Monday, November 2, 2015

The Value of Religion, by an Atheist

Part 1

This all began with an intuition.

I noticed that there are certain people I really like, sometimes complete strangers, not unusually attractive or outgoing or intelligent... but they seem to have something in common. It was hard to put my finger on what exactly it was. But from time to time, I'd meet someone, and within a couple minutes it would click: you're one of those people. These people somehow seem right, whole, intact while everyone else feels... like they're somehow not functioning quite right.

I'll give a few examples. I once sat next to a guy on a plane who pens music for Robin Thicke. The guy was in very musician-esque black jacket and hat, carrying a bible overflowing with notes, on his way to a recording session. I asked about the note-heavy bible, and we talked for a while. Turns out he's been in the music business for a while, loves it, but hadn't really felt like he had much purpose. After meeting his wife, he got involved in church, and wound up going to seminary. He's very chill, not the super-preachy type, but apparently he's found a lot of untapped religious interest in his musical social circle.

A girl I went to high school with graduated near the top of our class, then dropped out of college in her sophomore year to become a migrant worker. She moved up and down the west coast, taking the odd job here and there, going where the wind blew. She's never been happier.

Another guy I met on a plane is an information security consultant. He officially lives in Puerto Rico, but spends about half his time on a houseboat in San Francisco. We talked for about 5 hours, during which he convinced me that I should live in Puerto Rico (hint: no US income tax). I still plan to move when the time comes.

Another example I've met is a Buddhist monk. The mysterious something we're talking about here seems almost universal among Buddhist monks. If you've met one, you might know what I mean.

There's a unifying theme here: these people are not living their lives by accident. They're unusual people, but not just because they have a high tolerance for random weirdness. In every case, there's a method underlying the madness. Their lives are unusual for a reason.

It's the reason that sets these people apart.

Part 2

There's a concept in artificial intelligence called "reflective equilibrium". You have an AI, with its internal model of the world and some goal set, and the AI goes offline for a little while for maintenance. During this time, the AI has the opportunity to update itself: based on its current knowledge and goals, should it adjust its own program? What changes would make it easier to achieve its current goals? If the AI considers this and concludes that its programming is already optimal and should not be changed, then the AI is in "reflective equilibrium": on reflection, it does not want to change itself.

This same concept can be applied to humans. It's like that old icebreaker: "If you could be anyone, who would you be?" If a person is in reflective equilibrium, then their initial gut reaction is "Huh... now that I think about it, I'm good. I don't really want to be anyone else." A person is in reflective equilibrium if, on reflection, they don't want to change. This seems to fit pretty well with the examples I gave above: the musician-preacher, the migrant worker, the Puerto Rican consultant, the Buddhist monk... these are people who've stepped back, thought about their lives, and made a conscious effort to build the lives they want. They've propelled themselves to reflective equilibrium.

Reflective equilibrium, then, is a goal-state. Once a person has fully become the person they wish to be, they are in reflective equilibrium.

Now, we've all heard the advice "be yourself" at some point. Maybe you tell yourself you don't want to be anyone else. But, as my algorithms professor would put it... "Are you metaphysically happy with this?" It's easy to say you don't want to change just because change is hard/scary/painful. We're not talking about small changes here. We're talking about changes to your identity, your self-image, your life. It's much easier to convince yourself that you're happy than to make that kind of change.

Here's a good heuristic: it's very unlikely that you'd wind up in reflective equilibrium by accident. It probably happens from time to time, but the vast majority of people need to make a conscious effort. Look at those examples from earlier: a musician who went to seminary, a girl who dropped out of college to be a migrant. Then ask yourself: have I put forward that variety of effort to make my life what I want it to be? Have I intentionally become the person I wish I were?

So here's my advice: Do not be yourself. Be the person you wish you were.

Part 3

I've noticed that reflective equilibrium shows up disproportionately often in religious people. I'm not talking about the average Sunday churchgoers here; I'm talking about the people who really get their religion. I already mentioned Buddhist monks and the musician who went to seminary. In popular media, we frequently see heroes with a religious adviser. Invariably, the religious adviser is in firm reflective equilibrium. In most cases, they help the hero to reach reflective equilibrium as well, coming to terms with their own role in the world.

This isn't just restricted to popular media. In real life, religion dispenses reflective equilibrium in many forms and many dosages. Buddhist monks take a pretty large dose, but a smaller and more specialized dose is available in Catholic confession. Adherents enter confession to come to terms with what they've done and, ultimately, with themselves. It's not about forgiveness from God; it's about forgiving yourself. Through confession, some small measure of reflective equilibrium is restored.

Once you look for it, it pops up a lot. Religion can provide reflective equilibrium in the form of self-forgiveness, or in the large-scale form of life purpose, or in the small-scale form of moral direction in day-to-day activities. It can make you a part of something bigger, it can show you path to better yourself, it can show you a path to better the world around you. Religious people often say that religion gives life meaning. It would be more accurate to say that religion is memetically evolved to give life meaning, and has become quite good at it. Give someone's life meaning, purpose, let them fill that purpose, and you have the simplest known recipe for reflective equilibrium.

This role really is largely unique to religion. Consider work, in contrast. Some people may find reflective equilibrium in the office or the workshop, but work certainly isn't made for that. Reflective equilibrium in work seems almost coincidental. By contrast, religion seems like a reflective equilibrium superstore.

This brings us back to the problem with atheism. It's not that atheists are wrong. It's that atheists don't have a good substitute on hand for the real value which religion provides. There are plenty of non-religious ways of reaching reflective equilibrium, but they're scattered, often one-off special cases. The atheist community (so far) lacks the sort of systematic, general methods for reflective equilibrium which we see in religions.


  1. 1. Yes, It's incumbent on all of us to build positive, helpful traditions into our societies. No , a commitment to evidence does not preclude this. The annual Maker Fair is an excellent model.

    1.a We don't seem to have systematic and general RE-making methods partially because we are a unified community. And we needn't be. Atheism isn't a uniting belief, it's a lack of a belief. There are plenty of things you and I happen to both not believe, but our shared disbelief in the existance of the loch Ness monster or the superiorty of feline pets vs canine pets doesn't make you and me apart of a unified community.

    2. The problems with religion are mostly independent of the reflective equilibrium it sometimes brings about in people.

    1. Your community comment is totally right. Mostly I didn't want to scare away non-nons by talking too heavily about a certain more specific community.

      Other than that, you've pretty much hit the nail on the head. The main takeaway here for atheists is that religions' major value proposition doesn't require abandoning evidence. But atheism is sort of like veganism: we might need to go out of our way to get protein and certain nutrients.

  2. *are NOT a unified community

    3. And that's ok.

  3. I really like the comparison to AI terms to try to understand this from the outside. But I do wonder about "reflective equilibrium" precisely... if you were to tell many religious people they are in a reflective equilibrium, they would likely tell you that they are not done changing who they are, but they have a strong sense of the person they want to become. It may also help that their sense of purpose is externally focused- they believe that they have not "decided" who they want to be, but instead they have "found" who they should be.