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Believing in supernatural in terms of game theory

  1. May 28, 2009 #1
    Interesting analysis of human behavior as to why belief in the supernatural has evolved:


  2. jcsd
  3. May 28, 2009 #2

    Ivan Seeking

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    The leap made is a bit interesting. He makes the assumption that all such beliefs are faith-based.

    In fact there are conspirators and there always have been. If you want conspiracies, see the Cold War, the Nazi death camps, The Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, or read about the infected blankets given to native Americans. We have learned that conspiracies do exist.

    Next, there are thousands of years of anecdotal evidence for the existence of God, souls, and angels. Also, science does not address spiritual matters; nor have philosophers falsified the proposition of a God. In most cases, we don't accept these claims as being scientific because we don't have repeatable evidence to examine. Of course, absence of evidence is not evidence of absense. There are many phenomenon that can't be produced on demand and are therefore difficult or impossible to study.

    Many people believe in "ghosts" because they claim to have had some direct experience with an unexplained phenomenon that is popularly called a ghost. If you ask them if they encountered a soul a dead person, they will usually say that they don't know, but they can't explain what they saw or experienced - the difference between saying, I believe in X, and, I observed X. As for aliens, we need only consider SETI, or the Drake Equation. As for visiting aliens, we can only say that we have no scientific evidence to support the claims, but many people believe in ET because the claims of others, including the military. They don't just look at the starry sky and decide that aliens are visiting or hiding behind the moon. They have reasons for believing the things they do.

    It seems to me that the author's example of the tiger in the bush, was flawed. In his example, the observer alreadys knows that tigers exist. In the assertion that follows, he suggests that we believe in tigers even though they don't exist. What he ignores are the millions of people who say they have seen a tiger. Does he suggest that because I have never seen a tiger, in spite of millions of people who say they have seen one, were it not for a genetic predisposition to assume otherwise, I would conclude that tigers don't exist?

    As for the sun following the child, I don't think one can assign the eyes of a child to an adult mind. When I was a kid, I believed many things that I later learned weren't true. We grow up.
    Last edited: May 28, 2009
  4. May 28, 2009 #3
    There is a conspiracy theory on pretty much every subject, some are just more elaborate than others. The arrival of conspiracy theories is an example of:

    One cannot dismiss that people are capable of type I and type II error, and even more so, that it is systemically being committed in all levels of society, with confidence, arrogance, and ignorance.

    But since anecdotal evidence is unrepeatable, one cannot exclude a possibility that the observer is flawed, and that has a potential to be scientifically proven, or already has been.

    You are right that the belief in alien conspiracies doesn't happen spontaneously, rather it is formed by being strongly influenced by other people who already do believe, and by being exposed to the subject, like from countless TV shows on the Discovery channel, TLC, and History channel that air alien conspiracies every week. It is the exposure to the ideas that captures the imagination of the masses, who otherwise would have never thought about ETs like that. Two hundred years ago or more you could been accused of being possessed by demons, if you talked about aliens. But now from 19th to 21th century this topic has become acceptable, it is OK to talk about aliens.

    Also factor in concepts about social norms and memes and all of a sudden there is more psychology in this matter than there is any aliens conjured up in the past 100 years.

    One cannot discount the evolution of one's mind from childhood to adulthood, there are clues. and, wouldn't you agree that many adults behave like children anyways?
  5. May 30, 2009 #4
    Shermer might have extended this to B.F. Skinners "superstitious" pigeons:


    In this demonstration the pigeon makes a false association between something it did and a random feeding:

    Take the crazy neighborhood homeless guy, here, Mike Evans:

    One Christmas a couple years ago I ran into Mike and he greeted me with "Merry Christmas, Zoob!" I said, "Mike, you just put me in the Christmas spirit," and gave him $20.00. Because it was Christmas. Now, every time he sees me he says "Merry Christmas, Zoob! Ya got anything for me?" He has maintained the behavior in spite of many unreinforced instances. Also, he now sports grey wings and beady little eyes.

    (Mike Evans isn't his real name. I changed it to protect his identity. His real name is Allen Farmer.)
  6. May 31, 2009 #5
    1. Are Skinner's pigeons new relative to/different from Pavlov's dog?

    2. Doesn't the logic in the OP suggest that once the humans have reached the top of the food chain, they would have let go of their supernatural beliefs, paranoias and phobias?

    3. The study may be committing a type III error, "answering the wrong question." If a hunter or a warrior is running toward a known danger, or if a farmer has to keep working for months toward an uncertain outcome, how much of a difference does "having the souls, spirits, ghosts, gods, demons, angels, aliens on his side" make a difference to his effectiveness or productivity?
  7. May 31, 2009 #6
    Pavlov conditioned a dog to salivate when it heard a bell. Skinner conditioned a dog to try and make food appear by causing itself to salivate. Except he used pigeons.
    Last edited: Jun 1, 2009
  8. Jun 1, 2009 #7
    It is also interesting to see how the idea of being kidnapped, visited or sexually molested by supernatural entities has changed with culture. In the witch crazy of the middle ages it was witches and demons, in the spiritual crazy of the end of the 18th century and early 19th century, the alien crazy in the 60s and 70s.

    It isn't an assumption. It is a tautological truth (and therefore uninteresting) within your own position. If valid supernatural beliefs are beyond science, they cannot by definition be empirical. They would have to be faith-based.

    "If you want to reason about faith, and offer a reasoned (and reason-responsive) defense of faith as an extra category of belief worthy of special consideration, I'm eager to [participate]. I certainly grant the existence of the phenomenon of faith; what I want to see is a reasoned ground for taking faith as a way of getting to the truth, and not, say, just as a way people comfort themselves and each other (a worthy function that I do take seriously). But you must not expect me to go along with your defense of faith as a path to truth if at any point you appeal to the very dispensation you are supposedly trying to justify. Before you appeal to faith when reason has you backed into a corner, think about whether you really want to abandon reason when reason is on your side. You are sightseeing with a loved one in a foreign land, and your loved one is brutally murdered in front of your eyes. At the trial it turns out that in this land friends of the accused may be called as witnesses for the defense, testifying about their faith in his innocence. You watch the parade of his moist-eyed friends, obviously sincere, proudly proclaiming their undying faith in the innocence of the man you saw commit the terrible deed. The judge listens intently and respectfully, obviously more moved by this outpouring than by all the evidence presented by the prosecution. Is this not a nightmare? Would you be willing to live in such a land? Or would you be willing to be operated on by a surgeon you tells you that whenever a little voice in him tells him to disregard his medical training, he listens to the little voice? I know it passes in polite company to let people have it both ways, and under most circumstances I wholeheartedly cooperate with this benign agreement. But we're seriously trying to get at the truth here, and if you think that this common but unspoken understanding about faith is anything better than socially useful obfuscation to avoid mutual embarrassment and loss of face, you have either seen much more deeply into the issue that any philosopher ever has (for none has ever come up with a good defense of this) or you are kidding yourself." (Dennett, Darwin's Dangerous Idea, 1995)

    Stenger, Victor, "God: The Failed Hypothesis -- How Science Shows that God Does Not Exist", 2007 is good book for an antidote to the "religious beliefs are beyond science / science or philosophy has not refuted religious beliefs" position.
  9. Jun 1, 2009 #8
    Also, I am unclear as to how this is related to game theory, unless "Nature" is posited as playing against "Man." However, in game theory "Nature" is typically assumed to be a probabilistic device, not a rational decisionmaker. That leaves "Man" trying to make a rational decision in the face of uncertainty. Hence "decision science" would have been more appropriate than "game theory" as a categorization.
  10. Jun 1, 2009 #9
    I think "decision theory" falls under game theory which is a broad subject of applied mathematics.

    Although game theory is not mentioned in the article so maybe you are right, but when the subject is applied to evolutionary biology it can analyze the cost of different strategies, and also in relation to competition.

    So perhaps it was cost effective to be wrong to assume that a saber-tooth tiger is waiting in the bushes, rather than taking a risk and act on a rustle of branches.
  11. Jun 2, 2009 #10
    The central idea here is simply that there is a strong selection against false negatives.
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