Why so green and lonely? Everything's going to be alright, just you wait and see.

Sunday, January 21, 2007

Explanatory Power of Belief

Came across a neat paper called "Explanations Versus Applications: The Explanatory Power of Valuable Beliefs" while reorganising my hard drive.
Eighty interested Harvard undergraduates received a questionnaire informing them that this study was investigating people’s religious beliefs. Those in the applications condition were then asked to list either 3 or 10 observations that God can explain, whereas those in the explanations condition were asked to list either 3 or 10 observations that can explain God’s behavior.

When finished, participants answered four questions about their religious beliefs:
  • ‘‘What is the general importance of God in your life?’’
  • ‘‘How important is God to you on a daily basis?’’
  • ‘‘How confident are you that God exists?’’ and
  • ‘‘To what extent do you feel you have a personal relationship with God?’’
One result of their study is described in the graph below. Basically, by reflecting on why you hold a particular belief, you undermine your own perceived value of that belief. They note that people who were asked to list 10 explanations for God could usually only think of 4-5 items and this actually reinforced their belief slightly.
Finally, this research suggests that the ultimately valuable belief (a) explains everything and (b) is explained by nothing. Few beliefs can manage this feat, but those associated with science and religion are the most common contenders. We think it is no accident that Western theology has historically depicted God as the ‘‘unmoved First Mover.’’ Both science and religion seek primary causes that can explain higher-level observations, albeit through different methods. It is of little surprise, given our findings, that believers in science and believers in religion so often come into direct conflict. What these experiments suggest is that at least some of this conflict can be attributed to the psychological mechanisms that create valuable beliefs. What these valuable beliefs share, our research suggests, is not simply their perceived truth, but their power as explanations.


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