Justin Li


Rational People

2009-02-18

I'm one of the least emotional people you'll know.

Things others often find sentimental value in, such as their country or race, I find nothing appealing at all. I don't enjoy much fiction, the rousing drama in the plot, and would rather read a good non-fiction book explaining some part of nature I don't yet understand. I think about crossing the street in terms of game theoretic dominating strategies, and see the world as high if not totally deterministic (but of course that doesn't change anything).

From all this, I would like to think that I am a totally rational person, although of course I am not. My way of thinking, though, does make me a little strange to people who don't know me. It also frustrates people who argue with me, who tend to have not as good a grasp of logic. With that in mind, I decided to take Sociology of Religion partially with the mindset of understanding humans. As with Kahneman and Tversky, I wanted to understand the irrationality and cognitive biases which lead people to religion - because I can see no logic behind it at all... sort of. This will be the topic of another post.

As I've done the reading and interviewed people for the course, I slowly realized that people are not in religion because of the theology, or whether it makes sense that God did this and this at such and such a time. While Obama had a favorite philosopher/theologian, how many other people do? Well, I do - Bertrand Russell. And I have actually given this thought, having previously been a great admirer of Socrates. But people like me are in the minority - most just don't care if their religion is logically consistent.

As my professor has been emphasizing in in class, religion for the majority of Americans is about identity and community. People are in religion for the emotional appeal - they feel a sense of belonging, a sense of purpose. This can be influenced by one's culture, race, ethnicity, family, and a multitude of other things, but chances are logic is not one of them. I think if people had grown up differently, perhaps in a different culture or in a different family, they would be equally convinced of another religion.

Now, before you say nasty things, let me clarify: I'm not saying that this is bad or inferior. It's just that I've always thought of religion as a logical choice - see which theology best describe the world, then that's the one to believe in. Until this quarter I've never thought about religion in emotional terms; it has always been a sub branch of philosophy. Just as the ancient Greek philosophy of the four classical elements (fire, water, air, earth) has been discarded, I thought people would choose the most accurate theology and stick with that, too. This course has taught me that there is a sociological and psychological side to religion.

I have, in other words, made the same error as classical game theorists and economists: I assumed that people are rational. People are not rational, and the biggest proof of this is that people can hold logical inconsistencies in religion, even when confronted with them. Another note to the religious: I am actually not that hard to convince - you just need undeniable scientific evidence that God exists. Clergymen who repeatably parts the Red Sea, for example, would be a good one, or perhaps the laying on of hands which has a high probability of curing cancer or AIDS.

I'm beginning to think that I might learn more about myself from a well-defined, well understood, entirely rational AI.

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