A few thoughts for religious believers struggling with doubts about their faith

In various places on my old atheism blog, I mention that I’m willing to engage in a bit of email correspondence with religious believers who are struggling with their faith, or who have recently deconverted, and who are feeling a bit lost, worried about nihilism without religion, and so on.

I noticed recently that my first email reply to most people who contact me about this is roughly the same, so I might as well write it up publicly so I can link to it.

Here, then, is my “FAQ for the sort of person who usually contacts me about how they’re struggling with their faith, or recently deconverted.”

 

Now that I’m losing my faith, I’m worried that nothing really matters, and that’s depressing.

I remember that feeling. I was pretty anxious and depressed when I started to realize I didn’t have good reasons for believing the doctrines of the religion I’d been raised in. But as time passed, things got better, and I emotionally adjusted to my “new normal,” in a way that I thought couldn’t ever happen before I got there.

I’ve collected some recommended reading on these topics here; see also the more recent The Big Picture. It’s up to you to decide what your goals and purposes are, but I think there are plenty of purposes worth getting excited about and invested in. In my case that’s effective altruism, but that’s a personal choice.

But really, my primary piece of advice is to just let more time pass, and spend time socially with non-religious people. Your conscious, deliberative brain (“system 2“) might be able to rationally recognize that of course millions of non-religious people before you have managed to live lives of immense joy and purpose and so on, and therefore you clearly don’t need religion for that. But if you were raised religiously like I was, then it might take some time for your unconscious, intuitive, emotional brain (“system 1“) to also “believe” this. The more time you spend talking with non-religious people who are living fulfilling, purposeful lives, the more you’ll train your system 1 to see that it’s obvious that meaning and purpose are possible without any gods — and getting your system 1 to “change its mind” is probably what matters more.

Where I live in the San Francisco Bay Area, it seems that most people I meet are excitedly trying to “make the world a better place” in some way (as parodied on the show Silicon Valley), and virtually none of them are religious. Depending on where you live, it might not be quite so easy to find non-religious people to hang out with. You could google for atheist or agnostic meetups in your area, or at least in the nearest large city. You could also try attending a UU church, where most people seem to be “spiritual” but not “religious” in the traditional sense.

My spouse and/or kids are religious, and my loss of faith is going to be super hard on them.

Yeah, that’s a tougher situation. I don’t know anything about that. Fortunately there’s a recent book entirely about that subject; I hope it helps!

Thanks, I’ll try those things. But I think I need more help.

I would try normal psychotherapy if you can afford it. Or maybe better, try Tom Clark, who specializes in “worldview counseling.”

Books, music, etc. from February 2017

Books

  • Dennett, From Bacteria to Bach and Back. Generally good, though it’s mostly a “tools for thinking” book like Dennett (2013) or Yudkowsky (2015), not a detailed argument for a specific theory of consciousness like Prinz (2012), Dehaene (2014), or even Dennett (1991).
  • Kranish & Fisher, Trump Revealed. Meh, you know most of it already if you followed the campaign.
  • Harari, Homo Deus. Fun to read, not much else. Surprisingly little of it is about the future.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I “really liked” (no star), or “loved” (star):

  • Larraín, Jackie (2016)
  • Craig, The Edge of Seventeen (2016) ★
  • Lonergan, Manchester by the Sea (2016) ★
  • Davis, Lion (2016)
  • Jenkins, Moonlight (2016)
  • Washington, Fences (2016)
  • Scorsese, Silence (2016)
  • Ford, Nocturnal Animals (2016) ★
  • Cresciman, Sun Choke (2016)
  • Bujalski, Results (2015) ★
  • Ergüven, Mustang (2015) ★

Media I’m looking forward to, March 2017 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

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How long does it take to identify, mitigate, and remediate a major problem?

Baiocchi & Welser (2010):

…we conducted a literature survey on each of the [problems comparable to the problem of space debris]. We then determined the length of time spent in each stage (problem identification, establishment of normative behaviors, mitigation, and remediation) based on research from periodical sources, legislative records, and court rulings… Finally, we inspected each timeline and made a judgment about the approximate year in which each problem entered a new stage… The result is shown in Figure 6.1, and it provides a notional comparison that shows how each of the problems progressed through the four stages.

Figure 6.1

Could be interesting to see this kind of analysis for a greater range of societal challenges, or sets of challenges chosen for how similar they are to a different target case. (The target case for this report was space debris.)

A utilitarian foundation?

The introduction to Jacobson (1984) makes it sound as though the John A. Hartford Foundation was roughly cause-neutral and utilitarian in its approach, at least for some of its history:

The 1958 annual report of the Hartford Foundation describes its starting point:

Neither John Hartford nor his brother George, in their bequests to the organization, expressed any wish as to how the funds they provided should be used… Our benefactors’ one common request was that the Foundation strive always to do the greatest good for the greatest number.

…If available funds are to be used effectively, it is necessary to carve from the whole vast spectrum of human needs one small band that the heart and mind together tell you is the area in which you can make your best contribution.

The first task of the Foundation was thus to define the greatest good. Basing its decision on the pattern of John Hartford’s previous giving, the Foundation chose to support biomedical, largely clinical, research. Between 1954 and 1979, the Hartford Foundation participated in some of the most important advances in modern medicine, supplied hospitals and medical centers with equipment that reflected those advances, provided for the training of a generation of researchers, saved countless lives, and involved itself deeply in the burgeoning of the current health care crisis. In that period, the Foundation spent close to $175 million [presumably this is 1984 dollars, i.e. $408 million in 2016 dollars].

…Many modern research-supporting institutions have chosen to bear the costs of close supervision and peer review in order to ensure the quality of projects supported either directly or indirectly by the public. But both the trustees and the staff of the Hartford Foundation came from a background that stressed minimizing administrative costs so as to maximize benefits to the public. During the Foundation’s first seven years as a leading source of funds for biomedical research, the full-time staff consisted of one person. To achieve quality control at low cost, the Foundation adopted a policy of hiring consultants as they were needed to review particular grant applications.

As a matter of policy, too, the Foundation tried to fund projects and types of research that could not obtain funding from other sources. For example, the Hartford Foundation was the first to pay for the patient-bed costs of clinical research. Filling this gap was clearly desirable. But the Foundation also supported some researchers whose theories or personalities inspired skepticism in their colleagues. These grants were calculated risks. Many of the projects thus supported were unsuccessful; a few have produced major advances in clinical medicine.

When these successes occurred, the Hartford Foundation could have chosen to publicize its role in them. But John and George Hartford disliked publicity. The trustees and staff made this family trait a matter of policy. They believed that being in the public eye was tasteless, a waste of time, and likely to produce an excess of grant requests unmanageable by a small staff. As a result, the pool of grant applicants was limited largely to those who heard about the Foundation by word of mouth — from past grantees or consultants.

Probably the truth is more complicated; I haven’t investigated the foundation’s history closely. Note also that the foundation seems to have cared a lot about the overhead ratio, whereas today’s effective altruists tend to think overhead ratio considerations should be subordinate to impact per dollar.

Have any of my readers heard of any other charitable foundations aspiring to be (roughly) cause-neutral and utilitarian in their approach?

Bill Koch, romancer

Pretty sure my friends’ nerdy-romantic messages are cleverer than Bill Koch’s:

[Bill Koch’s lover] referred to herself in a separate fax as a “wet orchid” who yearned for warm honey to be drizzled on her body. In another, she wrote: “My poor nerve endings are already hungry. You are creating such a wanton woman. I can feel those kisses, and every inch of my body misses you.”

Bill’s far-less-sensuous facsimiles displayed the MIT-trained engineer’s geeky side: “I cannot describe how much I look forward to seeing you again,” he wrote. “It is beyond calculation by the largest computers.” In another fax, he jotted an equation to express his devotion, ending with a hand-drawn heart and, within it, the mathematical symbol for infinity.

Books, music, etc. from January 2017

Books

  • Lewis, The Undoing Project. Fine, I guess. Knowing the studies already, I found the late-chapter parts about Kahneman & Tversky’s “breakup” most interesting.
  • Gazzaniga, Tales from Both Sides of the Brain. Mostly interesting.
  • Mayer, Dark Money. The American poor are doomed.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Soderbergh, Behind the Candelabra (2013)
  • Gibson, Hacksaw Ridge (2016)
  • Egoyan, Remember (2015)

Media I’m looking forward to, February 2017 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

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Friedman on economics chairs

Funny comment in a 1990 letter penned by Milton Friedman, quoted in Blundell (2007), p. 47:

I have personally been impressed by the extent to which the growing acceptability of free private-market ideas has produced a lowering of the average intellectual quality of those who espouse those ideas. This is inevitable, but I believe it has been fostered by… the creation of free-enterprise chairs of economics. I believe that they are counterproductive.

Scott Aaronson on order and chaos

Yup:

One of my first ideas was to write about the Second Law of Thermodynamics [in response to Edge.org’s Annual Question], and to muse about how one of humanity’s tragic flaws is to take for granted the gargantuan effort needed to create and maintain even little temporary pockets of order. Again and again, people imagine that, if their local pocket of order isn’t working how they want, then they should smash it to pieces, since while admittedly that might make things even worse, there’s also at least 50/50 odds that they’ll magically improve. In reasoning thus, people fail to appreciate just how exponentially more numerous are the paths downhill, into barbarism and chaos, than are the few paths further up. So thrashing about randomly, with no knowledge or understanding, is statistically certain to make things worse: on this point thermodynamics, common sense, and human history are all in total agreement. The implications of these musings for the present would be left as exercises for the reader.

Or, in cartoon form:

different

So apparently this is why we have positive psychology but not evidence-based psychological treatment

Here’s Marty Seligman, past president of the American Psychological Association (APA):

APA presidents are supposed to have an initiative and… I thought mine could be “evidence-based treatment and prevention.” So I went to my friend, Steve Hyman, the director of [National Institute of Mental Health]. He was thrilled and told me he would chip in $40 million dollars if I could get APA working on evidence-based treatment.

So I told CAPP [which owns the APA] about my plan and about NIMH’s willingness. I felt the room get chillier and chillier. I rattled on. Finally, the chair of CAPP memorably said, “What if the evidence doesn’t come out in our favor?”

…I limped my way to [my friend’s] office for some fatherly advice.

“Marty,” he opined, “you are trying to be a transactional president. But you cannot out-transact these people…”

And so I proposed that Psychology turn its… attention away from pathology and victimology and more toward what makes life worth living: positive emotion, positive character, and positive institutions. I never looked back and this became my mission for the next fifteen years. The endeavor… caught on.

My post title is sort-of joking. Others have pushed on evidence-based psychology while Seligman focused on positive psychology, and Seligman certainly wouldn’t say that we “don’t have” evidence-based psychological treatment. But I do maintain that evidence-based psychology is not yet as well-developed as evidence-based medicine, even given EBM’s many problems.

Books, music, etc. from December 2016

Books

  • Goodale & Milner, Sight Unseen, 2e. Pretty thrilling if you’re unfamiliar with the subject matter (as I was). Unfortunately, its presentation of the evidence is very one-sided.
  • Bloom, Against Empathy. Probably one of the best not-explicitly-EA books to give someone if you want to nudge them toward EA.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Mackenzie, Hell or High Water (2016)
  • Stanton & MacLane, Finding Dory (2016)
  • Yates, Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (2016)
  • Chazelle, La La Land (2016)

Media I’m looking forward to, January 2017 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

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Favorite podcasts of 2016

(Unordered.)

* = added after original publication of this list

Top favorites

  • Vox’s The Weeds (policy analysis)
  • Crimetown (true crime)
  • Planet Money (economics)
  • Homecoming (drama)
  • StartUp Podcast (stories about startups)
  • In the Dark (true crime)
  • More Perfect (stories about the Supreme Court)
  • Radiolab (stories about science-ish stuff)
  • Casefile (true crime)
  • Reply All (stories about the internet)
  • Serial, Season 2 (story of Bowe Bergdahl)
  • This American Life (stories about all kinds of stuff)

[Read more…]

Karpathy on nukes

OpenAI deep learning researcher Andrej Karpathy on Rhodes’ Making of the Atomic Bomb:

Unfortunately, we live in a universe where the laws of physics feature a strong asymmetry in how difficult it is to create and to destroy. This observation is also not reserved to nuclear weapons – more generally, technology monotonically increases the possible destructive damage per person per dollar. This is my favorite resolution to the Fermi paradox.

As I am a scientist myself, I was particularly curious about the extent to which the nuclear scientists who conceived and designed the bomb influenced the ethical/political discussions. Unfortunately, it is clearly the case that the scientists were quickly marginalized and, in effect, told to shut up and just help build the bomb. From the very start, Roosevelt explicitly wanted policy considerations restricted to a small group that excluded any scientists. As some of the more prominent examples of scientists trying to influence policy, Bohr advocated for establishing an “Open World Consortium” and sharing information about the bomb with the Soviet Union, but this idea was promptly shut down by Churchill. In this case it’s not clear what effect it would have had and, in any case, the Soviets already knew a lot through espionage. Bohr also held the seemingly naive notion that scientists should continue publishing all nuclear research during the second world war as he felt that science should be completely open and rise above national disputes. Szilard strongly opposed this openness internationally, but advocated for more openness within the Manhattan project for sake of efficiency. This outraged Groves who was obsessed with secrecy. In fact, Szilard was almost arrested, suspected to be a spy, and placed under a comical surveillance that mostly uncovered his frequent visits to a chocolate store.

Books, music, etc. from November 2016

Books

  • Tye, Tense Bees and Shell-Shocked Crabs: Pretty good. I probably disagree with it in >100 places, but that’s to be expected for any book-length treatment on something as difficult to study as consciousness.
  • Haffner, Defying Hitler: Good. I wish it had been continued past 1933.
  • Pistorius, Ghost Boy: Scary but inspiring.

Music

Music I most enjoyed discovering this month:

Movies/TV

Ones I really liked, or loved:

  • Tiernan & Vernon, Sausage Party (2016)
  • Various, Adventure Time, Season 7 (2015-2016)
  • Allen, Café Society (2016)
  • Various, Atlanta: Season 1 (2016)
  • Villeneuve, Arrival (2016)
  • Gray, Straight Outta Compton (2015)
  • Various, You’re the Worst, Season 3 (2016)
  • Katis, Kilo Two Bravo (2014)
  • Coimbra, A Wolf at the Door (2013)

Media I’m looking forward to, December 2016 edition

Books

* = added this round
bold = especially excited

[Read more…]

15 classical music traditions, compared

Other Classical Musics argues that there are at least 15 musical traditions around the world worthy of the title “classical music”:

According to our rule-of-thumb, a classical music will have evolved… where a wealthy class of connoisseurs has stimulated its creation by a quasi-priesthood of professionals; it will have enjoyed high social esteem. It will also have had the time and space to develop rules of composition and performance, and to allow the evolution of a canon of works, or forms… our definition does imply acceptance of a ‘classical/ folk-popular’ divide. That distinction is made on the assumption that these categories simply occupy opposite ends of a spectrum, because almost all classical music has vernacular roots, and periodically renews itself from them…

In one of the earliest known [Western] definitions, classique is translated as ‘classical, formall, orderlie, in due or fit ranke; also, approved, authenticall, chiefe, principall’. The implication there was: authority, formal discipline, models of excellence. A century later ‘classical’ came to stand also for a canon of works in performance. Yet almost every non-Western culture has its own concept of ‘classical’ and many employ criteria similar to the European ones, though usually with the additional function of symbolizing national culture…

By definition, the conditions required for the evolution of a classical music don’t exist in newly-formed societies: hence the absence of a representative tradition from South America.

I don’t understand the book’s criteria. E.g. jazz is included despite not having been created by “a quasi-priesthood of professionals” funded by “a wealthy class of connoisseurs,” and despite having been invented relatively recently, in the early 20th century.

[Read more…]

Henry Kissinger on smarter-than-human AI

Henry Kissinger, speaking with The Economist:

It is undoubtedly the case that modern technology poses challenges to world order and world order stability that are absolutely unprecedented. Climate change is one of them. I personally believe that artificial intelligence is a crucial one, lest we wind up… creating instruments in relation to which we are like the Incas to the Spanish, [such that] our own creations have a better capacity to calculate than we do. It’s a problem we need to understand on a global basis.

For reference, here is Wikipedia on the Spanish conquest of the Inca empire.

Henry Kissinger also addressed artificial intelligence in a recent interview with The Atlantic, though in this case he probably was not referring to smarter-than-human AI:

A military conflict between [China and the USA], given the technologies they possess, would be calamitous. Such a conflict would force the world to divide itself. And it would end in destruction, but not necessarily in victory, which would likely prove too difficult to define. Even if we could define victory, what in the wake of utter destruction could the victor demand of the loser? I am speaking of not merely the force of our weapons, but the unknowability of the consequences of some of them, such as cyberweapons. Traditional arms-control negotiations necessitated that each side tell the other what its capabilities were as a prelude to limiting those capacities. Yet with cyber, each country will be extremely reluctant to let others know its capabilities. Thus, there is no self-evident negotiated way to contain cyberwarfare. And artificial intelligence compounds this problem. Machines that can learn from their own experience and communicate with one another on their own raise both a practical and a moral imperative to find a way to keep mankind from destroying itself. The United States and China must strive to come to an understanding about the nature of their co-evolution.