Posts tagged with religion

There’s a collective experience going on at a rock concert that—I’ve always assumed—would probably be what church should be like, if church was what it should be.
Jeff Tweedy


Winthrop also subscribed to the belief that the native peoples who lived in the hinterlands around the colony had been struck down by G-d, who sent disease among them because of their non-Christian beliefs:

“But for the natives in these parts, God hath so pursued them, as for 300 miles space the greatest part of them are swept away by smallpox which still continues among them. So as G-d hath thereby cleared our title to this place…”

New World Encyclopedia, via MRU

(search pictures of smallpox only if you have a strong stomach)

Einstein opined that the great philosophical breakthrough leading to the mental possibility of science was the hypothetico-deductive method.

Which is a jargony way of saying: forget whether A is true or not (measurement of the world)—let’s talk about the separate, purely logical issue, of whetherif A were true, would B necessarily be true as well, as a result of A being true? ⧝

People aren’t great with hypotheticals, though—at least not everyone or not without education.

  • I can get people to agree with my reasoning  by first telling them that  leads to a conclusion they already agree with B.
  • (This is really dastardly because once I’ve judoed someone this far I can get them to agree to even more things, in order to maintain local consistency.)
  • We judge each other on credentials (A).
  • We judge arguments on what other experts think of them.
  • Mathematics is all about the  and most people are either scared to tears by mathematics, bored to tears by mathematics, or think mathematics irrelevant, or all three.
  • People think that if I argue that their reasoning  is wrong, I’m saying their conclusion B is wrong.
  • (Symbolically it’s obvious that A↛B = A⊬B = ¬(A→B) isn’t the same as ¬B. But people regularly interpret “That does not follow” as “That’s wrong”.)

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Whatever it is people do in arriving at their beliefs, it’s not propositional calculus; it’s not Bayesian probability; it’s not “believe whatever mama says”. But it is a little like all of those.


I was riding on a train in Italy. Watching lemon trees out the window. Fantasising of tasting a lemon-based liqueur.

Lemon trees. Amalfi Coast, Campania, Italy (color)



My travel partner and I shared a vestibule with an American monk-cum-priest who introduced himself as Father John. Father John was making a pilgrimage from the Carolinas to Vatican City. I don’t know if he always evangelised but, although my partner and I tried to steer the conversation away from religion, Father John wanted to talk about his Catholic faith—specifically in a way that might score some converts.


I don’t know whether the part of me that makes me debate with strangers online was acting out in its pre-internet form, or whether Fr J’s insistence on having a conversation we clearly did not want to have put me in a pugilistic mood.

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For whatever reason, I started querying him on some of the more outlandish assertions of Catholic doctrine. One thing I challenged him on in particular was transubstantiation.

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Try though the alchemists might they could never transmute lead to gold—but every Sunday around the world, holy men of Christianity transmute sacramental bread and wine into literally the body and blood of Christ.


The biochemistry involved in going from wheat flour to bone marrow or from pectin to haemoglobin is not discussed in catechism, but the transition is obviously impossible by natural processes. Nonetheless, “the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist is a mystery—something so packed with meaning that we can never fully understand it.”


I really don’t have a bone to pick with “transubstantiationalists”. I find the deeper reasons he and I think as we do more interesting than what we profess. I don’t go out of my way to attack people or hurt anyone’s feelings—but I do consider it rude to evangelise someone without consent.

So I needled the man. "Come on, you really believe that? Really? It’s not just a symbol? You can’t just have your religion without this physically impossible claim? Why would you insist on invoking the supernatural when that clearly undermines the credibility of everything else you say? Not only is it impossible according to science, even to your own sensory experience it just looks like a normal wafer—not like a hand or a butt or whatever. You literally, actually believe that this wafer literally, actually turns into actual human flesh of a dead man from two millennia ago—using up more body mass than he ever had all over the world every Sunday—really? Really?”

I still remember Father John’s response (which is how I’m able to tell you this story). He said: “OK, I understand your objections. But consider this. What if it were all true? What if the Resurrection, the Virgin Birth, G-d walking among men, the sacred mysteries, all of it were true? Wouldn’t that be wonderful? Wouldn’t that change everything about the way you see the world?”

What-if indeed, Father. What if.

Eros and Magic in the Renaissance took magic seriously as a system of psychological manipulation that used the cravings and desires of its target—the “eros” of the title—to shape human behavior. It suggested on that basis that modern advertising, which does exactly this, is simply the current form of magic, and that contemporary Western nations are “magician states” governed by the magical manipulation of public consensus.

None of these ideas were new. [Ioan] Culianu got most of them from the same place he got much of his magical training, the writings of the renegade Dominican sorcerer Giordano Bruno, who ended a colorful career by being burnt at the stake for heresy in 1600. Bruno’s writings on magic describe magic in much the same way Culianu did, as a system of manipulation that casts out lures for nonrational desires.
John Michael Greer, Grand Archdruid of the Ancient Order of Druids in America


[I]n Montaillou [Languedoc, Pyrenees, France] … around 1320 … at a minimum … 10 per cent of couples [were] ‘living in sin’.

Around 1700 … the … bishop of Montpellier … would have been shocked by such a high proportion.

…in the pastures as well as in the town the shepherds did not hesitate to entertain a mistress when the occasion offered. If anyone came across a couple openly living together, the reaction was much the same as it would be today. Were they legally married or not?

Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, author of The French Peasantry 1450-1660

(but this comes from Montaillou: The Promised Land of Error)


In Chapter 42 [of the Dao De Jing] … the Dao gives birth to the Origin: the beginning of everything, the One. The One then gives birth to the Two, which is the Yin and the Yang.

(These are cosmic forces. They’re not moral forces; they’re not divine forces. They’re just forces of the Universe.)

And the Two give birth to the Three, which in traditional Daoist thought, is: Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. … And all this gives birth to the myriad of things.

Martin Palmer

(Source: BBC)

‘The Descent of the Modernists’, cartoon by E. J. Pace, first published in Seven Questions in Dispute by William Jennings Bryan (1924).
with some nice autobiographical details, via cmnotes

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  • wú wéi 無爲 — doing by not doing
  • the water is more powerful than the rock
  • "One of Daoism’s core ideas is that we can prolong life by following The Way" (contrast to Xtianity, Buddhism)
  • In the second century AD, Laodze was seen as “the alternative philosopher” to Confucius. Confucius represented the order of the State.
  • Buddhism may be an Indian form of Daoism come back to China
  • Later in the programme this appears to be a theme: Daoists as the under-religion, the shamanic folk religion. Well that almost fits the philosophy of “a ruler who doesn’t appear to be ruling” too nicely.
  • (Exceptions at times: the Yellow Turban revolt, 30 years of Daoist-led kingdom (which they peaceably annexed to a neighbouring ruler), widespread Daoist temples and 5 Bushels of Rice/year to pay for your Daoist shamanic exorcist/priestly councillor.)
  • "Shamanism preceded Confucianism" — "We are controlled by the unseen world"
  • In Chapter 42 [of the Dao De Jing 道德經] … the Dao gives birth to the Origin: the beginning of everything, the One. The One then gives birth to the Two, which is the Yin and the Yang. (These are cosmic forces. They’re not moral forces; they’re not divine forces. They’re just forces of the Universe.) And the Two give birth to the Three, which in traditional Daoist thought, is: Heaven, Earth, and Humanity. … And all this gives birth to the myriad things.
  • Cheng Dao Ling (2nd century) teaches he has the power to forgive sins.
  • Oh, so they have sins then? “But it’s harder to sin by inaction than by action.”← Lecturer’s supposition, I found the opposite to be one of the most interesting takeaways from the economic theory of opportunity cost. Why do we privilege the refrainment of wrongdoing over the failure to rightdoing?
  • Dao 道 = power (although our word for it has political connotations that 道 does not. I also notice our words for “logic" and "bureaucracy" don’t seem to fit in this discussion, denotatively or connotatively. Our language and theirs embed assumptions; ∄ neutral.) A universal process of change that applies to almost everything. (So, the Lagrangian-mechanics and post-Lagrangian-mechanics pursuit of minimisation of difference between potential and actual energy?)
  • De 德 = our individual instantiation with the Dao . Cycles of life. Which not everyone goes through with the same vigour.
  • Rulers needed to show that the celestial bureaucracy fitted harmoniously with their own worldly order. Li family 7th cent AD claims descent from (by then) Demigod Laodze.
  • "There’s no consistency to the Dao De Jing 道德經. It’s as if someone had chalked up parts of the Bible and mixed the pieces around and we had to derive a coherent philosophy from it." Actually this sounds exactly like the Bible. 73 books all by different authors and redacted by a series of future editors…yeah, not exactly one unified message.
  • "Gunpowder was developed by Daoists searching for the elixir of life…subdue KNO₃"
  • "Communists saw Daoism as mere superstition" — "By the Cultural Revolution ∃ ≤ 500 Daoist priests"
  • Joangdze: “Logic, rhetoric, argumentation don’t help us so much to understand The Universe” #logocentrism — Performance, experience, feelings are preferable to the (inserting my own pet peeves on economic theorists here) elaborate structures built upon fragile axioms [which then the fragile axioms defended at knifepoint since their collapse would bring down a roccocco golden palace on the theorist’s head].

(Source: BBC)

Several years ago I sat (after yoga class) with some Zaa Zen practitioners. As I understood the practice from doing it once, Zaa Zen basically consists of sitting in good posture, staring at a blank wall, and clearing your mind.

It wasn’t my favourite meditation I’ve ever tried. (So far my favourite was something that into the continuum introduced me to: Vipassana meditation. The way I did it was to sit outdoors in nice weather and listen to the sounds and stop thinking about my own anxiety or problems. Something much like the John Cage lecture that until a single soliton survives posted. Being aware of the world around you and “listening” or “taking in” rather than “forcing” or “pushing out”.)

But I definitely remember the conversation I had with one of the practitioners (Tony) afterwards. Tony was maybe 20 or 30 years older than me but I felt we instantly connected on some mental level. He told me he had been a failure at pretty much everything he had tried in life. How he was a black sheep of his family; how he tried to be a biologist; there were a few other things he tried and he hadn’t been very good at any of them. But in some sense it didn’t matter (remember, this is the wisdom of years talking. According to economic research people tend to mellow, their aspirations and hopes drop to a realistic level, and they become intimately familiar with the passing of time—whatever you optimise, whatever you read, however much you drink, whatever you earn, however you train, however many relationships you destroy—that passing of time always clicks, click, click, tick, steady.)  and he could always come back to his practice. A different meaning of “return to the breath”.

Anyway, we were talking about various I guess spiritual things. More like a mixture of the mental-ethereal and the sense-grounded. He was telling me how Zaa Zen was so great and I would really like it and I should read this book and so on. You know how people always do that—they’ve read a book and then they say you would love it. Well, no, I think just you liked it and I have my own stack of stuff that’s my to-read list already. So normally I would just keep that kind of thought to myself but since Tony and I had an unusual level of honesty and directness for perfect strangers who just met, I brought up what I see as the circular-logic problem of picking up any book.

  • When deciding whether I want to read a book or not, I am acting on incomplete information—and not just random incomplete information, marketing and Ising-spin-ish hubbub. I have a hazy idea of what the book is going to be like.
  • As I read the book it is going to change me.
  • "Be very, very careful what you put into that head, because you will never, ever get it out." —Thomas Cardinal Wolsey (c.1475-1530)
  • I can’t unread the book and I can’t unthink or unknow whatever ideas it gives me.
  • So even before I know what it is I have already consented to be changed.

This is why, I said, I won’t read the book you’re telling me I will like so well. From my outsider’s perspective I don’t trust enough in the Zaa Zen idea. Not to say that it is some hokey New Age crystals or whatever, but I don’t sense—from standing on the threshold—that this is a house I want to get comfortable in.

(This is also why I started reading so much mathematics. From an outsiders’ perspective it seemed like “This is where the truth is. Following Wolsey’s idea, with a hungry reification of Plato’s philosopher-kings, if I put in only veracity and earnest labour, the result should be something good.)

Tony told me this attitude was actually quite Buddhistic or Zen of me. So I felt very proud that in avoiding looking at the Zaa Zen I had apparently picked up something of it—and it’s a nice geometric shape now that I reflect on it.


So it’s a logical circular logic and a higher modal order than the standard model of choice—and it relates to two other themes I want to talk more about later:

  1. So many economic decisions are just like this. Beyond just knowing my edge, I need to decide whether quantitative finance is actually a thing (and not just the subject of a book by Emanuel Derman) before enrolling in an MFE. (There are various signals on the interwebs that suggest MFE’s are not a good idea. I wrote out my reasoning more fully when I was making this decision, google “DIY MFE”.) And say I spend half a decade training to be a lawyer or engineer or doctor. Then what if I don’t like it? Since young people don’t intern or work in hospitals / law firms / alongside engineers before choosing their course of study, their decision is based on folderol, disinformation, heresay, and outer appearances. If I would have loved a career in X I’ll never know it because I couldn’t possibly sample.

    On the hypothesis that most people don’t know what they want most of the time (nor do most corporations know what they’re doing or why it works, except by accident), I’d rather look at economic agents as operating at some higher order level, away from all the information. The most I feel I can do as a rational maximiser is try a lifestyle and sample how it makes me feel (although…again, I am changing both with time and changed by my own choices as I do this). Sampling from my own utility function rather than knowing it beforehand. (Or with a corp sampling from revenue & other responses.)
  2. "Dug like a river" / "Hebbian history". One of the famous models of brain development is “Neurons that fire together, wire together”. Yogis (need a link, sorry) draw the analogy to a river—as water flows from tributaries to deltas, the act of doing so cuts a deeper and deeper channel along the same course.

    These are the same idea and I think juxtaposing habit (in mathematical terms, bien sûr!) alongside personality, mood, preference, desire, intent, pleasure, happiness, goals, rank, and free will is going to lead somewhere interesting. I’ll write more about how I can exercise “second order” free will more easily than first-order.

    For example if I close this laptop and hide it from myself I will waste less time on the internet than if I leave it open and tempt myself. (On the other hand—back when I had much better time discipline from running my business I was quite better at focussing whilst at the computer. But from doing more computer stuff since then the “edges of the water” “eroded” the “sides of the channel”—and now my computer time management is spilled out like a floodplain. So very Hebbian in that story itself.) Some people pay a personal trainer so that they’re committed to work out (but couldn’t they have saved money and just worked out?). And a married man may stay away from strip clubs, red light districts, and too many drinks with attractive coworkers—and would we consider his desire to steer clear of temptation a form of infidelity?

    The jazz educator David Baker described the progression of jazz improvisational creativity this way: first you learn to copy long licks, scales, pre-formed patterns. Second you start playing with these, so that you have a coarse level of control (free will, in my “interpretation”)—splicing together the known parts. As you progress to higher levels of mastery, your control, focus, creativity become ever more atomic. A true improvisational master is present—deciding, thinking—in every millisecond of the notes, rests, articulation, and consciously chooses every aspect of what s/he’s doing and why.

    I’ve found this pattern to hold for me in areas besides jazz improv (and it even holds a lesson for maths explanations—to remember that your audience is probably not at such a fine-grained level) and I want to juxtapose as well whatever this view of personal development is pointing to, against the Lagrangian utility concept.

Azan by Muadin Hafiz Mustafa Özcan