Praying to God

by lsusr1 min read19th Jan 202115 comments

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PracticalRationality
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My grandfather believes in reincarnation. He grew up on a hand-irrigated sugarcane plantation. His family was so poor he walked to school without shoes. Grandpa once took me to a Daoist temple because I insisted on going, because he likes spending time with his grandchildren and because Taiwan is a small island without much else to do.

The temple compound is surrounded by a wall. The inside of the walls is lined with a hundred or so doll-like statues of various gods, spirits and so on. In Chinese and Japanese they are all 神. I asked grandpa who the 神 were and what they did. He didn't know.

The temple is built around square courtyard. The doll-like statues line two opposite sides of the courtyard. A gift shop sells lucky charms on the third side. Opposite the gift shop are three giant statues of the most important 神. They live in a fancy throne room open to the air. Visitors can see inside but cannot enter. Many people made small offerings. Grandpa bowed to the important gods. I followed suit. I asked grandpa who they are, why they were important and what they did. He didn't know.

I asked grandpa if he had ever prayed at this temple before. He insisted he had. I asked if he knew anything about any god in the entire temple. He said yes. I wondered what god could be matter so much more than the creators of the universe. Grandpa took me around the important gods to a dark hallway in the back of the temple. We passed more gods as the hallway turned left and then left again until we reached a dead-end.

At the end of this hallway was a medium-sized statue decorated with hundreds of lucky offerings from the gift shop. I asked grandpa what this god did. He said it's the god you pray to when you need good scores on your exams.

Practical Religion

Grandpa is a retired architect. He earned his degree in Canada. This is astounding achievement for someone who grew up so poor his mother would turn his oil lamp to the lowest setting while he did homework.

In desperate situations you don't have the luxury of theological debate. You need to do whatever maximizes your chances of escaping poverty. I would be surprised if the holistic net expected value of his praying at the temple was not positive.

There are no atheists in foxholes

I prayed to God once. I mean—I've prayed to Jehovah many times. I've prayed to Buddha. I've prayed to my ancestors. I've even prayed to R. Daneel Olivaw. But there was one time I prayed to 𝔊𝔬𝔡.

I don't want to talk about the details. Let's just say that it was about as dangerous the New Hope Death Star trench run would have been if Luke Skywalker had never flown a Skyhopper—and it required similar reflexes to not die.

Praying to God to guide me through the valley of the shadow of death was the correct course of action. Anything else would have been lunacy.

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Write clearly. What's the point of the post? How do the parts of the post argue for its point?

It's lsusr. He is trying out things. 

What does this mean, for those of us who aren’t personally acquainted with the OP (or possess whatever source of insider knowledge that leads you to make this comment)?

It means that I'm inspired to make experiments with replies too.

There are no atheists in foxholes

Well, Tillman's comrades probably shot him, so there's that.

Also, isn't this a really good argument for putting atheists in charge if you don't like war?

I can relate to these experiences, both your grandpa's and yours. In my case, who helped was Guanyin (觀音). I think it evident thought that our presence on this specific community puts us more alongside jñāna than bhakti, no? Therefore, writing in such an oblique way, to convey experiences more than concepts, particularly on non-fictional texts, is hardly going to be helpful. Rather, what might prove helpful would be unpacking precisely those details you don't want to talk about. This would certainly prove challenging, along many different axes, but it's the kind of challenge that provides for growth.

So you're arguing that, in times of great need that require split second decisions and fast action, theological belief can be beneficial. Maybe. Believing there is some ultimate closure or purpose to your existence and to the conflict you're currently dealing with could reduce your levels of stress, maybe increasing your cognitive abilities. It could also be detrimental if you believe there is some afterlife and that, in the end, you'll all be okay, and so you perform worse. Trying to convince someone that god isn't real or there isn't an afterlife in a foxhole is obviously not the right time; you have more important things to think about and the arguments for scientific skepticism are long and can take long to explain. Poverty is not a case that requires split second decisions; it's a chronic condition. Scientific literacy and rationality increase the probability your actions will be successful and offer you the highest chance of escaping poverty. The same can be said for moments of intense conflict requiring quick action; having better models of reality increase your chance of success. 

Scientific literacy and rationality increase the probability your actions will be successful and offer you the highest chance of escaping poverty. The same can be said for moments of intense conflict requiring quick action; having better models of reality increase your chance of success.

About rationality and better models of reality increasing chances of success, I'd say this depends on the person's psychological profile. For those with the appropriate traits, yes, it does increase chances of success, but for those with a strong tendency to develop depression or anxiety, or who already suffer from personality disorders, they may prove indifferent, or even detrimental.

Additionally, there may be cognitive-developmental pre-requisites for becoming actually able to use reason and accurate models productively. For example, someone at the, so to speak, "groupthink" stage of their cognitive development, such as most teens, and about a third of all adults, and possessing average IQ, tend to function well only in the direction their in-group points towards, and, as studies based on Kohlberg's "moral reasoning scale" have confirmed, tend to think of social orientation of higher levels as idealized but unworkable in practice. This means that, for those individuals, we'd need to figure out a way to speed up their cognitive development before they're able to make use of rationality tools and more accurate models.

These considerations may point out how and why mechanisms such as the just world hypothesis, optimism, hope, and their mix into religious models, arose and became evolutionary successful: because they allow a large contingent of people to be productive despite the way reality actually is.

This also implies that the most rational thing to do, in light of this model, would be to harvest this mechanism and optimize it towards more effectiveness, developing a set of groupthinks that provide for more effectiveness and also better fulfill different sets of psychological traits compared to the groupthinks that developed naturally over time and were selected for.

Sure, I will grant that, in certain extreme examples where a person's specific genome makes them much more anxious and much more depressed, then maybe some unscientific beliefs may improve their day-to-day functioning. But I think overwhelmingly this is not the case, and that while people may suffer from anxiety stress and depression, a greater understanding of reality can help you resolve those problems.

Overwhelmingly, people are born with a knack for science. The natural curiosity of children to explore, touch, smell, taste, and feel are fundamental to scientific inquiry and exploration. Children also possess the same knack for rationality as we do. When a child falls and scrapes himself while running downhill, he learns not to run downhill because he may fall and hurt himself again. He is being a rational agent: he is using prior experience to make predictions for future events. I do not believe that certain people are not "ready for science"; people are born scientists, all use evidence and predictive reasoning in our day to day lives. They are not rigorous scientists and rationalists, but they are scientific and they are rational. 

In light of humanities natural curiosity and capacity for rationality; it is unnecessary (or only marginally helpful) to create large and complicated "groupthinks" to persuade people to more rigorous thinking. The best way forward is through honesty (making room for some Noble Lies), and to spark that natural curiosity and wonder that we each have. 

Source: https://www.amazon.com/Demon-Haunted-World-Science-Candle-Dark/dp/0345409469

That's a noble ideal, but it doesn't fit with the data we have. Groupthink isn't an option, it's a necessary developmental stage almost everyone goes through, those who don't being those who're stuck at a pre-groupthinking cognitive developmental stage. Overcoming groupthink, in turn, requires not only nurture, but also nature, as it seems to require the brain to have the potential for post-groupthink reasoning, which in turn can then be realized.

For information on these numbers, and the studies on it, I suggest you begin by the best experimentally supported of the family of Neo-Piagetian psychological theories, Lawrence Kohlberg's Stages of Moral Development, then branch from it. Those will provide you a more solid base on which better fit most of Sagan's hope, and on what needs done around it for it to, someday, become actually viable.

What data? Where is the evidence? Where is your evidence that your model actually coincides and explains reality? At least Sagan was on the front line of his work; he actually worked with children, he spoke to people, he had direct and personal experience with trying to teach science and rationality. That's very strong evidence. Is your evidence stronger than Sagans, Feynmans, Dawkins, and Hawkins?

Here are two abstracts from the References section in the link I provided. These, plus the other papers referenced, probably suffice to establish the basis upon which I inferred, although I'm open to suggestions for other, maybe better, ways to generalize it:

"This paper presents the results of a 20-year longitudinal study of moral judgment development. The study represents an attempt to document the basic assumptions of Kohlberg's cognitive-developmental theory of moral judgment. Subjects were 58 boys aged 10, 13, and 16 at time 1 and were approximately equally divided at each age by social class and sociometric status. Sociometric and socioeconomic groups were equalized for intelligence. The study included six testing times-the original interview and five follow-up interviews administered at 3-4-year intervals. At each testing time subjects were individually interviewed on their judgments about nine hypothetical moral dilemmas. Interviews were stage scored according to Forms A, B, and C of the Standard Issue Scoring Manual. All scoring was done blind by individual dilemma. Data are presented on test-retest, alternate form, and interrater reliability for Standard Issue Scoring. Validity of the instrument is discussed. It was found that subjects proceeded through the developmental stages in the hypothesized sequence. No subject skipped a stage in the sequence and only 4% (6) of the adjacent testing times showed downward stage change. This percentage was less than downward change on test-retest data. Moral judgment interviews also showed a high degree of internal consistency in stage scores assigned with the great majority of the interviews receiving all their scores at two adjacent stages. Factor analyses by dilemma and moral issue showed a single general moral stage factor. Moral judgment was found to be positively correlated with age, socio-economic status, IQ, and education. Stage scores in childhood were significantly correlated with adulthood scores. The results of this study were interpreted as being consistent with a cognitive-developmental stage model. Subjects seemed to use a coherent structural orientation in thinking about a variety of moral dilemmas. Their thinking developed in a regular sequence of stages, neither skipping a stage nor reverting to use of a prior stage. The Standard Issue Scoring System was found to be reliable, and it was concluded that it provides a valid measure of Kohlberg's moral judgment stages."

-- Colby, Anne; Gibbs, J.; Lieberman, M.; Kohlberg, L. (1983). A Longitudinal Study of Moral Judgment: A Monograph for the Society of Research in Child Development. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press. ISBN 978-99932-7-870-2.

"Several issues concerning Gilligan's model of moral orientations and Kohlberg's models of moral stages and moral orientations were examined in a longitudinal study with 233 subjects (from 78 families) who ranged in age from 5 to 63 years. They participated in 2 identical interviews separated by a 2-year interval. In each interview, they discussed hypothetical dilemmas and a personally generated real-life dilemma, which were scored for both moral stage and moral orientation (both Gilligan's and Kohlberg's typologies). Results revealed few violations of the stage sequence over the longitudinal interval, supporting Kohlberg's moral stage model. Sex differences were almost completely absent for both Gilligan's and Kohlberg's moral orientations, although there were clear developmental trends. Hypothetical and real-life dilemmas elicited different moral orientations, especially in terms of Kohlberg's typology. The interrelations between the 2 models of moral orientations were generally weak, indicating that they are not synonymous."

-- Walker, Lawrence, J. (February 1989). A longitudinal study of moral reasoning. Child Development. 60 (1): 157–166. doi:10.2307/1131081. JSTOR 1131081. PMID 2702866.

Kohlberg's developmental stages theory is one of the most tested, subjected to falsification attempts, and well corroborated psychological theories of the last 60 years. Knowing it, and how the stages are distributed (among adults it follows a normal distribution), provides a solid auxiliary reference point to, e.g., reasonings based on IQ distribution, and what it implies for rationality efforts and related subject areas.

Now, I don't actually know whether Sagan, Feynman, Dawkins, or Hawkins incorporated the results of modern, well supported Neo-Piagetian studies such as Kohlberg's in their own psycho-social models and proposal. Maybe they did, and those results are already accounted for in their reasoning. But if they didn't, then I think we may think of those proposals as lacking key information and, by extension, effectiveness.

It seems Kohlberg is primarily concerned with moral/cultural behaviour, what an individual may think is the right thing to do. Undeniably the desire to follow the group is strong. What is the relevance in the context of teaching rationality and scientific skepticism? No doubt, if your local environment teaches that science and rationality are weird and strange, and you're a nerd for attempting it learn it, there exists social pressure against learning science. But I still can't escape the fact that the great majority of people are attempting science and rationality in their daily lives, though with much less precision. The status quo can increase the barrier of entry for certain sects of knowledge, but people are still learning in their daily lives through their failures and experiences. I don't see the relevance of a study on group based(tribe/political) thinking in the endeavour of trying to teach science and rationality; in effect trying to teach science and rationality is just trying to change the status quo of the group. 

Undeniably the desire to follow the group is strong.

The study about cognitive stages points that they're much stronger than a desire. They're the way a person's brain is wired at every point of their development. Someone at a stage 'n' literally feels, perceives and interacts the world that way. They may know, by descriptions from others, or, if they have a very high IQ, through observation of patterns in others, that others feel, perceive and interact with the world in different ways, but this is, for them, merely a piece of data, not something they can act upon, except for one instance: that of trying hard to grow into the stage immediately above one's own. But there's no guarantee of success in this, as it seems there are biological limitations to this. It'd be like trying hard to grow another 5 IQ points: unless you already have some untapped potential to do this, it simply isn't possible.

What is the relevance in the context of teaching rationality and scientific skepticism?

This teaching would need to be split into at least 4 different layers: a new one for high IQ individuals at stage 2; another for individuals at stage 3; another for those at stage 4; and finally the current one, which is more appropriate for individuals at stage 5 -- which, incidentally, is the stage most rationalists are at, hence their bias in producing content mostly appropriate and convincing to others at their own stage.

(...) in effect trying to teach science and rationality is just trying to change the status quo of the group.

That's precisely why it's ineffective. Stages 5 and 6 comprise about 6% of the population. Therefore, even if current rationality teaching methods were perfectly effective, reaching and influencing all of its target audience, that'd mean a world with 6% of actual rationalists. Plus a varying contingent of stages 2 to 4 non-actually-rationalists "groupthink-influenced" by those rationalists in an indirect, ad hoc manner, rather than through actual rationality training and adoption, since such a direct approach, targeted at those stages, their strengths and weaknesses, is neither available, nor being pursued.

I'm going to ruminate on one aspect that you mentioned in your post - praying.

The rational person would claim that praying has no measurable effect on outcomes when controlled for the placebo effect, and so there is no causality there. So why bother?

The spiritual person would reply that one cannot know for sure that that isn't the case, and in any case praying (hopefully) takes up a relatively small amount of resources anyway, so why not? (a-la Pascal's wager)

I feel that it is reasonable for a person to attempt to reach out to any possible means of trying to control a situation that they feel powerless to be in. When faced with massive uncertainty and massive consequences, psychological safety is definitely valuable. Some may find this safety through refining their mental map of the situation and trying to think their way out, others may find this safety through feeling a connection to some perceived / believed higher power.