(Dear Readers: This guest post is written by my good friend Corey Washington and his co-author Johanna Carr. I first got to know Corey in 2001, when he was still a philosophy professor at the University of Maryland. Since then he quit the philosophy business and got a second Ph.D. in neuroscience from Columbia. He’s now a consultant in New York City. Corey’s background gives him a fairly unique perspective, I think. I have always enjoyed our debates because he attacks issues from such a different vantage point. He and Johanna are in the beginning stages of writing a book that is an argument against the very notion of ideology. I asked him to write up a synopsis for the USIH blog, since this seems like the perfect venue for critical feedback on an essay in the realm of ideas. Like most of us, Corey loves a good debate. Enjoy.)
I recently finished reading two books endorsing atheism – God is Not Great, by Christopher Hitchens and The God Delusion, by Richard Dawkins. Each gives a variety of reasons for believing that God does not exist, but the central argument offered by both men is a variation on Occam’s razor:
(a) The hypothesis that God (an all powerful, all knowing, all good being who intervenes in the world) exists is extraordinary.
(b) Being extraordinary, it requires extraordinary supporting evidence before it should be believed.
(c) There is no compelling, let alone extraordinary, evidence for God’s existence.
(d) Hence, one should infer that God does not exist.
Many of my friends are atheist (or agnostic), and mostly for reasons similar to that above. They do not believe in God, because they see no good evidence that he exists. Clearly, they engage in evidence based reasoning about religion. At the same time, almost all of them describe themselves as falling into some political grouping: Marxist, socialist, social democrat, liberal, conservative, libertarian, anarchist – sometimes per economics, sometimes per social issues, sometimes regarding both.
When they talk about politics, they often express very strong beliefs in political ideas based on very little evidence. They might claim legalizing cocaine would benefit society at large or more stimulus spending would be bad for the economy. Some maintain life would be better if there were no markets, others if there were no taxes. While some of these claims are extraordinary and others not, in each case the evidence presented clearly falls short of what a rational person would demand in order to endorse a given claim as vehemently as its advocates do.
It is clear that for most people support for their policy views follows from an underlying ideology rather than from strong evidence. They argue for no taxes because they believe small government is better. They argue for legalizing cocaine because they believe in the right to privacy. In very few cases, do they present a well-formed opinion based on research and evidence. And as any rational person knows only evidence, not ideology, is a sound basis for such empirical claims.
My friends are not unusual. Political beliefs, like religious beliefs, are usually based on very weak, and selective, evidence. People tend to have the same political orientation as their parents, which may result from environment, i.e. growing up in their parents’ household, or a genetic predisposition to a particular political orientation, as recent studies have indicated. People also often develop views as a result of hanging around others with a certain political orientation. Once formed, political views are maintained and reinforced by reading material that supports one’s positions and by discounting material that conflicts. Likewise, people often embrace views advocated by the “experts”, they find idedologically appealing, while discrediting those with equivalent credentials, whom they do not. (When I discuss economics with my friends in Amherst, MA, they quote economist Paul Krugman about as often as Christians quote Jesus.)
In short, ideology seems to be the equivalent of religion, without the God stuff.
Given how randomly political beliefs are formed and injudiciously maintained, we have little reason to be confident they are true. To see this, suppose you set out to maximize the number of true beliefs, and minimize the number of false beliefs, you have about a controversial issue. How should you proceed? You should probably do what scientists do when investigating a new subject: read a range of papers from credible sources; be careful to get different perspectives on the issue. Talk to experts in the field with varying points of views; get their assessments of what you have read and heard from others. If possible, you might even try to conduct your own experiments.
Throughout the process you would try to be very even-handed, weighing conflicting evidence for strength and credibility. You would also be hyper-critical of hypotheses you are considering endorsing – always looking for evidence that what you believe is wrong, so as to avoid coming to an incorrect conclusion. In the end, you might end up endorsing one view (if the evidence was overwhelming), but most likely you would end up taking an intermediate position. Notice how strikingly different this approach is from how people generally form their opinions on political issues.
There is good scientific evidence that political reasoning is based on innate, non-rational principles. Nevertheless, the fact that people reason so badly about politics is striking given that people are intelligent and believe strongly that it is important for their political beliefs to be true. Religion may also be innate and non-rational, but if people are rational enough to give up God-oriented religion because there is not sufficient evidence, why do they not give up ideologies as well?
When I ask this question, the responses are quite similar to what you hear when you discuss atheism with a religious person. Atheists/agnostics cannot imagine how you could act ethically, or more broadly make sense of the world, without an ideology. That is, ideology seems to give many atheists/agnostics a value system just as religion does for believers. I believe ideologies also provide people with a community of like-minded friends, as do religious beliefs, and people are loath to alienate themselves from their friends. But if your goal is to have an accurate political view of the world, what use are such ideologies and communities if they are based on beliefs one has very little reason to think are true?
Corey Washington’s Background:
M.S., MIT, Linguistics, 1987.
PhD, Stanford, Philosophy, 1994
Asst. Prof, U Washington, 1992-1996
Asst. Prof. U Maryland, 1996-2003
PhD Columbia, Neuroscience, 2010
Corey is presently a New York City consultant.
Johanna Carr received her degree in Philosophy, emphasis on History of Science, from Stanford 1991. After years in the tech world, failing to effect any change in corporate politics, she is currently pursuing a second PhD in Motherhood.