Professing and Cheering

I once attended a panel on the topic, "Are science and religion compatible?" One of the women on the panel, a pagan, held forth interminably upon how she believed that the Earth had been created when a giant primordial cow was born into the primordial abyss, who licked a primordial god into existence, whose descendants killed a primordial giant and used its corpse to create the Earth, etc. The tale was long, and detailed, and more absurd than the Earth being supported on the back of a giant turtle. And the speaker clearly knew enough science to know this.

I still find myself struggling for words to describe what I saw as this woman spoke. She spoke with... pride? Self-satisfaction? A deliberate flaunting of herself?

The woman went on describing her creation myth for what seemed like forever, but was probably only five minutes. That strange pride/satisfaction/flaunting clearly had something to do with her knowing that her beliefs were scientifically outrageous. And it wasn't that she hated science; as a panelist she professed that religion and science were compatible. She even talked about how it was quite understandable that the Vikings talked about a primordial abyss, given the land in which they lived—explained away her own religion!—and yet nonetheless insisted this was what she "believed", said with peculiar satisfaction.

I'm not sure that Daniel Dennett's concept of "belief in belief" stretches to cover this event. It was weirder than that. She didn't recite her creation myth with the fanatical faith of someone who needs to reassure herself. She didn't act like she expected us, the audience, to be convinced—or like she needed our belief to validate her.

Dennett, in addition to suggesting belief in belief, has also suggested that much of what is called "religious belief" should really be studied as "religious profession". Suppose an alien anthropologist studied a group of postmodernist English students who all seemingly believed that Wulky Wilkensen was a post-utopian author. The appropriate question may not be "Why do the students all believe this strange belief?" but "Why do they all write this strange sentence on quizzes?" Even if a sentence is essentially meaningless, you can still know when you are supposed to chant the response aloud.

I think Dennett may be slightly too cynical in suggesting that religious profession is just saying the belief aloud—most people are honest enough that, if they say a religious statement aloud, they will also feel obligated to say the verbal sentence into their own stream of consciousness.

But even the concept of "religious profession" doesn't seem to cover the pagan woman's claim to believe in the primordial cow. If you had to profess a religious belief to satisfy a priest, or satisfy a co-religionist—heck, to satisfy your own self-image as a religious person—you would have to pretend to believe much more convincingly than this woman was doing. As she recited her tale of the primordial cow, with that same strange flaunting pride, she wasn't even trying to be persuasive—wasn't even trying to convince us that she took her own religion seriously. I think that's the part that so took me aback. I know people who believe they believe ridiculous things, but when they profess them, they'll spend much more effort to convince themselves that they take their beliefs seriously.

It finally occurred to me that this woman wasn't trying to convince us or even convince herself. Her recitation of the creation story wasn't about the creation of the world at all. Rather, by launching into a five-minute diatribe about the primordial cow, she was cheering for paganism, like holding up a banner at a football game. A banner saying "GO BLUES" isn't a statement of fact, or an attempt to persuade; it doesn't have to be convincing—it's a cheer.

That strange flaunting pride... it was like she was marching naked in a gay pride parade. (Incidentally, I'd have no objection if she had marched naked in a gay pride parade. Lesbianism is not something that truth can destroy.) It wasn't just a cheer, like marching, but an outrageous cheer, like marching naked—believing that she couldn't be arrested or criticized, because she was doing it for her pride parade.

That's why it mattered to her that what she was saying was beyond ridiculous. If she'd tried to make it sound more plausible, it would have been like putting on clothes.


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More and more, I get the sense that the metaphor-loving religious are promoting something like their right to willingly suspend disbelief, like gamer does when involved in a 'verse, like WoW. It has the same virtues: community, immersion, the thrill of exercising imagination and participating in grand narratives. Only, World of Warcraft buffs don't let their fantasy life impinge on the public sphere as often. I'm aware that I will likely receive flak for drawing this analogy, as it seems terribly dismissive.

I think I can shed some light on her behavior. In the view of religious people in the mystical traditions which paganism tries to emulate (with varying degrees of success, but that's beside the point), the world is vast and beckoning, yet our faculties are barely adequate to scratch the surface.

A mystic, or even a skeptic, sees our thoughts and perceptions of the world as metaphors in themselves, which become more and more deeply abstracted. Our vision and sense of space has a "metaphorical" relationship to the actual, physical reality that we find ourselves in. In the same sense, language and mathematics (math is a subset of language, but I thought it was worth singling out) have a metaphorical relationship to the raw universe.

The point of mysticism is to snap one's consciousness out of the notion that what you experience in day to day living can be trusted, and it calls for the mystic to look more closely at what experience really is: a useful metaphor for what is actually taking place in the universe around us.

So it seems that what this woman was trying to do was at least two "layers" deep. The first, most obvious layer, is that she was emphasizing the ridiculousness of taking the story literally, to force the audience to consider it as a useful metaphor. The deeper message she was conveying by making it clear that what she was saying was not to be taken literally, was a wake up call. It was a call for the audience to think in a fundamentally different way: not only is this creation myth a metaphor representing psychological and physical phenomena, but those phenomena themselves must be examined as metaphors.

She was trying to train the audience members' brains to think mystically. And appropriately enough she did it in an abstract, almost metaphorical sort of way, that the concrete thinkers here totally missed. Biases abound!

In the view of religious people in the mystical traditions [...] the world is vast and beckoning, yet our faculties are barely adequate to scratch the surface.

Does it mean that science has got it all wrong, and we need to start again from the beginning? Otherwise, why reinvent the wheel?

Or perhaps science generally is OK, but there is a part of reality that remains unexpored, so we should acknowledge that in this specific part we are "barely adequate to scratch the surface" and should focus on this area knowing that we start almost from zero and that at the beginning a good metaphor is better than nothing. That I could accept. I only find it difficult to believe that creation of Earth and especially the movement of Earth in space belongs to this unexplored part.

Our vision and sense of space has a "metaphorical" relationship to the actual, physical reality that we find ourselves in. In the same sense, language and mathematics [...] have a metaphorical relationship to the raw universe.

Not all metaphors are created equal. Some of them allow much better prediction than others. Mathematics and physics allow us to predict position of Earth very precisely. Now could you make a similar prediction based on "Earth is on the back of giant turtle"? Is imagining giant turtles really the right way to "to look more closely at what experience really is"?

There are some people who revel in the gibberish of others, and think if a statement is nonsensical but spoken with pride and self confidence, it must be profound. Call them Mysterion Masochists. If I don't get your gibberish, you must be profound.

This woman seems like a Mysterion Sadist. If you don't get my gibberish, I must be profound. I don't think it's anymore complicated than that.

Her attitude is just what I would expect from a self confident Mysterion when faced with a large number of rationalists. I wouldn't be surprised to see a self confident Rationalist have a similar exaggerated presentation and prideful tone when facing a large number of Mysterions.

Rejecting Punctuated Equilibrium theory on the grounds that Gould was a scientifically dishonest crackpot seems to require both fundamental attribution error and an ad hominem argument.

I too am both a pagan and a scientist, and I will happily switch between tales of the Green Mother's handfasting to the Dying King and Gould's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium. I find it no more ridiculous than Francis Collins, the leader of the Human Genome Project and a man I respect greatly, publicly embracing evangelical Christianity.

Our brains are complex creations, with many levels and conflicting functions. The scientific method, with its falsifiable hypotheses and reductive materialism, is a stellar belief system for those systems responsible for predicting and understanding how the physical world works. Unfortunately, it provides little if any support for those pre-rational, emotional, and social systems all our brains share. Your amygdala needs something a bit different than physics.

Many of my fellow biologists share your confusion when confronted with the common person's dislike of Darwinian theory. What they fail to understand is that creation myths serve a critical function in people's lives that has nothing to do with what "really happened". Think about the function of belief from an evolutionary perspective for a moment. What survival benefit is there in understanding what "really happened" when the universe was formed billions of years ago -- especially to our ancestors on the savanna? Yet all cultures place a great importance in their creation myths, despite the fact that most can be easily disproved. It is a universal in human experience.

You may want to ask yourself what the evolutionary function of a creation myth is, and why they are a universal human conceit. With that knowledge in hand, you may have a better understanding of how a creation myth should be judged, and you may finally understand what your pagan panelist was trying to tell you.

Please enlighten me. If she did not believe what she said as literal truth, then what was she trying to say? And why did she not say what she meant? Is it possible that you mean to say her whole speech was an act to communicate a deeper message? A secret message that only pagans understand? Or do you mean to say that this woman had social (or other reasons) to believe this, and she promoted that it didn't matter what she believed because it didn't conflict with her scientific life? Or do you mean that she was encouraging the separation of science and religion by making herself an example of how irrationally stubborn people can be, making it too difficult for science to ever eradicate any false religion because it's "the opium of the people"? Is that what you mean by the "evolutionary function of a creation myth"? How could it play any role in evolution? Were you there during this event, or do you know something I don't?

I have no idea who Zenkat 2 is, much less the original pagan panelist, but here are some plausible suggestions about what she might have been thinking:

  • She was trying to say that her story about the Primordial Cow was the most emotionally satisfying story currently available on the topic of "where do we come from?"
  • She did not explicitly describe her story as false because this makes a story less emotionally satisfying.
  • She believed that telling false stories as if they were true is not necessarily a mark of an inferior scientist -- some people can effectively compartmentalize, and it would be reckless to insist (without evidence) that all such people would be more productive if they forced themselves to adopt rational modes of thinking in all aspects of their life.
  • Creation myths could be a common but accidental byproduct of the evolutionarily advantageous ability to develop stories (improves communication), the urge to complete stories (improves curiosity), and the urge to build community (i.e., the relevant in-group shares a common origin and should act like kin; improves cooperation). Alternatively, the cooperation-improving function of a really good creation myth might be part of the cause of its ubiquity.

In case it isn't clear, you're asking questions to someone who posted a comment 5 years ago on Overcoming Bias. Don't expect a response.

And hasn't commented since, at least not under that username.

Some individuals (and I presume more here than most venues) struggle with any internal inconsistency, while others readily compartmentalize and move on. I am an engineer by training and of course most of my workmates are engineers, yet they represent a variety of religions as well. Most have some questions and doubts about their own, and plenty more about others, and yet that doesn't make a huge difference for day-to-day life.

Some would quickly conclude that such an engineer's judgement is questionable, and discount their work, but most seem to be adequately logical in other spheres.

Perhaps the better questions is one of utility -- what value does the individual get for their beliefs? I graduated with many Elect Engrs; let's presume one went to work on microprocessor design (driven by quantum theory) and another does correction math for GPS satellites (driven by relativity). It is well understood that the two theories have been objectively demonstrated to work well in their respective domains, and yet are mathematically incompatible (at best each may a simplification of a more universal rule). Both cannot be 'true', and while both could be false and likely are to some degree, they are both incredibly useful.

From a systems perspective I tend to fall back on the Systems rules-of-thumb, like "all models are wrong; some are useful", and "draw a box around what is working together to do what you're interested in, and analyze within". Compartmentalization allows one to get down to the work at hand, in support of a utilitarian view.

I am here to learn, though. Must inconsistency be driven out, or simply embraced as part of the imperfect human machine?

"Belief" is a notion that isn't necessarily tied to literal truth. Aquinas once said that "all statements about God are metaphors," and Niebuhr (sp?) said something to the effect that "religious statements should be taken seriously, but not literally." For a more recent (and accessible) variation, consider Tony Hillerman's novels, in which one of his principal characters, Jim Chee, studies to be a Navaho shaman (not quite the right word, but I forget the Navaho one), taking myths very seriously without for a minute thinking that they are history. (Hillerman himself is Catholic, so he doesn't think the Navaho myths are literal truth either.) Discussions of religious belief on this blog seem to me to assume too readily that they are just like beliefs about science or history. To some people, no doubt, they are. But not to me, and not to a lot of other religious people, either. I think there's a bias about religion here, that needs to be overcome.

The cow thing does seem a stretch, though, even on the most sympathetic possible interpretation.

From the way this woman is portrayed in this post, this woman obviously believed that the myth was literally true, or was acting like she believed it for some other purpose.

If she actually believed in the literal interpretation of this creation myth, then it doesn't matter whether or not there is a plausible metaphorical or symbolical interpretation. The subject matter, and conclusion of this post is indifferent to the nature of the myth. What matters is what that woman believed. Whether Yudkowsky is biased or not is irrelevant to the purpose of his post. (Unless were not assuming that this creation myth is false.)

Whether Yudkowsky is biased or not is irrelevant to the purpose of his post.


I think there's a bias about religion here, that needs to be overcome.

Was basically just an attempt to be clever making a play on words related to "Overcoming Bias". They were all the rage.

Wow, I was coming to edit this post, and you responded so quickly...well, thank you.

I foolishly neglected to research this creation myth before commenting. I now can see how this myth could be purposely using symbolical language. But I wouldn't know how to correctly understand it, without over-interpreting it. (That is if its worth interpreting.)

I'm reminded of Emotivism.

"Belief in belief" sounds perfectly plausible here, where the second-level belief is different: not that believers are morally superior, or believers go to heaven, but that believers are cool.

I'm also very happy to discuss Dawkin's theories on the selfish gene, if you wish. As a genomics researcher, I get to play with the transcriptional junk left behind by selfish DNA replicants (ALUs, transposons, endogenous retroviral DNA, gene duplication, and copy number variants) on a daily basis. Other fun topics for discussion might be the effects of Intralocus Competitive Evolution on species divergence, and/or the evidence for recent selective pressures on the human genome that have been uncovered by the HapMap project.

Anyways, I'm detecting an form of anti-Gould bias that appears to be a particular conceit among libertarian economists. Interestingly enough, I don't find that the controversy is shared by most biologists. Perhaps you should read the Wikipedia article on Gould's scientific career with an unbiased eye. It provides balanced and well documented review of Gould's accomplishments, and provides extensive references.

As far as I can tell, most of the knee-jerk reactions against Gould are a hangover from his feud with Dawkins and Wilson over sociobiology and evolutionary psychology. Personally, I side with Dawkins on this one (my comment did appeal to evolutionary psychology, after all), but I am always amazed at the vitriol spewed at Gould. Seems more akin to the furious debates between Pre- and Post-Millenialists than reasoned scientific discussion to me.

It should be noted that the myth in question wasn't a "believed myth"; Snorri was writing a handbook for poets more than a hundred years after the introduction of christianity and needed to provide a context for the traditional kennings. It makes no sense because it wasn't intended to make sense, only to make it easier to make sense of traditional poems.

An FYI that does not address the substance of Eliezer's post:

This woman was telling you the Norse creation myth, which is definitely one of the stranger ones I've heard: As a story, it lacks the rudimentary narrative cohesiveness most of us expect, having been exposed since childhood to the Christian "first there was light" story, which proceeds in a rather more linear manner. On the other hand, Norse myth is the basis of Tolkien's Middle Earth, whereas the Christian myth has been responsible mainly for lots of paintings of Adam and Eve looking coyly at each other.

The previous comment by Alan about these beliefs of religion not being the same as beliefs in science seems a little problematic. If one believes that ones religious beliefs are a non-literal, albeit serious metaphor, which one holds to be true, but not in the same way as scientific beliefs, what sort of belief is it, and how does one hold the religious accounts to be true? Belief, is very widely understood as the epistemic state of holding some proposition, or propositions to be true, in the actual or real world. Maybe it is not the sense of belief that differs, in Alan's account after all, but the proposition that is being believed. The belief in the religious account was stated as not being a proposition of literal truth, so in the common meaning not proposed as being true in the actual world, and so in the common understanding, not a belief. It was stated to be some sense of belief, just not in the common sense. It seems that there is a proposition which is being claimed as true, that is the proposition regarding very real and serious effect, and significant metaphorical meaning of the religious account on, or in, people's lives . That is to say that the belief is in the function of the metaphorical account, and not the account itself. The metaphor may be a way of coming to understand, or feel more connected to the scientific account, or any number of other very real, and very meaningful roles. Whatever the function may be in any instance, it is this function that Alan, and perhaps others actually believe in. The metaphorical religious account need not have its own special sense of belief, but simply function as any other metaphor, to help bring about a greater understanding or appreciation. Believing not in the religious account and the scientific account in two separate ways, but believing, in one concise, simple way in the scientific account and metaphorical function of the religious account.

This is a year-and-a-half late, but did you ask the woman what the weird pride/satisfaction/flaunting thing was? Or whether she was cheering for paganism? She would likely answer, "No," but the emotional response would have been interesting and possibly telling of some other behavior just beneath the surface.

I find it strange how often I will ponder why specific people do things but never bother to walk up and ask them what their perspective on the subject happens to be.

That being said, the concept of cheering makes great sense. I find that the behavior is very similar to what you describe in Politics is the Mind-Killer. Cole Stage's comment is a good tie-in.

It sounds like this "pagan" was trying to show that religious beliefs were completely absurd. My guess is that she doesn't believe in the primordial cow any more than you do, but she was trying to convince people that "traditional" religions are no more believable.

This strategy has the advantage of being immune to any defenses mounted by the traditional religions.

People can bind themselves as a group by believing "crazy" things together. Then among outsiders they could show the same pride in their crazy belief as they would show wearing "crazy" group clothes among outsiders.

One of my largest frustrations in life, frustrations of the type produced where one determines that one is simply not understanding something fundamental that is understood at least implicitly by many other people, is that I have generally found "to satisfy your own self-image as an X - you would have to pretend to Y much more convincingly than this woman was doing" to be falsified, but I still cannot understand what it is generally falsified by. In school, in work, etc, I have found teachers, professors, students, co-workers and management to, a small but noticeable fraction of the time, do what I think cannot even charitably be described in any way other than "doing nothing" to a degree which Scott Adams has yet to adequately describe or demonstrate in Dilbert, yet I have found that when I try to imitate this "doing nothing", I have found myself to typically be rebuked (though not by the actual 'do-nothings'). My best guesses are that a) the do-nothings are amiable people who seem comfortable with their behavior while when trying to not do anything I seem uncomfortable and/or disagreeable, or b) the do-nothings have jobs (like teaching Statistics) which no-one really wants done. (the degree to which business-people and scientists alike don't even try to understand Statistics but simply mis-use it as a talisman against criticism (So long as they tow the line in their conclusions and methods. Iconoclasts will be punished for this, a-la Kinsey) without ever attempting to understand how or why or where their procedures work depresses me.) but I am very unsure of these conclusions. Can anyone do better?

Perhaps we should check to see how many papers in respected journals cite "punctuated equilibrium" other than to attack it. In a previous thread in which Gould was discussed I linked to this, which used such evidence to argue against his theory on "spandrels".

It is interesting that Zenkat mentioned "libertarian economists" since Eliezer is not an economist, and I was unaware from his posts here that he was a libertarian. I note that Robin Hanson denied being a "libertarian economist" when accused of it, but it occurs to me that perhaps he thinks "libertarian economist" as something other than a person who is both an economist and a libertarian. Alan Greenspan, for example, was a libertarian who had advocated the gold standard as well as chairman of the federal reserve, but might not be characterized as "libertarian chairman of the federal reserve", because his actions as chairman were not any more libertarian than average. I am not saying I think Robin is a libertarian, but merely that I assign a probability higher than zero to his being one.

LP: ever hear of Paradise Lost? A lot of pictures. Really...

Zenkat: I will happily switch between tales of the Green Mother's handfasting to the Dying King and Gould's theory of Punctuated Equilibrium

They're about equally plausible. You do realize that serious evolutionary biologists regard Gould as a scientifically dishonest crackpot who has deliberately misrepresented the state of modern evolutionary biology to the public?

Gunn: The cow thing does seem a stretch, though, even on the most sympathetic possible interpretation.

It's a good thing you don't believe anything that would sound just as strange to someone who hadn't grown up believing it.

This is good. Great many people talk only in terms of what they think they should believe, but not what they behave -- this shows what they truly believe.

I see it differently. This is what I suspect was going on. She's driven by a feeling of how cool that would be if it was the case -- revelling in it -- with a concomitant avoidance of evaluating the notion to closely. And she's keen to project this image "are't I awesome for being so /radical/ in my beliefs".

On the other hand Johnny, paganism doesn't cost £9 a month.

Sounds more to me like the pride of her own personal rebellion against what she perceives as the establishment.

Of course I wasn't there, but in the telling of the story, that is what initially occurred to me.

Zenkat, I suspect a great deal of the venom towards Gould is also due to his opposition to certain positions on human population / IQ test differences.

Robin, that was the intended topic of my next post :) but your clothing metaphor is a good one, and I shall borrow it.

Zenkat, I said evolutionary biologists, not biologists. My grandfather is a statistical geneticist ( animal QTL), who also happens to be a believing Orthodox Jew, and whom I've debated briefly on evolutionary psychology, evolutionary biology, and the ability of evolutionary biology to account fully for human evolution. So I'm quite aware of the difference between someone who works with genes every day, and someone who has a deep understanding of, ahem, the structure of evolutionary theory. Now I'm sure that you can interpret linkage disequilibria statistics better than I can, but since you refer to selfish genes as "Dawkins's" theory, I do wonder how much you know about the history of mathematical evolutionary theory.

Gould has many respectable scientific accomplishments to his name, but in the field of evolutionary biology he lied to the public.

Christianity, for instance, is somewhat less absurd than Norse creation myth only when it skips the actual mechanics of the creation, so it seems a tad harsh to single out that poor cow for a hard time. From the viewpoint of psychological bias, the main point of interest I can see is that of religionists being so forgiving about errors in what should explain the hows and whys of existence.

Alan has a good point. His post reminds me of this

I will mention that I have only met one person who actually talked about religious history and secular history in conversation un-self-consciously in such a manner as to suggest that he wasn't using separate "religious history" and "secular history" categories but fairly honestly, e.g. without typical forms of self-deception, saw them as a single thing, history. He would talk about Indian politics, current events, and history in a manner which occasionally mentioned the activities of Indira Gandhi and occasionally those or Rama or Krishna. This person was not especially nerdy, but was of fairly modest socio-economic-status (had been a hair-dresser), high gullibility (involved in Multi-Level Marketing) and probably of only moderately above average intelligence as suggested by a BS in Math from an unknown university coupled with the inability to pass the first of the eight Actuarial exams after 4 years as an Actuarial "student" (the subject is basically a fairly but not terribly difficult mix of 1st and 2nd semester Statistics, Calculus, and Financial Economics. If you competed in the Math Olympiad, think the first round AHSME test from the Math Olympiad but requiring those subjects.) Actuarial Students are given free courses, materials, past exams which provide analogous questions, and 20-30 days per year of time off (in addition to normal vacation and sick-days) formally allocated to study)

Eliezer, first, really great topic. I think it will help move this blog to new and fertile ground. Secondly, in this particular case, I think Cole has a very plausible theory. If this person wanted to rise above being just one person on a panel, to a person in the key diaelectical exchange with the entire room, it might have been a good strategy for them to try to bait the room by professing, to the point of mass irritation, a contrarian stance.

It would be interesting to see she would adjust strategies in a room filled with pagan scientists. If she's completely flexible in external presentation of self, and attention-maximizing, she might then claim to be a fundamentalist christian?

We have all had a the experience of listening to somebody drone on about some outlandish belief/behaviour/experience/whatever where the speaker was actually attempting to goad the listener in rebutting them. Then the speaker could take on the mantle of bieng the attacked party. Once they are "forced" onto the defensive, you become guilty of calling her a "primordial cow" instead of her genesis story a, well, uh, a primordial cow. C.S. Lewis might have just as easily believed in a Primordial Cow instead of Christianity but I doubt he would have begged to be attacked for it.