Occam’s Blinders

Most people have heard the term Occam’s Razor. In a nutshell, it means “Don’t needlessly multiply hypotheses,” or less precisely, “The simplest answer is usually correct.” It can be seen as a way to excise or cut away less plausible or more doubtful hypotheses in explaining some phenomenon, instead sticking with the one’s that have greater prior probability based on what we already know. So the “razor” part is a figurative means of cutting away the hypotheses that require us to make more assumptions or unsupported assertions, leaving only the more defensible hypotheses.

It’s possible to imagine some method that does precisely the opposite. Let’s call it Occam’s Blinders. Rather than trim the less plausible hypotheses away from the more plausible, it instead blocks out the more plausible, leaving the least plausible hypotheses as the only choices left. The obvious question one would ask about Occam’s Blinders is “Why the fuck would anyone want such a thing?” And yet, I maintain that such thinking is quite common. Take, for instance, T. M. Luhrmann at CNN.com, who argues that talking to God is a perfectly “normal” thing. (I put “normal” in scare-quotes because, as I’ll argue later, Luhrmann is equivocating throughout the article on just what “normal” means.)

Most people reading the ancient scriptures understand these accounts of hearing God’s voice as miracles that really did happen but no longer take place today, or maybe as folkloric flourishes to ancient stories. Even Christians who believe that miracles can be an everyday affair can hesitate when someone tells them they heard God speak audibly. There’s an old joke: When you talk to God, we call it prayer, but when God talks to you, we call it schizophrenia.

Except that usually it’s not.

Well, okay, fair enough. Schizophrenia affects only about 1% of the adult population, and yet hearing voices in one’s head is something most if not all people might experience at some point in their life time (presumably only rarely, though). What the hell does this have to do with “scripture” or “god”?

Hearing a voice when alone, or seeing something no one else can see, is pretty common. At least one in 10 people will say they’ve had such an experience if you ask them bluntly. About four in 10 say they have unusual perceptual experiences between sleep and awareness if you interview them about their sleeping habits.

Yup. That’s what’s called a hypnogogic or hypnopompic hallucination. Lots of people have them, myself included. Hell, just this morning, as I slowly woke up, I had a short discussion about Rawlsian political philosophy with a figment of my imagination. It was a dream that felt more real because I was half awake during it. What’s the big deal? What does god turning himself into a person, killing himself, and coming back (i.e. scripture) have to do with it?

And if you ask them in a way that allows them to admit they made a mistake, the rate climbs even higher. By contrast, schizophrenia, the most debilitating of all mental disorders, is pretty rare. Only about one in 100 people can be diagnosed with the disorder.

Yup. Hearing voices or hallucinating on occasion is not necessarily a sign of mental disorder. No argument.  Please get to the point.

Moreover, the patterns are quite distinct. People with schizophrenia who hear voices hear them frequently. They often hear them throughout the day, sometimes like a rain of sound, or a relentless hammer. They hear not only sentences, but paragraphs: words upon words upon words. What the voices say is horrid—insults, sneers and contemptuous jibes. “Dirty. You’re dirty.” “Stupid slut.” “You should’ve gone under the bus, not into it.”

That was not what Abraham, Moses and Job experienced, even when God was at his most fierce.

You’re saying god never accused people of being dirty, promiscuous, or said they should be destroyed? Because if you read the prophets, it seems like that was pretty much all he had to say.

For the last 10 years, I have been doing anthropological and psychological research among experientially oriented evangelicals, the sort of people who seek a personal relationship with God and who expect that God will talk back. For most of them, most of the time, God talks back in a quiet voice they hear inside their minds, or through images that come to mind during prayer. But many of them also reported sensory experiences of God. They say God touched their shoulder, or that he spoke up from the back seat and said, in a way they heard with their ears, that he loved them.

A lot of people also report seeing bigfoot or the Loch Ness monster. Are they crazy? Not necessarily. Most are just normal folks. But that doesn’t mean that we should take their bigfoot reports seriously. Most likely, they saw an animal they were unfamiliar with and let their imaginations run away from there. That’s normal. But normal can still be wrong. In fact, normal is normally wrong. In America, it’s normal to reject evolution, for instance. Doesn’t change the fact that anyone who does so is wrong (and ignorant).

In fact, my research has found that these unusual sensory experiences are more common among those who pray in a way that uses the imagination—for example, when prayer involves talking to God in your mind. The unusual sensory experiences were not, in general, associated with mental illness (we checked).

Here we have the beginning of Luhrmann’s equivocation. “Normal” means, in this paragraph, “lot’s of people without mental illnesses have unusual experiences”. As such, it has absolutely nothing to do with “god” or any other supernatural being.

Importantly, she leaps from reports of unusual sensory experience being more common to unusual sensory experience being more common. This is almost certainly an example of confirmation bias. People expecting to have such experiences will be more likely to remember them, while those with no such expectations will likely forget them. This is commonplace and, again, perfectly normal human psychology. And the following paragraph strengthens my suspicion–the one’s more likely to be looking for such experiences are the ones more likely to report them:

They were more common among those who felt comfortable getting caught up in their imaginations. They were also more common among those who prayed for longer periods. Prayer involves paying attention to words and images in the mind, and giving them significance. There is something about the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind in this way that shifts—just a little bit—the way we judge what is real.

Here’s where Occam’s Blinders come in. Take something most people have (unusual sensory experience), and interpret it via not what is (a) most likely (the brain is an imperfect organ that will sometimes give strange or erroneous feedback), but rather via (b) what most tickles your imagination (an invisible being who doesn’t want me to masturbate is touching me). And from this point on, Luhrmann will equivocate between the simple empirical observation (a) and the highly embellished theological interpretation (b), even though she has only been able to show that (a) is “normal”.

I would contend that putting on Occam’s Blinders is not in any way “the skilled practice of paying attention to the mind,” but rather quite the opposite. It is the refusal to pay enough attention to the mind to notice important cognitive biases and re-evaluate one’s own thoughts and beliefs in light of them. One wearing Occam’s Blinders immediately leaps to “god” as the explanation of an occurrence in her own thoughts. One who has the meta-cognitive abilities to examine her own thoughts more thoroughly and critically might consider the god hypothesis, but then reject it because there are other more plausible explanations. It’s the latter who has more skilled practice of paying attention to her mind. The one who judges that god is real based on inner voices is the one paying less attention to how her mind works.

Yet even many of these Christians, who wanted so badly to have a back-and-forth relationship with God, were a little hesitant to talk about hearing God speak with their ears. For all the biblical examples of hearing God speak audibly, they doubt.

Gee, I wonder why. Could it be because Christians, no matter how devoted they claim to be, still on some level recognize the silliness of claiming that an invisible man is telling you what to do? Could it be because they recognize that merely hearing a voice in your head is not sufficient evidence to leap to the conclusion that the omnipotent ruler of the entire universe is personally letting you know that fags are evil? And why would many Christians be reluctant to interpret a voice in their head as god? Could it be that while hearing the voice might be normal, interpreting it as god is not normal?

When the Christians I know heard God speak audibly, it often flitted across their minds that they were crazy.

This is a false dichotomy. “Crazy” and “god talking” are not the only two options here. “Normal brain fart” is also an available option, if you take off Occam’s Blinders.

Look, your brain is processing a lot of information, and it never does it perfectly. Sometimes sensory input will be interpreted as a voice when it is not actually a voice. Sometimes a slight muscle spasm will be interpreted as a touch on the skin. Sometimes your inner monologue will feel like someone else’s voice. Sometimes you’ll start dreaming before you’re fully asleep, and see and hear things that aren’t there. This happens. But these simple empirical observations do not in any way justify an inference to the nature of the entire universe (which is exactly what any claim about god is).

In his new book, “Hallucinations,” the noted neurologist Oliver Sacks tells his own story about a hallucinatory experience that changed his life. He took a hearty dose of methamphetamines as a young doctor, and settled down with a 19th century book on migraines. He loved the book, with its detailed observation and its humanity. He wanted more. As he was casting around in his mind for someone who could write more that he could read, a loud internal voice told him “You silly bugger” that it was he. So he began to write. He never took drugs again.

Now, Sacks does not recommend that anyone take drugs like that. He thinks that what he did was dangerous and he thinks he was lucky to have survived.

I loves me some Oliver Sacks. The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat is an excellent book, and his research is important. But I do have to ask a few questions…

1.) If hearing these voices is so good and normal, then why is taking drugs that cause them so bad and abnormal?

2.) If these voices can result from purely chemical, drug-induced brain frenzy, then what sane person would insist they come from the Almighty Ruler of All That is and Ever Will Be?

3.) Or are we seriously going to claim that god can’t communicate with us any better than a meth-induced hallucination can? If that’s the best god can do, I am not impressed. If talking to god is so normal, then why can’t god just talk like a normal person?

4.) If your goal is to claim these things are “normal”, then wouldn’t the guy snorting meth and hearing voices in his head be not exactly the best example?

What interests me, however, is that he allowed himself to trust the voice because the voice was good. There’s a distinction between voices associated with psychiatric illness (often bad) and those (often good) that are found in the so-called normal population. There’s another distinction between those who choose to listen to a voice, if the advice it gives is good, and those who do not. When people like Sacks hear a voice that gives them good advice, the experience can transform them.

How do we define what’s a “good” voice and what’s a “bad” voice? And by what measurement do we establish that the voice heard by the general population are “often good”?

These distinctions seem to me to be utterly artificial. Unless you can show that the etiology of the voice in the head is somehow causally related to what’s “good” or “bad”, then I’m not buying it. And since good and bad are highly complex and situational value judgments made in complicated social contexts, it would be hard to prove to any degree of satisfaction whether a voice in the head is pathological based on whether it’s good or bad.

About a third of the people I interviewed carefully at the church where I did research reported an unusual sensory experience they associated with God. While they found these experiences startling, they also found them deeply reassuring.

So what? So they had experiences which, according to your own research, most people have. But they childishly imagined it was Jesus babbling in their ear rather than a brain fart, and they felt better for it. We can easily comfort ourselves with implausible delusions or cognitively simple but irrational modes of thought. This is well known.

But the question of whether “god talking” is normal is not addressed by this data. That would be equivocating between an empirical observation about the brain and a hermeneutical or epistemic attitude towards one’s subjective experiences. The fact that many Christians will admit to having the former but be reluctant to acknowledge the latter (as Luhrmann herself said just a few paragraphs ago)  is evidence that hearing god’s “voice” is NOT normal, if we’re going by the statistical definition of normal used earlier in this op-ed, wherein if most non-mentally ill people have it then it’s normal. Most people have the experiences, but most also do NOT interpret them with Occam’s Blinders on. So it’s not normal by Luhrmann’s own definition. The only way this doesn’t follow is if we equivocate on the distinction between the empirical observation that people report these experiences and the way someone chooses to interpret them.

Science cannot tell us whether God generated the voice that Abraham or Augustine heard.

The fuck it can’t. If science can show us how the normal operations of the physical brain might generate such experiences (which it can), then the burden of proof falls on those who insist it’s actually god and not physical matter that’s doing this.  But in order to come up with such proof, you need to take Occam’s Blinders off.

These kinds of statements really annoy me. Andrew Newberg, a neurologist who studies the effects of religion on the brain, has committed a similar fallacy. In his study of religious experience, he has found clear evidence of physical changes in brain activity which can explain what’s going on in a so-called religious experience. However, he then goes on to say, “But this doesn’t mean it’s not God or Allah or Xenu or Darth Vader that’s doing it” (I’m paraphrasing).

This is nonsense. It’s like saying, “Yeah, your experiments show that oxygen causes combustion, but that doesn’t prove that phlogiston doesn’t cause it.” Not directly, sure, but it does shift the burden of proof entirely onto the phlogiston theorist. If you want me to take phlogiston seriously, it’s your job to come up with empirical evidence of phlogiston. The same goes for religious experiences and god “talking” to us. We have good evidence that this results from the way the brain is wired up. If you insist “god” has anything to do with it, it is your job to prove it. Otherwise, science has for all intents and purposes eliminated the god hypothesis.

But it can tell us that many of these events are normal, part of the fabric of human perception. History tells us that those experiences enable people to choose paths they should choose, but for various reasons they hesitate to choose.

It can tell us that strange sensory experience is normal, NOT that interpreting such experiences as Jeebus whispering in your ear is normal. History might actually provide some good lessons here. Conquerors throughout history have relied on “signs” from god(s) or “visions” to guide them in slaughtering and enslaving other peoples. The question is not whether people do follow what their hallucinations tell them to do, but whether or not this is a wise choice. Maybe your “good” voices will lead you down a shitty path, one that leads to harming others for your own “good”. History certainly provides examples of that kind of thing happening. Hell, even the Bible itself has the people of Israel hearing the voice of god telling them to invade and kill their neighbors. Is this an example of listening to the “good” voices or the “bad” voices? And is there any reliable way to distinguish between the two other than one makes you feel nice and the other makes you feel poopy?

When the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. sat at his kitchen table, in the winter of 1956, terrified by the fear of what might happen to him and his family during the Montgomery bus boycott, he said he heard the voice of Jesus promising, “I will be with you.” He went forward.

Voices may form part of human suffering. They also may inspire human greatness.

They’re also terrifyingly unreliable. For every Martin Luther King, there’s a King Xerxes.

The defenders of superstition often like to point to anecdotal evidence of some individual good thing resulting from some individual religious thing. But it’s pretty rare to see them try to make the case that religion can reliably produce such good things. Bearing in mind the old adage about broken clocks, it’s one thing to find a silver lining in a dark cloud, it’s quite another to find a cloud that consistently brings you silver.

Luhrmann is no different. She has a few anecdotes about MLK and Oliver Sacks, and some testimony from evangelicals that they felt all warm and fuzzy after hearing a voice and attributing it to Jesus, but she ignores the central equivocation in her thesis which completely undermines her point. Yes, it’s normal to hear voices on rare occasions; but no, it’s not normal to think these voices are god and then act on them. As she herself says, people are very hesitant to do this. Why? My guess is because the rational part of their brain says, “How do you know you can trust that voice?”

Does Luhrmann really want us to ignore what our rational mind says in favor of whatever voice pops into it? Is she seriously suggesting that humanity should become more reliant on vague, undefinable “voices” or “sensations” and ignore the more difficult (but more reliable) path of rational thought? If not, then what the hell is she saying? Yes, a voice in your head can lead you down the right path, but that doesn’t mean much. If there’s only a 1% chance of it being right, then it remains true that it can lead you to choose the right path. But if there’s another method with a higher probability of success, then why should you eschew it for the 1% chance? Other than the fact that lazy thinking like Occam’s Blinders is easier, I can’t think of a reason.

“Normal” doesn’t mean “right”, and the fact of the thing is not the same as the subjective interpretation of the fact of the thing. Yeah, voices in the head might not be all bad, but they tell us nothing about any gods, and I would recommend people put more thought into their actions before acting on what a voice in their head tells them. Don’t assume that just because it popped into your head and it feels “reassuring” that this makes it “good” and something you should act on. Things that feel good and reassuring in your mind can still be stupid and dangerous when actually acted upon.

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