Friday, August 23, 2013

Cognitive Dissonance: Belief vs. Experience

I was a faithful Christian for the first 20 or so years of my life. I mean a fully indoctrinated, Bible-thumping, Jesus-loving, nightly-praying, church-going believer of The Word. I accepted Jesus Christ as my personal Lord and Savior, went to church regularly (even after I was old enough to stay home if I wanted), and even played bass in the praise band during my church's hip contemporary service. I know what it's like to be a believer, I know how most Christians acquire the beliefs that they hold, and, most importantly, I know what it's like to live in a world where those beliefs are constantly being called into question, or as Christians might say, tested.

I got the idea for this blog entry from watching a YouTube video made by a British fellow who goes by TheraminTrees. This video is actually the second in a series about his transition from faith-based beliefs to atheism, and his explanation in this second part is simply a perfect illustration of the effects of having beliefs that are inconsistent with our life experiences.

The phenomenon I'd like to talk about is one that is inherent in any faith-based belief system, and one that every Christian (and Muslim, and Jew) experiences and has to find creative ways to deal with. That phenomenon is something I'll call cognitive dissonance.

That sounds like a fancy phrase, but it simply comes down to this: we all have a set of beliefs, values, and assumptions about the world in which we live, many of which we acquire directly from our parents during our formative years as children. We all also live in a world which is constantly bombarding us with sensory data and experiences. We try to interpret all of these experiences through the lens of our beliefs. Sometimes the two are easily compatible, and there is congruence - our beliefs and our actual experiences coincide harmoniously. Sometimes our beliefs and experiences, however, seem to be at odds with each other, and this produces a problem, which I'm calling cognitive dissonance. Picture it this way:

As you can see, when our beliefs about the world and experiences of the world coincide, there is congruence. When they don't, there is dissonance. Congruence makes us feel comfortable and confident in our beliefs; dissonance makes us feel uncomfortable and uneasy about them.

I'll recount an example when I can clearly recall experiencing this sort of cognitive dissonance. When I was in high school, I took an elective course in Philosophy. One day we were talking about the origins of life on Earth. The various theories were laid out, most specifically creationism/intelligent design and evolution. (The theory of evolution does not actually seek to explain the origin of the first life form, a phenomenon known as abiogenesis, but let's just pretend like we're dealing with apples to apples here.) As a Christian, my belief was that God had something to do with the creation of life on Earth. In the theory of evolution, there is no mention of God whatsoever; the theory works without any such supposition. Looking at the evidence for evolution, however, produced a problem for me: the explanatory power of the theory was overwhelming and undeniable. I simply could not reject the theory outright, even though it did not align with my beliefs. This troubled me greatly, until I heard about a third option, namely special creation. This hybrid theory states that evolution occurred, but God intervened at several key points in order to ensure its success. I immediately latched onto this theory and, for a period of time, accepted this as my belief for the explanation of life on Earth.
In order to correct the dissonance between my belief and my experience, I needed to distort the theory. There was no compelling evidential reason for me to insert God. I was beginning with the assumption that God simply had to be in there somewhere, and so I distorted my beliefs until I could square them with my experiences. This is one way that believers can reconcile dissonance and try to make their beliefs and experiences congruent. The problem is that, just as in my example, this process invariably produces garbled nonsense. In the end, my conclusion was an incoherent bastardization of two different theories, but crucially, it alleviated my cognitive dissonance about the matter at the time.

A more salient example that many Christians are facing right now is the issue of homosexuality. Among younger people especially, this seems to be extremely important - I know people who have decided to attend different churches based solely on this one issue. In this case, the cognitive dissonance arises between the Christian belief that homosexuality is a sin and the increasing acceptance of homosexuality by our culture. Many people who have close friends or family members who are gay find it difficult to condemn these people to hell for eternity as vile sinners.

There is a serious lack of congruence here between belief and experience, and there are many ways in which believers try to force a reconciliation. All attempts to do this require either distortion of belief or denial of experience. The believer has to convince himself that the scriptures must be interpreted in a different way; the translations are wrong, the verses apocryphal, the cultures incomparable, et cetera. The believer desperately wants to find a way to harmonize his sensibilities with his preconceived beliefs, and it is particularly difficult on this issue.

Christianity has some very serious dissonance built into it from the onset, in the form of obvious contradictions. Two examples that come to mind easily are the Garden of Eden story and the entire concept of prayer. Any amount of serious critical thought about these two things will reveal some serious cognitive dissonance, as I will attempt to illustrate.

The Garden of Eden story in Genesis is ridiculous for many reasons, but even if we dismiss it as entirely metaphorical and not descriptive of any actual event, it still has bigger problems. (Mind you, there's no textual justification for dismissing it as a metaphor - the Bible never suggests that the story is anything but literal truth.) We all know the story: God creates Adam and Eve and two magical trees, the tree of knowledge and the tree of life. God tells Adam not to eat from the tree of knowledge. A wily snake slithers up and tells Eve that God is lying, so she eats from the forbidden tree and gives some to Adam too, so they've both made a mess of it. Yadda yadda yadda, original sin.

The contradiction comes in God's reaction to this incident. By his very nature, God is said to be omniscient. He knows all that ever was, is, and will be. If that is the case, then God should never be surprised or react with any emotion to anything that ever happens, because he already knows exactly what will happen. This makes it absurd that God would ever be angry for anything that anyone ever does or doesn't do. If God is omniscient, then he knew that Adam and Eve would eat from the forbidden tree and be cursed forever. This story is supposed to explain original sin, but it actually implicates God as the originator of sin. God knew what would happen; he set Adam up to fail. The God we read about in the Bible does not react as if he is omniscient. The believer must try to square this massive inconsistency of experience with his beliefs in order to produce congruence.

Prayer is another head-scratcher of a contradiction. This is perhaps the most resonant source of cognitive dissonance among believers, because everyone has experienced a so-called "unanswered prayer." The process by which believers reconcile this troubling experience with their belief is by invoking "God's will." If anything happens, it is because God willed it to happen, and if we cannot understand the reasons, this is simply because we cannot understand God. Invoking "God's will" is a tacit admission that God does not listen to or answer prayers. He's going to do whatever he wants to do anyway, whether you pray about it or not. And remember, since he's omniscient, he already knows what you want. There's nothing you can tell him that he doesn't already know, including the fact that you don't want your grandmother to die from cancer. Praying is one of the most futile, contradictory, arrogant, misguided acts imaginable, and believers all but admit this themselves. One can make giant leaps towards congruence of belief and experience by simply disavowing the idea of a God who answers prayers; by our very experiences we know this to be simply false. Prolonging this clash between reality and unfounded belief only invites unnecessary suffering on oneself.

The problem with faith-based belief is that it demands that we reject our experiences. Instead, people are raised to believe completely arbitrary and unsupported claims like God is perfectly good. We have to dismiss our own experiences, which tell us that any God who offers eternal punishment for a transgression is unjust and cannot be good. No crime, however severe, could ever possibly justify an eternal punishment. One can only reconcile those conflicting statements by distrusting and rejecting one's own intuition. This is profoundly unhealthy behavior.

In the video above, TheraminTrees talks about atheism as a congruence. When you don't begin with a set of beliefs which you did not arrive at through evaluation of your experiences, congruence occurs naturally and much more frequently. There is no struggle to contort your experiences into a rigid predetermined framework. Atheism is not a rejection of God, it is an admission that there is no evidence for God. This is the only logical framework that promotes harmony between belief and experience. Believing things on no evidence, and rejecting evidence which does not fit with beliefs, is a recipe for constant struggle to reconcile belief with the real world, and for the believer, it must be exhausting.

If you believe things on faith, ask yourself why you have these beliefs. You will discover that you don't actually have faith in Christ. You've never met Christ. You have faith in other people who have never met Christ but have told you about Christ. You have faith in The Bible, which was written by people, none of whom knew Christ. This is no way to form beliefs about the world, as it leads to dissonance. Base your beliefs on your experiences, and you'll be stunned how quickly everything falls into harmony and makes sense. I've found that it's much easier to sleep at night as an atheist than as a Christian.

Friday, August 9, 2013

So, How's My Hungarian Coming?

I've been living in Budapest, Hungary for almost five months now. I'm a bit of a language fanatic with a solid background in linguistics and an above-average understanding of syntax and morphology. So, many friends back home casually ask me how my Hungarian is coming. Well... it isn't.

Why not? How can you live somewhere for months and not be able to speak the language, at least a little bit? Ok, depending on what you mean by a little bit, I can. Certainly more than you can, unless you're a Hungarian reading this, but not enough to matter. I still don't understand 98% of what I read or hear all around me. There are, however, good reasons for this, and they're not all entirely my fault.

First of all, I work for a language school, and I teach English. This means I'm surrounded by people who either speak English quite well already or are trying to learn to speak English better. Consequently, much of my communication with other Hungarians is, by necessity, in English. Secondly, a fairly large number of people in Budapest speak English. While it's certainly not safe to assume that, for example, the clerks behind the counter at the T-Mobile store will speak English, the odds are better than 50-50 that they will, at least well enough to answer any questions. It's not uncommon for someone to say something to me in Hungarian, note my blank stare, and then repeat in perfect English.

The single most important factor limiting my acquisition of Hungarian is, well... Hungarian. It's a bitch of a whore of a bugger of a language. It's not the sort of thing you pick up casually. I've actually met expats who have been living in Budapest for several years and still neither comprehend nor speak the language with any real proficiency. I'd like to try to point out to all of you exactly how ridiculous of a language it is, if I can, based solely on what I've already learned so far.

First of all, as I've mentioned in another blog post, second language acquisition difficulty is relative, based largely on the similarities of the new language to one's native language. If you already speak a language which behaves like, or shares some common ancestry with Hungarian, then it won't be such an impossible task. Hungarian is a member of the Finno-Ugric branch of the Uralic language family. It's the Ugric part. The Finno part is, as perhaps you've guessed, Finnish. The only other language with any appreciable number of speakers in this family besides Hungarian and Finnish is Estonian. Taken all together, there are about 25 million native speakers of Finno-Ugric languages in the entire world. For comparison, there 38 million people living in the US state of Texas.

Hungary is bordered by seven countries: Slovakia, Slovenia, Ukraine, Romania, Serbia, Austria, and Croatia. None of these countries speaks a language related to Hungarian. In fact, every single one of them speaks a language from the Indo-European family, of which English is a part. This means I could move a few hundred miles in any direction and instantly make my life simpler.

So, how is Hungarian different from English? Well... maybe it would just be easier to list the ways in which it's similar to English:

1. Hungarian uses the Roman alphabet (mercifully).
2. In Hungarian, adjectives generally come before the nouns they modify, not after.
3. Hungarian nouns don't have gender (mercifully).

That's pretty much it. Hungarian has no common ancestry with English whatsoever, so the roots of basically every word imaginable are completely different. Take, for example, the words for the numbers 1-10 in Hungarian and some neighboring tongues:

English Hungarian Serbian Romanian
one egy jedan una
two kettő dva doi
three három tri trei
four négy pet patru
five öt četiri cinci
six hat šest şase
seven hét sedam şapte
eight nyolc osam opt
nine kilenc devet nouă
ten tíz deset zece

Even if you don't know anything about Romanian or Serbian, I think that if you were shown this list of words, you would surmise that you're looking at 1 to 10. If you were shown the Hungarian, you'd perhaps surmise that someone had pounded his head on a keyboard ten times.

Then there's the inherent difficulty in pronunciation. Hungarian has several sounds which we in English simply do not, both vowels and consonants. Not only are there rounded vowels (the ones with the dots), but they also occur in long and short versions (ö/ü, ő/ű), AND there are minimal word pairs in which the only difference is the length: compare öt "five" and őt "him/her."

The Hungarian alphabet has 44 (not a typo) letters, including many digraphs (two letters that count as one) and one trigraph (dzs). My least favorite Hungarian letter is gy. I dislike it for two reasons. First, it's not a sound I can make with my stubborn Anglican mouth. (To give you a vague approximation of how it sounds, imagine a British person saying during, where they kind of put a y in it - dyuring - and this gy sound is the dy part of that word.) Secondly, this stupid letter IS EVERYWHERE. As you have already seen, it's in the word for one, which also doubles as the indefinite article (a/an). It's also found extensively in forms of the verb to be, and in extremely common words like big, or, and how (nagy, vagy, hogy). It's difficult to say almost anything without needing to make this cursed sound come out of one's face.

In English, we really like prepositions. We say things like "I'll see you at the game after lunch with Bob." Hungarians do not like prepositions. Instead, they just like to have one word with the preposition part stuck onto the end, for example: iskola, "school" iskolaban "at school." This wouldn't be so terrible, except that it's not that simple. For you see, Hungarian displays a relatively rare linguistic feature known as vowel harmony. This basically means that they really only like their words to have one kind of vowel in them, either back vowels (a, u, o) or front vowels (e, i, ö, ü). Mixing them up in the same word is not ok. So, iskolaban, "at school," but étteremben, "at (a) restaurant."

Here's my favorite (by which I mean absolute least favorite) head-scratching bit of Hungarian grammar so far: the language distinguishes between sentences which are "definite" and "indefinite" with respect to the direct object of the sentence, if there is one. That is to say that Hungarian finds the statements "I see a house" and "I see the house" (in which the latter refers to a specific house and the former does not) to be different in a significant way, and this difference must be noted by a change in the grammar of the language. The unfortunate task of marking the distinction falls to the verb, and as such, all (transitive) Hungarian verbs have two conjugations: definite and indefinite. Quite annoyingly, Hungarians are generally not aware that they do this, nor are they able to explain it when confronted with the awkward reality that the verb "I see" in the aforementioned sentences is different: Látok egy házat, "I see a house." Látom a házat, "I see the house." This difference between definite and indefinite persists throughout the entire conjugation of the Hungarian verb.

My real gripe with this odd distinction is that it is totally meaningless and serves no ostensible purpose other than to complicate the language needlessly. To speak incorrectly and say Látok a házat will certainly betray your non-native proficiency, but in reality there is no lost information, no difference in actual meaning. It's simply that the language wants látom there, not látok, for reasons which are beyond my comprehension. [If a scholar of Hungarian has an explanation for this otherwise baffling grammatical anomaly, please do comment below.]

Although my understanding of the language is still quite rudimentary, I nevertheless could cite several more examples demonstrating the utter chaos which is the Hungarian language. Every time I open my Hungarian grammar book, I'm immediately greeted with a new reason to close it. Still, it is quite an extraordinary way of communicating, and to me nothing short of a miracle that Hungary has held on to this unique language for so long. It would certainly be a shame if we ever lost it.

If you're curious as to what Hungarian sounds like, here's a random news broadcast. What do you think? To me it's sort of a mix of German and Slavic languages, although at the same time sounding distinctly like neither. It's definitely unique. So, how's my Hungarian coming? Not well, but I swear it's not my fault!