Monthly Archives: July 2012

Utility Of Belief

The main reason I’m no longer a Christian is because I wanted to know what was “true”. I have a science background, currently work in software engineering, and like studying random information. To me, the main utility of a belief is what experiences I can anticipate due to that belief. Or, how well my internal map of reality actually represents the territory of reality; the utility of which is that I am able to better navigate the real world.

But there are other types of utility that a belief can have. And these other types of utility are probably the reason why many people remain religious; they don’t value the “accurate map” utility of belief as much as these other types of utility of belief:

Comfort utility – it makes me feel good to believe it. Social utility – people will like me for believing it. Efficacy utility – I can be more effective if I believe it.

It might seem that efficacy utility and map-territory utility are the same, but I think they are slightly different. In some situations, a bit of self-deception might actually be beneficial. For example, if I believed that I was the most awesome guitarist ever and that I should be in a world famous band, that might give me the necessary emotion-fuel to actually start a band. Which is the necessary precursor to becoming a famous band. A more accurate belief in my guitar playing abilities might not give me the necessary motivation to do all of those things.

Similarly, believing that one will win the lottery motivates someone to play the lottery. A more accurate belief of the odds of winning the lotto might discourage someone from wasting effort on getting lottery tickets and keeping up with the numbers. Thus someone who knows that the odds of winning the lottery are one out of millions, will ironically never win the lottery if they never play. Their odds actually go down to zero.

As the saying goes, you miss 100% of the shots you never attempt. But of course, I would only know all of that stuff objectively by focusing on accurate map utility of belief.

There’s also the social utility of a belief. This is probably a bigger factor in why many people are religious. Signaling that you believe in the dominant form of religion ensures that you at the least don’t make any waves and at the most ensures that people around you like you.

There are probably other uses for false beliefs that I can’t think of, but regardless one should be aware that not all beliefs have the function, or are even attempts to function, at accurately modeling the world. Like Creationism. This is obviously a “comfort utility” belief since Creationists explicitly say that accepting the evidence for evolution means that there’s no morality and/or life has no ultimate meaning. It makes them feel better that they are the pinnacle of creation instead of being another branch in the tree of life.

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Posted by on July 30, 2012 in cognitive science


Start With "Why"

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Posted by on July 27, 2012 in cognitive science


Theological (?) Discussions Over The Weekend

This weekend I had an interesting discussion about morality with a Catholic. What was interesting about it wasn’t just the conversation in and of itself; this guy was ironically in the Economics PhD program at UPenn with my ex-girlfriend and knew her, though about three or four years behind her (he didn’t finish the program). Small world!

Anyway, we started talking about morality and stuff: Dialoging about what constitutes morality from a non-theistic and from a Catholic perspective. He even mentioned Leah’s infamous conversion to Catholicism. He claimed that she was never really an atheist and I rejoined that she was an atheist, just not a well informed one (she even admitted this herself in her “about” page on why she started her blog). An atheist is just someone whose actions don’t reflect god-belief; essentially why Nietsche claimed God is dead.

Anyway, the thing I took from the conversation was that, from his Catholic perspective, morality is about self-improvement. The reason you don’t, say, murder people was because this would normalize murder and you’ll do it more and more. From my point of view, morality was about a social contract. Do in Rome as the Romans do. To explain this, I put forth my desert island analogy for where morality comes from:

Say there is a man living alone on a desert island. No other people or animals around. Can we list some things that this person can do that are immoral?

For a secularist, the obvious answer is “no” since there is no one to be immoral to, yet his answer to this was a “yes” since there are still things that he could do that could be considered “immoral” from a Catholic perspective; things that are damaging to the self.

I also likened morality to language, as a sort of cultural language. To take the desert analogy further, if the man had grown up on the island without anyone or any other animals around, would he have developed language? The answer is no if we look at feral children, so analogously I assumed the same would happen with morality.

We agreed that the end results of both of our views of morality lead to the same things, but he took morality itself as a First Principle, much like why Leah converted to Catholicism. Of course, I don’t agree with that First Principle so that is where we diverged. My first principle, I would say, is that I exist.

Why I think the conversation panned out the way it did without any animosity or confusion was because I made a conscious effort to “taboo” any potential conflict words or words with multiple possible interpretations, and I asked him to do the same. It made for a longer conversation, but also a more transparent one. Also, in person, people are much more likely to hold back their more offending views so that probably contributed to it as well. It might have also been some sort of Halo Effect since he really admires/d my ex for her intellect and work ethic.

Of course we didn’t actually finish the conversation (I would have liked to ask him some form of the Euthyphro Dilemma and why not take an empirical approach about self-improvement instead of assertions from Catholicism (Aristotle/Aquinas); we started heading in the direction when I asked him why working out and being healthy isn’t considered moral) because we were at a birthday party. But, at least it was fun to do that IRL and not on the Internet for once. Oddly enough, he never mentioned “god”. Probably because I’m pretty well known in my circle of friends for being an atheist. Though I only “came out” so to say when I started this blog… which was due to situations like this.

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Posted by on July 24, 2012 in objective morality, objectivity, rationality


Jesus as an Emanation of God

Earl Doherty writes the following in response to the scholarly consensus that Jesus was not considered by the earliest Christians to be equal with god:

The difference between Paul’s Son of God and Philo’s Logos as an emanation of God is largely a matter of personhood. Philo does not personalize his Logos; he calls it God’s “first-born,” but it is not a distinct ‘person’; rather, it is a kind of radiant force which has certain effects on the world. Paul’s Son has been carried one step further (though a large one), in that he is a full hypostasis, a distinct divine personage with an awareness of self and roles of his own—and capable of being worshiped on his own.

But an “emanation” is not God per se. That is why Philo can describe him as “begotten” of God. He can be styled a part of the Godhead, but he is a subordinate part. (I have no desire to sound like a theologian, but to try to explain as I see it the concepts that lie in the minds of Christian writers, past and present. They are attempting to describe what they see as a spiritual reality; I regard it as bearing no relation to any reality at all.) Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:28 speaks of the Son’s fate once God’s enemies are vanquished, a passage which exercises theologians because it looks incompatible with the Trinity. For here Paul says that the Son “will be subjected” to God, in the apparent sense of being ‘subsumed’ back into God, who will then become One again—“so that God will be all in all.” There will only be one ‘person.’

So was Jesus an emanation of god? That seems to be the reasonable reading of Paul at Philippians 2:6-11.

And the question is what counts as “earliest Christians”. Is Mark earlier than Paul, or later? Paul is literally our earliest Christian writing, but Mark is depicting a time earlier than Paul. It is probably historical laziness to consider the literary situation in Mark as reflecting an actual historical situation. I’ll have to concede agnosticism on that one.

But I picked this post out because it is a perfect intersection between two of my interests: Video games and religion!

There are other people out there who like to point out the ways in which sci-fi and religion interact, but another more interesting – in my opinion – way in which they interact is between the new(er) media of video games and religion.

For those of you who know the name of the character in the image above, if you don’t know by now Sephiroth is a Hebrew word. It’s Hebrew for “emanations” (סְפִירוֹת or SPYRWT is plural, Sephira would be the singular). In this particular video game Final Fantasy VII, Sephiroth is the bad guy; or at least the “son” of the bad guy (girl?) Jenovah. Isn’t that suspicious? Jenovah / Jehovah. Jehovah, as in, the god of the Jews.

Let that sink in for a moment. The bad guy in Final Fantasy VII is named “emanations” and is the “son” of a being named Jenovah. Jesus is an emanation (until later Christology made him equal to god) and is also the son of Jehovah. In the game, Sephiroth is conceived (normally? I don’t remember) and while in the womb he is injected with the cells of the alien being Jenovah. Analogously, Jesus is conceived through the holy spirit and a human woman. Sephiroth’s conception seems to be a naturalized interpretation of Jesus’ virgin birth.

This is a trend I’ve noticed in a lot of console RPGs. Most of the bad guys are gods. Sure, there are some good gods too, but they usually play only a minor supporting role. Most of the stories are about humanity’s struggle against the gods or god-like beings. Like a narrative about becoming self-sufficient and no longer needing the gods to help us. Or the gods are tyrants (really, the most powerful tyrant possible is a god) and the game is about our war for freedom instead of remaining a slave (Rom 1.1). It seems sorta… Gnostic. Which is in itself odd because divine emanations (sephiroth) are a key concept in a lot of Gnostic writings. Another point of intersection in FFVII is the battle against Safer Sephiroth. This was probably lost in translation since this version of Sephiroth that you fight looks like an angel. A seraph, specifically, with the multiple wings. Again, analogously, there were a few Gnostics who considered Jesus to be a sort of angel.

There are a lot of examples in both video games and Gnostic writings, but I’ll probably save that for another post if I have the time. Needless to say, I just wanted to point one thing out:

Jesus = Sephiroth! Especially since Sephiroth came back from the dead. It’s probably safe to assume that had Sephiroth succeeded in the game, subsequent history in that game’s universe would have progressed like Christianity, with Sephiroth in the Jesus role and Jenovah in Jehovah’s role.

“Veni mi fili”


Posted by on July 21, 2012 in gnosticism, historical jesus, video games


Bad Philosophy

One of the things I’ve learned over the course of my life is that arriving at a bad conclusion, or a bad theory, or finding fault in a person, or whatever, doesn’t take a whole slew of bad assumptions or premises. It only takes one bad coin flip to ruin the entire explanation. This isn’t something that you would learn explicitly in some specialized discipline; it would take actually sitting down and learning how logic and probability work in order to get that “aha” moment.

Here is an example of bad philosophy, where one bad premise undercuts everything else. Unfortunately, this person posted his article on the Epiphenom blog and, of course, Epiphenom not being an explicitly “arguing for atheism” blog, it wasn’t addressed. But I’ll take a stab at addressing it.

So what is the fundamental, one false premise that is driving all of the wrong conclusions on that blog? For example, this person thinks that Zeno’s Paradoxes refute atheism:

1. What is your answer to the Pre-Socratic era of Greek Philosophy, and Zeno’s Paradox? Zeno of Elea (490-430 B.C.) brought the Pre Socratic era to a close with his devastating arguments against sensation, space and motion. First, was his famous Paradox. To be brief, Zeno’s argument, in essence, is that in order for Achilles to move from point A to point B he must come at least half the space. If so then he has to come at least a tenth; a hundredth; a millionth, etc. He must pass through an infinite number of points in a finite segment. Motion is therefore impossible and space is indefinable. (The essence of his argument is not a relation of motion to time but the impossibility of exhausting an infinite series. Neither is his argument that Achilles has to exhaust the series to the last point for there is no last point. Also, one cannot divide an infinite series. To do so one must assume that the object in motion stops in mid-motion to create a mid-point. The mid-point then is only potential and not actual. I admit that it is possible to exhaust an infinite series of potential points, but not actual points. Also, you cannot appeal to imaginary, indemonstrable units of measurement like Plank Units to answer this paradox.) In a further complaint against the concept of space, Zeno argued that if atoms and motion required space there must also be super-space for space to exist in and another super-space for that, ad infinitum. Zeno also refuted the idea of sensation in the Atomistic system which denied qualities to atoms. In an exposition of Zeno’s criticism of Democritus’ Atomism (Later to dominate the Scientific Revolution) Dr. Clark says,

“When an ocean wave ‘thunders’ against the rocks, no atom produces an audible sensation; but the wave is nothing but atoms; therefore, it produces no sound.” (Ancient Philosophy, 272)

This failure to construct a material/corporeal reality was the formal cause of the atheistic Sophist movement that immediately followed. Protagoras’ Man Measure Theory was the new fad and the idea of truth was buried as impossibility. If Zeno cannot be refuted, the entire Anti-Christian scientific secular enterprise is impossible to demonstrate and should be removed from the category of demonstration and kept in the category of operation.

The Christian answer to the Pre-Socratics is found in Saint Augustine’s Book Concerning the Teacher, where he admits the impossibility of empirical knowledge and asserts that knowledge comes from the Second Person of the Trinity (The Teacher): an immediate and uncreated revealed light.

Besides the obvious answer that an all powerful god is a terrible explanation for just about everything since it can explain way too much, the fundamental wrong premise here is how the mind operates; intuition is not a very good guide for discovering how the world works and most pre-20th century philosophy assumed the utility and accuracy of intuition as a fundamental premise. We know that this isn’t true. Intuition is only good at certain types of cognition (especially those requiring speed) and is very bad at other types of cognition. Basically, intuition is good at helping you not end up dead and uhhh… not so much at things like math, probability, logic, or abstract reasoning. Intuition is good for things like social situations (yes, having good social acumen will help you not end up dead), reacting immediately to danger, and learning, oddly enough. And that last point — learning — is what leads me to this article over at Less Wrong, pointing out the fundamental flaw in Zeno’s Paradoxes:

To understand how fundamental metaphor is to our thinking, we must remember that human cognition is embodied:
We have inherited from the Western philosophical tradition a theory of faculty psychology, in which we have a “faculty” of reason that is separate from and independent of what we do with our bodies. In particular, reason is seen as independent of perception and bodily movement…

The evidence from cognitive science shows that classical faculty psychology is wrong. There is no such fully autonomous faculty of reason separate from and independent of bodily capacities such as perception and movement. The evidence supports, instead, an evolutionary view, in which reason uses and grows out of such bodily capacities.

Consider, for example, the fact that as neural beings we must categorize things:

We are neural beings. Our brains each have 100 billion neurons and 100 trillion synaptic connections. It is common in the brain for information to be passed from one dense ensemble of neurons to another via a relatively sparse set of connections. Whenever this happens, the pattern of activation distributed over the first set of neurons is too great to be represented in a one-to-one manner in the sparse set of connections. Therefore, the sparse set of connections necessarily groups together certain input patterns in mapping them across to the output ensemble. Whenever a neural ensemble provides the same output with different inputs, there is neural categorization.

To take a concrete example, each human eye has 100 million light-sensing cells, but only about 1 million fibers leading to the brain. Each incoming image must therefore be reduced in complexity by a factor of 100. That is, information in each fiber constitutes a “categorization” of the information from about 100 cells.

Moreover, almost all our categorizations are determined by the unconscious associative mind — outside our control and even our awareness — as we interact with the world. As Lakoff & Johnson note, “Even when we think we are deliberately forming new categories, our unconscious categories enter into our choice of possible conscious categories.”

And because our categories are shaped not by a transcendent, universal faculty of reason but by the components of our sensorimotor system that process our interaction with the world, our concepts and categories end up being largely sensorimotor concepts and categories.

Here are some examples of metaphorical thought shaped by the sensorimotor system:

Important Is Big
Example: “Tomorrow is a big day.”
Mapping: From importance to size.
Experience: As a child, finding that big things (e.g. parents) are important and can exert major forces on you and dominate your visual experience.

Intimacy Is Closeness Example: “We’ve been close for years, but we’re beginning to drift apart.”
Mapping: From intimacy to physical proximity.
Experience: Being physically close to people you are intimate with.

Difficulties Are Burdens
Example: “She’s weighed down by her responsibilities.”
Mapping: From difficulty to muscular exertion.
Experience: The discomfort or disabling effect of lifting or carrying heavy objects.

More Is Up
Example: “Prices are high.”
Mapping: From quantity to vertical orientation.
Experience: Observing the rise and fall of levels of piles and fluids as more is added or subtracted.


Implications for philosophical method

What happens when we fail to realize that our thinking is metaphorical? Let’s consider a famous example: Zeno’s paradox of the arrow.

Zeno described time as a sequence of points along a timeline. Now, consider an arrow in flight. At any point on the timeline, the arrow is at some particular fixed location. At a later point on the timeline, the arrow is at a different location. But since the arrow is located at a single fixed place at every point in time, then where is the motion?

Suppose, Zeno argues, that time really is a sequence of points constituting a time line. Consider the flight of an arrow. At any point in time, the arrow is at some fixed location. At a later point, it is at another fixed location. The flight of the arrow would be like the sequence of still frames that make up a movie. Since the arrow is located at a single fixed place at every time, where, asks Zeno, is the motion?

The puzzle arises when you take the metaphor of time as discrete points along the space of a timeline as being literal:

Zeno’s brilliance was to concoct an example that forced a contradiction upon us: [a contradiction between] literal motion and motion metaphorically conceptualized as a sequence of fixed locations at fixed points in time.

So while it is true that our own bodies move in individual steps when we go from one place to another, it doesn’t follow that this is how motion works period.

As you can see, and what I pointed out in my post “The Thief and the Wizard” linked above, the way we learn things more effectively is by metaphor, because that is how brains (i.e. neurons), are wired. How we learn is fundamentally linked to how our bodies function in the macro, social, everyday world. I don’t literally have a better hold on tying my shoelaces than I do normalizing a database like I would have a better hold on a glass of water in my hand as opposed to a wet noodle. But that’s how neural networks form. Taking the metaphor literally is what goes wrong in most philosophy like in the Christian’s post above. We have to remember to not take the metaphor literally when using it as an argument for something more abstract, like the existence of a god. This is one of the reasons why many arguments for the existence of god suck. Like the Ontological Argument or Cosmological Argument: Pure intuition uncritically mixing between metaphor and the real world:

Moral concepts as metaphors

For a more detailed illustration of the philosophical implications of metaphorical thought, let’s examine the metaphors that ground our moral concepts:

Morality is fundamentally seen as the enhancing of well-being, especially of others. For this reason, …basic folk theories of what constitutes fundamental well-being form the grounding for systems of moral metaphors around the world. For example, since most people find it better to have enough wealth to live comfortably than to be impoverished, we are not surprised to find that well-being is conceptualized as wealth…

We all conceptualize well-being as wealth. We understand an increase in well-being as a gain and a decrease of well-being as a loss or a cost. We speak of profiting from an experience, of having a rich life, of investing in happiness, and of wasting our lives… If you do something good for me, then I owe you something, I am in your debt. If I do something equally good for you, then I have repaid you and we are even. The books are balanced.


The traditional view of moral concepts and reasoning says the following: Human reasoning is compartmentalized, depending on what aspects of experience it is directed to. There are scientific judgments, technical judgments, prudential judgments, aesthetic judgments, and ethical judgments. For each type of judgment, there is a corresponding distinct type of literal concept. Therefore, there exists a unique set of concepts that pertain only to ethical issues. These ethical concepts are literal and must be understood only “in themselves” or by virtue of their relations to other purely ethical concepts. Moral rules and principles are made up from purely ethical concepts like these, concepts such as good, right, duty, justice, and freedom. We use our reason to apply these ethical concepts and rules to concrete, actual situations in order to decide how we ought to act in a given case.

… [But] there is no set of pure moral concepts that could be understood “in themselves” or “on their own terms.” Instead, we understand morality via mappings of structures from other aspects and domains of our experience: wealth, balance, order, boundaries, light/dark, beauty, strength, and so on. If our moral concepts are metaphorical, then their structure and logic come primarily from the source domains that ground the metaphors. We are thus understanding morality by means of structures drawn from a broad range of dimensions of human experience, including domains that are never considered by the traditional view to be “ethical” domains. In other words, the constraints on our moral reasoning are mostly imported from other conceptual domains and aspects of experience…

See what happens if you run with the metaphor about rich/moral and poor/immoral to its logical conclusion


Posted by on July 16, 2012 in cognitive science


My Position on the Historicity of Jesus

Richard Carrier provides a review of the anthology Is This Not The Carpenter?. This book is a collection of essays by various scholars who, contrary to outbursts by anti-mythicists, argue that the non-existence of Jesus is a valid hypothesis to analyze. Some in the anthology argue in favor of his existence, some argue the contrary, but they all argue in a manner that assume the non-existence of Jesus isn’t a fringe theory equivalent with Creationism or Holocaust Denial.

Anyway, one scholar, K.L. Noll, seems to sum up my opinion about the historicity of Jesus:

[Knoll] argues that the quest for the historical Jesus is a waste of time, because “even if a historical Jesus existed and made an effort to found a movement of some kind” this “is irrelevant to an understanding of the earliest social movements that evolved into the religion now called Christianity” [p. 233] and therefore we shouldn’t have to declare any definite opinion on the subject of the historicity of Jesus–Noll assumes historicity simply because it’s as convenient an option as anything else

This is a good point. How does a historical Jesus help us understand how the subsequent movement of Christianity formed? Jesus had no role in the arguments about how his salvation worked or on the establishment and hierarchy of churches (those would have obviously been anachronistic), the debates about docetism/gnosticism, the Gospels contain very little — if any — teachings of his (meaning that the vast majority of teachings that Christians follow are the invention of later Christians thus a historical Jesus affords no explanation for them), he didn’t institue Apostolic Succession, didn’t argue for the current layout of the New Testament, and a myriad of other things.

All of those factors (and possibly more) shaped how Christianity eventually formed. None of those things can be explained by positing a historical Jesus, and are equally explained by a mythical Jesus. Paul, the Gospel authors, and other epistle writers in the NT cared very little if at all about a historical Jesus, so their writings are not explained by a historical Jesus. A historical Jesus is more like a MacGuffin: A plot device like the suitcase in Pulp Fiction. It is the initial drive of the plot, but after its introduction has no use in the subsequent narrative. For all intents, the suitcase might not have even existed but the story would unfold in the same way.

And if all that we can say about the historical Jesus is that his name was Jesus and he was crucified, there are way too many people in history who fit that mold; it would be like saying the historical George Washington was just a guy named George who was in the Army in the late 18th century. It doesn’t actually answer anything.

So this is why I’m agnostic about the existence of the historical Jesus. A historical Jesus might have actually existed (i.e. ontological probability) but our vantage point in history probably doesn’t allow us to claim that with any reasonable certainty (i.e. epistemic probability).

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Posted by on July 13, 2012 in historical jesus


The Burial of Jesus

Richard Carrier left a pretty informative comment in one of his recent blog posts about the hoopla surrounding the Jesus Tomb. Which is a good post in and of itself because it has a pretty nice use of Bayes’ Theorem to demonstrate how probability theory is actually used, and how it can be used validly in historical analysis. Anyway, here is the comment:

The matter is complicated by the fact that Jesus is unlikely to have remained where he was initially buried anyway.

The Gospel accounts collectively depict a temporary warehousing of the body; the actual burial could only be performed a day later (which the Gospels do not mention and thus seem unaware of), and would be elsewhere (in the official graveyard of the condemned reserved for all who were convicted of capital crimes by the Sanhedrin), thus explaining why the tomb he was put in Friday night was empty Sunday morning. See The Empty Tomb, chapter 10.

Or if only Mark is correct, or if all of the Gospels are making up their stories, then Jesus would have been buried in that Sanhedrin graveyard straightaway, which would be a large complex designed to house the corpses of hundreds of criminals at a time. But after about a year, his bones would be collected and cleaned and deposited elsewhere to await resurrection. Probably a mass pauper’s grave; although his family would then have the right to take his bones and bury them with his family (which would most likely be in Nazareth), they might have been too poor, too dead, or too fearful of returning to take on that duty, or the body may have gotten lost for poor marking, deliberate or otherwise [or it may have been stolen: see The Empty Tomb, chapter 9]; or if the family were of a sect that held to the belief the first Christians most likely did, that God did not resurrect a person from their bones but created an entirely new body for them, as some Jews did indeed believe and the first Christians do appear to have believed [see The Empty Tomb, chapter 5], then they would not believe in reburial and thus would not have even wanted to reclaim the body, and thus would have left it for the court to relocate his bones with other unclaimed corpses.

Any of these scenarios already has a higher probability than what Tabor and gang are claiming.

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Posted by on July 9, 2012 in historical jesus

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