Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Rules I Try To Live By; Tricks I Try To Use

These have been useful for me now and then, maybe they'll help you as well!
  • Ever get frustrated at something you did in the past (or more likely, didn't do) and wish you had a time machine so you could go back and change it? Try this instead: think of what you will be frustrated about five years, ten years from now and wish you had a time machine to fix. Guess what? You do. You just traveled back in time from the future, and you're here. Fix it. Related: when you think of how stupid you were five or ten years ago, that's a good sign that you've gotten smarter. You should worry if you never are frustrated with your past self's stupidity.

  • Every minute, every movement, ask yourself why you're doing what you're doing. Each movement of a muscle should lead to a pre-determined goal. You can't make 100% of your movements meet this criterion, but do so as much as possible.

  • If you live in a developed country, chances are most of the problems you encounter are those you've created yourself, and can fix or opt out of. So do that. And don't feel bad when you have trouble breaking out of some negative patterns, because that's another negative pattern. Your life is fine, and maybe you'll make it even better.

  • Imagine how frustrating it would be if you're playing a video game, and your character is sluggish or doesn't move and spends the game doing inconsequential activities that don't score points. Now imagine how frustrating it is that someone in a higher dimension is playing you as a video game character, and here we are reading the internet. Go out and only spend time on things that score points.

  • Many things we believe are wrong. Most things we believe are inconsequential. Beliefs should be constantly thrashed against reality to see if they survive. If they die, they deserve to die.

  • Sometimes people are just going to be jerks or hurt themselves. It's not your fault, and there's no point in feeling bad about it, but get away from them, and don't drive yourself batty trying to save them or help them. Also, it’s okay to want to punish them so they don't do it to someone else. Whether it’s okay to ACTUALLY punish them is a more complicated question.

  • Stay out of zero-sum games. If there's any kind of zero sum game you stay out of, make it status games. Don't underestimate how hard it is for you as a human being to do this, and the least you can do for yourself is not feel bad when you try but you can't.

  • The comparative advantage heuristic: as much as possible, try to restrict what you do to things you like. You probably do those things well, and can get value from them.

  • Think of people by their strengths. This will make them feel good, and will make them (and you) more successful.

  • You can't help everyone, and it's not your job anyway. The more a person is outraged by this statement, in general, the less likely they are to actually be doing anything to help and the more likely their outrage is about virtue signaling rather than to make any change in the world.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Rationalists Should Take Moral Questions Much More Seriously

Morality is not fully rational. A basic foundation of any system of rational decision-making is that the utility of different options be comparable. Yet normal non-psychopathic humans do not permit this. We have sacred values, that is, in the broad sense that we do not permit them to be questioned. For example, if someone asked you if they could kill your child for a certain amount of money, your reaction, I hope, would not be "Well let me compare the utility I would lose from the killing of my child, to the utility I would gain from the money they're offering." Furthermore, I'd wager you're not interested in hearing meta-arguments that you SHOULD be willing to entertain such comparisons. And you also wouldn't compare between different sacred values, e.g. - a Bond villain who makes you choose between killing puppies or the end of American democracy; these are things that are just bad, bad, bad, and mustn't be measured or traded against each other. They're just off limits, and the limits are beyond discussion, period. If you were fully rational, you would not feel that way.

I think as a rule atheists undervalue the importance of the output side of the input-output arc. We focus very much on epistemic rationality - knowing the truth - but not nearly enough on instrumental rationality - our decision-making, and whether what we do with that true knowledge achieves our goals. We especially don't focus enough on moral decision-making. Furthermore, I would argue that many of us are actually quite overoptimistic about even the capability of humans to be rational, and furthermore overoptimistic that increasing individual rationality will in every case immediately lead to more happiness and flourishing; in this sense, we are rationality fundamentalists. (Much like market fundamentalists insist that the market always improves the human condition, and/or if it doesn't, well that condition wasn't worth improving.) I would like increasing rationality to always immediately lead to more happiness and flourishing, and I don't see an alternative, but the potential problems of this, after all, brand new worldview are worth taking seriously - especially because we seem to be succeeding in the long run in making humans more epistemically rational. One potential pitfall is the erosion of (again, sensu lato) sacred values. That is to say, people may actually be becoming more rational, including in their moral decisions, which means they ARE willing to put a dollar value on those "sacred" things, including human life and suffering.

If such a prospect leaves you jumping for joy, consider that the values you still hold sacred may be exactly the ones the other guy has an established exchange rate for. It's worth pointing out that the super-authoritarian young Trumpers are not evangelicals, but rather are better characterized as the secular right - the red pill crowd.

If you're not convinced, a paper in Cognition is showing exactly that. We rationalists should take the problem of the possible inherent irrationality of moral behavior much more seriously.

Hannikainen IR, Machery E, Cushman FA. Is utilitarian sacrifice becoming more morally permissible? Cognition. 2018 Jan;170:95-101. doi: 10.1016/j.cognition.2017.09.013. Epub 2017 Sep 28.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Creationists, Forget Cancer and Great White Sharks: Why Is Childbirth So Painful?

The problem of theodicy is simple. If your god is all powerful and all good, how can evil exist? In particular, the natural world provides a parade of horrors - parasites that eat animals out from the inside but keep them alive during the process for better nutrition, cancer killing innocent children, and of course predators. One might grudgingly admire the nightmarish engineering of herpes viruses or cobras, the tricks and innovations that cause untold suffering only in the service of making more herpes and cobras. A creationist might be hard-pressed to lecture us about the benevolent creator while watching a seal exsanguinating in the sea while the great white shark that chomped it circles slowly but inexorably. "All things bright and beautiful...all things great and small."

But these things are often waved away with two cop-outs. There's the old reliable "We don't know God's plan/The Lord works in mysterious ways." So they don't know God's plan RE: parasites, but when it comes to who other people should be allowed to marry, we should listen to them. That makes no sense, and sounds very much like an excuse made up by a five year old.

The other excuse is "The devil/original sin made him do it. There was no disease or predators or parasites before (some event causing a fall from grace.)" In other words, this actually is NOT God's plan, rather there is suffering because of The Enemy forces. (Let's not even worry for now about an all-powerful being not being able to control this.)

Fine. Forget all that. What about childbirth?

Having recently experienced this in my own life, my daughter's relatively uncomplicated birth was still a massively traumatic, painful, frightening ordeal. I will almost certainly never experience the kind of pain that my wife did, and this was with an epidural. Religious people LOVE to talk about families and childbearing. There are supposedly few things that are part of God's plan more than the miracle of birth, and it is a requirement for the human race to continue existing. And yet, giving birth remains one of the most incredibly painful and acutely medically dangerous things most women will encounter in their lives. And epidurals, sterile technique to avoid purpeural fever, C-sections and induction medication are there due to generations of dedicated scientists and physicians making life better for women, NOT because of religion. (And with a naturalistic worldview, the question of why childbirth is so stressful is not mysterious at all.)

So for the problem of theodicy, forget about disease and predators. That there is no explanation for why this core "family value" remains so painful and stressful is a profound moral and explanatory failure of religion.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Unpopular Opinions

I'm joining the trend. Some of these will be unpopular to theists and seem unsurprising to atheists. Others may seem positively offensive. This is why they're compiled in this post.

There are many unpopular or dangerous ideas I'm not putting in this post because they benefit my family (or benefit lots of people) and making the public more aware would stop this. I think some of them are actively harmful and so I cannot morally put it out in public. Before you get mad, think about how many other people consciously make the same decision, but don't do you the favor of honestly telling you this. In fact think about how strange it is that we live in a world where people try to get you to have false, senseless beliefs (religion) but actively try to stop you from having true, useful beliefs (how to think critically and vote in your self-interest, financial behavior, etc.)

There are people who are fundamentally irrational, unintelligent, with poor executive function who may benefit from having false beliefs - or failing that, the more rational, intelligent, self-controlled among us would benefit from the irrational having false beliefs.

The U.S. Constitution is a remarkable document but we Americans fetishize it like the Ten Commandments, and the Supreme Court today mostly exists to create a reputable-sounding bridge between people's actual moral attitudes and practices, and what's in the document. In other words, the Supreme Court exists to make us believe we're still following this document, to give us some semblance of shared identity. I hesitate to post this because I fear that this shared identity is ending. (Do we do this with state constitutions? Do you even know what's in your state constitution?)

Almost all fiction (books, movies/TV) is a waste of time. You're learning gossip. About people who don't even exist.

All religion is a net negative, and Islam is the worst of the bunch.

All social organization, i.e. putting restrictions on your behavior and enforcing cooperation, at any level beyond close friends and family, ultimately comes down to violence, or implied threat of it, however distant. If there is another way (and I'm not convinced there is) we haven't found it yet.

Atheists don't take the question of the foundations of morality seriously enough.

Many American atheists are kind of naive and dismissive of the many negative realities of life. Bad things happen for no reason, and we don't understand why. We all suffer and none of us is really in control, and eager dismissal of others' search for meaning as they go through their own difficulties is not making us any friends. Furthermore, there are incompletenesses and conflicts and uncertainties within our own beliefs and with our intuitively sensed values, and these should trouble us. It's arrogant to the point of delusion to believe we've figured it all out.

Most atheists put far too much weight on input (knowing what's true) and not nearly enough weight on output (making good decisions.)

There's a cost for irrationality. We should hope that those of us who easily fall prey to arguments from authority give their money to relatively harmless stuff like doomsday cults instead of ISIS, anti-vaxxers or the Trump re-election campaign. Joel Osteen might actually be a rationalist and secretly wishing he could point out that he's parting fools from their money.

There's a good chance Trump will win again in 2020, because the Democrats will select someone who fits their institutional quirks but is not what middle America is looking for.

A formally fully rational person, i.e. by Von Neumann-Morgenstern rationality axioms, would be a psychopath.

Humans may not be able to organize themselves for effective collective action, or even motivate themselves, without false or incoherent beliefs to organize around.

There is no solution to full self-modification (i.e. wireheading.) Either you have an itch you can never scratch, or you quickly stop existing.

Almost all food, wine, music, and art, including what's considered the best, is the same in quality, and only attains its position due to historical accident. Coordination games, especially status-signalling coordination games, are very slow to change.

Whether or not morality is "real", there is no solution to morality, either for a fully consistent moral system that can be built into a philosophy or government, or into an AI.

Intelligence is an evolutionary dead end, and humans as such will probably never leave the solar system.

The universe is probably filled with space algae (easy to evolve) and/or the cancerous echoes of alien singularities that wiped out their native ecosystems, not with other intelligences, because intelligence is a dead-end. The alien singularities will, like all other replicators, select for fecundity and not for intelligence, and post-singularity AIs will just look like a different kind of space algae, i.e. those cancerous echoes I mentioned above. We may already find this sort of thing on comets, asteroids and low gravity moons in our own solar system. (By extension, the singularity on Earth would be an ecocide of a kind never before seen. There's no guarantee the singularity agent(s) would survive it either. The Permian-Triassic extinction will seem quaint by comparison.

If aliens ever do visit Earth, life on Earth will end very quickly. (Or be quickly replaced.) That's especially the case for intelligent aliens, but any space algae that manages to make it here is likely very well adapted to many environments, much like Old World flora and fauna often become invasive and replace New World when they get introduced - except orders of magnitude worse in this case.

For conspiracies, I wouldn't be surprised if there's more to the JFK assassination than the public knows, but if more evidence came to light or an objective truth machine told me that no it was really Oswald, I wouldn't be surprised or care too much about that either.

There are biological differences between populations of humans. There is no reason why some of these differences could not be in behavioral and cognition-influencing genes that differ in frequency between human populations, and history may already be demonstrating these. (A way to tell the difference between a racist and non-racist promoting this view is that the non-racist might point out a group besides their own that’s more intelligent. For different reasons, it's very uncomfortable for both white nationalists and left progressives as they try to ignore the conspicuous success of East Asians in Western countries.)

There are sets of characteristics in each culture that make some cultures more likely to be happy, and some cultures more likely to replace the other cultures. Unfortunately they are often not the same set of characteristics, and if you're happy and not in the process of being replaced, a large part of the reason why is probably historical contingency that put your ancestors in some isolated non-Malthusian part of the world e.g. the modern United States.

Being middle class in the U.S. is just fine, because in fact it means you’re probably morally a better person than upper or lower class people.

In 2017 there are almost certainly already (secret) CRISPR children. Most of them are in China. In 2050 there will be large numbers of CRISPR children. This will be a net benefit to the places that allow it, but there will also be unforeseen problems.

Many chronically poor or homeless people have severe psychiatric and/or substance disorders that make them want to continue their life as they’re leading it, irrational though it may be.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Supernatural Belief Is Not Modulated by Intuitive Thinking Style or Cognitive Inhibition

That's the conclusion of three studies published in one paper in Scientific Reports. Although such a model is plausible (and admittedly attractive for some of us), this evidence falsifies it. Putting my inexpert nickel down, I would argue for the influence of early-life programming that teaches us certain domains are off-limits to questions or otherwise compartmentalized, along with strong myside bias (which overlaps strongly with the first) - and susceptibility to authority, i.e. agreeableness in the OCEAN personality structure.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Distilling Distilled Wisdom: Ecclesiastes

(Previous book: Proverbs)

Friend Zaph suggested I read Ecclesiastes next. Supposedly written by King Solomon, it is easily the most moving so far, and it's not surprising that more people seem to have been influenced by it than the first two I read. The overall theme is that life is meaningless, and even accumulating wisdom has done nothing to improve the understanding or change things. Parts of it sound more like Nietszche or Camus or Epicurus than the Old Testament.

The lack of answers, weariness with the way in which things continue in pointless cycles that can never be fixed, that there's "nothing new under the sun", and there's no escape in the pursuit of pleasure, the accomplishment of projects, or the accumulation of knowledge. The phrase "chase after the wind", appears frequently, to signify pointless pursuits of things both ephemeral and eternal, insubstantial yet impactful. There's also a concern with the fundamental impossibility of straightening crooked things. Finally, there's the concern with death; that the never-born may be best off; that the dead are at least no longer plagued with the wants of the living, but that they will never know the future and they will be soon forgotten. Of course this triggers further meditations in the reader on the point of being remembered. There's something ironic in Solomon’s reflections that he will soon be forgotten like anyone else. He's remembered in the sense that we remember his name. But do we really remember him, his person, his experience?

This is what I was looking for in wisdom literature - comfort, and hints at how to be a better person and lead a better life. That it's all packed into twelve chapters makes it all the more remarkable.

3:1-8 is the "There is a time for..." passage. But in the overall context, rather than comforting with a message that the universe is ordered, it feels more like a resigned "These things will happen; no one knows why, or can do anything about it."

3:19, "Surely the fate of human beings is like that of the animals; the same fate awaits them both: As one dies, so dies the other. All have the same breath; humans have no advantage over animals. Everything is meaningless."

3:22 "So I saw that there is nothing better for a person than to enjoy their work, because that is their lot."

5:5-7 "It is better not to make a vow than to make one and not fulfill it. Do not let your mouth lead you into sin. And do not protest to the temple messenger, 'My vow was a mistake.' Why should God be angry at what you say and destroy the work of your hands? Much dreaming and many words are meaningless."

6:12 This starts to sound like Macbeth's monologue. "For who knows what is good for a person in life, during the few and meaningless days they pass through like a shadow?"

7:10 - "Do not say, 'Why were the old days better than these?' For it is not wise to ask such questions."

7:21-22 - "Do not pay attention to every word people say, or you may hear your servant cursing you - for you know in your heart that many times you yourself have cursed others."

8:15 - "So I commend the enjoyment of life, because there is nothing better for a person under the sun than to eat and drink and be glad. Then joy will accompany them in their toil all the days of the life God has given them under the sun."

9:9-11 - "Enjoy life with your wife, whom you love, all the days of this meaningless life that God has given you under the sun—all your meaningless days. For this is your lot in life and in your toilsome labor under the sun. Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might, for in the realm of the dead, where you are going, there is neither working nor planning nor knowledge nor wisdom. I have seen something else under the sun: The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all "

9:17 - "No one can comprehend what goes on under the sun. Despite all their efforts to search it out, no one can discover its meaning. Even if the wise claim they know, they cannot really comprehend it."

9:13-18 - Quoted in its entirety. From this passage I couldn't help but think of Mozi, and I'm sure similar stories have unfolded throughout the ages around the world.
13 I also saw under the sun this example of wisdom that greatly impressed me: 14 There was once a small city with only a few people in it. And a powerful king came against it, surrounded it and built huge siege works against it. 15 Now there lived in that city a man poor but wise, and he saved the city by his wisdom. But nobody remembered that poor man. 16 So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.” But the poor man’s wisdom is despised, and his words are no longer heeded. 17 The quiet words of the wise are more to be heeded than the shouts of a ruler of fools. 18 Wisdom is better than weapons of war, but one sinner destroys much good.

Distilling Distilled Wisdom: The Book of Proverbs

Previous book: Psalms
Next book: Ecclesiastes

Proverbs is more clearly helpful than Psalms in terms of applying wisdom to become a better person in daily life - but still not overflowing with gems.

Of course I'm sure I'm missing some things. (Cut me some slack, I'm making my very first honest attempt at religious wisdom literature.) And indeed, Chapters 1 and 2 are loaded with exhortations that the reader "understand". This could result from a need to get unruly young people to pay attention, or it could be an alert for astute readers attempting to glean deeper meanings as in esoteric writings (hint hint, pay attention, there's something to decode here, like Revelations 13:18.) Today, lazy writers often encourage esoteric readings of their work because this allowd critics to read into it, thus implying profundity without the extra effort of actually including deeper meaning. There's a different incentive for the gatekeepers of holy texts to encourage esoteric readings - because then when outsiders like us come meandering into their liturgical world and say we can't see much of value, they can say "Ha! Of course not! Only after years of study will the secrets reveal themselves to you, as they did to me, and I cannot enlighten those who would rather be deceived!"

Chapter 3 stood out to me as the most helpful. There actually isn't a strong belief among Biblical scholars that any parts were really written by Solomon, and it's interesting that Chapters 1-9 are the most recent, from the 6th century BC or later.
3:25-31 "Have no fear of sudden disaster or of the ruin that overtakes the wicked, for the LORD will be at your side and will keep your foot from being snared. Do not withhold good from those to whom it is due, when it is in your power to act. Do not say to your neighbor, "Come back tomorrow and I'll give it to you"— when you already have it with you. Do not plot harm against your neighbor, who lives trustfully near you. Do not accuse anyone for no reason— when they have done you no harm. Do not envy the violent or choose any of their ways."
9:7-9 is worth repeating and hard to keep in mind when people on the internet are wrong; "Whoever corrects a mocker invites insults; whoever rebukes the wicked incurs abuse. Do not rebuke mockers or they will hate you; rebuke the wise and they will love you. Instruct the wise and they will be wiser still; teach the righteous and they will add to their learning." And 15:12, "Mockers resent correction, so they avoid the wise."

Other than that, large parts of Chapters 5 to 9 are mostly "Don't cheat on your wife." Fair enough. Then starting with Chapter 10, you could summarize the book as "Knowledge is valuable, ill-begotten profits are fleeting, be disciplined, remember the effect you have on others in your family, work hard, don't lie, don't cheat on your wife, and be nice" in a somewhat monotonous rhetorical style of "A causes B; but not-A causes not-B."* Many of the verses approach tautology, and there's not much that could be considered surprising. Really - Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's Almanac has about ten times the wisdom of this book.

To be fair, in rougher times, maybe this was one of the first times people had heard this, and it needed to be repeated in this way to be grasped. As well, Solomon may have been so effective that he was a victim of his own success. That is, these rules for living are now so taken for granted that they seem obvious, much like Lovecraft doesn't seem so horrifying, or Led Zeppelin doesn't seem like such a mind-blowing musical revolution now, both of them invented a whole genre, which went on to improve on that the founders had done, making them seem obvious or even trite by comparison.

In Chapter 22, the Thirty Sayings section begins, which is less repetitive and slightly less obvious.

22:28 - "Do not move an ancient boundary stone set up by your ancestors." This could have many other meanings, as does "Good fences make good neighbors." Later on, in 25:17, "Seldom set foot in your neighbor's house - too much of you, and they will hate you."

23:29-34 - Practical and not rocket science, but more people need to hear it: "Who has woe? Who has sorrow? Who has strife? Who has complaints? Who has needless bruises? Who has bloodshot eyes? Those who linger over wine, who go to sample bowls of mixed wine. Do not gaze at wine when it is red, when it sparkles in the cup, when it goes down smoothly! In the end it bites like a snake and poisons like a viper. Your eyes will see strange sights, and your mind will imagine confusing things. You will be like one sleeping on the high seas, lying on top of the rigging."

24:17-18 - An injunction against schadenfreude: "Do not gloat when your enemy falls; when they stumble, do not let your heart rejoice, or the LORD will see and disapprove and turn his wrath away from them."

25:28 - "Like a city whose walls are broken through is a person who lacks self-control." To match, 26:11, "As a dog returns to its vomit, so fools repeat their folly."

26:7 - A little self-referentiality to give credence to the claim of esoteric writing: "Like the useless legs of one who is lame is a proverb in the mouth of a fool."

26:18-19 - We all know someone like this (and this pattern is associated in modern psychiatry with certain character pathology) "Like a maniac shooting flaming arrows of death is one who deceives their neighbor and says, 'I was only joking!'"

27:15-16 - "A quarrelsome wife is like the dripping of a leaky roof in a rainstorm; restraining her is like restraining the wind or grasping oil with the hand." No further comment. But in the Sayings of King Lemuel (31:10-11) I have the good fortune to attest from personal experience that the opposite is true: "A wife of noble character who can find? She is worth far more than rubies. Her husband has full confidence in her and lacks nothing of value."

30:24-28 (the Sayings of Agur) - Interesting perspectives on humble animals. "Four things on earth are small, yet they are extremely wise: Ants are creatures of little strength, yet they store up their food in the summer; hyraxes are creatures of little power, yet they make their home in the crags; locusts have no king, yet they advance together in ranks; a lizard can be caught with the hand, yet it is found in kings' palaces."


*Antithetical parallelism is the fancy term for it. It seems Biblical scholars get all excited about this, much like your high school English teacher did about Shakespeare's use of anachronism. Your teacher may not have considered that maybe Shakespeare just didn't know that Romans' togas didn't have pockets, and maybe kings writing in Hebrew only knew one rhetorical form.

Saturday, November 4, 2017

Distilling Distilled Wisdom: The Book of Psalms

Next book: Proverbs

Reading distilled ancient wisdom is good. Even if it doesn't make sense or is offensive by more civilized moral standards, at the most superficial level the imagery and strength of the language is often enjoyable, and if the text in question contributed to the culture you're living in, you pick up those references more easily. Even better, you can read words from ages ago and see what experiences are universal to being human. Most importantly, maybe you can learn something to become a better person. For these reasons, for some time I've been wanting to read the Book of Psalms. (Wiki background here.) I know many people would recommend that for wisdom, Proverbs is better (summary here) but Psalms is also interesting. It turns out Psalms is basically a collection of Hebrew hymns, even including instructions to music directors, and the some of the text is even adapted from hymans to other gods. Below are my observations; I read a New International Version.

My choosing to do this might surprise atheists and Christians alike. Like many atheists, I used to avoid Christian texts - but then realized how silly this was. First of all, is it really all bad? (See vegetarian Hitler fallacy.) Will my hands and brain rot when I read it, as North Koreans are told will happen if they touch South Korean printed material that ends up on their side of the wall? Even sillier from an atheist standpoint - do we think it actually has magic powers and Jesus will get you if you read too much of the Bible?* Think about it this way - what would make an authoritarian Christian more nervous, an atheist ignoring the Bible ("well of course they are, they're immoral devil-spawn, I'm comfortable with that"), or atheists learning about the Bible on their own, forming their own ideas about it, without Christian guidance? If considering the Bible in secular settings weren't such anathema, it wouldn't seem so strange - or worrisomely offensive - or hilarious - when people like Umberto Eco analyze the Bible as literature written by humans, which it is.

You'll see why I included this in a second. From

I had always thought of the Book of Psalms as basically a collection of Christian koans, but I haven't found that. The most intriguing parts are descriptions of psychological experiences in the face of suffering, something we all still struggle with today - but that's not the majority of the text. Where it does occur, it often occurs with puzzlement about how such things can happen if God is watching, which makes me really sad. With or without an intervening belief to confuse us, suffering exists, and these were written by people who certainly knew their share of suffering, made all the worse by the world not working the way they thought it would.

But about eighty percent of it can be summarized as "Don't worry.** God is in charge and will always be there, like a rock. Follow the correct god and he will help you. He will protect you against bad people. There will be consequences for people who ignore him and follow other gods," along with some "psych-up" psalms like you might play before a spinning class or football game. (When the Psalms were first written as hymns, this is probably the only time these people heard music in their lives.) There's a fair bit of inconsistency, e.g., asking God to smite others who are wicked ("in their hearts" - to do this, we have to make the evaluation based on some unobservable quality, not on actual behavior.) There are also requests to forget the sins of ancestors (chapters 79 and 85) but very specific appeals to remember when one's ancestors remained loyal (86).

There's not a lot of room for meditating on moral nuance here.*** But there are some gold nuggets to be separated from the gravel - which is actually what another writer whose name now escapes me once said about Plato, whose writing similarly contains some useful ideas surrounded in mythology, space-eating argument-formatting (the prose style of the time), the moral and cultural assumptions provincial to his time and place, and lots of superstition. I found Psalms very similar to both Plato and Confucius in this regard, and I often wonder if these works' impacts on culture today has to do with anything about them specifically - i.e., was there something special about this period around twenty-five centuries ago that it produced these foundational works? Or, more mundanely, are these thoughts that people have walked around thinking all the time, and this was the first period with cultures and technology that put enough people far enough off the Malthusian margin and had stable known trade routes, so these things could be written down and spread? My own guess is the latter. (This actually parallels a controversial and now discredited idea from Stephen Jay Gould about evolution.)****

Observations by Chapter:

Psalm 5:9 - "Their throats are open graves." I just like that line. Reminds me of Nezahualcoyotl.

7 - a shiggaion of David - the meaning is lost but is thought to be "a wild, mournful ode" (also sounds very metal.)

10, 12, 13, 22, 35, 44, 74, 79, 85, 89 - all about the problem of theodicy, i.e. "why are bad things happening to me, why aren't you helping me?" For atheists: think of this as bad things happening, despite doing the right thing, despite trying to plan for every contingency. Whoever you are, it's still hard to cope when the randomness of existence imposes itself on your awareness with pain. For the people writing this, it was not an abstract philosophical problem. These were people with terrible suffering and life-threatening problems who needed help right now, and couldn't understand why it wouldn't come.

Baal. One of the false gods they were constantly warning people about. Kind of reminds me of Ultraman. From wiki

12 - the writer is already complaining about moral downfall and passive-aggression twenty-five centuries ago. You can find the same thing in the Bhagavad Gita. And yet here we still are!

13 - there's a great description of ruminative depression: "How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and day after day have sorrow in my heart? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look on me and answer, LORD my God. Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death..."

14 - 14:1 contains the passage that Christians love to quote that the fool says in his heart there is no God, but the next two verses make it pretty clear that no one else is any good: "The LORD looks down from heaven on all mankind to see if there are any who understand, any who seek God. All have turned away, all have become corrupt; there is no one who does good, not even one."

15 - fifth verse clearly states that charging interest on loans is not Godly.

17 - something to give comfort when near defeat and beset on all sides, and a plea for revenge that would make Genghis Khan blush. "Keep me as the apple of your eye; hide me in the shadow of your wings from the wicked who are out to destroy me, from my mortal enemies who surround me. They close up their callous hearts, and their mouths speak with arrogance. They have tracked me down, they now surround me, with eyes alert, to throw me to the ground. They are like a lion hungry for prey, like a fierce lion crouching in cover. Rise up, LORD, confront them, bring them down; with your sword rescue me from the wicked. By your hand save me from such people, LORD, from those of this world whose reward is in this life. May what you have stored up for the wicked fill their bellies; may their children gorge themselves on it, and may there be leftovers for their little ones."

18 - Very good war invocation. 37-50 says "I pursued my enemies and overtook them; I did not turn back till they were destroyed. I crushed them so that they could not rise; they fell beneath my feet. You armed me with strength for battle; you humbled my adversaries before me. You made my enemies turn their backs in flight, and I destroyed my foes. They cried for help, but there was no one to save them - to the LORD, but he did not answer. I beat them as fine as windblown dust; I trampled them like mud in the streets. You have delivered me from the attacks of the people; you have made me the head of nations. People I did not know now serve me, foreigners cower before me; as soon as they hear of me, they obey me. They all lose heart; they come trembling from their strongholds. The LORD lives! Praise be to my Rock! Exalted be God my Savior! He is the God who avenges me, who subdues nations under me, who saves me from my enemies. You exalted me above my foes; from a violent man you rescued me. Therefore I will praise you, LORD, among the nations; I will sing the praises of your name. He gives his king great victories; he shows unfailing love to his anointed, to David and to his descendants forever."

19 - A description of the regularity of natural law (the sun rising and setting) as an example of God's comforting constancy. (Although now, when the tide goes in, tide goes out, you can explain it.)

21 - Another great war invocation. 9-10 says, "When you appear for battle, you will burn them up as in a blazing furnace. The LORD will swallow them up in his wrath, and his fire will consume them. You will destroy their descendants from the earth, their posterity from mankind."

22 - An excellent description of the underappreciated symptoms of depression and anxiety, e.g. the somatic sensations and even near-delusional ideas that one should be dead or is about to die. "I am poured out like water, and all my bones are out of joint. My heart has turned to wax; it has melted within me. My mouth is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death. Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles me; they pierce my hands and my feet. All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me. They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment."

23 - The "lead me beside quiet waters/even though I walk through the darkest valley I fear no evil" one. This one is quite good and it makes sense it's so well-known. As for the comfort provided by water - the Middle East wasn't quite as dry then as it is today, but try hiking in the desert and getting to an oasis. (That's why I included that picture.) For this experience in North America anyway, you can't beat the palm oases in Anza-Borrego - and you'll feel a physiological sense of relief when you reach the green shade of the grove, and you'll understand this choice of imagery a little more intuitively.

29 - This one was originally to Baal, from the period when Judaic religion was polytheistic and Yahweh was basically Zeus. Baal was the patron deity of Carthage and so even before Christianity the Romans went out of their way to paint him as a bloodthirsty monster (although Carthaginians probably did actually sacrifice their children to him.) Consequently this is the most metal Psalm so far, which I reproduce in whole:
1 Ascribe to the LORD, you heavenly beings, ascribe to the LORD glory and strength. 2 Ascribe to the LORD the glory due his name; worship the LORD in the splendor of his holiness. 3 The voice of the LORD is over the waters; the God of glory thunders, the LORD thunders over the mighty waters. 4 The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is majestic. 5 The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks in pieces the cedars of Lebanon. 6 He makes Lebanon leap like a calf, Sirion like a young wild ox. 7 The voice of the LORD strikes with flashes of lightning. 8 The voice of the LORD shakes the desert; the LORD shakes the Desert of Kadesh. 9 The voice of the LORD twists the oaks and strips the forests bare. And in his temple all cry, “Glory!” 10 The LORD sits enthroned over the flood; the LORD is enthroned as King forever. 11 The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.

30 - I can't tell if this one is asking us to motivate ourselves in the face of fear by thinking of greater goals outside of ourselves, or asking God to think about sparing us because it makes more sense to let us go on praising Him. "What is gained if I am silenced, if I go down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness?"

31:12-13 - More psychopathology - More brokenness and paranoia: "I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery. For I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side!” They conspire against me and plot to take my life."

32:9 - The single best piece of wisdom so far. "Do not be like the horse or the mule, which have no understanding but must be controlled by bit and bridle or they will not come to you."

33:7 Just like even Shakespeare and Beethoven have their duds, not all the expressions of glory find their mark: "He gathers the waters of the sea into jars; he puts the deep into storehouses." I can imagine a northern pagan responding "Oh yeah? Well Odin puts the mountains into sheds. What do you think about that?"

37:11 - "The meek will inherit the land." Very different from the sense given by the usual translation.

45 - Supposedly an erotic or romantic chapter. It was written for wedding, and this seems to fit, but if this passes for erotic - it must have been written by an eighth-grader. "My heart is stirred by a noble theme as I recite my verses for the king; my tongue is the pen of a skillful writer. You are the most excellent of men and your lips have been anointed with grace, since God has blessed you forever. Gird your sword on your side, you mighty one; clothe yourself with splendor and majesty. In your majesty ride forth victoriously in the cause of truth, humility and justice; let your right hand achieve awesome deeds." Tee hee!

50 - the Old Testament makes comments about a flesh-and-blood god occasionally (things like eating and drinking, living in a certain place, etc.) that don't make us wonder when the ancient Greeks do it, but do now seem strange since we've moved on to a more abstract God. It seems strange today to draw pictures of God but as recently as the Renaissance people were getting paid good money for physical representations.

53 - Verse 1 calls non-believers fools again, and again the very next two verses say that no one is any good.

58 - Pretty good one, especially the cobra bit, but has some confusing mixed metaphors. (Quoted in full below.) That said, people writing these were not terribly literate and were just figuring out literary tricks as they went, so they deserve our tolerance!
1 Do you rulers indeed speak justly? Do you judge people with equity? 2 No, in your heart you devise injustice, and your hands mete out violence on the earth. 3 Even from birth the wicked go astray; from the womb they are wayward, spreading lies. 4 Their venom is like the venom of a snake, like that of a cobra that has stopped its ears, 5 that will not heed the tune of the charmer, however skillful the enchanter may be. 6 Break the teeth in their mouths, O God; LORD, tear out the fangs of those lions! 7 Let them vanish like water that flows away; when they draw the bow, let their arrows fall short. 8 May they be like a slug that melts away as it moves along, like a stillborn child that never sees the sun. 9 Before your pots can feel the heat of the thorns— whether they be green or dry—the wicked will be swept away. 10 The righteous will be glad when they are avenged, when they dip their feet in the blood of the wicked. 11 Then people will say, "Surely the righteous still are rewarded; surely there is a God who judges the earth."

69 - Not that similar to the Ministry song, but does have a very visceral theme of being overwhelmed, using water as a metaphor.

73 - An example of a theme found in other chapters about fortunate people being arrogant, addressing the resentment and bitterness that the less fortunate might feel. Summarized un-poetically: "They might be better off in health and wealth but they're morally inferior, and they'll get theirs." Of course people comfort themselves this way all the time, even without the Book of Psalms.

78 - The tale of God caring for his flock but then turning on them when they question Him - it strongly emphasizes how they rebelled against Him "in the wilderness", reminiscent of Salem, where being away from the central authority is a sure path to ruin. Several chapters describe this episode (105-107.)

79 and 85 - The problem of theodicy is solved in these chapters in a "karma"-like way. That is, there's no mystery about why bad stuff is happening to you if you just assume there's evil you're somehow responsible for that you don't know about. Anyway, that's more satisfying than the solution in Job, where maybe you're caught in a rather impersonal bet between God and Satan. (Similar randomness-explaining mechanisms have been advanced in other religions, for example some Northern California people thought the weather was caused by gods gambling.)

84:10 - "Better is one day in your courts than a thousand elsewhere; I would rather be a doorkeeper in the house of my God than dwell in the tents of the wicked." I wonder if this was the verse that Milton was reacting to when he wrote "Better to reign in hell than to serve in Heaven."

89:46-48 - This one is another favorite. "How long, LORD? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire? Remember how fleeting is my life. For what futility you have created all humanity! Who can live and not see death, or who can escape the power of the grave?" How long have we got? What is it all about? Where are we going?

Still no easy answers. From Psychology Today.

90:2-10 - A great one. In some ways it's quite comforting to feel insignificance and humility in the face of the universe. It ends with a reminder to value your time, because the clock is always ticking. (Said stoic Seneca: "We're tight-fisted with property and money, yet think too little of wasting time, the one thing about which we should all be the toughest misers."
2 Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God. 3 You turn people back to dust, saying, "Return to dust, you mortals." 4 A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night. 5 Yet you sweep people away in the sleep of death— they are like the new grass of the morning: 6 In the morning it springs up new, but by evening it is dry and withered. 7 We are consumed by your anger and terrified by your indignation. 8 You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. 9 All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan. 10 Our days may come to seventy years, or eighty, if our strength endures; yet the best of them are but trouble and sorrow, for they quickly pass, and we fly away. 11 If only we knew the power of your anger! Your wrath is as great as the fear that is your due. 12 Teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

106:28 - Mentions Baal by name. Is this the idol that Moses fought against?

110:6 - More vengeance. "He will judge the nations, heaping up the dead and crushing the rulers of the whole earth."

115:1-8 - Regarding whose god is real, this is a very clear "We're right, you're wrong, shut up." "Not to us, LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness. Why do the nations say, "Where is their God?" Our God is in heaven; he does whatever pleases him. But their idols are silver and gold, made by human hands. They have mouths, but cannot speak, eyes, but cannot see. They have ears, but cannot hear, noses, but cannot smell. They have hands, but cannot feel, feet, but cannot walk, nor can they utter a sound with their throats. Those who make them will be like them, and so will all who trust in them. "

118:10-12 - "All the nations surrounded me, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. They surrounded me on every side, but in the name of the LORD I cut them down. They swarmed around me like bees, but they were consumed as quickly as burning thorns; in the name of the LORD I cut them down." The image of burning thorns is a great one - scary-looking and temporarily painful, then gone in a moment.

136 - The repetition of "your love endures forever" would probably be striking when performed musically. On the page it's not thrilling.

137:8-9 - A revenge fantasy about slavery in Babylon. "Daughter Babylon, doomed to destruction, happy is the one who repays you according to what you have done to us. Happy is the one who seizes your infants and dashes them against the rocks."

139:4 - Anticipating Libet's experiments about free will? (Probably not, but does immediately invoke the problem of free will in Christian morality.) "Before a word is on my tongue you, LORD, know it completely."

141:6-7 - What can I say, I like the revenge ones. "Their rulers will be thrown down from the cliffs, and the wicked will learn that my words were well spoken. They will say, 'As one plows and breaks up the earth, so our bones have been scattered at the mouth of the grave.'"


*This is why the de-baptism fad a few years ago was pretty goofy. Unless you think that water on your head really did have magic in it - or we're just overgrown adolescents whose values are more about shocking our parents or rebelling against authority than doing something positive - who cares? I've found that quite often, religious people are more comfortable when atheists don't read their texts than when they do. This is an odd behavior most of us humans engage in quite often, when people from an out-group (with behavior and values we ostensibly want to help them improve) tell someone from the in-group, "actually, I don't always do X, or believe Y, that you disagree with", and the in-group responds "Yes you do! You do X and Y! Keep doing X and Y, which are bad!" This makes no sense at all, unless what they're really thinking on some level is "You're bad! We're good! Even though I abhor X and Y and say that people should stop it, I insist that you keep doing it, because otherwise you're blurring the moral in-group/out-group distinction!" (Start watching for people doing this, especially yourself. You may not have to wait long.) Letting Christians "have" the Bible - whether we like it or not, a major foundational contributor to Western culture - is as dangerous as liberals letting conservatives "have" patriotism. Read it on your own, outside of the church's authority. This is, after all, exactly why the Church of Rome resisted translating it into local languages and allowing independent study for so long. They weren't stupid - look what happened to their political power in Europe afterward.

**Or maybe, "Don't panic."

***There's not a lot of room for explicit moral ambiguity in a text that has aims at being a moral authority. The best moral discussions in the Bible come from inescapable implicit ambiguity, from the characters' moral choices like Job or Jeremiah, and these stories continue to be the subject of stories and debates and paintings to this day - from people outside the authority structure based on other parts of the Bible - "outside" meaning people who aren't benefiting from it. Some modern Biblical apologists, e.g. Albert Mohler, have pointed out (I think correctly) that without a supernatural framework, modern atheists tend to view religion in terms of moral and epistemological authority. In Christianity it's the Protestant Reformation which began that, complete with a false start in Wycliffe and the Hussites, suggesting it was just a matter of time - and this process has continued until today with modern post-Enlightenment atheism, the Meta-Reformation.

****Gould noted, as he looked back at the Cambrian explosion, that it produced whole phyla of new animals, rather than the measly new genera and a few families we've seen in the last few tens of millions of years. He therefore claimed (paraphrasing) "Evolution must have been fundamentally different in that period!" But the analogy is to look at a tree whose trunk divides into three thick subtrunks, but that at the ends the branches are producing mere twigs, and then say there was something fundamentally different about the tree's growth when it produced the three subtrunks compared to more recently. The obvious answer is that if you give the twigs the same amount of time as the subtrunks, they'll be as thick then as the subtrunks are now. And in another half a billion years, the descendants of mammals may be as varied as the descendants of primitive fish today. The cultural analog here is whether the Axial Age (the cultural Cambrian explosion) was special or just seems special because of our vantage point, and I argue the latter - with the additional complication that one of the innovations of Axial Age philosophies was to suppress other philosophies.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Women Beyond Belief

By then I had finished a college degree, and for a while I taught in a Christian primary school. The science workbooks promoting Intelligent Design to children just made it more clear to me that Christian beliefs were holding on to ignorant ideas of the past. The workbook actually used a butterfly as an example that one kind doesn’t change into another. It proclaimed that butterfly eggs always hatch butterflies. Of course they do; no organism ever outgrows its ancestry. For example, humans still have ancestral traits all the way to Eukarya, as all our cells still have nuclei. So we are still eukaryotes. Evolution isn’t metamorphosis. It’s gradual change at the population level. There is no such thing as a taxonomic "kind" either. That is a pseudoscience term. Evolution never allows for one "kind," like the dog example, to produce a different "kind." Every organism that ever evolved is just a modified version of whatever its ancestors were.

A butterfly is a species that actually undergoes a startling metamorphosis from a caterpillar to a winged butterfly in its own lifetime. Nature is not fixed and immutable, requiring a deity to tinker with it. Butterflies aren't poofed into place by a god for the purpose of being pollinators with all the biological traits designed to do that. Neither is there this cosmic creator that decided to make butterflies colorful to delight people in the Garden of Eden. Different butterfly colors are various adaptations to attract mates, scare away predators, and camouflage depending on the environment of that particular butterfly species. It angered me that creationists often are successful in inserting their agendas into textbooks, deceiving young minds into being incurious about the way nature works through evolution. Using the simplistic explanation that god created it that way kills inquiry into finding out why nature actually is the way it is.

-Lilandra Ra
Lilandra Ra was raised Catholic and Baptist. Her role as a science teacher led her out of religion. She's just one of 22 authors who wrote an essay about her journey away from religion (excerpted above). Karen L. Garst has compiled these essays into a book entitled "Women Beyond Belief: Discovering Life without Religion," which can be pre-ordered on Amazon. Dr. Garst (former executive director of the Oregon State Bar) became incensed when the U. S. Supreme Court issued its decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby in 2014. This decision said that because of its religious views, Hobby Lobby, a craft store, would not be obligated to follow the dictates of the Affordable Care Act and provide certain forms of birth control to its employees. Of course all manner of tribal irrationality can "infect us in our most basic integrity", as Hitch said for religion, as we also see in just one example of anti-vaxxers; but politicians the world over appeal consistently and uniquely to religion in attacks on women's health, supporting restrictions on abortion, banning funding for Planned Parenthood, and a host of other issues. Atheists, rationalists, skeptics: this is where the rubber meets the road. This is where our actions matter most. Not about Flat Earthers, not about 9/11 Truthers,but about the effects of irrational beliefs that are causing immediate harm to people right now.

The first leaders of the New Atheism movement that arose after 9/11 were men: Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, Christopher Hitchens, and Daniel Dennett. They came with backgrounds of science and philosophy. They launched a renewed effort to show people how destructive religion can be and how all Abrahamic religions are based upon an Iron Age mythology, borrowing from other mythologies of the time.

Dr. Garst wants to add a focus on women and the role this mythology has played in the culture of many countries to denigrate and subordinate women. She states that "Religion is the last cultural barrier to gender equality." And she is right. More and more women atheists are speaking out. And as we all know, if women leave the churches, they will collapse.

She has received support with reviews by Richard Dawkins, Valerie Tarico, Peter Boghossian, Sikivu Hutchinson and other atheist authors.

I encourage you to check out Dr. Garst’s blog at and to pre-order this excellent book.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

Old Hags and Jaguars: Is This Reality? If Not, How to Explain the Experience?


Sleep paralysis is scary. While we still don't understand the neurology of it, it appears to be that the switch gets stuck and these folks wake up, but can't get out of normal REM sleep paralysis (it makes sense to have a cut-off switch like that, otherwise when you run or scream or punch in your dreams, you would do the same thing in real life, and that might not be so good.) In addition, they have terrifying psychosis-like perceptual distortions. Sometimes they awaken, and report seeing shadowy figures just out of the edge of their vision, and they're paralyzed, so they can't turn their head to see. Or sometimes, the hallucination - the being that they perceive - appears immediately in front of them, with every detail available for scrutiny. People thus affected often don't know that they share their problem with other humans, and haven't communicated about it or searched online - and yet, their hallucinations are similar. They hallucinate a hideous old woman.

People who have used DMT, particularly in its plant-derived form of ayahuasca, commonly see jaguars.

I was watching a pretty sensationalist (and creepy) documentary about sleep paralysis. Implying that there must be some external reality (external to the person's brain) causing these experiences, people repeatedly ask, "how can these people be seeing the same thing?!" How they can be seeing the same thing is that our nervous systems break in the same way, and we have similar perceptual disturbances - even if we don't understand it completely yet.

I'd like to ask theists, especially educated Westerners, what they think about this. Are these things real? Or tricks our brains play on us?

You see the rub here.

Some theists would undoubtedly say, "Yes, they're real. The jaguars, the old hags, even the voices that psychotic people hear, those are all demons." (Some of them do think that. That's why the Virginia Tech shooter's parents didn't get him psychiatric help.)

Other theists would hesitantly offer an explanation of misfiring nervous systems misrepresenting reality. But that's dangerous...

Sunday, May 15, 2016

I'm *Pretty Confident* In the Laws of Physics

Watch the video below for a little bit, and you'll see a physicist testing himself in front of the class: does he really believe in the laws of physics?

Indeed, without considering risk:benefit and ever-present uncertainty, can we really get information about someone's beliefs?

(Here I mean actionable beliefs. The interesting thing about many irrational "beliefs", religious, political, or otherwise, is that very often the beliefs are contentless tribal cheers that have no measurable effect on the believer's behavior. Tellingly, pointing this out or putting the believer in a position that requires an explicit choice based on the belief is seen as offensive; see people's responses to betting.)

Many physics lecturers have done the exercise above with their students, and occasionally people in the rationalist community will post these videos. Here I show you why, if someone moves away from the pendulum, she's not necessarily making a strong statement about her belief in the laws of physics.

I like this demonstration of principle in the sense that the point of beliefs is to make good decisions. If your claimed beliefs don't affect your actions, or you're behaving contrary to your claimed beliefs, you have to ask whether they're really your beliefs, or what good they're doing in your head.

But there is always uncertainty, and the degree of uncertainty, as well as the consequences of a decision, should affect your risk:benefit and your decision. In fact, asking people to behave as if they are absolutely certain shows a poor understanding of Bayesian reasoning! Bad rationalist!

In this case, assuming you believe in the laws of physics, your risk:benefit goes like this. "I want to prove that I believe in the laws of physics. If I don't stand my ground when the pendulum swings back, it will look like I don't; my peers will doubt my belief and my ability to behave according to that belief. Even worse, *I* may doubt it.

"On the other hand, the pendulum hitting me in the face will hurt and may injure me, unlikely though I think it is. And there are reasons this might happen without the laws of physics being violated. There might be something that affects the setup, e.g. an air vent is blowing that is normally not on, and this will accelerate the pendulum enough in its return to make it whack me. My a-hole friends might be playng a joke on me (actually, not unlikely at all). And finally, maybe I *don't* 100% absolutely understand the principle, which is important in situations where I can get injured (this would qualify as not believing, at least in this law of physics).

So your utility equation, to get you to stand still, would look something like:

gain from proving to peers you believe in principle

must be greater than

(embarrassment/pain/injury)*(uncertainty about principle)*(general uncertainty including a-hole friends)

But wait, there's more! If this risk:benefit were all that the nervous system was doing in this situation, what we would see is not people stepping up to the pendulum and then flinching as it swings back. They would say no way Jose right from the start. But flinching is a reflex, and it's very difficult to argue that it's subject to belief in the same way as your decision to participate in the exercise. Case in point, I really am quite certain that contact lenses won't hurt me (I don't wear them normally, just for Halloween costumes) but I have great difficulty keeping my eyes open to put them in. Notice, by the way, that the gentleman in this video closes his eyes and makes jokes revealing anxiety about the process, even after (probably) years of doing this very demonstration.

In all decisions, the likelihood and magnitude of the reward and consequences make a difference, even in something so simple as this. Optimism is a good outlook for modern life where at most you risk social rejection - constantly try to do things that are out of your league, and you'll fail most of the time, but by dumb luck you'll score occasionally. (This is why learning to tolerate failure and rejection is so important.) On the other hand, when you're rock-climbing or flying a plane, the consequences of failure are massive. Then, it pays to be pessimistic. And finally, everyone's utility equations are a little bit different. Why is it so important to get people to swear their loyalty to physics? In my case, in this situation, not that much, and the factor that figures heavily in my decision is concern about the utility function of my a-hole friends.

From XKCD.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Ken Ham: Without Biblical Literalism, People Will Stop Wearing Clothes

Creationists and social conservatives in the U.S. have created a bit of a cottage industry of making ridiculous claims about the effects of gay marriage - and other outcomes of secular morality that they don't like. Most recently, everyone's favorite creationist Ken Ham says that if we stop accepting the Bible as fact, this will lead to people not wearing clothes anymore. Compare to previous claims about gay marriage making people marry their dogs or legalize pedophilia.

It's very important not to be distracted by the individual issues where the social cons insist you listen to them. These claims (about gay marriage, teaching evolution, etc.) are distracting symptoms of a much more important central process, so my advice to fellow rationalists is that we shouldn't waste our time wading into the details of these sideshow debates, but rather confront them on their central complaint (which I'll get to in a second.) But the complete lack of interest in the actual outcomes is a huge hint. If you look at the way these claims come up in discussion with social cons, you can tell they're not at all central. I'm pretty sure Ken Ham didn't call conservative talk radio stations and say "Hey, I need some airtime so I can tell everyone about how lack of Biblical literalism will lead to mass nudity." Another great example: in 2009, a reporter challenged social conservatives to make concrete predictions about what would happen when gay marriage was legalized. None of them except one were able to tell us how the world would end. (As for the one that did, here we are six years later, and you can check out how well she did for yourself. Amazing! Many of these people were fighting against gay marriage as their full-time jobs, and they're not interested in telling us about the coming evils that they otherwise seem so invested in fighting.

Are they just dumbasses? Or do are they just not saying what's really motivating all of their whining? What's going on is all of their anger - against evolution, against gay marriage, against birth control and the right to choose - is really one big fear of theirs, taking different forms. It's not about evidence, you goofs! That's why when a rationalist argues with a theist about these things with evidence relevant to that particular disagreement, you're playing chess against a football team. It's not even about the outcomes of these things, or at least not the ones the social conservatives are willing to say out loud. That's why, when you can get these people to actually say what they think is going to happen (which is rare!), they quickly mutter something weird about bestiality or nudity (or something outright false and easily disproven), and then go back to complaining about how terrible it is that people won't listen to them anymore - which is actually what they're worried about.

What Ken Ham, and all the rest of them, really should say is "If you doubt my authority, and the authority of others like me, on matters of our origins or on sexual morality, then I will lose further control over people's behavior." That's it. This is how those who argue from authority behave when they're finally dragged out into daylight. And if these discussions run in circles, it's because their foundation for morality is "What's good is what Ken Ham says is good." But they can't say that out loud and expect people to take them seriously. So when pressed they flail apocalyptically and say "bestiality! Nudity! Et cetera!" (That said, Ham is more pin-downable than most, and he even uses the phrase "absolute authority" at the end of this bit.)

So let's try this: instead of giving someone statistics about how kids in same-sex households do, ask social conservatives "You have trouble saying what the bad outcome is that you're so worried about. This is really just about you trying to control people's behavior." Of course they'll sputter and object, and then you can ask them how a Muslim trying to do the same thing would act any differently from them.

*Note: for some time until a few years ago in that den of sin San Francisco, it was not in fact illegal to be naked, or at least not enforced. There were a handful (less than 10 in the whole city) of people who regularly took advantage of this. Somehow it didn't blow up into mass nudity. Interesting experiment, and relevant to this argument.

**As usual, there is a whole non-Christian world out there which is neglected in Ham's particular monologue. Somehow billions of people figured out clothing and marriage without the Bible.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Tornadoes and the Lord

"I was scared. I was mortified. I just kept praying, 'Lord protect us. Protect us,'" said Linda Johnson, a kindergarten teacher who lives two doors down from the Seventh-day Adventist school. (From an article about the tornado in northern Berks County, Pennsylvania, which messed up a school pretty bad.)

Many people will no doubt be thankful that no one was hurt in the incident - but hey, for a Guy who claims to be in charge of the universe, how about not hitting your school with a tornado at all!

Also apparently He does not have a good sense of timing: "Linda said her classroom just got brand new carpet Thursday morning, and the gym just got a new roof last week." Sad trombone!

Saturday, June 6, 2015

Instrumental vs Epistemic Rationality and Depressive Realism

An unintentional koan for rationalists from Razib Khan, in a post comparing the paths (so far) of European and Chinese economic development:

"What drives growth? Innovation. How do we get innovation? By investing in crazy projects whose payoffs we can't calculate rationally and whose outcomes are not foreseeable."

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Was St. Paul Epileptic?

I have to admit I have a bit of an obsession with the Apostle Paul (scroll down in this post and you'll see). I had heard speculation before from various neurologist types that Paul (Saul) of Tarsus had temporal lobe epilepsy. Why? If you know the story of Paul, think about it - he sees a flash of light, falls down in a fit on the road to Damascus, and can't eat, drink or see for 3 days afterward, which sounds very much like a (bad) post-ictal state. Then, if you believe the book of Acts, he goes on to fit a classic profile for Geschwind personality syndrome (which results from poorly controlled temporal lobe epilepsy), writing a quarter to a half of the New Testament (hypergraphia and hyperreligiosity) and showing humorlessness and disinterest in sex on top of it.

If you're still not asleep, then you may be as interested as I was when I ran across the article which crystallized this speculation in 1987, and a follow-up in 2012. The second one goes beyond just Paul.

Landsborough D. St. Paul and temporal lobe epilepsy. Journal of Neurology, Neurosurgery, and Psychiatry 1987;50:659-664

Murray ED, Cunningham MG, Price BH. The role of psychotic disorders in religious history considered. Journal of Neuropsychiatry and Clinical Neuroscience. 2012 Fall;24(4):410-26. doi: 10.1176/appi.neuropsych.11090214.

Tuesday, January 6, 2015

Would This Be An Acceptable Alternative to Abortion?

Arguments over social policies often take place over superficial, concrete positions that don't really get at the positions of both sides. To this end: there's a feeling people often get that anti-abortion, anti-birth control "arguments" aren't really about protecting babies per se, but rather controlling women's reproductive freedom. (For example, male birth control is getting closer to reality and I haven't heard a single peep out of the usual concerned parties about that...)

So here's a thought experiment for you to find out what people are really after here. Let's make two changes to the world of our thought experiment. First, assume that there are medical discoveries made so that now, we can extract a fetus from a woman at any stage of development without harming the mother or the fetus - and have artificial wombs that can keep the fetus healthy and growing until "delivery" at 9 months. Second, assume that Bill Gates and Warren Buffett donate their every last cent to a fund to get adoptive parents to house, feed, clothe, raise and educate these kids, so they're taken care of after their artificial births. They'll have lives just like any other adopted baby.

If this became possible, would this be morally preferable to making women who don't want their baby carry the fetus to term? If not, why not?

Sunday, December 21, 2014

My New Hero: Tracy Jones

He stands up to say what's what at a city council meeting in Chester, PA. (Doesn't hurt that he's a Pennsylvania boy like your blogger, but I'm sure that's not influencing me at all.)

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Two Functions of Beliefs: Meaning and Group Affiliation

Stated beliefs usually have multiple functions, and nowhere is this more obvious than in beliefs related to identify and group membership. The two functions below are not the only two functions but they're important ones, and they sometimes conflict, between an individual's beliefs or even the same belief statement.

There is the obvious, contentful function of a stated belief: saying "I believe X" means the person believes concretely that X, and will make concrete measurable decisions in alignment with that belief. This function of the belief is a truth claim in its most mundane, practical sense. "I believe it's going to snow tomorrow," a person might say, and get out their snow boots and set their alarm a half hour earlier because of the snow. Let's call this the simple content function. A naive and superficial approach to understanding human belief claims assumes that the only thing worth paying attention to is the semantic content.*

But there is another function, which is to reinforce one's own identity, as well as to declare an affiliation with a group of people, or separateness from a group you don't like. Maybe the same person might say "Snow tomorrow or not, global warming is real, and people who accept global warming - like me - are intelligent, informed citizens, and people against it are mindless idiots." This will make the person feel better about him or herself, and will let their social circles know they're "right-thinking". (Note: there's no argument here that people are doing so consciously or intentionally. The crux of the ideas is that people do this automatically.) Let's call this the group affiliation function. It often seems that the majority of stated beliefs are mostly exclamations of group-affiliation.

Stated beliefs are often weighted toward one or the other of these functions, and oftentimes, the more important the group affiliation function is, the less important the simple content is. That is, the more important the group affiliation function is, the less important it is that the belief is coherent, accurate, and actionable. That said, just because a given belief contains a large component of group affiliation, that doesn't necessarily mean the belief is not justified. In the text that follows, I'll refer to contentful beliefs and group affiliation beliefs, but in reality most beliefs have components of both and just lean one direction or the other.

People declare group affiliation in myriad ways (clothing, accent, diet) and sometimes, utterances that aren't even language. Confederates had the Rebel Yell, conquistadors "¡Santiago!" These are the human equivalent of territorial barks and howls. In other cases, "stated beliefs" do us the favor of being clearly incoherent, showing that they're more wordless war-cries than truth claims, not really even being sentences or at least being repeated so much that they're reduced to mantra-like reflections of solidarity and fervor, rather than having semantic content. Examples: Go Chargers! Allahu aqbar! Sieg heil! Are people really commanding football players to run, making a theological claim, or praising victory when they shout those things? No, they're saying "Hooray for my side, in a way that only my side says!"

Interestingly, when people are asked about "beliefs", we're much more likely to think about expansive, identity-defining, high-group-affiliation-component beliefs, rather than mostly mundane and actionable ones. That is to say: someone might tell you "sure, I believe that the big oil companies will keep making money and finding oil, but that hardly rises to the level of a 'belief'. The world was created 6,000 years ago, now I believe that!" But not many of those same people reallocate their retirement accounts when reminded that those oil companies look for oil based on an old-Earth materialist/evolutionary model. That is to say, when you find conflicts between pragmatic/actionable/contentful beliefs and group-affiliation beliefs, people become uncomfortable.

Sometimes these two functions of belief statements fail to connect. For instance, many Americans who are passionate about their political ideals are really just passionate about being a member of the liberal or conservative tribe; when they get involved with the actual nuts and bolts of voting or working in a government, suddenly everything seems very mundane and fuzzy and not painted in ideological colors at all. (This gives rise to the old political smartass question of how you pave a street in a Republican way versus a Democratic way.)

Sometimes these two functions of belief statements do connect, and they collide head-on. An interesting exercise is trying to turn group-affiliation beliefs into pragmatic ones by attaching a consequence; a quick-and-dirty way to do this is by asking people to make a bet. If the world really will end on a certain date, I'll loan you money you don't have to pay back until the day after (I tried this one a few years ago with Harold Camping crowd; amazingly, no one took me up on it). If gay marriage will destroy America, you pick the consequence and date it will be realized, and we'll make a bet on it. When you do this to people's group-affiliation beliefs, people either a) change the subject, b) tell you that's offensive (betting or indeed attaching any practical consequence to their tribal-affiliation belief, even though these are often claimed to be the most important beliefs in their life!) or c) come right out and tell you there's really no way to verify or test what they're saying, but insist that what they're saying is still true in some special way or magical other realm (or that they can just tell it's true even if you can't, poor soul). But keep in mind: when you demand verification of an incoherent group-affiliation belief, you're attacking someone's group, and in so doing making a full frontal assault on their identity. Of course they won't like it.**

Sometimes people manage to package a mostly-group-affiliation belief into a complete sentence. Fans holding up their index fingers and shouting "We're Number One!" at a sports upset usually don't believe they're really number one, if you insist on asking them in the moment of their elation. And in fact, we have whole books containing group-affiliation belief statements with the explicit claim that they can't really be verified, but are still somehow true. (Razib Khan excellently describes what theologians do in interpreting these texts as intellectual foam, because the exegesis and even the core text itself usually has very little to do with the religions they catalyzed. The same could be said of most political movements.) Of course, if you're a member of some religious or political ideology and you think I'm talking about you, then assume that I'm talking about those other weird religions or political groups, but do be sure to explain in the comments why your own special club is different and doesn't suffer the same problems.

Group-affiliation is a component of all our claimed beliefs and sometimes (usually?) overwhelms the truth value of those beliefs. And this is not some problem with the influence of Christianity, or modern consumer capitalism, or anything so provincial. It appears quite universal, stemming from the genetics and neurology of humans, and it wouldn't be a matter of education but rather full-on genetic engineering to do away with it. The key is when those incoherent group-affiliation-overloaded beliefs are carried forward by institutions with political power, they often do have effects, and begin impinging on other people, now we have a problem. Case in point: one of my cousins thinks I'm kind of fruity for not caring about pro football, but he doesn't think I'm a bad guy and definitely doesn't consider me a source of family shame for it, or think I should be kept away from children, or anything like that. Another of my cousins thinks that I should have to leave America, or be quiet - interestingly, because he says the majority of America is Catholic (which is even funnier than you think, because our family is Lutherans all the way down.)

You may have noticed the frequent referral to sports fans, because they are a (mostly) harmless manifestation of tribal identification and group-affiliation distorting the truth-claim aspect of not just belief statements, but human cognition itself. You may also have noticed that on average, atheists tend not to be fans of team sports. (I looked for data, but just found other people making the same anecdotal observation.) Why might this be? It may be that there is something cognitively different about people who choose atheism against a background of religion - that as Pascal himself said, we were made in such a way that we cannot believe. We like to pat ourselves on the back and say it's because we're more rational, and without excluding that, it seems very likely that we are atheists in part because we just can't as automatically absorb group-affiliation, through language and otherwise. (Turkish sociologist Fehmi Kaya once implied that atheism was a form of autism. Of course this is incorrect and he later apologized, but you can actually see what he was getting at.) Consequently, in a culture where atheism is not the norm, atheists would also not be likely sports fans. (In China or Scandinavia where atheism is more common and therefore less informative about the person, I would expect there not to be a weaker correlation.) If atheists in general think (and communicate) in terms that more heavily favor the contentful component over the group-affiliation component, then team sports would seem a strange world indeed. It also explains the frustrations that atheists often experience in talking to strongly-identifying religious and political group members.

In closing: it's worth repeating that all these group-affiliation-laden belief statements aren't conscious clever ploys of scoring status points with your favorite in-group. If it was a conscious decision, why would you have a favorite in-group in the first place? They're part of our actual beliefs, to some degree in all of us, and we believe them to be "true". Our need for solidarity dramatically affects our cognition. A recent paper in Psychological Science looked at how extremeness of political beliefs relates to the anchor bias. The anchor bias is simple. If you take two groups of people, and tell group A, "New York and San Francisco are at least 2,000 miles apart; try to guess exactly how far apart they are?" and group B, "They're at least 2,500 miles apart...", guess what? Group A will on average give a smaller number, because they have a smaller anchor. (If you think this is B.S., marketing professionals don't, and they have your money to prove it.) Interestingly, political extremists are less affected by this bias than people closer to the center - they are less influenced by external cues. My prediction is that they would also be less affected by other tests of conformity (the famous Milgram experiment, or standing in elevators facing the back or saying a shape is a different length than it actually is). To be clear that I'm not scoring an own-goal for theists on this one: the point is not that extremism is good, but rather that humans adjust their perception of reality to group norms, and that atheists (in the U.S. anyway) are people who are less likely to do this, and you could likely measure it in these experiments.

*This is a descriptive rather than normative statement. When people state their beliefs, they are mostly not actionable, coherent, accurate beliefs. If robots followed people around trying to translate their belief claims into executable code, most of what they said would have to be non-runnable comment, and the rest would probably kill the person and/or make the world end.

**In 2010 the San Diego Coalition of Reason put up an atheist billboard along an SD freeway. A close friend who is now atheist but was still at the time Christian told me that when she saw it, she experienced it strongly as a personal attack. For atheists who have never so strongly identified as a group I think it's very hard for us to viscerally understand this. This kind of bees-swarming-from-the-hive response is a weapon that organized religion (and any programmed-in-childhood argument-from-authority ideology) has and that we atheists don't have. Consequently any frontal assault should be undertaken only after carefully calculating the risk:benefit.

Monday, December 8, 2014

An Answer to Anti-Natalism in the Talmud

As I understand it, anti-natalism is the position that no more humans should be born, because suffering outweighs happiness. If you think suffering is bad and that suffering outweighs happiness, then it follows that to create a new life is profoundly immoral. What's more, the act of creation is necessarily done without consent for the created. I'm putting this post on this blog because the only anti-natalists I've met in person have been people I met through the atheist movement.

For several obvious reasons anti-natalism is not a philosophy that's about to sweep the world. But it's interesting nonetheless as a vehicle of inquiry. Anti-natalists, it's possible that many or all of the questions/objections I'm about to record have already been addressed, but bear with me (and as always, your comments are appreciated).

My first counterargument is that in at least one case, myself, the happiness has outweighed the suffering, and had I been able to give my parents consent, I absolutely would have. I really, really like being alive; in fact being alive is one of my favorite things to do. And how I imagine an anti-natalist responding is: of course you say that, because you're the product of evolution, as such trapped by the cognitive distortions that make minds make genes spread. (See depressive realism.) Yes, that is almost certainly true. But the subjective equals the objective in affective states with only slightly less certainty than consciousness itself. In other words: if I think I exist, I do. Similarly, if I think I'm happy, I probably am. Whether my certainty that this state will continue is accurate, or whether it's appropriate to the situation that obtains in the external universe, is a separate question much more open to debate.

I was prompted to post this here after finding this passage in an article about John Updike and his biography; specifically about his religious concerns. It looks like the Talmud got to this question a while ago:
The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) similarly recounts how for three years the sages debated whether humanity would have been better off had the world not been created. The Sanhedrin (the Jewish Supreme Court of antiquity) "ruled" that humanity would have been better off had the universe not been created, but now that we do exist, we should at least "examine our behavior" (i.e., now that we’re here, we might as well try to make the best of things). Updike’s Bech seems to reach a similar conclusion, absent the moralistic caveat: "the void should have been left unvexed, should have been spared this trouble of matter, of life, and worst, of consciousness." The entire universe, Bech believes, is merely a "blot on nothingness."
If all anti-natalism did was complain that we exist, that would be pretty pointless, but it does bear on ongoing decisions (i.e., don't reproduce). I find it interesting that the Talmud agrees broudly with anti-natalism! But the key is always what knowing the truth should make you do. Beliefs are arrangements of neurons, the purpose of which is to make muscles contract.

On a littriture note: I increasingly assume that Bech is Updike's fictional stand-in for Philip Roth. I've also begun to wonder if Updike was a well-organized pro-social psychopath (cool interests in general, predisposed to narcissism, difficulty making lasting romantic attachments and impulse control issues in the same arena, concerns with feelings of emptiness).