there is religion, what religion gives people, why they are sometimes so strongly attached to their religious beliefs, and so on.  These common intuitions offer a real Chanllenge.  Obviously, if they are sufficient, there is no point in having a complex theory of religion.  If as I am afraid is more likely, they are less than perfect, then our new account should be at least as good as the intuitions it is supposed to replace.

Most accounts of the origins of religion emphasize one of the following suggestions:  human minds demand explanations, human hearts seek comfort, human society requires order, human intellect is illusion-prone. …  Discussing each of the common intuitions in more  detail, we will see that they all fail to tell us why we have religion and why it is it the way it is.

Pascal Boyer (Anthropologist: “Religion Explained: The evolutionary origins of religious thought“,  2001,  pg 4-5)

I thought putting these three examples together would make an interesting illustration of how our everyday experiences trick us into intuitions that may be inaccurate and stubborn. Today I briefly touched on economics, religion and language but there are many other areas like sex, politics and self to mention a few.  My experience has been that none of us are exempt from the hypnotic voice of intuition.  I will end with this quote:

Richard Feynman

“The first principle is that you must not fool yourself–and you are the easiest person to fool.”

Richard Feynman (Physicist, Caltech commencement address, 1974)

Questions for readers:

  • Have you ever altered one of your common sense intuitions?
  • What common sense intuition of other people (besides religion) is an obstacle for you?


Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion, Politics

Comparative Studies Insights

The  Mahābhārata is written in Sanskrit.  For millennium, Hindus have claimed that Sanskrit is a  unique, sacred, and magically powerful language. I heard this claim over and over again in India and in Ashrams in this country. But is Sanskrit really unique, so special, and so precious?  After all, it is a dead language.

Most cultures view their languages this way.  I recently heard an NPR show about the Hopi language and how the Hopi have a prophecy that when their language is no longer spoken, the world will end. But, and I know this is not politically correct, I think the Hopi language will die just like Sanskrit did and the world will continue. Languages are not sacred !

Indo-European Language Tree

I have personally seen this “my-language-is-special-and-unique” attitude among speakers of Japanese, Arabic, Chinese, and Hebrew.  Human arrogance about what is special to them is universal.

That which is dear to us is sacred.  By sacred, I mean it is not open to negotiation and thus guarded with all the unconscious intellectual vigor our brains can muster.  For many, these guarded sacred items include our nation, our tribe, our religion and our language.

We often see that naive mono-linguists think their language is unique in its ability to express deep thoughts. Well of course they do — they have never mastered another language.  A good way to cure this parochial blindness is to do comparative studies.  Using comparative linguistics researchers have learned more about the very nature of language than by studying any one language in depth.

Comparative Embryology

Likewise, we started learning much more biology when we started doing comparative biology.  Likewise, studying comparative government can open the eyes of a person about the nature of government more than by just studying all the historical details of their own government.

I feel that religious folks who have never thoroughly understood another religion are handicapped in a similar way to mono-linguists.  And no matter how deep they dive into their religion, no matter how thoroughly they know their religious history, their scriptures original language(s) or the intricacies of their religion’s theologies, it will be the rare person who will see the deep patterns of all human religious thought.  It is by comparative religious studies that people can see how much their religion shares with other religions.  Doing comparative studies helps people to see the nature of human hearts which generates their faiths.

Comparative Anatomy

So instead of trying to argue the inconsistencies of the Bible, the inaccuracies of the archeology and history,  the bigotry of many doctrines and the subtle philosophical arguments, why not encourage comparative studies of religion.  Through this people can see what they share with others.  This will set up a cognitive dissonance between that insight and their religious teaching that their religion is unique, special and superior.  This may tip the scale for that person becoming more inclusive in their religious thinking.  And moving toward inclusivness is a huge step.

Do you have experiences where comparative studies opened your eyes?

Related Posts:
1) The Mahabharata Series : posts on the famous Hindu epic
2) The Original Source Mystique:  on the misuse of the Bible’s original languages


Filed under Critical Thinking, Linquistics, Philosophy & Religion, Political Philosophy

Traffic Light Epistemology

Let me playfully illustrate one way I think about my beliefs — a multivalent traffic light.

Most people have very simple and wrong notions of beliefs. Indeed, much of religious thinking is based on these mistaken notions of belief.  Sometimes, rather than arguing religious doctrines, I find it most productive to just illustrate this “common sense” mistaken notion of beliefs.  Indeed, wrong views of belief can affect politics, sex and much more.

So, contrary to the common view of belief, I have come to see that:

  • on any given issue, we can hold multiple contrary beliefs
  • we use exchange our beliefs depending on which of our many-selves we are fluxing between
  • beliefs and emotions are always bound together. no belief is free of emotions
  • beliefs are not as simple as “yes” or “no”

So though I find the notion of “belief” problematic at a deep level, when I do think of beliefs or stances using my points above, I also like to think of them as having at least four possible levels of commitment. I visualize each belief as having 4-colored traffic light attached to it.  The color lit on a light indicates our level of commitment to that belief.

  • Green:   Committed (little doubt)
  • Red:   Rejected (little doubt)
  • Yellow:  Doubted
  • Grey: Suspended from consideration

Grey light beliefs are more common than we imagine.  We put things in the grey light category because believing or disbelieving in them gives us so many perceived benefits that we have decided to protect them from scrutiny. With grey light objects we may have many doubts but we are not questioning the belief.  I wrote a short post once on how my son did this with the Tooth Fairy call “Sacrificing Rationality“.  I recently talked with a friend who did this with a relationship he was in. Grey lights permeate our mental geography.

And to make the model more cumbersome (but more accurate), I actually visualize 3 other variant lights in my traffice light model.

Something we doubt but we are leaning toward believing.

Something we doubt and we are considering rejecting.

A Grey Light (suspended doubt) that we are now considering to start doubting.

I find this lay (not professional) epistemology of mine to be helpful in thinking about both my own and others’ beliefs.  How about you?  What is your model of beliefs?



Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

The Evangelism Cure

Peter Rollins
I just read an excellent article by Peter Rollins called “Evangelism will change the world“.   Where Pete challenges his Christian readers (and others) to be evangelized instead of the normal call to go out and evangelize.  Peter is a unique liberal Christian from Ireland and now moved to the USA.  Probably many Christians would not consider him to be Christian — as if we care.  His philosophy/theology is highly influenced by Slovoj Žižek, a Slovenian Hegelian philosopher.  I linked articles if you are interested.

I agree wholeheartedly with Peter’s article.  Reading those with whom we have islands or even continents of disagreement can benefit us if we are open to it.  Maintaining such an open heart without turning off discernment is a difficult challenge — but a challenge that makes me feel vibrantly alive.

Examples would be:

  1. The value of vaccine resistors to our vaccine methods
  2. Studies of Chiropractor’s doctors office methods have improved alopathic doctor office practices
  3. Atheists dialoging with Theists


Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

Changing your beliefs

The posed the question:

What have you changed your mind about?  And why?

Self-introspection and confessions of change are very useful.  Before listing some of confessions of the great thinkers at The Edge, let me confess some of my own changes of belief over the years:

  • Acupuncture is an amazingly powerful medical treatment –> NOT
  • Homeopathy works –> NOT
  • Christianity is the answer and Jesus is the way –> NOT
  • Marxism is the answer for the world –> NOT
  • Belief is an all or nothing thing –> NOT

If you get a chance below, please tell us what you use to believe but don’t now.

Now for the Greats !  Hopefully some will want to go to the site and read the details:

  • Memory is stored once –> Memory is constantly recreated.
    Joseph LeDoux, neuroscientist
  • Analogies can explain anything –> NOT
    Piet Hut, astrophysics
  • Perception is useful to the extent it is veridical –> Perception is useful because it is NOT veridical
    Donald Hoffman, cognitive scientist
  • Cultural relativist –> NOT
    Timothy Taylor, archaeologist
  • Mathematical Platonist –> NOT
    Keith Devlin, mathematician
  • Newborns are blank slates –> NOT;  Sexual Orientation is natural –> NOT
    David G. Myers, social psychologist
  • Adult brain does not make new neurons –> Does too !
    Robert Sapolshy, neuroscientist
  • The machinery that allows humans to learn language is “special” –> NOT
    —  Gary Marucs, psychologist
  • Quantum reality is timeless –> Time is real
    Lee Smolin, physicist
  • Science guaranteed ethical behavior  –> NOT
    Ken Ford, physicist
  • Sex Differences are socially constructed –> True but biology is huge
    Diane Halpern, Psychologist
  • Laws of physics are immutable –> NOT
    Paul Davies, physicist
  • Rational thinking would eventual eradicate irrational thinking and supernatural beliefs –> NOT
    Marco Iacoboni, neuroscientist
  • Skepticism is primarily an intellectual virtue, whose goal was truth –> Nope, it is used as a weapon
    Rupert Sheldrake, biologist
  • I once trusted in the wisdom of Nature  –> Mother Nature is not our Friend
    Sam Harris, neuroscience
  • Scientific literature is respected and builds  –> New scientific ideas can be smothered with silence
    Robart Shapiro, chemist
  • I should trust the consensus of experts in disciplines outside my area of expertise  –> Much of scientific opinion and even more of medical opinion fall into the murky area circumscribed by a lack of adequate knowledge about the processes at hand.
    Paul Ewald, biologist
  • I use to believe and prove the Paranormal  –> Now I prove it false
    Susan Blackmore, psychologist
  • I used to believe that you could find out what is true by finding the smartest people and finding out what they think.  –> However, the most brilliant people keep turning out to be wrong.
    Randolph Nesse, psychiatrist

Note:  This is only a partial list stripped of their interesting essays. Here is a link to the book version if you don’t like reading on-line.  The Edge has also written on other questions — see here.   My previous post lists samples of answers to the question, “What do I believe that I can not prove?”.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion

Sympathetic Atheists

Lotus flower

69% of visitors (as of 12/2013)
are Sympathetic Atheists

Sympathy:  Greek etymology:  “syn” = together + “pathos” = feeling.

“Sympathetic Atheists” are Atheists who value of community, moral culture, and reflective living just like Theists do.  Further, Sympathetic Atheists acknowledge that religion can indeed do well to encourage these values.  Thus Sympathetic Atheists do not see religion as totaly bad and do not berate religion or its believers in a blanket manner.

However, though we are sympathetic with religion in these shared values, we remain critical of many of the specific doctrines and beliefs of Theists.   Thus, though Sympathetic Atheists feel religion can serve good purposes if used well, they also strongly realize that religion can serve terrible purposes if used poorly.  Sympathetic Atheists try to avoid unfocused criticism of religion as a whole.

Tell us what you feel about the category of “Sympathetic Atheist”:

Feel free to add your name in the comments if you consider yourself a sympathetic atheist.  Below are more specifics on how I think about religion.

My sympathetic views on religions:

  • Not all practice of religion is wrong
  • I try hard not to criticize religion in general but try to remain focused and specific in my criticisms.
  • Religion can (but is not always) used well to:
    • Nurture community
    • Encourage reflective living
    • Encourage moral living
    • Offer comfort
    • Can offer rich metaphors to serve the above functions

My critical views on religions:

  • I strongly support the criticism and resistance to many religious beliefs and practices.
    • However, we must be careful to criticize the specifics of a religion and not generalize.
    • And we must be careful to criticize the idea and not the person.
  • I am outraged by many religious beliefs and actions: well delineated on other sites.
  • I believe Atheists should speak out loudly again these beliefs and actions when possible.
  • I feel atheist are often oppressed and feel sympathy with religious people who are oppressed when they are harming no one.

My Atheism:

  • I do not believe in any gods (definition of atheist)
  • I do not believe in ghosts, spirits, angels, demons or the like.
  • I hold a naturalistic view of the world
  • I strongly value the scientific method

My Atheist “confessions”:

  • I have beliefs which I can not prove
  • Many of my beliefs and attitudes were obtained through trust (aka:”faith”)
  • I make many irrational decisions
  • I am often deceived by my own mind
  • I act against my own moral values, probably more than I imagine
  • There is far more that I do not understand than I do understand
  • The world holds many wonders for me
  • I can be lonely, sad, fearful, proud, angry and slothful like all other humans

Books by Sympathetic Atheists:

Confirmed Sympathetic Atheists:

Probable Sympathetic Atheists:


See other “Word!” posts, here.


Filed under Critical Thinking, Philosophy & Religion