February 24, 2010

Does God want you to check the math?

Filed under: Uncategorized — admin @ 1:31 pm

For various child-induced reasons, I am extremely tired today which further muddles my already silt-like writing.  That being said, it is time to discuss some aspects of the establishment of knowledge (epistemology).  A while back, the more ardent anti-religion crowd came up with this particular graphic:

While I personally find it very funny, some religious folks have asserted that it is inaccurate.  They believe that they can be people of faith, and still integrate testable assertions and evidence into their religious practice.  I would like to think this is possible.  In an act of rank social speculation, I say that while these types of thinking don’t break cleanly down into a science/religion paradigm, they do tend to clump along those axes.  Generally speaking, we are all hampered by cognitive bias.  The scientific method tends to be the best mechanism for rooting this out that we have found so far.

This is why it is so important for us to express our claims in terms of testable hypotheses and expose them to data.  Otherwise, we have an unfalsifiable assertion.

While there are things that cannot be proven in this way it is important to be careful about what we call these assertions.  Can you know the truthfulness of something that cannot be tested?  From a scientific perspective, yes that is possible, even for the super-pure mathematicians.  Gödel’s Incompleteness Theorems are a key example of the effect.

However, a scientist or mathematician operating in that realm is well aware of the limitations of the incompleteness theorems and doesn’t represent their assertions to be any more reliable than the limits of such an effect dictate.

By contrast, most of the religousers I am familiar with will scamper around with slogans like “Every fiber of my being” and “Beyond a shadow of a doubt” when their assertions are unprovable or outright false.  It is quite a misrepresentation to call claim that both of these levels of knowing are equally reliable, or even similar in nature.  Yet folks do this all the time (show up on the first Sunday of the month and take some notes).

The conversation we are having about the link between Mormonism and happiness is a key example of this.  Representations are made about the causational (not even correlation!) link between Mormonism and happiness without supporting data.  Some of the contributors to this blog have rightly pointed out that measuring happiness is very difficult (I agree).  However, if measuring happiness is so difficult, where is the evidence to back up these repeated claims?

If you are using an unmeasurability argument to escape the non-correlation presented by the data reviewed on this site, it is highly disingenuous to also claim that a causative/correlative relationship exists without providing data to back it up (and also explain the data that doesn’t).  You can’t claim it is unmeasurable, and also claim a result from measurement.  You might assert your faith that the relationship exists, but that is a very different thing.

Now, most of the contributors to this blog are not taking that approach. I’m speaking more to the hordes of Mormons who make these kinds of statements without evidence.  For those of you who have a TBM background, think back on how many times you have heard claims about the happiness promoting properties of Mormonism (both anecdotal and official) and cross-reference those statements with the data you have been provided.  How much data were you given?  I’ll bet 1,000 Lira that any referenced data was almost always an anecdotal extrapolation from an individual experience (if not other methodological flaws as well).

This is a complicated issue, so I think I will cut it off here and address the individual component issues as the commenting public wishes to highlight them.  Perhaps it will become the theme of the week.

Wake up! Time for the poll!

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  1. Matthew finds the best brainy comics.

    Comment by mary ann — February 25, 2010 @ 3:41 pm

  2. I enjoy the comics also. And thank you for the reference to Kurt Gödel. I read Douglas Hofstadter’s book about 27 years ago during lunch when I was a post-doc at the NIH. I had checked it out of the library and had to to renew it about three times before I got through it, even though it was amusingly constructed.

    I agree we have a complicated issue here. What I find most important for me is the continual effort to be honest with myself about what I consider knowledge. There is a certain “scientific method” associated with experimenting on “the word of God” that for me can produce reproducible results. However, I feel that Alma Chapter 32 in the Book of Mormon cannot be used out of context of the next two chapters. There is something critical about “the word” being the message of Christ and the atonement that makes it work for me.

    I understand that the subject is the broader issue, where one would say “Do X, Y, and Z, and you will have attained knowledge of A.” To show this is a valid statement we would need to establish objective measures of X, Y & Z being done and evaluate whether knowledge of A resulted. If we take the oft-quoted exhortation in Moroni 10: 3-5, we would need to establish criteria for what it means to read, remember the Lord’s mercy, ponder in our hearts, ask God, be sincere, have real intent, have faith in Christ, and decide if all this had been satisfactorily done, and then determine if the result was the promised knowledge. The X, Y, & Z part of this seems so subjective that it would be impossible to prove one way or the other. But does this mean we are not justified in making (or quoting, actually) the exhortation because it could never be proven to be true? Granted, it seems a bit unfair to admit as positive evidence (as believing Mormons will do) those who get result A and assume that X, Y, & Z were done properly. But in the case where knowledge A is not achieved, is it ever reliable to say that X, Y & Z were actually done?

    With the happiness question there is a similar problem. With the statement “being Mormon makes you happy” there is not only the concern of defining happiness as something quantifiable, there is also the question of what level of internal devotion to the faith is required to be a “happiness-qualified” Mormon. I don’t really want to go down that road of explanation, but it should be considered. On the other hand, if someone says they are happy, yet there is no observable data to confirm this, does the lack of data invalidate their assertion? That doesn’t seem right. I think I’m getting more comfortable with the first t-shirt slogan.

    Comment by Grandpa Art — February 26, 2010 @ 6:26 am

  3. Yes – Mormons who say “with every fiber of my being” are wrong, yet in many cases feeble minded and don’t know any other way to express their “happiness”.

    I would argue that you have juxtaposd two principals that do not contradict each other. Faith is required when evidence is not yet revealed/known, and evidence is not required to establish truth. Trying to find one correct method is far to simple…if it where only that easy.

    Comment by Daniel — February 28, 2010 @ 12:35 am

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