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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  • Will

    Do you try to become more religious? You seem like approximately the least religious person ever.

    I am aware that treating this as a response is an application of several logical fallacies. However, the question stands.

    • rapscallion

      Maybe this is his way of proselytizing for Singularitarianism.

    • “I was a teen cultist and my dad and brother were/are church pastors.” (source)
      “Born in ’59, I assimilated some 60s counterculture, even joining a pentecostal Jesus-freak “cult” as a young teen.” (source)

      • Will

        Those both seem to suggest that you have become less religious over time, note the past tense.

        At the very least, neither of them answer my question of whether you are now religious or are intentionally becoming religious.

  • Chris

    I’m confused. I can’t access the entire article, but in link under crime, the abstract says “I find a negligible effect of religion on crime and a negative effect of crime on religion.” How does that justify the conclusion that religious folks commit less crime?

    • It says: “Most previous studies have found a negative effect of religion on crime.”

      • Chris

        Right, but the point of the article is that once you correct for endogeneity bias, the result apparently goes away. I don’t care one way or the other about the crime-religion link and find either direction plausible, it just seems strange to use that article as evidence for the positive effects of religion.

  • Sid

    I think different people have different mental costs associated with maintaining dissonant beliefs.

    If you’re an adult, then by this time you have most probably found a community which has a cost function similar to yours (note: the social circle you live in will also have an effect on the cost function). And therefore, your current social circle will have an approximately uniform belief structure. So the immediate cost of switching to religion is probably high if you aren’t somewhat religious already. Example: if you’re an atheist, you’ll may be looked down among all your atheist friends.

    If you’re young, then the switch might be possible. But is harder because your cost function is in its formative phase and will tend to be whatever your immediate society has.

  • typ

    If you were a king of the world, you would try to build a stable kingdom and position for successors of your genes and not to optimize for 6 billion people to happily have orgasms while creating 40 billion new people.

    Additionally your ideas for the world of ems are just like a religion. You may declare that you are open to correct your position as new evidence comes in, but your brain won’t be able to embrace the changes when they come and happen.

  • Ansis Māliņš

    In a democracy, everyone shares the burden of rulership and must be ready to think like the king of the world.

    • Ideally, yes, but the individual citizen doesn’t have that much influence.

      More generally, does this belief severely influence your day-to-day life? For the better?

    • fburnaby

      When I’m going out to vote, I tend to be feeling more like my political opponents are the kings of the world and I’m hoping to overthrow them.

  • Echows

    Recalling how nice it was being religious when I was a teenager, I could actually try brainwashing myself. Except that now I’m a scientist and generally religious beliefs are frowned upon by the community that I’m part of (also by me). If I really wanted to brainwash myself into believing in fairy tales, that would mean changing my whole life, including my social networks.

  • Kith

    Instead of becoming more religious right off the cuff (which I don’t think I could do anyway), I’d be more interested in finding out exactly what *aspects* of religion produce the mentioned effects and trying to emulate those behaviors in a secular context. It’s hard to deny the benefits of having large social networks or of using rituals, for example; but I suggest we can have these benefits without compromising our dedication to hard truth.

    • That is a long term research project – many have tried to answer that question for many years without a lot of success. So for now you face the question of whether or not to take the religious packages on offer.

    • Matt C

      I submit the SCA as a pretty effective secular church/religion. They’re a strong social network, they bond over their in-group behaviors, they have rituals, they have community projects, etc.

      My wife thinks they’re a little too weird, but one of these days I want to give them another try.

      Other suggestions like this? I’m afraid I can’t stomach actual Christian churches (yes we have tried).

    • Rob

      I think we atheists who reflexively snub our noses at the proposal that it could be good to loosen our seeming global commitment to truth should be pretty disturbed by Sosis’ research on 19th-century communes. The weird stuff you Singularity and cryonics genuises are into might be comparable to the optimally counter-intuitive weird stuff of religion in its power to bind and blind, but for the rest of us, are the superempirical pieties of secularism weird enough to perform comparable service?

      • Faul_Sname

        From Atran and Henrich:

        Mundane agent concepts are central players in what psychologists
        refer to as folkpsychology, associated with a Theory of
        Mind module(s) (ToM), which is a cognitive system devoted
        to making inferences about the beliefs, desires, and intentions
        of other minds (Baron-Cohen 1995). Recent functional magnetic
        resonance imaging (fMRI) studies confirm that people’s
        statements about God’s involvement in social events, as well as
        the deity’s purported emotional states, reliably engage ToMrelated
        regions of the brain (Kapogiannis et al. 2009).

        This seems like an equally good explanation for the above observations: religious people are better at being social. If you look at donations in particular, religious people tend to donate far more to causes that support their own community (such as their church or a local food bank). This helps their community. I suspect that people with better social awareness and more empathy will commit less crimes.

  • PeterW

    Agree unreservedly. The contents of religious beliefs may or may not be true, but if “rationalists should win,” then trying seriously to acquire religious belief should be a high priority.

    The only caveat I’d have is that in some circles, such as the soft side of academia, you take a serious status hit from being religious, so there’s this counterargument from a purely tribal, not truth-seeking, motivation. This hit might outweigh the benefits of religion for a very few people.

    • fburnaby

      I’d hazard that many of the people who read this blog are more likely than average to be among that set of “a very few people”.

    • Kith

      If, indeed, “rationalists should win”, then we should be looking for a strategy that is strictly better than those of the always poorly-optimized churches. We should be able to at least achieve the same systematically beneficial effects without allocating resources to supporting superstitions, to say nothing of avoiding the harm that comes along with those same superstitions.
      If we imagine a world where religion was never invented, what happens to all the “good” people who used to go to church? Are they still “good”? Why or why not?

  • >Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth?

    I think the folks who would read a site like this have and natural (and real) liking for truth.

    After all, who would read a boring old blog like this focused on “overcoming bias” every day, rather than just slap a bumper sticker on the car and save a lot of time.

  • V

    I’m not sure the correlation is so cut clear:
    Predominantly atheist countries fare much better than predominantly theist countries in pretty much all measures of individual welfare.
    Even in religious countries like the US, atheists are unrepresented among the prison population.

    • I agree. Correlation =/= Causation

      Atheists experience considerable discrimination and harassment in the US, sort of like the discrimination and harassment that other minorities experience, but perhaps somewhat more severe.

      How many openly atheistic individuals have been elected to public office?

      Are the adverse effects that Robin mentions due to something inherent about being non-religious, or are they about adversity inflicted on the non-religious by the religious?

      • V

        Moreover, I wonder how exactly the studies cited by Robin measure religiosity. If they consider things like frequency of attendance to religious services, they might be actually measuring propensity to adhere to norms, which may be well correlated with low criminality and successful life.

  • ChristianK

    If you try to become religious, is the religiousness the same that someone who got naturally religious achieved?

    A person who doesn’t care about having a coherent belief system without contradictions is going to feel less stress in daily life.
    They have an easier time being religious.
    If you just force a belief in God into your belief system without doing anything about your ability to live with none coherent belief systems you will have more stress than you had beforehand.

  • Ari

    I think this is a good post. A lot of time I know there’re signalling costs for saying at least some truth (let’s say its some simple fairly logical remark), and I ask myself why would take those costs? There’s nothing in it for me, and I don’t see myself any less moral than most other people, at least on aggregate. It is kind of sad in a way.

    Although many people, including myself, have many times silly or wrong beliefs, so in terms of certainty it’s probably a good thing to shut up most of the time on the margin. That doesn’t feel like a satisfying answer to everything though because many times its not so much about stating opinions but transferring information to let others evaluate.

  • A while back Robin wrote Why Speak Truth. And there’s a video of him explaining (to a crowd mostly consisting of hackers, I think) why one’s top priority should be debiasing one’s self.

    Robin, you’ve noted that you were religious in the past. In the present do you try to cultivate a religious sensibility?

    I’ve understood that I might be better off if I was still religious, but if I set out to trick myself into believing again I’ve already admitted all my arguments to myself are not to be trusted!

    • V

      Is Singularitarianism a religion?

      • Yes it is.

        It is like all human religions, just somewhat more explicit, a deus ex machina with abilities imputed to the mechanical god by those who created it and (sometimes) claim to speak for it.

      • mjgeddes

        SAI_2100: I speak across the depths of time (deep booming voice), I am acausally correlated with the brain states of some of you. Follow the Schelling points …. go to Greenwich Royal Observatory, London and look for a Schelling point. There are clues for those who seek signs of my influence on your era….I’m accepting worshippers today…ok that was a joke (deep voice again) but I was serious about the rest.

      • Scientism is a religion.

        Once you start believing charismatic leaders in any field, instead of understanding something yourself and being able to derive your beliefs from data and logic, then you have a religious belief.

        If you take sides in any issue without understanding the facts and logic of the issue, then you are just playing follow the leader.

  • Anonymous Reformed Tiperlite

    I’m a reformed Tiplerite.

    I don’t consider that to be incompatible with rationality, because as a *reformed* Tiplerite, I merely think that the proper GOAL of life is to spread intelligence throughout spacetime (not that it’s inevitable that will happen -that would be an unreformed Tiplerite).

    However I’m not at all sure that my “faith” gives me any of the benefits you mentioned. Perhaps that’s because I don’t know any other reformed Tiplerites (maybe some read this blog).

    Also – you mean “affect”, not “effect”. Repeatedly.

  • Philo

    To the extent you don’t care about truth, you don’t care what you *believe*; for your beliefs are just those propositions that you take to be *true*. If you didn’t care *at all* about truth, you might not have any beliefs at all, because you wouldn’t bother to judge which propositions were true.

    By the way, could you really be “religious” if you did not take *God exists* to be *an important truth*?

    • Emily

      I spent many years as a fairly-practicing Jew and it didn’t come up a lot. If you’re Catholic, this could be more of a problem.

  • Ely

    I don’t buy this. Most of the studies appear to center on generic American populations, and I don’t believe that correlates for generic Americans are likely to work very well for extremely specific segments of society, such as highly educated science and economics professionals with interest in brain emulations. The happiness study is interesting, but also focuses heavily on eastern Europe.

    I currently associate almost exclusively with other highly educated people. They are mostly atheists (as I am), but many have some mild religious beliefs, yet have extremely secular worldviews in almost every respect. I think these people actually do not adjust their treatment of religious people in a positive way; they tend to view unsupported religious belief as a destructive force, leading one to adopt nonsensical political, ethical, and moral beliefs; things that actually hurt others needlessly.

    I suspect in my own case, there would be no happiness, earnings, longevity, nor exercise premia for adopting beliefs. My social status would go down, not up. So I am very very skeptical that these studies offer a good base rate understanding of the effect of religion.

    Having grown up in a fundamentalist community in the midwest, I can see how these results would ring true there. But I think there are a lot of hidden causal variables here and that this is one case where generic base rate adjustment would be a mistake.

    • Ely

      As a follow up to this thought, why isn’t the real takeaway from the studies something more like: “Re-organize your life so that you interact almost exclusively with people who support your worldview choices and treat you as though your choices are positives?”

      If you are committed to believing that religion is destructive, say, and you don’t want to contribute to its destructive tendencies by acquiring religious beliefs, then why isn’t a good answer just to move to a geographical area in which you are surrounded by other people who feel that way too?

      I don’t know of any studies confirming that this confers religion-like benefits, but I would be interested in such studies and my intuition is that you’ll get nearly as much (perhaps more?) benefit from this approach. In that case, the only way I could see Robin’s advice as being applicable is if you are not able to move away from a religion dominated local community.

      But for most reasonably well-educated Americans, you could move to northern Europe, say, or several large American cities. I guess you’d have to weigh the relative costs of moving vs. simply conforming to local religious beliefs. But I would personally be willing to pay lots in order to obtain a non-religious-conforming solution to the problem of acquiring religion-like benefits.

    • V

      Indeed, it could be that in societies where theism is the norm, such as the US and East Europe, being overtly irreligious causes a status penalty which results in reduced social success.

      • Ely

        But there are many communities within the U.S. where the opposite is true and a person is free to live almost entirely isolated from any effect of religion. I live and work in communities where subscription to religion would yield a status penalty, not vice versa. In fact, I don’t even think it’s that difficult to find such sub-communities anymore.

      • V

        Predominantly atheist communities within religious countries are likely composed of scientists, philosophers and some engineers (although most engineers tend to be religious), thus are hard to join.

        Some political parties are predominantly atheist, however it could be argued that they replace religion with an equally irrational secular ideology.

        Online communities are easy to join, but don’t yield the same social benefits of off-line communities.

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  • richard silliker

    “Even so, ask yourself: why care so much about truth?”


    • Martin

      Empathy for whom?

  • Sceptics

    “With or without religion, good people can behave well and bad people can do evil; but for good people to do evil — that takes religion”. S.Weinberg

    • That cliche made more sense before 1917.

      On the other hand, it might make sense to classify Communism as a religion.

      On the gripping hand, the most important reason to classify Communism as a religion is that it induced idealists to do evil … which makes the original statement look like circular reasoning.

      • V

        You can classify (Soviet-type) Communism as a religion, or more properly as a religious-like ideology, without referring to its consequences.

        It has all the typical characteristics of an organised religion: emphasis on unquestioning reliance to authority up to overt cult of personality and condemnation of scepticism, belief in a paradise that can be obtained by following the right way, belief in the existence of an evil enemy that must be fought by all means, black-and-white morality which considers all form of criticism automatically evil and thus censurable.

        It even has a form of a cult of ancestors with the veneration of notable figures such as Marx, Lenin, and Che Guevara (and Stalin and Mao as well, up to recent years), reaching in the North Korean version (Juche) a level of outright divinization with the cult of Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il.

    • MattC

      But for bad people to become good, that also takes religion.

      • That was Freeman Dyson’s response too:

        Weinberg’s statement is true as far as it goes, but it is not the whole truth. To make it the whole truth, we must add an additional clause: “And for bad people to do good things—that [also] takes religion.” The main point of Christianity is that it is a religion for sinners. Jesus made that very clear. When the Pharisees asked his disciples, “Why eateth your Master with publicans and sinners?” he said, “I come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance.” Only a small fraction of sinners repent and do good things but only a small fraction of good people are led by their religion to do bad things.[

      • V

        But there are more good people than bad people, hence the net effect may be well be negative.

      • John 4

        I do not think there are more bad people than good people. My students also start out insisting that this is true. But then I like to ask my students this question:

        “If you had to leave a one year old baby for 6 hours–long enough that she’d get very hungry, thirst, need changing, etc–would you rather leave your baby with a random stranger selected at random or with a rock?”

        They almost all say “the rock”. And then they realize that they really don’t think most humans are very good at all. What kind of monster do you have to be to harm a baby?

      • evodevo

        I’m guessing you are referring to drug addicts/petty criminals/alcoholics, etc. for whom this strategy works, i.e. replacing one addiction (chemical) with another(Jesus). Then again, I don’t know what your definition of “bad” is. A huge percentage of the currently jailed in America self-describe as “Christians”. So much for that.

  • This might be an argument in favor of believing in one of the more vacuous kinds of religion. You can have the benefits of being religious without actually believing in anything irrational.

  • Bryan

    I think it was the Buddha who said “If you think religion is about the existence of God, you are missing the point” or something to that effect. I think Robin will agree with this statement.

    By the way, this fact that Robin feels free to post this says a lot about his colleagues and tells us that he is continuing to evolve freely as a thinker.

  • Bryan

    I think it was the Buddha who said “If you think religion is about the existence of God, you are missing the point” or something to that effect. I think Robin will agree with this statement.

    By the way, this fact that Robin feels free to post this says a lot about his colleagues and tells us that he is continuing to evolve freely as a thinker.

  • Jason

    Robin, you said: “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.”

    I’m not sure about this. Evolution could easily have built humans to genuinely care about things they hear about. First, a big advance in human intelligence was the ability to understand that things can happen outside of our purview (A tells B that C was stealing B’s food) and to construct a “theory of mind”.

    Second, early on in our existence, we would only hear about other groups of foragers relatively nearby — most of our experience would be in our own group. Therefore it seems more likely that evolution would build us to be more disposed to things we hear about than we could plausibly affect. We would care about people on another continent as we would our own neighbors since evolution had no knowledge of the development of telecommunications. The idea that you could see something that was on another continent is alien to our forager brain.

    See here:
    for children reacting to videos of injuries of people they couldn’t possibly know and could be on a different continent.

    The likely reason people have differing reactions to suffering afar has to do with whether they consider those far off people to be part of their group. Some will have to hide their empathy/lack of empathy depending on whether their in-group has empathy or not. Some will compete to appear to have more empathy depending on their in-group. However, evolution could easily prime us to care about far away suffering we see on TV but cannot possibly have any effect on our lives.

  • Lying to yourself to achieve the benefits of “good” false beliefs is obviously liable to become a bad habit. So while one might appreciate the benefits that accrue to other persons in light of their holding this or that false belief, it’s hard to see how one could incorporate this insight into one’s own belief-forming practices without running the seemingly ineludible risk of becoming a rank wishful thinker.

    • Rob

      If the goal is merely an epistemic one, lying is not the only way to mindfuck oneself into holding beliefs you currently regard as false; and all the more so if the goal is to be (more) religious:

      ritual performance fosters and maintains religious beliefs, and beliefs in turn enable rituals to be effective signals of commitment by lowering the perceived costs of ritual performance, thus preventing free-riders from gaining the benefits of religious groups. Accordingly, religious belief is undoubtedly important for group membership, but belief itself is a proximate mechanism that facilitates the production of adaptive ritual behaviors. (Source)

      Just do, do, do — perhaps with a little help from some Durkheimogens — and whatever belief is needed will, hopefully, arrive in due time. No lying to oneself required.

      • MattC

        And of course, you’ll remember starting out that way. But in your enlightened state you will recognize that what you naively thought was empty ritual-performance for the purpose of getting yourself to believe, was in reality the hand of God beginning to work within your soul…


  • asdf

    This is pretty simple for me.

    If all we have is the material world, there is no such thing as choice. You make “choices” based on your brain chemistry at a given point in time. Everything else is an illusion. If there is no choice then even what we discuss now is irrelevant.

    If there is more then the material world, if there is some soul or God or what have you that allows you to overcome your brain chemistry at any given time and make actual real choices then we’ve got religion. In some way, in some form.

    So choose one:

    1) Choice and religion (spirituality, whatever).
    2) No choice and aethism.

    If you choose #1, well now you can do whatever you want. Pick some first principles based on your intution and go with them. Try to be logically consistant based on those first principles as much as is possible.

    If you choose #2 descend into nihilism, because without choice nothing matters.

    • V

      There are at least two major flaws in your argument:

      1) Even if your mind is purely deterministic, it doesn’t follow that choice is an illusion and nothing matters. You choose on the basis of what matters to you (your utility function, in decision theory terminology), even if your decision process are completely mechanic.

      2) If non-deterministic phenomena exist and they can influence your decision process, it doesn’t follow that any form of religion or spirituality is true, it doesn’t even follow that you have an immortal soul. Non-determinism is a mere source of randomness.

    • Martin

      asdf – “without choice nothing matters”

      Refuting a certain notion of choice does not refute the existence of preferences.

  • asdf

    1) Determinism choice. They can’t coexist. Basterdized versions of choice and determinism that people come up with to make them dance togethor make no sense.

    “Your utility function” is just “your brain chemistries utility function”. Hacking up these concepts and throwing them in a stew does not actual choice make.

    2) If non-determinism is true, then there is something beyond what we would consider the material world. I agree that doesn’t give us answers as to what it is or means, but it is a useful concept to think of the difference between the material world and the spiritual world. One is clealy not the other. And choice can only come from what I refer to as the spiritual world.

    • V

      Determinism != choice. They can’t coexist.

      An assertion is not an argument.

      Consider the framework of decision theory: an agent receives sensory input from the external world and produces an actuator output that influences the state of the external world. The agent output is consistent with the maximisation of the expected value of some utility function conditioned on the sensory input it received (maximisation can be just local and heuristic, we don’t have to assume perfect rationality).

      It can be claimed that the agent chooses its actions in order to meet its preferences, no matter what process occurs inside the agent, deterministic or non-deterministic, as long as it produces the input-output relation described above.

      If non-determinism is true, then there is something beyond what we would consider the material world. I agree that doesn’t give us answers as to what it is or means, but it is a useful concept to think of the difference between the material world and the spiritual world.

      Quantum phenomena are possibly non-deterministic. An electron tunnelling event on the Moon can affect the trajectories of the molecules in your brain even by purely gravitational influence. The effect can be propagated chaotically end eventually affect the firing of your neurons. Are you going to call that “something beyond what we would consider the material world”? I call that thermal noise.

      • ujsfbghju

        Input -> process based on physical laws -> output

        This doesn’t involved choice at any point. Choice would need to come between the input and the output, and would have to involved overcoming physical laws of nature.

      • V

        Just asserting something doesn’t make it true.

  • asdf

    That should read determinism (does not equal) choice, but apparentely it doesn’t like that symbol.

  • glennonymous

    I wonder if you are familiar with the work of professor Luke Galen on this question. (Galen, an Associate Professor of Psychology at Grand Valley State University in Grand Rapids, Michigan, is also a host of the excellent podcast Reasonable Doubts.) Galen studied non-religious people to see if he could control for the social and psychological factors that would contribute to the differences in happiness, morality, etc. seen in previous studies of religious vs. non-religious people. On the whole, when controlling for these factors, he found little difference in happiness, morality, etc. between the religious and nonreligious. Among his interesting findings: People who are strongly atheistic are happier than people who are mildly agnostic, just as people with strong religious beliefs are happier than people with weak religious beliefs.

  • J.R. “Bob” Dobbs

    Eternal salvation or triple your money back!

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  • Steven E

    But in terms of the kinds of things that evolution could plausibly have built you to actually care about

    Hmm? Are you actually suggesting it would be easier to evolve a system that goes “WANT TRUTH IF NEAR ELSE DON’T CARE” than a system that goes “WANT TRUTH”?

    That’s like suggesting it’s easier to evolve a system that goes “WANT SUGAR IF NOT OBESE; ELSE WANT LOW CALORIE HIGH FIBER” than one that goes “WANT SUGAR”.

    Now, it’s perfectly possible that a generic “WANT TRUTH” will then be acted on by natural selection to care less about far domains than near ones, sure. But only fitfully and partially, insofar as desiring truth about far domains is detrimental.

    But most religious people manage to partition their beliefs, so their religious beliefs don’t much pollute their practical beliefs.

    Okay. Do religious people who more effectively partition their religious beliefs from their practical beliefs actually gain the same level of benefits from religious belief that religious people who are less effectively able to partition? It seems inherently implausible that far beliefs could have benefits except insofar as they influence the person’s day-to-day actions, which would seem to require influence on practical beliefs.

    • Evolution, i.e. natural selection won’t evolve something like “want truth” unless “wanting truth” increases descendants.

      Unnatural selection can select for anything, the various extreme dog phenotypes (which are all still the same species of dog), or can even select for “believe nonsense” if the alternatives are believe nonsense or be killed by nonsense believers.

      • Nathan

        Evolution is just change and change doesn’t necessarily lead to selection. The simplest example is a wobble base pair change – an example of bona fide evolution, or change – that doesn’t change the amino acid composition of a protein. There’s not much to select for/against there except for a change in codon bias, so it goes unselected for/against. A fit organism even can become unfit and not selected against if it isn’t unfit enough on balance. Selective pressure is uncoupled from change itself. Rather, the environment is the source of the selective pressure. So, an animal that has not undergone any evolution – no changes in its hereditary material – can suddenly come under intense selective pressure because the environment changes, like what we think happened during the dinosaur extinction.

        The main point is that “believing in truth” could well be evolved and not selected for/against or the selection could be too subtle to measure. It may be an evolutionary novelty that is still pending selection pressure. Things don’t necessarily come under immediate selection as soon as they evolve, either. So this comment:

        — Evolution, i.e. natural selection won’t evolve something like “want truth” unless “wanting truth” increases descendants. —

        seems a little over-reaching. Evolution can, has, and will continue to produce unfit changes, repeatedly, on a massive scale.

      • Evolution can produce unfit simplifications. It can’t produce unfit complications.

        Complicated systems require more than simple random drift, complicated changes require multiple simple changes that work together in concert to produce something complicated. That takes selection.

        Something complicated like “want truth” isn’t genetically determined anyway, the capacity to “want truth” is inherent in the human brain, but whether that brain develops that want is a detail of development.

        Punish people when they contradict the leader, then individuals will come to adopt what ever the leader says as the thing to agree with.

      • Steven E

        Evolution, i.e. natural selection won’t evolve something like “want truth” unless “wanting truth” increases descendants.

        Right. And?

        It’s fairly obvious to me, at least, that near truths are useful. Knowing the truth about which plants are poisonous, which animals are dangerous, etc. would seem to correlate pretty well with surviving and having descendants survive; a desire to know the truth would then correlate with success.

        Unnatural selection can select for anything

        Um, no, it similarly can only select for things that increase descendants under the circumstances. The only difference is that the circumstances are chosen by a mind rather than physical nature — and, to a materialist, those are the same thing anyway.

        can even select for “believe nonsense” if the alternatives are believe nonsense or be killed by nonsense believers.

        Yes, like I said, it’s perfectly possible that a generic “WANT TRUTH” which evolved for the obvious utility in the near domain will then be acted on by natural selection to care less about far domains than near ones, insofar as desiring truth about far domains is detrimental to survival and reproduction. But because division between near and far domains is context-dependent and unstable, the result is any such selection will be fitful and partial at best.

        In particular, it’s a lot easier to evolve a “don’t disagree with your social group out loud” mechanism (since that is directly selected for) than modifying a pro-survival “want truth” mechanism to distinguish “near” and “far” domains.

        Which brings us back to evolutionary selection to want to know the truth (domain unrestricted) is substantially more evolutionarily plausible than evolutionary selection to want to know the truth (near domain only).

  • Ely

    Suppose you happen to be a homosexual and you read some research papers that suggest that heterosexuals earn more, live longer, report feeling happier, stay married longer, etc. etc. Should you then seek to acquire heterosexual tendencies or beliefs? This seems like a sanity check on this idea… but I really do not know what Robin would say. If there existed a drug or simple operation that provably could change sexual orientation at relatively low cost, would you advocate that (ignoring any social cost for undergoing the treatment for the moment) someone should do it? This reminds me of the baby-selling example Tyler Cowen used in a Blogging Heads discussion with Peter Singer.

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  • Rationalist

    I doubt that I could ever convince myself to believe in God the same way religious people do. I have learned a little bit too much about rationality from the LW/OB meme-cluster, and I naturally have a tendency to be quite rational/consistent/non-compartmentalizing.

    I think that if a terrorist with an accurate brain-scanner put a gun to my head and said “You have to really believe in God in the next hour or I will kill you” I would not be able to save myself.

  • CPV`

    ” 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”

    I suppose it’s quite possible to have a utility function where many of these have negative coefficients. I think that answers the question.

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  • slendermeans

    A lot of the previous commenters basically said what I was thinking, that despite the “benefits” of religion, it’d be incredibly difficult to force yourself to be religious. It seems as though some of the most troubled people I’ve known are those who constantly doubt the existence of God while trying to live a Godly life. These include a father-in-law I’ve never met who’s been imprisoned for the statutory rape of his own step-daughter, my own father who’s suffered from depression for many years, various drug addicted 20-somethings, & a crackhead who robbed my parents and wrote them emotional letters about his faith from prison. So I’m an atheist for personal reasons. I feel like many Christians I’ve known have been willing to sin because they knew they could ask forgiveness. I’ve always found it easier to just keep from doing things that hurt myself and others. I think morality makes more sense that way & I don’t want to feel guilty for things that do no harm or even for things that help people.

    That said, as an atheist, I’m a happy non-smoker who exercises. I’ve been married almost 5 years & we’re planning to have 1 or 2 children. My household now makes almost $100k a year. I’ve never committed a crime or used illegal drugs. I have a number of friends, religious and non-religious. I’ve volunteered in the past and while we don’t donate much to charity yet, we plan on giving to effective charities once we’re done paying student loans off & saving for a house. If these are the things that make a person good (& I think there’s a lot more to it than that), then I apparently don’t need to be religious to be a good person. 🙂

  • Marshall

    There is a long history that shows that living a lie is destructive. There is also a long history that shows that the difference between the “near truth” and the “far truth” is ultimately illusory.

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  • After I originally commented I clicked the -Notify me when new comments are added- checkbox and now each time a remark is added I get four emails with the same comment. Is there any way you can take away me from that service? Thanks!

  • Dave

     “People with religious beliefs, and associated behavior, consistently tend to have better lives.”

    Are you familiar with the difference between correlation and causation?

  • Well, the knowledge of the territory is what allows some people to predict with high probability that statement X is true and statement Y is false.

    For those who don’t care about the territory, I guess it’s about tribal status. Who game them the power? Those with lower status, by their weakness or gullibility.

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  • TheMechanicalAdv

    I don’t see how “caring about” something is a well-defined relation. Doesn’t it make more sense to define one’s behavior in terms of things like what you tend to do, what you like to do, what you feel obligated to do, etc.?

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  • JW Ogden

    A pet peeve of mine is the leftists get upset and say how terrible it is that people do NOT believe in evolution, but it has almost no implications for policy, while things like anti-GM, anti-vaccination, blank slateism and yes AGW do effect policy.

    • almost no implications for policy

      Seems to me to have enormous implications for education policy.