Tag Archives: Religion

Religion Can Divert Sacred Energy

FYI, this working paper summarizes my new account of the sacred.

By making X sacred, a group can bind together around their shared view of X, motivate their members, and divert more energy toward X. But this comes at the cost of inducing costly signals of sacrifice for X, and inducing the distortions of setting apart, idealizing, and discouraging deliberative thought about X. Making X sacred can also discourage changes to X; treating X as sacred tends to induce hypocrisies, ones which changes tend to expose.

Due to such distortions, we shouldn’t want to treat too many topics X as sacred. We instead want a more minimal sacred package, with just enough X to bind us well. And we want that package to contain topics X where we either a) naturally value greatly them, b) we want more energy devoted to them, or c) those areas are not much distorted via setting apart, idealization, or feeling not thinking them.

In centuries past, most of our sacred energies were organized around religion. Religions told us that they and their gods were the most sacred topics of all, and then they told us which other topics X were how sacred. But recently, as religions have waned in influence, our sacred energies have lost their religious focus, and have instead become more widely spread across more topics X. We eagerly seek more sacred causes to add to our list of moral crusades.

In the west at least, I think this has resulted in more ways that the sacred distorts our behaviors, and blocks good changes. For example, newly strengthened sacred energies have blocked nuclear power, medical challenge trials, idea futures, and many better institutions that use money more and the nation-state less. “Ethics” often blocks innovation, in the name of the sacred. And in part I blame all this on the declining influence of Christianity.

Christianity once pulled more sacred energy to itself, and it explicitly approved many kinds of competition and market freedoms. Policies that expanded the strength and influence of Christian societies were often praised, even when questionable in other ways. The U.S. two centuries ago was a very religious nation, and allowed quite rapid growth and disruptive changes, more than most other nations would have allowed. And I credit that in part to religion diverting sacred energies away from opposing such changes.

Of course religions also have the potential to encourage sacred energies to apply to too many areas, and add their religious strength to them, to distort behavior and cut innovation even more than might have happened without them. So it is not that religion intrinsically diverges the sacred from causing problems. But religion does seem to have an important potential to do so.

Cultural selection of societies on the basis of their winning economic or military contests may well encourage the less distorting sorts of religions. And that may well have caused the rise of the good sort of Christianity. But as today such cultural selection seems a much weaker force in the world, we can’t count on it so much to get us out of our current sacred-gone-wild problems.

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Why Did Religion Change?

In his new book How Religion Evolved: And Why It Endures, Robin Dunbar reviews many details of the history and correlates of religion. He says that religion’s main function is to aid group cohesion, and that religion has been key to allowing humans to sustain larger groups. While I have doubts about how well he explains these details, his book gives me an excuse to return to this important topic.

To review his review, many animals travel in groups to protect against outside threats, via treating other group members either generically or via simple status ladders. But primates formed large groups via treating every other member differently, especially via hugs and grooming. Primates thus needed big brains to manage the politics of such groups.

Our especially big brains have allowed human groups to get even larger before fragmenting due to internal conflicts. To further support the social cohesion that can sustain larger groups, we evolved smiles, laughter, singing, dancing, communal eating, drugs, sacrifices, humor, emotional story telling, more rituals, and moralizing gods. And we felt closer to associates with whom we shared language, place of origin, child to adult path, hobbies, worldview, musical taste, and sense of humor.

We also evolved trance/mystic experiences, often with romance-like feelings, and often enhanced by drugs. And we evolved supernatural beliefs, with which we made sense of the world, felt power over it, and could accuse associates of witchcraft. Religion is built especially on these two foundations.

All of this makes sense to me. The puzzle I see is that we’ve seen big changes over time, in which the relative importance of these factors has changed. How can we explain such changes?

Language seems to have arisen about 500Kya. Our earliest spirituality apparently included altered mental states such as trances, and animism, wherein most everything around us had a spirit. Roughly 100Kya our ancestors started to put valuable goods into their graves, suggesting beliefs in an afterlife. Such beliefs seem to go together with ancestor worship, and with shamans who specialize in religion.

Starting roughly 10Kya, with the farming revolution, humans started to live more densely, and built special religious spaces. They also found more potent drugs, such as poppy seeds and beer. We then turned to ritual (often human) sacrifice to capricious gods. In larger communities, we soon after saw social stratification, including a separate classes of priests, especially when food storage was possible. In this kind of religion, rituals were a communal duty, to placate the gods, and individual beliefs were unimportant.

Then starting roughly 4Kya, near the “Axial Age”, we saw the rise of a new kind of religion associated with farming and herding in even larger communities, at the latitudes where such larger communities were possible. Most “traditional” religions of today arose during this ancient era. This type of religion was centered on individual beliefs in moralizing gods described in writings that told of stories and doctrines. Religion became a personal duty, often resulting from a personal choice, and love and forgiveness came to matter more, relative to the sheer power of gods.

Finally, we have recently seen a great and somewhat puzzling decline in religion, apparently in association with rising wealth, even though we still have great needs for group cohesion.

To explain these changes, it helps little to point to the timeless advantages of these many strategies. For example, both gods who punish moral violations and also capricious gods who demand ritual sacrifices seem useful for promoting social cohesion. So why did they arise at the particular times they did? Dunbar doesn’t say much on this.

It seems to me that we must focus on using changes to explain changes. For example, perhaps communal responsibility for ritual sacrifice became much more socially potent when aided by drugs in the new religious spaces built for new larger denser communities. And perhaps personal responsibility and beliefs toward moralizing loving gods became much more socially potent when aided by priests who consulted written stories and doctrines.

If “woke” is a new “religion,” then it seems a complement to drugs, it lacks sacred texts, and it often sacrifices humans to pay for a collective guilt, in front of big crowds in the special big public spaces of social media. And it seems to create a new class of priests, and perhaps also a new stratification of the population. That sure sounds a lot like the religious style of the first half of the farming era; is that style returning now?

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Losing My Religion

To a few of my associates, I gave the xmas present of a blog post on a topic they pick. Bryan Caplan just finally made his choice: the story of how I became an atheist.

My immediate family is very religious. My dad (now dead) was a part-time pastor for decades, my mom (still alive) wrote many Christian tween novels, one brother is now a pastor, and the other brother is the music director at what was my dad’s church. As a tween, I myself joined what my parents considered a Christian “cult”, and within a year my parents forbade me from associating with it.

In college I drifted slowly away, eventually to full atheism. (At a similar speed to most peoples’ biggest view changes.) But my change had little to do with disagreeing with church doctrines or with difficulties explaining evil. And I never resented nor confronted my parents for teaching me something with which I later came to disagree. This wasn’t about my relation to them either.

No, the main issue for me was that in college I became greatly persuaded by and deeply immersed in a physics view of the universe. It was not just one set of lenses through which one might look to gain insight. No it purported to offer a complete (if not fully fleshed-out) description of the reality accessible to me. It offered me many detailed ways to test that claim, and it passed those tests as far as I could tell. So far as I could see then, and now, the world immediately around me *IS* in fact the world of photons, electrons, protons, and neutrons described by the physics I learned.

But that world just offers few openings for hidden powers to be listening to or influencing my thoughts and feelings, or changing how my life goes according to my sins and prayers. Sure my family, coworkers, or governments might try to do those things. But I at least see many traces of their existence around me. It is the idea of completely hidden powers doing such things that seems crazy to me. Not logically impossible, but quite implausible given our evidence.

Now I must admit that a similar fraction of those who know physics better than most believe in the god of prayer, compared to others. So what else explains how physics influenced me, compared to them? It might be that I just know physics better than most of them. But modesty forces me to consider other possibilities.

Those of us who are different in the head tend to need some convincing of that fact. You see, we assume we are normal, and relevant evidence tends to be ambiguous. For example, most people I’ve seen doing their homework were doing it alone, in a library, on the bus, or in their bedroom. So I assumed most people were used to thinking by themselves. But I was wrong.

In seventh grade, my English teacher assigned me an unusual lesson plan: go to the library every day and just write. No particular topics, just on whatever I wanted. I loved it, and learned lots. My favorite class in high school was physics because it didn’t ask me to just accept things on faith; we could check claimed results in lab experiments.

In college as a physics major, I discovered that the last two years we went over exactly the same topics as the first two years, this time with more math. I instead want to really understand those topics. So I stopped doing the homework and instead spent the time playing with the equations. I’d ace the exams. I also began to browse libraries for interesting things, think about interesting questions that occurred to me, and worked on my own self-invented projects.

I bailed from my grad program in philosophy of science when it seemed I’d found answers to the main questions I’d had there. And after two years of working full time at Lockheed I switched to thirty hours per week so I could spend the rest of my time studying things on my own. And I’ve since change fields many times when it seemed I was learning less where I was than where I could switch to.

I often meet people who ask how to study a topic, what school should they go to, and I say aren’t you old enough to just go learn stuff by yourself? Most researchers are terrible at explaining why their projects offer the world the best progress bang for their effort buck, but I have no problem offering such explanations.

All of this I think suggests that I’m unusually willing to fully own all of my main opinions and research choices, instead of inheriting them from others. So perhaps that’s another explanation for my atheism. Most people accept the usual beliefs of others around them and assume they must have good reasons. I’m instead enough of a think-for-myself polymath that I have to see such reasons for myself, and know enough tools from enough fields to be able to follow most relevant arguments. And I just don’t see good reasons to believe in hidden powers influencing the thoughts, feelings, and life outcomes of most humans.

Merry Christmas, Bryan.

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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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