Tag Archives: Religion

Far Truth Is For Extremes

To answer the question posed in my last post, here are some situations where it makes sense to forgo the large benefits of things like religion, to care about far truth:

  1. You are stuck in your ways, like a smoking addict. You admit it would have been better for you had you become more religious early on, but alas you fell in with the wrong crowd, and now the costs of change for you outweigh religion’s gains. If you are nice, you’ll warn young folks to avoid your downfall.
  2. Contrarian far claims with big personal consequences are true. If choosing cryonics would gain you five or more expected years of life (over its costs), and you are one of the rare people who would actually do something so contrarian after being intellectually convinced of its advantages, and if you can reliably discern when a majority is wrong, then you’ll need to think accurately about far topics to find such opportunities. For non-contrarian far claims with personal consequences, you could just follow the crowd without thinking.
  3. You have a good chance of being respected as a far topic expert, by a community that evaluates claims in truth-correlated ways. If you could be a famous cosmologist, you might try to create cosmology claims that will look good when evaluated by the tests cosmologists will apply. The gains from becoming a famous cosmologist could outweigh the risk that by becoming more truth oriented you will forgo religion’s gains. Beware, however, that truth-correlated is not the same as true – most communities say their far claim tests are more truth-correlated than they actually are.

So assuming you actually have a viable choice, the situations where it makes sense to reject religion in favor of far truth are extreme – either there are big personally-useful far contrarian claims to learn, or you have a good shot at being a rare far expert, respected by a community with truth-correlated standards. So if such extremes seem unlikely to you, far truth probably isn’t worth its costs to you. Go away, and sin no more.

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What Use Far Truth?

Consider two facts:

  1. People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives. It seems that religious folks tend to be happier, live longer, smoke less, exercise more, earn more, get and stay married more, commit less crime, use less illegal drugs, have more social connections, donate and volunteer more, and have more kids. Yes, the correlation between religion and these good things is in part because good people tend to become more religious, but it is probably also in part because religions people tend to become better. So if you want to become good in these ways, an obvious strategy is to become more religious, which is helped by having more religious beliefs.
  2. Your far beliefs, such as on religion and politics, can’t effect your life much except via how they effect your behavior, and your associates’ opinions of you. When you think about cosmology, ancient Rome, the nature of world government, or starving folks in Africa, it might feel like those things matter to you. But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about (vs. pretend to care about), those far things just can’t directly matter much to your life. While your beliefs about far things might influence how you act, and what other people think of you, their effects on your quality of life, via such channels of influence, don’t depend much on whether these beliefs are true.

Perhaps, like me, you find religious beliefs about Gods, spirits, etc. to be insufficiently supported by evidence, coherence, or simplicity to be a likely approximation to the truth. Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth? Yes, you probably think you care about believing truth – but isn’t it more plausible that you mainly care about thinking you like truth? Doesn’t that have a more plausible evolutionary origin than actually caring about far truth?

Yes, there are near practical areas of your life where truth can matter a lot. But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs. And this doesn’t even seem to require much effort on their part. Why not expect that you could do similarly?

Yes, it might seem hard to get yourself to believe things that seem implausible to you at the moment, but we humans have lots of well-used ways to get ourselves to believe things we want to believe. Are you willing to start trying those techniques on this topic?

Now, a few unusual people might have an unusually large influence on far topics, and to those people truth about far topics might plausibly matter more to their personal lives, and to things that evolution might plausibly have wanted them to directly care about. For example, if you were king of the world, maybe you’d reasonably care more about what happens to the world as a whole.

But really, what are the chances that you are actually such a person? And if not, why not try to be more religious?

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Analysis Is Far Skeptical

People famously tend to disagree more about politics, religion, and romance, Which makes sense – I’ve argued that disagreement is due to by a near-far bias, and that politics, religion, and love are far topics. It should be especially clear that religion is a far topic, dealing with fundamental values and big grand things like Gods over vast space and time scales.

Since creative metaphor is far, and analysis is near, it shouldn’t be surprising to hear that inducing an analytical frame of mind tends to induce “religious disbelief”, i.e., disbelief in gods, devils, and angels:

Individual differences in the tendency to analytically override initially flawed intuitions in reasoning were associated with increased religious disbelief. Four additional experiments provided evidence of causation, as subtle manipulations known to trigger analytic processing also encouraged religious disbelief. (more)

You could point to this as evidence against religious beliefs, but the same analysis primes probably also induce more skepticism on common political and romantic beliefs. They might even induce more skepticism on the mulitverse, string theory, or the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics, all of which have big grand aspects.

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Religion Gets Bad Rap

Indonesian police say a civil servant who posted “God does not exist” on Facebook faces a maximum penalty of five years behind bars for blasphemy. … He was attacked by a mob on his way to work. (more)

I’m an atheist, and dislike mistreatment of atheists. But I also have to admit religion often gets a bad rap. For example, I’ve been reading more science fiction than usual lately, some old and some new. I notice that they almost all include the trope of religious folks trying hard to hold back progress, often via terrorism. Perhaps this was once fair, but it doesn’t seem remotely so today. (And I don’t see it listed among other science fiction tropes.)

When religion helped turn foragers into farmers, it paid a lot of attention to sex. So religious folks still care a lot about sex, and have resisted sex-related techs, such as birth control, abortion, and IVF. But those techs are pretty old today, and only abortion remains strongly opposed. Yeah there are stem cell treatments, but that is a pretty tiny fraction of medicine.

A science fiction author from fifty years ago might have imagined strong religious oppositions to VCRs or the internet, because they aided porn. Or to cell phones with cameras because they allow sexting. Or to all sorts of “unnatural” medical techs. But overall, religious folks today seem just as pro-tech as others.

That doesn’t mean we don’t erect social barriers to new techs. But instead of being religious, most barriers today are regulatory and risk-based. As we have grown rich and eager to regulate each other, we have become more risk-averse and made it harder to introduce new disruptive techs. For example, computer-driven car tech is basically here and ready to go, but it will be a long time before we allow it. Same for automated flight and medical diagnosis,

Alas science fiction authors are reluctant to blame over-regulators as their anti-tech villain. Religion makes a safer target – most sf readers like regulation, but few are religious. Also, we tend to overestimate the importance of doctrine and dogma, relative to habits of behavior. Most religious dogma is silly and doesn’t meet our usual intellectual standards. But it also doesn’t much influence behavior. In fact, religious folks tend to have exemplary behavior overall. They work hard, are married and healthy, avoid crime, deal fair, help associates, etc. While it may seem plausible that people with crazy beliefs would do crazy harmful things, the opposite seems to apply in this case.

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Atheists Distrusted

Most folks distrust athiests, because atheists don’t fear punishment from God:

Recent polls indicate that atheists are among the least liked people in areas with religious majorities (i.e., in most of the world). The sociofunctional approach to prejudice, combined with a cultural evolutionary theory of religion’s effects on cooperation, suggest that anti-atheist prejudice is particularly motivated by distrust. Consistent with this theoretical framework, a broad sample of American adults revealed that distrust characterized anti-atheist prejudice but not anti-gay prejudice. … A description of a criminally untrustworthy individual was seen as comparably representative of atheists and rapists but not representative of Christians, Muslims, Jewish people, feminists, or homosexuals. … Results were consistent with the hypothesis that the relationship between belief in God and atheist distrust was fully mediated by the belief that people behave better if they feel that God is watching them. … Atheists were systematically socially excluded only in high-trust domains; belief in God, but not authoritarianism, predicted this discriminatory decision-making against atheists in high trust domains. (more)

So are atheists actually less trustworthy?  I’d guess that they are, but that the difference is less than people think. Believing that atheists are untrustworthy, like believing in God, helps signal your trustworthiness to others.

I suspect a similar effect applies to human law enforcement. Most people probably also signal their trustworthiness by over-estimating their chances of getting caught and punished if they commit a crime.

Added 1p: Here are experiments on religion and trustworthiness: Continue reading "Atheists Distrusted" »

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Religion As Standard

Systems often get locked into standards. For example, computer systems get locked into programming language and operating system standards. When people notice that existing standards have unsatisfactory features, they often try to create and promote alternate standards. Such attempts usually fail, however, due to the large costs of coordinating to switch to new standards, including the loss of complementary investments into old standards. In order to induce a switch, expected gains from a new better standard have be large enough to compensate for switching costs, and users need to coordinate their actions in order to switch.

Hopes for a libertarian revolution seem similar. Yes, there may be gains from transferring traditional government services (like schools, roads, fire protection) to private substitutes. But we have many complementary investments in an existing government-provision system that has many self-reinforcing elements. If most people see the potential gains from switching to be few and weak compared to the substantial cost of switching, it just won’t happen. So big change probably won’t happen until some new context where many folks expect private substitutes to work much better.

Strong atheist critiques of religion also seem similar. Religious people often say things that sound crazy, at least when interpreted as claims intended to say things similar to, and evaluated by the usual critical standards of, most other intellectual realms. Atheists want to apply relatively uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across wide ranges of intellectual claims. Such uniform standards should allow intellectuals to draw more reliable inferences combining insights from many diverse topic areas.

Religion, however, is a complex system integrating emotions, behaviors, relationships, and things that sound and are treated somewhat like intellectual claims. We have made many expensive complementary investments into this religious system, investments that would be expensive to translate to a substitute system. Religious folks understand that treating their religious claims as crazy would detract from the many complex functions that these claims serve within the complex religious experience. So they would rather apply different intellectual standards to these claims. They’d rather say “Don’t take this so literally, don’t be so reductionist; this kind of talk is just different.”

Of course defenders of religion also don’t want to say that they are just making comforting noises that have no intellectual meaning; a sense that their words are somewhat like intellectual claims is part of what lets those noises be comforting. And they don’t want to clarify in much detail just what exactly they are saying, in the usual intellectual terms. They’d rather say “Haven’t you got other topics to go investigate? Why come to our area and mess with things you don’t understand? How can you be so sure of your intellectual standards and your preferred interpretations of our words, so as to put at risk all this useful religious practice?”

It seems to me that religion will handily win this contest for a long time to come. The social support that can be mustered by a few intellectuals hoping for more uniform standards of interpretation and evaluation across diverse topics seems quite weak compared to strong interests others have in the usual complex religious processes. Even if many broad-thinking intellectuals decide to pick a noisy fight over this, most of society will just shrug their shoulders and ignore it. Surely this fact is known to most atheists, so this can’t really be about inducing a social change to a new less objectionable religion substitute. So it is probably mostly about other things, such as status contests within the smaller world of intellectuals.

FYI, some relevant quotes from the atheism critic James Wood: Continue reading "Religion As Standard" »

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Hyper-Rational Harry

As long as we on the subject of magic, let me heartily recommend my ex-co-blogger’s fanfic novel:

Eliezer Yudkowsky is writing a Harry Potter fanfic, Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, starring a rationalist Harry Potter with ambitions to transform the world by bringing the rationalist/scientific method to magic. (more)

I am enjoying it more than all but the first Harry Potter novels. Modern science fiction has shied away from the hard-headed rational scientist as moral hero, and it feels quite refreshing to see that genre back in a full and updated force. The book does a good job of giving basic rationality “lessons” in the context of an engaging-enough story, though the story gets a bit less engaging over time.

My main discomfort with Eliezer’s new scientist-hero genre is his beyond-Enders-Game-level over-competent hero, exceptionally moral and vastly smarter than anyone else around. This young teen hero has already mostly assimilated the wisdom of his elders and ancestors and must now mostly single-handedly solve the great mysteries of his world and fight the great evil of his age, while politely ignoring the mostly useless opinions of others. I fear that giving readers more license to imagine they are such a person mostly undoes the rationality lessons they learned. After all, much of real rationality is learning how to learn from others. But it is still a fun read.

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Boo Dark Powers

To mark Halloween, I hereby endorse mild regulation to discourage the summoning of dark supernatural powers which might destroy us all. Seriously. Anders Sandberg:

The San Marino scale for assessing the significance of messages that could be received by aliens … is a scale from 1 to 10 based on how easily detected the transmission is, and how much information about humanity it contains. Past deliberate transmissions have managed to reach 8, ‘far reaching’. Even planetary radar manages to reach a level of 6, ‘noteworthy’.

So, how far does these [recent] advertisements go? The Deep Space Communications dish is apparently 5 meter in diameter … The Dwingeloo telescope used for the Klingon invitation is a bit larger, 25 meters, but again the transmission power is unclear. … The level 8 signal from the Arecibo used about half a million Watts of power, making it far more powerful than anything these telescopes can achieve. … It hence seems that compared to past messages these adverts are unlikely to matter: we are already transmitting other messages, these just add to the choir. …

How much should small groups of people be allowed to risk the future of humanity with low probability? Not everyone agrees that the risk from alien contact is negligible: even a very low probability times a great harm can be relevant. … Should we be equally concerned with occultists trying to summon world-changing supernatural powers? There are probably many more people today who believe in supernatural entities than mere aliens, and that some interactions with them could be harmful. Yet there are no attempts at formulating risk scales for ritual magic. … Even if we were to analyse them rationally, we need to have an ‘ultraviolet cut-off’ for the infinite number of possible-yet-exceedingly-unlikely possibilities we could worry about. How to rationally decide on this cut-off seems problematic.

Even if the risk from recent ads is only 1/1000 of the risk of other prior transmissions, since I’m not sure how big was their risk I’m reluctant to conclude that the smaller ones are “unlikely to matter.” Perhaps 1/1000 of a bigger risk is still big enough to matter. So I’d support mild regulation to discourage such transmissions, big and small.

On which risks should matter, I’d prefer to use odds from a prediction market to decide. And my guess is that they’d give non-trivial (well over one in a million) odds both that our transmissions might alert hostile aliens, and that one could “summon world-changing supernatural powers.” So I’d also support mild regulation to discourage actions that might risk our descruction by terrible supernatural dark lords. Perhaps that sounds silly, but to disagree you either have to support our destruction by dark powers, or disagree that policy should be based on market odds.

Added 1Nov: Many of you talk as if one would have to go through a phone-book length list of potential disasters before one came to this one.  But surely this is one of the top ten disasters of concern in fiction, and would be similarly high in surveys.  Yes, you might not take it seriously, but others clearly do. The question is: what probability to use in policy when people disagree on probabilities. Surely the right answer is some sort of weighed average of opinion, and while willingness to bet is a great way to weight opinions, surely most any neutral approach will give a high enough probability of disaster here to justify substantial concern.  And this justifies “mild” regulation, which looks for the easy wins of large harm reduction at low cost.  Now it might turn out that there just don’t exist any feasible mild regulations, but we should at least consider some options before drawing that conclusion.

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The East Is Far

[Researchers] tested the bias of 72 Dutch participants towards either global or local processing. … Life-long atheists showed the strongest bias for the big picture, followed by the Liberal Calvinists, and then the Conservative Calvinists and the former Conservative Calvinists turned atheist. The latter two groups performed similarly suggesting that more than seven years without religious practice wasn’t enough to remove the effects of the religion on a person’s attentional mindset. …

They … speculated that religions that place more emphasis on communal solidarity and an external locus of control (with destiny seen as being in God’s hands) could have the opposite effect. To test this, they recruited Orthodox Jews and Roman Catholics in Israel and Italy, respectively, and compared their big picture/small details bias with secular citizens from the same countries. Consistent with their predictions, this time the researchers found it was the religious folk who showed a bias for the big picture when compared with the performance of their secular compatriots. As in the first study, these differences were observed even though the participants had been matched for educational background, IQ and age. (more; HT Tyler)

This is part of a larger trend toward more far-thinking in the East. From the paper itself:

People growing up in Asian cultures exhibit a more holistic perceptual style (i.e., are more responsive to the global than to local features of visual objects or scenes) than people growing up in the North-American culture. Westerners seem to focus on salient objects while East Asians attend more to the relationships between objects and background elements or context. This fits with the observation that East Asians allocate their attention more broadly than Americans do and provides converging evidence for the claim … that social interdependence is associated with a more holistic processing style. (more)

It seems religion is generally useful to help instill local norms – far thinking in the East, and near thinking in the West.

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God Near or No Mind Hair

(I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the following argument isn’t original, but I haven’t seen it elsewhere yet.)

If our descendants do not destroy themselves, then over the next trillion years they may become knowledgeable and powerful enough to create new baby universes that expand to look much like the universe we can see. Such a universe might then evolve its own intelligence, which would grow powerful enough to repeat the process. A self-reproducing universe would have a chance p of evolving intelligence, which would then birth an expected number N of similar baby universes, such that p*N >1.

Our descendants might even become powerful enough to imprint themselves upon such a baby universe. An imprinted universe would somewhere contain mind(s) with important specific similarities, such as memories, personality, or values, to the minds of its creators.

One of the following two remarkable conclusions seems likely:

  1. No Mind Hair – Even if our descendants command billions of galaxies and study physics for trillions of years, they still cannot create self-reproducing baby universes, and reliably imprint their minds on them. Such a task is beyond the abilities even of such gods. They are trapped; their baby universes just cannot have “mind hair.”
  2. Gods Nearby – Somewhere out there in our universe is probably hiding the imprinted minds of our universe’s creators. If we search long and far enough and understand physics well enough, we may well find them.

Here’s why. If our descendants can make self-reproducing universes, then there’s a non-zero chance they will do so, and if so there’d be an infinity of such universes. But out of an infinity of expected universes we are quite unlikely to be in the first, making it quite likely that our universe had creators. If such creators could imprint their minds on our universe they probably would have done it. So, either imprinted versions of our creators are probably out there somewhere in our universe, or no feasible power can reliably mind-imprint a self-reproducing baby universe.  Such imprinting could at best succeed rarely. QED. Either conclusion is remarkable.

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