Archive for January, 2009

These two posts by Robin Hanson are so loaded with insight, that I feel obligated to write about it.  I’ll do my best to highlight and summarize the key ideas, but you’re probably better off just reading the posts.  He starts by pointing out that social minds involve tradeoffs:

The first tradeoff is that social minds must both make good decisions, and present good images to others. 

The second key tradeoff is that minds must often think about the same sorts of things using different amounts of detail.  Detailed representations tend to give more insight, but require more mental resources.  In contrast, sparse representations require fewer resources, and make it easier to abstractly compare things to each other.

He argues that “near” thoughts should use detailed representations, and that decisions matter more than image.  “Far” thoughts can use sparse representations, and  image matters more than decisions.

If you’re talking with someone about future planning (“far”), you’re more interested in signaling your values to them.  If you’re talking about an issue that affects you today or in the near future, you need to work through the details of the problem and take specific actions (you’re less concerned about signaling).  Robin points out that sometimes this can lead to hypocrisy, in the sense that your “near” actions won’t lead to long term outcomes that are consistent with your “far” thinking.

Robin then considers the implications:

If our far thoughts are more distorted to present good images, then the next step down the rabbit hole is this: to judge how we will typically act, others should prefer to see our near thoughts, at least if they can distinguish near versus far thoughts.

Once we evolved to weigh near others’ thoughts more heavily, the next step would be to look for cheap ways to have good-looking near-thoughts, without paying the full price of distorting important actions. That is, our mind designer would look for ways to show “detached” near thoughts, consistent with good-image far-thoughts, but not actually impacting much on important near decisions. This could be accomplished by vivid engaging detail that can clearly occupy our near thought systems, but which isn’t much connected to substantial personal decisions.

He then went on to give some interesting examples involving religion and movies.

This whole line of reasoning suggests a major genetic fitness advantage for people who are good at deception.  In some cases there is a fitness advantage to taking a different action than the one you are signaling.  An obvious example is monogamy.  Men increased fitness by having more partners.  Women increased fitness by having a loyal partner.  The way for men to have more partners was to be good at signaling, but not practicing, loyalty. 

In a discussion of this topic, one of my friends said:

I have often wondered if what we value is only valued because it puts people who can’t do the juggling act at a disadvantage. …. we create norms that delibertly go against fitness to decrease others chances of it while hoping to maximize ours by going against them.

In other words, you can get a big competitive advantage if you create norms that (a) hurt fitness; (b) are difficult for some people to get away with violating;  and (c) are not difficult for you to get away with violating.  By “get away with” I mean that you can violate the norms without people knowing it, i.e., you’re a good liar.

The visionary denies the truth to himself, the liar only to others.  — Friedrich Nietzsche

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We make decisions on a regular basis that trap us into a particular existence.  Decisions are steps down a path.  The further you get down the path, the more difficult it is ever go back. 

What job to take.  Where to live.  To get married or not. Have kids or not.  When to get married or have kids.  Even smaller decisions. Who to spend time with.  What to spend time on.  Every one of these decisions contributes to the trap.  There is no avoiding being trapped.  You might try to avoid it, for example, by changing careers often.  But even that traps you.  If one day you realize you would prefer a life with long standing, solid roots, it might be too late. 

The word trapped has a negative connotation to it.  If you’re a good decision-maker and are on the lucky end of circumstance, you might be trapped in very pleasant existence.  But you are still trapping yourself with your decisions.

You could attempt a do over.  Rick Rosner appeared in an episode of Errol Morris’ First Person.  He told the story of how he kept trying to do high school over again.  Here is a clip from the show:

It’s a natural desire.  You live through some experience, like high school.  You learn from it.  You know what you would do if you could go back. 

But, life is an apprenticeship for a job you’ll never have.

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Religion and violence

I like a lot about The End of Faith. There are a few things that bother me, however, which I’ll get into now.

Religion leading us to extinction?

Sam Harris is very concerned that religious beliefs will lead to the extinction of humans. Quoting from the book:

We are fast approaching a time when the manufacture of weapons of mass destruction will be a trivial undertaking; the requisite information and technology are now seeping into every corner of our world. … we can see at a glance that aspiring martyrs will not make good neighbors in the future. We have simply lost the right to our myths, and to our mythic identities.

I pray that we may one day think clearly enough about these matters to render our children incapable of killing themselves over their books. If not our children, then I suspect it could well be too late for us, because while it has never been difficult to meet your maker, in fifty years it will simply be too easy to drag everyone else along to meet him with you.

There is certainly reason for concern. It is, however, a little unclear to me how much of the world’s violence is attributable to religion. Yes, in most conflicts religion does seem to play a role. However, I agree with Errol Morris that

Religion can certainly help good people to do evil things, but good people do evil things even without religion.

Even without religion, people would find other differences with their rivals that they could cling to. Groups often battle over control of resources. Members of opposing groups fall into the trap of correspondence bias — they attribute differences in action to differences in character. It’s not that your adversaries are like you, but have different experiences, perspective and interests that drive their action. It’s that they are innately evil. You don’t imagine that you would be like them if you were in their place.

With that said, I do think that religion can make the difference between a violent or non-violent protestor. There is something uniquely powerful about the belief that God is on your side. I can’t think of anything quite as powerful that doesn’t involve religion.


Harris is particularly tough on Islam. He has a chapter entitled The Problem With Islam, where he argues that Islam is a dangerous religion. Quoting from the book:

…Islam is undeniably a religion of conquest. The only future devout Muslims can envisage — as Muslims — is one in which all infidels have been converted to Islam, subjugated, or killed.

He goes on to quote from the Qur’an. He also cites a Pew study where a nontrivial percentage of Muslims said that suicide bombing in defense of Islam is justifiable (e.g., 43% of Jordanians said it’s justifiable).

There are some problems with his argument. First, there is a problem with the interpretation of the texts. I’ll quote my friend on this one

The texts that discuss fighting are all done in a historical context and has to be balanced against all the other verses that talk about peace. It’s not that hard to figure out…. and there are like 5 verses that discuss fighting… and it was to the Prophet, who was a head of state. I mean, you honestly don’t have to be a genius to figure that out.

The other issue has to do with how the perceived actions of people that believe in a certain religion affect your judgement about that religion. Harris seems particularly alarmed by suicide bombing. It seems to me that that is what is driving his opinion that Islam is a violent religion.

Cause and effect

We live in world where state violence is not considered terrorism. Take, for example, the US invasion of Iraq. We are a majority Christian nation. George Bush claims to be a Christian. There were reports that he said that God told him to invade Iraq. He certainly referred to God often when talking about foreign policy. Like suicide bombers, Bush thought he was fighting for a just cause (I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt). He thought he was on the side of God. Why isn’t US aggression, especially violence that was ordered by a Christian President who was inspired by God, used as evidence of Christian violence?

Or consider Israeli aggression:

The Israeli occupation of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip in the aftermath of the June 1967 war had very little to do with security and everything to do with territorial expansionism. The aim was to establish Greater Israel through permanent political, economic and military control over the Palestinian territories. And the result has been one of the most prolonged and brutal military occupations of modern times.

Why isn’t Israeli violence considered to be evidence that Judaism is a violent religion? As Nir Rosen put it:

The powerful – whether Israel, America, Russia or China – will always describe their victims’ struggle as terrorism, but the destruction of Chechnya, the ethnic cleansing of Palestine, the slow slaughter of the remaining Palestinians, the American occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan – with the tens of thousands of civilians it has killed … these will never earn the title of terrorism, though civilians were the target and terrorising them was the purpose.

The reason is because the powerful write history.

Imagine things were different. Imagine that a majority Muslim nation was the major military superpower in the world. It worked to expand its wealth and power, at the expense of citizens of less powerful countries. Let us assume that one group of people that really suffered at the hands of this superpower happened to be Christian. Would some of these Christians fight back? Would they launch rockets into that nation if they could? Would some of them resort to terrorism? And if so, would they use the Bible to help justify it? I think so. People start with their bottom line. It wouldn’t be difficult to come up with passages in the Bible. I mean you could turn to Deuteronomy “you must kill him, your hands must strike the first blow in putting him to death and the hands of the people following” or John 15:6 “and men gather them, and cast them into the fire, and they are burned.” Sure, maybe that is not the right interpretation of the text, but like my friend said, that’s what happens with the Qur’an.

Harris seems to be aware that people could use the Bible to justify violence. He said that:

A future in which Islam and the West do not stand on the brink of mutual annihilation is a future in which most Muslims have learned to ignore most of their canon, just as most Christians have learned to do [emphasis mine].

But would most Christians “ignore most of their canon” if they were in the position that the Palestinians are in?

If there was a majority Christian nation, a majority Muslim nation, a majority Jewish nation, a majority Hindu nation, etc., that all had similar power and resources, then we might be in a better position to judge the effect of the religion on violent behavior. We do not live in a ceteris paribus world, however.

I don’t think that any of these religions inherently inspire violence. Oppression is the breading ground of extremism. If the world community works together on education, human rights, democracy, freedom, and so on, I think we’ll see a reduction in violent, radical behavior. I’m not sure that Harris’ approach, which comes across as a call for a war against religion, is a winning strategy. I do share many of his concerns though.

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The End of Faith

I’m currently reading Sam Harris’ The End of Faith.  I have mixed feelings about the book.  Perhaps I’ll discuss that another day.  For now, I’ll just quote from the book some things that I found interesting:

The belief that certain books were written by God leaves us powerless to address the most potent source of human conflict, past and present. … It is safe to say that few of us would have thought so many people could believe such a thing, if they did not actually believe it.  Imagine a world in which generations of human beings come to believe that certain films were made by God or that specific software was coded by him.  Imagine a future in which millions of our descendants murder each other over rival interpretations of Star Wars…  Could anything — anything — be more ridiculous?  And yet, this would be no more ridiculous than the world we are living in. 

The Bible, it seems certain, was the work of sand-strewn men and women who thought the earth was flat and for whom the wheelbarrow would have been a breathtaking example of emerging technology.  To rely on such a document as the basis for our worldview — however heroic the effort of redactors — is to repudiate two thousand years of civilizing insights that the human mind has only just begun to inscribe upon itself through secular politics and scientific culture.

…it is merely an accident  of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window.

The writers of Luke and Matthew…insist that Mary conceived as a virgin (Greek parthenos)…  Unfortunately for fanciers of Mary’s virginity, the Hebrew word alma (for which parthenos is an erroneous translation) simply means “young woman”…  It would appear that Western civilization has endured two millennia of consecrated sexual neurosis simply because the authors of Matthew and Luke could not read Hebrew.

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“Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book.”

–Sam Harris, The End of Faith

Continuing from parts one, two and three

In general, two things should drive our state of belief:  how plausible the theory seems and how much evidence there is in its favor (prior and posterior probabilities). 

Plausibility depends on our current state of knowledge.  It’s fairly subjective. Yet, it’s a good starting point.  Imagine that, when you are told some theory or hypothesis, prior to seeing any evidence for or against it, you state how likely you think it is that the theory is true.  You just make an educated guess.  For example, if someone told me that listening to music causes liver damage, I’d be very skeptical, because it’s not easy to imagine the causal pathway from sound waves to liver damage (which is an organ that is seemingly unrelated).  Once you’ve decided on a prior degree of confidence, you then observe the evidence. Perhaps experiments on both humans and mice have investigated music and liver function.  Based on the evidence, you update your beliefs.  Weaker prior beliefs require stronger evidence to sway you.

I’ve noticed that humans have varying degrees of skepticism about equally plausible claims.  This variance depends on both the source of the claim, and on the implications of claim

Source of the claim

Who do you trust?  Scientists? The government? Your friends and neighbors?  The Bible?  The answer to this question seems to affect how skeptical you are.  If you believe in the Bible, for example, you are much less skeptical of scientists who claim to have evidence in favor of intelligent design than you are of scientists who present evidence in favor of evolution (confirmation bias).  Similarly, if you don’t trust authority figures, you might be far less skeptical of your neighbor who claims vaccines are dangerous than you are of scientists who say they’re not.  Alternatively, some people probably rely too much on experts.

Who you trust is probably driven to some extent by social networks, group cohesion and bonding.  It often feels good to go against the mainstream, and bond with your group.  Robin Hanson has written about this form of bias here:

emotional attachment… is a rationality no-no for factual beliefs, especially controversial ones. 

If you feel tempted to say “I believe X” and can feel your emotions swell with the evil pleasure of attachment via belief, watch out! 

And here:

You just can’t fight “conformity” by indulging the evil pleasure of enjoying your conformity to a small tight-knit group of “non-conformists.”  All this does is promote some groups at the expense of other groups, and poisons your mind in the process.  It is like fighting “loyalty” by dogged devotion to an anti-loyalty alliance.

Best to clear your mind and emotions of group loyalties and resentments and ask, if this belief gave me no pleasure of rebelling against some folks or identifying with others, if it was just me alone choosing, would my best evidence suggest that this belief is true?  All else is the road to rationality ruin. 

Implications of the claim

If pizza is my favorite food, I’m probably going to be very skeptical if someone tells me that consuming it will shorten my life.  I don’t want to believe anything bad about pizza consumption, because I don’t want to stop eating it.  This is a cognitive bias that I’ve observed many times.  On the other hand, if you like the implications then you are less skeptical of the evidence.  For example, if you are anti-abortion, you might be very quick to accept as true the claim that abortion increases the risk of breast cancer, even though the evidence in favor of it is very weak.

Religious beliefs and evidence

There seems to be a puzzling relationship between the plausibility of a claim and the evidence required to convince someone it’s true.  As I said before, nearly all religions make claims that sound crazy, based strictly on what we have observed in our lifetime.  For example, we have never seen a talking snake, or a river full of blood, or really any miracles.  Claims of this nature should therefore be viewed with much skepticism.  It’s not that you rule them out, it’s that you require a lot of evidence in their favor. 

Surprisingly, though, people seem much less skeptical of claims made in religious texts, then they are of claims that at least appear to be physically plausible.  For example, if I said “scientists now think that hot dog consumption causes stomach cancer,” most people would dismiss the statement.  Even though it does sound like something that could be true. The hot dog does spend some time in the stomach.  On the other hand, if I told people the story of Noah’s ark, many would nod their head in approval.  This approval would come despite the fact that we’ve never seen a human that would be capable of carrying out such a task.  The more absurd claim receives less skepticism than the more plausible claim.  Why?  Why are people, who otherwise are skeptical and cynical, so willing to accept as true these laws-of-physics-violating events?  Why are we more skeptical of things for which we have evidence?

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I recently watched Werner Herzog’s documentary “Encounters at the End of the Word”. It’s a documentary about Antarctica and the people that live there. It’s very interesting, with a lot of beautiful footage. Yet, the thing that stands out in my mind is this penguin:

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Continuing from parts one and two

Why do so many humans believe in the supernatural?  Why do they accept as true stories that involve unbelievable tales? 

Pascal Boyer consider this issue from a cognitive-evolutionary perspective in his book Religion Explained. Robin Hanson reviewed the book here.  From his review:

The first empirical regularity that Boyer describes is that each supernatural concept tends to violate a single ontological assumption. That is, human minds are endowed with many default assumptions about a few basic categories, including person, animal, plant, tool, and natural object. For example, an animal is assumed to have the same basic body plan throughout its life, and so a butterfly seems supernatural because it violates this assumption. By violating just one ontological assumption, supernatural concepts maximize the relevance of our other non-violated assumptions, and so make stories about these concepts easy and interesting to tell.

A second empirical regularity is that religious thinking tends to focus on people-like supernatural entities with great access to socially-relevant information. When a person assumes that these entities share her moral intuitions, and that they know about all the bad things she does, that person expects these entities to get mad and punish her for behaving badly. This makes these entities highly relevant subjects of thought and discussion.

A third empirical regularity is that religious rituals have a lot in common with cleansing rituals. Our mental systems for dealing with disease via disgust have had to accept the validity of specific procedures to protect us against unseen enemies, even when we had no direct evidence of those unseen enemies, nor any understanding of why each procedure protects us. Our mental systems for dealing with social rituals similarly required us to accept them without understanding their social function. Given these, it seems a small step to accept specific odd social procedures that protect us against supernatural entities.

Finally, human corpses are highly relevant entities that violate our ontological assumptions (being both person and natural object) and trigger our disease/disgust mental systems. They are thus prototypical religious objects, and are considered so the world over.

He also offers some criticism of the book in his review, which is worth reading.

Boyer recently wrote an essay on the topic which appeared in Nature (I have a pdf copy; email me if you want it).  Here are some highlights:

experiments reveal that most people entertain highly anthropomorphic expectations about gods, whatever their explicit beliefs. When they are told a story in which a god attends to several problems at once, they find the concept quite plausible, as gods are generally described as having unlimited cognitive powers. Recalling the story a moment later, most people say that the god attended to one situation before turning his attention to the next. People also implicitly expect their gods’ minds to work much like human minds, displaying the same processes of perception, memory, reasoning and motivation. Such expectations are not conscious, and are often at odds with their explicit beliefs.

Experiments suggest that people best remember stories that include a combination of counterintuitive physical feats (in which characters go through walls or move instantaneously) and plausibly human psychological features (perceptions, thoughts, intentions).  Perhaps the cultural success of gods and spirits stems from this memory bias.

Unlike other social animals, humans are very good at establishing and maintaining relations with agents beyond their physical presence; social hierarchies and coalitions, for instance, include temporarily absent members. … It is a small step from having this capacity to bond with non-physical agents to conceptualizing spirits, dead ancestors and gods, who are neither visible nor tangible, yet are socially involved. This may explain why, in most cultures, at least some of the superhuman agents that people believe in have moral concerns. … Experiments show that it is much more natural to think “the gods know that I stole this money” than “the gods know that I had porridge for breakfast”.

In addition, the neurophysiology of compulsive behaviour in humans and other animals is beginning to shed light on religious rituals.  These behaviours include stereotyped, highly repetitive actions that participants feel they must do, even though most have no clear, observable results


we now know that all versions of religion are based on very similar tacit assumptions, and that all it takes to imagine supernatural agents are normal human minds processing information in the most natural way.

He concludes:

Some form of religious thinking seems to be the path of least resistance for our cognitive systems. By contrast, disbelief is generally the result of deliberate, effortful work against our natural cognitive dispositions — hardly the easiest ideology to propagate.

Robin Hanson wrote a fantastic post today, looking at why we like fictional stories and have religious beliefs.  It’s not a light read, but it is loaded with interesting ideas.  Here are some highlights:

we evolved a tendency to accept strange memorable group beliefs to create a high cost of leaving our group, and to show that we expect to be punished if we are not nice

both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice.  In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on.  

…We love to tell associates about our favorite stories, and prefer them to love them too.

As with religion, the beliefs of ours that most reassure others are not necessarily the most accurate


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