Thursday, July 22, 2010

The Outsider Test For Faith

John Loftus, of Debunking Christianity, has proposed that believers take what he calls "the outsider test for faith" (OTF).  It is really a very simple idea: that, to be intellectually honest, one should apply the same standards for evaluating one's own beliefs that one applies to others' beliefs. If you want to know the truth, you can't start by assuming that what you already think is the truth. You have to start by being skeptical of what you already think, and looking for ways to test it.

The authors of Triablogue: The Infidel Delusion  don't seem to get it. In a lengthy response to the book, The Christian Delusion, the three authors each respond to John's chapter on the OTF.

Steve Hays begins by asking why a test for religious faith? Why not an Outsider Test for belief in general? As John responds on his blog, he in fact proposes that very thing. The Outsider Test simply asks for a default position of skepticism with regard to any claim. What about an Outsider Test for math? an Outsider Test for physics? An Outsider Test for chemistry? An Outsider Test for biology?

In fact, this is just what we have. If you propose a new theory in physics, you can't just expect other people to believe it. You have to examine it skeptically, look for its weak points, and propose tests. And guess what? It works! Russian physicists agree with American physicists about the Standard Model of Elementary Particles. Chinese chemists agree with French chemists about the rates of chemical reactions. Australian biologists agree with Japanese biologists about the theory of evolution. And so on.

This, of course, is a great contrast to religion, where one's beliefs track closely with where you were raised. Hmmm.

There's a good reason we need something like the Outsider Test to examine beliefs. It's a psychological phenomenon known as confirmation bias. According to Wikipedia, this

is a tendency for people to favor information that confirms their preconceptions or hypotheses, independently of whether they are true. As a result, people gather evidence and recall information from memory selectively, and interpret it in a biased way. The biases appear in particular for emotionally significant issues and for established beliefs.
People are not naturally rational, logical thinkers. We tend to stick to our preconceptions, no matter how much evidence we encounter that opposes them. The genius of the scientific method is that it counters confirmation bias by, first, requiring anyone proposing a new idea to examine that idea as an outsider would, and, second, having other people (who might be less inclined toward confirmation bias) check that idea. As a result, there is widespread agreement among scientists about fundamental theories.

But it's not just scientists. Anyone attempting to establish any claim has to do something like the outsider test: examine the claim skeptically and according to the same standards you use for other claims, and see if it holds up. Historians, for instance, spend a lot of time talking about methodology: deciding what standards should be used to establish claims. In history, you don't have the luxury of doing lots of experiments to see whether your results confirm your theory, so you need to be very careful to establish clear standards.

The Triablogue authors complain that the Outsider Test is biased from start toward atheism or agnosticism. But that's not true at all: it's only a way of asking that the same standards be applied when looking at your own beliefs that you use when looking at others' beliefs. If you accept the healing miracles of Jesus as evidence of his divinity, do you also accept the healings of Asklepios as evidence of his divinity? (There are dozens of first-person accounts of such healings that have been unearthed at the temple of Asklepios at Epiduaros, whereas we only have four, dependent, non-eywitness accounts for Jesus, so the evidence is certainly more secure for Asklepios than for Jesus.)

Here the Triablogue authors bite the bullet and say, yes, they believe in the miracles of other religions (Really? All of them?) and that they are the acts of evil demons. But now we have to take the Outsider Test to another level: if Asklepios healed many people, and the God of the Bible killed people in floods, wars, and plagues, then what makes you so sure that your God is the good guy and the other the bad guy? What standard do you use to judge? And are you applying that standard evenly to all religions?

For these questions, the Triablogue authors have no response.

1 comment:

  1. Russian physicists agree with American physicists about the Standard Model of Elementary Particles. etc

    Its not just about scientists from different nationalities agreeing on standard models. Its also about:

    a) Gender : Women scientists agreeing with Men scientists
    b) Religion: Buddhists scientists agreeing with Hindu scientists agreeing with Christians
    c) Race: Black scientists agreeing with Yellow agreeing with White scientists

    Now can we say the same about religious doctrines?