Mistakes #5: Blinded by winning

(Mistakes #1, #2, #3, #4)

I used to be a practicing atheist. I figured I had strong arguments against God’s existence. I talked to some Christians, and found that they were both ill-prepared to defend their views and shockingly uninterested in the fact that they couldn’t. This made them look like the epistemological analogues of movie villains; trivial to scorn.

Alas, this made me less likely to wonder if I was mistaken about the whole topic. If a person responds to criticisms of their beliefs with fluster and fascination with all other subjects, my natural  response is not to back down and think about why I am wrong.

Yet I should have been confused. If a person is apparently doing a host of things because of fact X, and the balance of evidence doesn’t seem to support X, and the person don’t appear to care about that, one should probably question one’s assumption that X is a central part of their worldview. I still think I wasn’t wrong about X, but I was probably wrong about all these people toiling under peculiar and willingly misinformed views on X.

Thinking about it now, it seems unlikely that the existence and exact definition of God is anywhere near as central to religion as it seems to a literal-minded systematization-obsessed teenager with little religious experience. Probably religious people mostly believe in God, but it’s not like they came to that conclusion and then reluctantly accepted the implications of it. It’s part of a big cluster of intersecting things that are appealing for various reasons. I won’t go into this, because I don’t know much about it, and this post isn’t about what religion is about. (If you want a post that is about that, at least a bit, Scott Alexander wrote two good ones recently that seem about right to me.)

This post is about winning arguments. If you repeatedly win an argument too easily, I claim that you should be less sure that you know what is going on at all, rather than smug. My boyfriend points out that being perturbed by the weakness of your opponents’ arguments is perhaps the smuggest way to be unsure of yourself, so maybe I just think you should be less sure of yourself as well as smug.

6 responses to “Mistakes #5: Blinded by winning

  1. “My boyfriend points out that being perturbed by the weakness of your opponents’ arguments is perhaps the smuggest way to be unsure of yourself, so maybe I just think you should be less sure of yourself as well as smug.”

    This is amusing and well-noted, but you can preserve the value of the advice here and reframe it in a less smug way, I think. For instance: If your opponents’ arguments don’t make sense to you, or are not very good, you may not be arguing against their true belief/objection/object of concern and the arguments for that may be very strong indeed.

  2. michealvassar

    It seems to me that the top of your list of hypotheses, for when something like that happens, you should guess roughly that they don’t believe in not lying to someone if you wouldn’t slash their tires. That’s the natural interpretation of someone being unperturbed by badly loosing arguments about supposedly important claims.

    It’s unclear what you should do if you think that one shouldn’t lie unless you would also slash tires, and you find yourself massively outnumbered by people who don’t think that, but you probably shouldn’t be smug. It’s probable, when the situation is digested, that the conclusion is at least as counterintuitive as ‘go out and start slashing all the tires you can’.

  3. I grew up in a religious household. In fact, the household in which I grew up is still religious; my father is a pastor. I’ve observed that the institution calling itself “The Church” is fully aware of its blind spots and weak points epistemologically speaking. It tends to call these “mysteries of faith”, and there are many. When a person asks two many questions, the Church starts saying, “Yeah, that’s really weird. Guess you’ll just have to have faith that it will all work out.” They’ve even given some of those weak spots names.

    The result is that the act of arguing against Faith Points is trained into people as a place to just lose without a fight. I think this so that it just won’t occur to them that they might be getting taught something iffy-at-best. As a sad result, “winning” an argument about religion rarely changes anybody’s mind, so I’ve given up trying over the years.

  4. It may sound weird to a nerd, but doing things that don’t make logical sense is sometimes the correct strategy. Imagine yourself living in an ancient jungle, surrounded by various plants, and your elders tell you “these plants are okay to eat, but eating these plants is taboo”. Unless you want to risk poisoning, you better follow their words. But now imagine that you have a smartass friend, who eats one of the taboo plants, and nothing happens to him, so he tells you the taboo is stupid, the plant is tasty, and you should eat it, too. Should you? Actually, there may be a good reason why you shouldn’t. Maybe the plant contains a slow poison that will gradually accumumate in your body and will kill you a few months later. Maybe the plant is poisonous only during some parts of the year; on in combination with something else.

    The pre-scientific cultures are full of commands that people have to obey, and no one really knows why. And most people don’t care why. If you ask them why, they will probably just invent some crazy rationalization. It may be that actually no one ever knew why the rule should be followed; it could have appeared completely randomly (analogically to a random biological mutation) and the groups that followed the rule simply somehow had better success at survival.

    Religion seems like this kind of a thing. Whatever are its origins (Julian Jaynes has a cool theory about it), the reason why it exists today is that the groups that followed a religion were more succeful than the ones who didn’t. That’s all. It doesn’t have to be technically true. It may be a lie that provides group cohesion and healing placebo effects; or maybe something else we don’t even notice. And even if there would be no advantages, still… for an average person, *not* trying to think too much is a better strategy than trying to follow their own logic. Maybe even the smart ones are too often overconfident.

    The correct moment to feel smug will be when you invent a system that will provide all the benefits of religion without any of the bullshit. Meanwhile… you can feel superior to people who lose verbal arguments, but they still have a strong community and the power of placebo that most atheists don’t.

  5. You fail to draw the correct conclusion: “It’s [religion is] part of a big cluster of intersecting things that are appealing for various reasons.”

    So what? Your argument, if I understand you, was about God’s existence. The fact that your “opponents” don’t care much about not having reasons to support their belief doesn’t mean you weren’t completely correct in the given argument, which I understand was about whether God exists.

    When the churches lost control over philosophy, fideism passed into idealism, in turn to pragmatism, before arriving at naturalism. The arguments for God as a bundle of goods, judged by their delightfulness rather than by argument, is William Jamesian.

    You oughtn’t mitigate your sense of being correct about God’s existence. The problem with early atheists is that they indeed become arrogant, not because they were right about God but because they think that being in a small minority and being right is generally as easy as being right about God. God is a very easy question that the multitudes are indeed wrong about. There aren’t many questions like it.

  6. Pingback: Mistakes #6: Identifying reality slowly | Meteuphoric

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