Heuristics that have worked in the past

Sunday, June 24th, 2018

Gore Burnelli explains how Nassim Taleb changed his 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.


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find Taleb’s framing much more convincing, because it provides actual reasons as to why you can’t simply say “religion is obsolete, we will use science to guide our decision making from now on”.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


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.


  1. Jim says:

    The effects of religious ideology are complex and it is certainly possible that a religion may have generally positive effects in some time and place independent of the literal truth of it’s theoretical assertions. On the other hand religious ideology can have disastrous effects such as for example the devastation caused by the religious wars of the European past. The Thirty Years War reduced the population of Germany by about 50% and it took about a hundred years for the German economy to recover.

  2. Kirk says:

    Without Christianity, you don’t get the scientific revolution, or the industrial revolution.

    People simply don’t comprehend this; the Christian religious outlook and worldview is what created both of those events, and the modern era is rooted in a seedbed of Christianity.

    Wonder why Islam didn’t achieve much, past the point where their conquests took them, and why their religion eventually damped down all the innovation and free thought they supposedly possessed? That would be the fact that Islam is basically a fatalistic creed, where everything that happens is the “will of Allah”. Why study the universe, and learn about it, when Allah can change everything about it on a whim? Indeed, to study the universe is almost an act of impiety, under some interpretations.

    Similarly, the ancient polytheistic religions had equivalent problems. The view was that the world was subject to the whim of the gods, and that it was unpredictable. Without the Christian outlook that the world was both knowable, fixed, and that God didn’t really mind you studying his works…? Well, you don’t get the modern world.

    The irony is that the various atheistic cults fail to recognize this, and further fail to comprehend that religion answers a deep need in the human psyche. If that void is not filled, then it gets filled by whatever nonsense the oh-so-bright atheist finds first to fill it, be it belief in AGW, crystal healing, or the Democrat party.

    Humans appear to have an intrinsic need to believe in things. Religion provides a channel for that, and prevents that belief need from becoming inimical. I’d rather have a bunch of Mormons as neighbors than the usual SJW types, because I can rely on the fact that the Mormons are only going to come over and bother me occasionally about converting, while the SJWs are more likely to gin up a mob and burn my house down over some imagined slight…

    Religion answers a need, and denial of that fact is why so many of our “enlightened ones” are so thoroughly f**ked in the head. Few atheists I know are really atheists–What they actually are would be people who’ve taken up anti-belief as a religion, and have just as crazed an outlook and worldview as the most dire fundamentalist Islamic or Christian fanatic. Notably, they are beginning to work up the same set of psychotic belief justifications that lead to the wars of religion and massacre.

    One thing that Jim needs to remember and look at is that the conflict in Germany wasn’t just religious; it was economic, and class-based. A great deal of the Thirty-Years War was due to the conflict between the rising urban “free cities” and the former aristocracy trying to retain control in the face of modernization. The religious aspect was a part of it, but only a part–It wasn’t the main cause or justification for it all. Wars are never quite what they seem on the surface, and it is easy to fall into the delusion that you understand something when you look at it through a particular lens. Choose religion, and you’re going to always blame religion, when the reality is that religion contributed to it all, but did not drive the train. There were reasons that the Protestants in Germany chose to cut ties to the Catholic Church, and when you start looking at precisely who those Germans were, you start to get the idea that maybe, just maybe, you may have confused cause with effect. It’s like anything; there are a myriad of causes contributing to the whole thing, and you can’t simply say “religion did this”. It was religion, economics, changing technologies, politics, and a whole host of other factors that created the disaster.

  3. John Hinds says:

    Art leads to Religion as Religion to Science. They are foundational to one another and represent stages on life’s way, modes of being. And no, Science is not the final stage, making, as it does, the same but more sophisticated mistake that religion makes. Christianity does provide for a self improving, self teaching/learning progression but not explicitly. Its precursor, Judaism, however is explicit about this. The Creator withdrew somewhat from his creation making sentient life forms co-creators. That is a Rabbinical Jewish insight that Christian religion has unconsciously become but has not made explicit. When it does it won’t be the same, but a new life on a higher level, A new mode of being expressing greater self awareness of the emergence of consciousness and the meaning and purpose thereof.

  4. Jim says:

    Kirk – I assumed somebody would say this and yes many of the figures in the Thirty Years War had non-religious motives. But it is a fact that religious antagonism and fear between Catholics and Protestants was what set it off. Had those antagonisms and fears not existed it is unlikely that anything remotely as devastating would have occurred.

  5. Jim says:

    Kirk – The Classical Greeks created a pretty intellectually sophisticated culture that anticipated much of the modern scientific worldview without Christianity and indeed without any religion at all as it is clear that Greek scientists and philosophers did not take traditional Greek religion very seriously.

    To be sure this scientific worldview of the Classical Greeks was a purely elite thing without a mass following but that is largely true as well of the modern scientific worldview.

  6. Kirk says:


    So… Where are the products of the Grecian sophistication…? We have Hero’s aelopile as an example: All of that sophistication, and all they managed was to build parlor tricks into a bunch of temples. Sure, there were a bunch of cool things that they did and talked about, but where the hell was the actual, y’know… Benefit?

    It took the advent of Christianity and its associated worldview to enable people doing things with an eye on making life better. The Greeks didn’t think to harness a steam engine in order to pump water out of their mines; they hired a few more slaves, or quit mining when water got to be a problem.

    The ancients weren’t stupid, but their culture did put blinders and hobbles on their minds and culture. It’s not some happenstance that those fetters only fell away under Christianity. Hell, look at the Chinese for other examples: Without the cultural imperatives set on them, Zheng He would have likely been the one to heave into a European port, not the other way around.

    I’m not a particular fan of organized religion, but I can recognize quite well what that organized religion contributes to the social milieu that I live in, and which allows me to prosper. You’d do well to cease discounting just how different Christianity has been, and examine what the major changes to Western culture it created. My expectation is that were we to go back, and somehow strangle the Judeo-Christian faiths in their cradles, we would find that Europe was still immersed in a cesspool of primitive superstitious ignorance.

    Much of the trouble in our modern world comes from fools that think they’ve somehow learned the secrets of the universe, and no longer need to heed the lessons of the past. There is a void within man that religion and spirituality fills, and if you fail to fill it with something solid and uplifting, the demons creep in instead. You may think you’re wise enough to make your own morality and rules, but there is no way that you can be wiser than the accumulated wisdom of the generations who went before you, who already tried just about everything themselves, and found what worked through trial and error.

  7. Kirk says:


    Didn’t notice your post about the 30 Years War, or I’d have answered it first.

    You want to blame religion for it all, but you’re missing the rest of the factors. My guess is that without the religious chaos of the Reformation, the same war would have happened, just as the same kind of crap happened in France with the Huguenots.

    The root of the problem was that the status quo was changing, and changing fast. The growth of the mercantile families and the guilds in the cities were supplanting the former rural manorial system, and the nobility did not like what that was doing to their power base. Conflict was inevitable, and religion only threw a sheet of justification over the whole thing. The Catholic hierarchy was having problems with the upstart proles and merchants already, and even if the religious question hadn’t arisen, conflict was inevitable. The rise of Lutheranism and other Protestant sects were only the excuse used–The tensions were rising because the economy was making the former nobility irrelevant, and they did not like where they saw the free cities taking them. It also didn’t help that this was the period when everything was in ferment, and knowledge was quite literally exploding. The fuse was lit by Gutenberg, and that process culminated in the horrors of that period. Religion was a part of the whole mess, but it was emphatically not the sole cause.

  8. Kirk says:

    I never said that the Thirty Years War was solely about religion. But I think it very unlikely that the other factors you mentioned would have lead to anything anywhere near the horrific devastation of the Thirty Years War.

    The war was clearly set off by Protestant panic that the Catholics were going to bring the hammer down on them. The fear generated by the religious differences was why the conflict became so bloody and vicious.

    The free cities had been around for a long time. They did not cause the conflict. Sure there were power tensions between the free cities, the various electors and the Holy Roman Emperor but that always had been the case. It was the fear and antagonism between the Catholics and Protestants they set off the conflagration.

  9. Jim says:

    Kirk – Regarding technology and science in Classical Greece you might be interested in Russo – The Forgotten Revolution although I think he does overstate his case. Another interesting book is Jones – A Portable Cosmos on the Antikytheria mechanism.

  10. Jim says:

    Kirk – I am aware that factors other than religion played a role in the Thirty Years War. But I do not think these other factors can account for the extraordinary extent of the bloodlust and devastation.

    The free cities had been around for a long time. They did not cause the conflict. Yes there were power tensions between the free cities, the electors and the Emperor. But these tensions had existed for a long time without any conflict as bloody and devastating as the Thirty Years War.

    The war was clearly precipitated by Protestant panic that the Catholics were about to bring the hammer down on them.

  11. Jim says:

    Kirk – Similarly in the case of the wars between the Franks and the Saxons or between the Lombards and the Byzantines although more than religion was involved the religious differences helped to make these conflicts particularly vicious, bloody and destructive.

  12. Jim says:

    Kirk – A side issue. You refer to the “Judeo-Christian” faiths. This is totally ahistorical. Jews were a despised and extremely marginal subgroup in Western Civilization until just a few centuries ago. Throughout nearly all of the history of the West both Jews and Christians would have been astonished by references to “Judeo-Christian” faiths.

  13. Kirk says:


    Oh, for fuck’s sake… I don’t suppose you think that the fact that the Christian Bible has the Old Testament and that much of its philosophy grew out of Judaism means much, then. Because, that’s how stupid your argument is–The entirety of Christianity grew out of Judaism, and is suffused with its unique sensibilities and myth structures.

    That last post of yours is too ‘effing stupid for words, frankly. Christianity and Judaism are Siamese twins, or we wouldn’t be using a considerable chunk of their holy books as our own. And, then, let’s take a look at the asceticism that forms a continuous thread from the Essenes forward to the early Christian sects founded by the Apostles. It’s all of a cultural piece; the really big difference is that Judaism remained a niche religion, while the people who took up Christianity turned it into a faith for all comers. Hell, that was the original source of the schism between the two–The Jewish authorities didn’t want to take in non-Jews, fearing they would be swamped under a wave of the new faithful.

    Anyone who speaks of Christianity as some separate thing from Judaism is an idiot. The meme-genes are there for the seeing, and the relationship between the two faiths is very similar to that of mainstream Christianity and Mormonism, today–And, who would deny that the Mormons are not more-or-less Christian, despite the trappings of the Masonic rites being grafted on?

  14. lucklucky says:

    I think much of schisms, including racism, anti semitism, religious war etc are fake in a sense that the hate can appears unconsciously as a tool/pretext to be able to wage war for resources. On another hand it also appears as something people hang on to explain the world.
    A narrative. They need hate to explain why they live.

    I find the Greek religion much more varied than Christianity and Judaism.
    I’ll probably risk saying that monotheism started a duality that gave us in the end Marxism.
    Which i call a Social Supremacist ideology with the amount of power they claim should get.

    Of course conceptual simplification is the easy way to get power from others, to get enough political power support to wage violence. Maybe i can call it industrialization of religion. Religion went from explaining the world to a tool to get political power.

  15. Jim says:

    Kirk – Hostility to Jews was an essential trait of Western Civilization throughout 90% of it’s existence. References to Western Civilization as Judeo-Christian are historical nonsense.

  16. Graham says:

    The odd things for me whenever confronted with variations of the theme of ‘religion causes wars’ are:

    - it strikes me as a minority cause of wars, overall, compared with resources, ethnic hatred, rational statecraft [for some eras], and perhaps others. Except perhaps insofar as religion is inseparable from these. But most wars of the ancient world had armies inspired to believe their gods would help them but not at all fighting just to force their gods or points of doctrine on others. Most wars of the Christian/Muslim era in the western part of Eurasia amped up the divinity aspect but had plenty of other motives as well, as noted.

    -More recent wars have what we consider to be secular ideological/values components. We are accustomed to think of these as somehow different from religious wars, but I am not always sure how. If we think they are different, then we have demonstrated that secular motives can cause far worse wars than religious ones. If we think they are the same kind of thing, then we rather demonstrate that some kind of belief and conflict over belief is inseparable from our condition, so the value of condemning past versions of it is questionable.

    -Although I admit to a bit of cheek, I often thought the best secular approach to the question of religion and war is that religion is false and we just invented it, so by definition the problem is not religion but that humans seek conflict and ways to organize themselves into conflicting sides. We’ll probably find new ones.

  17. Jim says:

    Kirk – Islam shares a lot of historical background with Christianity for example Jesus is considered a minor prophet by Moslems. However given the long and bloody history of conflict between the Christian West and Islam it would be strange to refer to Western Civilization as “Islamo-Christian”. Throughout nearly all of the history of the West Jews were just as alien as Moslems.

  18. Jim says:

    No question there is a strong resemblance between the Wars of Religion in the past history of the West and the bloody ideological struggles of more recent times.

    In general in the history of China religious conflict seems much less important. From time to time a particular cult such as some strain of
    Buddhism might gain considerable influence at the Imperial Court only to be purged by a successor Emperor. But the genocidal intensity of religious conflict in the West and Middle East is rare in Chinese history.

  19. Graham says:

    I get where the critique of “Judeo-Christian” comes from, but it was always a bit disingenuous. The term was never intended to suggest there was some mythical Jewish-Christian alliance all these millennia that Jews were actually being marginalized, but rather, as Kirk suggests, to draw out and emphasize the Jewish roots of the particular Christian values the advocates wanted to emphasize, perhaps even to endorse greater commonality now.

    On the one hand, an artifact of the Cold War anticommunist front mentality and the desire to make support for Israel an article of conservative and Christian faith. On the other, an accurate description of many of the values being advocated. Hard to separate the two.

  20. Graham says:


    A fair point about China but then the Chinese have found other principles around which to organize large-scale warfare among Han [or people currently identified as Han and/or Chinese who may not have been at the time], including large-percentage population loss.

    My only points to that are really,

    a) the fact that peoples want from time to time to have big wars and will find causes around which to organize them [admittedly I'm playing with the causal sequence here]

    b) the distinction between “religious” and “secular” motivations is both blurrier and more conceptually ambiguous than usually credited, and for my part at least I’m not always sure how meaningful.

    Or to put it another way, if I invade you to make you conform to International Standards of Human Rights, I am imposing a metaphysical framework on you and thus engaging in a holy war in all but name.

  21. Graham says:

    Continuing on the J-C thing,

    There’s a fair case to be made that on the global scale, and particularly when set against the loosely-categorizable “dharmic” religious universe of East and South Asia, that Europe and MENA constitute one world, the greater Euro-Mediterranean-Mesopotamian world, and the Abrahamic religions one religious tradition. Most big world history textbooks of the early 20c seemed to explicitly take this line. The west begins with Egypt and Ur.

    It’s fuzzy- Zoroastrianism contributed a lot and is the only recorded instance of a quasi-monotheism emerging from Indo-European polytheistic religion, just as the Abrahamic ones emerged out of the Semitic pantheons. But Zoroastrianism the religion and Persianate civilization form a transition zone to the Indian civilizational world.

    I am often well-persuaded of this view, personal sympathies to South and East Asia notwithstanding.

    But then it’s all a matter of the scale and the comparison one wishes to make. If you want to focus on those top level distinctions, fine. But within them there’s been plenty to differentiate “Christendom” from Islam, or Europe from MENA, just as in other contexts there have been reasons to distinguish with Christendom or Europe [not identical frameworks or issues] between North and South or East and West. They’re all correct perspectives.

    Put in now older, more secular terms, we just went through a long and profound, morally cutting World War II and Cold War among variants of moral and political philosophy all invented in 19c Western Europe and shoving together bits of flotsam combined and recombined from both the Enlightenment and Romanticism. The Germans and Russians murdered one another’s nations over which 19c German utopian ideology would win out. [I realize Marx considered himself not a utopian, but still.] All in all, a very narrow framework of conflict within one relatively narrow tradition of one civilization, scarcely intelligible in the idioms of other civilizations. But they were real distinctions, just the same.

  22. Graham says:

    I think Taleb gets somewhere with his reframing of the point of religion, but not quite far enough.

    The point of religion is to answer questions that science doesn’t, hasn’t, can’t, and in its wisest moments probably won’t try to. The question now, to me, is whether a majority of humans any longer want or need those questions answered, or even any longer think in terms of those questions, or how much.

    1. An answer to the finality and terror of death.

    2. Purpose in life.

    3. Meaning of the universe and humanity’s place in it.

    I am always impressed, for example, when an atheist [meaning here, someone who claims to have no belief in an afterlife or any other cosmological framework that either preserves consciousness or merges it with something cooler] indicates they do not fear death, for example. Wow. This is exceptional, oddly unremarked courage and stoicism. Beyond stoicism, really. Even the stoics could give some sort of account of the universe and life’s meaning beyond naked materialism.

    I know well humans have tried on every variant on all three questions, some more “secular” than others.

    Continuity of one’s family, tribe, nation and culture was a big one in the ancient world, lightly dressed with pantheons of culture-appropriate gods and spirits, and one never seriously threatened until modern times. I concede its broad secularity, apart from the gods. It’s ancient weakness, recognized by salvationist religions, is that peoples and civilizations eventually disappear/die. [David Goldman/Spengler's entire schtick in favour of Judaism/Christianity/Judeo-Christianity could be boiled down to this trope- embrace salvation because all your worldly lineage is doomed eventually.] Still, some beat the odds and live on. Jews, Armenians, arguably Han and various Indian peoples are still doing well. If you allow from some historical morph, so are others. I like this one, of course. But it has it’s weaknesses in an age that cares little for it.

    Most options that try on ‘spirituality but not religion’ language are just making a false distinction of substituting low-specific content religion and not calling it religion.

    Science-fiction writers and some physicists have tried on the wonder of the universe and the human mission to learn and explore. Pretty good. Probably not enough content for most humans down the future centuries. Also, essentially a new religion. “Wonder” is not a materialist concept.

    Existentialist philosophy is a magnificent attempt at a substitute. I suppose I consider Nietzsche the progenitor and Rand a tangent of this tradition. All very good until one gets down to realizing that the essential philosophical act is to recognize the meaninglessness of it all and then invent meaning for oneself. Probably our best option, but it both opens us up to new forms of sectarianism and to the horrible awakening one has when one remembers it is all a construct one invented for oneself.

    Anyway, ultimately I lose the will to go on with this aspect of it. I guess people just don’t care anymore. I don’t know whether or not that is a new moral/spiritual stage for humanity.

  23. Graham says:

    I was of course reminded of this passage from Derb, cited here years ago and which for some reason I trolled back across this weekend:

    “The ordinary modes of human thinking are magical, religious, social, and personal. We want our wishes to come true; we want the universe to care about us; we want the approval of those around us; we want to get even with that s.o.b who insulted us at the last tribal council. For most people, wanting to know the cold truth about the world is way, way down the list…

    When the magical (I wish this to be so: therefore it is so!) and the religious (We are all one! Brotherhood of man! The universe loves us!) and the social (This is what all good citizens believe! If you believe otherwise you are a BAD PERSON!) and the personal (That bastard didn’t show me the respect I’m entitled to!) all come together, the mighty psychic forces unleashed can be irresistible ”

    SO I occasionally say that, if religion can be generically defined as belief in anything not material [which is about the only all encompassing terms I can think of], then we are all religious. It is inescapable. It’s form may vary, and we may well stop calling it that, but it will always be with us.

    I wonder if it is possible to have a society that has one ‘religion’ that is overwhelmingly conceptually dominant, it ceases to be thought of as a separate category of thing called ‘religion’. I don’t know if we have ever had that, quite. We have had cultures whose stories, beliefs, and attendant moral systems have risen so organically and endured that they are accepted as part of the air. We have had salvationist religions that took over so thoroughly that their truth claims were accepted by most without discussion and which served as guides to every aspect of life. But they were always understood to be a category of thing under the equivalent name of religion- all your classical civilizations and the Abrahamic ones made distinctions among sacred and profane, and so forth. Perhaps only at its earliest, naturalistic stages of shamanist practices and/or ancestor veneration would it have been considered anything else. Perhaps not even then.

    We may be the first civilization to invent a new religion for ourselves with holy objects, holy people, ritual practices, and demons, without even knowing it. We’re not quite there yet.

  24. Harry Jones says:

    In my view, organized religion gets both too much credit and too much blame.

    To give Christianity credit for the rise of science is to ignore the long time period between the birth of Christianity and the birth of modern science. What was the holdup?

    To blame Christianity for all the evils of the world, well… that’s been debunked to death.

    The point of explaining is to be able to control. You want to figure out something works so you can work it. The only truth that matters is pragmatic truth. That’s by definition: pragmatism is about results, and results are what matters. Religion tries to explain and control an entirely different aspect of life from the physical sciences. Direct comparison is ludicrous.

    The hard sciences do a reasonably good job of helping us control the world. We can have technology without science, because we had technology before science, but the scientific method speeds up technological development. Religion hasn’t done nearly as well in its own problem space, but – to be fair – that’s a much harder task than science has accepted.

    And philosophy is what you get when the quest to explain the world gets lost in the weeds. “What is truth?” quoth jesting Pilate, and would not stay for an answer. If you have to ask what truth is, there’s no point trying to tell you.

  25. Jim says:

    According to Quine truth is disquotation. “P” is true if P.

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