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Category Archives: cognitive science

The Fallacy Of Moral Set Equivalence

Reading about how religion came about and why people are religious, you ultimately stumble upon human morality. Not prescriptive morality, but descriptive morality. The science of how and why people think morally.

Moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes after.

Human morality is a strange thing, once you step back and try to examine it logically. The very act of saying one should do this will trigger alarms in your System 1 / feeling of certainty. Alarms you have no control over, they just happen to you: What? You can’t use science and logic on morality! That’s wrong!

But it is still strange. We create moral categories (again, completely out of our conscious control) where clusters of behaviors are arranged in free associations and no underlying logic. This leads to things like moral equivalencies and moral pollution, which are inimical to actual logical thought. Yet these equivalencies and contaminations just feel right. Let me throw out an example.

A lot of people consider homosexuality to be immoral. Because of this, it gets placed in the moral set that might be called something like “sexual deviance”, where other immoral sex acts reside in the moral mind. Due to our moral free associations, almost any item in the “sexual deviancy” set can be equivocated with any other item in that set. So you end up with the strange logic of gay people also being pedophiles. The moral logic goes: Homosexuality is sexual immorality. Pedophilia is sexual immorality. Therefore homosexuals are also pedophiles.

Hopefully I don’t have to reiterate that this makes no logical sense. But this made intuitive sense for centuries! It’s only recently that a lot of people are starting to see that this is mistaken. Unfortunately, these people don’t understand why it’s actually mistaken; they’ve just removed homosexuality from the “sexual deviance” moral set, and continue equivocating between other immoral sexual behavior. Can you think of other sexually questionable behavior that gets equivocated with pedophilia like homosexuality used to be? That’s a hard ask, because you probably don’t even realize you’re doing the equivocating. Such is the nature of morality, unconscious bias, and our lack of free will.

Moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes after.

There are so many examples of these moral equivalencies / pollutions. Let’s say I make an analogical argument: The communications protocol TCP behaves like a phone call between two people, and the communications protocol UDP is like sending snail mail. Someone objects to this analogy and says it’s invalid because computer communication protocols are not morally equivalent to human communication. This would be a nonsensical objection, right? But the same sort of thing happens in many political debates:

Dude on the bottom made a moral objection to an analogical argument. Of course a movement for equal rights is not morally equivalent to an oppressive government program. The very wording he chose makes that perfectly clear. Yet they can still be analogically equal and lead to the same analogical outcomes, as the first dude wrote.

Moral intuitions come first, strategic reasoning comes after.

If you have a knee-jerk rejection to some argument, you really should try to disentangle whether your rejection is a moral one or a logical one. And also take note that moral/intuitive thinking inhibits mechanical/logical reasoning. The more you do of one, the harder it is to switch to the other! And this is what makes almost all moral theories incompatible with science, just like belief in god.

Though, science (“Science”) isn’t incompatible with belief in god, if you’ve defined science as just a list of facts about the universe. It’s the scientific method that is incompatible with belief in god.

Belief in god is about how the universe is set up morally, not physically, and almost all moral theories fail if you apply the scientific method to them. 

The issue is that the human brain mixes up moral truths with physical truths. Belief in god is what happens when you apply rules governing social behavior (morality) to the universe. The scientific method is incompatible with that line of reasoning. Indeed, applying the scientific method to human beings is where we see the most conflict with various moral theories, including religion. 

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Posted by on January 9, 2019 in cognitive science, morality

 

Contextualizing vs Decoupling

Looks like someone else has come up with the two very different “systems” of cognition that we wade through every day: Contextualizing and Decoupling.

The differing debating norms between scientific vs. political contexts are not just a cultural difference but a psychological and cognitive one. Beneath the culture clash there are even deeper disagreements about the nature of facts, ideas and claims and what it means to entertain and believe them.
Consider this quote from an article by Sarah Constantin (via Drossbucket):

Stanovich talks about “cognitive decoupling”, the ability to block out context and experiential knowledge and just follow formal rules, as a main component of both performance on intelligence tests and performance on the cognitive bias tests that correlate with intelligence. Cognitive decoupling is the opposite of holistic thinking. It’s the ability to separate, to view things in the abstract, to play devil’s advocate.

/…/

Speculatively, we might imagine that there is a “cognitive decoupling elite” of smart people who are good at probabilistic reasoning and score high on the cognitive reflection test and the IQ-correlated cognitive bias tests. These people would be more likely to be male, more likely to have at least undergrad-level math education, and more likely to have utilitarian views. Speculating a bit more, I’d expect this group to be likelier to think in rule-based, devil’s-advocate ways, influenced by economics and analytic philosophy. I’d expect them to be more likely to identify as rational.

This is a conflict between high-decoupling and low-decoupling thought.

It’s a member of a class of disagreements that depend on psychological differences so fundamental that we’re barely even aware they exist.

High-decouplers isolate ideas from each other and the surrounding context. This is a necessary practice in science which works by isolating variables, teasing out causality and formalizing and operationalizing claims into carefully delineated hypotheses. Cognitive decoupling is what scientists do.

To a high-decoupler, all you need to do to isolate an idea from its context or implications is to say so: “by X I don’t mean Y”. When that magical ritual has been performed you have the right to have your claims evaluated in isolation. This is Rational Style debate.

[…]

But “decoupling as default” can’t be assumed in Public Discourse like it is in science. Studies suggest that decoupling is not natural behavior (non-WEIRD populations often don’t think this way at all, because they have no use for it). We need to be trained to do it, and even then it’s hard; many otherwise intelligent people have traumatic memories of being taught mathematics in school.

While science and engineering disciplines (and analytic philosophy) are populated by people with a knack for decoupling who learn to take this norm for granted, other intellectual disciplines are not. Instead they’re largely composed of what’s opposite the scientist in the gallery of brainy archetypes: the literary or artistic intellectual.

This crowd doesn’t live in a world where decoupling is standard practice. On the contrary, coupling is what makes what they do work. Novelists, poets, artists and other storytellers like journalists, politicians and PR people rely on thick, rich and ambiguous meanings, associations, implications and allusions to evoke feelings, impressions and ideas in their audience. The words “artistic” and “literary” refers to using idea couplings well to subtly and indirectly push the audience’s meaning-buttons.

This looks to be an expansion of System 1 and System 2 thinking (the Intuitionists and the Rationalists), or what I’ve classified as Moral Thinking vs Rational Thinking (the two are always in conflict). Other descriptions are Emotional vs Mechanical Thinking or Empathizing and Systemizing. It seems as though a bunch of cognitive science is converging on these two modes of thought.

As the author notes, everyone defaults to the Contextualizing mode of thinking (i.e., System 1), where people like to talk about social relationships between agents. Not to beat around the bush, but over-Contextualizing is why we believe in god. And is why, if you think that believing in god is just-so-obviously-irrational-and-wrong, even the people who don’t believe in god (which probably includes EVEN YOU) will succumb to the same family of delusions:

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 on the altar of 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

I’m always weary of methodologies that hijack our intuition. Stories and narratives — contextualizations — are trojan horses that can trick us into believing things by manipulating our feeling of certainty (because the feeling of certainty feels good, it’s easy to succumb to “epiphany porn” without even realizing it). Stories should be viewed with extreme prejudice and massive amounts of skepticism. They’re the easiest way to smuggle influence, the closest thing we have to mind control.

 
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Posted by on December 4, 2018 in cognitive science

 

The Moral Roots of Liberals and Conservatives

https://youtu.be/8SOQduoLgRw

 
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Posted by on November 10, 2018 in cognitive science, morality

 

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, I want 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… like to support positions you initially arrived at for social reasons. Again, doing that is our default.

Truth vs. Morality; Rationality vs. Intuition: There will always be scientific truths that are made as a burnt offering on the altar of 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. 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

 

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.

 
 

Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation

Abstract

The present study uses a series of large, nationally representative surveys of the U.S. population to produce valid and reliable measures of three aspects of epistemic beliefs: reliance on intuition for factual beliefs (Faith in Intuition for facts), importance of consistency between empirical evidence and beliefs (Need for evidence), and conviction that “facts” are politically constructed (Truth is political). Analyses confirm that these factors complement established predictors of misperception [my emph.], substantively increasing our ability to explain both individuals’ propensity to engage in conspiracist ideation, and their willingness to embrace falsehoods about high-profile scientific and political issues. Individuals who view reality as a political construct are significantly more likely to embrace falsehoods, whereas those who believe that their conclusions must hew to available evidence tend to hold more accurate beliefs.

Garrett RK, Weeks BE (2017) Epistemic beliefs’ role in promoting misperceptions and conspiracist ideation. PLoS ONE 12(9): e0184733. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0184733

 
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Posted by on September 20, 2017 in cognitive science, religion

 
 
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