Note to reader:

Please be sure to read the comments on each posting as some explanations and discussion will occur there. The Comments link is on your left.

This is the beginning of a series of blog posts designed to demonstrate how deconversion works. It isn’t intended to deconvert on its own but merely to illustrate the process. Once we are off to a good start I’m going to introduce the series in video form through youtube. I had intended to do this for some time but needed to secure an expert in video production as well as 2 or 3 actors. We have those now and we are ready to begin. So, first, we’ll start with the blog posts that will frame the videos. And we begin by pointing out to the adherent that, while this is not an attempt to deconvert, the adherent may ask whatever questions they like and may proselytize to their heart’s content. In other words:

This is the adherent’s golden opportunity to proselytize; to convert me.

In order to guide this conversation effectively I’ll need to ask the adherent for their imprimatur on a rule by which we can discuss Christianity without bogging the conversation down so that I can never get my questions asked.

So, here it is. I’ll ask a question as a hypothetical. It may be that there are more assumptions to the hypothetical that one could add, but I’ll ask for the sake of discussion that we allow only the assumptions of the hypothetical I offer. This way, I can at least get through a few questions. If someone thinks the assumptions are insufficient just state that with your answer and we’ll accept that as your answer informed by the assumptions of the question.

So, here’s my question. I’ll ask it and see if I can get a useful answer, recalling that I am a lifelong atheist who has never believed and who is sincerely trying to sort out all the gods out there and figure out which one to follow:

How do I know that your god is The One, True God?

But before I do this, I’d like to ask some other questions first.

To do this we first start with the opening question (Question Number One):

Question Number One:

Suppose I live in a society in which a common story told is that when little children make straight “A”s in school a magical professor flies around the globe in a chariot going to each house where such a child resides and tosses candy down the chimney for that child as a reward for having done so well in school. Now, suppose I show you a study that clearly, and with a sound methodology and considerable replication of results, shows that children will tend to believe stories like this if they are sufficiently young and their parents and their community reinforce the tale. They call this phenom the “A” effect.

The question is:

Is it more likely that the children believe this story because of the A effect or because there is a magical professor that flies around in a chariot dropping candy down several million chimneys?

This is not meant to be a silly question, or a trick question at all. As adults we probably will all reach the same answer but as a child we might see it very differently. So, the point isn’t to mock the belief, but to show how people might see this very differently. Regardless of your answer, do you accept this question format as legitimate generally? I mean, is there anything wrong with the question itself? Is it ambiguous, a trick question or is the question malformed somehow, for example?

If you think that it is, I’d like to go over some fallacies about questions like this to convince you that the question is perfectly reasonable. Most people don’t have an issue with the question, but if it does conccern you, read this short piece below.

I’d first point out that the validity or usefulness of the question I’ve asked can be understood by comparing a few common fallacies. The first is called the “conjunction fallacy”; which refers to a violation of what academics call the conjunction rule of probability theory:

P(A + B) ≤ P(A)  ∀ A, B ∈ ℜ ; that is, the probability that A and B are simultaneously true, is always less than or equal to the probability that A is true.

This redounds to the notion that whenever you add detail to something (make it more specific and less general) it may sound more plausible to human beings. However, the more general version is more probable. In the vernacular this is usually stated as “the simpler explanation is the more likely one” because simpler in this case means more general. This rule is a formalization of Occam’s Razor also known as lex parsimoniae (the law of parsimony, economy or succinctness).

Having introduced the Conjunction Fallacy, we’ll now see how it applies.The other fallacy is the Genetic Fallacy. Basically, on their face, these two fallacies seem to be arguing against each other. They are not. The Genetic Fallacy basically says that if you remove details from an assessment you can do it in such a way as to merely channel yourself to a pre-conceived conclusion; by limiting details your desired inference does not augment but rather diminishes. So, taking the devil’s advocate position, I could say it this way: by choosing to ignore the various different interpretations, context and facts regarding the narrative you are artifically making your conclusion seem more likely.

The Conjunction Fallacy and Genetic Fallacy are not mutually exclusive. What the Conjunction Fallacy is saying, though it isn’t clear in the equation used to define the Conjunction Rule, is that the Conjunction Rule only applies if the information added is:

less likely to be true than the initial proposition itself was OR, its likelihood cannot be assessed with confidence.

Let the proposition of the turth of a supernatural embellishment be regarded an uncertainty. Then, in the common vernauclar this is just saying

You cannot make an uncertainty more certain by adding an uncertain detail. If you do, you are committing the Conjunction Fallacy.

On the other hand,

You cannot make an uncertainty less certain by denying a detail that is certain. If you do, you are committing the Genetic Fallacy.

So, if one talks of “historical context”, “metaphor” or other “literary tools” they are talking about things less certain than, in our case, the proposition that the “A” effect exists in human populations. And that is the key, if the reader or anyone in his or her role can come up with a detail that is more certain than the proposition that the “A” effect exists in human populations, then they have an argument. Otherwise, its fallacious and constitutes what is called an “embellishment”.

An easier way to explain this is to think of it in terms of how you would actually perform this step. What we need to do is to see if the proposition, for example, that the author intended his or her statements metaphorically is more likely than the existence of the “A” effect in the population in question.

The first thing we notice about this is that we really don’t even have a way to assess the odds that any given author meant to use metaphor. So the argument fails before we can even compare it. If we could assess the odds, if the odds that the author intended to use metaphor were lower than the proposition that the “A” effect existed in that population, the argument would fail. Either way, the added detail is an embellishment and the argument fails. Which is what I sought to show.

Finally, there is a fallacy having to do with what are called “conjoint causes”. This just means that hey, it’s possible that the “A” effect is only one cause of many. While that is true it doesn’t chnage the nature of the problem. We could just as well state that any number of causes can be combined into a single set of causes, Q. Then we could substitute Q for the “A” effect, and just ask the same question again. So, that doesn’t really matter. Suppose however, that one wishes to claim that we must use Q instead and also that the very fact that the magical professor exists and actually does this could also be a cause for the belief. While to so would be specious if that is the very thing we’re evaluating by the question, it could still be added to the Q set and treated the same way; e.g.

Let there be a set of causes Q where causes a, b, … n element of Q.

and S NOT an element of Q where

S == the probability that belief in the story is because the magical professor really does these things

Let R be all elements in Q AND’d

And we see that

P(R) > P(S)

holds generally by the magical professor example.

Q.E.D. 😉

In other words, taking this fallacy into account and recasting, we still get the same result.

Now, I’ll try to return to the issue at hand and pose the question for anyone who is willing to answer.

Is it more likely that the children believe this story because of the A effect or because there is a magical professor that flies around in a chariot dropping candy down several million chimneys?

Go to Question Number Two

20 comments
  1. Kir, given only those two choices, I think the answer is obvious if the respodant is being honest. Honestly, clearly there is no magical professor dropping candy down chimneys and the reason children might believe this is because of the “A” effect.
    Mia

  2. Hey Mia,
    We just had a side conversation about how to apply these fallacy rules. Here’s what I suggested:

    If you have a detail that would support the second part of the question (in this case, that there really is a magical professor that drops candy down millions of chimneys) you could improve the odds of that being true if and only if you can add a relatively certain detail to the narrative or information about the “A” effect that tends to support that conclusion. However, if the information you add is uncertain you will not increase the odds of this being due to the “A” Effect but will rather decrease those odds.

    So, the trick for the challenger to these questions is to find something solid, certain and definitive they can add to the narrative or the psychological phenomenon (here, the “A” Effect) that would tend to make the answer more likely to be that there is indeed a magical professor that flies around in a chariot dropping candy down millions of chimneys.

    Hope that makes sense.

    -kk

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