Friday, 27 April 2012

Thinking Intuitively

A recent piece of research published in Science suggested a correlation between analytical thinking and disbelief in religion. This article on illustrated the difference between the alanytical and intuitive thinking with a neat example:
Q: If a baseball and bat cost $110, and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, how much does the ball cost?

If you answered $10 you are inclined to believe in religion. If you answered $5 you are inclined to disbelieve.
To be honest, I answered $10, and for several minutes couldn't see what was wrong with that answer until I read the comments - which is rather worrying because I think of myself as an analytical thinker and earn my living at it - and yet, when I knew the right answer, I found it hard to understand why I found it hard to understand, if you follow me.

I've blogged a few times about how intuition is a poor measure of reality (see Xeno's Religious Paradox). This is particularly true in the realms of quantum mechanics and cosmology where the very small and the very large just seem to be counter-intuitive and yet the analytical tools of observation and mathematics tell us the counter-intuitive answer is actually the right one. A particle is also a wave and can be in several places at the same time; the universe is finite yet unbounded and everything really is nothing.

So, how does this translate to religious belief versus disbelief?

You only need to look at Creationist (and religious apologist) reasoning when they argue for whatever god they are promoting, to see how they overcome the absence of any direct, definitive evidence for their god, and the ease with which they use an argument which could just as easily, and with equal validity, be applied to any god, or indeed any other hypothetical cause of whatever it is they are attributing to their god. Arguments from ignorance and arguments from assumed or actual gaps in scientific knowledge (which are really the same thing) are merely intuitively 'true' arguments. It just seems logical to assume that the most likely explanation is the god(s) my mummy and daddy told me about.

This argument is behind the Kalâm Cosmological Argument where the assumed absence of a scientific explanation is considered conclusive evidence of the presence of whatever god the KCA is currently being use to support.

Intuition is also behind the 'default' belief in some sort of guiding or directing force normally found in most religious societies where it just seems logical to think 'there must be be something behind it all...', and the argument from numbers, where 'there must be something in it if so many people believe it' seems like a sensible argument, especially to people who aren't sensible.

It's not until we start to think analytically that we discover the vacuousity in these arguments and how they can apply to any daft notion we could dream up to explain anything.

The curious thing is how people who have no difficulty at all in thinking critically in normal life seem to abandon it when it comes to the question of the existence of their favourite god. It's not as though there is anything special about evidence for or against gods per se because religious people have no difficulty at all with thinking logically about the existence of other gods, which they are intuitively quite sure don't exist. You would need to be a little odd to believe in Zeus or Apollo or Ra or Quetzalcoatl nowadays because we just know they don't exist - but not so Yahweh, obviously! Obviously there must be a god and obviously it must be the one my parents believe in - or so the 'reasoning' seems to go.

People don't believe by 'faith' that there isn't a car coming down the road they are about to cross. They look for evidence and, if they find none, they conclude that there isn't a car there. Absence of evidence is taken as evidence of absence and they bet their life on it. Doing anything else would be regarded as more than a little odd. The person who stands on the roadside, afraid to cross just incase there is a car coming, even though the road is clear, would be regarded as needing psychiatric help. Probably deluded or hallucinating and definitely in need of a responsible adult to hold his or her hand.

Yet not so with gods, it seems. Absence of evidence is disregarded in favour of 'faith' and people live their lives as though the evidence is misleading and there really is a god. They even bet their life on it.

So how did we as a species, get ourselves into this situation?

My guess is that, when were were still evolving our brain out there on the plains of East Africa, it worked better to fit problems into our pre-existing experience-based model of the world in order to solve them. It didn't matter too much that we hadn't got the perfect answer; the important thing was to have a workable one.

It mattered more what we were running away from than what we were running to, and it didn't even matter that much what exactly we were running away from. The important thing was that it might be trying to eat us.

When it came to danger, it was safer to assume there might be a leopard. The children who played safe and just assumed there was a leopard lived to pass on their genes to act intuitively. Those who went to check for evidence tended to be filtered out and so failed to pass on their genes for analytical thinking when it came to danger. We evolved in the presence of predators who kept themselves hidden and leaped out on us, so we aren't at all surprised that assumed gods keep themselves hidden. When we check for cars before we cross the road we aren't bothered about hidden danger.

We could have evolved this simplistic intuitive reasoning very early in our evolution before we had evolved a brain capable of thinking analytically. Like a spinal reflex, it takes less brainpower and generally works as a quick and easy method, if we are not too concerned about the validity or precision of a rough-and-ready utilitarian method.

If this model is correct, it's amusing to think the approach of superstitious people to the question of the existence of gods is the same method we evolved to deal with questions about the existence of hidden danger. It is, of course, the same morbidly phobic thinking people with acute anxiety disorders use when questioning the existence of the object of their fear and what it could do to them.

BTW, if you haven't worked out how much a baseball costs if a bat and ball together costs $110 and the bat costs $100 more than the ball, the answer is $5.

Ball = $5
Bat = $105
Bat + ball = $110


  1. How can we know that those gods don't exist? You wrote their names. Beliefs and stories existed about the figures. Letters and names are just letters and names until we remember their stories. They may be protectors or role models or just funny tales but a message may still be present for some readers or listeners. I still plan on believing that the sun will rise tomorrow - a blazing chariot drawn by a sun god may be harnessed within the flares of energy - figuratively at least. Picturesque images can help us remember important lessons - like time runs out - the sun god goes away at night so get busy early in the day(thank goodness for fossil fuels)(while they last).

  2. >How can we know that those gods don't exist?

    The same way you know a car doesn't exists when you look and see it isn't there.

    1. The thing is those gods do exist.
      They exist in the imaginations of people along with the Jabberwock, Sherlock Holmes and Harry Potter.
      However people aren't content to leave them in the realm of fantasy and imagination. They want to drag them out into the real world and make the rest of us accept them as real and live by the precepts they offer.

  3. I saw this on another site along with some other similar questions. I tried them on a not quite fundamentalist christian I know and she didn't get it even when she saw the answer.
    This one she refused to accept;
    If a water lily doubles the number of pads each day and staring with one lily pad it takes 48 days to cover a lake, how long does it take to cover half the lake? (Just for the nit pickers all the pads are the same size and they don't overlap anywhere.)
    Not that my sample of one proves anything.

  4. HI, I've visited your site and also feed to your fish. Your blogs is very attractive and informative. everything on your website very good implemented. Thanks you :)


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