To paraphrase the Black Belt Bayesian: Behind every exciting, dramatic failure, there is a more important story about a larger and less dramatic failure that made the first failure possible.
If every trace of religion was magically eliminated from the world tomorrow, then—however much improved the lives of many people would be—we would not even have come close to solving the larger failures of sanity that made religion possible in the first place.
We have good cause to spend some of our efforts on trying to eliminate religion directly, because it is a direct problem. But religion also serves the function of an asphyxiated canary in a coal mine—religion is a sign, a symptom, of larger problems that don't go away just because someone loses their religion.
Consider this thought experiment—what could you teach people that is not directly about religion, which is true and useful as a general method of rationality, which would cause them to lose their religions? In fact—imagine that we're going to go and survey all your students five years later, and see how many of them have lost their religions compared to a control group; if you make the slightest move at fighting religion directly, you will invalidate the experiment. You may not make a single mention of religion or any religious belief in your classroom, you may not even hint at it in any obvious way. All your examples must center about real-world cases that have nothing to do with religion.
If you can't fight religion directly, what do you teach that raises the general waterline of sanity to the point that religion goes underwater?
Here are some such topics I've already covered—not avoiding all mention of religion, but it could be done:
- Affective Death Spirals—plenty of non-supernaturalist examples.
- How to avoid cached thoughts and fake wisdom; the pressure of conformity.
- Evidence and Occam's Razor—the rules of probability.
- The Bottom Line / Engines of Cognition—the causal reasons why Reason works.
- Mysterious Answers to Mysterious Questions—and the whole associated sequence, like making beliefs pay rent and curiosity-stoppers—have excellent historical examples in vitalism and phlogiston.
- Non-existence of ontologically fundamental mental things—apply the Mind Projection Fallacy to probability, move on to reductionism versus holism, then brains and cognitive science.
- The many sub-arts of Crisis of Faith—though you'd better find something else to call this ultimate high master-level technique of actually updating on evidence.
- Dark Side Epistemology—teaching this with no mention of religion would be hard, but perhaps you could videotape the interrogation of some snake-oil sales agent as your real-world example.
- Fun Theory—teach as a literary theory of utopian fiction, without the direct application to theodicy.
- Joy in the Merely Real, naturalistic metaethics, etcetera etcetera etcetera and so on.
But to look at it another way—
Suppose we have a scientist who's still religious, either full-blown scriptural-religion, or in the sense of tossing around vague casual endorsements of "spirituality".
We now know this person is not applying any technical, explicit understanding of...
- ...what constitutes evidence and why;
- ...Occam's Razor;
- ...how the above two rules derive from the lawful and causal operation of minds as mapping engines, and do not switch off when you talk about tooth fairies;
- ...how to tell the difference between a real answer and a curiosity-stopper;
- ...how to rethink matters for themselves instead of just repeating things they heard;
- ...certain general trends of science over the last three thousand years;
- ...the difficult arts of actually updating on new evidence and relinquishing old beliefs;
- ...epistemology 101;
- ...self-honesty 201;
- ...etcetera etcetera etcetera and so on.
When you consider it—these are all rather basic matters of study, as such things go. A quick introduction to all of them (well, except naturalistic metaethics) would be... a four-credit undergraduate course with no prerequisites?
But there are Nobel laureates who haven't taken that course! Richard Smalley if you're looking for a cheap shot, or Robert Aumann if you're looking for a scary shot.
And they can't be isolated exceptions. If all of their professional compatriots had taken that course, then Smalley or Aumann would either have been corrected (as their colleagues kindly took them aside and explained the bare fundamentals) or else regarded with too much pity and concern to win a Nobel Prize. Could you—realistically speaking, regardless of fairness—win a Nobel while advocating the existence of Santa Claus?
That's what the dead canary, religion, is telling us: that the general sanity waterline is currently really ridiculously low. Even in the highest halls of science.
If we throw out that dead and rotting canary, then our mine may stink a bit less, but the sanity waterline may not rise much higher.
This is not to criticize the neo-atheist movement. The harm done by religion is clear and present danger, or rather, current and ongoing disaster. Fighting religion's directly harmful effects takes precedence over its use as a canary or experimental indicator. But even if Dawkins, and Dennett, and Harris, and Hitchens should somehow win utterly and absolutely to the last corner of the human sphere, the real work of rationalists will be only just beginning.
I already mentioned this as a comment to another post, but it's worth repeating here: The human brain has evolved some "dedicated hardware" for accelerating certain tasks.
I already mentioned in that other post that one such hardware was for recognizing faces, and that false-positives generated by this hardware caused us have a feeling of hauntedness and ghosts (because the brain receives a subconscious signal indicating the presence of a face, but consciously looking around we see no one around).
Another such hardware (which I only briefly alluded to in the other post) was "agency detection". I.e. trying to figure out whether a certain event occurred "naturally", or because another agent (a friend, a foe, or a neutral?) caused it to happen. False positives from this hardware would cause us to "detect agency" where none was, and if the event seems something way out of the capacity for a human to control, and since humans seem to be the most powerful "natural" beings in the universe, the agent in question must be something supernatural, like God.
I don't have all the details worked out, but it seems plausible that agency-detection could... (read more)
Agency misfires and causal misfires can help to suggest religion. For that suggestion to get past your filters, the sanity waterline has to be low. I don't invent a new religion every time I see a face in the clouds or three dandelions lined up in a row.
Neither do I, though I'm often tempted to find a reason for why my iPod's shuffle function "chose" a particular song at a particular time. ["Mad World" right now.]
It seems that our mental 'hardware' is very susceptible to agency and causal misfires, leaving an opening for something like religious belief. Robin explained religious activities and beliefs as important in group bonding [http://www.overcomingbias.com/2009/01/why-fiction-lies.html], but the fact that religion arose may just be a historical accident. It's likely that something would have arisen in the same place as a group bonding mechanism - perhaps religion just found the gap first. From an individual perspective, this hardly means that the sanity waterline is low. In fact, evolutionarily speaking, playing along may be the sanest thing to do.
The relevant sentence from Robin's post: "Social life is all about signaling our abilities and cooperativeness, and discerning such signals from others." As Norman points out [link below], self-deception makes our signals more credible, since we don't have to act as believers if we are believers. As a result, in the ancestral environment at least, it's... (read more)
If you want people to repeat this back, write it in a test, maybe even apply it in an academic context, a four-credit undergrad course will work.
If you want them to have it as the ground state of their mind in everyday life, you probably need to have taught them songs about it in kindergarten.
I don't know; I agree with you about the likely effects of the four-credit class, but OB has had substantial effects on me and various other people I know, despite not reaching us in kindergarten. Why does OB work as well as it does?
Also, I think it's the way OB's teachings get reinforced daily. You don't just study one course and then forget about it: if you read OB/LW regularly, you get constant tiny nudges in the right direction. There's research suggesting that frequent small events have a stronger effect on one's happiness than rare big ones, and I suspect it's the same when it comes to learning new patterns of thought. Our minds are constantly changing and adapting, so if you just make a change once, it'll be drowned out in the sea of other changes. You'll want to bring it up to the point where it becomes self-reinforcing, and that takes time.
This is the reason why I suspect Eliezer's book won't actually have as big of an effect as many may think. Most people will probably read it, think it amazing, think they absolutely have to apply it to their normal lives... then go on and worry about their bills and partners and forget about the book. The main benefit will be for those who'll actually be startled enough to go online and find out more - if they end up as regular readers of OB and LW, or find some other rationality resource, then they have hope. Otherwise, probably not.
This is a very good point that I'll try to keep in mind, and another solution would be to have a decent community.
Unrepresentative sample. Nobody would start reading OB unless they were already at least a rationalist-wannabe.
It seems to me that the principal issue is that, even if you know all those things... that doesn't guarantee that you're actually applying them to your own beliefs or thought processes. There is no "view source" button for the brain, nor even a way to get a stack trace of how you arrived at a particular conclusion... and even if there were, most of us, most of the time, would not push the button or look at the trace, if we were happy with our existing/expected results.
In addition, most people are astonishingly bad at reasoning from the general to the specific... which means that if you don't mention religion explicitly in your hypothetical course, very few people will actually apply the skills in a religious context... especially if that part of their life is working out just fine, from their point of view.
It may be fictional evidence, but I think S.P. Somtow's idea that "The breaking of joy is the beginning of wisdom" has some applicability here... as even highly-motivated individuals have trouble learning to see their beliefs, as beliefs -- and therefore subject to the skills of rationality.
That is, if you think something is part of the territory, you're... (read more)
I suspect you are right; the issue isn't that these people haven't "learned" relevant abstractions or tools. They just don't have enough incentives to apply those tools in these context. I'm not sure you "teach" incentives, so I'm not sure there is anything you can teach which will achieve the goal stated. So I'd ask the question: how can we give people incentives to apply their tools to cases like religion?
It's not incentive either. I have plenty of incentive, and so do my students. It's simply that we don't notice our beliefs as beliefs, if they're already in our heads. (As opposed to the situation when vetting input that's proposed as a new belief.)
Since we don't have any kind of built-in function for listing ALL the beliefs involved in a given decision, we are often unaware of the key beliefs that are keeping us stuck in a particular area. We sit there listing all the "beliefs" we can think of, while the single most critical belief in that area isn't registering as a "belief" at all; it just fades in as part of our background assumptions. To us, it's something like "water is wet" -- sure it's a belief, but how could it possibly be relevant to our problem?
Usually, an irrational fear associated with something like, "but how will I pay the bills?" masquerades as simple, factual logic. But the underlying emotional belief is usually something more like, "If I don't pay the bills, then I'm an irresponsible person and no-one will love me." The underlying belief is invisible because we don't look underneath the "logic" to ... (read more)
I'd say there're two problems: one is incentives, as you say; the other is making "apply these tools to your own beliefs" a natural affordance for people -- something that just springs to mind as a possibility, the way drinking a glass of liquid springs to mind on seeing it (even when you're not thirsty, or when the glass contains laundry detergent).
Regarding incentives: good question. If rationality does make peoples' lives better, but it makes their lives better in ways that aren't obvious in prospect, we may be able to "teach" incentives by making the potential benefits of rationality more obvious to the person's "near"-thinking system, so that the potential benefits can actually pull their behavior. (Humans are bad enough at getting to the gym, switching to more satisfying jobs in cases where this requires a bit of initial effort, etc., that peoples' lack of acted-on motivation to apply rationality to religion does not strongly imply a lack of inventives to do so.)
Regarding building a "try this on your own beliefs" affordance (so that The Bottom Line or other techniques just naturally spring to mind): Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy people... (read more)
Here's another way of evaluating the sanity of religious belief:
It's arguable that the original believers of religion were insane (e.g. shamans with schizotypical personality disorder, temporal lobe epilepsy, etc...), yet with each subsequent believer in your culture, you are less and less insane to believe in it. During past history, it would only take a few insane or gullible people with good oratorical skills getting together to make religion sanely believable.
If you are religious because you see spirits, you are insane. If you are religious because your friend Shaman Bob sees spirits and predicts the rainfall, you aren't very smart, but you aren't insane either. If you are religious because your whole tribe believes in the spirits seen by Shaman Bob and has indoctrinated you from birth, you are not insane at all, you are a typical human.
Evidence for the existence of God: my ancestors saw God and talked to him, and he did really great things for them, and so they passed down stories about it so that we'd remember. Everybody knows that.
Evidence for the existence of Jesus: same.
Evidence for the existence of Hercules: same.
Evidence for the existence of Socrates: same.
Evidence for the existence of Newton: same. Okay, we have a few more records of this one.
Information cascades may be irrational, but they seem fully sane and neurotypical.
Taboo "sane". "Neurotypical" might be a good substitute.
There was a time in history when religion was completely eliminated from the social and scientific life -- the Soviet period, roughly from 1920s to 1980s.
I'm not informed well enough to judge the effects the removal of religion had on the Soviet science. Granted, the country went from rubble to Sputnik and nuclear weapons, but it is hard for me to untangle the causes of this -- there were other powerful factors at work (e.g. "if you don't do good science, we'll send you and your family to GULAG").
One thing, however, is certain -- after the Soviet Union collapsed, religion conquered its lost positions back in a matter of a few years. The memetic sterilization that has been going on for several generations didn't help at all.
Now, about 20 years after the collapse, we see quite a lot of academics publicly mentioning God in their TV interviews, and you'll never hear a public politician mentioning that he is an atheist -- after doing so, his career would be instantly ruined.
To sum up, I have to agree with the posters suggesting that the 'God-shaped hole' wanting to be filled is innate. Figuring out whether religion is an epistemic need, a signaling tool, or both of these mixed in some proportion is another story.
It doesn't have to be a 'God-shaped hole' -- there probably is a hole, and over the past few millennia, the Goddists have learned some excellent strategies to fill it, and to exploit it for the replication of their memes. People like Sagan and Dawkins have spent their lives trying to show that science, properly understood and appreciated, fills the hole better, fits it more truly, than do the ideas of religion.
Bottom line: we're not selling Sweet'n'Low here. If we slap "I Can't Believe It's Not Christ!" on the jar, if we act as though religion is the "real thing," and we've got a convenient stop-gap, people are going to want to go back to the "real thing" every time.
I just read a nice blog post at neurowhoa.blogspot.com/2009/03/believer-brains-different-from-non.html, covering research on brain differences of believers vs. non-believers. The take away from the recent study was "religious conviction is associated with reduced neural responsivity to uncertainty and error". I'm hesitant to read too much into this particular study, but if there is something to this then the best way to spread rational thought would be to try to correct for this deficiency. Practicing not to let uncertainty or errors slide by, no matter how small, would result in a positive habit and develop their rationality skills.
Recently I contemplated writing an "Atheist's Bible", to present the most important beliefs of atheists. Eventually I realized that this Atheist Bible would not mention atheism. "Atheism" is just the default belief state we were born with. Atheism isn't having reasons not to believe religion; it's not having reasons to believe religion. If one knows how the world works, there are no gaps for religion to fill.
The French Encyclopedia of the late 18th century was by design an atheist work; it carried out this design by not mentioning religion.
On the contrary, I would argue that our default belief state is one full of scary monsters trying to kills us and whirling lights flying around overhead and oh no what this loud noise and why am I wet
...I can't imagine a human ancestor in that kind of situation not coming up with some kind of desperate Pascal's wager of, "I'll do this ritualistic dance to the harvest goddess because it's not really that much trouble to do in the grand scheme of things, and man if there's any chance of improving the odds of a good harvest, I'm shakin' my rain-maker." Soon you can add, "and everyone else says it works" to the list, and bam, religion.
My father grew up in a heavily religious family, and rejected religion at an early age. I'd say he was a clever fellow, but the turning point wasn't intelligence, it was what a horrible little bastard he was as a child, as any of his siblings would tell you.
If you just don't give a shit, all the emotional manipulation in the world will just wash over you like water off a duck's back. And that's all religion really has going for it, appealing to hope, to fear, to love, to respect, to piety, to community.
If you can teach people truly not to care, a huge rotten portion of their psyche falls away. There is a cost, of course... but this will do the job the post demands.
To return to the question asked in the original post:
My first reaction to the question -- too many constraints. I can't quickly think of anything that satisfies all three of them. However, if I'm allowed to drop one constraint, I'd drop the second one ("useful as a general method of rationality"), and my answer would be evolution.
In my experience, understanding evolution down to chemistry, down to predictable interactions of very simple parts that have nothing mystical or anthropomorphic about them can have a tremendous impact on one's further thinking.
There are a couple of large gorillas in this room.
First, the examples of great scientists who were also religious shows that you don't have to be an atheist to make great discoveries. I think the example of Isaac Newton is especially instructive: not only did Newton's faith not interfere with his ability to understand reality, it also constituted the core of his motivation to do so (he believed that by understanding Nature he would come to a greater understanding of God). Faraday's example is also significant: his faith motivated him to refuse to work on chemical weapons for the British government.
Second, evidence shows that religious people are happier. Now, this happiness research is of course murky, and we should hesitate to make any grand conclusions on the basis of it. But if it is true, it is deeply problematic for the kind of rationality you are advocating. If rationalists should "just win", and we equate winning with happiness, and the faithful are happier than atheists, then we should all stop reading this blog and start going to church on Sundays.
There are subtleties here that await discovery. Note for example Taleb's hypothesis that the ancients specifically promoted religion as a way of preventing people from going to doctors, who killed more people than they saved until the 19th century. Robin made a similar point about the cost effectiveness of faith healing.
Many of us don't, certainly not with happiness alone, but even if we did...
I accept a correlation between religious faith and happiness, but it's a long way from there to concluding that taking up religious faith is the best way to gain this happiness. Many sources of long-term happiness - sense of community, feelings of purpose, close family bonds, etc - are more likely to be seen in a religious person, but you don't have to turn to religion to experience them.
I hear that people who have had a lobotomy also live untroubled lives of quiet happiness.
It's worth noting that 'mere' is a weasel word of the highest order. If you change that to 'Why be unhappy about a fact' then it loses its emotive force while having effectively the same content, unless you meant 'Why be unhappy about a fact that's not worth being unhappy about' in which case you're just baiting.
Why be unhappy about something that isn't a fact?
Should I not be unhappy when people die? I know that I could, by altering my thought processes, make myself less unhappy; I know that this unhappiness is not cognitively unavoidable. I choose not to avoid it. The person I aspire to be has conditions for unhappiness and will be unhappy when those conditions are met.
Our society thinks that being unhappy is terribly, terribly sinful. I disagree morally, pragmatically, and furthermore think that this belief leads to a great deal of unhappiness.
(My detailed responses being given in Feeling Rational, Not For the Sake of Happiness Alone, and Serious Stories, and furthermore illustrated in Three Worlds Collide.)
I'm going to echo Eliezer's request for a citation. As far as I know this is simply wrong. First of all, Newton understood that planets interacted with each other gravitationally. Indeed, taking this into account gave slightly better data than the strict Keplerian model. The only planet in this solar system that was predicted based on apparent gravitational influence was Neptune which was predicted based on deviations in the orbit of Uranus. (In fact, people had seen Neptune before but had not realized what it was. Galileo saw it at least once but didn't realize it was a planet (Edit: See remark below)). Uranus wasn't even recognized as a planet until 1781 (some prior intermittent observations of Uranus had marked it possibly as star) and even then wasn't widely accepted as a planet for a few years. Newton died about 50 years prior. So there's no way he could have had any hope of using anomalies in the orbit of Uranus to detect Neptune. The situation gets worse given that the anomalies weren't even recognized until Bouvard's detailed calculations in the early part of the 19th century revealed the discrepancy between the observed and predicted orbit of Uranus.
I thus find Annoyance... (read more)
"Could you - realistically speaking, regardless of fairness - win a Nobel while advocating the existence of Santa Claus?"
Absolutely! Your examples already show that that level of insanity is tolerated. The difference is only social acceptance of one belief vs. another.
The only way to change that is to have a culture in which people are held to a high standard in every part of their lives. Today if you examine the reason people believe anything, you come off as the jerk. Even outside of religious beliefs.
Person makes unfounded statement, people... (read more)
So, further to my earlier comment about teaching people how to be happy and how to flourish, I have a question to ask. Suppose that (for some reason) everyone in the world was always very happy with their lives. Would people even consider religion as a serious option in their hypothesis space? I don't think so. Imagine trying to convert a citizen of Banks' Culture to Christianity. Would they even take you seriously? Would it be like trying to convert a grown-up to belief in Santa Claus?
Err... I actually toss around endorsements of "spirituality" in those contexts where doing so seems likely to have positive effects. Naive realism is a supernatural belief system anyway, just a more subtle than average one. I'll invoke Einstein, Hume and Spinoza as precedents if you wish. Who do you think, by the way, is more likely to convince a theist to sign up for cryonics, a person who says "god is a stupid idea, this is the only way to survive death" or a person who says "I believe in god too, but I also believe in taking ... (read more)
Michael Vassar said:
What exactly do you mean by "supernatural" in this context? Naive realism doesn't seem to be anthropomorphizing any ontologically fundamental things, which is what I mean when I say "supernatural".
Now of course naive realism does make the assumption that certain assumptions about reality which are encoded in our brains from the get go are right, or at least probably right, in short, that we have an epistemic gift. However, that can't be what you meant by "supernatural", because any theory that doesn't make that assumption gives us no way to deduce anything at all about reality.
Now, granted, some interpretations of naive realism may wrongly posit some portion of the gift to be true, when in fact, by means of evidence plus other parts of the gift, we end up pretty sure that it's wrong. But I don't think this sort of wrongness makes an idea supernatural. Believing that Newtonian physics is absolutely true, regardless of how fast objects move is a wrong belief, but I wouldn't call it a supernatural belief.
So, what exactly did you mean?
The place has potential if it were fixed up a bit. That's what gets me up in the morning.
"Consider this thought experiment - what could you teach people that is not directly about religion, which is true and useful as a general method of rationality, which would cause them to lose their religions?"
I have some good experienc... (read more)
Since you brought up Dawkins, I think teaching about Memetics would be very useful in raising the "sanity waterline". Learning about Memetics really forces you to analyze your beliefs for selfish replicator ideas.
In addition, it challenges the view that consensus is an impregnable defense for believing bizarre things. You are put in the position of actually having to try to cite evidence for why you believe things. Of course even that doesn't work very often, since most people have very strong ideological immune systems that protect their beliefs. But asking those questions, and trying to justify your beliefs is a necessary first step.
You leave yourself open to the reply that the non-rigorousness of the analogy makes it useless or even pernicious. Owning up to a fault doesn't make it go away.
Congratulations, you have just reduced the proper use of humility to a single proverb. I shall endeavor to go around repeating this.
Some of the claims made by this post now seem somewhat dated. Are there plans for a revamp?
If you don't care about consistency, there's really no way to be argued into caring about it. Not rationally, anyway, and not even with unconscious logic. It can only be done by "pushing a motivational button", and without a very detailed model of how your mind works, someone else can only do that by flailing about at random.
Self-consistency is the most basic aspect of effective thought.
From the standpoint of rationalists, this kind of thinking looks insane. Yet is just species-typical thinking with a hardwired basis, as others in this thread have observed. The kind of cognitive biases that lead to religion, especially social ones such as group conformity and social proof, were/are adaptive. This is how sane human minds work. It is the rationalists who are the crazy people.
"This is how sane human minds work. It is the rationalists who are the crazy people."
I must disagree. That is how normal human minds work. Sanity is not at all normal.
'Being normal' is highly overrated, but of course the people who do so are both normal and crazy, so I expect them to continue praising it.
sorry, that was Michael Vassar, not Phil Goetz, just posting from the latter's computer. Will stop that now.
You linked to your Dark Side Epistemology post, which is all about the generally anti-rationalist propaganda generated by organizations with bogus claims to shield, but avoid mentioning here that a reduction in religion would thus raise the waterline at least somewhat. Why?
I don't even think religion is the worst / most influential offender. That would probably be fiction. People marinate in the stuff, and it's cram full of magical thinking even when omitting the overtly supernatural.
Are there any specific strategies/plans to get Rationalists into positions of socio-political power?
Could a targeted approach be used to reach people who are already in such positions, like say the pope, for a ripple effect?
I wonder what it would take to make and run a MOOC? I know that MOOC software has been open sourced (e.g. OpenMOOC, edX). If a single undergrad course could have that big an impact on the world, isn't it worth doing?
First link in article not worky. Black Belt Bayesian's blog got wiped out?
Any suggestions? I might actually be teaching this class soon.
Outlaw debating class.
Just a few points:
1) I would not call atheism "rationality." Atheism requires a certain degree of blind faith and accepting lack of evidence for religion as evidence of not-religion which is not in concordance with the principles of rationality. Perhaps "agnostic atheism" would be a more reasonable perspective. "There is a god" and "there is no god" are both non-falsifiable assertions, and I can think of few things that I would accept as corroborating evidence thereof. You cannot deduce atheism from the fact that... (read more)
To a rationalist, "Thor doesn't exist" and "Thor almost certainly doesn't exist" are pretty much equivalent, and generally caused by "I have no good evidence that Thor exists and a low prior on complicated hypotheses like Thor".
Begs the question - I would posit that the minimum assumption for any form of 'spirituality' is body/mind duality, and your proposed 'better' definition of insanity presupposes the result that there is no axiomatic, logical system that can result in body/mind duality being either true, or undecidable.
However, so long as it is even undecidable, then a person that uses it as an axiom for further thought is no more 'insane' than someone that explores the logical consequences of parallel lines crossing.
Now, Religion posits not only body-mind duality, but a nu... (read more)
Arguing about the existence of a god is like arguing about free will. The only worthwhile argument concerns differences in anticipated experience, notably things like "Does prayer work?".