Monthly Archives: April 2013

Getting ‘Em Early


(A practitioner of the dark arts)

Here’s a study that supports my recent bend on the link between cognitive science and religiosity, Exploiting children’s social instincts to boost their learning:

Young children’s instinct for group membership can be exploited to boost their learning performance. That’s according to a new study that recalls classic social psychology research conducted in the 1970s. Back then Henri Tajfel showed a darker side to this group mentality. In his “minimal group” studies, schoolboys were divided into two groups based merely on their preference for one of two artists. The arbitrary groups thus formed, the boys showed immediate bias against peers not in their group.


In one condition, the children were told that they were members of “the Blue Group” that did puzzles. Although they were alone, the children donned a blue t-shirt, sat on a blue chair, and the puzzle box had a blue sticker on it. They were further told that children in the “the Green group” do other things.


Even though they worked alone and there was no history to their group membership, the children in the Blue Group condition were fired up by their belonging to the group that does puzzles – they persisted 29 per cent longer on the puzzle than children in the “child number 3” condition and 35 per cent longer than children not allocated to a group or individual identity.

Religious organizations know that to get a person adhering to a religion for life you have to get ’em when they’re young. The above research suggets why this is so: because our brains are wired for groupthink. Tell a child they are a Catholic, or Hindu, or Jewish, and they’ll hold that identity longer that they rationally should.

Richard Dawkins famously argued that telling children what religion they are before they have the emotional and intellectual maturity to understand such a choice is child abuse. I’m not sure I agree with that, but certainly telling a child what religion they are against their will is taking advantage of the dark arts.

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Posted by on April 22, 2013 in cognitive science, religiosity


Comparing Jesus To Alexander The Great


Hector Avalos has a great post over at Debunking Christianity where he takes down the fallacious comparison of the historicity of Jesus and events in his life with the historicity of Alexander and events in his life:

Despite these problems with the sources, the existence of Alexander is a reasonable belief because he has wide and independent attestation from all types of sources, and not just those of his own followers.

Some of these sources date from his own time, and are attested archaeologically, not just from later accounts. So, we don’t just have to depend on later historians such as Plutarch and Arrian.
For example, reliefs at the Shrine of the Bark at Luxor in Egypt mention Alexander by name, and depict him artistically during his lifetime (ca. 330-325 BCE). That would confirm his presence in Egypt mentioned by all major ancient sources.

We also have a Mesopotamian tablet, now at the British Museum and designated as BM 36761, which mentions Alexander by name, and refers to his entry into Babylon (See Mesopotamian evidence):

-Akkadian (BM 36761, Reverse, line 11): A-lek-sa-an-dar-ri-is LUGAL ŠÚ ana E.KI K[U4

-English: “Alexander, the king of the world, entered Babylon

Of course, Alexander is also mentioned or referenced in the Bible itself (1 Maccabees 1:1-7; Daniel 8:4-8, 21) [link to my blog post on the subject].

The claim found in Plutarch and Arrian that Alexander conquered Babylon is paralleled by this Mesopotamian source, which is not a Greek source or dependent on a Greek source or cannot be said to have been written by a Greek follower of Alexander.

When Egyptian and Mesopotamian sources, which are not otherwise dependent on each other, say the equivalent of “Alexander was here” during his lifetime, then it is reasonable to believe that there existed a man named Alexander who was present at those places.

That is why it is unfair to compare Jesus to Alexander in terms of historical evidence for their existence. There is nothing outside of later Christian sources saying Jesus was anywhere in his lifetime. Nothing in the New Testament is fully contemporary with Jesus.

There also are no Roman or Greek sources saying that there was even a group who believed that Jesus lived or did anything the Gospels allege about him. There is no archaeological evidence of his activities or of the activities of his group from Jesus’ supposed lifetime.

That absence of evidence is curious because, when speaking of Christianity, Acts 28:22 (RSV) says “everywhere it is spoken against.” More traces should remain in the first century of a group that everyone was speaking against.

In the case of Alexander, his fame was present in wide range of sources as is expected of someone who was said to have conquered the known world. Alexander was closer to someone “everywhere spoken about” and there is independent corroborating evidence to confirm that.

It’s a long post, but it’s well worth reading. The point being is that not everyone in antiquity has the same amount of evidence for their actions/existence, and being skeptical of one doesn’t necessitate throwing out the entirety of historiography.

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Posted by on April 16, 2013 in historical jesus, historicity, historiography


The Neurological Difference Between Liking And Wanting


(Do women like sex less than men because they pursue sex less than men do?)

There isn’t so much a link to religion in this Less Wrong post about the part of the brain responsible for “liking” something and how it’s separate from the part of your brain that controls motivation, but I wanted to share it because I got a bit of an epiphany from reading it:

[N]euroscientists are starting to recognize a difference between “reward” and “pleasure”, or call it “wanting” and “liking”. The two are usually closely correlated. You want something, you get it, then you feel happy. The simple principle behind our entire consumer culture. But do neuroscience and our own experience really support that?


A University of Michigan study analyzed the brains of rats eating a favorite food. They found separate circuits for “wanting” and “liking”, and were able to knock out either circuit without affecting the other (it was actually kind of cute – they measured the number of times the rats licked their lips as a proxy for “liking”, though of course they had a highly technical rationale behind it). When they knocked out the “liking” system, the rats would eat exactly as much of the food without making any of the satisifed lip-licking expression, and areas of the brain thought to be correlated with pleasure wouldn’t show up in the MRI. Knock out “wanting”, and the rats seem to enjoy the food as much when they get it but not be especially motivated to seek it out.


Thus the deep and heavy ramifications. A more down-to-earth example came to mind when I was reading something by Steven Landsburg recently (not recommended). I don’t have the exact quote, but it was something along the lines of:

According to a recent poll, two out of three New Yorkers say that, given the choice, they would rather live somewhere else. But all of them have the choice, and none of them live anywhere else. A proper summary of the results of this poll would be: two out of three New Yorkers lie on polls.

This summarizes a common strain of thought in economics, the idea of “revealed preferences”. People tend to say they like a lot of things, like family or the environment or a friendly workplace. Many of the same people who say these things then go and ignore their families, pollute, and take high-paying but stressful jobs. The traditional economic explanation is that the people’s actions reveal their true preferences, and that all the talk about caring about family and the environment is just stuff people say to look good and gain status. If a person works hard to get lots of money, spends it on an iPhone, and doesn’t have time for their family, the economist will say that this proves that they value iPhones more than their family, no matter what they may say to the contrary.

The gist: You might really like something but lack the motivation to do/get it. Or you might have a lot of motivation to get something when you don’t necessarily like it all that much. It’s not your fault; they are two separate subroutines running in your brain that aren’t linked in a 1:1 manner. Conventional wisdom says that the level of motivation you have to get something reflects how badly you want it. If you have a lot of motivation to get something that must mean you really like it! Or if you really liked it (or someone) then you’d have a lot of motivation to get it!

But no, sorry, the human brain isn’t that simple.

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Posted by on April 15, 2013 in cognitive science


A Bit More On Morality And Intuition


I was reading some old blogs I’m subscribed to because Google is doing away with their Reader app. One I came across was an almost three year old post by the late Ken Pulliam, who was a former fundamentalist preacher with a ThD (doctorate in theology) turned atheist. His final post was a post about a subject I’ve been blogging about lately, the relationship between intuition and morality:

There are different varieties of Ethical (or Moral or Evolutionary) Intuitionism. Some are subject to more criticism than others. I am in the process of fine tuning my particular view of Ethical Intuitionism. I found a recent article by Jeff McMahan to be quite helpful (“Moral Intuition,” in The Blackwell Guide to Ethical Theory, ed. Hugh LaFollette [2000], 92-110).

1. What is a moral intuition?

According to McMahan:

[It] is a spontaneous moral judgment, often concerning a particular act or agent, though an intuition may also have as its object a type of act or, less frequently, a more general moral rule or principle. In saying a moral intuition is a spontaneous judgment, I mean that it is not the result of conscious inferential reasoning. In the first instance at least, the allegiance the intuition commands is not based on an awareness of its relations to one’s other beliefs. If one considers the act of torturing the cat, one judges immediately that, in the circumstances, this would be wrong. One does not need to consult one’s other beliefs in order to arrive at this judgment. This kind of spontaneity, I should stress, is entirely compatible with the possibility that a fair amount of cognitive processing may be occuring beneath the surface of consciousness (pp. 93-94).

2. There is not a special organ or faculty that perceives moral facts.

Although some have held that ethical intuitions are the deliverances of a special organ or faculty of moral perception, typically understood as something like an inner eye that provides occult access to a noumenal realm of objective values (p. 94), I reject this notion. I don’t believe that there is something like a sixth sense that is able to perceive moral facts.

3. Intuitions are not infallible.

4. Intuitions are biologically based.

But numerous considerations–such as the diversity of moral intuitions, the fact that people do often doubt and even repudiate certain of their intuitions, and the evident origin of some intutitions in social prejudice or self-interest–make it untenable to suppose that intuitions are direct and infallible perceptions of morality (pp. 94-95).

5. Intuitions may differ among people.

One piece of evidence for this is the surprising uniformity of our intuitions about particular cases. We have been impressed for so long by the claims of anthropologists, English professors, undergraduates, and others about the diversity of moral opinion that we are inclined to overlook how much agreement there actually is. Interestingly, what one finds is that moral disagreements tend to widen and intensify the more we abstract from particular cases and focus instead on matters of principle or theory. When the partisans of different schools of moral thought turn their attention to particular cases, there is far more intuitive agreement that their higher-level disputes would lead one to suspect (pp. 106-07).

There are several explanations for this. One is that our moral intuitions undoubtedly stem from numerous diverse sources: while some derive from biologically programmed dispositions that are largely uniform across the species, others are the products of cultural determinants, economic or social conditions, vagaries of individual character and circumstance, and so on. Given the heterogeneity of these sources, it is hardly surprising that there are conflicts (p. 109).

It’s in my interest to know where morality comes from due to my interest in religion, even though specific moral theories (applied morality?) are things that seem way too complicated for me to spend any brainpower on.

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Posted by on April 12, 2013 in cognitive science


Does Atheism Affect Business Success?


Again, me reading another article over at Slate prompted this question in my head: Women May Avoid Business Careers to Maintain Ethical Integrity. It was especially this paragraph that primed me to think of religion:

Jessica Kennedy of Wharton and Laura Kray of Berkeley report on three studies in a paper forthcoming in Social Psychology and Personality Science. In the first study, subjects read 14 vignettes describing ethical compromises in a business context. Values seen as sacred [my emphasis], such as honesty, loyalty, or the well-being of others, were traded off for the secular values of money or status. An executive secures a big bonus by using a cheap ingredient in a cancer drug, knowing it will kill some people. A project manager takes credit for the work of a subordinate who stayed late at the office. Subjects rated how objectionable the behavior was, and how much business sense it made. Compared with men, women found the acts more offensive, and said they made less business sense.

I thought “Why are money and status considered ‘secular’?” But then if honesty, loyalty, and well-being of others were considered “sacred” (or the counterpoint to “secular”, which would be “religious”) then that would imply that women are more religious than men. That seems to actually be the case. And then another point in favor of people lacking empathy also being successful, CEOs have a higher population of psychopaths than other professions.

Could it just be that men are in general are more likely to be psychopaths, thus lack empathy, thus lack hyperactive agency detection or otherwise anthropomorphize (thus empathize with) inanimate objects when lonely or feeling out of control? Or since intuition and morality are connected, and intuition and god-belief are connected, that this might means that men use intuitive judgements less than women (the more meta question being whether this is innate to women or simply a self-perpetuating cultural stereotype; I lean towards the latter)? A contrary data point, however, is the fact that professors in schools of business are usually religious.

Or maybe the answer is more biological. Men have 10 – 15 times more testosterone than women, making (or correlating with?) them more likely to seek social dominance. Maybe the women who did cross ethical norms in the study cited at Slate had higher T than other women.

Who knows. Someone would have to do an actual in depth study to connect all of these dots.

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Posted by on April 9, 2013 in cognitive science, economics/sociology, religiosity


The Power of Myth

It looks like people adopt the morality of characters they identify with in fiction:

Psychologists have discovered that while reading a book or story, people are prone to subconsciously adopt their behavior, thoughts, beliefs and internal responses to that of fictional characters as if they were their own.

Experts have dubbed this subconscious phenomenon ‘experience-taking,’ where people actually change their own behaviors and thoughts to match those of a fictional character that they can identify with.

Researcher from the Ohio State University conducted a series of six different experiments on about 500 participants, reporting in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, found that in the right situations, ‘experience-taking,’ may lead to temporary real world changes in the lives of readers.

They found that stories written in the first-person can temporarily transform the way readers view the world, themselves and other social groups.

Reading the Gospels? Then you’ll probably start taking on the morals and character of Jesus!

(PDF): Kaufman, G. F., & Libby, L. K. (2012, March 26). “Changing Beliefs and Behavior Through Experience-Taking.” Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. doi: 10.1037/a0027525

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Posted by on April 8, 2013 in cognitive science


Sam Harris Apparently Suffering From “Islamophobia”

Of course, the accusation makes no sense. Or does it? It seems to have the same sociological function as saying THAT’S RACIST. As a matter of fact, that purpose isn’t a hidden premise at all; Harris’ “Islamophobia” is also being called “scientific racism”.

People, people, people…

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Posted by on April 3, 2013 in Uncategorized

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