Tag Archives: Religion

My Kind of Atheist

I think I’ve mentioned somewhere in public that I’m now an atheist, even though I grew up in a very Christian family, and I even joined a “cult” at a young age (against disapproving parents). The proximate cause of my atheism was learning physics in college. But I don’t think I’ve ever clarified in public what kind of an “atheist” or “agnostic” I am. So here goes.

The universe is vast and most of it is very far away in space and time, making our knowledge of those distant parts very thin. So it isn’t at all crazy to think that very powerful beings exist somewhere far away out there, or far before us or after us in time. In fact, many of us hope that we now can give rise to such powerful beings in the distant future. If those powerful beings count as “gods”, then I’m certainly open to the idea that such gods exist somewhere in space-time.

It also isn’t crazy to imagine powerful beings that are “closer” in space and time, but far away in causal connection. They could be in parallel “planes”, in other dimensions, or in “dark” matter that doesn’t interact much with our matter. Or they might perhaps have little interest in influencing or interacting with our sort of things. Or they might just “like to watch.”

But to most religious people, a key emotional appeal of religion is the idea that gods often “answer” prayer by intervening in their world. Sometimes intervening in their head to make them feel different, but also sometimes responding to prayers about their test tomorrow, their friend’s marriage, or their aunt’s hemorrhoids. It is these sort of prayer-answering “gods” in which I just can’t believe. Not that I’m absolutely sure they don’t exist, but I’m sure enough that the term “atheist” fits much better than the term “agnostic.”

These sort of gods supposedly intervene in our world millions of times daily to respond positively to particular prayers, and yet they do not noticeably intervene in world affairs. Not only can we find no physical trace of any machinery or system by which such gods exert their influence, even though we understand the physics of our local world very well, but the history of life and civilization shows no obvious traces of their influence. They know of terrible things that go wrong in our world, but instead of doing much about those things, these gods instead prioritize not leaving any clear evidence of their existence or influence. And yet for some reason they don’t mind people believing in them enough to pray to them, as they often reward such prayers with favorable interventions.

Yes, the space of possible minds is vast, as is the space of possible motivations. So yes somewhere in that space is a subspace of minds who would behave in exactly this manner, if they were powerful enough to count as “gods”. But the relative size of that subspace seems to me rather small, relative to that total space. And so the prior probability that all or most nearby gods have this sort of strange motivation also seems to me quite small. It seems a crazy implausible hypothesis.

Yes, the fact that people claim to feel that gods answer their prayers is, all else equal, evidence for that hypothesis. But the other obvious hypothesis to consider here is that people claim this because it comforts them to believe so, not because they’ve carefully studied their evidence. Long ago people had much less evidence on physics and the universe, and for them it was both plausible and socially functional to believe in powerful gods who sometimes responded to humans, including their prayers. This belief became deeply embedded in cultures, cultures which just do not respond very quickly or strongly to recent changes in our best evidence on physics and the universe. (Though they respond quickly enough to make up excuses like “God wants you to believe in him for special reasons.”) And so many still believe that gods answer prayers.

In conclusion, it isn’t crazy to think there are powerful gods far away in space or time, and perhaps close but far in causal connection. But it does seem to me crazy to believe in gods nearby who favorably answer prayers, but who also hide and don’t intervene much in world affairs. That hypothesis seems vastly less likely than the obvious alternative, of slowly updating cultures.

I expect my position to be pretty widely held among thoughtful intellectuals; can we find a good name for it? Prayer-atheists perhaps?

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Like the Ancients, We Have Gods. They’ll Get Greater.

Here’s a common story about gods. Our distant ancestors didn’t understand the world very well, and their minds contained powerful agent detectors. So they came to see agents all around them, such as in trees, clouds, mountains, and rivers. As these natural things vary enormously in size and power, our ancestors had to admit that such agents varied greatly in size and power. The big ones were thus “gods”, and to be feared. While our forager ancestors were fiercely egalitarian, and should thus naturally resent the existence of gods, gods were at least useful in limiting status ambitions of local humans; however big you were, you weren’t as big as gods. All-seeing powerful gods were also useful in enforcing norms; norm violators could expect to be punished by such gods.

However, once farming era war, density, and capital accumulation allowed powerful human rulers, these rulers co-opted gods to enforce their rule. Good gods turned bad. Rulers claimed the support of gods, or claimed to be gods themselves, allowing their decrees to take priority over social norms. However, now that we (mostly) know that there just isn’t a spirit world, and now that we can watch our rulers much more closely, we know that our rulers are mere humans without the support of gods. So we much less tolerate strong rulers, their claims of superiority, or their norm violations. Yay us.

There are some problems with this story, however. Until the Axial revolution of about 3500 years ago, most gods were local to a social group. For our forager ancestors, this made them VERY local, and thus typically small. Such gods cared much more that you show them loyalty than what you believed, and they weren’t very moralizing. Most gods had limited power; few were all-powerful, all-knowing, and immortal. People mostly had enough data to see that their rulers did not have vast personal powers. And finally, rather than reluctantly submitting to gods out of fear, we have long seen people quite eager to worship, praise, and idolize gods, and also their leaders, apparently greatly enjoying the experience.

Here’s a somewhat different story. Long before they became humans, our ancestors deeply craved both personal status, and also personal association with others who have the high status. This is ancient animal behavior. Forager egalitarian norms suppressed these urges, via emphasizing the also ancient envy and resentment of the high status. Foragers came to distinguish dominance, the bad status that forces submission via power, from prestige, the good status that invites you to learn and profit by watching and working with them. As part of their larger pattern of hidden motives, foragers often pretended that they liked leaders for their prestige, even when they really also accepted and even liked their dominance.

Once foragers believed in spirits, they also wanted to associate with high status spirits. Spirits increased the supply of high status others to associate with, which people liked. But foragers also preferred to associated with local spirits, to show local loyalties. With farming, social groups became larger, and status ambitions could also rise. Egalitarian norms were suppressed. So there came a demand for larger gods, encompassing the larger groups.

In this story the fact that ancient gods were spirits who could sometimes violate ordinary physical rules was incidental, not central. The key driving force was a desire to associate with high status others. The ability to violate physical rules did confer status, but it wasn’t a different kind of status than that held by powerful humans. So very powerful humans who claimed to be gods weren’t wrong, in terms of the essential dynamic. People were eager to worship and praise both kinds of gods, for similar reasons.

Thus today even if we don’t believe in spirts, we can still have gods, if we have people who can credibly acquire very high status, via prestige or dominance. High enough to induce not just grudging admiration, but eager and emotionally-unreserved submission and worship. And we do in fact have such people. We have people who are the best in the world at the abilities that the ancients would recognize for status, such as physical strength and coordination, musical or story telling ability, social savvy, and intelligence. And in addition, technology and social complexity offer many new ways to be impressive. We can buy impressive homes, clothes, and plastic surgery, and travel at impressive speeds via impressive vehicles. We can know amazing things about the universe, and about our social world, via science and surveillance.

So we today do in fact have gods, in effect if not in name. (Though actors who play gods on screen can be seen as ancient-style gods.) The resurgence of forager values in the industrial era makes us reluctant to admit it, but a casual review of celebrity culture makes it very clear, I’d say. Yes, we mostly admit that our celebrities don’t have supernatural powers, but that doesn’t much detract from the very high status that they have achieved, or our inclination to worship them.

While it isn’t obviously the most likely scenario, one likely and plausible future scenario that has been worked out in unusual detail is the em scenario, as discussed in my book Age of Em. Ems would acquire many more ways to be individually impressive, acquiring more of the features that made the mythical ancient gods so impressive. Ems could be immortal, occupy many powerful and diverse physical bodies, move around the world at the speed of light, think very very fast, have many copies, and perhaps even somewhat modify their brains to expand each copy’s mental capacity. Automation assistants could expand their abilities even more.

As most ems are copies of the few hundred most productive ems, there are enormous productivity differences among typical ems. By any reasonable measure, status would vary enormously. Some would be gods relative to others. Not just in a vague metaphorical sense, but in a deep gut-grabbing emotional sense. Humans, and ems, will deeply desire to associate with them, via praise, worship and more.

Our ancestors had gods, we have gods, and our descendants will like have even greater more compelling gods. The phenomena of gods is quite far from dead.

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How Human Are Meditators?

Someday we may be able to create brain emulations (ems), and someday later we may understand them sufficiently to allow substantial modifications to them. Many have expressed concern that competition for efficient em workers might then turn ems into inhuman creatures of little moral worth. This might happen via reductions of brain systems, features, and activities that are distinctly human but that contribute less to work effectiveness. For example Scott Alexander fears loss of moral value due to “a very powerful ability to focus the brain on the task at hand” and ems “neurologically incapable of having their minds drift off while on the job”.

A plausible candidate for em brain reduction to reduce mind drift is the default mode network:

The default mode network is active during passive rest and mind-wandering. Mind-wandering usually involves thinking about others, thinking about one’s self, remembering the past, and envisioning the future.… becomes activated within an order of a fraction of a second after participants finish a task. … deactivate during external goal-oriented tasks such as visual attention or cognitive working memory tasks. … The brain’s energy consumption is increased by less than 5% of its baseline energy consumption while performing a focused mental task. … The default mode network is known to be involved in many seemingly different functions:

It is the neurological basis for the self:

Autobiographical information: Memories of collection of events and facts about one’s self
Self-reference: Referring to traits and descriptions of one’s self
Emotion of one’s self: Reflecting about one’s own emotional state

Thinking about others:

Theory of Mind: Thinking about the thoughts of others and what they might or might not know
Emotions of other: Understanding the emotions of other people and empathizing with their feelings
Moral reasoning: Determining just and unjust result of an action
Social evaluations: Good-bad attitude judgments about social concepts
Social categories: Reflecting on important social characteristics and status of a group

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

Remembering the past: Recalling events that happened in the past
Imagining the future: Envisioning events that might happen in the future
Episodic memory: Detailed memory related to specific events in time
Story comprehension: Understanding and remembering a narrative

In our book The Elephant in the Brain, we say that key tasks for our distant ancestors were tracking how others saw them, watching for ways others might accuse them of norm violations, and managing stories of their motives and plans to help them defend against such accusations. The difficulty of this task was a big reason humans had such big brains. So it made sense to design our brains to work on such tasks in spare moments. However, if ems could be productive workers even with a reduced capacity for managing their social image, it might make sense to design ems to spend a lot less time and energy ruminating on their image.

Interestingly, many who seek personal insight and spiritual enlightenment try hard to reduce the influence of this key default mode network. Here is Sam Harris from his recent book Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion:

Psychologists and neuroscientist now acknowledge that the human mind tends to wander. .. Subjects reported being lost in thought 46.9 percent of the time. .. People are consistently less happy when their minds wander, even when the contents of their thoughts are pleasant. … The wandering mind has been correlated with activity in the … “default mode” or “resting state” network (DMN). .. Activity in the DMN decreases when subjects concentrate on tasks of the sort employed in most neuroimaging experiments.

The DMN has also been linked with our capacity for “self-representation.” … [it] is more engaged when we make such judgements of relevance about ourselves, as opposed to making them about other people. It also tends to be more active when we evaluate a scene from a first person point of view. … Generally speaking, to pay attention outwardly reduces activity in the [DMN], while thinking about oneself increases it. …

Mindfulness and loving-kindness mediation also decrease activity in the DMN – and the effect is most pronounced among experienced meditators. … Expert meditators … judge the intensity of an unpleasant stimulus the same but find it to be less unpleasant. They also show reduced activity in regions associated with anxiety while anticipanting the onsite of pain. … Mindfulness reduces both the unpleasantness and intensity of noxious stimuli. …

There is an enormous difference between being hostage to one’s thoughts and being freely and nonjudgmentally aware of life in the present. To make this shift is to interrupt the process of rumination and reactivity that often keep us so desperately at odds with ourselves and with other people. … Meditation is simply the ability to stop suffering in many of the usual ways, if only for a few moments at a time. … The deepest goal of spirituality is freedom from the illusion of the self. (pp.119-123)

I see a big conflict here. On the one hand, many are concerned that competition could destroy moral value by cutting away distinctively human features of em brains, and the default net seems a prime candidate for cutting. On the other hand, many see meditation as a key to spiritual insight, one of the highest human callings, and a key task in meditation is cutting the influence of the default net. Ems with a reduced default net could more easily focus, be mindful, see the illusion of the self, and feel more at peace and less anxious about their social image. So which is it, do such ems achieve our highest spiritual ideals, or are they empty shells mostly devoid of human value? Can’t be both, right?

By the way, I was reading Harris because he and I will record a podcast Feb 21 in Denver.

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Caplan Critiques Our Religion Chapter

Bryan Caplan likes our book:

My blurb calls it, “Deeply important, wide-ranging, beautifully written, and fundamentally right” – and I mean every word.

But he also has many complaints on our religion chapter. He summarizes:

[They] could have done even better. They’re so excited about their own theory that they occasionally forget to be curious about the facts. And they’re so eager to show that strange behavior could be functional that they frequently forget to ask, “Functional when?” and “Functional for whom?”

Alas his specific complaints seem to me more like attempts to misread us to find things to criticize. But you be the judge. Bryan starts (he’s indented once, our book twice):

And yet, as we’ll see, there’s a self-serving logic to even the most humble and earnest of religious activities.

The last sentence seems like a clear case of overstatement. What about hidden religiosity? Persecuted religiosity?

If we had said “kitchen tools have practical household uses”, would Bryan say “But a burglar could stab you with a kitchen knife”? Is is really hard to find group-conflict functions of religious persecution, or of hiding your religiosity from likely persecutors?

We don’t worship simply because we believe. Instead, we worship (and believe) because it helps us as social creatures.

While this story is plausible, [they] don’t really grapple with the strongest counter-arguments. Most obviously, arcane doctrinal disputes seem to be the sparks behind several major historical events. Take the Protestant Reformation. Yes, there’s plenty of realpolitik under the surface. But it’s hard to deny that Luther, Calvin, and other key figures did put beliefs in the driver’s seat.

“The dog ate my homework” only works as an excuse because sometimes dogs do eat homework. Similarly, we say while we give too much credit to a usual motive, and too little to a more hidden one, the usual motive is part of the mix. That’s why the usual motive can be an an excuse for the hidden one.

We say religious beliefs are more the excuse, and often function as sacrifices and badges to identify groups. Assuming this, I don’t see how it is at all surprising that, when one religious group splits away from another, their leaders point to particular arcane doctrinal disagreements. How is this at all evidence against such beliefs serving in large part as group badges?

[W]e engage in a wide variety of activities that have a religious or even cult-like feel to them, but which are entirely devoid of supernatural beliefs. … The fact that these behavioral patterns are so consistent, and thrive even in the absence of supernatural beliefs, strongly suggests that the beliefs are a secondary factor.

I struggle to see the logic here. Yes, the world’s leading religions have much in common with secular movements. But how does that suggest that what distinguishes these religions from secular movements is “secondary”? Indeed, doesn’t it suggest precisely the opposite conclusion – that supernatural beliefs are what makes leading religions special?

Common features suggest common structures and functions. We don’t say the differences are unimportant.

We think people can generally intuit what’s good for them. …

This seems like a rash overstatement. For starters, if the religious order is stable and powerful, doubts are dangerous. [Their] own model suggests that the oppressed would develop pronounced Stockholm Syndrome. Why? To avoid social sanctions. The best way to convince your oppressor that you love him is to love him sincerely.

We mean “good for them” in an individual, not collective, sense. Acting religious can give a personal gain even when it is a social loss.

To lock in the benefits of cooperation, then, a community also needs robust mechanisms to keep cheaters at bay.

Strangely, though, many of the leading religions loudly proclaim that they welcome everyone. And they live up to this rather naive promise to an amazing degree. I was raised Catholic for my first sixteen years, and can’t recall any anti-cheating mechanism more “robust” than collective scolding.

But the key question is: was that scolding enough? Religious groups vary in their strength of bonding, and thus in their severity of punishment. Instead of a young Caplan guessing that he could have cheated, it would have been more persuasive to hear an example of someone actually cheating and gaining without giving enough back. Yet even then we have to expect a few successful cheaters.

People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers. …

I’ve often heard economists make claims like this. But when you look at the real world, it’s far from clear that disobedience and belief in divine punishment are even negatively correlated. Luther and Calvin, the fathers of modern Protestantism, preached … our salvation is absolutely beyond your control. Nevertheless, fundamentalist Protestants have long been known for strict adherence to the rules.

As I used to be a fundamentalist Protestant myself, it seems clear to me that most practicing fundamentalist Protestants today see a connection between their behavior and divine punishment, no matter what doctrines Luther and Calvin once endorsed.

There’s also a peculiar omission in this chapter. HS barely acknowledge the massive gap between how religious people say they are and how religious they actually are.

Our chapter is short, and religion is vast. That topic is interesting, but not essential to our main point.

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What TED Needs

Most people want, and gain value from, religious-like communities, strongly bonded by rituals, mutual aid, and implausible beliefs. (Patriotism and political ideologies can count here.) I once embraced that deeply and fully. But then I acquired a strong self-identity as an honest intellectual, which often conflicts with common religious practices. However, I get that my sort of intellectual identity is never going to be common. So religion will continue, even with ems. Realistically, the best widespread religion I’m going to get is one that at least celebrates intellectuals and their ideals, even if it doesn’t fully embrace them, and does so in a form that is accessible to a wide public.

I’ve given four TEDx talks so far, and will give another in two weeks. Ten days ago I had the honor of giving a talk on Age of Em at the annual TED conference in Vancouver (video not yet posted). And I have to say that the TED community seems to come about as as close as I can realistically expect to my ideal religion. It is high status, accessible to a wide public, and has a strong sense of a shared community, and of self-sacrifice for community ideals. It has lots of ritual, music, and art, and it celebrates innovation and intellectuals. It even gives lip service to many intellectual virtues. If borderline religious elements sometimes make me uncomfortable, well that’s my fault, not theirs.

The main TED event differs from other TEDx events. Next year the price will be near $10K just for registration, and even then you have to submit an application, and some are rejected. At that high price the main attendees are investors and CEOs looking to network with each other. As a result, it isn’t really a place to geek out talking ideas. But that seems mainly a result of TED’s great success, and overall it does seem to help the larger TED enterprise. Chris Anderson deserves enormous credit for shepherding all this success.

The most encouraging talk I heard at TED 2017 was by David Brenner on his efforts to disinfect human spaces. Apparently there are frequencies of ultraviolet (UV) light that don’t penetrate skin past the top layer of dead skin cells, but still penetrate all the way through almost all bacteria and viruses in the air and on smooth-enough surfaces. So we should be able to use special UV lights to easily disinfect surfaces around humans. For example, we might cheaply sterilize whole hospitals. And maybe also airports during pandemics. This seems an obvious no brainer that should have been possible anytime in the last century (assuming they’ve done penetration-depth vs. frequency measurements right). Yet Brenner has been working on this for five years and still seems far from getting regulatory approval. This seems to me a bad case of civilization and regulatory failure. Even so, the potential remains great.

The most discouraging talk I heard was by Jim Yong Kim, President of the World Bank Group. He talked about how he fought the World Bank for years, because they insisted on using cost-effectiveness criteria to pick medical investments. He showed us pictures of particular people helped by less cost-effective treatments, daring us to say they were not worth helping. And he said people in poor nations have status-based “aspirations” for the same sort of hospitals and schools found in rich nations, even if they aren’t cost-effective, and who are we to tell them no. Now that he runs the World Bank (nominated by Obama in 2012), his priorities can now win more. The audience cheered. 🙁

All strong religions seem to need some implausible beliefs, and perhaps for TED one of them is the idea we need only point out problems to good people, to have those problems solved. But if not, then what I think TED audiences most need to hear are basic reviews on the topics of market failure and regulatory costs.

At TED 2017 I heard many talks where speakers point out a way that our world is not ideal. For example, speakers talked about how tech firms compete to entice users to just pay attention to them, how cities seem to be spread out more than is ideal, and how inner city grocery stores have less fresh food. But speakers never attributed problems to a particular standard kind of market failure, much less suggest a particular institutional solution because it matched the kind of market failure it was to address. While speakers tend to imply government regulation and redistribution as solutions, they never consider the many ways that regulation and redistribution can go wrong and be costly.

It is as if TED audiences, who hear talks on a great specialized many areas of science and tech, were completely unaware of key long-established and strongly-relevant areas of scholarship. If TED audiences were instead well informed about institution design, market failures, and regulatory costs, then a speaker who pointed out a problem would be expected to place it within our standard classifications of ways that things can go wrong. They’d be expected to pick the standard kind of institutional solution to each kind of problem, or explain why their particular problem needs an unusual solution. And they’d be expected to address the standard ways that such a solution could be costly or go wrong. Perhaps even adjust their solution to deal with case-specific costs and failure modes.

None of this is about left vs. right, it is just about good policy analysis. But perhaps this is just a bridge too far. Until the wider public becomes informed about these things, maybe TED speakers must also assume that their audience is ignorant of them as well. But if TED wants to better help the world to actually solve its problems, this is what its audience most needs to hear.

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Mormon Transhumanists

A standard trope of science fiction has religious groups using violence to stop a new technology. Perhaps because of this, many are surprised by the existence of religious transhumanists. Saturday I gave a keynote talk on Age of Em at the Mormon Transhumanist Association (MTA) annual conference, and had a chance to study such folks in more detail. And I should say right off the top that this MTA audience, compared to other audiences, had notably fewer morality or religious related objections to my em scenario.

I’m not surprised by the existence of religious tech futurists. Overall, the major world religions have been quite successful in adapting to the many social changes since most of them first appeared many millennia ago. Also, the main predictor of interest in tech futurism and science fiction is an interest in science and technology, and religious folks are not underrepresented there. Even so, you might ask what your favorite theories of religion predict about how MTA folk would differ from other transhumanists.

The most obvious difference I saw is that MTA does community very well, with good organization, little shirking, and lots of polite, respectful, and friendly interaction. This makes sense. Mormons in general have strong community norms, and one of the main functions of religion is to build strong communities. Mormonism is a relatively high commitment religion, and those tend to promote stronger bonds.

Though I did not anticipate it, a predictable consequence of this is that MTA is more of a transhuman take on Mormonism than a Mormon take on transhumanism. On reflection, this reveals an interesting way that long-lived groups with dogmas retain and co-op smart intellectuals. Let me explain.

One standard sales technique is to try to get your mark to spend lots of time considering your product. This is a reason why salespeople often seem so slow and chatty. The more time you spend considering their product, the longer that you will estimate it will take to consider other products, and the more likely you are to quit searching and take their product.

Similarly, religions often expose children to a mass of details, as in religious stories. Smart children can be especially engaged by these details because they like to show off their ability to remember and understand detail. Later on, such people can show off their ability to interpret these details in many ways, and to identify awkward and conflicting elements.

Even if the conflicts they find are so severe as to reasonably call into question the entire thing, by that time such people have invested so much in learning details of their religion that they’d lose a lot of ability to show off if they just left and never talked about it again. Some become vocally against their old religion, which lets them keep talking and showing off about it. But even in opposition, they are still then mostly defined by that religion.

I didn’t meet any MTA who took Mormon claims on miraculous historical events literally. They seemed well informed on science and tech and willing to apply typical engineering and science standards to such things. Even so, MTA folks are so focused on their own Mormon world that they tend to be less interested in asking how Mormons could anticipate and prepare for future changes, and more interested in how future/sci/tech themes could reframe and interpret key Mormon theological debates and claims. In practice their strong desire to remain Mormons in good standing means that they mostly accept practical church authority, including the many ways that the church hides the awkward and conflicting elements of its religions stories and dogma.

For example, MTA folks exploring a “new god argument” seek scenarios wherein we might live in a simulation that resonate with Mormon claims of a universe full of life and gods. While these folks aren’t indifferent to the relative plausibility of hypotheses, this sort of exercise is quite different from just asking what sort of simulations would be most likely if we in fact did live in a simulation.

I’ve said that we today live in an unprecedented dreamtime of unadaptive behavior, a dream from which some will eventually awake. Religious folks in general tend to be better positioned to awake sooner, as they have stronger communities, more self-control, and higher fertility. But even if the trope applies far more in fiction than in reality, it remains possible that Mormon religious orthodoxy could interfere with Mormons adapting to the future.

MTA could help to deal with such problems by becoming trusted guides to the future for other Mormons. To fill that role, they would of course need to show enough interest in Mormon theology to convince the others that they are good Mormons. But they would also need to pay more attention to just studying the future regardless of its relevance to Mormon theology. Look at what is possible, what is likely, and the consequences of various actions. For their sakes, I hope that they can make this adjustment.

By the way, we can talk similarly about libertarians who focus on criticizing government regulation and redistribution. The more one studies the details of government actions, showing off via knowing more such detail, then even if one mostly criticizes such actions, still one’s thinking becomes mostly defined by government. To avoid this outcome, focus more on thinking about what non-government organizations should do and how. It isn’t enough to say “without government, the market will do it.” Become part of a market that does things.

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Peak Religion

The US watches more TV per day than any other nation, and a total of 60 hours of e-media per week. Time devoted to this sort of thing has been increasing for decades. Much of this  media is filled with stories directly, and much of the rest, such as news, is framed to fit story norms. And as I quoted two years ago, stories in effect reinforce a belief in God:

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives. (more)

So in the quite literal sense of direct immersion in a religious world view, we are the most religious people of the most religious generation ever. What unusual features of our place and time in history can be explained by this unusual feature?

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Bowing To Elites

Imagine that that you are a politically savvy forager in a band of size thirty, or a politically savvy farmer near a village of size thousand. You have some big decisions to make, including who to put in various roles, such as son-in-law, co-hunter, employer, renter, cobbler, or healer. Many people may see your choices. How should you decide?

Well first you meet potential candidates in person and see how much you intuitively respect them, get along with them, and can agree on relative status. It isn’t enough for you to have seen their handiwork, you want to make an ally out of these associates, and that won’t work without respect, chemistry, and peace. Second, you see what your closest allies think of candidates. You want to be allies together, so it is best if they also respect and get along with your new allies.

Third, if there is a strong leader in your world, you want to know what that leader thinks. Even if this leader says explicitly that you can do anything you like, they don’t care, if you get any hint whatsoever that they do care, you’ll look closely to infer their preferences. And you’ll avoid doing anything they’d dislike too much, unless your alliance is ready to mount an overt challenge.

Fourth, even if there is no strong leader, there may be a dominant coalition encompassing your band or town. This is a group of people who tend to support each other, get deference from others, and win in conflicts. We call these people “elites.” If your world has elites, you’ll want to treat their shared opinions like those of a strong leader. If elites would gossip disapproval of a choice, maybe you don’t want it.

What if someone sets up objective metrics to rate people in suitability for the roles you are choosing? Say an archery contest for picking hunters, or a cobbler contest to pick cobblers. Or public track records of how often healer patients die, or how long cobbler shoes last. Should you let it be known that such metrics weigh heavily in your choices?

You’ll first want to see what your elites or leader think of these metrics. If they are enthusiastic, then great, use them. And if elites strongly oppose, you’d best only use them when elites can’t see. But what if elites say, “Yeah you could use those metrics, but watch out because they can be misleading and make perverse incentives, and don’t forget that we elites have set up this whole other helpful process for rating people in such roles.”

Well in this case you should worry that elites are jealous of this alternative metric displacing their advice. They like the power and rents that come from advising on who to pick for what. So elites may undermine this metric, and punish those who use it.

When elites advise people on who to pick for what, they will favor candidates who seem loyal to elites, and punish those who seem disloyal, or who aren’t sufficiently deferential. But since most candidates are respectful enough, elites often pick those they think will actually do well in the role. All else equal, that will make them look good, and help their society. While their first priority is loyalty, looking good is often a close second.

Since humans evolved to be unconscious political savants, this is my basic model to explain the many puzzles I listed in my last post. When choosing lawyers, doctors, real estate agents, pundits, teachers, and more, elites put many obstacles in the way of objective metrics like track records, contests, or prediction markets. Elites instead suggest picking via personal impressions, personal recommendations, and school and institution prestige. We ordinary people mostly follow this elite advice. We don’t seek objective metrics, and instead use elite endorsements, such as the prestige of where someone went to school or now works. In general we favor those who elites say have the potential to do X, over those who actually did X.

This all pushes me to more favor two hypotheses:

  1. We choose people for roles mostly via evolved mental modules designed mainly to do well at coalition politics. The resulting system does often pick people roughly well for their roles, but more as a side than a direct effect.
  2. In our society, academia reigns as a high elite, especially on advice for who to put in what roles. When ordinary people see another institution framed as competing directly with academia, that other institution loses. Pretty much all prestigious institutions in our society are seen as allied with academia, not as competing with it. Even religions, often disapproved by academics, rely on academic seminary degrees, and strongly push kids to gain academic prestige.

We like to see ourselves as egalitarian, resisting any overt dominance by our supposed betters. But in fact, unconsciously, we have elites and we bow to them. We give lip service to rebelling against them, and they pretend to be beaten back. But in fact we constantly watch out for any actions of ours that might seem to threaten elites, and we avoid them like the plague. Which explains our instinctive aversion to objective metrics in people choice, when such metrics compete with elite advice.

Added 8am: I’m talking here about how we intuitively react to the possibility of elite disapproval; I’m not talking about how elites actually react. Also, our intuitive reluctance to embrace track records isn’t strong enough to prevent us from telling specific stories about our specific achievements. Stories are way too big in our lives for that. We already norms against bragging, and yet we still manage to make our selves look good in stories.

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Why We Believe

Long ago, I first believed in religion as a young kid because I believed what I was told. Then I also believed because religious claims seemed to explain the strong emotions that religious contexts induced. This is how religion works – you feel strong emotions due to candles, buildings, clothes, music, well crafted and button-pushing words, charismatic empathetic leaders, social support and status. And if respected leaders and supporters around you then claim that your emotions are caused by God, well that makes sense. Even though many religious claims are transparently crazy, at least to people who well understand the world, they are easy for the young or inexpert to accept.

Recently while watching an emotional movie with political and moral overtones, I was reminded that the same is true for art. Art can make us feel strong emotions via all the same mechanisms. When high status artists and art supporters around us tell us these emotions are caused by our recognizing the emotional truth of art’s moral, political, and legal claims, that can make sense to us. Yet most of the channels by which art makes us feel emotions are irrelevant to the truth of its key claims. When we come to see this, we usually make excuses and tell ourselves that we aren’t fooled by all that other stuff; we really are just evaluating only the key moral/political/legal arguments. But the many correlations we see between features of art and who is persuaded when make it hard to believe this applies to most people most of the time.

The same likely also holds for essays like this one, or academic papers. While such writings may contain logical arguments, they also transmit writing styles, author charisma, status, and impressiveness, and clues about who supports or opposes them. You might think that you correct for all those influences when you read such writings and evaluate their claims, but the patterns above in religion and art suggest this is unlikely. The fact that people aren’t very interested in the accuracy of their pundits suggests we usually give a high priority to presentation style.

Could we do better? On subjects that have implications for future observations we could use prediction markets. But what about other subjects? Well, we might try to control for presentation variation by having a group of neutral writers rewrite common arguments in a standard style. That is, a single neutral writer could present all the different arguments on some subject, all using the same writing style. Readers of such presentations would have a better chance of drawing conclusions on each subject based on the logic of arguments, instead of writing styles. The fact that we aren’t very interested in these sort of presentations suggests that we aren’t very interested in reducing the influence of other writing style related factors.

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Pretty Smart Healthy Privilege

In our social world, people who are prettier (or hotter) can wear a wider range of clothing and still be seen as socially acceptable. For example, when less pretty people wear especially form-fitting or revealing clothes, they are likely to face social disapproval. They can’t “pull it off.”

Similarly, people who are smarter (or wittier) can talk in conversation about a wider range of topics. If you are not clever or witty, and you bring up a sensitive topic, you are likely to seem awkward and inappropriate, and induce social disapproval. But if you are clever or witty, you can often bring up such subjects in a way that makes people around you laugh and approve.

People who are healthier also have a wider range of socially acceptable activities. People who try to join a group hike or club dance, but who don’t have the energy or coordination to keep up with others, are often frowned upon.

These are three examples of privilege based on familiar kinds of inequality. Not only are these sorts of privilege quite widely accepted, rarely causing much embarrassment or guilt, but we often go out of our way to celebrate and revel in them. In fashion runways, lecture halls, and sporting events we select the most pretty smart healthy people we have, and give them extra attention and approval, thereby increasing social inequality resulting from differences in these features.

An even more dramatic example is inequality based on species. Humans today are gaining huge advantages relative to other species. And most people seem quite okay with celebrating and encouraging these advantages.

When you hear concerns expressed about privilege or inequality, you don’t usually hear these features mentioned. Instead the focus is more often on inequalities tied to income, parental wealth, dominant vs. marginal cultures and ethnicities, rich vs. poor nations, or dominant vs. marginal gender or sexual preferences and styles. Many people seem to find it quite easy to get worked up over privilege and inequality tied to those features.

Now while I can sorta empathize with such resentment and indignation, they don’t feel much more compelling to me that related feelings about the privileges of pretty, smart, or healthy people. Or even humans relative to other species. So while I could sort get behind efforts to mildly reduce the worst extremes caused by all forms of privilege and inequality (or by total inequality, weighing all things), I can’t get behind efforts to focus much more on some forms relative to others.

I have tried to make sense of why people treat these things differently. For example, people seem more concerned about the kinds of inequality that concerned their distant forager ancestors. People seem more eager to express indignation about kinds if inequality would more support more easy grabbing. And people seem more suspicious of inequality resulting from more opaque larger-scale social processes (like labor markets), rather than from more transparent biological and smaller-scale social processes.

But none of these explanations seem to me good reasons to actually worry much more about these kinds of privilege and inequality. Yes disapproved processes like wars, slavery, and theft have contributed substantially to some cultures or sexual styles becoming dominant in our world. But disapproved processes also contribute substantially to some people becoming prettier, smarter, or healthier in our world. And in neither case am I willing to conclude that disapproved processes are the overwhelming cause of such inequality.

As things are counted in today’s political calculus, this apparently makes me a “conservative,” in that I’m less concerned about the sorts of inequalities that greatly concern “liberals.” But I see this less as taking a political position than as remaining uncertain – until I see a good reason to care differently about different kinds of inequality, I’m going to consider them as similar. I see this as like being agnostic about religion. Some people consider a religious agonistic as taking a strong position against religion, and as being almost the same as an atheist. But I think it is worth distinguishing people who take a position against a common view, from people who are uncertain about that view.

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