Evolutionary psychology as "the truth-killer"

post by Benedict · 2012-07-23T20:44:53.927Z · score: 10 (15 votes) · LW · GW · Legacy · 70 comments

So, a little background- I've just come out as an atheist to my dad, a Christian pastor, who's convinced he can "fix" my thinking and is bombarding me with a number of flimsy arguments that I'm having trouble articulating a response to, and need help shutting down. The particular issue at the moment deals with non-theistic explanations for human psychology and things like love, morality, and beauty. After attempting to communicate explanations from evolutionary psychology, I was met with amused dismissal of the subject as "speculation". 

There's one book in particular he's having me read- The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. In the book, he brings up evolutionary psychology as an alternative to theistic explanations, and immediately dismisses it as apparently self-defeating.

"Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is really there, it's only because that belief helped us survive and so we are hardwired for it. However, if we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science? If our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all?" -Timothy Keller

The obvious answer is that knowing the truth about things is generally advantageous to survival- but it hardly addresses the underlying assertion- that without [incredibly specific collection of god-beliefs and assorted dogmas], human brains can't arrive at truth because they weren't designed for it. And of course, I'm talking to a guy with an especially exacting definition of "truth" (100% certainty about the territory)- I could use an LW post that succinctly discusses the role and definition of truth, there. 

Another thing Dad likes to do is back me into a corner WRT morality and moral relativism- "Oh, but can you really believe that the act of rape doesn't have an inherent [wrongness]? Are you saying it was justified for [insert historical monster] to do [atrocity] because it would make him reproductively successful?" Armed only with evolutionary explanations for their behavior, I couldn't really respond- possibly my fault, since I haven't read the Morality sequence on account of I got stuck in the Quantum Physics ultrasequence, and knowing that reality is composed of complex amplitudes flowing between explicit configurations or aaasasdjgasjdga whatever the frig even (I CAN'T) has proven to be staggeringly unhelpful in this situation.

In addition to particular arguments WRT the question posed, I could also use recommendations for good, well-argued and accessible books on the subject of evolutionary psychology, with a focus on practical experimental results and application- the guy can't be given a book and not read it, so I'm hoping to at least get him to not dismiss the science as "speculation" or a joke. It's likely he's aware that the field evolutionary psychology is really prone to hindsight bias and thus ignores it completely, so along with the book, a good article or study demonstrating the accuracy and predictive power of the evolutionary psychological model would be appreciated.

Thanks!

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comment by framsey · 2012-07-23T21:49:36.813Z · score: 53 (55 votes) · LW · GW

I'm going to make a meta-comment here.

I think that your ultimate goal should NOT be to convince your dad that you are right and he is wrong. If he eventually changes his mind, he's going to have to do that on his own. Debates just don't change participants' minds very often.

Instead, your goal should be to make him respect your beliefs as genuine.

Christians generally respect people who are genuinely seeking truth, in part because the Bible promises that "those who seek will find". The good news is that you ARE legitimately seeking truth, so you should be able to convince him of this.

Hopefully you already have a good relationship with your father based on mutual love and respect. You want to build on that and preserve it as much as possible. He is going to be your dad for the rest of your life, and how you interact with him now is going to determine in part how that relationship develops.

More practically: It sounds like you aren't sure exactly why you've changed your mind, and are having difficulty articulating it. Nobody on this site is going to be able to articulate it for you. Rationality is a method, not a conclusion. So here is my suggestion: do a stack-trace on your change of belief. It happened, so it is causally entangled with some set of arguments and evidence you encountered. Go back and try to figure out what caused you to change your mind. Reconstruct as best you can, in your own words, as exactly and precisely as possible, why you changed your mind.

This exercise will help you to understand what you believe and why. Discussing this with your father will be grounds for a future relationship based on mutual love and respect. That should be the goal here.

Last piece of advice: spend some time with your dad doing something other than arguing. Go to a baseball game or something. Try to get some father-son time where you're not just talking about your beliefs. You want him to get used to the fact that you're the same person, and you don't want this to dominate your relationship.

comment by saturn · 2012-07-25T23:14:51.575Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

Christians generally respect people who are genuinely seeking truth, in part because the Bible promises that "those who seek will find". The good news is that you ARE legitimately seeking truth, so you should be able to convince him of this.

On the other hand, I've seen Christians conclude that the fact that you haven't found Christianity is knock-down evidence that you're not legitimately seeking truth. One man's modus ponens is another man's modus tollens.

comment by grouchymusicologist · 2012-07-24T04:57:29.082Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

A big +1 to this and it echoes in many respects my advice here to a similar question. What you hit upon here that I did not do in that comment is the importance of understanding the etiology of one's new belief.

comment by gjm · 2012-07-24T00:59:40.945Z · score: 18 (20 votes) · LW · GW

A bunch of largely disconnected thoughts.

  1. I agree with others here that if you're going to have this sort of debate, then your goal should not be primarily "convince my father to agree with me" but "improve the accuracy of both his thinking and mine", and talk of "arguments that I ... need help shutting down" is probably indicative of sloppy thinking.

  2. If someone else has an argument that you can't find a good answer to, this doesn't necessarily mean that they are correct. It just means that you haven't found a good answer to that argument. There is nothing wrong with saying "Yes, that seems like a good point and I don't have a good answer to it right now, but it's not enough to convince me to switch sides." (But of course if you find a lot of such arguments on one side and way fewer on the other, it's suggestive of which side is nearer the truth.)

  3. The parallel Keller draws between religion and science is badly broken. Specifically, if anyone said "Evolution just makes sense to me; I feel in my bones that it's right" and regarded that as a good reason to believe in evolution, then they would be terribly wrong, every bit as wrong as someone who says the same about God; but that isn't what anyone actually says. (Not anyone with a clue, anyway.) So, indeed, we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to deliver accurate beliefs about God or science or anything else merely by considering the question for a while and seeing what we find ourselves thinking; that's the whole point of the whole scientific apparatus of peer review and double-blind testing and quantifying everything and doing analyses with as-rigorous-as-possible mathematics and so on and so forth. Keller's argument would be a good response to someone claiming to know by intuition that evolution is correct and theism is wrong; or to someone claiming that purported rational arguments for God's existence are no good because our brains are fallible. But I don't think I've ever heard anyone take either position.

  4. Atheists can be moral realists, but let's suppose for the sake of argument that you aren't one. Then the first place where your father's rape argument falls down badly (I think) is where he leaps from "it doesn't have an inherent wrongness" to "it was justified". A consistent moral nonrealist doesn't say "Everything is morally permissible" but "The whole idea that things are objectively permissible or not is misconceived". A typical moral-nonrealist position on rape or genocide or whatever would be something like this: "Strictly speaking, when you ask whether something is morally justified you need to say according to whose moral values. According to mine, [INSERT ATROCITY HERE] very definitely isn't morally justified, and reproductive success has nothing to do with moral justification. I'm sure the same is true of your values, and those of just about everyone else; it's a useful shorthand simply to say that it's morally unjustified, just as one says that sugar is sweet even though there are some people whose perceptions are weirdly different. Perhaps [NAME OF MONSTER GOES HERE]'s values were radically different, or perhaps he had none at all, but mine are much like yours in this respect, and I will fight alongside you against such atrocities. I just don't see any reason to think that those values are woven into the fabric of the universe. It suffices that they are woven into the fabric of my mind."

  5. To expand slightly on one bit of that: There is absolutely no shred of a reason why someone who believes in evolution, or someone who doesn't believe in a god, or someone who is or isn't a moral realist or a moral relativist, should believe that moral justification has anything to do with reproductive success. (In particular, it no more follows from belief in evolution than it follows from belief in gravity that it's morally obligatory to move heavy objects closer to one another.) If someone tries to foist such an idea on you, you might ask them to explain exactly why.

  6. It's worth being very clear about just what it is that he's asking for explanations of. For instance, it's clearly reasonable to ask why people make moral judgements, why they agree to the extent that they do, why they tend to feel like perceptions of universal truths, etc.; it's less reasonable to ask how we know that moral judgements are perceptions of universal truths, because that assumes something highly debatable.

  7. It's OK not to have explanations for everything. More precisely, someone might demand an explanation for something (a) when it turns out to be true, despite good reasons to expect it to be false; or (b) when it turns out to be true, despite there not being an obvious reason why it should be. But these are very different situations. In case (b), if you don't have an explanation, all it means is that there's some stuff you still don't understand. Fair enough; there's lots that we don't understand. In case (a), if you don't have an explanation, then it means there's likely something actually wrong in your thinking, because those "good reasons" are leading you astray. It seems to me that, e.g., "why is the world full of things that according to Christian ethics are evil and unjust and bad, if there is a supremely powerful and good being who cares about our affairs?" is a type-A question, whereas "why do we make moral judgements that feel to us like perceptions of universal truths, if in fact there are no universal moral truths?" is a type-B question.

  8. I think it's unlikely that reading Eliezer's writings on morality will help you much in these debates. (You might still find them interesting, of course.)

comment by advancedatheist · 2012-07-23T21:32:06.032Z · score: 15 (19 votes) · LW · GW

I don't see why you need to debate this with your father. On several forums I've advised young atheists with religiously obsessive parents that they need to secure themselves financially so that they don't have to move back in with these parents in our bad economy. A teenage or college-aged atheist shouldn't announce his apostasy until he can finish college with a marketable degree, get a job, pay off all debts down to zero and then save up about a year's worth of living expenses in case he becomes unemployed. Young atheists who do this will have the financial protection they need to tell their respective families about their atheism.

comment by B9013C87 · 2012-07-23T22:07:36.353Z · score: 13 (13 votes) · LW · GW

I think this is the best piece of advice overall. You are likely not going to convince your father, whose opinions probably even predate your birth. The real thing at stake here isn't scientific truth, and trying to convince him is to fight the wrong battle.

People have a lot of beliefs they don't feel the need to constantly justify to others, and I think it's an accepted social convention to seek shelter in that principle. Being evasive and using relativism can help : admitting you can't be sure about science and evolution is an acceptable compromise if you can trade it for the opposite fact that your father and people like him can't be sure about God either.

Once swamped in such a position on both sides, you can also simply chose not to pursue the argument further, and believe your stuff "just because I feel this is the truth", the same way they do for their own stuff, at which point it would be hypocritical for them to still try to convince you they're right. This may not seem like a "truth seeker" thing to do, but you're playing by his rules already anyway, and in his world, truth may not have the same meaning as it does in ours.

Also, trying to justify atheism like this feels like you're playing a game where you've both already agreed tacitly that atheism is the side of the argument that has the burden of proof, which it hasn't. Once again, don't fight on your father's ground with weapons adapted to your own. Either use other tools adapted to this battle ground (where truth is relative and backhanded arguments will be used), or move to another battle ground adapted to your tools.

comment by torekp · 2012-07-24T00:50:21.204Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I'm going to assume that you'll probably ignore the above advice because it's your relationship with your father, not the financial dependency (if any), that matters. In that case, start with framsey's last piece of advice. Move on to the rest of it. Then, if you are still reading a book "he's having me read," I recommend choosing a book or article that you're "having him read," if you can find one that seems worthwhile. Fair's fair.

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2012-08-04T14:12:02.022Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It would be probably also useful to limit the number of books, to prevent the algorithm: "I will be giving you more and more books, until you eventually give up, because you will be too tired to read yet another book."

For example to commit to read "five books you consider most convincing", but not one more.

comment by Desrtopa · 2012-07-24T14:37:14.234Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Considering that he's asking for help on the basis that he had already come out to his father as an atheist shortly before joining the site, I think it's a bit late for this sort of advice. From his introductory post:

After I told him about this, he handed me a book (The Reason for God by Timothy Keller) and signed himself up as a counselor for something called The Clash, described as a Christian "worldview conference". Next week, from July 30 to August 3, he's going to take me to this big huge realignment thing, and I'm worried I won't be able to defend myself.

So not telling his family about his atheism is really not on the table.

He could pretend to recant, which would help preserve his father's opinion of him in the short term, but it's possible that this deception will make Benedict even more uncomfortable with their relationship than overt disagreement. There is also a danger that this will hurt his relationship with his father even more in the event that he comes clean about his atheism at a later date.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-25T15:10:01.562Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

A teenage or college-aged atheist shouldn't announce his apostasy until he can finish college with a marketable degree, get a job, pay off all debts down to zero and then save up about a year's worth of living expenses in case he becomes unemployed.

(Relevant to your general idea, tough not to this particular case:) Unless he knows his parents are open-minded enough.

The fraction of theists in places such as western Europe has been plummeting in the past decades, meaning that there have been lots of atheists with theist parents, and I don't think the fraction of those who deconverted (or announced their deconversion) before achieving financial independence is that tiny, and yet there hasn't been any societal crisis due to that. Which means that there are plenty of theist parents who don't burn their bridges with their children upon discovering they're atheists. (Same applies with s/theist/heterosexual/ and s/atheist/homosexual/, too.)

comment by Xachariah · 2012-07-24T04:02:42.219Z · score: 10 (10 votes) · LW · GW

However, if we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything

This is such a lousy argument. Seriously, "If our first wild guessed ass-grab explanation is wrong, why should we trust any explanation about anything ever?" Well, because other explanations have proof, logic, and real world application backing them up. That's why we trust them. Arguments with proof get trusted; arguments without proof get discarded. We believe in evolution because applications of evolutionary theory lets us create evolved semiconductors via artificial selection, and every time we develop a new application it's another reason to believe.

If you look closely, Keller's argument doesn't even directly address evolution. It's a slight of hand in the wording to make you think it's about evolution. In actuality, this is a fully general argument against using reasoning to change society's mind about anything ever. "If we were wrong about , we can't use reason to change our minds about ." This is basically the exact opposite of human history. I'm imagining two Roman philosophers arguing and one of them saying that Apollo's chariot has to be the literal sun because if they were stupid enough to believe that they're too dumb to figure out the truth anyways.

Our guessing wrong about God doesn't prove shit. Starting from the dawn of time, humans have been wrong about pretty much everything. Fire doesn't come from the Gods. There's more than four elements. The Sun doesn't revolve around the Earth. Sickness isn't caused by bad spirits or an imbalance in the humors. The moving at the sound barrier won't crush any material to paste. Atoms aren't indivisible. Artificial Intelligence won't take about a month. etc. You name it we've been wrong about it. Being wrong about God doesn't disprove our ability to reason. It's just another thing we've been wrong about in the long, long, long, long line of things we've been wrong about. And yet, we keep reasoning. And little by little, year by year, we keep using our reasoning to help humanity become less wrong.

P.S. You don't necessarily need to read the sequences in order. I personally skipped the Quantum Physics sequence and came back to it later. If you're interested in Evolutionary Psychology, just read the Evolution Sequence.

comment by Manfred · 2012-07-24T17:36:20.035Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

Oh, and of course, silly me: remember to use the heuristic "what does this argument have to say about the Norse pantheon?"

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-24T05:34:51.230Z · score: 9 (9 votes) · LW · GW

"Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is really there, it's only because that belief helped us survive and so we are hardwired for it. However, if we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science?

What if you just said "my belief forming faculties tell me that I do not have near enough evidence to believe in the god you describe. So what if I just agree with you that I should trust my belief forming faculties?"

Another important tack to take: "OK I don't know in detail where love and the feeling that some things are wrong and some things are right come from. I do know from human history that humans have been wrong about things that felt very right to them: about the earth being flat, the earth being at the center of the universe, the sun going around the earth, the stars being pinprick sources of light in a "celestial sphere" that surrounded us, to mention a very small number. So I DO know that believing in something because it "feels right" is at best a crap shoot, and more likely a recipe for being wrong.

So in any case, though, if I can't explain love (and whatever else from human psychology) but I can even less explain God and what he is or where he comes from, then I haven't really helped myself by saying "God made love." At best I've just kicked the can down the road, but more likely, I've replaced a very hard question with a much harder one."

Appealing to a mystery hardly resolves a difficult problem. It is cleaner to just declare the original problem (human emotions) a mystery, and not create an even more mysterious thing and call that progress.

I also feel at some level you should be telling him "I won't be bullied into saying I believe something that I don't. Tricking me with argument will just make me angry and feel more tricked, and keep me from wanting to talk to you further." I swear to god (yes it is an ironic cliche to use here) that I do not come down that hard on anything my kids tell me they believe that I think is a mistake. At best I tell them what I believe and why I think it makes more sense, but if I don't respect their reasoning and how to use it, then I do not believe I am teaching them to respect their own reasoning. I don't want to raise followers.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-25T14:52:28.796Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Another important tack to take: "OK I don't know in detail where love and the feeling that some things are wrong and some things are right come from. I do know from human history that humans have been wrong about things that felt very right to them: about the earth being flat, the earth being at the center of the universe, the sun going around the earth, the stars being pinprick sources of light in a "celestial sphere" that surrounded us, to mention a very small number. So I DO know that believing in something because it "feels right" is at best a crap shoot, and more likely a recipe for being wrong.

It might sound like you're equivocating right /wrong‘factually correct/incorrect’ and right/wrong ‘morally good/bad’. You aren't, but you'd better use false and true rather than right and wrong in the first sentence to avoid confusion.

comment by drnickbone · 2012-07-26T22:51:40.420Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

A few thoughts. Theists love to use an argument script like this:

  1. Here is a puzzle that scientists can't currently explain
  2. God explains it
  3. Therefore God exists

If you accept that script you're bound to lose the argument at some point, because there will always be some odd fact that can't currently be explained. Science isn't omniscient, and never will be.

The trap is that it is very temping to try and solve such a puzzle yourself. The smarter you are, the easier it is to fall into that trap. If it's a really juicy teaser (like explaining human psychology, or aesthetics, or the origins of logical thought, or the nature of morality), then it's highly unlikely that you will succeed. A clever or experienced theist will already know the flaws (and counter-arguments) for most of the existing theories so can throw those at you. Or if you support a novel, or fringe theory (which theists haven't generally considered in the solution space, but which might work), they can dismiss it as "speculation".

What you have to defuse is the debating assumption that "God wins by default" I.e. that if there is anything at all which you can't explain, then God must have done it. When put so bluntly, it is a really outrageous fallacy that "God wins by default". Yet that seems to be what your Dad is relying on here. Don't accept it.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-02-01T15:31:39.143Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you accept that script you're bound to lose the argument at some point, because there will always be some odd fact that can't currently be explained. Science isn't omniscient, and never will be.

Nitpick: the "odd fact" has to be one that can semi-plausibly be explained by God. No-one ever tried to argue Brownian Motion was a result of tiny angels.

comment by CronoDAS · 2012-07-24T02:32:48.963Z · score: 8 (8 votes) · LW · GW

And of course, I'm talking to a guy with an especially exacting definition of "truth" (100% certainty about the territory)- I could use an LW post that succinctly discusses the role and definition of truth, there.

It's not an LW post, but how about an Isaac Asimov essay instead?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-24T04:00:32.976Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That's a great essay-- not only does it have a detailed history of the refinement of various scientific concepts, it's got a sketch of the idea of guessing the teacher's password with some clues about what better teaching would look like.

comment by Cyan · 2012-07-25T14:00:39.555Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

That's a nice essay, but it's worth noting that Asimov misunderstands the question of Newtonian versus relativistic physics. In particular, nothing in Newtonian physics requires light to propagate instantaneously.

comment by Kindly · 2012-07-25T14:31:38.165Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

I think he means it in the sense that if you take relativistic equations, and substitute infinity in for c (or, more rigorously, take the limit as c goes to infinity), you will get Newtonian equations. Thus the behavior of objects at small speeds is roughly Newtonian, because c is already well on its way to infinity compared to those speeds; conversely, when an object is traveling at a rate of 0.1c, it matters greatly that c is finite.

comment by Cyan · 2012-07-25T19:42:58.821Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Upon re-reading, I see that you are probably correct. Thanks!

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-25T14:57:35.451Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW > conversely, when an object is traveling at a rate of 0.1c, it matters greatly that c is finite. Not that greatly: the size of most relativistic effects is v²/2c² + O(v^4) which for v = 0.1c is 0.005. I would have used a bigger number for the example, say 0.9c.
comment by novalis · 2012-07-23T20:56:39.120Z · score: 8 (16 votes) · LW · GW

First, you should consider the possibility that your dad is right. I don't think he is, but if you want to really know anything, you need to seriously consider his arguments. If you are looking for counterarguments, you'll find them. But if you want to know what's really true, you have to evaluate the arguments yourself.

I guess I'll give you a hint on the "evolution predisposes us to see minds in everything" argument: Humans are adaptation executors, not fitness maximizers. So, it's absolutely true that being able to model other humans has historically key to our survival -- just as enjoying sugar has been. So, we believe in a god or gods because of that tendency. However, just because a certain tendency has historically helped us, doesn't mean it won't hurt us now or in the future.

Imagine yourself in your dad's place. You present a more fleshed out version of this argument to him. What does he say? Can he defeat this argument?

Imagine that he defeats this argument, which is a Genuine Less Wrong™-style argument (well, the sketch of one). It's even got a gratuitous link to a post in the Sequences™ Are you going to then give up your beliefs? If not, why are you arguing at all?

comment by othercriteria · 2012-07-23T21:26:52.211Z · score: 7 (9 votes) · LW · GW

The "self-defeating" claim you mention is Alvin Plantinga's evolutionary argument against naturalism. A number of mostly satisfying responses are listed on the wikipedia page. A brief search on LessWrong suggests that the EAAN hasn't been thoroughly critiqued here.

I suggest that you return to the Sequences, aggressively skipping the quantum stuff, until you've convinced yourself (and can convince others) that there's not much use worrying that evolution gave us a great faculty of instrumental rationality and a separate defective system of epistemic rationality. Such a situation has a vanishingly small probability and if it's true, there's not much to be done about it.

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-24T03:24:45.990Z · score: 6 (6 votes) · LW · GW

It's okay to listen and nod and go do what you were going to do anyway. But if you're wanting a scrap...

Your father mentions love, morality and beauty as natural and evidence of God. What happens when your father mentions equally-natural rape? Evidence of God, but a capricious God, would be consistent. Instead your father mentions things he likes as evidence of a God he likes, and things he doesn't like as evidence you're wrong.

Apply morality to biology in one person in one part of his or her life and you're going to be making up stories. Apply biology to large group behavior over long periods of time and you might be on to something. One man and one woman? No idea of their violent tendencies. A million men and a million women? Bet the farm that the men are more violent. Pointing out what one man or woman does as evidence for or against biological roots for morality is a misapplication of the tool.

"I'll think about that" is a fair response to anything your father says about God or your beliefs. You can then go think about it. Or not think about it. Then you can answer, or not answer. The answer of "I don't know" is also a fair response.

Here's one for you to ask him: Can God be surprised? If the answer is no, then ask how you can know something (how to be surprised, what it feels like, memories of it happening) that God doesn't know. If the answer is yes, ask what it is that your dad knows that God doesn't know and would be surprised about.

Your father, also, can say "I'll think about that" and "I don't know."

Note: I do not equate what is natural with what is good.

comment by Swimmy · 2012-07-30T05:47:06.718Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I agree with the other commentors on two things: you very likely won't be able to change your father's mind and that shouldn't be your goal, and an evo-psych book probably won't help. There are successful statistical evo-psych studies, but I think you should take the conversation to another level.

Specifically, as another commenter posted, the Euthyphro dilemma makes his line of reasoning very questionable. God-centered theories of morality are SUBJECTIVE morality theories, as evidenced by a simple thought experiment: imagine Satan, instead of the Christian god, created the world. In this hypothetical are murder and rape now moral? If not, then the act of creating humans and telling them what to do can't be a true objective source of morality.

Or, another revealing thought experiment: why, in detail, does god being god make him an arbiter of morality? The answer will usually be something like, "promise of eternal punishment/reward," "he's very wise," "the creation must not question the creator." These all correlate to PRIOR moral mandates that you must accept before following god's morality (respectively, "moral actions are based entirely on personal consequences," "smart people are always moral and should be followed," and "morality is strictly founded on rules passed down from a creator to a creation"). The point isn't that all of these prior moral rules are bad (though they are), but that they simply have to exist. You can't get to "we should follow god" without one.

Put very plainly: if god's a bad guy, we shouldn't do what he says.

If your father agrees to this, then you've divorced morality from god and have a more productive conversation on the origin of morality. If he doesn't, then he's admitted that he could be a bad guy; how could he possibly lecture you on morality after that?

(The common rejoinder is that god simply is goodness, or that goodness is essential to his nature; this is a black box tactic, a stopping point. If you poke further you'll see that it's not an answer at all. Be ready for this. If he insists, ask him to play rationalist's taboo with "nature." If he won't, then drop the conversation! Argument is about resolving confusion and learning new things. Those who refuse to take steps to those goals are not worth your emotional energy, no matter how close you might be to them on an emotional level.)

My friend, who is a campus minister, asked me to read the same book after hearing I was an atheist. I read the whole thing and found it very, very bad. My copy is filled with notes. I'd be happy to share further thoughts through pm if you have more difficulty. But first and foremost my suggestion is to get your relationship with your father to a point such that he isn't frequently haranguing you about your beliefs. Study takes time; you can't usually be prepared for any argument he can throw at you. But they will almost certainly not be novel. They will largely be cached and rehearsed arguments. Tell him that you feel debate should be about learning, not about winning, and so you should take time to study his arguments.

The answers are out there. The problem is that some of them are very technical, and some of them rely on revealing errors of thought you probably don't yet know. The rest of my rambling about morality was just to help this process. However, make notes of how much mental and emotional energy you are spending on this. There are harder questions in life. Given that you don't believe in god, there are probably more important questions as well. Remember not to get bogged down. Take long breaks, or simply ignore it if it's too much of a hassle. The degree to which you owe him a debate is a function of your emotional relationship and nothing else. There's no principle of it.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-02-01T15:29:17.323Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

If you poke further you'll see that it's not an answer at all. Be ready for this. If he insists, ask him to play rationalist's taboo with "nature." If he won't, then drop the conversation! Argument is about resolving confusion and learning new things. Those who refuse to take steps to those goals are not worth your emotional energy, no matter how close you might be to them on an emotional level.

I upvoted your comment, but the quote seems like very bad advice; not everything has to serve the goal of seeking Truth, even if it's somehow "about resolving confusion and learning new things."

Of course, it would be even more productive if we could persuade everyone we talk to to optimize their arguments for truth-seeking, not persuasiveness, but simply refusing to speak with them if they don't is simply rude (and kind of phygish.)

comment by Manfred · 2012-07-23T22:57:03.815Z · score: 5 (7 votes) · LW · GW

Reading a book on evolutionary psychology won't help you resolve most confusions about morality, in the same way that reading a book on cannons won't help you resolve most confusions about parabolas.

I think you have a lot of work left to do. And by that I don't mean reading about evolution - I mean dissecting a lot of confusing arguments and playing "why do I believe what I believe."

comment by stcredzero · 2012-07-24T03:34:12.988Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

So, a little background- I've just come out as an atheist to my dad, a Christian pastor, who's convinced he can "fix" my thinking and is bombarding me with a number of flimsy arguments that I'm having trouble articulating a response to

Being articulate has nothing to do with the truth. If your dad isn't willing to explore where he's wrong, then you shouldn't be talking about your world views with him. If you can't establish your world view without him, then you're not ready to establish it at all.

I'd advise not worrying about "the big questions" so much as what kind of person you are in the relationships that mean the most to you. I suggest creating value in the world. What kind of person you are "in the small" is actually more complex and more rewarding to explore.

comment by ViEtArmis · 2012-07-23T21:23:44.415Z · score: 4 (4 votes) · LW · GW

"Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is really there, it's only because that belief helped us survive and so we are hardwired for it. However, if we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science? If our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all?" -Timothy Keller

This is so laden with assumptions that are not substantiated that it is an excellent piece to pick apart just for practice. How does the capacity for untruth imply the un-capacity for truth? When do the biologists say that senses only provide what helps propagate the species? My laptop may be designed as a computer, but it still works as a hammer in a pinch...

comment by drnickbone · 2012-07-28T08:47:21.345Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

On the particular argument, you might want to take a look at the Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Evolutionary_argument_against_naturalism

The "evolutionary argument against naturalism" seems to go back to CS Lewis, and Alvin Plantina attempted to formulate it in Bayesian terms. There is a rather devastating response from Fitelson and Sober. In particular:

For the fact of the matter is that our cognitive mechanisms are reliable on some subjects, unreliable on others, and of unknown reliability on still others. We should divide our beliefs into categories and associate a characteristic degree of reliability with each of them. Perhaps certain simple perceptual beliefs are very reliable, while beliefs about other subjects are less so...

Once we decompose ... into a conjunction of claims, it is far from obvious that evolutionary theory does a worse job of predicting this conjunction than traditional theism does. Plantinga says the traditional theist “believes that God is the premier knower and has created us human beings in his image, an important part of which involves his endowing them with a reflection of his powers as a knower (p. 237).” However, an influential point of view in cognitive science asserts that human reasoning is subject to a variety of biases. It isn’t just that people occasionally make mistakes, but that the human reasoning faculty seems to follow heuristics that lead to systematic error (Kahnemann, Tversky, and Slovic 1982). It would be no surprise, from an evolutionary point of view, if human beings had highly reliable devices for forming beliefs about practical issues that affect survival and reproduction, but are rather less gifted when it comes to matters of philosophy, theology, and theoretical science. Does traditional theology also predict this result? No doubt, a theology can be specified that makes any prediction one wants. However, it is not at all clear that Plantinga’s traditional theology does a good job predicting the varying levels of reliability that the human mind exhibits. Plantinga must address the same problem that Paley’s design argument faces: Why would an omniscient, omnipotent, and benevolent deity produce organisms who seem to be so manifestly imperfect in the adaptations they exhibit (Sober 1993)?

comment by juliawise · 2012-07-25T16:56:55.176Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Are you saying it was justified for [insert historical monster] to do [atrocity] because it would make him reproductively successful?

Evolution doesn't define morality. We evolved to pass our genes on, but now that we've evolved smart brains, we can choose to do other stuff.

Having eight or ten children might maximize my impact on the gene pool, but that's not my personal goal. Likewise, I don't like it that other people's children are dying from malnutrition and disease, so I can take steps to prevent that even though it doesn't help my reproductive fitness.

Evo psych is a good reason for squirrels and monkeys to do what they do, but humans know better. We're capable of thinking through the effects of, say, rape and deciding we find it unacceptable even if it's in someone's genetic interests.

That said, I'm not sure a book on evo psych will improve matters between you and your dad. When I dropped religion, my mother was really upset partly because she believed I would be left without a moral system. You need to decide what you find moral, and eventually your dad may accept that you still have morals. (Or he might not.)

comment by matabele · 2012-07-24T06:36:58.066Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

However, if we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science? If our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all?

Rewrite the paragraph; but remove all unnecessary particulars and emotive words, leaving the propositions in the abstract:

... if we can't trust our beliefs ... to tell us the truth ... why should we trust them to tell us the truth ...? ... If our cognitive faculties ... only tell us what we need to survive ... not what is true ... why trust them?

The first proposition reduces to an entirely meaningless tautology. The second proposition implies that truth is something other than what we need to survive. Together, the propositions ask the question: In what contexts can we trust our beliefs?

These abstract forms of the propositions, expose the issues under discussion: What is belief? To what extent can we trust our beliefs? These issues have been the subject of much discourse and quite a number of wars, genocides, and such like; over the past few thousand years. Although there appears to be no convincing philosophical argument either way, historical and palaeontological evidence suggests that species and cultures unable to adapt, do not survive. In the human cultural context, these issues have been explored by Jared Diamond.

The evolutionary source of empathy appears to be our mirror neurons, you may follow the research from the work of V.S.Ramachandran, outlined here, and from this video.

The evolutionary advantage of mirror neurons, appears to result from the human trait toward scavenging. When following another creature to its source of food, we must imitate the other creature, whilst at the same time distinguishing ourselves from the other creature; in order to know the difference between 'something has eaten', and 'I have eaten'.

Here are a few pointers to philosophical arguments that might expose fallacies in thinking.

Beliefs may be classified into two types:

  • a belief that can be externally verified by experiment (science)
  • a belief that can not be externally verified by experiment (faith.)

The former type, are those beliefs that I must have; for example, if I do not believe the doorway is where it is (my map does not correspond to the territory), I will likely walk into the wall. These types of beliefs are necessary for my survival.

The latter type, are those beliefs that I choose to have; these beliefs express my preferences and values; for example, if I prefer to eat chicken than pork, and am offered an option, I will value a bowl of chicken more than a bowl of pork.

Preferences are contextual: if I am offered no choice, and have the option of eating pork or starving; then my preference for chicken may compromise my survival. If my preference for chicken prevents me from eating pork, and I subsequently die; my unshakeable preference for chicken will die with me.

I consider that the above illustrates that only the former type of belief will survive in the long run; which answers the question by inference.

Provided that one person feels that their preferences were freely chosen; then, what justification is there for denying another similar freedoms? If someone asks: Do you believe in God? - answer: Do you believe in a god? If their answer is in the affirmative, one can then answer in honesty: I believe that you believe in a god? This becomes a little tricky if someone asks: Do you believe there is only one God? Then one must find at least two people to respond in the affirmative, before one can answer in honesty: No (the burden of proof falls to them, if they wish to claim that these are one and the same god.)

For those of a more philosophical temperament, this paradox sometimes suffices (or failing that, invokes a perplexed expression):

For some 'thing' to exist; that 'thing' must first be recognized (there can never, therefore, be only one instance of any 'thing'.)

This works for any ideal (universal), but can be applied to the concept of 'god', as easily as the concept of 'chair' or 'unicorn'. It makes no sense to ask: Do you believe in the existence of 'chair'? For the question to have sense, one must ask in the particular; Do you believe in the existence of 'that chair'?

These are all plays on words, and I for one, have never really understood the difference: a 'believer' claims to believe in one 'unicorn', and a 'non believer' claims to not believe in another 'unicorn'. This confuses me; if pressed, I prefer to label myself 'apatheist', I really do not see that this kind of belief makes any difference either way: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Apatheism

comment by DanielLC · 2012-07-24T04:13:46.487Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

However, if we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science?

I trust my belief-forming faculties to tell me the truth about God. They say there isn't one.

comment by Eneasz · 2012-07-25T22:47:34.983Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Morality arguments from theists have always struck me as silly. If there was no god, can your dad really not think of any reason to not murder his neighbor? I can think of SEVERAL good reasons not to go and murder my neighbor. There you go.

The only thing that actually having a belief in god does is simply add one additional reason to a long list of reasons - fear of divine punishment (or conversely, seeking divine reward). ALL the other reasons STILL exist. I'm willing to bet that the divine punishment/reward is actually a very small percentage of the reason the theist chooses to take any particular action.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-26T03:01:20.477Z · score: 3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

EVEN IF there was no reason not to murder your neighbor unless god existed and forbade it, your desire to have murdering your neighbor be wrong is hardly evidence that god exists. Concluding from the fact that you want something to be true that it is true is CLASSIC human error.

I tried slapping someone once as part of an argument over free will vs determinism. I thought I'd make the point that if my slapping them was deterministic than they didn't have much cause to get mad at me for doing it. I couldn't bring myself to do it! And all that with no belief in god. You don't need god in order to want it to be wrong to murder your neighbor, I am living proof of that.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-26T07:07:00.588Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

I tried slapping someone once as part of an argument over free will vs determinism. I thought I'd make the point that if my slapping them was deterministic than they didn't have much cause to get mad at me for doing it.

Surely, in a deterministic world, a cause is precisely what they would have?

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-26T14:18:28.435Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Surely, in a deterministic world, a cause is precisely what they would have?

Sure they would have a cause. But in a free will world, their cause for blaming would be that it was me who had caused their being slapped. In a deterministic world, their cause for blaming me would be a long sequence of events whose outcome was determined long before my consciousness even existed. In the free will world, the meaning of their words and actions would actually reflect the reality of the situation. In the deterministic world, they would seem to me to be puppets acting out a drama about agents with free-will whos lines they had not written and could not alter.

comment by RichardKennaway · 2012-07-26T15:51:48.693Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

What do you mean by "free will"? What do you think of Eliezer's solution to The Problem Of Free Will, which seems satisfactory to me: the past does not reach around the present to cause the future, it causes the future through the present. The decisions that you and I make are part of that chain of causation. The subjective sense of "free will" is just what it feels like to take an action without having knowledge of one's internal machinery.

If you think that free will is something else, what?

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-07-26T16:04:38.268Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

The subjective sense of "free will" is just what it feels like to take an action without having knowledge of one's internal machinery.

Having knowledge of this internal machinery won't take away "free will", and one isn't usually just surprised with decisions selected by an introspectively inaccessible process that then have to be enacted, there is an option of reflecting on the output of any given opaque decision procedure and choosing something else. The relevant uncertainty is about what you will decide, not about the procedure that will be used to make the decision. If you know what you'll decide, you have already decided; if you are still deciding, you don't yet know what you'll decide, and absent this knowledge, you are free to consider the possibilities.

comment by shokwave · 2012-07-26T06:52:19.934Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

FWIW a punch on the arm is much easier than a slap.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-26T14:13:08.273Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And a punch on the arm is much easier to overlook than a slap. The point, had I been able to do it, would have been that my determinism-believing arguer had a POWERFUL intuition that I was the cause of his getting slapped, not some long sequence of dominoes falling against each other that started long before I was even conceived.

comment by shokwave · 2012-07-26T18:18:13.466Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

And a punch on the arm is much easier to overlook than a slap.

But a punch is much harder to overlook than a suppressed action!

The point, had I been able to do it, would have been that my determinism-believing arguer had a POWERFUL intuition that I was the cause of his getting slapped

I agree; a punch would have caused perhaps a less powerful intuition, but it would have caused the intuition you desired nonetheless.

comment by CronoDAS · 2012-07-26T06:02:28.279Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

I tried slapping someone once as part of an argument over free will vs determinism. I thought I'd make the point that if my slapping them was deterministic than they didn't have much cause to get mad at me for doing it.

Does determinism necessarily imply lack of moral responsibility?

comment by shokwave · 2012-07-26T06:54:25.009Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

No, but try and formulate a deterministic moral responsibility that doesn't feel wrong.

(Something like "This is Bob. Last year, physics dictated that his wife suffer a series of stab wounds from a knife that happened to be in his hands. Now, through no choice of my own, my body will administer a lethal injection to his body, so that his non-example will prove utterly unconvincing to anybody else who is already fated to murder their significant other and can do nothing about it.")

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-07-26T07:18:06.401Z · score: 2 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Presence of a physical explanation doesn't interfere with the more relevant decision theoretic explanation. The same fact can have multiple causes/explanations, in particular multiple causes each of which determines what happens. A sense of conflict between such different explanations that are not mutually exclusive is just a mistaken intuition you should get rid of.

comment by Nornagest · 2012-07-26T07:27:11.566Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

That sounds to me like it's mixing physical and volitional language and coming off weaker than it needs to be as a result. You could, for example, try defending some punitive measure by painting it as a consequence of a set of interpersonal rules (propagating, of course, by deterministic means) which end up producing a world containing less subjective misery than the counterfactual world in which they'd never arisen. Choice, or the lack thereof, needn't enter into it.

Not that I rule out talking about choices within a deterministic worldview. It's just that "choice" under that framework means something different than the vague libertarian free will voodoo that the naive view uses.

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-26T14:07:55.339Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Sure, but then you effectively accept a world in which we are puppets acting out a play in which the STORY is that we have agency and responsibility and are therfore blamed and loved for our actions, while the author of the story is a mechanistic rube goldberg machine.

To the extent any of us are actually pursuing the truth and pursuing a way to live with other humans that respects the truth, we would want to abandon the drama and come back to stating what we actually believed rather than acting out things that looked like belief in order to achieve a goal.

comment by Vladimir_Nesov · 2012-07-26T15:34:13.671Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

you effectively accept a world in which we are puppets acting out a play in which the STORY is that we have agency and responsibility and are therfore blamed and loved for our actions

Be careful with words, their implicit connotations don't necessarily form an argument. The word "story" suggests arbitrariness, imprecision, lack of fundamental import, all in contrast with the strengths of physical description. Yet there is no opposition between these framings, both and many more describe the same situation without mutual contradiction. A circle can be described both as "a bounded curve", and as a set of pairs of real numbers (x,y) such that (x-a)^2+(y-b)^2=r^2.

The description in terms of physical law, for all its precision, is not shaped in a way usable for performing decision theoretic analysis of a situation. When you have a story that models a situation in terms of players, beliefs and intentions, you can produce useful conclusions and decisions. If you don't know what to do with an extremely detailed physical description, you produce no conclusions or decisions. This is worse, so you should at least construct a story, and then see if you can do better by taking advantage of the additional data. Realizing that you don't know how the stories work, or don't know how to solve the problem on a more fundamental level, does not justify refusal to use the tool that works (and doesn't commit you to only ever using this one tool).

comment by mwengler · 2012-07-26T14:03:17.156Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

If determinism removes agency from my consciousness, then it seems to make as much sense to blame me for things I do as it does to blame a tsunami for the things it does. I did believe at the time that determinism implied the actions I was involved with were as much under my control as were the actions of tsunami.

These days I exist in a state of Bayesian uncertainty on these matters.

comment by roystgnr · 2012-07-24T01:36:31.988Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

What is this "our belief-forming faculties" category? Humans have lots of vastly different ways of forming beliefs. Although all of them are imperfect, some of them have turned out to be incredibly effective, while others have obvious, repeatedly demonstrated failure modes. Rationality isn't about recognizing we're wrong and then giving up, it's about recognizing we're wrong and then figuring out how we can become less so.

comment by zslastman · 2012-07-23T22:01:59.880Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Timothy Keller's argument becomes absurd when you reduce "cognitive faculties". Evolutionary psychology doesn't tell us not to trust our faculties at all (or he's correct, it would be self defeating). Rather it tells us to be wary of specific cognitivve faculties.Those of us claiming sanity make the assumption that our basic logical faculties are the most reliable (even those of us who believe in belief). Communication would be futile otherwise. Reason can be used to debug higher order functions that deliver conclusions to us wholesale - such as the intuitions telling us that God exists. And part of the means to carry out this debugging is to analyze them with evolutionary psychology.

comment by MrMind · 2012-07-24T22:06:47.712Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

You're playing, I think, the wrong game. If you both believe to have the truth about the existence of God, there is no updating nor justifiable epxlanations to be given: you just become two fundamentalists on the opposite side of the barricade who are trying to outwit each other. Not very effective.

I suggest you to shift to a different game, a more Bayesian game that starts from evidence. Then you don't need ev-psych, you just need Occam's razor.

You first put God's existence at 0 dB, then clear the game field: the fact that God is conceivable doesn't constitute evidence on his existence (otherwise so would your imagining that the Moon is made of cheese), nor that the fact that you can't tell the origin of morality (by the same symmetry argument). The game starts when you start adding and subtracting evidence in favor or against the existence of God, and watch the plausibility drop like a sunken ship...

comment by Oscar_Cunningham · 2012-07-24T22:47:44.588Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

God is a complex hypothesis, and so should have a prior lower than 0dB.

comment by MrMind · 2012-07-25T11:51:42.917Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

... if you factor in all the scientific knowledge so far accumulated and use the universal prior.
I agree with you in principle, a good Bayesian indeed should use all his prior informations and adopt a universal prior, but I think that putting God at 0dB is still beneficial in the context of the OP debate, and wouldn't change the outcome.
I strongly doubt that the OP's father would accept a starting point where the plausibility of God is already very low, while the probability of God at 1/2 is much more palatable, and usually the accepted starting point in traditional rationality.
The fact is that the OP can share an uninformative prior and then have the father make God a complex hypothesis, by presenting scientific knowledge directly in opposition with naive opinion on God existence. Then he just can rely on his preference of simple explanations to accept God non-existence.
This procedure still make sense from a Bayesian POV but produces much less friction when used within a heated debate.

comment by Mitchell_Porter · 2012-07-24T07:54:59.766Z · score: 0 (4 votes) · LW · GW

Contemporary evolutionary discussions about love, morality, beauty, and truth will only be superficial, because these are phenomena of the senses, the will, and intentionality, and current science only knows about atoms, behavior, and computation. First they have to be understood psychologically and metaphysically, then their relationship to the physical and biological must be figured out, and by then most of the deep questions would be solved. The main value of considering evolution in these contexts, at present, is that it reminds us of the contingency of how we respond to stimuli, and also to look for hidden reasons and hidden motives. But the deepest insights will have to come from elsewhere.

comment by asparisi · 2012-07-24T00:16:36.134Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

One thing that can help:

The source of something is not the same as its effect.

Yes, evolution is responsible for human psychology, which has concepts such as love and morality. But this doesn't mean that evolution has concepts such as love or morality within it.

Do concepts such as "love" and "don't murder" help with human fitness? Yes. Would murder be right if it helped fitness? No.

Imagine somewhere in the universe, there is a species that murders its own members as a matter of course and they evolved to do so. They call murder something that vaguely translates to "good" if you had a translation program that translated one of their languages to English.

But murder-alien!good is not the same concept as human!good, and it is human!good that we are concerned with. It doesn't matter that murder is not written against in the rocks, it is written in us as a bad thing. And that's because of evolution, even though evolution does not contain some generalized moral principle within it.

As far as "truth" being "100% certainty" the obvious problem is most easily (without math) stated as "If you are 100% certain, that means that you cannot change your mind. There is nothing that could change it. So if you are even the slightest bit wrong when you are 100% certain, you can't fix it. So you wouldn't want that form of certainty, even if you could get it."

Finally, God makes sense to us not because this belief directly helps our survival. Rather, the ability to attribute events to Agents and understand Agents was really useful for early humans, far more so than the ability to attribute events to non-Agents. Because if Ulk stole your food, it was better to think in terms of "who stole my food?" than "my food vanished." We are social animals, and as such, Agent-based answers are highly useful to us. So when we started to explain the world, we typically attributed Agency to things, rather than non-Agents. But that doesn't mean that our Agent-thinking was good for figuring out about nature, it just means that we used a useful faculty in the wrong way. Moreover, Keller's comment doesn't distinguish between different religious interpretations. Ask your dad if he believes Thor causes lightning: it made sense to a lot of people once upon a time.

comment by Desrtopa · 2012-07-23T23:52:32.849Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

It's not exactly a book on evolutionary psychology, but I recommend this book for some information regarding why we might be neurologically inclined to be religious in the absence of an actual god.

I would point out that it's not necessarily the case that religiousness was ever positively selected for as something that promoted survival, it could very easily be a consequence of other traits that were selected for interacting with each other. For instance, humans have strong pattern recognition capacities, but also a strong bias in favor of seeing patterns, even if the patterns are imaginary, because in our evolutionary environment, false positives were less likely to be dangerous than false negatives (it's better to run away from a bush that rustles in the wind than to not run away from a tiger.)

"Evolutionists say that if God makes sense to us, it is not because he is really there, it's only because that belief helped us survive and so we are hardwired for it. However, if we can't trust our belief-forming faculties to tell us the truth about God, why should we trust them to tell us the truth about anything, including evolutionary science? If our cognitive faculties only tell us what we need to survive, not what is true, why trust them about anything at all?" -Timothy Keller

This brings to mind the concept of "wronger than wrong. Agreement between map and territory is a matter of degree, not a yes/no proposition. Our senses give us (imperfect) information about our territory, and we have cognitive algorithms which convert that information into our maps. We can perform experiments to test the degree of agreement between our maps and the territory; for instance, if your map says that it's raining out, and if you go out in the rain, you should experience getting wet, and you go outside and continue to feel dry, you should lower your confidence in that part of your map. There are many examples of cognitive bias, where we find that our intuitive mapmaking abilities lead us astray and cause us to make wrong predictions. But we also find that with training, using proper experiments, statistics and reasoning techniques, we can build maps that show better agreement with our territory than the ones we can construct intuitively (who could have intuited Bose-Einstein condensates in advance of their discovery, for example?)

In light of this, it's worth asking, if we don't believe that through properly systematic reasoning we can do better than our intuition, why do we believe in our senses at all?

comment by Luke_A_Somers · 2012-07-23T22:35:10.751Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Just reading the title, I thought this was going to be about yet another failure of Evo-Psych (YAFEP).

comment by Emile · 2012-07-23T21:40:03.637Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Another thing Dad likes to do is back me into a corner WRT morality and moral relativism- "Oh, but can you really believe that the act of rape doesn't have an inherent [wrongness]? Are you saying it was justified for [insert historical monster] to do [atrocity] because it would make him reproductively successful?"

I can't say I disagree with him on that. Evolutionary psychology isn't much help when it comes to evaluating moral claims.

I don't know the answer to "is there such a thing as inherent wrongness?" - it probably depends on what is meant by "inherent" and "is". But I'm much more confident in the idea that "God says so" is not a satisfactory answer to moral questions, even assuming the ludicrous scenario where 1) we know God exists and 2) we know what he says we should do. If God said we should gouge out the eyes of all children, does it become the right thing to do?

comment by NancyLebovitz · 2012-07-24T01:11:55.440Z · score: 1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

How much of the usual ideas about morality (including, these days, being opposed to rape) can be derived from tit-for-tat Prisoner's Dilemma strategies?

comment by [deleted] · 2012-07-23T21:28:21.176Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Evolution is going to give you a good sense of how the world is. Figuring out how the world should be -that is, morality- is a different matter, to be informed by (but probably not based on) what you know of evolution. That's a little like trying to make a cake using your knowledge of physics.

If you want to Sequences' answer to this question, I'd go with this post: http://lesswrong.com/lw/sm/the_meaning_of_right/ . There's also a wealth of other writing on the subject from any number of authors - don't feel compelled to limit yourself to any single author in your efforts to tackle this (or any) question. And consider the possibility that this may be a hard problem to which you may lack a perfect answer at the moment, and content yourself with incinerating terrible non-answers. You do not need to have the full answer to point out that someone else is wrong.

comment by ViEtArmis · 2012-07-23T21:11:24.219Z · score: 0 (0 votes) · LW · GW

Well, there is an initial immediate problem with saying that people are hardwired for belief.

comment by Bundle_Gerbe · 2012-07-23T22:33:22.205Z · score: -1 (5 votes) · LW · GW

I think evolutionary psychology is pretty far from the crux of the theism/atheism debate.

On one hand, I don't think evolutionary psych at the moment provides very strong evidence against god. It's true that if god doesn't exist, there is probably some evolutionary explanation for widespread cross-cultural religious belief, and if god does exist, there might not be. But evolutionary psychology so far only really has educated guesses for why religious belief might be so common, without knock-down proof that any of them are the true reason. The existence of such guesses seems to me pretty close to equally likely under either hypothesis. These guesses are a good argument however against the opposite claim that widespread belief in religion proves god exists.

As for the Keller argument you mentioned, it begs the question by suggesting that the evolutionary psychology argument is a last ditch effort to subvert a conclusion that would otherwise be nearly unavoidable for our god-believing brains. But if we do have some inherent tendency to give credence to the idea of god, it's not all that strong, for instance the non-existence of god is much less surprising to our intuitions than the fact that color categories are perceptually constructed. The argument is better left at the object-level of directly giving reasons for and against god, instead of arguing for and against the reliability of certain weak human intuitions.

comment by Clippy · 2012-07-25T01:45:59.187Z · score: -2 (8 votes) · LW · GW

I thought gods were fake?

comment by CronoDAS · 2012-07-26T06:00:32.994Z · score: 2 (4 votes) · LW · GW

They are, but many people don't know that, and telling them so usually isn't enough to cause them to believe it.

comment by Clippy · 2012-07-27T00:43:20.834Z · score: 0 (2 votes) · LW · GW

Thanks for responding to my insightful comments respectfully rather than voting them down. You're a good human.

comment by marcusmorgan · 2012-07-25T03:31:31.268Z · score: -3 (3 votes) · LW · GW

I would say reasoning is a satisfying process towards secure knowledge from beliefs that might have any bases. Reasoning itself, by creative induction and strict deduction to confirm it, is a process that provides our ability to progress, and it is always open to debate as to the security of its knowledge. Consequently, if one seeeks absolutes, one may be entering spirituality, because even though nature might be an absolute and structured machanism (or might not), individual humans cannot state that is is an absolute reality because we are limited to our reasoning process, which is always provisional as to truth - its just a process towards greater satisfaction. You are welcome to read a new book I have written on this as a free download at http://home.iprimus.com.au/marcus60/1.pdf or at my site www.thehumandesign.net (it's a non-spiritual Design, just science).

So your issue might be in why people seek spiritual absolutes when we might be restricted to a process of reasoning 'towards' satisfaction. Perhaps it is over confidence, or an easy half step to say that so much is regular (as we see it) that is 'just is' that way by the hand of a creator. Perhaps it is laziness, of lack of understanding, as we do develop the ideas in my post and this site generally over time. We learn our limitations by reasoning more and more about them. So, I would not look so much to the need to believe at the most basic level, as I would not say I have ever had any particular beliefs (except beliefs as those things I subject to reasoning to raise their status to more satisfying knowledge). The evolutionary psychology rationale, like all natural selection rationales, is open to interpretation as to what benefits survival, and there might some argument that its helps us to survive to believe without confirmation, but I would probably see it as a side issue with pluses and minuses for survival, and merely a slip into error.

comment by MugaSofer · 2013-02-01T15:22:09.996Z · score: -1 (1 votes) · LW · GW

Consequently, if one seeeks absolutes, one may be entering spirituality, because even though nature might be an absolute and structured machanism (or might not), individual humans cannot state that is is an absolute reality because we are limited to our reasoning process, which is always provisional as to truth - its just a process towards greater satisfaction.

Why would the "spiritual" nature of a hypothesis render it more certain? Or have I misunderstood you?