Episode 50: More Thoughtful: Atheists or Theists?
June 26, 2017 Michael Chardavoyne

Episode 50: More Thoughtful: Atheists or Theists?

Posted in Episodes

In this episode, Kurt Jaros discusses which group is more thoughtful, atheists or theists with guest, Nick Byrd.

Listen to “Episode 50: More Thoughtful – Atheists or Theists?” on Spreaker.


Book: Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman: amzn.to/2t7xtPz

Paper (free to download): “Atheists and Agnostics Are More Reflective than Religious Believers: Four Empirical Studies and a Meta-Analysis”: http://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0153039

Gordon Pennycook: scholar.google.com/citations..

Will Gervais: scholar.google.com/citations..

Ara Norenzayan: scholar.google.com/citations..

Nick Byrd (byrdnick.com): scholar.google.com/citations..


More Thoughtful: Atheists or Theists? Intro

Well a good day to you, and thanks for joining us here on another episode of Veracity Hill where we are striving for truth on faith, politics, and society. It’s a pleasure to be with you here on a nice, sunny, Saturday afternoon here in the western suburbs of Chicago-land. Where we are bringing you, Chris, what do you say? It’s something like the “Best International Apologetics Program Out of West Chicago.”


And so if you had the opportunity yet, or you haven’t had the opportunity yet, I wanted to invite you to listen to last week’s episode on the Dictionary of Christianity and Science. It’s a great interview between two of the general editors of that volume and it’s really a great book that I think you should check out and everyone should have it on their shelf. It’s sort of the go-to, especially if you’re not a science person. It’s actually very helpful. Science isn’t my forte’ but I found a number of the entries there very excellent and informative and so I wanted to encourage all of you to do that.


On today’s episode, we’re going to be talking about thoughtfulness and who’s more thoughtful, atheists or Christians. Or theists, more broadly speaking. But before we get into that, I’ve just got a couple of announcements here. If you hadn’t yet heard, Defenders Media is partnering with the Library of Historical Apologetics to bring the Deeper Roots Conference to Kalamazoo, Michigan on September 8-9. And that’s going to be featuring J. Warner Wallace and Tim McGrew and a number of other speakers there and I’m really excited about that opportunity and so if you can make it, I would love to see you there and hopefully I think we might be doing a little bit of live streaming while we’re there as well so if you can’t make it over to Kalamazoo, hopefully we’ll be able to bring a couple of those talks to you.


Let’s see, what was next? We’ve got a lot of drama in the news it seems over the Republican health care bill and some other matters and so if you want to talk about those, you’re welcome to give us a call and we’ll talk about those at the end of the show. The number is (505)-2-STRIVE. The number again is (505)-278-7483.


Perhaps most disconcerting to me would be the Chicago Bulls and their recent trade of Jimmy Butler for some prospects. I guess you could call them that. One of the fellows had his ACL blown out last year and another guy, point-guard Dunn, hasn’t lived up to expectations so I’m not too excited. So, I am finally fed up with the Chicago Bulls after many years. So, I am looking for a new basketball team. If you have any team that you want me to support, I would love to get your thoughts. In fact, I might even do some sort of live stream on which team I picked. Maybe some sort of process of elimination. Of course, there are some teams off the bat that I won’t be supporting. So, I just need some help picking a new one.


Alright, so, I think that does it for introductory things and so now I want to segue over into today’s show and basically, this is a topic that is something a lot of people debate. They think well, who’s smarter, Christians or atheists? Really, this is something that seems like scientific inquiry might be able to help us in exploring these matters. And so, now joining me now here on the show is Nick Byrd who is not a first-time guest but a second time guest on our program. Nick’s a Ph.D. candidate at Florida State University. He works in the social and moral reasoning lab and in the Philosophy Department. Nick, thanks for joining us on the show.


Interview with Nick Byrd on Which People Group is More Thoughtful: Atheists or Theists?


NICK: Thanks, Kurt. It’s good to be here.

KURT: And let me say, it’s good to have you back and again, I appreciate someone like yourself where you have these cross-disciplines where you’re looking at different fields of study and incorporating what you know and have learned from both of them to seek out the truth. So that’s some good stuff you’re doing.

NICK: Inaudible.
KURT: We’re getting into your research about this. And there has been some work done- some studies- correlation I guess, even causation between people’s thoughtfulness and their religious or dis-religious dispositions. Am I saying that correctly?

NICK: Yeah, that might be a fair way to put it. It’s probably best to start with the correlational stuff since that’s the most–

KURT: It’s easier to illustrate.

NICK: Yeah. It’s definitely easier. So there’s this question of differences between how people reason and there’s this other question in how theists reason as compared to atheists and agnostics. So that’s kind of what this research is about. There’s various ways to measure how people reason. Just to give you an example I’ll ask you a question. Here’s a question for you. A bat and a ball costs $1.10 total. The bat costs a dollar more than the ball, so how much does the ball cost?

KURT: Five cents.

NICK: Good. So that is the correct answer.

KURT: Cool.

NICK: The vast majority would say ten cents.

KURT: I see, because they think that the bat’s a dollar, therefore you’ve got ten cents leftover. But, that wasn’t your question. Your question was “If the bat costs a dollar more than the ball, how much is the ball worth?” Right?

NICK: Good, good. Yeah, so like I said the vast majority of people atheists or not-the vast majority of people answer that question as “ten cents” even though that’s demonstratively incorrect. People will report this with some confidence. But then there are some who answer the question correctly like you did with the answer “five cents.” There’s a whole bunch of these type of questions that have an intuitive answer that is demonstratively false. Based on how people respond to this question we can kind of get some kind of idea about how people reason and how some people may reason differently. And so it turns out that when you give these types of questions to people, theists tend to answer with “ten cents.” That’s the intuitively incorrect answer. Theists tend to give this answer more than atheists. And atheists tend to give the “five cents” which is the correct answer more often than theists. So the question, is what conclusions should we draw from this type of finding?

KURT: Sure, sure. And now, I don’t know if you’ve got the study-there are multiple studies I’m sure that illustrate this phenomenon, but how much–part of my curiosity gets interested-how much more frequently do theists answer incorrectly versus theists. So you said it happens more frequently-I mean, how much more of a rate are we talking about here?

NICK: Good, so the effect size is somewhere between .18 and .25, or something like that would be coincide, but that’s a technical term. One way to put it is that it’s roughly 18% more frequently.

KURT: Got it.

NICK: So it’s not like theists get all of these questions wrong and atheists get all of these questions right. It’s a probability difference so it’s not even that big, but it’s still statistically significant.

KURT: Sure.

NICK: It’s not entirely negligible. It’s good that you’re asking that kind of question to quantify the difference.

KURT: So we’ve got this study here. We in preparation for the show have used the term “theism” or “theists” specifically. Are these people from all different religious backgrounds: Hindus, Muslims, Jews, Christians, or is it just Christians?

NICK: That’s a really good question. So, there are a few different scales people use to figure out what type of religion some people associate with. In the most common studies, most studies describe a general belief in God and then maybe some questions about how confident you are. So there are some who will call themselves agnostics, but not atheists and things like that. So, in general, it’s just theism. It’s not necessarily Christianity as opposed to Buddhism as opposed to Judaism; it’s just a general theism.

KURT: Sure. And maybe where these studies happened and how they happened might determine if the majority of them are Christians. If the study is done in the American South versus if the study is done say in India that’s going to give you a different sort of religious background for the theists that are taking these surveys if you will.

NICK: Yeah, so that’s a really good point. So there’s a few different places where these studies tend to happen. Gordon Pennycook is a name that’s often heard in this research. And Gordon does research both with college students and as well as people online. And people online can be anywhere depending upon how you collect your sample. And Will Gervais is another person who does these studies and he does these studies in Kentucky. So that is the American South which you’ve mentioned. His samples of participants do- their responses are markedly different than other samples of questions. In the Kentucky samples, people tended to answer with the “ten cents” or the intuitively incorrect answer more often than these other samples. So that’s actually a fair point with some empirical support.

KURT: Yeah, that would just be another interesting thing to study the theists variety of answers. Say Christians maybe answer it more intuitively or just Christians in a certain region as well. I don’t want to get too far down the rabbit trail. So when we talk about thoughtfulness or being reflective How is this something we can measure when someone is reflective?

NICK: Good. So, I’ll just give you the simplest way. So I gave you that question and there was an intuitive answer or what may be referred to as an unreflective answer and then what may be referred to as a reflective answer. And so you can basically give people a series of questions and count up how many times they answered with a reflective response versus how many times they answered with an unreflective response. Then, you can give them a score. So, if they get two out three, reflective responses then that becomes a number you can plug into your statistical analysis to compare with other participants. That’s kind of one way of measuring. But three questions isn’t a very powerful measure so there have been further ways to measure which involve six, or twelve, or eighteen questions or more of this variety to give you a more robust measurement in reasoning. You’ll sometimes hear the phrase “analytical reasoning style” or “analytical reasoning questions” and these are the types of questions people are referring to and there’s a large quantity of them. So basically you give people a bunch of questions and you figure out how many of their answers are reflective and how many are intuitive and that number helps to inform your statistical analysis.

KURT: Are participants timed based on how long it takes them to answer a question? And part of the reason I’m asking is that I can imagine taking a test and sort of second guessing yourself and maybe after being reflective, you still end up putting the intuitive answer down.

NICK: Hmm, Yeah, I would imagine that some do measure the reaction time or answer time. There is some controversy in the field about how meaningful that is. Because some people are able to get to the correct answer rather quickly. It doesn’t seem as if there is a  one to one correlation between the amount of time it takes you to answer and how reflectively you answer. Some people are able to think very reflectively very quickly, but other people can’t. It might depend on how comfortable you are with math, for instance. But that’s a good question.

KURT: So let’s discuss the details of the findings. For instance, how many atheists typically take the test? What are the sample sizes? Are there many of these studies? Or just a few? What sort of efforts have been put out there?

NICK: Good, so there’s been this paper put out by Pennycook and colleagues. It’s called “Atheists and Agnostics are More Reflective Than Religious Believers.” This paper has four studies of its own and then it analyzes another thirty or so studies so that’s another thirty or so studies. So that’s thirty-five right there. So that’s a total of over 15,000 participants. That’s a pretty big sample size. On average these studies are few hundred people or something like that. Even those individual studies are pretty large. So the sample sizes are pretty good at the individual level and they’re very good at the meta-analysis level in this paper I mentioned.

KURT: So, help us out. What is a meta-analysis?

NICK: Good question. So in psychology there’s what’s called a study and that’s where you take say, two hundred people and then you ask them some questions and you collect some other data about them; that’s a study. Then you have a bunch of studies, say like, ten, and then you take all the data from all of those studies and then run an analysis on all ten of them at the same time to see if there are differences in patterns over multiple studies; that’s a meta-analysis. So a meta-analysis is basically analyzing multiple studies.

KURT: Right, right. Okay. Cool, cool. Alright, so that’s really neat that they can look at all of the studies on record that have been published then provide analysis on the findings there. So we see then this general trend. I’m sure in some studies, the studies vary from the findings but that the general trend is that atheists have-what you have here is-18-25% more probability of being reflective or thoughtful regarding these questions that theists. Is that right?

NICK: Yeah, that’s the general findings.

KURT: Now, before we continue. That’s not to say there aren’t smart theists. Right? This is just a general trend.

NICK: Of course not.

KURT: Just trying to make sure that’s clear.

NICK: That would definitely not be something you would want to take away from these findings. Because there are obviously the Alvin Plantingas, the Richard Swinburnes, and the Paul Copans, and many, many other scholars. Even in history like Elizabeth Anscombe. There have been very, very many smart theists.

KURT: And just to look at the other side of the coin, we may perhaps know atheists who are not very reflective. So, you can sort of get both sides of the spectrum there.

NICK: Totally. I don’t want to name names, but yeah, definitely.

KURT: Sometimes even the popular atheists like Richard Dawkins. Again, I don’t know where you personally stand on this, but sometimes with Richard Dawkins-you know, he’s a brilliant scientist, don’t get me wrong, but I find some of his philosophical statements to be subpar. And of course, Lawrence Krauss-

NICK: And many philosophers would agree.

KURT: And Laurence Krauss’ use of the word “nothing” is often a miscommunication with philosophers when philosophers use the word “nothing.” When Krauss talks about a universe from nothing. So yeah, there are maybe what we call “outliers” or is it more common than merely outliers? So let’s say are smart theists outliers from the trend? Is that accurate or not quite?

NICK: You know, that’s a good question. So I think this might depend on like, the culture and society you’re asking this to. So, in the U.S. for instance where most of this research is done, you know, Christianity is maybe the mainstream religion of the religious options. One way to say it is, Christianity is the most common version of theism in the U.S. If that’s kind of like the background and traditional assumption, then you might think it is the less reflective response in a sense. And all I mean by that is that it is most people’s default. And so if you may think if you went to a different place where atheism was more prominent and therefore the more default assumption then somehow, the finding would be switched. [Inaudible] So maybe then atheism would be associated with less reflective reasoning somehow. But again, this is all speculative. But there is a thought there that is worth testing.

KURT: So basically what you’re saying is in a scenario like there where the society is 80-90 percent atheist that the findings might be switched where theists happen to be the more reflective type. And that would be interesting because it’s not necessarily something about theism or atheism- the worldviews themselves which would have people be more reflective. Is that right?

NICK: Yeah, so that’s a good way to think of it. So we just kind of created a hypothesis about how it’s not necessarily being the views themselves that are reflective being reflective or nonreflective it’s some background feature of the society. So that’s one hypothesis of what’s going on here. You might think there is a different hypothesis though. There are a few hypotheses we could explore. I don’t know if those would be interesting.

KURT: Well, it seems like there are a lot of related ideas here to these findings. And we certainly do want to be careful about the conclusions we might draw you know, like how we’ve talked about how there can be smart theists, or reflective theists and intuitive atheists and not as thoughtful atheists. So that’s certainly something to continue the research upon. So getting back to the study or studies here, what does this tell us about theists or atheists? Is it able to tell us much of anything?

NICK: Good. So this might be where it’s good to consider some other hypotheses. So we’ve considered the hypothesis where it’s nothing about theism or atheism intrinsically that makes it more reflective or less reflective. So another hypothesis is this is that there is something about theism that may be less reflective or the other way to put it is that there is something about atheism that is more reflective. And that story may go something like this: look atheists and agnostics are just more skeptical. And they are even more skeptical about their own judgments and so when they’re answering questions about bats and balls, they’re a little less confident in their own response. They’re more likely to say, double check their own work, and realize they made an error and therefore, answer correctly. So, you might think there is something like that going on. Again that’s a testable hypothesis; it’s speculative. There isn’t a ton amount of evidence to whether that’s really what’s going on. But the idea is that there is maybe a difference in skepticism here. And that sounds totally plausible.

KURT: Well sure.

NICK: It might be something worth exploring in the research.

KURT: So even if it were illustrated that atheists are in general more skeptical, or even more thoughtful, that of course doesn’t leave anything to necessity that atheists are always more thoughtful because there are of course, even more thoughtful, skeptical theists. If there were a study to show more of the particular here, it just so happened that atheists as a group were more reflective. I mean, I don’t think I would even have so much beef with because it doesn’t say much to the worldviews themselves but more about the people. Is that a fair statement?

NICK: That’s a good distinction. Because you want a distinction between the view and the people who hold the view, right? It’s not clear that if the finding tells us something about the one, like the view, it doesn’t necessarily tell us something about the other, like the person. Or vice versa. It may not tell us anything about the view that person holds.

KURT: Whether we’re in the current scenario where most of the studies are done in the states or if these studies are done in the hypothetical society the level of skepticism from the people group whether the people group that is more thoughtful–atheists or if there are– theists it doesn’t say anything to whether or not atheism or theism is true. And that’s something that we just have to continue to investigate ourselves.

NICK: It’s not clear to me or it’s not obvious to me as to how someone would test empirically whether atheism or theism was true or false.

KURT: That is interesting though that we might find more skeptical people who are atheists, at least in America based on these studies. Because at least, as far as I know, I deal with a lot of thoughtful theists just in my field of work. So there’s a question. Is this basically all on self-identification? So basically anyone who considers themselves a theist they qualify as being a theist?

NICK: Good question. In a sense, yes. So there are some studies that employ a very simple questionnaire like: “Do you believe in God? Yes or no?” But most of the studies-like the vast majority of the studies are using multi question surveys about religion to determine one’s “religiosity” as well as to the degree in which they are confident about the existence of God and that’s how we can distinguish between agnosticism versus atheist and theists.

KURT: Right, because you could sort of have doubtful theists. Right? And those might be people you might want to weed out. There’s people who think there’s a God but maybe they’re not sure, those sorts of things. So in these studies then, do they sort of push to the opposite sides of the spectrum? Do we get the confident atheists and the confident theists or are we really looking at everyone here?

NICK: Yeah, that’s a good question. So in the paper that  I mentioned it includes four studies plus a meta analysis. It has a graph in it that I think may be answering the question you’re asking. And the graph shows a pretty clean trend line between confident theism to less confident theism some of them are less confident forms of theism like maybe say you believe in something but you don’t really participate with it in church at all, so you would consider yourself religiously unaffiliated even though you might believe in God. There’s strong theism and then there’s a less confident person and then there’s agnosticism and then there’s obviously atheism. And there seems to be a trend from less reflective to more reflective so there’s a pretty clean trend within this graph in this paper. This paper is really available to anyone who is interested in it. So yeah, I think there is a pretty clear trend from the one to the other in terms of confidence and God’s existence from very confident to confident against God’s existence.

KURT: But now, even still, I might think that confidence is not necessarily an indicator of reflectfulness either. Right?

NICK: Right. That’s why we would measure reflectfulness independently. It’s just that confidence correlates with measures of reflection.

KURT: Right, because I know plenty of people who are confident about things but they can be totally wrong.

NICK: Yeah, confidence is not a normative property necessarily. We’re just describing someone’s confidence; not whether they should be confident.

KURT: So we might have a scenario here where there may be not so confident atheists and not so confident theists who happen to be very reflective.

NICK: That’s true. So there will definitely be a class of people who will be in that way. The data suggests though that those would not be the most reflective people on average.

KURT: I know some theists who are very reflective, but their confidence level might not be through the roof. How do we judge confidence? One hundred percent confidence, sort of tautological? Or say 80% confidence? I would have to look into the studies to see what sort of level of confidence would qualify people to fit within those camps. Does that make sense?

NICK: Yeah, I think what you’re saying makes sense. If you were to imagine drawing a trend line from less reflective to more reflective, there’s just going to be tons of people next to that trend line and that represents what we say is the average, but then there will be these outliers. So there will be dots of people that are way more reflective than average. Then there may be dots that are way less than average. So at whatever stage, whether it’s theism or atheism or agnosticism, there’s going to be people who are very far from this average line but most of the people will be close to this average trend line.

KURT: Okay, Nick, well, we’ve got to take a break. But when we come back, I have more questions for you regarding the studies.

KURT: Alright, thank you for sticking it out with us during that short break with our sponsors. I’m here with Nick Byrd, and today we are discussing thoughtfulness. Who is more thoughtful: atheists or theists? Before we get into that, I have a giveaway here. It is “Good Faith: Being a Christian When Society Thinks You’re Irrelevant and Extreme” by David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons. It’s even signed by authors, compliments of Baker Books so if you want to win this book, all you have to do is this: just share the live stream video. All you have to do is click share, share it with your friends and you will be entered to win this book here. If you don’t have facebook then join the texting list. So if you want to join the texting plan, totally free (and as a note, I don’t bombard people at all, in fact, I don’t think I’ve used it in a couple of weeks). Just text the word “veracity” to the number (555)-278-7483.

So we’re talking about thoughtfulness here. There have been a number of studies just about thirty-five studies here with over about fifteen thousand participants, and the trend has discovered that atheists tend to be more reflective and thoughtful towards answering a number of questions, maybe even some mathematical. Nick, you were saying that maybe there were some other types of questions that weren’t mathematical. Is that right?

NICK: Yes, there were some logic questions as well that would give some premises and ask if the conclusions were true or not.

KURT: I love this stuff! Give me the test!

NICK: I’ll send you what I’ve got.

KURT: That would be great. That would be funny. Maybe I’ll post my results up on the website. Nick, I know you mentioned that article by Pennycook and others I guess, we’re going to get that up on the website as well. So if you’re a listener, and you’re interested in that, just go to VeracityHill.com and click on the episode for this week and we’ll have that posted. So thanks for sharing that with us, Nick. Alright so, what doesn’t the study or survey show us about the participants?

NICK: I think you did really well by pointing this out early on there’s a few things that clearly do not follow from this. One of these is the idea that theists are more stupid. That’s clearly just not true. Like you mentioned, there’s plenty of examples of very smart theists and perhaps less reflective atheists, or something like this. This is not a knockdown argument against theism in favor of atheism. It’s just an interesting difference in the way people reason when you compare two particular groups in a particular way. That’s probably the most you would want to draw from this. One comparison I do want to draw from this is that some find there are gender differences in the performance on these tests.

KURT: Interesting.

NICK: In some of these studies, men tend to answer more reflectively than women but we don’t necessarily tend to think that men are intrinsically or essentially more reflective. It might be some other thing going on. It’s just a difference in reasoning between two different groups. [Inaudible.]

KURT: Do some of the preliminary questions to weed out persons-do they take into consideration educational backgrounds a high school diploma, college experience, college degree, graduate level?

NICK: That’s a really good question. When people are running these studies, they’re also measuring: how comfortable are you with math? What level of education do you have? Things like this. It turns out that being more or less reflective doesn’t reduce down to how good you are at math or what level of education you have. It is independent of these things to some extent. And even the way in which reflectfulness relates to atheism, even that is independent from education. [Inaudible.]

KURT: Hmm, interesting. It seems like there’s a lot of further research that needs to be done. So how could further studies help to answer so me of these unanswered questions?

NICK: Good. So I think there are already some studies out there being done, but maybe I could toss out some ideas on what could be done if they have not already been done. So you guys were quick to pick up some questions about the cognitive reflective questions themselves and so in general, I think we should determine what’s going on when people answer these questions. So you might think that what’s going on with the question of the bat and the ball is that first people think the incorrect answer and then after thinking will realize their error and then correct their error. But then there are people like Kurt Jaros who get the question right off that bat. And so that’s an interesting difference that we should want to take the time to study there to see if it’s meaningful.

KURT: Or, as I previously mentioned, the second guessers. So maybe they’ve gotten the so called intuitive response and then they think about it, then think maybe they’re wrong then think, maybe I’ll go with the intuitive one. The second or third guessers- that would be interesting.

NICK: We could call them the double downers.

KURT: Oh, nice, I like it. Isn’t that a gambling reference?

NICK: I think it is, maybe poker.

KURT: Blackjack. I think it’s blackjack. Well, use that in your research when you publish more on this “the double downers.”

NICK: I’ll cite you on that.

KURT: Even though I’m a Ph.D. student myself studying theology, maybe you’ll beat me, and the first time I’ll be referenced in a published journal will be for that. Hilarious.

Okay, so what other sorts of things can we try to explore for this area?

NICK: Yeah, so here’s a really important one that I think could be overlooked especially if you’re an atheist and you look at studies like this and sort of walk away from this study in a self-congratulatory way saying, “Hey I am so much smarter than theists.” Here is one worry with these studies that is based on evidence we already have from Dan Kahan and the worry is this: there is some evidence that suggests the better you are at math and reasoning, the more polarized you are in certain beliefs. So it seems like there’s a degree to which people who are better at reasoning don’t necessarily use their better reasoning for good. They may use it to come to more extreme views or they may use it to argue their way out of counter-resonance. And so we might think being reflective might be good, but it’s not necessarily good. You can use your reflective capacities to argue for conclusions that maybe aren’t good conclusions.

KURT: Yeah, that is interesting. Another thing I was thinking about there when we were talking about how the smarter people are, the more polarizing they become. I’ve seen various numbers of articles shared online about scientists and how the smartest ones seem to be Christians or maybe theists in general. So I think that’s an interesting thing that some people might think about here as they might tend to think especially in our society where a sort of scientism (this idea where science is the only way to truth). They might tend to think, oh well scientists are the smartest people. But as you mentioned, there are other ways people can be smart. And even if they are smart, that doesn’t necessarily lead again to one’s position on the “isms” if you will.

NICK: Yeah, that’s a good point. This is certainly something that would be relevant to science.

KURT: So tell me- I want to get more personal here regarding your research. So tell me what you’re doing in this area. What sort of questions are you trying to answer from studying this?

NICK: Yeah, so I’m interested in how people reason, which is probably pretty obvious by now. I’m also interested in the differences between how people reason, probably also obvious. But I am in particular interested in how philosophers and scientists reason, sort of going back to what you just said. In my past research, I found that some of the differences that we find among the general public, like the recent stuff we’ve been talking about here differences with reflectiveness correlated to views on God, we also found this among people in academia so there seems to be the same difference. So the people who have PhDs in philosophy, the ones who are theists, tend to think unreflectively on these types of questions than the PhDs in philosophy who are atheists. So that’s a sign that there may really be something going on here.

KURT: When you do a study like that, you’re dealing with some smart people, people who have PhDs and in philosophy. These aren’t just you’re uneducated person- your blue class worker. That is interesting that the results would be similar. I would be interested to know the probability. Maybe the probability is lower though?

NICK: The probability is slightly smaller. I think last time I mentioned the effect size was from .18-.25 or 18%-25%. I think the effect size we’re looking at is smaller than that among the Ph.D.s in philosophy. It’s still statistically significant, but I think what you’re pointing out is that it’s smaller.

KURT: That’s surprising to me.

NICK: It was surprising to me too, to be honest, and I think it was surprising to my supervisors. I think they had this general thought that of course, you can find that thought in undergraduates. They answer questions strangely and have strange views, but you’re not going to find that in people who have been studying philosophy for “X” amount of years. Then it turns out, you do find some of the same differences among philosophers.

KURT: What other sorts of questions are you seeking to answer?

NICK: Related to these questions is just the idea of hey there’s differences in reflection based on what your views about God are, are there differences your other views, such as views that don’t have anything to do with your religion? And it turns out there are. So there are a lot of studies that show differences in reflection are related to how you think of moral problems.

KURT: Like whether the Chicago Bulls a team people should support because Gar Forman and John Paxson have no clue what they’re doing.

NICK: Yeah, I mean this is really important moral stuff here, right? We definitely need to get to the bottom of where do the reflective people lie on this Chicago Bulls issue? So take a moral dilemma. Some people might be familiar with the trolley problem. The idea that there is a trolly going down the tracks and-

KURT: Someone’s laying down and you can flip the switch-

NICK: Yeah, and if you flip the switch, it will instead of killing five people on the track, it would just kill one person. So the question is, do you flip the switch to kill the one person to save the five people? And it turns out how reflective you are correlates to how you answer this question. The general finding of that is the more reflective you are the more likely you are to answer utilitarianly which is to say the more likely you are to pull the switch to save the five and kill the one.

KURT: And I would want to say, “Why are there five people there in the first place?” Did someone tie them down? I know the trolley problems have a history of debate. Even if people are on social media or your facebook friend is someone who studied philosophy, these things get shared. I mean I’ve seen so many different things and people then put contemporary issues. I saw one recently, Nick, where the trolley problem went down to Friday then it went down off into Saturday. And if you flipped the switch, Rebeckah Black would start singing, “It’s Friday, Friday.”

NICK: Oh no. Anything but that.

KURT: So obviously people have taken the trolley problems and run with them.

NICK: It’s kind of cool to think that philosophy has a meme. It’s gone viral.

KURT: I’ll have to share some of them online. I definitely have one buddy who shares a lot of them. Getting back to the serious stuff though, so you find here that with moral reasoning that people tend to answer utilitarian you said and while I’m familiar with that term, tell us what does it mean to answer a question in a utilitarian way? And is that where you just save more person than the one in the problem of the trolley car problem, and what makes that utilitarian?

NICK: Good. These are really good questions. So in general, you might say that utilitarians believe something like the consequences are what justify an action. The consequences are what we should consider when we’re considering if something is right or wrong. You’re faced with the trolley problem and you want to ask about the consequences and the consequences to the trolley problem are one person dies or five people die. It might seem obvious. Well, killing one is better than killing five so I should do whatever I can do to kill one instead of five. That’s kind of what makes this response utilitarian.

KURT: But even still for the utilitarian response, it seems like there are still intuitive ideas. For instance, utilitarians might seek to do the greatest good for the most amount of people, but there’s still an intuitive question well, what is good? What is a good thing? What is responsibility? If the five people who are tied to the track–and you didn’t tie them down–are you responsible and to what degree? If you then allow them to die versus cognitively choosing to kill an innocent person. So it seems like there are still intuitive questions relevant to these moral reasoning problems.

NICK: Yeah this is really good. And I think what you’re saying reveals the way in which the word “intuition” is being used in two different senses. Some people have talked about the word “intuitive” as opposed to “reflective” and the contrast between reflective and intuitive. But then there’s this other sense of intuitive and that’s when we have strong, salient judgments about certain cases- like moral cases. Like for instance, we have the intuition that it is wrong to torture babies. And there’s nothing that is necessarily reflective or unreflective about that. It’s the idea that we have a strong feeling that something is right or wrong even though we don’t necessarily have an argument that that’s the case, we just feel rather strongly about it. But the other intuition we’re talking about here is having a lack of attention to your own reasoning. So it’s not necessarily that you have a strong feeling or an argument with a strong feeling it’s you just haven’t thought explicitly thought through every step of your own reasoning. That’s all that’s meant by “intuitive” in this other sense. And when we pull these two apart, I think we can see the principle differences in the way “intuitive” is being used in the trolley problem. You have this intuition about certain ethical things, on the one hand, and then we have this unreflective thought perhaps about the trolley problem. This unreflective thought is not the same as our intuition.

KURT: Right, so forgive me for miscommunicating. So I think-

NICK: You’re using the word in the way many people in the literature use the word. I’m maybe making a criticism towards the way it’s being used in literature.

KURT: It seems that there are still issues to explore on this and to say one side is utilitarian- I mean, I just have questions more about what all that entails. That’s all very interesting. Are there any other final, unanswered questions you’re seeking to explore?

NICK: Good. So there is this one finding that selfishly want to mention. And the finding is the following: in multiple papers, it’s been shown–and these are very large sample sizes–one sample size was around five hundred and the other sample size was like four thousand people. It’s been shown that the more training you have in philosophy, the more reflective you are. So this is a correlation, right? So we don’t want to draw to causal conclusions like philosophy causes me to become more reflective or anything like that. It’s just a correlation, but it’s an interesting correlation. It sounds in a way maybe unsurprising. But the thought is, maybe something like philosophy draws people to reflect, or maybe there is a causal factor that allows people to become more reflective. We would want to test that. But there is at least a correlation there.

KURT: Right, right. And of course, when you surveyed the PhDs in philosophy though, at least from what you previously mentioned, you still see those traditional results, albeit to a smaller degree, so that’s something to consider too. Someone like yourself and myself, we both studied philosophy so we are interested to explore these types of questions and you know, it’s not something a lot of people do and that’s part of the goal of our show here: to get people to think about things in a meaningful way and to learn even how to think meaningfully about things. Nick, you and I have pointed out here the difference between correlation and causation that’s something–especially for someone like yourself–that seems to be the criticism a lot in psychological studies- the correlation and causation distinction, am I right?

NICK:  Indeed, and I even find myself falling for it sometimes. I tend to assume a causal interpretation of events based on a correlation and so I have to check myself. But it’s a very common intuition to have.

KURT: I was going to say, it is a common intuition we can have. Maybe that’s because we’re looking to quickly confirm our own beliefs. We think that, well, of course that’s the case! Of course there’s a causal relationship! As we’ve talked about, it’s easier to prove a correlation; it’s harder to prove a causal relationship between two things. Well, Nick, what are some ways people can find out about this research? I can post some stuff on Veracity Hill, as much as you tell me to post, so, tell me.

I’ve got a short list for you. So if people really like books, especially books for the general public, there’s this book called, Thinking Fast But Slow and that’s by Daniel Kahneman. That’s just one of the best and most common books with these questions. There’s also a couple of researchers I mentioned, so Gordon Pennycook is a name to look up. Gordon Pennycook’s supervisor, by the way, was Valerie Thompson and Valerie Thompson is a very good researcher in this area. And then there are some other names I mentioned: Will Gervais and I think he’s in Kentucky. He does some research on this stuff. One more name is Ara Norenzayan. She does a lot of interesting research on this stuff. And I’ll just say, maybe selfishly, that I have a blog and I talk about my research sometimes. So if you want to go to the website, you can check that out. I’m also on Facebook and Twitter. I post about this stuff all the time in there. I’m also willing to chat and engage with this stuff on social media as well.

KURT: Nice, nice. So when are you looking to finish your Ph.D.?

NICK: So, I’ve got two years of funding left, so I better be done by then.

KURT: I hear you. I have about a year and a half left myself. And I better be done by then.

NICK: Indeed, we’re starting to feel that pressure.

KURT: I just commented to a buddy that it sort of felt like a cloud over my head. Before I let you go here, we’ve got a commenter online here, his name is Jonathan. And he writes, “Interesting about the effect size decreasing for philosophers. Justin and I backlogged our data and noticed our effect size actually went up for philosophers. Our estimate for the Spearman correlation for CRT3 and religiosity was around -.37 so 37% of restricting attention to people who are in philosophy. Thanks for your comment here, Jonathan. That is interesting that maybe it’s gone up. That’s all to say it seems like there is further work to be done so I want to encourage you guys to do that and to parse out these fine distinctions that need to be parsed out. Nick, thank you so much for coming on this show. It’s always a pleasure to chat with you and we’ll have to bring you out on the show again soon.

NICK: Likewise. And maybe we could talk about your dissertation. I would love to hear about it.

KURT: Sure. Yeah, I would be happy to do that.

NICK: Thanks, Kurt.

More Thoughtful: Atheists or Theists Closing

KURT: We’ll be in touch. Bye. So I hope that this has been a topic that has been interesting to you and if you’ve got questions, there are a number of ways to get in touch with me or with Nick as well. If you want to go to Nick’s website, it is ByrdNick.com. One last thing, let me say this. In two week’s time, it will be our one year anniversary with episode 52. We’ve been coming to you week after week. For that show, I will be doing an “Ask Me Anything.” I guess those often happen on Reddit. But you can ask me anything now or a couple of weeks from now, so I’m soliciting your questions to have anything you’re curious about, I would be happy to talk about it. So go ahead and submit those to me at kurt@veracityhill.com. Or, you could leave us a message. The number is 505-2-STRIVE.


So, that does it for the show today. I’m continually thankful for the support of our patrons. Our patrons are those who just chip in a couple of bucks a month to help the program run. I would love for you to give us your support. You know, five ten dollars a month. Just go to VeracityHill.com and go to “Patron.” If at this present time, however, you’re not able to help us out, let me ask you this. Maybe you can give us a review on iTunes or the Google Play Store for this podcast. Just tell people what you think and share it on social media. You can also find us there (Veracity Hill) on Twitter and on Facebook as well and share about what we’re doing here. It’s just a good opportunity to share about what we’re doing here on topics pertaining to one’s worldview.


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