Halloween, Christians, and Knowledge

Halloween knowledge ground beliefEvery October, I tread carefully on the subject of Halloween. Many people in conservative churches believe that Christians should not participate in a holiday with such unwholesome, pagan origins. Others see it as harmless fun. What should a reasonable, devout person think and do about Halloween? (This is an in-house debate for Christians, so caveat lector. If you’ve ever been baffled by the Christian fuss over the holiday, perhaps this will help.)

The Irony of Knowledge

The Apostle Paul, in his first letter to the church at Corinth, speaks rather directly to the problem of “indirect” participation in pagan rituals. (If some Halloween traditions originate in druidic rites, then dressing up and passing out candy seems like “indirect” participation, at worst, to me. As long as you don’t sacrifice any animals!) St. Paul says that as Christians, we know that there is pagan rituals knowledge ground beliefonly one, true God and that all other “gods” are powerless. So, indirect participation in their rituals, such as eating meat sacrificed to a “god,” is harmless. (1Corinthians 8-10) But not all people know this, and some still fear these “gods” and their rituals.

Ironically, those who pass judgment on fellow Christians for their Halloween involvement see themselves as possessing important knowledge — knowledge about the demonic dangers of Halloween. And they see their fellow Christians, dressed up and trick-or-treating, as tragically ignorant. This, according to St. Paul, is precisely the reverse of the true situation. It is the party-goers who have knowledge, and the protesters who lack it.

Reasons to Abstain?

So why does Paul still encourage some to abstain from these “indirect” pagan connections? Paul gives an interesting pair of moral principles:

1. If you believe something is wrong, and you choose to do it, then you are acting wrongly.

So if my friend believes (mistakenly) that it is wrong to trick-or-treat, and he does it, then he violates his conscience and does wrong.

2. Don’t do anything that leads your friend to violate their conscience.

conscience knowledge ground beliefSo, I certainly don’t want to pressure my friend into trick-or-treating, and thus violating his conscience. Thus, if my participation would encourage a friend to act against his conscience, then I would rather abstain.

This is not the same as worrying about my neighbor who sits in a dark house in protest all night. I have no Halloween-related moral obligations toward them. My dressing up and sugar-binging won’t tempt them in the slightest, so their “feeling offended” is no concern of mine.

To Judge or Not To Judge

Finally, be very careful about passing judgment on others. And this can go both ways! Those with knowledge find themselves judging others for their lack of knowledge. And those who believe Halloween participation is wrong will judge those who partake. Both should reflect on Paul’s words to the Romans:

As for the one who is weak in faith, welcome him, but not to quarrel over opinions. One person believes he may eat anything, while the weak person eats only vegetables. Let not the one who eats despise the one who abstains, and let not the one who abstains pass judgment on the one who eats, for God has welcomed him. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before his own master that he stands or falls. And he will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make him stand. (Rom. 14:1-4)

Should We Remain Open to New Evidence?

open evidence ground beliefI filmed a short commentary to respond to something I came across a few weeks ago. Randy Helzerman posted a video response (in 2007) to William Lane Craig’s claim that Bayes’ Theorem can be employed to argue for the resurrection of Jesus. Here’s Helzerman’s video: (if you don’t want to watch the whole thing, maybe try starting around 4:23)

I’m not certain that Helzerman is an atheist, but he plays a great Devil’s advocate if not. I’m also not sure whether he’s saying that it’s a psychological fact that atheists cannot entertain new evidence, or that they shouldn’t entertain new evidence. Interesting either way. So here are my thoughts:

Here’s my post on Cromwell’s Rule.

Ground Belief Podcast #2 with Mark Swanson

My first ever attempt at a podcasty thing. I “interviewed” Mark Swanson, Associate Professor in the MU School of Journalism. Mark is also the feudum game critical thinkingcreator of Feudum, a new table top “Euro” style strategy game. Mark and I talk frequently about how complex board games require and develop critical thinking skills, and that’s the subject of our conversation on this “podcast.”  This is part 2 of the interview — part 1 is here. The audio quality isn’t great, since we recorded the whole thing completely on a whim using my iPhone. If you like board games, nerds, and the psychology of critical thinking and game play, take a listen.

Since this is my first attempt at podcasting, I would  appreciate your feedback!

What To Listen For

  • Do strategy board games rely more on System 1 or System 2 type thinking?
  • Mark talks about his preferences for the intuitive approach to games and other kinds of problem solving.
  • We discuss how a person’s intuitive talents might be developed, not just in games bu in art and music as well. I reminisce a bit about my jazz saxophone days.
  • I ask Mark about how game play could help older people maintain their mental sharpness, similar to other kinds of games found on popular websites.
  • We talk briefly about how games are a microcosm of life.
  • We discuss the best “Gateway” games.
  • Mark muses about how becoming a game developer has brought about growth in other areas of life.




Ground Belief Podcast #1 with Mark Swanson

My first ever attempt at a podcasty thing. I “interviewed” Mark Swanson, Associate Professor in the MU School of Journalism. Mark is also the feudum game critical thinkingcreator of Feudum, a new table top “Euro” style strategy game. Mark and I talk frequently about how complex board games require and develop critical thinking skills, and that’s the subject of our conversation on this “podcast.”  I’ve broken the interview up into two 20-min. segments, and the second half will be posted later this week. The audio quality isn’t great, since we recorded the whole thing completely on a whim using my iPhone. If you like board games, nerds, and the psychology of critical thinking and game play, take a listen. 

What To Listen For

  • Knowing that Mark prefers games with little or no luck involved, I ask him whether there is luck in Feudum and where it is.
  • We discuss the distinction between ordinary game play and the “meta-game,” which involves the social and psychological interactions between the players.
  • It turns out there are at least two ways of creating a game: by the use of mathematical theory and by scientific “experimentation.” Games like Settlers of Catan seem to have been developed the former way, while Mark created his with the latter method, using lots of play testing.
  • Mark talks about what makes “Euro” games superior to “American” games.
  • I almost trick Mark into revealing the best strategy for winning his game.
  • We talk a little bit about why playing complex strategy games can help us develop our thinking skills.

In the podcast, I don’t attempt to draw out all the implications for better belief formation or civil discourse. I leave that to you, the listener.




Bad Thinking, Part 3: The SI Jinx

missouri chase daniels SI jinx
Not Pete Rose

Pete Rose, infamous Cincinnati Reds baseball player, appeared on the cover of Sports Illustrated in August of 1978, in the midst of a 44-game hitting streak. That same week, his streak ended. Numerous other examples over the years foster the belief that players or teams who achieve SI cover-status will experience the “SI Jinx” soon thereafter. A pair of local favorites: the University of Kansas football program appeared on the November 2007 cover after an 11-0 start, and lost the following week to rival Missouri; Missouri then graced the cover in December 2007 after reaching their first #1 ranking, and lost the following week to Oklahoma. The SI Jinx strikes again!

Coincidence or curse?

SI jinx sports thinkingTo this day, many athletes shun appearing on the cover of Sports Illustrated. In January 2002, Kurt Warner declined to pose for the cover, so the magazine ran a photo of a black cat instead. The headline: “The Cover that No One Would Pose For.” Are their fears well-founded? If it isn’t a curse, then what explains the bizarre coincidence?

Thankfully, Daniel Kahneman provides enlightenment. In Thinking, Kahneman describes a statistical phenomenon called “regression to the mean.” (Ch. 17) According to Wikipedia,

Regression to the mean is the phenomenon that if a variable is extreme on its first measurement, it will tend to be closer to the average on its second measurement—and if it is extreme on its second measurement, it will tend to have been closer to the average on its first.

In other words, if an athlete performs at a remarkably high level one week or one season, the following week or season is very likely to be worse, and vice versa. I imagine that if SI started featuring especially low-performing athletes on their magazine cover, we would soon discover a SI Cover Miracle!

Getting Lucky

regression to the mean kahneman jinxOne reason for our error in judgment here: we fail to account for luck. In many endeavors, luck plays a huge role, including sports, academic testing, and business success. Our performance in these areas tends to follow a curve, with frequent average performances (relative to personal skill), and few examples of either really awful or amazing performances. Luck (or the lack) is usually what accounts for the “outlier” performances on the edges of the curve. But we attribute this to skill or other non-causal factors instead.

dice luck jinx thinkingKahneman relates an interesting anecdote about a flight instructor who claimed that praise for good performances was detrimental, but intense criticism for bad performances was helpful. Why? Because when he yelled at a pilot for an especially poor flight, the pilot performed better the next time out. And when he praised him for “clean execution,” he got worse. The instructor failed to realize that this was statistically predictable and probably attributable to pilot luck. A classic example of regression to the mean.

The Upshot

happy luck jinx regression to the mean kahnemanIn my daily life, identifying regression to the mean can help me avoid emotional whiplash. I know that an amazing day is likely to be followed by an average day, so I’m not as disappointed when this occurs. Similarly, a really horrendous day will probably be succeeded by a better day, so there’s hope! Substitute whatever professional metrics you like for “day,” and you can apply the same truth in your life: sales figures, enrollment, attendance, stock performance, child behavior, or team wins.

I also remember to include luck, or perhaps unpredictable Divine intervention, in my evaluation of performance. This means that my absolute best and worst performances are probably not solely attributable to my skill. I should look at my average as a better gauge for evaluation, rather than taking the “outlier” as the norm.

bad luck jinx thinking kahnemanFinally, we can do away with belief in jinxes. Even if you could show a high correlation between some odd event and bad performance, this would not prove causation. Interestingly, while 37% of SI cover stars were “jinxed,” 58% maintained or improved their performance following their cover appearance, according to an 1984 study. The jinx myth endures because of yet another kind of “bad thinking:” the negativity bias! We tend to remember negative events and give them more weight in our reasoning.

I still plan to give away a copy of Kahneman’s book to a lucky subscriber! Sign up for Ground Belief updates with your email for a very high chance to win (I only have 2 subscribers as of yesterday).

Bad Thinking, Part 2: Mood Matters

Law and Order: SVU. (Start the video at 9:36, but you may have to watch some ads.) Notice the shift in mood.

Scene: detectives asking a restaurant owner (Lyla) to look at the photographs of two criminal suspects, a man and a woman. Seemingly frustrated, she looks at them but doesn’t recognize either.

Lyla: I’m not really good with faces. I’m more of a word person.

Detective #1: Here’s a word. Focus.

[Lyla abruptly hands the photos back to the detective and walks away, obviously offended.]

Detective #2: What my partner means to say is that maybe you’re just underestimating yourself.

Lyla: [still mad] I don’t think so.

[Detective #2 turns on the charm and gets her to smile.]

Detective #2: Take a look at these photos one more time. Please.

Lyla: [sighs, smiling] This guy I’ve never seen before. Yeah, I’m pretty sure she was here that night.

This scene illustrates beautifully what scientists have discovered through tools like the Remote Association Test. A good mood raises intuitive abilities, but lowers logical attentiveness. A bad mood makes us less prone to errors in logic, but it’s like a wet blanket over intuition and creativity. Feeling nervous and criticized by the first detective shut down the intuition of the restaurant owner. But after her mood brightened, she easily recalled the face of the woman in the photo, because this is a function of intuitive System 1.


So what does this mean for us, as thinkers? Being aware of your mood can help you maximize your cognitive abilities. First, when you’re engaging in a creative or intuitive task, you’ll perform better if you’re in good spirits. If, prior to such a task, you find yourself in a foul mood, it would be wise to either, (a) put off the task (if possible) until your mood lightens, or (b) take some steps to improve your mood. Here’s one of my favorite TED talks on this subject that includes some very practical suggestions at the 10:56 mark.


Second, when you’re engaging in a System 2 task—analysis, problem solving, etc.—you’re likely to perform better if you don’t stroll into it casually. If you’re a more happy-go-lucky or optimistic person, it might be wise to stop and shift gears. Try some cognitive warm ups to crank up your System 2 and heighten your concentration. Work two or three simple multiplication problems, count backward from 100, or pick a word and find as many rhyming words as you can. (More “warm ups” here and here.)

Faith and Cognitive Modes

What about religion? Does mood matter when contemplating religious and metaphysical ideas? Yes. It matters because it affects which System is predominant. So which mode— intuitive System 1 or analytical System 2—is most appropriate for religious thinking? I’ve often wrestled with this question myself and I think it depends on your goals and on your context. If you’re already committed to a faith tradition like Christianity, System 2 is helpful when studying theology or when discussing religion with someone outside the faith, to give two examples. But worship, by contrast, requires shifting away from skepticism and toward openness. I find that praying and listening to a sermon are activities best done with a sense of receptivity, seasoned with a pinch of healthy skepticism, putting off the bulk of analysis for later.

skeptic faith thinkingFor those who identify as atheist or agnostic, it may not be as appropriate to suspend your skeptical guard, unless you find yourself desiring to believe. You should always leave open a small window of possibility, regardless, as I have written about elsewhere. But I have met atheists and agnostics who find belief unattainable given their current set of evidence. When I share about my own experience of God, they sometimes express a desire to have such an experience, in the hope that it would finally allow them to believe. For them, I would suggest partially lowering their System 2 defenses and cultivating an intuitive System 1 mind-set. Relationships, even between oneself and God, are best experienced through this mode, rather than by logical analysis.

Faith and Mood

What this implies for mood management is that religious believers will probably experience the full benefits of worship when their mood is good. Grief and lament remain important aspects of a full-orbed Christian faith, and perhaps research may eventually tell us how those moods affect our cognitive mode. But in general, I’m inclined to believe that a positive outlook enhances prayer and openness to hearing from God. On the other hand, if you only ever approach religion with your analytical System 2 on full alert, you may actually be blocking out the evidence needed to support belief. I recognize that there are some conundrums here, but despite this, there can still be good reasons for belief or for deciding on a course of action.

(On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible.’)

How To Avoid Bad Thinking, Part 1

Fast and Wrong?

thinking fast slow chessNobody likes being wrong. It’s embarrassing, it gives rise to regret, and sometimes it even places us in harm’s way. In my own experience, I’ve learned that I can avoid mistakes by slowing down and thinking things through before making a move. Sometimes I spend a good fifteen minutes analyzing my options. Unfortunately, when I do this in a chess match with my son, he starts expressing his frustration in various forms of body language. This slow-approach also causes problems in most sports, especially those involving high-speed projectiles.

But in many contexts, slowing down and concentrating on the problem at hand increases our success dramatically. This truth came into crystal-clear focus when I read Daniel Kahneman’s brilliant book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. In it, Kahneman (winner of the 2002 Nobel Prize in Economics) shares the fruit of his decades-long research program on the cognitive machinery of our minds, revealing insights into the natural flaws in kahneman thinking fast slowour thinking.

This post launches a series based on Kahneman’s book. On October 23, I will conclude the series by giving away a copy of Thinking, Fast and Slow to one lucky subscriber to my blog. So, sign up with your email (on your right at the top of this post) before the 23rd to be eligible. I’ll select someone at random and have the book delivered to your home with the magic of 2-day shipping. (Or the audio book, if you prefer.)

The Two Systems

anger "system 1" thinking intuitiveKahneman talks about the mind possessing two “systems,” or modes of thought: one fast, one slow. Imagine a recent conflict you’ve had with a friend or spouse. Your recognition that they are angry by the shape of their mouth and eyebrows is instantaneous. This is “System 1” at work—the fast, intuitive mode of thought. Now try this problem: 17 x 24. When you buckle down and concentrate on this, it is “System 2” at work—the slow, analytical mode. System 1 gives us instant cues about our surroundings and makes quick judgments when we simply don’t have time for analysis, as when a baseball is hurling toward you at 80 mph. System 2 allows us to tackle harder, more complicated problems that require careful attention to details that are not obvious.

bat ball problem thinkingThe rest of the book describes the manifold ways in which System 1 gets fooled. System 1 simply tries to do too much, and lazy System 2 won’t pitch in without quite a bit of cajoling. Here’s an example—go head and try it.

A bat and ball cost $1.10
The bat costs one dollar more than the ball.
How much does the ball cost?

If you’re like most people, your first thought was that the ball is 10 cents. Kahneman writes that this easy puzzle “evokes an answer that is intuitive, appealing, and wrong.” (44)* Check the math, maybe using pencil and paper. The correct answer is that the ball is 5 cents and the bat is $1.05. But System 1 doesn’t have the chops for this kind of work, and your System 2 was probably napping. When this puzzle was used in an experiment, 50% of students from Harvard, MIT, and Princeton gave the wrong answer!

But even System 2 has its limitations. Watch the video below.

How did you do? You may have correctly counted the passes, but did you notice the gorilla? About half of all viewers don’t notice the gorilla, says Kahneman.(24) This demonstrates that System 2 has limited resources. When you “pay attention” to one task that requires high-level concentration, you have less attention to spend on other things. And even intuitive System 1 seems unable to pick up the slack.

Better Thinking

hammer thinking The helpful take-away from Kahneman’s research is this: you’re far more prone to errors in reasoning than you realize. Most of us are like bad carpenters. We use our hammer on everything, simply because it is the tool we are currently holding. Only when we realize that we’ve gone wrong do we stop and look in our tool-belt for something more appropriate. This applies to politics, faith, morality—just about anything. System 1 is the easy default, but it just can’t handle serious thinking. And now that you know this, you’ve got to kick System 2 in the butt and put it to work.

*I will refer to Kahneman’s book (I believe there is only the one 2011 edition) with page numbers in parentheses.

Is Science Better than Faith?

faith trust GodWays of Knowing?

I have an atheist friend, Anthony, who does interviews on college campuses, asking students about their religious beliefs. He skillfully engages in Socratic dialogue, asking them about why they believe what they do and helping them identify flaws in their reasoning. When people mention “faith,” he frequently asks a question like this, “Do you think faith is a reliable way of coming to know things?” Anthony thinks of faith as a “way of knowing” in contrast to other ways, like science. Science uses evidence derived from observation, experimentation, etc. to test new ideas, where as the “faith-way” simply uses feelings, intuitions or positive-thinking; evidence need not apply. Put this way, science and faith are two radically different, and somewhat opposed, approaches to discovering truth.

Defining Faith

Is this really what faith is? Ask ten religious believers what faith is, and you’ll get twelve definitions. Certainly one (or more) of them will sound a lot like what Anthony hears in his interviews. But taking polls isn’t the best way to determine truth. Defining (Christian) faith should start with the Bible and the great minds who have written on this over the centuries. But rather than launch into a survey of these sources, I’ll offer my best take based on my own study of them:

Faith is trusting in what you have good reason to believe is true. [1]

faith falling trustFor example, I’ve done “trust falls” with others on a number of occasions. Usually, they work like this. You are told that persons X and Y will stand behind you and catch you when you fall backward. You know persons X and Y well enough — they are reliable and strong enough to catch you. They’re clearly right behind you. But then you face forward with arms crossed, and you struggle to force yourself to fall freely backward. You can’t see their arms extending to catch you. Your instinct of self-protection shouts, “Don’t fall backward! You’ll hurt yourself!” But you have every reason to rationally believe that you won’t crack your skull on the floor. If someone asked you, “Do you believe they will catch you?” you would most likely answer, “Yes.” But trusting means letting yourself fall. This illustrates faith very well.

Faith On Level Ground

So given this definition, is faith somehow inferior to science? I don’t think so. First off, on this view, faith isn’t a way of knowing, it is a way of living. Trusting is a behavior–a behavior based on what you believe. I don’t come to know things “by faith,” I live “by faith.” Faith without works is dead, as St. James says. This understanding of faith follows the narrative of the New Testament much more closely.

chemistry lab faith trust scienceSecond, faith and science actually share some significant qualities. Scientists base beliefs on good reasons. Moreover, they often place their trust in those beliefs. A chemist in a lab believes that mixing certain chemicals will produce a certain reaction. Furthermore, she trusts that her equipment is safe and reliable–she willingly mixes the chemicals. An astronomer believes the stars and planets are in such-and-such a position because he has seen it through his telescope. And he demonstrates trust in his equipment and findings by publishing them in a journal. Scientists trust the process of scientific inquiry, meaning that they believe, for good reasons, that it is reliable, and they demonstrate this trust by using the process and acting according to their findings. So, scientists employ “faith” in much the same way that Christians do, on my view.

No doubt, some of you will object to my definition of faith and insist that faith must be essentially irrational, which fits more comfortably into your narrative of “faith against science.” Or some may argue that faith is some kind of spiritual phenomenon, divorced from the process of reason, and cannot be compared to scientific knowledge. But I hope most can see the logic and elegance of what I have proposed.

faith trust God


If I’m right, or close to right, about the nature of Christian faith, then there’s no reason to think that science stands in a superior position, epistemically or in any other sense. Belief in God and belief in quantum particles come about in much the same way, even if the kinds of evidence are different. Faith in God, however, may be special in that it is not merely the result of a human decision to trust. Some theologians think that we can’t overcome our reluctance to take that “trust fall” with God without Supernatural assistance. In this sense, it may be superior to the “faith” of science, which is merely the product of fallible human reason and psychology.

[1] Hebrews 11:1 is the classic passage, and I like the Latin translation: “est autem fides sperandorum substantia rerum argumentum non parentum.” The Latin uses the term ‘argumentum’ to suggest that faith is that which persuades us of what we cannot perceive with our senses, or as Thayer’s Greek lexicon puts it, “that by which invisible things are proved.” This is reminiscent of science–it is how human beings discovered things like atoms and otherwise invisible celestial bodies.


Fast Judgment, Slow Heart

jumping thinkingWe’ve always been good at jumping to conclusions and letting our prejudices run away with our reason, but now things are different. Our dumb ideas don’t just fizzle out, dying quietly in some back alley of our brain. We violently extract them from our imagination, like undeveloped offspring, and send them careening through cyberspace to assault everyone who will listen. Why? Because we can.

In the classic sci-fi film, Forbidden Planet, we encounter a world where a massive machine empowers people to telepathically create anything by the power of thought alone. “Creation without instrumentality.” But they forgot that not all the products of thought are worth creating. Some of them are forbidden planet thinking judgmentdown-right scary. Just imagine Stephen King on that planet! In our current reality, instead of a miraculous machine, we created social media–the place where all your thoughts, even the ones better left unsaid, can be broadcast instantly across the world. And like the murderous creature in the film, our tweets run amok, destroying whatever upsets us.

Some of the best advice I’ve heard about social media came from sports radio. Former NFL player and coach, Herm Edwards, commented on irresponsible posts made by current players. His advice: Don’t press send! Wait a while and let your emotions subside. There’s even an entire organization that goes by this moniker. They seek to promote “kind and careful online communication, in the hope of preventing [young people] from harming themselves or others.” But telling people to restrain their baser impulses as a strategy against their baser impulses seems futile to me. Noble, but futile.

So, as an alternative strategy, set a policy now, ahead of time, about what you will do then. Decide now that you simply won’t post or tweet about anything without a 24 hour waiting period. Let me give a few solid reasons for this policy.

1) Your first take on things is probably wrong.

kahneman thinking fast slowDaniel Kahneman, in his book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, describes two parallel “systems” at work in our brain: “system 1” and “system 2.” System 1 is fast and less accurate. System 2 is slow but more accurate. (I’m waaayyy oversimplifying here.) If you want your understanding and your response to be more accurate, take the time to engage system 2–your more analytical nature.

2) The s#!t-storm is doing just fine without you.

I know it feels so important to get your take out there, to show everyone how smart and passionate and righteous you are, but you’re more likely to contribute to the problem than the solution. You might feel better, but the world won’t. Just because you can’t see the mob, with their pitchforks and torches, doesn’t mean you aren’t walking into it. Social media is an angry mob. Don’t join in.

angry mob

3) Regret sucks.

You’ll probably end up saying something you’ll have to apologize for later or at least feel really bad about. (I have experience with this.) Better to wait, let your reaction cook for a while, boiling away the crud. You might find that the whole thing has soon boiled away, leaving an empty pot. You’ll be glad you didn’t serve it to anyone.

So for the love of good thinking and the world and everything that’s holy, slow down. Unlike the freeway, the internet is a place where it is good to go slow and let everyone else fly by you, honking and screaming. Let your “system 2” engage. Social media is power, and remember what Uncle Ben said.