Bias, belief, and objectivity
My only hope for this simple post is to encourage just one person to consider a broader range of resources the next time an honest answer to a difficult or boundary-pushing religious, philosophical, or spiritual question is sought.
Many of us are dedicated spiritual seekers. If you are reading this, then you are most likely a spiritual seeker yourself; why else consider reading something with a title like Search for Truth?
This blog, and many others like it, will be largely ignored by those who believe they already have all the answers. As much as I would like for this message to reach all staunch religious fundamentalists, the truth is that very few people in that category would even care to consider the simple suggestions described within these pages.
When you have a serious question about religion, philosophy, or politics, where should you seek the answer?
First of all, are you really looking for truth – or are you looking for the kind of feedback that will support or strengthen the views you already hold? Do you seek honest and objective feedback, or do you want to limit yourself to a narrow range of possibilities and eliminate the chances of receiving an answer that might make you feel uncomfortable?
Come on, people – be honest! Do you think a better world will result from facing truths, or by entertaining fanciful stories just because other people do?
Example one: What’s the truth about climate change?
If you wanted to know the truth about global warming, for instance, would you pose your question only one time, to one person – say, Al Gore – and then abruptly conclude your research because you’re “finished,” you now know the “correct answer”? Of course not – that would be ridiculous, right? What you would have is one guy’s opinion – nothing more, and nothing less.
Example two: What’s the truth about a literal six-day creation less than 10,000 years ago?
Let’s say you’ve always been curious about how the earth, and the life on it, came to be; you wonder, “How old is the earth, and how did life come to pass?” You have lingering doubts about a literal six-day creation, but you’re not convinced evolution is the answer, either. Your subsequent “research” consists of three sources: 1) Michele Bachmann, 2) the minister of your neighborhood community church, and 3) a conservative Christian Bible commentary. In those cases, you already know what their answers are going to be, so in essence you have not conducted any meaningful research at all.
I hope you will not leave this post or focus your attention elsewhere until you have answered this question honestly. Please take a moment to consider this; I can assure you it’s worth your time.
Honestly, are you willing to accept the possibility that some of your long-held beliefs might not be completely true?
Or — like so many closed-minded individuals — are you merely looking for answers that fit neatly into your existing worldview?
It took me almost 20 years to seriously face the possibility that my religious beliefs could be seriously errant. After dancing around the issue all that time, I finally became willing to perform objective research (at least, as objective as I could be at the time) and seek honest answers. (I’m very glad I did.)
Unfortunately, many people within closed fundamentalist systems cannot or will not allow themselves to accept the possibility that any significant portion of their beliefs may be incorrect; after all, this might cause the entire house of cards to fall. Folks in this category (at least, the small portion willing to pursue such a “controversial” inquiry in the first place) often pose their questions to a leader or member of their own church or other group, thereby severely limiting the range of possible “answers” by default. While there is a chance that a given teacher, chum, or confidant(e) will possess a reasonable degree of objectivity, it’s more likely the answer received from those sources will conform quite neatly to the belief system to which you both already belong. How unfortunate; how self-limiting!
Despite how obviously true and undeniable this is, we will say it nevertheless:
If you limit the scope of your research to materials originating from those who share your worldview, then you can’t expect to receive objective answers.
You already know this. It’s not new, groundbreaking information. But how often is this fact really considered? Not nearly often enough. That’s why studies limited to the materials found in one’s church library are unlikely to broaden one’s perspective or even provide thought-provoking questions.
I should probably clarify: There is absolutely nothing wrong with including religious literature in one’s search for answers; I still do so when looking for answers or clarifications on some subjects. In fact, if one is not including a variety of disparate viewpoints in research, study, and reading, then certain possibilities and opportunities for broader understanding are being lost.
We implore you: If you are seeking the truth, please don’t limit your research to biased source material. By all means, consult with those who advocate supernatural beliefs if you think it appropriate under the circumstances – but be certain to confer with others, too; otherwise, why look into the matter at all?
If you are a strict religious fundamentalist with a particular question, and you are asking only other religious fundamentalists for the answer, what kind of responses do you think you will receive? Logical answer: Religious fundamentalist answers. In order to receive a more objective and realistic range of possible solutions, one must:
- Conduct research from objective, varying, even opposing viewpoints (e.g., scientific, humanist, atheist, Eastern, Western, Christian), then
- Decide on the most reasonable, sound answer using all of the truth detection tools available to you: logic, reason, empirical evidence, experience, and so on.
Even if you are a die-hard religious fundamentalist – even if you abhor this blog – I sincerely hope you would never fall for patently false statements such as:
- Mathematics proves God. It does not; it cannot.
- The Bible is literally true because the Bible says so. This is the equivalent of believing that…
- the Koran is literally true (the Koran is also a “divine revelation from God”),
- Judaism is literally true (the Old Testament is also a “divine revelation from God”),
- Mormonism is the real, literal truth (the Book of Mormon is another “divine revelation from God”), or even that
- a movie is true if it claims to be “Based on a true story.”
- The very name or word Jesus is itself holy. Family, friends, disciples, and followers never even called him Jesus; the actual name was closer to Yehoshua, Yeshua, or Yeshu.
Circular reasoning is inherently faulty and reveals little more than a general lack of objectivity, a strong desire to believe in a certain thing, fear of looking at or considering alternatives, contempt prior to investigation, or just plain closed-mindedness.
Asking only religious fundamentalists for objective answers to difficult philosophical or religious questions is like consulting only Muammar Gaddafi to assist you in the creation of a fresh, unbiased political platform. You’ll get advice, all right – but will it represent truth and universal spiritual principles, or will it consist mainly of opinion, dogma, or tradition?
Asking wide-ranging philosophical questions to someone who is known to advocate view X will only get you an answer slanted toward view X.
No intelligent objective person would rely on a single, biased source for real answers to important questions – and this is why I am urging readers to gather suggestions and conduct research from a variety of contrasting sources and viewpoints anytime the best answer to a complicated or difficult question is honestly sought.
November 2011 update: This section was moved to its own post; see On closed-mindedness
While I do my very best to approach my research in the areas of religion, spirituality, and science with 100% objectivity, I fail at that (of course). No one is perfectly objective, or without bias – particularly regarding subjects we’re passionate about. We’re only human, after all.
• I am not an advocate of any specific system of religious belief as the being the only “right” path.
• I am no longer a member of any group that advocates a specific, fundamentalist religious belief system.
• I have at various times practiced fundamentalist Christianity, atheism, agnosticism, Deism, Buddhism, and pantheism.
From a philosophical perspective, there’s a convincing argument that there is no such thing as objective truth to a human being. If you are interested in this philosophical question, some philosophers known to have tackled the question include Immanuel Kant and many others listed in the resources section at the end of this post.
Respect and compassion
As excited as I am to finally be publishing my writings on these sensitive and controversial subjects, I’m making an effort for an overall positive tone. I respect those whose beliefs differ significantly from my own, when those beliefs are well thought-out and carefully considered. I have somewhat less respect for believers who automatically accept as truth whatever they are being taught, or those who believe a certain thing for the wrong reasons (popularity, social acceptance, fear, etc.).
To continue on a lifelong path of seeking the truth
To encourage open mindedness
To learn more about viewpoints that may be “contra-indicated” or in opposition to existing views and opinions
To encourage syncretism
To encourage acceptance, compassion, and other basic, broadly agreed-upon spiritual principles
To encourage reasonable skepticism
To search for truth and to write about truth as objectively as I possibly can
To discourage others from accepting false information as being real, true, or correct
To discourage religious fundamentalism (worldviews that accept only their own opinions and beliefs)
To discourage political partisanship
To promote spiritual unity, oneness
To everyone: good luck in your own personal quest for truth!
Resources: when seeking answers, consider the source
- List of cognitive biases (Wikipedia)
- Article: I’m objective, you’re biased
- Objectivity is in the eye of the beholder – perceptions of bias in self, others (PDF)
Tools for discerning truth
- Kurt Godel
- Immanuel Kant, German philosopher
- John Locke, English philosopher, Enlightenment thinker
- David Hume, Scottish philosopher
The fact that this writer happens to believe that man has a detrimental effect upon nature should not materially influence you!