Tag Archives: Religion

Douthat’s God Argument

Ross Douthat argues for God:

idea that the universe was created with intent, intelligence and even love explained why the world in which you found yourself had the appearance of a created thing: not just orderly, law-bound and filled with complex systems necessary for human life, but also vivid and beautiful and awesome in a way that resembles and yet exceeds the human capacity for art. …

idea that human beings are fashioned, in some way, in the image of the universe’s creator explained why [you are] … obviously part of nature, an embodied creature with an animal form, and yet your consciousness also seemed to stand outside it, with a peculiar sense of immaterial objectivity, an almost God’s-eye view — constantly analyzing, tinkering, appreciating, passing moral judgment. …

assumption that humans are material creatures connected to a supernatural plane explained … incredible variety of experiences described as “mystical” or “numinous,” unsettling or terrifying, or just really, really weird — ranging from baseline feelings of oneness and universal love to strange happenings at the threshold of death to encounters with beings that human beings might label (gods and demons, ghosts and faeries) but never fully understand. …

speculation about a multiverse in part because [we have] … repeatedly confirmed the strange fittedness of our universe to human life. … “hard problem” of consciousness: the difficulty of figuring out how physical processes alone could create the lived reality of conscious life, … our long track record of successful efforts to understand the material world — doubles as evidence that our minds have something in common with whatever mind designed the universe. (More)

So the phenomena (P) to explain are:
A) our part of the universe seems tuned to allow life, which exists here, and is ordered,
B) humans now exist, are conscious, and have particular concepts of beauty and morals
C) humans think big thoughts, and have made some progress understanding the universe
D) humans also come across some weird stuff we don’t understand

The usual “science” (S) theory says:
A) a big enough dumb universe can have many differently-tuned parts; in one life arises
B) lasting life eventually creates order and minds with abstract intelligence
C) intelligence naturally creates concepts of consciousness, beauty, and morality
D) intelligence will try to and can understand some but not all of its universe

The alternative “God” (G) theory says:
A) A “perfect” mind exists without a universe, or even time, needs no resources, has no mental limits
B) Just by thinking, this mind can learn anything and create universes, life, creatures, and minds
C) This mind has particular concepts of beauty and morals, and gave them to humans
D) This mind makes some humans see strange things for various mostly-unknown reasons

So which of theories S or G does better at explaining P?

Theory S should be discounted to the extent that it seems a priori unlikely that a dumb universe would be that enormously big. Also discount S to the extent you doubt (much more than I) the usual theories suggesting why enough dumb matter might create life, and some creatures might gain abstract intelligence, seek to understand their universe, and develop concepts of feelings, beauty, and morality. Also discount S if you think the human level of understanding vs. not of its universe differs greatly from what you’d expect from the most intelligent creatures to evolve in the particular-sized societies we have seen. I don’t, and don’t see how humans understanding some things but not understanding others can both be taken as evidence for G over S.

Theory G should be discounted to the extent that you (like me) see minds like ours as way too complex to be the primitives that one postulates for a scenario, and find the idea of unconstrained minds out-of-time that make things via their thoughts to be strange and borderline incoherent. After all, all the minds we have ever seen in detail have been in time, with a great many limitations (e.g., memory, speed, mistakes, sensor input) tied in detail to the limitations of particular complex localized physical objects (i.e., particular brains). If this perfect mind can make minds more like itself, why does it make these very limited minds tied in such detail to these limited brains?

Yes, theory S may fail to predict many details of human beauty and morality concepts; according to S some details are arbitrary and random, based on contingent features of the species involved. And yes, theory G predicts that these features come from the perfect mind. But G also fails to predict those same details; it just assumes them as part of the perfect mind.

Furthermore, I don’t at all see how strange stuff that some humans see but can’t explain is support for G over S. Under both theories, there would sometimes be strange stuff that humans find hard to understand. Some claim that particular variations of the perfect mind is the best explanation of particular strange stuff, but there are many conflicting such claims. As there are variations of both S and G that predict more strange stuff, and variations that predict less strange stuff, I don’t see how the existence of strange stuff supports one over the other.

Me, I find it far easier to believe in an enormous dumb universe than in unlimited minds that can make anything by thinking, yet choose to make minds with limits tied in such detail to the limits of particular brains. Seems far simpler to me to just see the minds we see as the activity that results from the evolved brains we see, with no non-brain-based minds existing.

Added 18Aug: I should note that perhaps the most common objection to G is the “problem of evil”. If the idea of this perfect mind sharing your moral ideals is a key part of the appeal, you can indeed be put off by their appearing not to act in the way this would suggest.

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Status Madness Starves Religion

A big reason why we have the delusions we do: as we get rich, we each increasingly over-estimate our relative social status. … evolution had humans use their absolute income/wealth to judge their relative status. (I’m talking here about overall status in the larger community, not status relative to particular associates …) Yes, this method would work badly in environments where communities varied greatly in average levels of absolute income/wealth. …

This theory predicts that humans came to live much longer after the industrial revolution. … this theory predicts what we have seen: declining rates of violence and conflict, less war, and widening moral circles. … key prediction is: we are more mad for status, as we think we already have a lot of it. … this predicts more school … [as predicted,] fertility has fallen dramatically over the last few centuries … people more eager for news, talk, politics, democracy, government, and paternalistic policies. …

Regarding religion, our seeing ourselves as higher status makes us more expect to be prophets, priests, monks, martyrs, and activists, but less to be the prototypical attendee of religious services, the meek supplicant to whom religion offers comfort and meaning in their hard life. (More)

Centuries ago states took power and property from the church, and then over time participation in religion by ordinary people has greatly declined; I can see this decline directly in my family in in the families of people around me. Across nations (though not much within nations), this decline (and a decline in superstition) has been correlated with rising income, education, and welfare spending. People are mainly religious because parents push it on them, and religious change seems to be concentrated in childhood; once people reach adulthood they mostly retain their prior religion levels.

While many theories have been offered to explain this decline, status madness seems to me a pretty good candidate. People in richer and more educated nations see themselves as higher status. And the higher that people see themselves, the less willing they are to bow down to others. Culture has eliminated most of the ways that people once had to defer and bow to elites around them. We’ve used democracy to get rid of kings, and to see ourselves as partial rulers. And, full of ourselves, we are reluctant to bow down before and worship gods. Even ideal gods.

Some see the key dynamic here as people slowly learning over time the fact that there are no gods. But why should a nation have to get rich itself to learn this fact, if other nations around it have already learned it? Furthermore, this learning theory predicts that opinion change should follow a random walk, not a straight trend. And even today very few people actually understand the relevant evidence well enough to make this judgment.

Furthermore there are actually are gods! Maybe not the gods described in the most popular religions, but gods nonetheless. We should estimate that roughly half of the universe out there right now is filled with advanced creatures who are to us as gods. This part of the universe will be filled with gods within a billion years, and much sooner if we don’t all kill ourselves. And we might be being visited by UFO aliens right now.

Someday most of our descendants will meet creatures who are to them as gods. (Even if those gods are other of our descendants.) At that point I predict that they will no longer be so status mad, and so full of themselves, as to be unwilling to respect those gods. They will bow down to, and even worship, their betters.

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Real Vs. Fake Stories: Complements or Substitutes?

Regarding meaningful stories and narratives, I see two huge trends over the last century or so.

  1. First, we’ve seen a great increase in the amount of fiction consumed. People now spend many hours of day watching TV and movies, reading novels, etc. Centuries ago this fraction of time was far lower. An important fraction of these stories take place in universes which make a lot more emotional and moral sense than our real world seems to, especially on larger historical and cosmological scales.
  2. Second, we’ve seen a great decline in passions regarding grand historical and cosmological narratives. Religion, nationalism, and ideology all seem to have waned. Yes many people still care a lot about such things today, but centuries ago people eagerly and repeatedly went to war over such things. (We even instituted “freedom of speech” to cut back on their destructive enthusiasm.)

Note that I’m not saying that these “real” narratives are true, just that many people treat them as true. (Or as more true.) This is in stark contrast to stories that inspire and engage people, but which people don’t even pretend are true. (Trekkies love Star Trek, but don’t claim it really happened.)

One simple interpretation of these two trends is that “fake” stories are a substitute for “real” ones. To review, A and B are substitutes when you less want A the more you have of B, while A and B are complements when you more want A the more you have of B. So the theory here would be that we less want “real” stories the more “fake” stories we consume.

One problem with my theory is that most people seem to think fake and real stories are complements:

Now if we just look at random stories, and ignore their types, it seems clear that individual stories are on net substitutes. We only have so many hours a day to consume stories, so if we spend another hour on a particular story, that leaves fewer hours for other stories. So if individual stories are substitutes, it seems plausible that so are categories of stories.

But they why would all these poll respondents be wrong? I suggest: social desirability bias. Stories are seen as good things, and good things are seen to be even better if they are complements. (E.g., exercise and healthy eating.) So I suggest poll respondents are saying that story types are complements mainly to show their support for the good thing of stories.

So if fake and real stories are substitutes, from which side were recent changes driven? A simple tech theory would be that we have improved our ability to tell and share fake stories far more than we’ve improved our ability to construct grant historical and cosmological narratives.

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Reviving Freedom of ‘Religion’

In 1890, the [US] Supreme Court … ‘religion’ has reference to one’s views of his relations to his Creator, … In the 1960s, the Court expanded its view of religion … [to include] Buddhism, Taoism, Ethical Culture, Secular Humanism and others.”

In its 1965 ruling … a given belief that is sincere and meaningful occupies a place in the life of its possessor parallel to that filled by the orthodox belief in God … The Court in this 1970 decision … essentially merged religion with deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs. … Court in its 1972 ruling … suggested a shift back, … applied only to “a ‘religious’ belief or practice,” and “the very concept of ordered liberty precludes allowing every person to make his own standards on matters of conduct in which society as a whole has important interests.”

The Court in its 1981 decision … further expressed its reluctance to protect philosophical values. … Jehovah’s Witness [aversion to weapons job] was a “personal philosophical choice rather than a religious choice”. (more)

Centuries ago, Europe saw fierce religious conflicts, made more destructive by states taking sides. States who supported a particular religion might oppose alternatives via repressing local associates or going to war with associated states. To reduce such conflict, some states adopted “freedom of religion”, which meant the state not taking sides between religions.

This was possible in part because of the typical limited ambitions of both states and religions there and then. Neither the states nor the religions were in the habit of dictating most details of most social practices. So the overlap in their spheres of influence was small enough that states could accept a small loss in their sphere as a reasonable price to pay for less conflict.

Over the intervening centuries, the ambitions of states to dictate social details has greatly increased, but the influence and ambitions of the few most popular traditional religions have mostly waned. This has allowed “freedom of religion” to be nominally maintained, at least regarding those few traditional religions. And as the above quote shows, other taking-of-sides by states regarding religious-like groups and behaviors has largely been “solved” by declaring that they are “not religions”.

The problem of course is that the fundamental problem of passionate conflicts being stoked by states taking sides is not avoided merely by declaring relevant groups and behaviors to be “not religions”. So we have in fact recently seen a steady rise in the destructiveness of conflicts due to states taking sides. Yes, it isn’t yet as bad as centuries ago, but it seems to be on its way, and won’t obviously stop before getting there.

Religions have long existed because they serve deep and ancient human needs. So a decline of the once most popular religions does not imply a decline in social groups and behaviors that serve those ancient needs. It is just that those things are less often officially called “religions”. Yet the passions they inspire and the willingness of associates to sacrifice to show their support for some versions and dislike of others has not obviously greatly diminished.

All of which suggests that, unless we somehow revive a freedom of religion-like-stuff, we are likely to suffer increasingly destructive conflicts due to religious-like groups wielding the power of states against each other. But to revive such a freedom, we would have to pick a legal definition of “religious-like”. What could that be?

Clearly it wouldn’t be sufficient to just refer to beliefs in gods or the supernatural. Yes, people have often shown their devotion to groups by their willingness to believe extreme crazy-sounding stuff, and centuries ago gods and the supernatural fit that bill well. But clearly more recently religious-like groups have found other substitutes. And as it won’t work to have courts judge what beliefs are “crazy”, we can’t use that standard as our legal definition of “religious-like”.

A legal standard standard of “deeply and sincerely held moral and ethical beliefs” would be easier for courts to judge, but that would also seem to greatly limit the scope of the state. Libertarians might go for it, but most others would not.

Another possible standard would be that a group is “religious like” if enough individuals pay high enough and visible enough personal costs to promote it. Like strange food, strange dress, protests, and civil disobedience. But then would suicide or terrorism count? A standard that demands expensive destructive behavior to qualify your group as “religious-like” might induce a lot of that kind of behavior, which seems bad.

Yet another possibility would be to call anything a religion if at least ten percent of citizens says so.

At this point I don’t have any good suggestions, though I’d take any of these last three solutions over the status quo. But I’ve hardly started to think about this, and as some of you out there may have good ideas, I decided to just present the problem in this post, hoping to prod your efforts.

Added 9Apr: On reflection, the problem of religious-like groups wielding the power of the state against competitors seems to be more of an issue for governance processes which allow much discretion in how their power is wielded. In a futarchy, such discretion could exist in the choice of values, but is much harder in the choice of bills to consider or in bets regarding which bills promote the chosen values. If so, freedom of religion would be mainly realized via court vetoes over value elements.

We might like to distinguish between (A) religious-like groups going out of their way to beat on or inconvenience particular competitors, and their (B) just demanding extra accommodation in order to show their dominance and to inconvenience all possible competitors. If so, we might want a futarchy court to stand ready to accommodate religion by vetoing value elements that seem examples of (A), while not vetoing based on religion complaints that seem more to be examples of (B).

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Tales of the Turing Church

My futurist friend Giulio Prisco has a new book: Tales of the Turing Church. In some ways, he is a reasonable skeptic:

I think all these things – molecular nanotechnology, radical life extension, the reanimation of cryonics patients, mind uploading, superintelligent AI and all that – will materialize one day, but not anytime soon. Probably (almost certainly if you ask me) after my time, and yours. … Biological immortality is unlikely to materialize anytime soon. … Mind uploading … is a better option for indefinite lifespans … I don’t buy the idea of a “post-scarcity” utopia. … I think technological resurrection will eventually be achieved, but … in … more like many thousands of years or more.

However, the core of Prisco’s book makes some very strong claims:

Future science and technology will permit playing with the building blocks of spacetime, matter, energy and life in ways that we could only call magic and supernatural today. Someday in the future, you and your loved ones will be resurrected by very advanced science and technology. Inconceivably advanced intelligences are out there among the stars. Even more God-like beings operate in the fabric of reality underneath spacetime, or beyond spacetime, and control the universe. Future science will allow us to find them, and become like them. Our descendants in the far future will join the community of God-like beings among the stars and beyond, and use transcendent technology to resurrect the dead and remake the universe. …

God exists, controls reality, will resurrect the dead and remake the universe. … Now you don’t have to fear death, and you can endure the temporary separation from your loved departed ones. … Future science and technology will validate and realize all the promises of religion. … God elevates love and compassion to the status of fundamental forces, key drivers for the evolution of the universe. … God is also watching you here and now, cares for you, and perhaps helps you now and then. … God has a perfectly good communication channel with us: our own inner voice.

Now I should note that he doesn’t endorse most specific religious dogma, just what religions have in common:

Many religions have really petty, extremely parochial aspects related to what and when one should eat or drink or what sex is allowed and with whom. I don’t care for this stuff at all. It isn’t even geography – it’s local zoning norms, often questionable, sometimes ugly. … [But] the common cores, the cosmological and mystical aspects of different religions, are similar or at least compatible. 

Even so, Prisco is making very strong claims. And in 339 pages, he has plenty of space to argue for them. But Prisco instead mostly uses his space to show just how many people across history have made similar claims, including folks associated with religion, futurism, and physics. Beyond this social proof, he seems content to say that physics can’t prove him wrong: Continue reading "Tales of the Turing Church" »

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My Kind of Atheist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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How Human Are Meditators?

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

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

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

It is the neurological basis for the self:

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

Thinking about others:

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

Remembering the past and thinking about the future:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Caplan Critiques Our Religion Chapter

Bryan Caplan likes our book:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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What TED Needs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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