The Art of Knowing

This article discusses critical thinking techniques that can be used to determine the likelihood that claims are true and thus allow informed decisions that will lead to good outcomes. The techniques are applied to the claims of Christianity.

Finally, the nature and relative merits of critical thinking, belief and faith are examined.

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This is a first draft. The article is still being worked on.

We have to make a lot of decisions in life. How well we make them can seriously affect our quality of life. In making a decision we assess the state of things, and our possible courses of action, then try to choose the best one - the one that is most likely to make things turn out well. This article is about assessing the state of things. The next article, 'Making Good Decisions' is about assessing the options and choosing the best one.

Of course, the more we know about the present state of things, the more likely we will be to assess our options well and thus the more likely we will be to make the decision well. Someone who thinks that prayers or crystals are better sources of healing than medicine and who thinks that Geminis should only marry Scorpios is unlikely to make the best possible decisions in their life.

Observations, Claims and Conclusions


When we observe things ourselves, we can generally be fairly certain of them and so will act on the assumption that what was observed was actually the case. For example, if we see a bear in the back yard, we can be pretty sure that there is a bear in the back yard and so I will stay indoors.

Bear in garden

If we see that water freezes when the thermometer goes below 0 degrees C, then we can be quite confident that that is what water does. Knowledge from observations that we make ourselves is generally reliable and can be assumed to be correct and acted upon accordingly.


When others tell us something, though, that is a different matter. We will use the word 'claim' for things other people tell us. Claims can be made by talking to us directly, through the written word, either to us or published for anyone to read, through the visual media etc. Some examples of claims are: that there is a bear in my garden; that Napoleon died of dysentery; that Neil Armstrong walked on the moon; that there is a teapot in orbit around the sun between the orbits of Earth and Mars; that there is a god; that all our actions are pre-determined and beyond our control.

There are various reasons why claims might not be true: the informant (the person telling us) may be be misinformed, they may be lying or otherwise attempting to deceive, or we might just misunderstand or misinterpret what they say.


Conclusions can be drawn from observations or from claims. For example, if I see a hole dug in my garden, it is certain for all intents and purposes that there is a hole there. But the conclusion that it was the neighbours' dog that dug it is less certain, even if their dog had dug holes like that in the past. So I should be circumspect about going around and abusing them.

Similarly, if someone tells me that they are having problems with their child's behaviour, a conclusion that they are bad parents would be not at all certain.

In general, logic is used to draw a conclusion from an observation or claim. The logic may or may not be valid. The possibility that it is invalid generally means that the conlusion is less likely than the observation or claim that it is based on.

Likelihood of a Claim Being Correct

The truth value of a claim can range from almost certain, through very likely, quite likely, quite possible, unlikely and extremely unlikely to impossible. Any decision to act on a claim will be dependent on the likelihood that it is true.

If a friend rings me up and says someone has stolen her car, that claim is very likely to be true, though she might be having me on or might have just forgotten where she parked it. If I read on Facebook that Igor the chiropractor can fix my back for just $80, that is much less certain. Though it's more likely than that a Nigerian prince wants to give me a fortune if I just give him my bank account details.


These and other ideas can be assigned a likelihood ranging from certain, through almost certain, highly likely, quite possible, unlikely and extremely unlikely to impossible.

For those who are comfortable with percents, the ideas can be assigned a probability ranging from 0% to 100%. The numbers are of course subjective and approximate, but they are an indication. I might assign the following to this selection of scenarios:

I exist: 100%

The tree that I can see is actually there: 99.99999%

My friend's car was stolen: 95%

My shares will be worth more next year: 70%

I will win the toss for the cricket game: 50%

The chiropractor will fix my back: 20%

The Nigerian prince business: 0.00001%

That I can draw a 6-sided square: 0%

The certainty of a claim, the degree to which we know it to be true, is indicated by the percent probability that it's true.

The maths behind probabilities for those who are interested

Probability can be defined mathematically as the fraction of times something would happen in the long run, i.e. if tried a very large number of times. For example, when I roll a fair die, the numbers come up roughly equal numbers of times in the long run, so I can say that the probability of getting a 4 on my next roll is 1/6 or 16.666...%.

However, the scenarios above in general cannot be tried a large number of times. So, instead, we compare the scenario to something that is repeatable. The probability of getting a 4 on the die is 16.666...%. If I thought the chiropractor was as likely to fix my back as that I would roll a 4, then I would assign it the same probability, though obviously not to so many decimal places because a fair bit of guesswork is involved. I might say 16% or maybe 20%.

Another way of looking at this is that, if I would accept the same odds in a bet on the chiropractor and on the die, then I would give them the same probability.

Of course, the probability of a claim being true is subjective. For instance, if I pick a card and see it's the 4 of diamonds, then to me the claim that it is the 4 of diamonds has a probability close to 100%. But to someone who hasn't seen the card, it might be only about 2%.


Five Questions

In deciding on a course of action, it is important to have a reasonable estimate of the likelihood of any claims and conclusions on which one is basing that decision. It is easy just to make a decision without a lot of thought, but giving it a bit more thought will make it more likely that one's probability estimates are realistic and thus that one's subsequent course of action is for the best.

These are five questions a good thinker might ask when assessing the likelihood of a claim by an informant.

                1: How consistent is the claim?

                2: How logically sound is the claim?

                3: How reliable is the informant?

                4: What might the motives of the informant be?

                5: How does the claim relate to prior knowledge?


1: Consistency

If a claim is not consistent (i.e. it contains contradictions), then it cannot be entirely true.

For example, if I say that all cats are blue, that Tom is a cat, and that Tom is red, then not all of that can be true; at least one of the three statements must be false. They might all be false.

Application to the Christian Story

The bible contains numerous inconsistencies and contradictions. For a list, see here. This means that it cannot be entirely true. And this makes it impossible that it is the infallible word of God. As not all of it is literally true and as we have no guidance as to which bits are literally true, this means that we cannot know for sure that any statement in it is true or even how much, if any, of it is true.

Because of the inconsistencies, many Christians claim that it is metaphorical, but of course metaphors are always open to different interpretation and we cannot know what the reality is behind the metaphors. Different branches of Christianity claim quite different realities and, apart form indoctrination into one branch, we cannot know which version of reality is the correct interpretation.

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2: Logical Soundness

A statement designed to persuade or convince might take the form of a bare assertion with no supporting evidence. Such a statement contains no logic and thus should be assessed using Questions 1, 3, 4 and 5 only.

More commonly, a statement designed to persuade or convince will be a logical argument consisting of some premises and a consequence (stated or implied) which follows logically from those premises. The premises will generally be statements that the reader will readily accept. The consequence will be the thing the writer is hoping to persuade the reader of. If the premises are true and the logic is sound, then the consequence will be necessarily true. But if any of the premises are not true or the logic is fallaceous, then the consequence will not necessarily be true. Such arguments don't provide any worthwhile information and do not make the conclusion any more likely.

There are many types of logical fallacy and some can be difficult to spot. Furthermore, logical fallacies are sometimes used deliberately to persuade people of things that aren't true and then are disguised as much as possible. The blue box below is an example which you can read if you like.

The graph below shows the amount of chocolate ice cream consumed and the number of murders committed in 13 American cities.

Correlation chart

Looking at this we can see a strong positive correlation between chocolate ice ceam consumption and murders, suggesting that the more chocolate ice cream people consume, the more likely they are to commit a murder. The SFA (Strawberry Farmers Association) made a statement saying that chocolate ice cream should be banned and everyone should eat strawberry ice cream.

There are two claims here. 1: that eating chocolate icecream causes people to commit murders, and 2: that people should eat strawberry ice cream instead of chocolate. The first is a statement of fact which may or may not be correct; the second is a decision which is proposed on the basis of that statement.

Let's assess the probability that the statement that eating chocolate ice cream causes people to commit murders is true. On first glance, the correlation looks fairly convincing and those who don't think further might put the probability at maybe 80-90%. But there are a number of other things that should be considered.

Firstly, the data related to just 13 of the hundreds of cities in the US. It could have been cherry-picked, choosing just those cities where chocoltae ice cream consumption and murders are both low and those where they are both high.

Secondly, it would seem just as feasible that murderers eat chocolate ice cream to soothe their conscience as that the ice cream causes them to murder.

Thirdly, and most likely, the data points on the right side of the graph are for large cities where a lot of chocolate ice cream is eaten and a lot of murders are committed; and those on the left are for smaller cities, where not much chocolate ice cream is eaten and not many muders are committed.

Correlation on a graph can be caused by

  • random chance if only a small number of data points are used
  • choosing just the data points that fit a certain trend (cherry-picking)
  • Variable A being high tending to cause Variable B to be high (in this case, high chocolate ice cream consumption causing a high murder rate
  • Variable B being high tending to cause Variable A to be high (in this case, a high murder rate causing the consumption of chocolate ice cream to be high)
  • a third variable causing both A and B to be high. (In this case, the third variable would be city size.)

So correlation does not necessarily imply causation, though at first glance it might look like it does.

Everyone who confuses correlation and causation ends up dying

Googling 'logical fallacies' on the Internet will provide links to many lists. The lists tend to be similar, though often with minor differences.

Logical fallacies list

Application to the Christian Story

In general, the bible does not present logical arguments; it just makes assertions with no attempt at proof. Readers are expected to believe what it says by faith rather than because it stands to reason.

As we have seen, there are many inconsistencies and contradictions in the bible which make it logically impossible that it is all true. Christian apologists will use hermeneutical acrobatics to claim that these are not really inconsistent.

The same apologists, however, have come up with many arguments that there is a God and that the Christian story is right. These arguments are logical in structure, but all are flawed. When we think about it, if there was just one logically sound argument that God exists or that the Christian story is right, then there would be no further argument about religion - it should be accepted by everyone who can think logically.

A few of the more commonly quoted arguments are detailed below.

1. The First Cause

The argument goes that everything that happens has a cause. The universe was created at the beginning of time, so there must have been a cause outside of the universe. This is God.

There are several problems with this logic. Firstly, quantum fluctuations occur all the time without cause. Secondly, we don't know that there was nothing before the big bang. Thirdly, it is not impossible that space-time was caused by something outside of space time that wasn't God. Fourthly, positing a god without a cause is really no better than positing a universe without a cause.

2. The Watchmaker

The argument is that anything that is complex and well-designed must have a designer. A human or an eye therefore must have a designer. That designer is the god that created them.

This argument arises from a lack of understanding of natural processes. In the early days of the Earth (before 4 billion years ago), there were bodies of water containing disolved chemicals including amino acids, fatty acids, sugars and DNA bases. All of these have been detected in space and on other astronomical bodies, so there is no reason hy they wouldn't have been present on Earth.

Where these molecules could concentrate, maybe through evaporation of ponds, they tend to spontaneously form vesicles of fatty acids which isolate amino acids and nucleobases etc. What's more, these vesicles tend to spontaneously divide. Of the almost infinte number of such vesicles that would have formed, it would take just one that had the right combination of molecules to allow it to split and reproduce through a process like RNA replication.

Once these started to multiply, different vesicles woud contain different combinations of molecules. The offspring of those that reproduced the best would eventually dominate. Their offspring wouldn't all be identical - there would be random variations in chemistry. The ones best suited to survive and reproduce would eventually outnumber the others. Then the process would repeat with even better variations. Thus the process of evolution occurs. After hundreds of millions of years (many trillions of generations), there would hve been organisms somewhat like our presnent bacteria and probably several different types. It would take another billion years or so, but simbiotic relationships would develop where a smaller organism lives inside an larger cell for the benefit of both (as algae do inside coral cells now). This leads to eukaryotic cells. After a few more hundred million years, cells started for form attached colonies and these then developed into multi-cellular organisms. Next cam specialisation of different cells in a colony and animals and plants along the lines that we see today.

We only have to look at what has happened to dogs over the past few thousand years to see that progressive changes through the generations can and does occur, whether as a result of human selection or natural selection. People who accept the watchmaker argument do do only because the don't understand how eloution occurs and they generally don't understand that because they don't want to understand it because it might damage their faith.

3. The greatest thing


From what we know of how matter behaves, everything in the history of the world makes sense in terms of natural processes. There is no need to invoke supernatural intervention. The only thing which we haven't really figured out yet is how the universe came about - why there is something rather than nothing. Saying God made it doesn't provide an answer, it just shifts the question to 'Why is there a god rather than no god?' The big bang is by no means an impossibility. There are several theories as to how it could have happened including eternal inflation, the cyclic universe and a quantum fluctuation to name a few. Google these if you're not familar with them. The problem isn't that it couldn't have happened through natural processes; the problem is that we just don't know which natural process led to it happening.

Religious people will sometimes argue that atheists cannot prove that there is no god, so therefore there is a god. This is falaceous. As Bertrand Russell pointed out, no one can prove that there's not a teapot, too small to see with telescopes, in orbit around the Sun between the orbits of Earth and Mars. But that doesn't mean that there is one there.

God cannot be definitively proved or disproved. God could very easily have made a universe that makes it appear that he doesn't exist. We just have to think about what is the more likely case. Many believe through fear of hell. But, of course, believing there is a god and being religious are of no help there if one picks the wrong religion. And considering how many options there are, the chances of getting the right one are pretty slim.

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3: Reliability of the Informant

If I know the informant well, I will have a good idea how reliable they are. If they have a history of practical jokes or straight-out lying, I would know that they are not very reliable and I would assign a correspondingly lower probability to the information. If they have a history of being serious and honest, then I would assign a higher probability. But it also depends on how cluey they are. If they tend to get things wrong a lot, that will lower my estimate. If they think things out carefully before saying anything and are nearly always correct, then that will raise my estimate.

But what if I don't know them? I've never met them? We get a lot of information from people we've never met. Then we have to check credentials. Credentials are evidence that the informant is reliable.

An unknown person who posts something on a social media page has zero credentials. This doesn't mean that what they post is wrong, but it means that there is no real evidence that it's right. You would have to base your assessment of the probability on the other questions: motive, logical soundness etc.

If it's something that can be looked up elsewhere, that might be a good way to check if it might be true. If you find other people saying the same thing, that provides a bit of support, though large numbers of people can be wrong. To get decent support, you would need to find someone with better credentials saying the same thing.

Someone who is a well-known public figure might have better credentials, depending on what they are known for and whether it has any relevance to the information you are wishing to assess. If Kim Kardashian gives information on current fashion trends in the US, that might be worth listening to, but if she speaks about climate change, that might not: that's not her field and she would know less about it than many other people.

Kim Kardashian

It is a common error to consider that anything a celebrity says must be true. That's why they are used so much in advertising.

People who will be held to account for what they say have better credentials than those who don't. Politicians will generally be torn to shreds for saying things which can be shown not to be true, so will generally be careful not to do so. Mind you, here we need to distinguish factual statements from statements of opinion. If a member of the government says that last year $60 million was spent on research into childhood anemia, that is probably fairly reliable. But, if the same politician says that too much is being spent on programs for delinquent youth, that is just their opinion and is not something that can be disproved. Other people are just as likely to disagree, so the information should be taken with a pinch of salt.

The ultimate in reliability is found in academia. Anything published in a peer-reviewed journal has gone through quite an exacting process to get there. Firstly, the writer would in general have a PhD and would, in the process of getting it, have learnt the ins and outs of research and what constitues reliable evidence. Secondly, to be doing the research, the academic would have to be employed by a research institute which would demand good research skills and a good record before employing them and approving their research project. Thirdly, the research and the findings would be written up and then reviewd by a number of other academics who are experts in the same field (the peer review prcess). The reviewers' job is to find anything in the methods, arguments or conclusions that is dubious. This might include insufficient data, logical non-sequiturs or inconsistencies, unawareness of other relvant findings from elsewhere that should have been taken into account and so on. Finally, once published, thousands of other academics will generally read the work. Anyone who finds issues with it can publish a response which, if valid, will enhance their reputation and lower that of the original writer.

The point of having such a procedure in place is to make sure that what is published in academia can be relied upon and taken for granted as a basis for further research. If you read something written in an academic journal, the probability that it's true is very high.

Occasionally, new evidence shows that accepted results are wrong or at least need tweaking, but still the original research generally still gave the best results possible from the evidence available at that time. Newton's law of gravitation fitted everything that was known in Newton's time. New discoveries, like the constancy of the speed of light, were made later and Einstein then adapted Newton's theory to take account of the new discoveries in the theory of general relativity. That theory has stood for over 100 years with no one finding fault.

There is a theory popular in creationist circles that any scientist who published any results that favour creation rather than evolution would instantly lose all approval and respect from the academic community, not to mention their job. This is rubbish: anyone who could come up with good evidence which demonstrated that evolution didn't or couldn't happen, evidence that couldn't be faulted on any of the grounds that peer-reviewers might consider, would become instantly the worlds's most famous academic, just like Einstein did when he disproved Newton's law of gravity which, up to that point, was accepted as true by virtually all scientists worldwide.

Academics assess evidence and draw conclusions from that evidence, whether or not the conlcusions fit with existing concepts. In fact, evidence that shows that existing concepts are wrong or need to be modified is the most celebrated, because it it this that leads to the major steps forward in scientific knowledge. Scientists who have gone against the prevailing views include Copernicus, Galileo, Newton, Darwin and Einstein.

Albert Einstein             Giordano Bruno

Albert Einstein                     Giordno Bruno

Giordano Bruno might have ended up amongst their ranks too. In the 16th Century he extended Copernicus' idea that the Earth went round the Sun by suggesting that the stars were distant suns with their own planets and maybe their own life. He also proposed that the universe is infinite and that it doesn't have a centre. Unfortunately, his ideas didn't fit well with the Church's position on cosmology based on the bible and, as a result of these and other views, he was burnt at the stake in 1600.

Informants will often claim to have credentials, but unless they can provide convincing evidence for those claims, then that's all they are - just claims. The anonymous person, Q, who started the QAnon conspiracy theory claimed in his posts to be a high-ranking member of the US armed forces with special security clearance that allowed him access to sensitive information that most people could never get. But he never gave any evidence of this. No one even knows who he is. Anyone can make those sorts of claims in order to push any spurious information, but such claims prove nothing more than a good imagination.

Application to the Christian Story

The Christian story comes primarily from the bible and, to a lesser extent, from the hierarchy of the churches.

The bible was written by people we don't know. In fact much of, we don't even know who the authors were. Christian fundamentalists will assert that the pentateuch was written by Moses, the gospels were written by Matthew, Mark, Luke and John and so on. This assertion tends to be made on the basis of faith rather than evidence, however. Academics who have studied this issue are generally agreed that the pentateuch was written by several people over a considerable period of time and redacted quite a bit after that. Moses, if he existed, isn't considered to have written any of it. The fact that it describes his death and burial makes it very unlikely that Moses wrote all of it.

The evidence is quite overwhelming too that the gospels were not written by the people whose names they bear. It was common in those days to ascribe a work to a famous person to give it some authority. Also, it is almost universally agreed that none of the gospels were written until long after the events that they describe had happened and at a time when most of those alive in Jesus' time would have already been dead. This would have made it easy to write anything one felt suitable without fear of contradiction.

Likewise, Isaiah shows strong evidence of having been written by at least three people with different styles. In the case of many of the other Old Testament books, like Kings, Chronicles etc., even fundamentalist Christians won't claim to know who wrote them.

Of course, biblical literalists will claim that all of the bible was dictated word for word by God. But this doesn't fit with the existence of many slightly different versions, with the numerous contradictions and inconsistencies or with the gradual way the New Testament canon was decided upon over a period of some 300 years, with many books having a claim to inclusion being rejected. The decisions on what to include were made my regular men of the early church with no more evidence of a special line of communication with God than any other Christian.

Overall, in terms of reliability of the informant, this is just about non-existent for the authors of the bible. How about the church leaders?

Well, if church leaders were all saying the same thing, that might be evidence that they were reliable informants, but the churches are known for their differences in theology - hence the thousands of Christian denominations. Many prominent church leaders in recent times have put much of their emphasis on giving money to the church and have then lived opulent and luxurious lifestyles. Others have been found not following Christian morality while expecting their congregations to do so. The reliability of church leaders is probably less even than that of the writers of the scriptures.

Consideration of the reliability of the informants, therefore, requires the Christian story be assigned a very low probability of being correct. In the abseence of the answers to the other four questions, it would probably be placed well under 10%.

Other Applications

Other religions: What is written above about Christianity applies also to other many religions other like Judaism and Hinduism and their texts. The Islamic Quran is believed to have been written by Mohammed, a fairly well known historical figure. It is said to be dictated by Allah, though there is no evidence for this. A similar story accompanies the Book of Mormon. They can't both be right.

Astrology: Astrology consists of quite a large body of knowledge which has been handed down from ancient times and modified somewhat along the way. No one knows who came up with the ideas or how. So in terms of reliability of the informant, it has practically zero credibility.

Newspapers and magazines often contain astrological predictions. Comparing predictions between different authors in different publications, there is often very little agreement, suggesting that much of it is just made up. The predictions are often very general and vague, so that many people can find something in their lives which fit with a prediction.

Statistical studies have been carried out on astrological predictions and the extent to which they were born out in life. Generally, they find that the predictions are no better than random guesswork. So modern astrologers are clearly unreliable informants.

Overall, it is very unlikely that astrological predictions are anything more than guesswork, generally engaged in for monetary gain.

Crystals and other new-age ideas: Proximity to certain crystals is ascribed certain benefits to human health. As with astrology, the origin of this information is unknown and the information varies between users. Academic statistical studies have failed to find any evidence for the claims. These ideas are therefore not supported by the criterion of reliability of the informant.

Conspiracy Theories: Like the QAnon theory, other conspiracy theories are generally of unknown origin or are originated by someone with no credentials and often of unknown identity. They thus should be assigned low probabilities of being correct. Some may possibly be correct, though none have been supported by anything like reliable evidence. If any were shown to be likely correct, then they would cease to be a conspiracy theory and become part of general knowledge. While they remain conspiracy theories, they should be considered unlikely to be true.

Superstitions: Superstitions almost invariably are of obsure origin, generally arising in the days before modern scientific knowledge and often based on ideas held by religious faith. Even the vast majority of religious fundamentalists nowadays do not believe that salt thrown over one's shoulder will go in the eyes of the devil and deter him from his wicked schemes.

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4: Motives of the Informant

When someone makes a statement, they generally have a motive for doing so and that motive will lie along a spectrum from a purely altruistic desire to help others be more informed to a totally self-interested desire to make other people think and act in a way that will benefit the informant.

At the altruistic end, we have giving someone directios when they ask, warning someone of danger, showing someone a better way to do something etc.

Next along the spectrum, we have providing helpful information in order to enhance one's reputation and maybe one's career. Academic publishing fits here.

Writing this website lies somewhere between these two positions. It stems from a desire to see people develop a more realistic view of life and to move away from beliefs that can lower the quality of their lives and others'. But there is also a desire for some sort of recognition, though, unlike in academic publication, there is no career move or financial gain involved.

Next lies the act of trying to persuade someone else to go in a way that is beneficial to the persuadee by providing them with information which is essentially true and reliable.

Then comes trying to persuade someone else to go in a way that is beneficial to the persuader by providing them with information which is essentially true and reliable, though selectively excluding reasons not to go that way. Most advertising falls into this category.

A variation on this is where the information is true, but misleading. A hair-care product, supposed to remove left-over shampoo after washing one's hair was advertised years ago. The ad showed a purported close-up of someone's hair after washing it with shampoo. It showed the hair to be full of gunge hanging on around the roots. The voice said this can happen to your hair if you wash with shampoo and then don't use their product. The statement was in fact true, though hair will only end up like that if one uses heaps of shampoo and then doesn't rinse it out afterwards. That, of course wasn't mentioned. The hope was that people wouldn't notice that the ad said 'can' rather than 'will'.

Car salesman

Last on the spectrum is telling people things without regard to their truth in order to get them to act in a way that benefits the persuader.

Motives are not always easy to ascertain. However, if an informant has a vested interest in you thinking a certain way and they are not likely to be held to account for what they say, then they will often deliberately use devious tactics in order to mislead you. Information from such an informant should be assigned a low probability of being true.

People making claims on the Internet often use a false name and can be very difficult to track down. So they can get away with straight-out lying. Anonymous people trying to persuade others of their political views or to get them to vote a certain way or buy a certain product or invest in a certain scheme will often have no qualms about this. Such informants should be given little or no credence and what they say assigned a very low probability of being correct.

Wherever the motives of the informant lie on the spectrum, there is always the possibility that they, although genuine and honest in what they say, were themselves misinformed and this possibility needs to be taken into account as well.

Application to the Christian Story

As with other situations, the motives of people who write religious literature can be difficult to determine. Some may well have been genuinely trying to help the reader by telling them what they believed to be true and in the reader's interest. In the days when most religious literature was developed, most people assumed without question that there was a god or gods and that people had an eternal soul. Nowadays, these assumptions are open to serious questioning.

The other motive for producing religious literature is of course that of control. Scripture can serve to give people an identity and a loyalty to a group, it can inspire people to do things they might not otherwise do, using taled of heroism and glory. And it can scare people into acting certain ways by threats of reward and punishment in this life or an afterlife.

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5: How does the claim relate to prior knowledge?

We tend to readily accept new ideas which fit with our prior knowledge. Our prior knowledge can seem self-evident and if we developed it when we were young, we probably adopted it uncritically and never considered that it needed to be questioned or confirmed. Thus we tend to take our prior knowledge for granted. New ideas which fit with our prior knowledge might be deduceable from that knowledge and thus seem logically sound.

We tend to be more reserved about ideas that don't fit so well: if the prior knowledge is correct, then it can be hard to see how the new ideas can be correct, so we assume that they aren't. For instance, many Republican voters will readily readily believe reports that a Democrat politician is corrupt in some way because that fits with knowing that Democrats are misguided people with dubious morals. But they will be less prepared to believe that a Republican politician is corrupt because Republicans are people with sound judgment.

This tendency to accept what fits with our prior knowledge and reject what doesn't is known as confirmation bias. And it is a sound approach to new ideas, provided, of course, that our prior knowledge is sound.

But confirmation bias can be a negative if prior information isn't sound. It means that people tend to stick with false ideas even when evidence is presented that suggests a more valid model. It largely explains why people brought up with different world views tend to stick with their own respective world view even when they are all presented with the same ideas and evidence later on.

Confirmation bias tends to keep our world view stable and in agreement with those around us. This makes us more comfortable in our views, less prone to unsettling doubts and paradoxes and less proned to conflict with the others in our social group. This in turn leaves us and our social group free to focus more fully on the tasks in life that help us to survive and reproduce. As such, it seems that confirmation bias might be an evolutionary adaptation. However, it has an obvious downside in that it makes it less likely that our understanding of the world will progress and tends to keep us in ways of thinking from earlier times when less was known and morality was more primitive.

People who are brought up in the Christian religion will see anything that agrees with that religion as being sound and anything that contradicts it as being wrong, even if they cannot put their finger on how it is wrong. They tend to see sex before marriage, homosexuality, abortion, scientific ideas like evolution and the inferred history of the universe and the Earth as wrong, whereas they probably would not have done so had they not been brought up Christian. Their objection to such things are not always purely logical either; rather, they tend to have a gut feeling that such things are wrong. They see any progress from the morality of iron-age warriors reflected in the bible as wrong and undesirable. Some will even discount all the evidence that the Earth is spherical to maintain the cosmological view prevalent thousands of years before the discoveries of the age of reason, because such a view fits better with their prior knowledge that the bible is correct.

If we want the best chance of understanding our world, when new knowledge is encountered which is at odds with our prior understanding, we need to assess the new knowledge in terms of Questions 1 to 4, then, if it passes those tests ok, we need to weigh it against our prior understanding without any pre-conception that our prior understanding must be correct. In fact we should retrospectively assess the prior knowledge in terms of the same four questions. Indeed, we probably need to assess it more critically because a lot of it was formed when we were very young, when we accepted whatever we were told uncritically. All major advances in human thinking occur this way.

Application to the Christian Story

Most of us grow up with prior knowledge concerning the supernatural or spiritual world or its non-existence. The fact that we each tend to stick to our own respective views of that world throughout life despite being exposed to various ideas at odds with it illustrates our confirmation bias.

Logically, it makes sense to allow for that bias in considering new ideas. The trouble is that most religions strongly discourage this, for the obvious reason that it would cause people to drift away from that religion.

For people who are totally happy to live with their religious misconceptions, this isn't really a problem for them. However, those with any kind of doubts might well benefit from assessing other possible world views on an equal footing to their present one.

The proposition here of course, is that the universe is purely material, that there is no god and that everything can be explained by natural processes as described by the laws of physics. To assess this naturalistic model on the same grounds as a theistic model requires one to have a reasonable understanding of the natural processes - the laws of physics, geological processes, biology, evolution, psychology etc. And the trouble is that understanding these things takes time.

Many school children are deliberately prevented from being exposed to this knowledge by zealous parents and teachers who want them above all to stay with the religious indoctrination they consider correct. What's more, the children are led to believe that even learning about such things is wrong. This approach to education can in theory lead to truth being passed down undefiled from generation to generation. But it can just as easily lead to lies being passed down.

This happens to some extent all around the world in hundreds of different religions. As no more than one of those religions can be right and all the rest must be wrong, clearly the process mostly passes down lies. People ought to be less confident that their particular religion is the one that is true.

Other Applications

Of course, the spiritual world isn't the only thing about which we hold prior knowledge which might be questionable. It can be good to assess superstitions, political views, morality and so on in the same way.

Back to the Question List


Critical Thinking, Belief and Faith

Critical thinking is thinking carefully about how likely something is to be true before believing it and acting upon it.

Belief is considering a claim sufficiently likely that one will base one's action on it. For instance, suppose someone tells us that a rope bridge across a river is safe. We might use the six question (in an informal way) to assess the likelihood that he is right. If our the probability is sufficiently high, then we might believe him and use it. If, however, the probability is not sufficiently high, we might not have that belief and so might not use it.

Critical thinking and belief are both rational behaviours that are likely to lead to the truth and to appropriate behaviour decisions.

Faith on the other hand is believing what one is told with no regard for the quality or quantity of the evidence for or against it and thus without assessing the likelihood that it is true.

Faith is what is expected in many religions. Jesus reprimanded Thomas for reserving judgment when the other disciples told him that Jesus had dropped in to say hello a few days after being executed. Thomas said he would believe if he saw Jesus himself and felt his crucifixion wounds.

Jesus and Thomas

Obviously, Thomas was, at least to some extent, a critical thinker, requiring better evidence that what he was told was true before believing it. This is a problem (in fact a sin) in the Christian view.

Christians are expected not to think critically like Thomas did, but to have faith. In fact salvation, the whole aim of Christianity, is conditional upon faith. In Christianity, as in other religions, logic, reason and critical thinking just won't cut it and in fact will quite possibly preclude salvation.

Of course, believing what we are told without question is fine, as long as we are only ever told one thing. But in life we tend to be told a lot of different, and often contradictory things. As we cannot believe them all, we tend to believe the one we are told first as that doesn't contradict any prior knowledge. When later we are told things which contradict what we have already accepted, then the normal course of action is to ignore the contradictory claims and stay with the first thing we were told.

There is an obvious evolutionary advantage in this: our parents are generally the people who care most about our safety and they are the ones who tell us things first. They might tell us not to play with snakes, scorpions and spiders. Other people later might be less concerned about our safety and encourgae us to play with dangerous animals. Those who accept on faith what their parents say and disbelieve anything that later contradicts it tend to survive better than those who don't.

Because of this evolutionary adaptation, with religion, many people brought up with one particular set of doctines, be it evangelical Christian, Catholic, Lutheran, Jehovah's Witnessism, Mormonism, Islam, Hinduism, atheism, Zoroastriaism, Wicca or one of the many others, accept them on faith and reject anything later that contradicts that. This explains why people brought up in Islamic families and societies are nearly always Muslim, people brought up Hindu are nealy always Hindu etc. It doesn't mean that the accepted religion is right; it just means that that was the one they were exposed to first.

Young children are thus easy to indoctrinate. If they are told when very young about a fat man in a red suit who climbs down chimneys to deliver presents, they readily believe it because they don't understand the world enough to know that it isn't likely to be true. It's the same with the religious stories we are told as young children. It is easy to indoctrinate young children into both the locally prevalent religious dogma and into the acceptance of faith as an appropriate way to understand the world.

As a result of this indoctrination into religion and faith thinking, faith is a widely accepted expectation in Western Society and, although reason tells us critical thinking is the better approach to life, faith is accepted as superior by a large proportion of the population.

One consequence of the widespread acceptance of the appropriateness of faith thinking and associated demonisation of critical thinking is that people have a tendency to believe all sorts of other things without adequate evidence - not just religious dogma. That tendency has, over the centuries led to the widespread acceptance without basis of astrology, various superstitions, new-age ideas and so on. The advent of the Internet has made it easy for people to be exposed to a multitude of conspiracy theories. Many people lean towards faith thinking rather than critical thinking and have a tendency to accept anything that doesn't contradict what has been accepted before and to reject anything that does. Thus they tend to readily believe many of the conspiracy theories and are then immune to any other viewpoints, including evidence against them. As a result, democratic societies often go ways that critical thinkers would not go.

The religious idea of a soul leads to social expectations and taboos, like the illegalisation of abortion and euthanasia. And of course, many Christians push for the legal requirements of the iron-age peoples of the Old Testament to be mandated for everyone today, not just those who accept their religion. Hence the opposition to same-sex marriage etc.

As faith thinking is indoctrinated from a young age by parents and, in many cases, churches and schools, critical thinkers might wish for critical thinking to be given at least equal prominence as a valid alternative. While this might be gaining some traction in schools, it is a slow process. Of course, it won't gain any traction in Christian homes and churches.

Faith thinking is holding us back. However, the situation in predominantly Christian countries is better than that in many countries with other religions, where expressing thoughts at odds with those prescribed by the religious authorities can in some cases incur the death penalty. This of course makes any sort of move towards encouraging critical thinking or other views of the world very difficult.

For most people, life is beter now than it was in centuries past, but it could have been a lot better still.

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Image Acknowledgements

Prince: DeviantArt

Bear: John Mizel on Flickr

Kim Kardashian: Flickr

Einstein: Wikimedia Commons

Bruno: Wikipedia

Car salesman: WannaPik

Logical fallacies: DeviantArt

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