Monthly Archives: November 2013

Non-Human Religions

The Hanar

(The Hanar are super religious)

Richard Dawkins was posed the following question on a Reddit AMA:

Q10- Richard, are there any examples of non-human species acting religiously?

A10- Hard to know what that would mean. Elephants have been said to mourn their dead. Some people have semi-seriously suggested that domestic pets might feel religious towards the people who feed and care for them. Not very convincing, I’d abandon that train of thought!

I thought I would take a stab at it; at least, explain why we probably should abandon this type of thought for the time being.

As I’ve written before, first and foremost, religion is something that humans invented. We invented it, just like we invented Diet Coke, because it’s something that appeals to a slew of human biases. If we were to find out if other animals were “religious”, we would first have to demonstrate that other animals have the same biases that humans do.

But even before that, we would have to show that animals have a way of propagating complex cultures from mind to mind. It’s not that religion is just one belief that infects other minds, religion is a complex system of interacting social mores and explanations. So for example, someone could believe in a general god (i.e. a “theist”) but that doesn’t mean that they’re religious. They would need a bunch of supplementing rules of behavior and secondary/tertiary/etc. beliefs that follow “necessarily” from theism to go along with it.

This is one reason why it doesn’t make sense to compare atheism with Christianity. Atheism is just one belief, Christianity is a multitude of beliefs; Christianity is not only theism, but belief in resurrection from the dead, the eternity of minds that are in reality ontologically basic units (souls, angels, demons), the concept of sin, blood atonement, eternal salvation, certain rituals/behaviors you’re supposed to perform for god and for other people… either other Christians or other non-Christians, etc. It would be more accurate (or fair) to compare atheism with theism, or Christianity with Buddhism.

Stepping back into unpackaging Christianity, these beliefs all have precedents in human cognitive biases. For example, we have cognitive biases like hyperactive agency detection, theory of mind/typical mind fallacies, that preceded and fed into the more primitive religions like animism. Do other non-human animals consider, say, rocks or trees, to have a mind that can be communicated with? This seems doubtful.

This general theory of mind is an outgrowth of our highly social mind; our tendency for tribalism and groupthink. Survival in groups meant modeling other minds accurately and doing the “ritual” to get that mind to do what you wanted it to do. It seems that even other primates don’t have this “do a ritual to get what you want” bias (I don’t know what the real name of it would be called) that would be a necessary condition for religious behavior.

If a non-human animal had all of these behaviors, then we might consider it religious, but how exactly would that singular animal spread it to others of his group? Even children aren’t naturally religious. They need to be taught to use supernatural explanations. And children have biases that make them want to follow adults moreso than in other animals.

We then have some subsequent biases like the just world fallacy (good things only happen to good people, bad things only happen to bad people), promiscuous teleology (everything has a purpose), that also seem to be necessary seedling cognitive biases that eventually sprout into a facet of religious belief. These biases are behind our thoughts on morality, which is what leads into a lot of the abhorrent behavior associated with religion. Especially the moral obligation to guard the truth at all costs.

We then have behaviors that we do that seem to either make us engage in self-punishment for feeling guilty (hence the concept of atonement), or as signaling behavior for showing our allegiance and dedication to our social group. If non-human animals didn’t show those sorts of behaviors, then I would be highly doubtful they could practice anything that resembles “religion”.

Lastly, the religious behavior — in order to be more successful than other memes and stay fixed in a population — would have to be something that increases group bonding. Which, in the case of the activities that go along with religion, seems rather specified to human evolution. Chanting together in some sort of fertility ritual might not actually improve fertility, but it certainly increases group bonding… in humans.

So it doesn’t seem to me that other non-human animals can be religious. It would take an animal that is probably at least as social as humans are — susceptible to all of the sociological biases and cognitive algorithms that humans have — to even begin to exhibit religious behavior.

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Posted by on November 29, 2013 in cognitive science, religiosity


Beware Of “Equally Possible”


A friend of mine posted on Facebook this video of an anti-science screed at a TEDx talk. It was all the usual suspects of confused thinking about consciousness and related anti-science rants. The first thing, though, that stood out was the paradox of just how anti-science this talker was and he was speaking at a TED talk (it was especially funny listening to how much he hates science while using a microphone to speak to the audience).

Anyway, around the 10 minute mark, he juxtaposes the reductionist view of consciousness with the woo-view of consciousness:

And, you know, that leads me to ask ‘what is death?’ Our materalist science reduces everything to matter and materalist science in the West says that we are just meat. We’re just our bodies. So when the brain is dead, that’s the end of consciousness, there is no life after death, there is no soul, we just rot and are gone.


The brain’s involved in [consciousness] in some way, but we’re not sure how. It could be that the brain generates consciousness the way a generator makes electricity. If you hold to that paradigm then of course you can’t believe in life after death. The generator’s broken; consciousness is gone.

But it’s equally possible that the relationship — and nothing in neuroscience rules it out — that the relationship is more like the relationship of the TV signal to the TV set. And in that case when the TV is broken, of course the TV signal continues. And this is the paradigm of all spiritual traditions.

In my post where I analyzed Newcomb’s Paradox, I juxtaposed two explanations for the evidence at hand: That Omega really was a perfect predictor, or that he never puts $1 million in the second box. Both explanations are equally possible, so in that case the deciding factor is the prior probability. And in the case of consciousness, if two explanations are equally probable, then the prior probability has to lead you to vastly favor reductionism.

By way of analogy, let’s say that someone is on trial for murder. The prosecution has evidence that the killer was in the apartment. He has no alibi. There are signs of forced entry, burglary, and the killer’s fingerprints are on the murder weapon; a kitchen knife found in the apartment. The defense tries to claim that the victim’s roommate’s fingerprints are also on the kitchen knife, so they claim it’s “equally possible” that the roommate killed the victim.

With all of the evidence presented, the defense’s counterargument is patently ridiculous. But this is exactly the same logic that the presenter at this TEDx talk is engaging in when he claims that it is “equally possible” that consciousness is the result of a sort of TV signal analogy. If the TV set/signal analogy is true, then we have to rewrite just about everything we know about evolution, biology, chemistry, physics, thermodynamics… science as we know it is almost completely wrong. And he’s basing his conclusion that all of science is wrong on the evidence he received in a vision while on a hallucinogenic drug that is guaranteed to make his intuition run amok. And before taking a highly hallucinogenic drug, he had been primed to think he would encounter a supernatural being.

Sorry writer-dude: I’m gonna stick with science.

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Posted by on November 26, 2013 in Bayes, cognitive science


Was Jesus A Carpenter?


Neil Godfrey is reviewing Thomas Brodie’s memoir Beyond the Quest for the Historical Jesus: Memoir of a Discovery which is Thomas Brodie’s journey from a historical Jesus to an ahistorical Jesus. Brodie points out an interesting bit of evidence concerning Mark’s use of the word “carpenter”; which is the popular English translation of the Greek τέκτων::tekton (where we get the word architecture). Neil quotes from chapter 17:

Mark 6:1-6

He left that place and came to his home town, and his disciples followed him.

On the sabbath he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were astounded. They said, ‘Where did this man get all this? What is this wisdom that has been given to him? What deeds of power are being done by his hands! Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offence at him.

Then Jesus said to them, ‘Prophets are not without honour, except in their home town, and among their own kin, and in their own house.’ And he could do no deed of power there, except that he laid his hands on a few sick people and cured them. And he was amazed at their unbelief.


Brodie begins with the context. It is the reported miracles of Jesus that are the critical concern of the people. (Brodie identifies these miracles in particular as related to themes of “creation, life and death (Mk 4.35-5.43).”) Moreover, he identifies this section of Mark as having a

significant literary dependence on the (Septuagintal) book of Wisdom. Beginning in Wisdom 10, several chapters of the book of Wisdom speak of both God’s role as creator and life-giver and of the failure of many people to recognize God as the true technites, the supreme craftsman (Wis. 13:1; cf. Wis. 13.22, Wisdom is technites panton, ‘the worker of all things’).

Instead the people’s vision is limited to the kind of vision found in the woodcutter (the tekton, Wis. 13.11); that is all they can see


“The mindless people in Wis. 13:1-9 do not recognize the technites, the supreme craftsman, and turn their minds instead to lifeless things such as the tekton produces (Wis. 13:10-14:4). And the audience at Nazareth do not recognize the presence of the Creator in Jesus the miracle-worker but can focus only on the world of woodcutting, and so they call him a tekton.”

Brodie draws the conclusion that should be obvious. Wisdom 13, especially its account of the failure of the people to discern the works of the Creator, seeing only the works of a tekton,

“provides an adequate explanation for Mark’s use of tekton; it accounts fully for Mark’s data. In essence: once the literary connection is seen, the historical explanation is unnecessary; it goes beyond what is needed to explain the data.”

This reads like a pretty solid conclusion. Of course, resting the entire argument that Mark is using other writings and not oral tradition/historical memory on this one instance is fallacious. But under the assumption that Mark is using other literature — e.g. the Wisdom literature — in the construction of his narrative this observation seems to fit like a glove. Under an alternative assumption, e.g. a historical one, it either adds too many hypotheses (this pericope is a result of Wisdom literature plus history) which is a worse explanation than one that leaves the plus out of it.

Which side of the argument you land on at this juncture depends on your prior probability that Mark is using historical memory, oral tradition, or some other non-historical source.

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Posted by on November 19, 2013 in early Christianity, historical jesus, jesus myth


A Parable Against Resurrection


[Editor’s note: The original story was in 16th century Mandarin, and used peculiar and esoteric terms for concepts that are just now being re-discovered. Where possible, I have translated these terms into their modern mathematical and philosophical equivalents. Such terms are denoted with curly braces, {like so}.]

Once upon a time there was a man by the name of Shen Chun-lieh, and he had a beautiful young daughter named Ah-Chen. She died.

Shen Chun-lieh was heartbroken, moreso he thought than any man who had lost a daughter, and so he struggled and scraped and misered until he had amassed a great fortune, and brought that fortune before me – for he had heard it told that I was could resurrect the dead.

I frowned when he told me his story, for many things are true after a fashion, but wisdom is in understanding the nature of that truth – and he did not bear the face of a wise man.

“Tell me about your daughter, Ah-Chen.”, I commanded.

And so he told me.

I frowned, for my suspicions were confirmed.

“You wish for me to give you this back?”, I asked.

He nodded and dried his tears. “More than anything in the world.”

“Then come back tomorrow, and I will have for you a beautiful daughter who will do all the things you described.”

His face showed a sudden flash of understanding. Perhaps, I thought, this one might see after all.

“But”, he said, “will it be Ah-Chen?”

I smiled sagely. “What do you mean by that, Shen Chun-lieh?”

“I mean, you said that you would give me ‘a’ daughter. I wish for MY daughter.”

I bowed to his small wisdom. “Indeed I did. If you wish for YOUR daughter, then you must be much, much more precise with me.”

He frowned, and I saw in his face that he did not have the words.

“You are wise in the way of the Tao”, he said, “surely you can find the words in my heart, so that even such as me could say them?”

I nodded. “I can. But it will take a great amount of time, and much courage from you. Shall we proceed?”

He nodded.


I am wise enough in the way of the Tao. The Tao whispers things that have been discovered and forgotten, and things that have yet to be discovered, and things that may never be discovered. And while Shen Chun-lieh was neither wise nor particularly courageous, his overwhelming desire to see his daughter again propelled him with an intensity seldom seen in my students. And so it was, many years later, that I judged him finally ready to discuss his daughter with me, in earnest.

“Shen”, I said, “it is time to talk about your Ah-Chen.”

His eyes brightened and he nodded eagerly. “Yes, Teacher.”

“Do you understand why I said on that first day, that you must be much, much more precise with me?”

“Yes, Teacher. I had come to you believing that the soul was a thing that could be conjured back to the living, rather than a {computational process}.”

“Even now, you are not quite correct. The soul is not a {computational process}, but a {specification of a search space} which describes any number of similar {computational processes}. For example, Shen Chun-lieh, would you still be Shen Chun-lieh if I were to cut off your left arm?”

“Of course, Teacher. My left arm does not define who I am.”

“Indeed. And are you still the same Shen Chun-lieh who came to me all those years ago, begging me to give him back his daughter Ah-Chen?”

“I am, Teacher, although I understand much more now than I did then.”

“That you do. But tell me – would you be the same Shen Chun-lieh if you had not come to me? If you had continued to save and to save your money, and craft more desperate and eager schemes for amassing more money, until finally you forgot the purpose of your misering altogether, and abandoned your Ah-Chen to the pursuit of gold and jade for its own sake?”

“Teacher, my love for Ah-Chen is all-consuming; such a fate could never befall me.”

“Do not be so sure, my student. Remember the tale of the butterfly’s wings, and the storm that sank an armada. Ever-shifting is the Tao, and so ever-shifting is our place in it.”

Shen Chun-lieh understood, and in a brief moment he glimpsed his life as it could have been, as an old Miser Shen hoarding gold and jade in a great walled city. He shuddered and prostrated himself.

“Teacher, you are correct. And even such a wretch as Miser Shen, that wretch would still be me. But I thank the Buddha and the Eight Immortal Sages that I was spared that fate.”

I smiled benevolently and helped him to his feet. “Then suppose that you had died and not your daughter, and one day a young woman named Ah-Chen had burst into my door, flinging gold and jade upon my table, and described the caring and wonderful father that she wished returned to her? What could she say about Shen Chun-lieh that would allow me to find his soul amongst the infinite chaos of the Nine Hells?”

“I…” He looked utterly lost.

“Tell me, Shen Chun-lieh, what is the meaning of the parable of the {Ship of Theseus}?”

“That personal identity cannot be contained within the body, for the flow of the Tao slowly strips away and the flow of the Tao slowly restores, such that no single piece of my body is the same from one year to the next; and within the Tao, even the distinction of ‘sameness’ is meaningless.

“And what is the relevance of the parable of the {Shroedinger’s Cat} to this discussion?”

“Umm… that… let me think. I suppose, that personal identity cannot be contained within the history of choices that have been made, because for every choice that has been made, if it was truly a ‘choice’ at all, it was also made the other way in some other tributary of the Great Tao.”

“And the parable of the tiny {Paramecium}?”

“That neither is the copy; there are two originals.

“So, Shen. Can you yet articulate the dilemma that you present to me?”

“No, Teacher. I fear that yet again, you must point it out to your humble student.”

“You ask for Ah-Chen, my student. But which one? Of all the Ah-Chens that could be brought before you, which would satisfy you? Because there is no hard line, between {configurations} that you would recognize as your daughter and {configurations} which you would not. So why did my original offer, to construct you a daughter that would do all the things you described Ah-Chen as doing, not appeal to you?”

Shen looked horrified. “Because she would not BE Ah-Chen! Even if you made her respond perfectly, it would not be HER! I do not simply miss my six-year-old girl; I miss what she could have become! I regret that she never got to see the world, never got to grow up, never got to…”

“In what sense did she never do these things? She died, yes; but even a dead Ah-Chen is still an Ah-Chen. She has since experienced being worms beneath the earth, and flowers, and then bees and birds and foxes and deer and even peasants and noblemen. All these are Ah-Chen, so why is it so important that she appear before you as YOU remember her?”

“Because I miss her, and because she has no conscious awareness of those things.”

“Ah, but then which conscious awareness do you wish her to have? There is no copy; all possible tributaries of the Great Tao contain an original. And each of those originals experience in their own way. You wish me to pluck out a {configuration} and present it to you, and declare “This one! This one is Ah-Chen!”. But which one? Or do you leave that choice to me?”

“No, Teacher. I know better than to leave that choice to you. But… you have shown me many great wonders, in alchemy and in other works of the Tao. If her brain had been preserved, perhaps frozen as you showed me the frozen koi, I could present that to you and you could reconstruct her {configuration} from that?”

I smiled sadly. “To certain degrees of precision, yes, I could. But the question still remains – you have only narrowed down the possible {configurations}. And what makes you say that the boundary of {configurations} that are achievable from a frozen brain are correct? If I smash that brain with a hammer, melt it, and paint a portrait of Ah-Chen with it, is that not a {configuration} that is achievable from that brain?”

Shen looked disgusted. “You… how can you be so wise and yet not understand such simple things? We are talking about people! Not paintings!”

I continued to smile sadly. “Because these things are not so simple. ‘People’ are not things, as you said before. ‘People’ are {sets of configurations}; they are {specifications of search spaces}. And those boundaries are so indistinct that anything that claims to capture them is in error.”

Now it was Shen’s turn to look animated. “Just because the boundary cannot be drawn perfectly, does not make the boundary meaningless!

I nodded. “You have indeed learned much. But you still have not described the purpose of your boundary-drawing. Do you wish for Ah-Chen’s resurrection for yourself, so that you may feel less lonely and grieved, or do you wish it for Ah-Chen’s sake, so that she may see the world anew? For these two purposes will give us very different boundaries for what is an acceptable Ah-Chen.”

Shen grimaced, as war raged within his heart. “You are so wise in the Tao; stop these games and do what I mean!”

And so it was that Miser Shen came to live in the walled city of Ch’in, and hoarded gold and jade, and lost all memory and desire for his daughter Ah-Chen, until it was that the Tao swept him up into another tale.

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Posted by on November 14, 2013 in cognitive science, knowledge


The Intuitionists and the Rationalists


So my original analogy for how the mind works was the metaphor of the thief and the wizard. Your brain has two general thinking styles: Intuition, represented as a thief (i.e. System 1), and rationality, represented as a wizard (i.e. System 2). The qualities of the two types of thinking (hopefully) being intuitively grasped by the qualities you associate with thieves and wizards. Thieves are fast, wizards are slow. Each thinking style has its strengths and weaknesses, just like thieves and wizards; you wouldn’t use a thief to cast Meteo on Golbez or use a wizard to steal into the vault needing two keys in the Ratway. However, the only wrench in this analogy is that the thief leads the party, not the wizard.

Reading more about how the brain works, and how we think, I think this analogy can be further improved upon. Instead of there just being one thief and one wizard representing how our brains think, it looks like it would be more accurate to describe our brains are more of a Thieves’ Guild and a Mages’ Guild. But even then, I don’t think this properly represents the analogy I’m going for.

It seems even more likely that our brains are more like Congress, with some congresspeople acting on behalf of the Thieves or Mages Guilds. So I think a better analogy would be to describe our brains as a Congress with a two party system: Those who represent the Intuitionists and those who represent the Rationalists. The Intuitionists have the majority of seats in Congress, so Congress as a whole is going to lean Intuitionist, and there is very little bipartisanship in this Congress. And if there is, it’s overwhelmingly only when the Intuitionists deem it necessary.

As a matter of fact, even among Intuitionists there is not as much intra-party communication as you would think. Moreover, there is a sort of speaker of the house, or press secretary that explains the decisions of Congress to the outside world. This press secretary is only given information that it needs to know about how Congress made its decision, not all of the information that Congress used to make its decision. The general public wouldn’t want to know that, to get Congress to arrive at some decision, Intuitionist Jones made an under the table — possibly illegal — deal with Intuitionist Smith and Rationalist Jacobs.

There are a few experiments that show that when communication is physically severed between the two halves of the brain, each side of the brain gets different information. Yet, the part of the brain that does the speaking might not be the part of the brain that has the information. So you end up with rationalizations like split brain patients grabbing a shovel with their left hand (since their left eye was shown snow) while their right eye sees a chicken. When asked to explain why they grabbed the shovel, they — well, the side of their brain that only sees the chicken — make up an explanation, like the shovel is used to scoop up chicken poop! That press secretary, pretty quick on his feet.

But this doesn’t just happen with split brain patients. It seems to happen a lot more than we think, in our normal, everyday brains.

So for example, there was one experiment where people were asked to pick their favorite pair of jeans out of four (unbeknownst to them) identical pairs of jeans. A good portion of the people picked the jeans on the right, since they looked at the jeans from left to right. But they were unaware that that was their decision algorithm, and they rationalized their decision by saying they liked the fabric or the length or some other non-discriminating fact about the jeans. Liking the fabric of one pair of jeans more than the others was demonstrably false since the jeans were identical, yet that was the reason they gave. There’s still no persistent across the isle partisanship in your fully functioning brain, so the press secretary has to still come up with a good, socially acceptable story about Congress’ decision for the general public’s consumption.

This is one reason why it is inefficient to flat out ask someone something controversial. People make decisions based on information they don’t even know they’re using, and from there the entire existence of bias (the flip side of that is if you get someone to admit to some group identity or position publicly, they”ll be biased to act more in line with that group identity or proposition in the future without even realizing it). They’re not going to give you their “real” answer, they’re going to give you the socially acceptable answer since that is the entire job of the press secretary, and any psychological study that simply asks people questions has a fatal flaw.

Furthermore, it doesn’t even make sense to think that there is a singular “real” answer, since there are multiple congresspeople voting for a decision based on representing their constituents, and different congresspeople get more say depending on the social situation that the person finds themselves in at the moment.

The worst part about all of this? There is an introspection illusion bias that makes us think that we’re good at introspection, or knowing our “true” internal state of mind or the “real” reason we made a decision. People are biased to think that they aren’t biased, even after they’ve been told about bias they still perform in a biased way. As though they were never told about bias in the first place. The only cure for bias is adhering to the laws of thought.

The link to religion? Well, if we have a two-party Congress that makes up our brain and how we come to decisions, then it makes no sense to think there is a singular persistent “I” that constitutes the soul. The concept of a soul is woefully inadequate in describing the human condition, not only for the cognitive science reasons above, but for laws of physics reasons as well. The soul is, at best, a metaphor.

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Posted by on November 11, 2013 in cognitive science


More Evidence About The Link Between Morality And Reading Fiction


A while back I posted a link to an article that showed evidence that we adopt the moral stance of the people we read in fiction. There’s another experiment that gives further evidence for that phenomenon, except with video games: Effects of a violent video game depend on whether you’re Superman or the Joker

Christian Happ and his colleagues recruited 60 students (20 men) with varied video gaming experience and had them spend 15 minutes playing the violent and bloody beat-em-up game Mortal Combat vs. DC Universe on the Playstation 3. Some of the participants played the morally good character Superman, while the others played the Joker, the baddie from Batman. Apart from that, the game experience was the same for all participants – their time was spent in hand-to-hand combat against a variety of other computer-controlled game characters.

Another twist to the experiment was that before the game began half the participants read a bogus Wikipedia article about their character, designed to encourage them to empathise with him. For those playing Superman, the article said how he’d come from a loving family. The Joker article described how he’d suffered abuse in his childhood.

After playing the video game, the participants looked at grids of faces on a computer screen and indicated how hostile they looked. Some of the grids contained angry faces, but the crucial test was how hostile the participants rated the grids that contained all neutral faces. The key finding here was that participants who’d played the Joker were more likely to perceive hostility in neutral faces (a marker of an aggressive mindset), as compared with the participants who played Superman.


These results show that the effects of playing a violent game aren’t straight-forward. Apart from anything else, the effects clearly depend on the moral nature of the fictional character that players embody. Note though, that we can’t say that playing as Superman actually boosted levels of prosocial behaviour because it’s possible rates of returning the letter were still lower for these students than they would have been had they not played the video game at all. It’s a shame there wasn’t a baseline control condition to shed light on this.

That the influence of this violent game varies according to the character played was made even more apparent by the back stories, which were designed to encourage empathy towards the characters. For those students who played as Superman and read about his childhood, their perception of hostility in neutral faces was lower than for those who didn’t read this detail. By contrast, students who played the Joker and who read about his upbringing were more likely to see hostility in neutral faces, as compared with those who didn’t read about his past. In other words, the effect of the violent game differed according to the character the students played, and this difference was amplified when they were encouraged to empathise with their character.

Think of reading or playing video games as priming. The effect is temporary, but it’s a priming nonetheless. And you can be temporarily primed for good actions or bad actions.

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Posted by on November 8, 2013 in cognitive science

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