Jach's personal blog

(Largely containing a mind-dump to myselves: past, present, and future)
Current favorite quote: "Supposedly smart people are weirdly ignorant of Bayes' Rule." William B Vogt, 2010

Religious Thinking: The Cults of Moral Grey and Moral Black and White

The cult of moral grey says: everything is uncertain to the same degree, therefore you can't prove I won't win the lottery or that there is no god or that hunting down and slaughtering a slave trying to escape is evil.

The cult of moral black and white says: silly grey people. Hunting and slaughtering a slave trying to escape is evil. We are absolutely certain of it because it's self-evidently true. Because some minority of religious people believe God is capable of violating logic, I can disprove all possible conceptions of God because it's self-evidently impossible to violate logic. If there is any privatization in the economy, the whole system is evil and must be scrapped. Or if there are any public government entities in the economy, they are wholesomely evil and must be eliminated.

The rest of us sane people say: silly grey people and black and white people, silly zero-bit and one-bit people. "Certain" and "uncertain" are subjective categorizations that create artificial boundaries on the math. One may be satisfied with the weatherman's prediction of 70% chance of rain tomorrow, and say "Rain is certain." Another might say "Rain is uncertain." A grey person will say "Rain is uncertain and it could just as well snow or be 100 degrees, because nothing is certain." A black and white person will say "Rain is certain because it's been raining all week." A sane person says "There is a 70% chance of rain. If the weatherman is accurate, I expect to go back in his history and find that for every 10 predictions he's made of 70% chance of rain, then there should have actually been rain 7 times." We say that hunting down and slaughtering a slave trying to escape is evil, we are certain in this judgement with a number that's very close to 100% but not quite, and we can imagine that there may be some convoluted context where the evil action actually isn't so evil but such a chance of that happening is minuscule and doesn't obliterate our confidence in the judgement of evil.

The reality is numbers. You can call it "shades of grey" or "many bits (billions and billions)", but in the end it's compressible down to a single number between 0 and 1 non-inclusively. There is a precisely correct number you assign to a proposition based on its prior complexity and its evidence. Sometimes we can't compute this number as precise as we might otherwise want--we can still draw boundaries just like "certain" and "uncertain" but of a much finer sort and a much more specific sort. The weatherman might say "It's between 60-70% of rain tomorrow"--this is less precise than a single number but still tells you he expects it to rain. The precise number of the certainty we're allowed to have for astrology is not 0, but it's not at all close to 1% either. There are many 0s after the decimal place before it hits a non-zero number, but it is still greater than 0. In general we informally call this value epsilon.

The reality is that there is a mathematical definition of uncertainty and of information. This math is based on human imagination and human desires, so the possibility exists that one day we will use different math. That day has yet to come, and it's unlikely, because the math is sound not only on conceptual grounds (we've found that sane humans agree with the minimal set of assumptions one needs to agree with to derive the rest of the math deductively), as well as on empirical grounds (we've found that using the math in computers has enabled us to make highly accurate predictions of the future confidently).

The reality is that uncertainty and certainty come attached with a proposition and a number, you cannot reason on the proposition categorically--at least not to the same efficacy as if you used their attached number instead.

When you see these single-color-of-grey people, it is proper to mock them. But if you mock from the standpoint of a black and white person, prepare to be mocked in turn by the rest of us sane people. It's hilarious when Greys mock Black and Whites for being too simple, it's hilarious when Black and Whites mock Greys for being useless. The reality is that they are both cults and both forms of diseased and religious thinking. The former cult embodies the religious idea of false modesty, the latter embodies the religious idea of authoritative like-mana-from-the-sky truths and pieces of knowledge. They are both deplorable and should be removed from humanity as quick as possible.

Fortunately even among religious people these two types of diseased thinking are rare. It is only when religious people are pressed that they turn to this style of thinking, one or the other, because they lack the formal knowledge to give any other response and proceed to make stuff up that lets them keep doing what they were doing before anyway. These people are not necessarily religious in the classical sense either, as in believing in the supernatural, but it is nevertheless a religious style (especially of apologetics) and diseased style of thinking.

There is a third and final cult which is like a merger of these two cults, and is actually how many religious people do in fact think. They admit a sign bit into their model. This sign basically says whether something is certain or uncertain, with their original bit saying whether regardless of its certainty, something is good/evil or true/false. The sign bit says whether they have to believe something or not. It's an authoritative model of knowledge, but it includes uncertainty of categorical degree like Grey People but includes absolute good/evil of categorical degree like Black and White People.

This sounds stupid but some people do think this way--they are the type of people who believe everything they're told by a Teacher as Truth but feel that it's okay to disagree with what other students say because they are not the Teacher, the Holder of Knowledge. This Teacher need not even be a person, it could be a Book. Our Great Leader says that sex is evil, this is stored as "I must believe sex is evil." A heretic comes along and says that HP printers are good. The Great Leader never said anything about HP printers, so this is stored and remembered as "I don't have to believe that HP printers are good." When people try to reason on this silliness, you get things like "I don't have to believe HP printers are good, but I'll buy it anyway." And if a second heretic comes along and says that HP printers are bad, this is stored and remembered as "I don't have to believe that HP printers are bad."

Their true beliefs on matters that aren't mentioned by the Great Leader are context-dependent on whether they performed an action dependent on the belief or not. So a person who bought an HP printer already is likely to ignore anything not spoken by the Great Leader suggesting HP printers are bad, and dismiss it by saying "I don't have to believe that." But if the person never bought an HP printer, or bought another kind of printer, they're more likely to retain whatever the most recent "I don't have to believe that" belief they came across. If they were told yesterday that HP printers are bad, it doesn't matter that a year ago they were told they were good, tomorrow at the printer store where they buy their first printer they're definitely not going to buy an HP. Unless the Great Leader tells them otherwise.

I don't have a fancy name for this more common form of diseased thinking. It seems the best name I've come across is The Cult of Authoritative Knowledge, but it's not as cool-sounding and doesn't relate directly to morality in the title like the others do. Oh well.

Posted on 2012-03-06 by Jach

Tags: morality, rationality, religion, religious thinking


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