It’s been a long time since I’ve posted! I think I don’t really have much more to say about religion and belief that I haven’t already said. So this post is more like my conclusion about why people believe what they do, the grand conclusion of all of my reading of scholarly literature related to religion and cognitive science over the past eight years.
The whole “normative sociology” concept has its origins in a joke that Robert Nozick made, in Anarchy, State and Utopia, where he claimed, in an offhand way, that “Normative sociology, the study of what the causes of problems ought to be, greatly fascinates us all”(247). Despite the casual manner in which he made the remark, the observation is an astute one. Often when we study social problems, there is an almost irresistible temptation to study what we would like the cause of those problems to be (for whatever reason), to the neglect of the actual causes. When this goes uncorrected, you can get the phenomenon of “politically correct” explanations for various social problems – where there’s no hard evidence that A actually causes B, but where people, for one reason or another, think that A ought to be the explanation for B. This can lead to a situation in which denying that A is the cause of B becomes morally stigmatized, and so people affirm the connection primarily because they feel obliged to, not because they’ve been persuaded by any evidence.
Let me give just one example, to get the juices flowing. I routinely hear extraordinary causal powers being ascribed to “racism” — claims that far outstrip available evidence. Some of these claims may well be true, but there is a clear moral stigma associated with questioning the causal connection being posited – which is perverse, since the question of what causes what should be a purely empirical one. Questioning the connection, however, is likely to attract charges of seeking to “minimize racism.” (Indeed, many people, just reading the previous two sentences, will already be thinking to themselves “Oh my God, this guy is seeking to minimize racism.”) There also seems to be a sense that, because racism is an incredibly bad thing, it must also cause a lot of other bad things. But what is at work here is basically an intuition about how the moral order is organized, not one about the causal order. It’s always possible for something to be extremely bad (intrinsically, as it were), or extremely common, and yet causally not all that significant.
I actually think this sort of confusion between the moral and the causal order happens a lot. Furthermore, despite having a lot of sympathy for “qualitative” social science, I think the problem is much worse in these areas. Indeed, one of the major advantages of quantitative approaches to social science is that it makes it pretty much impossible to get away with doing normative sociology.
Incidentally, “normative sociology” doesn’t necessarily have a left-wing bias. There are lots of examples of conservatives doing it as well (e.g. rising divorce rates must be due to tolerance of homosexuality, out-of-wedlock births must be caused by the welfare system etc.) The difference is that people on the left are often more keen on solving various social problems, and so they have a set of pragmatic interests at play that can strongly bias judgement. The latter case is particularly frustrating, because if the plan is to solve some social problem by attacking its causal antecedents, then it is really important to get the causal connections right – otherwise your intervention is going to prove useless, and quite possibly counterproductive.
This quote points towards the heart of what I think leads people to believe what they do.
People sort of waffle between thinking of the universe as operating in a mechanistic or empirical way and operating in a “social” or “moral” way. We restrict, at least ideally, mechanistic thinking to relationships between inanimate objects. A rock on some remote coastline crumbles into the sea due to water/air erosion. A simple (ish) math formula can probably be used to predict when that particular piece of rock will erode and crumble.
On the other hand, for interactions between agents, we think in a “moral” way. That is, when we think in the moral way, we think in moral “shoulds” and “oughts” instead of the mechanical “shoulds” and “oughts”. In the quote above, racism “should” be responsible for a host of other social ills because, well, racism is bad. It’s a horns effect applied to a concept.
Most importantly, people intuit that this “moral” way supercedes the mechanistic way in both value and precedence. The moral way is both more important and it’s the ultimate cause. The moral way is the fundamental rule of the universe. Instead of the universe running on the laws of physics, “moral” thinking intuits that the universe runs on the laws of proper social protocols. If something of great import either has happened or has to happen, then the rules behind social interactions owns the day. Due to this tendency, we as humans tend to ascribe moral causality behind things and events that are in actuality mechanistic. Your car didn’t start this morning? What did you do (to your car?) or what moral failing did you enact to deserve this!? And so on.
The more relevant case of this, since this is an early Christianity blog as well, is the sacrifice of Jesus. This makes absolutely no sense in a mechanistic way (i.e., biology; laws of physics). But it makes sense in a social way: Concepts of sin, blood sacrifice, redemption, and so on are social concepts. You feel bad or guilty, or are overwhelmed with empathy and a sense of indebtedness. And our brains give precedence to these social and moral aspects of “causality” since those are the fundamental building blocks of the universe… intuitively.
This follows our cognitive architecture of System 1 and System 2 thinking. In my parlance, the Intuitionists and the Rationalists.
Moreover, people seem to balk at reference overlap. At least, in one direction anyway. Imagine someone saying that the reason for the rock eroding and crumbling into the coastline was because we didn’t sit and talk to the coastline enough. This is the basics behind concepts like animism. When we hear people talk like this, we sort of shrug our shoulders and go on with our lives. Animism makes sort of intuitive sense; especially if we didn’t know any better.
But the other direction, if someone were to apply mechanical thinking to human relationships, this is where the real fireworks happens. It’s not allowed! You can’t do that! Notice that people have the same reactions if you try to apply mechanical thinking to religious concepts. You can’t do that! Non-Overlapping Magisteria! Because religion is premised on the idea that the fundamental reality of the universe is social. The supernatural? Psi? Deepak Chopra-like universal consciousness? Life after death? Even free will? All based on the idea that the fundamental rule of the universe is social.
Why do we think like this? I think it’s because our brains evolved intelligence in a social environment, where socialization was the main determinant for who lived and who died. Having too much gain on social rules, in that environment, probably didn’t hurt. However, when all you know is your tribe and trying to model other minds, applying mechanical thinking is probably detrimental.
The problem being that a lot of our experiences of the world involve intentional agents interacting with unintentional inanimate objects and vice versa. We yell at inanimate objects when they do us wrong, and we assume we must have committed some social faux pas if bad things happen to us. This undergirds intuitive concepts like the just world fallacy.
It just so happens that mechanical vs social modes of thinking not only inhibit each other (i.e., thinking in a mechanical way makes you less empathetic and thinking in a social way makes you less “technical” so to say) but seem to be represented in the genders: There’s the “extreme” male brain and the “extreme” female brain:
It turns out that, when it comes to brains, being a super-male may not be such a good deal. According to Baron-Cohen, Autism-Spectrum-Disorders (ASD), which are far more common in males than in females, may reflect the expression of an extreme male brain, one that has extremely high systemizing skills and extremely low empathizing ones. Individuals with ASD often have excellent abilities for analyzing, organizing, and remembering technical information but poor abilities for communication, expressing emotions, and understanding the emotional and communicative expressions of others. Baron-Cohen has suggested that this extreme male brain may be the result of exposure to too much testosterone in the first trimester of pregnancy.
Until recently, it was unclear what an extreme female brain may look like, but a recent study conducted at the State University of New York in Albany and published in the online journal Evolutionary Psychology has offered some hints about it. The authors of this study, Jennifer Bremser and Gordon Gallup Jr., have shown that too much concern about what other people think and feel is associated with fear of negative evaluations, which may be expressed through apprehension and distress over negative evaluations by others, the avoidance of evaluative social situations, and the expectation that others would evaluate one negatively.
With this information, can you guess which gender is more religious?
But let me get this out of the way: No, the universe doesn’t ultimately run on social rules. No, the universe is not at its base ontologically mental; as a matter of fact, I can say with a high degree of Bayesian confidence that no ontologically mental entities exist, since that breaks all sorts of laws of thermodynamics.
Maybe I’m not the first to point this out, and maybe this is specious thinking, but it seems to me that, just as how ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny, our developmental psychology (probably) recapitulates our evolutionary psychology.
I got a notification from WordPress that this is my “anniversary” for starting this blog. I actually started blogging at blogger.com, but I didn’t like the mobile interface, and since I do 99% of my blogging on my phone, that wasn’t conducive to writing blogs.
But wow, I’ve been blogging for 7 years now! I started in 2008, which was because of an overlong email I was writing someone which eventually turned into this post. Due to the circumstances that precipitated that email, I was listening to the following song a lot. So, I guess you might call it the theme song for this blog:
The main message of that email, and of this blog, is to
“Abandon naive realism
Surrender thought to cold precision“
Here’s a relationship I bet you didn’t see coming.
A while back I posted a summary of Ara Norenzayan’s findings about the relationships between prosociality and religious belief. Here are some of the bullet points I took note of in his video:
* Small foraging societies typically don’t have moralizing gods. Big societies generally have moralizing gods. Causal or correlational?
* Economic games and small/big religions: Big religions, that is, the world religions, show more cooperative behavior in economic games. Small religions are more selfish. Again, causal or correlational?
* Belief in god in and of itself doesn’t correlate with any behavior in monetary generosity (belief in god per se doesn’t lead to moral behavior; you need to go to church to reap the benefits! And you get those same benefits being an atheist in church). Though in the context that Norenzayan was mentioning this fact, it was in the context of religious priming. Just declaring theism didn’t make someone more cooperative, but religious priming does. On the other hand, being non-religious makes you sort of impervious to religious priming; though secular priming has the same cooperative effect on the non-religious.
* Prosocial behavior correlates with a belief in a punishing god. Belief in a forgiving god correlates with cheating. Same for hell/heaven belief, respectively (though belief in hell seems to make people less happy).
These are the social things that are correlated with types of religious beliefs. Religions that are spread across large areas (i.e. the eponymous Big Gods) are associated with different prosocial behavior than small gods.
Now, one of the concepts I kept with me when I joined the military 20 years ago and had to learn statistics/hypothesis testing was that, if you see a correlation, there are three possible causes you should automatically think of, and see if any of them make sense. So if you see that A and B have a correlation, then:
1. A causes B
2. B causes A
3. A and B are caused by C
There are others, but this is the simplest way of looking at the data since all of the variables to work with are already there. You just move them around and see which formulation fits.
It turns out that romantic kissing is correlated with large societies…
From pop culture to evolutionary psychology, we have come to take kissing for granted as universally desirable among humans and inseparable from other aspects of affection and intimacy. However, a recent article in American Anthropologist by Jankowiak, Volsche and Garcia questions the notion that romantic kissing is a human universal by conducting a broad cross cultural survey to document the existence or non-existence of the romantic-sexual kiss around the world.
The authors based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). The report’s findings are intriguing: rather than an overwhelming popularity of romantic smooching, the global ethnographic evidence suggests that it is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures had no evidence of romantic kissing. In short, this new research concludes that romantic-sexual kissing is not as universal as we might presume.
The report also reveals that romantic kissing is most common in the Middle East and Asia, and least common of all among Central American cultures. Similarly, the authors state that “no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss”, whereas it is nearly ubiquitous in northern Asia and North America.
Among the indigenous Tapirapé people of Central Brazil, Wagley (1977) found that “couples showed affection”, but “kissing seems to have been unknown”. He explains,
When I described it to them, it struck them as a strange form of showing physical attraction … and, in a way, disgusting. It was common, instead, to see a married couple walking across the village plaza with the man’s arm draped over his wife’s shoulder. A couple might stand close to each other during a conversation with the man’s arms over his wife’s shoulders and she holding him around the hips (Wagley 1977: 158).
Across the Pacific Ocean in Melanesia, Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1929: 330) classic account describes the impression of kissing among Trobriand Islanders, who were equally bemused by the foreign custom:
Certainly it never forms a self-contained independent source of pleasure, nor is it a definite preliminary stage of love-making, as is the case with us. This caress was never spontaneously mentioned by the natives, and, to direct inquiries, I always received a negative answer. The natives know, however, that white people “will sit, will press mouth against mouth–they are pleased with it.” But they regard it as a rather insipid and silly form of amusement.
The Tsonga people of Southern Africa are also openly disgusted by the practice: “Kissing was formerly entirely unknown… When they saw the custom adopted by the Europeans, they said laughingly: “Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other’s saliva and dirt!” Even a husband never kissed his wife” (Junod 1927: 353-354).
…and thus, romantic kissing is correlated with Big Gods. Check out the religion of the Tapirapé people, or the religion of the Trobriand Islands peoples, or the religion of the Tsonga people: No romantic kissing, and no large moralizing gods.
So I have to ask, is belief in a large universal god the thing that causes kissing to have a romantic component? Or is it that romantic kissing causes people to believe in large, moralizing gods? Or is it that both are being caused by some other factor? I lean towards C, but who knows.
If you’re not familiar with the term not even wrong, go read that link and come back.
Back? Good. I think the concept of objective morality, in the Sam Harris sense that we can use science to determine moral values, is not even wrong. It fails at a fundamental level; that level being that it assumes moral reasoning that people do is the same as mathematical reasoning. Hell, it assumes moral reasoning follows the neatly logical “if-then-else” sort of reasoning.
It doesn’t. Rather, people don’t reason morally this way.
Using an online questionnaire, they showed that people think that justice stems from at least 6 different sources: from ‘nature’ and from God, and also from other people and from yourself, as well as just plain chance. Using an online questionnaire, they showed that people think that justice stems from at least 6 different sources: from ‘nature’ and from God, and also from other people and from yourself, as well as just plain chance.
They were also interested in inaction. It probably won’t surprise you to know that the most common human response to minor criminal behaviour is inaction. So what the researchers wanted to know is whether the reasons given for inaction varied according to people’s beliefs about why the world was just.
Sure enough, people who believed in God gave God-related reasons for inaction (e.g. “There’s little we can do to help these people, as what happens to them is God’s will”). Similarly, people who believe in nature-related justice felt that we can’t help criminals because it’s in their nature, people who believe in self-related justice felt that it was up to the individuals concerned to help themselves, while those who believed in chance-related justice felt that it was just their dumb luck.
Once again, however, people who believe justice is down to other people were different. When offered an ‘other people’ related reason for inaction (“With society and the justice system the way it is, there’s nothing we can do”), they rejected it. And it’s not because only an idiot would agree with that statement – it was quite attractive to those who believed in nature- and self-related justice.
This study from Epiphenom is what made me think of Harris’ thesis of scientific morality. The people in this survey are rationalizing their morality by appeals to what they see is the source of justice in the world. In effect, Harris is forcing a certain type of moral thinking on people that doesn’t come naturally. Slate Star Codex put this more eloquently:
Democrats don’t really care about helping the poor, they only care about increasing government’s ability to take your money. We can prove this, because Republicans consistently give more to charity than Democrats – and because if Democrats really cared about the poor they would stop supporting a welfare system that discourages lifting yourself out of poverty. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd Democrats in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased labyrinthine bureaucracy as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry! That wasn’t it at all. They were saying that civil rights activists don’t really want to prevent hate crimes against Muslims, they only care about supporting terrorism. We can prove this because they seem pretty okay with the tens of thousands of Muslims who are being killed and maimed in wars abroad that they don’t promote any intervention in – and because they refuse to ban Muslim immigration to America, a policy which would decrease hate crimes against Muslims but also decrease the chance of terrorism. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd civil rights activists in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased terrorism as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, sorry again! That wasn’t it either! They were saying that pro-lifers don’t really care about fetuses, they just support government coercion of women. We can prove this because they refuse to support contraception, which would decrease the need for fetus-murdering abortions – and because they seem pretty okay with abortion in cases of rape or incest. The only explanation is that the hundred-million odd pro-lifers in this country are all moral mutants who hold increased oppression of women as a terminal moral value.
No, wait, still wrong! I’m totally breaking apart here! They were saying that atheists don’t really doubt the existence of God, but they are too proud to worship anything except themselves. We can prove this because atheists sometimes pray for help during extreme emergencies, – and…
No, wait! It turns out it was actually third one after all! The one with the pro-lifers and abortion. Oops. In my defense, I have trouble keeping essentially identical arguments separate from one another.
In saying pro-lifers should support contraception, Alas is making exactly the error that The Last Superstition warned against. Ze’s noticing that Christians do things that don’t agree with modern moral philosophy, and so assuming Christians are either stupid or evil, instead of that they have a weird moral philosophy ze’s never heard of.
So instead of excusing pro-lifers, start by tarring them further. They don’t hate women. They don’t love oppression. It’s much worse than that. Pro-lifers are not consequentialists.
Consequentialism is a moral philosophy that says it’s okay to do a lesser evil if it leads to a greater good. I have argued for it at length elsewhere, but one of the reasons I argue for it is that most people don’t believe it. Only about a quarter of philosophers are consequentialists, and all the evidence shows that even fewer ordinary people do. Studies of the famous fat man problem show only 10% of people are willing to kill one person in order to save five others, something a true consequentialist would do in a heartbeat.
One group particularly heinous in their rejection of consequentialism is Christians. In his Epistle to the Romans, St. Paul argues that “One may not do evil that good may come”.
The Christians agree with me, against Alas, that their rejection of consequentialism is fundamental to their rejection of abortion.
Whenever we talk about moral reasoning, we have to take into account that not everyone reasons the same way morally. Moreover, that people aren’t even aware of how they reason, they just get a feeling of certainty (or disgust, or fear, or…). Most fatally, people think that their way of reasoning morally is how other people (should) reason morally. That’s just not gonna fly. You’re not going to convince a deontologist how they should act via consequentialist logic, and vice versa. It might help to try to convince said person of the consequentialist worldview via deontology (or vice versa) but you have to actually think of that meta step first.
What’s really jacked up is that even though most people aren’t consequentialists, many people use consequentialist reasoning to back up their moral reasoning after the fact. Think about something like gay marriage. The argument is that gay marriage will destroy traditional marriage. This is obviously nonsense, but this happens because the initial moral reasoning was something else (denotological, or maybe just disgust), but it’s rationalized with consequentialist reasoning.
Don’t think for a second that only conservatives do this. You, yes you, probably do this too. What’s the easiest way to prevent rape? Sex segregation; having women drink less around strange men; or any number of (consequentialist!) solutions that conservatives concoct. But those won’t work, because the initial moral impetus for equality wasn’t consequentialist, so we wind up with inefficient signaling that postures as consequentialist instead.
Where have we seen this rationalization behavior before? Oh yeah, the intuitionists and the rationalists. I love quoting myself:
There are a few experiments that show that when communication is physically severed between the two halves of the brain, each side of the brain gets different information. Yet, the part of the brain that does the speaking might not be the part of the brain that has the information. So you end up with rationalizations like split brain patients grabbing a shovel with their left hand (since their left eye was shown snow) while their right eye sees a chicken. When asked to explain why they grabbed the shovel, they — well, the side of their brain that only sees the chicken — make up an explanation, like the shovel is used to scoop up chicken poop! That press secretary, pretty quick on his feet.
But this doesn’t just happen with split brain patients. It seems to happen a lot more than we think, in our normal, everyday brains.
So for example, there was one experiment where people were asked to pick their favorite pair of jeans out of four (unbeknownst to them) identical pairs of jeans. A good portion of the people picked the jeans on the right, since they looked at the jeans from left to right. But they were unaware that that was their decision algorithm, and they rationalized their decision by saying they liked the fabric or the length or some other non-discriminating fact about the jeans. Liking the fabric of one pair of jeans more than the others was demonstrably false since the jeans were identical, yet that was the reason they gave. There’s still no persistent across the isle partisanship in your fully functioning brain, so the press secretary has to still come up with a good, socially acceptable story about Congress’ decision for the general public’s consumption.
This is one reason why it is inefficient to flat out ask someone something controversial. People make decisions based on information they don’t even know they’re using, and from there the entire existence of bias (the flip side of that is if you get someone to admit to some group identity or position publicly, they”ll be biased to act more in line with that group identity or proposition in the future without even realizing it). They’re not going to give you their “real” answer, they’re going to give you the socially acceptable answer since that is the entire job of the press secretary, and any psychological study that simply asks people questions has a fatal flaw.
We have little idea why we do things, but make up bogus reasons for our behavior…
Adrian North and colleagues from the University of Leicester playe[d] traditional French (accordion music) or traditional German (a Bierkeller brass band – oompah music) music at customers and watched the sales of wine from their experimental wine shelves, which contained French and German wine matched for price and flavour. On French music days 77% of the wine sold was French, on German music days 73% was German – in other words, if you took some wine off their shelves you were 3 or 4 times more likely to choose a wine that matched the music than wine that didn’t match the music.
Did people notice the music? Probably in a vague sort of way. But only 1 out of 44 customers who agreed to answer some questions at the checkout spontaneously mentioned it as the reason they bought the wine. When asked specifically if they thought that the music affected their choice 86% said that it didn’t. The behavioural influence of the music was massive, but the customers didn’t notice or believe that it was affecting them.
In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions…
Let me emphasis this last sentence: In other words the part of our brain that ‘reasons’ and explains our actions, neither makes decisions, nor is even privy to the real cause of our actions. Moral reasoning is no different.
In principle, we might be able to discern objective moral values if we could get everyone to be a consequentialist. But… yeah, good luck with that. I’ll just say that I hate talking about how people should behave morally, mainly because of this wall of separation between how people actually reason morally and their rationalizations for it. It’s such a headache. I’d rather stick with the bird-watching view towards morality.