Skip to main content

Pressing Your Buttons (from my book Believing Bullshit)


One way in which we can shape the beliefs of others is by rational persuasion. Suppose, for example, that I want someone to believe that Buckingham Palace is in London (which it is). I could provide them with a great deal of evidence to support that belief. I could also just take them to London so they can see with their own eyes that that’s where Buckingham Palace is located.

But what if these kinds of method aren’t available? Suppose I have little or no evidence to support the belief I nevertheless want people to accept. Suppose I can’t just show them that it’s true. How else might I get them to believe?

I might try to dupe them, of course. I could produce fraudulent evidence and bogus arguments. But what if I suspect this won’t be enough? What if I think my deceit is likely to be detected? Another option is to drop even the pretence of rational persuasion and to adopt what I call Pressing your Buttons.

Belief-shaping mechanisms

All sorts of causal mechanisms can be used to shape belief. For example, our beliefs are shaped by social and psychological mechanisms such as peer pressure and a desire to conform. Finding ourselves believing something of which our community disapproves is a deeply uncomfortable experience, an experience that may lead us unconsciously to tailor what we believe so that we remain in step with them. We’re far more susceptible to such social pressures than we like to believe (as several famous psychological studies have shown[i]).

Belief can also be shaped through the use of reward and punishment. A grandmother may influence the beliefs of her grandson by giving him a sweet whenever he expresses the kind of beliefs of which she approves, and ignores or smacks him when he expresses the “wrong” sort of belief. Over time, this may change not just the kind of beliefs her grandson expresses, but also the kinds of belief he holds.

Perhaps beliefs might also be directly implanted in us. Some suppose God has implanted certain beliefs in at least some of us. Our evolutionary history may also produce certain beliefs, or at least certain predispositions to belief. For example, there’s growing evidence that a disposition towards religious belief is part of our evolutionary heritage, bestowed on us by natural selection. But even if neither God, nor evolution, has implanted beliefs in us, perhaps we’ll one day be able to implant beliefs ourselves using technology. Perhaps we’ll be able to strap a brain-state-altering helmet on to an unwitting victim while they sleep, dial in the required belief, press the red button and “Bing!”, our victim wakes up with the belief we’ve programmed them hold. That would be a rather cruel trick. Some hypnotists claim a similar ability to, as it were, directly “inject” beliefs into people’s minds.

Obviously, these kinds of causal mechanism can operate on us without our realizing what’s going on. I might think I condemn racism because I have good grounds for supposing racism is morally wrong, but the truth is I have merely caved into peer pressure and my desire not to be ostracised by my liberal family and friends. If a belief has been implanted in me by, say, natural selection, or by some brain-state-altering device then, again, I may not be aware that this is the reason why I believe. Suppose, for example, that some prankster to programmes me to believe I have been abducted by aliens using the belief-inducing helmet described above. I wake up one morning and find, as a result, that I now very strongly believe I was taken aboard a flying saucer during the night. I have no awareness of the real reason why I now hold that belief – of the mechanism that actually produced the belief in me. If asked how I know I was abducted, I will probably say “I Just Know!”

Isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition, emotion

I’m going to focus here on five important belief-shaping mechanisms: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotion.

(i) isolation. Isolation is a useful belief-shaping tool. An isolated individual is more vulnerable to various forms of psychological manipulation. If you want someone to believe something that runs contrary to what their friends and family believe, it’s a good idea to have them spend some time at a retreat or remote training camp where their attachment to other ideas can more easily be undermined. Cults often isolate their members in this way. The The cult leader Jim Jones physically moved both himself and all his followers to the Guyanan jungle (where they all eventually committed suicide). Isolation is also recommended by some within more mainstream religions. In the UK, hermetically sealed-off religious schools are not uncommon. Students at the Tarbiyah Academy in Dewsbury, for example, are allegedly taught that

‘the enemies of Allah’ have schemed to poison the thinking and minds of [Muslim] youth and to plant the spirit of unsteadiness and moral depravity in their lives. Parents are told that they betray their children if they allow them to befriend non-Muslims.[ii]

A related mechanism is:

(ii) control. If you want people to accept your belief system, it’s unwise to expose them to alternative systems of belief. Gain control over the kind of ideas to which they have access and to which they are exposed. Censor beliefs and ideas that threaten to undermine your own. This kind of control is often justified on the grounds that people will otherwise be corrupted or confused. Totalitarian regimes will often remove “unhealthy” books from their libraries if the books contradict the regime. All sorts of media are restricted on the grounds that they will only “mislead” people. Schools under totalitarian regimes will sometimes justify preventing children from discovering or exploring other points of view on the grounds they will only succeed in “muddling” children. Take a leaf out of the manuals of such regimes and restrict your followers’ field of vision so that everything is interpreted through a single ideological lens – your own.

(iii) uncertainty. If you want people to abandon their former beliefs and embrace your own, or if you want to be sure they won’t reject your beliefs in favour of others, it helps to raise as much doubt and uncertainty as possible about those rival beliefs. Uncertainty is a potent source of stress, so the more you associate alternative beliefs with uncertainty, the better. Ideally, offer a simple set of geometric, easily formulated and remembered certainties designed to give meaning to and cover every aspect of life. By constantly harping on the vagaries, uncertainties and meaninglessness of life outside your belief system, the simple, concrete certainties you offer may begin to seem increasingly attractive to your audience.

(iv) repetition. Encourage repetition. Get people to recite what you want them to believe over and over again in a mantra-like way. Make the beliefs trip unthinkingly off their tongues. It doesn’t matter whether your subjects accept what they are saying, or even fully understand it, to begin with. There’s still a fair chance that belief will eventually take hold. Mindless repetition works especially well when applied in situations in which your subjects feel powerful pressure to confirm. Lining pupils up in playgrounds for a daily, mantra-like recitation of your key tenets, for example, combines repetition with a situation in which any deviation by an individual will immediately result in a hundred pairs of eyes turned in their direction.

(v) emotion. Emotion can be harnessed to shape belief. Fear is particularly useful. In George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, the regime seeks control not just over people’s behaviour, but, even more importantly, what they think and feel. When the hapless rebel Winston is finally captured, his ”educators” make it clear that what ultimately concerns them are his thoughts:

“And why do you imagine that we bring people to this place?”
“To make them confess.”
“No, that is not the reason. Try again.”
“To punish them.”
“No!” exclaimed O’Brien. His voice had changed extraordinarily, and his face had suddenly become both stern and animated. “No! Not merely to extract your confession, not to punish you. Shall I tell you why we have brought you here? To cure you! To make you sane! Will you understand, Winston, that no one whom we bring to this place ever leaves our hands uncured? We are not interested in those stupid crimes that you have committed. The Party is not interested in the overt act: the thought is all we care about.[iii]

The terrifying contents of Room 101 eventually cause Winston to succumb. He ends up genuinely believing that if Big Brother says that 2 plus 2 equals five, then two plus two does equal five. Many real regimes have been prepared to employ similarly brutal methods to control what is going on in people’s minds. However, emotional manipulation can take much milder forms yet still be effective. For example, you might harness the emotional power of iconic music and imagery. Ensure people are regularly confronted by portraits of Our Leader accompanied by smiling children and sunbeams emanating from his head (those Baghdad murals of Saddam Hussein spring to mind). Ensure your opponents and critics are always portrayed accompanied by images of catastrophe and suffering, or even Hieronymus-Bosch-like visions of hell. Make people emotional dependent on your own belief system. Ensure that what self-esteem and sense of meaning, purpose and belonging they have is derived as far as possible from their belonging to your system of belief. Make sure they recognise that abandoning that belief system will involve the loss of things about which they care deeply.

It goes without saying that these five mechanisms of thought-control are popular with various totalitarian regimes. They are also a staple of many extreme religious cults.

Applied determinedly and systematically, these mechanisms can be highly effective in shaping belief and suppressing “unacceptable” lines of thought. They are particularly potent when applied to children and young adults, whose critical defences are weak, and who have a sponge-like tendency to accept whatever they are told.

Note that traditional mainstream religious education has sometimes also involved heavy reliance on many, sometimes all, of these five mechanisms. I was struck by a story a colleague once told me that, as a teenage pupil of rather strict Catholic in the 1960’s, she once put her hand up in class to ask why contraception was wrong. She was immediately sent to the headmaster who asked her why she was obsessed with sex. Interestingly, my colleague added that, even before she asked the question, she knew she shouldn’t. While never explicitly saying so, her school and wider Catholic community had managed to convey to her that asking such a question was unacceptable. Her role was not to think and question, but to passively accept. My colleague added that, even today, nearly half a century later later, despite the fact that she no longer has any religious conviction, she finds herself feeling guilty if she dares to question a Catholic belief. So effective was her religious upbringing in straight-jacketing her thinking that she still feels instinctively that to do so is to commit a thought-crime.

Of course, religious education doesn’t have to be like this, and often it isn’t. An open, questioning attitude can be encouraged rather than suppressed. Still, it’s clear that some mainstream religions have historically been very reliant upon such techniques so far as the transmission of the faith from one generation to the next is concerned. In some places, they still are.


Applied in a consistent and systematic fashion these various techniques add up to what many would call “brainwashing”. Kathleen Taylor, a research scientist in physiology at the University of Oxford, upon whose work I am partly drawing here, has published a book on brainwashing. In an associated newspaper article, Taylor writes that:

One striking fact about brainwashing is its consistency. Whether the context is a prisoner of war camp, a cult’s headquarters or a radical mosque, five core techniques keep cropping up: isolation, control, uncertainty, repetition and emotional manipulation.[iv]

Taylor adds in her book that within the discipline of psychology, “brainwashing” is an increasingly superfluous word. It can be a misleading term, associated as it is, with Manchurian-Candidate-type stories of seemingly ordinary members of the public transformed into presidential, assassins on hearing a trigger phrase. As Taylor says, that kind of brainwashing is a myth. Case studies suggest there is

no “magic” process called “brainwashing”, though many (including the U.S. government) have spent time and money looking for such a process. Rather the studies suggest that brainwashing… is best regarded as a collective noun for various, increasingly well-understood techniques of non-consensual mind-change.

The unwitting and well-intentioned brainwasher

Often, those who use such techniques are despicable people with the evil aim of enslaving minds. Edward Hunter, the CIA operative who coined the phrase back in 1950, characterized brainwashing in emotive terms:

The intent is to change a mind radically so that its owner becomes a living puppet – a human robot – without the atrocity being visible from the outside. The aim is to create a mechanism in flesh and blood, with new beliefs and new thought processes inserted into a captive body. What that amounts to is the search for a slave race that, unlike the slaves of olden times, can be trusted never to revolt, always to be amenable to orders, like an insect to its instincts.

Perhaps this very often was the intent so far as the regimes of which Hunter had experience were concerned. However, surely the intent to produce mental slaves is not required for brainwashing. Sometimes those who apply these techniques genuinely believe themselves to be doing good. Their intention is not to enslave but to free their victims from evil and illusion. Yet, despite the absence of any evil intent, heavy reliance on such techniques still adds up to brainwashing. Brainwashers can be good people with little or no awareness that what they are engaged in is brainwashing.

The consenting victim

In the second Taylor quotation above, Taylor says that brainwashing involves various techniques of non-consensual mind-change. That cannot be quite right. Of course, prisoners-of-war don’t usually consent to being brainwashed. But people can in principle consent. In one well-known thriller, the trained assassin at the heart of the film turns out to have agreed to be brainwashed. The fact that he consented to have such techniques applied to him doesn’t entail that he wasn’t brainwashed.

People sometimes willingly submit themselves to brainwashing. They sign up to be brainwashed at a cult’s training camp, say. Admittedly, they will not usually describe what they have signed up to as “brainwashing”. As they see it, even while they are fully aware that the above techniques will be applied to them, they nevertheless suppose they are merely being “educated” - being put through a process that will open up their minds and allow them to see the truth.

Also notice that people are sometimes forcibly confronted with the truth. I might be forced to look at compelling evidence that someone I love has done some terrible deed, evidence that does convince me that they’re guilty. So not only is not all brainwashing non-consensual, not all non-consensual mind-change is brainwashing.

Reason vs. brainwashing

So what is brainwashing, then? What marks it out from other belief-shaping mechanisms? At this point, some readers might be wondering whether what I am calling “brainwashing” is really any different to any other educational method. Isn’t the application of reason to persuade really just another form of thought-control? Just another way of wielding power over the minds of others? So why shouldn’t we favour brainwashing over reason? Particularly if no one is actually being coerced, threatened or harmed?

In fact, there’s at least one very obvious and important difference between the use of reason and the use of these kinds of belief-shaping techniques. Reason is truth-sensitive. It favours true beliefs over false beliefs. Trying making a rational case for believing that New Jersey is populated with ant-people or that the Earth’s core is made of yoghurt. Because these beliefs are false, you’re not going to find it easy.

Reason functions, in effect, as a filter on false beliefs. It’s not one hundred percent reliable of course – false beliefs can still get through. But it does tend to weed out false beliefs. There are innumerable beliefs out there that might end up lodging in your head, from the belief that Paris is the capital of France to the belief that the Earth is ruled by alien lizard-people. Apply your filter of reason, and only those with a fair chance of being true will get through. Turn your filter off, and your head will soon fill up with nonsense.

And yet many belief systems do demand that we turn our filters off, at least when it comes to their own particular beliefs. In fact, those who turn their filters off – those whose minds have become entirely passive receptacles of the faith – are often held up by such belief-systems as a shining example to others. Mindless, uncritical acceptance (or, as they would see it, a simple, trusting faith in the pronouncements of Big Brother) is paraded as a badge of honour.

Reason is a double-edged sword. It does not favour the beliefs of the “educator” over those of the “pupil”. It favours those beliefs that are true. This means that if you try to use reason to try to bring others round to your way of thinking, you run the risk that they may be able to demonstrate that it is actually you that’s mistaken. That’s a risk that some “educators” aren’t prepared to take.

The contrast between the use of reason to persuade, and the use of the kind of belief-shaping mechanisms outlined above, is obvious. You can use emotional manipulation, peer pressure, censorship and so on to induce beliefs that happen to be true. But they can be just effectively used to induce belief that Big Brother loves you, that there are fairies at the bottom of the garden and that the Earth’s core is made of yoghurt. Such techniques do indeed favour the beliefs of the “educator” over those of the “pupil”. Which is precisely why those “educators” who suspect they may end up losing the argument tend to favour them.

I call the application of such non-truth-sensitive belief-inducing techniques – techniques that don’t require even the pretence of rational persuasion – Pressing Your Buttons. Brainwashing involves the systematic and dedicated application of such button-pressing techniques.

Of course, to some extent, we can’t avoid pressing the buttons of others. Nor can we entirely avoid having our own buttons pressed. That fact is, we all have our beliefs shaped by such non-truth sensitive mechanisms. No doubt we flatter ourselves about just how “rational” we really are. And, like it or not, you will inevitably influence the beliefs of others by non-truth-sensitive means.

For example, my own children’s beliefs are undoubtedly shaped by the kind of peer group to which I introduce them, by their desire to want to please (or perhaps annoy) me, by the range of different beliefs to which I have given them access at home, and so on. But of course that’s not yet to say I’m guilty of brainwashing my children. The extent to which we shape the beliefs of other by pressing their buttons, rather than relying on rational means, is a matter of degree. There’s a sliding scale of reliance on non-truth-sensitive mechanisms, with brainwashing located at the far end of the scale. There’s clearly a world of difference between, on the one hand, the parent who tries to give their child access to a wide range of religious and political points of views, encourages their child to think, question, and value reason, and allows their child to befriend children with different beliefs and, on the other hand, the parent who deliberately isolates their child, ensures their child has access only to ideas of which the parent approves, demands formal recitation of certain beliefs, allows their child to befriend children who share the same beliefs, and so on.

The dehumanizing effect of button-pressing

So one key difference between relying on reason to influence the beliefs of others and relying on button pressing is that only the former is sensitive to truth. Button pressing can as easily be used to induce false or even downright ridiculous beliefs as it can true beliefs.

There is also a second important difference worth noting. As the philosopher Kant noted, when you rely on reason to try to influence the beliefs of others, you respect their freedom to make (or fail to make) a rational decision. When you resort to pressing their buttons on the other hand, you are, in effect, stripping them of that freedom. Your subject might think they’ve made a free and rational decision, but the truth is they’re your puppet – you’re pulling their strings. By resorting to button-pressing  – peer pressure, emotional manipulation, repetition, and so on – you are, in effect, treating them as just one more bit of the causally-manipulatable natural order – as mere things. The button-pressing approach is, in essence, a dehumanizing approach.


Clearly, a cult that employs full-blown brainwashing at a training camp is a cause for concern. If the beliefs it induces are pernicious – if, for example, followers are being lured into terrorism – then obviously we should alarmed. However, even if the beliefs induced happen to be benign, there’s still cause for concern.

One reason we should be concerned is the potential hazard such mindless and uncritical followers pose. They may as well have cotton wool in their ears so far as the ideas and arguments of non-believers are concerned. They are immune to reason. Trapped inside an Intellectual Black Hole, they are now largely at the mercy of those who control the ideas at its core. The dangers are obvious.

Such extreme examples of brainwashing are comparatively rare. Still, even if not engaged in full-blown brainwashing, if the promoters of belief system come increasingly to rely on button-pressing to shape the beliefs of others, that too is a cause for concern. The more we rely on button-pressing, the less sensitive to reason and truth our beliefs become.

[i] Solomon Asch’s conformity experiments revealed people are prone to denying the evidence of their own eyes if it brings them into disagreement with others (though admittedly this is not quite the same thing as changing what one believes in order to conform). See Asch, S. E. “Effects Of Group Pressure Upon The Modification And Distortion Of Judgment” in H. Guetzkow (ed.) Groups, Leadership And Men (Pittsburgh, PA: Carnegie Press, 1951).
[ii] The Times, 20th July 2005, p. 25.
[iii] George Orwell, Nineteen Eighty-Four (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1954), p. 265
[iv] Kathleen Taylor, “Thought Crime” The Guardian, 8th October 2005, p. 23.


Paul P. Mealing said…
I heard this interview today of someone, whom I think is of my generation, who had a strict religious upbringing. He talked about the ingroup and outgroup concept or us and them. This is not an unusual cultural phenomenon and doesn't just apply to religion. Narrow-mindedness comes from extreme parochialism (read Ayaan Hirsi Ali's book, Infidel) that can exist in any culture. It existed in my youth, where we were taught that everyone else was culturally inferior in some way.

These days, with exposure to many different media, at least in the West, or just by travelling, narrow-minded prejudices can be overcome. That's why I'm a huge advocate of multiculturalism.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Stephen,

Completely off-topic, you might be interested in this. (Note: it has a shelf life.) I guess you know Simon Blackburn (I have to admit I didn't). Alan Saunders and The Philosopher's Zone was (still is) very popular in Oz.

Regards, Paul.
Eric said…
This is off topic, Professor Law, but I know that you frequently post on items like this.
Anonymous said…
This off topic, but have you seen the debate between Sye Ten and fsx23 posted on Youtube? What do you think of fsx23's performance?
Edward Ockham said…
I don't see any real difference between 1 and 2. Aren't they both forms of isolation? The first is physical, the second is mental or ideological isolation.

Interesting piece, but how can we explain the apparent correlation between religious belief and aptitude for logic? Many logicians (Geach, Arnauld, possibly Ockham, possibly Godel, probably many others) have had religious beliefs.
Angra Mainyu said…

Most people, logicians or otherwise, have had religious beliefs.

The fact that some logicians did does not suggest an apparent correlation.

There seems to be a strong correlation between being (in the present day, in the US and Western Europe at least) an academic philosopher and being non-theist.

On the other hand, it's not clear to me whether there is such a correlation in the case of philosophers of religion, most of whom are - like the population at large, though I don't know whether it's more or less frequent - theists.
Brian Forbes said…
There were a dozen little items throughout your blog that prove that you are also being and have been brainwashed. I think you'll find that some of it can be good. I'd actually point them out if I was invested in your blog, but I'm not.

If someone wets their bed every night, and they don't seem to care much about the stench or laying in their filth, parents employ these brainwashing techniques to great effect, and to the betterment of their child. And on the opposite extreme, if you are prone to do things society considers evil, sex trafficking for instance, a truly unbrainwashed person might be willing to accept with their unbiased mind the value and benefit of kidnapping and prostitution. I believe you'll find that you can't argue someone out of this perspective, once they've adopted it. Not all ideas are worthy of freedom. Some of them should be locked up or executed.
Philip Rand said…
Edward Ockham...I too have found logic and religious belief interesting bed-fellows...

There are probably many reasons for this...but, I would have thought that one reason why such a connection can exist is because if one does have a religious belief it would then naturally follow that a God would not on the one hand give men the ability to reason about the world while at the same time deceive the reasoner about the reality of the world.

Therefore, such a person would not be sceptical about reason and knowledge...

This is why I think major theoretical scientific breakthroughs are quite often made by religious scientists.

For instance Richard Dawkins detested Lovelock's "Gaia" model on account that it was "holistic"...he hated it so much that he attacked Lovelock personally...and yet now the Gaia theory or forms of it are accepted as a good model...

I mean, the idea forms the basis of most climate change models.

Stephen Law said…
"how can we explain the apparent correlation between religious belief and aptitude for logic"

You seem to assert this on the basis of anecdotal evidence, which is actually another of the warning signs of a IBH.

As a rule, professional philosophers are non-theists (over 85%).

In addition, there's empirical evidence to suggest that theists tend to be less logical and more intuitive in their thinking.

Here are some abstracts I just copied from a Luke Galen comment on Randal Rauser's blog here:

Shenhav et al., (2012). Three studies support this hypothesis, linking intuitive cognitive style to belief in God. Study 1 showed that individual differences in cognitive style predict belief in God. Participants completed the Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT; Frederick, 2005), which employs math problems that, although easily solvable, have intuitively compelling incorrect answers. Participants who gave more intuitive answers on the CRT reported stronger belief in God. This effect was not mediated by education level, income, political orientation, or other demographic variables. Study 2 showed that the correlation between CRT scores and belief in God also holds when cognitive ability (IQ) and aspects of personality were controlled. Moreover, both studies demonstrated that intuitive CRT responses predicted the degree to which individuals reported having strengthened their belief in God since childhood, but not their familial religiosity during childhood, suggesting a causal relationship between cognitive style and change in belief over time. Study 3 revealed such a causal relationship over the short term: Experimentally inducing a mindset that favors intuition over reflection increases self-reported belief in God.
Stephen Law said…

Gervais & Norenzayan (2012): "Four additional experiments provided evidence of causation, as subtle manipulations known to trigger analytic processing also encouraged religious disbelief."
Pennycook et al., (2012): Abstract: An analytic cognitive style denotes a propensity to set aside highly salient intuitions when engaging in problem solving. We assess the hypothesis that an analytic cognitive style is associated with a history of questioning, altering, and rejecting (i.e., unbelieving) supernatural claims, both religious and paranormal. In two studies, we examined associations of God beliefs, religious engagement (attendance at religious services, praying, etc.), conventional religious beliefs (heaven, miracles, etc.) and paranormal beliefs (extrasensory perception, levitation, etc.) with performance measures of cognitive ability and analytic cognitive style. An analytic cognitive style negatively predicted both religious and paranormal beliefs when controlling for cognitive ability as well as religious engagement, sex, age, political ideology, and education. Participants more willing to engage in analytic reasoning were less likely to endorse supernatural beliefs. Further, an association between analytic cognitive style and religious engagement was mediated by religious beliefs, suggesting that an analytic cognitive style negatively affects religious engagement via lower acceptance of conventional religious beliefs. Results for types of God belief indicate that the association between an analytic cognitive style and God beliefs is more nuanced than mere acceptance and rejection, but also includes adopting less conventional God beliefs, such as Pantheism or Deism. Our data are consistent with the idea that two people who share the same cognitive ability, education, political ideology, sex, age and level of religious engagement can acquire very different sets of beliefs about the world if they differ in their propensity to think analytically.
Pennycook et al. 2013: We provide evidence that religious skeptics, as compared to believers, are both more reflective and effective in logical reasoning tasks. While recent studies have reported a negative association between an analytic cognitive style and religiosity, they focused exclusively on accuracy, making it difficult to specify potential underlying cognitive mechanisms. The present study extends the previous research by assessing both performance and response times on quintessential logical reasoning problems (syllogisms). Those reporting more religious skepticism made fewer reasoning errors than did believers. This finding remained significant after controlling for general cognitive ability, time spent on the problems, and various demographic variables. Crucial for the purpose of exploring underlying mechanisms, response times indicated that skeptics also spent more time reasoning than did believers. This novel finding suggests a possible role of response slowing during analytic problem solving as a component of cognitive style that promotes overriding intuitive first impressions. Implications for using additional processing measures, such as response time, to investigate individual differences in cognitive style are discussed.
Philip Rand said…
Dr Law

I am not sure the issue is analytical thought in general...for analytical thinking may be linear...BUT associative analytical thinking is a different thing entirely...

And I think it is associative thinking, i.e. the ability to think outside the as it were escape from your "push button thingy" that is the relevant.

The research you refer to does seem to differentiate between the two...I think this omission detracts from the paper.

This might find is an extremely important paper...actually.

It is called "Casual Entropic Forces" and is found on this chaps blog:

I would give you the physics journal it is in but you may not have access to it...on the blog you can read is extremely good...for instance, it explains why when reading Kant or "The Sun" newspaper ones brain hurts more :)
Philip Rand said…

The research you refer to does NOT seem to differentiate between the two...I think this omission detracts from the paper.
Stephen Law said…
What has this got to do with the posted chapter? What point are you attempting to challenge, exactly?
Philip Rand said…
Dr Law

Actually, my initial post was directed at Edward Ockham not your chapter.

My subsequent post was directed at your reference to a research paper that I think is flawed and you do not.

However, I can link this with your chapter...because countless experiments have established that people are not rational in practice (perhaps they are in a test). People are generally overconfident in their judgements.

In fact, people have a perverse tendency to notice information that confirms their current beliefs, while overlooking contradictory evidence.

Knowing the principles of logic may give us the means to check ourselves...BUT this is ideal behaviour.

I mean, why did you use the abstract in the first place?

You admit that you just looked them I get the impression that you have not read the paper...

Isn't this an example of noticing information that just confirms your present beliefs?

I think what I am interested in is the type of cognitive quality required to overcome ones see clearly as it were...

I mean, Einstein's special relativity thought model concerning a person in a free falling lift is a good example...

Using the evidence within the lift the person would not notice they were in fact moving, i.e. there would be no evidence of motion (noticing only information that confirmed their beliefs)...but in reality they would be moving.

Besides, you seem to be placing a judgement value on analytical cognition as being superior to intuition...again, you are noticing on the information that confirms your beliefs.

When in fact, intuitive judgements give decent results effortlessly and quickly, i.e. it avoids costly indecisions and sometimes yields better decisions.
Stephen Law said…
There were several research papers that I cited. I cited the abstracts in response to what I took to be the implicit suggestion that theists are more logical in their thinking. In fact, they tend to be less so. The abstracts support that.

The rest of what you say seems irrelevant to what I say in the chapter. Indeed many of the points you make are actually made by me in the book. e.g. that we all tend to be less rational than we think, etc. That point is actually made in the chapter. That people look for things that confirm not things that disconfirm is also in the book, and certainly does not contradict anything I say in the chapter.

I'm still at a loss as to what it is that I am supposed to have got wrong.
Philip Rand said…
Dr Law

I don't believe I wrote anything about you getting anything wrong in your book.

I merely commented on your overconfidence over the papers you cite and saw it as an example of what your book discusses...

For the papers appear (or at least you are using these papers as a form of practical reasoning) to support your thesis, i.e. theist vs atheist (I am not interested in these types of debates because I think they are philosophically muddled on both sides...I mean, how can one logically debate something that is not within the realms of episteme).

As I wrote, I am very interested in associative thinking, i.e. why some people can do it and others cannot.

And that this was perhaps an explanation for Edward Ockham that a person like Gödel could be so creative (Godel did write his own ontological argument after-all...he must have believed it).

That in truth the issue is not analytical vs intuitive...but it really comes down to the ability to maximise entropy in the brain, i.e. associative thinking. And this explains why the thinkers Oakham cited were also religious.

The "Casual Entropic Forces" paper is the first paper that has addressed the different types of intelligence and more importantly, described it with rigour as a universal.

I mean, I don't have to tell you...that taken to its extremes being maximally reasoned and logical means that a such a person would confront an infinite sequence of nested logical problems before getting anything done!

Besides, there is a body of evolutionary work that suggests that irrational overconfidence is actually adaptive in humans and not reason.

Which means that being more reasoned does not make some ones evolutionary fitness greater, nor does it make one wise, nor does it make one a great scientist...

I mean, if a young student Einstein had been too rational, he would have concluded that he had very little chance of overturning the physics of Newton and Galileo.

Stephen Law said…
Good, it's clear you have nothing to say about the posted chapter. Rather your point re those papers I cited is:

"For the papers appear (or at least you are using these papers as a form of practical reasoning) to support your thesis, i.e. theist vs atheist"

What thesis? That atheism is true? That theists are irrational? Nope. That's not why I cited them. I merely cited them to show that the suggestion that theists are more logical appears to run contrary to the evidence.

You then say:

"(I am not interested in these types of debates because I think they are philosophically muddled on both sides...I mean, how can one logically debate something that is not within the realms of episteme)."

This is not only unsupported by you it sounds suspiciously like going nuclear and/or playing the mystery card - other chapters of my book!
Philip Rand said…
Dr Law

Your criticism's of my points are valid...however, that is because the issues here are complex and a blog is not the best place to flesh them out.

Concerning analytical and intuitive thinking with reference to theist and atheist worldviews...well, I would say that you are making a "judgement" that being "logical" is the "right" way to be as a human, i.e. an either/or position.

And what I am saying is that it is being "intuitive, irrational" that is in fact the most adaptive for humans in evolutionary terms.

And that this result is counter-intuitive...and what is more interesting is that we use reason itself, i.e. evolution show that reason is not the best adaptive capability humans possess.

Concerning the nuclear option...well, what I mean here is that the God issue can be approached but not by using "knowledge" means...for me, it has to be approached using the Wittgenstein model of "certainty", i.e. using the methods of your recent talk at your college.

For instance, say a theist gives you an ontological proof of God's existence...and say for arguments sake you agree with him...and state...Yes, your proof absolutely proves the existence of God...I agree with you completely...

But, then you say...however, the issue doesn't end doesn't because your ontological proof is a proof of an absolute, consistent system (because it is)...and so, you then say...What other absolute and consistent system exists?

The answer of course is Mathematics...

And what do we "know" about mathematics? Well, we do "know" that though mathematical axioms are absolutely true...we cannot be certain of their veracity...i.e. Gödel Incompleteness Theorem.

Therefore, the ontological model being equivalent to the mathematical model...the same conclusion must be reached.

So, your reach an impasse...both theist and atheist positions are non-sensical in this case.

I think if one wants to examine this God must first determine what one is "measuring" in the first place.

Your paper concerning "measurement" is quite good (I recommend anyone reading this post to give it a is quite worthwhile).
Paul P. Mealing said…
Actually, cosmologist, John D. Barrow in New Theories of Everything makes an argument that you could replace God with mathematics. In reference to mathematical Platonism he has this to say:

It elevates mathematics close to the status of God... just alter the word ‘God’ to ‘mathematics’ wherever it appears and it makes pretty good sense. Mathematics is part of the world, and yet transcends it. It must exist before and after the Universe.

In the same book, it must be said, that Barrow addresses a variety of mathematical philosophies.

He also gave this tongue-in-cheek quote from Dave Rusin:

Mathematics is the part of science you could continue to do if you woke up tomorrow and discovered the universe was gone.

Regards, Paul.
Philolinguist said…
Thank you for your lucid article on the dangers of 'button-pushing'as a method of persuasion. Psychological research suggests that, like a vaccine, prior knowledge of the methods and effects of 'button-pushing' may help to inoculate against such techniques. With that in mind, I have published a free handbook to raise awareness of the most common techniques of psychological manipulation used by cults. The handbook may be read or downloaded at May I invite you to display the book cover on your blog by clicking the 'share' link at the bottom of the page and copying the 'embed' code? Thank you.
Stephen Law said…
done but the cover won;t display I'm afraid...
Philip Rand said…
Paul P Mealing

Strangely, I heard this Barrow chap on the radio a couple of days ago...his name rang a bell...I checked my library and sure enough I have his book (I get given these things...though I have not read his book through)

His point concerning Mathematics being Platonic does have an element of theoretical truth.

In quantum information physics such a space is used. Information physics is quite useful.

For example, this Barrow chap seems to use a lot of Russell type paradoxes, i.e. the Book that contains the list of all the books in the world...should it or should it not be in the list?

One can get a pretty convincing solution to this paradox quite easily...I won't go into detail on account the theory is conceptually complex but here is a brief solution.

Like all have to know what you are measuring and you have to know what measuring device you are using to make the measurement.

So, in the Russell paradox we have three variables:

1/ The person making the list (the observer)

2/ All the books in the world (the observed)

3/ The book that contains the list (the measuring device)

The key thing to understand is that we live in a participatory universe, i.e. stuff is all relational...meaning essentially that materialism is a very bad model. So, you have to think of a measurement as being a relation.

But to return to the it we have an observer, observed and measuring device.

The observer writes all the books in the world down into his book. And it is this book that contains the list.

We can define "all the books in the word" == "empty set"

Now, here is the subtle part...our measuring device book is a book BUT it is also a measuring device, unlike the books we are observing.

Therefore, we can define this book like this: the set that contains the empty set.

Therefore this book should not be included in the list...because in this instance we are using the book as a measuring device, i.e. a relation.

However, it has to be remembered that this solution only exists when it is being observed, i.e. being measured....

Same goes for becomes real only when it is being used to measure something real in the world.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Philip,

There's a lot of mathematics done without measuring anything.

Effectively, you're saying that mathematics is dependent on empiricism. But most mathematics is done in the abstract. So there is a dialectic between mathematics and empirical evidence in science. A lot of the mathematics used in physics was discovered decades if not centuries before it became useful.

Regards, Paul.
Philip Rand said…
Hello Paul

Dialectic? Yes, I would agree with this...but I would say that this mathematical dialectic requires an observer to activate the laws of mathematics.

I would agree with this Barrow chap that the laws of mathematics do exist in for want of a better descriptor Platonic space...and that this space must be atemporal and absolute...

I mean, one is forced to accept this view logically if one accepts that the universe was generated out of nothing via a random quantum fluctuation.

I mean the fact that all our physics constants (around 15 of them) follow a log uniform distribution and that this was "set-up" at the inception of the universe would support the Platonic idea of mathematics.

Concerning the empirical...I think what I mean is that it is mechanical intuition (a basic attribute of human intellect) combined with human geometric imagination that "activates" the laws of mathematics...because mechanics is geometry with the emphasis on motion and touch...and this gives humans an extra dimension of perception.

And I think it is this kind of physical reasoning that was responsible for most of our mathematical's just that I think as humans we forget the heuristic reasoning in mathematics...

Because, I do think mathematics is built on intuitive foundations.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Philip,

Yes, I would agree that it takes an intelligence like ours (humans) to make mathematics manifest, yet it seems to have an existence independent of us in an abstract space, for want of a better term.

Personally, I like Roger Penrose's 3 way interaction between the Platonic, Mental and Physical, which you may have come across. The diagram depicted on this blog has been lifted from one of his books (I know of 3 that contain it).

Basically, it demonstrates the paradox of an intelligence producing mathematics, upon which the universe’s laws appear to be based, which produced the intelligence. The way out of this, I believe, is to assume that the intelligence has discovered the mathematics as if it is a latent code, a term that Marcus du Sautoy adopted as the titled of a TV series on this very subject.

Regards, Paul.
Philip Rand said…
Thank you Paul for Roger's is always a pleasant experience to read cigarette box calculations (they always contain so much concise information).

I am always wary of the use of the term "intelligence" in these kinds of discussions...the anthropic principle is a "temptation" one should resist...mainly, on account it leads to bad models and in truth doesn't explain anything.

This Platonic space is difficult to describe in a blog...but, I can give you a picture of what I mean.

Say, you are watching two chaps playing at a game of chess...and say you don't know the rules of the game but as you watch you slowly discern a structure, i.e. moves are alternating between the chaps, particular pieces move in a certain way consistently, etc.

The thing is, as you watch, you would be unaware that the players are playing according to the "rules" of only see the emergence of these rules locally and piecemeal, i.e. only when a move is made by a player...

For you are not aware of the totality of the rules of chess, though the players are...BUT, each move in the game "activates" one of these chess rules, i.e. it makes the rules of chess become real in the world...and this only happens when a move is made by a player.

So, you could think of the totality of the rules of chess being Platonic (I don't like the word on account of the baggage), i.e. these rules are out there whether you are watching a chess game or not...but, they only become real when you observe two people playing chess.

So, think of the chess game as two physically real objects interacting with each other in the world...and you are the observer...

The really key point though in the chess model is not really the rules of chess BUT rather how the information exchange between the two players occurs, i.e. it is always a minimum, i.e. each player does not tell the other player his intentions, he just makes a single move...i.e. he gives the other player only a minimum of information to the other player at the other players request of information from him, i.e. to make a move.

This is really the crucial point, i.e. information exchange between objects in the universe is ALWAYS a minimum...this is the deterministic part of the universe.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Philip,

I don’t know about information, but I do believe that the ‘least action’ principle in physics is one of the most fundamental and deals with energy.

Regarding the chess playing analogy, mathematics, or knowledge thereof, isn’t restricted to just observance of the universe. In fact, there seems to be more mathematics than the universe needs.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Thank you Paul for Roger's is always a pleasant experience to read cigarette box calculations (they always contain so much concise information).

Thanks for the sarcasm. It's a graphic representation of a philosophical idea - one I happen to agree with.

Regards, Paul.
Philip Rand said…


I thought the pics were very good (otherwise I would not have written it)...sorry if you got the wrong end of the stick...

I do think Penrose is good...though I don't think his idea about putting a consciousness potential in the Schrodinger equation is necessary...
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Philip,

Sorry if I misconstrued you. Yes, I agree with you regarding Penrose's attempts to mate consciousness to quantum phenomena.

Personally, I think the Hilbert space where Schrodinger's wave function purportedly exists is real, though I admit it's a moot point.

Regards, Paul.
Philip Rand said…

Your point about their being more mathematics than the universe needs follows if one only thinks of mathematics as "knowledge"...BUT...mathematics is in truth two things; it is knowledge but it is also an activity.

So, the question is: "What effect does a qualitative question have on the universe rather than a quantitative question?"

I mean, both types of questions are measurements, one real, one abstract. For example, what affect did Einstein's question to himself: "What would it be like to travel on a piece of light?" have on the universe?

Tegmark is a big proponent of the universe being mathematical. However, I do have my doubts about this position.

Mainly, because I have not found superfluous mathematics...I mean, even something as obscure as Riemann Zeta functions correspond to fluid flow...and the result that the prime number sequence appears to follow Benford's Law means that prime number space contains non-zero information...these are just a couple of examples...but there are many.

And if the wave-function is real that only confirms the information nature of the universe over the mathematical (so this question is not as moot as you think :) )

Here is a link that will get you to the paper that proposes that the wave-function is real...the link is for the pre-print...but the paper when it came out last year did not change much from the pre-print:

I am on holiday for three weeks if you don't get a response from me...this is the reason.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Philip,

I have to admit I don’t believe the currency of the universe is information, though I acknowledge this is an increasingly popular view. I think the currency of the universe is energy and ‘action’. I don’t think it’s any coincidence that Planck’s constant, h, is in units of action (Joule-sec).

The inference, from the currency of the universe being information, is that the universe is a computer and operates in ‘bits’. Ken Wharton wrote an award-winning essay on this topic which I discuss here.

I think string theory with its 10 to the power 500 multiverse is an indication that there is more mathematics than the universe needs, as well as John Conway’s ATLAS with its multi-dimensional mathematical objects, the history of which is covered rudimentarily by Marcus du Sautoy in Finding Moonshine.

Regards, Paul.
Paul P. Mealing said…
Actually, I think of mathematics as representing relationships between entities, such as space and time, force and momentum, gravity and curvature. It is the relationships that give us knowledge of the universe's dynamics. I would be careful about conflating the mathematics with the knowledge.

Regards, Paul.
Philip Rand said…

I am not sure that string theory does support the idea that the universe possesses more mathematics than it needs.

Nor do I think that the "computer" analogy of the universe is a useful model. Yes, there is perhaps evidence that space-time is pixelated explaining why the universe is flat but that is as far as the computer analogy is useful.

You mentioned the Planck constant...thing is, this constant is an independent fundamental constant in the universe that we arrive at through a physically real measurement, i.e. no mathematical theory involved in its derivation...the closest this measurement gets to mathematics is that we use a gauge to arrive at it...but, this is more number sense than mathematics.

For me, this is an indication that the universe is not fundamentally based on most I would say that mathematics is the language of Nature, i.e. the manner in which it "talks" to us, i.e. the "relations" you intimate.

I mean, for many years many physicists have attempted in vain to derive a mathematical expression for the fine grain structure constant...without success...Wouldn't this suggest that the universe doesn't have enough mathematics?
Paul P. Mealing said…
Hi Philip,

Well, all of nature’s constants have been derived empirically, including the dimensionless ones, because we have no other way of deriving them, as you point out. Having said that, Maxwell’s equations inclusion of the constant speed of light was completely unexpected.

Einstein asked the question: “Did God have a choice?” And the answer is: apparently not; unless one gives specific emphasis to the Anthropic Principle, particularly, the strong version. I don’t think the universe is teleological yet I would concede that ‘purpose’ has evolved, which means it is not predetermined, except to the extent that all chaotic phenomena are deterministic yet unpredictable.

The fact that we can’t mathematically derive the fine structure constant, amongst many others, does not diminish its significance. The fact that we have to uncover it empirically does not alter the fact that fundamental laws, expressed in mathematical relationships, appear intrinsic to the universe’s existence. So which comes first is very much a moot point.

The point I’d make is that mathematics can exist without the universe, but it’s unlikely that the universe could exist without mathematics.

I’d recommend Barrow’s book, The Constants of Nature, where he discusses this topic both technically and philosophically in some detail.

Regards, Paul.
Anonymous said…
If someone held a belief that every individual should be treated as an individual and is therefore free to believe/think as they choose, wouldn't that kind of shortcircuit the internal processes that allow this sort of thing?

IE-if I were in Room 101-couldn't I vocalize that I agreed with them, to the point of being able to argue in their favor, while retaining that internal individualism which allows me to recognize the accuracy/falsehood of what they are trying to force upon me?
Philip Rand said…

In your post you intimate that mathematics expresses "relationships" of universal laws.

This suggests that mathematics is simply the "language" that enables us to "communicate" with nature, i.e. to make sense of it...and to have a dialogue with it.

Mathematics can only be "real" and exist in the universe when it is "activated", i.e. doing mathematics.

This idea is completely different to the laws of nature. The laws of nature...are simply the laws of nature...and the most basic one is that objects in nature interact and communicate with each other.

For example, if one models the big bang assuming that the micro interacts with the macro AT a single can use the Klein-Gordon equation to represent gravity at the quantum level and the Wheeler-DeWitt equation to represent gravity at the macro level; we then have a single micro object interacting with a single macro-object...

The interaction between the two "creates" the law...and at this moment of creation the mathematics is created as two things happen when objects interact...a measurement is made and the law underlying the measurement is created (expressed for us in mathematics).

Popular posts from this blog

What is Humanism?

What is Humanism? “Humanism” is a word that has had and continues to have a number of meanings. The focus here is on kind of atheistic world-view espoused by those who organize and campaign under that banner in the UK and abroad. We should acknowledge that there remain other uses of term. In one of the loosest senses of the expression, a “Humanist” is someone whose world-view gives special importance to human concerns, values and dignity. If that is what a Humanist is, then of course most of us qualify as Humanists, including many religious theists. But the fact remains that, around the world, those who organize under the label “Humanism” tend to sign up to a narrower, atheistic view. What does Humanism, understood in this narrower way, involve? The boundaries of the concept remain somewhat vague and ambiguous. However, most of those who organize under the banner of Humanism would accept the following minimal seven-point characterization of their world-view.


(Published in Faith and Philosophy 2011. Volume 28, Issue 2, April 2011. Stephen Law. Pages 129-151) EVIDENCE, MIRACLES AND THE EXISTENCE OF JESUS Stephen Law Abstract The vast majority of Biblical historians believe there is evidence sufficient to place Jesus’ existence beyond reasonable doubt. Many believe the New Testament documents alone suffice firmly to establish Jesus as an actual, historical figure. I question these views. In particular, I argue (i) that the three most popular criteria by which various non-miraculous New Testament claims made about Jesus are supposedly corroborated are not sufficient, either singly or jointly, to place his existence beyond reasonable doubt, and (ii) that a prima facie plausible principle concerning how evidence should be assessed – a principle I call the contamination principle – entails that, given the large proportion of uncorroborated miracle claims made about Jesus in the New Testament documents, we should, in the absence of indepen

Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism refuted

Here's my central criticism of Plantinga's Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism (EAAN). It's novel and was published in Analysis last year. Here's the gist. Plantinga argues that if naturalism and evolution are true, then semantic epiphenomenalism is very probably true - that's to say, the content of our beliefs does not causally impinge on our behaviour. And if semantic properties such as having such-and-such content or being true cannot causally impinge on behaviour, then they cannot be selected for by unguided evolution. Plantinga's argument requires, crucially, that there be no conceptual links between belief content and behaviour of a sort that it's actually very plausible to suppose exist (note that to suppose there are such conceptual links is not necessarily to suppose that content can be exhaustively captured in terms of behaviour or functional role, etc. in the way logical behaviourists or functionalists suppose). It turns o