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My story / owning one's reasons

53 Post author: jwhendy 07 January 2011 12:17AM

This is my first post. I've lurked for quite some time and just recently took the opportunity to join this week. I doubt that anything I post will be groundbreaking, but one thought has been developing that I thought I could at least try writing about. I'd appreciate suggestions regarding the content, but also about appropriateness at LessWrong in general. I have mainly read top level threads, but in my perusal of the discussion area it seems that, for the most part, most things are acceptable... so here goes.


I consider this relevant and somewhat necessary. I also think many may find this interesting. I went through a "conversion experience" approximately 9 years ago next month. In my teens I was a heavy user of drugs and alcohol and was sent to a 12 step boarding school in upstate New York from my home in Milwaukee. After a "breakdown" experience there which amounted to realizing the legal ramifications of my substance usage and receiving a reprieve from those consequences (probation), I believed that god had saved my life. I dedicated myself to the 12 steps [1] and a spiritual path, which took the form of taking seriously my Catholic faith.

I moved to Minnesota for college and joined a Catholic Outreach group. I believed that living out a religious faith was the key to maintaining my sobriety. I also attended AA meetings. I maintained an extremely orthodox and passionate faith for 6 years. I was about as religious as they come -- attending adoration nightly for a month at one point, daily prayer/scripture study, prayer and "discernment" for big decisions (marrying my wife, buying a house, etc.), and so on. And don't view these as pew-warming exercises; I meant everything I did. I was passionate about the second chance I believed I'd been given, thought god was responsible, and had dedicated my life to being his faithful servant and living a holy life.


Turning Point

Last Christmas while visiting my parents, I suddenly began to doubt. I still couldn't tell you exactly why. I simply recall wondering if anyone other than the gospel writers wrote about Jesus. Google let me down. I was very disappointed to find that hardly anyone had even cared to mention him. Now, as an aside, I am almost positive that under different circumstances I would have assumed there was a perfectly reasonable explanation and simply moved on. I had never before actually thought that I might be wrong about my faith. This time was different. The seed was planted. I actually opened up to the idea that I might be wrong. Several key thoughts/developments arose:

  • I trusted that if god existed, study and research should only serve to prove that fact more concretely
  • I thought the most objective way to find an answer about god's existence would be to suspect that Christianity was not true and attempt to prove it back to myself
  • When I realized that other than my personal conversion I had no justification for my belief, I felt absolutely horrid and decided that I never wanted that to be the case about anything again. While perhaps unrealistic, I wished to always know precisely where I stood on matters, as well to be prepared to provide evidence for how I had reached that stance

It's been one year since my journey to research the "god question" began. You can find out more if you're interested at my blog. I can't say I've reached the level of conclusiveness I was hoping for by now, but I can say that I no longer believe.

Main Point

The previous material was a setup for focusing on the last of the three points above. What compelled me to write this was a discussion with a friend (who's still a believer) over Christmas. I had just listened to Richard Dawkins discuss Noah's ark, and was summarizing for my friend what he had said, highlighting that Noah's ark offers nothing in the way of an explanation for the isolation of particular species to various locations around the globe when compared to the explanation provided by evolution. I should point out that Catholics are not of an inerrant/literalist tradition. All of the Bible is inspired, but that doesn't require it to be factually valid (as odd as that sounds... it's what the dogma proclaims). In fact, Genesis and Revelation have been pointed as being able to be interpreted figuratively by the Church. In any case, in most instances of fundamentalist thought, my friend acknowledges belief in things like a young earth and simultaneous development of life (man riding dinosaurs) as silly.

But then I asked her what she thought about the story of Noah's ark. Silence. More silence. Then I asked her,

"Are you wondering what you're supposed to think right now?"

She responded in the affirmative and asked how I knew. I simply said that it's what I would have been wondering if I were asked something I suspected intersected an official Church teaching but didn't know what the actual teaching was.

This interaction produced two responses: gratitude and caution. First off, I'm grateful that since my non-belief I have been truly liberated to think about many issues -- abortion, stem cell research, homosexuality, etc. It is truly wonderful to earnestly consider these topics in a rational way without my previous requirement to be allegiant-under-all-circumstances-and-rationality-be-damned. I only knew what my friend was thinking because it used to be me.

Are you pro-life?
Me: thinking as follows
- All Catholics are pro-life
- I'm Catholic
- Therefore, I'm pro-life

Me: Why, yes I am, sir.

It was like this for many topics. I had a bag full of cached thoughts ready to go because rather than making my choices one at time... I had subscribed to the equivalent of a political party, which required me to buy into everything under a particular umbrella whether I had thought about it or not.

So, again, I'm grateful to have been liberated from the umbrella and be free to learn about trusted methods of rationality and make better decisions.

However... my friend's response got me on my guard as well. That was the purpose of sharing this perhaps verbose story in the first place. I wanted it to serve as a reminder to myself and to others about the importance of "owning one's reasons." Her response made me wonder if I have cached thoughts operating in other realms. Do I know why I recommend a vs. b? Or why I subscribe to policy/side-of-debate/method/product x vs. y? And, most importantly, do my answers ever change, even slightly, depending on which "umbrella" I sense I'm standing under? For example, at work when I'm surrounded by those I know to be strongly conservative... do my voiced answers/reasons change compared to when I'm with those I know to be liberal?

My answer to that is, "Yes." There are circumstances where I lessen my conclusions/impact/boldness because I'm letting the "umbrella" I feel I've subscribed to by belonging to a particular group influence my answer. One may respond that this is simply a desire not to offend or be attacked (peer pressure), but I don't think that's necessarily it. I think it's a result of me not "owning my reasons" sufficiently -- knowing the rational approach I took, the supporting evidence behind my decision, the ability recall said evidence, etc.

My reflection has led me to suspect that if my efforts at rationality focused as much on the path as the satisfaction of having arrived at the destination, I'd be more confident and less swayed by wondering what I'm supposed to think in a given situation. In other words, I'd be more confident to state, "The answer is x. Would you like me to show my work?"

Perhaps it's not this easy or simple, but it's my current stab at some recent ideas. I'd appreciate any feedback, especially since this is my first post! I'm happy to be here.

Comments (20)

Comment author: lukeprog 07 January 2011 12:54:36AM 0 points [-]

I'm glad you've been willing to be honest with yourself, even when you have a lot at stake in reconsidering your worldview and other cached thoughts. Good luck on the rest of your journey. Less Wrong is a good place for finding the tools you can use to re-assess your beliefs and values.

Hope that didn't sound too preachy! :)

Comment author: jwhendy 07 January 2011 01:02:13AM 1 point [-]

Hope that didn't sound too preachy! :)

Not at all. It's 'Hendy', by the way. I read your blog daily and appreciate your contributions to my journey. I just found the "Welcome" thread the other day and within it a link to LW posts on religion -- I'm very much looking forward to reading them and can't believe I hadn't found them before!

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 07 January 2011 01:23:48AM 2 points [-]

My answer to that is, "Yes." There are circumstances where I lessen my conclusions/impact/boldness because I'm letting the "umbrella" I feel I've subscribed to by belonging to a particular group influence my answer. One may respond that this is simply a desire not to offend or be attacked (peer pressure), but I don't think that's necessarily it. I think it's a result of me not "owning my reasons" sufficiently -- knowing the rational approach I took, the supporting evidence behind my decision, the ability recall said evidence, etc.

I think that is very insightful. I've definitely felt that way in some situations.

Comment author: Liron 07 January 2011 02:59:40AM 1 point [-]

Great stuff. I hope you post more.

Comment author: Vaniver 07 January 2011 06:44:22AM 1 point [-]

I simply recall wondering if anyone other than the gospel writers wrote about Jesus.

The Mormon experience suggests that this is generally a positive thing for the pushers of the religion in question.

"Are you wondering what you're supposed to think right now?"

This is a beautiful question to use as an alarm.

Welcome, and keep posting! :)

Comment author: JenniferRM 07 January 2011 07:34:05AM 14 points [-]

I appreciate your post, but I would like to sound a note of caution and concern. It has been my experience that many times people have apparently false beliefs about abstractions that don't ground very well to observations in their daily lives but which they nonetheless use as (technically inadequate) justification for many pragmatically reasonable practices. If the abstract justification falls away, the justifications can sound hollow, and the practices can stop with negative real world consequences.

For example, your prayer practices (even if there is no god hearing your prayers) are intelligible as a kind of meditation on the moral, practical, and emotional aspects of a major decision with strong framing in terms of the outside view a hypothetical highly rational and benevolent agent would bring to bear on your decision. If you lack a justification for such practices outside of a belief in god you might stop doing them, even if they improve your life.

Or consider your younger (presumably less wise?) self that you wrote about:

I believed that living out a religious faith was the key to maintaining my sobriety.

What if, all those years ago, you retained that belief while dramatically and publicly shedding your belief in God? Do you think your sobriety would have been at greater risk or less risk? My guess is that it would have been at greater risk. Now consider that you may have years of accumulated "instrumental beliefs" that were previously justified by your faith and that may now weaken for an abstract reason that has nothing to do with the low level facts that probably were the real (subconscious) reasons you did things. And I know of several people whose romantic relationships fell apart when they changed their theological beliefs, creating an intellectual distance with their partner.

I wouldn't be surprised if you already understand many of these points, and I don't mean to cause offense with this but it seemed irresponsible to not raise some cautionary note. Unfortunately, I don't know of any resources to help people traverse the path you're facing in a series of small safe steps. Perhaps other people here could help with that though?

I hope things go well for you. You'll be in my thoughts.

Comment author: arundelo 07 January 2011 08:54:44AM 4 points [-]

Phil Goetz talks about this in "Reason as Memetic Immune Disorder".

Comment author: jwhendy 07 January 2011 07:47:27PM *  5 points [-]

Thanks for the comment, Jennifer. I agree with this:

If the abstract justification falls away, the justifications can sound hollow, and the practices can stop with negative real world consequences.

To your two examples, I'll provide two responses.

Re. Prayer: Given that I suspect god doesn't exist or is probably non-interactive to say the least, I'm put in the position of needing to re-evaluate what really was occurring to transform my life. Obviously something occurred which transformed me from someone who resorted to substances during emotional lows to someone who no longer even feels that urge. I have also been able to quit smoking (which I found far more difficult) and have not had a cigarette in 4.5 years. But what was it?

My current theory (extremely rough) would propose that for believers, "god" represents "that which is perfect" or a moral watchdog of sorts (again, rough... just play along if possible). Meditating on what "what is perfect" would dictate you do with your day and time could be quite helpful. Dan Ariely shows that even when atheist swear on a Bible they are less prone to cheat afterward. Reflecting on "the good" (for believers, god's will) probably produces tangible results.

As such, I have definitely thought of taking up a morning meditation/reflection ritual of some kind. I've not done so, which probably shows that somewhere in there meditation isn't yet worth the extra snoozing I do each morning, but I can at least state I think this would be a valuable replacement for my former practice of prayer. In essence, I think I'm really going to be doing something similar... it's just that now I'll see it as what it always was: self-reflection on the best approaches toward various situations and how to self-improve rather than thinking that asking a non-existent being for the strength to do so was actually doing anything at all.

As a related one... I was in a men's small group with fellow Catholics where we would discuss how god was working in our lives, what we were struggling with, etc. This, too, I think is a helpful practice and would fall into the category of things that have been thrown out by me, currently. It is one like prayer, though, in that I'd like to find a group of individuals interested in discussing life challenges and methods of "remedying deficiency" (as I like to call it). I have not found such a group quite yet but suspect that LW-ers may have something like this or that perhaps something like this can come out of my local Minnesota Atheists group.

Re. AA/12 Steps/Sobriety: This one is more interesting to me. At a point in the past, you're probably right when you say that shedding my belief in god would have made my sobriety precarious. Part of this, however, is how AA teaches one to think about the nature of alcoholism. Here are some quotes to illustrate my point:

For when harboring such feelings we shut ourselves off from the sunlight of the Spirit. The insanity of alcohol returns and we drink again. And with us, to drink is to die. (Alcoholics Anonymous, 4th ed., pg. 66)

We alcoholics are men and women who have lost the ability to control our drinking. We know that no real alcoholic ever recovers control. (ibid, pg. 30)

God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves. (ibid, pg. 84)

The theme is that of permanent sickness coupled with the dictate that only a "power greater than yourself" can restore you to sanity. AA's common message is that this power can be anything, even a chair or door knob. But when reading from the chapter entitled, "We Agnostics", note this passage:

Imagine life without faith! Were nothing left but pure reason, it wouldn’t be life. But we believed in life—of course we did. We could not prove life in the sense that you can prove a straight line is the shortest distance between two points, yet, there it was. Could we still say the whole thing was nothing but a mass of electrons, created out of nothing, meaning nothing, whirling on to a destiny of nothingness? Of course we couldn’t. The electrons themselves seemed more intelligent than that. At least, so the chemist said. (ibid, pg. 54)

I take this to mean that AA directly advocates at least a form of intentional creator god. AA was built with a Christian foundation, even if they stripped most of this away for the sake of universal accessibility. This passage also suggests (to me) an implication of nihilism if such a creator does not exist.

So, what to make of all of this? In my reflections on the steps themselves, I am not sure what to make of the first three any longer. They require an admission of personal hopelessness, that only a [supernatural] power greater than yourself can fix you, and that, therefore, the only sensible decision is to surrender your will and life (the difference?) to such a being. But what if there is no being granting such transforming power in return for submission/allegiance/dedication!?

The heart of the program, I believe, lies in steps 4-10. In summary, they are to "take inventory" (make a list of wrongdoings and character flaws), and discuss these findings with another (steps 4 and 5); to become willing to have such shortcomings removed (steps 6-7); to make a list of those you've harmed and to amend the relationship (steps 8-9); and to carry out a sort of "mini" version of 4-9 on a daily basis (step 10). This begins to sound like a form of reflection and reflection-inspired action which would begin to remove sources of guilt and self-hatred which could very well have been a prime contributor toward alcohol dependency in the first place.

Edited 10/2011: removed what followed. Personal details I chose to delete.

Comment author: mwengler 09 January 2011 06:12:49AM 3 points [-]

My current theory (extremely rough) would propose that for believers, "god" represents "that which is perfect" or a moral watchdog of sorts (again, rough... just play along if possible).

I think people oversetimate the importance of believing or not believing in God. I think you hit on some of the moving pieces of how believers might not be so different from non-believers. Whether you pray, or meditate, try to follow a benevelent god's will, or try to opimize the good you can do with your life (as there is much discussion of doing in this rationalist lesswrong site), that final it of metaphysics is just a detail in a large picture of the world.

Where a believe in god seems to get people in more trouble is when that belief 1) gets conflated with a believe in some set of sacred texts, like the bible or the doctrines of the Roman church 2) causes us to yield to human authorities who have somehow convinced us they speak for god, again as with catholics although they are far from the worst example in modern times.

Of course even here on this rationalist blog, we recommend people read the sequences, which are largely written by one guy who is a local favorite interpreter of the world. The fact that we find great value in Eliezer and have, effectively, faith in his interpretation of the universe, might give us pause before damning the regligious who have also found their gurus, their apostles, their rabbis, and their saints to be well worth listening to. Finding someone brilliant and paying attention to them is a feature, not a bug, and it was a feature and not a bug even when that Brilliant man was St. Thomas Augustus or Jesus of Nazareth.

The one thing I think we do better here than any religion is to keep the open mind, that any question which is settled is only a little settled, for convenience of discussion, and is not so settled that we would ban or declare sinful any questioning of it.

But in terms of motivating positive change, that is a big theme here. You seem to have significant experience with that in your life, and it is wonderful to hear your take on these things.

Comment author: jwhendy 09 January 2011 06:31:37AM *  2 points [-]

Thanks for sharing your thoughts. From a pragmatic sense, you may be right -- whether striving for rationally decided goals or to please a cosmic being, one may improve one's self. On the theoretical level, however, I find it a barrier when talking to religious (now that I doubt) since we obviously attribute different causation to events. On that level, I wonder if it's healthy to think that an immaterial being inspired you to think thought x, provided you with a much needed pay increase, healed your flu earlier than you expected, or caused a healing in a strained relationship.

On those levels, I think there is a big difference. I do still think you made a valid point. Without explicitly asking one to provide the source of one's "goodness" or success... individuals are probably indistinguishable to some degree if only studying actions, what they appear to value, etc.

Interesting point about Eliezer. I agree to some degree, though I've noticed a decent amount of negative feedback provided to him on various posts. I can admit a halo effect on my own part when reading him... but part of that is simply due to the fact that I really do like his writing (both content and style).

The one thing I think we do better here than any religion is to keep the open mind, that any question which is settled is only a little settled, for convenience of discussion, and is not so settled that we would ban or declare sinful any questioning of it.

I really liked that and agree that this is a large differentiating factor. Religions do not seem to allow for updating given new evidence or the possibility of fallibility (at least on some issues). I desire certainty but am trying to improve my ability to tolerate ambiguity.

Thanks for the closing compliments.

Comment author: NancyLebovitz 05 April 2011 04:44:48PM 2 points [-]

I've heard a theory that AA is optimized for one sort of (usually male) alcoholic whose stance is "I can handle it" and not useful for another sort (usually female) whose stance is "I don't deserve to have a good life".

You sound like you're in a third category.

This may just be snark, but I think some of the failings of AA correlate with usual descriptions of alcoholic/dry drunk thinking-- in particular, black and white thinking (either you're an alcoholic or you aren't, if you're an alcoholic then you're an alcoholic forever) and lying-- claiming that people who've been alcoholics can never drink safely when this simply isn't true.

Comment author: jwhendy 05 April 2011 05:43:55PM *  0 points [-]

Interesting theory! The stories in AA literature (particularly the 3rd edition of the Big Book, though the 4th ed. has more women's stories) generally suggest that; they are mostly tales of men who repeatedly tried to "control their drinking" and failed (blackouts, no idea what city they were in, stashing liquor all over the house to foster continual drinking, etc.).

Edited 10/2011: removed personal details I didn't want present anymore.

Comment author: [deleted] 07 January 2011 09:59:03AM 11 points [-]

"Are you wondering what you're supposed to think right now?"

This is a wonderful question to ask yourself. Wondering what your opinions "should be" as a member of 'your team' is surprisingly easy to do when you publicly give yourself any labels (feminist/liberal etc) and one reason I stopped identifying myself using such terms.

Comment author: jwhendy 07 January 2011 03:37:44PM 2 points [-]

...I stopped identifying myself using such terms.

Interesting point. Early on I had been warned that I was too eager to find my answer about god simply because I wanted to know what I was, as in what "label" I now fell under. I think that was wise advice and echoes with your point. Don't get me wrong... I wanted the answer, but I also found myself wanting to be able to know what name I was supposed to call myself (agnostic, atheist, freethinker, etc.).

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 07 January 2011 10:39:15AM *  2 points [-]

Had to look up what the Twelve-step program is. From the article:

As summarized by the American Psychological Association, the process involves the following:

  • admitting that one cannot control one's addiction or compulsion;
  • recognizing a higher power that can give strength;
  • examining past errors with the help of a sponsor (experienced member);
  • making amends for these errors;
  • learning to live a new life with a new code of behavior;
  • helping others who suffer from the same addictions or compulsions.
Comment author: jwhendy 07 January 2011 06:55:03PM 1 point [-]

Ah, yes... I should have done this and will add a footnote to your link as well as some other helpful resources.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 07 January 2011 11:48:45AM *  3 points [-]

Related topics are also discussed in:

When you find yourself doing something, always ask: "What is the purpose, what goal is this activity trying to achieve?" Then, "Do I approve of this goal?", and if positive, "What is the best way of working to achieve this goal?". Quite often, the answer to the last question will disagree with the original activity.

Likewise with beliefs. When you consider any question, and find yourself holding some level of certainty about an answer to that question, consider, "Why do I believe so?", then, "Do I agree with these reasons?", and for the reasons you do agree with, "What do these reasons lead me to believe about the question?"

This allows you to gradually munch on cached thoughts, ensuring that they are regularly updated and optimized.

(The section about beliefs equally applies to all questions raised at each step, including "Do I approve of this goal?".)

Comment author: jwhendy 07 January 2011 06:53:57PM 0 points [-]

Thanks much for those links. Both were wonderful. I especially liked the second.

Also, there was a link to Leaky Generalizations which contained this:

...get frustrated when we have to tolerate continued ambiguity. Raising the value of > the stakes can increase need for closure - which shuts down complexity tolerance > when complexity tolerance is most needed.

That rang quite true and meshed with Lost Purposes in that if the only goal is to eliminate ambiguity or find a label, attentiveness to the method and actual goal are muddled.

Comment deleted 08 January 2011 02:49:40AM *  [-]
Comment author: jwhendy 08 January 2011 04:48:49AM 1 point [-]

Thanks for the links, though I wonder if the goal of those posts was to present an idea that can then be "assimilated" or "owned" as well. In other words, I'm guessing that Robin and Eliezer's hopes were not to produce an internal dialogue when asked about opinions, for example, e.g. "Robin Hanson says that I can't have opinions, therefore that's what I'm supposed to say/think." Rather, I'd propose they are expressing a bold statement which has resulted from considering the issue and would prefer that I think through their reasoning/defense and accept the conclusion as my own.

Does that make sense? I definitely hear the point, but am trying to paint it in a slightly different light. I might not quite be getting the essence of your larger paragraph from the linked articles, though.

Comment deleted 08 January 2011 01:54:04PM [-]
Comment author: JoshuaZ 08 January 2011 02:48:18PM 2 points [-]

You are being downvoted because you are making a poor comparison. In the context of the poster in question "what you are supposed to think" is due to 1) tribal allegiance and 2) pronouncements from authorities. That's not the same thing as reasoned essays as to why one should think something.