Category Archives: Religion

Faith in Docs

Today is my health econ final exam.  I also return their last paper, on faith healing.  After an entire semester hearing how we get little health value from a wide margin of medical spending, almost every student (21 undergrads & 9 grads) said that a big argument against legal faith healing is that it can discourage people from going to regular doctors.  Most also said it is hard to evaluate faith healer quality, and to know if they are just in it for the money.   

Sigh.  Regular docs are mostly in it for the money, and are also hard to evaluate.  If we on average get near zero health from our last units of medicine, we are better off replacing those units with anything cheaper, at least if it also gives near zero net health effect and similar non-health benefits.  Faith healing seems to fit this bill. 

Sure, we vary in how much medicine we get, and in how much we would substitute legal faith healing for medicine.  So yes a general trend toward more faith healing would no doubt produce a few people who sometimes get too little medicine.  But that harm should be far outweighed by a reduction in harmful overtreatment.  Alas, apparently even econ students after a semester of my indoctrination can’t see this (only two mentioned it) – we all just love docs too much. 

I’m struck by how emotional was the opposition to faith healing and how timid were its supporters.  Most people believe prayer can make you well, but few believe religious specialists can use such powers to similarly help others.  Yet our faith in docs is so strong that when considering medical quantity variation, a few getting too little dominates our attention – we just can’t see most getting too much.

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Quantum Non-Realism

This post is part of the Quantum Physics Sequence.
Followup toBell’s Theorem

"Does the moon exist when no one is looking at it?"
        — Albert Einstein, asked of Niels Bohr

Suppose you were just starting to work out a theory of quantum mechanics.

You begin to encounter experiments that deliver different results depending on how closely you observe them.  You dig underneath the reality you know, and find an extremely precise mathematical description that only gives you the relative frequency of outcomes; worse, it’s made of complex numbers.  Things behave like particles on Monday and waves on Tuesday.

The correct answer is not available to you as a hypothesis, because it will not be invented for another thirty years.

In a mess like that, what’s the best you could do?

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Expelled Beats Sicko

Metacritic (a review aggregator) gives Michael Moore’s latest movie Sicko a 74 out of 100, while the new Expelled gets only a 20Expelled, however, is a better movie.

In Sicko, Moore shows US folks facing high prices for docs, drugs, and surgery.  Sad anxious people find that if they can’t pay, they may not be treated.  But then we see happy glad folks in England, France, and Canada getting all the medicine they want for free.  Free good, expensive bad — that is the depth of Moore’s celebrated case for universal care.

Sicko makes Expelled seem like a graduate seminar.  In Expelled, experts on many sides speak at length in their own words.  The movie makes a good case for its main claim, that intelligent design advocates are shunned by academia.  And they get opponent Richard Dawkins to admit a 1% chance of God, and a higher chance Earth life may have been designed by distant ancient higher powers.  Both these estimates justify devoting higher-than-now fractions of origin-of-life research to such possibilities.  (And I estimate betting markets would endorse >1% chances for these.)

For my taste, the movie overdid threats to a mythical "academic freedom" that supposedly made the US great, but probably never existed.  It also overdid how understanding Darwin leads people to reject God, and emboldened Nazis to brutality.  These claims are not relevant to the truth of intelligent design, but they are admittedly true and relevant to most viewers’ desire to avoid beliefs with such consequences. 

Sadly, it seems reviewers praised Sicko because they agreed with universal care, and panned Expelled because they disagreed with intelligent design.  The tug-o-war continues.

Should-be-unneeded disclaimers: There are good arguments possible for universal care, and in a betting market I’d probably be short both God and universal design.

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Ramone on Knowing God

Riffing off Eliezer on consciousness, here is (my alter-ego) Ramone on spirituality: 

We are souls who know we are spiritual.  Since we can conceive of mere non-soul "animals," physical bodies without spirit, spirituality must be a non-physical "something more."  (Until someone proves this is not logically possible, we assume it is.)  We call this something more "God", or at least a part of God.  So our full selves, which we call a "soul", contains both a God-part and an animal-part.

We know God is real and that we are not animals.  Skeptics ask: how do we know?  Our God-part, being God and spirit, can directly see God and that it is spiritual.  What could be simpler?  But skeptics persist; they correctly note that it may well be that the spiritual, or God, part of our soul has no causal influence on the body, or animal, part of our soul.  If so, they wonder, how could our animal-parts know about God?  Their mistake is to think that animals "know" anything – clearly only souls know anything.  We obviously use words like "know" and "think" to refer only to high noble things, not base lowly things; there is only a superficial analogy between signal processing in animal bodies and the what spiritual souls know or think.   

But base skeptics persist with their base analogy, asking how our animal parts can process signals to see they are part of a soul with a spiritual part?  After all, skeptics sneer, if spirits have no causal influence on bodies, and if in some alternate evil universe our bodies were in fact not parts of souls but lone animals, would not those bodies process the same signals the same way?  If so, would they not then incorrectly "think", with their animal pseudo-thoughts, that they were part of a soul?  Yes, such imagined abominations could have abominable pseudo-thoughts, but since in our actual universe we actually are spiritual souls, why is it so strange that we actually think that we are what we in fact are?

To belabor the obvious, Ramone’s God argument is intended to mirror Chalmer’s qualia argument.  Accept both or neither, or show the difference.  (FYI, Chalmers and I exchanged about twenty emails last fall.)

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Initiation Ceremony

    The torches that lit the narrow stairwell burned intensely and in the wrong color, flame like melting gold or shattered suns.
    192… 193…
    Brennan’s sandals clicked softly on the stone steps, snicking in sequence, like dominos very slowly falling.
    227… 228…
    Half a circle ahead of him, a trailing fringe of dark cloth whispered down the stairs, the robed figure itself staying just out of sight.
    239… 240…
    Not much longer, Brennan predicted to himself, and his guess was accurate:
    Sixteen times sixteen steps was the number, and they stood before the portal of glass.
    The great curved gate had been wrought with cunning, humor, and close attention to indices of refraction: it warped light, bent it, folded it, and generally abused it, so that there were hints of what was on the other side (stronger light sources, dark walls) but no possible way of seeing through – unless, of course, you had the key: the counter-door, thick for thin and thin for thick, in which case the two would cancel out.
    From the robed figure beside Brennan, two hands emerged, gloved in reflective cloth to conceal skin’s color.  Fingers like slim mirrors grasped the handles of the warped gate – handles that Brennan had not guessed; in all that distortion, shapes could only be anticipated, not seen.
    “Do you want to know?” whispered the guide; a whisper nearly as loud as an ordinary voice, but not revealing the slightest hint of gender.
    Brennan paused.  The answer to the question seemed suspiciously, indeed extraordinarily obvious, even for ritual.

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To Spread Science, Keep It Secret

Followup toJoy in Discovery, Bind Yourself to Reality, Scientific Evidence, Scarcity

Sometimes I wonder if the Pythagoreans had the right idea.

Yes, I’ve written about how "science" is inherently public.  I’ve written that "science" is distinguished from merely rational knowledge by the in-principle ability to reproduce scientific experiments for yourself, to know without relying on authority.  I’ve said that "science" should be defined as the publicly accessible knowledge of humankind.  I’ve even suggested that future generations will regard all papers not published in an open-access journal as non-science, i.e., it can’t be part of the public knowledge of humankind if you make people pay to read it.

But that’s only one vision of the future.  In another vision, the knowledge we now call "science" is taken out of the public domain – the books and journals hidden away, guarded by mystic cults of gurus wearing robes, requiring fearsome initiation rituals for access – so that more people will actually study it.

I mean, right now, people can study science but they don’t.

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Is Humanism A Religion-Substitute?

Followup toBind Yourself to Reality

For many years before the Wright Brothers, people dreamed of flying with magic potions.  There was nothing irrational about the raw desire to fly.  There was nothing tainted about the wish to look down on a cloud from above.  Only the "magic potions" part was irrational.

Suppose you were to put me into an fMRI scanner, and take a movie of my brain’s activity levels, while I watched a space shuttle launch.  (Wanting to visit space is not "realistic", but it is an essentially lawful dream – one that can be fulfilled in a lawful universe.)  The fMRI might – maybe, maybe not – resemble the fMRI of a devout Christian watching a nativity scene.

Should an experimenter obtain this result, there’s a lot of people out there, both Christians and some atheists, who would gloat:  "Ha, ha, space travel is your religion!"

But that’s drawing the wrong category boundary.  It’s like saying that, because some people once tried to fly by irrational means, no one should ever enjoy looking out of an airplane window on the clouds below.

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Religious Cohesion

Evidence is accumulating that religious rituals and belief, especially in moralistic supernatural observers, together strengthen social cohesion.  From the Economist:

To test whether religion might have emerged as a way of improving group co-operation while reducing the need to keep an eye out for free-riders, Dr Sosis drew on a catalogue of 19th-century American communes. … Dr Sosis found that communes whose ideology was secular were up to four times as likely as religious ones to dissolve in any given year. … the more constraints a religious commune placed on its members, the longer it lasted … But the same did not hold true of secular communes. … Ritual constraints are not by themselves enough to sustain co-operation in a community – what is needed in addition is a belief that those constraints are sanctified. …

Dr Sosis has also studied modern secular and religious kibbutzim in Israel. … Within religious communities, men are expected to pray three times daily in groups of at least ten, while women are not. … The researchers’ hypothesis was that in religious kibbutzim men would be better collaborators (and thus would take less) than women, while in secular kibbutzim men and women would take about the same. And that was exactly what happened. …

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Absolute Authority

Followup toBut There’s Still A Chance Right?, The Fallacy of Gray

The one comes to you and loftily says:  "Science doesn’t really know anything.  All you have are theories – you can’t know for certain that you’re right.  You scientists changed your minds about how gravity works – who’s to say that tomorrow you won’t change your minds about evolution?"

Behold the abyssal cultural gap.  If you think you can cross it in a few sentences, you are bound to be sorely disappointed.

In the world of the unenlightened ones, there is authority and un-authority.  What can be trusted, can be trusted; what cannot be trusted, you may as well throw away.  There are good sources of information and bad sources of information.  If scientists have changed their stories ever in their history, then science cannot be a true Authority, and can never again be trusted – like a witness caught in a contradiction, or like an employee found stealing from the till.

Plus, the one takes for granted that a proponent of an idea is expected to defend it against every possible counterargument and confess nothing.  All claims are discounted accordingly.  If even the proponent of science admits that science is less than perfect, why, it must be pretty much worthless.

When someone has lived their life accustomed to certainty, you can’t just say to them, "Science is probabilistic, just like all other knowledge."  They will accept the first half of the statement as a confession of guilt; and dismiss the second half as a flailing attempt to accuse everyone else to avoid judgment.

You have admitted you are not trustworthy – so begone, Science, and trouble us no more!

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A Failed Just-So Story

Followup toRational vs. Scientific Ev-Psych, The Tragedy of Group Selectionism, Evolving to Extinction

Perhaps the real reason that evolutionary "just-so stories" got a bad name is that so many attempted stories are prima facie absurdities to serious students of the field.

As an example, consider a hypothesis I’ve heard a few times (though I didn’t manage to dig up an example).  The one says:  Where does religion come from?  It appears to be a human universal, and to have its own emotion backing it – the emotion of religious faith.  Religion often involves costly sacrifices, even in hunter-gatherer tribes – why does it persist?  What selection pressure could there possibly be for religion?

So, the one concludes, religion must have evolved because it bound tribes closer together, and enabled them to defeat other tribes that didn’t have religion.

This, of course, is a group selection argument – an individual sacrifice for a group benefit – and see the referenced posts if you’re not familiar with the math, simulations, and observations which show that group selection arguments are extremely difficult to make work.  For example, a 3% individual fitness sacrifice which doubles the fitness of the tribe will fail to rise to universality, even under unrealistically liberal assumptions, if the tribe size is as large as fifty.  Tribes would need to have no more than 5 members if the individual fitness cost were 10%.  You can see at a glance from the sex ratio in human births that, in humans, individual selection pressures overwhelmingly dominate group selection pressures.  This is an example of what I mean by prima facie absurdity.

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