Monthly Archives: May 2014

Religions Promoted Welfare States


From PsyBlog:

“Particularly in countries like Germany and the Netherlands, in which the state and the churches as well as the denominations were competing against one another, religions became highly committed to the welfare sector”, according to the Protestant theologian and social ethicist Prof. Dr. Hans-Richard Reuter from the University of Münster’s Cluster of Excellence. “In countries like Spain or Poland, on the other hand, where Catholicism had the monopoly for a long time and was closely tied to the state, religions had hardly any influence on welfare statism, which is less well developed there to this day.”

I have to wonder why something similar hasn’t happened in the USA. There’s a ton of religious competition here due to there not being an official “state” religion. Though it could be due to how stratified the USA is; many states and even counties are very insular and thus might be seen as their own little “country” within the country. So while there are a lot of different religions in the USA, these religions don’t really come into contact or compete with each other.

That’s my guess anyway.

This is also sorta significant due to the role that welfare states have on religion. Is this some sort of teleological function that religions have — moving towards welfare states as an end game — or is it cyclical, going from religion to welfare state and back to religion like some sort of Ouroboros?


Posted by on May 27, 2014 in economics/sociology


Guardians Of The Truth


Reading about how and why religion comes about, you inevitably stumble onto the conclusion that religion isn’t just some aberration of humanity. The only thing that separates tried and true “religion” from other types of groups — or to put it in its real meaning, tribes — that people identify with is belief in the supernatural. Even if you take away belief in the supernatural, there’s nothing stopping a secular grouping (say, feminism or Objectivism) from tapping into the same family of negative behavior that religious people engage in.

The problem isn’t the supernatural. The problem is in-group vs. out-group. And this in-group/out-group animosity becomes more pronounced when you have a group that has an either implicit or explicit charge of guarding the truth:

“The Inquisition thought they had the truth! Clearly this ‘truth’ business is dangerous.” […]

Questions like that don’t have neat single-factor answers. But I would argue that one of the factors has to do with assuming a defensive posture toward the truth, versus a productive posture toward the truth.

When you are the Guardian of the Truth, you’ve got nothing useful to contribute to the Truth but your guardianship of it. When you’re trying to win the Nobel Prize in chemistry by discovering the next benzene or buckyball, someone who challenges the atomic theory isn’t so much a threat to your worldview as a waste of your time.

When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into entropy by zapping anything that departs from the Truth. If there’s some way to pump against entropy, generate new true beliefs along with a little waste heat, that same pump can keep the truth alive without secret police. In chemistry you can replicate experiments and see for yourself—and that keeps the precious truth alive without need of violence.

Remember my little maxim that I made up: The more a group promotes prosociality, the less it cares about accurately modeling reality (this is because truth and morality, in practice, occupy two different magisteria). A group that forms on the premise of some social or moral cause (like religion), and is also defending “the truth”, will inevitably lead to horrible behavior just like all of those horror stories that atheists like to blame on religion.

Yudkowsky’s use of “entropy” might muddle the concept a bit, so granting myself the liberty of rewording it, the gravity of the situation becomes clear. “When you are a Guardian of the Truth, all you can do is try to stave off the inevitable slide into [the immoral past] by zapping anything that departs from the Truth”

It also might be helpful to replace “truth” with information.

I am reminded of this very phenomenon of “guardians of the truth” pointed out by one of Jerry Coyne’s recent posts:

First Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s invitation to speak at the Brandeis commencement was withdrawn, and now there are more, for Political Correctness season is upon us. Certainly universities have the right to choose their speakers, but it’s bad form to choose someone and then rescind their invitation, or to cave in to student pressures that make speakers withdraw.


The WSJ is, of course, a conservative organ, and goes on to decry the “loopiness” of the left wing and the ostracism of conservative professors, as well the tendency of universities to allow “the nuttiest professors to dumb down courses and even whole disciplines into tendentious gibberish.” That’s an exaggeration, but still, it’s disturbing that we see the left attacking, in effect, freedom of speech. If you don’t like Condaleeza Rice (and I sure don’t), that doesn’t mean you should mount such a protest against her that she has to withdraw. Are all speakers to be vetted for signs of cryptic conservatism? Are students that loath to hear views that might disagree with them?

I’m no conservative, but these Commencement Police frighten me, and paint students as self-entitled, fragile beings who can’t countenance dissent—unless it’s their own. At my own commencement at William and Mary in 1971, we had an undistinguished state legislator as speaker—and this after many of us wanted a more leftist person. But we didn’t shout him down, or pressure the university to withdraw his invitation. Instead, we organized a “counter commencement,” held at a different time and place, and our class invited and paid for Charles Evers, the older brother of slain civil rights worker Medgar Evers.

People! Stop the tribal thinking! Argument gets counter-argument, not reputation assassination and/or banishment from the tribe.

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Posted by on May 23, 2014 in rationality, religiosity


Is Free Will An Illusion? What Can Cognitive Science Tell Us?

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Posted by on May 20, 2014 in cognitive science


Solomonoff Induction


Solomonoff Induction is the more accurate mathematical formulation of the epistemic heuristic Occam’s Razor. While my post on the subject is also mathematical, and is influenced by the conjunction fallacy, Occam’s Razor itself is just a vague rule of thumb. Solomonoff Induction is an attempt to make Occam’s Razor more rigorous.

The way I understand it, imagine writing a computer program that knew every single hypothesis imaginable that can be used to explain some data. The computer would select the hypothesis with the least amount of code — represented as a binary string — as its main prior. Or at least, as the prior with the highest probability.

The problem would be actually having a computer that had every hypothesis imaginable and one that compared each one via complexity of code (complexity of code = more bits used to represent it).

As an example, let’s say we have two pieces of code: One that represents Newton’s laws of motion and another that represents Einstein’s theory of relativity. At first glance, the program that computes Newton’s laws might seem simpler than Einstein’s (more people know Newton’s formulas than know Einstein’s formulas), but Newton’s code doesn’t account for weird things like Mercury’s orbit. So in actuality, Newton’s code would get bloated from all of the ad hoc code meant to account for things like Mercury’s orbit that can’t be computed using the baseline Newtownian formulas. And in the end, Newton’s program would be larger than Einstein’s due to that extra code; maybe Newton.dll would be 100 MB and Einstein.dll would be 80 MB.

Thus, by my understanding of Solomonoff Induction, a sufficiently advanced artificial intelligence would use Einstein.dll as its main prior when attempting to explain some gravitational phenomenon. At least until a smaller program is written that accounts for all of the things Einstein.dll accounts for plus things that it doesn’t (e.g., quantum gravity).

Now imagine comparing disparate hypotheses, like a computer that could model the atmosphere to predict when and where hurricanes will strike, and a computer program that attempted to model an angry god to predict where and when hurricanes strike. I’m willing to bet that the code used to model non-supernatural weather would be smaller than the one used to model a supernatural being’s motivations (I’m relatively certain that hurricanes forming isn’t more complex than the bio-chemical and social processes that produce anger in living beings, not to mention angry beings that have no physical body… though this is intuitively backwards; and it is backwards precisely because we think primarily in social ways). Or more pointedly, comparing the code used to model a supernatural Jesus coming back from the dead and the code used to model the story being invented by people who are the modern equivalent of people from a small, backwards village in Africa colonized by the British.

Well… this is all fine and dandy, but most people aren’t going to comprehend this intuitively, since there isn’t a reference to things that they already know about. But Solomonoff Induction makes sense to me (well, at least how I’ve laid it out above), because I’ve actually written code that uses the math behind special/general relativity and I can see how at first glance it would look more complicated than Newton’s laws of motion. But adding that extra code to account for things that can’t be explained via Newton’s laws would be bad programming practice. I would certainly prefer code that had a one-stop algorithm that computed things instead of an algorithm plus some hand-jammed code added to it because the original algorithm wasn’t robust enough.

So back to Occam’s Razor, except a more intuitive explanation of it. I think Occam’s Razor can be summed up using the English metaphor “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. Imagine choosing from a variety of chains to hook up a disabled car to the back of a pickup truck. Given that the chain is only as strong as its weakest link, you would want to pick the chain that has the lowest chance for having a weak link, thus a lower chance for the chain to break and the car goes careening off somewhere on the highway.

A short chain might have an extremely weak link in it, yet a longer chain might have a bunch of slightly weak links in it. Which chain do you use then? Whatever methodology you use to ensure that you pick the right chain would be Occam’s Razor; you could even go about removing the weak link altogether and go with the strongest part of the chain.

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Posted by on May 15, 2014 in rationality


“The Opposite of What America Does”


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Posted by on May 14, 2014 in Funny


Is “Female Intuition” Responsible For God-Belief?


A recently published study suggests that “female intuition” has a biological component, due to the amount of prenatal testosterone exposure each sex is exposed to in the womb. It’s well known that women report being more religious than men and people who rely on intuition are more likely to believe in god. So this study might be further evidence that god belief has a biological component.

While this particular study confirms a number of things I already know about, that doesn’t mean that the study methodology itself definitively supports it; not being sufficiently skeptical of evidence that confirms what you already believe would be confirmation bias. And every budding rationalist should be aware of confirmation bias!

According to previous studies, prenatal exposure to testosterone affects developments in the brain that determine, to some extent, behavioural trends and tendencies throughout the lives of each individual, including humans. Males receive a higher amount of prenatal testosterone, which, according to scientists, has an influence on that they, for example, take more risks and be more [sic] empathic than women.

Intuitive thought can be defined as that which is processed automatically and unconsciously and which, therefore, requires little cognitive effort. On the other extreme is reflexive thought, which takes greater effort and conscious analysis. The former is based on sensations and is more “emotional”, while the latter is analytical and more “rational”. In certain situations, to “let yourself be led” by intuition will be better than stopping to think. In other situations, the opposite will occur.

You may recall the intuitive/reflective dichotomy in such posts as the thief and the wizard and the intuitionists and the rationalists.

For their analyses, the researchers used a prenatal testosterone marker, called “digital ratio”. This is obtained by dividing the length of the forefinger by the length of the ring finger of the same hand. “The lower the ratio, the greater the prenatal testosterone received and, therefore, the more “masculine” the cerebral disposition, regardless of the person’s gender. Men, obviously, have a lower average digital ratio than women”, as pointed out by Antonio Manuel Espin, lecturer at the Dept. of Economic Theory and History (University of Granada, Spain) and one of the authors of this article.

The participants first responded to a series of questionnaires, among which was the so-called Cognitive Reflection Test (CRT), a test that precisely measures the dichotomy between intuition and reflection. The CRT consists of three simple algebraic questions that, given how they are presented, generate intuitive answers that come automatically but which are incorrect. To get the right answer, the individual has to stop to reflect and realize that the first answer that came into his/her head was incorrect.


The results were clear. Men responded better to the CRT than women but, among the latter, those that showed a more “masculine” (ie, lower) digital ratio, answered as equally well as the men. “To be more specific, what we found was an indication that prenatal exposure to testosterone predisposes people to adopt a more reflexive and less intuitive mindset. Furthermore, this effect seems to be stronger among women”.

First thing’s first. I’m not sure the experimenters actually controlled for other confounders that are related to intuitive/reflective thought like education level, class, stress, and so forth. Indeed, there are things like the stereotype threat: There’s a stereotype that women are worse at math than men, but if women are told to “think like a man” they do better on math tests!

So there are two competing hypotheses that might explain the above study’s data (though I think in this case they aren’t mutually exclusive, for the lack of controlling for confounders I pointed out). One is biological and the other is cultural. And when you have two competing hypotheses attempting to explain some data, it’s good to try thinking like a Bayesian; meaning following my heuristics for what makes a good explanation.

One of those heuristics is what I call “precision”. That is the rule of thumb to select the hypothesis that allows for the smallest amount of possible evidence. The example I came up with was if you had a jar full of two types of dice — one was a normal six sided die and the other was a die with only ones on all sides — which die was rolled if someone says they rolled a one? The same sort of situation applies here, when attempting to choose between a biological explanation and a socio-cultural explanation.

I would have to say that one could always respond with “it’s a social construct” to any and every single instance of psychological experimental results; “social construct” doesn’t restrict the type of evidence we would expect to see. Of course this doesn’t mean that it is wrong. It just means that (1) with no other information to go on, we should select the more precise hypothesis; prima facie “social construct” is the least precise explanation (besides “goddidit”) and (2) we would need additional evidence to move things in that direction, just like we could conclude that said hypothetical dice roller did pick the normal six sided die upon rolling a one.

But what about the aforementioned study? While it concludes that intuition has a biological component, it also concludes that it’s not necessarily female intuition. Women who were apparently exposed to higher doses of prenatal testosterone (due to their index-ring finger ratio) relied less on intuition than the women who were exposed to lower doses of prenatal testosterone. What would be more relevant to my blog is whether there’s a relationship between digit ratio and degree of god-belief. I would guess that the women who scored well on the CRT, intimating that they rely less on intuition, would also be less likely to be religious… the degree of which would depend on a host of sociological factors.

Of course I have to point this out, but this doesn’t prefigure some sort of biological determinism. Reading the CRT in a bad font is enough to improve performance. Indeed, students at MIT score less on the CRT than attendees at a Less Wrong meetup. Intelligence might be innate, biology might set a baseline, but rationality can be learned.

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Posted by on May 12, 2014 in cognitive science

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