On God and Victim Blaming

Everyone is familiar with God rhetoric and with victim-blaming rhetoric. But what people don’t seem to realize is that the two are very similar, and when you think about it, you find that God (as the fictional character in the Bible) is the ultimate victim blamer. The following screenshot is from the comment section of a post by “allallt” called “A Non-intervening God and The Problem of Suffering“:

Sure, so if God kills a thousand people in an earthquake, then it’s the peoples‘ fault for settling there, not God’s. What about hurricanes? Well duh, 21st-century America is just asking for God to send them. (Ignoring even the most basic science, let’s analyze this from the perspective of someone who really holds these views.) Of course, the religious user ends the discussion several comments down with “I will pray for you.”

The “just asking for it” rhetoric is absurd. Does this imply that if someone didn’t “ask for it,” they will be spared of the full consequences? Former Representative Todd Akin (from last year, Republican of Missouri) seemed to think so:

At the time, the press correctly made a huge deal out of this (as well as of other fellow religious Republicans). The trouble is, if you thought that was bad, then you may be shocked to hear that even the most fundamentalist Christians with the most primitive views about rape don’t come close in comparison to fundamentalist Muslims, who have a much more degrading view of women and have given one woman a 200-lash sentence for the crime of being raped. Well, to make it better, she was originally sentenced to only 90 lashes, but then since her lawyer tried to bring this absurdity to light in the international press, the Saudi Arabian court extended it to 200 lashes and a 6-month prison sentence. I really wish I were making this up.

In 2005, Australian Muslim preacher Faiz Mohamad said in a 1000-person lecture, “A victim of rape every minute somewhere in the world. Why? No one to blame but herself. She displayed her beauty to the entire world…” You know it’s a sad state of the world when a whole class of people make Todd Akin seem like a feminist in comparison.

Is it a mere coincidence that the most extreme victim blamers are often the most religious? I would argue it is not a coincidence, and that the two are very intertwined.

God, the Ultimate Victim Blamer

Now that I have your attention, I would like to take a step back and explain the purpose of this article. In general I think many well-meaning people (both religious and nonreligious) completely ignore the relation between religion and society, or at least publicly ignore it due to the taboo against discussing it. On the contrary, there are very significant correlations between religion and social/political views, and it’s some of these that I would like to bring more awareness to.

So why is God the ultimate victim blamer?

All the rapes, murders, and genocides in the Bible (for example) indicate not only that God approves of humans doing the victim blaming, but also that He does the victim blaming himself.

As you approach a town to attack it, first offer its people terms for peace.  If they accept your terms and open the gates to you, then all the people inside will serve you in forced labor.  But if they refuse to make peace and prepare to fight, you must attack the town.  When the LORD your God hands it over to you, kill every man in the town.  But you may keep for yourselves all the women, children, livestock, and other plunder.  You may enjoy the spoils of your enemies that the LORD your God has given you. (Deuteronomy 20:10-14)

Thus says the Lord: ‘I will bring evil upon you out of your own house. I will take your wives [plural] while you live to see it, and will give them to your neighbor. He shall lie with your wives in broad daylight. You have done this deed in secret, but I will bring it about in the presence of all Israel, and with the sun looking down.’
Then David said to Nathan, “I have sinned against the Lord.” Nathan answered David: “The Lord on his part has forgiven your sin: you shall not die. But since you have utterly spurned the Lord by this deed, the child born to you must surely die.” (2 Samuel 12:11-14)

Make ready to slaughter his sons for the guilt of their fathers; Lest they rise and posses the earth, and fill the breadth of the world with tyrants. (Isaiah 14:21)

What a great leader, showing such shining examples of paragon virtue to His followers! Of course, many Christians instinctively say, “But that’s the Old Testament, and that doesn’t apply because Jesus.” That objection is technically invalid because Jesus and the New Testament explicitly say the Old Testament still applies. This is often denied, and even if the Old Testament were completely ignored, it’s not as if the New Testament is made up of radiant moral perfection.

God is also the ultimate sexist, who, even besides all those passages about rape, said infamous things as

“I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.” (1 Timothy 2:12)

“Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.” (Ephesians 5:22)

“Slaves, submit yourselves to your masters with all respect, not only to the good and gentle but also to the cruel.” (1 Peter 2:18)

And even without citing particular passages, some of the central messages taught to everyone reek of victim blaming. The New Testament says plenty about Hell, but what other is Hell than God’s punishment for beings that He himself created? In the moral behavior setting, if someone sins and deserves going to Hell, then why did God create such a person who would commit that sin in the first place? “I created something that was flawed, therefore I must punish it for being flawed.” The whole mentality of “God doesn’t send people to hell, they choose it” is practically the definition of victim blaming. I would urge anyone to compare that to the “they asked for it” mentality. Finally, the predestination setting is just as bad, if not worse—now you are being punished for being the victim of pure chance.

While the Bible is quite horrible at talking about gender equality, there is one book that is arguably worse: the Quran.

. . . If you fear highhandedness from your wives, remind them [of the teaching of God], then ignore them when you go to bed, then hit them. If they obey you, you have no right to act against them. God is most high and great. (4:34)

. . . Wives have the same rights as the husbands have on them in accordance with the generally known principles. Of course, men are a degree above them in status . . . (2.228)

Of course, now I’m going to get the “You’re taking it out of context!” objection. So please tell me, what kind of context I am supposed to take 1 Timothy 2:12 under that makes it okay to tell women to shut up? I’ll await your answer in the comments.

In all, the rhetoric of religion and that of victim blaming are very similar, if not identical. Their similarity is moreover not a coincidence, but rather a lingering effect of a time when people believed every word of the Bible/Quran (and many still do). In our age, it seems that to be a “good” Christian is to follow as little of the Bible as possible. At what point will it become completely ignored?

The Signal and the Noise, and Other Readings

The Signal and the Noise

Since last year’s presidential election, everyone has heard of the legendary Nate Silver, who predicted the outcomes of all 50 states correctly. Given that he also correctly predicted 49 out of 50 states in the 2008 election, this repeat feat seemed like clairvoyance, not coincidence. So the question is, what did Silver do right that so many polls and pundits did wrong?

Statistics.

The Signal and the Noise (2012) is basically a popular applied statistics book, with more history, philosophy, and psychology than formulas. The first half of the book illustrates the failures of prediction including the 2007/8 financial crisis, elections, sports, and natural disasters; the second half explains how to predict the correct way, using Bayesian probability. Overall it does an excellent job at explaining the concepts and not going into mathematical detail (which is probably a plus for most people; even for a math person like me, I know where to look up the details).

Sidenote: While I was reading the chess section, my mind literally blanked for about 10 seconds upon seeing the following:

My chess intuition immediately told me that something was wrong: there is no way this position could have occurred “after Kasparov’s 3rd move.” Since Kasparov was white, this implied the white position must have 3 moves, but clearly there are only two moves: the Knight on f3 (from g1) and the Pawn on b3 (from b2). Yet this book was written by Nate Silver, so he couldn’t have gotten something wrong that was so simple. Once I realized it must have been a mistake, I looked up the game and found that at this point of the game, the g2 pawn should be on g3. I thought it was an interesting mind lapse.

Breaking the Spell

This book argues that scientific analysis should be applied to religion. Namely, the title refers to the taboo of preventing rational discussion of religion, and that to “break the spell” is to break the taboo. In addition, it discusses the theories as to how religion arose; ironically the names for such theories are evolutionary theories, as they concern how modern religion has evolved over time from ancient spiritual beliefs (e.g. which specific doctrines maximize a belief system’s chances of survival, etc.).

Reading this means I have now read at least one book from each of the four “horsemen”: Dawkins, Dennett, Harris, and Hitchens. Of the four, Dennett is by far the least provocative. While the other three make arguments that outright use logical analysis on religion, in this book Dennett is the one carefully arguing that one should be allowed to make arguments that analyze religion just as one can on any other phenomena. This book should be nowhere near as controversial as The God Delusion or The End of Faith.

Overall the book makes good points but is quite slow, makes overly cautious caveats, and has a very formal tone. I think if someone like Dawkins had written this, it would be much more readable. I wouldn’t really recommend this to anyone who doesn’t have a lot of interest in philosophy.

CEO Material

The main competitive advantage of this book over the typical leadership book is that it quotes very often from 100+ real CEOs. Overall these first-hand experiences supplemented the author’s main points quite well. However, for the sake of privacy I presume, the quotations are not labeled with the speaker, so it is sometimes difficult to tell how any particular passage applies to a given situation. For example, do I want to listen to the advice of a food company CEO on a particular issue and apply it to run a tech company? Perhaps the overall message is similar but clearly the details matter. Some say that context is everything, and without the context of who said it, each quote has much less power.

Most of the points seemed like common sense, although that is to be expected—the system is efficient enough that if the most effective behavior for a CEO were radically different from what we already do, then we would have adapted to that already (hopefully). Even so, there are still some interesting points made with real justifications, though again it would be helpful if we knew who said each quote, even for a few of them. In all, Benton did make points that changed the way I look at things, so it was worth reading.

The Blind Watchmaker

While The Selfish Gene focuses on how genes propagate themselves and how they dynamically compete over time (evolutionary game theory), The Blind Watchmaker covers an entirely different issue: How did complexity arise?

Some of its answers, written at an earlier time (1986), seem somewhat outdated now, ironically more so than The Selfish Gene which was written even earlier in 1976. This is probably due to The Selfish Gene being more of “Here’s the progress we made in the last decade” when it was written, while The Blind Watchmaker is more along the lines of “Here’s why this work from 1802 is nonsense” and that this counter-argument doesn’t particularly need to invoke the most up-to-date findings.

But anyways, we don’t judge books by how outdated they seem in 30 years, so let’s move on to the content. Due to its premise, the book is more philosophical than The Selfish Gene, which is itself more scientific, hardly addressing at all the conflict between evolution and religion. While The Blind Watchmaker still has a formidable amount of science, it addresses some philosophical questions as well and confronts the conflict head-on. I would recommend it to those looking to question philosophical beliefs, whether of others or of their own.

Mortality

Of the books in this post, Mortality is the answer choice that doesn’t belong with the others. While the other four are strict nonfiction works that try to explain or teach certain something, Mortality comes off more as a dramatic story, the story of coming to terms with terminal illness. Hitchens opens up with the stark statement, “I have more than once in my life woken up feeling like death.” As usual, Christopher Hitchens’ signature writing style and tone are apparent.

“What do I hope for? If not a cure, then a remission. And what do I want back? In the most beautiful apposition of two of the simplest words in our language: the freedom of speech.”

“It’s probably a merciful thing that pain is impossible to describe from memory.”

“The politicized sponsors of this pseudoscientific nonsense should be ashamed to live, let alone die. If you want to take part in the ‘war’ against cancer, and other terrible maladies, too, then join the battle against their lethal stupidity.”

“The man who prays is the one who thinks that god has arranged matters all wrong, but who also thinks that he can instruct god how to put them right.”

“I have been taunting the Reaper into taking a free scythe in my direction and have now succumbed to something so predictable and banal that it bores even me.”

“Myself, I love the imagery of struggle. I sometimes wish I were suffering in a good cause, or risking my life for the good of others, instead of just being a gravely endangered patient.”

“To the dumb question ‘Why me?’ the cosmos barely bothers to return the reply: why not?”

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Rationality vs Irrationality

This article is based on several conversations I’ve had recently on rationality, and it is supposed to be an overview-type post that explores different areas of the subject. In fact, since this is a pretty heated topic that comes with misunderstandings by the handful, I will be going very slowly and throwing out as many caveats as possible to make sure I’m not misunderstood, though of course this is bound to happen. Because of this, the tone for this article will be rather informal.

Rationality vs Irrationality

It is obvious (to anyone who follows this blog or knows me in real life) that I stand on the side of rationality (though I often intentionally do things that would be considered irrational). Heck, even the blog name is “A Reasoner‘s Miscellany.” Note that the title is not “A Reasoner’s Manifesto” or “A Reasoner’s Main Ideas.” Rather, it is a “miscellany” of various ideas in various subjects and of various degrees of significance. The main purpose of this blog is to jot down random ideas, serve as a diary of thoughts, and also just to satisfy my urge to write. It is not to try to start a revolution or to promote any particular ideology, though that may seem to occur as a secondary result.

Answering this question obviously depends on having precise definitions of what rationality and irrationality are, but as soon as I lay down definitions, some of you will start arguing the definitions rather than the actual concepts. And without this disclaimer, some of you will be arguing “Well it depends on the definitions” as if that refutes my overall argument. It turns out you’re in luck, because in this post, I’m not trying to make any grand overarching arguments, but instead just laying down a bunch of thoughts, which might be followed up on in later blog posts with more fully fleshed out arguments.

Now that many of the meta-caveats are out of the way, I suppose I can finally begin talking about rationality. Of course, even without giving detailed definitions, I feel as if I must give some overall definition to anchor the discussion. Basically, when I refer to rational thinking, I refer to thinking involving logic, facts, evidence, and reason. This is opposed to irrational thinking, which I consider to be thinking involving emotion, faith, or just not thinking (or even the refusal to think). These characterizations don’t exactly match the conventional philosophical terms (which are themselves sometimes disagreed upon), but I think this captures what is generally meant when someone says “That thought process is rational” or “That thought process is irrational.”

Biases are one of the primary obstructions to reason. Two perfectly rational agents using perfect logic and starting with the same information should theoretically arrive at the same conclusion. However, the “perfect logic” assumption is ruined if one of the agents is biased towards one side from the beginning and uses that bias in their “logic,” at which point it is no longer logic. Of course, one of the most important biases is that you are less biased than other people. Thus I must try my best to account for major personal impacts in my life that would push me towards rationality.

The main event influencing my choice towards reason is when I started learning about astronomy when I was in first grade, in South Carolina of all places. We visited an observatory and I quickly became interested in space. Even then, I realized that knowing all these things about space must have occurred through some systematic method of observation, experimentation, and reasoning (though not in terms of these words). We knew there were nine planets (back then, Pluto was a planet) because we saw them through our telescopes and reasoned their existence through their movements and gravitational effects, not because we wished there were nine, or because it would be totally awesome if there were nine, or because it was divinely revealed to us that there were nine.

Religion and Tradition Both Oppose Rationality

Because of my early interest in space I learned by 1st grade about the Galileo incident with the Church (and also about Copernicus to a lesser degree). It didn’t just bother me that the vast majority of people were so ludicrously wrong about something like whether Earth revolves around the Sun or the Sun revolves around the Earth, but rather, that the Church refused to believe the truth and instead demonized the bringer of truth, doing so because they so adamantly believed that the Sun orbits the Earth because their holy book said so. From the moment I learned about this, I could never take “religious logic” seriously (i.e., X is true because it says so in the Bible/Quran/etc).

My views on religion have changed a lot since 1st grade. For instance, my main objection to religion now is not so much that it is fictional, but rather because of the vast social harm it causes due to its irrationality. In fact, throughout most of my life I subscribed to multiculturalism (regarding religion, you have to respect religious ideas no matter how insane they are), and so I wasn’t an antitheist. It was only a year ago that I went from (agnostic) atheist to (agnostic) atheist antitheist.

Another great opponent to rationality is tradition. Similarly to religion, tradition in principle stifles new ideas and is very bad a providing reasonable justification for doing something, i.e. “Because it says so in the Bible” or “Because that’s how it has always been done.” Again along the lines of biases, I have to warn that I am probably personally vested in this topic of tradition vs rationality as I extremely resented how I was treated in my childhood from my Asian parents, and also due to my view of Chinese culture in general. For an explanation, see this post and this one. In context of this post, even at a young age I was capable of making logical arguments and it always frustrated me that whenever I argued with my parents, they could never actually refute what I said, only justifying their actions through tradition, superstition, and authority. I’ve never mentioned it on this blog before, and only to a few people in real life, but in my childhood I was driven by my parents to near suicide. These anti-tradition, anti-superstition, and anti-authority sentiments have persisted.

Intentional vs Unintentional Irrationality

This summer I probably thought about rationality more than I ever have in the past, as my work had to do with making rational decisions. The book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by Daniel Kahneman (Nobel Prize winner), made an significant impact. The primary reason I wrote the post “Pride in Things Out of Your Control” was that it was something that I found deeply irrational even though it was being expressed by a number of highly rational people. The fact that it was on July 4th given the subject was pure coincidence.

But that topic was on something that most people probably never think about. Because of this, it’s much harder to call someone with this kind of view “irrational,” as they probably aren’t aware of it. On the other hand, if someone say read that post and thought about pride in randomness, and afterwards still thought it was rational to be proud of one’s race, then it is much easier to consider them irrational. Similarly, I don’t find most religious people irrational since most religious people (at least of the ones I know) never talk about religion, thus they probably aren’t ever in a serious state of questioning religion. On the other hand, some religious people read science books (particularly on evolution) and still believe in creationism, thus it is much easier to consider these people irrational. Just as refusing to accept that Earth orbits the Sun (based on religious texts) is worse than simply not knowing about it, refusing to learn about evolution (based on religious texts) is worse not knowing about evolution. See willful ignorance.

Rationality vs Irrationality in the Media

The distinction between rationality and irrationality is related to many others, like Enlightenment vs Romanticism, future utopia vs past utopia, objective truth vs subjective truth, or science vs religion. If anything, support of irrationality is significantly overrepresented in the media. Does the following movie setting sound (overly) familiar?: The future, advanced technology, but with social inequality, terrible quality of life, what it means to be “human” is gone, nature is destroyed, and evil technologists or even machines rule as the result of the rise of the “rational,” and the day is saved by someone with an old-fashioned, “irrational” mentality often involving some mythical power? Nah, that sounds like a completely original idea. What about the one where nature overcomes technology? Or the religious guy who no one believes who is right the whole time? Or the evil scientist showing that science is bad? Or society claims to know how to treat the “irrational,” using nefarious tactics?

Sure, these are just movies mostly for entertainment purpose, and any societal warnings are a secondary effect. Perhaps I’m way overreacting. I mean, a movie or a novel has to have dramatic conflict, and movie about the future being an awesome place would be really boring to watch. But this does not mean the framing of which side is “good” and which side is “bad” should be so one-sided. One of the only shows that takes the pro-rational side is Star Trek (the [earlier] TV shows, not so much the recent movies). Characters like Spock and Data are as logical as you can possibly get, yet they are on the team of the protagonists. Technology is shown as overall beneficial, and even religion has almost disappeared from humanity (though some of the aliens they encounter have their own religions). In fact, it seems like if some show like Star Trek, The Original Series or The Next Generation, were to be released in modern day, 2013, it would be canned and be deemed far too political and “anti-religious,” as American society is far more anti-science than before (I find it hard to imagine the modern US having a warm reaction to a hypothetical modern-day version of Albert Einstein.)

The only other type of show I can think of that is pro-reason is crime investigation shows, where the protagonists try to rationally deduce facts from clues and from suspects, many of whom committed crimes for highly irrational purposes. But the main theme for these shows are normally concerned with justice, not rationality vs irrationality.

The Rationality of Irrationality

In the second paragraph, I mentioned that I sometimes intentionally act “irrationally.” However, many of these irrationalities are still made from an overall rational decision. In the post “Spontaneous Decision Making,” I talked about how I generally “…don’t plan ahead details ahead of time, as I abhor fixed schedules or fixed paths.” I will re-quote here an interesting behavior from my Fall 2010 semester:

For example, last semester, to get to one of my classes from my dorm I had two main paths, one going over the Thurston Bridge and the other over a smaller bridge that went by a waterfall. For the first couple weeks I took the Thurston Bridge path exclusively, as I thought it was shorter than the waterfall path. But then one day I went the other path and timed it, with about the same time, maybe a minute slower (out of a total of 15 minutes). So I started taking the waterfall path exclusively. But eventually that got boring too, so I started alternating every time. You might think that’s how it ended.

But a consistent change like that is still… consistent. Still the same. It was still repetitive, and still very predictable. Perhaps the mathematical side of me started running pattern-search algorithms or something. Eventually, I ended up on a random schedule, not repeating the same pattern in any given span of 3 or 4 days.

But as I later reasoned in the “Spontaneous Decisions” post, there was a method in the madness. I go against patterns on purpose, but all this increases versatility. I try to be prepared for anything, and if I always do the same pattern or plan everything out ahead of time, then I may not be able to adapt quickly to a new situation.

Another set of examples comes from video games. I tend to play extremely flexible classes/builds that have multiple purposes, and I try to have multiple characters or styles to be able to adapt quickly and to know what other people are thinking…

To have a quick response, I try to be accustomed to every scenario, and moreover, practice responding quickly. It is a sort of planned spontaneity. Intentionally making spontaneous decisions is like handicapping yourself during practice. But then when you get to the real thing, you remove the handicap and perform much better. If you can make a good assessment of a situation in 10 seconds, imagine how much better it would be with 10 hours.

In addition, the planned spontaneity is very much like preparing for a later event. Comedians spend a bunch of time preparing content so that it seems spontaneous when they perform it. In speed chess, when you don’t have time to think, the only thing that helps is prior experience. To quote Oscar Wilde: “To be natural is such a very difficult pose to keep up.”

Is Art Irrational?

Anti-rationalists often point to art, implying that to be rational is to see art as pointless. Art is indeed a more subjective experience, but is it totally subjective? Many great artists and novelists created works that expressed the style or discontent of their times. In the same way I see history as useful because it provides us with a context with which to view the modern world and the future, I see art as useful to see not just the time period of the artist, but also the lives of the artists themselves. To say “art is subjective” and end discussion with that is a very naive move that shows either a shallow understanding of art or a participation card in the “all truth is subjective” movement.

I can have rational discussions of art, novels, films, TV shows, video games, etc. When you want another’s opinion on a new painting from a famous artist and you have artist friends, who do you consult? Do you go on the streets and find a hobo or crack dealer and ask him about the art? Do you ask your favorite 6-year old relative? Do you consult a physics professor? No, probably not. Even though “art is subjective” and beauty is in the eye of the beholder, you go to the fellow artist or art critic to hear their professional, trained opinion. If the art critic’s opinion is worth more than that of the average person, then there must be some part of art that is objective. If you met someone at a formal event who said, “I hate the Mona Lisa, it’s a terrible piece of art!” you would probably think this person is uncultured and has an inferior art opinion despite your belief that art is subjective.

Ordinary Faith vs Religious Faith

It is perfectly rational to have faith in the conventional sense, but it is almost always irrational to have faith of the religious variety. I am okay with believing something with no proof if I still consider it a reasonable decision. Do I have absolute proof that the Sun will come up tomorrow? No, but I’ll bet anyone 10,000 to 1 odds that it will (if it doesn’t, I’ll give you $10,000; if it does, you owe me$1). For me to make this bet, that means I have to believe the probability of the Sun coming up tomorrow is >99.99%, given certain risk aversion preferences. If a billionaire whom I was best friends with and a homeless beggar both asked me for $100 as investment money and promised to give me a$50 a year for the next 10 years, given that I trust the billionaire sufficiently (and that inflation/interest rates are as they are now), I would give it to the billionaire (i.e. I would have faith in this billionaire), but would obviously not give any money to the beggar. Rationally, anything with a high enough probability of happening and with a low enough max cost, is reasonable to believe.

Religious faith corrupts the usual concept of faith. Instead of having strong evidence (the Sun has come up every single day since recorded history and according to science there is nothing to suggest a high probability of the Sun not coming up tomorrow; or this person is a self-made billionaire and so must know how to invest money, and is also a good friend) and therefore believing something, I am given ZERO evidence and expected to believe something. Not even a speck of evidence.

Conclusion

This article wasn’t really written in a way that lends to a conclusion, but given the length, I find it nonetheless necessary to include a “Conclusion” section. The post was much longer than I expected (around 2900 words), but I think I gained a more organized view of these ideas. The topic is, of course, open to rational debate.

When Does Not Deciding Count as a Decision?

This week’s topic is whether not deciding is itself a decision. Let us start by escalating things quickly: consider the classic trolley problem.

There is a runaway trolley barreling down the railway tracks. Ahead, on the tracks, there are five people tied up and unable to move. The trolley is headed straight for them. You are standing some distance off in the train yard, next to a lever. If you pull this lever, the trolley will switch to a different set of tracks. Unfortunately, you notice that there is one person on the side track. You have two options: (1) Do nothing, and the trolley kills the five people on the main track. (2) Pull the lever, diverting the trolley onto the side track where it will kill one person. Which is the correct choice?

While there are many interesting aspects of the trolley problem, with many variants of the problem that may cause one to reconsider their views, this article is concerned with one particular question: Is actively choosing option (1), or doing nothing, equivalent to passively not making a decision? (It turns out this question has real-world consequences, as will be evident below.)

That is, is there is a difference between

• A) Considering (1) and (2), and deciding that (1) is morally superior; and
• B) Ignoring the decision, and thus passively allowing (1) to occur?

For one difference, consider the same trolley problem except that the trolley is initially headed for the 1 person, and you have to pull the lever to turn it to the 5 people. In such a case, someone using thought process (A) would STILL choose (1), to have the trolley hit 5 people, whereas someone using thought process (B) would now “choose” (2), allowing the 1 person to be killed.

In the original case, it is difficult to justify non-decision; however, one would most likely be viewed as innocent if one made no decision and allowed the trolley to kill 5. This is because the legal system generally can only punish decisions, not non-decisions. So the real question is, are the following equivalent?

• I) The trolley is already headed towards the 5 people, and you allow it to continue on course.
• II) The trolley is headed towards the 1 person, and you divert it to head towards the 5.

The outcome of both situations is the same, namely the 5 people die but the 1 person survives. However, it seems that if this were considered a wrong action, we would be able to legally punish (II), but not (I), since (I) could have been based on not deciding. However, should they be legally viewed the same? That is, should someone be accountable for not deciding?

Speed Chess

One of the interesting examples of decision vs non-decision in a non-legal, non-moral context is blitz chess. When you have only a few minutes for the whole game, you cannot afford to spend a sufficient amount of time thinking about every move. Instead, you must ration your time as a resource, and in some cases choose to not think on a particular move. Speed chess is indeed based primarily on intuition, less so on cold calculation.

Thus in speed chess, it is very feasible that not thinking about a move is itself a decision. Once you have a lot of experience, you gain the intuition of which types of positions require calculation and which do not. It becomes possible to say when it is “correct” to not decide. In this case, not deciding is clearly a decision.

Willful Ignorance

Decisions are based on available information, so a natural question relevant to whether one can be held accountable for not deciding is whether one can be held accountable for not knowing. Moreover, it is important whether someone can be held accountable for intentionally refusing to know. After all, no one would blame a child for thinking that Earth is flat. But when adults believe the world is flat, that is an entirely different issue, because most likely they have intentionally refused to hear the case of the round Earth.

The same goes for evolution, only there are significant national and state policy decisions made based on the refusal to learn about it. Of course, we wouldn’t hold a child responsible for their beliefs, but for an adult to use willful ignorance in decision making is inexcusable.

Whether willful ignorance is problematic in principle can be seen in a trolley variant. Suppose the person who has the power to pull the lever believes that the case is as in the original trolley problem. However, the side which supposedly has 1 person actually has 100.

The operator pulls the lever, diverting the trolley from the side of 5 people to the side of 100, killing all 100 people. Note that the operator cannot be blamed because of genuine ignorance.

Now consider an alternative scenario. The situation is the same as above: the operator believes that is a matter of 5 lives vs 1 life, but it is actually a matter of 5 vs 100. Before making the decision, someone else runs in, screaming that there are actually 100 people on the second track. It would be extremely easy to verify this, but instead, the operator refuses to listen to the new information and diverts the track to the 100 anyways, still clinging to the belief that there is only 1 person. In this case, the operator is being willfully ignorant.

(Can some lawyer explain if there are indeed differences in the previous situations?)

There are countless other examples where the intentional lack of information should not be a valid excuse for a bad decision. Suppose someone is about to receive the death penalty for a crime. A piece of evidence shows up that could provide reasonable doubt in the conviction. It would be absurd to refuse to see this evidence, especially because the refusal to see it would most likely be the result of the people really wanting this person to receive the death penalty, and that the extra information could disturb their beliefs.

A similar example is that some nation has borderline-quality intel justifying a war, and they decide to launch the war before they look at newer intel that could possibly negate the previous intel. Thus even if they are later found to be wrong, they would be able to use the ignorance argument by saying they didn’t know better at the time, even if they knew of the possibility of being wrong. There is a difference between genuinely believing the lack of contradictory information and the intentional refusal to look at (possibly) contradictory evidence.

It’s not a fine line that separates non-decision and the active decision that leads to the same result as in non-decision. Similarly, it’s not a fine line that separates genuine ignorance and willful ignorance. But even without a perfectly clear demarcation, the differences are real and these actions can and should be treated differently.

Standing Up in a Crowded Theater, Studying for Tests, and Other Game-Theoretic Dilemmas

Everyone is sitting down in a crowded theater, comfortably seated and with a good view. All is well until one person decides his view is not good enough, so he stands up to get a clearer view. This ruins other peoples’ views, so they stand up as well. A while later, everyone is standing up but has the same view as before, resulting in each being in a position strictly worse than when everyone was sitting.

This particular example is typically avoided since the social norm in a theater is to sit. In fact, in numerous examples of this game, there are either direct (laws) or indirect (social norms) methods of control to prevent such disasters from happening. Here are two for illustration:

• Crime. If one person stole a little, this person would be in a better position and society would not be harmed by much. However, if everyone did this, society would collapse. The criminalization of theft prevents this problem (for the most part). This concept applies to many types of crimes.
• Environmentalism. If one person polluted more, there would be virtually no change to the environment. However, if everyone did so, the environment would feel the full effects. (This still isn’t quite resolved, but in most developed countries it is well on its way.)

From a game-theoretic perspective, however, each individual taking the selfish path is making a rational decision. The problem is that the system may not discourage the selfish activity sufficiently.

Someone who doesn’t recycle may (justifiably) argue that they do in fact care about the environment, but that the impact of their not recycling is negligible to the environment. While this is true, if everyone thought like this, then we would all be standing up in the theater. The main point of this post to go over some less commonly cited situations.

Studying for Tests

I would argue that studying for a test falls into the category of standing up in a theater. From both high school and college, I have observed or have heard of people studying hours upon hours for tests and often barely remembering any of the material after a semester. A test should measure how well you understand something, not how well you can memorize and cram facts into your brain for the next day.

People who know me from high school and college know I don’t study much (if at all, depending on the class) for tests. Perhaps some see this as a sign of not caring, but I would argue that I care about the knowledge just as much, if not more, than people who study far greater hours. In the cases where I do study, I go for the “why” rather than the “what,” and I study to load the concepts into long-term memory, rather than the details into short-term memory. If you do need the details at a later time, cram it in then when it is relevant and when you have the big-picture understanding.

Let’s pretend that studying for tests were not allowed. Then what would a test measure? Would it measure how much attention someone paid in lecture? How well they comprehended the main points? What part of the homework they didn’t copy from someone else?

In fact, everyone’s grades would still be similar. In classes where grades are curved, if everyone does “worse” on a test the same way, then the grades will be unaffected (though there may be some shifting around). The tests would just become more genuine.

So it may seem like I have something against studying for tests. But what part specifically of studying for tests do I have an issue with? Well, as mentioned before, I think if everyone studied for tests, it makes the test scores more a measure of who studied the most and who could cram in material the most efficiently, instead of who actually understood the content. But even if this problem were somehow irrelevant—letsay an irrefutable study comes out tomorrow saying that cramming ability is just as relevant for the real world as understanding—I would still have an issue with studying, namely the time spent. Suppose someone is taking 4 classes and studies 4 hours for each midterm and 8 hours for each final. That’s 48 hours spent studying in a semester. Multiply that by 8 semesters to get 16 days spent on studying. These 16 days are the difference between sitting down and standing up.

Preparing for Colleges/Job Interviews

Sure, the informative power of some of the tests I’ve mentioned above may be arguably above zero. For example, maybe it’s feasible that a dedicated premed student university should cram before a bio test because the details do matter, though the question remains of whether such a student will remember anything years later. But there’s still one very important test taken all around the country that really has no arguable intellectual merit: the SAT.

This test is probably the biggest insult to intelligence when taken seriously. I try my hardest to resist cringing whenever I hear smart people talking about their SAT scores. From the CollegeBoard site:

The SAT and SAT Subject Tests are a suite of tools designed to assess your academic readiness for college. These exams provide a path to opportunities, financial support and scholarships, in a way that’s fair to all students. The SAT and SAT Subject Tests keep pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century.

Yes, I’m sure it’s very “fair to all students.”

And I’m sure that by “keep[ing] pace with what colleges are looking for today, measuring the skills required for success in the 21st century,” what CollegeBoard means is that the skills required for success in today’s world are… wealth, certain racial backgrounds, and access to prep courses.

Anyways, I guess my point is that if nobody studied for the SAT, nobody took prep courses, and no one cared so much, then:

• Students wouldn’t be wasting their time studying for it.
• Many families would save time and money on SAT prep by not having to do it.
• As a result, less privileged students would stand a better chance, and thus the test would be more fair.

Of course, while this may sound good, it is easier said than done. To not study would be shooting yourself in the foot, or in this case, to sit down in the theater in which everyone is standing. It would be like one country’s reducing its greenhouse emissions while other countries are not decreasing theirs.

(Personally, I refused to study for the SAT, though at the time I had to give off the impression that I was studying for it to appease my Asian parents. If you really want the story, it’s in the latter part of this post.)

I would go further to say that preparing for job interviews in some ways fits this type of game. On this subject, however, I have very little experience as my only important interviews were of the type where it would be very difficult to prepare for, i.e., math puzzles. Answering such questions did not hinge on knowing certain advanced equations, but instead on using simple tools that almost everyone knows, in unusual ways.

In addition, I understand that an interview not only judges the answers to the questions, but also the interviewee’s character. If it is evident that someone prepared a lot for an interview, that fact in itself would be considered in the interviewer’s assessment. However, I think that in a world in which no one prepared for interviews, both sides would benefit as the interviewee would save time and stress while the interviewer gets a more genuine view of the interviewee, not a carefully constructed outer shell.

And for a preemptive defense, to the claim that studying or preparing is simply a result of competition, I have nothing against capitalism or competition. If anything, freeing up students’ time from studying for tests would make them be able to compete in other areas, and be able to take additional classes or learn new skills (I picked up programming while pretending to study for the SAT). I see the time wasted as an inefficiency. The point of not studying is to have more time, and hence be more productive.

Sitting down in a standing theater is a difficult decision. But if everyone sat down, we might all live in a better place.

Posted in College, Economics, Education, Society | Tagged , , | 6 Comments

Blogging, Controversy, and Meta-Controversy

Last week I wrote a pretty direct post on religion, and it quickly became the third most-read post on my blog in the past year, first being this one math post that somehow has really good Google pagerank.

Also, tomorrow, November 4, is the day this blog turns 4 years old, so I’ll go through some of the most-viewed posts of the past year.

1. Mind Blowing Mathematical Equations

$\displaystyle \sum_{n} \frac{1}{n^s} = \prod_{p} {\frac{1}{1 - \frac{1}{p^s}}}$

This post was written back in 2011, and it seems to have caught on by showing up really high on google searches for math. Instead of spiking and then decaying, as in the case for most posts, this one has steadily climbed over time, with 13,847 cumulative views. However, I suspect posts like this are the exception to the rule… [Link]

2. Tumblr vs WordPress

Posts in the form “X vs Y” are pretty popular, and this was written in 2010. Perhaps I should do more “Versus” articles. [Link]

3. My Views on Religion

This was the first time I tried to do a broad overview (instead of talking about specific parts of religion as usual), and I think it overall succeeded. However, the main problem is that the breadth was gained at the cost of depth, as I couldn’t really put too much explanation for any specific point. This caused an unfortunate number of misunderstandings (as shown on the Facebook thread), but I learned quite a bit about peoples’ religious views from it. I also learned that more controversial stuff gets way more pageviews. [It's literally the previous post.]

4. Myers-Briggs

This post was on my Myers-Briggs type, which is INTP. I’m not really sure why this got popular. [Link]

5. Closeted Homophobes

This was a response to a CNN opinion piece that talked about how Christianity was becoming “a hated minority,” and that “Evangelical Christians say they are the new victims of intolerance – they’re persecuted for condemning homosexuality,” and “a new victim: closeted Christians who believe the Bible condemns homosexuality but will not say so publicly for fear of being labeled a hateful bigot.” I think it’s pretty obvious why this got many views. [Link]

6. Winning with 21.8% of the Popular Vote

Using some math, I determined how much of the popular vote you need to win a presidential election (assuming everyone votes and electors are faithful). [Link]

7. Fundamentalists vs Moderates

This post generated quite a bit of discussion on Facebook, particularly because I took the less-favored side. [Link]

8. Degree of Atheist Views on Social Issues

This was written on the day everyone used that as their FB profile picture. I argued that since atheists have no holy text instructing them to restrict peoples’ rights, the “debates” seem pointless.  [Link]

9. Race and Miss America

While there were plenty of voices criticizing the negative racism regarding this year’s Miss America, there weren’t as many on the positive racism. This got pretty popular with some heated debate. [Link]

10. College Stress and GPA-Centrism

Controversy

Apart from 1 and 4, all of the top viewed articles were on some controversial topic. This isn’t a good representation of a normal post—I write plenty of non-controversial posts. On average, however, the controversial ones get far more views, which makes sense as people are more likely to click a link to a stance with which they strongly agree or disagree.

In addition, the posts on religion get an abnormally high amount of views, even compared to posts on other controversial topics. I suspect that this is because of the taboo status of religion, i.e., because it is not only that religion is controversial, but that the discussion of religion is controversial…

Meta-Controversy

One topic that interests me is why certain topics are controversial and why even the discussion of certain topics is controversial. (If this topic itself is controversial, does it become meta-meta-controversy?)

As discussed before, the taboo on religion basically acts as a shield preventing it from criticism, and even protects its more intolerant beliefs from criticism.

There is an undeserved respect of religion in our culture. In daily life it is considered perfectly okay to argue about our favorite sports teams, our differences of taste in food and music, and even our political beliefs. But the moment religion is brought up, it suddenly becomes “rude” or “offensive” to disagree with a believer or to even slightly question his or her beliefs. This, of course, is prime hypocrisy as many religions downright treat agnostics and atheists as subhuman or fools: “The fool hath said in his heart, ‘There is no God.’” (Psalm 14:1). Imagine the public outcry that would occur if, in some atheist meeting, the members called all religious believers “fools.” Yet when religious people call all atheists “fools,” it’s perfectly okay, because you got to respect their religious beliefs. I suppose when religious people call blacks or women inferior, you’re supposed to respect that too? Does the religiosity of a belief make it immune to criticism?

The defensive nature of the taboo may not be coincidental, according to Daniel Dennett in Breaking the Spell, but I’ll talk about that later. Anyways, the point is that the discussion of religion should not be discouraged. Moreover, the discussion of taboo becomes a sort of meta-controversy.

Based on the stats, namely that the controversial stuff is significantly more popular, I’m going to write them as a higher percentage of posts. Here’s to a good 5th year!

An Atheist’s View on Religion

In the past year I’ve written a bunch of posts on particular aspects of atheism and religion, but so far there are none that have laid out my views at a glance. So this is an open, informal post designed to do just that.

• Identification: Agnostic atheist. I don’t believe there is a god (atheist), nor do I believe it is possible to know whether one exists (agnostic). (Though typically, the word “agnostic” can be used differently to describe someone who is “between” theism and atheism.)
• Burden of proof: Those believing in a god must prove so. “I can’t prove the planet Kolob doesn’t exist, therefore I must accept Mormonism,” is a ridiculous statement, as is “I can’t prove fairies don’t exist, therefore fairies exist.” Equally ridiculous is, “I can’t prove God doesn’t exist, therefore God exists.”
• Religion (general): Antitheism with respect to societal impacts. I think the harms outweigh the benefits. This is the primary reason I even post about religion in the first place.
• Religion (specific): Islam is arguably worse than Christianity, as it justifies and is actively used to justify many violent actions. On the other hand, I don’t really consider Judaism to be a religion: 68% believe you can be Jewish and not believe in God. (I am probably biased in these views, as nearly every Jew I know is a secular Jew, whereas I know otherwise rational Christians who believe steadfastly in creationism.)
• Religious people: With respect to individuals, I don’t treat religious people differently, since I don’t think it is their fault they were indoctrinated in a particular religion. I think the very devout are misguided rather than evil people, as I believe they are genuinely doing what they think is right. When someone does something terrible in the name of religion, my instinctive response is never “What a bad person!”, but more often along the lines of “Who brainwashed them into believing that!?” I would go so far as to say that the 9/11 hijackers, as well as all those Americans who perished, were victims of Islam, and that the truly bad people were the ones setting it up from behind the scenes. And, for example, I think the correct response to the Boston marathon bombing earlier this year should have been to consider conducting an objective criticism of Islam, but instead, we are too politically correct to do so, thus not helping to stop another such event from happening.
• Fundamentalists vs. moderates: I don’t hold fundamentalists more accountable than moderates. Here is a link to my main post on this topic.
• Activism vs passiveness: I think atheists do need to speak up, even at the cost of being perceived as “rude” or “angry.” So far, the main criticism of the “new atheism movement” is that it is rude and angry, not of the actual contents or messages of the movement. Here is the TED talk in which Richard Dawkins introduces this (30 min video):
• Religion and science: The two are incompatible at the fundamental level—one teaches to not question anything, and the other to question everything.
• Afterlife, ghosts, ESP, witches, UFOsreincarnation, etc.: No.
• Morality: Just as a good law code is very complex, accounting for fringe cases and how to deal with ambiguous situations, so must a good moral code. A moral code simply stated in rules of “Do not X” is doomed to failure, especially if the rules are ambiguous, symbolic, self-contradictory, loophole-ridden, and cherry-picked to serve self interests. Here is a previous post on a better moral code, roughly utilitarian. In addition, with respect to large-scale views on morality, I agree with Sam Harris‘s criticism of “multiculturalism.”
• LGBT rights, women’s rights, right to choose, feminism, universal education, universal healthcare, etc.: Greatly in support. It’s sad when one of the leading stories yesterday was that Saudi Arabian women were protesting a ban that prevented them from… driving. And when you think about the root cause of the opposition to these factors, you start to see a clear pattern with religion. I see all these issues as religious issues, and I don’t want society to fight the same battle many times, which is why I am also in favor of more vocal disagreement with religion. But of course, that would considered offensive, and the status quo is to care about the unjustified sensitivities of a religious group over the civil rights of millions.
• Political views (on social issues): Liberal, as shown above.
• What needs to be done: I have an outline for this but it can easily form a new post.

I’m sure there are missing things in this profile, so don’t be afraid to ask questions. I look forward to answering them.

Edit: Received a question on the religion and science compatibility. I agree that I have not quite expanded on the topic as much as the others, and I may write more about this in the future.