Knowledge Paradigms

Knowledge Paradigms

In his book The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker explores the role that science, reason, and rationality played in mankind’s journey to become less violent. Throughout the long run of human history we have become less violent, less impulsive, more rational, and more considerate of others. Most humans alive do not live in small warring tribal bands. Most humans do not commit violent acts in the name of a deity. Most humans do not kill their neighbors for their own personal gain. Becoming smarter, Pinker argues, helped us become more peaceful in all of these areas. Becoming less impulsive and more thoughtful of how we relate to others has been a slow human process, but has played out in many important ways that contribute to the reduction in violence. We gained more knowledge about the world and pacified ourselves.
Pinker explores what enabled us to become smarter and what shifts in knowledge institutions played an important role in humans changing the ways we think. Science is one of the big factors that Pinker explores and he suggests that becoming more scientific, believing in objective inquiry rather than divine revelation, put people on a path toward peace. About science and knowledge he writes,
“Science is thus a paradigm for how we ought to gain knowledge – not the particular methods or institutions of science but its value system, namely to seek to explain the world, to evaluate candidate explanations objectively, and to be cognizant of the tentativeness and uncertainty of our understanding at any time.”
The values within science represent an important shift in an approach to human knowledge. Knowledge from a deity is absolute and cannot be challenged. Recognizing that our knowledge is instead limited, subject to revision and updating in the face of new information, and based on objective reality and not the word of authority or divine spirits is a departure from much of human history. It is uncomfortable to live with uncertainty and questions we have no way to answer, but it also makes us more peaceful. It makes us more considerate of the world, less sure of our selves, and less willing to follow leaders who encourage violence for dubious reasons.
Pinker continues, “though we cannot logically prove anything about the physical world, we are entitled to have confidence in certain beliefs about it.” Moving forward in human history, this is an important lesson we need to continue to think about. We don’t have all the answers about the physical world and we have even fewer answers about the human social world. We need to acknowledge that there is information we can be confident about even if we cannot prove every aspect of a scientific theory or belief. We need to recognize that we are fallible and cannot have complete confidence in our own beliefs and worldviews. We have to be willing to learn and update our beliefs. Doing so is the only way we can continue to exist and cooperate as a peaceful species.
Christianity & Torture

Christianity & Torture

In The Better Angels of Our Nature, Steven Pinker is critical of Christianity for it’s acceptance and use of torture. Modern day Christianity may not encourage torture of the living, but it still holds on to the threat of eternal torture to pressure people into behaving in certain ways. And while the bible has been reimagined and reinterpreted, it still contains many points of serious violence. The heart of Christianity, Pinker argues, Jesus dying on the cross, is emblematic of the eternal torture that awaits those who do not live up to the Christian god’s expectations. Pinker writes, “by sanctifying cruelty early, early Christianity set a precedent for more than a millennium of systematic torture in Christian Europe.” 
For Pinker, there is a direct link between the Crucifixion of Jesus and subsequent periods of atrocities committed by the Christian Church. Pinker lists examples of people who were burned at the stake, had bodies and limbs destroyed, and faced agonizing deaths because they challenged church doctrine. Like Jesus, who was violently killed though he didn’t himself commit a violent crime, many non-violent church dissenters faced violent ends.
In his book, Pinker focuses on Christianity’s use of violence to show how much human societies have changed with regard to violence. A religion that today views itself as peaceful was once quite ready to use violence to punish people and to signal to others that they needed to obey church authority. Violence was inflicted upon people openly and publicly.
Violence today cannot be inflicted so publicly or openly, not even by totalitarian rulers. Religious institutions do not go about murdering or torturing non-believers and dissenters in public. And if people find out that violence took place behind closed doors, there is likely to be public outrage about the use of violence to shape people’s behaviors. Even within religious schools the use of corporal punishment is no longer acceptable in large parts of the world.
In human history violence was seen as proper and necessary to keep people in line and punish those who stepped out of line. Today, violence is declining. Even for our most awful criminals we are less likely to seek the death penalty in many parts of the world. And when we do allow the state to end an individual’s life, we do so as peacefully and non-violently as possible, through lethal injection. Jesus was killed in public in a painful and agonizingly slow manner for a petty crime. A punishment we would never accept today as we have moved away from violence and toward more peaceful societies.
Ignoring Old Testament Violence

Ignoring Old Testament Violence

I am by no means a biblical scholar and I am not a religious person in general, but my understanding is that the Christian god in the Old Testament is a wrathful and vengeful god. I understand that there are examples of genocide perpetuated by said deity, that there are murders ordered and condoned by the god, and that the text is quite violent in general. But much of that violence seems to be ignored, referenced as not being literal but symbolic and metaphoric, and generally less of a focus among religions that view the Bible as a sacred text.
Steven Pinker writes about this phenomenon in his book The Better Angels of Our Nature to demonstrate how people and societies have become less violent over time. “In recent millennia and centuries,” he writes, “the Bible has been spin-doctored, allegorized, superseded by less violent texts …, or discreetly ignored. And that is the point. Sensibilities toward violence have changed so much that religious people today compartmentalize their attitude to the bible. They pay it lip service as a symbol of morality, while getting their actual morality from more modern principles.”
Pinker references the violence of the Old Testament and the lack of violence in subsequent religious texts while demonstrating that the world has become a less violent place. Religious violence and violence condoned by a deity is simply less common. Texts which followed the Old Testament became less violent as the people writing those texts also became less violent. Today, violent sections of religious texts are almost entirely ignored or explained in a way that deemphasizes their violence. The modern world is less violence and accepts less violence in policing, maintaining authority, and organizing society. This is a huge change for humanity, and can be observed in our cultural products such as our religious documents and attitudes.
Syncretism - Yuval Noah Harari - Sapiens


Modern Christianity, along with other dominant religions (though I know very little about any world religion besides Christianity – and even then I don’t know that much), is a monotheistic religion. If you attend a church service in the United States then you are likely to hear about a single tripartite deity who controls the world. The deity is omnipotent and omniscient, yet allows humans a level of autonomy and free will, for reasons human mortals cannot understand. At the same time, however, modern Christianity, as you may hear it described on a typical Sunday in the United States, also has many dualist characteristics. The religion claims to be purely monotheistic, with frequent denouncements of false idols such as money, the Dallas Cowboys, or other spirit gods (like the gods of traffic lights who shine their green lights upon us – or punish us with red lights at every intersection when we are running five minutes late), yet still manages to violate it’s own monotheistic principals.
In his book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari writes about the incredible ability for humans to create religious organizations and institutions that simultaneously hold and violate ideas of monotheism, dualism, polytheism, and other structures. Harari writes,
“The average Christian believes in the monotheist God, but also in the dualist Devil, in polytheist saints, and animist ghosts. Scholars of religion have a name for this simultaneous avowal of different and even contradictory ideas and the combination of rituals and practices taken from different sources. It’s called syncretism. Syncretism might, in fact, be the single great world religion.”
Syncretism is an amalgamation of beliefs and belief structures formalized into a religious framework, as described in the passage above. But syncretism really isn’t that different from anything else we may come to believe. I consider myself a pretty rational person, but I have conflicting and contradictory beliefs in terms of personal responsibility. I have even gone so far as to believe in two different forms of personal responsibility based on reference points. I think we should view ourselves as responsible for our life outcomes, while viewing everyone else basically as a victim of circumstances and luck. This ensures that each of us individually works hard and does our best to reach our goals and be successful, while looking at others in a sympathetic light, giving them a pass for bad behavior and seeing them as deserving of a helping hand. These two beliefs contradict each other, but just as Christianity demonstrates, there is no reason opposing and contradictory beliefs cannot be tied together in an influential manner.
The truth is that humans and our societies are complex and we don’t understand society by thinking in terms of statistical chance and variation. When someone yells at a an employee of a company when being told to pull their mask up over their nose, we assume that there was a personal and individual reason for why the mask-averse individual yelled at the employee. We don’t see it as simple statistical chance that some amount of people are generally disagreeable, won’t have enough coffee on a given day, will have lost something important while running late, and will be short tempered when told to fix their mask. We don’t do a good job holding statistical chance in our minds and instead view causal explanations, even when chance and randomness may be the better perspective. In the end, we pull a lot pieces together in how we understand the world, and those pieces may narratively work together, but may not be the best rational fit together.
Syncretism is the result of an amalgamation of different narratives with individual perspectives and experiences as they relate to religious beliefs. We have different experiences and interactions with the world which manifests in different ways of explaining and interpreting the world. We fit all these contradictory and complimentary understandings into larger frameworks, fudging the edge when necessary and adopting beliefs that are convenient and consistent with the narratives that support our experiences.  The result is a worldview and belief system that seems jumbled together, like a monotheistic religion where an all powerful deity allows an antagonistic lesser deity to run amuck . This normally isn’t a problem of human existence, but rather a feature that allows us to come together with various shared beliefs for cooperation and trust among a diverse group of individuals and experiences.
New Gods and the Shift to Agrarian Society

New Gods and the Shift to Agrarian Societies

In the book Sapiens, Yuval Noah Harari argues that there has been an evolution to the types of gods that humans have believed in throughout history. His argument is that humans at one point were more likely to believe that animals, plants, and other inanimate features of the environment had spirits and supernatural abilities, that those beliefs were eventually dropped in favor of gods responsible for certain outcomes, and that in the end those gods became consolidated within a single omnipotent deity. This transition could be attributed to simple chance, but Harari argues that a causal pathway exists from animal and plant spirits to an omnipotent deity.
For the first step in the process, Harari argues that human agriculture and a transition to an agricultural society was the primary causal driver. Harari writes, “gods such as the fertility goddess, the sky god, and the god of medicine took center stage when plants and animals lost their ability to speak, and the god’s main role was to mediate between humans and the mute plants and animals.”
A pre-agrarian society, Harari argues, didn’t need to control plants or animals. An agrarian society, however, did. Farmers ordered plants in the ground, made efforts to control their water supply, competition, and the nutrient level of their soil. Herders had to control and direct their flocks, we’re responsible for the continued reproduction and health of animals in their herds, and had to ward off predators. In new agrarian societies, men became responsible for plants and animals, and it became necessary to appeal to higher powers to influence successful crop yields and herd survival when many things remained beyond the control and influence of early agrarian humans. Spirits within animals and plants were not helpful, gods who could influence plants and animals were very helpful.
According to Harari the transition to gods for specific needs or to influence aspects of the environment occurred in many places in corresponded with agrarian living. The gods were a result of the efforts and subsequent needs of humans. There was an evolutionary procession based on the needs of humans that shaped how gods manifested in belief systems.
The Mental Scaffolding for Religious Belief

The Mental Scaffolding of Religious Belief

Yesterday’s post was about our mental structure for seeing causality in the world where there is none. We attribute agency to inanimate objects, imbue them with emotions, attribute intentions, and ascribe goals to objects that don’t appear to have any capacity for conscious thought or awareness. From a young age, our minds are built to see causality in the world, and we attribute causal actions linked to preferred outcomes to people, animals, plants, cars, basketballs, hurricanes, computers, and more. This post takes an additional step, looking at how our mind that intuitively perceives causal actions all around us plunges us into a framework for religious beliefs. There are structures in the mind that act as mental scaffolding for the construction of religious beliefs, and understanding these structures helps shed light on what is taking place inside the human mind.


In Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman writes the following:


“The psychologists Paul Bloom, writing in The Atlantic in 2005, presented the provocative claim that our inborn readiness to separate physical and intentional causality explains the near universality of religious beliefs. He observes that we perceive the world of objects as essentially separate from the world of minds, making it possible for us to envision soulless bodies and bodiless souls. The two models of causation that we are set to perceive make it natural for us to accept the two central beliefs of many religions: an immaterial divinity is the ultimate cause of the physical world, and immortal souls temporarily control our bodies while we live and leave them behind as we die.”


From the time that we are small children, we experience a desire for a change in the physical state around us. When we are tiny, we have no control over the world around us, but as we grow we develop the capacity to change the physical world to align with our desires. Infants who cannot directly change their environment express some type of discomfort by crying, and (hopefully) receiving loving attention. From a small age, we begin to understand that expressing some sort of discomfort brings change and comfort from a being that is larger and more powerful than we are.


This is an idea I heard years ago on a podcast. I don’t remember what show it was, but the argument that the guest presented was that humans have a capacity for imaging a higher being with greater power than what we have because that is literally the case when we are born. From the time we are in the womb to when we are first born, we experience larger individuals who provide for us, feed us, protect us, and literally talk down to us as if from above. In the womb we literally are within a protective world that nourishes our bodies and is ever present and ever powerful. We have an innate sense that there is something more than us, because we develop within another person, literally experiencing that we are part of something bigger. And when we are tiny and have no control over our world, someone else is there to protect and take care of us, and all we need to do to summon help is to cry out to the sky as we lay on our backs.


As we age, we learn to control our physical bodies with our mental thoughts and learn to use language to communicate our desired to other people. We don’t experience the build up action potentials between neurons prior to our decisions to do something. We only experience us, acting in the world and mentally interpreting what is around us. We carry with us the innate sense that we are part of something bigger and that there is a protector out there who will come to us if we cry out toward the sky. We don’t experience the phenomenological reality of the universe, we experience the narrative that we develop in our minds beginning at very young ages.


My argument in this piece is that both Paul Bloom as presented in Kahneman’s book and the argument from the scientist in the podcast are correct. The mind contains scaffolding for religious beliefs, making the idea that a larger deity exists and is the original causal factor of the universe feel so intuitive. Our brains are effectively primed to look for things that support the intuitive sense of our religions, even if there is no causal structure there, or if the causal structure can be explained in a more scientific and rational manner.
A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

A Religious Start to Ideas of Drug Prohibition

In his book Chasing The Scream Johann Hari briefly writes about human practices of using drugs dating back well over 2000 years ago. He uses a story about Greek rituals at the Temple at Eleusis to show how common and widespread drug use was, and how it occupied a central and almost sacred role in human life for ancient Greek civilizations. Hari writes about the downfall of the ritual use and near celebration of drugs which occurred at the temple. A downfall that doesn’t appear to have been brought about by negative consequences of drug use, but a downfall that was a deliberate power grab.


“The early Christians wanted there to be one rout to ecstasy, and one rout only – through prayer to their God,”  Hari writes. “The first tugs towards prohibition were about power, and purity of belief. If you are going to have one God and one Church, you need to stop experiences that make people feel that they can approach God on their own.”


Hari writes that drugs alter states of consciousness and can give people a new sense of wonder, of awe, and of being something more than themselves. These senses, he argues, were what the Christian Church wanted to offer people through their religious experiences. Church and drugs were competing for the same mental faculties and experiences, and the Church wanted to limit outside exposure to sources that gave people a supernatural feeling.


I like to think about the world in terms of the systems and structures that shape the possibilities of our lives. Institutions matter, and they can inform what we find to be immoral, just, and common (or uncommon) parts of human nature. Hari’s research suggest that human desires to change their states of consciousness with chemicals are not in fact the immoral and uncommon problematic desires that we have portrayed them. Institutions, such as religions, have shaped the ways we think about and understand drugs and chemical intoxication. There are probably some true elements of public safety and health in our drug prohibition today, but much of our policy stems from and still maintains a system of authority, power, fear, and xenophobia. Drug use can be widespread and accepted, even if it is problematic – just look at alcohol use in the United States and across the globe. It can also be prohibited and marginalized, it just depends on the institutional systems and structures we chose to attach to drug use. We can develop ways to use drugs responsibly and safely, or we can force drug use into illicit and shady corners of society, where a guarantee of safety and protection is a laughable idea.

Three Factors That Push In Favor of Religious Belief

In The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson, the idea that many of the ways we act and behave have little to do with our stated reason for our actions and behaviors is explored in great detail. The authors’ thesis is that our self-interest dominates many of our decisions. The authors suggest that our beliefs, our social behaviors, and our interactions in the world are reflective of our self-interest, even if we don’t admit it. One area the authors examine through this lens is religious belief.


Simler and Hanson identify three factors that tend to push people toward belief, even though the factors have little to do with evidence for or a belief in a deity. They write:


“1) People who believe they risk punishment for disobeying God are more likely to behave well, relative to nonbelievers. 2) It’s therefore in everyone’s interest to convince others that they believe in God and in the dangers of disobedience. 3) Finally, as we saw …, one of the best ways to convince others of one’s belief is to actually believe it. This is how it ends up being in our best interests to believe in a god that we may not have good evidence for.”


The argument the authors put forward is that people believe that people of faith will be better people. That they will be less likely to commit crimes, more likely to have high moral standards for themselves, and more likely to be an honest and trustworthy ally. In order to be seen as a person who is trustworthy and honest, it becomes in one’s best interest to display religious faith and to convince other people that our beliefs are sincere and that we truly are an honest, trustworthy, and moral ally. These social factors don’t actually have to be related to religious beliefs, but the beliefs can create a structure that allows us to demonstrate these qualities.


These factors then push us toward belief. It is hard to always convince people that you are authentic, but it is not hard to simply adopt a belief, even if there is a shaky foundation for the belief you adopt. This occurs today with political beliefs about specific governmental decisions and interventions. It happens with climate change denial, and with fad diets. We convince ourselves that we are doing something because it is correct, and we can then better defend our decision and better defend our actions which might be signaling something else about ourselves.

Sex, Society, & Religion

An argument I found very persuasive in The Elephant in the Brain by Kevin Simler and Robin Hanson is that religions establish norms for sexual behavior in an attempt to help create social cohesion partly through systems of shared sexual family beliefs and values that build into family beliefs and values. The norms around sex ensure help establish specific norms around relationships which add to social cohesion. There are many different norms about sex across the planet, and religions, or the lack there of, often have different rules about sexuality which reinforce those norms.


In the book the authors write, “As Jason Weeden and colleagues have pointed out, religions can be understood, in part, as community-enforced mating strategies. The religious norms around sex become central to the entire religion which is part of why any social topic surrounding sex sets off such a firestorm. Religious sex approaches are also community based and community enforced, meaning that they need the buy-in and support of the entire community to work.”


Simler and Hanson go on to describe the way this looks in the United States with our main political divide between family and sex traditionalists who tend to vote more Republican and be more Christian versus more secular individuals who are more careerist, less family and sex traditional, and more likely to vote for Democrats. Sex and family traditionalists benefit when people avoid pre-marital sex, stick to one partner, and have many children starting at a young age. They create communities to help with child raising and everyone is encouraged to reinforce the view of a successful two-parent family.


The authors contrast that view with a more open view of sex and families. Women are more likely to use contraception, allowing for multiple partners and allowing childbirth to be delayed. This gives men and women a chance to have fewer kids starting at a later point in life and allows both to be more focused on their career than on building a family.


In both cases, having more people adopt your norms around sex is beneficial. If you are trying to be a traditionalist, it can be challenging and frustrating to work a job you dislike, limit yourself to one sexual partner, and have children early if everyone else is having lots of sex, advancing in interesting careers, and not having to spend time raising children. You will have fewer people to share childbearing with and will receive less social praise for making an effort to start your family in your early twenties. However, if you are more open with your sexual preferences in a traditionalist society, you might be looked down upon, might not have the sexual partners that you would like to have, and be criticized for your promiscuity and for pursuing a career rather than a family. The norms around sex, in both instances, shape how you are viewed and treated by society, and reinforce or hinder the sexual, family, and even career strategy that you might pursue.


There are many ways for humans and communities to treat sex. I would imagine that different strategies at different times of human existence have been more advantageous than others. When humans barely lived past 30, when we didn’t have medical technologies for abortion, and didn’t have technology for producing contraceptives, then it made sense for certain strict rules to emerge around sex to help create communal norms that reinforced health behaviors, continued human existence, and community cohesion. On the opposite end, I recently heard someone suggest that early hunter-gatherer societies likely permitted individuals to have lots of sexual partners, and that fathers likely didn’t ever know for sure if a child was there offspring or not. This created a situation in a small tribe where it was best to just take care of every child to ensure that any child you might have was taken care of. This is another norm around sex and family that worked for the time. I may just be a modern career focused individual, but it seems to me that acknowledging that humans can have different sexual and family preferences, and allowing norms to adjust to our economic, technological, and social trends may be more helpful than adhering to strict norms established to fit different societal demands of the past.

Religion As a Community Social Structure

There are not many things that pull people together quite like religious beliefs. Sports pull us together when our kids are on the same team, when we are all in a stadium, or when two of us are wearing the right hat on an airplane, but those don’t make for strong ties that are lasting and uniting. Religion offers an entire worldview and set of corresponding behaviors that do create lasting ties between people who otherwise wouldn’t have much in common and wouldn’t likely interact for any significant time. Robin Hanson and Kevin Simler look at religion in their book The Elephant in the Brain to understand the ways that religious signaling, behaviors, and beliefs operate in ways that often go unnoticed.


They quote a few authors in a short section that stood out to me:
“Religion,” says Jonathan Haidt, “is a team sport.”
“God,” says Emile Durkheim, “Is society writ large.”


Simler and Hanson go on to explain what this community and larger social aspect of religion means given that we tend to think of religion more as a private belief system:


“In this view, religion isn’t a matter of private beliefs, but rather of shared beliefs and, more importantly, communal practices. These interlocking pieces work together, creating strong social incentives for individuals to act (selfishly in ways that benefit the entire religious community. And the net result is a highly cohesive and cooperative social group. A religion, therefore, isn’t just a set of propositional beliefs about God and the afterlife; it’s an entire social system.”


Religions typically encourage pro-social behaviors that get people thinking more about a cohesive group than about selfish motives. By pursuing these prosocial behaviors, people can gain more status and prestige in society. For selfish reasons then (at least to some extent), people pursue the religious dictates of their society in their own personal lives. As they do this, positive externalities may arise and may create a society that is more cohesive and supportive all around. This might not always happen, but having a shared system of understanding the world, our places in the world, and the stories about who we are and why we exist help to create the social fabric and social capital to further encourage cooperation and social cohesion. In a weird way, our selfish motives encourage religion, even if we don’t acknowledge it and assume that religion is entirely about personal beliefs.