Wednesday, January 30, 2013

False Positives

Human beings are equipped with superb pattern recognition software, software so good that it can even find patterns that are not there. That makes sense from an evolutionary point of view. Seeing a hidden tiger that is not actually there is a much less costly mistake than failing to see one that is there, so biasing the software in the direction of more of the first kind of error and fewer of the second is good design.

The picture above shows is a series of concentric circles. But as I look at it, I see other patterns. With only a little effort, it turns into a series of clockwise spirals. Or counter-clockwise spirals. Or …  . It feels as if my software is thrashing around, trying out one pattern after another.

This bias in our software may help to explain otherwise puzzling features of human life. Religion imposes a pattern on reality, whether or not there is a pattern. With or without religion, a central human drive is to find meaning in life.

Whether or not it is there.


ZHD said...

Some of the more interesting "patterns" established by various religions are their respective rituals for the deceased. Though greatly varying, they all tend to follow some similar patterns for sanitation, and they also encourage patterns of grieving that allow the bereaved ample personal space—which is an interesting subject in psychological studies as well.

Historically, when these patterns have either broken down or didn't exist, it has been highly correlated with widespread disease.

Just adding some thoughts.


jimbino said...

Most of religion has nothing to do with believing or seeing anything. It has to do with unthinking, unseeing ritual---obedience to somebody else's perception of a pattern, perhaps.

Lighting candles, circumcision, baptism, communion, genuflection, rosary chanting, fasting, prayers and moments of silence are what characterize religion. That's why we say, "He flosses his teeth religiously."

Fritz- Anton Fritzson said...

Religion is a complex phenomenon that requires more than one explanation. But hypersensitive pattern-recognition is surely part of the explanation. Our tendency to attribute agency and intentions to inanimate objects and mere happenings is another. I can very much recommend the book 'Religion Explained' by Pascal Boyer. It contains a thorough psychological explanation (as well as an economic explanation of organized religion and its political ambitions)

RKN said...

Seeing a hidden tiger that is not actually there is a much less costly mistake than failing to see one that is there

And so it is with religion; there is more to be gained by the belief that God exists, even though the truth of the matter is unknowable.

See Pascal's Wager.

jimbino said...

Pascal's wager is silly. To win, you not only have to believe in god, you have to believe in a god who rewards that belief over non-belief. But if your god may turn out to one who values skepticism over unfounded belief or who doesn-t play the reward/punishment game, you lose, especially if you attended mass daily or went through life with the tip of your pecker missing.

Ryan said...

Do you believe there some absolute moral right and wrongs, or is that also a perceived pattern where none exists?

If you do believe in some absolute morality, what do you believe to be the source of that moral law?

I ask these questions sincerely. I'd like to know what a thoughtful atheist's answer is to them.

Max said...

I can't speak for David, obviously, but I would be pretty surprised if he had a different answer to these questions than I do.

Do you believe there some absolute moral right and wrongs, or is that also a perceived pattern where none exists?

The latter.

If you do believe in some absolute morality, what do you believe to be the source of that moral law?

There is no moral law.

David Friedman said...

Max is mistaken about my views.

The theory that morality is an illusion is defensible, but my preferred view is that some things really are wicked or virtuous.

I discuss my view at:

Max said...

Interesting. Have you read Michael Huemer's book on ethical intuitionism? Worth doing, imo, if the answer is no.

David Friedman said...

I haven't read Huemer's book although perhaps I should. His position seems, from the bits of the book I just read on Amazon, to be close to mine.

Max said...

Well, I don't know how much weight you're accustomed to granting anonymous internet comments, but his is the strongest statement of a moral realist position that I've encountered. It's so strong that the thought of explaining where and why we disagree is a daunting prospect. I won't undertake that task here.

He's also written a book called The Problem of Political Authority. As a self-interested consumer of your writing, I think you'd be doing the world (yourself included) an enormous disservice by failing to read it before finalizing the third edition of The Machinery of Freedom.

Raphfrk said...

On "The Problem of Political Authority", Why charge so much for a book. Surely, they would sell more than 3X as many books if they charged $10 instead of $30 (and $90 for the hardback).

Are they expecting only libraries to buy it or something?

Simon Andersson said...

I was intrigued but not entirely convinced by your analogy between "is" and "ought".

I think agreement between agents on "is" is pretty robust even if the agents are very different people, or animals, or automatic instruments.

Agreement on "ought" depends (it seems to me) on the similarity of the agents: strong for people from the same culture, weaker for people who are very different. Maybe there would be little agreement between an earthling and a Martian.

If two crazy twins have similar hallucinations, it's a measure of the twins' similarity, not of the truth of the their beliefs. Maybe similarity in moral judgements depends on humans being similar. If so, the "ought" depends on the "is".

David Friedman said...

I agree that my argument depends on an empirical claim--that people, even from different cultures, largely agree on the base level normative "perceptions." C.S. Lewis argues for that claim in _The Abolition of Man_, and I find it plausible, having read a good deal of material from a variety of cultures.

As my wife puts it, the main disagreement is about what range of people count--family, fellow members of your nation or ethnic group, everyone. But within the set of those who count, different cultures seem to have pretty similar ideas of what is right or wrong.

Simon Andersson said...

It seems to me that "base-level" normative perceptions are perceptions about precisely those situations that all humans react to in similar ways because of shared evolutionary heritage. E.g., we all agree that torturing a child is wrong because we are all averse to pain and protective towards children.

Other normative perceptions (e.g., "it is wrong/right to burn down a library of secular writings") seem to differ between cultures.

I'm left with the suspicion that moral agreements reveal something about the (human) world, not about moral truths existing independently of the world.

David Friedman said...

I think agreement in normative perceptions is consistent with at least two different explanations--mine, and the evolutionary explanation. So it doesn't let us distinguish between them.

Note that my normative perceptions aren't at the level of generality of "it is wrong to burn down a library of secular writings." That could depend on lots of non-normative views--such as whether you believe in a religion that holds such writings to be lies. The perceptions I'm talking about are at the level of "in the following well described situation, what John did was wrong." I'm assuming that all the relevant facts of the situation are known.