Friday, September 23, 2011

Belief in God Boils Down to Intuition

I have recently posted several articles here asserting that theism is a product of adopting an intuitive way of understanding our world and that human intuition is a very poor substitute to an overall weight of the available evidence method of understanding our world which favors atheism over theism. I further argue that the well-established, true facts about how our world functions are mostly non-intuitive, and even counter-intuitive, and that an empirical, overall weight of the available evidence method is the only method that we have any reason to think works for reliably finding accurate answers to questions about how our world functions.

An article by Stephanie Pappas published in titled Belief in God Boils Down to a Gut Feeling reports on the results of a new study by researcher Amitai Shenhav of Harvard University and his colleagues, published Sept. 19 online in the Journal of Experimental Psychology: General (also, another copy can be found here), about a difference in how non-theists and theists justify their beliefs. The study attempts to determine whether beliefs are influenced by how much an individual relies on their natural intuitions versus making the additional effort required to better understand the problem and find the correct, non-intuitive answer. People who incorrectly went with their intuition on a math test were found to be one-and-a-half times more likely to believe in God than those who got all the answers right. The results held even when taking factors such as education and income into account.

The researchers then initiated a second study to see if they could encourage people to be more theistic by encouraging them to adopt an intuitive focus. 373 participants were told to write a paragraph about either successfully using their intuition or successfully reasoning their way to an answer. Those who wrote about the intuitive experience were more likely to say they were convinced of God's existence after the experiment, suggesting that triggering intuitive thinking boosts belief.

However, contrary to what I argue, the researcher David Rand of Harvard claimed "It's not that one way is better than the other, intuitions are important and reflection is important, and you want some balance of the two. Where you are on that spectrum affects how you come out in terms of belief in God."

Of course, intuition has a proper role. Intuition is arguably the best method when evidence is unavailable, contradictory, or otherwise does not provide direction to answering a question that needs to be answered. But relying primarily on intuition to answer mathematics questions isn't balanced. That so many people turn to intuition in inappropriate contexts such as a mathematics quiz is a symptom of a counter-productive overtendency to rely far too much on intuition and far too little on going beyond intuition to reflect on the nature of the problem and how the available evidence favors some answers over others. David Rand is being too non-judgemental in his characterization of the spectrum. One way is better than the other in these contexts. Reflection takes first place, intuitition should only be our second method and only in those contexts where reflection is not viable due to lack of time or evidence constraints.

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