Agnostic heuristic

Dogma served a purpose. When people were not able to understand why things got cold in the winter, it helped to believe that God demanded they stock up in fall.

When groups of people are unable to reach the right decision rationally, it is better for that group if they reach the right decision for the wrong reason. That is where dogma fits in. It is the wrong reason which has sometime guided people toward the right outcome.

The tenets of Kosher led to a safer diet for an ancient person. This wasn’t because God approved of that diet, it was because those specific dogmatic rules happened to make for a safer diet.

Then, over time, some rules stick around while others don’t. Maybe that’s because people eating Kosher lived longer, or maybe it’s because Jewish leaders recognized the success and placed more emphasis on it. Maybe it’s for some completely different reason.

When people didn’t know the first thing about nutrition or safe food storage, a rule like Kosher made sense. Followers didn’t need to know why they had to eat food butchered in a certain way. It is easier to understand that God told you so than to understand that poultry must reach a minimum temperature of 165F to kill bacteria, etc.

Dogma can be likened to a set of training wheels. A youngster riding a bike for the first time can learn many of the basics with a set of training wheels. These wheels limit the set of variables to be contended with. But after a point, the child is best served by dropping the training wheels and dealing with the full set of variables.

Otherwise the child with never know what the options are. The child will never see what a bicycle’s true potential is. Also, the child will never be able to turn as quickly as someone without training wheels. Not only will the experience be diminished, but so too will be the performance.

Dogma might have helped people with no scientific understanding eat healthier, but in 2016 America it does more harm than good.

Christian dogma causes many Americans to disapprove of homosexual relationships. Perhaps society was better served at some point in history by keeping homosexuals in the shadows, perhaps it was not.

In today’s world we have an evolved scientific and cultural knowledge base which lets us see how homosexuals are vital members of our community. We are not well served by the admonition against gays in public life and are actually hurt by it.

There are numerous scientific explanations driving at why we see homosexuality in humans and what function it serves to society. As such, we no longer need broadly defined explanations from God.

But what if you don’t believe any of those explanations, or if you’ve simply never looked into it?

Wouldn’t dogma fill a gap in your understanding then?

Not in a way we’d want it to. In the modern world dogma is a less effective tool than the agnostic heuristic.

The agnostic heuristic dictates that if you don’t know something, you should take the stance that you don’t know. A person’s life is shockingly complex today and no individual could understand every aspect of it. In fact, it is hard to know anything for certain beyond some variant of “cogito ergo sum.” (cogito ergo est,…)

The rational thing to do is accept that we don’t know anything for sure. It is rational to accept that most or all of the decisions we make are guesses with varying degrees of certainty.

That doesn’t mean we have to question all of our other heuristics. When I cross the street, I assume the green light means other traffic has a red. It is possible that the streetlights glitched out, and gave everyone a green, but that likelihood is so low that I have deemed it not worth considering.

That “green light heuristic” is one crafted out of logic and experience, rather than dogma. Still, I don’t hold it in my heart of hearts with absolute certainty. This is just a guess. A guess that makes sense based on all the variables I have been able to consider, but an uncertainty nonetheless.

This agnostic heuristic works so well in our society because so much of the decision-making has been outsourced. For example, following the tenets of Kosher today will have less of an impact on your health than it would have in ancient times. There are strict laws governing food safety. If you go to a restaurant and they serve you unsafe food, that is because they broke the law.

Because restaurants don’t want to pay fines, most comply with the law. This creates an environment where a consumer would have a hard time eating himself sick if he tried. This is an environment where Kosher offers far fewer advantages.

An old-thyme traffic intersection might have taken some focus and gamesmanship to make it safely through, but today the green lights are incredibly effective. We can outsource whatever part of our brains handle intersections to the green lights.

And it’s not just that we can outsource more knowledge today, it’s that we have to. There are way too many decisions to make today to independently research ourselves. We can’t do our own experiments to determine which laundry detergent works best; we look up reviews. We can’t test the ins and outs of a ketogenic diet ourselves; we look at scientific articles.

Most importantly, we can never accept any of these guesses as certain fact. X brand of laundry detergent may seem best based on reviews, but one must always consider new facts. Perhaps a news article exposes that the review you read was paid for.

That is the defining feature of the agnostic heuristic. Since we don’t believe the rule with certainty, we are open to changing it when new data comes in. Dogma would have dictated we stay with X brand laundry detergent because God told us to, despite the news article.

The world is too big and complicated for any of us to know anything for sure.

If we all accept that we don’t know much and are just trying to make our way through life, there will be a lot less blowing people up for not agreeing with our facts.

And a lot less harm caused by PC dogma.