Tag Archives: Epistemology

On Moral Vision

I was recently informed that my moral standards have “lowered” since walking away from my faith. It’s true that some things that I once considered sins are no longer on my Thou Shalt Not list. Homosexual relationships would be in that category. Touching on what is apparently the most important moral issue in the evangelical church, I no longer equate early-stage abortions with murder. And of course, I score a big fat zero on the Greatest Commandment.

I granted my conversation partner’s premise and we moved on from there.

As Blackadder said to Prince George, “It is so often the way, sir: too late one thinks of what one should have said. Sir Thomas More, for instance, burned alive for refusing to recant his Catholicism, must have been kicking himself, as the flames licked higher, that it never occurred to him to say, ‘I recant my Catholicism.'”

What I should have said was, “My moral standards have not lowered. They have sharpened.

“The Bible was the lens through which I used to see the moral world. It gave excellent vision of the basic moral truths: tell the truth, don’t steal, and so on. However, there were some dirty spots on that lens. Looking for truths about slavery, genocide, the treatment of womenhumane slaughter of animals, or even discrimination against the handicapped, one learns that the lens is not as clean as one would wish.

“Most people already have great moral vision for the basics, with or without the Bible. Our problem is that we suffer from various astygmatisms of prejudice. We don’t trust people who are not in our tribe — our race, our religion, our political party, our culture. We tend to over-trust people who are like us. We also over-trust ourselves: our cognitive biases systematically prevent us from seeing the truth.

“The most pernicious is confirmation bias, and faith-based morality sinks an arrow deep in that Achilles’ heel.

“I’ve traded the biblical lens for one that sees morality in terms of the well-being of sentient creatures. Although it may be harder to learn to use that lens than to read a book, it is cleaner than the book I had been using.

“I realize that my biases are hard to correct. That’s why I study them and blog about what I learn and learn and learn.

“My new lens is not perfect, but I think I see sharper now than I used to, and I hope my vision will continue to improve.”

That’s what I should have said. Now I’ve said it.

Faith-Based Morality

It’s an old question, but still a good one: If God were to command you to do something evil, would you obey?

“But he would never ask me to do anything evil,” you say. “That’s a stupid, hypothetical question. Such a thing could never happen.”

Some people are convinced otherwise. Let’s remember what happened just last week.

Herbert and Catherine Schaible

Herbert and Catherine Schaible, a couple in my home state of Pennsylvania, were sentenced to prison because they had refused medical care for their 8-month-old son, Brandon, who then died. “We believe in divine healing, that Jesus shed blood for our healing and that he died on the cross to break the devil’s power,” the boy’s father had said.

The kicker is, he didn’t say that about Brandon. He said it last year after another one of their children had just died in similar circumstances!

The Schaibles were sincerely convinced that The Right Thing to Do was to pray for their son and entrust him to Jesus, the Great Physician. They had dozens of Bible verses to prove it. They were so convinced that they did it a second time, even after an epic fail the first time.

What could the Schaibles have been thinking?? I have a pretty good idea.

You’re no doubt familiar with the story of Abraham and Isaac. God demanded of Abraham that he sacrifice his son, Isaac, as a burnt offering. Although God had promised to give Abraham many descendants through Isaac, Abraham was willing to obey God and kill his son. Only an angel’s intervention at the last moment kept the knife from plunging into Isaac’s heart.

So what was Abraham thinking?? The Bible actually tells us, and it’s very simple.

Hebrews 11:17-19 says that Abraham believed that God would raise Isaac from the dead. For his tremendous faith, Abraham makes it into the Faith Hall of Fame, as the catalog of believers in Hebrews 11 is sometimes called. This man who was willing to kill his own son and trust God for the outcome is upheld as an example for us all.

I don’t know whether the episode of Abraham and Isaac actually happened, but the Schaibles’ did, and theirs is very much in the faith-filled spirit of Abraham.

This is the problem with faith-based morality. The more divorced from reality it is, the higher it is exalted. The prologue to the Faith Hall of Fame says that faith is “assurance about what we do not see.” In other words, it is being sure of something without evidence. The more sure you are, based on as little evidence as possible, the better.

By design, faith-based anything (morality or anything else) has no check based on observable outcomes. To the extent that there are checks, we are not talking about faith, but about its opposite, namely skepticism.

Returning to the question at the top of the post, the Bible-follower must answer, “Yes, I would do something evil if God told me to” and he could not claim that such things don’t happen.

Most of us never hear God’s voice telling us to kill our children. But how about simply hating on people?

Another item in last week’s news was the Arizona legislature passing a bill that would allow businesses to refuse service to homosexuals, if the business-owners had religious objections. You can guess which way the lawmakers on the Religious Right voted. All but three Republicans voted for the bill; all the Democrats voted against it. This is faith-based morality at work.

(If you think that owners of businesses that are open to the public have a right to turn away homosexuals, what would you say about business owners who have religious convictions against interracial couples? Many people had those convictions just a couple of generations ago, based on their sincere reading of the Bible. There are still some hold-outs. Some of them probably own restaurants. Should they be allowed to refuse service to such couples?)

I’ve heard many times that those of us who are secular have no basis for morality. Be that as it may, we have all observed how faith-based morality can run amok, ending not only in medical neglect of children or discrimination, but in jihad and Inquisitions. (Sorry to trot out those cliche examples, but they are applicable.)

As I’ve started to outline in the last two posts, there is an alternative: morality based on the well-being of conscious creatures. I contend that this is a safer bet.

Of course, secular morality runs the risk of missing what may only be observable through the “eyes of faith.” I’ve addressed that in my post, Spiritual Discernment, but I’ll say more next time.

Experts and the Availability Bias

You’ve heard the aphorism, A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. This week, I learned a new way that that’s true.

Thinking, Fast and Slow is a fascinating book about how the brain works. In one of the chapters, author Daniel Kahneman explores what makes us subject to the “availability bias.” This is the tendency to believe things because it’s easy to call supporting arguments to mind, rather than because those arguments are sound or because we’ve conducted thorough research and considered all sides.

According to Kahneman, one of the factors that makes us susceptible to this bias is being “knowledgeable novices on the topic … in contrast to true experts.”  Our knowledge makes it easy to cite a few arguments, and we lazily and happily believe we’re right, no matter what the experts say.

That is humbling. I think of areas where I have fancied myself so knowledgeable that I was qualified to dismiss the findings of experts, and later discovered that the experts had been right all along. The most egregious instance is my pooh-poohing of evolution, but there have been others.

In the 1980s, I attended a speech by the chief economist of CIGNA. He predicted that the 1990s would be an excellent decade for stocks, and he cited several reasons based on his research. He was a very impressive guy: brilliant, well-traveled, and well-connected, but I knew better than to be taken in by this so-called expert. I had read a book called Bankruptcy 1995, which made it very clear that America was headed for financial ruin — and soon — due to runaway national debt. I may have been a novice compared to Mr. Chief Economist, but I was a knowledgeable novice!

Of course, we know who turned out to be right. I missed one of the greatest market booms in history.


Opportunities to be a knowledgeable novice abound. Do you find yourself saying any of these things? If so, you might be right, but be careful!

  • Doctors don’t know anything. This alternative/shamanic/new-age remedy is what really works.
  • Related to that… If I just take this fistful of pills that I got at GNC, I don’t have to loose weight or exercise.
  • Based on their research, most university professors say that a strong social safety net reduces poverty and increases general happiness. Of course they would say that! They’re biased liberals! They may have advanced degrees, but Rush Limbaugh has given me a real education!
  • I don’t need any fancy studies to prove it. I know that prayer to my God works! My holy book says so, and I’ve even seen some sick people get well after prayer.
  • So-called experts in foreign relations suggest a measured approach in the Middle East. I know how the world really works: if we just turned part of Saudi Arabia into molten glass, those A-rabs would start to pay attention real quick!

Once in a while, an opinion outside the expert mainstream is proven right. More often, it is the experts who have the expertise. If we disagree with them, let’s be humble enough to admit the possibility of our own availability bias. Let’s be even more careful than usual to practice shaphat.

Spiritual Discernment

[Sorry, but this post had to be a Beagle’s Bark.]

Continuing the theme of the last couple of posts, about intuition verus empiricism, I have wanted for some time to write about this passage in the Bible. The apostle Paul says,

… the natural man does not receive the things of the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; nor can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. But he who is spiritual judges all things, yet he himself is rightly judged by no one. For “who has known the mind of the Lord that he may instruct Him?” But we have the mind of Christ. (1 Corinthians 2:14-16, NKJV)

So here Paul asserts a third faculty, one beyond reason and intuition: spiritual discernment. What do you think this is?

(Disclaimer: In what follows, I mean to consider spiritual discernment only from a traditional, biblical point of view. I know little of how religions other than evangelical Christianity use the term.)

I was an evangelical for several decades, and I must confess that I never felt I had this spiritual discernment thing figured out. As far as I could ever tell, the feeling is indistinguishable from normal intuition, but (a) it is probably about a spiritual subject and (b) the believer is convinced that God is behind it.

Like secular intuition, spiritual discernment can apparently be honed by years of conventionally acquired knowledge and experience, or diminished by foolish habits. One’s discernment increases with prayer and holiness; it decreases with riotous living. So far, so good.

Insiders-Only Reasoning

What makes me skeptical about spiritual discernment is the exclusivity in the Bible passage above. Supposedly that which is spiritually discerned is “foolishness” to the “natural man” (i.e., the non-Christian or secular person). In fact, this type of knowledge is utterly inaccessible to him, according to the Paul.

The example that Paul uses in the same chapter is the crucifixion of Christ. That God would use such a gruesome, unjust event to bring about forgiveness of sins does seem like foolishness to the unbeliever, but it makes glorious sense to the Christian.

The fact that spiritual knowledge seems irrational to outsiders does not in itself mean it’s false. Most non-scientists would not believe the stunning implications of quantum physics, yet they are true.

So is spiritual discernment on equal footing with advanced science? Do both rely on the same sort of insiders-only reasoning?

Not at all. The scientist — or any other variation of the “natural man” — is convinced that his reasons ought to make sense to anyone who has sufficient background knowledge. He suggests experiments that would invalidate his idea, and invites others to do the same. Whether or not experiments are possible, he attempts to follow universally agreed norms of sound thought. He is willing to change his mind if his interlocutor follows the same norms. He does not claim a special faculty that puts him above everyone else.


An inevitable consequence of insiders-only reasoning, both logically and historically, is that the spiritually discerning person makes himself the judge of everyone else, but allows no-one to judge him. In the passage cited, Paul claims believers “have the mind of Christ” and are therefore fit to judge “all things” literally as if they are Christ himself.

Can we be surprised that the public face of evangelical Christianity in America today consists largely of a mouth — one that pronounces judgement on liberals, homosexuals, the public schools, evolution-believers, scientists who warn us about climate change, those who would interfere with free-market capitalism, and who-knows-how-many other groups? I say this with all humility and regret, as one who was once spoke with that voice.

Scientists can be reluctant to let go of their preferred theories, but not one of them would ever say, “You can’t tell me I’m wrong. I have the mind of Christ and you don’t.”

Where’s the Evidence?

So the spiritually discerning evangelical knows what other people have no hope of knowing and judges them with the mind of Christ. Those are lofty claims indeed. By what evidence does he make them?

Spiritual discernment is by definition beyond physical evidence and even beyond reason. Those who claim to have it seem suspiciously like Martin Harris — one of the Three Witnesses who claimed to have seen the original Golden Plates of the Book of Mormon … but, it turns out, only with “spiritual eyes.” I don’t know about you, but Martin Harris and his ilk do not convince me.

The Emperor’s New Clothes

Sometimes the fate of people who believe they are worthy to see what lesser men cannot is downright comical. You know the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. Two swindlers convinced an emperor that they could make fabric so exalted that only the worthy and intelligent could see it. The emperor saw this as an opportunity to expose other people’s unworthiness and clothed himself in this supposed fabric — until an honest boy pointed out that the emperor was, in fact, naked.

At other times, comedy is nowhere in sight. Claims of spiritual discernment were at the root of the witch-hunting hysteria that swept Europe, in which tens of thousands of women and men were tortured or executed (the more famous Salem witch trials were small potatoes); the Inquisition that likewise resulted in unspeakable tortures and horrible deaths, and continues in rebranded, milder form until this day; and the religious strife that tears the world apart today like a thousand demons.

He who puts too much stock in spiritual discernment, whether his own or someone else’s, is like one who believes he is truly a magician. He does himself no harm until he attempts to fly off a cliff on a magic carpet, and does others no harm until he attempts to saw them in half.

In Defense of Intuition

In the last post‘s video, Pat Condell disses “intuitive knowledge” (2:30), poking fun at those who promote it as better and even morally superior to “boring old empirical knowledge”.

While I agree with Mr. Condell that calling one’s thoughts “intuitive knowledge” can be a way of disguising the fact that one has no knowledge at all, and while I agree with him that this is particularly a danger when dealing with the metaphysical, I would like to say a word in defense of intuition.

We often think of intuition in contrast to rational, logical thought. We are rational when we can give reasons for our conclusions, but intuition is “just” a hunch. I suggest that intuition at its best is also rational and in fact comes from years of careful, logical thought that have been internalized — perhaps internalized so deeply that one is not aware of one’s own reasoning.

What could be more logical and rational than computer programming? That has been my profession for over 30 years and, believe it or not, a software developer does form an intuitive sense about what makes good code. A good developer is able to detect what is called “code smell” — aspects of the software that may not be causing problems at the moment but are bound to cause trouble later. Most of the time, he can give a reason why the code stinks but sometimes he just has an intuition. His intuition is anything but irrational. It is a sense developed by years or even decades of experience and training.

Perhaps experience-based and knowledge-based intuition is highly rational thought that happens to occur in an area of the brain that is distant from whatever region is able to explain things verbally. (Would anyone with background in neuroscience care to chime in about that?)

It can be maddening to argue with someone who only has a hunch about something, for he cannot give any reasons for his position. Still, if he has deep knowledge about the field, I have a hunch that I should give serious thought to what he says.

Does Pi Contain the Universe?

I just ran across a very poetic meme about the number pi .

Pi is an infinite, non-repeating decimal — meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi. Converted into ASCII text [computer representation], somewhere in that infinite string of digits is the name of every person you will ever love; the date, time and manner of your death; and the answers to all the great questions of the universe. Converted into a bitmap [computer image], somewhere in that infinite string of digits is a pixel-perfect representation of the first thing you saw on this earth; the last thing you will see before your life leaves you; and all the moments, momentous and mundane, that will occur between these two points.

All the information that has ever existed or will ever exist, the DNA of every being in the universe.

EVERYTHING: all contained in the ratio of a circumference and a diameter.

Googling around for more about this, I saw someone point out that if the universe is finite, then pi must somewhere contain a representation of the entire universe.

I find this beautiful and very appealing. Judging by all the “Wow!” comments on the Internet, a lot of other people are equally fascinated.

The only problem is, it ain’t necessarily so. The non-sequitur is in the very first sentence: “Pi is an infinite, non-repeating decimal — meaning that every possible number combination exists somewhere in pi.” I studied a lot of math in college, and I admit that the error slipped by me. Before I knew it, I was carried away by the poetry and joined in the chorus of “Wow!”

The error (obvious now!) is that just because a number never repeats itself into all infinity, it does not follow that every possible number combination occurs. For example, maybe there are no sevens after the trillionth digit, but the other nine digits continue without repeating. If you’re looking for a sequence that contains a seven, and you don’t find it in the first trillion digits, you will never find it.

Sadly, the frisson I felt while reading transcendent thoughts about everyone’s favorite transcendental number was … unwarranted. Even a methodological naturalist like me must be careful to practice shaphat.

After further Googling, I learned that it could be true that pi contains all finite sequences. In fact, mathematicians suspect that it is true, even though it has not been proven one way or the other.

Now … how tempted am I to believe without proof, just because it’s beautiful?

I’ll leave that question with you as an exercise in shaphat. Can you refrain from judging what’s in my head when you have no proof? :)

The Hanging

September 12, 2009. Clay County, Kentucky — a place known for its blood feuds and distrust of strangers.

Bill Sparkman is found dead, hanging from a tree.

The man’s wrists and ankles were bound with gray duct tape. A red rag was stuffed into his mouth, secured with tape wrapped around his head. A U.S. Census Bureau identification card dangled from the tape, near his right ear. And scrawled across the man’s chest, in ink from a black felt-tip pen, were three giant letters: F E D.

The man was slumped forward, his feet touching the ground, a noose of white nylon rope around his neck. The rope had been tossed over the branch directly above him, wrapped around a nearby tree, and tied off on a third tree. He was wearing only socks.

What do you think? Who killed him?

Bill Sparkman

Bill Sparkman

The sensational story was reported around the world. It was natural to think that backward elements in Appalachia, ever suspicious of government interference, had taken down census worker Bill Sparkman because he was one of “the feds.”

That turned out not to be the case.

Sparkman had never married, yet had been a devoted Boy Scout leader and had spent nine years as a teaching assistant in the public schools. The pathologist on the case determined that Sparkman’s colon had been cleansed with an enema. Could his death have been tied in some way to homosexual activity?


His ne’er-do-well, adopted son, Josh, was the beneficiary of a $300,000 life insurance policy although Josh and Sparkman had a “strained” relationship. Josh and his crowd were thought capable of murder. Even Sparkman’s mother suspected Josh might have done his father in to get at the money.

Not so.

Sparkman’s other $300,000 policy listed Lowell Adams, his sometime assistant in census work, as beneficiary. Mr. Adams was interviewed by the police, but did not provide any important clues. At a second interview, this time with a polygraph, Mr. Adams changed his story. Why had he hidden information from the police?

He had a reason, but it was not that he had killed Bill Sparkman.

The case was cracked when forensic anthropologist Emily Craig was able to prove that the pen-strokes of the word FED had been drawn on Sparkman’s chest from bottom to top rather than top to bottom.

The plot is better and more heart-breaking than any detective show you’ve seen on TV and I won’t spoil the ending for you. You can read it for yourself in this account at TheAtlantic.com.

I will say this: The case provides one more reason for me to keep my New Year’s Resolution to avoid judging anyone’s motives. I will not think I know what’s in other people’s heads — not the people of Appalachia’s, not Bill Sparkman’s, not Josh Sparkman’s, not Lowell Adams’, and not yours.

Also, I will remember that any story reported under a deadline could be wildly wrong.