Back before Christmas I wrote about confirmation bias, the concept that people tend to look for evidence to support their beliefs instead of evidence to disprove them. I discovered it in the book The Black Swan where it was presented in a negative light, something which hindered people from arriving at truth.
And to some degree I believe it is that. I brought up the examples of Global Warming, evolution, and someone trying to sell a machine that was said to detect and cure ills via quantum mechanics and cell phones, all of which rely on confirmation bias for their “proof.”
We also see it in matters of faith. Members of cults who see events working out to their liking claim that God is behind them, thereby endorsing their beliefs. Muslims are sure that God is working in their attacks upon the Jews and no doubt there are many other religions who look at external events and see the hand of their deity at work. Indeed, the whole point of sacrificing to various gods was to bring about a desired outcome; if the outcome occurred, the sacrifice was good enough, if it didn’t, the sacrifice was lacking. And, of course,Christians use confirmation bias, too, as I illustrated from the example of the young man who derived confirmation of his belief in God’s guidance from a series of numbers on a boxcar.
But just because events seem to confirm a belief does that make it so? Are we to abandon confirmation in external events in our faith lives? Or should we go about looking only for things that might disprove our faith as the author of The Black Swan seems to advise?
Looking for things that sow doubt does not line up with what the word of God has to say, and in the end, that is the key. The only thing, the only real source of confirmation is the word of God, never experience or external events. I’m not saying that God doesn’t use external events to guide us, only that all experience must be filtered through the standard of God’s word. If it doesn’t line up with what scripture teaches, it’s not valid.
Of course, if you don’t know what Scripture teaches, you’re going to have a hard time discerning what’s valid and what isn’t. We live in a world of lies administrated by the father of lies, Satan himself. He is a master of deception and we are charged with acquainting ourselves with his schemes (2 Co 2:11). We have a sin nature that deceives us constantly. We are human, with limitations to our senses. We don’t always perceive what’s actually going on.
I remember one time my family and I passed a vehicle at the side of the road. A woman was standing near it. After we had passed it we got into conversation and discovered that each of the adults in our car — me, Stu, my mother and my sister — had a different memory of what we had seen. Some thought the vehicle was a pickup truck, others an SUV. Some thought it was perpendicular to the road we traveled on, others thought it was parallel. We even disagreed on what the woman was wearing: what it black shorts and white top, or white top and black shorts? Or was it not even black and white but colors?
I no longer recall what the actual case was, but it would have been a sorry display had we four been called upon to testify before a court of law! Though perhaps if it had been a more important incident we would have paid better attention and remembered more. The point is, our memories aren’t always accurate. Especially if emotion is involved. Which feeds into another principle delineated in The Black Swan — that experiments have shown that each time we recall a particular event from our past we change it slightly, until years later it’s not at all like what it was originally.
All of which goes back to the fact that it’s the word of God that must be the standard for discernment not someone’s experience. Experience can support the word, but if there’s a conflict, experience has to go. And if the word of God is to be our standard, well, that makes one more reason why we must know it backwards and forwards and be we are handling it accurately.