Faith-Based and Evidence-Based Thinking

The controversy between evolution and creationism is only one example of the distinction between faith-based and evidence-based thinking. In this modest essay, we’ll attempt to distinguish between the two. Your Curmudgeon knows nothing about psychology (or sociology, or theology) so it’s likely that experts in those fields will find fault with this essay. Nevertheless, we’ll give it a try.

We’re all capable of thinking in either mode, but some people prefer one and regard it as supremely preferable the other. The faith-based way of thinking about the world seems to be the first way humans did things. Thousands of cults have arisen to provide reasons why things are the way they are. But evidence-based thinking was always present to some extent. It had to be or we couldn’t have survived. Poisonous herbs were avoided, useful activities (e.g., agriculture) were adopted, boats had to be watertight, etc. But along with such evidence-based activities, faith-based thinking flourished.

The surprising thing — at least to us — is that when evidence-based thinking successfully explained how certain things happened (lightning, disease, etc.), faith-based reasoning not only persisted, but was preferred by a large portion of the population. Why? Tradition? Tribalism? Laziness? A warm and fuzzy feeling? We don’t know.

Both thinking methods have “filters” to keep out what are believed to be bad ideas. You know how fact-based thinking works. It’s the essence of the scientific method, one of the finest achievements of the Enlightenment.

Those who engage in evidence-based thinking want data — verifiable data — that isn’t merely someone’s subjective experience based on his dreams or revelations received in a trance. Even if the data contradicts what may be a pet theory of ours, we’ll go with it and abandon (or at least revise) the now-superseded theory. Data is paramount, and our personal desires and preferences are irrelevant — see Advice for Creationists.

Faith-based thinking also uses filters to screen out undesired evidence and beliefs. For a good description, see Morton’s demon, described by its discoverer like this:

Morton’s demon was a demon who sat at the gate of my sensory input apparatus and if and when he saw supportive evidence coming in, he opened the gate. But if he saw contradictory data coming in, he closed the gate. In this way, the demon allowed me to believe that I was right and to avoid any nasty contradictory data.

For the typical, walking-around creationist, flat-Earther, UFO probe enthusiast, or other goofball cultist, Morton’s demon may allow him to pursue something that appears to be a normal life. The person affected, despite his delusions, may never know that he has failed to live a truly informed existence. Such people are like those Japanese soldiers that were sometimes found in the jungles of remote Pacific islands, decades after the war ended, unwilling to admit defeat. There’s a Wikipedia article on the phenomenon: Japanese holdout. In the case of creationists, it’s not military zeal or fanatical patriotism that motivates them — it’s an advanced case of Morton’s demon. See also Discovery Institute: The Die-Hards.

But the question arises: Don’t evidence-based thinkers sometimes reject useful ideas that are faith-based? Our answer may be controversial, but we think the proper response is “No.” We don’t reject the ideas that people get from their trances and dreams. But we put them aside and don’t accept them or seriously consider them until they can be objectively verified — see Bring Me An Angel Detector!

Also, there are some unverified ideas that are at least in principle verifiable. But unlike faith-based beliefs, such ideas don’t originate as revelations. Dark Energy is a good example. String theory is another. Those aren’t rejected. Rather, they are considered as potentially useful scientific ideas. Things like that prevent us from breezily summarizing the difference between faith-based and evidence-based thinking as the difference between fantasy and reality.

That’s all we can say at this point, but you probably have your own insights to offer. We look forward to them.

Copyright © 2015. The Sensuous Curmudgeon. All rights reserved.

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14 responses to “Faith-Based and Evidence-Based Thinking

  1. At the moment I have only one remark – rather an addition.

    “evidence-based thinking successfully explained the reason why certain things existed”
    Reason why at best is ambiguous and at worst implies teleolgoy – those certain exists seem to exist with a purpose.
    Hence I prefer “how come”. Sticking to the favourite subject of this nice blog: when you ask “how come there are so many different species of animals and plants” the answer “goddiddid” immediately looks silly.

  2. Good point, mnb0. I changed that “why” to “how.”

  3. Nice essay, Curm. This idea would lead to a great question to ask any candidate for high office, to wit — “Those who engage in evidence-based thinking want data — verifiable data — that isn’t merely someone’s subjective experience based on his dreams or revelations received in a trance. Would you describe yourself as primarily an evidence-based thinker or a faith-based thinker?”

    Thinking of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination, it would work best if the question were given to all the candidates at one time in the form of a written essay question. They would all write their answers without reference to what others had answered, and without knowledge of the question beforehand.

  4. With as much sincerity as I can possibly muster, I can honestly claim that, if sufficient evidence were forthcoming, I could accept that life on earth exists through the act of creation by some hyper-intelligent Being.

    I do not have a need for there not to be such a Being. I simply see no evidence for such, and instead find no end of marvels in the natural world which continue to delight and astound me with their wonder.

  5. Pope Retiredsciguy writes

    Thinking of the Republican candidates for the presidential nomination–

    Aaaaarrrrrgggghhhhh! Must we? I was having an agreeable evening up until the moment I started thinking along those lines!

  6. @Megalonyx: Oh, but think of the fun watching them squirm as they attempt to answer the question!

  7. We can try to rationalize this forever, but I think the root cause behind faith-based thinking lies in the mystery of life itself. Yes, over time natural events were once attributed to the power of the god/s, and some still believe this, e.g., only a god can affect the earth’s climate. However, I think the real power of faith-based thinking lies in the belief of an afterlife. What truly happens when we die? Why can’t there be a next life in another world or dimension ruled by some supernatural force (needing no proof of course)? Science cannot assuage peoples’ fears of the finality of death, the grim reaper. Pharaohs believed in one, christians, jews, muslims, et. al believe in some magical place for the ‘soul’ to live forever on. How can our thoughts be so fragile as to disappear when we die? Where do they go? And so called evidence to the contrary doesn’t do anything to shake those beliefs for most people.

  8. Holding The Line In Florida

    @DavidK. I agree. Of course never overlook the concept that for most people, life is still a struggle to survive. It is a lot easier and comforting to picture some sort of place or belief that it will be better in the next world. Those that are “good” will get their proper rewards in the end and those who are “bad” will get their just dessert too! Wonder who came up with the “easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle…” stuff? I have my suspicions! Reality can be a drag if you are an untouchable in India or a poor inhabitant of the Southern United States. As Marx said, “Religion is the opiate of the masses.” Helps keeps the masses in line them without asking the hard questions. What would happen to the Mega Churches if the Sheeple woke up and started throwing the BS flag?

  9. Even evidence-based thinking has a version of Morton’s Demon: confirmation bias (the Wikipedia article on the phenomenon is pretty interesting). That said, at least evidence-based thinkers can make attempts to mitigate their confirmation bias.

  10. I think that a large contribution to the differing modes of thought comes from different attitudes to ignorance. To many people, “I don’t know” is a confession of inadequacy. Belief in anything that seems to fill the gaps, religion or whatever else, is preferable. To the scientifically inclined, however, “I don’t know” is pretty well synonymous with “that looks interesting”.

    The problem is not confined to the uneducated. Professional philosophers will waffle on endlessly and uselessly about the metaphysics of quantum mechanics, whereas a great physicist like Richard Feynman was quite comfortable in declaring that nobody understands it. (The Character of Physical Law, page 129.)

  11. I’ve used a similar argument to explain the difference between a closed-mind and an open-mind. For example I have been accused of having a closed mind when it comes to ghosts and parapsychology. In my opinion a closed-mind is one that when faced with evidence denies or ignores it. An open-mind is one that when faced with evidence considers it. Since no one has managed to bring forth any evidence, other than conjecture and wishful thinking, to support ghosts or parapsychology, I haven’t had the opportunity to close my mind off to the idea. Of course proponents tend to define an open-mind as one that accepts any idea regardless of evidencial support as valid, we tend to not settle our disagreements. But it’s fun watching them sputter.

  12. At least in regard to the possible existence of ghosts, I have (unlike Ted Herrlich) closed my mind off to the possibility of ghosts. The reason is hinted at by Megalonyx, who says he does “not have a need for there not to be such a Being” (as God).

    As a teenager I developed a need for there not to be such beings as ghosts. In those days I often went hunting ‘possums at night carrying a flashlight and a .22 rifle and accompanied by my little dog, Corky. If you’ve been out in the woods at night, you know how wind rattles the limbs. You know how trees leaning against each other creak and groan in the wind. In that environment a kid cannot afford to keep open the possibility of ghosts. So I adopted as an article of faith the dogma that they are impossible.

    I have tucked that idea away as a sort of keepsake. It reminds me that nearly all human beings have fears they stave off by closing their minds to them and hopes they keep alive by trusting blindly in their eventual fulfillment. It reminds me to give such people a tolerant smile–as long as they reciprocate the tolerance and refrain from enforcing their particular brand of faith on other people.

  13. Ted Herrlich:
    “In my opinion a closed-mind is one that when faced with evidence denies or ignores it. An open-mind is one that when faced with evidence considers it. Since no one has managed to bring forth any evidence, other than conjecture and wishful thinking, to support ghosts or parapsychology, I haven’t had the opportunity to close my mind off to the idea.”


  14. Interestingly, I first thought of what I now call the “Reverse Morton’s Demon,” a few years before I heard of the regular one (in 2002, at Talk.Origins). That’s the one where all the information, whether one likes it or not, is “let in,” but inconvenient facts are never let out. As such, the reverse demon is impossible to distinguish from the regular one by an outside observer. Something to think about whenever someone asserts that a given “creationist” “believes this” or “doesn’t understand that.”