Moralithinking

A little while ago I was reflecting on the Karl Marx quote, “religion is the opiate of the masses”. It got me to thinking about cognitive biases in religion and faith and specifically – Conjunction Fallacy: The conjunction fallacy is a formal fallacy that occurs when it is assumed that specific conditions are more probable than a single general one (Link)

In 1983 researchers Kahneman and Tversky asked a question that is now called as the “Linda Problem”. A variation of the original question goes like this:

At a dinner party this weekend, a friend introduces you to a woman named Genevieve.  He tells you that Genevieve recently graduated from Bryn Mawr College with a B.A. in Philosophy, where she was active in the Occupy movement and edited a literary magazine.

You’re interested in talking to Genevieve about Hegel, the subject of her senior thesis, but your friend jumps in and asks you to rank the following statements about Genevieve in order of their probability:

(1)Genevieve is a feminist.

(2)Genevieve is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.

(3)Genevieve is a feminist who is looking for a job as a sanitation worker.

Given what you know about Genevieve, rank the statements from most likely to least likely.  

The Answer (Taken from this Link):

This tests how well individuals reason using probability theory. In Kahneman and Tversky’s 1983 study, 85 percent of subjects got it wrong. Your answer was incorrect, too, if you ranked statement (3) in the first or second position. Logic dictates that (3) is the least likely scenario: two conditions being true (Genevieve is an ardent feminist + Genevieve is looking for a job as a sanitation worker) is always less probable than only one of these being true.

If you got this one right — it doesn’t matter whether you put (1) or (2) first, just that you ranked (3) last — congratulations. If not, you’re in good company: only 15 percent of Stanford business school students who had received training in probability theory got it right.  

Basically, people make conjunction fallacies when more information provided confirms their prior biases. So how does this relate to matters of faith, religion and specifically morality. 

Take this example below extracted from theconversation.com:

When Jack was young, he began inflicting harm on animals. It started with just pulling the wings off flies, but eventually progressed to torturing squirrels and stray cats in his neighbourhood.

As an adult, Jack found that he did not get much thrill from harming animals, so he began hurting people instead. He has killed 5 homeless people that he abducted from poor neighbourhoods in his home city. Their dismembered bodies are currently buried in his basement.

Now, knowing what I have just told you about Jack, is it more probable that Jack is: A) A teacher. Or B) A teacher who does not believe in God?

If you answered “B”, you would not be alone. An average of 50 percent of people in a recent suite of experiments gave the same answer. The wrong answer.

Wrong not because Jack believes in God – we have no way of knowing what Jack believes. B is necessarily incorrect because the entirety of group “B” the teachers who don’t believe in God, are also members of group “A”, the teachers. It is impossible for B to be more likely than A, but it is likely that a great many people in group A do not belong to B.

The article goes on to eloquently describe how people are able to use the conjunction fallacy to correlate lack of faith (or belief in God) to lack in morality. Even in the political landscape, this extrapolates to the fact that there is little or no chance for for an atheist to become the President of this country. Even though this country is built on “Separation of Church and State” there is always an overt suspicion that having no faith means lacking moral values.

While I personally have no skin on what faith (or lack thereof) a person needs to be, to be a good and moral person, I am more interested in the thought process behind the conclusion – “lack of faith equates to lack of morality”. 

Cause that is simply not true and here are the reasons why:

  • Most religious people and people of faith are already “arbitering” their morality. There are references of ” homosexuality being evil, how to treat slaves and how to control women” in most of our good books. But we sidestep those and choose the passages and verses that talk about love, charity, and kindness to organize our lives i.e. we are already cherry picking our morality from the religious texts.
  • There are material differences in what constitutes as morality between the major faiths.
  • There has not been a knock-down philosophical argument to counter Plato’s Euthypro’s Dilemma – Is a “good deed” good because the deed itself is good or because God deemed it was good. This creates two “horns” that question either  Omnipotence or Omnibenevolence. I realize that there have been multiple apologist counter arguments including the proposing of a “third option” (from William Lane Criag) i.e. God simply is good and it is God’s nature to be the ultimate good. However, these arguments have been repeatedly refuted from a philosophical standpoint.
  • We have so many examples of BOTH, institutions and individuals who do not conform to any faith, who are doing yeoman’s work in helping the world to be a better place – Oxfam, Doctor’s without Borders, Gates Foundation, Amnesty International to name a few i.e. leading a moral life of love, charity and kindness.

Hitchens Morality Challenge – name one ethical statement made, or one ethical action performed, by a believer that could not have been uttered or done by a nonbeliever. And here is my second challenge, think of a wicked statement made, or an evil action performed, precisely because of religious faith? The second question is easy to answer, is it not?

  • Finally, it plain doesn’t make sense.
    • If religion is the ONLY thing that is keeping you from being a horrible immoral person then could it be you are a horrible immoral person?

 

  • If you lead an amoral life of crime and debauchery, it seems a bit arbitrary that all you need to do is repent and ask for forgiveness prior to dying and you are at the same level as someone that lead a pious and moral life (in terms of reaping the afterlife benefits of religion).

If religion were the only durable foundation for morality you would suspect atheists to be really badly behaved. You would go to a group like the National Academy of Sciences. These are the most elite scientists, 93 percent of whom reject the idea of God. You would expect these guys to be raping and killing and stealing with abandon.- Sam Harris

Then there is the other often cited atheist fallacy argument. It goes something like this – In the 20th century, heinous atrocities were committed (by the likes of Hitler, Stalin and Pol Pot) because these societies gave up faith and religion. This has been debunked by multiple folks including Hitchens and Sam Harris. As Harris puts it, most of these were cargo cults which ended up looking like a perverted version of a religion with a figurehead being worshiped as a God.

Morality is doing what is right, no matter what you are told. Religion is doing what you are told, no matter what is right. H. L. Mencken

We have a pretty good sense regarding how morality within social norms have evolved over the past 2000 years. Significant progress made in civil rights, women’s rights, and LGBTQ rights have been not because of adherence to religious morality but rather secular thought that began from the age of enlightenment, with philosophers such as Kant, Hobbes etc. More recently science is starting to make significant forays into this field.

So, the question to really ask is – Why would you base your morality on religious frameworks that are at most subjective; inconsistent and in many cases lack logic. Why not be good because it is the right thing to do, rather for an eternal reward?

Eysis, Spieses a Davises

The 2015 Davis phenomena has given us a lot to think about. On the one hand we have Huckabee who implored to put himself  in jail instead of Davis and on the other hand we have the right wing cavalcade making statements that “God’s Law supersedes the Supreme Court Laws” (Mike Huckabee Article )

Now let’s ponder on that point for a moment – “God’s law supersedes the Supreme Court Laws”. I wonder….wonder if this parallels another group in the middle east that is currently on the quest to create a Caliphate. So how is this different from the implementation of Sharia Law? (realize I am being a bit flippant with the generalization)

Ah! but I am sure I will get the “sanctity of marriage” argument. Am sure her three ex husbands agree with her on the sanctity of marriage. For Pete’s sake we let Michael Jackson get married (not to speak ill of the dead)
I love the internet meme on Kim Davis – Sorry we can’t give our marriage licenses, I used them all on myself!

But I come to a broader point..religious persecution. Christians constitute the majority of this country’s population and yet if you listen to Fox News or the right wing apparently catholisim is under attack. Further more Christmas is under attack! Marriage values are under attack! being able to practice religion is under attack!
My question is where? For a majority group why do they always feel the victim?

In a recent Real Time with Bill Maher episode Salman Rushdie nailed this as follows:

” It is the classic trope of the religious bigot.While they are denying people their rights they claim that their rights are being denied. While they are persecuting people they claim that they are being persecuted. While behaving colossally offensive they believe that they are being offended”

Rushdie continues, “But everybody does this. In India right now, which has a 85% Hindu majority, leaders are always saying Hinduism is being threatened. In the Islamic world, the paranoia is routine; ‘The world is anti-Muslim.’ and so this is a trope that they are stealing from other bigots”.

For me Rushdie summed up a feeling that I have had for years. Back to the original point how can anyone even state that God’s Law rules over Supreme Court law? The egregiousness of this argument is mind boggling.(Louie Gohmert weighs in).  One wonders if these people really believe this or is this grandstanding to pander to the base that can get them the vote.

Interestingly when the Pope weighs in on Gay Marriage; Atheism and Climate Change …that is NOT God’s Law. So at best what we have here is God’s (Selective) Law that goes something like this:

– Marriage has to be between a man and a woman (or many men and many women OR as the Bible stated one man and many women). But just not between man and man or woman and woman.
– There is no choice and abortion under any circumstance is evil
– This is a Christian Nation built on Christian values

It is very difficult to debate this. Specifically if you consider the last point. While no one can argue against the impact of Christianity in the formation and development of this country, the founding fathers went to great length to separate church from state for the very same reason.
(A great article breaking down the details of our founding documents can be found here – LINK )

Oh well…… as long as the “trope” continues to be perpetuated, the likes of Davis will have a fan club.

Separation of Church and Confused State

On May 5th, the Supreme Court delivered a historic verdict when it upheld the right for government institutions to have Christian prayers, prior to the start of local city council sessions. The issue, originally raised in Greece NY, relied heavily on a prior 1983 decision where the court upheld the Nebraska Legislature to having prayer sessions prior to starting sessions.

Never mind that in the town of Greece NY, more than 90% of the sessions were catholic prayers and the plantiffs on this case were a Jew and an Atheist. The larger issue is how does this infringe upon the separation of church and state and the original intention of the founding fathers.

This is an interesting decision, since if you look at the religion split across the US, based on the recent Pew Poll, there is a significant increase in the “unaffiliated” group.

SCOTUS ruled 5-4 on this issue and the main reasons given were as follows: “Defending a practice used by the town of Greece, N.Y., the majority ruled that opening local government meetings with sectarian prayers doesn’t violate the Establishment Clause as long as no religion is advanced or disparaged, and residents aren’t coerced”.

In her dissent Justice Kagan wrote  – “”When the citizens of this country approach their government, they do so only as Americans, not as members of one faith or another,”

There my fine feathered friends is where the rubber hits the road. This is one where the conservative majority of SCOTUS tipped this decision. But this interpretation is just plain wrong, akin to working back to the question from an answer.

What this means now is any town council can start their session with a prayer and not just any prayer but a Christian prayer. This violates the basic constitutional rule that the government should be impartial to matters of religion and not favor one over another (even if it is as trivial as starting a session with prayer).

Town supervisor of Greece NY, whose town board meets once a month said, ” Prayer was not intended to isolate or convert anyone. If they feel comfortable with joining us in the prayer, they can have a moment of silent reflection while the prayer is offered

Let’s take this example and work it another way. Let’s say that the city council was predominantly made of Atheists and prior to start of a session assume they had a brief discourse where they thanked science and debunked faith and god (not specifically coercing anyone as stated by SCOTUS) what do you think will be the logical outcome?

In the words of the great George Carlin – ” I’m Completely In Favor Of The Separation Of Church And State. My Idea Is That These Two Institutions Screw Us Up Enough On Their Own, So Both Of Them Together Is Certain Death ”.

Realize that SCOTUS is the law of the land but this ruling amongst a few others in the recent years makes you wonder if it is time to the conversation of “non partisan” judges or term limits for SCOTUS.

You got to have Faith! Faith!

This topic has been a subject of study, debate and analysis since antiquity. My interest is NOT to examine if there is a positive merit to faith and religion. That is a vast and very contentious subject and can be deferred to another day. My specific interest is to understand whether Faith exposes the limits of Scientific Inquiry and if there is in fact an opportunity for coexistence in the scientific forum.

We are all painfully aware of the numerous struggles scientists had to go through, during the Middle Ages to be able to overcome religious dogmas and present conclusions about the universe that shattered religious world views. Neil Degrasse Tyson has an interesting article about Sir Issac Newton called The Perimeter of Ignorance.

Sir Issac Newton discovers, gravitation, optics, light spectrum, the laws of motion and on a “dare” invents Differential and Integral Calculus just so that he could explain the nature of planetary orbits. However, Newton cannot explain how adding objects to this gravitational law still keeps the solar system stable.

He is able to explain Moon and Earth, Sun and Earth all the two body gravitational models. However he is not able to account how the system is still stable with multiple bodies (Earth and Sun pulling but also Saturn pulling Earth, Mars pulling Earth and so on).
So Newton invokes Faith since he has reached his limit.  From Neil Degrasse Tyson’s article, “A century later, the French Astrologer and mathematician Pierre-Simon de Laplace confronts Newton’s dilemma of unstable orbits head-on. Rather than view the mysterious stability of the solar system as the unknowable work of God, Laplace declares it a scientific challenge and solves the issue using Perturbation Theory

Dr. Tyson provides a few more interesting examples of illustrious scientists who reach their limits and invoke faith only to have someone solve the issue later.

Let’s review the recent past where there have been a few specific cases where famous scientists such as Dr. Francis Collins (who let the decoding of the Human Genome Project) has been vocal about his faith, having written books and articles on this faith. By the way he is also the chair of the National Institute of Health. For a detailed analysis of Dr. Collins’ positions, Sam Harris’ article makes for good reading.

Harris asks a very germane question: Imagine: the year is 2006; half of the American population believes that the universe is 6,000 years old; our president had just used his first veto to block federal funding for the most promising medical research on religious grounds; and one of the foremost scientists in the land had that to say, straight from the heart (if not the brain).




What we have understood about ourselves and the universe around us in the last 100 years has been more than the previous 50,000 years combined. Science has debunked, defeated and demonstrated so many cherished myths, superstitions and beliefs which is all due to the “scientific inquiry”. Science continues to attack the “God of the Gaps” theory.

That isn’t to say there is no room for spirituality and faith. There has been numerous cases of sages and saints who have experienced great revelations via meditation, self inflection and contemplation. People use faith to cope with adversity, tragedy and loss.

That is however very very different from when posed with a limit of sceintific inquiry the answer is to outsource the explaination to a divine creator.

There is an alarming groundswell in this country where faith is now starting to be used to question the scientific process. This is going to have long term repercussions in our ability to continue to be a world leader in innovation.

Here is an example: If there is an argument on the quality of evidence regarding Evolution that is a worthy debate to have. If one comes to the stage with a book written a few thousand years ago about a world view from even far back it is not even worth having a conversation. It is like howling at the moon.

I am hoping that we will be able to improve the discourse where a sense of inquiry and reason guides our evaluation and not a reliance on bronze age literature and practices.

Miraculously Speaking

We have a person at work that throws around the word ‘miracle’ rather copiously. This week after a particularly snowy day she walked into work and went “The morning commute was so bad, it is miracle that I made it to work on time”. This got me thinking about how people view miracles and what influence it plays in our lives and belief systems.

There was this joke that was very popular when I was growing up. It went something like this:

A guy goes to a priest in a church and asks the priest, “Father! how do you define a miracle?”. The priest takes a minute to reflect on the question and then a smile crosses his face. He tells the guy to close his eyes and proceeds to give him a really hard slap across his face. To the surprised (and mildly sobbing) guy the priest goes,” Son, did it hurt when I slapped you?”. The guy, looking up in incredulity goes, “YES”. To which the priest replies calmly, ” Well! it would have been a miracle if it hadn’t hurt!”.

Whether you call minor coincidences, random positive events or unexplained events as miracles, the fact remains that belief in miracles is very very popular. The need to divest your rational thought to an experience in faith is very high in this country.

The table above shows three quarters of the population have really strong beliefs in miracles. One wonders is there is a correlation between the above numbers and the drop in U.S.’s math & science rankings in the world.

In India, a country that is a perfect cocktail of God men, spiritual practices, rituals/pseudosciences, belief in miracles is also very high.There is the God man who materializes objects, or the idol that bleeds milk  (or some random liquid) or the guy who claims he can ward away evil spirits with a talisman. In all the cases the sequence follows the same three step process:

Step Description
The Set Up “I have a friend who told me about this” Or ” I was driving and heard about this and decided to check it out” Or ” We heard about this Baba and wanted to check him/her out”
The Description “My Friend described this thing that was amazing”, ” I saw with my own eyes the milk was flowing”; ” I saw with my own eyes when he materialized the object”; “He had this really bad ailment and he was magically cured when he got the blessings”
The Outsourcing This is where reason/logic gets outsourced. This goes like this, ” I am a sane and scientific person, how can u explain what I saw/experienced” OR ” There have been many scientists that have looked into this and they cannot come up with an explanation” OR ” How do you explain the person had a tumor and one week after meeting with this Baba it went away”

My own views on miracles can be summed up in the figure below:

There has been a lot of progress made in the field of debunking these miracles, although with some collateral damage. Indian rationalist – Sanal Edamauku had to flee the country after the Indian courts invoked an arcane Blasphemy Law to prosecute him when he disproved miracle claims of a statue of Jesus bleeding holy water. Other rationalists have been working hard to debunk these miracles in the hope of waning the public from being duped by these charlatan God men.

Miracles when combined with religious exploitation makes for a potent and lethal combination. You are literally at the corner of Susceptibility and Indoctrination. I would have loved to close with a dissertation from David Hume on Miracles and contrasted that with the current day belief in miracles statistics.

Blurred Lines – From Superstition to Pseudoscience

Growing up in India we had usual plethora of Gods stacked up in the “God corner”. In addition, there were the other usual suspects – a sealed pot of water from the Ganges, various dried herbs and a ton of other knick knacks – collections from various temple visits. Superstitious beliefs were intricately interwoven into the fabric of life and culture. They ranged from the harmless to the macabre. Reflecting back now it is interesting to see how these beliefs consumed you and became part of everyday life.

Prayer had to be done facing a specific direction. Idols were supposed to face a specific direction. Never understood this. Seems counter intuitive given the proposition that God is omnipresent.
Then there were auspicious days and auspicious times. Don’t leave on a trip unless it was an auspicious day (or time). Don’t embark on a new business venture unless it was an auspicious day. Parties and religious functions usually were followed by complex rituals to get rid of the “evil eye” or the “jealous eye”. If someone fell sick after relatives visited then “aha” it was the evil eye at work.A good portion of these superstitions are harmless and is an extension of OCD like behavior. Knock on wood, keep your fingers crossed, don’t pass the salt by hand etc. all things that grew from culture and folklore and are usually harmless. In this Web Md article – Psychology of Superstition, sense of security and confidence are some of the key benefits from having harmless superstitions and rituals.

The real problem starts when this morphs to pseudo sciences and belief in dangerous rituals.

Astrology is pervasive in our society. A frivolous indulgence in the daily horoscope column to check if Mars will be messing with the S&P index is one thing. Relying on astrology for every decision in your life takes it to a different level altogether.
www.cartoonstock.com 
Career Changes, Marriage, Love, Financial Decisions, Property ownership, business ventures, education etc…..the list is very long. This culminates in the head of the Indian Space Research Organization seeking blessings from a temple visit to ensure auspicious start to India’s space launch to Mars.
The assassination of Narendra Dhabolkar an Indian Rationalist who drafted the Anti Superstition Bill was horrific and tragic. It resulted in passing the bill by two Indian states to criminalize practices related to black magic, human sacrifices, and magic remedies to cure diseases. Although this is a good start there is a lot more that needs be done to address many more superstitious beliefs like Vastu Sastra (Feng Shui), fortune telling, traditional medicine men etc.
This brings me to our recent stateside buzz with Bill Nye (the Science Guy) debating Ken Ham president and founder of Answers in Genesis-U.S., and the “creator” of the Creation Museum. I was saddenend by the announcement of the debate. I am an ardent fan of Bill Nye and his contributions to inculcate a curiosity in science and reason into the public discourse. However as Dan Arel wrote on the Richard Dawkins website “Scientists should not debate creationists. Period.”  “Winning is not what the creationists realistically aspire to,” Dawkins said in 2006. “For them, it is sufficient that the debate happens at all. They need the publicity. We don’t. To the gullible public which is their natural constituency, it is enough that their man is seen sharing a platform with a real scientist.” (link to WaPo Article).(Source:www.fsteiger.com )
Some things can’t be a debate anymore and pseudo science cannot be taught in school curriculum. It is depressing to read this map of public schools in the US that are teaching creationism as a viable option to evolution. This is like teaching Astrology alongside Astronomy as a science (oh wait! the Indian University Grants Commission is offering funding to create departments in Vedic Astrology).  Unless there is more awareness and advocacy (at the risk of hyperbole), we may end up with something like this:

Of God men/women (part 1)

As you may have already read in the news Commander Selvam is “accused” of separating money from his flock (link). It is important to note that he is innocent till proven guilty. However this does bring up an interesting set of questions regarding “god men/women” and their ability to influence people by exploiting their fears to amass large sums of wealth.

If you have not heard of Commander Selvam he is a self anointed Godman (About) who promises various cures and remedies with a combination of religion and pseudoscience, and has been instrumental in the construction of various Hindu temples in North America.

Up until his recent fall from fame he was a very popular figure amongst the Indian American community and his magazine ‘Karma’ was a free pickup staple in all Indian grocery stores. The website (Link) makes for amazing and hilarious reading.

Some examples are :

  1. a) In the Fees and Dhakshina section there is this gem –“Atharva Vedic Rituals Dakshina  fees varies from US$501.00 to US$10 Million depends on the rituals, time involved, priests involved and the various specialized Vedic items to be used etc.., The atharva Vedic Rituals cannot be canceled for any reason, once agreed to start, We have 100% no return policy. No guarantee for any results or outcome of any rituals”

Makes one wonder what Vedic Ritual costs US$10Million and a 100% “no return” policy! (Cut to Homer Simpson praying to God with a plate of cookies ” Dear God if you ‘don’t’ want me to eat these cookies give me NO sign”).

  1. b)The organization runs a ‘temple M&A’ operation that is surrealistic. This is from their website – “Also, if you know any temple which needs financial support to manage the Hindu temple in any part of the Universe, we are ready to adopt”the temple and we will make sure that the temple will survive for generations. 

c)Among the various nuggets of wisdom he has imparted over the year:

– Types of women that men should avoid (Link)

– This beauty titled ” Mantras for Delayed Marriage” (Link)

In any case, there are too many to name and list, you can find the entire offering here Link.

Now that the Feds have indicted Mr. Selvam on 32 counts of swindling his congregation, credit card companies and the IRS, one wonders what is going through the throngs of “devotees” that have invested their faith, time and money with this Godman.

I have always wondered the reason for the Godman fascination. Full disclosure – I grew up attending one of these popular “missions” in India and was on a healthy diet of astrology for a long time till I reached my own personal catharsis. I can understand the value in imbuing principles from philosophers and thinkers but there is definitely a huge fall (off the proverbial logic) cliff when one ascribes to using Godmen to ward off evil spirits, resolve marriage disputes and as Dr. Selvam colorfully articulates –  “Any and All kinds of problems created by any Human and or by deadly evils”

Today God men/women are pervasive in every culture and country. Be it the Indian Guru that is pedaling pseudo science by mixing parts of scripture, yoga and medicine or the Pastor that purports he can heal the evil spirits of Satan’s minions that is the cause for homosexuality. The common themes always revolve around money, power and ability to influence, but most important of all is money.

This Washington Post Article explores the rise of Indian Godmen and their accrual of wealth and power. However this is no different from the Jerry Falwells or Ted Haggards of this country. Same MO.

So here is my list of “Signs you are intricately involved with a God man/woman or group”

  1. a) You are required to attend religious sessions of ANY frequency (daily, weekly, monthly). (Entropy should be your friend here).
  2. b) There is a direct or indirect implication of monetary contribution of any kind.(dead giveaway – Your God person is getting richer by the day and you are not).
  3. c) You are absolutely convinced that he/she materialized objects right in front of you (or some other “miracle” that defied the laws of physics (also google- “image of Jesus on the tortilla chip”).
  4. d) You readily on board vague pseudo scientific concepts into your worldview ex. hugging a God person will bring you good luck, “getting a good view of the god person in a crowd’ is a sign of good times etc.
  5. e) You are very easily able to succumb to the cognitive dissonance that as long as there is evidence of “charity and social good” being implemented all other shortcomings/departure from law are fine.
  6. f) Finally…you lead by faith in places where you should have led by reason.

One can aspire to be free from the burden of fear, superstition and God men/women. Only then as Mr. Selvam eloquently depicted on his website – we will all be…………………………