Mar 30 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 7:55 pm

1. Avoid News: Towards a Healthy News Diet (via Bryan Caplan at Econlog). I’ve been realizing more and more how much of my news reading is just a waste of time. I now spend more time reading non-fiction books and bigger-picture articles from smart people about ideas, rather than articles about politician X visiting country Y or bill Z which is being considered by Congress. This article gives some good explanations why spending too much time on news is a waste:

Out of the approximately 10,000 news stories you have read in the last 12 months, name one that – because you consumed it – allowed you to make a better decision about a serious matter affecting your life, your career, your business – compared to what you would have known if you hadn’t swallowed that morsel of news. . . .

Assume that, against all odds, you found one piece of news that substantially increased the quality of your life – compared to how your life would have unfolded if you hadn’t read or seen it. How much trivia did your brain have to digest to get to that one relevant nugget? Even that question is a hindsight analysis. Looking forward, we can’t possibly identify the value of a piece of news before we see it, so we are forced to digest everything on the news buffet line. Is that worthwhile? Probably not. . . .

People find it very difficult to recognize what’s relevant. It’s much easier to recognize what’s new. We are not equipped with sensory organs for relevance. Relevance doesn’t come naturally. News does. That’s why the media plays on the new. (If our minds were structured the other way round, the media would certainly play on the relevant.) The relevant versus the new is the fundamental battle of the modern man. . . .

Go without news. Cut it out completely. Go cold turkey. . . .

If you want to keep the illusion of “not missing anything important”, I suggest you glance through the summary page of the Economist once a week. Don’t spend more than five minutes on it.

Read magazines and books which explain the world – Science, Nature, The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly. Go for magazines that connect the dots and don’t shy away from presenting the complexities of life – or from purely entertaining you. The world is complicated, and we can do nothing about it. So, you must read longish and deep articles and books that represent its complexity. Try reading a book a week. Better two or three. History is good. Biology. Psychology. That way you’ll learn to understand the underlying mechanisms of the world. Go deep instead of broad. Enjoy material that truly interests you. Have fun reading.

2. Hormone That Affects Finger Length Key To Social Behavior. It is thought that the ratio of the length of your ring finger to your index finger indicates how much androgens (hormones like testosterone) you were exposed to in the womb. The higher the ratio (IE the longer your ring finger is in comparison to your index finger), the more androgens. Most men ring fingers longer than their index fingers, whereas most women are the opposite. In this study, the researchers examined the finger ratios of different primates and discovered that species with longer ring fingers (IE species which are exposed to more androgens in the womb) “tend to be highly competitive and promiscuous, which suggests that exposure to a lot of androgens before birth could be linked to the expression of this behaviour.”

3. Long-Neglected Experiment Gives New Clues to Origin of Life. In the 1950s “Stanley Miller of the University of Chicago in Illinois . . . . repeatedly sent electric sparks through flasks filled with the gases thought to resemble Earth’s early atmosphere . . . . After 1 week . . . the simulated lightning had converted a substantial portion of the gases into organic compounds, including several of the amino acids needed to produce proteins, indicating that this might be how life began on our planet.” A reexamination of some of the chemicals produced in some of his later, similar experiments “yielded 22 amino acids, 10 of which hadn’t been detected in the original 1952 experiment.” This further supports claims that early conditions on the Earth could have led to the natural generation of the amino acids necessary for the start of life.

4. Law of Averages: Why the law-school bubble is bursting. Applications to law schools have gone down this year. After the economic crash in 2008, many lawyers found themselves unemployed, and graduating law students found it difficult to get a job. Perhaps the decrease in applications indicates that more students have become aware of these problems are choosing other career paths.

Mar 09 2011

Links of the Day

Category: Links of the dayJames @ 7:37 am

1. Brazilians, more European than not? This blog post summarizes a recent genetic study of the ancestral background of Brazilians from different regions of the country. I’m always interested to read genetic studies of Brazilians, 1) because that’s my heritage, but also 2) because there’s so much interesting mixing of different ancestral populations to learn about. Brazil is the real melting pot (from the article): “black Brazilians have a much higher load of European ancestry than black Americans, while white Brazilians have a much higher load of Amerindian and African, than white Americans.”

2. Religious fundamentalism is in the genes. This summarizes a study done to compare identical and fraternal twins to examine how much of the subjects’ religious personality characteristics are determined by genetics, the home environment, and the external environment. For childhood religiosity, “[t]he biggest factor is your family, and not your genetics. It’s not until adulthood that the effects of genetics really start to shine through.” The “importance of religion in your life is about one-quarter defined by genetics, as is your spirituality. The most important factor here, however, is the external environment.” Same for religious attendance. “There are three factors that are about 40% driven by genetics, with your family upbringing having hardly any effect. These factors are: how often you turn to religion for guidance, whether or not you take the bible literally, and whether people should stick to one faith, or experiment with others. . . . But the big finding in this study is the born-again religious. These are the people who answered ‘yes’ to the question: ‘Have you been ‘born-again,’ that is, had a turning point in your life when you committed yourself to Jesus Christ?’ A whopping 65% of this kind of religiosity is genetically driven!”

3. Does religion lead to a healthier society? They compare the correlation of various negative behaviors (homicides, abortions, teen pregnancies) in different countries, and the levels of religiosity in those countries. They find a positive relationship between the bad behaviors and religiosity (meaning that there is more bad behavior in countries that are more religious). I don’t think their results are very convincing to prove that religion has any sort of negative effect (in their defense, they acknowledge that their results are preliminary and do not prove causation). Three problems: first, they don’t adjust for the different demographic characteristics of the countries (for example, people who have more education tend to be less religious, but also tend to engage less in many sorts of negative behaviors; there are several other similarly relevant demographic characteristics that need to be controlled for). Second, even if the relationship is still there after the relevant factors have been controlled for, it doesn’t tell us about causation (it could be that crime causes more religiosity as people seek in violent societies seek solace and and a sense of community from their local churches). Third, by other measures, the United States (which stands out as the most religious developed country) does better than the less-religious countries. For example, even though U.S. Murder rates are high, overall violent crime rates are lower than they are in many European countries. People in many religious countries also appear to be more charitable than they are in less religious countries (giving more money, volunteering more time to charities, and offering help to strangers).

4. How Humans Got Spineless Penises and Big Brains. Two things (among others) that make humans unique from our chimpanzee cousins is that our brains are bigger and human penises lack spines (most male mammals have spiny penises, actually). A comparison of the human and chimpanzee indicates that some specific deletions from our genome led to these changes (and that neanderthals had these same deletions).

Mar 08 2011

Morality and Ethics – Part 1

Category: Ethics,MoralsJames @ 10:15 pm

Note: This is part 1 of a series on morality and ethics. Here are the other parts: part 2, part 3, part 4, and part 5.

Why Should We Act Morally?

This is Part 1 of a series of posts on morality.

In this series of posts on morality, I don’t claim to have any special wisdom or insight. My purpose here is to do the best I can to think through these important moral issues. I have spent too much time up to this point not trying to carefully think through these issues. Since this is my first attempt, I am always open to better ideas (which is true of everything I write here). In this series, I use “ethics” and “morality” interchangeably to mean the principles and rules which determine right conduct and serve as guides for proper and acceptable behavior.

In this post, I discuss different justifications for why we should act morally. The ultimate purpose of this series will be to explain my thoughts about morality and try to figure out a rational system of morality.

Selflessness vs. Selfishness

It seems that every major system of human morality values selflessness. Yet moral teachers and religious leaders often justify the necessity for each of us to act morally by explaining the personal benefits we will receive from acting morally. Such benefits range from something as simple as feeling good to financial or material blessings from God, up through salvation in heaven. But any moral system which claims that we should act morally just because it will bring benefit to ourselves s really valuing selfishness, and not selflessness.

If morality is acting to make yourself feel good (getting a warm feeling by being nice to people, for example), then that means morality is really about taking action to benefit yourself, not to benefit others. Even if the reward is a long way off (like salvation in heaven after death), acting morally just because you get something out of the deal is really all about selfishness. If the reason that we should act morally is to get into heaven, than morality seems to be nothing more than just being able to weigh the costs and benefits of our actions to maximize the personal benefit. So what happens if doing something which is traditionally considered “immoral” will bring greater benefit than not doing it?1

A Hypothetical

Here’s a completely artificial hypothetical to test some of these ideas. Let’s imagine you are informed in a way that leaves you completely certain that if you kill a certain person, you will become a billionaire. More than that, it is guaranteed that you will never go to prison for the murder, no one will think less of you for doing it (in fact they will think more highly of you), and there will be no other negative consequences for you during your life or in the afterlife. The person, however, is completely innocent – they are a good upstanding citizen, they donate to charities and volunteer at a soup kitchen; they are a good parent to their children, and have not done anything that would make you (or any other reasonable person) think they deserved to die. Would it be morally justifiable to kill that person?

I think almost all of us would answer “no” to this question, even though murdering this person would bring great reward and no negative consequences. I know my gut reaction would be to strongly say “no, such a murder would not be moral.” If our intuition about this hypothetical is right, then there must be a better justification for morality other than that morality is good because it brings personal reward. If we’re trying to come up with a rational, coherent, and complete system of moral thought, then working just from instinct and intuition is not enough.

Why do most of us think that such a murder not would be justified? Are our instincts about this hypothetical right? Are moral systems which sometimes require that you act against your self-interest superior to moral systems which promise you rewards for following their rules? Is there a way to rationally justify a moral system which requires self-sacrifice and taking action against your own self-interest (a system where people who are moral are worse off than the immoral)? Is true selflessness better than selfishness?

I will address these questions in my next post. In the mean time, I will say that the idea that our actions should be motivated by a desire to maximize personal benefit to ourselves is a very cynical view of human nature, even if the perceived benefit is only some sort of other-worldly eternal reward. That sort of philosophy is one of the most debasing approaches to “morality.”

Love for God

Some people might argue that we should obey moral rules not because of some expectation of reward, but that we should be moral as a sign of our love for and gratitude to God. There several problems with this approach:

First, it does not account for people who have different religious beliefs. In our pluralistic society, different religions teach different things about what God expects of us. Does morality, therefore, depend on the religious beliefs of each person? This seems to lead to moral relativism (an idea which many religious leaders seem to especially criticize). Should each person be held to different moral standards, based on what they believe is the best way to show their love for God? What about atheists? Should they not be bound by any moral code? All of my atheist friends are compassionate, highly moral individuals. They have become atheists only after carefully thinking about religion, morality, ethics, and cosmology. Even without their belief in God, their behavior actually seems to me to be more ethical than many religious people I know. Any rational moral system should have more universal application than just to the members of one religion or group – it should be able to equal explain and guide the moral behavior of atheists, agnostics, and theists alike.

Second, it fails to recognize the difficulties in ascertaining God’s will and what we should do to show our love for him. Jesus said that if we love him, we should keep his commandments.2 Christian conservatives would claim that all we need is to do know his commandments is to read the Bible. But how reliable is the Bible? Many of the books of the Bible were written many years after the events they purport to describe occurred. Our best understanding of how the four gospels of the New Testament were written is that people told and re-told stories about Jesus. Those stories spread over a huge region, passing from person to person and city to city. Have you ever played the game of “telephone”? Imagine playing that game over several decades, telling stories over and over again. The same thing is true of the stories of the Hebrew Bible—oral traditions which circulated for many years were later written down, and then compiled, re-edited, and recombined many times over centuries by scribes with differing agendas and affiliations. The same sorts of problems are true of the sacred texts of most religions.3

What about the idea of biblical inerrancy? Belief in biblical inerrancy requires that two things be true: 1) God is perfect and cannot lie and 2) the Bible is the word of God. But there is no external way to prove either of those ideas. You can only get to that conclusion through circular logic – it isn’t very convincing to argue that we should accept the Bible as the word of God because it says that it is the word of God (the Quran says the same thing, so if that argument really is convincing, then Christians should accept the Quran as well as the Bible). Moreover, the Bible itself never purports to be inerrant; it is not even a single book, but a compilation of many widely divergent books written by different people in different places.

Additionally, there are huge textual problems with the Bible: there are literally thousands of different versions of ancient Greek manuscripts of the New Testament. Each of them are different from each other – how do we know which one is right? For example, the story about the woman taken in adultery where Jesus says “He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her”4 does not appear in any of the early versions of John and is almost certainly a later addition to the book of John; the Johanine Comma (1 John 5:7-8 – the only place in the Bible where the doctrine of the trinity is explicitly stated) does not appear in any texts until the Middle Ages, and was added by later copyists.5 many centuries after the Gospel of John was written; Mark is the oldest gospel in the New Testament, and it did not mention any of Jesus’s post-Crucifixion appearances – later scribes instead made up a fake ending to Mark 16 to include those stories.6 These stories still appear in many Bibles today. Any claim of biblical inerrancy runs into the problem of figuring out what the Bible really says.

A Rational Moral System

Acting morally because of your love for God is a highly commendable reason for doing good, but I don’t think that it is a workable basis for the derivation of a coherent and rational moral system. A universally-applicable system of morality is far more desirable than one justified by each person’s personal religious beliefs. If God exists, and if he is all-knowing and all-loving, and if he created us in his image (meaning that he gave us the ability to think and reason like him), then surely any system of morality derived from rational principles would closely match his own moral laws. A moral system based on careful logic and science thus has the benefit of being something that most theists should be able to look to with confidence (assuming that they believe in God’s omniscience, omnibenevolence, and our creation in his image) as representing God’s will, but also something that atheists, agnostics, and other secular people can also follow.

A rational moral system will make the desirability of obedience to its principles self-evident. If a moral system is based on reality (as best as we can understand it), logic, and reason, then it should convince any objective, unbiased rational person who learns the principles of the moral system that they should live according to that moral system’s principles.

In my next post, I will discuss what morality is and start trying to reason through a system of rational morality.



1 The flip side of this is fear. Acting morally for selfish reasons often implies that you are acting morally out of fear of the consequences of not acting morally. I think there are similarly big problems with a system of morality which is based on getting people to be good because they are afraid. This smacks of totalitarianism to me.

2 John 14:15

3 Mormons will usually casually brush these types of concerns aside by saying that since their church is guided by a prophet who receives revelation from God, Mormons don’t have to worry about these difficulties with ascertaining God’s will. I disagree. Joseph Smith himself acknowledged that “a prophet is a prophet only when he was acting as such.” (History of the Church, 5:265). Joseph Smith made utterances, ostensibly as prophet, that later turned out to be wrong. One specific example: Joseph Smith received a revelation sending Hiram Page and others to Kingston, Canada to sell the copyright to the Book of Mormon in Canada. The only problem was that Kingston was the wrong city – there were no government offices in that city for selling copyrights. The people sent on this mission came back unsuccessful. Joseph’s “revelation” was wrong. When the revelation quoting this was being prepared for publication, the editor actually crossed out, after the fact, the part where it mentioned Kingston, since it was the wrong city. David Whitmer wrote that Joseph’s explanation for the error was “[s]ome revelations are of God: some revelations are of man: and some revelations are of the devil. So we see that the revelation to go to Toronto and sell the copy-right was not of God, but was of the devil or the heart of man.” (Whitmer was writing many decades after the events in question, though, so we can’t be sure that these are Joseph Smith’s exact words).

There are more examples where prophecies and teachings from church leaders were wrong (like when Joseph Smith and others went to Salem, Massachusetts expecting to find treasure buried in the basement of a house, or the failure of Zion’s Camp; Brigham young taught, as revelation, that Adam was God – modern church leaders say that this was false doctrine). So, even if you take LDS doctrine as completely true, how are we to determine that a prophet is “acting as such” or not?

I think most Mormons would argue that the ultimate standard for discerning the truth of a church leader’s teachings is to pray to know if the teaching comes from God. But I know Mormons who have prayed and received contradictory answers from each other about controversial areas of Mormon doctrine like polygamy and giving the priesthood to African Americans. What do we do now? People on both sides will claim that their answer was right and the other side must not have been praying with enough faith and got a wrong answer. A standard allowing someone to pray to God for confirmation that the prophet’s teachings come from God (because history has shown that sometimes church prophets have been wrong, or taught things which contradict other church prophets, so the divine origin of their words may be in doubt) has problems as big (or bigger) than the the problems with trying to claim biblical inerrancy.

Mar 07 2011

How Can We Find Truth? – Part 5

Category: Epistemology,Reasoning,religionJames @ 5:15 pm

Note: This is part 5 of a five part series on how we can discover truth. Here are the other parts: part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4.


Now that I’ve discussed some of the different ways humans try to figure out trut, which method is best? To recap, I discussed six ways to discover truth: observation, trial and error, common sense, authorities, the scientific method, emotions

Most of us rely on observation, trial and error, common sense, authorities, and emotions to make everyday decisions. Each of these methods can sometimes be wrong, but they are quick, and usually easy to apply. People don’t do peer-reviewed studies to figure out which sandwich they should order for lunch. It would take too much time and cost too much relative to the expected benefit of getting better information about sandwich options. Even scientists generally rely on these five methods to make decisions in their day-to-day lives.

Jesus said “you will know them by their fruits.”1 When we compare the results of each of the six methods, the scientific method has proven itself far superior to anything else at being able to give answers which are reproducible and which allow us to make accurate predictions about the future. That you are reading this blog post right now is proof of that. Computers and the Internet exist because physicists and engineers applying the scientific method made innumerable discoveries about things like the behavior of electrons and photons, mathematics, and the physical properties of different materials which were applied to create computers and communications networks.

It happens far more often that “discoveries” made using one of the other five methods are conclusively proven to be wrong by the scientific methods, than for discoveries made using the scientific method to be proven wrong by one of the other five methods. Scientific discoveries are often proven wrong, but almost always by someone else applying the scientific method. While the scientific method is not always right, it has proven to be far more accurate than anything else humans have been able to come up with.

So what should you do if, when using any of the other five methods, you reach a conclusion that contradicts what has been discovered using the scientific method? It should raise a big red flag. The contradiction doesn’t necessarily mean that science is right and your conclusion is wrong, but more often than not, your contradictory conclusion probably will be wrong.

Some people have criticized science for being amoral – it does not answer moral questions about proper human behavior. This concern has some validity. Since morality often entails making value judgments about the relative propriety of different activities, we can’t make moral judgments without knowing ahead of time what sorts of outcomes and actions are most desirable. David Hume pointed out the “is-ought” problem with science and morality: morality seeks to define what ought to be, whereas science is good at telling us what is.2 Knowing what is does not necessarily tell us what ought to be.

This is where the power of emotion comes in. As I discussed in Part 43 of this series, powerful positive emotions like spiritual feelings of elevation likely evolved to induce us to act morally. Laboratory studies have shown that participants who were induced to feel elevation were more likely to act altruistically afterward.4 For example, religious people5 are more likely to donate to charity (even when you exclude donations that they make to their own church)6 and are less likely to have had an extramarital affair.7 (I will soon be starting a series of posts discussing morality in more depth). This is where religion and spiritual feelings really prove their value. If we are looking at fruits, emotion and feelings seem to be poor guides to discovering objective truth, but very powerfully help us to internalize moral truth.


Even though we can never be completely certain that we understand objective truth and reality, the business of living requires us to seek truth as best we can and live according to what we discover. Our determinations of “truth” are really based on probabilities. Based on the six methods I’ve discussed, we (usually unconsciously) make a conclusion about what seems most probable and treat it as if it were true. Most of us internalize this conclusion to well that we assume our conclusion is true in the absolute sense. We shouldn’t think this way – none of us have all of the answers. We are all fallible and imperfect. All of us believe things that are wrong.

We can’t improve our thoughts and ideas to more closely match reality if we can’t even recognize that we’re wrong. Even though we treat our high-probability conclusions as being true, we shouldn’t let that make us close-minded. We shouldn’t internalize this feeling of certainty such that we reject anything that contradicts our previous conclusions. It is important to have the mental discipline to internally recognize that our conclusions are uncertain. We should evaluate new claims and ideas on their merit, with an open mind, and be willing to accept new conclusions and new approaches.

We apply all of the six methods I’ve discussed to find truth. The scientific method has proven itself to be the most useful approach we’ve yet found to discovering truth, but positive emotions play an important role in inducing us to internalize moral truth.



1Matthew 7:20 (NRSV).

5The relationship between religiosity and these two examples of moral behavior (charitable donations and marital fidelity) do not explicitly show that there is a relationship between feelings and moral behavior. My anecdotal experience, however, is that most people go to church for emotional reasons (seeking spiritual feelings, a sense of community with others, etc.), so I think that these relationships may at least be indicative of the power that feelings can have to induce us to act morally.

6 .

“The differences in charity between secular and religious people are dramatic. Religious people are 25 percentage points more likely than secularists to donate money (91 percent to 66 percent) and 23 points more likely to volunteer time (67 percent to 44 percent). And, consistent with the findings of other writers, these data show that practicing a religion is more important than the actual religion itself in predicting charitable behavior. For example, among those who attend worship services regularly, 92 percent of Protestants give charitably, compared with 91 percent of Catholics, 91 percent of Jews, and 89 percent from other religions.”

7See here and here. This relationship appears to hold in Malawi as well.