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Inner Demons January 19, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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Still reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of our Nature.  I’ve just finished the chapter on what it is about human brains that leads us into violence that ought to be avoidable.  Again, this chapter really could be a whole book on its own.

He sums up at the end of this chapter by re-listing five “inner demons” and I think his list is a good summary.  He didn’t number the list, but I’m going to here:

  1. People, especially men, are overconfident in their prospects for success; when they fight each other, the outcome is likely to be bloodier than any of them thought.
  2. People, especially men, strive for dominance for themselves and their groups; when contests of dominance are joined, they are unlikely to sort the parties by merit and are likely to be a net loss for everyone.
  3. People seek revenge by an accounting that exaggerates their innocence and their adversaries’ malice; when two sides seek perfect justice, they condemn themselves and their heirs to strife.
  4. People can not only overcome their revulsion to hands-on violence but acquire a taste for it; if they indulge it in private, or in cahoots with their peers, they can become sadists.
  5. And people can avow a belief they don’t hold because they think everyone else avows it; such beliefs can sweep through a closed society and bring it under the spell of a collective delusion. (pg 570)

The chapter has a really detailed examination of each of these points.  This is a really interesting book, and I wish it was required reading for every politician before they were allowed to take office.

Self-delusion January 14, 2017

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Questions, Responses.
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I’m reading Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature.  It’s an enormous and thorough work on the decline of violence.  Each chapter could really be a book on it’s own, and it’s taking me a really long time to work through it.

A day or so ago, though, this sentence jumped out at me.  It’s in a section where he’s discussing why humans tend to think they are more competent, smarter, and luckier than they actually are:

“… Positive illusions are a bargaining tactic, a credible bluff.  In recruiting an ally to support you in a risky venture, in bargaining for the best deal, or in intimidating an adversary into backing down, you stand to gain if you credibly exaggerate your strengths.  Believing your own exaggerations is better than cynically lying about it, because the arms race between lying and lie detection has equipped your audience with the means of seeing through barefaced lies.” (pg 512)

Hmm.  I’ve been looking for reasons why humans tend to be so good at self-delusion, and this idea could factor into the explanation.  But its validity would hinge on humans being reasonably good at detecting lies.  I’m not convinced that they are, especially given recent politics.

What do you think?

Wealth Inequality – the real picture October 15, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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This video was posted by Nan over at Nan’s Notebook, and I thought it was important enough that I should post it also.  Regardless of what you think the solution to wealth inequality is in our country, it’s important that everybody have a good understanding of what the problem actually looks like:

(Nan reports that the source of this information is Michael I. Norton, the Harold M. Brierley Professor of Business Administration at the Harvard Business School. The information was originally published in the Harvard Magazine in 2011.)

The King who Rained Confirmation Bias January 9, 2016

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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One website I love is called “You Are Not So Smart”, written by David McRaney, which looks into all the different ways that we delude ourselves. Great stuff. He’s migrated it into a podcast now, but the original articles are still on the website.

One of the most important topics he covers is confirmation bias.  After you read this, go read his article:


Here’s how he opens that article:

Have you ever had a conversation in which some old movie was mentioned, something like “The Golden Child” or maybe even something more obscure?

You laughed about it, quoted lines from it, wondered what happened to the actors you never saw again, and then you forgot about it. Until…

You are flipping channels one night and all of the sudden you see “The Golden Child” is playing. Weird. The next day you are reading a news story, and out of nowhere it mentions forgotten movies from the 1980s, and holy shit, three paragraphs about “The Golden Child.” You see a trailer that night at the theater for a new Eddie Murphy movie, and then you see a billboard on the street promoting Charlie Murphy doing stand-up in town, and then one of your friends sends you a link to a post at TMZ showing recent photos of the actress  from “The Golden Child.”…

He goes on to talk about how that first reference primes us to notice and remember those other references, which otherwise we would have ignored.  How what appears to us to be a significant pattern is really nothing of the sort.

I just have one problem with this article.  I’ve never seen “The Golden Child”!  I don’t really care for Eddie Murphy movies, never noticed this movie on TV or Netflix, so this example just doesn’t resonate with me.  But I’ve been having a very similar experience over the last few days that I want to talk about.

A week ago I was remembering back to the TV shows from my childhood, and how some child actors just showed up everywhere.  I was specifically remembering how Johnny Whitaker was in everything, so I went looking on YouTube for clips from the old version of Tom Sawyer that he did.  (And found them, and I had forgotten that a very young Jodie Foster played Becky Thatcher.)  But that reminded me of a version of The Littlest Angel that he had done in the late 60’s:

Littlest angel

I found the full version on YouTube.  I remembered liking it as a kid, but going back to watch it now, it was really bad.  Really, really stupid and bad.  Fred Gwynne could actually sing, though, who knew?  But overall it was cheesy, poorly written and just painful to watch.  (Priming accomplished.)

A few days later, I was bored, and so asked Wikipedia for a random article.  What came up?  The entry for the really old TV show Car 54 Where Are You?  That was pretty cool, because some years back I had caught some reruns of this show, and so I was familiar with it, and even remember how the theme song went.  Here’s the stars:

Car 54

Are you seeing the pattern here?

Now we’re up to lunch Thursday.  My spouse and I were at a little restaurant near my office, and it had background music on, the usual fairly current pop stuff, but nothing too distracting.  Then they played something that I couldn’t help but listen to.  It turns out to be Fall Out Boy’s song Uma Thurman.  I had to look that song up, because I couldn’t catch any of the words at the time.  What caught my ear about it was the old song that they had sampled.  (That was the only thing that caught my ear about the song.)

What had they sampled?  The very distinctive theme song to The Munsters!  So what pops into my head – this guy of course!

Herman Munster

I only noticed this “pattern” because my brain was already primed to notice it from the awful video I watched a week ago.  Otherwise I would probably never have noticed it.  Confirmation bias in action.

(The title of this post comes from one of the children’s books written and illustrated by Fred Gwynne, which I also remember from my childhood.)

King who rained

In Need of Neologisms March 8, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches, Questions.
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How many words are there in the English Language? The OED has over 600,000 words defined, so that’s a good approximation.  You’d think that would be enough, but so often lately I can’t find exactly the word that I need to express a specific idea.

In recent years I’ve learned some really good new words from my readings:

Patternicity – the human tendency to see patterns in random data.

Pareidolia – the tendency to see familiar images, especially faces, in random images.

Agenticity – the tendency to attribute anything that happens to the actions of an intentional agent.

Deepity – a saying that sounds deep at first, but really isn’t.

Groupishness – the tendency to root for members of your own group, and against outsiders, even in a randomly selected grouping.

and of course –

Meme – an idea, behavior, or style that spreads from person to person within a culture.

But there are words that I’m looking for, and can’t find.  Perhaps they exist and I just haven’t heard them yet.  And perhaps they need someone to coin them.  A new term, like the words above, should preferably be simple and yet evoke the basic ideas of the concept in the word itself.

So here’s some of the ideas that I’m wanting a word for.  I’ve mentioned some of them in previous posts, but I want to collect them all in one place:

  • A replacement for spiritual that does not have any connotations of belief in the supernatural.  It should mean “filled with awe and fascination at the immensity of the universe and filled with appreciation to be a part of it.”  I’d use it this way: “You know how some people say ‘I’m not religious, but I’m spiritual’?  Well I’m not spiritual.  But I am ________.”  I want a really good word here, one where the word itself conveys the idea without having to use a lot of further explanation.  And I want a work that hasn’t already been hijacked by the newage woo-woo pushers.
  • A term for that thing that you do that is personally very demanding of your time or money or effort, and is basically pointless in itself, but you are doing it to be accepted and trusted by another individual or group as a person who is loyal and committed.  The word could either be a noun to describe the thing that is done, or a verb to describe doing it.  Examples of this kind of thing could be Mormon missions, gang tattoos, snake handling, or giving expensive engagement rings.  I went to a talk from Andy Thomson recently, and he called this “hard to fake, costly, honest signals of commitment.”  That term captures the meaning, but there’s got to be a shorter catchier way to say it.
  • A term for the tendency of people to need to mark their “turf” with visible signs that their group holds dominance. Things like gang tags, or christians putting the ten commandments on courthouse lawns or “in god we trust” on money.
  • And, referencing my last post, here, a term for the confusion between a mental model of a thing and the thing itself. 

Success!  While I was working on this blog post, for the last item I happened upon the very word I’ve been looking for.  It’s the Reification Fallacy, or the Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.  I like the word “reification”, because it comes from the Latin roots “res” meaning “thing” and “facere” meaning “make” or “do”.  So it’s the fallacy of making a thing out of something that is not actually a thing.  That’s exactly the kind of word I was wanting.  Any ideas on the others?

Use-Mention Errors, or, My Close Personal Relationship with Pinkie Pie February 5, 2015

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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 I remember reading a discussion from Daniel Dennett some time ago about the idea of a Use-Mention Error.  I don’t remember where that was, or I’d link to it.  This idea has been whirling around in my mind lately because of several discussions I’ve seen.  The most recent was a lengthy attempt by a theist caller to philosophize a god into existence on a recent episode of The Atheist Experience, but I’ve also read many theist comments about how, even though some particular dogma doesn’t make sense, they still have a close personal relationship with god in their hearts.  And I just want to scream “BAD ARGUMENT!” at them.

The easiest version of the Use-Mention Error is when somebody confuses a thing with the term for that thing.   Daniel Dennett’s example goes something like this: (more…)

Jared Diamond on Religion October 25, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Books, Brain Glitches, Responses.
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You may be familiar with author Jared Diamond from his famous work Guns, Germs and Steel.  I love that book, and I think it’s a classic.  Well right now I’m reading his more recent book The World Until Yesterday –  What Can We Learn from Traditional Societies?  In this book he looks at existing hunter-gatherer and tribal societies in some depth, with chapters on different aspects of how they function.  He then compares them to our modern culture, to see if there are any useful lessons we can take from them about how we might do those same things better.  He analyzes topics like child-rearing, violence, treatment of the elderly and language.

But what surprised me was the chapter on religion.  Hidden toward the back of this book is probably the clearest and most concise discussion of the phenomena of religion that I have ever read, and I’ve read quite a lot on this subject.  Since this chapter was so good, I’d like to try to present a summary of it here.  (Some of this summary is passages lifted directly from the book, some is my attempts to summarize and bring in ideas he presented in other chapters.)

He starts with the puzzle of religion, that all traditional societies appear to have it, or something like it, even though it sometimes incurs a large opportunity cost of time and resources that could have been devoted to other activities.  He posits that there must be some advantage to these societies in having religion, otherwise they would have been out-competed by other groups who didn’t have it.  So there must be some kind of useful function to religion, which is what he spends most of the chapter looking at.

But first, there is the initial problem of defining “religion”. He gives a list of 16 attempts at a brief definition, from dictionaries, Wikipedia, and various authors, none of which really agree and none of which seem to really do the job.  He then proceeds to do a much better job of defining religion by listing five attributes religions commonly have:

  • Belief in the supernatural
  • Shared membership in a social movement
  • Costly and visible proofs of commitment
  • Practical rules for one’s behavior (“morality”)
  • Belief that supernatural beings and forces can be induced to intervene in worldly life.

Not everything that we would classify as a religion has every one of these, but they all definitely must have most of these, and must have the second item to qualify.  One guy believing stuff all by himself does not make a religion. (I would have put that attribute first on the list!)

Here are the seven functions he identifies religion as having:

  1. Explanation
  2. Defusing anxiety
  3. Providing comfort
  4. Standardized organization
  5. Political obedience
  6. Codes of behavior towards strangers
  7. Justifying wars

Before I continue with this chapter summary, I need to backtrack a little.  In this book Diamond discusses four different types of human societies, and I need to define those briefly for the rest of the discussion to make sense.

  • Bands: Groups of a few dozen individuals, usually one or a few extended families.  Often nomadic, hunter gatherers, or perhaps garden farmers.  Low population densities.  Everyone knows everyone else, no formal leadership.  No formal political leadership or economic specialization.  Egalitarian.
  • Tribes: Groups of up to a few hundred members, but still small enough that everyone knows everyone else.  Usually farmers or herders, often sedentary.  Leadership is relatively informal, there may be a “big man” who functions as a weak leader, leading by persuasion and personality. Relatively egalitarian, only weak economic specialization.
  • Chiefdoms: Groups of up to several thousand, too many for everyone to know everyone else.  Formal leaders assisted by  non-specialized all-purpose officials. Economic specialization.  Institutionalized inequality.  Redistribution of resources (taxes).
  • Nation-States: Populations from tens of thousands up to millions. Food production only requires a small percentage of the population;  most people are specialists of some kind. Police, laws and moral codes. Formal leadership, specialized bureaucrats. Economic and social inequality.

I’ll try to sum up his discussion of each of the functions of religion, and include my comments.

1. Explanation:  This one’s pretty obvious.  Humans want causal explanations for everything, and if we can’t figure one out, we’ll make one up.  This is a byproduct of tour need for pattern recognition, and the need to assume an active agent when we don’t know the cause of something, because the cost of missing when someone means you harm is very high.  It’s very satisfying to think you have an explanation for everything, so once a supernatural belief becomes established it’s very tenacious.  As our society has progressed from bands to tribes to chiefdoms to states, and our ability to figure out the actual answers has increased, this function of religion has diminished.  (I don’t see how this function of religion could give an advantage to a group possessing religion over a group without it.  To me, this function is really more of mental malware, with no survival value.  It’s more of a reason why people personally like having religion.)

2. Defusing Anxiety: People turn to religion to deal with problems and dangers beyond their control.  By engaging in a ritual of some sort, people feel as if they have done something of use in a situation where they are actually helpless, and are able to suppress their anxiety and function more normally.  People almost never turn to ritual when it comes to everyday predictable things.  As an example, he talks about a fishing village in the South Pacific, where they fish both in the open ocean and in a quiet lagoon.  The lagoon fishing is safe, easy, and has predictable yields, while ocean fishing is dangerous and unpredictable.  These villagers do not invoke magic for lagoon fishing, but they do magic rituals before heading out on an ocean fishing trip.    This function has also decreased as our societies grew, because people were able to take control over more and more of their environment. (I can see how this function would confer a survival advantage to small groups.  A village full of confident people would certainly have an advantage over a village full of fear and anxiety.  Even if that confidence is unwarranted. )

3. Providing Comfort: Religion can function to provide comfort, hope and meaning when life is hard.  It lets people explain suffering and death, and attribute some meaning to all the crap that life throws at you.  This function may have increased over time: as people settled into agriculture and larger social groups, in many ways  life actually became harder.  Nutrition was worse, disease became more prevalent, family sizes grew, and leisure time decreased.  Even today the more marginalized and underprivileged modern social groups are, the more religious they tend to be. (This may also be part of the explanation of why women tend to be more religious than men – their lives are often less under their own control, and religion can give them the illusion that they are in control of something.  I think this function is possibly just a part of the Defusing Anxiety function above.)

4. Standardized Organization:  This isn’t really a function of religion for bands or tribes, they don’t need it.  They have no full-time specialists, and no surplus available to support full-time leaders or large public projects.  As Chiefdoms arise there is a need for such things, and religion is a useful tool for accomplishing this.

5. Political Obedience:  A necessary part of organizing a large society is collecting resources to use to support the full-time leaders, construct public works, or support armies.  How do you get the people to obey the rulers and give up part of their production?  Again, religion is a really good tool for this – if the King is chosen by the gods, or is related to the gods, or is a god himself, then with an organized religious system supporting him he can ensure obedience and payment.  This function has decreased in modern nation-states, politicians now don’t usually invoke a deity to get people to pay their taxes or obey laws.

6. Codes of Behavior Towards Strangers:  At the band and tribe level, everyone knows everybody else, and what their relationships with those people are.  Not only with members of his own tribe, but with the neighboring tribes as well. There’s no standardized moral rules, only a network of useful  relationships.   There is no standard as to how you behave toward people you don’t know, partially because meeting a stranger is very rare.  Any stranger is from outside a person’s circle of known relationships, and may well be an enemy, or at least a threat.  The response to a stranger may be to try to kill them or to run away.  But when chiefdoms emerge, a new problem arises:  there are now members of your group who you do not know, but whom you must not treat as enemies;  group stability depends on this.  So now it’s necessary to have a formal code of behavior for how you treat members of your own group.  So religion takes on a new function, with a code of behavior supposedly handed down by the gods, with divine punishment threatened for those who break them.  This function has also decreased in modern secular nation-states, our laws no longer invoke the wrath of god as a deterrent.

This is also the religious function that makes costly and visible proofs of commitment valuable.  Since you don’t know everybody in the kingdom, how can you tell who’s part of “us” and therefore must be treated well, and who’s part of “them” and can be safely mistreated?  Who can you trust to have your back and who might be a spy?  It’s useful if there’s some way to tell who’s a friend, and if it’s a way that’s unlikely to be faked so much the better.  Sure, an outsider might say a few prayers, but will he grow his hair, wear tassels, abstain from pork, make all the temple sacrifices and cut a piece off of each of his sons (ancient Hebrews)?  Will he wear magic underwear, learn secret handshakes, give 10% of his income and devote two years of his life to missionary work (Mormons)?  Other examples include permanent bodily mutilation, long expensive pilgrimages, and publicly espousing rationally implausible beliefs. (I think this idea of commitment badges is probably worth its own book, and I’ll probably be blogging more about it in the future.  For instance, I think that Ken Ham’s Creation Museum is an excellent example of believers making a costly and visible proof of commitment.)

7. Justifying Wars:  This is also a new dilemma faced by growing societies. In bands and tribes war is always personal, and religion generally does not come into it.  Each combatant knows exactly why they wish to attack the members of the other group, and there are no laws to restrain violence and retaliation.  But as chiefdoms develop this also must change.   A person spends their life being told that it’s not OK to kill strangers or steal their stuff, because the gods say so. How can a state persuade the population that “Thou Shalt Not Kill” actually means “Thou must kill, under the following circumstances” without getting its soldiers hopelessly confused and prone to kill the wrong people?  But by using religion, this can be resolved, by declaring that all other religions are wrong, and that it is just and right to kill their adherents.  Societies of religious fanatics are very dangerous to those around them, from biblical Old Testament genocides to modern terrorists.  The survival advantage of having an army who believes they are doing god’s work is very clear.  Modern secular states no longer need to invoke “god wants you to fight”, but in many societies today it’s still being used.

Diamond’s conclusion about the future of religion is that functions 1 and 4-7 are likely to continue to decrease, but that 2 and 3 are likely to persist.

I’m not sure I’ve done justice to this chapter (I’ve omitted his discussion of the relevance of the evolution of electric eels, for example), but the way he presents these ideas was just too good not to make an attempt.  I really recommend this book, and not just for this chapter.  I’ve been reading a library copy, but it’s going on my list of books I need to own.



That one spooky thing (wrap-up) October 14, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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OK, time to wrap the series up.

When you’ve deconverted from religion and superstition, and decided to live a life based in reality, what do you think about that one strange thing that might have once happened to you?  That thing that keeps you convinced that there’s a supernatural realm out there somewhere?

Before you can decide that it’s actually “supernatural”, you really need to consider the following alternate possibilities, which I’ve discussed in earlier posts:

  • It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you (Part 1)
  • It’s technological (also Part 1)
  • It’s somebody deliberately tricking you (Part 2)
  • It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above (Part 3, 3.1 and 3.2)
  • It’s “supernatural”

So, when you are thinking of that thing you once saw, before you conclude it was an actual “impossible thing”, first you need to run through a serious thought process about it.  Could you have mis-perceived it initially?  Or filled in mental gaps based on what you expected to see?  Did someone have something to gain by tricking you?  And have you embellished your memory over time, to the point where what you remember now really might not be what you saw initially?

Suppose that you have run through all those possibilities, and still have not come up with a plausible explanation.  Then you are left with two possibilities that I can think of.  Either it actually fell under one of the above categories but you couldn’t figure it out, or it was ‘supernatural”.  (Remember probability, which of those is most likely?)

So, finally, if you have still come to the conclusion that the thing you saw might actually  be supernatural”, we have the problem of defining that term.  Like “spirituality”, it’s a word that people throw around all the time, but when asked for a straightforward definition, they either can’t define it, or define it in terms of other vague undefined concepts, which isn’t helpful.  Here’s my working definition of “supernatural”:  We live in a four dimensional space-time universe  of matter and energy, governed by predictable physical forces.  That’s the “natural world”.  “Supernatural” would be something that is not that, either wholly or in part.

For us to detect something “supernatural”, it would have to have the ability to interact with our physical world in some way.  Even if that’s just deflecting some photons, or causing an EM disruption, or just planting a thought in somebody’s brain, all of those things are interactions with our physical world.  Any being that is completely unable to interact with our world would be totally undetectable and therefore irrelevant.

To be sure that something is really supernatural, you’d have to examine it in a way that eliminates all of the other possibilities we have already discussed.  Since the real world is so messy, the best way we can be sure is to do carefully controlled examinations, where we reduce the variables down to just the thing we are examining and eliminate cheating.  Of course, a fleeting “ghostly vision” isn’t going to be easy to catch in a lab experiment!   Lots of investigators have worked to pin down something “supernatural”, to where we could get a look at it, and actually say something coherent about it.  Alas, the better the controls are on your experiment, the more the “supernatural” aspect goes away.  The JREF has had a standing ONE MILLION DOLLAR prize to anyone who can demonstrate something supernatural under conditions controlled to eliminate cheating and wishful thinking.  So far no one has even passed the first round of tests.  Does this mean there isn’t any such thing?  Well, no, but given the results so far,  I’m not holding my breath.

Earlier posts in this series: Part 1 Part 2 – Part 3Part 3.1Part 3.2

That One Spooky Thing (part 3.2) July 17, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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Continuing on…

I’ve been writing on the topic of how to think about that one thing lingering in your mind that might still make you wonder about the supernatural. As before, the possibilities that I have thought of are these:

•It’s a natural occurrence that’s rare or unfamiliar to you
•It’s technological
•It’s somebody deliberately tricking you
•It’s a problem of faulty perception and/or faulty memory, perhaps combined with some of the above
•It’s “supernatural”

So this time I’d like to talk about memory.  We like to think of our memories as video recorders, perfectly recording what happened and playing it back the same way every time.  But, sorry to say, this is not the case.  Our memories are buggy, subject to change, and just not very reliable, especially about details.

As I discussed in the last two posts, the first problem with memory lies in perception.  If we have misunderstood what we saw or heard, then we are remembering it incorrectly from the start.  So that’s one strike against us to begin with.  Let’s try a simple memory exercise before you read the rest of this post; take a pencil and paper and draw a simple line drawing of a bicycle.  Should be easy right?  Take a minute and give it a try.


That One Spooky Thing (Part 3.1) April 7, 2014

Posted by Ubi Dubium in Brain Glitches.
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Continuing with the way our brains impose patterns on random noise…

I want to discuss an important idea called “priming”

First, fill in the blank to make an English word:  S O _ P