Creating Faith in Weather Forecasters and the Existence of God Marshall Lev Dermer, Depart

---
Master Index Current Directory Index Go to SkepticTank Go to Human Rights activist Keith Henson Go to Scientology cult

Skeptic Tank!

Creating Faith in Weather Forecasters and the Existence of God Marshall Lev Dermer, Department of Psychology University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, Milwaukee, WI 53201 Copyright 4/18/88, dermer@convex.csd.uwm.edu Several years ago, I shared a telephone line with a colleague who taught personality theory. During the early spring, my phone rang and the caller wished to know whether that instructor was available. "I'm sorry," I said, "he's not in." Then the caller asked if I were also a psychologist. "Yes," I said. "Well," said the caller, "I'm the weather forecaster at Channel 4, and I'd like to know what kind of people ignore my tornado warnings." "I'm sorry," I said, "but I don't study personality variables. Besides, if you really knew what kinds of people ignore your tornado warnings could you afford to tailor a special message for each kind of person?" "No I couldn't, said the caller, "but what kind of psychologist are you?" I told the forecaster that I was a behaviorist. The forecaster then asked how behaviorists would understand the failure of people to heed his warnings. I hesitated for a moment and said that the problem was basically that his descriptions of when a tornado would strike are so imprecise and so infrequent that folks can simply go about doing whatever they wish, the warning notwithstanding. Sure a tornado may hit, but it is very unlikely that a listener would be inconvenienced by it. Creating Faith in Weather Forecasters Since that time, I have thought much about weather forecasters' predictions. It seems to me that if I heard it forecasted that a tornado would precisely strike my home at say, 2 PM., I might ignore it. But if a tornado did strike my home at the predicted hour with broken glass flying about my person and I survived, the next time I heard such a warning I would seek shelter. If I were later at work and the same forecaster predicted that my building would be struck at say 10 AM and this happened too, this forecaster's predictions would strongly influence my behavior even if the forecaster was not a member of the American Meteorological Society! Certainly there are differences between the predictions of weather forecasters and the predictions of doctors, teachers, nuclear physicists, politicians, parents, and religious prophets: but there may also be some basic similarities regarding why such predictions influence our behavior. A person's descriptions or predictions may influence our behavior to the extent that past communications have permitted us to behave effectively with respect to the physical world. Respected heads of state appreciate this principle. In 1982, for example, Margaret Thatcher, as Prime Minister of Britain, told the Argentine generals that if they attacked the Falkland Islands that they would face military retaliation. The British prediction was quite accurate and I would suspect that Argentine generals are more likely than before the Falkland Island war to be influenced by the prime minister's predictions, at least with respect to the use of military force. This influence may even extend to the next prime minister. Of course the relation of a weather forecaster to a tornado is not the same as the relation of a head of state to the country's military: weather forecaster's do not have the power to order tornadoes about the globe. People who correctly predict future events without the power to control them are called experts or authorities. Up to this point, I have avoided using the terms "belief" or "faith," except for titles. When people respond to descriptions of an event in much the way they would respond if they were actually exposed to the event, we say that the people have belief in or faith in the speaker's communication. For example, during the winter, when it is time to walk to school a mother or father's saying "there's a lot of snow on the ground" may result in a daughter's putting on her boots just as would her seeing the snow on the ground. Creating Faith in God If you care (or dare) to discuss why some people believe in the existence of God and others do not, such discussions almost always reduce to the issue of faith. Apparently, one person has faith and another does not and we cannot understand the basis for faith so we might as well stop our discussion. I'm certain that I do not understand every aspect of faith, but understanding why weather forecasts may influence our behavior may tell us something valuable about faith in the existence of God, particularly the faith of children. If I wanted my son to believe in God, I would try accurately describing or predicting the physical world to him. For example, my son might come to me saying that he feels thirsty. In which case I might tell him that he can find a bottle of water on the kitchen table. If my description is accurate then my son's going to the kitchen will allow him to deal effectively with his thirst. In the future, my son may be very likely to follow my predictions or advice, at least with respect to quenching his thirst. In the example above, of course, the time interval between the prediction and the predicted event may only be a matter of a few seconds or a minute. But as my child interacts with me, I may provide predictions for which the time intervals between the predictions and the predicted events gradually become longer and longer. I may also do this with respect differing aspects of the world. Compare my saying in the morning, "Tante Vivian is coming to our house this evening with a special gift for you, so you may want be here at five to greet her;" with my saying in January, "don't expect me to be home on the first of June for I will be away." If a child has been socialized by persons who almost always have accurately described the child's current physical world and who have done likewise with respect to the state of the child's future physical world, then spoken (and later written) words may become powerful means of influence. Such people may tell children that there is a God and continue on to describe God's powers and heaven's attributes. Such children may respond to these descriptions just as they might if they could be exposed to what is being described. For example, children may refuse to steal because their parents have told them that God, who is all knowing, will detect and punish such behavior. Many people may say that the child has a primitive belief in or faith in God. Of course, such parents may also describe various religious texts as true. To the extent parents' descriptions of the physical world have been helpful, the new texts may initially influence children's behavior so that the children may be described as believing the texts. The transfer of influence from one communication to another may have been assumed by Jesus: For if you believe Moses you would believe me since he wrote about Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe my teachings? (John: 5: 46-47). Continued faith in a text, however, depends on the extent the text allows children to behave effectively with respect to the physical world. The Ten Commandments may be most useful here for it stresses action in describing how people ought to behave with respect to other humans and, of course, using the name God. Properly socialized children will have discovered that when they use the name of God in vain, desecrate the Sabbath, fail to respect their parents, steal, or lie such actions sooner or later are followed by punishment. To the extent that biblical descriptions permit children to behave effectively with respect to social contingencies here on earth, biblical descriptions about far less material matters may influence children's faith in heaven, God, etc. John, of course, reported Jesus to have said, "If I told you earthly things, and you do not believe, how will you believe, if I tell you heavenly things. (3: 12)" Faith is not magical. Faith in a person's communications appears, at least, to depend on this person or similar others having provided communications that have permitted the recipient to have behaved effectively with respect to the physical world. In my examples, the communications have allowed my thirsty son as a baby--to find drink almost immediately, when he is older--to most rapidly contact an Aunt's gift several hours later, and when he still older--to avoid the work of searching for his father several months later. Jesus seems to have used a similar strategy with respect to creating the faith of his disciples regarding his divinity, "I have now told you this before it takes place so that when it does happen you may have faith" (John 14:29). In the case of children's faith in the existence of God the critical communications appear to be those that come from the significant persons in the children's lives. If you wish your children to believe in God, I would strongly advise you accurately to describe the physical world. In the process your descriptions or predictions will, of course, be occasionally wrong. If you are not an expert about some aspect of the physical world then the best policy may be to say "I don't know." Lying, even "white lies" appear counter-productive. Every so often one or more Christian parents are embarrassed when a Christian cleric tells their children that the story about Santa Claus, however charming, is just a story. Here a child's faith in his or her parents' communications about Santa is pitted against the child's faith in the cleric's communication. The child, of course, can test these assertions by staying up late enough to discover who delivers Christmas gifts! Descriptions or predictions which may appear to have nothing to do with believing in God may be very important too. Many a fearful parent has told his or her child something like: "If you jump from that bed you will hurt yourself." The children may jump and discover that not only are their parents inexpert about the consequences of jumping but jumping is rewarding! In some cases, parents have power analogous to Margaret Thatcher's yet they don't back up their word with deed. For example, a parent might say "if you don't turn off that television now, I will cut the cord and you will be without television for a week." If the parent's future instructions (including threats) are to influence the child's future behavior, then the parent will now have to cut the cord if the child insists on watching television. It is important, of course, that parents back-up their promises of reward and love as well. Destroying Faith in God Faith in the existence of God would appear to depend strongly on words. For example: Assemble Me the people, and I will make them hear My words, that they will learn to fear Me all the days that they live upon earth, and that they may teach their children. (Deuteronomy IV, 10) In Chapter 20 of John's Gospel, we are told of "doubting" Thomas who does not believe the other disciples' communication that Jesus has risen from death. After Thomas sees for himself that Jesus lives, Jesus apparently extols the superiority of belief via communication over direct experience, "You have believed because you have seen Me. Blessed are those who do not see and yet believe." Indeed, John appears to stress the primacy of words: "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God" (1: 1). A dead man's coming to life is certainly a miracle. Many miracles are reported in the Pentateuch and Gospels as God's work. By definition a miracle, involves some deviation from the way the world usually operates. The more uniformly the world behaves, the more unexpected is the deviation and the greater is the miracle. For David Hume faith in miracles and God reduced to the issue of whether the laws of nature should be violated or that people should deceive or have been deceived. Since Hume considered deceit most likely he did not believe in miracles. Here is how Hume discused the problem in his published in 1748: When anyone tells me that he saw a dead man restored to life, I immediately consider with myself whether it be more probable that this person should either deceive or be deceived, or that the fact which he relates should really have happened. I weigh one miracle against the other, and according to the superiority which I discover I pronounce my decision, and always reject the greater miracle. If the falsehood of his testimony would be more miraculous than the event which he relates, then, and not till then, can he pretend to command my belief or opinion. (Section X, Part 1) I'm not sure that children go through the mental gymnastics that Hume describes, but his analysis also considers faith to critically depend on the truthfulness of communications. Of course, my advice partially addresses this issue by recommending that parents always attempt to describe the present and future states of the physical world accurately I regularly present this theory of conditioning faith in my psychology courses, although I use more technical terms. Some students have asked whether it might be good intentionally to lie to their children if they did not wish their children to believe in God. For two reasons, this would be a mistake. First, children quickly discover that children lie to each other so there is no need intentionally to lie if disbelief is your goal. Of course, as children grow older they will discover that adults lie too. But secondly, parents want their instructions to influence their children's behavior. Instructions such as "brush your teeth now, so you won't have cavities later," and "its important to study now, so that you can understand the world when you are an adult" are not likely to influence behavior if parents have repeatedly lied to their children. Other students have complained that what I have described is brain washing. Perhaps this is true, but the process appears quite general. Would "seeing be believing" if our vision changed from second to second in varying ways so that our vision did not permit us to behave effectively? Would we believe a scientific theory if every time we based an experiment on the theory, the experiment failed? I suspect that many of the students who label the approach I have described to be brain washing are not theists. Many of these students are quite surprised when I tell them that I too am not a theist. Still other students note that if this approach to creating faith is true, there need not be a God. What is critical is that communications whether they be from people or from scriptures permit the recipient to behave effectively with respect to the physical world. This seems correct to me. C. S. Lewis put it this way in his "On Obstinacy in Belief": Now of course we see . . . how agonizingly two-edged all this is. A faith of this sort, if it happens to be true, is obviously what we need, and it is infinitely ruinous to lack it. But there can be faith of this sort where it is wholly ungrounded. The dog may lick the face of the man who comes to take it out of [a] trap; but the man may only mean to vivisect it . . . . The ducks who come to the call "Dilly, dilly, come and be killed" have confidence in the farmer's wife, and she wrings their necks for their pains. That refusal to trust, which is sensible in reply to a confidence trickster, is ungenerous and ignoble to a friend, and deeply damaging to our relationship with him. To be forewarned and therefore forearmed against apparently contrary appearance is eminently rational if our belief is true; but if our belief is a delusion, this same forewarning and forearming would obviously be the method whereby the delusion rendered itself incurable. Lewis, of course, was a theist: And yet again, to be aware of these possibilities and still to reject them is clearly the precise mode, and the only mode, in which our personal response to God can establish itself. In that sense the ambiguity is not something that conflicts with faith so much as a condition which makes faith possible. When you are asked for trust you may give it or withhold it; it is senseless to say that you will trust if you are given demonstrative certainty. There would be no room for trust if demonstration were given. [For more information about understanding faith and belief from the standpoint of behavior analyis consult: _Verbal Behavior_ (Skinner, 1957) and use "instructional control" or "instruction following" as key words in in a search of the "psycLIT" data base.]

---

E-Mail Fredric L. Rice / The Skeptic Tank