Friday, November 10, 2006

Religion is just childish part II

There is a fascinating article called Why Johnny Can't Reason based on the work of Jean Piaget, which in a nutshell, shows 68% of the adult population are incapable of abstract reasoning. Abstract reasoning, in this context is:

"...abstracting from directly experienced objects or situations to broader groups which could not be directly experienced. For still another example, children could begin to grasp the idea of probability..."

In other words, the majority of the population are incapable of reasoning about situations that they have not directly experienced. Such as religion, which almost by definition is not objective.

Why do people get religious in the first place? Young children are naturally predisposed to be religious, because they can only copy what the adults around them are saying, by rote. Older children, and most adults, are unable to look beyond their limited experiences, and analyse what they have been taught.

It would take a whole book to write about where religions come from, but essentially, people are very good at seeing patterns in the world, and making theories about cause and effect, but we don't understand probability, overgeneralise, and become superstitious.

Superstition is a false conception of cause and effect, where we see things happening together, and assume they are connected, when in fact they aren't. So, for example we may reasonably notice that cloudy skies tend to precede rain, and conclude that rain is caused by clouds. We might also see that meat left uncovered becomes maggoty, and conclude wrongly that meat causes maggots (or causes cats to eat it).

In a discussion of programming methodologies Steve Yegge comments obliquely on BF Skinners work on Superstition in the Pigeon, saying: "...superstition isn't necessarily a bad thing! We couldn't possibly go and verify every single fact we've heard that we think is probably true. We'd never make any progress (as individuals or as a civilization). We have to take most things we know for granted. Most of what we know at any given time is superstition. It's normal."

He's right of course, but for 68% of people, that's all they have.

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