An atheist’s defense of religion

July 31, 2014

I’ve been an atheist ever since I was born. My mom and dad were both fervent atheists, and I was raised to believe this was both obvious and normal. My certainty that there is no such thing as a god (in any relevant sense of the word) has not wavered throughout my life.

My attitude towards religion, however, has. I remember being stunned when I met my first person who [I knew] believed in a god, at something like age 7; I remember being equally stunned upon discovering that the vast majority of Americans did so. I remember, as a young kid, resolving that I would play punish by just not talking to anyone who believed in god (I did the same thing with smokers), only to quickly realize this was highly impractical.

When I got to college, I was still very militant, looking down on people who cling to religion as dumb insecure suckers who need a fabricated authority to define their moral belief system. A few things changed during college:

1) One of my roommates / best friends was very religious
2) I learned that 90% of people (including myself, obviously) have the same religion as their parents

This didn’t really stop me from judging religion, but it helped me at least allow that religious people could be otherwise be intelligent and worthwhile. It still seemed crazy to me that anyone could believe in God, but there was plenty of empirical evidence that smart people did and I came to understand the powerful psychology of instilling axioms at a young age. By the time I was in college, for me, it was very much a live and let live.

Recently, though, this understanding has advanced a little further. Sure, believing in God is crazy because the existence of God is so unbelievably improbable, but I realized a year or so ago that I believed in even more improbable things. Here are some things I believe in that are equally inherently ridiculous:

1. Gravity — It’s fundamentally ridiculous that an object 92 million miles away can keep Earth in orbit around it. That is many, many times larger than the fundamental unit of life (an atom) and there is no chain of atoms connecting them or anything. How can such a fundamentally communicative process occur with no medium over such a great distance? There is a hypothetical particle called a graviton that mediates this force but these are undetectable and really purely a hypothetical construct arbitrarily invented to explain a process we don’t understand. Kind of like God.

Gravity is absolutely not credible.

2. Srinivasa Ramanujan — I bet half of you know this story really well and the other half haven’t heard of him. For the latter half, here’s wikipedia. The key points: Srinivasa Ramanujan was a completely self-taught Indian mathematicians who despite having zero formal training of any sort came up with crazy formulas like these. This is not some kind of run of the mill idiot savant who can remember numbers or multiply quickly or something equally boring — Ramanujan discovered a ton of hitherto undiscovered and important mathematical theorems working in India completely disconnected from the mathematical communities.

At age 25, he finally established contact with the establishment, which did not believe he existed. The reaction of mathematician G.H. Hardy, who eventually brought Ramanujan into the fold, is telling: “Hardy’s initial reaction on seeing the letters was that Ramanujan was a fraud… but then there were several astonishingly beautiful formulas that were correct and very deep. Only a mathematician of the highest class could write them down. So on second thought Hardy concluded that it was more probable that Ramanujan was a genius and unlikely that he was a fraud because no one but a true genius could have the imagination to invent such formulae.”

Ramanujan went over to England, did some more crazy ass shit, and died at age 33. His whole life story is absolutely not credible.

3. Simple molecules — Alcohol (methanol) has 6 atoms and has a crazy variety of effects on the human body.

Hydrogen peroxide has 4 atoms and it will mess you up if you drink it or pour it on yourself.

Cyanide has 2 atoms and it’s fatally poisonous at 1.5 parts per million.

Carbon monoxide has 2 atoms and it’s poisonous.

Ammonia has 4 atoms and it’s brutal on many levels.

Nitrous oxide has 3 atoms and it’s called laughing gas for a reason.

All of these molecules are composed of (by far) the 4 most common atoms in terms of both occurrence in nature and in our bodies. It’s not credible that they can be combined in such simple combinations to have such strong effects in such small volumes.

Honorable mention: dogs, aluminum foil, sending a spaceship to the moon successfully on our first try

So, there you have it — three things that seem completely implausible, but I believe all of them and maybe you do too. Why do I believe these? Because I learned them from people I trusted, same reason people believe religion or anything else. Despite the fact that all three of these things are ridiculous if you think about them throwing your preconceptions out, and I certainly haven’t come remotely close to verifying any of these things myself (Newton’s-apple gravity feels qualitatively different than sun-earth gravity, though I might concede that point), I believe all of them very strongly to the point where I can’t even imagine how anyone could convince me that they were false.

And that gives me a lot of empathy and understanding for religion. There but for the grace of the laws of physics go I. Belief is, fundamentally, not about evidence in the vast majority of cases; initial conditions matter a whole bunch. Live and let live.

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So you want to buy a home…

August 5, 2013

I know it’s been a long time since I rapped at ya, but I’ve been buying a place.

Many people have asked me about my experience buying a home for the first time, so I thought I’d write a long note about it. Much of this, of course, will be idiosyncratic to the Bay Area or even to San Francisco – naturally the home-buying market, I expect, is very different in other areas of the country.

Top-line recommendation

In my opinion, in order to buy a home, you should be certain that you’ll be staying in it for a minimum of 5 years. The transaction costs are huge and should not be overlooked.

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Depression part 2 (personal)

August 23, 2012

Disclaimer: This is even more subjective than part 1.

This post is going to be a personal exploration into where my depression comes from. The proximate causes I don’t think are a mystery to anyone, and will be kind of mundane, but I also think that in some ways there are deep-seated reasons why I have these mental illnesses described in part 1: many things that I think are key aspects of my personality, including many positive things, are very connected to depression and seem fundamentally correlated.

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Depression part 1 (impersonal)

August 23, 2012

Disclaimer: This post refers only to my (subjective) experience with depression. I’m not claiming that this is descriptive of anyone else’s situation.

The standard presentation of mental illness goes something like this: that there are these people who are qualitatively different, and that it’s a permanent condition, possibly fixable through therapy and drugs, but basically long-term in nature. Of course, there are highs and lows (in the case of manic depressives, accentuated ones), but fundamentally “a person with depression” is a descriptor of the person, like “a person with Down’s syndrome” or “a bald person”.

This has always struck me as a very poor description of the way I experience things. To me, depression feels like a series of temporary illnesses: like having a cold, or whooping cough, or allergies, or an upset stomach. The illnesses certainly vary in their length; just like in 2011 I had this cough that lasted a few months and I thought I would have it forever, sometimes I have depressive episodes that last for quite some time and seem to be permanent (but haven’t been yet, fortunately). But it feels a lot more like that than it does like something that is always there.

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Childhood precursors

December 6, 2011

For no good reason, I was thinking about my childhood today, and whether or not you could see the person I’ve become then, in terms of personality and lifestyle. I’m a pretty clean test case for this, at least subjectively: I draw a very clear line during the summer after freshman year of high school, when I went to math camp at Hampshire College. To me, it’s very clear that this is when my continuous personality starts; that’s when I became a romantic idealist, that’s when my quant inklings started growing geometrically if not exponentially, that’s when I started making super close friends (although actually none from that summer have survived continuously as such).

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Why I like Dominion so much

October 27, 2011

The games are just so different from each other, it’s amazing. I seem to have (presumably temporarily) ascended to #1 on the isotropic leaderboard, which is pretty fun, so at least I kinda know what I’m doing. Check out my last 10 games of the winning streak that got me there and the diversity of strategies:

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Vertical dreams

January 26, 2011

Every now and then I have something that I’ve decided to call a “vertical dream.” What this is is* a dream where things in one level seem to have implications for things in other levels. Okay, every now and then is too much; I’ve had two of these and the second one was last night. I guess these days they can probably be called Inception-style dreams; I’m sure Inception was inspired by a vertical dream its creator had.

* – This one is for you, LWS

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New blog

January 10, 2011

This thing has been somewhat dormant. I’ve moved my main blog presence on the objective stuff over to http://thequantlife.com/, where I hope to write daily on a variety of general interest topics through an economist’s lens. I’ll probably still funnel more personal stuff here occasionally, but please do check that out!

Help me vote

October 21, 2010

So for the first time (given my newfound citizenship) I’m going to get to vote in the elections this fall. I’m going to do the personally risky thing of talking about my thought process regarding the ballot — this is very risky because it will alienate anyone who doesn’t agree with me, which is probably everyone. But I’m doing this because I’m curious if anyone can legitimately help. What I’d really love to see is some sort of quantitative analysis of certain things. My dream is an analysis of candidates who come from a business or non-political background* and how their job performance was as governor, specifically with respect to the budget. You would intuitively think that businesspeople would be more likely to balance the budget, but I don’t know that that’s true. I am considering doing a study myself, but it would save me lots of time if it already existed. I’d also love any other quant studies (e.g. Democrat vs Republican performance on the budget, 3rd party performance versus political extremity of future elections (do D/R candidates become more L/C in the future in reaction to extremist 3rd parties doing well)) that can possibly be unearthed. Anyway, let me start by talking about what I believe.

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The Second Law Of Large Numbers

September 28, 2010

The first law of large numbers, as everyone knows, is that as n gets high, the sum of n trials of a random variable (e.g. number of heads in n tosses) will asymptotically approach its expected value (e.g. n/2), with the expected average deviation (e.g. difference from n/2 divided by n) approaching 0. To be precise, the standard deviation is proportional to the square root of n. But there’s another, entirely different, truth which I call the “second law of large numbers,” which goes like this: given a large number of possibilities, a lot of improbable things will happen. In this post, I will talk about this law applied to sports, but it works equally well in real life.

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