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Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc

by Hans Bluedorn

The Origins of God

Under the headline "Tracing the Synapses of Spirituality," the Washington Post (June 17, 2001) reports that scientists think they have found the origins of God Himself. . . our brain.

"The work is part of a broad new effort by scientists around the world to better understand religious experiences, measure them, and even produce them. Using powerful brain imaging technology, researchers are exploring what mystics call nirvana, and what Christians describe as a state of grace. Scientists are asking whether spirituality can be explained in terms of neural networks, neurotransmitters and brain chemistry. . .

". . . Why do so many people have a profound sense that religion has changed their lives? Perhaps because spiritual practices activate the temporal lobe, which weights experiences with personal significance."

Their evidence went like this:

"[Andrew] Newberg's [a Philadelphia scientist who authored the book "Why God Won't Go Away"] experiment consisted of taking brain scans of Tibetan Buddhist meditators as they sat immersed in contemplation. . . . Newberg found that certain areas of the brain were altered during deep meditation. Predictably, these included areas in the front of the brain that are involved in concentration. . . .

". . . Michael Persinger, a professor of neuroscience at Laurentian University in Sudbury, Ontario, has been conducting experiments that fit a set of magnets to a helmet-like device. Persinger runs what amounts to a weak electromagnetic signal around the skulls of volunteers."

"Four in five people," he said, "report a 'mystical experience, the feeling that there is a sentient being or entity standing behind or near' them. Some weep, some feel God has touched them, others become frightened and talk of demons and evil spirits."

From this evidence, some scientists concluded that, since belief in a god commonly follows these kinds of mystical experiences, the causes of these kinds of experiences are the causes of man's tendency to believe in a god.

"[Persinger says that] His research . . . showed that 'religion is a property of the brain, only the brain and has little to do with what's out there.'

"'. . .The brain is set up in such a way as to have spiritual experiences and religious experiences,' said Andrew Newberg. . . . Unless there is a fundamental change in the brain, religion and spirituality will be here for a long time. The brain is predisposed to having those experiences and that is why so many people believe in God.'"

So, if I understand these scientists correctly, their argument goes something like this:

Premise 1: Jiggling the whatchamacallit in people's brains (in this case activating the temporal lobe) causes them to have strange experiences.

Premise 2: People having strange experiences also experienced a jiggled whatchamacallit.

Premise 3: Often, people who have strange experiences also believe in a god.

Conclusion: The cause for man's tendency to believe in a god is just the jiggling of the whatchamacallits in our heads. God is the product of our brains.

I am leaving out one important premise in their argument – of which, I will keep you in tense ignorance, until later.

To explain to you the fallacy in this reasoning, consider the fictional character, Floyd:

Floyd was poor country boy, but he wanted to be a rich man. He spent much of his time trying to figure out what made people rich. He drove through rich neighborhoods, visited rich relatives, read books by rich authors, and watched "Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" over and over, seeking for a clue to what makes people rich.

Then, one day he put it all together. Eureka!

Every rich man he knew wore a silk tie. Everybody in the rich neighborhoods wore a silk tie when they went off to work, his rich uncle wore a silk tie to all those fancy parties, all the backflaps of those rich authors' books sported a picture of them with a silk tie, even Regis Philbin wore a silk tie. "This must be it," he said as he went off to Macy's to make his purchase.

While we all know that Floyd is in for a disappointment, what went wrong with his reasoning?

When he noticed that silk ties and rich men often were seen together in the same place, he mistakenly jumped to the conclusion that one must have caused the other. Unfortunately for Floyd, he is no closer to his goal.

Just because every rich person has a silk tie, does not mean that the silk tie causes them to be rich. It would also be wrong to conclude that being rich causes people to buy silk ties – it may allow them to, but it doesn't cause them to.

Floyd's fallacy is the fallacy of "post hoc ergo propter hoc." This means in Latin "after this, therefore because of this." Some people call it the "false cause" fallacy. This is the assumption that if one thing happened before, or at the same time as, another thing it must have caused the other. An observance that two things are commonly associated with each other is thus distorted into an assumption that one caused the other.

This fallacy also pops up when prestigious colleges conduct studies that seem to show that graduates of their particular college make more money after school than graduates of other colleges. This is also fallacious because the majority of people who go to these prestigious colleges already come from wealthy families, so their chance of success is boosted by their parent's success, not their success in college–the wealth was actually causing the college, not the college causing the wealth.

With the fallacy of post hoc ergo propter hoc, the two events which are thought to be connected are often both the effect of some other overlooked cause. This, I believe, is the case with our main example.

These scientists who think they have found the origins of God are correctly observing that religious people are often prone to "mystical experiences." And they correctly observe that certain brain patterns cause, and are present when, mystical experiences occur in someone's brain.

However, these scientist have a mind blockage. They cannot allow for the possibility that God exists. Thus, they are not able to consider the possibility that there is a God that is powerful enough to cause changes in brain chemistry, mystical experiences, and–ultimately–belief in Him.

This leaves them speculating that these three things–changes in brain chemistry, mystical experiences, and man's tendency to believe in God– are a chain of cause and effect relationships, with disrupted brain patterns leading the way.

How do we deal with this fallacious reasoning?

As I hinted at before, the atheistic scientists in this study are not trying to prove that God does not exist; they ASSUME that God does not exist before they even start. This is called "presuppositional bias," because they presuppose something that isn't true, so their further conclusions are biased.

Instead, they are trying to find out where what they assume to be the mistaken belief in God came from. If that belief cannot come from the reality of God, because there is no God (they believe), then it must come from our own heads, or from electromagnetic disturbances.

So we could add another premise to these scientists' argument. Premise four: God does not exist.

That is their belief–a belief that forces them to commit the fallacy of post hoc ergo proper hoc.


I found this fallacy in the funny papers:

"I was reading about how countless species are being pushed toward extinction by man's destruction of forests..............Sometimes I think the surest sign that intelligent life exists elsewhere in the universe is that none of it has tried to contact us." – Calvin and Hobbes.

What is the fallacy committed here? Below I list several fallacies to get you started. Tell me which one you think it is, along with your reasons.

* Hasty Generalization: Generalizing about something without enough of a sample:

Ex: All Fords are bad. I once owned a Ford and it was junk.

Ex. I don't think anybody lives in North Dakota. Everybody I ever talked to who was from there doesn't live there anymore.

* Appeal to Ignorance: Saying something is true because it hasn't yet been proven false:

Ex: You can't prove you didn't steal that car, so you must be guilty.

Ex: I've never heard one good argument against the death penalty, so it must be a good idea.

* Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc: arguing that something happened "after this, therefore it happened because of this":

Ex: My brother sucked on his thumb until he was ten years old, and now he is a serial killer. Never let your kids suck on their thumbs!

Ex: Attend XYZ college. Studies show that XYZ graduates make more money than graduates from other colleges.

* Argumentum Ad Baculum: arguing from the fear of force. Trying to get you to agree merely out of fear that bad stuff would happen if you didn't.

Ex: If you don't agree with me, you'll be sorry.

Ex: If you don't convict this murderer, you may be his next victim.

* None of the above.


I'm looking forward to hearing what you think.

Till next time,

Copyright July 19, 2001, all rights reserved. 8393 views

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