The best scientists are often the ones who are plainest about their non-scientific interests. Feynman's intro physics books are the best of all physics intros in part because he talks freely about beauty: Here's a beautiful theorem. Here's a beautiful fact. My own small contributions to software were guided at every step by my search for beautiful design. More important, as I argue in my recent book on the spectrum of consciousness: who knows most about the human mind? Today it's John Coetzee, Philip Roth, Cynthia Ozick. That’s why the book turns to novelists and poets at least as often as to neurobiologists and psychologists. I've had far more sustained, intense reaction to my one novel (1939) than to anything else I've published.
The short stories I've published over the years in Commentary have been read by maybe six people each; but the reaction from readers of those stories, in seriousness, intelligence, and depth, swamps the reaction to any science, tech, or political piece I've published.

From 20 ideas from David Gelernter.

Beauty is objective.  
Take any civilization, ask for its artistic masterpieces; today, they are almost guaranteed to be valuable all over the world. There’s almost nothing less subjective than the sense of beauty.

What replaces religion for teaching ethics?

It used to be that nearly all American children were reared as Christians or Jews. In the process they were given comprehensive ethical views, centering on the Ten Commandments and the “golden rule,” and God’s requirements as spelled out by the prophet Micah: “Only to do justice, and love mercy, and walk humbly with your God.”
As a result American were not paragons; but they had a place to start.  Today many or most children in the intellectual or left-wing part of the nation are no longer reared as Christians or Jews. What ethical laws are they taught? Many on the left say “none, and it doesn’t matter”—a recipe for one of the riskiest experiments in history.  
The left, and my colleagues in the intelligentsia, need to come to terms with this issue. Rear your children to be atheists or agnostics—fine. But turning them loose on the world with no concept of right and wrong is unacceptable. You might well say that Jewish and Christian ethical teaching managed to accomplish remarkably little; but if you believe that, and propose to teach your children even less than the bare bones that proved (you say) so inadequate, then your irresponsibility is obvious. Choose the ethical code you like, but choose something and make sure they know it.

I did a year of policy debate in high school. The topic we debated that year nationally was whether the United States should increase space travel. The entire format is too specifically niche, and winning relied too much on speaking at unreasonably high speeds, past the point of comprehension, flooding your opponent with too many points to counter. It was interesting to learn, throughout the season, of what cases the top teams in the state were building and to try to find vulnerabilities in those cases through research and logic, but in hindsight, teaching kids to defend a broader set of topics across philosophy, logic, and ethics would've been a more useful exercise.

I'd enjoy a site that posted one such debate each week, with two leading thinkers trading blows in written form, with judges, or perhaps the public, voting on a winner at the end. More interesting might be to let a coin flip determine who'd argue the pro or con side.

Bible Belt Big Data

“[O]ne of the strongest factors predicting divorce rates (per 1000 married couples) is the concentration of conservative or evangelical Protestants in that county,” the researchers explain. Religiously conservative states Alabama and Arkansas have the second and third highest divorce rates in the U.S., while religiously liberal New Jersey and Massachusetts have two of the lowest. Full graph below shows the regional correlation:

Describing their findings as a “puzzling paradox,” the researchers explained that the higher divorce rate among religious conservatives is tied to early marriage and early childbearing — factors already known to contribute to strained marriages and divorce. “Starting families earlier tends to stop young adults from pursuing more education and depresses their wages, putting more strain on marriages,” Glass stated.

Full piece here.


In America, religiosity and conservatism are generally associated with opposition to non-traditional sexual behavior, but prominent political scandals and recent research suggest a paradoxical private attraction to sexual content on the political and religious right. We examined associations between state-level religiosity/conservatism and anonymized interest in searching for sexual content online using Google Trends (which calculates within-state search volumes for search terms). Across two separate years, and controlling for demographic variables, we observed moderate-to-large positive associations between: (1) greater proportions of state-level religiosity and general web searching for sexual content and (2) greater proportions of state-level conservatism and image-specific searching for sex. These findings were interpreted in terms of the paradoxical hypothesis that a greater preponderance of right-leaning ideologies is associated with greater preoccupation with sexual content in private internet activity. Alternative explanations (e.g., that opposition to non-traditional sex in right-leaning states leads liberals to rely on private internet sexual activity) are discussed, as are limitations to inference posed by aggregate data more generally.

So by the transitive property...

Stories as religion

In almost all fictional worlds, God exists, whether the stories are written by people of a religious, atheist or indeterminate beliefs.

It’s not that a deity appears directly in tales. It is that the fundamental basis of stories appears to be the link between the moral decisions made by the protagonists and the same characters’ ultimate destiny. The payback is always appropriate to the choices made. An unnamed, unidentified mechanism ensures that this is so, and is a fundamental element of stories—perhaps the fundamental element of narratives.

In children’s stories, this can be very simple: the good guys win, the bad guys lose. In narratives for older readers, the ending is more complex, with some lose ends left dangling, and others ambiguous. Yet the ultimate appropriateness of the ending is rarely in doubt. If a tale ended with Harry Potter being tortured to death and the Dursley family dancing on his grave, the audience would be horrified, of course, but also puzzled: that’s not what happens in stories. Similarly, in a tragedy, we would be surprised if King Lear’s cruelty to Cordelia did not lead to his demise.

Indeed, it appears that stories exist to establish that there exists a mechanism or a person—cosmic destiny, karma, God, fate, Mother Nature—to make sure the right thing happens to the right person. Without this overarching moral mechanism, narratives become records of unrelated arbitrary events, and lose much of their entertainment value. In contrast, the stories which become universally popular appear to be carefully composed records of cosmic justice at work.

Robin Hanson on stories as religion. He mentions Syd Field's famous book on screenwriting Screenplay as one of the influences that codified this predominant form of Hollywood storytelling.

This notion of justice in movies is indeed the dominant model in Western filmmaking, to the point where movies sacrifice the unexpected in the name of conformity to norms of morality.

However, in some cultures, movies don't reflect such optimism about the world. When I was a child my dad would rent many Chinese movies from local video stores, and I was struck by the dearth of happy endings. Families lost children to tragic accidents, wives suffered in marriages to abusive husbands, citizens suffered again and again at the hands of heartless government bureaucrats, institutions, and policies.

Having grown up mostly on a diet of Hollywood films up until that point, it was a shock to the system. Where in the world would people make movies with such a grim worldview? Perhaps this is one reason Hollywood movies make for such good exports.

Now that I have several thousand movies under my belt, I'm more easily bored by movies that adhere to the "good guys win out" archetype. Genre movies still intrigue me, but predominantly when directors play off the form. Film festivals are a draw for their wealth of movies that work outside storytelling conventions. I'm curious to watch Boyhood not just because of the way it was filmed (over 12 years, using the same actors) but because Richard Linklater has always been a bit of a sui generis in Hollywood.

With the internet, cord-cutting, and the slowdown of growth in per capita attendance of the movies, perhaps we've also reached the peak of demand for the 90 to 120 minute filmed drama. Art forms have always come and gone, and the movie drama has had a good run. It's not likely to just disappear, but its cultural and economic pull may never be as great again.

Perhaps I'm extrapolating too much from San Francisco given that I last lived in Los Angeles with a ton of movie-loving film school classmates, but fewer and fewer people, especially those in Generation's Y and Z, seem to love the movies. Isn't this how you suddenly graduate to being old? One day you just look at the younger generation and wonder why they're on YouTube and Snapchat and Tumblr instead of appreciating movies the way you do. It just sneaks up on you, and then you're gaping across the chasm.

In another fascinating post on the same subject, Hanson writes:

Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. This is similar to how people have long been encouraged to be religious, so that they could similarly be liked more by others.

A few days ago I asked why not become religious, if it will give you a better life, even if the evidence for religious beliefs is weak? Commenters eagerly declared their love of truth. Today I’ll ask: if you give up the benefits of religion, because you love far truth, why not also give up stories, to gain even more far truth? Alas, I expect that few who claim to give up religion because they love truth will also give up stories for the same reason. Why?

One obvious explanation: many of you live in subcultures where being religious is low status, but loving stories is high status. Maybe you care a lot less about far truth than you do about status.

Morality without religion

In his new book, The Bonobo and the Atheist: In Search of Humanism Among the Primates, de Waal challenges this theory, arguing that human morality is older than religion, and indeed an innate quality. In other words, religion did not give us morality. Religion built onto a pre-existing moral system that governed how our species behaved. 

de Waal's argument, which he has been making for years, is strengthened by the fact that recent research is starting to paint a better picture of the kind of cognitive processing that empathy requires. It turns out that empathy is not as complex as we had imagined, and that is why other animals are capable of it as well as humans. 

So if being moral is so easy, can we dispatch with religion altogether?

From Big Think.

But then anyone who has seen the great The Tree of Life already knew that empathy predated humans. Remember the dinosaur that spared the other dinosaur? Malick knew it before you did.

A complex turnaround job

For some reason, Downcast wasn't automatically grabbing new episodes of Planet Money for me the past two months, so I'm just catching up on a long list of episodes. The good episodes have a long shelf life, though.

I enjoyed this episode compiling advice from consultants about a massive global institution in need of a turnaround. It's an institution started with just 11 members and has grown to have more members than Facebook, over 1.2 billion.

A Fortune 500 corporation? A Chinese social network?

Not exactly.

The Catholic Church.

Structurally, though, the Catholic Church is very much like a business, so analyzing it as such might reveal possible solutions to its current crisis. The consultants identified several problems.

For one thing, key employees aren't in key growth markets — only half of priests are in countries with the most Catholics and the highest growth rates. The church also fails to leverage its membership to drive down its procurement expenses. I chuckled at the idea of carrying an official Catholicism membership card and using it to get 10% off at Jamba Juice.

I was amused by discussion of Jesus as more of the visionary founder and Peter as the operational CEO he brought in to lead the Church to global expansion. Much like Facebook, the Catholic Church used a free model to achieve hypergrowth, only monetizing after it achieved scale.

2,000 years. Just think how much more quickly the Catholic Church could have reached that scale had they had cloud infrastructure and the internet.

The Need for Kool-Aid

From EvoAnth (short for Evolutionary Anthropology), a post on possible evolutionary explanations for the rise of religion. The hypothesis among anthropologists was that rising social and economic complexity gave rise to correspondingly complex religious beliefs which helped to foster the necessary social cooperation.

So they went out and gathered data (albeit from other researchers) on 178 different cultures, comparing their source of food, group size, social complexity and type of religious belief. When analysed this information almost exactly matched their predictions. Amongst foragers – who can easily gather enough food with minimal co-operation between individuals – 88% had either no “high” god or a “high” god which did not bestow morals and did not interact with the world. At the other extreme of the scale, ~40% of groups dependent on intensive agriculture had a “high” god who interfered with the world and gave morals to the group.

Do companies that succeed even as they grow in size likewise foster stronger internal mythologies to try and maintain a consistent culture across a much larger, more distributed workforce?

Many companies have attempted to structure themselves in a way that preserves certain operational values even as they grow much larger, but perhaps religion-making is a necessary companion endeavor. Perhaps companies have something to learn from organized religion in the way they recruit and indoctrinate.

For one moment she felt that if they both got up, here, now on the lawn, and demanded an explanation, why was it so short, why was it so inexplicable, said it with violence, as two fully equipped human beings from whom nothing should be hid might speak, then, beauty would roll itself up; the space would fill; those empty flourishes would form into shape; if they shouted loud enough Mrs. Ramsay would return. “Mrs. Ramsay!” she said aloud, “Mrs. Ramsay!” The tears ran down her face.

James Wood cites that passage from Virginia Woolf's To The Lighthouse in a broad-reaching, thought-provoking contemplation of secularism in this week's New Yorker. In the scene above, Lily Briscoe mourns her late friend Mrs. Ramsay while sitting with her friend Augustus.

Another passage of note: Wood cites the novelist Julian Barnes as saying he didn't believe in God but missed him all the same. Wood notes that more the charter given to new secularism is not just to deny religion but to fill the spiritual void left behind in its absence.

Nothing wraps up neatly with a bow here, but Wood writes with the urgency of someone grappling with his own Lily Briscoe moments. When he cites Philip Larkin's description of life being "first boredom, then fear", it's clear which phase of life he is experiencing himself.