Tag Archives: Psychology

“Do you believe in God?”: 4 meta-questions

Do you believe in God?” is a question we have all heard.  Most people take this to be a straightforward question, but readers know that I take every opportunity to discuss the unquestioned assumptions hiding behind common sense.

Here are four big activities hiding behind “Do you believe in God?”:

  1. You” (“You” are not who you think you are.)
  2. Believe” (Beliefs are not what you think they are.)
  3. God” (There are different sorts of contrary gods)
  4. ?  (The question is not asking for facts, but offering a signaling opportunity.)

Understanding these four meta-questions, can help unravel the illusion spun by the apparently simple question of “Do you believe in God?”


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

How we evaluate others

Evaluating Others


01/04/2016 · 2:23 pm

Packaging Buddhism

Buddhism-SuperstitiousAround the world, Buddhism-on-the-ground is vastly composed of superstitions, rituals and customs aimed at improving fortune for this life – especially for the “believer” themself and for their loved ones or their clan. Only a very tiny of Buddhists in this world meditate.

Robert Wright begins his first lecture in his free Buddhismm course telling us that he is focusing on a very narrow part of Buddhism — not only is he only interested in rational, non-superstitious, meditative Buddhism, but also he only wants to explore those aspects that are testable. He defines the Buddhism he wants to explore.  This is an important step toward clarity — I wish more did this.  But we must realize, this is not a Buddhism that most Buddhist believers would recognize.

Like Buddhism, “Religion” must be defined to have a meaningful conversation about it.  Wright does this to — he likes Williams James’ definition of religion:

“a belief that there is an unseen order, and that our supreme good lies in harmoniously adjusting ourselves thereto.”
— William James

Remember, this is just one of many definitions of religion– and like all definers, Wright has a purpose for choosing this one. Wright wants a Naturalistic Buddhism (non-superstititious) that sees “the truth about the structure of reality” and thus allows us to “align ourselves to Moral Truth”.

“Structure of Reality” & “Moral Truth” are two ambitious goals for Wright. And I feel they are mistaken. Will some types of meditation benefit some people. Sure, but how much? And are the benefits hyped with idealism that have drawbacks? I suspect so.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Free Buddhism Course: Robert Wright

robert_wrightRobert Wright is the famous author of the following booksThe Moral Animal (1994), Nonzero (2001) and The Evolution of God (2009). I’ve read all these books and been affected by his thoughts whether by agreeing, changing my mind or disagreeing. Wright always offers us good stuff to chew on.

Well, today I discovered that Wright is offering a free course on Coursera called: “Buddhism and Modern Psychology“.  Some of you may be interested in this free course for various reasons:

  • To learn about Buddhism
  • To critically evaluate Wright’s thoughts
  • To learn about psychology
  • To interact with my critical posts concerning this course

Below I will link to the posts I write relating to the course.  Let me know if you are thinking of watching some of his lectures too.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Self-Theories and their Consequences

many selves_womanIt is clear that most people generally have some notion of a “true self”. Like many cognitive scientists, I feel that notion is an illusion caused by the human mind’s “essentialism reflex” — a reflex that causes many errors in human thought including our thoughts on the soul and life-after-death. But the reflex is also adaptive.

True or not, the essentialist belief in a “true self” influences our behavior and different views have different effects. Though illusory, how do we form views of self? Which is view is better– an unstable of view of self or a stable (essentialist) view?

Josh Knobe

Josh Knobe

Philosopher/psychologist Joshua Knobe gives an excellent 25 minute talk here sharing experiments done to explore these issues. The Edge.org audience questions were even further enlightening on the issue.  Please do consider listening to the short talk.

Knobe shows that people generally envision the “true self” of another person as a mix of both their morally good impulses and and their morally good beliefs, instead of viewing the self as being composed of either just our beliefs (reflective feelings) or just our impulses (visceral feelings).  “Good” here would be the subjective values of the person imagining the self. I am not sure this is true for everyone for each situation, but I can see the tendency.

Knobe also shares an experiment revealing that our views of self can change our behavior. There, those with an “unchanging” view of self tend to save money for their future self, while those with a more fluid self notion, tend to share more money with charity (other selves).

Laurie Santos

Laurie Santos

During the insightful audience questions, Laurie Santos, a psych prof and colleague of Knobes at Yale, suggests the generosity of the believers in an unstable-self is due to that view allowing believers to see themselves more like others than the me-me-me essentialist view. Knobe feels it would be a good question for experimental philosophers to probe further.

Theists tend to view the self as stable (and, of course, eternal).  My experience shows me that atheists also tend to view the self as stable, albeit dieing with the mind.  But as my readers know, often more important that the after-life question for me is this stability-of-self stance which both atheists and theists  seem to generally share.

If you watch the video, please do share a reflection or two below.


Pic credit: I love the drawing above — the many selves of a woman.  Here is the source, but using TinEye, I can not find other sources.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

The Anti-hero Mirror

We’ve all seen movies or read books with an anti-hero or anti-heroin.  Today I am thinking of anti-heroes who not only lack traditional hero qualities, but who are actually villainous and commit horrendous deeds. Examples of anti-hero movies I’ve seen include “The Sopranos“,  “Breaking Bad” and “House of Cards”. What amazes me is that while I am disgusted by the evil doings of these anti-heroes, the next minute I find my mind forgiving them and hoping for them to win in their new battles.

Do we identify with system rebels and underdogs? Do we see our own darksides in these anti-heroes? Do we resonate with the obvious truth that people aren’t black-or-white — that we are complex? Reminds me of this song by Tim Minchin: The Fence.

Or are our minds just sloppy, multi-selfed, layered systems with inevitable contradictions? I don’t know — this is not my speciality, but it fascinates me. One thing for certain, all of this reminds me again how unreliable my mind is.

Question to readers: Tell us one of your favorite anti-heroes and what theories pop into your mind.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Beliefs: truth vs function

Don-Quixote-WindmillFaulty thinking feeds not only religious thinking, but also thinking on medicine, politics, linguistics and more. How should we approach faulty thinking?  Charging at the faulty logic of someone’s particular beliefs is one approach. But if this is one’s only approach, then ironically their understanding of the human mind and human behavior may be faulty. Rationality crusaders may have false beliefs about human behavior.

Yes, improving logic and knowledge (education) has been shown to decrease superstitious religion. Yet highly educated people still consume bad thinking. Well, I do, how about you?  Faulty thinking thrives even in educated, prosperous countries.  So it appears that faulty thinking may have benefits for which otherwise educated people are willing to sacrifice rationality.  So, to attack wrong beliefs as if they were mere stupidity is to misunderstand how people use beliefs.

truth_functionBesides frontal attacks on wrong beliefs, a better strategy can sometimes be created by understanding a faulty idea’s function: how an idea serves people rather than just the truth of the idea. Since all thoughts are tied to emotions, ideas and beliefs are far more than just cognitive truth maps. Ideas, even when they are false can still offer hope, comfort, inspiration and more. Watch people buy lottery tickets, suck up infomercials, sign up for pyramid schemes, run to healing services.

Today I read Steven Novella’s blog “Science-Based Medicine” which is devoted to fighting ineffective medicines pushed in the supplement and alternative medicine industries which he cleverly labels with the pejorative acronym: “SCAM” (supplements and complementary and alternative medicine). In today’s post Steven wondered if he needs to develop a new strategy for fighting SCAM.

“My perspective of most SCAM has been focused on the truth and reality of their claims, but truth and reality have little to do with advertising…”

“The tools of rational thought and science may not be the best approach for a industry, SCAM, that is based advertising. I need a different perspective to analyze SCAM, that of the psychology of desire. Not why people believe weird things, but why they buy weird things.”

Japanese newspaper clipping of Sabio doing acupuncture.

Japanese newspaper coverage of Sabio doing Acupuncture: “Look at the foreigner!”

Please remember that I am an ex-practitioner of both Oriental Medicine and Homeopathy. This post is not intended to discuss the merits or shortcomings of either alternative nor orthodox medicine.

Whether it is religion, medicine, politics or investments, in order to change people’s faulty behavior, rather than focusing on their illogical, irrational, inconsistent and faulty beliefs, it is sometimes more effective to understand how people actually think-feel-act.

Often, more effective than surgically isolating a person’s belief from their life and arguing against its irrationality, sometimes it is more important to understand how their faulty thinking serves them. Rather than relentlessly hammer on the thoughts you think people should have or should not have, it may be helpful to understand how their beliefs actually work in their lives.

This post is part of a series on the nature of belief.


Filed under Critical Thinking

The most dangerous religion: Me

Like all abstractions, “religion” is a fuzzy word. It is easy to forget that we created the word “religion” and that the meaning of “religion” does not exist out there in the real world waiting to be discovered. Many dialogues are wasted over not realizing the artificial nature of the word. Yet, it helps us communicate.

I created a definition here to capture the sense of the word when used to describe “world” religions.   But the use of “religion” I will be discussing in this post is:

#5. something of overwhelming importance to a person: eg. “football is his religion” (Collins English Dictionary)

meMost of us view our own temperaments with “overwhelming importance”.  Indeed, with such overwhelming importance that the will sacrifice reason and even relationships to protect them. Outgoing people think it is virtuous to feel bold in stating our opinions or to keep a conversation going. Shy people feel it is virtuous to hold back and let others speak in conversation and that speaking too much is selfish. Each views their own tendencies as if they were noble, self-chosen skills.

Some people view music, solitude, nature, gardening, poetry, cooking, sports and more as virtuous and worthy of proselytizing — the rationales they generate for their preference rarely contain “well, because I love it, and I am not really sure why.”

Reason and skepticism are just such temperament issues. Some people are more inclined toward those skills and feel those poor at them are dangerous, ignorant or vacuous.  They feel they are so overwhelmingly important that they ironically stop being reasonable about their discussion on their importance and turn off their skepticism about their own attachments and their own shortcomings.

We all make a religion of our temperaments, our stations-in-life and/or our conditions at sometime — the question is, do we know that we are doing it?

Note: Also see this graphic illustration of this phenomena I did back in 2009.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion

Your Skepticism Temperament

Skepticism_MeterA person’s temperament makes skepticism a joy for some, yet uncomfortable for others. In spite of this mechanical fate, we inevitably tend to valorize our own temperaments over the temperaments others. Skepticism can protect us when it sees through lies and delusions but skepticism can also harm us when we find one fault and yet throw out all that is of value attached to that fault. Skepticism can cause further advancement as we throw off long-held misunderstandings, or it can harm us when we hesitate to take action being paralyzed by skepticism concerning inadequate information. Skepticism is a double edged sword.

So, where does your temperament fall on the skeptometer?  What do you feel is the ideal mix of skepticism?  If I were the head of a manufacturing company, I’d want a small percentage of my employees to be manic skeptics, a larger percent to be largely dutiful sheep and everyone else to be a pleasant mix non-confronting skeptics or Bleating Sheep who are joyfully conformative. I think such a company would have better chances than not of being highly competitive and successful against other manufacturing companies.

Well, it seems that perhaps both the human genome and society have realized the competitive advantage of such a mix and thus create a similar mix of temperaments among humans. So if we understand this essentially mathematical Darwinian outcome, we may perhaps be less inclined to unhesitantly declare our own skeptic-temperament to be virtue while imagining the temperament of others to be mere stupidity. Instead, we will understand the inherent frustration of a successful society–its values and dangers.

Questions for readers:  Where do you feel you are on the temperament rheostat?  How would you label the spectrum? Do you ever try to check your own natural tendency to valorize your temperament?


Filed under Cognitive Science

Autism, WeiQi and Patternicity

autistic-brain_temple-grandin_hresI greatly enjoyed Temple Grandin’s book “Thinking in Pictures” (2007) so when I saw Wired’s excerpt from her new book “The Autistic Brain” (2013), I gave it a read. Unfortunately Grandin did the classic move of dividing people up into limited categories .  She tells us there are three kinds-of-minds: visual, verbal and pattern-thinking minds. The article is her efforts to illustrate her schema.

Dividing people into types is a tried-and-true marketing scheme.   Whether it is Astrology, Japanese Blood-Types or Myer-Briggs typing, the temptation of simplicity lures the human brain into feeling it understands something when it doesn’t. But, sometimes such simple rules capture more usefulness than detriment for the person that buys into it. This is the root of the believing mind.  But categorizing is also one of the methods of science– but science should then test their categories and be willing to cast them aside when more accurate patterns are found — this doesn’t happen for the believing mind.

Grandin’s article does a fun job discussing “patternicity” as an aspect of mind.  “Patternicity” was actually coined by Michael Shermer, a well-known atheist skeptic.  Adding “Patternicity” to a way of viewing other minds is valuable, especially for people that have bought into the simpler version which sees only two types of mind: verbal and visual.

Anyway, in one of her paragraphs, I was disappointed when Grandin tries to illustrate her 3-view model using the game of Chess. Being a player of  both WeiQi and Chess, I feel WeiQi would have been a far better choice. Below are the skills I think are needed to play good WeiQi (I thought I take a stab at categorizing too):

  1. Concentration Skills
    “Reading”: looking many moves ahead. Avoiding distraction.
  2. Patternicity Skills (this is the magic aspect of the game)
    (a) Understanding “stone shapes”
    (b) Whole board viewing
  3. Area Recognition Skills (visual)
    Judging one enclosed irregular area size vs another
  4. Analytic Skills
    (a) Tetsuji (“tricks”): Memorized small tactical methods
    (b) Joseki: Memorized larger tactical patterns

I am a very low-level Weiqi  player and am weak in all these categories, but I think my weakest, improvable skill is #3.

In the Wired excerpt, Grandin makes a very important point:

“If people can consciously recognize the strengths and weaknesses in their ways of thinking, they can then seek out the right kinds of minds for the right reasons.”

It is important to understand the limitations of our own minds, and those of others.  We can use this information to:

  1. Avoid situation where our deficits may harm us
  2. Improve our weaknesses
  3. Seek out others to supplement our deficits and protect us from ourselves

All of us come with a unique mixes of skills — understanding what kind of animal we are can help us be compassionate to both ourselves and others; Or it can help us to understand why others may be wrong, or worse, dangerous.  Learning to supplement deficits, can improve ourselves, our workplace and our communities.

I think I will read Grandin’s new book.  As a brilliant, successful, autistic person, her ways of thinking (even if using models I think are too simple) supplement my weaknesses fantastically.  And someday, I may also focus on my geometry skills in WeiQi.

Question to readers:  Give us an example of one of your weaknesses and tell us how you have used that insight to improve your life or the life of others.


Filed under Philosophy & Religion