Friday, 19 October 2012

The Roadless Travel

I wrote recently about William Lane Craig’s “Taxi-Cab Fallacy” and what I have labelled the “Optimus Prime Fallacy” (the continual transformation between multiple forms of argumentation, especially if it is never made clear what form of argumentation is being used until challenged).

While writing the latter, I had thought about how I could illustrate the problem but I wasn’t able to come up with exactly what I wanted without incurring the risk of devoting inordinate amounts of time to the project.  I had the idea of a relatively simple network of roads (the path that a figurative taxi-cab would take, illustrating the methodology of science) interspersed with rivers, swamps and lava flows (which had to be traversed in quite different vehicles to the standard albeit figurative taxi-cab, illustrating the tendency of an apologist to regularly abandon the taxi-cab in order to get to a predetermined destination).

Those with an active imagination can conjure up a scene with Craig and a materialist on a road in the wilderness somewhere.  The materialist wants to continue the journey using the taxi-cab, but Craig wants to go across a treacherous stretch of swamp to what he thinks is a road on the other side.  In his head, Craig wishes into existence a philosophical bridge (“This is not a physical argument, this is a philosophical argument”) and bravely sets out across the swamp.  As Craig sinks into the mire, the materialist shakes her head in disbelief, hops into the taxi-cab and heads off towards a proper understanding of the universe.

I wasn’t able to put together a drawing representing that scenario.  I did, however, find a program that allowed me to create a drawing from “road shapes”.  Within a short time, I built up an image meant to represent the journey to truth and understanding by humans over the millennia.

I wanted to illustrate the idea that the god hypothesis, as a simplistic explanation, lies between the understanding of Neolithic humans and what we have developed today.  Initially I thought that this hypothesis should be represented by a blank area in the middle of the map, one that had to be navigated around.

I was going to find an icon to represent the god hypothesis, illustrating the flame to which the theist’s moth is inexorably drawn.  Then I thought, no, the arguments used to defend the god hypothesis are circular in one sense and twisted in another sense.  I should have some road in the blank area, not connected to the rest of the roads (thus requiring a leap of faith to get there from the purely evidential path).

So I inserted something resembling a closed loop race-track circuit with just enough curves to represent the twists and turns of apologetical argument.  In retrospect, I realise that I should have included a couple of switchbacks to illustrate the way these arguments turn back on themselves.

Being a bit of a perfectionist, I still thought it was not quite right.  Craig and his ilk don’t use the same form of argument throughout the entire circuit, they jump from pseudoscience (the eye could not have evolved without design) to pseudophilosophy and pseudologic (Kant argued that reason is faulty which means that reason is faulty, so you can’t use reason) to pseudometaphysics (a transcendent god is not contingent but rather metaphysically necessary) to pseudoethics (you know that rape is bad because of the inherent goodness of god) and so on.  So, I shuffled up the race-track to represent the fact that the arguments for the god hypothesis aren’t coherent as a race-track would imply.

Interestingly, the result is a good illustration of what probably attracts some people to the god hypothesis.  Look at the drawing below.  What do you see?

If I add two roundabouts, the illusion is even more striking:

For those in any doubt, there is not a face in that illustration.  When I put in two circles into the last diagram, these resulted in a stronger activation of the “face detection” zones in your brain.  But even with these circles added, there is no face.  There are only fragmented segments of a race-track with two circles.

We humans are very good at detecting patterns, even if they are not there.

I reckon that it is this ability to detect patterns that leads the religious astray.  We all start off the same sort of way, sifting through our experiences in the search for understanding, but when the religiously inclined see fragments that, if looked at the right way, combine into the image of a god, they leave the path of reason in favour of an argument along the lines of “it must be right because it must be right”.  It looks like it might be a face, so it must be a face.

If you look at the second last diagram and are unable to avoid thinking that the apparent face must have been intentional (that it is a face), despite the fact that I, the person who created it, tell you that I did not intend there to be a face, then you may possibly be the sort of person who can fall prey to religious thinking.

If you think that the hand of god guided me in creating that face, in order to send secret messages to believers out there, then you are definitely the sort of person who can fall prey to religious thinking!


  1. An interesting viewpoint on the road to belief. I'm not sure, however, that I agree entirely with the second last paragraph stating that for one to think the face was intentional, even with your stating so, that they are more inclined to religious thought; in fact surely it is somewhat the opposite. I would have to take your word for it that you did not intend to make that face, even though it has an uncanny resemblence and on some unconscious level it may be possible that your mind chose to create a face shaped road diagram, like a form of priming.

    I can see what you are saying though, that the tendency for people to have unfounded religious belief can be compared to the tendency for humans to find patterns where there are none, or to committing a "type I error". In that, I do agree, they are similar tendencies and may occur due to similar brain pathways being used.

    1. The trouble is that it's a happy, friendly, cleanly shaven face and in my atheist brain, god doesn't look like that.

      The big nose is about right though :)

  2. I love this analogy! I have had many conversations with religiously minded people who can see God is just about everything. Your cat recovered from it's cold? Thank you God! You find a parking spot right next to the door at Walmart? Thank you God! Your beloved family member dies of cancer despite prayers? God's providence!

    Our pattern sensing ability, along with a healthy dose of bias and social pressure, really can make us see the face of God in just about any tortilla.

  3. Plus that bit of your brain above your right ear :)

    I'd love to see if there is a systematic difference between religiosity and activity in the Right Temporal Lobe ...


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