Monthly Archives: May 2013

The Fundamental Differences Between Science and Religion


Here is a post outlining anthropologist Scott Atran’s research about the fundamental differences between science and religion, and why there can never be any reconciliation. To sum up Neil’s post:

1. Metaphors and Analogies

Science aims to reduce the analogy to a factual description, where the terms of the analogy are finally specified, with no loose ends . . . . Science seeks to kill the metaphor, religion strives to keep it poetic.

Religion strives to keep the metaphor alive, and to keep it poetic and endlessly open to further elaboration and extrapolation. The metaphors of religion are never fully assimilated with factual and commonsensical beliefs.

2. The Place of Humanity (and Agency)

Humans are only incidental presences in the scientific universe but they are central to religion. Scientific understanding of how the universe works would remain the same if humans never were mentioned at all. But religion without a key role for humanity would make no sense.

3. Moral Absolutes versus Ever Changing Truths

A third difference that seems crucial to social life is that religions arc morally absolute, however conceptually flexible and open-textured, whereas science endlessly pursues ever changing truth by strict and rigid means. Religion establishes truth to provide moral and social stability. Science sacrifices surety to discover truth’s illusions. Religion abhors the competition for truth. Science can’t live without it.

4. Factual Knowledge has only a Support Role in Religion

Factual knowledge is not a principal aim of religion. It only plays a supporting role.

Only in the past decade has the Catholic Church reluctantly come to acknowledge the factual plausibility of the ideas of Copernicus, Galileo, and Darwin (Geitner, 1999). The earlier rejection of their theories stemmed from the challenges posed to a cosmic order unifying the moral and material worlds. . . . A lag time was necessary to refurbish and remake the moral and material connections in such a way that would permit faith in a unified cosmology to survive. (p. 278)

If this is the case then why does religion survive? I posted a comment on Neil’s blog post that sums it up.

Basically, we think in metaphor because our brains are inside of a body, so how we speak in every day conversation is overflowing with metaphor. As Neil wrote above, science aims to kill the metaphor and get to the true meaning while religion aims to keep it alive. There can be no reconciliation there.

In describing gravity, Science uses the metaphor of a bowling ball on a mattress. But Science knows this is incorrect. Religion would be content with the subjective beauty of the bowling ball metaphor and wouldn’t bother to correct you.

Religion also has human beings as the focal point of Creation, which is why god will always be hopelessly human. A truly alien god is a god that no one would worship. Well, almost no one 🙂

There’s of course, what I’ve concluded is the main reason for religion; at least, religion-like entities: groupthink. Religion seems to be a special case of the more general phenomenon of our brains being wired for tribal politics. It’s not so much that people believe in religions because they’re true, they believe in them because the group does. This makes sense of Dennett’s “belief in belief”, and why anthropologists and psychologists understand religion more than the so-called New Atheists:

The role of belief in religion is greatly overstated, as anthropologists have long known. In 1912, Émile Durkheim, one of the founders of modern social science, argued that religion arose as a way for social groups to experience themselves as groups. He thought that when people experienced themselves in social groups they felt bigger than themselves, better, more alive — and that they identified that aliveness as something supernatural. Religious ideas arose to make sense of this experience of being part of something greater. Durkheim thought that belief was more like a flag than a philosophical position: You don’t go to church because you believe in God; rather, you believe in God because you go to church.

I don’t think this is the whole story — that you believe in god because you go to church — but it probably accounts for a lot of it.

The New Atheists aren’t completely wrong about religion, though. The way you defeat religion is what differentiates the “New” atheists and the old ones: Saying that religion is not cool, or has no place in modern society. Those sorts of arguments — the same sort of social shaming that feminists use — are what will get people to fall away from religion. This is one of the reasons why “the Internet belongs to feminists and atheists (and pr0n)”; the most prolific Internet users are also the most likely to be atheists or non-religious due to the vast amount of social shaming that goes on there. I personally think that’s taking advantage of the dark arts, but what are ya gonna do. Facts change peoples opinion a lot less than being ostracized does.

One of the major differences between most other political groups and religion is that religious beliefs focus around “socializing” (I put that in scare quotes for a reason) with supernatural beings. Because the causes for religious belief are mainly cognitive/sociological, there are a lot sociological/psychological circumstances that increase religiosity, like high income inequality, loneliness, or feeling out of control (combined with baseline human psychology like hyperactive agency detection, promiscuous teleology [i.e. things have a purpose] and the just world fallacy). Which is probably one of the main reasons why minorities and women are more religious than men/people in relative power (indeed, women are more likely than men to say they are lonely).

So yeah. Not much else to add. Religion and science not only can’t get along, but shouldn’t get along because science should remain apolitical; there shouldn’t be any groupthink involved in scientific progress. Once you start doing that, you start moving away from authentic discovery and towards *backflip* GO SCIENCE *crowd cheers*

I once attended a panel on the topic, “Are science and religion compatible?” One of the women on the panel, a pagan, held forth interminably upon how she believed that the Earth had been created when a giant primordial cow was born into the primordial abyss, who licked a primordial god into existence, whose descendants killed a primordial giant and used its corpse to create the Earth, etc. The tale was long, and detailed, and more absurd than the Earth being supported on the back of a giant turtle. And the speaker clearly knew enough science to know this.


It finally occurred to me that this woman wasn’t trying to convince us or even convince herself. Her recitation of the creation story wasn’t about the creation of the world at all. Rather, by launching into a five-minute diatribe about the primordial cow, she was cheering for paganism, like holding up a banner at a football game. A banner saying “GO BLUES” isn’t a statement of fact, or an attempt to persuade; it doesn’t have to be convincing—it’s a cheer.


Bayes Theorem Without Math… Again


Here’s another example of using Bayesian logic without using complicated math formulas. This is an old (but still good) video of a Mormon deconvert. He’s recounting his deconversion story and at one point he brings up a water analogy about how you find “truth”. Here’s what I’ve transcribed:

Somebody could give me this glass of water and tell me that it’s water. But there’s a lot of clear liquids out there and I might actually have a real case that this might not be water. Now most cases when something like a liquid is in a cup it’s water.

A good way to find out if it’s water is to test if it has two hydrogens per oxygen in each molecule in the glass and you can test that. If it evaporates like water, if it tastes like water, freezes like water… the more tests we apply, the more sure we can be that it’s water.

However, if it were some kind of acid and we started to test and we found that the hydrogen count is off, the oxygen count is off, it doesn’t taste like water, it doesn’t behave like water, it doesn’t freeze like water, it just looks like water. If we start to do these tests, the more we will know the true nature of the liquid in this glass. That is how we find truth. We can test it any number of ways; the more we test it, the more we know the truth of what it is that we’re dealing with.

Who knows how many clear liquids there are out there. Quite a bit. Granted, there’s a high prior probability that a random glass of clear liquid sitting on someone’s kitchen table is water, but it could still be a glass of vodka or hydrogen peroxide. Maybe you have no sense of smell so if you tried to freeze it by sticking it in the freezer for an hour and came back and it wasn’t frozen, it might be a safe bet to conclude that it’s not water. But adding any compound to water (like salt or sugar) changes the boiling and freezing point of water (try it out: pour a bit of sugar or salt in a pot of boiling water and watch it stop boiling almost instantly).

There are a number of tests you can apply for any claim, and each test passed increases the probability of veracity. But relying on only one test is to subject yourself to the Prosecutor’s Fallacy; the probability that it’s water given that it freezes in your freezer is not equal to the probability that it freezes in your freezer given that it’s water!

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Posted by on May 28, 2013 in Bayes


The Laws of Thought

Over at Facing the Intelligence Explosion there is a page with the title of “the laws of thought”. This is a page that goes into a bit more detail about what it means to be skeptical. Many atheists know about these ideas, but they are inconsistently applied because they don’t know many of our cognitive biases, which are generally based on intuition, that make us use those vague tools selectively. What’s worse, one cognitive bias is called the sophistication effect, where the most knowledgeable people, because they possess greater ammunition with which shoot down facts and arguments incongruent with their own position, are actually more prone to succumb to one of these biases! Luke writes in one of his earlier writings:

Skepticism and critical thinking teach us important lessons: Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Correlation does not imply causation. Don’t take authority too seriously. Claims should be specific and falsifiable. Remember to apply Occam’s razor. Beware logical fallacies. Be open-minded, but not gullible. Etc.

But this is only the beginning. In writings on skepticism and critical thinking, these guidelines are only loosely specified, and they are not mathematically grounded in a well-justified normative theory. Instead, they are a grab-bag of vague but generally useful rules of thumb. They provide a great entry point to rational thought, but they are only the beginning. For 40 years there has been a mainstream cognitive science of rationality, with detailed models of how our thinking goes wrong and well-justified mathematical theories of what it means for a thinking process to be “wrong.”

As you might have guessed, I’ve written about many of those subjects before from the viewpoint of Bayes Theorem and other probability theory. For example, extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, claims should be specific and falsifiable, and Occam’s razor. Basically, if you want to be more efficient at being skeptical, you should know some probability theory. If you don’t know the basics then all you’re doing is professing and cheering, signalling that you are part of the Skepticism Tribe. *pom-pom pump* Gooooo Skepticism! *backflip*

He expands on this further in his “laws of thought” page. There are three general laws of thought: Logic, Probability Theory, and Decision Theory. Decision theory follows (almost) necessarily from Probability Theory, which (almost) necessarily follows from logic.

Luckily, not many people disagree about logic. As with math, we might make mistakes out of ignorance, but once someone shows us the proof for the Pythagorean theorem or for the invalidity of affirming the consequent, we agree. Math and logic are deductive systems, where the conclusion of a successful argument follows necessarily from its premises, given the axioms of the system you’re using: number theory, geometry, predicate logic, etc… Why should we let the laws of logic dictate our thinking? There needn’t be anything spooky about this. The laws of logic are baked into how we’ve agreed to talk to each other.

Logic follows from some basic axioms, like the law of identity (A = A) and the law of non-contradiction (A can’t be both A and ~A). If we disregard the laws of logic, then no one would be able to understand each other. Certain logical fallacies are predicated on violating the identity part of logic. My favorite example of this is the fallacy of equivocation. The relevant version of this fallacy is when people conflate “faith” in the general sense with “faith” in a probabilistic sense and then conclude with some variant of the fallacy of gray.

Say you’ve got two revolvers on a table, and you’re forced to play Russian Roulette. One revolver has 1 bullet chambered out of 6 and the other has 5 bullets chambered out of 6. A proponent of this fallacy of equivocation/fallacy of gray combo claims that everyone has faith and therefore no faith is better than any other. Yet if that were the case, then if we want to survive in the Russian Roulette game above, their logic dictates that it makes no difference which revolver they choose. Whereas a rational person would obviously choose the revolver with less ammunition chambered.

But logic is a system of certainty, and our world is one of uncertainty. In our world, we need to talk not about certainties but about probabilities…

What is probability? It’s a measure of how likely a proposition is to be true, given what else you believe. And whatever our theory of probability is, it should be consistent with common sense (for example, consistent with logic), and it should be consistent with itself (if you can calculate a probability with two methods, both methods should give the same answer).

Several authors have shown that the axioms of probability theory can be derived from these assumptions plus logic.1,2 In other words, probability theory is just an extension of logic. If you accept logic, and you accept the above (very minimal) assumptions about what probability is, then whether you know it or not you have accepted probability theory.

I really wish I could write a simpler guide on why probability theory — correct probability theory — follows from logic. Unfortunately the references that Luke provides at what I’ve indented at 1 and 2 are the simplest I’ve come across. Anything simpler and something essential will get left out. It suffices it to say that if we were to build an artificial intelligence, it would have to know probability theory in order to make sense of and function in the world. And when we think of computers and AI, we automatically think of “logic”, so the association (hopefully) makes intuitive sense.

Next he talks about Decision Theory which I’ve poked a little bit. This is the most subjective part of it, but even so, there are objective ways to assess your own subjective decision theory / utility function.

So there you have it. If you want to stop just sitting in the stands waving your Skepticism Banner to let everyone know which team you support and start actually practicing good skepticism, you should start learning these three areas.

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Posted by on May 21, 2013 in Bayes, skepticism


Epiphenom: Religion Occupies Some Kind of Half-Way House Between Fact and Opinion


This seems to explain my frustration with religion:

Children as young as 5 years seem to represent other minds as capable of containing conflicting beliefs. Additionally, around the age of 7 years, children become more likely to say that two people whose preferences conflict can both be right. This developmental shift may reflect children’s increasing experience with contradictory preferences as they begin elementary school and learn to navigate the conflicting preferences of their peers.

Go read the entire blog post!

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Posted by on May 20, 2013 in cognitive science


“I Have Two Children, And At Least One of Them Is A Boy”


I’m reading Yudkowsky’s post My Bayesian Enlightenment and I thought I’d write out why (I think) his reasoning in this post is correct.

First, I’ll write the two versions of this question that he writes:

I remember (dimly, as human memories go) the first time I self-identified as a “Bayesian”. Someone had just asked a malformed version of an old probability puzzle, saying:

If I meet a mathematician on the street, and she says, “I have two children, and at least one of them is a boy,” what is the probability that they are both boys?

In the correct version of this story, the mathematician says “I have two children”, and you ask, “Is at least one a boy?”, and she answers “Yes”.

So why do they yield two different answers even though they are essentially, as in, plain-English-end-result-you-knew-what-I-meant the same? Because of the assumptions that go into each question. And you have to assume something, contrary to the oft-repeated dig “when you assume you make an ass out of u and me!!111!!one”

The first question — the mangled version — if we put it into prior probability format:

If I meet a mathematician on the street, and she says, “I have two children, and at least one of them is a boy,” what is the probability that they are both boys?

The prior probability is the statement “I have two children and at least one of them is a boy”. In this formulation, because of the “and”, the prior probability has to include at least one boy. This means there are only two options for the prior: Boy-Boy (BB) and Boy-Girl (BG). P(BB) + P(BG) = 1.00, meaning that only those two options exhausts all of our possibilities, so P(BB) = .5. The format of the question already answers itself; the answer is .5.

The second question — the actual version — if we put it into prior probability format:

In the correct version of this story, the mathematician says “I have two children”, and you ask, “Is at least one a boy?”, and she answers “Yes”.

The prior probability for this one is the statement “I have two children”. Now there are three possibilities for the prior probability: P(BB) + P(BG) + P(GG) = 1.00.

Then you come in and ask a question, adding more information to the prior probability: “Is at least one a boy?” and the mathematician says “Yes”.

Since we are adding information to the mathematician’s statement (i.e. the prior probability) we use BT:

P(BB) = .33
P(B | BB) = .???
P(B | BG) = .???
P(B | GG) = 0.0

Now we have to solve for the two remaining conditionals. Well, think about what the conditional probabilities are saying, and then realize that the conditional probabilities don’t necessarily have to add up to 1.00. So what is the probability that she would have at least one boy given that she has two boys? What is the probability that she would have at least one boy given that she has a boy and a girl?

You don’t even have to know what those probabilities are. They’re the same. And what happens when they are the same? Bayes Factor is 1. Which means that the prior probability doesn’t move. Meaning that the prior probability stays the same; P(BB | B) = .33.

The difference between the two formulations of the problem is that one has the information (the one boy) included in the prior probability and the other one does not.

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Posted by on May 13, 2013 in Bayes


The Real vs. The Merely Real


(Magnets… how do they work?)

This is one of those very annoying phenomena that comes up repeatedly in arguments between religious and non-religious people. When someone offers a scientific explanation for some phenomenon, the non-scientific person will say something to the effect of “Oh, so this means that XYZ is merely atoms colliding randomly”.

The offending word here, with all of its deliciously negative connotations, is “merely”. Or some connotative equivalent, like “nothing but” or “only”. Take this criticism that Jerry Coyne posted on his blog:

Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago, whose faith in evolutionary naturalism has no limits, will continue to remind us that the high degree of accident and blind necessity in biological evolution renders the emergence of mind nothing but a fluke of nature.

The point being, you can tell when people are using this sort of sophistry by the inclusion of these weasel words, especially due to the negative connotation of it all. As a matter of fact, you can insert the weasel words into just about any sort of scientific explanation and come away with a pretty transparently ridiculous critique. The transparency is the connotation of the weasel words “merely” or “nothing but”. As though there is necessarily more to it than “merely” the scientific answer.

Rainbows are merely refracted sunlight [connotation: therefore rainbows no longer have meaning]

Magnets are nothing but electrical charges [connotation: therefore magnets no longer have any meaning]

Stars are merely balls of colliding hydrogen in space [connotation: therefore, stars no longer have any meaning]

Love is merely a chemical cocktail of oxycontin, dopamine, serotonin, and other hormones sloshing around in the brain [connotation: therefore, love no longer has any meaning]

You can go to town with this. Pick any phenomena — any at all — and insert the word “mere” into its explanation, and you can reduce this critique to its obvious absurdity. Yes, the emergence of the mind is merely due to blind evolution; because the mind is merely real instead of… not real.

Why settle for mere reality?

You can even throw the “mere” accusation back at them. Love is merely the infinite expression of god’s infinite infinity, or Jesus Christ was nothing but god’s firstborn son and took on all of our sins and merely washed them away with his blood, or… so on and so forth. Really, this whole “mere” thing really annoys the crap out of me.

Eliezer Yudkowsky points out this phenomenon in his post Explaining vs. Explaining Away

John Keats’s Lamia (1819) surely deserves some kind of award for Most Famously Annoying Poetry:

…Do not all charms fly
At the mere touch of cold philosophy?
There was an awful rainbow once in heaven:
We know her woof, her texture; she is given
In the dull catalogue of common things.
Philosophy will clip an Angel’s wings,
Conquer all mysteries by rule and line,
Empty the haunted air, and gnomed mine—
Unweave a rainbow.


Apparently “the mere touch of cold philosophy”, i.e., the truth, has destroyed:

  • Haunts in the air
  • Gnomes in the mine
  • Rainbows


The rainbow was explained. The haunts in the air, and gnomes in the mine, were explained away.

I think this is the key distinction that anti-reductionists don’t get about reductionism.

You can see this failure to get the distinction in the classic objection to reductionism:

If reductionism is correct, then even your belief in reductionism is just the mere result of the motion of molecules—why should I listen to anything you say?

The key word, in the above, is mere; a word which implies that accepting reductionism would explain away all the reasoning processes leading up to my acceptance of reductionism, the way that an optical illusion is explained away.

I think the larger valuation problem is with most people’s love affair with mystery. If something is mysterious then it’s good; it’s valuable. If something is not mysterious, then it is bad. Boring. Vanilla. Mere. God is mysterious. Therefore god is something good, something to venerate (or maybe it’s the other way around? Euthyphro?). The mind or the nature of consciousness is something good; venerable. Therefore, the mind is mysterious. It has to be, if not then it wouldn’t be valuable. Women are mysterious. Therefore, women are valuable. If women weren’t mysterious, then they wouldn’t be valuable! They would be mere women (dark arts warning: If you want to be seen as “valuable”, then you want to be seen as mysterious. Not as a “mere” or “nothing but”).

Who knows why this mystery = veneration link happened. I blame the ancient Greeks.

Anyway, I’ve written about this before. But the gist of it is that nothing is fundamentally mysterious, meaning that mystery is subjective. Mystery is a description of your own state of knowledge. So if you are venerating something because it is mysterious, this is a subtle arrogance since you are in effect worshipping your own ignorance.

Nothing is mysterious. Everything is merely real. And that’s the only response needed when someone says that XYZ phenomenon is merely atoms colliding randomly. Yes, that’s right; the phenomenon is merely real.


Posted by on May 11, 2013 in apologetics, fallacies


The Rise of Irreligiosity in the World


Of course, I already know many of the data and arguments put forth in this Edge essay. Religiosity on a national scale is correlated with high income inequality, financial/health insecurity, poor education, high birth rates, etc. Nevertheless, the authors made an argument that I never really thought of before, but its implications should have been obvious to me:

Even though liberal, pro-evolution religions are not at fault for unacceptable social policies, organized faith cannot reform itself by supporting successful secular social arrangements because these actions inadvertently suppress popular religiosity. They are caught in a classic Catch-22. And liberal churches are even less able to thrive in advanced democracies than are their more conservative counterparts, so if churches, temples and mosques become matriarchal by socio-politically liberalizing they risk secularizing themselves into further insignificance.

Liberal religionists are really in a bind. If they continue to liberalize — meaning increasing the well-being of people in “material” ways such as welfare states, social justice, etc. — then they will lead to their own undoing. Welfare states and social justice are the main sociological factors that lead to nations becoming non-religious. I don’t have any problem with that, but if they want to see their traditions continue beyond just textbooks, then they might have an issue with it.

And then their mere existence gives aid and comfort to fundamentalists. As Sam Harris has argued, the fact that liberal religionists think that faith is a virtue is all the vindication that fundamentalists need to argue their points and validate their existence.

So the liberal versions of religion have two options: Become more radical by way of denying the establishment of programs that promote the welfare state and/or social justice causes (e.g. birth control, as rampant pregnancy is one way to stabilize or increase the religious population) so that nations stay religious, or continue supporting social justice and/or things like universal healthcare which would eventually lead to their religions becoming a minority if not worse.

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Posted by on May 9, 2013 in economics/sociology, religiosity

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