Saturday, July 26, 2014

Study: Impact of religion on childrens ability to recognize fiction

Are children innately inclined to believe that fantastical stories are true?  Or is the widespread tendency of children to believe that fantastical stories are true a result of their being taught by adults to so believe?  Kathleen H. Corriveau from the School of Education, Boston University, Eva E. Chen from the Division of Social Science, Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, and Paul L. Harris from the Graduate School of Education, Harvard University, carried out an experiment to answer these questions and the results have been published in Cognitive Science.

They divided 5-6 year old children into four groups based on whether they attended religious or secular school and whether they went to church or not.  They worded the same stories three different ways: Realistic, religious miracle, non-religious magical.  Some stories featured a well known fictional or historical character (e.g. Goldilocks or Thomas Edison), other stories featured a stranger.  They asked the children to evaluate if the story was real or pretend and asked them why they reached their conclusion.  They subsequential further varied the fantastical stories four ways according to whether the event was biblical or not and was described with the word "magic" or not.

When introduced to a character via a realistic story (none of the story events violated everyday causal constraints), all four groups of children categorized the character as real. Moreover, when justifying their categorization, they appealed to the reality-bound nature of the story events. All four groups of children were less inclined to categorize the protagonist as real when the story included an explicit reference to magic.  This indicates that young children realize that stories involving real people typically include events that could actually happen.

Very few of the no religion children (secular school and no religious worship) categorized the characters embedded in the religious stories as real. Among those that did, none justified that conclusion with a reference to God.  Indeed, whenever these no religion children did refer to religion—which they sometimes did in the context of the religious stories—it was to justify a decision that the character was pretend. By contrast, the other three groups of children frequently judged the characters in the religious stories to be real. Moreover, the three groups of religious children often made an appeal to religion to defend their conclusion that the story was true.

The no religion children also categorized the characters embedded in magical stories as pretend, and most of their justifications referred to the impossibility of a central event in the story. Religious children were less likely to judge the characters in the magical stories as pretend (about 50%) and in line with this equivocation, they made more appeals to reality and fewer appeals to impossibility than did secular children.

These results suggest that children are not born believers with a belief instinct.  Young children raised without religion have little difficulty recognizing that fantastical stories are fairy tales.  Yet all young children, with their limited amount of first hand experience and knowledge, are inclined to value and accept what their parents and other adults tell them.  Exposure to religious teaching convinces young children that some agents have special power to override the causal regularities of everyday experience.  These children will then readily accept that such extraordinary powers are also wielded by agents presented to them in narratives.

Religion thus undermines the natural ability of children to distinguish fanciful fiction from constrained reality.  Unfortunately, it appears that some of this negative impact persists through adulthood and thus a cycle of religious belief and indoctrination repeats itself across generations. This dependency on childhood indoctrination also implies the perpetuation of religion is fragile and can be broken.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Root Differences Between Theism and Naturalism

Some of you may be acquainted with Tom W. Clark and his excellent web site. In 2007 Mr. Clark published an article titled When Worldviews Collide: Root Differences Between Theism and Naturalism which discusses his impression of a debate between theist philosophers Stewart Goetz and Charles Taliaferro and atheist philosopher Andrew Melnyk. I do not have strong opinions on many controversies, particularly regarding questions that focus on technical questions requiring expertise that we non-experts do not possess, but with this debate I am unequivocally in agreement with the atheist side. One of the reasons I am so comfortable taking sides here is that the only expertise that is needed to evaluate this controversy, despite the academic rigor of the discussion, is a decent general education. 

I very much agree with Tom Clark's analysis that at the bottom of the disagreement between the theists and atheists (a.k.a. naturalists) is a different approach to evidence, or in the words of Tom Clark "....disagreements about the explanatory potential of dualism, about the epistemic status of intuitions and data, and about what counts as good explanation." 

As Tom Clark argues, "A striking methodological difference between the two sides, one that helps explain their differing takes on reality (dualist vs. monist), has to do with the status of what T&G call first person data. They put great stock in the validity of what they believe are widespread and commonsensical intuitions about metaphysical matters, intuitions deriving from personal experience.... But from a philo-scientific perspective, the claim that some intuitions or experiences wear truth on their sleeve and can’t be second-guessed is to let the tail of data wag the dog of theory.... We shouldn’t trust intuitions, however widely they might be shared, as direct apprehensions of what’s real since they are notoriously unreliable: mass delusion is possible.  Instead, we must test intuitions against objective evidence."

Mr Clark continues: "Transparency and reliability come from having specified and verified the existence of all entities, mechanisms, and events that participate in the explanation, such that there’s nothing mysterious or ad hoc involved.... A transparent explanation, at least for naturalists, can’t have gaping holes, filled with unexplained, ad hoc explainers. If some things currently escape explanation, so be it; that simply makes life more interesting." In other words, theists have an unfortunate tendency to mistake weak arguments for strong arguments as a result of applying a too lax standard regarding what qualifies as reliable supporting evidence. Or, as Mr Clark says "Yet their departures from good philo-scientific practice can best be explained, I think, as a function of putting the desideratum of a purposive reality above the desiderata of explanatory transparency, evidential reliability and cognitive coherence."

Sunday, July 06, 2014

Money for unions, but not for corporations, is compelled speech!?

The Supreme Court recently announced its latest decisions.  We now know that a conservative majority is giving priority to the religious free exercise claims of commercial and non-profit institutions and their owners over the freedom and health of employees and general applicability of religiously impartial, secular laws to all citizens.  They are also giving priority to the self-interests of employers over employees.

The conservative majority concluded in Citizens v. United that corporations have a free expression right to use corporate profits in their general treasury for partisan political activism even when employees, or stock investors, disagree with content of the corporation's speech.  Investors and employees are thus compelled to finance partisan political speech that they disagree with.   After all, a significant portion of the money that corporations are spending on politics is financed by equity capital provided by pension funds — capital contributions employees finance with their paychecks without an option to select the individual companies.  This is currently considered to be constitutional.  Yet, if executives and shareholders could not use their corporation to advance political positions, nothing would prevent those people who are executives and shareholders from making any speech they want, or spending any of their own money to disseminate that speech.

When a majority of employees vote for union representation, the union is compelled to bargain on behalf of all the employees in the bargaining unit, including anti-union employees.  The employees can subsequently vote for different union leadership, to change unions, or to go without a union.  It logically follows that all bargaining unit employees can be compelled to pay a union a fee each year to cover the costs of this union representation.  Employees can voluntarily pay an additional union membership fee to qualify for optional union membership benefits or they can donate to a union affiliated PAC.  The union can then utilize this extra voluntary income to finance partisan political activity. But to compel employees to pay a union fee for collective bargaining still supports the functioning of the union, and unions, along with corporations, now have a right to engage in partisan political advocacy.  Accordingly, the conservative majority recently declared in Harris v. Quinn that compelled collective bargaining fees are unconstitutional compelled speech.  Unions must now depend on employees being self-sacrificing idealists for financing of their primary collective bargaining function.

So employees and investors are compelled to support the partisan political speech of corporations, unions are compelled to represent all of the bargaining unit employees, and employees cannot be compelled to pay the union for collective bargaining because unions can engage in partisan political speech.  Is this what the constitution says according to the conservative majority?  Do they really think this makes sense?  Can someone tell me that I am misunderstanding what the conservative majority is doing?  The way I see this, at a minimum, pension plans now need to ensure that employees are not compelled to indirectly finance corporate political speech by granting employees an opt out from investing their money in any companies that they disagree with.   Until they do, pension funds will be vulnerable to the challenge that they are violating the First Amendment. After they do, pension funds will incur additional expense to provide this opt-out.

If there are legitimate and principled reasons for heavily discounting the legitimacy of the political advocacy of organized labor while simultaneously exalting the legitimacy of the political advocacy of organized capital, then let's hear the conservative majority try to explain what they are. It would make much more sense to acknowledge that both corporations and unions have economic functions that need to be kept separate from their partisan political activities. Their secondary partisan political activity should be financed separately from their primary economic functions via a PAC. We should rely on a separate category of corporation for journalism companies that can engage in partisan advocacy but not engage in other types of commerce. The conservative majority is unnecessarily creating a big, complicated, mess by using a free speech rationale to combine the economic functions of corporations and unions with their partisan political activities.

Friday, July 04, 2014

2014 Maryland GA vote scorecard

This year the Maryland General Assembly unanimously approved state licensing of the mostly bogus "alternative medicine" practitioners who call themselves Naturopaths.  Fortunately, three bills that locally removed Sunday restrictions on particular commercial activities with titles "Dorchester County - Class B Beer and Light Wine Licenses - Sunday Sales", "Garrett County - Alcoholic Beverages - Sunday Sales for Off-Premises Consumption", and "Garrett County – Alcoholic Beverages – Sunday Sales for On–Premises" also passed unanimously.  With three exceptions, the other bills that addressed secularist concerns (as identified by the Secular Coalition for Maryland), including more bills that would have removed additional restrictions on local Sunday recreational and commercial activities, did not reach a floor vote.

Three bills addressing secularist concerns received a non-unanimous floor vote.  All three bills, which have been signed into law by the Governor, removed restrictions on Sunday activities.  They were HB0344 and SB0344 "Charles County - Sunday Car Sales Blue Law Exemption - Enabling Authority", HB0406 and SB0472 "Allegany County, Garrett County, and Washington County - Sunday Hunting", and HB0432 and SB0473 "Frederick County - Deer Hunting - Sundays". Twenty three Delegates voted at least once against at least one of these bills.  Four Senators also voted at least twice against at least two of these bills.

For those who plan to vote during the election later this year, below is a list of the naysaying lawmakers with the bill numbers they voted against.  If any of these incumbents are candidates in your election then you may want to try contact your lawmaker's office prior to the election to ask why he or she voted against these bills.  Washington Area Secular Humanists neither endorses nor opposes any candidates running for public office (regardless of how good or bad those candidates may or may not be). You can also view the complete spreadsheet SCMD General Assembly Votes 2014

Aumann, Susan L. M. Republican 42 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472
Barkley, Charles Democrat 39 Montgomery County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Bobo, Elizabeth Democrat 12B Howard County
SB0472 SB0473
Braveboy, Aisha N. Democrat 25 Prince George's County
SB0472 SB0473
Bromwell, Eric M. Democrat 8 Baltimore County
Burns, Emmett C., Jr. Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0344 HB0432
Cardin, Jon S. Democrat 11 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Frush, Barbara Democrat 21 Prince George's and Anne Arundel
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Howard, Carolyn J. B. Democrat 24 Prince George's County
Hubbard, James W. Democrat 23A Prince George's County
Jones, Adrienne A. Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0473
Kach, Wade Republican 5B Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
McDonough, Pat Republican 7 Baltimore and Harford Counties
Miller, Aruna Democrat 15 Montgomery County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Morhaim, Dan K. Democrat 11 Baltimore County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Murphy, Peter Democrat 28 Charles County
SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Nathan-Pulliam, Shirley Democrat 10 Baltimore County
HB0432 SB0473
Parrott, Neil Republican 2B Washington County
Pena-Melnyk, Joseline A. Democrat 21 Prince George's and Anne Arundel
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Robinson, Shane Democrat 39 Montgomery County
HB0406 SB0472 SB0473
Smigiel, Michael D., Sr. Republican 36 Kent, Queen Anne's, Cecil, Caroline
Stocksdale, Nancy R. Republican 5A Carroll County
Summers, Michael G. Democrat 47 Prince George's County

Benson, Joanne C. Democrat 24 Prince George's County
HB0406 HB0432
Jones-Rodwell, Verna L. Democrat 44 Baltimore City
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432 SB0473
Miller, Thomas V. Mike, Jr. Democrat 27 Prince George's and Calvert
HB0406 HB0432
Ramirez, Victor R. Democrat 47 Prince George's County
HB0406 SB0472 HB0432

Tuesday, July 01, 2014

Is it unethical to criticize bad epistemology?

Let's say a person justifies adopting a set of factual beliefs on the grounds of wanting to participate in an ideological based social group.  Or on the grounds of self-committing to some ethical norms that are asserted to be related to that particular set of factual beliefs.  Or on the grounds that holding this set of factual beliefs is psychologically comforting because it provides purpose and meaning.  Or on the grounds that these factual beliefs are matters of personal preference or of faith and are thus self-justifying.  Professing this set of factual beliefs has thus become entangled with ongoing social and ethical commitments and activities and motivations.  Accordingly, this person claims a self-dependency on holding this set of factual beliefs.  

Given this context, is it now unethical for those us who disagree with that set of factual beliefs to publicly argue against them given that there is some risk that such a person could, partially or wholly as a result of exposure to those arguments, lose their beliefs?  Clearly, there is reason here to be cautious.  We do not want to harm anyone by isolating them socially, or by telling them they should give up on ethical commitments, or by telling them there is no meaning to their life or purpose for them to pursue. As secular humanists we are people focused, we oppose abandoning people.  We abandon transcendence, not ethics, nor meaning, nor purpose.

Some humanists argue that we should distinguish between people who respect everyone's civil rights and those who do not.  They say it is ethical to argue against the beliefs of those people who fall in the latter category only.  But is this distinction practical to implement?  Not if one of the goals is to challenge bad justifications for factual beliefs. The same faulty reasoning is common to both sets of people.  

Why focus on challenging bad justifications for factual beliefs?  Because, like it or not, it is not enough to have good ethical commitments.  Ethical commitments are important, but so is proper justification of factual beliefs. Arguably, the worst atrocities have historically been committed by ethical people with the best intentions.  What goes wrong?  Part of the answer is that these people tended to be undisciplined in how they justified their factual beliefs.  Religion in general is built upon, it depends on, and it encourages, promiscuous adoption of factual beliefs.  This is a problem with potential real world negative consequences, and it is not a problem confined to "bad" religion as opposed to "good" religion.

People who make themselves dependent, socially, psychologically, or otherwise, on a particular set of factual beliefs have thereby made a mistake.  This is a problem in and of itself as it interferes with good reasoning.  Furthermore, this is an unnecessary problem. This problem is a result of people turning themselves into ideologues and prioritizing ideology over reasoning.  Rather than perpetuating this problem by falsely declaring it ethically taboo to challenge dubious factual beliefs that are held without proper warrant, it is better in the long run to deal with adults as adults.  It is an elitist attitude to say that as non-religious non-believers we should unilaterally censure our speech to protect religious believers from themselves.  They can stand up for themselves also.  People who experienced a difficult transition from religious belief to non-belief often say that they are now glad that they made that transition. By speaking out publicly for non-belief, maybe we can contribute to making this transition less difficult for religious individuals.