Monday, October 22, 2007

Intellectual Responsibility and Patience

One of the questions that I received from the studio audience asked me to comment on a survey conducted by Reginald Bibby at the University of Lethbridge (Alberta, Canada) that allegedly showed that atheist place less importance on a number of key values when compared to theists. For example, according to this survey, 95% view as very important; whereas 89% of atheists view honesty as very important.

Standards of Evaluation

One of the things that I am not going to do in response to this survey is to assert that it is flawed merely because it draws conclusions that I do not like. This is the Bush Administration method of analyzing intelligence, where intelligence that does not support the Administration’s position on attacking Iraq is, by that fact alone, assumed to be bad intelligence. It is a system where scientific studies that show that humans are contributing to global warming is considered bad science because his its financial backers do not want to be held accountable for the harms that will result, and where any evidence that can be interpreted as a problem for evolution is instantly accepted because it, too, supports a favored position.

I am quite willing to examine this survey using the same standards of evidence that are applied to scientific surveys generally. To the degree that the survey is internally and externally valid, to that degree its findings should be incorporated into our understanding of the world.

Internal validity, by the way, has to do with the way in which the survey’s conclusions are supported by the data within the survey. For example, if the survey asks an individual whether they are pleased or displeased with Bush’s job in office, and concludes from a 71% disapproval rating that this percentage of respondents were liberals, this would be internally invalid. It is quite easy for a conservative to disapprove of Bush’s job in office.

Professional researchers know many ways to get research to appear to say what the author wants it to say. For example, if one wants to show a 'positive' answer rather than a 'negative' answer, a survey simply needs to provide more positive options than negative options. Professional researchers who submit their research to peer review have a difficult time getting their tricks past professionals who are aware of, and whose job it is to catch and reject, papers that have these types of flaws.

External validity has to do with the degree to which a survey can be extrapolated across the country at large. If a survey on Bush’s popularity was taken at a pro-Bush rally, even though it may be true that “88% of respondents approve of how Bush is handling his job in office,” this finding could not be extrapolated to say that the nation as a whole approves of Bush’s job in office.

Since I do not have time to examine every study that people might take, and I do not have time to keep up on every field that an individual might write on, I use proxy standards to determine whether a report is trustworthy or not. Specifically, I look for what whether individuals who are experts in the field and who have studied issues such as internal and external validity.

This is what the peer-review process in science is about.

A few months ago, a study came out that showed that less religious societies in Europe had fewer incidents of teenage pregnancy, suicide, drug use, murder, and similar socially destructive states than America did. This study obtained credibility by being subject to a peer-review process that required that the author restate certain conclusions so that they were consistent with the data. For example, the study did not show that high religiosity caused these harms – it only showed a correspondence between high religiosity and these harms among developed countries (Europe, North America, and Japan). That is what the paper ultimately claimed.

However, I have not found any evidence that this study has undergone any type of peer-review process. I could not find mention of the study being included in any peer-reviewed publication, or of any independent assessment of its methodology and conclusions. Until such a report has been issued, it is sensible to view the study with some measure of suspicion.

Of course, in the absence of peer review, it is just as much of mistake to assume that this study is flawed as it is to assume that the study is sound. In addition, the survey provides an excellent opportunity for an ethics writer to examine the values that were a part of the survey.

One open question that reports of the survey left untouched was a question of the degree to which people should hold a particular value as important.

A good example of this is ‘patience’. It is easy to see how a group of people who have been waiting for 2000 years for their savior to return, and who will likely have to wait for a few billion more years (or until the end of human civilization whenever that may come) will find patience to be a virtue. The same is true of people who are waiting for prayers to be answered when there is no being to answer them. The church, in this case, has good reason to preach that patience is a virtue because, without patience, most of their political and economic support would pack up and walk away.

However, a more rational view of patience would categorize it as an Aristotelian virtue. Aristotle argued that virtue rests in finding an appropriate level of moderation between two extremes. Courage, for example, lies somewhere between the extremes of cowardice and foolhardiness. Temperance rests between abstinence and gluttony.

It is possible for a person to be over-demanding, insisting that things be delivered immediately that should not always be delivered immediately. A President who is impatient to receive an intelligence report on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may rush the report and get a far lower quality product as a result.

At the same time, too much patience is also imprudent. For example, if information does not arrive in a timely manner, then it becomes useless. Also, a person who is trapped in a burning building should recognize the fact that he cannot afford to wait around all day, and insist on some measure of speed on the part of his would-be rescuers.

Too much patience has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging people to take advantage of others – namely, the infinitely patient. If there is no condemnation or negative consequences to making others wait, then individuals will have less of an opportunity to form aversion to making others wait. These people will tend to steal time from others and use it for their own projects. The remedy for this type of exploitation is to be a little less than totally patient, to be willing to say to such people, “You have taken enough of my time, now act, or get out of the way.”

Imagine two people, each with $10,000 in their bank accounts. One of them knows that this is the case – that he has $10,000, and when it is gone there will be no more. The other has $10,000, a debit card, and a false belief that he has an account without limit.

In most cases, we can expect the person with the false belief that he has an endless supply of money to squander what he has, wasting it on things that are of little value, and foregoing things that have real value in the false belief that he can get those things later. At the same time, the individual who understands exactly how much money he has will have a more accurate understanding of the true cost of things, and will be more willing to change his behavior when the cost gets too high.

The same can be expected when it comes to theists and atheists spending the ‘time’ accounts that they have available. Both of them only have this one life to live. However, the person who falsely believes that he is immortal and that the time he has available is endless can be expected to squander that time. He uses it to acquire things today that have little value, falsely believing that he can pick other things up at a later date. When somebody seeks to squander his time, he has no reason to protest – there is more where that came from (or so he thinks).

Asserting that atheists have a poorer sense of value because they place a greater value on time than the theist begs some very important questions. This is simply a case where the atheist appreciates how scarce a particular resource is, which allows him to realize how valuable it is, which will tend to make him upset with those who would insist that he waste it. This is not an example of greater Christian virtue. This is an example of greater Christian irrationality.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks I will be addressing some of the other values that showed up in that survey, and looking at what the differences in the findings say about the individuals who hold those values.

6 comments:

Kelly Gorski said...

The bank account analogy was excellent. In truth, those who believe (as fact, no less) that there is an afterlife are only using it as a way to deny death even happens. How useless.

Makarios said...

You seem to be a tad defensive Alonzo. I haven’t read the conclusions of the report, only the stats. Nevertheless - as you say, just because you don’t like the evidence doesn’t mean that it wrong. You made this comment.

“Too much patience has the unfortunate side effect of encouraging people to take advantage of others – namely, the infinitely patient. If there is no condemnation or negative consequences to making others wait, then individuals will have less of an opportunity to form aversion to making others wait. These people will tend to steal time from others and use it for their own projects. The remedy for this type of exploitation is to be a little less than totally patient, to be willing to say to such people, “You have taken enough of my time, now act, or get out of the way.”

Just a couple thoughts Alonzo. Do you actually believe that Christians or those who place a high value on patience haven’t examined exactly these thoughts also? Do you think that we haven’t weighed this out in our minds? Or do you see Alonzo Fyfe as the lone story teller who smirks at all the fools who think that an elephant is really a tree trunk?

AND

Regarding values and intuiting what’s important in life, my observation has been this.

.My Christian friends value family (and study after study re: Christian vs. non Christian bear this out) more than my non Christian friends.
.For my non Christian friends, finding their value and worth and sense of being ok via career, position and power seem more important.

.My non Christian friends value possessions (houses, boats, vehicles, large bank accounts etc.) more than my Christian friends. I actually had one guy tell me, word for word, the old cliche, “The one who dies with the most toys, wins.” And the guy from Richard Dawkins.net who goes under the name Jane, said to me in a tone of disbelief, “So I guess you don’t even want to be a millionaire?”

.My conversations with my Christian friends tend toward the deeper issues of life - child rearing problems, care for the elderly, helping the single mom down the street, struggles with being the kind of people that we want to be etc.
.Conversations with my non Christian friends tend to be about sports, fixing vehicles, how to decorate for Halloween, about the jerk in the next office, how the government is doing things right, how lousy the weather is, how high the cost of ??? is etc. My conversations with my non Christian friends have an awful lot to do with what’s wrong in their lives.

These of course are generalizations. There is certainly overlap but it is a pattern that I’ve noticed for a long time. It comes down, I think, to one’s perspective.

The bank account analogy is a good one. It’s just that since you begin with a error in your presupposition, you end up with an error in your conclusion.

Atheists believe that Christians think that because of God, nothing on earth matters. In reality, and you need to hear this Alonzo, IN REALITY Christians believe that because of God, everything on earth matters. I don’t expect you to believe that. I’m just saying.

Alonzo Fyfe said...

makarios

Being 'defensive' is no sin . . . pardon the pun. The problem occurs in being wrong. Evidence that I am wrong is worth considering.

Concerning your observations about your relationships with Christians and non-Christians, this is anecdotal evidence, and is notoriously unreliable. It is subject to a great deal of selection bias. People invariably choose evidence that confirms a prior belief as 'proof'that they are right, while dismissing conflicting evidence as rare deviations. In other words, their beliefs determine how they interpret their experience, which (unsurprisingly) always seems to confirm their beliefs.

As to your final statement, Atheists believe that Christians think that because of God, nothing on Earth matters . . ., I would be hesitant to say what 'atheists think'. There is a wide variety of atheists. They do not even have a common view of what atheism means . . . I would not expect them to have a common view of anything else.

Anyway, the proposition that "Christians think that because of God, nothing on earth matters," I really have a hard time imagining anybody believing something so absurd. I'm not saying that nobody believes such a thing - but it would count as one of the stranger things for a person to believe.

We all have desires. These are a product of evolution and experience. An individual for which nothing matters simply would not move. He would have no reason to move. He could not move unless something 'mattered' enough to him to motivate him to act. The only people for which it is even possible that nothing on earth matters are dead.

However, I do expect the economic law of diminishing returns to apply to Christians and non-Christians alike. This law states the the first cup of water has more value to a person than the 1 millionth cup, the first dollar has more value than the one millionth dollar, and the first hour has more value than the one millionth hour.

It is a simple law of economics that says that as a resource becomes more limited that it should be spent on that which has the highest value return. So, if a person thinks that a resource is unlimited, then he thinks he can afford to spend some of it on things that have a very modest return. The person who thinks that a resource is more scarce has reason to avoid things that have a low value return. This has nothing to do with 'atheists' and 'Christians'. It is basic economic theory.

Makarios said...

Yes, of course, the bias escape. And you would be immune to this type of bias I suppose?

Alonzo said, “As to your final statement, Atheists believe that Christians think that because of God, nothing on Earth matters . . ., I would be hesitant to say what 'atheists think'. There is a wide variety of atheists. They do not even have a common view of what atheism means . . . I would not expect them to have a common view of anything else.
===
You guys are priceless. Ok, let me rephrase. Here’s what two atheists, you and Kelly Gorski have disclosed about your thoughts regarding the world-view of Christians. The Theist squanders his ten grand because only heaven matters and the brilliant, logical, rational atheist uses his ten thou wisely because this life is so terribly precious to h/him. Yes? No?

Even though this type of obfuscation (I can’t really say what other atheists might be thinking) when any atheist is challenged, has been documented in copious amounts through anecdotal evidence on atheist blogs too numerous to count, I’ll grant your point that it is extremely rare for any two atheists to hold to the same set of beliefs on any given subject. If it happens, it's only by random selection. Got ya.

Alonzo said, “Anyway, the proposition that "Christians think that because of God, nothing on earth matters," I really have a hard time imagining anybody believing something so absurd. I'm not saying that nobody believes such a thing - but it would count as one of the stranger things for a person to believe.
======
So when Alonzo Fyfe says, “The same can be expected when it comes to theists and atheists spending the ‘time’ accounts that they have available. Both of them only have this one life to live. However, the person who falsely believes that he is immortal and that the time he has available is endless can be expected to squander that time. He uses it to acquire things today that have little value, falsely believing that he can pick other things up at a later date. When somebody seeks to squander his time, he has no reason to protest – there is more where that came from (or so he thinks).”

Are you suggesting Alonzo, that isn’t exactly the case you are trying to make about Christians? Aren’t you saying that we (Christians) don't go after what's truly important on earth because we’ve got so much coming in the future? Isn’t that the point you were trying to make with your bank account story? It’s what Kelly Gorski thought you meant?

Alonzo, don’t you think there is something a bit off with someone, when that person tries to defend being less kind, less patient, less loving etc. than the next person? Especially when your disagreement might not even arise if the other viewpoint didn't come from a Christian?

Don't you feel even the least bit disappointed in yourself for suggesting that it's rational and logical for people in this angry,angry world to justify being less kind and less patient with each other?

Don’t you feel even a twinge of self-doubt when you suggest that someone must be naive in order to highly value being nice?

In responding to this very same study, I read someone on a different atheist blog protest, “Ya, well, being kind can get you into a lot of trouble.”

Don’t get excited Alonzo. You don’t have to write paragraphs about this. I’m not saying that I’ve found two atheists who think alike. I’m just saying that you and she are similar enough one this point to fit into my argument.

Anyhow, guess what? Christians know that we can get hurt by being kind to someone. We know that it might not seem "rational" to everyone to love one's enemies, to do good to those who hate us, to pray for those who persecute us.

The One we claim to follow came to earth with the precise intention of letting humans do our absolute worst to Him. He knew that loving us would cost Him His life. But He did it anyway. What I’m describing is the mind-set or the beliefs that were demonstrated by the Amish a short time ago. These values that they also hold dear allowed them to forgive the killer of their children and to then donate a large sum of money to His widow.

It’s an atheist mind-set, singular though it may be, that caused a columnist in Time Magazine to condemn the Amish for their actions saying, “Some people should never be forgiven!” It’s an atheist mind-set that caused another blogger, in responding to the study in question to respond with, “Anger is good. It motivates people. People who don’t get angry get walked on.”

I’ll be interested to read your comments in the coming days to see how you defend tearing down those who hold kindness and love in high esteem.

Square Peg said...

As a theist, I find great interest in what atheists have to say, and I appreciate reading many of the thought provoking comments. As I read some of the descriptions of Christianity by the contributors to this blog, I start to wonder if any of them actually know any Christians? To say that theists are not concerned about life on earth because they believe in an afterlife is just plain wrong. I do not claim to speak for every religion, but I can speak for the vast majority of Christians by saying that such a view is contrary to Christian teaching. Because of a Christian's belief in God, there is a sense of accountability for one's actions in this world.
I would encourage people to talk with theists before they make statements about what they believe.

Sheldon said...

In response to makarios and square peg, (and Alonzo),

I think you may be correct in thinking that Alonzo is in error about the value believers put on life here on earth.

I see no evidence that believers, Christians or otherwise behave as though there really is an afterlife. They seem to dread the day they might die as if there is no afterlife just as much or even more than an atheist might. Believers seem to pursue earthly goals, varied as they may be just as much as the more secular or atheists might.

One thing very insightful that Alonzo suggests is that perhaps trying to define values common to atheists isn't neccessarilly a valid inquiry. What atheists have in common is a disbelief in God. We may put more value on various intellectual pursuits like science and philosophy, but from there we may diverge quite radically in other values.

As an example, we might consider some of the values you list Makarios. I can mostly speak for myself as an atheist, but I would bet there are both believers and atheists who might share my values. That is because these values have little to do with my atheism. (With the exception of my values on skepticism, reason, and empiricism).

As for career, while important to me, I am in a relatively low paying profession that I enjoy (archaeologist) that it hardly corresponds well to a pursuit of material wealth.

In fact you bring up Dawkins (or his website). While Dawkins could have used his considerable intelligence in business to make millions, he instead used it in a search for knowledge as a biologist.

I think that the emphasis on the accumulation of excessive material wealth leads to many profound moral problems. And I am quite critical of societies' obsessive consumerism, greed, inequality, and preoccupation with shallow entertainment.

My values you might define as leftist/socialist. These values actually have little to do with atheism, and many Christians may share them. On the other hand, there are plenty of atheists who are libertarians and Randian "objectivists" who would be very critical of my values and positions.

As for sports, you would have a better conversation with a board, than with this atheist. Unless you wanted to talk about the absurdity of paying pro athletes millions of dollars to play a game.

"how the government is doing things right,".. or wrong.

I fail to see how and why you think this concern is somehow shallow. What the government is doing right or wrong, or not doing at all is one of the most profound moral subjects one can talk about. From the Middle East wars to childrens health insurance etc., no matter what side you are on!


Also, makarios, I think you are making a category error in your ancedotal analysis. You define your friends as either Christian, or non-Christian. Non-Christian or non-religious people are not neccessarily the same type of people as those who explicitly identify themselves as atheists.