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Author Archives: J. Quinton

Why Sexism and Racism Never Diminish–Even When Everyone Becomes Less Sexist and Racist

Are people susceptible to prevalence-induced concept change? To answer this question, we showed participants in seven studies a series of stimuli and asked them to determine whether each stimulus was or was not an instance of a concept. The concepts ranged from simple (“Is this dot blue?”) to complex (“Is this research proposal ethical?”). After participants did this for a while, we changed the prevalence of the concept’s instances and then measured whether the concept had expanded—that is, whether it had come to include instances that it had previously excluded.

…When blue dots became rare, purple dots began to look blue; when threatening faces became rare, neutral faces began to appear threatening; and when unethical research proposals became rare, ambiguous research proposals began to seem unethical. This happened even when the change in the prevalence of instances was abrupt, even when participants were explicitly told that the prevalence of instances would change, and even when participants were instructed and paid to ignore these changes.

Read more at Marginal Revolution

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Posted by on July 5, 2018 in religion

 

Age differences in moral judgment: Older adults are more deontological than younger adults

Abstract

In 2 studies, an older and a younger age group morally evaluated dilemmas contrasting a deontological judgment (do not harm others) against a utilitarian judgment (do what is best for the majority). Previous research suggests that deontological moral judgments are often underpinned by affective reactions and utilitarian moral judgments by deliberative thinking. Separately, research on the psychology of aging has shown that affect plays a more prominent role in the judgments and decision making of older (vs. younger) adults. Yet age remains a largely overlooked factor in moral judgment research. Here, we therefore investigated whether older adults would make more deontological judgments on the basis of experiencing different affective reactions to moral dilemmas as compared with younger adults. Results from 2 experiments indicated that older adults made significantly more deontological moral judgments. Mediation analyses revealed that the relationship between age and making more deontological moral judgments is partly explained by older adults exhibiting significantly more negative affective reactions and having more morally idealistic beliefs as compared with younger adults.

First published: 19 June 2018
https://doi.org/10.1002/bdm.2086

 
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Posted by on June 20, 2018 in religion

 

The New Fundamentalism

Secularism is increasing in the West. The Millennial generation, even in the USA (which is the most religious Western country), is disproportionately the least religious generation.

I was never a big fan of religion. It’s why I started this blog, to archive my notes (literally ὑπομνήματα or “hypomnemata”; “notes”, the underscore of this blog)

and thoughts on the academic scholarship of why religion exists and persists. Indeed, to go beyond just religion, and find out why people believe what they do, in spite of all of the evidence that might refute or contradict their beliefs. So this wave of secularism and its trend towards universal prominence should be a good thing to me right?

Maybe.

Religion isn’t some aberration. The seeds and ingredients that make us believe are baked into our cognition. This goes for the stellar community generating aspects as well as the insidious divisive parts. And it follows that, even though people are becoming less religious in the West, the constituent parts of religiosity, the things that made us religious in the first place, will persist. It’s these parts — completely and utterly inherent to our cognition — that makes religion terrible. Yet religion isn’t unique in its terribleness.

The vast majority of people neither convert nor deconvert from religion due to pure intellectual reasons. Most deconvert due to moral failings they see in their religion or their religious leaders. And this is a problem. Matthew said it best:

Matthew 12

43 When an unclean spirit comes out of a man, it goes through arid places seeking rest and does not find it.
44 Then it says, ‘I will return to the house I left.’ When it arrives, it finds the house unoccupied, swept clean and put in order.
45 Then it goes and takes with it seven other spirits more wicked than itself, and they go in and live there. And the final condition of that man is worse than the first.

The short of it is this: Who cares if we’re becoming less religious when the irrationality that made us believe in the first place is still there? That same irrationality will lead us to replace the old fundamentalism with a new one.

I’ve written a few posts, not just explaining why people believe what they do, but what people might believe in the future; a future where Christianity (in the West) is a minority belief.

Removing The Unclean Spirit of Religion: Communities built around pseudoscience and woo will probably fill the void left by religion

Nature or Nature’s God: Any new “religion” will have both its nuanced version and its lowest common denominator version floating concurrently in the wider memespace; in the battle of ideas, the most popular ideas are optimized for virulence… not for truth

“If I Think Really, Really Hard, I Can Get The Right Answer”: The average person’s brain is optimized for making friends and influencing people. Not figuring out what’s true. Thinking you can figure out what’s true without first getting the proper tools for figuring out what’s true is folly; thinking that you already have those tools is worse. You have to not only constantly use the tools, but be wary of using the tools improperly.

Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs. Intuition: There will always be scientific truths that are made as a burnt offering to an ethical theory. Most moral or ethical theories have some facet of anti-epistemology by dint of tribalistic human nature. This tribalism usually manifests and calls their anti-epistemology Other Ways Of KnowingTM

Take all of these together, and what will most likely fill the void left by organized religion in the minds of Millennials and beyond will be something that is primarily an ethical theory. It will be good at building communities around itself and will be optimized for spreading, not optimized for truth.

The thing that will make it the new fundamentalism, just like the old fundamentalism, will be the tendency to demonize any scientific findings that might be weaponizable and used against the primary aims of the ethical theory. This will be especially true for any science that makes humanity seem no better or worse than other animals; these ethical theories that assume that we are outside of and beyond our animal cousins are always threatened by this science. If you can predict someone’s response to a scientific question using their ethics, then you are probably dealing with a nascent fundamentalist.

As I wrote before, a group that organizes on the premise of some social or moral cause (like religion), and is also defending “the truth”, will inevitably lead to terrible behavior akin to those horror stories that atheists like to blame on religion.

I have a feeling that this sort of thing will continue indefinitely: Old fundamentalisms replaced with their newer incarnations. And it will continue to happen. The best we can do, as I wrote in Nature or Nature’s God, is to try to take advantage of our overwhelming need for tribalism and redirect it towards goals that both benefit humanity and don’t shy away from uncomfortable truths.

 
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Posted by on June 12, 2018 in cognitive science, religion

 

When Science And Politics Disagree, People View Scientists Unfavorably

Abstract

Messages emphasizing scientific agreement are increasingly used to communicate politically polarizing issues. Proponents argue that these messages neutralize the effect of people’s political worldviews due to the neutral scientific character of the message. Yet this argument has not undergone extensive testing. Addressing this, we measured participants’ thoughts on scientists featured in messages emphasizing scientific agreement on politically dissonant issues. Our results show that readers often produce less favorable thoughts and moral judgments when scientists agree on a politically dissonant issue. As a result, messages emphasizing scientific agreement on politicized issues might not always neutralize the effect of people’s political worldviews.

Neutralizing the Effect of Political Worldviews by Communicating Scientific Agreement: A Thought-Listing Study

 
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Posted by on May 21, 2018 in cognitive science

 

How do you explain the mysterious beauty of this planet without referring to a supreme being?

I’m from NYC. This question would be the equivalent of me saying “how do you explain that I was born in the most awesome city on the planet without a supreme being?”

Of course, almost everyone says their home town is the best ever. Why do you think that is? I think the answer to that is the same as the answer to your question.

But let’s get a bit deeper into the assumptions behind your question. What’s your logical link from “Earth is beautiful” to “therefore a supreme being”? In other words, what makes something a good explanation?

If I were to say that something is a chair, there are qualities that chairs have in common that define them as chairs instead of beanbags: Chairs have four legs, a back support part, a part to sit on, etc. There should be some similar consistent criteria for what constitutes a good explanation, and why you think this creates the necessary link between “Beautiful Earth” and “Supreme Creator”.

If you get home late and your boyfriend/girlfriend asks why you’re late, what would be a good explanation? Why is “I got stuck in traffic” better than “I was kidnapped by aliens”? We know the former is more believable, but why?

Well, you might say something like “traffic causes people to be late more than getting kidnapped by aliens does”. And that would be correct. But I argue that this isn’t enough to separate good explanations from bad explanations, and it isn’t enough to explain why your link from “Beautiful Earth” to “Supreme Being” is a strong or weak link.

Since this isn’t a dialog, I’ll have to just explain another quality of a good explanation: Good explanations are specialized. Meaning, they explain what they intend to explain and that’s it. An explanation that can be used to explain some situation, but then can also be used to explain its polar opposite, isn’t a good explanation.

So, if instead of getting home late, you got home early, and your boyfriend/girlfriend asks why you’re early, then saying “because I got stuck in traffic” doesn’t make sense. The stuck-in-traffic explanation is specialized for only making people late. But “I got kidnapped by aliens” works just as well for making someone late as it does for making someone early. Once you invoke aliens, then anything is possible.

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Let me repeat that last sentence more generally: Once you invoke [bad explanation], anything is possible.

This is a real important concept to grasp. Bad explanations, because they’re not specialized, allow for any possible outcome. And the more possibilities your explanation allows, the less likely it is that your explanation is responsible for a specific problem. There’s only one explanation that can allow for any possible outcome: Pure randomness.

Both qualities of good explanations I’ve enumerated here — a good explanation is more commonplace (e.g., “traffic causes people to be late more than getting kidnapped by aliens does”) and more specialized — follow directly from probability theory. So they’re not things I’ve just made up.

So back to the question at hand: How do you explain the mysterious beauty of this planet without referring to a supreme being? Why do you think a supreme being is a good explanation? Are supreme beings commonplace? Are supreme beings only responsible for beauty, or is anything possible for a supreme being?

I think we know the answers to those questions.

 
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Posted by on May 14, 2018 in Bayes, Quora answers, religion

 

Is Everyone Arguing From Identity Politics?

Recently, Sam Harris and Ezra Klein had a debate about the ethics and pitfalls behind identity politics. From their transcript, there are two points that I wanted to put a spotlight on.

Ezra Klein
We all have a lot of different identities we’re part of all times. I do, too. I have all kinds of identities that you can call forward… I think that your core identity in this is as someone who feels you get treated unfairly by politically correct mobs and —

Sam Harris
That is not identity politics. That is my experience as a public intellectual trying to talk about ideas.

Ezra Klein
That is what folks from the dominant group get to do. They get to say, my thing isn’t identity politics, only yours is.

Klein, whether he realizes it or not, is engaging in a Motte and Bailey sort of dialectic. Recall that Motte and Bailey is when you define some concept as a fully general one that no one can reasonably disagree with when on the defensive, but when you’re on the offensive you define it in a very specific way. And if you find yourself on the defensive again, you back into the very general and saccharine version of the concept. From that post:

It goes a bit like this: When theists use the argument “God is just another word for the Ground of All Being” or “God is love”, I mean, that’s a pretty inoffensive premise. Of course, things like love exist and, well, existence exists. But then in another breath they’re praying to god to find their keys, or get them a new job, or, more in a more sinister context, send hurricanes because he’s angry at homosexuals; this more interactive god is not just “love” or the ground of all being. It’s, quite obviously, a personal god. A god with agency. You point this out, but then the theist retreats; he rejoins “But no, God is just another word for love/Ground of Being, surely you can’t object to that?”

Klein is defining “identity politics” as just two separate words — “identity” and then “politics” — both in their extremely generic versions that happen to be placed next to each other. Obviously, everyone has an identity and everyone has some sort of politics that would afford that identity added rights or power. So, in this bland sense, everyone is arguing from “identity” “politics”: Harris’ main identity that he argues from is that of an atheist.

However, what’s being debated between the two, which was the impetus for their chat in the first place, is the more specific identity politics, which is not the generic “identity” plus generic “politics”. It is very much politics linked only to race/gender/sexual orientation. Sam Harris rightly points out that generic “identity” plus generic “politics” is not identity politics. Atheism is not included in this definition of identity politics. But Klein, having deployed this rhetorical sleight of hand, claims that politics related to atheism (or being a public intellectual, per Harris’ previous comment) is “identity politics”.

So to be clear: “Identity” and “politics”, their generic versions, is the Motte. No one would disagree that we care about our identities. But identity politics, that is, politics tied to one’s race/gender/sexual orientation, is the bailey. Where all of the actual debate is at. Klein retreated to the Motte when Harris’ claimed that he’s not interested in the Bailey. Klein is behaving no differently than a Christian trying to convince a non-believer that they actually believe in god by claiming “god is just love”.

If Harris new about the post-modernist tactic of Motte-and-Bailey-ing, he might have been able to spot Klein’s behavior and corrected it. Alas, people listening to the podcast or reading the transcript will come away with the impression that Klein made a valid point. He did not.

Another thing I noticed that stuck out to me was this exchange between the two:

Sam Harris
I’m in the, once again, having the bewildering experience of agreeing with virtually everything you said there, and yet it has basically no relevance to what I view as our underlying disagreement.

Ezra Klein You have that bewildering experience because you don’t realize when you keep saying that everybody else is thinking tribally, but you’re not, that that is our disagreement.

Sam Harris Well, no, because I know I’m not thinking tribally —

Ezra Klein Well, that is our disagreement.

Ugh. Literally everyone thinks tribally. Tribalism is built into our brains. To say that you’re not thinking tribally is trying to claim that you have no biases. And as we all know, saying or thinking that you have no biases is evidence that you have many. So I happen to agree with Klein in this little exchange.

However, in the larger debate, Harris probably just means that he doesn’t think or argue primarily from identifying with the “tribes” of straight, white, or cisgender. I actually think his main “tribes” are atheist and liberal.

So on the weight of things, I lean heavily in support of Sam Harris in this exchange. And no, not everyone is arguing from Identity Politics.

 
 

A Life of Pretending: Being Egyptian and Atheist

At the age of 10, ‘Amr’s failure to memorize the Qur’an brought him beatings, the force of which he resented even then. Voiced skepticism throughout his youth earned him further harsh treatment from family members, whose religious discipline he recalled growing progressively more strict along with gradually closer subscription to the channels of Gulf-based imams. Upon coming to terms with his own atheism, ‘Amr – like the vast majority of nonbelivers in Egypt – took pains to keep it to himself.

His girlfriend barely spoke a word, but ‘Amr wasn’t nearly finished. With much more to say than the time in which to say it, he suggested we carry on talking in a downtown café. Here, he said, he’d recently spent a good amount of time with a growing group of Egyptian atheists, all of whom he’d met online, sharing similar experiences and venting frustrations with life as a nonbeliever in one of the world’s most religiously restrictive countries. These gatherings were like manna for ’Amr. He heard dozens of accounts comparable to his own – stories of being evicted, forcibly medicated, losing jobs, being blacklisted from entire industries, losing friends, families – wives, husbands, children – and, for an unlucky few, jail.

Read more at Quillette

 
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Posted by on April 17, 2018 in religion

 
 
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