Beware Instrumental Beliefs

November 4, 2013 | 66 comments
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Back in 2009, Pew Research released a research package on public opinions about evolution in honor of the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s birth. Just last month, a friend on Facebook posted the headlining chart from that package, and a lively debate ensued.

2013-11-03 Evolution

The tone of the folks posting this chart (I saw it on several walls) was one of exaggerated dismay, e.g. “A depressing — but unsurprising — revelation about Mormons.” The fact that the result fit so neatly alongside myriad preexisting cultural skirmishes should have been a major indicator that the results were unreliable, however. Lots of people argued that the question was  poorly worded, primarily because it seemed to set up an unnecessary dichotomy between evolution-without-God and creationism-with-God, thus precluding the middle ground of evolution-with-God. This criticism is legitimate, but it also serves as another big, red, warning indicator. If the responses to a survey question ostensibly about a scientific theory fall neatly within established cultural narratives, then we have good reason to be very skeptical that the survey illuminates the topic it purports to cast light upon.

In this case, the superficial narrative is that the survey reflects attitudes about evolution as the origin of human life. The first thing to note is that there is essentially no cost to affirming or denying this belief. If the truth is that evolution really is the best explanation for the origins of human life here on earth, what’s at stake for being wrong about that? Essentially nothing. What’s the benefit of being right? Again: nothing. There’s no action you can take that will help you exploit your assessment of the truth.

Contrast that with the simple question of what the weather will be like tomorrow. Knowing the truth about that kind of information will help you make informed decisions about how to dress and whether or not you need to allow extra time to defrost your car. Things like “being late to work” or “getting wet in chilly November rain” have a direct (albeit small) cost and so you have clear incentive to learn the truth and behave accordingly. Not so with academic questions about events that unfolded eons ago with inhuman slowness.

So if the survey isn’t really about evolution per se, what is it about? It’s basically a roll call to see where  people stand on the perceived cultural war between religion and science. This is why, unsurprisingly, the results to the evolution question are pretty much the mirror image to the question of average weekly church attendance.

2013-11-03 Church Attendance

Other than a switch between mainline Protestants and Catholics (and the lack of Buddhists and Muslims from the second results), you could basically tell where a denomination would rank on the evolution question by church attendance and vice versa. Now, you could interpret that as just meaning that religiosity is correlated with scientific ignorance, but I just don’t think that makes sense. No one really believes there was a literal snake in the garden because that is in any sense an intrinsically meaningful question (one way or the other). People assert or reject those beliefs as a means to some other end. There’s no other explanation for the fervor with which folks will defend unknowable and insignificant propositions.

Folks who embrace strong, anti-scientific rhetoric are flaunting their disregard for the world’s estimation of their IQ and burnishing their loyalty for all to see. They are signalling to their fellows, yes, but it’s more than that. They are enacting a narrative of persecution and using the scorn that comes their way to validate their sense of importance and role in a larger narrative. The folks on the other side of the fence, those who mock the anti-science crowd, are displaying their sophistication and cosmopolitan nature. Once again, they are signalling to their fellows and strengthening social bonds, but they are also paying the cover charge to see themselves as participants in some grand endeavor. Instead of taking the role of a stalwart band of besieged disciples, however, they are playing the part of foot soldier in the ongoing march of progress. Mocking those who seem ignorant is a cheap price to pay for feeling like you’re part of the rising tide of enlightened reason. (Especially if you bear the burden of a near total lack of relevant scientific expertise.)

I’ve written before about fictitious beliefs, including how they are used to alleviate cognitive dissonance and also the danger of conflating emotion and conviction. This is really just another example of the same thing. The cause is simple: people respond to incentives. And, since belief is a kind of action, this means that our beliefs also respond to incentives. By embracing certain beliefs, we can join an ideological tribe and invest our lives with stolen meaning. Like parasites, we risk nothing. Like addicts, we gain nothing.

What can we do about this? We can practice having no opinion on things that don’t matter. Practice cultivating friendships with people who don’t share our cultural signals. Practice scrutinizing our incentives. Practice being skeptical of the consensus that surrounds us.

There is no silver bullet. There is just a never-ending struggle to fight the gravitational pull of the path of least resistance, not just in what we do, but in what we believe. In what we perceive. It’s a struggle worth  making, however, because the alternative is so ugly. Whether it’s the assumption that conservative Mormons are too dumb to understand basic science or the assumption that “invariably liberal Mormons do not read their scriptures every day,” the lazy, comfortable, and convenient answer should always be viewed with the deepest suspicion.

66 Responses to Beware Instrumental Beliefs

  1. Kent Larsen on November 4, 2013 at 8:55 am

    Nicely put, Nathaniel. I especially like your final line: “the lazy, comfortable, and convenient answer should always be viewed with the deepest suspicion.”

    Now that’s a facebook meme I could get behind!

  2. Steve Smith on November 4, 2013 at 8:59 am

    Nathaniel, I’m not sure whether your critiquing how people infer the results of the poll or the poll itself. Because the poll asks a fair and valid question. Evolution is a question that nearly all Americans have grappled with at some point. There is no indication that the poll is a “roll call to see where people stand on the perceived conflict between religion and science.” You seem to be reading too much into the poll and jumping to conclusions without sufficient evidence, which you appear to be criticizing others of doing.

    Now I agree with you about shallow inferences from the poll, but not the poll itself. Perhaps you wouldn’t mind reiterating your central point of the post in a brief sentence, because I admit that I struggled a bit in understanding it.

  3. Ben S on November 4, 2013 at 9:01 am

    I suspect there is a cost for science-rejectors, but have no data. Is there a correlation with not vaccinating children, for example?

  4. Tim on November 4, 2013 at 9:22 am

    Vaccine skeptics seem to fall on both sides of the political extremes, and, I’m guessing, both sides of the religious extremes. Both religious fundamentalists and nonbelievers are in this camp, and both in fairly high numbers.

    Evolution skeptics tend to be almost entirely conservative and religious.

    So rejection of vaccines and rejection of evolution aren’t necessarily correlated, although there are many who reject both.

    As far as a cost? Communities with high numbers of vaccine rejectors (especially communities where many unvaccinated children attend school together) have substantially higher risk of getting sick with preventable diseases. Due to herd immunity, however, the cost for vaccine rejectors is low (or none) where just one or just a handful of children in a group are not vaccinated.

    So communities that largely reject vaccines as a group have a much higher cost.

  5. Nathaniel Givens on November 4, 2013 at 9:29 am

    Nathaniel, I’m not sure whether your critiquing how people infer the results of the poll or the poll itself.

    The poll is poorly worded, but that’s not the focus. Folks have rushed to misinterpret the results (e.g. bolstering the claim that religious people are dumb), but that’s also not the primary focus. The focus of the post is to use this as an example of how instrumental beliefs work and why they are (often) bad.

    There is no indication that the poll is a “roll call to see where people stand on the perceived conflict between religion and science.”

    The indications are the way the poll results were used to retrench existing narratives. The anti-science crowd (speaking loosely) relishes an opportunity to broadcast their disdain for popular approval. The pro-science crowd (again, speaking loosely) relishes an opportunity to mock the anti-science crowd as backwards and prove their own progressive nature by contrast.

    In a nutshell: I’m advocating that folks examine the function which beliefs play in addition to the content of those beliefs. Whenever the costs and benefits of getting the content of a belief right or wrong are very low, it’s the secondary, instrumental benefits and costs of holding the belief that will dominate.

  6. Nathaniel Givens on November 4, 2013 at 9:36 am

    I suspect there is a cost for science-rejectors, but have no data. Is there a correlation with not vaccinating children, for example?

    Tim did a pretty good job addressing this, but I just wanted to add that one of the frustrating realities is that the costs of anti-rational behavior are often distributed, which lets the behavior go on longer than it otherwise would. There are costs, but they aren’t felt as acutely by the people who are making the bad decisions.

    Not getting your kids vaccinated, for example, will have no immediate cost. It takes years to unfold. Furthermore, because non-vaccinators are embedded in larger communities, the cost is shared.

    Epidemiologists are starting to track the uptick in dangerous childhood diseases now–so hopefully a backlash is in the works–but the irresponsibility has only gone on this long because of the delayed and diffuse consequences.

    Same basic idea applies to GMOs, by the way. Most folks who protest them can afford “organice” alternatives. The folks who really depend on GMOs for subsistence aren’t likely to protest. (That issue can get thorny when it intersects with patenting crops, however.)

  7. Dave on November 4, 2013 at 10:13 am

    It was a poorly worded question, which produced misleading poll results, which were then mischaracterized by all commentators. Pew normally does a better job than this.

    So here is a question: How should Mormons interpret the results? The good news is that despite JFS, BRM, and two generations of CES obscurantism, 22% of Mormons surveyed still answered yes to the question (however they interpreted it). Let’s celebrate the 22%. There is hope.

  8. Howard on November 4, 2013 at 10:35 am

    If the truth is that evolution really is the best explanation for the origins of human life here on earth, what’s at stake for being wrong about that? Essentially nothing. Not much is at stake? It is the model for predicting the future as opposed to superstition, to say nothing is at stake is to put your head in the sand! Ah, but predicting the weather, now that IS important so I can plan what to wear! Nathaniel, you really need to rethink this ignorant egocentric short horizon bias. Now, you could interpret that as just meaning that religiosity is correlated with scientific ignorance… Yes, you sure could or willful blindness!

    People assert or reject those beliefs as a means to some other end. True, when denying the obvious often that end is to avoid having to confront their own belief system to resolve the considerable dissonance they are feeling internally which is often why the so called faithful just what the progressives to shut up so they can continue pretending all is well in Zion! Secondary psychological gains are another reason for this. The poor misunderstood Mormons! The poor persecuted Mormons! Oh how we love to suffer, as a culture we ware our victim-hood as a badge of honorable membership! The evil world is our persecutor, the prophets our rescuers as the drama predicted by the Karpman Drama Triangle plays on and on throughout our history. In doing so we are bound tightly to our prophets and willfully choose to believe even the unbelievable as the wagons are circled in defense of outsiders and tribe is thus created. Yes, let us as a people deny science and reason for our prophets know better. Gays are just sinners who have chosen not to be straight just as blacks were once less valiant than we and women are just a uterus that can cook with a happy face. Yes, all is well in Zion.

    What can we do about this? There is no silver bullet. We can educate ourselves to the underlying psychological dynamics and use that knowledge to extract ourselves and the gospel from the church’s drama.

  9. Ben S on November 4, 2013 at 10:44 am

    I wasn’t suggesting a 1:1, but rather, among the highly religious who don’t vaccinate, I’d also expect to find a rejection of evolution. The Texas church with a recent measles outbreak is associated with Kenneth Copeland, who also publishes anti-evolution creationist materials. Both beliefs result from the same distrust of science.

  10. Steve Smith on November 4, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Thanks for the reiteration, I think that it makes more sense to me now, and I think I generally agree, at least when the belief that is inquired about is evolution, or some other issue related to the science/religion debate that people have strong opinions about in spite of their lack of expertise. Perhaps the OP might have benefited from defining exactly what an instrumental belief is, as some (myself included) may not be too well versed in epistemology.

  11. Nathaniel Givens on November 4, 2013 at 10:52 am

    Nathaniel, you really need to rethink this ignorant egocentric short horizon bias.

    I’m not quite sure how you’ve managed it, Howard, but you succeeded in confusing my cynical view of human nature as it actually is for some kind of loftily-held ideal.

    So I’ll just repeat for clarity: yes, I really do think that people’s actions are influenced more by trivial but immediate concerns than they are by grand but remote and imperceptible concerns. If it rains tomorrow and you get wet, you will feel that viscerally. If the course of evolution takes this or that path and eons from now our genetic heirs are of this variety rather than that variety, you will not feel that viscerally or otherwise. Which do you think is more relevant in explaining human behavior?

    To add further irony: the fact that we react to immediate concerns like discomfort rather than abstract theoretical propositions is, itself, a consequence and clear indication of our evolved human natures.

    You can argue about what should be if you feel the need (i.e. “We should all care more about the theory of evolution than tomorrow’s weather!”), but if you think that you’re having that argument with me then I’m afraid you’re seriously mistaken.

  12. Matt Evans on November 4, 2013 at 11:07 am

    The anti-vax crowd is driven by conspiracy theories, either rooted in a distrust of science, which would include many anti-evolution religionists, or in a distrust of corporatized medicine. The European anti-vaxers, as well as Jenny McCarthy and Jim Carey, are from the latter camp.

    What would be interesting is to test other anti-science mentalities to seek correlations, testing anti-science attitudes that are common among Europeans and progressive-minded Americans, such as genetically modified foods and artificial additives. The FDA says that aspartame is the most researched food compound in history, with over 1100 studies confirming its safety, but I suspect that the anti-science response on that survey question wouldn’t correlate with religiosity, and that plenty of secularists would side with the anti-science crowd.

  13. Howard on November 4, 2013 at 11:08 am

    Nathaniel, were you being cynical or facetious when you wrote: The first thing to note is that there is essentially no cost to affirming or denying this belief. If the truth is that evolution really is the best explanation for the origins of human life here on earth, what’s at stake for being wrong about that? Essentially nothing. What’s the benefit of being right? Again: nothing.?

  14. Tim on November 4, 2013 at 11:11 am

    I agree–among the highly religious who don’t vaccinate, I’d also expect to find a rejection of evolution.

    Unfortunately, our faith is not exempt from the anti-vaccine crowd, or its cost.

    A couple of years ago a Utah family went to Poland to pick up their missionary daughter–and they brought home measles. The church requires missionaries to be vaccinated; the missionary’s unvaccinated siblings were responsible for a small outbreak in Utah.

    http://www.sltrib.com/sltrib/news/51614160-78/measles-health-virus-parents.html.csp

    An interesting note–in the late 1800’s, Abraham Woodruff became a member of the 12. He was firmly anti-vaccination. He became a member of the 12 at age 23, and died less than 8 years later. Cause of death? Smallpox. Had he been vaccinated, there’s a very good chance he would’ve eventually become the prophet.

    In 1910, Joseph F. Smith recommended vaccinations for the elders. and in the 1920’s the church supported compulsory vaccinations for smallpox. Unfortunately, the members in Utah didn’t support compulsory vaccinations, and in 1931 the federal government finally stepped in and made smallpox vaccinations compulsory.

    Jared* at http://ldsscience.blogspot.com/ has some good additional info about the history of vaccinations in the LDS church.

  15. Pratt on November 4, 2013 at 11:39 am

    Howard: while you are right to point out that whether people choose to embrace or reject the scientific process in general can have significant effects on the way they live their lives, I don’t think Nathaniel is really disagreeing with you. He’s just pointing out that whether or not evolution really took place does not, in and of itself, have a significant impact on anyone. Whether we got here through evolution or through six-day, young earth creationism doesn’t really change much about our present condition. Now, that’s not to say that what people *believe* about evolution doesn’t have any link whatsoever to the way people live their lives – eg. someone who rejects evolution is probably less likely to embrace scientific findings in other areas that contradict their previous beliefs and is probably more likely to hold to a literalist interpretation of scripture, which can have significant impacts on the way they live their life. But whether or not evolution actually happened is not the determining influence on their life in this case – rather, it is their belief in evolution (or lack thereof).

  16. Michael P. on November 4, 2013 at 11:44 am

    It is a poorly worded question. I have no beef with the theory of evolution and I have no reason to distrust what scientists say about it. And I am not a YEC. But I might have answered “No” to that question because I believe that the best explanation on the origins of human life needs to include the word “God” in their somewhere.

  17. Howard on November 4, 2013 at 11:55 am

    Now, that’s not to say that what people *believe* about evolution doesn’t have any link whatsoever to the way people live their lives…which can have significant impacts on the way they live their life. Which is my point Pratt.

    To carry this further evolution is change, positive adaptation, it’s dynamic. Creationism seem to lack this strong implication tending toward a more static model, yet we know today’s man is very different than cavemen were and if you accept something like Maslow’s Hierarchy today’s man in part due to reason has become much more Godlike than his eking out existence caveman ancestors. So aside from acceptance or denial of science we are met with vastly different religious philosophies; mostly static vs mostly dynamic.

  18. Cameron Nielsen on November 4, 2013 at 12:40 pm

    The phrase used, to me, is much different than a general belief in evolution as a variable in the continuum of life. Notice it says ‘evolution is the best explanation for the origins of life on earth.’ That is different that believing evolution/change happens. One can disbelieve the phrase used, and disbelieve young earth creation, and still believe evolution relevant and real.

    While creationism may tend static, I disagree that it must be that way. In fact, I find creationism fundamentally more dynamic than even natural selection. Seems like common sense.

  19. Adam G. on November 4, 2013 at 1:29 pm

    One of the reasons I’m sceptical of surveys is that I’m convinced many of the more outrageous answers are just signaling.

    This raises all sorts of uncomfortable questions about democracy which I’d rather not think about, though.

  20. Pratt on November 4, 2013 at 1:43 pm

    If the results of this survey are reliable (which is obviously highly debatable because of the controversy surrounding the question), if a mere 22% of LDS accept the theory of evolution, then that makes me sad, simply because I think no other form of Christianity is more compatible with or suited to evolution than Mormonism. The whole theory just feels very Mormon – the whole idea of constant progression, improvement and positive change is something which feels very at home with the core LDS doctrine of eternal progression. Mormonism boldly asserts infinite, unlimited, eternal spiritual evolution, and there’s something very satisfying about including biological evolution alongside it. The fact is, regardless of whether the theory of evolution is actually true or not (though I believe it is), I really quite like it. It gives me hope that all things, in both spiritual and physical terms, have an endless capacity to develop, improve and progress to become more like God.

  21. Nathaniel Givens on November 4, 2013 at 2:03 pm

    Nathaniel, were you being cynical or facetious when you wrote:

    The first thing to note is that there is essentially no cost to affirming or denying this belief. If the truth is that evolution really is the best explanation for the origins of human life here on earth, what’s at stake for being wrong about that? Essentially nothing. What’s the benefit of being right? Again: nothing.

    ?

    Cynical.

    As best I can tell, you are embracing a hyper-rationalist view of human behavior. That may be a good aspiration (debatable point), but it’s emphatically not a good description of actual human behavior in the wild, so to speak.

    On the contrary, the whole idea of “humans respond to incentives” is to postulate that most human action (including belief) is determined sub-rationally. We subsequently invent post hoc rationales as if they were actually a priori reasons for our decisions but–more often than not–we’re fooling ourselves. (I think this is obvious from basic human observations, but you can also read up on literature about cognitive biases such as books like The Myth of the Rational Voter or The Social Animal which detail the extent to which sub- or non-rational considerations influence our behavior.)

    I don’t think this state of affairs is desirable or immutable, but I do think it is the default. And, according to that view, simple and immediate stimulus like “getting cold and wet” or “being late for work and facing the wrath of my boss” are going to have a direct, sub-rational conduit to your behavior. Ephemeral and abstract notions about the far-distant course of human evolution will not.

    This is why the decision to embrace or reject Darwinian evolution will have little to do with an objective evaluation of the proposition as true/false and will instead be dominated by instrumental considerations. You will, for example, adopt the view that will create the least friction with your social circle. You may also pick the view that is most conducive to maintaining your preferred personal narrative. You have total latitude to operate based on these instrumental considerations because the actual truth of the proposition has no practical effect on your experienced life.

    And that (the fact that people are responding to the survey based on instrumental considerations rather than as straightforward gauge of truth) is why the survey results don’t say what people think they say.

    To be really blunt, it would be like holding a gun to someone’s head and asking them if they like you. They’re going to say “yes” not because they are answering truthfully, but because they think it’s what you want to hear and they are very, very invested in pleasing you at the moment. There’s no coercion in this example, but there is the same dichotomy between answering the question truthfully and picking an answer that will achieve some other end.

  22. Nathaniel Givens on November 4, 2013 at 2:09 pm

    Pratt-

    The whole theory just feels very Mormon – the whole idea of constant progression, improvement and positive change is something which feels very at home with the core LDS doctrine of eternal progression

    The theory of evolution has nothing to do with progression or improvement. This is one of the biggest misunderstandings. Natural selection is about suitability to your environment relative to your competitors, not about independent movement towards some objective notion of “better”.

    In technical terms, evolution is a satisficing routine rather than an optimizing routine, and the criteria it is satisficing are purely arbitrary.

    To elaborate, there is nothing “better” about the fins of a fish vs. the grasping feet of a monkey. Fins are adapted to water. Grasping feet are adapted to trees. In addition, animals stop evolving when they have evolved “enough”. This is why (as Darwin himself originally observed) the honeybee will die after it stings something. That’s obviously inferior to being able to sting repeatedly, but it’s good enough to fill the niche the honeybee occupies. Without external pressure, creatures cease to evolve.

    So evolution is purely reactive and purely arbitrary. Not so closely related to Mormonism as one might think. (Not directly, anyway.)

  23. Howard on November 4, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    As best I can tell, you are embracing a hyper-rationalist view of human behavior. No I’m not, I’m aware that much of human behavior is irrational or sub-rational. I’ve created incentive systems for business and I’m currently evolved in a lot of psychology and sociology. In addition I’m not proposing a simply rational approach to life, it must be a balance that includes emotion and spirituality. We subsequently invent post hoc rationales as if they were actually a priori reasons for our decisions but–more often than not–we’re fooling ourselves. Yes, I strongly agree. I don’t think this state of affairs is desirable or immutable, but I do think it is the default. So do I but if our goal is to become more Christlike or Godlike I don’t think this level should be given much play beyond acknowledging our current lowly state and moving forward from there.

  24. Mtnmarty on November 4, 2013 at 2:35 pm

    Nathaniel,

    If I understand your argument, you are saying that for Mormons, group identification and personal narrative produce incentives to use “God-talk” rather than “science-talk” in answering certain survey questions.

    If you are correct it is an interesting question why mormon identification entails not being on the “evolution” team.

    The questions start getting more instrumental when they revolve around mental health and brain biology.

    If the question was, “Do you think the best explanation for depression is that it is a neurochemical disease?” How would the percentages change?

    Despite the high usage in Utah of SSRI’s many mormons are uncomfortable with medical descriptions of behavior.

    There is considerable attachment to a theory of life that is simple and where the best explanations all involve God in a major way.

    Its not just mormons but all people that have a very hard time living consistent with our “knowledge” of how things work.

    We are superstitious and have all manner of folk physics, folk psychologies, and folk cosmologies.

    I believe some of the tension that Nate Oman’s recent post discussed is that as our science gets better and more technologically useful, the costs of using “God-talk” rather than “science-talk” get greater and greater.

    The trick is what role is left for “God-talk” if science produces all of the instrumental benefits of “God-talk” (happiness, social identification, healthy behaviors, etc.). When we only have the afterlife to worry about, how will our perspective change?

  25. Tim on November 4, 2013 at 2:48 pm

    I do think, regarding evolution and religion, most people base their opinion on instrumental considerations.

    But there are always exceptions. In other words, there are some people who base their opinion on actual evidence. I’m not a perfect example, but I did start accepting evolution, based on the evidence, even though at that time almost all instrumental considerations were opposed to my acceptance of evolution.

    Of course, most people don’t study it enough to make a good judgment call based on the evidence–in which they are indeed better off saying “I don’t know” or at least “I trust my church/pastor/friend on this” or “I trust 99.9% of biologists on this.”

  26. Pratt on November 4, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    Nathaniel: I understand the point you make, and I wasn’t trying to suggest that there is some objective, absolute notion of ‘goodness’ which species’ move towards through natural selection and evolution – but through evolution and natural selection, my understanding is that species’ *do* improve in terms of adaptability to their particular environment, and hence, survival. They progress, not towards an objective standard of ‘goodness’, but towards a highly subjective end: adaptation to their particular environment. What that means will differ from species to species, but it can still be considered progression, just on a subjective rather than an objective level. Each species is still improving in terms of adaptability to their environment, and hence in likelihood of survival, (which could be considered an objective ‘good’) but specifically what this means will differ from one species and environment to another. So yes – the fins of a fish in the sea are not objectively better than the grasping feet of a monkey in the trees, but the fins of a fish in the sea *would* be better than the grasping feet of a monkey in the sea. Hence, over millions of years, fish have developed fins to better suit their environment.
    I don’t know. That’s my understanding, but I’m no biologist, so I stand to be corrected. I still think there’s plenty of parallels to be drawn with LDS theology, personally.

  27. Pratt on November 4, 2013 at 3:18 pm

    As for ceasing to evolve without outside pressure or influences, I actually see that as a further similarity with LDS theology. One of the primary purposes of mortal life is, after all, to progress, and this progression only happens due to the (often negative and painful) experiences we have in mortality – in other words, outside pressures. We pass through the refiner’s fire, and become better for it in the long run.

  28. Taylor on November 4, 2013 at 3:23 pm

    I would be ashamed of any intelligent person answering yes to that question. Evolution has nothing to do with the origins of human life. Evolution is “the process by which different kinds of living organisms are thought to have developed and diversified from earlier forms during the history of the earth.” It has nothing to do with the “origins” of life. Since science has not identified the origins of life, I’m happy to see that Mormons, and JDubs, are smart enough to answer that question correctly.

  29. Jeff G on November 4, 2013 at 3:29 pm

    I really like point about our beliefs being constrained by incentives. I’m having a difficult time, however, relating this to the title of the post.

    You make it sound as if we should beware of beliefs which merely serve (instrumentally) the incentives we find around us. Is this right?

    If this is right, then the problem that I have is that this point generalizes since all beliefs are instrumental in nature. Once one gives up a correspondence theory of truth along with the fact/value distinction we are left wanting a criterion which distinguishes between good and bad instrumentality.

  30. Steve Smith on November 4, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    Taylor (28), the question was about the origins of human life, not life altogether; big difference.

    People keep complaining about how the question was worded, and that that might have generated misleading results. So how else might have the question been worded so as to generate more accurate results? Sure there could have been more nuance added to the question, but I still think it was fair, to the point, and clear.

    Furthermore, the results are significant in that they suggest that there is indeed a difference in religions over the question of science; not all religions are alike and/or produce similar trends of belief and attachment. It would be interesting to look at each religion and try to analyze why that is the case. But as for Mormonism, there is an undoubtedly predominant sense among the rank and file that the theory of evolution is incorrect. JFS and BRM have had an undeniable impact on this attitude. This isn’t to say that Mormonism on the whole isn’t compatible with belief in evolution, or to suggest that Mormons (even evolution skeptics) aren’t brilliant people, but that the predominant belief among Mormons is that what they’re supposed to believe at some point conflicts with the theory of evolution.

  31. Howard on November 4, 2013 at 6:30 pm

    You will, for example, adopt the view that will create the least friction with your social circle. I agree unless you happen to be one of the few proactive people who actually trust their own judgement, but the difference is I don’t think we should accept this as necessary.

    A text I received a few days ago from a psychotherapist I teach; “When can we talk? I hope your insight will help me to see where I may be lying to myself.” She happens to be part of my social circle! In my experience the Spirit offers this service to us as well.

    It will be nice when Mormon introspection finally eclipses indoctrination and the false doctrine police. Joseph was beyond this with teaching us correct principals so we govern ourselves but we’ve regressed considerably since then.

  32. Jeff G on November 4, 2013 at 7:51 pm

    Howard,

    Your position sounds an awful lot like Wittgenstein’s beetle in a box. His point was that the idea of privately enforcing rules in one’s private life is impossible and that without a social community to correct us, then we aren’t really rule governed. I feel like this is a good match for Nathaniel’s ideas regarding our attempts at minimizing social friction within some community. You, on the other hand, seem to show little if any regard for the normative constraints which other members and priesthood leaders might provide us, preferring instead to make a inward journey away from one’s social context.

    I guess this is something which I have not been able to understand in your position: where do other members – especially priesthood leaders – fit in our own spiritual journeys?

  33. Nathaniel Givens on November 4, 2013 at 9:17 pm

    Jeff G-

    You make it sound as if we should beware of beliefs which merely serve (instrumentally) the incentives we find around us. Is this right?

    If this is right, then the problem that I have is that this point generalizes since all beliefs are instrumental in nature. Once one gives up a correspondence theory of truth along with the fact/value distinction we are left wanting a criterion which distinguishes between good and bad instrumentality.

    Your post is music to my ears, but also a little beyond what I was tackling in this particular post. Couple of thoughts:

    1. The title says “beware instrumental beliefs”, but I don’t mean to imply that they are always bad. The primary problem with instrumental beliefs is that they are not recognized as such, and therefore the instruments they serve are not consciously chosen by the person who is following the incentives. But if, for example, a major focus of your beliefs is to find harmony with the available facts, then I think it is possible to harness the instrumentality of belief for good. In other words, an instrumental view of belief is not necessarily opposed to the conventional true/false dichotomy, but rather is a generalization of that perspective.

    2. I love that you brought up the correspondence theory of truth. I would say, however, that I’m not willing to just give up on it. Rather, I think that it’s important to see it in the context of other views, especially coherence and pragmatic theories.

    I’m sure I’ll return to these topic again at some point.

  34. Howard on November 4, 2013 at 11:15 pm

    Jeff G, I find it interesting and disingenuous of you to engage me in open forums while moderating my comments and concepts in the closed forums you control!

    But to answer your question; those who can simply follow the Spirit! I don’t have to tell them that, they already know because they are already doing it! Those who can’t follow the Spirit follow the prophet or follow scripture or both. In this way there is no need to hold back the spiritual growth of the most spiritually capable to the pace of lowest common denominator.

    See BRM’s talk “How to Get Personal Revelation” for an understanding of the range of what can be included in personal revelation.

  35. Laura on November 5, 2013 at 2:34 am

    While I can definitely get behind your conclusion–i.e., that we should examine how our stated beliefs can be a marker of or reinforce an unhealthy sense of tribalism–I think you’re being unduly cynical about the extent to which individuals’ responses to questions about scientific opinion are meant as signals of group status. Is it too big a stretch to think people may really be answering based simply on their understanding? I would venture to guess (although, I have no evidence to back this up) that to the extent there are trends by religious affiliation, these reflect the demographics most drawn to those faiths.

    Since the issue of vaccination has come up, I’d like to share a fascinating study that just came out, tying rates of nonmedical vaccination refusal to documented cases of pertussis. Of course, it’s no surprise pertussis rates were higher in areas with higher rates of non-vaccination, but it’s significant that a study has demonstrated this correlation in a statistically sound manner. Abstract here: http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2013/09/24/peds.2013-0878.abstract.

  36. Benjamin on November 5, 2013 at 9:40 am

    The evolution survey question is from the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape Survey. The original question was worded like this: “Evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth. Do you completely agree, mostly agree, mostly disagree, or completely disagree?” For Mormons, the breakdown was: 6.3% completely agree, 16.1% mostly agree, 18.1% mostly disagree, and 53% completely disagree.

    I ran a regression analysis on the data, using the evolution question as the dependent variable and frequency of religious attendance and Mormon religious identification as the independent variables. While frequency of church attendance was by far the strongest predictor of views on evolution, Mormon religious identification remains statistically significant (p<0.0001) even after controlling for frequency of church attendance.

    This suggests that there's something unique about being Mormon and disagreeing that "evolution is the best explanation for the origins of human life on earth" that is not related to frequency of church attendance. There's statistical evidence that Mormons are more likely than non-Mormons to be less favorable toward evolution, even after controlling for frequency of church attendance.

    That being said, I agree that the question presents a bit of a false dichotomy and could have been worded in a way to more accurately capture the diversity of views on the subject. And I'm not commenting on the merit of the "instrumental belief" argument. Only pointing out that Mormons ARE different on the evolution question in a way that's not attributable completely to levels of religiosity.

  37. Jeff G on November 5, 2013 at 1:38 pm

    Howard,

    I don’t want to get too feisty in this thread, but I think your comment demonstrates the very tension I was trying to point out. You point to a priesthood leader about the importance of not having to follow the priesthood leaders. My beef lies not in your playing up the importance of a spiritual relationship, but in your tacitly (and sometimes not so tacitly) downplaying the importance of having the proper relationship with the church. Repackaged in Wittgensteinian terms, it would seem that the only way in which you know how to construe spiritual interactions and experiences is due to church members/leaders.

  38. Jeff G on November 5, 2013 at 1:41 pm

    Laura,

    “Is it too big a stretch to think people may really be answering based simply on their understanding?”

    I think you underestimate the extent to which Nathaniel’s point generalizes. My response would be that what counts as proper or correct understanding is determined by the social circles in which we have been en-cultured.

  39. Howard on November 5, 2013 at 2:22 pm

    Jeff G, your comment misses so much when you judge me (and by implication others) in such naive, condescending and overly simplistic terms. The way I know spiritual interactions is the same way Joseph knew them, by actually experiencing them. It’s called gnosis. Try it!

    2007 church news release exerpt:
    Not every statement made by a Church leader, past or present, necessarily constitutes doctrine…Individual members are encouraged to independently strive to receive their own spiritual confirmation of the truthfulness of Church doctrine. Moreover, the Church exhorts all people to approach the gospel not only intellectually but with the intellect and the spirit, a process in which reason and faith work together.

    Numbers 11:29
    And Moses said unto him, Enviest thou for my sake? would God that all the Lord’s people were prophets, and that the Lord would put his spirit upon them!

  40. Stephen Marsh on November 5, 2013 at 2:55 pm

    Nicely said. The meta analysis needs to be remembered.

  41. Jeff G on November 5, 2013 at 2:58 pm

    Yeah, you telling me what spiritual experiences I have and have not had is far less naive, condescending and simplistic. :-/ (For the record, there are two reasons why I don’t talk about personal revelation the same way you do. First, it’s personal so there’s no reason for anybody else to know anything about it. Second, we all agree that personal revelation is important, so there’s little to learn by focusing on that topic.)

    More to the point, you are still marginalizing the fact that all personal revelation is supposed to be vetted by and accepted only insomuch as it is consistent with the revelation which has been received by priesthood leaders as contained within and without the scriptures. Again, we are right back where Nathaniel left us: trying to reduce friction within some community. BTW, what do you think was that our relationship with that community is supposed to be?

  42. Howard on November 5, 2013 at 5:06 pm

    First, it’s personal It’s time to get over that Sunday school cliche! I haven’t shared any detail here and little elsewhere. …personal revelation is supposed to be vetted by and accepted only insomuch as it is consistent with the revelation which has been received by priesthood leaders as contained within and without the scriptures. This is either trademarked LDS Inc. B.S. or your personal B.S. because priesthood leaders by their own admission dispense general advice but when the Spirit tutors you it is specifically tailored to you so the two often do not match up! Further check around the bloggernacle and you will find many who were prompted against the priesthood ban and against the gay ban. but if you are actually as experienced as you imply you already know this, so what’s up with that?

  43. WalkerW on November 5, 2013 at 5:43 pm

    On evolution and Mormon eternal progression, David O. McKay said the following in 1946 at the funeral of May Anderson:

    “Among generalizations of science, evolution holds foremost place. It claims: “Man is a creature of development; that he has come up through uncounted ages from an origin that is lowly.” Why this expenditure of time and pain and blood? Why should he come so far if he is destined to go no farther? A creature which has traveled such distances, and fought such battles and won such victories deserves, one is compelled to say, to conquer death and rob the grave of its victory. Darwin said…”Believing as i do that man in the distant future will be a far more perfect creature than he now is, it is an intolerable thought that he and all other sentient beings are doomed to complete annihilation after such long-continued, slow progress. To those who fully admit the immortality of the human soul, the destruction of our world will not appear so dreadful.”” (Quoted in Gregory Prince, William Wright, ‘David O. McKay and the Rise of Modern Mormonism’. University of Utah Press, 2005, 46)

    Nathaniel is right about the distinction between adaptation for survival to one’s current environment and progression toward something “better.” However, I suppose one’s interpretive lens of theistic evolution could see evolution as a progressive system, at least in the case of human beings. For example, Cambridge paleontologist Simon Conway Morris has argued that evolutionary convergence makes intelligent life inevitable (something that even Richard Dawkins finds likely). Bruce Lahn, William B. Graham Professor of Human Genetics at the University of Chicago, reported that his research for a 2004 study demonstrated that the evolution of humans was unique. “Human evolution is, in fact, a privileged process because it involves a large number of mutations in a large number of genes. To accomplish so much in so little evolutionary time – a few tens of millions of years – requires a selective process that is perhaps categorically different from the typical processes of acquiring new biological traits.” (see http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2005/01/050111170714.htm)

    Personally, I’m more interested in the evidence pointing toward increasingly complex social networks as a key factor in the development of the human brain. Given that divinity is a social matter in Mormonism (e.g. the Godhead, Zion, eternal marriage), I find it fascinating that human beings are by nature (and by means of evolutionary development) social creatures. This is why I like the following:

    “Evolution by selection, though of great importance to human life, is an incomplete explanation unless we first understand that what it produced were not robots that acted automatically on biological instincts but thinking, feeling people equipped by nature with a complex psychology that predisposed but did not compel them to act in certain ways…Part of the reason we help others at some sacrifice to ourselves is that they are our children; by helping them we perpetuate our genes. And another part is that we help people who are not our children in order to impress these people with our dependability and win from them some reciprocal help in the future. But these two explanations, inclusive fitness and reciprocal altruism, while quite powerful, do not clarify everything…To explain all of altruism, it is necessary to first understand that what evolution has given to us is not a fixed mechanism to achieve a specific goal, but an emotion that not only serves that goal but achieves related ones as well. Let us call that emotion a desire for affiliation or, in simple language, a desire to be part of a social group.” (James Q. Wilson, The Marriage Problem: How Our Culture Has Weakened Families. HarperCollins, 2002, 35-36).

  44. Jeff G on November 5, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Howard,

    I don’t want to veer off on a tangent so I will package this in terms of Nathaniel’s post. His contention is that many (most or all?) the beliefs we affirm or deny can be cached out in terms of dissonance between us and the social circles we inhabit. Thus, most active members take positions (and have received personal confirmation) which reduce dissonance between then and the priesthood leadership of the church. All of those people who you speak of have affirmed beliefs which increase dissonance between them and the priesthood leadership, but reduce dissonance between them and the world. Furthermore, we have been told from the pulpit on numerous occasions that if a spirit tells us something which is not in harmony with official church position, then we can be sure that spirit is not from god. So what’s up with that?

  45. Clark on November 5, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    I’ve mentioned this before, but I think the question is actually a bad one because of ambiguity over what is meant by “evolution as the best explanation” within a Mormon context. I think the number of Mormons who believe evolution is real and had an effect on human development is probably higher than that figure suggests.

    See this post http://www.libertypages.com/cgw/?p=1693

  46. Howard on November 5, 2013 at 7:45 pm

    All of those people who you speak of have affirmed beliefs which increase dissonance between them and the priesthood leadership, but reduce dissonance between them and the world. No it doesn’t and since you don’t know that, it becomes obvious that you haven’t had these experiences. Did almost sacrificing Issac reduce dissonance between Abraham and the world? Did having the first vision and producing the BoM reduce dissonance between Joseph and the world?

    Your position is obviously uninformed when it comes to this magnitude of divine communication! This is one of the big problems with the institutional church today as compared to the restoration, spirituality has become watered down to a barely discernible feeling when so much more is available. Much of the power of God has been lost sine Joseph died, regular thus saith the Lord revelation has become occasional group inspiration!

  47. Jeff G on November 5, 2013 at 8:24 pm

    Two things:

    1) You obviously disagree with the very heart of Nathaniel’s post since you think that attempts at decreasing friction with some social group does not influence beliefs very much.

    2) “Your position is obviously uninformed when it comes to this magnitude of divine communication!” It’s very hard for me to be patient with talk like this. I’ve tried to gently say that mentioning your own spiritual experiences carry zero weight in these discussion and therefore should never be mentioned, but you seem unable to help yourself. I might also note how you find yourself in a performative contradiction of sorts. I try to say that one can only know how to correctly evaluate and interpret spiritual experiences by appealing to one’s peers. You, my peer, then disagrees by saying that I must be evaluating or interpreting my spiritual experiences wrong. How is it that you get to correct my spiritual experiences, but priesthood leaders do not get to correct yours?

  48. Howard on November 5, 2013 at 8:46 pm

    Jeff G,
    Your 1) conclusion isn’t correct I do believe fitting in is a powerful incentive to buy into group think but having a very powerful spiritual experience can easily over power peer pressure. Regarding the balance of your 2) whine, what does one do when their spiritual experiences apparently often obviously greatly exceed those of your priesthood leaders???

  49. Jeff G on November 5, 2013 at 9:19 pm

    So from what Howard has said in this thread we can conclude:

    The prophets and scriptures are for those who don’t have the spirit and are lowest common denominators which hold back some people’s spiritual progress.
    Howard has had spiritual experience in the same way that Joseph Smith did.
    The church has trademarked LDS Inc. B.S.
    The power of god and spirituality within the church have been greatly diminished.
    Howard’s spiritual experience greatly exceed those of the priesthood leaders.

    Could one ask for a better example of creating friction with a social circle?

  50. SilverRain on November 5, 2013 at 9:28 pm

    For me, someone claiming their spiritual experiences outshine others prove they are lying or deceived. Those who are truly close to the Savior, in my experience and judgment, are a great deal more humble. They realize that spiritual experiences ate not quantifiable in that way, that there is no value in comparison.

    True spiritual experiences, when properly shared, serve to enrich both the sharer and the hearer. They ate never used to garner status.

  51. SilverRain on November 5, 2013 at 9:29 pm

    *are for ate

  52. twiceuponatime on November 5, 2013 at 10:34 pm

    “Arguing with anonymous strangers on the Internet is a sucker’s game because they almost always turn out to be—or to be indistinguishable from—self-righteous sixteen-year-olds possessing infinite amounts of free time.”

    Neal Stephenson, Cryptonomicon

    Thus, Howard. (and me, of course).

  53. Howard on November 5, 2013 at 11:13 pm

    So there you have it brothers and sisters, judged by the judges in Israel…oh wait aren’t the judges in Israel supposed to be Bishops??? Oh well, judged by the so called faithful in their “great deal more humble”ness.

  54. Howard on November 5, 2013 at 11:20 pm

    Jeff G, I’m happy to stand by what I wrote but not by your inaccurate summary conclusions which were spun to suit you position.

  55. Cameron on November 6, 2013 at 12:30 am

    Howard, you can dish it out but can’t take it? Let’s be friendly and use more emoticons to communicate tone, like this: =)

  56. Howard on November 6, 2013 at 12:39 am

    Can’t take it? =) What are you talking about Cameron?

  57. Cameron on November 6, 2013 at 12:57 am

    I don’t know Howard, I skimmed the comments too quickly. Sorry, trying to be light-hearted. Unfortunately I think (52) applies to me here.

  58. Steve Smith on November 6, 2013 at 4:35 am

    Reading over the comments (with Jeff’s implied criticism of the correspondence theory of truth and Nathaniel’s modest promotion of the coherence theory of truth) and the OP (with its emphasis on the notion of beliefs as responses to incentives), I am reminded of a couple of articles on the spread of postmodernistic rhetoric in Mormon apologetics.

    https://www.dialoguejournal.com/wp-content/uploads/sbi/articles/Dialogue_V41N01_11.pdf
    http://usureason.com/2009/postmodernism-in-the-service-of-mormon-apologetics/

    In some ways the OP and Jeff’s posts seem to me to be evidence of a sort of creeping postmodernism into Mormon defense narratives. I can’t say that it is an approach that I am terribly keen on. Furthermore it is a phenomenon that is extremely ironic and somewhat contradictory in the ‘faithful’ Mormon community, as highlighted in the second link. If anything it seems like more of an attempt to assuage the pangs of the many seemingly inconvenient ‘truths’ about Mormon history and the Mormon church’s truth claims, including the likely inconvenient reality (as shown by the survey) that rank and file Mormons by and large reject science in favor of more traditional but improbable histories of life and the universe, and that this rejection is rooted in a reactionary attitude towards science that sees it as a threat.

  59. SilverRain on November 6, 2013 at 6:35 am

    Howard, we’ve discussed this before. You can’t judge the prophets as less righteous than you, then try to hide behind the furniture protesting “you’re not supposed to judge me” when people point out your hubris.

    When you come and preach your personal gospel, claiming greater light and knowledge, those who hear you are most certainly supposed to judge the truthfulness of what you claim. And those who gain insight into your tactics after prayerfully studying your words are most certainly free to expose your deception. You don’t have to be a judge in Israel to know truth from error. No one is trying to excommunicate you, especially since from what I understand, you have no membership to revoke.

    As I have said before, I have great experience with liars. I will no longer be deceived into accepting that they should be left free to preach and deceive while I must stand quietly by and allow it in the interest of kindness.

    You want me to not publicly denounce your false claims? Stop making them publicly. But if you bring them to the public sphere, don’t be surprised if I address them in the public sphere. I will not stand by and allow you to attack people I love and respect without raising my voice in their defense.

  60. SilverRain on November 6, 2013 at 6:37 am

    And that us my final word on the matter here.

  61. Howard on November 6, 2013 at 9:45 am

    SilverRain wrote: You can’t judge the prophets as less righteous than you then try to hide… SR I’ve said nothing at all about the righteousness of LDS prophets, nothing, zip, zero! Therefore I could not have compared my righteousness to theirs nor do I desire to.

    LDS prophets are public figures and therefore open to critique and comparison and this is done inside the church apologetically via lesson manuals, talks etc. and outside the church unapologetically. What I have to say about them is this: Add up all the revelation since Joseph and compare it to the revelation Joseph provided. How does it compare? Does it total more than the equivalent of a few pages of the D&C? Isn’t the total jjust a fraction of Joseph’s? Why? Hasn’t something been lost here?

    SR I’m pointing out the obvious irony of you judging me for judging the prophets.

    No one is trying to excommunicate you This is a strawman, did I or anyone else imply this? since from what I understand, you have no membership to revoke. You falsely accuse and you understand wrong about a number of things, this is just one of them and this is the second time I’ve corrected you in writing about it so apparently you’re slow to learn as well.

    I have great experience with liars…false claims So you’re calling me a lair now. Well I’m nor surprised given your self righteousness. If the prophets need you to defend them, what kind of prophets are they? I’m sure they can stand on their own. Given your tendency to rescue and to often feel victimized you might want to check out the Karpman Drama Triangle.

  62. Admin on November 6, 2013 at 10:38 am

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  63. Old Man on November 6, 2013 at 1:01 pm

    Evolution is the “best” explanation for human life on earth? I greatly appreciate biological evolution, believe that the earth is millions of years old, but reject the idea that life developed without God’s intervention. I may have answered “No” as well.

  64. Cameron on November 6, 2013 at 1:14 pm

    Exactly my thoughts, Old Man

  65. Jeff G on November 6, 2013 at 10:42 pm

    Steve,

    Interesting observation. Some kinds of post-modernism are certainly worse than others, and it’s not totally clear where the boundaries on that category really lie. I for one consider myself closer to a pragmatist which some people might construe as a kind of post-modernist, but I don’t think it’s a bad kind.

    Either way, I think that the way that scriptures use the word “truth” makes it clear that any kind of factual, non-value-laden corespondence theory of truth is out the window.

  66. Geoff B on November 7, 2013 at 8:29 pm

    Clark mentioned this above, but the wording “best explanation” is very vague for religious people. You could easily believe in evolution and indeed by a religious evolutionary biologist and still believe that evolution is not the “best explanation.” Does evolution take place in nature? Of course, but it is not therefore true that evolution is the “best explanation” for human life when we know that God was involved in the process somehow.

    Drawing too many conclusions from such a poorly worded query is questionable at best.