How Nassim Taleb changed my mind about religion

I used to unquestioningly accept the atheistic framing of the theism vs atheism debate, which presents religion as a collection of factual statements aimed at “explaining” what the world is and how it got that way, providing made up answers before we had science to find out the truth.

Curiously enough, it was by watching a clip of Nassim Taleb shared by Sam Harris on Twitter in attempt to mock him, that I first began to reconsider my position.

I hit “play”, looking forward to hearing Taleb make a fool of himself, but ended up perplexed. It wasn’t that Taleb said something extraordinary, in fact what he said was rather obvious. So I was more surprised by the glee with which Sam Harris automatically dismissed Taleb’s position. This made me question Sam’s certainty.

What was Taleb saying? In effect, that science and religion deal with different aspects of reality. Science gives you insights into the structure of the world around us, religion guides your behavior in it.

This isn’t a new idea, and seems similar to Stephen Jay Gould’s NOMA. I had always been familiar with this dichotomy, and always thought it was bullshit. The typical arguments against it are:

  • Presume that articulated knowledge always leads to good decision making. Since science has an evidence-based view of the world, while religion is a bunch of stories, conclude that religion is going to be hopelessly outclassed, if not outright disqualified because of the ridiculousness of the stories.
  • List all the various ways in which religious societies of the past were worse places to live in than modern, secular, liberal democracies. Conclude that you don’t need religion to guide your behavior, because obviously we can behave very well without religion.

What Taleb brought to the table were the following ideas:

  • The quality of your decisions isn’t a function of the amount of articulated knowledge you posses. Having more factual information doesn’t automatically make you a better decision maker.
  • The utility of religion doesn’t come from believing the stories literally, so whatever it does, it doesn’t make sense to judge it on the basis of treating it as if it were trying to be an explanatory science.

I find Taleb’s framing much more convincing, because it provides actual reasons as to why you can’t simply say “religion is obsolete, we will use science to guide our decision making from now on”.

Life constantly makes us take decisions under conditions of uncertainty. We can’t simply compute every possible outcome, and decide with perfect accuracy what the path forward is. We have to use heuristics. Religion is seen as a record of heuristics that have worked in the past.

One common objection to this is that modern people have no use for advice inherited from the Bronze Age, and that tradition is merely a record of solutions to problems people no longer have. In this view, we can simply discard the old norms, and use reason and science to discover what is the optimum way to behave.

But while every generation faces new circumstances, there are also some common problems that every living being is faced with: survival and reproduction, and these are the most important problems because everything else depends on them. Mess with these, and everything else becomes irrelevant.

This makes religion an evolutionary record of solutions which persisted long enough, by helping those who held them to persist.

It’s telling that while Christianity has been around for 2000 years, every modern revolutionary ideology (from international communism to national socialism) has failed to produce a self-sustaining community.

Every revolutionary social experiment either imploded, or had to make critical concessions to traditional ideas, concessions that are not admitted by the proponents of their modern variants.

Even though they were promoted as “rational” and “scientific” by their supporters, these systems failed in practice. How can this be? It’s because people wrongly assumed “rational” is whatever seemed like a good idea at the time, without taking into consideration uncertainty, the fact that you can’t predict how systems evolve over time.

Remember what Richard P. Feynman said:

“It doesn’t matter how beautiful your theory is, it doesn’t matter how smart you are. If it doesn’t agree with experiment, it’s wrong.”

Taleb presents the concept of ecological rationality:

The only definition of rationality that I found that is practically, empirically, and mathematically rigorous is that of survival –and indeed, unlike the modern theories by psychosophasters, it maps to the classics. Anything that hinders one’s survival at an individual, collective, tribal, or general level is deemed irrational.
Judging people on their beliefs is not scientific
There is no such thing as “rationality” of a belief, there is rationality of action
The rationality of an action can only be judged by evolutionary considerations
Rationality is risk management, period.

In contrast to modern “rationalist” mythology, this view of rationality is grounded in evolutionary logic. A behavior is deemed rational by virtue of it contributing to evolutionary success at various levels. An idea is deemed rational by virtue of it inspiring rational behavior.

What about the bad things people did, and still do, in the name of religion? This is a good question, with several answers. One: not all religions are created equal. Some can maintain a flourishing civilization with respect for the dignity of the human person, others can’t. One of the more ridiculous strategies of New Atheist thought is to attack “religion” because of what happens under some flavors of Islam. Second: there is no reason to presume that humans are perfectible, and to judge them by an unrealistic standard. It should be the baseline expectation that there will always be corruption and abuse of power. It’s naive to believe that you can get rid of that, with or without religion.

What about the liberal democracies of today? Doesn’t secular Sweden prove that religion is obsolete? This is hardly the case. Secular Sweden is an ongoing experiment, which has just been started on a historical scale. And there is no guarantee that it will still be around a century from now. Demographic shifts and the reactions to these shifts may very well change Sweden into something else in the not so distant future. I am always reminded of the following headline from the early days of modern medicine:

“The radium water worked fine until his jaw fell out”

Jordan Peterson has a similar view of religion, and you can listen to it in this interview starting from 27:30.

Does this mean that religion is merely utilitarian, only about behavior, and contains no other kinds of truths? Is it merely a hack we’re stuck with because trying to fix it is likely to get us into trouble?

Logically speaking, this doesn’t have to be the case, but that is a completely different topic, to be dealt with separately. You can’t take religion seriously at a metaphysical level if you believe it’s just a bunch of obsolete stories.