The Value of Belief Systems

Beware of “missing the forest for the trees”.

I love YouTube’s transcript feature. It makes grabbing interesting quotes from speakers so much easier. Here is a transcript of the interview between Brett Weinstein and Rebel Wisdom about the recent Weinstein v. Dawkins debate in Chicago, with a quote from Brett that I found particularly interesting. 

When you get to the transcript below, I think it’s really interesting to see how the spoken word flows. It’s actually hard to read because it’s a “stream of conciousness”. The quote I pulled from the video is not a literal word-for-word quote. I formatted it a bit so that it would be easier to read, but I am confident that I preserved the meaning.

Source video:

Favorite Quote from the Interview:

Starting about 6:44

New Atheism began in a productive direction. However, it became so focused in doing  battle on behalf of an idea, it lost its way. … It’s one thing to point out that religious traditions are not literal. It’s another thing to argue that they are error—because that’s not what they are. They’re much more than error.

My argument has been that religions are compendiums of wisdom, but the wisdom is non-literal. For example, if  we evaluate the content of a biblical text and ask, “Did these events occur?” Then we’d dismiss it. If we ask, “What would the effect of believing that these events had occurred have on an individual?” From the point of view of their genetic fitness, the effect would be positive. How well they are able to serve their genetic interests would be enhanced by believing in these structures. For example, if one behaves in such a way as to make it more likely that one will go to heaven, and make it less likely that one will end up in hell—it just so happens that behaving in that honorable way will cause your descendants to be well positioned in society. They will be well thought and treated well. Whereas, if you betray people and act like a jerk—it’s very likely that your descendants will experience a cost for your untrustworthiness.

I am arguing that behaving so as to get you into heaven does not actually get you into a place called heaven. It does get you into an analogous place in which your descendants are better off after your death. It’s a kind of life after death but it’s not literal. Guys like Dawkins are unable to see the pragmatic value of these belief systems because they are too caught up in evaluating the claims in the texts. In effect, they’re “missing the forest for the trees” because the falseness of the literal claim obscures the value of belief in that claim.

—Brett Weinstein


Full Transcript

I’ve just come back from doing a whole set of interviews with Brett and with Heather and one of the things we talked about was the Dawkins debate so in a minute I’m gonna play the whole of that interview with Brett but I just wanted to frame it first because I know for Brett in particular the point of difference the disagreement that they had is something he thinks has held up evolution since about the 1970s my argument would be Dawkins self-esteem was a triumph it really would have a hard time having been better from the point of view of the amount of contribution in one small volume but it did uh sure in a broken assumption that because we never fixed it has become the obstacle that I think my entire generation now faces in the study of human evolution at least and it’s about time we fixed it and I thought this little interaction right at the beginning of the debate said a lot about the different perspectives that Brett and Richard Dawkins are taking into it I’m gonna play it quickly now The Selfish Gene you wrote in 1976 am I correct about that you were 35 years old so Richard wrote that book as a young gun and I find it shocking that I have to say this but I think that that book is still cutting-edge and so one of the things we may end up talking about tonight is why it is that there has not been more progress after the huge burst of activity that we saw in the late 60s and early 70s why my era has been much quieter with respect to important discoveries about evolution that we all agree are true you have anything to add yes I I don’t quite know why you find it knocking I mean of course we all pay lip service to the idea that progress is good and we should be changing all the time but what if we’re right and so it does it doesn’t necessarily follow that that what people thought in the nineteen sixties and seventies is still largely believed is a bad thing maybe it is actually right so I’m going to play the whole interview with Brett now but why I think this is really important is that this goes really to the heart of a lot of the key questions particularly the utility of religion therefore the new atheist framework that Dawkins is coming from I’m going to let Brett examine it explore it and describe in his own words and play the whole interview now recently you had a very high profile conversation with Richard Dawkins in Chicago how did it go I think it went very well it’s a conversation I had been waiting to have literally for decades in particular I’ve been very interested to know what he would respond if a careful articulation of the idea that religion has to be an adaptation that we should view the religious beliefs of populations that have held beliefs for thousands of years we should look at the more or less as we look at an eye or a wing or any other phenomenon that has the hallmarks of adaptation rather than looking at them as a mind virus the way Dawkins has famously dismissed them it has always seemed to me that if the proper argument was laid in front of him that Dawkins being a famously honest broker as an intellectual would have to acknowledge some reality to it and I think we got closer to that than many people imagined would be possible it was clear on stage that Dawkins was in tension with himself over his his beliefs and on the one hand when I pointed out that mind virus suggests that these belief systems are pathological to the people who hold them and that that is not only on unproductive way to approach people but that it is at odds with the elegance of the way selection tends to work he initially argued that people had over interpreted the question of mind virus and that really every gene in the genome could be portrayed in such a light which is an argument I certainly understand it’s not the connotation people get when you say mind virus I him and I said that the connotations when you say mind virus are that these people are mentally ill and he protested he said well they are mentally ill so you know on the one hand he was being you know the careful dawkins that we remember from you know the mid-seventies and on the other hand he was being the strident older dawkins that gets himself into such trouble over religion and both things were evident within you know a couple of sentences of each other because this this question is right at the heart of New Atheism effectively on stage I told Dawkins that religion cannot be a mind virus on stage I told Dawkins that religions that have existed for thousands of years cannot be mind viruses but that New Atheism can and I really believe this new atheism is novel it has not stood the test of time and in fact it creates a problem for many of us who might otherwise be willing to be called atheists because it has taken on an ideological fervor rather than being a an argument that there is no supernatural explanation for the phenomena that we find within the universe it has become a a challenge to people who view the universe otherwise and that desire to challenge people rather than Challenge ideas is not helpful even if New Atheism began in a productive direction it became so focused in doing battle on behalf of an idea that I think it just lost its way and it ceased to be able to see that it had gone too far that in fact it is one thing to point out that religious traditions are not literal it is another thing to argue that they are error because that’s not what they are there they are much more than error what’s your definition of the moment I’ve heard you say before that they are metaphorically true but literally literally false my argument has been that religions are compendiums of a kind of wisdom but that that wisdom is non literal so that when we evaluate the content of let’s say a biblical text we if we look at it with respect to did these events occur then we will dismiss it if we say what would the effect on an individual be of believing that these events had occurred the effect would be positive from the point of view of their genetic fitness that is to say how well they are able to serve their genetic interests would be enhanced by believing in these structures so for example if one behaves in life in such a way as to make it more likely that one will go to heaven and make it less likely that one will end up in hell it just so happens that behaving in that honorable way will cause your descendants to be well positioned in society to be well thought of to be treated well whereas if you betray people and act like a jerk it’s very likely that your descendants will experience a cost for your untrustworthiness so it is no accident I am arguing that behaving so is to get you into heaven does not actually get you into a place called heaven but it does get you into an analogous place in which your descendants are better off after your death their life is better after your death it’s a kind of life after death but it’s not literal so guys like Dawkins are unable to see this kind of value that is to say a pragmatic value of these belief systems because they are too caught up in evaluating the claims that are tied up in in these texts so in effect they’re missing the forest for the trees because the falseness of the literal claim obscures the value of belief in that claim what effect has that had on evolutionary biology for example evolutionary biology has been stuck in my opinion it has been stuck since about 1976 which is the year that Dawkins published The Selfish Gene as a 35 year old young gun the reason that has been stuck especially with respect to understanding human beings is that although Dawkins made a quantum leap in that book in the direction of a proper theory of human evolution he also made an error that has gone unrepaired in the entire intervening period when he introduced the concept of memes thereby providing a mechanism for discussing cultural evolution in rigorous terms by analogy to genes he argued that memes evolve as if in a new primeval soup he uses that phrase and were that the case it basically suggests an independence of memetic products and the genetic underpinnings of our physical nature if those two things are independent then you could get things like religions that evolved to further their own interests at the expense of the creatures on whose minds they are running that would make sense given his his argument if it is not correct that memes exist in a new primeval soup then it is likely and I argued on stage that in fact cultural traits are obligated to serve genetic interests so in such a context a religion as mind virus makes no sense because what we can infer is that as much as people may believe things that are literally false they are believing them for reasons that are apparently in the interests of their genomes and that is where a proper theory of human evolution would have to go so in essence tied up in this one very small error is the entire branch of the tree that we should be exploring in order to understand ourselves as products of adaptive evolution and more often than not in complex systems when we get stuck it is it is something of this nature where the tiniest alteration of an assumption has giant cascading effects and very frequently because of the way we pass on the tradition of studying these things one generation creates an assumption that isn’t quite right it hands it off to the next generation who doesn’t even realize that it’s making an assumption at all it takes on that assumption so early and you know the graduate study that nobody thinks to question it and by the time that generation matures into to teaching their own intellectual descendants it just has become part of the landscape therefore the solution to fixing stuck fields very frequently involves doing exactly the opposite of what the mythology of science suggests fallacy of science suggests you’re sort of moving out on the frontier looking farther but when you’re stuck looking out on the frontier you may be on a artificially short branch you know looking for leaves where there aren’t any when you what you really need to do is go down the trunk of the tree and find the branching point the place where you lost track of the argument and then follow another branch up so going down the broken assumption and then traveling up another branch is the key to success and my argument would be Dakin ‘less Selfish Gene was a triumph it really would have a hard time having been better from the point of view of the amount of contribution in one small volume but it did uh sure in a broken assumption that because we never fixed it has become the obstacle that I think my entire generation now faces in the study of human evolution at least and it’s about time we fixed it and if we did fix it what would the effect be well the effect would be spectacular and I think quite jarring to many people because what we tend to think when we think about ourselves as products of evolution is that somehow we have stepped off the end of the evolutionary tape that we are Pleistocene hunter-gatherers living in modern world it doesn’t look anything like the savannahs of Africa but that’s not in fact the case the fact is evolution has been with us every step of the way and while we are not adapted to the modern world there’s not been enough time with social media for example for us to have traditions that make any sense in that context that is not true for things that are several hundred years old so were we to understand just how much our culture and tradition has been serving our genomes we would a start to recognize that the study of evolution is much more central to understanding ourselves than we have given it credit for and B this is the part I’m really hoping we can get to very quickly be we would realize that we are programmed we are culturally programmed for something that cannot be defended something we must resist and that’s a very jarring discovery but from my perspective the clock is ticking we need to figure that out very quickly so that we can get on to reauthorize towards objectives that actually match the values we think we hold our conscious minds need to reauthorize purpose so that we can not simply be the the the slaves of an evolutionary purpose that is not honorable and will lead to our extinction can you make that a bit more explicit what is that genetic program our genetic program is very simple it has given us the identical purpose of every other evolved creature and that identical purpose involves spreading our genetic Spelling’s people who believe in evolution will all resonate with that what we don’t typically say is that our genomes will spread our particular Spelling’s to the exclusion of other spellings even when the other Spelling’s are better so if for example I have a gene for a particular respiratory enzyme and someone else has a gene that’s 20% more efficient well that gene is better but my respiratory gene will seek to displace to drive to extinction that superior gene so that it may spread that should give us a clue that something about this landscape is not simply about progress it is about progress in a very narrow sense that is quite dangerous in the larger case individuals will advance their own genetic spellings by displacing individuals that are less likely to have them that is to say murder genocide warfare these are all evolutionary processes and we are wired to deploy them when we detect certain features of the landscape and so we exist at this strange nexus we are the most remarkable structures in the known universe the computing power that we have between our ears and more importantly the computing power that we can muster when we team up is absolutely immense and we are capable of breathtaking feats of insight and beauty but all of these things evolved for this simple mind-numbing purpose that is no different from the purpose of a malaria propagule it’s no different from the purpose of a liver fluke or a maple tree it’s all one purpose to have this marvelous machinery set to such a uninteresting objective an uninteresting objective that in the human context results in all kinds of horror the worst atrocities that humans are engaged in our evolutionary in their nature for us to be wired for that objective is an appalling waste of our potential we could and in fact I believe we must commandeer our own machinery and take it away from evolutions purpose and apply to it a purpose that makes sense for example we could architect mindful I’m speaking as somebody who thinks utopianism as the worst idea humans ever had but we could architect a world in which we had an abundant steady state in which people’s needs were met and they were free to engage in the production of meaning and beauty it would not be a landscape perfectly free of competition in fact competition would be at the heart of such a landscape but the competition would be towards something that actually produced benefits for people as a regular consequence should we be doing that rather than figuring out which people are unable to defend them and making up excuses to displace them from the earth I think we should but whether others will recognize in the elucidation of our evolutionary purpose this obligation that remains to be seen and how does that repurposing all that broader perspective relate to the disagreement with Richard Dawkins on stage Dawkins expressed extreme reluctance about applying evolutionary theory to human beings he was very uncomfortable with the idea of analyzing genocide warfare really history in an evolutionary context this shocked me Dawkins is the iconic evolutionary thinker I would have said fearless but to see him actually frightened that we would apply this logic in that context really made me think now I do not share all of his trepidations I share some of them I know that bad Darwinism results in atrocities but good Darwinism would be the cure for those atrocities recognizing that you are programmed for things that you the conscious entity do not believe you should be involved in leaves open the possibility of controlling those impulses seeing them coming is a far better protection than pretending they aren’t there so I’m not arguing that it is safe Dawkins is right that it is dangerous but it is not as dangerous as leaving these things unexplored if we’re going to move forward in history the way we’re going to do it is by understanding the deeper lessons and learning to protect ourselves from the patterns that otherwise re-emerge and catch us by surprise I just want to pick up on something that Brett said at the end there which really reminds me of Jordan Peterson’s concept of the shadow the bread is saying if we’re not aware that we have programs we’re not aware that we’re monstrous then we are doomed to play that out very similar to what Petersen says about the shadow if we don’t realize that we’re monsters then we’re much more likely to act that out in the world and that also connects with something that Brett said a few times which is that Altru Maps must align which I find really really interesting like the kind of Jungian psychology of Peterson which is an archetypal mythological system can align with the evolutionary biology in the way that Brett’s framing there so next up Brett may have another public debate coming up with another biologist called David Sloan Wilson if Twitter is anything to go by and he and I recorded another short film about that trying to contextualize and explain why that’s important which you can see if you go to Brett’s YouTube channel now I put the link below this video here’s a quick clip of that there’s an awful lot riding on the question of whether or not evolution takes place at the level of the group this is dogged evolutionary biology since Darwin so we also recorded another few pieces including Brett’s take on the Jordan Peterson sam Harris debates which is also really fascinating we’ll be trying to get that up in the next few days and we’ve got a load more interesting content coming up that we’re trying to find time to edit we’ve got in McGilchrist we’ve got Heather hi in we’ve got stanislav grof and quite a few more and we’re going to put that up on the main channel and we’re also going to put on some patreon exclusive pieces as well so if you want to see all of that and to get access to a load more content please do support us on patreon and seriously [Music]

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