Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Rationalizing Belief: Or, I'd Love To Play Poker With Rabbi Gil Student

Rabbi Gil Student of Hirhurim, drawing from the seventh Harry Potter book, writes about belief in the face of incomplete evidence:

This raises the question of what to do when you have inconclusive evidence. Should you follow the direction of the preponderance of evidence, even if you know that you are missing significant pieces to the puzzle? Should you remain without an opinion? Or should you choose whichever outcome you want, as long as it can somehow fit in with the evidence currently available?


Of course you should follow the preponderance of the evidence! How is that even a question? Obviously I'm aware that people choose to believe what they prefer to believe, but I didn't realize people were conscious of doing it, let alone rationalizing it explicitly. Kudos to Rabbi Student for being more self-aware and open about it than most, but really, how can you live like that?

Rabbi Student then shifts from Harry Potter's fictional dilemma to a real-life one faced by educated, open-minded Orthodox people everywhere:

Another area in which this dilemma arises is that of belief in theological principles. For example, the Divine authorship of the Pentateuch. Evidence from biblical criticism and related fields indicate that the Pentateuch was written by different people. However, an honest observer will admit that the evidence is not completely conclusive, and perhaps can never be when discussing the authorship of a text thousands of years old.

If the current preponderance of evidence points to human authorship, must we accept that conclusion? Or can we choose which position to believe, since either can somehow fit within all the evidence? Or should we retain the traditional belief of Divine authorship and dismiss new findings as either incorrect or explainable?

The message of Harry Potter is that there is no reliable method. Until we have all of the information, even the preponderance of evidence might be misleading. There might be some significant mising piece of information that will entirely change the picture.

...

Where does that leave us? Should we believe that vampires exist because they have not been conclusively proven to not exist? What about spontaneously generating lice? At what point do our beliefs become ridiculously irrational? What we have to say is that there comes a point, which cannot be objectively determined, when the evidence becomes overwhelming. We do not need 100% confirmation. At some point we have enough pieces of the puzzle that the conclusion is clear and we cannot ignore it.

Has the issue of human authorship of the Pentateuch reached a level of overwhelming evidence? I certainly don't think so, and I have written a number of posts on that subject. The message of Harry Potter is that when there is uncertainty then within the realm of rationally viable possibilities you are free to choose which to believe based on emotion (i.e. non-rational) reasons.


Now, as XGH points out, clearly you are "free" to choose what to believe in the sense that there's no rule out there requiring one to base beliefs on evidence. But if you make a pattern out of choosing beliefs contrary to the preponderance of evidence, the law of averages says that you're going to be wrong more than you're right.

Or, to put it another way, I'd love to play poker with Gil! Even when the preponderance of evidence tells him that he has the worst hand, he might just choose to believe the opposite and bet all his money -- after all "there might be some significant missing piece of information that will entirely change the picture!"

9 comments:

The Way said...

"Has the issue of human authorship of the Pentateuch reached a level of overwhelming evidence? I certainly don't think so,"

Here is your overwhelming evidence. Every single book that has ever been written has been written by humans. If one posits that a specific book out of all the millions written by humans was actually written by a god, then they must have some evidence that this book was not also written by humans.

apikores said...

"...when there is uncertainty then within the realm of rationally viable possibilities you are free to choose which to believe based on emotion (i.e. non-rational) reasons."

So he's asserting that it is a "rationally viable possibility" that the bible was written by a magic sky fairy? Facepalm.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

"Of course you should follow the preponderance of the evidence! How is that even a question?"

Because the essential implication is that you *know* that you haven't gotten the whole story yet. It's not clear at all that it's better to form your opinion solely on data known to be incomplete rather than trusting your gut or tradition when that conclusion seems off.

Now the issue of divine authorship of the Bible may seem trivial to you because the evidence appears to be conclusive, and I'd generally agree, but there are other topics where it may be foolish to form views based on what is known to be limited data. Consider issues like free will, objective morality, the meaning of life, and so on.

The preponderance of what little data we have may suggest that we are unfree, moral-less and objectively meaningless, but that doesn't mean such conclusions are correct or that its wiser or more rational to assume those points of view. It could very well be that premature evidence-based conclusions do more to throw us off course than any other methods at our disposal.

"But if you make a pattern out of choosing beliefs contrary to the preponderance of evidence, the law of averages says that you're going to be wrong more than you're right."

Which suggests exactly what Gil is doing: being cognizant of the particular instances where you break with rational evidence following and categorize them as special items that do not represent your general methods of assessment. This way you *do not* make a pattern of what is generally a bad idea - but sometimes could be a good idea.


Of interest on this topic would be the philosopher William James.

Jewish Atheist said...

Ortho:

When we talk about the preponderance of evidence, we're not talking about a tiny bit of evidence. We're talking about substantial, significant evidence that just isn't 100% complete (because when is it ever 100% complete?) It's not a situation where we have one or two tiny clues that happen to point in one direction.

Orthoprax said...

JA,

So when do you know when you have "substantial, significant evidence" and not premature, misleading data?

The extremes are easier, but it's hard to say where the line is.

In medicine, doctors *commonly* dismiss this or that research article when the conclusions don't conform to their personal career experience. Is that unjustifiable bias or is that good medicine?

How tightly should we be slaves to empiricism?

Orthoprax said...

And, JA, as an addendum, allow me to point out the common practice among atheists to set non-belief in whatever claim as the standard position to be shifted only by data.

I question: is that necessarily the wisest position on issues with little data (or conflicting data) to their name?

Positivism is a good test for accepting claim specificity, but it's poorly sensitive for nevertheless true claims that don't fit such rigorous standards.

Jewish Atheist said...

So when do you know when you have "substantial, significant evidence" and not premature, misleading data?

Obviously it's a judgment call, but lets not pretend that we're talking about such cases here.

How tightly should we be slaves to empiricism?

We're not talking about edge cases where it's a pill with side effects and a 2 percent chance of improving patient outcomes vs. a more conservative route. We're talking about homeopathy vs. medical treatments with substantial evidence behind them.

itsmypulp said...

"Or can we choose which position to believe, since either can somehow fit within all the evidence?"

That's the weak link in his argument for me. "Somehow" is not a very compelling starting point. "The evidence suggests that the books were written by multiple authors and edited repeatedly over hundreds of years -- but somehow the other theory, that they were all written by Moses and no one ever changed a single word -- somehow that position might also fit within all the evidence."

That's absurd, and therefore the "argument" here is just a matter of wishful thinking.

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