Category: Religion

Interview with MbS

There are many excellent bits in this Jeffrey Goldberg exchange, here is one:

MbS: Saudi Arabia is a network of thousands of absolute monarchies, and then has a large absolute monarchy. We have tribal monarchies, town monarchies. Moving against this structure would create huge problems in Saudi Arabia. The Saudi fabric is much more complicated than you think.

Jean Bodin would be proud.  And this:

Goldberg: Do you believe in women’s equality?

MbS: I support Saudi Arabia, and half of Saudi Arabia is women. So I support women.

MbS does seek to do away with Saudi guardianship laws, and he also seems to fully support Israel’s right to exist.  This is one of the best interviews you will read this year.

China simulated death markets in everything

Beijing’s biggest funeral parlor held an open day last Thursday that featured a virtual reality simulation of death, reported The Beijing News — though it left some wondering why you would want to experience death prematurely.

Visitors could don VR glasses and earphones to experience having a seizure at work, a failed paramedic rescue, and entrance into the afterlife. Funeral parlor employee Dong Ziyi told The Beijing News that the immersive experience “enables people to better cherish the beauty of life.”

In addition to the death experience, visitors can use VR to explore funeral services with a five-minute session that goes through corpse delivery and storage, mortuary preparations, the memorial service, and cremation — a tour that would take an hour in real life.

Here is more by Liang Chenyu from Sixth Tone, one of my favorite media outlets.

Are the Amish unhappy?

We were able to recruit 52 Amish participants for our study of which 56 % were male and for which the average age was 44. Interestingly, the average levels of life satisfaction as measured by the SWLS (Diener et al., 1985) was 4.4; just above the neutral point. Above neutral scores are consistent with the idea that “most people are mildly happy” (Diener & Diener, 1996), and that mild happiness is evolutionarily advantageous (Fredrickson, 2001). Comparatively, the Amish satisfaction in our study can be interpreted as meaning that the Amish fall lower than members of many other groups. In a study of more than 13 thousand college students from 31 nations, for example, only students from Kenya (whose average life satisfaction was 4.0) scored lower than the Amish (Diener & Diener, 1995).

Anecdotally, the Amish society in which we conducted our study was fraught with contrasts. On the one hand, the Amish had a pronounced pro-social attitude. One man I interviewed, for example, had donated tens of thousands of US Dollars toward the medical treatment of his neighbor’s son, with no thought of repayment. Similarly, the Amish often helped one another in quilting, construction, and food preparation. On the other hand, these neighborly behaviors were confined to in-group members. There was a conspicuous degree of prejudice toward out-group members, especially ethnic or religious minorities. One bishop, for example, asked me whether I thought the space shuttle Challenger exploded because there was a Jewish person (Judith Resnick) aboard.

Another set of contrasts could be found in the relationship between the Amish and the larger “English” society in which they live. While on the one hand there is a strong cultural push to remain separate from industrialized society. The Amish I spoke with were highly invested in publicly conforming to group norms related to abstaining from the use of industrial technologies and from remaining aloof from broader society. Privately, however, the Amish revealed themselves to be as curious and as human as people from any other society. One participant, for example, admitted that he used his workplace telephone—an allowable technology—to phone a newspaper number that hosts recordings of the world’s news. Another informant revealed that she had secretly flown on an airplane. These examples reflect the on-going tension of a society that must—individually and collectively—continually re-negotiate its relation to the larger society in which it exists. Where subjective well-being is concerned, the tension between retaining traditions and adapting to new circumstances is an interesting issue for research.

…global and specific domain satisfaction should, theoretically, be in agreement. For example, if a person is satisfied with her romantic life, her friendships, and her family relationships—all specific domains—she should, logically, report about the same amount of satisfaction with her overall social life (the global domain). Diener and colleagues found that this correspondence occurred in some cultures, such as Japan. In other cultures, however, they discovered an inflationary effect. People in Colombia and the United States, for instance, are likely to inflate their global reports of satisfaction over that reported for specific satisfaction.

That is by Robert Biswas-Diener, there is much of interest in this paper on happiness in small societies.  Via Rolf Degen.  By the way, this article about Norway is worth a ponder too.

*The Evolution of Desire: A Life of René Girard*

That is the new book by Cynthia L. Haven, which I was very enthusiastic about.  I find about half of it to be a revelation, and the other half to be perfectly fine, though material I largely had seen before (but still useful to most readers).  Here are a few of the things I learned:

1. As a child, “…his favorite game was a solitary one: with toy soldiers, he reenacted France’s major battles, taking all the roles himself.”

2. In 1944, at the age of 21, he saw many French collaborators killed or put on trial, and from that time started to develop some of his major ideas.

3. When he migrated to America, he associated the country with grandness and Avignon with petiteness.  He was at that time “adamantly atheistic.”

4. He wrote his dissertation on “American Opinions on France, 1940-1943,” which at 418 pp. contained some early versions of his later ideas.

5. He was turned down for tenure at Indiana University, claiming he spent several years “devoted essentially to female students and cars.”

6. He insisted that he witnessed a lynching (likely in North Carolina) in the early 1950s, although after reading Haven’s discussion I suspect this was a fabrication.

7. He was significantly influenced by the Dante circle at Johns Hopkins where he ended up teaching, including by Charles Singleton.

8. Like myself, Haven considers Theater of Envy to be his most underrated book.

9. His work day typically started at 3:30 a.m.

10. Peter Thiel, as an undergraduate, actually took a class from Girard.

Definitely recommended to anyone with an interest in Girard.  Here is my recent summary post on Girard.

The contributions of Rene Girard

Carl L asks: Address the scapegoating theory of René Girard in general, and its possible application to economics. Peter Thiel has repeatedly cited Girard as an important influence and has even said his theory was partly the reason he invested in Facebook.

From my idiosyncratic point of view, here are a few of Girard’s major contributions, noting that I am putting them into “stupid simple” language, rather than trying to communicate his nuances:

1. His understanding of Christianity as fundamentally and radically different from earlier religions, as it exalts the individual victim rather than the conqueror.  Here is one point from a summarizer: “Christianity is the revelation (the unveiling) of what the myths want to veil; it is the deconstruction of the mono-myth, not a reiteration of it—which is exactly why so many within academe want to domesticate and de-fang it.”

2. Seeing violence as a chronic problem of human societies, rather than as the result of a bug in rational choice or the collapse into a bad game-theoretic solution.

3. Understanding the import of “mimetic desire,” namely the desire to copy others, and also why this is not always an entirely peaceful process, due to scarcity.  The tech world, by the way, at least pretends to have found a solution to this in its extreme scalability of product; we’ll see how that pans out.

4. A theory of mediated and triangulated desire, not yet absorbed by behavioral economics, and partly summarized here: “Whereas external mediation does not lead to rivalries, internal mediation does lead to rivalries. But, metaphysical desire leads a person not just to rivalry with her mediator; actually, it leads to total obsession with and resentment of the mediator. For, the mediator becomes the main obstacle in the satisfaction of the person’s metaphysical desire. Inasmuch as the person desires to be his mediator, such desire will never be satisfied. For nobody can be someone else. Eventually, the person developing a metaphysical desire comes to appreciate that the main obstacle to be the mediator is the mediator himself.”

5. First and foremost approaching societies from an anthropological point of view, prior to the economic method.

6. Understanding various social situations in terms of the need of finding a scapegoat to sacrifice, if not violently with some kind of resolution and catharsis.  These days one of those victims would be the big tech companies, as it is remarkable how many weakly-argued critiques of them make the paper every day.  You’ll understand these writings through the eyes of Girard, not economic theory.  Girard is also one of the best lenses for understanding the writings of bad and manipulative pundits.

7. Girard is of great use for understanding literature.  Try any Shakespearean play with “doubles,” Merchant of Venice, Thomas Hardy’s Mayor of Casterbridge (an all-time favorite), or Coetzee’s Disgrace, all Girardian to the core and very much illuminated by familiarity with his key ideas.  These are perhaps his most underrated contributions.  Shakespeare, by the way, is Girard’s most important precursor, also throw in the New Testament, Hobbes, Tocqueville, and maybe Montaigne.

What should you read by him?: Violence and the Sacred, Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World, Theatre of Envy.

Where is Girard weakest: His theory of language, his overemphasis on the destructive nature of mimesis, excess claims to have discovered universal mechanisms, just making lots of stuff up, and not knowing enough economics or empirical anthropology.

How important is he?: If you had to pick twenty thinkers from the latter half of the 20th century, he is definitely one of them.  By the way, Foucault and Baudrillard might be the other French writers on that list.

The Push

The Push on Netflix is a deeply disturbing replication of the Milgram Experiment. The question it asks is whether someone can quickly be convinced to commit a murder? Spoiler alert: yes. British mentalist Derren Brown and a cast of confederates create an evil version of the Truman Show. By taking an individual from one seemingly minor moral deviation–labeling meat canapes as vegetarian–to another, to another, Brown puts people in a situation where by the end of one hour they are so emotionally disoriented and stressed that they will try to commit a murder to relieve their tension.

If you had asked me yesterday whether I thought it would be ok to run the Milgram experiment again, I would have said yes, as science. Today, I am not sure. What Brown does to these people for our entertainment (?) is disgusting. I feel complicit in having watched. Yes, I know, I am writing about it. I’m not sure what to make of that either.

As far as I can tell, the experiment is real. I’d be happier if it were fake but the results are consistent with previous Milgram replications. But if it is real did we then watch attempted murder? I am reminded of Leo Katz’s, Bad Acts and Guilty Minds. If a man fires a gun aiming to kill but the gun is defective is it attempted murder? Surely, yes. If thinking it a deadly poison a man adulterates a drink with sugar is it attempted murder? What if a sincere believer in voodoo tries to kill by sticking pins in a doll?

Aside from the legal issues, what Brown does to the participants is awful. How will they live the rest of their lives? Jordan Peterson says that you cannot be a good person until you know how much evil you contain within you. Well the people Brown experiments on know the evil that they contain but will they become better people? Or will they break? Brown doesn’t seem to care.

In some sense, the subjects have consented. Months earlier they applied to be on a show but they were told that they had been rejected. Perhaps you think the participants figured it out. You will have to judge for yourself but it all happens so quickly that I don’t think that is plausible. Moreover, if you figured it out wouldn’t you want to be the hero rather than the prison guard directing the Jews to the ovens?

Does The Push have any socially redeeming value? I hope so. Phillip Zimbardo of the famous Stanford Prison Experiment was so upset by his research that he started the Heroic Imagination Project, (I wrote about it here). The Heroic Imagination Project attempts to turn the issue around by asking what helps people to resist authority? And how can we train people under stress to draw on their heroic reserves? Netflix has shown us that the Heroic Imagination Project is sorely needed. Maybe next time Netflix can devote some of their considerable resources to helping us resist the push.

My Conversation with Robin Hanson

I am honored to have been able to do this, here is the podcast and transcript.  The topics we covered included…the ideas of Robin, most of all: “With Robin, we go meta. Robin, if politics is not about policy, medicine is not about health, laughter is not about jokes, and food is not about nutrition, what are podcasts not about?”

Here is one exchange:

COWEN: Let’s say I’m an introvert, which by definition is someone who’s not so much out there. Why is that signaling? Isn’t that the opposite of signaling? If you’re enough of an introvert, it doesn’t even seem like countersignaling. There’s no one noticing you’re not there.

HANSON: I’ve sometimes been tempted to classify people as egg people and onion people. Onion people have layer after layer after layer. You peel it back, and there’s still more layers. You don’t really know what’s underneath. Whereas egg people, there’s a shell, and you get through it, and you see what’s on the inside.

In some sense, I think of introverts as going for the egg people strategy. They’re trying to show you, “This is who I am. There’s not much more hidden, and you get past my shell, and you can know me and trust me. And there’s a sense in which we can form a stronger bond because I’m not hiding that much more.”


COWEN: Here’s another response to the notion that everything’s about signaling. You could say, “Well, that’s what people actually enjoy.” If signaling is 90 percent of whatever, surely it’s evolved into being parts of our utility functions. It makes us happy to signal. So signaling isn’t just wasteful resources.

What we really want to do is set up a world that caters to the elephant in our brain, so to speak. We just want all policies to pander to signaling as much as possible. Maybe make signals cheaper, but just signals everywhere now and forever. What says you?

HANSON: I think our audience needs a better summary of this thesis that I’m going to defend here. The Elephant in the Brain main thesis is that in many areas of life, perhaps even most, there’s a thing we say that we’re trying to do, like going to school to learn or going to the doctor to get well, and then what we’re really trying to do is often more typically something else that’s more selfish, and a lot of it is showing off.

If that’s true, then we are built to do that. That’s the thing we want to do, and in some sense it’s a great world when we get to do it.

My complaint isn’t really that most people don’t acknowledge this. I accept that people may be just fine leaving the elephant in their brain and not paying attention to it and continuing to pretend one thing while they’re doing another. That may be what makes them happy and that may be OK.

My stronger claim would be that policy analysts and social scientists who claim that they understand the social world well enough to make recommendations for changes—they should understand the elephant in the brain. They should have a better idea of hidden motives because they could think about which institutions that we might choose differently to have better outcomes.

And of course I asked:

COWEN: What offends you deep down? You see it out there. What offends you?

And why exactly does it work to invite your date up to “see my etchings”?  And where is “The Great Filter”?  And how much will we identify with our “Em” copies of ourselves?  There is also quantum computing, Robin on movies, and the limits of Effective Altruism.  On top of all that, the first audience question comes from Bryan Caplan.

You should all buy and read Robin’s new book, with Kevin Simler, The Elephant in the Brain: Hidden Motives in Everyday Life.

Randomizing Religion: The Impact of Protestant Evangelism on Economic Outcomes

That is a new and important paper by Gharad Bryan, James J. Choi, and Dean Karlan, and here are the results:

To test the causal impact of religiosity, we conducted a randomized evaluation of an evangelical Protestant Christian values and theology education program that consisted of 15 weekly half-hour sessions. We analyze outcomes for 6,276 ultra-poor Filipino house holds six months after the program ended. We find significant increases in religiosity and income, no significant changes in total labor supply, assets, consumption, food security, or life satisfaction, and a significant decrease in perceived relative economic status. Exploratory analysis suggests the program may have improved hygienic practices and increased household discord, and that the income treatment effect may operate through increasing grit.

File under “increased household discord”…

*Enlightenment Now*, the new Steven Pinker book

1. He is more likely right than wrong on the major points of optimism and progress and science.

2. The book is very clearly written, and it would do most of the world good to read it.

3. Contrary to Pinker, inframarginally I see the Enlightenment as a strong complement to Christianity/faith, even though the two at the margin often will clash.  The same is true for nationalism.

4. The Counterenlightenment, as Pinker calls it, is intellectually much stronger than he gives it credit for.  It’s time for yet another reread of Gulliver’s Travels.

5. I am uncomfortable with statements such as “Intellectuals hate progress.”  That sentence opens chapter four.  I know that he explains and qualifies it, but it is not how I like to organize concepts.

6. It is not a good book for understanding the Enlightenment.

7. Overall my main difference with Pinker might be this: I believe there is a certain amount of irreducible “irrationality” (not my preferred term, but borrowing his schema for a moment) in people, and it has to be “put somewhere,” into some doctrine or belief system.  That is what makes the whole bundle sustainable.  It also means that a move toward greater “Enlightenment” is never without its problematic side, and that a “Counterenlightenment” can be more progressive than it might at first appear.  In contrast, I read Pinker as believing that Enlightenment simply can beat ignorance more and more over time.

The book’s subtitle is The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress.  And here is my earlier discussion with Pinker, video, podcast, and transcript.

Why the center-left became immoderate

Lack of ideology and belief in nothing in particular (except perhaps more redistribution):

In polarized times, political competition comes to resemble tribal warfare. Everyone is under pressure to close ranks and boost morale. Lacking an animating vision beyond expert-led incrementalism, center-left politicians and pundits have few options to rally the Democratic base other than by attacking adversaries and heightening partisan divides. The other option—laying out an alternative that differs from what Hillary Clinton or even President Obama offered—requires ideological conviction.

That would explain why Rep. Adam Schiff —previously “known as a milquetoast moderate,” according to the New Yorker—has emerged as one of the most outspoken figures in the Russian collusion investigation. Before being appointed to succeed Mrs. Clinton in the Senate, Kirsten Gillibrand was an upstate New York representative who belonged to the Blue Dog Coalition. Her 2013 New Yorker profile was titled “Strong Vanilla”—and she now boasts the upper chamber’s most anti- Trump voting record.

When people don’t believe in so much with conviction, the logic of the crowd will sometimes dominate, because actual belief is no longer such a constraining force.  This is one reason why a totally secular “Enlightenment” society is not in every way to be welcomed — we humans are not worthy of it in every regard.

That is from Shadi Hamid at the WSJ; given this perspective, it is perhaps no accident that he is a scholar of Islam.  “Lack of real belief,” and lack of genuine religious communities, is often more of a problem behind terrorism than is “excessively fanatical belief.”

Hat tip goes to the excellent Samir Varma.

The return of Nigeria’s kidnapped girls

Joe Parkinson and Drew Hinshaw at the WSJ follow up on what was a super dramatic story that turned into a neglected and under-reported tale.  What is life like for the Boko Harum kidnap victims after their liberation?

The women had acclimated to the forest camps where Boko Haram insurgents threatened them at gunpoint to either convert to Islam and marry a fighter or be a slave.

About half chose slavery, which cost them access to food and shelter.

Here is another bit:

Psychologists who specialize in kidnap victims say they are unsure about the best way to simultaneously treat and educate such a large group of women—ages 18 to 27—after years of collective captivity and abuse.

The spelling bee contests, one healing piece of the curriculum, arrived as something of a surprise. It was the Chibok girls who came up with the idea.


One night, plopped on couches, they watched “Akeelah and the Bee,” a movie about an 11-year-old African-American girl in Los Angeles who finds her confidence after her father’s death by winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee.

The students watched the movie again and again over bowls of popcorn. They went to their teachers with a demand: They wanted to hold their own spelling bees. The teachers agreed.

The young women began memorizing vocabulary lists and testing each others’ lexicographic skills. Their wordplay escalated into late-night spelling battles. “It was unbelievably competitive,” Mr. Braggs said.

Spelling employs a skill many of the women honed while captive: mnemonic memory. Some spent much of their time memorizing lengthy prayers and hymns. Others composed diary entries in their heads—their thoughts, injustices they suffered—they would later log in journals they kept hidden. In secret, they retold the story of Job, the biblical figure who was punished in a test of his faith.

By the way, 112 girls remain missing and 13 are presumed dead.

Do Tibetan Buddhists fear death the most?

It is an old philosophical idea that if the future self is literally different from the current self, one should be less concerned with the death of the future self (Parfit, 1984). This paper examines the relation between attitudes about death and the self among Hindus, Westerners, and three Buddhist populations (Lay Tibetan, Lay Bhutanese, and monastic Tibetans). Compared with other groups, monastic Tibetans gave particularly strong denials of the continuity of self, across several measures. We predicted that the denial of self would be associated with a lower fear of death and greater generosity toward others. To our surprise, we found the opposite. Monastic Tibetan Buddhists showed significantly greater fear of death than any other group. The monastics were also less generous than any other group about the prospect of giving up a slightly longer life in order to extend the life of another.

The economist might call this an income vs. substitution effect, the income effect in this case predominating.

That is from “Death and the Self,” by Shaun Nichols,  Nina Strohminger, Arun Rai, and Jay Garfield.  Via Rolf Degen, who in turn notes on Twitter:

I don’t think that the terrible thing about dying is the expiration of the self. The terrible thing is that WE must leave – and the party goes on without us. Social comparison until the end.

There is this famous saying that being ostracized is like death, it is “social death”. But it goes further: Real death IS social death, it is like being ostracized by the living.

Washington, D.C. New York City fact of the day

Washington also seems to be full of economists. We have 10 economists for every one member of the clergy, whereas in New York City there are 15 members of the clergy for every economist.

D.C. is the only major metropolitan area with more economists than clergy.  The Miami area is the one with the highest ratio of chefs to economists.  Here is the source, via Paul Winfree.

Jordan Peterson’s 12 rules for life

Peterson’s 12 rules

Rule 1 Stand up straight with your shoulders back

Rule 2 Treat yourself like you would someone you are responsible for helping

Rule 3 Make friends with people who want the best for you

Rule 4 Compare yourself with who you were yesterday, not with who someone else is today

Rule 5 Do not let your children do anything that makes you dislike them

Rule 6 Set your house in perfect order before you criticise the world

Rule 7 Pursue what is meaningful (not what is expedient)

Rule 8 Tell the truth – or, at least, don’t lie

Rule 9 Assume that the person you are listening to might know something you don’t

Rule 10 Be precise in your speech

Rule 11 Do not bother children when they are skate-boarding

Rule 12 Pet a cat when you encounter one on the street

They are from this article, via Michelle Dawson.