Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Confirmation Bias and the End Times

Confirmation bias is the propensity to give priority (broadly defined) to evidence that confirms existing prejudices. You are familiar with the expression "hearing what you want to hear"? That's confirmation bias. This philosophically important notion is actually a product of pure biology.

Scientists believe the brain creates memories and solves problems by connecting dendrites. There are axons involved. There's your biology less for the day.

Alas, the little bastards can't help but fuse, so sometimes problems sort of solve themselves subconsciously.

Our biological instincts compel us to mate, and so it behooves our precious brains to make connections as quickly as possible. As such, the only sensible dendritic connections people ever form are of the "nice butt, therefore, sex now" variety. For more information, visit the Warehouse district.

So dendrites are extremely helpful in compelling us to have sex. To which, thanks dendrites. Thandrites.

Unfortunately, the facile propensities of these little beasts are poorly applied to, say, world events pertaining to the fate of mankind.

Instead of "smile is confident, therefore, sex now" we get "tsunami in Japan, therefore, end times".

Any Christian person with a Facebook account is either purveyor or recipient of ominous prophecy viz. the "end is near". See, the Bible does foretell (accurately, by the way) the world will end. There will be floods, fires, earthquakes, famine. You know, awful stuff.

As it happens, the much lamented 24 hour news cycle has done a more than capable job of continually reintroducing awful stuff to our collective psyches... Especially when aforementioned results in floating cars.

(I am convinced that every automobile that has ever floated on water has been photographed. Cameras are drawn to them, and why not? Pretty serious, this business of floating cars.)

To the average Christian, accounts of impending doom via car-floating massacres, both in scripture and on Drudge, serve as jello shots for preternaturally uninhibited dendrites. Every time some oceanic event destroys a coalition of non-whites, Christians read badly written books and store wheat.

Are the dendritic instincts correct in this instance? Not any more so than they are after bar close in the Warehouse district.

For starters, per Genesis, God explicitly said he won't be flooding us to death any more. To end mankind via alternative water calamities would seem rather hair-splitting, no?

Second, even if you adhere (as I do) to the theory of a young creation, our observance of geological and meteorological phenomena represents an awfully small data set in context. Prior to the 19th century, our knowledge is limited to accounts of particularly calamitous events.

The Shaanxi Earthquake if 1556 killed 830,000 people. The Antioch earthquake a millenia prior killed 300,000. I'll hazard to guess there was an undocumented hurricane or three in the interim.

Add to that the fact that our world is more populated now, especially in areas where there happens to be a lot of water (colonization near waterways boomed with the industrial revolution), and its no surprise that natural disasters exact a more profound human toll nowadays.

Of course, everyone forgets about good old fashion famine, under which conditions there are neither cars nor water. In the 20th century, China experienced two famines that claimed the lives of 50 million people or so. And yet, famine seems to have subsided. Is this particular end times bellwether taking a temporary hiatus?

Volcanic eruptions, as well, seem to have become less profound in the last century. This certainly owes to the ability to anticipate said eruptions, but if God wants to send a warning, who are scientists to stop him?

Are we in the end times (broadly defined)? I don't know. It is theoretically possible. However, it is mathematically unlikely that the end of the world will come about in my life time. Besides, it seems cruel for God to end mankind without giving us at least one space robot.

We live on a dynamic Earth, where death is a reality, and life is fleeting. Tsunamis do not change that fact. They ought compel us to reflect upon it. The bible encourages precisely this. God will return like a thief in the night, not a volcano in broad daylight.

It's easier to cope with the idea of the end of the world than it is our own unique mortality. Like a child who won't go to bed for fear that something exciting might happen, we would rather take see the world crumble with us than leave it behind.

Citing the end times strikes me as a reflection of our unwillingness to confront the inevitability of our own death. We are sentenced to die, and our death is not the end of the world. That might be uncomfortable, and our dendrites have a hard time with it, but it's what's real.

Confirm it.


Blogger Jerad said...

Interesting hypothesis on why end times are always popular with a certain group. It's also an increasingly dangerous theology when applied to the policy arena--a lot of folks are advocating policies that assume there is no point in the long view because, since we're in the end times, there will not be a future that our actions can have an impact on.

8:42 PM  
Anonymous Ryan said...

Are you going to do a "part 2" and address the geo-political goings on?

7:39 AM  
Anonymous Ryan said...

By the way, you can do your piece on the Royal Wedding first. I can wait.

7:42 AM  
Anonymous Danny said...

So have you bought your food insurance yet? Better get stocked up. Fair warning though, if you get a lot of dehydrated items a tsunami might mess things up if they get wet.

Oh yeah, food insurance might not help for long if you get radiation poisoning.

5:42 PM  

Post a Comment

<< Home