Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Thinking Christian on why Muslims convert to Christianity

Apparently it has something to do with seeing God work miracles, at least in many cases. We had some discussion of present-day miracles several months ago here.

22 comments:

Doctor Logic said...

Apparently, there's a big witch problem over in Africa, too.

http://www.religioustolerance.org/wic_afri.htm

"The Commission issued a report in 1996-MAY which showed that thousands of people had been accused of witchcraft, run out of town and lost their property. More than 300 had been killed by vigilante mobs over the previous ten years. The victims were accused of "shape-shifting" themselves from human form into bats and birds, of converting people into zombies, and of causing death by calling down lightning or through the use of toxic medicines."

/SARCASM

I point my finger in ridicule at people who propagate these bullshit stories of the supernatural.

If you've got magic, prove it, or shut up. Cos it's just so easy to say there's magic but it's the kind of magic that can't be seen in a test that compensates for human bias. Theists lose all their credibility when they come out to bat for this sort of junk.

GREV said...

And I think of the story one of my professors told of flying to London, and conversing with a chemist while enroute. The chemist was Oxford educated, born in a West African nation.

Flying home to fulfill his duty of performing an ancestor worship rite and telling my professor that you in the West are Fools for thinking that the supernatural does not exist.

Careful about the finger pointing.

JS Allen said...

@DL - The article wasn't attempting to propagate stories of the supernatural. It was reporting a factual matter; that some significant fraction of Muslim converts to Christianity *believe* that they were supernaturally prompted to convert.

Whether we are as credulous of these self-reported supernatural events as the TC authors, the survey results are interesting. Saying, "prove it or shut up" seems to be missing the point.

There is an interesting discussion that could be had about naturalistic explanations for the survey results. For example, leaving Islam can carry a very high price, so one wouldn't expect people to do it on a whim. So naturally, people who hear voices will be more heavily represented in the ranks of converts, and people who *don't* hear voices would have an incentive to tell stories about supernatural events to explain their deconversion to friends and family.

In addition, the personal nature of Christianity and Islam make it more likely that voices would be used as rationalization. In contrast, I doubt that many Muslim converts to Buddhism heard voices telling them to become Buddhist.

Not that I believe any of these naturalistic explanations.

Doctor Logic said...

@GREV,

Why did your professor tell that story?

I have an idea...


@JS,

I'd like to accept your point, but I really can't. This post is here because a lot of so-called Christian philosophers are superstitious. Victor may not be superstitious, and if he isn't, he's probably (justifiably) making fun of those who are.

I've found that a few Christians on these blogs believe that their prayers are answered, and that people are healed by God. It's not easy to extract this admission from them, so I expect the number of superstitious Christian apologists is significant.

There's nothing a priori wrong with beliefs in supernatural effects. The problem is when they also believe the juju doesn't work if they try to compensate for their own bias. They think that if we're careful to count the misses along with the hits, the effect goes away.

Can you imagine a logician coming out in favor of a theorem, but claiming the complex proof for the theorem can't be validated if you try to check your work by, say, carefully writing the proof down on paper and checking your steps? Would we take that person seriously? No. We would ridicule him.

Human cognitive biases are just like logical fallacies. It's the responsibility of every serious thinker to take them into account.

Some Christian thinkers firmly believe God intervenes in their personal lives (and in specific instances of this), but that this intervention would go away or be found to be naturally-caused if we try to check that we're not succumbing to our own biases (by doing blind testing, for example).

There's zero intellectual integrity in being superstitious (i.e., counting the hits and ignoring the misses, ignoring the possibility of coincidence, failing to establish blind testing, etc.).

The finger-pointing will continue.

JS Allen said...

@DL - I get your point, and largely agree. I know that you're personally concerned about the superstition exhibited by certain Christian philosopher, but I still think you're launching off on a bit of a tangent.

The article was about the superstitions of *Muslims*, which led them to become Christian. That's an interesting topic, which is largely orthogonal to your comments.

Superstition isn't the exclusive domain of any religion, nor of religion in general. In my experience, atheists are just as superstitious as anyone else. They just express their superstition differently.

FWIW, I tend to agree with Spinoza and Voltaire in saying that the word "supernatural" is incoherent. I don't think the concept of "supernatural" makes any sense at all. Everything is natural.

But I think it's absurd for people to explain away every unexplainable occurrence by appealing to coincidence or cognitive bias. Doing so is as clear a case of confirmation bias as can be made. It's indulging in "science of the gaps". Some of these cases may be coincidence, some may be cognitive bias, some may be deliberate deception, and some may be organic mental defect. But we can't say that *all* can be explained with current naturalistic explanations.

Doctor Logic said...

@JS,

I agree that skepticism can become pathological, and I've seen it with my own eyes. I don't think I'm pathological about it, and I work to counteract that tendency in others.

But that's not what I'm talking about in this context. Human cognitive bias creates noise. The superstitious theists think there's a signal in the noise, but only if you DON'T reduce the noise to the point of isolating the signal.

In every recent case where the noise has been controlled, the paranormal disappears. So we know that cognitive bias accounts for the vast majority of paranormal claims. We also know that the noise level is so high that paranormal claims require extraordinary evidence. Advocates for the paranormal reject this demand for extraordinary evidence because the only way to protect their beliefs is to not look too closely at what's really going on.

I'm not saying that we have a complete handle on all the forces at work. There could be new and unknown forces. I'm saying that we know that cognitive bias is the major force, and if you want to make a case, you have to suppress the noise.

The argument that the supernatural effect is there only when you don't check is what I'm complaining about.

Apart from that, I'm kinda with you on the meaning of the term supernatural. Most people here define supernatural to mean non-physical, which is problematic.

I like to define natural as lawful, or necessitated by past states of affairs. However, even this definition allows for supernatural effects. These would be facts that are not predicted by any other facts (brute facts), and are, therefore, inexplicable. I think such facts probably exist, but they can't explain anything.

JS Allen said...


The argument that the supernatural effect is there only when you don't check is what I'm complaining about.


People who claim to have premonitions that come true (as in several examples from the article), will often claim that excessive skepticism would cause them to become blind to premonitions. Is this what you're talking about?

If so, it's interesting, because disconfirmation bias is a form of confirmation bias, and it's entirely plausible that it could cut both ways.

The scientific method is institutionalized disconfirmation bias, which seems to work fine for studying the physical world, but not for cognitive things. Imagine disconfirmation bias in a romantic relationship, for example, and you end up with Othello. Thankfully, I don't see too many scientists crusading against the unscientific and superstitious existence of credulity in romantic relationships.


These would be facts that are not predicted by any other facts (brute facts), and are, therefore, inexplicable. I think such facts probably exist, but they can't explain anything.


Can you elaborate on this? It's obviously true that there will be many facts that *we* will never be able to predict with our best technology, but all facts would certainly be deterministically caused, right? (Or, at the quantum level, statistically predictable, at a minimum)

In a naturalistic universe, where everything is predetermined, doesn't that mean that everything is a coincidence?

Doctor Logic said...

@JS,

Your response suggests that you're confusing disconfirmation with disconfirmation bias.

Disconfirmation bias is when you ignore data that confirms a theory, and count only the data that disconfirms it. Scientific experiments don't do this, but are instead focused on a fair weighting of data that's neutral with respect to confirmation or disconfirmation.

So I cannot agree that science is institutionalized disconfirmation bias. It's probably not even institutionalized disconfirmation.

I also strongly disagree with your statement that science doesn't work for cognitive things. Confirmation or disconfirmation biases don't work for anything, but, again, science isn't about bias. It's about the elimination of bias.

The example you cite is love. If I have disconfirmation bias, then I do get Othello. If I have confirmation bias, I get Miss Piggy. But normal people either (a) are not interested in the answer, or (b) deliberately try to be unbiased. If my date doesn't show up, that goes in the negative column. If she brings me bacon, that goes in the plus column, etc.

I think an argument could be made for being biased with respect to love, i.e., both parties should have confirmation bias, because that amplifies the relationship like a self-fulfilling prophesy. And this is one reason people say love is blind. But if the question is, "Does this person love me?" a scientific approach is clearly best, i.e., being diligent in collection of statistics, and careful to compare with various norms or standards.

Doctor Logic said...

Can you elaborate on this? It's obviously true that there will be many facts that *we* will never be able to predict with our best technology, but all facts would certainly be deterministically caused, right? (Or, at the quantum level, statistically predictable, at a minimum)

First, I think there are no non-predictive explanations. Anything that is non-predictive is at best a restatement of the data. If I sample a group of 10 people for height, and find that 7 out of the 10 are under 6 feet tall, I can't say that I have explained my data because 70% of sampled people are under 6 feet tall. It might be helpful to restate data in this way, but it doesn't explain it. An explanation is in the form of a generality, e.g., "70% of ANY random sample of people will be under 6 feet tall." And this kind of thing always makes predictions (interpolations or extrapolations).

I consider a natural explanation to be a predictive one. Natural does not mean non-physical. So, God could be an explanation all sorts of things if we had a predictive theory of what God would do (which, of course, we don't).

Okay, so we have the laws of the universe. Take as a premise that we possess the complete set of these laws L = {L1, L2,... Ln}. Nothing can explain L. If there were some other regularity, Lx, that could predict L, it would already be in the set. In other words, there can be no explanation for the sum of all laws in the universe. There can be no explanation for why there is something rather than nothing, because the explanation would be another something.

In my book, I would call brute facts like L supernatural. Calling it supernatural doesn't explain L. Indeed, supernatural is a synonym for inexplicable.

I also suspect that some physical events are supernatural. Radioactive decays are a good example. Again, calling it supernatural doesn't really do anything. Any ontologically random event is supernatural, and vice versa.

In a naturalistic universe, where everything is predetermined, doesn't that mean that everything is a coincidence?

Hmm. I think coincidence means that two effects have independent mechanisms (or lines) of causation. And then this goes to defining what a mechanism or line of causation consists of. Usually, lines of causation are drawn such that that we use the nearness of the two events to learn something about the line of causation by the presence of the other event.

I would say that coincidence still exists, because the usage would be the same. Barring that, I would say that there are no coincidences in a purely (non-random) deterministic universe.

JS Allen said...

By "disconfirmation bias", I just mean that science seeks out and highly values trials which have the best chance of falsifying our hypotheses. Only when all of our best attempts at falsification have failed, do we consider something to be scientific fact.

That's clearly disastrous in romantic relationships. I agree with you that we tend to exercise more balanced judgment, appeal to norms, and so on; when it comes to cognitive matters. The people who attempt to validate their partner's love through repeated attempts at falsification, are rightly judged pathological.

JS Allen said...

OK, I understand what you mean by "unexplainable" now. I was just making sure that you weren't talking about true randomness or uncaused events on the level that we deal with.

I agree with your usage of the word coincidence. I was just getting at the fact that humans have evolved to be prediction-making machines. I'm thinking of the comparison between two cases:

A) You watch the trajectory of the pitcher's arm, mentally visualize where the ball is going to be, and swing your bat to connect with it.

B) An African woman has a dream about white missionaries coming to visit on a boat, and white missionaries arrive the next day.

We're comfortable accepting the first one, but not the second one. Obviously, there are some good reasons why. But from a purely naturalistic standpoint, the second event was no less predetermined than the first.

Additionally, the fact that we kick in and predict where the ball is going to be, is just as predetermined as the fact that the ball goes there. The two coincide, and we note that the two causal chains are linked from the moment the pitcher's arm begins to swing, up until a fraction of a second after the ball releases. Because of this obvious and indisputable linkage, we don't call it a "coincidence".

The fact that we demote example "B" to the status of "coincidence" (assuming we've ruled out other plausible explanations), seems somewhat arbitrary to me. Her dream and the visitors were both predestined, and apparently coincide. But the fact that we don't perceive any obvious linkage in the causal chains does not mean that there were none.

GREV said...

Well Doc,

I would suggest that your finger pointing continues to get you into trouble for your persistence it seems in equating the seen and the unseen. For your insistence it seems that the human mind can ultimately understand and decipher what knowledge might be needed to understand the consciousness that gives us life. I fundamentally disagree.

For suggesting that one can quantify and test the unseen. The nature of the unseen if it is real, from the outset militates against the use of theorems, tests and whatever we use to understand the seen.

Your starting point writes off the unseen more or less. And gives the seen as the only world worth contemplating.

I begin at a different starting point and your arguments seem strangely like Dawkins' ill timed and continued journeys into the world of religion.

A world he does not understand and further he does not seem to get that his arguments have been shown to be lacking.

I commend you for this .... Continue to demand that the seen world and information about how we understand this world be subject to rigorous methods. So, your comments about the logician while interesting does not bear on the discussion. Analogies break down at some point and yours does.

That which is wholly other, totally different from what it has created. He is not subject to such laws. Nor is the world He inhabits before there was this seen world.

Your dismissal of the superstitious stands as being what it is. A finger pointing that shows or demolishes nothing in that unseen world. Except for the obsession that some have of it and the way some misread what is completely natural in its operation.

I will allow these comments from Keith Ward to suffice for now:

“So do we have two certainties in direct conflict with one another? Yes, and more than two, though the others are not my concern here! The sense of paradox is eased when a clear distinction is made between theoretical and practical certainty, and when you see that some of the things you take to be theoretically certain are only so given the prior adoption of a more basic claim that is not theoretically certain. It is because Dawkins ii a materialist that he is certain there is no God. It is because I am an idealist (in the very broad sense of accepting consciousness or mind as the fundamental character of reality) that I am certain there is a God.

P. 147 of Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, Keith Ward.

GREV said...

2 Parts to this

Well Doc,

I would suggest that your finger pointing continues to get you into trouble for your persistence it seems in equating the seen and the unseen. For your insistence it seems that the human mind can ultimately understand and decipher what knowledge might be needed to understand the consciousness that gives us life. I fundamentally disagree.

For suggesting that one can quantify and test the unseen. The nature of the unseen if it is real, from the outset militates against the use of theorems, tests and whatever we use to understand the seen.

Your starting point writes off the unseen more or less. And gives the seen as the only world worth contemplating.

I begin at a different starting point and your arguments seem strangely like Dawkins' ill timed and continued journeys into the world of religion.

A world he does not understand and further he does not seem to get that his arguments have been shown to be lacking.

GREV said...

2nd Part

I commend you for this .... Continue to demand that the seen world and information about how we understand this world be subject to rigorous methods. So, your comments about the logician while interesting does not bear on the discussion. Analogies break down at some point and yours does.

That which is wholly other, totally different from what it has created. He is not subject to such laws. Nor is the world He inhabits before there was this seen world.

Your dismissal of the superstitious stands as being what it is. A finger pointing that shows or demolishes nothing in that unseen world. Except for the obsession that some have of it and the way some misread what is completely natural in its operation.

I will allow these comments from Keith Ward to suffice for now:

“So do we have two certainties in direct conflict with one another? Yes, and more than two, though the others are not my concern here! The sense of paradox is eased when a clear distinction is made between theoretical and practical certainty, and when you see that some of the things you take to be theoretically certain are only so given the prior adoption of a more basic claim that is not theoretically certain. It is because Dawkins ii a materialist that he is certain there is no God. It is because I am an idealist (in the very broad sense of accepting consciousness or mind as the fundamental character of reality) that I am certain there is a God.

P. 147 of Why There Almost Certainly Is a God, Keith Ward.

Doctor Logic said...

JS,

The fact that we demote example "B" to the status of "coincidence" (assuming we've ruled out other plausible explanations), seems somewhat arbitrary to me. Her dream and the visitors were both predestined, and apparently coincide. But the fact that we don't perceive any obvious linkage in the causal chains does not mean that there were none.

I think there's a huge difference.

Suppose that I ask you to anticipate which card you will pick from a shuffled deck. If you mentally pick out just one card, then your odds of being right are just 1 in 52. If you are ambivalent, and subconsciously pick out a rank, then your odds are 1 in 13. Now, if you only note your hits, you're going to seem psychic. The non-scientific methodology is almost guaranteed to result in your having delusions of being psychic.

The question is, how many dreams did the African woman have, over what period, and how specific were her dreams? Were her dreams independent of the facts? Perhaps she overheard a conversation about the arrival of missionaries in the area. Perhaps a lot of missionaries happen to visit the area. If she's only recording the hits, she must admit that she lacks evidence for her belief, or admit that her belief is delusional.

The same cannot be said of the baseball player. We don't regularly perceive baseballs being pitched at us from different sources (e.g., the mailman, our physician, our dog, etc.), and so we're not constantly swinging a bat. If we were constantly perceiving pitched baseballs, and constantly swinging our bat, but only connecting when we happen to be at home plate on a baseball diamond, then I think we would consider our baseball hits to be coincidental.

JS Allen said...

@DL - Yes, those are just some of the obvious and major differences between the two scenarios. There are others.

For example, one is dealing with predicting physics, and the other has a large cognitive component. The ball is concrete and hard to ignore, a dream is ephemeral and easy to forget. One happens rather immediately, the other happens after a period of time. With one, the opportunities for other "prediction machines" to interfere (as in Newcomb's paradox) is roughly nil, in the other, the opportunities are large.

We humans have evolved all sorts of capacities to predict the future with some accuracy, by utilizing information from our natural, material world. It's not just physics. For example, we can get pretty good at "mind reading" some incredibly complex cognitive states in others, after interacting enough. This sort of "mind reading" operates very differently from tracking a ball or guessing cards from a deck. We selectively remember some hits, and misses, but most of the time, it's completely subconscious. In fact, if you try to treat it like an experiment involving cards, you ends up like the kids with Asperger's. Even by the most deliberate effort, they can never approach the level of prediction-making proficiency that the rest of us have instinctively.

If I try to frame this logically, I think it goes like this:

P1) Humans have evolved the ability to make often-accurate predictions in multiple domains.
P2) The characteristics of each domain, and the mode of prediction, can vary significantly.
P3) In a world ruled by materialistic naturalism, all future events are theoretically predictable, given the right conditions.
P4) Reports of subjective experiences of predictive dreams are widespread throughout human history. However, the predictability and repeatability of any experiments is very poor.

C1) In a naturalistic world, it is not obviously impossible for humans to have evolved a capacity for visions that have some significant predictive ability.
C2) If humans evolved such a capability, it could differ dramatically in character from other predictive domains.

Most of the people I've talked to who self-report dreams and premonitions, did not seem credible to me. They seemed like liars or else mentally ill. But to dismiss *all* of the historical reports by reciting a handful of glib folk psychology tales, seems to me to be the worst kind of proof-texting and confirmation bias.

We seem very far from proving the impossibility of some limited capacity for predictive visions. And if we're going to consider the possibility, we need to do it by thinking about what it would be like if it were really true; how would it differ in character from other domains; and how does that match the reported data? Personally, I would not be surprised if we one day have a naturalistic explanation for predictive dreams that actually *were* predictive.

Doctor Logic said...

GREV,

You're being unreasonable.

There are some things we can sense quite directly. The Sun, the sky, tables, chairs, etc. Then there are unseen things that we can infer from what we see, like the machine that sends me my insurance bill, electrons, dark matter. Nothing I have said rules out the influence of the unseen nor inferring the existence and properties of the unseen. In fact, nothing is better than science at finding these unseen things.

What we are talking about is not the unseen, but about false positives and false negatives in our search for the unseen. The way to avoid false positives/negatives is to be statistically rigorous.

But that's not good enough for you because if you are diligent in your observations and record-keeping, you'll come up empty. You're so desperate to believe in God that you're willing to take false positives, but no false negatives. That's a recipe for wishful thinking - for believing what you want to believe, not what is true.

You're saying that if we use a rational, statistically responsible method for avoiding false positives (and negatives), we might assign some statistically-insignificant effects to known, physical sources instead of assigning them to God. SO WHAT?!! If we do the opposite, we're guaranteed to screw up and believe in stuff that isn't there. GUARANTEED! If you do that, and the alleged unseen thing doesn't exist, then you've tricked yourself into believing a lie. It's willful blindness and ignorance. People who do this are simply irrational.

It's not the scientific perspective that's closed-minded. It's so arrogant for you superstitious people to criticize us. We're being fair, open minded, rigorous and paying attention to false positives and negatives. You're accepting only evidence FOR your beliefs, and ignoring evidence AGAINST. You believe what you want to believe.

Even if God exists, what kind of God wants you to be irrational? What kind of God wants you to fool yourself?

DL said...

Doctor Logic: It's so arrogant for you superstitious people to criticize us.

Um, no irony there.... Oh well, your insistence against not recording only the "hits", while at the same time disregarding any evidence that doesn't confirm your biases (e.g. miraculous claims) is perhaps an entertaining new twist on the old "I won't believe in non-scientific miracles until you can establish them scientifically."

Doctor Logic said...

DL,

Oh well, your insistence against not recording only the "hits", while at the same time disregarding any evidence that doesn't confirm your biases (e.g. miraculous claims) is perhaps an entertaining new twist on the old "I won't believe in non-scientific miracles until you can establish them scientifically."

You don't understand. There's no such thing as a "non-scientific miracle".

A "non-scientific miracle" is exactly like a complex math "proof" that can only be "seen" to be true if you don't write down the steps in enough detail to find any mistakes.

Science isn't about physicality. It's about reliability and overcoming freak accidents and human biases. It's about checking your work for errors, systematic and statistical. Your demand that we accept "non-scientific miracles" is like saying that we can only see the miracles if we don't check our work for errors. Do you think this is an acceptable epistemological position?

DL said...

Doctor Logic: You don't understand. There's no such thing as a "non-scientific miracle".

You think miracles are "scientific", and I don't understand?? No, it isn't like not checking a math problem. "Science" does not mean checking, or logic, or math.

Doctor Logic said...

DL,

If you define a miracle as non-physical, then science can still see it. For example, we could know psychological facts through science, even if minds were nonphysical. Or we could know that Harry Potter magic works reliably, even though it breaks all sorts of physical laws.

If you define a miracle as something not accounted for by science, then you had better check your work against scientific alternatives. If human bias accounts for the claims, then you've found a scientific alternative.

Your avoidance of science is just a cop out. It's like the mathematician who won't show his work or check his steps.

Sure, if you don't check for mistakes, you can end up believing in all sorts of falsehoods. But when you systematically define a whole class of "truths" as those things you know only when you don't check yourself, then you're being systematically foolish.

DL said...

Doctor Logic: Your avoidance of science is just a cop out.

No, my "avoidance of science" is in your head. I never said anything about avoiding science. However, "seeing" is not science, unless you're using the term so vaguely as to be useless in this context. If you mean that one should always check his steps, then why don't you just say so? Of course, in doing so you'd be agreeing with everyone else, including those who believe in miracles, but that's okay.