On being certain

Why is everyone so certain of their political, cultural, and religious positions, while everyone else is equally certain their own differing views are in fact the correct ones? Is this simply a matter of stubbornness, arrogance or misguided thinking, or is the problem more deeply rooted in brain biology?  This article in Salon by Robert Burton discusses the Certainty Epidemic:

“modern biology…is telling us that despite how certainty feels, it is neither a conscious choice nor even a thought process. Certainty and similar states of “knowing what we know” arise out of primary brain mechanisms that, like love or anger, function independently of rationality or reason. Feeling correct or certain isn’t a deliberate conclusion or conscious choice. It is a mental sensation that happens to us.”

“The importance of being aware that certainty has involuntary neurological roots cannot be overstated. If science can shame us into questioning the nature of conviction, we might develop some degree of tolerance and an increased willingness to consider alternative ideas — from opposing religious or scientific views to contrary opinions at the dinner table.”

This article reminds me of a similar article I read last year, Why Bad Beliefs Don’t Die.

“Because a basic tenet of both skeptical thinking and scientific inquiry is that beliefs can be wrong, it is often confusing and irritating to scientists and skeptics that so many people’s beliefs do not change in the face of disconfirming evidence. How, we wonder, are people able to hold beliefs that contradict the data?

This puzzlement can produce an unfortunate tendency on the part of skeptical thinkers to demean and belittle people whose beliefs don’t change in response to evidence. They can be seen as inferior, stupid, or crazy. This attitude is born of skeptics’ failure to understand the biological purpose of beliefs and the neurological necessity for them to be resilient and stubbornly resistant to change. The truth is that for all their rigorous thinking, many skeptics do not have a clear or rational understanding of what beliefs are and why even faulty ones don’t die easily. Understanding the biological purpose of beliefs can help skeptics to be far more effective in challenging irrational beliefs and communicating scientific conclusions.”

The truly amazing part of all of this is not that so few beliefs change or that people can be so irrational, but that anyone’s beliefs ever change at all.

Carl Sagan on Science and Religion

In the book The Varieties of Scientific Experience by Carl Sagan, editor Ann Druyan wrote the following about Carl Sagan framing the domains and roles of religion and science. I liked this so much I decided to stick it here lest it should forget it.

He believed that the little we know about nature suggests that we know even less about God. We had only managed to get an inkling of the grandeur of the cosmos and its exquisite laws that guide the evolution of trillions if not infinite numbers of worlds. This newly acquired vision made the God who created the World seem hopelessly local and dated, bound to transparently human misperceptions and conceits of the past.

This was no glib assertion on his part. He avidly studied the wold’s religions, both living and defunct, with the same hunger for learning that he brought to scientific subjects. He was enchanted by their poetry and history. When he debated religious leaders, he frequently surprised them with his ability to out-quote the sacred texts. Some of these debates led to long standing friendships and alliances for the protection of life. However, he never understood why anyone would want to separate science, which is just a way of searching for what is true, from what we hold sacred, which are those truths that inspire love and awe.

His argument was not with God but with those who believed that our understanding of the sacred had been completed. Sciences permanently revolutionary conviction that the search for truth never ends seemed to him the only approach with sufficient humility to be worthy of the universe that it revealed. The methodology of science with its error-correcting mechanism for keeping us honest in spite of our chronic tendencies to project, to misunderstand, to deceive ourselves and others, seemed to him the height of spiritual discipline. If you are searching for sacred knowledge and not just a palliative for your fears, then you will train yourself to be a good skeptic.

The idea that scientific method should be applied to the deepest of questions is frequently described as “scientism.” This charge is made by those who hold that religious beliefs should be off-limits to scientific scrutiny — that beliefs (convictions without evidence that can be tested) are a sufficient way of knowing. Carl understood this feeling, but insisted with Bertrand Russel that “what is wanted is not the will to believe, but the desire to find out, which is the exact opposite.”

Losing 80 percent of the young women

Right at the very end of today’s Salt Lake Tribune report covering the April 2008 LDS General Conference, there is a fascinating and surprising admission:

Between the two Sunday sessions of the 178th Annual General Conference of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, the three women named Saturday as new leaders in the church’s Young Women organization described their approach and priorities regarding the 554,600 Mormon girls between 12 and 18 years old in 170 countries.
When asked how they planned to cope with the fact that as many as 80 percent of the single Mormon women between 18 and 30 are no longer active in the LDS Church, Elaine Dalton, Young Women president, said: “That is the question of the day . . . I don’t know that we have all the answers right now.”

Regardless of your feelings about the LDS Church, an admission that they are losing 80 percent of the women between 18 and 30 is stunning.

Mormon leaders respond to the Polygamy Investigation in Texas

The following is their brief response:

“The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reiterated Sunday that it has no affiliation whatever with a polygamous sect in Texas that has been subject to investigation by state law enforcement officers and child protective services. The Church discontinued polygamy officially in 1890, but more than a century later some news and Internet reports fail to draw clear distinctions between the Church and practicing polygamous sects.”

Just a blanket “we’re not associated with them” statement. No words of compassion for the children and women. Just the usual claim that the LDS church discontinued polygamy in 1890 (which just ain’t so). They also forgot to mention that polygamy is still mormon doctrine, per D&C 132, and is still practiced in the temples, despite Gordon B. Hinckley telling Mike Wallace that polygamy is “not doctrinal” on national television. And of course there was no admission of the fact that the mainstream LDS church shares the exact same roots as the FLDS — that Joseph Smith and Brigham Young and Heber C Kimball , Orson Pratt and Orson Hyde etc all taught and lived the lifestyle the FLDS now embrace and are in trouble for. They were marrying teenagers in their old age. Marriage was not about love (in fact the word never appears in the marriage ceremony). Just like the FLDS, they did not generally financially support their wives and generally had limited if any relationship with their numerous children. The LDS pretended to give up polygamy in 1890 so Utah could become a state. But that didn’t actually end anything, since polygamy continued long after the 1890 Manifesto with authorization by Wilford Woodruff, Lorenzo Snow, and Joseph F. Smith. Even after the 1904 second Manifesto it was only political pressure that eventually ended polygamy in the mainstream LDS church (rather than merely suspending it as apparently was originally intended). It was not until 1911 that polygamy enthusiast apostle John W. Taylor was finally excommunicated and apostle Matthias F. Cowley had his “priesthood suspended”. The FLDS trace their authority back to a claimed revelation received by church president John Taylor in 1886, the original of which (along with John Taylor’s journal) has always been officially off limits in the LDS church archives. Regardless of whether or not the FLDS and similar Mormon fundamentalist groups are right or wrong in their claims, it is clear they are practicing a form of Mormonism that strongly parallels the form of Mormonism practiced by the early LDS church.