Shuggy says Bertrand Russell was wrong to claim that belief
in God is like belief in a flying teapot.
Shuggy’s right. But I’d give a different reason. It’s the heuristic of social proof.
Most of us are more inclined to believe things if others do so. So, a big reason for us not to believe there’s a teapot orbiting the sun is simply that no-one else believes it. By contrast, countless intelligent people believe in God, and this disposes us to think God might exist.
Now, the thing about the heuristic of social proof is that it is often works well, because others often know more than we do. If you’re looking for a place to eat in a strange town, it’s sensible to avoid an empty restaurant, because the locals probably know more than you do.
And we just don’t have enough time (or skill) to assess evidence on every issue for ourselves, so we go with the consensus. My main reason for believing in Darwinism is that the scientific consensus does so.
Not only is the heuristic often right, it’s often rational too. I use the heuristic to believe in Darwinism because the costs of the alternative - investigating the evidence for evolution myself - are high, relative to the benefits.
Social proof, then, is a good rough and ready way to form judgments. As Gerd Gigerenzer has shown (pdf), simple heuristics often work well.
Sometimes, though, it can lead us badly astray. This can happen if people falsify their preferences to be seen to fit in with the consensus; Timur Kuran is good on this, for example here (pdf).
So how do we know when to go with the heuristic of social proof and when not? Ideally – and rationally – we would do so when we have strong evidence, and a theory as to why the consensus might be wrong.
Often, however, we depart from the consensus not because we have good evidence, but because we’re over-confident about our own judgment. It’s no coincidence that Richard Dawkins is so often called arrogant.
For me, the message here is not about God or Dawkins. It’s that it’s very hard for us to think rationally. It’s difficult to steer between being overconfident in our own judgement on the one hand, and being overly deferential to the consensus on the other.
This is another reason why I don’t trust my judgment.