But You Just Don’t Understand!

Let me give you two quotes separated by 1700 years and tell me if you see the problem:

  1. “Accepting, then, that the God Hypothesis is a proper scientific hypothesis whose truth or falsehood is hidden from us only by lack of evidence, what should be our best estimate of the probability that God exists, given the evidence now available?” – Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
  2. “[Stoics] ascribed to the bodily senses that expertness in disputation which they so ardently love, called by them dialectic, asserting that from the senses the mind conceives the ideas of those things which they explicate by definition. … I often wonder, with respect to this, how they can say that ‘none are beautiful but the wise’; for by what bodily sense have they perceived that beauty, by what eyes of the flesh have they seen wisdom’s comeliness of form?” — Augustine, City of God (VIII:7)

See it? It’s there, brothers.

Dawkins has decided that God is a “scientific hypothesis” that should be tested using evidence of the senses. Augustine says the Stoics, who had a similar approach, are guilty of hypocrisy. By what sense, he says, do you perceive Wisdom?

So here’s the problem: Since the beginning — Augustine is about as beginning as it gets, at least for Christianity — people who should know have denied God is a “scientific hypothesis.” They spent 2,000 years and billions of words describing what else It is. Dawkins appears. He says, actually, theologians don’t know God at all. He knows God: God is a physical entity.

Seems to me there’s a massive disrespectin’ going on both sides of the Atheist-Believer DMZ. At the edges, people can not believe what they’re hearing from the Bozos on the other side. This disturbs me. Why?

Yesterday, doing some spadework for yet another mind-blowing post on religious epistemology, I stumbled across a lab-tested (So there, Dawkins!) phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger Effect that explains a lot.

Here’s the thing. People tend to believe a lot of propositions based on very little evidence, or distorted evidence. For example, I believe that other people exist even when I can’t see them. I don’t really have any evidence they exist — not right now. I believe I’m a pretty important guy, in my own little world; when I take a day off at work, colleagues struggle, and some perhaps break down and cry. There is no evidence for this. Etc.

Turns out, we have a lot of irrational views about ourselves. The Dunning-Kruger Effect describes a very interesting phenomenon that I can sum up like this:

  • People who are unskilled at a task tend to vastly overestimate their competence, and their lack of knowledge actually makes them unable to see their own deficiency
  • People who are skilled at a task tend to overestimate the competence of others — which causes them to underrate their own abilities

The Effect gets its name from Justin Dunning and David Kruger of Cornell, who put it forward in 1999 based on studies of undergraduates: “Participants scoring in the bottom quartile on tests of humor, grammar, and logic grossly overestimated their test performance and ability.” Me gots good gramma!

There is definitely some of this going on in the current Religion Wars. Dawkins can ridicule Aquinas — a genius by any definition — like he’s some geriatric reptile because he hasn’t spent what philosopher Martin Versfeld (my namesake!) claimed were the requisite 10 years preparing to read him. Yet still he can tell all those brilliant theologians what God really is.

And vice versa. What do the 25% of Americans who say they “don’t believe in Evolution” really know about it? There is a lot going for that theory, people. More than you know.


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