Monthly Archives: March 2013

This Easter…


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Posted by on March 31, 2013 in Funny


Die By My Hand, I Creep Across The Land Killing Firstborn Man

So let it be written
So let it be done
I’m sent here by the chosen one
So let it be written
So let it be done
To kill the firstborn Pharaoh’s son

I’m creeping death

The Exodus story is pretty metal

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Posted by on March 29, 2013 in passover


That’s Racist!


I had a couple of names for the title of this post. I decided to go with the one above because it’s the most succinct and funny. Some other ones I thought of:

The Holocaust of Thought
How To Win All Arguments

Mainly, I went with the current title because I actually say that one all the time in real life just to parody something I’ve started to notice recently. In social situations there usually isn’t enough time to present a detailed logical argument explaining all of your humor/satire, so this post sort of functions as my explanation for why I say the post title all the time.

As most people know, I usually spend the majority of my free time reading about religion: where religion comes from, the history/historicity of religious ideas, why people believe what they believe, religious apologetics, etc. I also read about rationality, cognitive science, and atheism and the wider skeptic/secular community. A few months (a year?) ago, there was this whole snafu in the skeptic community in regards to “elevatorgate” about how some guy cornered a girl in an elevator at 4am to ask her out or something. The skeptic that pointed out that this was a social faux pas received in retaliation for that advice a bunch of sexist/misogynist threats.

If you’re not new to the Internet, a reaction that illogical shouldn’t be a surprise. If you are new to the Internet, I suggest checking out some YouTube comments. You’ll get a pretty quick education (and probably lose a lot of hope for humanity in the process).

Anyway, this brought up the whole Atheism Plus movement in response to the overwhelming amount of misogyny in the atheist/skeptic community. Not that this amount of misogyny should be a surprise since in communities where men vastly outnumber women this sort of stuff is unfortunately common. Look at the tech community. Moreover, low sex ratio in a community may create power imbalance between men and women, leading to greater likelihood of female victimization (Vandello, 2007). So even in IRL situations where men outnumber women, men tend to be more abusive towards their significant others. So this isn’t some isolated Internet thing; it seems to be some sort of natural outcome from the forces of evolution in situations where there are vast gender imbalances. Of course, just because it’s natural doesn’t mean it’s ethically or morally good. Humans are animals, after all. We’re not excluded from animalistic behavior, especially given that people assume we are not animals but instead are inherently rational which would make that bias even less detectable. The fact that the vast majority of humanity believes in god prima facie should put that cached thought of humanity being a rational animal to rest.

So due to the elevatogate thing, I started to read a bit more about feminism. I was always an implicit feminist since that social justice stuff seems to be a no-brainer based on basic empathy. Obviously, there will be overlaps between religion and its seeming enemy social justice, but like I said, I mostly kept up with the religion aspect of it. But the more I read, the more something alarming started to become apparent: Why were the “good guys” (feminists), in their critiques, starting to read like the “bad guys” (religion)? The situation that really brought this to light was the social shaming of so-called “Nice Guys”. Convoluted arguments were made that Nice Guys are actually misogynists because Nice Guys think that they are entitled to sex just for being nice. And then the argument kept getting repeated and recycled uncritically. Again, this makes sense if you start from the premise that humans are first and foremost social animals; we feel first and then come up with arguments to support our feelings. That chain of causation mirroring the evolutionary kludge of our brain. It seems that you have to actually be a bit brain damaged if you functioned otherwise. Sure, so-called Nice Guys are clueless but calling them misogynists just dilutes the word.

A very well written blog post that was linked to at Less Wrong argued it a lot better than I could:

This tendency reaches its most florid manifestation in the “ideological bingo games”. See for example “Skeptical Sexist Bingo”, feminist bingo, libertarian troll bingo, anti-Zionist bingo, pro-Zionist bingo, and so on. If you Google for these you can find thousands, which is too bad because every single person who makes one of these is going to Hell.

Let’s look at the fourth one, “Anti-Zionist Bingo.” Say that you mention something bad Israel is doing, someone else accuses you of being anti-Semitic, and you correct them that no, not all criticism of Israel is necessarily anti-Semitic and you’re worried about the increasing tendency to spin it that way.

And they say “Hahahahahhaa he totally did it, he used the ‘all criticism of Israel gets labeled anti-Semitic’ argument, people totally use that as a real argument hahahaha they really are that stupid, I get ‘B1’ on my stupid stereotypical critics of Israel bingo!”

You say “Uh, look, I’m not really sure what you’re getting at. I recognize that there is real anti-Semitism and I am just as opposed to it as you are but surely when when see the state excusing acts of violence against Palestinians in the West Bank we…”

And they say “Hahahhaha G1, I got G1, he pulled the old ‘I abhor real anti-Semitism’ line this is great, guys come over here and look at what this guy is doing he’s just totally parroting all the old arguments every anti-Semite uses!”

So it may be scary when your opponent is unaware of your arguments, but it is much scarier when your opponent has a sort of vague dreamlike awareness of your arguments, which immediately pattern-match cached thoughts about how horrible a person you would have to be to make them.


Because if your opponent brings out the Bingo card, you can just tell them exactly what I am saying here. You can explain to the pro-Israel person that they are pattern-matching your responses, that you don’t know what strawman anti-Zionist they’re thinking of but that you have legitimate reasons for believing what you do and you request a fair hearing, and that if they do not repent of their knee-slapping pattern-matching Bingo-making ways they are going to Hell.

No, the scariest thing would be if one of those bingo cards had, in the free space in the middle: “You are just pattern-matching my responses. I swear that I have something legitimate to tell you which is not just a rehash of the straw-man arguments you’ve heard before, so please just keep an open mind and hear me out.”

If someone did that, even Origen would have to admit they were beyond any hope of salvation. Any conceivable attempt to explain their error would be met with a “Hahahaha he did the ‘stop-pattern matching I’m not a strawman I’m not an inhuman monster STOP FILLING OUT YOUR DAMN BINGO CARD’ thing again! He’s so hilarious, just like all those other ‘stop-pattern matching I am not a strawman’ people whom we know only say that because they are inhuman monsters!”

…But surely no one could be that far gone, right?


“I’m not racist, but…”

If you are like everyone else on the Internet, your immediate response is “Whoever is saying that is obviously a racisty racist who loves racism! I can’t believe he literally used the ‘I’m not racist, but…’ line in those exact words! The old INRB! I’ve got to get home as fast as I can to write about this on my blog and tell everyone I really met one of those people!”

But why would someone use INRB? It sounds to me like what they are saying is: “Look. I know what I am saying is going to sound racist to you. You’re going to jump to the conclusion that I’m a racist and not hear me out. In fact, maybe you’ve been trained to assume that the only reason anyone could possibly assert it is racism and to pattern-match this position to a racist straw man version. But I actually have a non-racist reason for saying it. Please please please for the love of Truth and Beauty just this one time throw away your prejudgments and your Bingo card and just listen to what I’m going to say with an open mind.”

And so you reply “Hahahaha! He really used the ‘look I know what I’m saying is going to sound racist to you you’re going to jump to the conclusion that I’m a racist and not hear me out in fact maybe you’ve been trained to assume…’ line! What a racist! Point and laugh, everyone! POINT AND LAUGH!”

And of course “sexist” works just as well as “racist” here, even though the latter is more familiar.

This is what I mean by “conceptual superweapon”. This is what it looks like to stare into the barrel of a gigantic lunar-based death ray and abandon all hope. This is why I find feminism and the social justice community in general so scary.


When I Googled for good examples of those bingo games to post above, it was pretty hard to find the Zionism ones and so on. Almost every ideological bingo game out there was feminist. This is not a coincidence.

For those who have absorbed the associated memes, feminism is a fully general conceptual superweapon. It has attempted and probably completed the task of making every possible counterargument so unthinkable that any feminist can refute it just by reciting the appropriate bingo square, then pointing and laughing.

If a man thinks women are less oppressed than she claims, she can say “male privilege!” and point and laugh.

If a man thinks there are some areas where the threshold has moved too far toward women, she can make a grave expression and intone “What About Teh Menz?” (now the name of a major blog, which is actually pretty good) and point and laugh.

If a man thinks parts of the reason why some men are jerks toward women is because women actually are more likely to date jerks than people who are respectful, she can gleefully declare “You’re a Nice Guy (TM) and therefore Worse Than Hitler (TM)!” and point and laugh.

If a man tries to explain his own perspective to her or provide any alternative theory to men-being-horrible, she can say he’s “mansplaining again!” and point and laugh.

If a man asks not to be immediately pattern-matched to the nearest hostile cliche when he tries to present his opinion, she can say he’s using a variant of the old “I’m not sexist, but…” line. And point. And laugh.


I don’t care how righteous your cause is, you don’t get a superweapon so powerful it can pre-emptively vaporize any possible counterargument including the one asking you to please turn off your superweapon and listen for just a second. No one should be able to do that.

It really is worth reading that whole post to see what bad implications this sort of rhetoric might lead to unpoliced, especially try to digest his Part II which should look familiar to you. But I guess I’ve already alluded to the bad implications with my comparison of feminism with religion. Really, who watches the watchers?

The short of it was that when I read accusations of misogyny/racism/other-ism, they seemed to be completely illogical; the charge seemed to have more of a social function. Basically functioning the same way that “heretic” or “blasphemer” functioned around 1,000 years ago. Some other bloggers have implicitly noticed it and/or have been a victim of it too, like Chris Hallquist and Adam Lee. I predict more social shaming under the guise of logical argumentation the more I read about social justice causes.

Anyway, this makes me go back to my religion focus. Why would these social justice movements have rhetoric whose underlying structure is alarmingly religious in nature? Probably because what’s effective socially isn’t restricted to time and space. It’s not that religious-logic is inherently due to religion itself, but it’s due to how our brains are wired for social cohesion and ostracism. It’s probably no coincidence that the most successful social justice movement in the 20th century was spearheaded by a man who earned his doctorate in theology. Religion, civil rights, feminism, pro/anti-semitism, etc. are all inherently political in nature (the strict demarcation of politics and religion is a product of the Enlightenment for — surprise — social purposes. Of course, Islam had no Enlightenment so they are still one and the same for Muslims) and so religion, civil rights, feminism, pro/anti-semitism, etc. are all mind-killers:

Politics is an extension of war by other means. Arguments are soldiers. Once you know which side you’re on, you must support all arguments of that side, and attack all arguments that appear to favor the enemy side; otherwise it’s like stabbing your soldiers in the back—providing aid and comfort to the enemy. People who would be level-headed about evenhandedly weighing all sides of an issue in their professional life as scientists, can suddenly turn into slogan-chanting zombies when there’s a Blue or Green position on an issue.

Religion, civil rights, feminism, pro/anti-semitism, etc. are all subject to groupthink. I am “mind killing” every time I joke “that’s racist”. When I do that I’m not so subtly dragging your intuition — which is attuned heavily to ingroup/outgroup dynamics — by the nose. I’m pointing out what Chris Hallquist says at the end of his post, that this is “a data point in favor of our brains having evolved for tribal politics rather than logic“.

An informal lesson that all people who’ve gone through any sort of modern school system have gotten is that human beings think in groups first. You might not believe that full-stop, but the literature on cognitive science pretty much concludes that it’s true:

  1. Human brains are effectively populated by rabbits. Your conscious mind is like a very small person attempting to ride a large herd of rabbits, which aren’t all going the same direction. Your job is to pretend to be in control, and make shit up to explain where the rabbits went, and what you did.
  2. Humans bunny brains are optimized for social activity, not intellectual activity. If your brain thinks principles first, instead of groups first, it’s broken, and not just a little bit.
  3. Of course, this means that anyone thinking group first is almost completely full of crap regarding their reasoning process. They’re (99.86% certainty) making shit up that makes the group look good, and the actual rational value of the statement is near zero. The nominal process “A->B->C” is actually C, now let’s backfill with B and A.
  4. Therefore I’m almost only interested in listening to folks who are group-free. If your brain is broken in the kind of way that prohibits group-attachment…then you’re far far more likely to be thinking independently, and shifting perspectives.
  5. Aside: FWIW, this is the core (unsolvable?) problem that inhabits rationalist groups. There is a deep and abiding conflict between groupism and thinking. The Randians have encountered this most loudly, but it’s also there in the libertarians, the extropians, the David Deutch-led popperian rationalists, and the LessWrongers.

New discovery, shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. When looking for folks who are group-avoidant, I seem to have phenomenally good luck finding great people when talking with Gays from non-leftist areas (rural Texas, Tennessee, downstate Illinois). Because they don’t/can’t fit in with their local culture, and often can’t conveniently exit, they become interesting people. It’s a surprisingly good metric.


Most people have a group of 5 bunnies that are rather muscular bunnies that focus on group dynamics, group belonging, etc. Their preferences are aligned enough that they usually pull in the same direction. In practice, this means that in conflicts, this particular group of bunnies gets their way most of the time. There is also another bunny who is usually weak and sickly (or a frog) who checks for ideational consistency. That frog usually moves backwards.

In some rare folks, the frog is unusually muscular. Not a normal frog or even a bullfrog, but a big-ass pixie frog who eats rats. He gets what he wants a little bit. Or he has a buddy: 2 giant pixie frogs. These people would land in what Simon Baron Cohen (autism researcher) talks about as high on the systematizing scale. Now, some other rare folks would have group bunnies that were sick…they had polio as baby bunnies. One of the 5 died. The other 4 are crippled and can’t walk effectively.

If you run into a person who (a) has crippled group bunnies, and (b) has giant pixie-frogs…then you get a different approach to cognition than you see in most.

That doesn’t say it’s better.

FWIW, the book that most informed my thinking on Rabbit-Brains is “Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite” by Robert Kurzban. Fabulous book. Rabbits are my wording.

Of course, the more I read about cognitive science and why people are religious, the less I started to see religion as some sort of backwards tribal vestige of a dark age. But on the other hand, it made me realize that religion isn’t the problem per se but overall human irrationality; people thinking in groups instead of according to logic. Being an atheist in the military 15 years ago made me really angry towards religion, so I guess I was sort of in the same situation above; being in the “outgroup” in a situation that I couldn’t reasonably get out of like gays in non-leftist areas. It made me really group-avoidant, ironically enough. Back to the Nice Guy thing. It wasn’t about logically looking for causes to a problem and offering solutions, it was about social shaming. Period. Drawing a line in the sand about who is in the in-group and who is in the out-group. This probably explains much more than that Nice Guy shaming episode. And now that I think about it, this also might be where critics of the “New Atheism” are getting the idea that this brand of atheism is “religious” in nature.

The irony is that any sort of criticism of, say, feminism would result in a high probability of me being branded a misogynist. Which is probably the most effective demonstration of my entire point. And it wouldn’t be anything new under the sun; critics of Christianity 1,000 years ago — critics who were just as committed to Christianity or loved god as the next person — were also branded heretics/blasphemers. Arguments are soldiers, after all. Though I honestly think the misogyny issue is worse to see through than blaspheming 1,000 years ago since misogyny is premised on getting offended. Of course, racism/misogyny should be offensive, but just because something is offensive doesn’t mean it is racism/misogyny… unfortunately, generally only a level-headed person, one who wasn’t offended, would have a higher probability of having the epistemic sobriety to make that distinction in the first place (and then, just because something is not offensive, doesn’t mean that it’s not racism/misogyny… but that defeats the purpose of social justice, doesn’t it?).

Of course, I think I’m still implicitly a feminist. And I do think that a lot of religious doctrines really are misogynist in that very specific meaning. But I would never get involved in any active feminist or other social justice issues, mainly due to how similar the structure of the rhetoric is to religion. Because it stands to reason that the most effective form of any sort of political activism would resemble religious rhetoric and other means of social “engineering” so to say; it stands to reason that the most effective social activism would be the most irrational; the most efficient social movements would utilize the most of the dark arts; it would be dangerously easy to label someone a racist or a misogynist in a real argument if your only concern is to win, like pressing that conceptual superweapon/nuke button because there’s no one to police its use unlike with real nukes. What it comes down to, is if you want to do the best you can to promote your social justice cause, you would fully utilize the dark arts, exploit cognitive biases, and otherwise trick people by using logical fallacies that no one knows about with reckless abandon. In short, you would have to become the best sophist that you could become, making you look exactly like the majority of religious apologists that have written over the course of human history (see what is the worst teaching of Jesus for an example).

But I’ll never do that because I like maintaining my epistemic sobriety. I really wish that this stuff about cognitive science was taught in high school instead of teaching about how great America is (I hope you see what I did there).


Why Arguments About Consciousness Premised On Intuition Are Almost Certainly False

By now you should know that I think that relying on intuition to solve complex problems that don’t have to do with immediate death or quickly assessing social settings is a fool’s errand. Apparently a philosopher named Thomas Nagel critiqued the reductionist view of consciousness in a recent-ish tome Mind and Cosmos: Why the Materialist Neo-Darwinian Conception of Nature Is Almost Certainly False. A few other scientists have written rebuttals of his argument.

What is the gist of Nagel’s argument? Andrew Ferguson sums it up:

Among these remarkable, nonaccidental things are many of the features of the manifest image. Consciousness itself, for example: You can’t explain consciousness in evolutionary terms, Nagel says, without undermining the explanation itself. Evolution easily accounts for rudimentary kinds of awareness. Hundreds of thousands of years ago on the African savannah, where the earliest humans evolved the unique characteristics of our species, the ability to sense danger or to read signals from a potential mate would clearly help an organism survive.

So far, so good. But the human brain can do much more than this. It can perform calculus, hypothesize metaphysics, compose music—even develop a theory of evolution. None of these higher capacities has any evident survival value, certainly not hundreds of thousands of years ago when the chief aim of mental life was to avoid getting eaten. Could our brain have developed and sustained such nonadaptive abilities by the trial and error of natural selection, as neo-Darwinism insists? It’s possible, but the odds, Nagel says, are “vanishingly small.” If Nagel is right, the materialist is in a pickle. The conscious brain that is able to come up with neo-Darwinism as a universal explanation simultaneously makes neo-Darwinism, as a universal explanation, exceedingly unlikely.

Of course, he presents no data nor any other empirical inference about his conclusion so we can only guess that he’s premised his argument on some sort of intuitive grasp on consciousness (not only that, but he apparently has missed out completely on some recent research on why we, say, compose music). This is only further evidence that philosophers should be trained on Pearl and Kahneman, not Plato and Kant. The fallacy behind this reasoning is summed up in this quote from Blindsight, by Peter Watts:

“Forget about minds,” he told her. “Say you’ve got a device designed to monitor—oh, cosmic rays, say. What happens when you turn its sensor around so it’s not pointing at the sky anymore, but at its own guts?”

He answered himself before she could: “It does what it’s built to. It measures cosmic rays, even though it’s not looking at them any more. It parses its own circuitry in terms of cosmic-ray metaphors, because those feel right, because they feel natural, because it can’t look at things any other way. But it’s the wrong metaphor. So the system misunderstands everything about itself. Maybe that’s not a grand and glorious evolutionary leap after all. Maybe it’s just a design flaw.”

Using consciousness to explain consciousness without taking care not to use consciousness’ basic algorithm of intuition (e.g. “promiscuous teleology“) is only going to lead to confusion. It’s just like how you can’t use intuition to describe quantum physics.

An easy way to spot a premise that is based on intuition? “It just feels right“.

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Posted by on March 20, 2013 in cognitive science


The Differences Between the Gospel Writers and Greco-Roman Historians



I wrote a post a few years ago detailing my observation about the difference between the Gospels and actual Greco-Roman biographies. Two other bloggers who are much more well read than myself have made similar (and better) observations than I did.

Tom Verenna writes, critiquing both an atheist and a Christian:

The Greco-Roman biography of Apollonius of Tyana by Philostratus is not one continuous narrative but, rather, the story of his life as discussed by Philostratus. Philostratus not only gives us his sources (personal letters and the will of Apollonius himself—whether real or not, reports about him located at shrines, Damis of Hierapolis, Maximus of Aegeae, and so forth), he analyzes his sources (why he chose not to use Moeragenes), debates points of Apollonius’ life against his sources (cf. 1.23-24), inserts anecdotes; there is no question that the story is being recounted by Philostratus. Most important, perhaps, is that Philostratus is not telling us the story to explain a theological point (though, as any piece of ancient literature, it is designed and rhetorically structured), but he is engaging the source material for the purpose of writing about the life of Apollonius.


The Gospels, however, present a continuous story line with no pause, no discussion of method, no discussion of sources, no anecdotes, and make appeals to theological nuances like Jesus’ divine mission (Mark 1:1-3, for example). These sorts of traits go against the grain of Greco-Roman biography. As dubious as the historicity of Apollonius may be, his biography is actually sounder and more credible than that of the Gospels precisely because (a) we know who wrote it and (b) our narrator discusses his sources, allowing us to analyze his methods… Many scenes from Mark are re-imagined, become a parable, are marginalized, or disappear from other canonical Gospels. When there are multiple stories of a similar account, yet are usually different, one should be suspicious. This is an example, not of memory recall nor of concise and careful source-use, but of authorial intent; purposeful, deliberate altercations of a narrative.


It is also worth mentioning here that some Greco-Roman biographies are based upon completely fictional figures, like Plurtarch’s biography of Theseus. There were no laws or edicts in antiquity about what one could or could not write or how they could write it (such laws do exist today, though mainly in confessional institutions). Authors emulated the parts of works they liked and were not limited by genre, per se. Such was the process of imitation, even going back to the days of Aristotle (Poetics 1447a-b).

Neil Godfrey writes, in his critique of Craig S. Keener’s The Historical Jesus of the Gospels

But then Keener steps outside of New Testament studies and makes a very odd analogy. He points out that classicists recognize the weaknesses of their sources — and in a footnote he draws special attention to Livy and Josephus — without being overly sceptical. So Livy is known to be uncritical but classicists don’t throw his work in the bin because of that. Keener believes historical Jesus scholars “are at their best when they follow the same approach.”

He wants readers to approach the Gospels with the same balance between faith and scepticism that they would bring to a reading of Livy and Josephus.

Something interesting happens, however, if we ask Livy or Josephus what they might think of the admonition that the Gospels should be read in the same way as their own historical works.

Livy indeed tells us what he does think of such an idea on the opening page of his history:

The traditions of what happened prior to the foundation of the City or whilst it was being built, are more fitted to adorn the creations of the poet than the authentic records of the historian, and I have no intention of establishing either their truth or their falsehood. This much licence is conceded to the ancients, that by intermingling human actions with divine they may confer a more august dignity on the origins of states.

So works like the Gospels that mingle human and divine actions (miracles, spirits, prophecies) should be read like poetry, not history. Not even Livy would read such works as if narrating true events or false, but as something quite different from history.

It may be objected that Livy is confining his view to the stories inherited from long ago. But Livy, and likewise Josephus, rarely if ever writes of a supposed miracle or divine intervention without either expressing some reservation or appealing to reported eyewitnesses to justify his account. So after relating the miraculous accounts of the death of Romulus, and in particular of the report of his “post-resurrection appearance” to a follower, Livy remarks:

It is [marvelous] what credit was given to this man’s story, and how the grief of the people and the army was soothed by the belief which had been created in the immortality of Romulus.

The Gospels speak of miracles with a matter-of-factness characteristic of ancient novels and myths (e.g. While they were still talking about this, Jesus himself stood among them and said to them, “Peace be with you.” — Luke 24:36), a frequent difference being that the Gospel miracles can be explained as theological metaphors so they are not offered the benefit of narrative realism even by ancient standards

So if I were to summarize the differences between the Gospels and ancient Greco-Roman historians:

  1. Greco-Roman historians talked about and critiqued their — many times multiple — sources
  2. Greco-Roman historians named themselves and their motivations for writing who/what they’re writing about
  3. Gospels are written/presented to the reader as one narrative whole
  4. Gospels uncritically include supernatural elements; Greco-Roman historians also included supernatural elements, but many times were skeptical of them
  5. Even if the Gospels were of the genre of Greco-Roman history, there was no law in antiquity that mandated the genre of Greco-Roman history to be of only non-fictional persons
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Posted by on March 16, 2013 in greco-roman biography, historiography


Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs. Intuition


This post begins with, what I would call, an easy dilemma:

If God did not exist, and this was known, should a person still believe in God?

Most people would probably say ‘no’ (there are some who would say ‘yes’). But the answer to that question isn’t the whole story. I guarantee that there is a version of that question where you would be willing to lay on the side of anti-truth for the good of morality.

What is your threshold for anti-truth? Are there any facts that are too dangerous to know? Are there some other things besides god-belief where it is virtuous to believe in the belief?

One of the downsides of having a brain designed by a blind idiot [me: Yaldabaoth?] is that said idiot hasn’t done a terribly good job with limiting input or anything resembling “robust filtering”. Hence that whole bias thing. A consequence of this is that your brain is not a trusted system, which itself has consequences that go much, much deeper than a bunch of misapplied heuristics. (And those are bad enough on their own!)

This gets to my favorite posts that I’ve written about The Thief and the Wizard (intuition vs. rationality), and the unreliable feeling of certainty. One of my now go-to little cocktail party intuition games is a short scenario that goes like this:

There’s a really beautiful woman at a bar. She’s nursing her drink, talking to the bartender. A really handsome man walks in and whispers in her ear. She laughs.

That’s it. Simple, right? Well, as I explained in my post The Thief and the Wizard linked above, your intuition takes something like the above italicized scenario and creates an elaborate story from it. I use the above to gauge what people’s intuitive – or biases for – standards of beauty are. What did your “beautiful woman” look like? Was she white? Indian? Black? Long hair? Short hair? Wearing a dress? Jeans? What kind of bar did you place her in? An upscale lounge-like place? A seedy juke joint? What about the handsome man? Et cetera.

(The most amusing output a friend of mine gave for this game was me as the “handsome man” and another girl at the party as the beautiful woman. Talk about bias lol.)

Because it’s intuitive, because it’s a bias, it’s automatic and unconscious. The same bias/immediate response for standards of beauty apply to much wider range of topics than the simple beautiful woman/handsome man tidbit above. What’s your standard of X CONTROVERSIAL TOPIC? What you learn about said topic unconsciously dictates how you react when placed in that scenario or discussions about that scenario. So there really might be facts that are too dangerous for the average person to know; at least without knowing about — and actively trying to overcome — bias.

If free will did not exist, and this was known, should a person still believe in free will?

Intuition plays a huge role in morality. Most of our moral judgements are intuitive judgements:

Greene and Singer give other examples of things that have no inimical effect on society are nevertheless rejected via intuition as immoral. Three examples are a man who masturbates with a grocery-store chicken before cooking and eating it, a woman who cleans her toilet with an American flag, and a man who reneges on a promise to his dying mother to visit her grave every week. Such judgments are instinctive—deontological and not consequentialist. They stem from an innate outrage that something is wrong. Yet their consequences for society are nil.

Why do we make such moral judgments about situations that have no negative consequences, and which we’d probably retract were we to think about them? All the authors think that instinctive judgments are largely a product of evolution. But of course these judgments must then be justified. When pressed, people who think about the chicken-masturbation or grave-visitation scenarios think up reasons—often not convincing—why these behaviors are immoral. All three authors suggest that these post facto rules are examples of confabulation: making up stuff post facto to rationalize your instinctive feelings.

That’s that feeling of certainty rearing its ugly head again!

And that’s the kinda scary part. If certain facts can change someone’s intuitive responses to things, and intuition plays a huge role in moral judgements… and we tend to rationalize what conclusions our intuition arrives at unconsciously like any good apologist does… then maybe there are actually some facts that are too dangerous to know. And if there are facts that are too dangerous to know, this necessarily creates a rift between ontologically true facts, and morally/ethically true facts.

Anecdotally, a lot of people have a hard time distinguishing between description and prescription. Maybe if our education system were better about teaching critical thinking and not so much about guessing the teacher’s password we could teach both ontologically true facts and (possibly eventually) morally/ethically true facts; teach the difference between descriptive facts and prescriptive facts.

If black people or women were intellectually inferior to white people or to men, and this was known, should a person still believe that the races/sexes were equal?

If an ontologically true fact being widely known conflicts with a morally true fact, that is, if knowing some fact about reality conflicts with promoting the good of a society, what should the ones in power do? Would be be back to Plato’s Noble Lie?

At a party I was at a few months ago, for some reason the topic of conversation navigated towards the shortage of women in STEM fields. A female friend overheard the conversation and interjected “That’s a stereotype!”. It’s factually true that men outnumber women in STEM fields, but that wasn’t what her concern was. Her concern was the explanation for that fact and thus any sort of negative prescription from that description. She rejected her own inferential leap from the description of women being underrepresented in STEM fields to the explanation for why that was so (e.g. women aren’t as smart as men). I rejoined that no, it was not a stereotype and that it was a fact, but she left in a huff before I could explain that she was confusing the data for the hypothesis.

Her even thinking that women aren’t smarter than men — her own inferential leap based on that STEM fact — would be its own bias, and would even become a self-fulfilling prophecy of sorts:

People are aware of the stereotype that females have less aptitude at math and spatial skills than men. In fact, almost half of females endorse this stereotype. This awareness matters. When asked to imagine themselves as a stereotypical male, females perform much better on a mental rotation task than when they are not given such an instruction. Additionally, when women are asked to report their gender before taking a mental rotation test, they perform much worse on the test than if they identify themselves as a “private college student”.

So it’s possible that even knowing that women are less represented in STEM fields than men would prompt the inferential leap of my female friend and produce that limiting bias.

This inferential leap, confusing data for hypothesis, or conflating description with prescription, brings me back to the first question: If god didn’t exist, and this was known, should one still believe in god? I think a lot of theists are conflating description with prescription when attacking atheist over their nonbelief. Some of their underlying critique is an air of “why don’t you want god to exist?“. Sometimes this is even made explicit in many evolution vs. Creationism debates; Creationists reject evolution because of the moral implications of evolution. The same could be true of all other controversial topics e.g. free will; black vs. white IQ. Someone who argues that free will doesn’t exist could possibly be attacked by a non-insignificant number of detractors for the inferential leap of arguing that free will shouldn’t exist.

So what truth are you sacrificing for the good of morality? Of course I don’t know what mine is; I think by definition I can’t be aware of something that I have belief in belief about. That level of self-deception for the good of ethics is at a level of introspection I don’t have access to. A secret that my own intuition guards jealously. But a good first step is realizing the distinction between description and prescription and should always be kept in mind in order to overcome bias.


I always wondered about this

Why Evolution Is True

by Matthew Cobb

I have a student who is writing a dissertation about the evolution of opsins – molecules that respond to light, which we use to see with. These molecules apparently have their origins deep in evolutionary time, long before there were animals, perhaps going back to 3.5 billion years, shortly after the appearance of life. While I was reading a draft, I wondered why organisms that use electromagnetic radiation for clocks and seeing (like us) and those that use it for getting energy (like plants, algae and cyanobacteria) all use pretty much the same part of the electromagnetic spectrum – the ‘visual’ spectrum. No organism can detect X-rays or radio waves (which are at opposite ends of the EM spectrum). Why not?

Unlike Jerry, I use Twitter, so I asked my tweeps why no organism can detect radio waves. Many of the answers fell into these three groups:


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Posted by on March 8, 2013 in Science: it works bitches!

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