Logical Fallacies and Cognitive Biases

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Below is a list of the top logical fallacies and cognitive biases I have encountered lately when discussing Mormonism. Not all the statements are necessarily fallacies in and of themselves but may contain themes that are applicable. Here they are listed in no particular order.

1. A prophet will never lead you astray (circular logic)
Full quote:  “the Lord will never permit me or any other man who stands as President of this Church to lead you astray.” Wilford Woodruff, Official Declaration-1

A conversation about prophets with a Mormon TBM often goes something like this:

Me:    How do you know [current prophet] is right on [X] issue?
TBM:    Because God would not allow his prophet to lead us astray.
Me:    How do you know that?
TBM:   Because His prophet said so.
Me:   How do you know the prophet was right?
TBM:   Because prophets would not lead us astray.

This is circular because the premise of what is trying to be proven (prophets will never lead you astray) is the same as the conclusion. The statement that prophets will never lead you astray is based solely on the fact that the prophet in question says so.  In order to accept the conclusion, you must also accept the premise. Woodruff also went on to say, “If I were to attempt [to lead astray], the Lord would remove me out of my place and so He will any other man who attempts to lead the children of men astray from the oracles of God and from their duty”. Mormons use this statement from Woodruff  to claim that the way to know whether or not the prophet is leading you astray is by waiting to see if he is “removed”, which could mean released from his calling as prophet (impossible under Mormon theology), or maybe death (Joseph Smith martyrdom anyone?).  In other words, the premise makes it impossible for a prophet to lead anyone astray.  Because as long as he is prophet, and his mouth is moving, it is God’s will.  It doesn’t matter if what he is saying is racistsexist, is soliciting sexual access to your spouse, or teaches people a doctrine that confuses the very fundamental nature of WHO GOD IS, because he is the prophet, and is living, it must be, because the prophet said so.

2. I know God answers prayers (attentional bias)
This is not intended to mock those who believe in prayer but instead illustrate why many, who look at this objectively, may not feel honest in making the claim to know that God answers prayers. In addition, it’s relevant to show how some believers who make this bold claim may have arrived to it through attentional bias. Attentional bias occurs when a person does not examine all possible outcomes when making a judgment about a correlation or association. Instead, they may focus on one or two possibilities, while ignoring the others. As an example, one makes the claim to know God answers prayers because when they pray for X, they receive X.  However, there are multiple possibilities for how someone may (or may not) receive X by either praying (or not praying).  Here’s a quick table that illustrates the possible outcomes:

Prayerbias

You can either pray for X, or not pray for X, and the possible results are you either receive X, or do not receive X. The believer who claims to know God answers prayer primarily focuses on the top left yellow box, which says, when I pray for X, I receive X, but ignores the other possibilities. They may also concentrate on red, which is, when I do not pray for X, I do not receive X.  But an objective observer would also look for the cases such as in blue where, even though I do not pray for X, I sometimes I still receive X, or where in green, I prayed for X, yet did not receive X.  This is of course to the believer overly-simplified, since in Mormonism, we all know that…

Meme1
It has to be done with faith, real intent, you must be sensitive to the spirit, worthy, obedient, etc. For a more complete process of how to confirm truth via prayer, I refer to a brilliant post by Brent Beal over at Doves and Serpents who illustrates this point using flow charts.  But if that is too complicated, then just remember:

prayerbias2

3.  “All things denote that there is a God “ (Non-Sequitur)

“all things denote there is a god; yea, even the earth, and all things that are upon the face of it, yea, and its motion, yea, and also all the planets which move in their regular form do witness that there is a Supreme Creator.”Alma 30:44

Non-sequitur logic is a type of logical fallacy in which its conclusion does not follow from its premise. The quote above is a scriptural example, but there are many believers who put forth the same argument in different ways. The basic premise says that just by observing the beauty and order of life, earth, and the Universe, one concludes a Supreme Creator exists. Another sophisticated form of this premise is referred to as the fine-tuned Universe argument, which proposes that based on our understanding of physics, the Universe is “fine-tuned” for the building blocks and environments required for life, and a very small change in several of the fundamental physical constants would make the Universe radically different.  Therefore, since the probability of the universe forming in such a way spontaneously through natural processes is seemingly unlikely, a “creator” must have “fine-tuned” the universe in order to make the development of life possible.  Again, the argument is non-sequitur because the conclusion (a Supreme Creator exists) is disconnected from the premise (life and order in the Universe exists within a very narrow range of fundamental physical constants).  The conclusion ignores the variety of possible natural explanations for how a fine-tuned world like ours may exist without a God.  Even if the universe is “fine-tuned” for life, how does this necessarily lead to the conclusions most religions leap to about this said Supreme Creator? Who is the Supreme Creator (or Supreme Creators), and where did he/she/it/they come from? Who “fine-tuned” the universe in order for said Supreme Creator to exist? What would a God-less universe look like anyway (would a non-fine-tuned universe be evidence against a God)?  Does he have a white beard with hands and feet or does he have noodly appendages?

Touched_by_His_Noodly_Appendage

4. “In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know” (confirmation bias)

The above quote was taken from the last General Conference from a talk given by Elder Jeffrey R. Holland.  Here is more context:

“In moments of fear or doubt or troubling times, hold the ground you have already won, even if that ground is limited. When those moments come and issues surface, the resolution of which is not immediately forthcoming, hold fast to what you already know and stand strong until additional knowledge comes.[…] In this Church, what we know will always trump what we do not know.”

If you could segregate your thoughts and observations of Mormonism and its historical claims into two categories, “known” and “unknown”, then according to Holland, known > unknown. On the surface, this looks okay to me. I actually think many agnostics or rationalists take this approach in life–put more weight on what you know for sure, not on what you don’t know. I can agree. But the problem is Holland wants to make our “known” values constant. Once something is perceived to be “known”, he urges us to “hold fast” to it and “stand strong.”  Once something is “known” it stays “known,” and the only “unknown” things that are allowed to jump to the “known” side of the equation are the things that cannot conflict with what is already “known”. This is, of course, a form of confirmation bias – the tendency for people to seek out only the evidence that confirms their entrenched beliefs instead of objectively examining all of the evidence and revising your beliefs accordingly.  Put simply, Holland’s statement ultimately advocates that you avoid inserting new information into the set of old beliefs in order to prevent any inconsistency with old beliefs. The result may be a lot of comfort and confidence in one’s beliefs, but it is a fallacious process for discerning truth.

5. If you haven’t seen China, how do you know it exists? (reductio ad absurdum)

Reductio ad absurdum (the most fun fallacy to say out loud) is an attempt to disprove a proposition by showing that, if assumed to be true, it inevitably leads to absurd conclusions. I’ve encountered this argument too often where the believer says something along the lines of, “you don’t believe in God because you have not seen or experienced him yourself; therefore,if  you haven’t seen China, how do you know China exists?”  The argument is reductio ad absurdum because it reduces the proposition (the existence of God cannot be proven because one hasn’t seen him) to an absurd conclusion (only China can be proven unless you see it for yourself). The argument ignores all of the various ways people validate the existence of China beyond personal experience (satellite images, video, anthropologic evidence/history) and the many many other bodies of techniques for investigating phenomena. Besides, I have enough personal experience from getting packages from China almost weekly now as result of my wife’s incessant habit of buying bootleg name-brand cosmetics, and an allergic reaction to bear testimony of it.

6 – 7  “Every attempt to explain [the origin of the Book of Mormon], other than that which [Joseph Smith] gave, has fallen of its own weight.”  (argumentum ad ignorantiam and “moving the goal posts”)

Gordon B. Hinckley said the following about the Book of Mormon and the church’s claims of how it came about: “Every attempt to explain its origin, other than that which [Joseph Smith] gave, has fallen of its own weight. […] Through all of these years critics have tried to explain it. They have spoken against it. They have ridiculed it. But it has outlived them all, and its influence today is greater than at any time in its history.”

Related to this statement are two logical fallacies: the appeal to ignorance (argumentum ad ignorantiam) and the “moving the goal posts” fallacies.  Appeal to ignorance is evident where the truth of a premise is based on the fact that it has not been proven false.  This is fallacious because, as the popular saying goes, “absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” It applies specifically in this case in the very first sentence where Hinckley says that evidence against Joseph Smith’s claim as a divine translator is insufficient; therefore, Joseph’s relation of the historical account stands.  An objective observer who is unable to prove the validity of Joseph’s claim would, in the absence of evidence, withhold judgment on Joseph’s claim to divine translation. Of course, a believer can use faith to fill the void of evidence, which is something I’m not arguing against. I am arguing against the idea represented clearly in Hinckleys statement that says because there is lack of good evidence, Joseph’s version is the de facto account. This is fallacious.

“Through all of these years critics have tried to explain [the BOM]. .[…] But it has outlived them all” (moving the goal posts)

The second part of Hinckley’s statement focuses on the quality of the evidence brought against the BOM, which Hinckley claims, has “fallen of its own weight” and that critics have failed to explain it; thus, the church’s claim to divinity of the BOM prevails. Of course, there have been numerous explanations for its origins that are supported by a variety of evidence in fields including history, science, archeology, anthropology, etc. This is where the “moving the goal posts” fallacy comes into play which is a common tactic employed by church leaders and apologists. Using a metaphor from sports, the fallacy involves the situation where evidence is presented and dismissed and some other greater evidence is demanded. The intent is to effectively change the rules of the game to the advantage of one side. Moving the goal posts makes it impossible for anyone to ultimately meet the standard as the demanded criteria keeps changing. As an example, the Book of Mormon claims to be a historical account of an ancient civilization of the American continent. It has many references to a lot of items that were supposedly present in ancient America, including horses, cattle, goats, steel, barley, etc. that are anachronistic—their existence as described in text of the Book of Mormon is at odds with what is known from archaeological findings, science, or historical events.  Once evidence is presented against the existence of horses, barley, steel, etc, as described in the BOM, apologists redefine the standard for what constitutes “horses”, “barley,” or “steel”.  The most absurd example is the apologist claim that the word “horse” could actually refer to a similar animal, such as the tapir (pictured below), which is what they (Joseph Smith or the people in the BOM) may have meant by “horse”.

tapir
In addition, there have been inconsistencies with identifying the origin and geography of the BOM people. Early church leaders, and the BOM itself, claimed the BOM people were the “principal ancestors” of Native Americans and had populated the entire expanse of North and South America. Yet, as DNA and anthropologic evidence surfaced, according to the prevailing theory among apologists, the BOM geography has effectively been reduced to a very small, indistinguishable location. In addition, a new edition to the BOM was released in 2007 which changed the original text about the BOM people from being the “primary ancestors of American Indians” to “among the ancestors of the American Indians.” As you can see, the “goal posts” are moved as evidence is brought forth against the items claimed in the BOM, and the standard for disproving their existence becomes greater and greater. This tactic gives Hinckley and the apologists an artificial advantage over the evidence concerning BOM historicity, because if the goal posts are moved far enough, the standard will transform into something that cannot be met no matter what.

8.    “A testimony is obtained in the bearing of it”  (proof by assertion)

The quote above was shared by Elder Boyd K. Packer and is quoted ad nauseum by members of the Mormon church as a way to encourage assertion of belief even if you have doubts, or don’t believe at all. Elder Dallin Oaks made a similar statement:

“Another way to seek a testimony seems astonishing when compared with the methods of obtaining other knowledge. We gain or strengthen a testimony by bearing it. Someone even suggested that some testimonies are better gained on the feet bearing them than on the knees praying for them.” General Conference, April 2008

Packer and Oaks are inferring that evidence of a truth claim is manifest through assertion. It is fallacious since one is asked to repeat the proposition even if contradiction is recognized. Mormons are encouraged to bear testimony during church meetings, activities, and to their neighbors and peers. Especially when Mormons go on missions, rather than rely on logic or rationale, testimony bearing is a teaching tactic that is encouraged as a way to skirt debate better reach their listeners. Of course, assertion of something isn’t really a proof of anything. At its extreme, it can be a form of (brace for the taboo word) brainwashing.  The justification implied here is the church is true anyway, you just don’t know it yet, so saying it is not dishonest.

meme2

Too many of use look at these logical fallacies and biases and will say none of them apply to ourselves. I admit, atheists/agnostics often use similar logical fallacies and that probably merits its own post.

What are some of the logical fallacies/cognitive biases you have come across?