Category Archives: economics/sociology

Simpson’s Paradox And The Positive/Negative Effect of Religious Belief

While not necessarily related to Bayes Theorem, something like this has been popping up in my mind whenever I read news stories dealing with statistics so I thought I would make a post about it.

In simplest terms, aggregate data might have different statistical properties than subsets of the aggregate data. As a matter of fact, the aggregate data might show the completely opposite effect when looked at in subsets.

An intuitive example of this is weather. You can average the temperature over the course of the year, or you could find the average of temperature over the course of six months. It might be that temperature over the course of the year has a slightly positive upward slope, yet temperature from June to December has a negative slope.

This seems obvious. But what if you’re dealing with something that’s not so obvious?

The example Wikipedia gives that I think is a non-controversial example is kidney stone treatment. Say you have Treatment A for either large or small kidney stones and Treatment B for large or small kidney stones.

Treatment A is effective on 81 out of 87 (93%) small kidney stones while Treatment B is effective on 87% (234/270) small kidney stones. For large kidney stones, Treatment A is effective 73% (192/263) of the time and Treatment B is effective 69% (55/80) of the time.

Clearly, Treatment A is what you should use for both small and large kidney stones. But what happens when we aggregate over both small and large kidney stones? Treatment A is 81/87 + 192/263 = 273/350 (78%) while Treatment B is 234/270 + 55/80 = 289/350 (83%). Now it turns out that Treatment B is better than Treatment A!

Therein lies Simpson’s Paradox. What happens when we have something controversial? Wikipedia also has the example of apparent sexism in graduate school admissions (which it still seems like no one has tried to account for this paradox when talking about modern controversies like the gender wage gap). But this is mainly a religion blog: So what about whether religion is good or bad for people or society?

Very religious Americans […] have high overall wellbeing, leading healthier lives, and are less likely to have ever been diagnosed with depression… These positive associations between religious engagement and the good life are reverse when comparing more versus less religious places rather than individuals…

Gallup World Poll data from 152 countries [show] a striking negative correlation between these countries’ population percentages declaring that religion is “important in your daily life” and their average life satisfaction score…

Across US states, religious attendance rates predict modestly lower emotional well-being…

Epidemiological studies reveal that religious engagement predicted longer life expectancy…

Across states, religious engagement predicts shorter life expectancy…

Across states religious engagement predicts higher crime rates. But across individuals, it predicts lower crime rates…

If you want to make religion look good, cite individual data. If you want to make it look bad, cite aggregate data…

Stunning individual versus aggregate paradoxes appear in other realms as well. Low-income states and high-income individuals have [recently] voted Republican…

Liberal countries and conservative individuals express greater well-being…

Highly religious states, and less religious individuals, do more Google “sex” searching…

One might wonder if the religiosity-happiness association is mediated by income — which has some association with happiness. But though richer people are happier than poor people, religiously engaged individuals tend to have lower incomes — despite which, they express greater happiness.

This is from a conference paper. I’m not actually sure if this is an example of Simpson’s Paradox, but the larger point remains. Breaking up data along different axes might yield paradoxical results. As the author says, if you want to make religion look bad, cite aggregate data. If you want to make religion look good, cite individual data.

But which statistic should one use? The aggregate data or the individual data? They’re both true, for lack of a better word, so it’s not like one is “lying”. I would tend to lean towards using the aggregate data if forced to choose. But there’s no harm in looking at both. And if both paint the same picture that just means that you have a more complete view of the phenomenon at hand.

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Posted by on June 26, 2017 in Bayes, economics/sociology, religion


Online purchase patterns show left-wingers and right-wingers read very different science books

Liberals were far more drawn to engineering, anthropology, and purer sciences like biology, astronomy or to a lesser extent physics. Conservatives were drawn more to applied disciplines such as medicine and law, and – in the highest association for the red tribe – climate science

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Posted by on June 6, 2017 in economics/sociology


Why Conservatives Are Against Science And Social Justice

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Posted by on September 26, 2016 in cognitive science, economics/sociology, morality, religion


Moralizing Gods And… Kissing?

Here’s a relationship I bet you didn’t see coming.

A while back I posted a summary of Ara Norenzayan’s findings about the relationships between prosociality and religious belief. Here are some of the bullet points I took note of in his video:

* Small foraging societies typically don’t have moralizing gods. Big societies generally have moralizing gods. Causal or correlational?

* Economic games and small/big religions: Big religions, that is, the world religions, show more cooperative behavior in economic games. Small religions are more selfish. Again, causal or correlational?

* Belief in god in and of itself doesn’t correlate with any behavior in monetary generosity (belief in god per se doesn’t lead to moral behavior; you need to go to church to reap the benefits! And you get those same benefits being an atheist in church). Though in the context that Norenzayan was mentioning this fact, it was in the context of religious priming. Just declaring theism didn’t make someone more cooperative, but religious priming does. On the other hand, being non-religious makes you sort of impervious to religious priming; though secular priming has the same cooperative effect on the non-religious.

* Prosocial behavior correlates with a belief in a punishing god. Belief in a forgiving god correlates with cheating. Same for hell/heaven belief, respectively (though belief in hell seems to make people less happy).

* Religions are also correlated with extreme rituals for possibly belief in belief (i.e. costly signaling) reasons.

These are the social things that are correlated with types of religious beliefs. Religions that are spread across large areas (i.e. the eponymous Big Gods) are associated with different prosocial behavior than small gods.

Now, one of the concepts I kept with me when I joined the military 20 years ago and had to learn statistics/hypothesis testing was that, if you see a correlation, there are three possible causes you should automatically think of, and see if any of them make sense. So if you see that A and B have a correlation, then:

1. A causes B

2. B causes A

3. A and B are caused by C

There are others, but this is the simplest way of looking at the data since all of the variables to work with are already there. You just move them around and see which formulation fits.

It turns out that romantic kissing is correlated with large societies

From pop culture to evolutionary psychology, we have come to take kissing for granted as universally desirable among humans and inseparable from other aspects of affection and intimacy. However, a recent article in American Anthropologist by Jankowiak, Volsche and Garcia questions the notion that romantic kissing is a human universal by conducting a broad cross cultural survey to document the existence or non-existence of the romantic-sexual kiss around the world.

The authors based their research on a set of 168 cultures compiled from eHRAF World Cultures (128 cultures) as well as the Standard Cross Cultural Sample (27 cultures) and by surveying 88 ethnographers (13 cultures). The report’s findings are intriguing: rather than an overwhelming popularity of romantic smooching, the global ethnographic evidence suggests that it is common in only 46% (77) of the cultures sampled. The remaining 54% (91) of cultures had no evidence of romantic kissing. In short, this new research concludes that romantic-sexual kissing is not as universal as we might presume.

The report also reveals that romantic kissing is most common in the Middle East and Asia, and least common of all among Central American cultures. Similarly, the authors state that “no ethnographer working with Sub-Saharan African, New Guinea, or Amazonian foragers or horticulturalists reported having witnessed any occasion in which their study populations engaged in a romantic–sexual kiss”, whereas it is nearly ubiquitous in northern Asia and North America.


Among the indigenous Tapirapé people of Central Brazil, Wagley (1977) found that “couples showed affection”, but “kissing seems to have been unknown”. He explains,

When I described it to them, it struck them as a strange form of showing physical attraction … and, in a way, disgusting. It was common, instead, to see a married couple walking across the village plaza with the man’s arm draped over his wife’s shoulder. A couple might stand close to each other during a conversation with the man’s arms over his wife’s shoulders and she holding him around the hips (Wagley 1977: 158).

Across the Pacific Ocean in Melanesia, Bronislaw Malinowski’s (1929: 330) classic account describes the impression of kissing among Trobriand Islanders, who were equally bemused by the foreign custom:

Certainly it never forms a self-contained independent source of pleasure, nor is it a definite preliminary stage of love-making, as is the case with us. This caress was never spontaneously mentioned by the natives, and, to direct inquiries, I always received a negative answer. The natives know, however, that white people “will sit, will press mouth against mouth–they are pleased with it.” But they regard it as a rather insipid and silly form of amusement.

The Tsonga people of Southern Africa are also openly disgusted by the practice: “Kissing was formerly entirely unknown… When they saw the custom adopted by the Europeans, they said laughingly: “Look at these people! They suck each other! They eat each other’s saliva and dirt!” Even a husband never kissed his wife” (Junod 1927: 353-354).

…and thus, romantic kissing is correlated with Big Gods. Check out the religion of the Tapirapé people, or the religion of the Trobriand Islands peoples, or the religion of the Tsonga people: No romantic kissing, and no large moralizing gods.

So I have to ask, is belief in a large universal god the thing that causes kissing to have a romantic component? Or is it that romantic kissing causes people to believe in large, moralizing gods? Or is it that both are being caused by some other factor? I lean towards C, but who knows.


Posted by on August 4, 2015 in economics/sociology


Nature or Nature’s God


Cthulhu. Apparently, the spirit animal for the Enlightenment

Lately I’ve been implicitly writing about how religion isn’t some quirk of human cognition but the result of humans unwittingly designing something that appeals to our brain architecture. Much like how blockbuster movies, apple pie, roller-coaster rides, or even crack-cocaine are human designed. Furthermore, I’ve been writing about how religion isn’t some unique evil set loose upon the world that we must work to destroy, but rather something that we should try to harness and use as a well thought-out instrument towards our betterment.

Indeed, there’s nothing we can do to change the laws of physics, but we manipulate those laws to give us heavier than air flight, the Internet, GPS satellites that account for Einsteinian relativity, and GMO food to feed many more people than natural food. Human cognition should be “exploited” in the same manner to make life better. People already exploit human cognition for their own personal gain. We should use it instead to improve the world.

But why is it so easy to see religion as a unique evil? Memes.

Memes, just like genes, can reproduce. And in that paradigm, successful reproduction depends on not only adapting to the environment the meme/gene finds itself in, but a gene/meme that fully exploits its environment to reproduce will outcompete other memes/genes. Moreover, genes/memes can manipulate their hosts to change the environment to better fulfill that selfish gene/meme’s ability to reproduce. This happens in nature with parasites, where they change the behavior of their host to make the parasite more likely to reproduce successfully. Sometimes, to the detriment of the host.

Memes do this too.

Imagine you have an idea, much like the thesis of this post. That we should use the way we know how human cognition works in order to make the world better. A more fleshed out version of this would be filled with complexities and nuance; one that at least attempts to make sure that things don’t go awry. I mean, let’s face it: “exploiting human cognition” is ominous enough. But a successful meme is going to be successful due to the environment it finds itself in. The free market of ideas doesn’t select for truth, but for reproductive fitness.

I’ll say this again: In the free market of ideas, memes couldn’t care less about accurately modeling the world. Memes get set in the population by how virulent they are. Think viral videos. Just because a video goes viral doesn’t mean it’s true. A viral video has been “naturally selected” to propagate through memespace due to its success in a particular time period and environment. The same principle is in effect for any and all other memes or ideas that you are presented with and eventually become part of your identity. Human beings are especially susceptible to this due to our natural tendency for groupthink. Do you think you can find out what’s true just by sitting around and thinking really hard? Think again. The tools you’ll be unwittingly using will be the ones to make friends; those tools working in the service of whatever large-scale memes are part of your identity. This is generally called “bias”. You are biased, and so just like aircraft engineers account for the laws of physics and aerodynamics to build planes, you should account for human bias when attempting to navigate memespace.

So what, specifically, is the logical outcome of meme fitness? Memes that are optimized for virulence — memes, again, are not intentionally designed by humans per se — are most likely the memes that you identify with. And in the rat race of ideaspace, the optimization will take priority over any and all other goals. Indeed, it might even come to pass that you sacrifice a terminal goal for more optimization. Scott at Slate Star Codex calls this sacrificial behavior Moloch:


A basic principle unites all of the multipolar traps above. In some competition optimizing for X, the opportunity arises to throw some other value under the bus for improved X. Those who take it prosper. Those who don’t take it die out. Eventually, everyone’s relative status is about the same as before, but everyone’s absolute status is worse than before. The process continues until all other values that can be traded off have been – in other words, until human ingenuity cannot possibly figure out a way to make things any worse… Any human with above room temperature IQ can design a utopia. The reason our current system isn’t a utopia is that it wasn’t designed by humans.


But these institutions not only incentivize others, but are incentivized themselves. These are large organizations made of lots of people who are competing for jobs, status, prestige, et cetera – there’s no reason they should be immune to the same multipolar traps as everyone else, and indeed they aren’t. Governments can in theory keep corporations, citizens, et cetera out of certain traps, but as we saw above there are many traps that governments themselves can fall into.

The United States tries to solve the problem by having multiple levels of government, unbreakable constitutional laws, checks and balances between different branches, and a couple of other hacks.

Saudi Arabia uses a different tactic. They just put one guy in charge of everything.

This is the much-maligned – I think unfairly – argument in favor of monarchy. A monarch is an unincentivized incentivizer. He actually has the god’s-eye-view and is outside of and above every system. He has permanently won all competitions and is not competing for anything, and therefore he is perfectly free of Moloch and of the incentives that would otherwise channel his incentives into predetermined paths. Aside from a few very theoretical proposals like my Shining Garden, monarchy is the only system that does this.

But then instead of following a random incentive structure, we’re following the whim of one guy. Caesar’s Palace Hotel and Casino is a crazy waste of resources, but the actual Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus wasn’t exactly the perfect benevolent rational central planner either.

The libertarian-authoritarian axis on the Political Compass is a tradeoff between discoordination and tyranny. You can have everything perfectly coordinated by someone with a god’s-eye-view – but then you risk Stalin. And you can be totally free of all central authority – but then you’re stuck in every stupid multipolar trap Moloch can devise.

The libertarians make a convincing argument for the one side, and the neoreactionaries for the other, but I expect that like most tradeoffs we just have to hold our noses and admit it’s a really hard problem.


Democracy is less obviously vulnerable, but it might be worth going back to Bostrom’s paragraph about the Quiverfull movement. These are some really religious Christians who think that God wants them to have as many kids as possible, and who can end up with families of ten or more. Their articles explicitly calculate that if they start at two percent of the population, but have on average eight children per generation when everyone else on average only has two, within three generations they’ll make up half the population.

It’s a clever strategy, but I can think of one thing that will save us: judging by how many ex-Quiverfull blogs I found when searching for those statistics, their retention rates even within a single generation are pretty grim. Their article admits that 80% of very religious children leave the church as adults (although of course they expect their own movement to do better). And this is not a symmetrical process – 80% of children who grow up in atheist families aren’t becoming Quiverfull.

It looks a lot like even though they are outbreeding us, we are outmeme-ing them, and that gives us a decisive advantage.

But we should also be kind of scared of this process. Memes optimize for making people want to accept them and pass them on – so like capitalism and democracy, they’re optimizing for a proxy of making us happy, but that proxy can easily get uncoupled from the original goal.

Chain letters, urban legends, propaganda, and viral marketing are all examples of memes that don’t satisfy our explicit values (true and useful) but are sufficiently memetically virulent that they spread anyway.

I hope it’s not too controversial here to say the same thing is true of religion. Religions, at their heart, are the most basic form of memetic replicator – “Believe this statement and repeat it to everyone you hear or else you will be eternally tortured”. A slight variation of this was recently banned as a basilisk, and people make fun of the “overreaction”, but maybe if Jesus’ system administrator had been equally watchful things would have turned out a little different… The point is – imagine a country full of bioweapon labs, where people toil day and night to invent new infectious agents. The existence of these labs, and their right to throw whatever they develop in the water supply is protected by law. And the country is also linked by the world’s most perfect mass transit system that every single person uses every day, so that any new pathogen can spread to the entire country instantaneously. You’d expect things to start going bad for that city pretty quickly.

Well, we have about a zillion think tanks researching new and better forms of propaganda. And we have constitutionally protected freedom of speech. And we have the Internet. So we’re pretty much screwed.

A topical example explains Moloch more readily: The airline JetBlue recently sacrificed customer comfort for profits:

This fall, JetBlue airline finally threw in the towel. For years, the company was among the last holdouts in the face of an industry trend toward smaller seats, higher fees, and other forms of unpleasantness. JetBlue distinguished itself by providing decent, fee-free service for everyone, an approach that seemed to be working: passengers liked the airline, and it made a consistent profit. Wall Street analysts, however, accused JetBlue of being “overly brand-conscious and customer-focussed.” In November, the airline, under new management, announced that it would follow United, Delta, and the other major carriers by cramming more seats into economy, shrinking leg room, and charging a range of new fees for things like bags and WiFi.

When I read Scott’s opus on Moloch, my amorphous cynicism about humanity finally solidified. And I thought “That’s why I think humanity is fucked!”

Another blog — one of the, uhh… perushim of Less Wrong — has a concept with a lot of overlap with Scott’s Moloch and breaks it down into four sort of… sephiroth, or aspects, or emanations, or… something… of what they call “Nature or Nature’s God” (“Gnon“, since you have to spell the acronym backwards to make it more ominous, right?). The four sephirot of Gnon are:

Azathoth. Death. Evolution. The blind idiot alien god that shapes our biological nature and guides our genetic destiny according to who lives and who dies. Contrary to popular belief, the telos of evolution is not progress to more “advanced” forms; it will ruthlessly twist organisms for a few points of inclusive genetic fitness, and abandon “important” features of an organism (eg. our intelligence) as soon as they stop being critical to fertility.

Cthulhu. Pestilence. Hosted Evolution. Memetics. Epidemics. The tendency for popular forms to be those most able to propagate themselves by capturing transmission institutions and getting repeated. Contrary to popular opinion, the “marketplace of ideas” does not select for truth and good, but virulence. Truth/good selection only happens if the mass idea-propagation systems structurally favor truth and good, which they often do not. The current result being that “Cthulhu may swim slowly, but he only swims left.”

Mammon. Famine. Capitalism. Techno-Economical Optimization. Production. When a form succeeds by exploiting a technological resource-use opportunity, that is Mammon at work. Thus we have an efficient and recycling biological ecosystem, and human capitalism has driven the creation of great works of technology. But Mammon will ruthlessly recycle forms not contributing to the cutting edge of production, including us, if it comes to that.

Ares. War. Conquest. Empire. Agricultural Civilization won not because it was “better” in our sense, but because 100 malnourished toothless peasants with sticks beats one of even the healthiest and best trained tribal warriors. War is computation with weapons, and the truth thus revealed is simply which sociomilitary group is stronger.

Another LW user, jaime2000, sums up Gnon:

Gnon is reality, with an emphasis towards the aspects of reality which have important social consequences. When you build an airplane and fuck up the wing design, Gnon is the guy who swats it down. When you adopt a pacifist philosophy and abolish your military, Gnon is the guy who invades your country. When you are a crustacean struggling to survive in the ocean floor, Gnon is the guy who turns you into a crab.

Basically, reality has mathematical, physical, biological, economical, sociological, and game-theoretical [my link] laws. We anthropomorphize those laws as Gnon.

So back to my original point. What would a more “rational” religion look like? I can’t really tell you (in general it’ll probably have some group dancing or group singing, maybe some extreme rituals, a good narrative/mythos/story; maybe all of that at once), but I can tell you what would probably happen to this more rational religion. Since, you know, it won’t be just itself in the world… it’ll be a religion that is stuck in a world where if that religion is to survive in the minds of us humans, it’s going to be subject to an optimization process. You can probably see where this is going.

This rational religion will be designed with a bunch of nuance and subtlety, probably about using Bayes Theorem and decision theory appropriately. And on paper it’ll be good. But human minds aren’t designed for nuance and complexity. Our minds are designed for simplicity; they are run by our intuition. And our intuition doesn’t like dealing with complexity. It likes feels. There will then grow out from this nuanced rational religion a simpler one for the masses because that’s what sticks for the lowest common denominator. The two religions carry the same name, but one spreads more rapidly due to it being optimized for spreading, not for nuance. It spreads more rapidly due to winning in the marketplace of ideas, not due to its subtlety. And so the “winning” optimized version of this new rational religion overtakes the marketplace instead of the rational-optimized version. But the original version is not doing much to correct this, because they both carry the same banner; cooperation wins over defection in an iterated prisoner’s dilemma, as any rationalist would know. And as such, a Mott-and-Bailey-like situation happens between the sort of neighboring-ring-species religions. One version is the actual nuanced version and the other only pays lip service to being the nuanced version. But they both have the same name.

The fact that people Mott-and-Bailey is probably evidence enough that this has happened throughout history. There are motts/baileys for Christianity, for Communism, for feminism, for America, for The Ravens, the list is endless. There’s always the academic, nuanced version and then the version optimized for spreading; the version that beautifully haunts the halls of the academe and the version that gorges in the troughs on Tumblr; both falling under the same name.

I mean, I think that Marcionism is — was — the most rational version of Christianity. But it lost out in the marketplace of ideas in ante-Nicaea Christianity because it wasn’t optimized for its time period. Imagine a Christianity that completely ignored Jews, that didn’t have deplorable lines like Τὸ αἷμα αὐτοῦ. ἐφ᾽ ἡμᾶς καὶ ἐπὶ τὰ τέκνα ἡμῶν; a Christianity without centuries of Jewish pogroms, expulsions, and holocausts. But that more humane Christianity lost to the one better optimized for “winning”. The same thing will probably happen to any rational religion that we design, since it will ultimately be subject to Gnon and its sephirot, sacrificing its terminal goals to Moloch so that it can better optimize its winning power. Though I hope I’m wrong.


Posted by on December 29, 2014 in economics/sociology, religion


A Spirit of Justice


For a while I’ve wondered if women being more religious than men has to do with something inherent to religion or more to do with religion being the dominant social signal for supporting your “in-group”; in the latter case it might also be responsible for the different moral intuitions men and women have. Though both morality and religion seem to have equal parts genetic and social basis.

With that said, here are a few of the both social and biological reasons why women are more religious than men:



This last point brings us to the latest hoopla in the atheistosphere. Recently, Sam Harris was called a sexist for suggesting that the reason that there are less women than men involved at atheist/skeptic events was due to biological reasons; an “estrogen vibe”. The problem, of course, and as I’ve just posted a multitude of links about, is that Harris was both right and wrong. Mostly wrong, but not entirely wrong. And this brings me back to the question I pondered at the beginning of this post.

Take a look at this data from the Pew survey of religion in the USA:

Notice anything weird? Yes, as usual, women are more religious than men. But not across all religions. Mainstream religions have more women than men, but minority religions (including “unaffiliated”, which would include atheists/skeptics) have more men than women. This is evidence that supports my idea of religion being used as a popular social signal of prosociality.

Another thing to note is at the intersection of biological and social — meaning, where the two effects compound — there is the largest disparity between men and women in regards to religiosity. Can you spot it?

Of course, there can be any number of other hypotheses that explain this data as well so I’m not resting any sort of firm conclusions on this (e.g., the Pew survey also notes that “Nearly half of Hindus in the U.S., one-third of Jews and a quarter of Buddhists have obtained post-graduate education, compared with only about one-in-ten of the adult population overall.“. Education level is negatively correlated with religiosity). I would need to see religiosity data parsed by gender in countries where those minority religions are the majority.

But what prompted me to even consider that hypothesis was an anecdote that I’ve notice almost everywhere: In both secular and religious gatherings, women seem to volunteer much more than men do. Some research confirms this, and further implies that women volunteer more in these groups due to implicit romantic primes. In other words, just like men show off by taking risks when they think there are attractive women around, women “show off” by volunteering when they think there are attractive men around (or more accurately, when they are primed to think of mate selection). So my guess about women’s relationship with religion might not have anything to do with religion per se, but with support groups or being prosocial. And I guess that if there were some country where atheism had better and more ostentatious support structures than the religious, we would see that more women would be less religious than men. For the both biological and social reasons I listed above.

But no country like this exists.

Back to Harris’ mostly wrong guess. It seems like it’s not estrogen that makes women more religious than men, but instead — if we are only looking at biological reasons — it’s testosterone that makes men less religious than women. The female template is the default of humanity, the male is a derivative (nipple check!). Of course, women have testosterone as well, but not nearly at the levels that men have. It should go without saying that hormones have a noticeable effect on human behavior. I also wonder if the sociological reasons above actually prompt underlying hormonal changes and it’s those underlying hormonal changes that are changing a person’s level of religiosity/prosociality. E.g., there’s evidence that stress increases, among other hormones, oxytocin levels, and of course, men being shown pictures of sexy women — as well as other behavior — increases their levels of testosterone. The social can affect the biological and vice versa.

So is Sam Harris a sexist? Well… this question actually beggars another question, one related to my previous post on truth vs. morality. What Sam Harris said is somewhat true: There are biological reasons why women are more religious (read: more prosocial) than men. But what he said is also immoral. Thus the eternal battle between truth and morality. Harris suggesting an “immoral” hypothesis completely depends on the time and place he says it. It would be equally “immoral” to suggest as a hypothesis 1,000 years ago that god didn’t exist. The ontological status of god’s existence 1,000 years ago or hormonal effects on behavior in the 21st century are orthogonal to the ethical status of questioning god’s existence 1,000 years ago or suggesting hormonal effects on behavior in the 21st century.

Truth vs. Morality.

A little backstory about the image I chose for this post. In the video game Dragon Age II, a mage named Anders has fused with a spirit that personifies the concept of justice. In the world of Dragon Age, mages are subjugated due to their potential to become what in the game is referred to as Abominations. In this world, there are various spirits that personify different human vices and virtues like rage, sloth, greed, justice, etc. but it is usually the vice-related spirits that are drawn to mages and try to fuse and take over their magic-gifted bodies becoming much more powerful than a normal mage. After the fusion they then begin carrying out their vice (sloth, greed, etc.). The virtue related spirits don’t seem to care about humans at all. Due to this subjugation, Anders — being born a mage — harbors a lot of resentment towards the current world order where mages are second-class citizens without their own freedom or autonomy, held in check by Templars.

Anders encounters the spirit of Justice and they agree to merge; they are technically an “Abomination” but with a “good” spirit instead of the vastly more common “bad” spirit. Usually the benevolent spirits have no concern over human affairs, but circumstances trapped Justice outside of the spirit world and in the normal world. The spirit of Justice, after fusing with Anders, recognizes the injustice that mages are subject to and they both work together in a sort of underground railroad sort of situation helping other mages escape. However, in time, Anders’ rage against his lifetime of injustice corrupts Justice and the spirit then becomes a spirit of Vengeance, taking over Anders at inopportune times and wreaking havoc almost indiscriminately among both the guilty and the innocent.

Internet social justice warriors remind me of Anders/Justice. The smallest whiff of perceived blasphemy (and yes, I’m using the word “blasphemy” on purpose) is met with unbridled aggression. What’s true doesn’t matter, lies are moral as long as they’re in the name of justice (or being done by Justice). Besides Harris, Richard Dawkins has also recently been put through the fires of Justice. As I wrote in a prior post:

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 [moral] truth… Remember my little maxim that I made up: The more a group promotes prosociality, the less it cares about accurately modeling reality

Indeed, identifying strongly with any group, tribe, or movement is a surefire way to bias yourself. Whether it’s your gender, religion, or even favorite football team. Try not to do it!

Spoiler alert: At the end of Dragon Age II, the tension between mages and templars is coming to a head. Anders shows up and blows up an entire (in game version of) a church because any compromise between mages and templars is, to Anders/Justice, no justice. Cooler, more rational heads do not prevail. Anders/Justice’s act creates an all out war between mages and templars, and sets the stage for the next iteration of the Dragon Age saga, which comes out in November.

I almost always execute Anders due to his crime.

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Posted by on September 23, 2014 in cognitive science, economics/sociology, morality, religion, video games


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

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