Category Archives: Religion

Loving Cranks to Death

From the latest Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion:

[David] Hume writes that clergy (at least those of radical sects) are inherently dangerous and that if allowed to compete with one another will inspire in their adherents "the most violent abhorrence of all other sects, and continually endeavor, by some novelty, to excite the languid devotion of [their] audience." He concludes that the solution is "to bribe their indolence, by assigning stated salaries to their profession, and rendering it superfluous for them to be farther active, than merely to prevent their flock from straying in quest of new pastures". Hume, an agnostic if not an atheist, takes the position that religion is not a public good but its opposite — a public bad — and that government intervention will avert the pervasive negative externality of religious controversy, which clergy create and that threatens public safety.

My colleague Larry Iannaccone:

Looking at Figure 1, one immediately spots the exceptionally low levels of religiosity in the Scandinavian countries and, conversely, the high level of religiosity in the U.S.  As predicted by [Adam] Smith, these extremes correspond to different market structures.  A single state-run (Lutheran) church dominates the market in every Scandinavian country.  In contrast, the United States enjoys a constitutionally mandated free-for-all in which hundreds of denominations compete and none has special status.

Eliezer a year ago:

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Augustine’s Paradox of optimal repentance

Eliezer once wrote this about Newcomb’s problem:

Nonetheless, I would like to present some of my motivations on Newcomb’s Problem – the reasons I felt impelled to seek a new theory – because they illustrate my source-attitudes toward rationality. Even if I can’t present the theory that these motivations motivate…

First, foremost, fundamentally, above all else:

Rational agents should WIN.

As I just commented on another thread, this is faith in rationality, which is an oxymoron.

It isn’t obvious whether there is a rational winning approach to Newcomb’s problem. But here’s a similar, simpler problem that billions of people have believed was real, which I’ll call Augustine’s Paradox (“Lord, make me chaste – but not yet!”)

Most kinds of Christianity teach that your eternal fate depends on your state in the last moment of your life. If you live a nearly-flawless Christian life, but you sin ten minutes before dying and you don’t repent (Protestantism), or you commit a mortal sin and the priest has already left (Catholicism), you go to Hell. If you’re sinful all your life but repent in your final minute, you go to Heaven.

The optimal self-interested strategy is to act selfishly all your life, and then repent at the final moment. But if you repent as part of a plan, it won’t work; you’ll go to Hell anyway. The optimal strategy is to be selfish all your life, without intending to repent, and then repent in your final moments and truly mean it.

I don’t think there’s any rational winning strategy here. Yet the purely emotional strategy of fear plus an irrationally large devaluation of the future wins.

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The Uses of Fun (Theory)

Followup toProlegomena to a Theory of Fun

"But is there anyone who actually wants to live in a Wellsian Utopia?  On the contrary, not to live in a world like that, not to wake up in a hygenic garden suburb infested by naked schoolmarms, has actually become a conscious political motive.  A book like Brave New World is an expression of the actual fear that modern man feels of the rationalised hedonistic society which it is within his power to create."
        — George Orwell, Why Socialists Don't Believe in Fun

There are three reasons I'm talking about Fun Theory, some more important than others:

  1. If every picture ever drawn of the Future looks like a terrible place to actually live, it might tend to drain off the motivation to create the future.  It takes hope to sign up for cryonics.
  2. People who leave their religions, but don't familiarize themselves with the deep, foundational, fully general arguments against theism, are at risk of backsliding.  Fun Theory lets you look at our present world, and see that it is not optimized even for considerations like personal responsibility or self-reliance.  It is the fully general reply to theodicy.
  3. Going into the details of Fun Theory helps you see that eudaimonia is actually complicated – that there are a lot of properties necessary for a mind to lead a worthwhile existence.  Which helps you appreciate just how worthless a galaxy would end up looking (with extremely high probability) if it was optimized by something with a utility function rolled up at random.

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Prolegomena to a Theory of Fun

Followup toJoy in the Merely Good

Raise the topic of cryonics, uploading, or just medically extended lifespan/healthspan, and some bioconservative neo-Luddite is bound to ask, in portentous tones:

"But what will people do all day?"

They don't try to actually answer the question.  That is not a bioethicist's role, in the scheme of things.  They're just there to collect credit for the Deep Wisdom of asking the question.  It's enough to imply that the question is unanswerable, and therefore, we should all drop dead.

That doesn't mean it's a bad question.

It's not an easy question to answer, either.  The primary experimental result in hedonic psychology – the study of happiness – is that people don't know what makes them happy.

And there are many exciting results in this new field, which go a long way toward explaining the emptiness of classical Utopias.  But it's worth remembering that human hedonic psychology is not enough for us to consider, if we're asking whether a million-year lifespan could be worth living.

Fun Theory, then, is the field of knowledge that would deal in questions like:

  • "How much fun is there in the universe?"
  • "Will we ever run out of fun?"
  • "Are we having fun yet?"
  • "Could we be having more fun?"

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Thanksgiving Prayer

At tonight’s Thanksgiving, Erin remarked on how this was her first real Thanksgiving dinner away from her family, and that it was an odd feeling to just sit down and eat without any prayer beforehand.  (Yes, she’s a solid atheist in no danger whatsoever, thank you for asking.)

And as she said this, it reminded me of how wrong it is to give gratitude to God for blessings that actually come from our fellow human beings putting in a great deal of work.

So I at once put my hands together and said,

"Dear Global Economy, we thank thee for thy economies of scale, thy professional specialization, and thy international networks of trade under Ricardo’s Law of Comparative Advantage, without which we would all starve to death while trying to assemble the ingredients for such a dinner as this.  Amen."

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Beliefs Require Reasons, or: Is the Pope Catholic? Should he be?

In the early days of this blog, I would pick fierce arguments with Robin about the no-disagreement hypothesis.  Lately, however, reflection on things like public reason have brought me toward agreement with Robin, or at least moderated my disagreement.  To see why, it’s perhaps useful to take a look at the newspapers

the pope said the book “explained with great clarity” that “an interreligious dialogue in the strict sense of the word is not possible.” In theological terms, added the pope, “a true dialogue is not possible without putting one’s faith in parentheses.”

What are we to make of a statement like this?

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Ask OB: Leaving the Fold

Followup toCrisis of Faith

I thought this comment from "Jo" deserved a bump to the front page:

"So here I am having been raised in the Christian faith and trying not to freak out over the past few weeks because I’ve finally begun to wonder whether I believe things just because I was raised with them. Our family is surrounded by genuinely wonderful people who have poured their talents into us since we were teenagers, and our social structure and business rests on the tenets of what we believe. I’ve been trying to work out how I can ‘clear the decks’ and then rebuild with whatever is worth keeping, yet it’s so foundational that it will affect my marriage (to a pretty special man) and my daughters who, of course, have also been raised to walk the Christian path.

Is there anyone who’s been in this position – really, really invested in a faith and then walked away?"

Handling this kind of situation has to count as part of the art.  But I haven’t gone through anything like this.  Can anyone with experience advise Jo on what to expect, what to do, and what not to do?
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The Evil Pleasure

Pascal Boyer in Nature on religion:

One important finding is that people are only aware of some of their religious beliefs.  … For instance, experiments reveal that most people entertain highly anthropomorphic expectations about gods, whatever their explicit beliefs. … Research has shown that unlike conscious beliefs, which differ widely from one tradition to another, tacit assumptions are extremely similar in different cultures and religions. … Experiments suggest that people best remember stories that include a combination of counterintuitive physical feats … and plausibly human psychological features.  … Experiments show that it is much more natural to think "the gods know that I stole this money" than "the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast." …

Humans are unique among animals in maintaining large, stable coalitions of unrelated individuals, strongly bonded by mutual trust.  Humans evolved the cognitive tools to … gauge others’ reliability. … They can emit and detect costly, hard-to-fake signals of commitment. … When people proclaim their adherence to a particular faith, they subscribe to claims for which there is no evidence, and that would be taken as obviously wrong or ridiculous in other religions groups.  This signals a willingness to embrace the group’s particular norm for no other reason than that it is, precisely, the group’s norm.

We feel a deep pleasure from realizing that we believe something in common with our friends, and different from most people.  We feel an even deeper pleasure letting everyone know of this fact.  This feeling is EVIL.  Learn to see it in yourself, and then learn to be horrified by how thoroughly it can poison your mind.  Yes evidence may at times force you to disagree with a majority, and your friends may have correlated exposure to that evidence, but take no pleasure when you and your associates disagree with others; that is the road to rationality ruin. 

Added 6Nov: I didn’t mean to emphasize the size of the group you agree with.  The emotion is mainly tied to believing the same as an in-group, relative to an out-group.

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Dark Side Epistemology

Followup toEntangled Truths, Contagious Lies

If you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy.

I have previously spoken of the notion that, the truth being entangled, lies are contagious.  If you pick up a pebble from the driveway, and tell a geologist that you found it on a beach – well, do you know what a geologist knows about rocks?  I don’t.  But I can suspect that a water-worn pebble wouldn’t look like a droplet of frozen lava from a volcanic eruption.  Do you know where the pebble in your driveway really came from?  Things bear the marks of their places in a lawful universe; in that web, a lie is out of place.

What sounds like an arbitrary truth to one mind – one that could easily be replaced by a plausible lie – might be nailed down by a dozen linkages to the eyes of greater knowledge.  To a creationist, the idea that life was shaped by "intelligent design" instead of "natural selection" might sound like a sports team to cheer for.  To a biologist, plausibly arguing that an organism was intelligently designed would require lying about almost every facet of the organism.  To plausibly argue that "humans" were intelligently designed, you’d have to lie about the design of the human retina, the architecture of the human brain, the proteins bound together by weak van der Waals forces instead of strong covalent bonds…

Or you could just lie about evolutionary theory, which is the path taken by most creationists.  Instead of lying about the connected nodes in the network, they lie about the general laws governing the links.

And then to cover that up, they lie about the rules of science – like what it means to call something a "theory", or what it means for a scientist to say that they are not absolutely certain.

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Beyond the Reach of God

Followup toThe Magnitude of His Own Folly

Today’s post is a tad gloomier than usual, as I measure such things.  It deals with a thought experiment I invented to smash my own optimism, after I realized that optimism had misled me.  Those readers sympathetic to arguments like, "It’s important to keep our biases because they help us stay happy," should consider not reading.  (Unless they have something to protect, including their own life.)

So!  Looking back on the magnitude of my own folly, I realized that at the root of it had been a disbelief in the Future’s vulnerability – a reluctance to accept that things could really turn out wrong.  Not as the result of any explicit propositional verbal belief.  More like something inside that persisted in believing, even in the face of adversity, that everything would be all right in the end.

Some would account this a virtue (zettai daijobu da yo), and others would say that it’s a thing necessary for mental health.

But we don’t live in that world.  We live in the world beyond the reach of God.

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