My History with Bicycling

I’ve been writing a series of autobiographical essays recently, to supplement the photo sets of scanned slides and prints I’ve promised to gather on this site. Most will be installed as WordPress “pages” which then automatically appear in the menu bar at the top of each page, though I can create parent/child relations and orders to control how the links appear as drop-down menus. As the pages multiply, I keep tweaking that drop-down menu structure. So I think for the time being I will be cross-posting such essays as ordinary posts, that will appear automatically at the top of the homepage; otherwise no one will notice new “page” essays without my pointing them out. Here’s one about my history with bicycling.

At my peak, in my late 20s, I bicycled obsessively, taking long rides on weekends, riding three “century” rides of 100 miles to Apple Valley or back, and two others as long or longer in Solvang and to Devil’s Punchbowl. In contrast to my school disinterest in P.E., I became very fit by bicycling. I was a slender 135 pounds with a resting heart rate of 48.

  • How did this begin? How did it end?
  • There were a couple false starts. Very early on, in Apple Valley, my father taught me how to ride a bicycle with some red bike he had, perhaps leftover from his own childhood and moved from Illinois. Don’t know whatever happened to that; It didn’t go with us to Santa Monica or Reseda. In Reseda I had a tricycle that usually I zoomed around the back yard, not sitting on it, but riding skateboard like with one foot on the rear platform and the other pushing off the ground, half-standing up.
  • In Reseda, so sometime during elementary school, I was given a full-size grown-up bike for birthday or some similar event. I never had one of the then popular Sting-Ray bikes with high handlebars and banana seats, that were so popular with the other kids. The full-sized bike intimidated me, and I didn’t want to ride it. My father sold it. Another disappointment for him, I suppose.
  • When I started at UCLA in the Fall of 1973, I saw hundreds of students riding back and forth across campus on bikes. The campus was large enough that it could be difficult to get from one class to the next in the 10-minute interval between session times. I became obsessed by wanting a bicycle, arguing to my parents that Phil (my UCLA car-pooling partner) and I could save money at the parking garages by parking off campus on residential streets, and riding into campus on bikes. That never did happen, but I did get a bicycle for Christmas that year. Typically, I’d done some research and picked a model, and when the time came, my mother and I went to the bike shop (on Sherman Way in Reseda) and bought the one I wanted, for something like $110. It was a white Nishiki, a 10-speed with the standard curled-down handlebars of a road bike. (And then in cruel irony, for a week after we brought my new bike home, it rained.)
  • I did ride that bike off and on over the following years while in college, mostly from home to one bookstore or another. (For magazines and paperbacks my go-to place was Reseda Books, a small shop that sold magazines and paperbacks, at Reseda Blvd and Sherman Way, 5 miles from home.)
  • And then I graduated from UCLA and couldn’t find a professional job; I’ll go into that elsewhere. As family plans for the move to Tennessee solidified in the Fall of 1977 after my graduation, I searched for any kind of job and got one with the County of Los Angeles (I’ll go into that elsewhere) at a facility in Reseda, just down the street from Reseda Books. Within a few weeks, from January to March of 1978, I began this job (on 17 Jan, initially driving the family’s second-hand Buick), the family departed for Tennessee (on 17 Feb), and I found a one-room apartment in Northridge and moved in (on 6 March). I’d stayed in the house on Hayvenhurst until then because it hadn’t sold yet. Once the family left… I bicycled to work. From Vincennes Street in Northridge, a couple blocks off the Cal State Northridge (CSUN) campus, to the job at Sherman Way & Louise Ave, was 4 ½ miles.
  • So I bicycled to work for some 2 ½ years until I quit that job and went back to college, at CSUN. Weather in southern California is good most of the year, of course, but on those occasions that it rained, I took the city bus, an easy run down Reseda Blvd. There was one occasion rain hit unexpectedly during the day, and my Uncle Bob came to drive me and my bike home.
  • After locking up my bike outside at the corner of the office building where I worked, for a year, one day it was stolen, the cable locking it to the rack cut. I had to get a loan to buy a new bike, a Centurion Le Mans.
  • This is the Centurion Le Mans, or one of them; the photo would have to be 1979 or 1980. Centurion Le Mans, with a kickstand and horizontal brake handles. The latter were called ‘safety levers’ or ‘extension levers’ that experienced cyclists would never use, since their grip is indirect and riding with your hands on the crossbar isn’t the best way to keep control.
  • I also used the bike to cycle from Northridge to Westwood, to Change of Hobbit bookstore, which had all the new science fiction books that the local mall shops (Walden and Pickwick) didn’t carry. That entailed cycling up Sepulveda Blvd over the pass from the valley to Westwood. I had a big orange luggage bag that mounted in front of the handlebars that would easily hold 4 hardcover books.
  • Over the following two or three years, I went on increasingly long recreational rides, some half the day. South to Venice Beach (via Topanga Canyon or Sepulveda Blvd alongside the 405 freeway; north to Canyon Country (via the Old Road alongside Antelope Valley Freeway); northwest to Simi Valley over Santa Susanna Pass; east through Glendale, Eagle Rock, and Pasadena as far as Arcadia. Only the last route was mostly flat; the others all involved climbs over passes. So I necessarily got quite fit, at least aerobically.
  • My ultimate rides were three, in 1980 and 1981, from my apartment in Northridge, all the way to Apple Valley where my grandmother lived – or back. In each case I coordinated with Uncle Bob for a ride in the other direction. Two of these were over long weekends, but one, the last one, came at the end of a week-long stay in the desert, returning home at the end of it on that long ride. Each ride took 7 or 8 hours, if I recall, and avoided heavily trafficked highways like 138 and 18 across the desert. Instead I took remote, empty streets like Avenue T, Palmdale Blvd, and El Mirage Road, all two lane highways across the desert flats. Fortunately I never had any serious accidents. A lot of flat tires of course. At worst, on long rides, I was very dehydrated at the end.
  • (I don’t have any photos of these rides. Though I’d acquired a camera in 1979, it was too bulky to take along on such long trips when I had other stuff to carry.)
  • My single longest ride was a run-up to the first Apple Valley century: a ride from my place in Northridge to Devil’s Punchbowl, an LA County park at the edge of the Mojave Desert and San Gabriel Mountains, near Pearblossom. 60 miles each way.
  • In 1982 I got my first (and only) professional job, and first car. I didn’t need to ride as much, and cut back significantly.
  • Here’s a later bike, another Centurion, with no kickstand, no horizontal brake levers, and toe straps on the pedals. (I never did use the cycling shoes that clip into the pedals, as most serious bikers do.)
  • In the first couple years that I had my car, and a job, I tried various ways of socializing, and one was to join a gay bicycling club. It was called Spokesman at the time, and later replaced this rather sexist name with Different Spokes. Since cyclists are a passionate bunch, the group did lots of events: at least one weeknight evening ride in Griffith Park (convenient for those who lived nearby), and one longer ride on the weekend, in scattered locations (rather analogous to scouting campouts) that required driving to a particular location with bikes in your cars.
    • The first began out in Palmdale and took a path along the aqueduct for an hour or so, then came back. I had naively thought I could fill my water bottle at the parking lot. No. I was dehydrated to the point of cramped legs by the time we finished.
    • Another began in Redondo Beach and went through part of Palos Verdes.
    • Another up and down along Venice Beach. I have some pictures from this!
    • Here’s an iPhone photo of a page from my photo album, four shots from the Venice trip, with Larry Kramer in sweaty gray shirt, Alex Hernandez(?) in yellow and black.
    • And another, my friend Larry just reminded me, of a “citizen’s race” out in Calimesa, southeast of San Bernardino along Interstate 10, in which a team of five of us, Larry, me, Alex, Howard, and Kim, won.
  • And the ultimate ride for southern California cyclists was the annual Solvang Century, a 100-mile ride that began in the quaint Danish town in the wine country northwest of Santa Barbara, went west to Lompoc, north past Vandenberg Air Force Base to Santa Maria, then southeast through Sisquoc amid many wineries along Foxen Canyon Road to Los Olivos and then back to Solvang. I did the ride just once. My friend in the club Larry Kramer did it a second year, while I provided driving support. Larry did an even more ambitious ride a year or two later: A Death Valley to Mt. Whitney ride, where again I accompanied him for the weekend and drove the car as backup support for the riders, since it was a one-way trip. (I have a bunch of photos from that trip that I’ll add here.)
  • At some point in ’84 or ’85 I withdrew from the group’s busy schedule. Most of the members were passionate riders, riding every week, tinkering with their bikes, upgrading their bikes to more and more expensive models. I wasn’t that obsessed, or inclined to invest. Even before leaving my single-room apartment in Northridge, in mid-1984, I’d decided to take up jogging instead, to stay healthy, and to do something I could do in the evenings even after dark. By the time I moved to Tarzana in 1985 I had stopped biking altogether, and sold my bike.
  • Decades have since past, and the only time I’ve been on a bicycle in those decades was May 2011 when Yeong and I did a weekend trip to Santa Barbara and stayed at Hotel Oceana (which doesn’t seem to exist under that name anymore), right along the boulevard across from the beach. They had bikes for hotel guests to use, and we took them out one morning. They were fixed single-gear bicycles, horrible things, that had to be kept pedaling; you couldn’t coast, and to brake you had to pedal backwards. We rode a mile or so west, and back.
  • In recent years Yeong and I have hiked a lot, both in Southern California and here in Oakland, and for a decade I’ve thought about buying a trail bike to ride on the dirt fire roads, those part of Mulholland Drive that are dirt. Here in Oakland, our section of Crestmont Drive is very popular with packs of cyclists who pass by our house in the mornings, on weekends and weekdays. Again I’ve been tempted to invest – especially since our current living situation isn’t as amenable to gym visits, or jogging – but have been dissuaded by those same circumstances. Our street is flat for a few hundred feet to the southeast. Beyond that, any possible bike route involves going up and down hills, usually down and then having to come back up. If I had an easy place to ride on the flats for an hour, I would do so.
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John Allen Paulos, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper. Basic Books, 1995.

Author’s Conclusion:

Always be smart. Seldom be certain. Journalists should ask, in addition to Who, Where, What, etc., How Many? And How Likely? And no matter how detailed the explanation, sometimes things remain baffling because the *world* is baffling.

Brief Summary:

This is a book not so much requiring sophisticated math to understand, but to review many examples of items (of all kinds) in the newspaper with insights for understanding them from math but also from psychology, including the predisposition of humans to turn everything into stories. There are so many short chapters that it’s hard to identify broad themes (aside from those in the conclusion), but here I’ll cite some key points from each section.

Politics: about voting schemes, none perfect; about psychological biases (even back in 1995 people knew about the availability error, the halo effect, the anchoring effect); how newspaper stories are told; how equivocation can enable virtually any claim; beware finding significance in coincidences.

Local and Social issues: How newspapers are nodes of connectedness; why to beware use of SAT scores; how arguments about gun control and abortion can be challenged; why stock markets patterns are illusory; how selection of units or words like “many” and “uncommon” can be misleading; how lawsuits presume every problem has a definite answer; how advertising works; how humans are preoccupied with the short term at the expense of the long term.

Lifestyle and soft news: How to write celebrity profiles; how to perceive trends that don’t actually exist; how statistical factoids depend on definitions.

Science and Medicine: How in science news clarity and precision are not equally balanced; beware implausible precision, and the overemphasis of trivial risks; how reporting seldom debunks even claims about guardian angels, statues that bleed, etc.; how to easily generate a pseudoscience out of meaningless coincidences (this example also in Irreligion); how confidence intervals are often ignored; how some strategies don’t work when scaled up; how you can’t predict discoveries you haven’t made yet; beware category errors; about different reasons to study math and five misconceptions about math.

Food, Fashion, Sports: Beware precision of nutrition information; how team sports are different than individual ones; sports records are simple issues of probability; how advice columns are glib; how to spot obvious exaggerations; the superficiality of top 10 lists; how so few books are reviewed compared to the coverage of every sports game, every murder; how religious coverage avoids discussion of faith to avoid recognizing the absence of evidence for beliefs; how we read obituaries.

Detailed Description

Author recalls growing up, reading the Chicago Tribune, the Milwaukee Journal. As he grew up, he grew more sophisticated about newspapers, but reads a lot of them, and contributes occasionally. This book is arranged like a newspaper, and is intended to offer a mathematical perspective to enrich our understanding….

Section 1, Politics, Economics, and the Nation
Social choices are necessary because our two most basic political ideals, liberty and equality, are incompatible. Consider the algorithm for dividing a cake: one cuts, the other chooses.

Lani “Quota Queen” Guinier.. voting

The Banzhaf power index: the number of ways a group or party can change a losing coalition into a winning one, or vice versa. Examples apply to, e.g. stockholders’ percentages, in which a small percentage might be just as powerful as a large one, because coalitions can form between groups; or a relatively large one may have no power at all. (examples). Ms Guinier suggested an alternative, a cumulative voting procedure would grant each voter a number of votes equal to the number of contested seats, which votes could be distributed any way the voter wished, separately or cumulatively. This could be an alternative to the gerrymandering that results in geographically bizarre districts.

Many different voting schemes have been proposed. Another is the approval system–one candidate, one vote. Each voter either approves or disapproves of each candidate.

In fact, no voting system is perfect; every one has undesirable consequences. The issue isn’t whether to be democratic, it’s how.

Bosnia: Vietnam or World War II?.. psychological availability
The ‘availability error’ is the psychological tendency to make a judgment based on the first thing that comes to mind. Similarly, emotional news stories, or provocative wording of poll questions, have greater impacts than neutral ones. News stories invite particular interpretations depending on their resonances with other recent stories, or the similarity to other news stories that day. Things or people are judged (the ‘halo effect’) by one salient characteristic–a Harvard pedigree, etc. Or people make different estimates depending on the ‘anchoring effect’ of an initial suggestion. Uncritical newsgathering simply bolsters conventional wisdom.

Recession forecast if steps not taken.. unpredictability; chaos
There are surprising mathematical reasons why most political and economic commentary and forecasting is fatuous nonsense. One example is the Laffer curve, which purports to represent the relationship between tax rate and government revenue, but simplistically neglects the myriad historical and contingent factors which might affect the actual relationship. Like a billiard table set up, weather is a system sensitive to small changes in initial conditions (Lorenz, 1960); thus chaos theory, and the study of nonlinear systems. The trajectory through such a system is a fractal. The lesson is to beware glib interpretations of changes of such complex systems.

Headlines and the inverted pyramid
Newspaper stories are told in inverted pyramid format, from essentials to more details. Ironically this creates a shorter attention span more than does tv, which is usually blamed for it. The coincidence of rival tv news shows running the same stories simultaneously should not be surprising…

Pakistan’s Bhutto… dice and bluffing
Sometimes a conscious randomizing of choices is not irrational, but maximizes one’s effectiveness. Example: a pitcher and batter decide between fast balls and curve balls; it’s best to decide which to do randomly. This is game theory–or negotiation theory. On the other hand, sometimes knowing a probability makes it best to adopt an unvarying policy. A dial that lands on red 70% and green 30% of the time; it is better to always guess red, not to try to guess red 70% and green 30%, because then only the ‘overlaps’ will bring a correct guess.

Who’s News…
Most news is about a very few people who are deemed ‘newsworthy’; it is an inverted pyramid structure. Similarly with coverage of foreigners. 1 American = 5 Englishmen = 500 Ecuadorans = 5000 Rwandans. Similar structure for word frequency in English.

Iraqi death toll… benchmark figures
Figures of war dead are rattled off without any perspective or comparison. Or comparing American dead to Vietnamese dead; or MIA in that war vs previous wars. Such benchmark, or ballpark, figures would be useful to insure common ground in multicultural discussions. The claims of Farrakhan; numbers of aids cases; the national debt.

Hillary most honest.. ambiguity and nonstandard models
By carefully defining terms and equivocating, you can say almost anything. “Most honest person I know.” Mathematically, there is the difficulty of definitions intended to describe one entity that turn out to be satisfied by other unexpected things, thus ‘non-standard’ geometries. Such results also play a role in humor…

Voting fraud.. political and mathematical regression
In a contested race, both sides presented mathematical arguments about machine votes vs. absentee votes. Mathematical interpretations do not bound our actions; deciding between interpretations is a nonmathematical issue.

Cult plot… newspapers, coincidences, conspiracies
There are so many unrelated news stories available that it’s no surprise that odd coincidences should jump out. True believers have no trouble finding support for their theories. The famous coincidences between Kennedy and Lincoln are well known; similar links can be found between other presidents.

Section 2, Local, Business, and Social Issues
What is local? We tend to evaluate relevance of particular news stories by their relation to us, in some aspect or another–location, social type, profession. The multiplication effect reveals the ‘connectedness’ of society–the number of links between any two people, which both theoretically and empirically has been shown to be under 10. A group breakdown by sex contacts would consist of some number of celibate single-person groups, a larger number of two-person groups; a few groups having a few members; and a huge group, perhaps 100 million, connected by their connectedness more than by being promiscuous.

Newspapers, then, are about the nodes of connectedness.

Company charged.. test disparities
Stories about women and minorities often focus on small fluctuations that are magnified at the ends of bell curves. It’s easy to show that the differences between any two groups will always be greatly accentuated at the extremes. And differences between groups (which there must be, by definition) will likely show up on standardized tests. The issue should be whether any particular test is appropriate to its use.

Thus schemes of strict proportional representation are impossible to implement. E.g. hidden relationships between race and being homosexual will yield mixes that will look good or bad from different perspectives.

The Scholastic Assessment Test, it’s now called. Among many other issues is whether SAT scores are predictive of college achievement. The reason why not is that any one college takes only a particular slice of SAT scores, then this group is spread out by academic achievement (GPA) at that college. If everyone were accepted to the top colleges, then there would be a stronger correlation between SAT score and later achievement.

Guns will soon kill more than cars…
The problem with such a comparison is that deaths due to guns are almost always intentional. The reason stricter gun controls don’t pass, despite a sizeable number of people who would support them, is that those who disagree with them feel strongly about the issue and even though a minority, are more likely than the majority to let the issue be a determining factor in deciding their vote.

Abortion… prohibition and arithmetical arguments
Sometimes radical new arguments enable people to reexamine entrenched positions. Suppose something caused women to become pregnant with 30-50 fetuses at a time, and that some could be saved, or all could be lost. Abortion opponents would presumably opt to save them all, risking a population explosion. Or: if evidence was confirmed that smokeless tobacco drastically reduced tobacco-related deaths, why not encourage smokers to switch?

DNA finger murderer; life, death and conditional probability
The ‘prosecutor’s paradox’ is about conditional probability, e.g. a fingerprint match with an innocent person has a probability of one in a million, but an innocent person matching the fingerprint has a probability of 2 out of 3, which is the relevant issue. In logic, If A then B is not the same as If B then A.

Darts Trounce the Pros: luck and the market
Random selections of stocks do about as well as the pro’s, sometimes even better. This is partly due to statistical fluctuations. Also because of the way random processes work. In a sequence of 1000 random coin flips, most of the time the number of either heads or tails will be greater; it won’t flip back and forth. Even though statistically they come out about the same. Similar things happen with stocks, which become known as ‘winners’ and ‘losers’ without there being much difference between them.

There are also seeming patterns in random sequences, which compel ‘explanation’.

Despite such demonstrations, market analysts are always pronouncing explanations for every market swing.

Cellular Phones tied to Brain Cancer: multiplication, health, and business
Numerical quantities can be made to seem big or small depending on the units chosen, e.g. length vs. volume. This happens in discussing disease rates–minimize by discussing rates; maximize by discussing gross numbers, especially particular cases. Thus, an anecdote about a woman with brain cancer led to stock prices falling for companies manufacturing cellular phones. Similar hysteria applied to stories about silicone breast implants.

The media use words like ‘many’ and ‘uncommon’ which are essentially meaningless. Newspapers typically present only a single ‘credible’ figure, without indicating the range of figures depending on different classification criteria.

GM Trucks Explode on Side Collision: from pity to policy
There is an increase of 143% in the number of lawyers since 1971. We get the impression every daily activity is fraught with danger–lawsuits are everywhere, as if every problem has a definite answer, as if there is no room for uncertainty in the world. Court cases play up the victims. It is probable that the GM engineers made a rational decision in designing their trucks; but how many thousands whose lives were saved by that decision are aware of it? People tend to assign negligence when the consequences are significant, no matter what the element of chance.

The $32 billion Pepsi Challenge: advertising and numerical craftiness
Most everyone knows how advertising works; full of false inferences, omitting crucial information. Ads can even make dumb mistakes without hurting sales (it’s the impression that counts). An exception might be the Pepsi gaffe in which thousands of people had winning numbers in a lottery, and Pepsi couldn’t fulfill its jackpot promise.

Brief Fads Dominate Toy Industry: S-curves and novelty
The S-curve describes trends that rapidly increase and then level off, like bacteria growth in a petri dish. This happens because of a depletion of nutrients, say. But the curve also describes cultural patterns, like the popularity of new toys. Perhaps here what is being depleted is the sense of novelty.

Area Residents Respond to Story: repetition, repetition, repetition
Typical tv news strategy–interviewing men on the street about some breaking story; of course they all say the same thing, having been briefed the same way. (A man was unsure of a newspaper story, so bought dozens of copies of the paper to corroborate the story.)

Researchers Look to Local News for Trends: the present, the future, and ponzi schemes
Humans are preoccupied with the short term, at the expense of the long term; thus our attitudes involving aids, global warming, long-term debts, etc. They play out like ponzi schemes, in which early investors are paid off with later ones, but the even later ones lose everything. Trying to forecast such trends, by ‘adding up’ local short-term events, usually do not yield good results.


Section 3: Lifestyle, Spin, and Soft News
People are most interested in soft news with some pertinence to oneself. Note how often some essayists use the various ‘I’ words…

A Cyberpunk Woody Allen: how to write a profile of the fledgling celebrity
How to write it: pick someone not too well known, compare them to someone who is and gather testimonials, both of which are easy because of the interconnectedness of things…

Tsongkerclintkinbro Wins
(Written in Spring ‘92 when there were still 5 viable Democratic candidates for president.) A set of imaginary voting preferences that show that each candidate can declare himself the winner depending on which voting criteria is used.

Florida Dentist Accused to Intentionally Spreading AIDS: rumors, self-fulfilling prophecies…
Irrational fears can be understood as variations of the Dennett party game in which a dream is deduced through a series of yes no questions answered according to some arbitrary rule. The questioner deduces a dream that never occurred, one which has no author. Similarly dreams themselves may occur when the mind’s question-generating ability is intact, but is getting in effect a series of random answers by being unconscious. Whole societies can be victim of mounting fears when objective information is absent. (Guatemala peasants thought western women were stealing babies…)

Interlude: Selves, Heroes, and Dissociation

(missed a couple chapters here)

Newspaper Circulation Down: factoids on tabloids
Claims are 60,000 newspapers in the world, and 500 million readers… though of course these statistics depend on what one calls a newspaper, or how one counts readers…

Computers, Faxes, Copiers Still Rare in Russia: information and the commissars
It’s not preposterous to imagine that the failure of economies in the former Soviet Union is due to the control of information that suppressed information duplicating mechanisms…


Section 4: Science, Medicine, and the Environment
Usually clarity and precision are not equally balanced. Some scientists are happy with precision without a proper context; journalists often highlight the most alarming scenarios consistent with the story.

Ranking Health Risks: Experts and Laymen Differ
the Dyscalculia Syndrome
(article from Discover mg). The difficulties of ‘false positives’ and other misleading statistics. What’s critical about a random sample is its absolute size, not its percentage of the population. Similarly there’s a widespread confusion about correlation vs. causation. Often incorrect inferences are made due to lack of information (inadequate), e.g. data on condom failure rates, or disease incidence rates, which don’t take into consideration increased susceptibility due to longer lifespans. Implausibly precise statistics are often bogus — e.g. the normal body temperature is actually 98.2 (not 98.6) due to a rounding error from Celsius.

Asbestos Removal Closes NYC Schools: contaminated mountains out of mole spills
News stories of contaminations often overemphasize trivial risks; if everything is risky, nothing is. One pint of liquid dumped into the oceans becomes 6000 molecules per pint of ocean water. ! Virtually any such statistic can be manipulated into sounding alarming.

Super Collider a Waste of Money: science journalism and advocacy
Laypeople are often beset by dueling experts in the press; science journalists cannot assume the same level of audience background knowledge as can, say, a food critic. Example of Rudy Rucker story about mathematical proposals translated into musical performances for congress, “A New Golden Age”. Still, public face-offs and debates on scientific issues should be encouraged.

Harvard Psychiatrist Believes Patients Abducted by Aliens: mathematically creating one’s own pseudoscience
And science reporting should engage in gentle debunking, too. But seldom does, even when reporting on guardian angels, statues that bleed, or UFO abducting aliens. The ease of finding odd coincidences in life has already been discussed. Here’s how to create such coincidences– take four numbers about yourself and generate various combinations of them to different powers; some of them are bound to correspond to this or that physical constant. Virtually all such coincidences are not only not miraculous; they’re meaningless.

FDA Caught Between Opposing Protesters: statistical tests and confidence intervals
Other basic statistical principles to be aware of include Type I and Type II errors–making judgments based on small samples, either rejecting a true hypothesis, or accepting a false one. The FDA must balance these two risks when evaluating drugs.

Also, confidence intervals, as in “95% certain that such and such”; sort of like a margin of error. But these qualifications are often left out of reports.

Senators Eye Hawaii Health Care Plan: scaling up is so very hard to do
Strategies that work on a small scale often don’t work when scaled up…health plans, traffic patterns, size and weight. Compromises are needed, such as the prisoner’s dilemma, the tragedy of the commons. Arrow’s theorem describes ranking problems (nontransitive results).

Breakthrough Forecast by End of Decade: you can’t know more than you know
The Hay Theory of history was that the invention of hay made settlement of northern Europe possible, and thus the spread of civilization. Similar stories about other technologies can be told, and each one involves some contingency that precluded alternate technologies. Thus the qwerty keyboard; VHS over Beta; DOS. But really new paths are unpredictable. Despite the headline, you can’t predict discoveries you haven’t made yet.

Rodent Population Patterns Difficult to Fathom: ecology, chaos and the news
Stories on ecological issues frequently verge on category mistakes–ascribing human motives or agents to natural events. For instance, population trends of rodents may follow a certain formula that generates chaotic results. How much more complex are actual ecological systems! But news stories like facile analyses.

More Dismal Math Scores for US Students: x, y, and u
News stories about dismal scores–so what? There are three broad classes of reasons to study math. First is practical, for job skills, science, technology. Second is informed understanding; third is considerations of beauty, curiosity, wisdom. But politicians like innumerate people who can be easily swayed without recognizing quantitative arguments. Yet some types of mathematical subjects, puzzles and so on, are popular. Why isn’t studying math more popular?

Five misconceptions: Math is a matter of computation, not. Nor is it strictly hierarchical: algebra, then calculus, then etc etc. Storytelling is too infrequently used. The false distinction between ‘people person’ and ‘numbers person’, say. And that math is numbing of other sensibilities.


Section 5: Food, Book Reviews, Sports, Obituaries
761 Calories… : meaningless precision
Given how recipes are written, the precision of nutrition information is meaningless. It only takes one imprecise number to make any combination using it also imprecise.

Top Designs for the Busy Working Woman: fashion, unpredictability, and toast
To author the fashion pages make the astrology column look insightful. A toast and jam sandwich folded and stretch is analogous to reading a newspaper, which folds and stretches the mind to brings things once far apart closer together, in a complex way.

Agassi Wins Again: scoring and amplifying differences
Sports statistics suggest that often the best teams manage to lose, and the worst ones win, occasionally. In contrast, in individual sports the better player usually does win. But the rules of the game typically amplify the differences in skill between players; and who goes first often makes a big difference.

New Survey Reveals Changing Attitudes: societal gas laws
Has polling and measuring become a national pastime? The fascination with profiles counterbalances the fascination with celebrities and other individual stories. And statistical profiles are valid even when the data is erratic–example of sadistic nutritionist. The Central Limit theorem. Statistical averages apply routinely in physics–gases, for example. Or Lem’s one minute profile of sexual intercourse across the planet.

Near Perfect Game for Roger Clemens: how many runs in the long run
Sports records can be explained by the laws of probability, even amazing ‘streaks’, which occur with the same frequency as streaks of heads in coin tossing.

Bucks County and Environs: a note on maps and graphic games
Language includes knowing rules for various idiosyncratic uses and exchanges, which must be understood differently. So to graphs and pie charts and maps, which have peculiar emphases that must be understood in context.

Ask About Your Mother-in-Law’s Lladro: explanations, advice, and physics
Advice columns provide easy, glib explanations. These arise from making ‘intentional’ accounts of situations where only a physical explanation would do. It’s easy to invent numerous intentional explanations for every gesture and situation.

Garden Club Gala: incidence matricies on the society pages
Expressions such as “everybody was there” or “they’re all doing it” are annoying; they’re so clearly exaggerations. Showing incidence matrices with society stories would be revealing.

Ten Reasons We Hate Our Bosses: lists and linearity
The top 10 reasons that Top 10 lists are popular.

Stallone on Worst-Dressed List: traits and rates
Best and worst dressed lists, and the like, are the products not just of the measures of the traits involved, but also popularity or recognition.

New Biography Fills Much-Needed Gap: books and news
Books should be bigger news…50,000 are published each year, how many are reported on, especially compared to the attention lavished to every baseball game, every murder, every tv program listing. Instead, a relatively small number of books are reviewed, often with lavish amounts of attention.

Which way Mecca? Religion in the paper
Coverage is almost never about faith, but about peripheral issues (like the problems mosque builders in the US have in determining the direction to Mecca). But this is just as well. Discussion of the true issues would require explicit discussion of other beliefs, of the absence of evidence for beliefs, and so on. Better a tacit embargo that supports religious tolerance.

R. L. Vickler, 85, Aide to Truman: the length of obituaries
A nice vertical, historical contrast to the nowness of most news stories. Trends can be seen.


Always be smart. Seldom be certain.

Journalists should ask, in addition to Who, Where, What, etc., How Many? And How Likely?

And no matter how detailed the explanation, sometimes things remain baffling because the *world* is baffling.

Posted in Uncategorized | Comments Off on John Allen Paulos, A MATHEMATICIAN READS THE NEWSPAPER (1995)

Links and Comments: Socialism, Conspiracy Theories, Religion, Rationality, Liberalism, William Barr, Republicans

First, a David Brooks column from back in December: I Was Once a Socialist. Then I Saw How It Worked.

I was a socialist in college. I read magazines like The Nation and old issues of The New Masses. I dreamed of being the next Clifford Odets, a lefty playwright who was always trying to raise proletarian class consciousness. … The best version of socialism is defined by Michael Walzer’s phrase, “what touches all should be decided by all.” The great economic enterprises should be owned by all of us in common. Decisions should be based on what benefits all, not the maximization of profit.

But then,

My socialist sympathies didn’t survive long once I became a journalist. I quickly noticed that the government officials I was covering were not capable of planning the society they hoped to create. It wasn’t because they were bad or stupid. The world is just too complicated.

This is precisely why communism failed, as far as I understand; and why conspiracy theories are bunk. These vast conspiracy theories — by the FBI to assassinate JFK, by the government to stage 9/11, and so on — would require so much precision planning without anyone involved giving the game away, for years and years afterwards — that they are unbelievable. Compare how large construction projects *never* come in on time or to budget; coordination among so many planners and workers never goes to schedule or budget. And I recall a comment somewhere years ago, which unfortunately I didn’t capture, by a political operative in Washington DC, that after two weeks working in government, observed that nothing gets done efficiently in government, let alone vast conspiracies.

At the same time, Brooks observes, unbridled (unregulated) capitalism is not the simple answer.

Today, the real argument is not between capitalism and socialism. We ran that social experiment for 100 years and capitalism won. It’s between a version of democratic capitalism, found in the U.S., Canada and Denmark, and forms of authoritarian capitalism, found in China and Russia. Our job is to make it the widest and fairest version of capitalism it can possibly be.


Slate: The Bible That Oozed Oil: A small Georgia town, a prophecy about Donald Trump, and the story of how a miracle fell apart.

Long article describing the familiar generalization of how the most gullible are the most religious. Anyone with any ounce of savvy about how the world really works would have suspected fraud from the very beginning.


Contrary to William Barr and other religious moralists, increased religious faith and social prosperity do not go together.

Jerry Coyne: Religion doesn’t improve society: more evidence

In numerous measures including per capita GDP, unemployment rate, homicide rates, life expectancy, etc., the top 10 most religious countries in the world score worse than the top 10 least religious states. Data!


On the other hand, from Aeon: Why Religion Is Not Going Away and Science Will Not Destroy It. Subtitled, Social scientists predicted that belief in the supernatural would drift away as modern science advanced. They were wrong.

Human nature will out, and wins by default in the absence of active education.


This piece makes a distinction between being rational and being reasonable.

Vox: Is rationality overrated?. Subtitled, Sometimes, it’s better to be reasonable.

Citing Kahneman & Tversky and Sunstein & Thaler, the idea that humans are basically rational creatures (a chief assumption of traditional economics) has been undermined. A new study suggests that people are more frequently reasonable, which they define thus:

[T]here’s rationality, where you focus on maximizing the chance of getting what you want, and there’s reasonableness, where you strike a balance between what you want and social norms.

The example that occurs to me is that a rational person might understand that there’s no reason to take the metaphysical claims of religion seriously, but a reasonable person might know not to say that out loud and instead pay lip service to community standards that give them credence.


From 2016, NPR: Why Are Highly Educated Americans Getting More Liberal?

Not only are the better-educated more liberal than others, they’ve been getting *increasingly* liberal over the last couple decades. Suggested causes: polarization; more women getting degree; insularity (living alongside like-minded people). Conservatives have gotten more conservative too, but not because of education.


Daily Kos via AlterNet: Logic versus emotion: Understanding the mass psychology of the Christian right

My take before reading this: religious fundamentalists, believing in an authoritarian god who’s issued strict rules about all manner of behaviors (via the 10 Commandments and the strictures of Leviticus), are naturally attracted to authoritarian leaders, who tell them what to believe and what to do so they don’t have to think, and are uncomfortable with the freedoms and options available in liberal, democratic societies where people are able to reason what’s best for themselves and make decisions different than those made by the primitive desert tribes who wrote the Old Testament.

But let’s see what the article says.

Whatever one likes or dislikes about the Democrats, their appeal to voters is primarily to logic. Whereas the Republicans long ago learned to appeal to the dark side of people’s emotions, since they had no logical or progressive policies to sell. So the Republicans have become the party of hate, misogyny racism, bigotry, homophobia, war, and anti-immigrant sentiment affixed to a false and extremist Christian face. They now, and have been for some time, openly organizing people around these negative emotions and behaviors.


People who have fallen under the influence of an authoritarian or religious leader will hold on furiously to their dependence. They have invested their self esteem into the identity and success of these leaders, and by supporting them, they have built up their own self worth. One of the reasons right wing religious leaders can get their members to send them so much money for such ridiculous and scandalous reasons.

This is actually a rather haphazardly written article, but it makes important points.


As an example of the above, a NYT Opinion piece by Katherine Stewart and Caroline Fredrickson, from Dec. 29th 2019. Bill Barr Thinks America Is Going to Hell. Subtitled, And he’s on a mission to use the “authority” of the executive branch to stop it.

In these and other cases, Mr. Barr has embraced wholesale the “religious liberty” rhetoric of today’s Christian nationalist movement. When religious nationalists invoke “religious freedom,” it is typically code for religious privilege. The freedom they have in mind is the freedom of people of certain conservative and authoritarian varieties of religion to discriminate against those of whom they disapprove or over whom they wish to exert power.

This form of “religious liberty” seeks to foment the sense of persecution and paranoia of a collection of conservative religious groups that see themselves as on the cusp of losing their rightful position of dominance over American culture. It always singles out groups that can be blamed for society’s ills, and that may be subject to state-sanctioned discrimination and belittlement — L.G.B.T. Americans, secularists and Muslims are the favored targets, but others are available. The purpose of this “religious liberty” rhetoric is not just to secure a place of privilege, but also to justify public funding for the right kind of religion.


Within this ideological framework, the ends justify the means. In this light, Mr. Barr’s hyperpartisanship is the symptom, not the malady. At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic Party and its supporters are routinely described as “demonic” and associated with “rulers of the darkness.” If you know that society is under dire existential threat from secularists, and you know that they have all found a home in the other party, every conceivable compromise with principles, every ethical breach, every back-room deal is not only justifiable but imperative. And as the vicious reaction to Christianity Today’s anti-Trump editorial demonstrates, any break with this partisan alignment will be instantly denounced as heresy.

This is why conservative Republicans are basically lawless: they presume they can cheat any way they need to in order to achieve their higher purposes. Democrats who play by the rules are wimps.

The answer is that America’s conservative movement, having morphed into a religious nationalist movement, is on a collision course with the American constitutional system. Though conservatives have long claimed to be the true champions of the Constitution — remember all that chatter during previous Republican administrations about “originalism” and “judicial restraint” — the movement that now controls the Republican Party is committed to a suite of ideas that are fundamentally incompatible with the Constitution and the Republic that the founders created under its auspices.

There are many examples every week of fundamentalist preachers who see every perceived malady in the world as due to the gays, or abortion, or same-sex marriage. They are fixated on interpreting the world based on things they don’t like.


AlterNet: Outlandish conspiracy theories didn’t start with Trump’s presidency. Republicans have been promoting ‘fringe crackpots’ for decades: political historian.

Citing a Washington Post article by Matthew Dallek.

“The intellectual life of the American right since Sen. Joe McCarthy’s rise to prominence in 1950 can be seen partially as a series of flirtations with conspiracists and a dedicated reluctance to read fringe crackpots out of its ranks,” Dallek explains.

The John Birch Society in the 1950s, promoting conspiracy theories much like those that Alex Jones promotes today. The many crazy Clinton conspiracy theories.

“Ultimately, Trump was the logical consequence of a posture followed for decades at the top echelons of the conservative movement: the batty screeds are silly, but since they help us, we won’t work zealously to purge them,” Dallek observes. “Trump’s conspiracy-based capture of the GOP has less to do with him and his perspective than with a party that sought and often won the support of people who believe those notions.”

Posted in Conservative Resistance, Culture, Humanism, Psychology, Religion | Comments Off on Links and Comments: Socialism, Conspiracy Theories, Religion, Rationality, Liberalism, William Barr, Republicans

John Allen Paulos, IRRELIGION (2008)

John Allen Paulos, Irreligion: A Mathematician Explains Why the Arguments for God Just Don’t Add Up.  Farrar, Straus and Giroux/Hill and Wang, 2008.

John Allen Paulos is a professor of mathematics who’s become, over the past three decades, well-known as an author who applies basic mathematical reasoning to everyday topics. His first hit was Innumeracy: Mathematical Illiteracy and Its Consequences (1988), exploring how misconceptions about math, especially statistics and probability, leads to errors in public policy and personal decisions. A later book, A Mathematician Reads the Newspaper (1995), extended the theme. (Understanding basic mathematical ideas like these and applying them to everyday things is part of my general concept of being “savvy.”)

The book here, slender and breezy, applies mathematical reasoning and simple logic to the various arguments for the existence of God, and finds those arguments wanting (of course). Appearing in 2008, this book can be seen in the context of the various “new atheism” books by Harris, Dawkins, et al, that appeared in the mid-2000s. There was obviously an audience for books that dismantled the presumptions of religious faith.

Brief Summary:

  • Four classical arguments for the existence of God are examined and dismissed for logical incoherence and/or statistical implausibility: arguments from first cause, from design, from the anthropic principle, from ontology.
  • Four subjective arguments, from coincidence, prophecy, subjectivity, and interventions, are dismantled on statistical grounds.
  • And four Psycho-Mathematical arguments — on redefinition, cognitive tendency, universality, and gambling — are also dismantled.
  • With asides about a personal pseudoscience, recursion, emotional need, Jesus and CS Lewis, a dream conversation with God, and the idea of “brights.”

Detailed Summary: [[ with comments in brackets ]]


This book addresses if there are logical reasons to believe in God. (Author is droll: “There are many who seem to be impressed with the argument that God exists simply because He says He does in a much extolled tome that He allegedly inspired.”) Author claims an inborn materialism—that matter and motion are the basis of all that there is. Recalls adolescent skepticism about Santa Claus, and God—what caused or preceded him?. The inherent illogic to all arguments for the existence of God are addressed here. The book will be informal and brisk, with no equations. Author always wondered about a proto-religion for atheists and agnostics that would still acknowledge the wonder of the universe: the “Yeah-ist” religion, “whose response to the intricacy, beauty, and mystery of the world is a simple affirmation and acceptance: Yeah.”

Four classical arguments—

The Argument from First Cause (and Unnecessary Intermediaries)

Argument: Everything has a cause; nothing is its own cause; there had to be a first cause; call it God.

The problem here is the first assumption—either everything has a cause, or it doesn’t. If the former, God has a cause too; if the latter, why invoke God?; maybe the universe itself has no cause. Related is the natural-law argument, that something must have caused the particular natural laws we see in the universe.

The very notion of cause has its problems. And perhaps the assumption that nothing is its own cause is the problem.

[[ the other problem with arguments like this is that, even if valid, what does the ‘god’ of this argument have to do with any particular conception of what god is? ]]

The Argument from Design (and Some Creationist Calculations)

Argument: The universe is too complex (or beautiful) to have come about by accident; it must have been created; thus God exists. (Alternatively, the universe seems to have a purpose; thus God.)

Example of William Paley and the watch on the beach.

The problem with this argument is knowing what’s ‘too’ complex to come about randomly. In any event, wouldn’t the creator be even more complex in order to have created the universe? Who created the creator’s complexity? It’s a metaphysical Ponzi scheme. Like a mnemonic more complicated than what it’s designed to remember. In contrast, we have a well-confirmed explanation for the origin of life’s complexity: evolution.

Those opposed to evolution who cite calculations of improbability of a given occurrence (like the eye) miss the point. The argument is deeply flawed; any particular development is unlikely, just as any particular arrangement of a shuffled deck of cards is unlike. Then there is Michael Behe’s irreducible complexity, applied to, say, the clotting of blood. Again, such complexity is explained by evolution; yet those who reject evolution are immune to such explanations.

Further, we can compare evolutionary matters to free-market economies—were those economies set into place, someone determining every rule in advance? Of course not; the system emerged and grew by itself. Odd that opponents of evolution usually support free-markets—they reject the idea of central planning (yet presume such central planning by the omniscient creator). So too does software like the game of Life and Wolfram’s cellular automatons show how simple rules result in great complexity; these ideas are not new. Someone who claimed the economy was the result of a detail-obsessed, all-powerful lawgiver might be thought a conspiracy theorist.

A Personally Crafted Pseudoscience

Digression. To anticipate the following arguments: Take any four numbers associated with yourself—height, weight, birth date etc—and consider various powers and products of them. (It’s straightforward to set up a computer program to generate thousands of combinations of product and factors, etc.) It’s likely that some of these combinations will be close to the speed of light and other such universal constants—especially if you juggle units. Does this imply you have a personal relationship with creation?

The Argument from the Anthropic Principle (and a Probabilistic Doomsday)

Argument: the physical constants are such that if they were slightly different, humans wouldn’t exist; humans exist; so those contants must have been fine-tuned by God.

Well, maybe other creatures would exist if the constants were different; one can’t know. There may be many universes, each with different laws and constants.

Related is the phenomenon of self-selection, applied to the Doomsday argument—example to judge why doomsday, that might happen anytime, should happen in any particular person’s lifetime.

The Ontological Argument (and Logical Abracadabra)

Examples of this go back to Plato’s Euthydemus. This concerns paradoxical, self-referential statements. e.g., If this statement is true, then God exists. Such statements can be used to prove, or disprove, anything.

Argument: The classic argument is that by definition God is the greatest and most perfect being; it’s more perfect to exist than not; therefore he exists.

The same argument could prove that a perfect island exists. Hume observed the only way words can prove anything is where a contradiction can be shown, e.g. that God is both omnipotent and omniscient. But no such disproof of God’s existence is possible.

Self-recursion, Recursion, and Creation

Digression: Recursion is a powerful concept key to computer programming. Examples are virus-like; example of Pete and repeat. Or von Neumann’s recursive definition of positive whole numbers. A lot of religious arguments are similar. If you assume a false thesis, you can prove anything.

Four Subjective Arguments—

The Argument from Coincidence (and 9/11 Oddities)

As in The Celestine Prophecy [a bestselling book]: coincidences impress some as evidence of God. The assumption is things don’t happen by accident; everything happens for a reason, etc.

Examples relate to 9/11—all sorts of numerical derivations. But of course you can do similar things with any date or set of words. Verses attributed to Nostradamus relating to 9/11 were simply made up. Photos were circulated on the internet.

People look for patterns and see them whether they’re there or not. People remember positive examples and forget counterexamples. What are the odds of some uncanny coincidence occurring? Quite high—there are so many potential events. A passage from Clarke’s Rendezvous with Rama told of a fireball on Sep 11th, 2077…

[[ there’s also the point of *why* coincidences would mean anything to anyone; there’s a psychological undercurrent that no one ever seems to discuss ]]

The Argument from Prophecy (and the Bible Codes)

Of course, some prophecies from holy books come true, but not enough of them to mean anything. Oddly, the more details a holy book contains, the less likely they might *all* be true, no matter than people ‘accept’ the book as true. Just because it’s in the Bible doesn’t close the matter; just because a holy book claims it’s true doesn’t make it true. People who think it does sometimes resort to the argument from red face and loud mouth.

Biblical codes concern equidistant letter sequences (ELSs), the way ‘nazi’ is within ‘generalization’. The discovery of rabbi names, etc, in the Torah was taken as proof of divine inspiration. True, the calculated probability of a particular ELS is tiny; but the discoveries weren’t predicted; they could have been anything. The likelihood of *some* interesting ELS *somewhere* is pretty high.

An Anecdote on Emotional Need

Digression: Author recalls helping three Thai girls, on Xmas day in 2006, dupe online boyfriends for cash, and considers how desperate those remote boyfriends wanted to believe in their girlfriends is like the intense need people have to believe in God. Author doesn’t believe in God, but doesn’t want to scoff at emotional need.

The Argument from Subjectivity (and Faith, Emptiness, and Self)

It’s hard to address the argument that people simply feel that God exists in their bones, or wherever. Similar is the argument that the idea there isn’t a God is too depressing, therefore there is. But there’s no way of verifying such subjective insight—unlike the way a blind person might verify the directions given him by a sighted person.

Similar is the argument that since all worldviews are valid, god exists. It would be arrogant for an agnostic to belittle someone’s religious beliefs, but usually it’s the believers who attacks the nonbelievers. How would an argument for theism work, to justify particular creeds? Belief in god doesn’t imply divinity of Jesus.

After all, most people are atheists about others’ gods. Atheists and agnostics just go them one better.

Even more absurd is to claim the existence of a personal god who answers prayers, intervenes with miracles, etc., which presumes an overweening sense of self-importance. [[ And yet my impression is that this is by far the most common sort of belief in God! ]]

Even the idea of self is unstable; we are constantly changing throughout our lives.

[[ The reply to this whole line of thought is to realize that millions of people around the world have passionate, subjective feelings about *other* gods ]]

The Argument from Interventions (and Miracles, Prayers, and Witnesses)

Miracles demonstrate the existence of God? Stories of ‘miracles’ seem to be getting more press lately. But claims are inconsistent; a few saved is a miracle, millions dying is a natural disaster; aren’t both divine or not? A local case (in author’s home Philadelphia) involved a Mother Drexel and two children who prayed to her and recovered. The famous Fatima case, children who experienced prophecies that were so vague they could apply to anything. The idea of miracles is counter to the weight of science—a miracle would simply mean the scientific laws were wrong. And testimony, of course, is not dependable—delusion or lying is more likely than a miracle.

Remarks on Jesus and Other Figures

The popularity of Mel Gibson’s Jesus movie (The Passion of the Christ) suggests that many believe the existence of such figures prove God’s existence. But: we often know little about news stories that happen in full view; we realize that and suspend judgment. But not with distant historical events, such as the events of that movie, recorded in the New Testament decades after the fact. Consider the political situation at the time of J’s death. Compare to the death of Socrates. Would one blame contemporary Athenians on his death? Would a film about it one dwell on the agony of him being poisoned?

CS Lewis’ arguments were uncompelling—we don’t know what Jesus said, or if his story is accurate. The flaw in The Da Vinci Code (the popular book and then film, which presume to identify a modern-day descendant of Jesus) is that any given biological line (e.g. Jesus’) would likely either die out quickly, or grow so that millions could claim to be descendants after centuries. Given parents, grandparents, etc., going back 40 generations we would each have a trillion ancestors; so obviously they were not all different people. If anyone from 3000 years ago has any descendants—it would be all of us.

Four Psycho-Mathematical Arguments

The Argument from Redefinition (and Incomprehensible Complexity)

Some attempt to redefine God as something else—nature, the laws of the universe, mathematics. This may be one reason many people say they are believers. God is Love. Or God is simply incomprehensibly complex. This is equivocation. The theory of everything may be beyond the complexity horizon. Yet nothing can be so complex that patterns aren’t apparent at various levels, enabling descriptions of order—inevitably. And in sufficiently large populations or sets, certain lower-level properties are guaranteed; examples of people at dinner parties who do know or do not know each other. Recall Stuart Kauffman’s work on self-organization. Claims these phenomena prove God are very strained.

The Argument from Cognitive Tendency (and Some Simple Programs)

Some say the fact that cognitive biases and illusions exist as proof of what they perceive, e.g. God. People have an inborn tendency to search for explanations and intentions. E.g., a thought experiment about a man’s car; or why extraordinary causes seem necessary to explain the deaths of JFK or Diana, to say nothing of the universe.

And we seek confirmation more anxiously than disconfirmation; we can be blind to contrary facts. The source of perpetuating stereotypes.

The ‘availability error’ is the inclination to view anything new in the context of what is already known—war, scandal, religion. Thus, other religions confirm the existence of God! The reason most people adopt their parents’ religion—cultural traditions. “…religious beliefs generally arise not out of a rational endeavor but rather out of cultural traditions and psychological tropes.” Children are no more Catholic because their parents are, than they are, say, Marxist because their parents are.

The last is the notion that ‘like causes like’. Complex results must have complex causes. But some computer examples (fractals) show that simple rules create complex results. Stephen Wolfram’s book A New Kind of Science, e.g. his rule 110 (page 112). Very simple rules result in patterns similar to those in biology and other sciences. Wolfman suggests simple programs might capture scientific phenomena better than equations. [[ this is a profound points, I think. ]] [[ there’s also the entirely subjective notion of what is ‘complex’ vs ‘simple’ ]]

My Dreamy Instant Message Exchange with God

Author had a dream conversation with God, who claims he evolved from the universe’s biological-social-cultural nature.

The Universality Argument (and the Relevance of Morality and Mathematics)

That the moral sense of different cultures is similar is taken as being instilled by God. Though this doesn’t explain blasphemers, criminals, homosexuals, etc. [[ if instilled by God, why aren’t they as invariant as the biological processes of staying alive? ]] Anyway, evolutionary forces explain why moral codes are similar in cultures that survive for long. (cf. Marc D. Hauser’s book—another group theory argument.) Also, if moral laws aren’t arbitrary, then their goodness is true without their being a god.

That leads to the old problem of why God would allow evil to exist; the usual answer, that we don’t understand his ways, explains nothing. And the many other obvious childlike notions in religious doctrine. The Boolean satisfiability problem is about determining if a set of statements, true or not, are consistent. Most sets of religious beliefs are inconsistent.

Scientists have long wondered about the universality of science and math. Is the fact that math works to explain the world really mysterious? Our ideas about math derive from interaction with the physical world. Counting, arranging, then abstracting. Evolution has selected those of our ancestors whose behavior and thought were consistent with the workings of the universe.

The Gambling Argument (and Emotions from Prudence to Fear)

Pascal’s wager applies to any religion, of course. And trying to assign probabilities to God’s existence is a futile task. Statements using ‘is’ are subject to linguistic confusion.

The wager isn’t much different than believing in god just because the idea of dying is dreadful. It’s similar to rallying around a leader in dangerous times. Dick Cheney’s one percent doctrine: even a 1% chance of there being weapons of mass destruction justifies war.

Anyway, there’s no evidence that nonbelievers are less moral or law-abiding. In a sense, moral acts by nonbelievers are more moral than those by believers who act to gain some divine reward.

Still, these arguments fail to persuade those whose critical faculties are undermined; and the untruths underlying faith make life more bearable to some.

Atheists, Agnostics, and “Brights”

Despite all this, atheists are the least tolerated minority in the US. Maybe what’s needed is a popular story or film, ala Brokeback Mountain. Another idea is to use a new term—maybe ‘bright’ (as proposed in the 2000s). Or at least greater acceptance of the admission of being irreligious. Author isn’t fond of the word bright. Yet hopes that as more people admit to being irreligious, to give up on divine allies and tormentors in favor of being humane and reasonable, the world would be a bit closer to a heaven on earth.

Posted in Book Notes, Mathematics, Religion | Comments Off on John Allen Paulos, IRRELIGION (2008)

My Religious Upbringing, Such As It Was

My upbringing was not especially religious; my parents attended church, and took their kids to Sunday school, but more out of social habit and propriety, was my impression, rather than from any deep-seated faith. My parents both grew up in small-town Illinois, where they attended Methodist churches. When they settled in Apple Valley in 1958 or so, when I was perhaps 3 years old, we attended Church of the Valley (, a Presbyterian church along Highway 18; it didn’t seem to matter much that they switched from one Protestant sect to another. My single memory of that church—I was only 6 years old before we moved away from Apple Valley—was that we met Roy Rogers and Dale Evans, popular TV stars of the 1950s, now likely forgotten, who’d retired to Apple Valley and who also attended that church.

When we moved to Reseda in 1962 we attended another Presbyterian Church, called almost identically Kirk O’ the Valley (, on Vanowen down the street from the large public library. There I attended Sunday School, where we were read children’s versions of stories out of the Bible, with pictures. My mother sang in the church choir, and did two services each Sunday morning. After the first service, and Sunday School, my father took us kids to the nearby supermarket Piggly Wiggly—long gone, but I think at Vanowen and Tampa—where we ate donuts, until the second service was over. It was during these years that I attained some rite of passage—confirmation?—and was given my very own Bible, bound in red, which I still have.

In early 1968 we moved to Glen Ellyn, Illinois. There we attended Southminster Presbyterian Church (; north of us on South Park Blvd., halfway to the center of town). I don’t recall attending services at all, but I do recall attending youth group meetings on Sunday evenings, and I recall some of the projects we did, including visiting nursing homes to pass out magazines or, once, to put on a play. One meeting I remember distinctly is when the group leader walked us through the lyrics of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Mrs. Robinson” as if they held deep theological significance (never mind the ironic tone they struck in the film, which I didn’t see until years later). During the three years we lived in Glen Ellyn, we took frequent weekend trips to Cambridge, where my parents had grown up and where my grandfather, aunt, and cousins still lived, and on those Sundays we attended the Methodist church in town.

And one other youth group meeting I recall. I was thinking that throughout all these various Sunday Schools for children and youth groups for teenagers, they were never about instruction into what the church believed and why. They were about stories and dressing up on Sundays and hanging out with one’s tribe, learning its ways, to define itself distinct from other tribes; about ritual, not intellect. But I do recall an except to that general rule, at the Illinois youth group. The leader was discussing how Presbyterian beliefs were different than those of other Christian sects, the Methodists maybe. I think the example was about predestination, but it doesn’t matter. The point was that he explained what *our* beliefs were, and what the *other* beliefs were, in such tones as to make it *obvious* that we were right and the others were misguided. His intonation and body language left no doubt, and the youths listening had no choice but to agree; it was a groupthink, not a matter for discussion, certainly not one of reason or evidence.

Earlier in California and especially in Illinois I had discovered books. Not just science fiction books, but astronomy books and general science and puzzle books by various authors. (I went through a very brief phase of being fascinated by UFOs and various supernatural mysteries, through the books of Frank Edwards and others. This was cured by discovering the nonfiction of science fiction authors, ironically – I say that because of the popular impression, at least then, that science fiction authors “believe” in UFOs or whatnot, when in fact science fiction authors, being educated or at least familiar with scientific methods, are far less credulous than the average citizen. But more about this another time.)

We returned to California in the summer of 1971, in between my 10th and 11th grades in high school, just as I turned 16. After an interlude of some weeks in Apple Valley, we settled in a neighborhood of the San Fernando Valley then called Sepulveda, now called North Hills (despite the conspicuous absence of any more than half of one hill in the region), coincidentally half a block from my Uncle Bob’s house. My parents dutifully sought out the nearest Presbyterian church, Valley Presbyterian Church ( on Haskell, right across the street from my high school. I may have attended once. I told my parents the next week that I’d prefer to stay home. They weren’t surprised, given my reading and the topics I found interesting. They did stage a kind of intervention, though: a pastor from the church came to the house to visit me. We sat on the sofa and he talked and invited me to pray to Jesus, or accept Jesus into my heart, or somesuch. I didn’t roll my eyes or burst out laughing; I probably just sat there uncomfortably and said nothing, and he got the hint. No doubt he checked in with my parents and the subject of my attending church never came up again.

And I’ve rarely been in any kind of church ever since, except to attend weddings.

And my siblings? As I’ll discuss elsewhere, I wasn’t especially close to my siblings, all younger than me – Sue by 4 years, Lisa by 7 years, Kevin by 9 years – simply due to age differences, especially between me and my brother. Sue was the opposite of me, in terms of temperament and intellect. For purposes of this discussion, I don’t remember anything about her church attendance. Lisa, on the other hand, took to religion in those Sepulveda years, when she was in grade school and junior high. Yet my impression and remembrance are that she found going to church charming and fun; she liked the carols and the stories; it served as her social group; it wasn’t so much about commitment to a faith. In later years she devoured the C.S. Lewis books. (I suggested Ursula K. Le Guin; she found her books dour.) And my younger brother Kevin, I have little impression at all from this era. But his life has been the major religious drama in our family. Just as I graduated from college, my parents, and Lisa and Kevin, moved to small town Tennessee (Sue and I stayed in LA). Kevin finished high school there and married his high school sweetheart from a devout Christian family, and so converted, and allowed his wife to home-school their three children, in ways I can only imagine (I’ve asked). Kevin once promised to explain to me his conversion from indifferent atheism to committed Christianity, but he never has. (Of course, I completely understand: it’s all about marrying into a religious family and community.)


In later years I reflected that none of my church attendance was about any kind of education. Sunday school and church services weren’t about education; they were about stories, and ritual, and communing. The principles of the religion were assumed, and repeated so often they became unchallengeable, the way the social principles of one’s community, or country, are absorbed and assumed. Of course Sunday school could never instruct children in the content of its religion, in the way a class in algebra or science would, because there’s no reason or evidence behind the religion’s beliefs. (Parents, I suspect, become adept at deflecting questions about religious beliefs from their children – e.g. why doesn’t Billy’s family celebrate Christmas? – in much the same way they deflect questions about sex.)


In later years I became fascinated by religion in principle. Writers like E.O. Wilson (in ON HUMAN NATURE) treated religion as a human behavior that could be understood as serving an evolutionary purpose, especially in a group selective way. Where there are two rival tribes or nations competing for resources, the social bonding within each group is strengthened by shared beliefs, especially shared beliefs in the superiority of one’s tribe as favored in the eyes the gods, or god. (The Old Testament is drenched with belief that God, presumably the creator or the entire, incredibly immense universe that we perceive today, had a special concern for one tribe of herdsmen in the Middle East desert, on this one tiny planet. It seemed to me obvious that other tribes had analogous beliefs, and it’s only an accident of history, not divine providence, that led one tribe’s beliefs to later prevail. One or another of them had to, and it’s apparent that history is mostly a series of accidents, coincidences, and circumstances.) In an odd sense, the more incredible the claims of a tribal religion, the more resistant they are to ordinary reason, the better they serve as a basis for these social bonds. The cost of accepting such beliefs leads to the sunk cost fallacy, where beliefs persist because the cost of giving them up and rearranging one’s life is too high.

I’ve also read a bit of comparative religion. A recent insightful book is Stephen Prothero’s GOD IS NOT ONE, from 2010, subtitled “The Eight Rival Religions that Run the World—and Why Their Differences Matter.”

(Prothero wrote an earlier book called RELIGIOUS LITERACY, in 2007, keying off the bestselling CULTURAL LITERACY from 1987, by E.D. Hirsch, Jr.; Prothero argued that most Americans, despite their supposed faith, know very little about the Bible, let alone anything about other faiths. He proposed a high school course in religious literacy, replacing, perhaps, algebra. I appreciated his motive that people should know more about the religions they supposedly believe, but I was not amused by his suggestion to replace a course about how to think for one about blind tradition.)

Prothero’s 2010 book is to challenge the nostrum that all religions are more or less the same, that they all worship the same god. No, they’re not, no they don’t. His central observation is that all the major religions presume to identify some crucial problem that afflicts humanity, and offers a cure.

  • Christianity identifies the problem as sin; the cure is salvation.
  • Islam thinks the problem is pride; the cure is submission.
  • Confucianism identifies the problem is chaos; the solution is social order.
  • Judaism identifies the problem as exile; the solution is to return to God.
  • Buddhism identifies the problem as suffering; the solution is awakening.

And, to take a later example, L. Ron Hubbard’s Scientology identifies the problem as childhood traumas (engrams), and provides an (expensive) solution for “clearing” them. All of these are analogous to the snake-oil salesman who arrives in town, squints at a citizen’s face, and says, “How long have you had that rash?? Fortunately”—pulls bottle out of his satchel—“I have the cure!” Dressed up.

They’re not the same, but they all play off human psychology, the need for simple answers, the need for shared cultural beliefs and tribal unity, and are in no way about objectively identifying truths about the universe.

(there will be more)



My take on religion and its role in society, circa 2004

Back when I first read Sam Harris’s THE END OF FAITH, published 2004, and later books by Dennett, Dawkins, Hitchens, et al, I took notes on the books but also wrote down my general take on the appeal of religious faith and how I thought religion functions in society. These sum up my attitudes about the subject over my early life, beginning in my middle teenage years when I politely declined to continue attending church with my family, up until publication of those books (and some websites) led me to consider the issues more closely.

  • One idea I haven’t seen discussed (I wrote in 2004) is why most people, who assume religion to be a good thing per se, thereby are much more disrespectful of atheists than of people who follow different religions from their own. You’d think if someone believes their own religion is the only truth and all others are mistaken and whose believers are condemned to hell, that those of other religions are just as wrong as those who follow no religion. Yet the disregard most people express for atheists isn’t consistent with that. My own interpretation of these circumstances is that people assume religion—any religion—is a good thing per se, because it signals a degree of social conformity and tribal identity, without which (as in the atheist’s case) a person is an unpredictable ‘free agent’ representing a greater risk to society or oneself than anyone subscribing to any religion. A person following a religion has ‘submitted’, in just the way the literal term Islam indicates.
    • This is perhaps why it doesn’t seem to bother most people that the particular religion they follow is merely that which they were born into. It was never a matter of considered choice. It doesn’t matter, in some sense; any religion will do. (A curious example, in a sense, of ‘relativist’ thinking, that believers worry about in the absence of religion.)
    • It’s also the case, I think, and this is something Harris at least doesn’t allow for (but Steven Pinker in his later books does), is that *most* people who say they are religious do *not* in fact believe as literal fact all the details of what their religious books say. Or even *know* what those books say. In fact, most people haven’t made deliberate study of what to ‘believe’, because following the example of their family or community doesn’t require them to. If pressed, I suspect most US Christians, for example, would disavow the many harsh passages of the Bible, while insisting on adhering to the general spirit of a God-focused universe and a Jesus-centered regard for humanity. (I suppose these are the ‘moderates’ Harris does speak of, in his first book.)
  • Another idea the religious themselves don’t appreciate the easy way any talk of ‘god’ conflates to the same ‘god’. For example, a common ‘proof’ of god is that of the first cause: everything has a cause, the universe exists, it must have had a cause, etc. Even if you accept this, how does the idea of ‘god’ as first cause presume that any particular idea about god, any particular religion, is thereby justified? But religious defenders do this all the time. It’s very sloppy thinking.
  • Elementary illustrations of how events are recorded in history, from the accuracy of the daily paper to childhood games of ‘telephone’, not to mention how tales grow in the telling, become folk tales, and change over generations, should make anyone skeptical of the veracity of any ‘holy book’. Is this how people assume all those *other* holy books came to exist, perhaps?
  • Harris does mention a profound irony in the way religious defenders accuse scientists of being arrogant, when in fact it’s the scientists who happily admit what they do not know, and the religious defenders who presume that the creator of the universe has particular interest in their own daily lives. Human religions are, in the broad sense, a reflection of the natural but naïve notion that humans are the center of existence, all that matters, and everything not known can be disregarded.
  • Another idea I haven’t seen anyone suggest, or put forward [I later collected many such examples and even formulated 10 Provisional Conclusions, not the same as commandments but similarly structured]: what rationalists/atheists/whatever need is some very simple, easily listed, set of precepts that would serve as a counterpart to the ’10 Commandments’. Here again religionists claim that without such precepts, there’s no basis for morality, etc. (As if, without checking the list in the Bible, no religious person would ever guess there’s anything wrong with stealing or murdering.) It should be easy to come up with a set of (non-religious) principles that would in fact serve as an easily-agreed to basis for morality. (Starting with the Golden Rule)
  • The central issue about religion is—why believe that particular unverifiable myth as opposed to any other? What is the reason? It’s easy to understand the existence of this ancient text or that holy book on purely historical grounds, and based on easy-to-imagine primitive rules of social conduct and naïve speculation about the nature of the universe. Such justification entails no basis for accepting the content of said book as true. Why is God or Allah any more plausible than Zeus or Ooga-boogah the Rain God?
  • Because of social tradition and community or personal circumstance? That seems to me like the best possible answer. I understand that most people who subscribe to a religion don’t do it because for whatever reason they’ve signed on to every article of its faith—every verse of the Bible or Koran, as the word of God. But so many, so many social habits have been adopted, without thinking, because of tradition, and personal exposure at impressionable ages, and subservience to community standards. None of them have anything to do with the reality that would still exist if human history started over, or the reality that would exist for an intelligence arising on another planet. Real reality can be rediscovered from itself. There is no Christian reality, vs Islam reality or Catholic reality.

Later Refinements

Over the past 15 years I haven’t substantially changed my thoughts on any of these points, but let’s see if I can add a few refinements.

  • In science fictional portrayals of the far future it is routine to ignore religion and/or assume that society has matured and left behind such irrational belief systems. Some works by Arthur C. Clarke (I’m recalling Childhood’s End) state this decline in religion explicitly, and statistics do in fact show that the better-educated and wealthy a nation is, in the modern world, the less religious they are – think northern Europe including England. Suggesting that as the world grows more wealthy and peaceful, the trends Pinker detects, religious faith will dissolve away. The US, as in so many things, being an exception that proves the rule. Because of those statistics I still find the idea of a future global society, one that has overcome poverty and improved education, plausible, if such threats as resource shortage and climate change can be solved. On the other hand, religion endures not because of its epistemological plausibility but because of its social function; it’s a way of bonding social groups, and the nominal acceptance of the tenants of any particular religious is a way of signaling loyalty to the group. The more outlandish the tenants, the better, for this function. That’s why, given so many ways humanity might slip back from modern culture, I’m sure religion will never go away.
  • At best—and this is my provisional conclusion of recent years—the understanding that religion’s supernatural claims about reality are obsolete is largely a private, individual project. Educated, well-read people easily perceive the contingent nature of religious belief, and its social functions, and will disregard its presumptions to identify cosmological truth, not only because of the rival claims of thousands of other religions, and the way their claims arose from the traditions of primitive tribes, but also of course because of the systematically discovered and tested discoveries of science in recent centuries and decades. But you still don’t casually mention this in public. The nature of social grouping, especially in physical small towns or neighborhoods, makes this difficult to acknowledge of speak of. Conversely, any number of virtual social groups, or groups bound by profession, do support this understanding, at least in the way no members of these groups would ever imagine their fellow members were among the faithful. But the individual has to find them. Charles Mackay, 1841, in “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions,” wrote “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.”
  • Studies show that casual believers know less about the content of their holy books than atheists. The best way to create an atheist, I think Isaac Asimov once said, is to actually read the Bible. Or the Koran. And see how they reflect the superstitions and values of desert tribes who lived thousands of years ago when people had no knowledge of the world beyond what they could see the horizon. How history was written by the winners.
  • Religious faith is an abjection of intellectual honesty. Humanity has compiled more information about the nature of the world and universe than ever before, and it is all available to anyone, easily. Those of us who accept this understanding see those inside religious faith who deny or ignore this see the obvious special pleading and psychological motivations. The faithful can’t accept the reality of the physical universe and so ignore it, but we rationalists out here completely understand the motivations of the faithful to deny or ignore reality.
  • Religion is to be respected only the extent it gives people something to do in the way of bonding themselves to their neighbors, serving as social groups analogous to those for sports fans.



I’m going to add a final section that states, as succinctly as possible, why I do not adhere to any religion, why I think Jesus is not my savior (from what?), or any other religion’s solution to their imaginary problems. Why smart people think religious faith is bunk. The reason why intellectuals avoid the subject and politely dismiss the faithful as a bit…dim.


Posted in Personal history, Religion | Comments Off on My Religious Upbringing, Such As It Was

Sam Harris, THE END OF FAITH (2004)

Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason. Norton, 2004.

In the 2000s, in the aftermath of 9/11, several well-known intellectuals wrote books examining the bases and legitimacy of religion in general. Four of them—Sam Harris (the book discussed here), Daniel Dennett (BREAKING THE SPELL in Feb. 2006), Richard Dawkins (THE GOD DELUSION in Oct. 2006), and Christopher Hitchens (GOD IS NOT GREAT in May 2007)—became known as the “four horsemen” of the “new atheist” movement, though their books were all quite different from one another. Harris was not previously well-known; he was pursuing a doctorate in cognitive neuroscience at UCLA when he was motivated to write his book, specifically concerned with Islam, following 9/11.

There were numerous other books on similar topics, by Carl Sagan, John Allen Paulos, A.C. Grayling, and others. But these four were the best known.

I read these books as they appeared with great interest and fascination. Their arguments were not necessarily new—philosophers and scientists had been debunking the various arguments for the existence of god (whichever god the claimant might imagine) for centuries, and the violent and intolerant history of most religions has long been well known. The authors’ sometimes calm and sometimes pointed dismantling of supernatural religious claims seemed to me merely obvious, the kind of thing smart people realize on their own, even if they know better than to assume others think the same way.

But the appearance of these books made public discussion of the pros and cons of religion respectable in a way it hadn’t been; no longer a subject to be avoided in polite conversation for fear of offending the credulous. Critics didn’t answer their arguments so much as dismiss their presumption to make them, on the grounds they were insufficiently schooled in theology, or religious history, or whatever. The response to that line was PZ Myers’ famous “courtier’s reply” (, in which insufficient knowledge of high couture is used to dismiss critics of the emperor’s new clothes.

So here’s a summary, first overall then in detail, of the first of these: Sam Harris’ The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason.

Super Brief summary:

Harris was the first of the “four horsemen,” public intellectuals who published controversial books about religion in the years following 9/11. He discusses the irrationality of faith and of rival faiths, with particular concern about the dangers of fundamentalist Muslims whose belief system would exterminate unbelievers. Also, the pernicious influence of Christians on American politics, issues of morality that can be addressed through reason, and the spiritual aspects of human existence that should be rescued from the irrationality of faith.

Brief summary:

  • Ch1, Harris explores the incompatibility of rival faiths, and of reason and faith, while hinting that nevertheless there is a “sacred dimension” to existence that must be respected. Moderation in religion is fiction when fundamentalists consider moderates as bad as unbelievers. The incompatible claims of religions deserve no respect. Religious beliefs, immune to evidence, will one day be looked back on as impossible quaint and suicidally stupid.
  • Ch2, Beliefs should correspond with the world, and be logically coherent; belief in God equates to no factual knowledge about the world, Saying it makes you feel good isn’t a reason. Faith is credulity that abandons constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor. Faith isn’t required for a doctor or engineer. Faith leads billions to believe what no sane person would believe on his own. The most monstrous crimes against humanity have been inspired by unjustified belief.
  • Ch3, About the sordid history of Christianity: the Inquisition, putting heretics to death, obsessed with demonstrating how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, the imagined rituals of the Jews, the complicity with the Holocaust.
  • Ch4, about Islam, which has more than its share of bad beliefs: its support of suicide bombers, its belief that martyrs are rewarded in paradise, the Koran’s endless passages that vilify unbelievers. Claims of moral equivalency for the sins of the US ignore intentions. Dealing with Islam is like thinking how to live with Christians of the 14th century. Islam must transform itself, from within, or a world government may be needed to confine it.
  • Ch5, Politicians in the US regularly pander to the religious; some actually apply Biblical morality. Legal policies derive from the Christian idea of sin, never mind many such crimes are victimless, never mind that other activities actually are harmful. Thus drug laws, stem cell research, the option of abortion. We need better ways of answering questions about right and wrong.
  • Ch6, The issue of good vs. evil can be cast as a question about happiness and the suffering of sentient creatures. What the ancients thought is irrelevant. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” Moral relativism is self-contradictory. Pragmatism offers no solution. Realism is better. Intuition can be useful, but its guesses can be tested. Reason can link morality and happiness.
  • Ch7, Author discusses ‘mysticism’ or spirituality as something to rescue from religion, which would hold “bad concepts in place of good ones for all time” in denial of “the vastitude of human ignorance” (that can be steadily overcome); thus we need the end of faith.
  • And in the epilogue, he pleads for an end to a “certain style of irrationality” the better to appreciate the true mystery of the universe and our place in it.

The book isn’t just a renunciation of the idea of faith, but the author’s attempt to save what he considers spiritual experiences from the shackles of irrational faith. Some of these themes — morality, lying, spiritualism — emerge more fully in his later books. I’m not completely in synch with his appeal to “spirituality” or his occasional leaving the door open to “psychic phenomena” (which I think have pretty much been shown not to exist), but the bulk of the book is very solid. To get a flavor of his writing, glance down the page and read the passages I’ve block-quoted.

–Detailed summary:

Ch 1, Reason in Exile

A young man boards a bus and detonates a bomb, killing himself and twenty others. When told, his parents are sad but proud; he has gone to heaven. What can we infer about such a person? Not much—except that it’s trivially easy to guess his religion.

Beliefs are mere words—until you believe them. Many of our cherished beliefs are leading us to kill one another. Most people in the world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. But there are many such books on hand, and so people align themselves along these factions. They seem to share a lack of ‘respect’ for unbelievers. Page 13:

Our situation is this: most of the people in this world believe that the Creator of the universe has written a book. We have the misfortune of having many such books on hand, each making an exclusive claim as to its infallibility. People tend to organize themselves into factions according to which of these incompatible claims they accept—rather than on the basis of language, skin color, location of birth, or any other criterion of tribalism. Each of these texts urges its readers to adopt a variety of beliefs and practices, some of which are benign, many of which are not. All are in perverse agreement on one point of fundamental importance, however: “respect” for other faiths, or for the views of unbelievers, is not an attitude that God endorses…

Unfortunately criticism of a person’s faith is taboo, everyone seems to agree. Thus when Muslim suicide bombers strike, his motives are assumed to be political or economic—not simply motivated by his faith. Modern technology makes the faithful ever more dangerous; it is thus imperative to send such ideas to the graveyard of bad ideas, as alchemy has gone before it.

Of course there are ‘extremists’ and ‘moderates’, but the latter are as much of the problem, for they support that respect for the unjustified beliefs of others. Two myths: that religion provides good things that nothing else does; that the terrible things done in the name of religion are due to base motivations other than the faith itself. In any case, faiths routinely criticize the errors of other faiths. The so-called truce between reason and faith is another delusion. And yet—there is a sacred dimension to existence; it just requires no faith in untestable propositions to pursue.

The Myth of ‘Moderation’ in Religion

Despite the implausibility of the idea that any one religion represents the sole truth, most people say they believe various literal notions—that the bible is inerrant; that god directed creation; etc. Presumably ‘moderates’ have decided to ignore, or loosely interpret, their canonical books in order to live in the modern world. Thus they don’t kill their children for converting to another religion, as Deuteronomy instructs (p18). Moderation has been forced by advances in human thought from elsewhere—democracy, human rights, etc. Even fundamentalists require evidence for mundane claims (p19). Most people know more than anyone did 2000 years ago; we don’t equate disease with demons, etc.

But to fundamentalists, moderates are as bad as unbelievers; and moderates do not permit criticism of even fundamentalist belief. Moderates implicitly endorse belief systems passed down from people who knew nothing about the world. A well-educated 14th century Christian would be an ignoramus by today’s standards—but he’d know everything there is to know about god.

Nor does religion progress, incorporating new knowledge. Whatever is true now should be discoverable now… p22

The Shadow of the Past

Religions preach the truth of propositions for which there is no evidence. Should all knowledge disappear overnight, we would need to relearn many things, but knowing Jesus was born of a virgin wouldn’t be at all useful. How would that even be re-learned –except by reading a book? But there are many books; why not believe similar facts about Thor or Isis?

Hasn’t religion enabled communities to cohere? Yes, but it’s also responsible for wars of conquest. There are plenty of past things we hope never to return to: slavery, cannibalism, etc. (p25). Religion is a vanishing point beyond which rational discourse proves impossible.

The Burden of Paradise

The world is full of people killing others for the sake of their religion (list p26). India and Pakistan verge on nuclear war; are their beliefs to be ‘respected’? Islam represents a particular danger at this point in history. Why do Muslim terrorists act? They are not poor or uneducated. And the answer is that such men really believe what they say—the literal truth of the Koran. An explanation reluctantly accepted.

Muslim Extremism

They are extreme in their faith, and thus belief that western culture would lead their families away from god. They fear contamination; they’re consumed by feelings of ‘humiliation’ over seeing a godless people become masters of the world. This isn’t ordinary hate. Bin Laden is most upset by the presence of unbelievers in the Muslim holy land… And most terrorists are explicit about their desire to get to paradise.

Some argue that it isn’t faith itself that inspires such violence, that e.g. Islam is a ‘religion of peace’—but the Koran itself says this isn’t true. Muslims view cultures of partial revelation, Jews and Christians, as inferior in every respect. The Koran makes martyrdom sound like a career opportunity; to be preferred over staying at home. The appropriate response isn’t to quibble about the line in the Koran that forbids suicide… but to challenge the entire presumption that such books are the literal word of God. (How do we know they are? Because the books themselves say so!) Imagine a world in which people believed that certain films were made by God, or software..?

Death: The Fount of Illusions

We live in a world in which everything is eventually destroyed. We each contain a virus that will eventually, tomorrow or in decades, kill us. We worry about ourselves, and our loved ones. We can disappear into the world or within ourselves. We’ll all die eventually. So of course the idea that you won’t die is an attractive one—and carries one to a faith-based religion. Religious moderation leads to a world in which a person who doubts the existence of heaven and hell could never be elected president.

The World beyond Reason

There is of course a range of human experience that could be called ‘spiritual’ or ‘mystical’, and while these are associated with religion, they in no way endorse particular books. There’s also data “attesting to the reality of psychic phenomena…” (p41.2 –!?) The problem of dealing with religion is to reconcile such experiences with the beliefs that have grown up around them. “We cannot live by reason alone.” But spirituality can, must, be deeply rational.

Coming to Terms with Belief

Belief is more than a private concern when beliefs translate into actions. Certain beliefs are intrinsically dangerous.

We must admit that there’s no evidence that any of our books was authored by the Creator of the universe (45.0) Reason must transcend national and religious boundaries (there is no ‘American’ physics). Religion does not admit such discourse; no evidence is involved. We can’t tolerate diversity in religious beliefs any more than we can beliefs about hygiene.

Gathering Our Wits

Our own national discourse has a dark current of unreason. The president routinely cites God and attends prayer groups.

If we’re still here in 200 years, something will have changed, or we would already have killed ourselves. We’ve reached the age where a single person can destroy a city. Our descendants will look back upon many of our beliefs as impossibly quaint and suicidally stupid. So our task here is to identify those most dangerous beliefs, and subject them to sustained criticism. Maybe this time hasn’t arrived—but author prays, in the spirit of prayer, for day it will happen.

[[ Is Harris going to suggest, in response to the litany of dangers he identifies, what can be done about it? Is it possible to defuse religious belief? ]]

Ch2, The Nature of Belief

Believing a proposition means believing that it faithfully represents some state of the world, 51t; thus we should value evidence and demand that propositions logically cohere. 51.3:

“Freedom of belief” (in anything but the legal sense) is a myth. We will see that we are no more free to believe whatever we want about God than we are free to adopt unjustified beliefs about science or history, or free to mean whatever we want when using words like “poison” or “north” or “zero.” Anyone who would lay claim to such entitlements should not be surprised when the rest of us stop listening to him.

Beliefs are principles of action; they are processes of understanding the world and made available to guide our behavior. Might some propositions be so dangerous that it would be ethical to kill people for believing them? 53.0

Beliefs require logical coherence with each other. You can’t believe opposite things or contradictory things. Humans are not actually perfectly coherent, as in examples of cognitive dissonance. Example, p55, of a hotel room in Paris overlooking the American embassy. Even a perfect brain couldn’t keep track of the logical consistency of more than about… 300 beliefs.

Beliefs are representations of the world, and they should require that they be true (not that we just wish them to be true). Thus ‘because’ = by cause. What does it mean to believe that God exists? Because why? There’s no reason equivalent to factual knowledge about the world; and saying so because it makes you feel good isn’t a reason. Thus Pascal’s wager, Kierkegaard’s leap of faith are “epistemological ponzi schemes” 63.0. Most people’s reasons, about spiritual experiences, trust in authority, etc., are typical games of justification; but if a belief represents an actual state of the world, it must be vulnerable to new evidence…

Is faith the same as belief? There are rarefied ideas about faith (Tillich) but author takes it to be the ordinary sense. 65.7: “Faith is what credulity becomes when it finally achieves escape velocity from the constraints of terrestrial discourse—constraints like reasonableness, internal coherence, civility, and candor.”

Faith is eager to find phenomena that seem to confirm their faith; but it doesn’t stoop to reason when there are no good reasons to believe, 66m.

We don’t require faith in other spheres of life—we require the engineer or the doctor to have reason for their claims about the world. But not the priests. How does the priest or mullah know that God wrote their holy books? They don’t, not in any way that uses the word ‘know’ properly, 67.3

The men who flew the jets on 9/11 were men of perfect faith.

No doubt the faithful reading this will claim the consolations of their faith. Indeed, the faithful hold truth in highest esteem, 68.3; 68.8: “The faithful have never been indifferent to the truth; and yet, the principle of faith leaves them unequipped to distinguish truth from falsity in matters that most concern them.”

The dividend of faith is the conviction that the future will be better than the past, 69b. Despite the actual world, e.g. long quote p70 about the Black Death.

Smry so far, 71b-72. There is sanity in numbers. 72m:

And yet, it is merely an accident of history that it is considered normal in our society to believe that the Creator of the universe can hear your thoughts, while it is demonstrative of mental illness to believe that he is communicating with you by having the rain tap in Morse code on your bedroom window. And so, while religious people are not generally mad, their core beliefs absolutely are. This is not surprising, since most religions have merely canonized a few products of ancient ignorance and derangement and passed them down to us as thought they were primordial truths. This leaves billions of us believing what no sane person could believe on his own.

Example: transubstantiation. You can eat Jesus Christ in the form of a cracker. “Because each new generation of children is taught that religious propositions need not be justified in the way that all others must, civilization is still besieged by the armies of the preposterous. We are, even now, killing ourselves over ancient literature. Who would have thought something so tragically absurd could be possible?”

So what should we believe? We all rely on the authority of others; the more educated we become, the more our beliefs come to us second hand. Examples: a news report; a scientific conclusion; a religious claim. Which should you believe? By what justification are we to believe or disbelieve each one?

We should examine closely what is really in our holy books. “A close study of these books, and of history, demonstrates that there is no act of cruelty so appalling that it cannot be justified, or even mandated, by recourse to their pages.”

Thus the Spaniards in Mexico and Peru would baptize infants – before bashing their brains out (cf Bertrand Russell).

Yes some faithful benefit others. But the most monstrous crimes against humanity have been inspired by unjustified belief. Even Stalin and Mao operated on a political religion, communism. And the Soviet Union followed Lysenko rather than the “capitalist” biology of Mendel and Darwin.

Ch 3, In the Shadow of God, p80

The terrible consequences of Christianity. The Inquisition started in 1184; people were accused of heresy, or often of casting spells to bring disease or storms (before science people thought such things were possible), and put to torture until they confesses, and often to implicate others. The Bible requires that heretics be put to death (p82), in Deuteronomy. The Dominican order was particular enthusiastic about this. Torture often ended in the ‘auto-da-fe’, the public burning.

Witches and Jews were particular targets of Christian zealotry. Jews, in a sense, collaborated in being despised through their own sectarian belief in being the ‘chosen people’.

P94. Biblical writers and scholars went to great lengths to demonstrate that Jesus fulfilled prophecy, and therefore must be the son of God; such arguments impressed even Pascal into a conversion late in life. But some tenets of faith may have arisen out of mistranslations—‘virgin’, for example, re Mary (the word could just as well have meant a young woman).

Jews were often thought to practice bizarre rituals involving the blood of Christian babies – ‘blood libel’ – or of ‘host desecration’, bringing harm to the wafers used in the Catholic ritual of transubstantiation.

The Holocaust came about after decades of anti-semitism rooted in Germanic tribalist attitudes about the special role and purity of the Aryan race (not just Hitler et al). The Catholic church collaborated in a sense, by providing information, by helping Jews escape only if they’d be baptized, and by remaining mute on the subject even while persecuting scholars who engaged in ‘modernism’, i.e. scholarly examination of the Bible that led some to doubt its inerrancy. The Church banned Descartes, Lock, Voltaire, Paine, Kane, Darwin.

The history of Christianity is “principally a story of mankind’s misery and ignorance rather than of its requited love of God.”

(Harris supplies extensive notes to the main text. For example in this section, Note 5 about how William Tyndale was punished for having translated the New Testament into English—a capital offense at the time, p82.2; about what Deuteronomy says; about John 15:6; about an 1860 book that compiled outright contradictions in the Bible.)

Ch 4, The Problem with Islam, p108

All religions have their share of insupportable beliefs, but Islam has more than its share of bad beliefs. We’re at war with the Muslim worldview—the beliefs, stated over and over in the Koran, that Muslim must destroy nonbelievers, engage in ‘jihad’. In Islam changing one’s faith or renouncing Islam is punishable by death. Polls of Muslim countries find widespread support for ‘suicide’ bombers against civilian targets, p124.

Some writers address the issue of why the Muslim world has stagnated in recent decades, or why it is Muslims so often feel ‘humiliated’, but avoid the literal content of the Muslim religion [a recurrent theme for Harris] – they really do believe their martyrs are rewarded in paradise, etc.

Long list of quotes from the Koran that vilify unbelievers, 117ff, for five full pages!. Note ‘People of the Book’ phraseology.

He notes how the description of the Koranic paradise reflects the limits of human imagination, p127-8.

What will happen when such people get long range nuclear weapons? Democracy isn’t necessarily the answer; the people in some countries just vote back in theocratic leaders. Nor is education; many terrorists have had western educations and advanced degrees.

The problem was once called a ‘clash of civilizations’—Edward Said objected to generalizing about an entire culture or religion. The problem is the faith itself.

Is Muslim ‘humiliation’ at the root of terrorism? But democracy in these countries would only enforce sharia law. Many of the terrorists had decent educations.

P136b here’s another solution to Fermi’s paradox—a toxic faith that destroys the world in favor of being transported to paradise.

It’s popular among some to claim a kind of moral equivalency – that the west brought 9/11 upon itself, that terrorism is in response to western oppression. Noam Chomsky is an example. Many of his points are well-taken (the sins of the US), p140. Anudhati Roy makes similar arguments about American arrogance, p142. But there is no equivalency. We can see the distinction but considering the ‘perfect weapon’ that could kill or disable precisely at a distance, and imagine how GW Bush would use it vs Saddam Hussein. Not all cultures are at the same stage of moral development, p143m. Consider New York of a century ago, or My Lai in 1968. There are good and bad ways for a culture to behave, p145 [[ this anticipates his later book The Moral Landscape ]] Even if the US does kill innocents or behave badly, it expresses remorse. Intentions matter.

Bottom line is the colossal waste of time and energy taken by religious practice (see p149.2). All the good things religion does can be had elsewhere.

What to do about Islam? It is like thinking how to live with Christians of the 14th century. We need a civil society, meaning a society where ideas can be criticized without risk of physical violence, p150b. Even if imposed from without. Ultimately, a world government. And Islam must transform itself, from within. And the west should develop new energy sources.

Ch5, West of Eden, p153

Compared to Islam the influence of religion in the west is rather benign. But still, politicians regularly pander, and religious leaders often hold major influence on politicians, e.g. Falwell and Reagan. And Christians ‘support’ the state of Israel (cynically) because they believe it heralds the second coming—and the destruction of the Jews! P153.8

Politicians and judges routinely apply Biblical morality, e.g. Judge Roy Moore, who insisted on erecting monuments to the 10 commandments. Other examples. Tom DeLay. Antonin Scalia, long quote 156-7, finding guidance in St. Paul and perhaps Leviticus, 158.

Legal policies derive from Christian’s attitude about sin; thus drugs, prostitution, and so on. It doesn’t matter if these are ‘victimless’; if God sees everything, there is no such thing as privacy, and laws are put in place to avoid angering God. Thus the state still prohibiting oral and anal sex. Drug laws. They’re not about health, since cigarettes and alcohol are still legal and more harmful. The draconian drug laws, and the amount spent, considering other things such money could be spent on. Prohibition just drives up the market. In fact, terrorist groups often depend on drug revenue! 164t.

We don’t celebrate other sources of irrationality (astrology, reasoning biases, 165.6), only religious faith.

Thus laws against research on human embryonic stem cell, banned in 2003. Bush cut funds to group who would mention abortion.

Rightly criticized, some try to delink such events from religious faith—Nicholas Kristof, e.g., exonerating faith p168.

We need better ways of answering questions of right and wrong.

Ch6, A Science of Good and Evil, p170

Is the difference just whatever people say it is? Recall cat burning in 16th c Paris. Ethical truths seem contingent; without a rule-making God, how do we know what’s right or wrong?

We recast the question as one about the happiness and suffering of sentient creatures, p171. From that pov, much of what people think of about morality is irrelevant. It doesn’t matter what the ancients thought; we can seek answers in the present. We don’t derive a sense that cruelty is wrong from the Bible; we have a rudimentary sense that it is. what we know about the natural world is evidence of no creator who is not a monster; Bertrand Russell quote p173t. The God of Abraham is capricious, petulant, and cruel. The problem of God and evil, the problem of theodicy, has no solution; (long footnote about free will).

These questions should be tied to our understanding of the consciousness of other creatures. Thus Descartes, convinced that nonhuman animals were mere automata, allowed vivisection, p174. The Spanish supposed the Southern American Indians had no souls. How can we know if other animals can suffer? (long footnote 11) (Also note footnote 13, in which author steers clear of past philosophical approaches in favor of starting fresh.)

Religious dogma is of no help. Hitchens: “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.” P176.

The idea of moral communities clarifies some matters. Religion only advances tribalism. Then how do we draw boundaries of moral concern? Not just ability to feel pain. Author has no simple solutions; examples 177-78.

Relativism is a demon; intellectuals sometimes speak as if all worldviews are on equal footing; add Kuhn, and can we ever really know everything? But this is nonsense. It implies that tolerance of all viewpoints is necessary; this itself is a moral stand. Moral relativism is self-contradictory.

Another approach is pragmatism, as discussed by Richard Rorty. This is the idea that a statement is true only to the extent that it functions in some area of discourse—not that it is ‘really’ true about the universe. Thus different views of the world might be useful at different times. This suggests one can never be right about anything; recalls Yeats, 180.7.

This is as opposed to realism, in which statements are true or false based on how reality actually is. We may not understand all truths, but they are there waiting to be discovered. But is this even possible without mediation by our language and thus interpreted? But the pragmatist’s argument against this possibility relies on realism being realistic or not; a self-contradiction (long footnote 23). So truth is not a matter of consensus; everyone might agree on something and still be wrong. And so we proceed as if facts, even about ethics, can be discovered.

P182. Intuition is generally scorned (except among mathematicians). Yet intuition underlies our use of reason itself. It’s a necessary first step. We know intuition can mislead p183b [[these are ways in which we are unable to perceive the world]] Intuitions underlie superstitions; but these can be tested. For ethics to matter, the happiness and suffering of others must matter to us. We understand that not everything evolved is good for us (erroneously called the naturalistic fallacy).

We are not limited by our genetic priorities; we are not completely selfish. We treat each other out of concern for others’ happiness (the golden rule etc 186b). These observations hold even for people who claim no concern for others. Christians do not seem to be especially concerned about honor killings, which seem invariably Islam. We can say that the men who commit such acts love their women less than men in the West do, but it’s not polite to think so. It’s not just cultural; it’s a failure of ethics.

We can use reason to link morality and happiness. Happiness can be improved by being loving and compassionate. (long footnotes 31 on ethical intelligence.) We used to think torture evil, but some are reconsidering it in this age of terrorism. And this isn’t really any different from accepting collateral damage in the deaths of civilians. If we are willing to do one, we should be willing to do the other.

Pacifism seems morally unassailable, even though difficult in practice, but it is immoral—it’s the willingness of pacifists to be killed by thugs. P199.

Author tells about incident in Prague in which he diverted a couple thugs so a woman could escape. But he did so by lying and not confronting the men directly.

Gandhi made great successes but his remedy for the Holocaust was that the Jews should commit mass suicide.

Given the threat is Islamic fundamentalism, we must be ready to resist by any means necessary.

Ch7, Experiments in Consciousness

It’s undeniable that one’s experience of the world can be radically transformed. The problem with religion is that it blends this truth with the venom of unreason. A component of happiness that isn’t about food and shelter can be called spirituality, p205. That and mysticism both have unfortunate connotations, but author will use them interchangeably.

Consciousness… It’s assumed now that the mind is a product of the brain, but in truth we don’t know what happens after death. Investigating the nature of consciousness through sustained introspection is another name for spiritual practice. It’s perfectly rational to carry out various experiments, as long as we don’t make claims about the world without empirical evidence, p210.4.

Each person is a system that is in turn an eddy in the great river of life. Even our minds are composed of things from all around us, scarcely under our own control. So what is this feeling of self? p212 It’s about appropriating the world, not just being. … Humans experience a duality of subject and object, and thus a sense of separateness. But to explore a spirituality that undermines such dualism has an obstacle in current beliefs about God.

So we turn to the wisdom of the east. No western philosophers can rival those from the east. Perhaps because of the western idea of faith. He compares a passage from Buddhist literature to anything in the Bible, p216. Meditation, to author, is about making the sense of self vanish. The obstacle is thinking.

[[ I see him jumping the shark here … I’m glazing over. ]]


Mysticism is a rational enterprise. Religion is not. …. The roiling mystery of the world can be analyzed with concepts (this is science), or it can be experienced free of concepts (this is mysticism). Religion is nothing more than bad concepts held in place of good ones for all time. It is the denial—at once full of hope and full of fear—of the vastitude of human ignorance.


Nice summary paragraph, page 223:

My goal in writing this book has been to help close the door to a certain style of irrationality. While religious faith is the one species of human ignorance that will not admit even the possibility of correction, it is still sheltered from criticism in every corner of our culture. …Our religions have seized upon ancient taboos and prescientific fancies as though they held ultimate metaphysical significance.

Is the problem hopeless? How to get billions of people to reconsider their religious beliefs? And yet we have no reason to think we can survive our religious differences indefinitely. Just give children honest answers to their questions.

Page 225:

Where we have reasons for what we believe, we have no need of faith; where we have no reasons, we have lost both our connection to the world and to one another. People who harbor strong convictions without evidence belong at the margins of our societies, not in our halls of power.

Page 226:

There need be no scheme of rewards and punishments transcending this life to justify our moral intuitions or to render them effective in guiding our behavior in the world. The only angels we need invoke are those of our better nature: reason, honesty, and love. The only demons we must fear are those that lurk inside every human mind: ignorance, hatred, greed, and faith, which is surely the devil’s masterpiece.

And the last paragraph, page 277:

Man is manifestly not the measure of all things. This universe is shot through with mystery. The very fact of its being, and of our own, is a mystery absolute, and the only miracle worthy of the name. … No myths need be embraced for us to commune with the profundity of our circumstance. … The days of our religious identifies are clearly numbered. Whether the days of civilization itself are numbered would seem to depend, rather too much, on how soon we realize this.

Posted in Book Notes, Culture, Religion | Comments Off on Sam Harris, THE END OF FAITH (2004)

Daniel Gilbert, STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS (2006)

The author is a Harvard psychologist, recently familiar for several TV commercials he’s done for Prudential, which typically depict him in a public park doing surveys of groups of people. ( This seems to be the only book the author has done; it was published in 2006. I have the 2007 trade paperback edition.

The idea of this book is that people aren’t very good about identifying what makes them happy, or what happiness even is. The cover blurb offers several paradoxes of modern life:

  • Why are lovers quicker to forgive their partners for infidelity than for leaving dirty dishes in the sink?
  • Why will sighted people pay more to avoid going blind than blind people will pay to regain their sight?
  • Why do dining companions insist on ordering different meals instead of getting what they really want?
  • Why do pigeons seem to have such excellent aim; why can’t we remember one song while listening to another; and why does the line at the grocery store always slow down the moment we join it?

The book is about applying recent insights from psychological studies—familiar from many other books I’m summarizing here—to answer these issues about happiness. Short answers: people aren’t good at anticipating the future; and since most people think they are special, they don’t rely on other people to testify about what makes them happy. The answer to the problem is, people *should* rely on the testimony of others.

This a nice big-picture summary of human history at the end of the book to provide perspective on how this is a modern problem–it’s quoted at the end of this post.

Key points:

These are summarized at the end of Part I: Journey to Elsewhen.

  • The idea of happiness is subjective.
  • Our imagination about future happiness works so quickly we are insufficiently skeptical of its product.
  • Our imagination’s products are not particularly imaginative.
  • Imagination has trouble anticipating how we will think about future events once we get there.
  • And why illusions of foresight are not easily remedied. The simple recipe is one you will almost certainly not accept.

The simple recipe is, as mentioned: rely on the testimony of others. Trust them.

Detailed Summary:


Author wonders what you’d do if you learned you had only 10 minutes to live, and then reflects on how bad we are at anticipating our own future needs and desires. Then recalls the Muller-Lyer lines, and the Necker cube, and how he was fascinated by optical illusions. It turns out the mistakes we make anticipating our future are also systematic, how they play in other kinds of illusions. “This is a book that describes what science has to tell us about how and how well and human brain can imagine its own future…”

Part I: Prospection

Ch1, Journey to Elsewhen

Psychologists dread ever writing a sentence that begins “The human being is the only animal that…” because they are apt to be disproven by later discoveries. Use tools; use language. Author suggests: “that thinks about the future.” Many animals anticipate the future, but only about what happens next: nexting. Only humans develop the concept of ‘later’, at some point millions of years ago. [[ science fiction might be thought of as literature that acknowledges ‘later’ and not just the present moment; unlike traditional literature ]]

It seems the frontal lobes are involved with this feature. Recall Phineas Gage (who survived a spike rammed into his skull that destroyed some of his brain); some people do better *without* their frontal lobes—except when it comes to planning, or feeling anxiety.

So *why* do people have this ability? Ironically, it was popular in the ‘60s to take LSD and “be here now” – to live in the moment. Still, most people find imagining the future pleasurable. Americans in particular are optimistic about the future. People are xxxxxx ‘fearcast’ as means of avoiding bad events.

And we think we want to do something about the future. Why? To exercise control; having control is good for us. (Example of nursing home patients taking care of plants.) Even the illusion of control makes us happy. And: we think we know where we want to go, and want to control getting there. The problem is, this is a wrong answer, because we usually can’t perceive the future accurately – the subject of the rest of the book.

P26, summary and look forward. [[ xxxxxxxx and yes, this applies to SF, in how many visions of the future are so conservative; covered later. ]]

Part II: Subjectivity

Ch2, The View from In Here

We think conjoined twins must be unhappy—but they aren’t. Happiness has three components: emotional; moral; judgmental, 33.8.

Emotional is the most basic, and it’s entirely subjective. People want to be happy. Pope, Freud, others: 37m

Moral: some think merely being happy is unworthy of us; that we should attain a worthy happiness, Nozick, p38; simple happiness is fine for pigs. Christians turned happiness into a reward for living a moral life. But are virtue and happiness the same? 40m. Not necessarily.

Happiness as judgment is the abstract idea of being happy about something, as in being happy for someone despite personal unhappiness. But it’s difficult to compare instances of happiness; memory is fallible; later descriptions tend to override our actual memories. And we’re sometimes blind to change – e.g. the card trick, p49.

We suspect that other people have different scales of happiness; a birthday cake to conjoined twins is more important to them that to us; p51. We’re apt to think, they only think they’re happy; they don’t know better. Xxxxx Experience stretching; the difficulty in evaluating other people’s claims of happiness.

Ch3, Outside Looking In

Can people be mistaken about how they feel? Yes. We can be wrong about our emotions. Examples of people crossing the Capilano River bridge, 63.7.

There’s an issue with being *aware* of experiencing – “In fact, awareness can be thought of as a kind of experience of our own experience.” 66.4 [[ yes, this is exactly the kind of awareness that my project tries to describe, in contrast to the day to day existence of most people. ]]

Sometimes we realize we’re completely unaware of something we’ve obviously done, as while being distracted. Blindsight.

Nice para summarizing the history of what we’ve thought about the world, from bearded God to Descartes: 69b, worth quoting. QQQQQxxxxx

Can we measure happiness? If not is it science? We must accept imperfection in such measurements, but realize that real-time reports are the least flawed of all possible measures.

Also count for the law of large numbers – the more measurements, the more errors will balance out. And large numbers lead to emergent properties.

Feelings are what means, 78m

Part III, Realism

Ch4, In the Blind Spot of the Mind’s Eye

Author compares Adolph Fischer, who upon his execution said it was the happiest moment in his life, and George Eastman, founder of Kodak, who became wealthy and then committed suicide.

We usually make errors when we imagine “what it would feel like if.” Our imaginations have shortcomings. It’s analogous to Harpo, pulling large objects from beneath his cloak; we fabricate memories from summaries, rather than retaining detailed records. You can trick people into ‘remembering’ things by suggesting details that didn’t happen. So, we know that memory fills in details—and we know that this happens quickly and unconsciously. It’s like the eye’s blind spot. We fill in words in a list based on their theme, p88. And these tricks work even when we know about them.

Recall how the wizard in Oz said he was a very good man, but a bad wizard. In the 18th century philosophers realized this about the brain. Locke maintained the idea of realism, that what is perceived actually exists. Then Kant put forth idealism, 94.4, in which our perceptions blend with what we think, feel, know, want, and believe. Piaget noticed this about children—who learn that how things are and how they appear are different. [[ cf Bering ]]

And yet we don’t get over realism entirely; we outfox it 95b. We sometimes quickly correct ourselves from observation to what we ‘know’ must be so. Thus the “crowning intellectual accomplishment of the brain is the real world.” 97-98. [[ but this is half of it; there is more real world we can barely intellectualize ]]

Mental images are interpretations, and we often forget this—imagining something more elaborate than is likely to happen. Example of ‘spaghetti for dinner’. (see examples p99). This is one reason reality disappoints us, and we are bad at anticipating the future.

Author goes back to recount the true stories of Fischer and Eastman—and how you can sympathize with their fates. But the point is there are ways of being things that the brain doesn’t imagine; we unthinkingly treat what we imagine as accurate representation of the facts. We’re bad wizards.

Ch5, The Hound of Silence

Now the issue of what imagination leaves out. It’s like the dog that didn’t bark, in Sherlock Holmes. We notice the hits, and not the misses, e.g. about pigeon poop. [[ this is a very familiar point. ]] Sir Francis Bacon noticed this, p109, recalling claims of miracles and wondering about the sailors who *weren’t* saved.

We have a hard time imagining many things—e.g. what life is like after death of a child. That people go on with their lives and aren’t as devastated as people imagine. How happy people are in different cities, or in California. (Kahneman uses this example too.)

A Pygmy once saw buffalo in the distance and assumed they were insects, because they looked tiny and he had no experience seeing things on a distant horizon. [[ nice analogy to some SF perceptions ]]

We imagine events differently whether close or far in time, p116. And the problem is that we’re not aware of all this.

Part IV, Presentism

Ch6, The Future Is Now

How imagination can be too conservative. Examples of visions of tomorrow, from the 1950s—all the things that are missing., p123. And examples of predictions of impossible things, e.g. flight. Mention of Clarke’s law.

We tend to backfill current attitudes onto the past, e.g. how we felt about a candidate before he actually won or lost. And we use today’s attitudes, e.g. why our appetite vanishes after a big meal – we can’t imagine being hungry again. Other hungers are also hard to forecast.

We have mental images for things in the world; our imagination previews objects and ‘prefeels’ events. Ironically this allows nonthinkers to better predict future satisfaction. And yet the brain does prioritize reality—otherwise we’d ignore a red light if we happened to be thinking about a green one. The same happens with emotion – we extrapolate from the moment. Depression is when people think about future events and can’t imagine liking them much.

Ch7, Time Bombs

It’s easy to imagine physical objects, but not abstract ideas. So how do we think about time? Like space; moving forward or looking back, etc.

This helps explain the restaurant conundrum where we anticipate trying different dishes each time we visit – or choosing something different than the other diners – even though you prefer a single dish. We think variety is the spice of life—but it is only in the short term, e.g. exchanging plates part way through. Repetition wanes pleasure; we compensate with variety and time; but with time, we don’t need variety.

Mental images are atemporal, and this leads to errors when we make judgments based on different starting points. [[ priming, another familiar idea ]]

People dislike salary cuts; they are sensitive to relative change. Thus shopping mistakes in comparing earlier prices rather than overall finances.

And shopping errors as in making comparisons at the store that we’ll never make again once we get our selection home, p159.

This is like ‘presentism,’ the tendency to judge historical figures by contemporary standards, 161-2.

[[ this is why I’ve always hate shopping, especially the obsessive shopping that compares every possible option, despite knowing that once you get the thing home you’ll never think about those options ever again. ]]

Part V, Rationalization

Ch8, Paradise Glossed

Note quote from Hamlet – thinking makes it so.

Quotes from xxxxxx JW and others suggest a method to become fulfilled and enlightened—and the method is that something terrible happens to you and you recover. People are resilient; they often say that tragedy made them a better person. Negative events do affect people, but not as much as we think.

The mind exploits ambiguity, as in figure 16 and 17 whether looking for zero or the letter O.

We disambiguate objects based on context, frequency, and recency, p171. And we often prefer one option over another. E.g. the way we define ‘talent’ depends on what we ourselves think we are good at. We tend to exploit ambiguity in the way that is positive for ourselves, 175b.

Recall Voltaire’s Pangloss – humans are not hopelessly Panglossian. We’re a mix, of reality and illusion – 1774.:

We cannot do without reality and we cannot do without illusion. Each serves a purpose, each imposes a limit on the influence of the other, and our experience of the world is the artful compromise that these tough competitors negotiate.

[[ an interesting take perhaps on reality v fantasy, SF v fantasy, story v fact, etc ]]

This is a psychological immune system that’s analogous to the physical immune system. Thus when faced with adversity, it must not defend us too well (i.e. avoid “I’m perfect and everyone is against me”) but must defend us well enough (avoid “I’m a loser and I ought to be dead”). We do seek positive views of our experience, but only when they are credible.

So what’s credible? For one, we place a lot of stock in what scientists tell us. But we cook the facts. We select various techniques for collecting, interpreting, and analyzing facts, to reach different conclusions. Bad scientists choose techniques that lead to the conclusions they favor. An easy technique is sampling bias—we only look at evidence that supports our views. Most people are bad scientists. We ask leading questions that favor a particular response. We make selective comparisons. And we see what we want to see, as when rival fans watch the same sports game. We ask whether facts allow us to believe what we favor, vs whether they compel us to believe what we disfavor. [[ this is a citation from Gilovich ]]

Ch9, Immune to Reality

About reality and illusion. Clever Hans—the horse that seems to respond to questions – was a fraud, but even his owner was unaware; he was signaling the horse subconsciously. We invent the reasons we do things, in a way that we truly believe them. We are strangers to ourselves.

Example: getting jilted at the alter. People claim later that it was the best thing that ever happened to them. Similar example: a study in which applicants were rejected by a single judge, or by a jury. Beforehand, people thought either case would hurt equally; afterwards, rejection by jury stung most – obviously, it seems, but it wasn’t obvious beforehand.

Casablanca: the last lines about regret. We regret the things we *didn’t* do more than those we did, 197t.

The psychological mind is calibrated to reject small triggers, as too expensive. Thus we rationalize big triggers, like infidelity, and worry about smaller triggers [example on back cover about dirty dishes]. Thus painful initiations seem more worthwhile than smaller ones.

We’re more apt to find a positive view of things we’re stuck with. These trigger our psychological immune system. Examples; and of how we can’t predict the circumstance that will actually make us happier, p203. We prefer more freedom, but are more content when options are limited.

We associate pain and pleasure with circumstance, and we also tend to invent explanations for those relationships, and those explanations tend to ameliorate both the good and bad. Just as explanations reduce the impact of special events. And once explained, we stop thinking about them. Movies that end mysteriously stay in the mind. Even fake explanations calm the mind, and make one feel less happy, p208.

And yet people choose certainty over uncertainty, though it makes them unhappier. [[ is there a key point here about science v artistic mystery? Unweaving the rainbow? ]]

Can we remedy the problem of fallible foresight?

Ch10, Once Bitten

First-hand and second-hand knowledge is all there is, in pooping as in anything else; how we learn. And yet in our search for happiness we keep making the same mistakes. Why can’t we learn?

We do try, but the problem is we don’t remember correctly—the brain edits memories etc. The availability heuristic makes it easier to bring some things to mind than others. Unusual events are more memorable. That’s why it seems we always end up in the slowest line at the market –those are the cases we remember. P219. And we mistakenly conclude that those cases are more likely than they really are. We remember an awful train trip and think they will all be like that; or we remember the best moment of a vacation and forget all the dull times.

Author recalls not liking Schindler’s List—because it ended badly, despite how brilliant it was most of the way through. Because memory has a tendency to value the final items in a series. Examples: the hand in cold water experiment. Thus we make some strange choices, based on how we’ll remember it, than on the experience itself. Another example: two women, one whose final years are dull.

And memory tends to reconstruct in error; e.g. how California must have voted for Dukakis—but it didn’t, it went solidly Republican for years. Thus we can remember our own emotions incorrectly. E.g. pop theories of gender roles influence our memories of emotional states. People remember how they had expected to feel, not how they actually felt, p231.

So if our memories [practice] are fallible, what about coaching?

Ch11, Reporting Live from Tomorrow

Doris Day’s song “Que Sera Sera” is not helpful advice. We *should* be able to offer advice on what to do. We ask the teacher. Virtually everything we know we learned from others. And so we communicate with others, and we should be able to learn anything that way. And yet we still make bad decisions. Either we’re getting bad advice, or we’re rejecting good advice. Answer: both.

All our communication are attempts to make others think the way we do, p236. What makes this transmission of beliefs successful? Example of gene transmission—circular logic that is inescapable. P237. “Genes tend to be transmitted when they make us do the things that transmit genes.” Even if they have bad consequences.

What affects the transmission of beliefs? Accuracy [cf Dennett Brainstorms quote in note]. But false beliefs also transmit. Because some false beliefs may have beneficial consequences, e.g. by leading to the transmission of more accurate beliefs. “False beliefs that happen to promote stable societies tend to propagate because people who hold these beliefs tend to live in stable societies, which provide the means by which false beliefs propagate.” 239t.

One such belief is about wealth – studies show that wealth brings happiness only to a certain point. And yet people work to make more money, even if it doesn’t increase their happiness. Adam Smith. The economic problem of keeping an economy going is not the same as the personal problem of happiness. Thus the delusion that making money increases happiness. Q 241.8. It’s not a conspiracy; it just works out that way, 242t.

This is why we believe some things that simply aren’t true. The joy of money. The joy of children. Actual happiness varies. [[ but without the delusion, how would the race survive? ]] Because the opposite belief unravels any society that holds it, e.g. the Shakers. We do these things for reasons beyond our ken, 245t.

And so, what is the solution? There is a simple method to make accurate predictions about the future—but no one wants to use it.

Perhaps we ask other people who are having the experiences that we contemplate, and ask how they feel.

Because they are not you; everyone is unique.

Responses to this: Imagination has three shortcomings. It fills in and leaves out without telling us. It tends to project the present onto the future. It fails to recognize that things will look different once they happen, e.g. that bad things will look better (via the psychological immune system).

When surrogates are used, predictions about the future are much better. So the best way to predict our feelings tomorrow is to see how others are feelings today, 251.6

Yet people don’t do this. Because the average person doesn’t think of themselves as average, p252; they see themselves as better, and so other opinions or experiences don’t apply. People see themselves as unique, better in some things and worse in others. We know ourselves the way we can’t know others. We enjoy thinking ourselves as special. And we tend to feel everyone is more different from one another than they actually are; all people are similar in many ways. Our similarities are irrelevant, and so we emphasize our differences. We have the impression that others don’t experience the same intensity of emotion that we do, 255m.

And this is why we don’t rely on surrogates. 256.3


We are the first species in history to be able to make decisions about where to live, what to do, whom to marry. Things changed; happiness is in our hands.

For most of recorded history, people lived where they were born, did what their parents had done, and associated with those who were doing the same. Millers milled, Smiths smithed, and little Smiths and little Millers married whom and when they were told. Social structures (such as religions and castes) and physical structures (such as mountains and oceans) were the great dictators that determined how, where, and with whom people would spend their lives, which left most folks with little to decide for themselves. But the agricultural, industrial, and technological revolutions changed all that, and the resulting explosion of personal liberty has created a bewildering array of options, alternatives, choices, and decisions that our ancestors never faced. For the very first time, our happiness is in our hands.

In 1738 Daniel Bernoulli claimed an answer based on probability and utility. But what we get is not what we experience. Only utility matters. Bernoulli suggested that each successive dollar provides a bit less pleasure than the one before it. People are sensitive to relative rather than absolute magnitudes. But Bernoulli was wrong in not understanding that many things besides wealth that affect one’s happiness. This book has explored many examples. That’s why it’s so difficult to predict our subjective experiences. We’re forced to rely on imagination. It’s a great talent, but it’s not perfect. At best, our intellects allow us to understand how we stumble.


Thumbnail summary:

So… we can’t imagine the future with any accuracy, and thus make bad decisions about what would make us happy. A simple solution would be to use surrogates – that is, other people who are having similar experiences – but we don’t because we feel special to an extent that we can’t rely on others.

Posted in Book Notes | Comments Off on Daniel Gilbert, STUMBLING ON HAPPINESS (2006)

Hans Rosling: FACTFULNESS (2018)

This is a book that explores why most people are wrong on key facts about the world, thinking it worse than it is, e.g. concerning poverty, life expectancy, etc. In a sense it’s a modern-day counterpart to Steven Pinker’s THE BETTER ANGELS OF OUR NATURE, which explains how violence has declined over the centuries, despite the impression of many that the world is still such a violent place. (Notes on that still to be posted.)

Hans Rosling, FACTFULNESS: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think (2018)

Author was a medical doctor and public educator, a worldwide speaker, has done TED talks. (He died in 2017.) He notes the book is cowritten with his son and daughter-in-law.

Brief Summary:

  • In surveys around the world, (e.g. the one at most people think the world is worse than in is, along measures of life expectancy, poverty, etc. This is due to various ‘instincts’ the people have; the 10 chapters of this book explore these. Handily, each chapter ends with a 1 or 2 page summary (indicated).
  • Gap Instinct: People reflexively divide the world into ‘us’ and ‘them’; the split of the world into developed nations and developing ones is no longer valid. Author proposes a divide instead of four levels of income, from $2/day to over $32/day. Of the world’s 7 billion people, the divide is roughly 1, 3, 2, and 1 billion in those four levels. (p46)
  • Negativity. In fact, the world is getting better, overall. There will always be bad news, and these days we hear all of it. (p74)
  • Straight Line. In fact, things don’t always continue as they have before, e.g. the world population increase, for various reasons. (p100)
  • Fear: People tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion; the effectiveness of modern media makes the world seem dangerous, even though the world has ever been less violent or more safe. (p123) [[ cf. Pinker 2011 ]]
  • Size: Keep things in proportion; look at rates, not absolute numbers. (p143)
  • Generalization: Don’t suppose everyone thinks the same as you; don’t think other people are idiots for behaving differently. (p165)
  • Destiny: Don’t assume people have innate characteristics and can never change. Sweden used to be much different. Africa will catch up. (p184)
  • Single Perspective. Beware simple either/or solutions; test your favorite ideas; have a few opinions that are right, rather than many that are wrong. Look at the results. (p202)
  • Blame. People look for clearcut bad guys or heroes, or suspect those they don’t like. Understand the system before assigning blame. Examples of pharma, refugees, foreigners. (p222)
  • Urgency. Rash decisions are often bad decisions. The world is complex; it’s usually better to wait and reconsider. Floating worst-case scenarios can backfire. Five global risks to worry about: global pandemic; financial collapse; world war III; climate change; extreme poverty. (p242)
  • Finally, Factfuless in Practice. The key is education. Teach children humility and curiosity. Business need to become global. Be aware that journalists will always focus on the unusual, not the common. A fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life, and leads to less stress and hopelessness.

With many appendices and notes. The book’s endpapers show color charts and photos of several key concepts: the four levels of income; the distribution of people across the world.

Rosling uses very plain language when he might, for example, explain the “availability heuristic” or discuss rates and proportions in chapter 5; he’s trying to reach a broad audience.

Detailed Summary:


Author presents a 13-question test about the state of world, concerning life expectancy, portion of people in poverty, and so on, pp3-5, and discusses how poorly almost everyone does on the test. (The test, and much else, is at ) Most everyone knew that the climate is warming, but on average people got only 2 of the other 12 right. This is because they think the world is worse than it is; or perhaps, they reflect what they learned decades ago, and their knowledge simply needs upgrading.

We maintain an overdramatic worldview, not one that’s fact-based. This is understandable from evolution; we’re wired to be on the alert for dangers, for things that are scarce p15t. But we can overcome this tendency, learn to get the world right. “So, if you are more interested in being right than in continuing to live in your bubble…. Then please read on.” 17.

Ch1, The Gap Instinct

Recalls discussing child mortality, and how students reflexively think that ‘those’ countries can never live like ‘us.’ People split the world into us and them. We still speak of the developed nations and the developing ones, as if there is an actual difference, chart p25 – this was true, in 1965! But it’s not true now, chart p26, when only 9% of the world’s population live in truly poor countries.

Author proposes a different kind of divide: four income levels, Level 1 thru Level 4, representing up to $2/day to over $32/day. Of the world’s 7 billion population, the divide is roughly 1, 3, 2, and 1 in those four levels. The World Bank made the change; the UN still hasn’t. This kind of binary thinking pervades journalism, and stories.

Beware: don’t compare averages; look at spreads, or change the scales. Compare extremes; beware the ‘view from up here’ when, from a tall building, distinctions among smaller ones disappear. Mass media love extraordinary events and shuns normality.

Ch2, The Negativity Instinct

Everyone thinks the world is getting worse. And it is, in parts, like Syria, or with species die-offs, or the US economy. But overall, the world is getting better. Extreme poverty has dropped to 9%, from 85% in 1800 and 50% in 1966. [[ Note -! P52, that in 1800, “One-fifth of the entire Swedish population… fled starvation to the United States…” – could this explain the Swedes in Illinois? Note Bishop Hill wasn’t founded until 1846. ]] Life expectancy was 31 in 1800 [on *average* since so many children died; adults still often lived to 50 or 70] and is 72 now. Sweden itself has changed, from 1800 to now, in health and wealth, p57.

Four pages of charts, bad things decreasing and good things increasing, p60-63.

This happens because we think old times were better than they were; we forget the bad parts. Selective reporting by the media ironically makes the world seem worse, since press freedom is greater now and every atrocity is reported; in the past many went unknown.

Author says he’s not an optimist; he’s a ‘possibilist,’ who sees progress and hopes that further progress is possible. The skewed view of the world is dangerous because it may cause people to give up hope, 69m.

How to control: remember that things can be better, yet still partly bad. Expect that there will always be bad news. And don’t censor history.

Ch3, The Straight Line Instinct

Recalls Ebola outbreak, doubling every three weeks. The misconception here is that things simply keep increasing as they’ve done, as he says the world population is ‘just’ increasing. Thus people assume world population will be much higher by 2100 than estimates make it, p81. In fact it will ease off to about 11 billion in 2100, and this is because the number of children will remain steady – an effect of women having fewer children as they rise out of extreme poverty. The average number of babies per woman has fallen from about 6 in 1800, to 2.5 today. As this rate sustains, the population will grow into higher age groups, p86.

Humanity was ‘in balance’ with nature – humans *died* in balance with nature because so many children died young. Now we’re moving to a new balance where most children survive.

But don’t some cultures, and the religious, have more children anyway? Maybe, but poverty is till the overwhelming factor.

So: some lines are straight. Others are S-shaped, and like slides, or with humps, depending on the phenomenon, p94-97. And some are ‘doubling’ lines [he means exponential] p98-99.

Ch4, The Fear Instinct

Anecdote about a patient author thought was bleeding; he wasn’t, it was a color marker from his life jacket. We tend to jump to the worst possible conclusion. Our attention filter is alert for dangers: physical harm, captivity, contamination.

A paradox (as mentioned above) is that the media makes the world seem as dangerous as ever, even though the world has never been less violent or more safe. Thus, deaths from natural disasters are far lower than 100 years ago. Because countries are wealthier and better able to react. We never think about the 40 million planes that land safely – only the handful that don’t. (Recalls 1944 standard form for recording crash data.)

Yes, Syria; but battle deaths have fallen over history. We are so concerned with contamination, that more people died fleeing Fukushima than were ever imperiled by the radiation itself. The relatively minor risks of DDT have made us all fearful of chemicals, and contamination in general. Thus, fear of vaccinations.

And terrorism; again, the number of actual incidents is small. (Note that Wikipedia is far from complete about incidents in the non-West.)

Ch5, The Size Instinct

Author recalls treating children in Mozambique, and applying a harsh sort of relative effort: it’s not worth setting up a drip in a child when the same time could be spent saving many other children. Trying to do the best every time was out of proportion. As in other cases, the most effective strategy is to apply low-level methods, e.g. sanitation, rather than building hospitals.

To realize this, think compare and divide. Avoid lonely numbers. Maybe 4.2 million babies died last year – but compare than to the 14m that died in 1950. Consider how in Vietnam their memorial to the war with the US is incidental. Consider that one man being killed by a bear in Sweden got more press than the women killed by their partners, once a month. Don’t treat rare diseases when common ones still prevail.

Recall where people live: mostly in Asia. The PIN code is 1 1 1 4, p136, about where most the world population lives. (Billions of people in the Americas, Europe, Africa, and Asia respectively.) Don’t look at absolute numbers; look at rates. Don’t worry about everything ‘out there’

Ch6, The Generalization Instinct

Anecdote about being served dinner in a region near the Congo river—rats, and larva. His friend saved him from the latter by explaining that his ‘tribe’ had different customs. Don’t suppose everyone thinks the same…

Genralizations and stereotypes are necessary and useful. But businesses wrongly think the ‘developing’ world isn’t a market for their products, and are losing out. The solution is to travel, experience the world first-hand. Anecdote about a Swedish student sticking her foot in the elevator door.

Develop better categories, e.g. the four income levels. Five ways to counter this instinct, p158, among them, don’t assume other people are idiots, they may have good reasons for doing strange things. Example of half-built house in Tunisia, p161. And don’t generalize from one group to another – example of advice about not letting babies sleep on their backs.

Ch7, The Destiny Instinct

We tend to assume people have innate characteristics and can never change. This bias can be simply self-serving, as to confirm the superiority of one’s own group, e.g. Europeans against the Islamic world.

In fact, Africa can catch up, and has already made great progress doing so. For that matter, continued Western progress cannot be taken for granted; thus assumptions of 4% annual growth have been tempered. P172. How women in Iran have greatly reduced their birthrate. (Again, number of children tied to income, not religion.) And values can change. Recalls how the Swedish weren’t always so liberal about sex. Used to be patriarchal.

Tools: realize that slow change is not no change, e.g. how nature preserves have expanded. How knowledge needs updating, especially in the social sciences. Recalls speech in Africa in which he missed the point – soon *they* will be the tourists to our countries.

Ch8, The Single Perspective Instinct

Who do we trust? Beware simple single solutions, whether it’s government control or the free market, equality via distribution of resources, etc. Test your favorite ideas. Have fewer opinions that are right, rather than many that are wrong. Even experts have limitations, e.g. beyond their own fields. Activists tend to exaggerate, to promote their own causes.

There is no one solution, like the proverbial hammer where everything looks like a nail. Even numbers are not a single solution, example 192. Nor is medicine. Or ideologies; compare Cuba and US. The latter is the sickest of the rich, spending more on health care for less, because of absence of public health insurance, p199b.

Nor is democracy a single solution; it doesn’t always correlate with other positive outcomes. The answer is to look at results.

Ch9, The Blame Instinct

Example of story about pharma not investing in drugs for certain diseases. Angry? Punch the CEO? The shareholders? Who? Maybe grandma, the retirees who depend on stable pharma stock for their retirements.

People look for clear, simple reasons; a bad guy; or a hero to claim success. 206b. And we tend to blame those we don’t like. Author recalls investigating an extraordinarily low bid from a pharma firm, being suspicious, then discovering they’d hit on a scheme no one else had to make money with cheap prices.

It’s not that the media is misleading you. Journalists do no better on the test than anyone else; they have the same misconceptions. But it’s their job to portray the world as it is; they are competing for consumers’ attentions.

Another example: refugees. Why are they stuck in shabby rubber rafts? Because the airlines require visas; even though many of these refugees have plenty of money to buy plane tickets. And authorities confiscate the boats—so there’s no reason to use good boats. The situation is one of unintended consequences.

Similarly the tendency to blame foreigners – especially India and China – for climate change. But they’re not to blame, if you look at *rates*. By that measure, the rich nations like the US and Canada still produce the most CO2. Leaders like to think they are powerful, but they are less than they think; Mao; the pope (i.e. so many Catholics use contraception anyway). The actual heroes are institutions – e.g. those on the ground who enforce health practices – and technology – e.g. simple machines like washing machines to free up women’s time to read.

Understand the system, before assigning blame. P222.

Ch10, The Urgency Instinct

Story about studying a strange disease, and an impulsive decision to cancel a bus and block the road; so the locals took a boat, which overturned, drowning many. Later stories similar: the instinct is to block the roads. But these are rash decision made under time pressure, and these are usually bad decisions.

Act now! This is your last chance! This is almost never true, 227.7. It’s actually better to wait, return to the subject later, and consider it again.

The urge to action might have made sense in our evolutionary past, when the environment was mostly stable, and any perceived danger required emergency action. But the world is more complex now.

Example: author met with Al Gore, who wanted data emphasizing the worst case. Author tried to explain why this wouldn’t be effective, and declined. It’s counterproductive to raise alarms; in the long run it risks credibility. This is a problem with activists, who have a motivation to exaggerate problems, or to blame everything on climate change. Author insisted on following the data. Example: data on the Ebola outbreak showed it had already peaked, two weeks before, and so the measures already taken were working.

Author admits five global risks we should worry about: global pandemic; financial collapse; world war iii; climate change; extreme poverty. Summary: take a breath; insist on data; beware of fortune-tellers; be wary of drastic action.

Ch11, Factfulness in Practice

Another story, about taking blood samples to diagnose a disease in Zaire, in 1989, how the villagers rose up against him, and about how one brave woman, who somehow understood, spoke passionately and drove them off.

The key to factfulness is education – a list of key ideas to teach children p248 – and teaching children humility and curiosity. Acquiring these traits becomes relaxing, 249.4, “because it means you can stop feeling pressured to have a view about everything, and stop feeling you must be ready to defend your views all the time.”

Businesses need to learn to become global. Journalists might add context, but author acknowledges “Ultimately, it is not journalists’ role, and it is not the goal of activists or politicians, to present the world as it really is. They will always have to compete to engage our attention with exciting stories and dramatic narratives. They will always focus on the unusual rather than they common, and on the new or temporary rather than slowly changing patterns.” P253t

Can everyone do this? P255. Author thinks it will happen, for two reasons: a fact-based worldview is more useful for navigating life; and it creates less stress and hopelessness, since the dramatic worldview is so negative and terrifying.

Posted in Book Notes, Changing One's Mind, Culture, Social Progress | Comments Off on Hans Rosling: FACTFULNESS (2018)

Yuval Noah Harari, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017; 2015 in Israel)

This is, in effect, a sequel to SAPIENS.

Top level summary:

  • It opens with a long prologue: now that humanity has largely overcome famine, plague, and war, what next? Three possibilities: immortality, happiness, divinity. However these are predictions; this book is not a manifesto. They are the ideals of humanism, but humanism has flaws: that’s what this book is about.
  • He reviews human history from the agricultural revolution, emphasizes the idea of the algorithm, and wonders how humans are superior to animals: it’s our ability to connect, to use ‘imaged orders’ (money, law, gods, empires) to manage groups larger than 150 people. Meanings exists only within the networks of stories people tell each other. Science, meanwhile, has given rise to humanistic religions. [[ He still uses that word in a problematic sense, as noted for the first book. ]]
  • Religion is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. Modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Modern power comes from scientific progress and economic growth; free-market capitalism is virtually a religion. But it can’t go on forever: we’ll run out of resources, or risk collapsing the ecology.
  • So humanism is about being true to oneself, prioritizing personal feelings over scriptures. There is now no serious alternative to the “liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy, and a free market.” The old religions have nothing relevant to say about the world.
  • And yet—some of liberal presumptions may not be true—e.g. free will. Brain studies show the complexities of our minds; there is no one authentic self. Thus one’s ‘true’ self is an imaginary story too, like nations, gods, and money. People live their lives as if living one type of story or another.
  • The final chapters explore three possible futures, ways that liberalism might be made obsolete: humans will lose economic and military usefulness (e.g. by being replaced by robots); the system will value humans collectively, but not individually; or the system will find some individuals valuable, and they will constitute a new elite. Useless people, their lives supported by robots that rend them unemployable, take drugs and play computer games. Or income inequality might lead to gaps in physical and cognitive abilities, rendering ideas of equality and civil rights obsolete.
  • Some in Silicon Valley want to upgrade humanity—e.g. by pursuing immortality. Alternatively, data might take over the world, an expanding internet of everything, with the new value of sharing everything, uploading experiences to the internet.
  • Finally: so what should we pay attention to: In the short term, immigration, refugees. Over decades: global warming, inequality. And in the long term: examining the dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is a data process; whether intelligence is decoupling from consciousness; whether intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves. Are these valid?

General comments:

Again, note how frequently Harari rolls out concepts in groups of three. I’m still irritated of his use of the word religion to describe value systems that explicitly revoke traditional religion, e.g. secular humanism. He does so because he wants to identify those values with the analogous presumption about the world that religions make, so that he can challenge them and thus consider whether the western liberal project is doomed. There are lots of interesting ideas here, but I’m not as alarmed about the future as he seems to be. For example, does it matter if free will doesn’t exist in some fundamental sense? People still act as if they have free will. Perhaps it only matters if these intelligent algorithms he anticipates learn to manipulate us to what we think we are choosing freely is really chosen for us. But this already happens—we are guided in our tastes by culture; we are guided in our beliefs by our families and social groups.

He examines many of these same themes in this third big book, which I’ll cover next.

Detailed summary (with key points in bold and my comments [[ in brackets ]])

The book begins with a long, 70-page, prologue: “The New Human Agenda.” To some extent this recalls themes from SAPIENS, and to some extent it gives the impression that he forgot about another triad of ideas—or perhaps one cut for space—and is filling it in here. But no; reflecting on this book’s theme, instead what he’s doing is setting the stage, by explaining how several eternal trials of human existence have largely been overcome. Which leads to the book’s theme: what do we do now? But first, review those eternal trials.

  • Humanity has largely overcome the three ancient problems—famine, plague, and war. Now that these have been addressed, what do we do now? Consider history.
  • Famines—example of France in 1694. Ironically, now more people are obese than die from famine.
  • Plagues—recalls the Black Death, about which people could do nothing by pray, or assign the problem to demons. Other examples: Europeans coming to the Americas, and spreading plagues, 1520; later Hawaii, 1778. In world war I, the Spanish flu.
  • Now child mortality is down. Smallpox is gone. The recent plagues, SARS et al, even AIDS, have been relatively small by historical examples.
  • And doctors are getting better at diagnosing new diseases. When something goes wrong now, we don’t blame god or demons, we demand responsibility and arrange investigations. [[ Well, some simple-minded evangelical types still blame God—or blame whatever social matter they personally don’t like, e.g. homosexuality or abortion, for having triggered God’s wrath. This egocentric bias will never go away. ]]
  • Wars, p14. Statistics, 15t. We have overcome the ‘law of the jungle’, wherein people live their lives assuming that at any moment a neighboring country might invade them. No governments make plans with contingencies for war, anymore. There are exceptions – e.g. where the author lives (Israel).
  • True, there is a potential for cyber warfare. Yet we have also broken Chekhov’s Law [i.e. by the 19th century Russian playwright], the notion that if a gun appears [in a play], it must be used; that is, we’ve nuclear weapons for decades, and not used them.
  • Terrorism? It has worked only by provoking its enemies to overreact, 18.7, then rage like a bull in a china shop, doing the terrorists’ work for them. [[ Every time I go through airport security, I can’t help but reflect, here at least the terrorists have won. ]]
  • So—
  • What will replace these threats in the human agenda? Well, we might take steps to protect the planet from our influence.
  • What else? 21t – three things: immorality, happiness, divinity.
  • About death – religions have depended on it. They don’t make much sense if death did not exist.
  • Nowadays, death is viewed as a technical problem, with potential technical solutions. A few talk about defeating death entirely – like Ray Kurzweil, Peter Thiel. But by 2050? That’s optimistic. A-mortals would be cautious. [[ an idea already exploited by sf ]]
  • If even human life-spans were only doubled, it would greatly change social arrangements – families; how long individuals would reign over corporations or religions. Ideas would linger. 26.
  • Note that the *natural life span* has not been extended; people in the past sometimes did live until 70 or 80. We’ve just been eliminated causes of early death. Extending the life span will be more difficult.
  • But science, and capitalism, seem to inevitably drive the search for extended life spans.
  • P30, the right to happiness. Epicurus; Jeremy Bentham; nations provided education and health care as a means of making the nation stronger (not to make people happy). By now there is the idea that nations *should* make people happy. By GDP, Singapore must now be happiest. Is this true? It’s hard work to be happy; advanced nations aren’t necessarily ‘happier’ than less fortunate ones. Quality of life has increased, but not overall happiness. [[ A recurring theme; one of the closing ideas in SAPIENS. ]]
  • Why? First, happiness depends on expectations rather than objective conditions. Second, happiness is a matter of pleasant sensations and lack of unpleasant ones. Beyond that, said John Stuart Mill, there’s no objective good and evil. And this is, in effect, current scientific orthodoxy. The problem is, pleasant sensations don’t last long; they must be constantly renewed.
  • One answer might be drugs—pharmacology. We increasingly take drugs to mediate moods and behavior; to calm soldiers. This recalls the Buddhist view of the transience of existence.
  • P43, the gods of planet earth. Upgrading into gods might happen in three ways: biological engineering; cyborg engineering; or through non-organic beings. We can’t grasp what new minds would think to do.
  • Attaining divinity doesn’t mean becoming omnipotent—p47.5; it’s more like becoming Greek gods, with great powers but still with human foibles.
  • Recall that ancient agricultural societies, their religions weren’t metaphysical, so much as about attaining superhuman powers.
  • Is this moving too fast? It will happen bit by bit. It may take only decades. Recall the internet in 1993.
  • But if it’s scary, can we hit the brakes? No; we don’t know what the brakes are; if we put a halt to such efforts, the economy would collapse; and we can’t even separate these three goals.
  • Examples: Viagra; plastic surgery; in vitro testing. Three-person embryos. Upgrades are always first about healing, then about applying them for enhancements.
  • P56, the paradox of knowledge—four points: 1, only a few people will be engaged in these activities [[ recalls Gibson comment about how the future is already here, just not evenly distributed ]]; 2, these comments are only predictions based on history, not a manifesto; 3, they may not succeed!, and 4, these are about choices. New knowledge changes behavior; e.g. Marx’s writings were read by capitalists, who accommodated his thinking, so his revolution never came. That’s the paradox.
  • So why study history? To understand the choices we have. Example: lawns, a history of status symbols—then follow 7 pages beginning p59, with photos, about how lawns have been status symbols.
  • These goals are the ideals of humanism, which has ruled for 300 years. But there are flaws in humanism—and that’s what this book is about; these plans are likely to cause its disintegration, 66b.

[[ He may be right to the extent that, in the sense that humanism endorses continued expansion of the species, we’ll destroy the planet and thus ourselves. That’s why I’ve never been entirely happy with the idea of ‘humanism’ – what’s really needed is an *understanding* of our place on earth and in the universe, and the goal should be long-term sustainability, not continued expansion. (Which might subvert the SF fantasy of exploring and colonizing the universe.) And certainly the commandments of religions to keep reproducing and fill up the globe. ]]

Part I, Homo sapiens conquers the world

1, The Anthropocene

  • There are very few lions or wolves left; humans have impacted the world over the past 70k years, recently by mixing up all the previously separate (on various continents) ecologies.
  • Early human were likely animists, believing in a network of beings.
  • The story of the expulsion from Eden reflects the agriculture revolution, p77ff; changed the relationship between humans and animals; now animals were domesticated, subjected to humans. Today 90% of animal mass on earth is domesticated animals. And those animals live in misery; their evolutionary drives haven’t changed. Pig farms, etc.
  • We understand that organisms are algorithms, collections of needs and survival strategies….  83.7: “’Algorithm’ is arguably the single most important concept in our world.”
  • Example of recipes, and machines that follow algorithms; they work in humans through sensations, and emotions, and thoughts 85.3; humans are algorithms that produce copies of themselves, 85.1.
  • Animals like baboons operate through feelings and sensations—but these are in fact algorithms, built into their instinctive thinking. 86.2. even in humans, 99% of our decisions are based on subconscious algorithms (sensations, emotions, and desires) 87.2, note 18, citations of books by Kahnemann and Ariely.
  • In the early 20th century experts denied the idea of human nature; theories were behaviorist. Harry Harlow demonstrated the instinctive mother-infant bond, among monkeys, in the ‘60s. The animal industry violates this, 90.4
  • P90, The agricultural deal: Farmers justified their behavior toward domesticated animals through… theist religions, in which a parliament of beings was reduced to humans and their relationship with a god or gods, with only humans having souls, in which the gods played intermediary, 92b. “The gods safeguarded and multiplied farm production, and in exchange humans had to share the produce with the gods. This deal served both parties, at the expense of the rest of the ecosystem.”
  • 92.3, “Much of theist mythology explains the subtle details of this deal.” Gilgamesh! Example even cites how the gods smelled the savor of sacrificed animals (!!) – because the animals weren’t for safekeeping, they were for sacrifice! [[ important point to relate back to biblical reading! ]] (a good example of, why these stories and not others?) 93.8: “Non-human organisms have no intrinsic value; they exist only for our sake.” And see 94t.
  • Some religions are more animal-friendly; but all justify human exploitation of animals, and the subsequent classification of people into classes, 96b. “The farm thus became the prototype of new societies, complete with puffed-up masters, inferior races fit for exploitation, wild beasts ripe for extermination and a great God above that gives His blessing to the entire arrangement.”
  • P97, Five Hundred Years of Solitude. Science silenced the gods. The new paradigm was curiosity leading to greater control, another step toward paradise on earth.
  • Science gave rise to the humanistic religions. [[ He is still using the word religion in a problematic sense here. ]] But what makes humans special, that artificial intelligence wouldn’t be moreso? Is there some human spark?

Ch3, The Human Spark

  • Why are human lives superior? The tradition is that only humans have souls; it’s a central pillar of society.
  • Yet there’s no evidence of ‘souls’; in fact the idea of evolution contradicts it, which is why so many hate Darwin and evolution.
  • Why no such anger about relativity etc? [[ I’ve long though this is a key point; fundamentalists hate evolution, but are indifferent to cosmology, even though the latter just as much contradicts the Bible. Why? Because evolution offends people’s sense of being special. ]] Because evolution contradicts prior beliefs. … or is it because we are conscious and animals aren’t?
  • Yet we have no good idea about what consciousness is… what is the evolutionary advantage of subjective experience? What happens in the mind that doesn’t happen in the brain? No one knows.
  • Can we discard the idea? … no; perhaps it is real but performs no useful function. Perhaps our analogies are wrong.
  • 121, so do animals have minds? Examples of dogs, chimps, lab rats; legal acts, p123.
  • So what gives our species an edge? Tools? Intelligence? No—it’s the ability to connect, 132.7. [[ 2018—yes, this echoes ideas about how human social cooperation has been more important than merely using tools, a key theme of EO Wilson. ]]
  • Historical examples—communism, how it fell apart; example: the video of people booing Romanian leader Ceausescu, p135.
  • Communists held power for three reason, 136b: they placed loyal apparatchiks in control of everything; they prevented the creation of rival organizations; third, they relied on support from parties in other countries.
  • 138, So how is human life sacred? What makes humans able to cooperate so well? Our group size is limited, only up to about 150. And we are not ‘logical’… examples.
  • Larger groups depend on ‘imagined orders’, 143b – 144: sets of rules that exist only in our imagination yet we believe to be as real as anything – these are ‘intersubjective’, p144. Examples are money, laws, gods, empires. It can happen, e.g. that some currency is defined to suddenly be without value.
  • 146.4: Maybe hard to accept; “Yet in truth the lives of most people have meaning only within the network of stories they tell one another.” And following: “Meaning is created when many people weave together a common network of stories…” Why does anything mean anything? Because it did to our parents, etc, examples. [[ aligns with idea of understanding reality via narrative – and the stipulations that all such narratives, stories, are made up ]]  [[ again – the smart ones understand that these are just stories, that we tell ourselves to provide meaning, and that they could easily be entirely different stories. ]]
  • Long historical example of how meaning at the time of the crusades changed over the centuries.
  • The idea of human rights might be just as absurd in another century. 150.6.
  • Only human understand these chimeras – intersubjective realities. That’s our advantage. This is what separate humanities from life sciences; the latter depend on complete understanding…
  • So, 152 last lines, “If you want to understand our future, cracking genomes and crunching numbers is hardly enough. We must also decipher the fictions that give meaning to the world.”

Part II: Homo Sapiens Gives Meaning to the World

Ch4, The Storytellers, p155

  • Animals are a dual reality – objective entities, and subjective experiences. Humans add a third reality – those intersubjective stories.
  • We had the cognitive revolution 70kya, but fictional webs remained weak. With the agricultural revolution, 12kya, the Sumerians imagined gods like modern corporations. Only with the invention of writing, and money, were these enabled. The idea of pharaoh, a living god, became a personal brand. Society’s rules became written down, i.e. became algorithms, p160m. Now we have ‘the system’, e.g. hospitals, where everything is a matter of procedure and rules. These worked so well that the Egyptians could create pyramids and an enormous lake, even without iron or the wheel…
  • P163, Living on Paper. Written texts became so important that, example of visas in Portugal, 164.5. Yet they could backfire: the Chinese effort to expand led to imaginary reports which led eventually to government actions that led to famine.
  • Writing reshaped reality, 167t. –it could describe, and then it could reshape, reality, to the extent that reality had to give way to what was written.
  • Examples: how African borders, drawn up by Europeans, ignored local circumstances. How school function to aim for high marks [grades] rather than knowledge or understanding.
  • 170b: “In theory, if some holy book misrepresented reality, its disciples would sooner or later discover this, and the text’s authority would be undermined. Abraham Lincoln said you cannot deceive everybody all the time. Well, that’s wishful thinking. In practice, the power of human cooperation networks depends on a delicate balance between truth and fiction. If you distort reality too much, it will weaken you, and you will not be able to compete against more clear-sighted rivals. On the other hand, you cannot organize masses of people effectively without relying on some fictional myths. So if you stick to unalloyed reality, without mixing any fiction with it, few people will follow you.” [[ nice summation of this current quandary ]]
  • Thus the power of money; even of holy scriptures, which become self-fulfilling prophecies in the way they function in society. P172b, “Even when scriptures mislead people about the true nature of reality, they can nevertheless retain their authority for thousands of years. …”  A monotheistic view in which my good fortune or bad luck must be about my relationship with an all-powerful god. P173.4, “Such self-absorption characterizes all humans in childhood. Children of all religions and cultures think they are the centre of the world, and therefore show little genuine interest in the conditions and feelings of other people. … Most people grow out of this infantile delusion. Monotheists hold on to it till the day they die.”
  • In contrast, ancient animist religions actually had a more accurate view of the world—as a playground of numerous different powers rather than a single god. Historians like Herodotus and Theucydides…
  • And yet the Bible won—because “No matter how mistaken the biblical world view was, it provided a better basis for large-scale human cooperation” [[ –the essence of the human tragedy? To survive we must believe in what is not real? ]]
  • 174, “Fictions enable us to cooperate better.” At least by the criteria of those fictions. Examples. Yet real entities suffer; gods don’t suffer; even nations don’t suffer, exactly. “That is exactly why we should strive to distinguish fiction from reality.” And last line p178: “Being able to distinguish fiction from reality and religion from science will therefore become more difficult but more vital than ever before.”

Ch5, The Odd Couple

  • Has modern science replaced the importance of stories, of myths? No; in ways science has made some myths stronger. So what is the relationship between science and religion?
  • 181, Germs and demons—there are many faulty definitions of religions; they’re not about superstition or belief in gods. Religion rather is a social function that confers superhuman legitimacy on human laws, norms, and values. 182.4; moral laws that exist and that we cannot change. Examples of boys asking questions of their fathers. Thus liberals and communists don’t like to be called religions, yet in fact they believe in some system of moral laws that wasn’t invented by humans, that humans must obey. And all societies have some version of this. All believers think theirs is the one true religion.
  • 184, If you meet the buddha—distinction between religion and a spiritual journey. Religions are about cementing a worldly order; journeys are about escaping it. If you meet Buddha on the road, kill him – i.e., if you encounter a fixed law, free yourself from it, 186. Such ideas are threats to religions, thus Martin Luther; details.
  • 188, Counterfeiting god—so what about the relationship between science and god? Sworn enemies? All scientific projects require religious insights, 189m. How to determine which projects to build?
  • Or are they separate kingdoms? Yet this ignores the factual statements made by religions. Abortion; biological facts, about when life begins. Religious stories almost always involve ethical statement, factual statements, and the conflation of the two, p191. Science has a lot to say about factual statements. Example about the Donation of Constantine, in AD 315… which later historians agree was forged, in the 8th century.
  • 193, Uganda criminalized homosexual activities, inspired by the Bible; long example.
  • 196, Holy dogma—it’s not easy to separate ethical judgements from factual statements. Philosophers like Sam Harris have argued that science can always resolve ethical dilemmas. And yet, what is happiness? We can’t measure it. And without the guidance of some religion [ in the broadest sense of course ], we can’t maintain large-scale social orders, 198.3.
  • 198, The witch hunt—history. In theory, both religion and science are interested in truth. “In fact, neither science nor religion care much about the truth, hence they can easily compromise, coexist and even cooperate.” 199.4 Religion is interested in order; science is interested in power, over truth. [[ Really? At best this is a cynical take. ]]
  • Thus modern history is about forming a deal between science and one particular religion: humanism.
  • Next two chapters about this covenant; and the final part of the book about how this covenant is disintegrating, and what might replace it.

Ch6, The Modern Covenant, p200

  • Modernity is a deal: “humans agree to give up meaning in exchange for power” 200.7. This deal shapes our entire culture, and ourselves from the moment of birth. [[ it doesn’t seem to matter to Harari that the meaning given up is false – fictitious – and invented by humans; doesn’t reality matter? ]]
  • Modern power comes as a result of scientific progress and economic growth. There was no such ‘growth’ for much of history; productivity was steady, etc. It was for lack of funding. The miracle of credit enables economic growth. (reference to zero-sum, p204b) Example vampire bats, who loan blood to each other, but without interest, unlike bankers.
  • Modern economic growth is vital. We must produce more in order raise the standard of living, handle expanding population, and making any headway against poverty. And economic growth turns out to be the solution for everything, p207, e.g. to solve religious and political strife.
  • And so free-market capitalism has become virtually a religion, 210.1; certainly it “helped global harmony far more than centuries of Christian preaching about loving your neighbor and turning the other cheek.” P201.5
  • The first commandment of capitalism is: reinvest profits. Thus a typical conservation today is about how best to invest one’s gains. P211. Even games these days are oriented around capitalism, e.g. Civilization.
  • 212, But can this go on forever? Only if we have a store of resources. We used to rely on the discovery of new lands. Now, despite talk of “new planets and even galaxies” (212.7 !? – perhaps the only allusion to space travel in this book?), we need other methods.
  • That new resource, beyond raw materials and energy, is knowledge, provided by science. People used to believe the holy scriptures contained all knowledge worth knowing, 213.4.
  • Now the danger is ecological collapse. Do we slow growth? Or expect that expanded knowledge, and more growth, will solve the problem? In some quarters people are taking measure to shut out the consequences of ecological collapse, e.g. in China, protection against the smog. Yet the poor, as always, will suffer the most. And despite understanding the danger, greenhouse gases haven’t slowed, despite international agreements.
  • 218, The Rat Race. And so we’re always under pressure to produce more. We *need* upheavals; all that is solid melts into air. And it feeds on the natural human tendency toward greed. And it’s been a huge success, 220. Yet, how did we avoid the loss of meaning? By a new religion: humanism.

Ch7, The Humanist Revolution (60 pages)

  • We’ve managed to find a new meaning. Ironically, the greatest danger these days come from those who cling to the old meaning of a grand cosmic plan, 222b: “Yet today, those who pose the greatest threat to global law and order are precisely those people who continue to believe in God and His all-encompassing plans.”
  • So absent that, what keeps world order? Humanism. “The humanist religion worships humanity, and expects humanity to play the part of that God played in Christianity and Islam, and that the laws of nature played in Buddhist and Daoism.” [[ I still take great exception to use of the loaded term ‘worship’…..]]
  • In past centuries no one trusted human thinking; we needed God for meaning, and authority. Compare 1300 to now.  [[ again, Harari sidesteps the obvious point that ideas of God and God’s meaning and authority *were invented by humans* ]]
  • Today, the humanist theme is everywhere: be true to oneself. What do you feel? People marry for love. When conflicts arise, the resolution is about feelings, not scripture. Even zealots – e.g. religious zealots upset by gay pride parades – resort to their hurt feelings, 228t.
  • And in politics: democracy, never remotely conceivable in the middle ages, when even art was attributed to superhuman inspiration—the Holy Spirit, represented by the dove.
  • Now, anything can be art, e.g. Duchamp’s urinal. [[ again, saying “feelings” makes it sound wishy-washy; one could just as well talk about trust and accountability… ]]
  • Again: the customer is always right; education is about thinking for oneself. The cosmos has changed—236m, the exterior universe became empty; the interior world became deep and rich with meaning. And so even belief in God is a *choice* about what one feels…
  • The medieval formula for knowledge was Scriptures X Logic. (multiplied; just one won’t do). With the scientific method it became Empirical Data X Mathematics.
  • Now the humanist formula is Experience X Sensitivity. Now understanding is about having a wide variety of experiences, and interest in what they mean, and being able to change one’s views 239.6. Thus author might cultivate fine teas. 240.7, “The highest aim of humanist life is to fully develop your knowledge through a wide variety of intellectual, emotional and physical experiences.”
  • Thus we have a yin and yang, a balance between science and humanism, between power and meaning.
  • In premodern narratives, there was no change—heroes killing monsters or villains. Modern narratives are all about inner lives, how people change, from Ulysses to Survivor, Oz to Trek etc. [[ Thus the standard definition of modern literature, which science fiction subverts, as being about someone’s inner life, typically about the most important events of that life. There was no such literature until about 150 years ago. ]]
  • 243, War. Similarly, attitudes about war changed; used to be depicted as the results of fearless leaders; now about the experience of the common soldier, rather than about dying in battles ordained by God. Examples of paintings.
  • 248, Yet the humanist movement split into three schisms: ‘liberalism’, 249.7; socialist humanist; and evolutionary humanism. They all deal differently with the contradictions that arise. E.g., what to do about refugees, Angela Merkel.
  • Liberal humanism is about allowing each person to experience their own life fully, and not valuing any one over others. This can lead to nationalism, a mild sort where the shared values of an entire country must be protected from outside influence.
  • Socialist humanism focuses on others’ feelings and how one’s actions influence others. These people might consider liberalism a capitalist trap, a self-absorption, a naivety about how the system really works and how it came to be. The goal of socialist humanism is to understand the system; thus an emphasis on political parties and trade unions.
  • Evolutionary human keys off Darwin to emphasize that conflict is necessary, because only the fittest should win; the superior beings and cultures should prevail. Famous quote from the film The Third Man. This attitude is popularized by Nietzsche –what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger—and in the memories of soldiers who’ve gone to war, an experience that pales all others.
  • Author cautions that the extremes of Hitler or Stalin don’t mean these approaches have no value – they are all sections of the ‘human horizon’, 259t.
  • An extended example: consider four experiences, listening to Beethoven, to Chuck Berry, to a tribal chant, or to a wolf’s howling. Which is most valuable? The liberal might dismiss only the wolf – thus the Voyager record. The socialists look at context of each. The evolutionary humanists are eager to declare Beethoven as obviously best, there I said it., p262
  • Are these distinctions frivolous? No—these schisms have widened. At the start of the 20th century, liberalism thought history was on their side. Then they were assaulted on both the left and right. (Long brilliant sketch of 20th century history p264-269). Liberalism eked through only by virtue of nuclear bombs, the MAD stalemate. And eventually prevailed, as the 21st came around, as more and more countries became liberal democracies.
  • There is now no serious alternative to “the liberal package of individualism, human rights, democracy and a free market”, 269.2
  • Not the religious fundamentalists? No; they have nothing relevant to say about the world. Technology depends on a kind of ‘religion’ to give it purpose, but the ancient fundamentalist religions have nothing to say about new technologies. Hundreds of millions may go on believing, but numbers don’t count much in history – history is made by small groups of engineers and financiers who change the technological world.
  • There’s never been a shortage of “priests, mystics, and gurus who argued that they alone held the solution to all of humanity’s woes…” 272.2
  • Examples of religious reactionaries—a religious leader in Sudan, in 1881, who beheaded the local British commander and established an Islamic theocracy that lasted until 1898. A Hindu revival movement for Vedic knowledge; Pope Pius IX, who discovered the principle of papal infallibility; a Chinese scholar named Hong had visions of being Jesus’ younger brother that led to wars that killed 20 million people. While elsewhere factories and railroad and steamships filled the world.
  • P275 Now, in the early 21st century, the last train of progress is leaving the station – after which there may be no more homo sapiens. It’s about 21st century technology to create bodies, brains, and minds.
  • Traditional religions are reactive, not creative. Contraceptives, the internet, … religious leaders fret.
  • Compare the most important influential inventions or discoveries of the 20th century – there are so many to choose from – to the influential discoveries or inventions of traditional religions – of which there are virtually none? Except perhaps the industry of torture, via YouTube.
  • New ideas come from new thinkers, not ancient religious texts, 277-278: when considering new ideas. “Yet Christian true-believers – however progressive – cannot admit to drawing their ethics from Foucault and Haraway. So they go back to the Bible, to St. Augustine and to Martin Luther, and make a very thorough search. They read page after page and story after story with the utmost attention, until they finally discover what they need: some maxim, parable or ruling that, if interpreted creatively enough means God blesses gay marriages and women can be ordained to the priesthood. They then pretend the idea originated in the Bible, when in fact it originated with Foucault. The Bible is kept as a source of authority, even though it is no longer a true source of inspiration.”
  • Yet—liberalism may become obsolete.

Part III: Homo Sapiens Loses Control

Ch8, The time Bomb in the Laboratory, p283

  • Some of Liberalism’s ‘factual statements’ don’t stand up to scientific scrutiny. In particular: free will, the elephant in the lab.
  • Brain studies show that biological functions are either deterministic or random – but not free. Even though we ‘feel’ free. Studies show our minds make decisions a few hundred millisecond before we are consciously aware of them. We feel, but we don’t choose.
  • [[ tempted to wonder why author doesn’t simply acknowledge soul and free will as ‘stories’ like his others… ]]
  • Further, we can manipulate and control the mind, e.g. robo-rats, treatments for depression, and ‘transcranial stimulators’ that enable a person to play first-person shooter games without the ‘voices in the head’ causing doubts, 291.2.
  • This undermines the belief in individualism; there is no one authentic self. Our minds have two hemispheres; experiments and accidents; our minds concoct explanations for things the other side has already perceived. Kahneman: we have a narrating self. We’re subject to the ‘peak-end rule’ as in childbirth, colonoscopies.
  • We identify with our narrating self, as opposed to our experiencing self.
  • 301, A Borges story. We cling to justification; ‘our boys didn’t die in vain’ – that causes us to pursue lost causes, send even more soldiers to die in battle. Priests know this too—by making people sacrifice, it cements their commitment to the cause they are sacrificing for. [[ this is the sunken cost fallacy, though he doesn’t use the term ]] Applies to economics, etc. Our ‘self’ is just another such story, 306m—
  • “We see then that the self too is an imaginary story, just like nations, gods and money. Each of us has a sophisticated system that throws away most of our experiences, keeps only a few choice samples, mixes them up with bits from movies we’ve seen, novels we’ve read, speeches we’ve heard, and daydreams we’ve savoured, and out of all that jumble it weaves a seemingly coherent story about who I am, where I came from and where I am going. This story tells me what to love, whom to hate and what to do with myself. This story may even cause me to sacrifice my life, if that’s what the plot requires. We all have our genre. Some people live a tragedy, others inhabit a never-ending religious drama, some approach life as if it were an action film, and not a few act as if in a comedy. But in the end, they are all just stories.”  [[ one gets used to such passages, but taken in isolation, such passages like this are quite extraordinary…
  • Thus, 307.2: “Medieval crusaders believed that God and heaven provided their lives with meaning; modern liberals believe that individual free choices provide life with meaning. They are all equally delusional.”
  • And yet even people like Dawkins and Pinker cling to liberal values…

Ch9, The Great Decoupling

  • So what are the practical implications? There are three points about how 21st century development might make liberalism obsolete:
    • 1, Humans will lose economic and military usefulness;
    • 2, The system will find value in humans collectively, but not in unique individuals;
    • 3, The system will find some value in particular unique individuals, and they will constitute a new elite
  • Historical sketch that notes how conscription, beginning in the French revolution, came with civil rights… even women’s suffrage, since women were required to support America’s wars.
  • Yet, with modern cyber warfare, individual warriors are no longer needed. Computers are as *intelligent* as us without being conscious. Autonomous cars; etc
  • So unenhanced humans may become useless. We have algorithmic stock market trading; lawyer searching; digital teachers; even doctors; Watson. There are technical problems to be solved – but they only need to be solved once. Pharmacists.
  • 322, So what to do with this useless class? Humans over history have specialized into various specialized professions – which make them *more* easily replaced by algorithms.
  • Humans are algorithms; even things like facial recognition and chess have now been done better by machines. Baseball. Truck driving.
  • Might algorithms become legal entities? Even art, and music. Examples. Poetry.
  • So what to do with all the useless people? Estimates of various professions being taken over by computer algorithms, p330. What will they do all day? Take drugs and play computer games? Or would an advanced AI simply exterminate humanity? –note scenario 332t, in which a computer assigned to compute pi takes over the universe – is this an SF scenario?
  • So, 332, summary. Algorithms may know us better than we know ourselves.
  • 334.7, “People will no longer see themselves as autonomous beings running their lives…” [[ really? Why not? Most people today see themselves in the context of ancient religions… ]]
  • Algorithms need not be perfect, only better. Medical devices; health monitors. Angelina Jolie and her genetic test. In theory, if Google monitored all emails, it could detect flu epidemics more quickly than ever. 23andm3; Google’s life advance 342.
  • The system will know you better. Would elections become obsolete? [[ again, can’t imagine this actually happening ]]
  • Through our interaction with google and Fb, we are giving away our lives for free.
  • 346, Waze, and driving system. What if it goes from being an oracle, to a sovereign – that is, it *runs* all traffic to best efficiency?
  • Similarly, Cortana, and Siri, and Amazon recommendations, and Kindle’s statistics.
  • And yet, these devices are subject to attacks…
  • 351, Third threat: that a group of elites might emerge. We already have huge income inequality; what if real gaps of physical and cognitive abilities emerge?
  • The age of the masses may be over, and thus the idea of equality or civil rights for all.
  • What new ideologies might emerge?

Ch10, the Ocean of Consciousness

  • The new religions will emerge from labs, e.g. in Silicon Valley. Two alternatives: techno-humanism, or data religion.
  • The first uses technology to upgrade humanity to achieve the humanist goals.
  • 358, The gap between our perceptions and mental states, with all those possible – the spectrum; the “vast ocean of alien mental states”. Psychology has only closely studied sub-normatives and WEIRD (i.e. Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic) people, especially psychology students themselves. Yet many exotic mental states may be unique, as in primitive cultures. [[ really?? Never seen any suggestion why this might be so, only cf Haidt about cultural attitudes ]]
  • Thus we can’t know how Neanderthals thought, let alone bats, or other animals.
  • We’ve lost some of our earlier senses. ‘Positive psychology’ tries to explore not damaged minds but prosperous minds. Our sense of smell is no longer so important; we’re not so attentive as in the past; we dismiss insights from dreaming.
  • Yet attempts to explore these senses might *downgrade* humans…
  • 368, So do we listen to our inner voices, or control them? We can do that through chemicals – drugs that calm nerves and so on. Yet doesn’t this violate the humanist first commandment? 370t, to listen to oneself? That is, what is the authentic self? Where do we peg the nail of authentic self?
  • It’s the humanist dilemma. And so what could replace desires and experience? Information.

Ch11, The Data Religion

  • The idea of ‘dataism’ is the result of Darwin and Turing – biology and computer science. There’s no longer a chain from data to information to knowledge to wisdom. The idea that biology is about data is now scientific dogma, 373.8
  • It’s seen in the dynamic between central vs distributed data-processing, i.e. communism vs capitalism. The former failed, e.g. Lysenko, because it couldn’t deal with change as well as the latter.
  • 378, Where has all the power gone? Political systems can’t keep up with technology, e.g. the internet. Thus voters selected Brexit, etc.
  • Thus, currently, no politicians have grand visions. As if they are leaving everything for the market to decide.
  • And yet, of course, market forces cannot address global warming, or the threat of AI, 382t.
  • So what might emerge? p383, history in a nutshell, as:
    • 1, increasing number of processors;
    • 2, increasing the variety or processors;
    • 3, increasing the number of connections between processes; and
    • 4, increasing the freedom of movement along existing connection.
  • And then a sketch of history along these four methods. What is the output? The internet of all things.
  • 386. Dataism becomes a religion through its values: the flow of information should be free; everything should be linked…
  • This is the first new ‘value’ since 1789.
  • About Aaron Schwartz, who felt information should be free, and hung himself before he was convicted.
  • And so, we have communal cars, and Wikipedia, and how young people these days welcome the connectivity 391.8—“What’s the point of doing or experiencing anything if nobody knows about it, and if it doesn’t contribute something to the global exchange of information?” [[ brilliant, but – isn’t modern technology simply allowing a human tendency that has always existed? And here I am posting these notes on the web! ]]
  • And so: share! Upload! Otherwise nothing has any value, 392b, “We must prove to ourselves and to the system that we still have value. And value lies not in having experiences, but in turning these experiences into free-flowing data.”
  • 393, Know Thyself. So this trend is not humanist nor anti-humanist. Music is mathematical patterns.
  • Hollywood pictures about how love defeats aliens; how simplistic; is that the best you can do?
  • Whatever happens, it will take decades, or centuries.
  • Feelings remain as encapsulating millions of years of evolution, 397t—“When you read the Bible you are getting advice from a few priests and rabbits who lived in ancient Jerusalem. In contrast, when you listen to your feelings, you follow and algorithm that evolution has developed for millions of years, and that withstood the harshest quality-control tests of natural selection.” …
  • “Yet in the twenty-first century, feelings are no longer the best algorithms in the world….”
  • And so what are our new guidelines: get a DNA sequence! Monitor your body! Put everything online! Allow Google and Fb to access all your email and posts!
  • Where do these algorithms come from? Some are designed… some emerge.
  • 399, There are critiques. We don’t know how ‘data flows’ produce consciousness; so maybe life is more than data flows. And maybe there’s more to life than decision making. A critical examination of this dogma is in order. But even if it’s wrong, it might still take over.
  • If it does—initially it would promote health, happiness, and power. Eventually though individual humans would become less and less important than the internet-of-everything. Humans may just become another ripple in the data flow.
  • All the ideas in this book are just possibilities, not prophecies. So what should we pay attention to? We need to decide what to pay attention to. In the short term, immigration, refugees. Decades: global warming, inequality.
  • Long term:
    • 1, A scientific dogma that organisms are algorithms and life is data process;
    • 2, Intelligence is decoupling from consciousness;
    • 3, Non-conscious but intelligent algorithms may come to know us better than we know ourselves.
  • Are these valid? What will happen if they are?
Posted in Book Notes, Evolution, Human Progress, Religion, Science | Comments Off on Yuval Noah Harari, HOMO DEUS: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2017; 2015 in Israel)

A note about book notes

I’ve always intended to post notes about my reading on this blog. It’s a way of making my reading not just a selfish, personal endeavor, but a way to pass along the my experiences, along with my reactions, to books I find worth reading, to anyone else who might read this blog. (Though in the background, I have in mind certain fam– well, I shouldn’t say that.)

But I read a lot more books than I get around to posting about here. I almost always take detailed notes on my reading, in part because I have a poor memory (unlike eidetic readers like Isaac Asimov, and apparently Gary Westfahl), and in part because I want to capture points, and even specific quotes, for use in my own later projects (i.e. writing my own book). Those notes are far longer than a conventional review, or blog post, and so the impediment to posting about my reading here has been taking the extra time to boil down my notes into a blog post.

I think with the Carl Sagan book I reread last month, I’ve given up on needing that extra step. Instead, I’ll just clean up the notes I’ve taken while reading (more and more, I read books while sitting at the computer and writing notes as I go), create a summary at the top, and post that. So that’s what I did with today post about Harari’s SAPIENS — the most important recent book I haven’t yet blogged about — even though my notes about it are almost 10,000 words long. (And even trying this shortened process, it took 3 hours to review and clean up my notes from 2 years ago and compile a summary at the top.)

I should say that the tipping point, perhaps, was when, in mid-December, John O’Neill of Black Gate asked to repost my EARLY ASIMOV post from my blog here. (I don’t think he reads my blog; he saw my plug for that post on Facebook.) I asked if the format was OK — a somewhat sorted set of summaries, with my comments — or if he wanted a more traditional review. No, he said, he liked my posts as they were. And so it went, and my second post for him was another virtually unchanged summary with comments and conclusions, that for Stewart’s EARTH ABIDES.

And I’ll continue, over the next few weeks, to capture my readings of books I’ve read in recent years that I think important, and even create a short list of those important titles in the sticky Intro post that appears on the homepage here.

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