Wednesday, September 19, 2018

Harris - Peterson 4 - part 2 "Live Blog"

Harris and Peterson agree that we can’t always solve utilitarian calculations over multiple time periods. Harris says we are certainly getting better. Peterson agrees, but suggests fundamental evolutionary based ethics do better.

I think Stuart Kauffman’s “Reinventing The Sacred” does a really good job teasing out how cold rationality fares in complex forward predictions compared to informed intuition. Kauffman suggests that our faith in rationality is mainly backward looking. It rarely does well with Black Swan events. It just looks really good in hind sight.

This is a fairly powerful argument. I suspect Harris would dismiss it by rationalism’s 1% improve rate compounded into the future.

48:00 - 48:40
Nice to see Harris saying that moral messages may best be conveyed by story rather than scientific papers.  This seems like a winning position.  I’m not sure Peterson would disagree. He would probably say that those stories are likely to become optimized with archetypical forms whose moral lessons are tied to evolutionarily selected pro-social ethics.

Peterson gets back to the danger of atheism leaving nothing to fill an ethical and social coherence role.

I think Harris would agree. We’ll soon see. I think Harris acknowledges the need for a moral ethic. He just thinks it shouldn’t be based in supernaturalism. In effect you have a non-supernatural, humanist fact based United Church.

Murray made an excellent point with respect to Nietzsche. If you remove the religious substructure, or even just parts of it, you may end up with no redemptive narrative or vehicle. This may result in overwhelming guilt build up which can’t be assuaged.

I’d note the current build up of white guilt and privilege seems spot on here. However, I would be very surprised if a more formalized redemptive narrative doesn’t soon come in to fill this gap. Right now it is still a nascent “grace” based form. You just need to admit your privilege and then start giving things up. This is obviously problematic. It is not sustainable because there are no limits to what should be given up. Thus, for me, it comes across as very cult-like.  There is nothing wrong with that per se. Most new religious movements start off as cults. They then navigate a socio-cultural fitness landscape and either stumble into some combination of heuristics that work or they die. There seem to be a few obvious ways confessional progressivism can go to keep things sustainable. Whether or not it takes one of those paths, innovating through combinatorics and novelty, is of course any one’s guess.

Peterson and Murray are hammering home the  critique of motivational force in rationalism/atheism.  As Murray says, atheists aren’t lining up for weekly Stoicism readings.

This seems like a cheap shot. But, it is also somewhat accurate. The cheapness is that as per the debate audience - people do line up to discuss things somewhat regularly. The critique is that the regularity is insufficient for societal coherence. Things are just too spread out.

Peterson - “if we can’t move into the realm of deep discussions about good and evil then we can’t reach the level necessary to help people who have been touched by malevolence.”

This might be true, but I think Harris’ point stands - you can get lots of depth out of non-supernatural understandings of human nature which also include heroism and depravity. Why do you need a story and supernaturalism? I think the rejoinder is so that people believe they can leave their funk even if they think they can’t. They have to believe in the impossible. Saying you can do it. It is rational to think so, may not have the saving force necessary to motivate. Quasi-factuality may be needed.

I think this is a very significant point. I hope they stick on this one, or that Murray holds their feet to it. I would like to hear his view too.

I really like the current discussion about inspiration’s role in the bible and other books. Mormonism has certainly dealt with this much more than any other religion. The general answer from this tradition is fairly close to what Peterson says. “Divine” inspiration is a process greatly influenced by the person recording and experiencing it. It also involves a sense of coherence with deep societal values and needs. Peterson would certainly say this is the Logos of our evolutionary roots being expressed. I would tend to agree. At certain times, inspiration seems to find great coherence with some very fundamental human moral issues and lessons. The accuracy of this coherence certainly can be questioned. Sometimes what felt right is out of whack from rationalistic ethics. But, I would wager a guess that, on average, it is probably fairly expressive of the existential concerns of a group - provided of course that the individual conduit has a significantly deep history of trying and succeeding in a lifelong experience of attenuating to the group’s moral and existential needs.

In effect “revelation” is often a licensed expression of group morality and moral needs. Can individuals game this? Certainly. Tammy Fay Baker and all the other televangelists certainly do. Do all the “shamans” of a group or their “prophets” game things? It is certainly possible. But it is also possible that there are significant filtering processes for religious leaders in terms of their pro-sociality. Many people might think leaders are bedevilled and are simply grafting. For instance, the Shaw of Iran may be interpreted as corrupt and destroying his society. That is a very valid point. It is also likely that despite the corruption and other things that he is actually interested in the existential survival of his people.

Which one dominates? Over time, systems almost always corrupt. I think this rather complicated and long post summarizes how things are apt to work

Peterson’s point about a hierarchy of revelation (wisdom) is a very hard point to argue against. I’m not sure how Harris will respond? Has he ever encountered anyone well versed in modern revelation with respect to scripture (not just new age like revelation/intuition)? I’m not sure. I guess we’ll see.

Harris makes the point that all these scriptural revelations are simply things done by people. This leads to an obvious rejoinder - “what would you call the best moral exposition done”? Scripture? What would you call the best possible exposition?

This of course fails if one believes God to be a perfect being (in absolute terms). But what if God is simply representative of the best, or near best that can be done in a given context?

This is certainly within the scope of Mormon’s rather materialisitc perspective of Deity. In that view perfection is always getting better because both the environment and individuals are growing in capacity. It is interesting to see that Peterson has likely recreated this position. I think Harris is still hung up on absolutes though…

I love Murray’s answer here. We are currently creating a whole new set of religions that are reinventing all sort of heresies. They are not yet drawing blood, but it is very easy to imagine them taking a path whereby they do. I’ve been saying this for years. Social progressivist and fundamentalist politics are de facto religions or quasi-religions. They just lack supernaturalism. But they are just as quasi-factual or a-factual - at least in many areas.

Harris is again going back to the argument that religions have irreconcilable belief differences and therefor we can’t have a multi-path approach to the “truth”. I can see what Peterson is getting pretty frustrated at this. He says “then try Buddhism Sam.”. I don’t see why you can’t have different paths. This is a pluralistic, multi-cultural approach. Each group can deeply believe in at the utility of their own traditions. Accept that other things work for other people, for a variety of reasons. Then you’ll probably find out that where people overlap is in the deepest aspects of pro-sociality. You wouldn’t expect the Dali Lama and the Pope to get in a fist fight. They are probably both really pro-social people who would love each other’s company I think Harris may be too caught up in history here. People’s gene-culture evolution to pluralism continues to increase. Religious pluralism is more and more likely People can be subsumed by emergent pro-social essences while still expressing different story based expressions.

Perhaps that is why Harris’ hyper-rationalism has always felt a bit scary and tolitalitarian in potential. It seems to allow minimal expressional difference. Two stories with different surface ideas that different people can take to support mutually incompatible ideas is a real threat to Harris. It just doesn’t mesh with hyper-rationalist book keeping. And yet in practice, the degree of error probably isn’t that big a deal. It is the deeper stuff that matters. Over time religions seem to be tending toward more and more focus on this deeper stuff, while the superficial trappings are more like individual’s tattoo’s. They are more about colour than incompatibility.

The guests make a distinction that the pursuit of truth and the pursuit of tolerance are not the same thing. To me this is an essential point. Harris seems to think the pursuit of truth will lead to better outcomes than the pursuit of tolerance. Peterson and Murray seem to take the opposite position.

This is where I think Peterson’s 20th century genocidal worries really seem to provide some power. It is easy to go wrong when you put pressure on groups to pursue truth. It is harder to go wrong when you try to pursue tolerance. Of course both positions need some boundaries and tensions to work. Thus, Im quite happy including Harris’ hyper-rationalism as part of pluralistic endeavour to better humanity. It is, in effect, another belief system that works for a certain percentage of the population. Just let others believe differently, and focus on people’s and group’s pro-sociality much more than the specific strokes in their story expressions. 


Murray says that the worry is that the roots of the enlightenment seem not to have gone very far and very deep.  I would fully agree with this. We are dealing with gene-culture traits that take a long time to stabilize and a long-time to change. Going too fast is reckless. That doesn’t mean certain groups can’t go faster than others. Just don’t assume everyone is like you. Hence the importance of humility stories - say like those in most religious traditions…..

Monday, September 17, 2018

Harris - Peterson 4 part 1: "Live" Blog

Harris just laid down the “defend astrology” gauntlet. I think Peterson will take it. It is a devil of a trap.

How would I handle it? In a debate, you’d obviously avoid. But real diabetic requires response. I would be tempted to say that astrology might work as a very archaic religion, provided its moral lessons were firm and invariant enough. The problem with astrology is that it is minimally grounded in moral lessons about what to do with each other, and (as far as I know) more optimized to stories about how different personality types interact. Thus I’d be tempted to say it is more descriptive than prescriptive. 

Now obviously there are lots of general prescriptions in it, but they seem not to deal with any big life conundrums. Instead they seem to “instantiate” description in terms of easier to understand actions which embody certain personality types.  “Take a risk” has no ring and yang to it. It has minimal stories about why risks go right and why they go wrong. Astrology simply postulates (as far as I can deduce form very minimal connection with it) how different personality types should engage with risk.

That’s a useful lesson. But, it seems to be a very base lesson. Different religions seem to have evolved much more complicated and nuanced views which tend to be much more applicable to large sized groups. I suspect Peterson may go down this road. I would also note the reasonably robust role science of religion researchers such as Aran Norezayan have found between the co-evolution of religion and governance. They seem to lead and pace each other in the selection process for larger polity sizes and polity size stabilization.

Seems like Peterson’s approach is fairly similar to mine. Astrology was a creative impetus that helped orient people to larger, more truthful things. Without the ability to be creative and to be wrong, we risk not having the creative freedom to progress as much as we might otherwise do. 

I believe this is largely Eric Weinstein’s position too (see his debate with Ben Shapiro & Sam Harris).

How much counterfactual license is needed for creativity, especially radical creative genius?

I’m sure Harris will counter with his “imagine any false idea that enables creativity and strip one falsehood from it”. This slippery slope argument is not very convincing to me. At some point there are phase changes. We don’t know what net levels of irrationality or religious like thinking these phase changes occur at. But it is highly probable that phase changes occur. I would also suspect that they follow some type of non-linearity, such as an S- curve.

Harris is taking Weinstein’s sand box approach. You need to be able to distinguish fact from fiction. You do this by suspending disbelief, albeit temporarily. Constant suspension of belief becomes problematic.

Peterson raises an interesting technical point. Is the sandbox strategy consistent with rationality? Should you ever be able to suspend disbelief? Any non-stamp collecting scientist would clearly say yes. Einstein’s Gedanken are truly powerful. How deep down the rabbit hole do you need to go? This is important because you’ll have a standard distribution here. For some problems, you really might need someone almost entirely tuned out of reality. Where do you situate society to get the right mean and right spread? I think this, and the issue of rates of change & coherence are the two fundamental questions in this series. Unfortunately the moderators haven’t really steered things here. I suspect Eric Weinstein would have…

I liked Petersons last couple of comments. Would be nice if he had read some Norezayan to make the case a bit stronger.

Harris is now mentioning the “genetic fallacy”. Because something emerged from evolution, there are no other ways to get these good things - and that the products are necessarily good.

Murray is a great moderate.

Looks like Harris is worried about the mean of the population distribution with respect to religiosity. He fears there are going to be too many people clinging to and leveraging justifications for their medieval beliefs. I suspect he figures that almost no spread of population into this zone is acceptable in a normalized distribution. And that is why I worry about the rates of change his hyper-rationality might inflict on the world. It may assume people are a lot more like him than like those than Peterson appeals to. I suspect Peterson’s approach is more scalable and sustainable than Harris’. Both meet up in the end, but one strikes me as a naive utopianism that has fairly large risks of losing some major social moorings while the other simply risks a slow rate of change. I guess that is the fundamental difference between liberals and conservatives. I guess that is why I also like this discussion series. You aren’t after an answer, you’re after an enactment of ting-yang tension.

27:00 - 28:00
Sounds like Peterson is going off the deep end a bit. I think he has a fair number of mistakes (or big assumptions) about the evolutionary process here. His sexual selection theory ‘may be’ valid. But there is no reason to think so. His inference about “the spirit of the father” being a fundamental part of the evolutionary process is a big leap in this conversation. I can see why Harris got lost in the end. It is easy to dismiss. I’m having to take a few minutes to figure out what he is actually meaning. No use in dismissing his thoughts simply due to his “night” language (aka religious terms) and his bad evolutionary process thoughts.

I think what he is doing is a bit of a combo of pragmatic iteration toward the truth with Platonic ideals. A platonic idea leads and paces us and is selected via hierarchies and the sexual selection which re-enforces hierarchies in certain ways (which may or may not work the way he imagines ( male hierarchy with females resonating their selection of it).

The resonance between male hierarchical meritocracy with female sexual selection may actually be more interesting than Peterson makes it sound. For example what if there was severe dissonance between female sexual selection trait preference and male hierarchical meritocrital preference? Females are picking men who other men think are counter-fit (say Beta’s). Men may then chose the Beta route for better sexually caused fitness, or the meritocric approach for better natural (non-sexual) fitness.

This sort of seems to be what actually happens… However, Peterson is saying these both line up (to some degree or another). I have no idea how you would verify this. What you probably get is a decent overlap between the sexual and natural selection traits (call it the ideal of “the father” if you have to). I suspect in most cases, a mixed strategy is most fit. But evidence is pretty clear that it need not be so. Hence, Harris’ genetic fallacy argument is very apt here. And you can see Peterson is no evolutionary scientist. But we can’t fault people for not being perfect. Life is more interesting learning from people than pridefully cajoling them.


Peterson “The idea of the spirit of the father may reflect something metaphysically important about the fundamental nature of reality itself”.  I think he’s hinting at how Platonic forms work in conjunction with both Pragmatism and selection.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Harris Peterson - "Live" Blog Thoughts

My Live Blog

I think the main issues should be the rates of change/evolution at the net societal level. This means some groups can go much faster. They can explore and test. Others can go much slower. But what matters is, in general, what can be commonly agreed upon as a safe and effective mean rate of change, and what the distribution of these changes should look like.

My Steelman of Peterson’ Position

Peterson believes that evolution has selected for a set of beliefs that are deeply coded in the human psyche via Darwin machines/heuristics many of which produce an operalization in the form of religious meta-truthful stories.  It is important for people to be connected to these deep narratives in a way that maintains essential tensions. Pure rationality risks eschewing these tensions, not through malice, but through unintended commission and hubris. Hyper-rationality risks becoming too far removed from evolutionary grounding. If we will always recreate a de facto god-like ideal due to the inescapable role of hierarchy why don’t we just accept this and ensure it is grounded in evolutionary robust lessons which can change at a rate that is survivable by modern societies.

My Steelman of Harris’ Position

Rationality is the only solid base upon which communication can build. Religion necessarily introduces a manipulable appeal to authority structure which can be and has been coo-opted for nefarious ends. While the lesson’s of religion are indeed useful and have indeed been shaped by evolutionary forces and selection, useful myths are not necessary. Furthermore they purposefully obfuscate reality preventing people from investigating and deducing what is really happening. Religion and meta-truth is an unnecessary crutch. Anything religion can do and say can be done and said in a less supernatural and counter-factual way to the same end.

Peterson has framed Harri’s position as a technical philosophical issue concerning how to mediate between facts and values. He suggests Harris does this by an appeal to our fundamental ability to recognize truth (or perhaps to minimize obvious harm)

This obviously gets into the fitness landscape issue brought up in Vancouver 2. Sometimes things have to get temporarily worse before they can get permanently better. This obviously raises consequentialism or utilitarian issues (I’m not well versed enough on ethical philosophy to meaningfully tease out distinctions here).

My personal preference is to avoid this type of technical philosophy. It reminds me of how many angels on a pin head type question. Squaring the circle just isn’t as valuable as it may seem. This is because the bigger issue seems to be whether religion that is somewhat grounded in evolutionary lessons is more or less apt to get caught up in technocratically blind hubris than is Harris’ hyper-rationality. I think rationality has a better chance here, but its variance is much larger. Thus it is a riskier bet. However, I would probably accede that over a very long time, rationality works better. A 0.01% difference over a thousand generations is pretty substantial. Thus, if you’re not too concerned about how deep the local wells are, you’re probably better off with rationalism. I suspect the issue is that religion is almost certain to get to the same places as rationality, albeit in a slower way, and with less chance of catastrophically deep well.

This is not an obvious position. Religion is usually seen as archaic, arbitrary, and purposefully confrontational (due to its strong in-group out-group gradients). I just don’t think that applies to modern religion (which excludes most forms of anti-pluralistic fundamentalism). I think moderate religions (say, united church) and pluralistically oriented, moderately fundamentalistic religions (say,  mormonism) are much less confrontational and more pluralistic than most progressivist secular, ethically bound groups.

Peterson - It isn’t obvious to him how to present Harris’ hyper-rational ethics in a way that is motivating to people and grips a society.

I’d agree. I think Harris’ approach is very appealing to a small percentage of people. I think this percentage will increase over time. Societies are become less religious. But it is not obvious that they are becoming more rational.

If your ethical foundation is not appealing enough, in a large population, competition means someone will come up with something that is more engaging. If your society isn’t firmly rooted in some endearing moralities, this can go very wrong.

12:00 - 14:00
Murray talks about Jesus smuggling - bringing in religion at the point your opponent is weakest. I think Harris does a good job suggesting that his issue is not this, but hidden contagion. If you allow for any useful myth (practical but not factual truth), your system eventually gets corrupted.

Perhaps I’m just too much of a pragmatist, but this strikes me as philosophically true but practically wrong. It’s also why I consider utopianism to be Harris’ Achilles heel. Perfect guides are always corrupted by imperfect interpreters. Harris places rationalism as a directionally good-enough refiner.  This is probably true on a long-enough timescale, but I’m not sure we will necessarily survive the dips and valleys that are likely to come with rationalism’s malignant exploitation. This is especially true if the rate of change is so fast that gene-cultural factors don’t have time to stabilize in the population at a rate sufficient to accommodate such re-mooring. I think rationalistic ethics are just too easy to exploit for nefarious ends. Of course, so too is religion. But religion has at least been with us long enough so that people are very adept and sophisticated in spotting (explicitly or implicitly) its abuse. If you think Tele-evangelists are an obvious counter-point to this, just image how bad the same population might fare with the worst iterations of scientific racism or scientific ultranationalism… These positions don’t necessarily have redemption components nor moderating ying-yang tensions.

Harris has just said that magic doesn’t lose any of its intrigue or value even if you know it’s fake. Peterson’s rejoinder is that he is not so sure he knows which parts are fake and which aren’t. I think the placebo literature here is pretty interesting. For some things the placebo effect works and works for fairly long periods of time. For other things it doesn’t.  Belief may have corollary benefits that don’t necessarily reproduce without it. One of those may be insatiable curiosity (at a broader population percentage than pure rationalism can muster). It may also produce a sense of humility that isn’t necessarily accomplished to the same extent amongst the same spread of the population as rationalism. These are things that should be studied. We can’t just assume they work for one side or the other. I suspect Peterson may go here, but he also seems to be taking a much more conciliatory role with Harris. I think after his first two phone interviews with Harris, Peterson is much more aware of how riled up and fixated Harris can get, and I think Peterson is deliberately avoiding this. It is just too easy for him to go to the exact same place, producing nothing of value.


Peterson just made the case that Harris’ ideal isn’t a destination, but a trajectory. Basically, anything that improves our state is what we are after. We are not after a certain Platonic? ideal. 

I suspect Peterson’s follow up argument will be that trajectory based value systems have to worry about going in the wrong direction. This is gets at issues between local and global fitness landscapes. If there is no outside arbiter, and not enough ways to adequately measure “better”, up can become down.

I think this is a very strong point. I’m sure this arises from Peterson’s study of early 20th century tolitalitarianism. The issue becomes even more pronounced when an entire system loses touch with “reality” and Mandarin technocracy loses any of its grounding tethers. Normally periodic commoner revolutions re-tether things. But what do you do in a system where the tethers are designed not to exist? Or the tethers have be broken by denying the utility of evolutionary based moral goods? Can we not convince ourselves of anything?

Really interesting to see the parallels between Harris’ and Peterson’s arguments.

Harris’ rejoinder. Time to see if I was right. I suspect Harris will dodge the untethering issue. He will most likely say that rationality combined with free thought enables anyone to challenge the group-thought / technocratic Mandarin trap.

Peterson took a much less confrontational track toward Harris than I imagined. Instead of hitting the “untethering” issue directly, he makes the case that a directional approach to good and bad in, when you drop metaphysical baggage, the very fundamentals of Christianity. 

I quite like how Peterson brings in the purpose of embodiment. I suspect Harris will say that embodiment is probably fine. What is problematic is that embodiment always incorporates error. Analogies are never perfect. What religion seems to do is to focus too much on the supernatural, i.e. the “errors” at the expense of correct underlying truth.

Seems like I accurately predicted Harris’ response. “Is the flesh made of dogmatism and supernaturalism and other worldliness? Historically it has been. And that has been the problem with religion. If you denude it with everything that in unjustifiable with 21st science, what you get down to is something more universal and less provincial than christianity per se”

22:00 - 23:20
Peterson talks about all the things, like art, drama, music, etc that are spandrel led in the “instantiation” of the expression of moralized directionality. He is uncertain if rationality can reproduce such richness. I would agree. I think the criticism though, is that such richness enables a lot of erroneous folk ideas to infiltrate religion’s central message. For instance, tile work which replaces the gaucheness of images starts to be seen as conveying some true moral value. I can see some strained ways in which this might be true, especially for really intelligent people. However, this seems to leverage natural human tendencies to mythologize and associate meaning with fairly arbitrary things that are not central to a process and indeed may be counter-productive to it or larger frames in which those actions exist.  However, human evolutionary history has selected for this type of error (false positives) because they are less costly than assuming something with no direct value actually has no long term value (false negative). I think the elaborate processing ceremonies on South America cassava production versus African cassava production reflect this tension. (SA ritualizes the process. It is safe. Africa streamlines the process which is unsafe).

Murray does the perfect job as a host - “the worry of accepting the Peterson or the Murray position (on repeating Judaeo-Christian roots) is that is softens up the ground for “Jesus Smuggling” by others, even if we aren’t doing it”.

Harris uses a very good example on constructing meaning from clearly fake things like tarot cards. You don’t have to lie about the mechanism.

This is yet another thing that is true in principal and fairly incorrect in practice. For some people (probably a small percentage), no physical device/sign is needed. Yet clearly for most people most of the time, this is clearly incorrect. Even something known as fake brings in a physicality that makes the experience more meaningful. This is especially true if the physical signals resonate with the message itself. A high degree of resonance across multiple mediums and layers is deeper than one that isn’t. It has less chance of being substantially wrong. Why? I’m not entirely sure and don’t think some ex post facto BS would make the answer any more meaningful..

Seems like Peterson is taking the same position I am. Perhaps he has an answer to the “why”

Unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he does…

Great Reference
Don D Hoffman cog scientist - our mind is evolved to get things wrong in fairly specific ways

Harris - “The fact that we can even talk about the possible fitness advantage of partially wrong ideas over factually truthful ideas demonstrates that we have a larger picture of what is in fact true.  This is what religion gets wrong.”

Initially this struck me as a very strong point. But thinking about how I would respond to this, I’m not sure it is very strong at all. I’m not sure what this actually implies. It sounds very good rhetorically, but I just don’t see what type of truth Harris alludes to here? Is he simply saying we can distinguish between useful myths and factual truths?

I think the “rate of change” argument handles Harris’ comments. What matters is that the rate of societal change doesn’t exceed the group’s ability to cohere and survive during such change.

I also suspect Peterson’s earlier point about “not being entirely certain what is maladaptive or unnecessary myth and what isn’t” is apropos here. Harris is making a point about something that is somewhat easy to distinguish, factual and practical reality - in theory, and things that aren’t, subtle value judgments whose causal effects may be hopelessly chaotic over most every time period.

Harris - “It is as simple as ‘values are merely facts about the experience of conscious creatures”

I can’t say I agree with this at all. It strikes me as incredibly authoritarian. For this to not be authoritarian, you would have to have info about aggregate group level experiences, none of which are necessarily applicable to any individual. The easy way to understand this in in terms of what population level ‘facts’ say about individuals. Nothing at all. 

Peterson was just challenged on whether he believed that stupid people need myth because they can’t do rationality. Normally people would retreat away from this. I quite like how Peterson has no quibbles engaging with this idea despite its normally awful appearances. This is very much one of the things we are talking about when we say society may need some degree of metaphorical (or practically adaptive truth) in order to cohere and stay cohered. Although I certainly think IQ is putting things much too narrowly. Nonetheless, here is where Peterson’s penchant for always thinking about the uncomfortable areas of his ideas lifts him up. He can immediately engage with the essence of the idea instead of hanging to give an appearance of retreat which undermines his actual position. Love him or hate him, it makes for good and engaging rhetoric.

Peterson finally mentions, albeit briefly, with the issue of rates of change.  Seems like Murray thinks this is the big issue too.

56:00 - 57:00
Harris restates his superhero argument. He can tell his daughter that superheroes are in fact real and superheroness should be honoured.

I’m not sure how Peterson would confront this. My first instinct is to mythologize this and say that aspects of superheroness should in fact be respected. The exact embodiment is certainly variable, but there is a fundamental essence to… hero worship… that is probably needed for societal coherence and for many efficient forms of individual progress among many individuals.

Looks like Peterson and I are aligned in how we approach Harri’s superhero argument.

Interesting to see Harris acknowledge the importance of secular rituals. I think Harris and Peterson have both moved (or more likely are both more likely to feel comfortable in expressing the more moderate sides. I have to give both guys a lot of credit for keeping things very non-confrontational. I think Peterson’s therapeutic skills have certainly played a big role here).

Harris is again saying that the way of putting religious story into the explanation of meaning creates unnecessary conflicts and less-than-optimal

I am surprised at how much Harris is seemingly conceding here. I’ve never thought Harris was against any of these things. I just suspect he was much more fearful of a contagion model. That he is OK with ritual, story, etc, almost makes me think that the issue is one of power - who is making the stories, the rituals etc. If it is rational atheists, then presumably that would be fine. But in practice, I’m not so sure this would be true. Why? Over a couple of generations these things would almost certainly turn back into religion… The religion may certainly look and feel different, but then Peterson’s useful myth religion looks and feels different from the evangelical caricature Harris had initially taken it to be.


I think the most powerful thing in this debate was Peterson’s rationale for why we are unable to know when radical Leftism becomes pathologic. I’ve heard him say this many times, but this time, the thing that really made it germane was his linkage of this fact with liberal tendencies to resist categorization and to always err on the side of compassion (of intent). Great summary.

I’d also suggest that this is the same problem Harris faces. When does hyper-rationalism go to far. What are the warning signs. How do we protect against its possible excesses? I think this is the main reason to keep it as an experiment for willing participants than as a mass movement to replace religion.

Thursday, April 26, 2018

Native Benedictions, Secularism & Treaty Equity

An interesting development here in Canada is the emergence of First Nation benedictions and blessings on public events. For instance, public education events now usually start with a recognition of whose ancestral land the event is taking place on. Then there is usually a benediction by an Elder. In some rare cases this may involve requests for the audience to participate (say turn to each of the four cardinal directions).

It is great to see our first nations being respected and represented. Canada's reconciliation movement is making significant strides.

The incorporation of prayer into public events present some pluralistic conundrums.

Honouring, Coercion, & Voluntary Attendance

For one, state sponsorship/promotion of religion (via public institutions) is a legal no no.  Well, more technically, sponsorship of a particular religion is a no no. Here's an except of an opinion from Canada's Supreme Court (via this law review)

So is having a prayer given by a certain denomination coercion? This is highly doubtful. There is no force of action. What about peer pressure to follow a requested action, like turning to the four sacred corners? This seems to be more of a grey area. For instance, we no longer allow public prayer in schools, perhaps because of its de facto coercive nature. Are voluntarily attended public events run by government entities any different? By sake of their voluntary nature, the answer is, probably. But there is still the legal opinion that prohibits the government (or its proxies) from involvement in religious matters. Prayers are religious matters.

Teasing out Religion
However, when religion doesn't follow Western separation of culture & religion, interpretations of this can be divided. For instance, perhaps the prayer is a cultural expression of saying "hello, welcome" rather than an overtly religious act?

British / Canadian case law takes a fairly liberal view of things here. This view seems to match my (and others) necessary but not sufficient factor approach (i.e. any 6/10 of the following factors)

Thus the cultural approach may be fine, or it may not. In non distinguishable culture-religions, perhaps it depends upon the intent of the act itself? Is the act a religious ceremony? Is is asking for belief? Is it requesting audience participation? Or, is it just a "hello, welcome"?  Can you say no to the religion without also rejecting or being seen to reject the culture?

I'd suggest, at least in my treaty area, benedictions are usually intended as more of a semi-official treaty partner greeting. But, as we'll soon see, that really depends upon who such greetings are reciprocated. My feeling is that they are not reciprocated appropriately and this is why there is more tension (and head burying) than is needed around these events.

De Facto Monoculturalization

One other way to view the prayer issue is to suggest that no particular religion is favoured. All participants and participant groups have equal standing and equal representation of their religious beliefs as expressed through invitational based benediction honours. This seems to be a very Canadian approach - let each group do their thing. We'll all respect it and not feel threatened by it, but rather celebrate each other's heritage.

But what happens when benedictions become monocultural? Say only seventh day adventists start giving every single prayer at public University dinners?

The most common response I've seen to this issue is to say any steps to reconciliation are good and anything that would suggest otherwise is bad.  The issue I have with this is

  1. I think church state separation is good
  2. I worry about the backlash sticking your head in the sand causes (see Trump phenomenon), especially toward marginalized populations
  3. I think this actually infantilizes / tokenizes Native groups in some rather subtle and insidious ways
  4. I don't think it respects the treaty partnerships upon which many blessings / benediction stories are ultimately based.
In short, I think we can do pluralism better. As one person said to me, "its just not that big a deal. It helps reconciliation". Yes, that is probably true, but that argument is eerily similar to the ones Protestants and Catholics used to use when school prayers were around. After all, you didn't "have to" participate back then either....

Doing It Better

The worst thing about the sacralization of these topics is that it prevents rational conversation. When sacralization happens, intent doesn't matter. Blasphemy is insensitive to both intent and context.

With that in mind, let me propose a better solution....

I think the first big shift one needs to make is to view treaties as a two-way street. In my treaty areas, the treaties aren't simple land - benefit/right exchanges. There was an expectation of growing together. Paying for blessings is not growing together. It is, or rather can be, tokenization. Interactions between two peoples involves the exchange of stories - the sharing of moral understandings and values.

When government entities have a native benediction, what is reciprocated? Money / gifts? The conference content? I don't think that exchange is fair nor honourable. What kind of story is the other treaty partner giving back? When there are no reciprocal expectations, there is no opportunity to grow together. The story shared becomes devoid of true significance, and, I'm afraid through good intentions people might be treating the native groups as a type of curio that gives groups "woke" points.

A benediction story requires an exchange of how both sides will come together as treaty partners. This paradigm offers a chance to share what both value and the actions / promises both make. Thus, respect (having a benediction) may be a start, but it can quickly ossify into de facto state religious sponsorship and tokenization.  Instead, if you are going to ask for a benediction, what stories and treaty related unifications are going to be put forward by the asker?

Words are one step. But we can do better. Actions can do better.

Tuesday, April 10, 2018

Harris Klein Argument Analysis

Sam Harris (new atheist and hyper-rationalist) & Ezra Klein (Vox editor) recently sat down to hash out some simmering arguments between them.

Harris was upset that controversial science topics are becoming taboo. This prevents people from knowing how to deal with uncomfortable facts which will certainly emerge in the course of natural human scientific inquiry.  He was tarred by Vox, social progressive anthropologists, and voxsplainers as a pseudo scientific structural racist.

As you can imagine the debate didn't go well. It was a fairly big train wreck. Here's my analysis of why.

Mistake #1: Harris Never Let His Points Stand
Harris has a tendency to be very verbose. This prevented any meaningful back and forth from occurring. Harris would make a good point, does non-african Neanderthal DNA make any noticeable difference in traits? Just because there are differences that doesn't imply any moral value statement about difference.  But rather than leave things here, he would go onto pontificate for another 5 minutes.  This clouded arguments, and meant Klein never had to directly engage with major points.  Worse yet, Harris tended to end his diatribes with fairly moral based reasoning. Klein easily one-upped Harris on this front. Klein always kept the moral high ground.  It was a disaster for Harris.

Mistake #2: While Religion was Socially Ostracized, Progressivism is Certainly Not
If you lived through the new atheist movement there is more than a little schadenfreude here. Harris fell back on moral argumentation. However this time, audience and society sympathy was for his opponent rather than against him/her.  I don't think Harris may have realized how much of a difference this might make in appearances. He certainly was aware how radioactive the topic of race & inheritance is, but he probably thought the fight to disentangle morals from data rationality was worth it.

Good on him for trying. But this disentanglement is one of the major critiques of Harris' hyper-rationalist movement.  Because religious-like dynamics in social confrontations work, they are very unlikely to be forsaken. Harris seemed to view Klein's unwillingness to concede this frame as an act of ingenuineness.

Mistake #3: Treating Klein's Progressivism in Rational Terms Rather Than Religious Terms
This was one of Harris' bigger mistakes. Klein was saving people from eugenified scientism. Harris was attacking them with it & telling them these attacks were for a greater good. This is always a losing argument.

Harris just seemed unable to leverage his usual argument trains to handle the novel landscapes Progressive intersectionalized quasi-religion operates within. Klein came across as policy and people oriented rather than as a scientific denialist & sacrilist. To me, Klein's arguments were much more appealing than Harris'.

Mistake #4: Allowing the White vs. Black Frame Rather than the Asian vs. White Frame
Racial conversations are toxic. Punching down (whether intended or not) comes across as horrid. Harris could have avoided this by purposefully avoided the White Black frame as too loaded and counter-productive while still hitting every point of science he wanted by using the Asian White frame. None of Harris' arguments would have changed. But it would have prevented much of Klein's sympathetic moralizing.  Harris would have been "elevating" Asians rather than denigrating Africans.

Harris is going to learn a painful, Murray-esque, lesson here. While I do feel sorry for him - I in no way think he is a racist - it is interesting seeing Harris loaded with some of the aspersions he has cast on religiously oriented folk over the years.  While I strongly suspect he tries to avoid this, thinking he is tackling the rationality of religious positions, the dynamics he has fostered around religiosity seem very similar to the slimes he got from Klein.

Mistake #5: The Compartmentalization  Required by Hyper-Rationalism May Be Functionally Impossible.
This seemed to be Klein's main point. You can never get away from the legacy of how racial data has been used. When you bring it out into the open, you are responsible for the abuses that come from removing its well-deserved taboos.

I have long thought science need to learn to come to terms with the adaptive "irrationality" of religion. Harris and all New Atheists do not. For Harris to have the right tool set for these types of debates, he can either

  1. Humbly learn from Critical Theorists and Intersectionalists.
  2. Figure a world view that accommodates gradual declines in religious "irrationality".
  3. Magically learn how to win a no-win fight against progressivism's moral high ground.

While I didn't watch the first Jordan Peterson - Harris interview train wreck, I have been impressed by how Harris came back from the totality of that and his second interview with increased awareness of the strength of Peterson's positions. I suspect he will eat humble pie and learn from the Klein disaster. But ultimately he may have to learn how to accept the rhetorical and popular strength of moralized religious-like thinking. 

But, he certainly may not. Aspergery people are like that. He might view hyper-rationalism as a hill worth dying over. Perhaps Eric Weinstein can convince him otherwise. But it is certainly easy to see why Harris views Charles Murray's predicament as so relevant to his own hyper-rationalist quest.

Sunday, April 1, 2018

Fuzzy Boundaries

Fuzzy Selection Boundaries
One critique of multi-level selection theory is the biological reality (or unreality) of groups*.  Individuals are not fully entwined with the group the way individual cells are entwined with a parent organism. Lack of dependency and coordination challenges the reality of a full biological transition to the group level. The critique is that acting as if a fuzzy transition is "real enough" is just not appropriate. While humans outside of any parent group have significantly decreased fitness, they can still survive. Many evolutionists argue selectionist tools can't be legitimately applied to fuzzily cohered groups.

Boundaries are insufficiently clear, stark, or enduring.

Fuzzy Cultural-Ancestry (i.e. "race") Boundaries
Recently, anthropologists have critiqued geneticist David Reich's recent book arguing for the statistical and hence physical reality of statistical cultural-ancestry (i.e. "race"). One of the major complaints is that "race" boundaries are too fuzzy. Variation between populations is near meaningless compared to the variation within the whole population or even within statistically aggregated sub-populations.

This is another example where the complaint is that of insufficiently clear, stark, and enduring boundaries.

Fuzzy Religion Boundaries
One complaint with my (or anyone else's) necessary but not sufficient factor approach (i.e. 6 out of these 9 factors) for defining religion is that it produces boundaries which are too fuzzy. It also risks including groups which may pass a factor test but common sense would strongly suggest might not be religious (e.g. Amway, most zealous but non ultra fanatical comic fans, etc.)

How Many Socio-Biological Boundaries are Fuzzy?
The counter point to the insufficiently clear boundary critique is that some biological boundaries in the field of evolution are just not as solid as folk intuition might otherwise suggest.

For example, Massimo Pigluicci's seminal paper on An Extended Synthesis for Evolutionary Biology lists numerous levels of selection and multiple paths for genetic inheritance (what affects gene fitness).

 It is now clear that several levels of the biological hierarchy are, at least theoretically, legitimate targets of selection, from genes to individuals, from groups of kin to populations to species (Okasha, 2006)

The current emphasis in genomics research is no longer on the effects of individual genes or of single metabolic cas- cades but rather on the system-level properties of entire networks of gene products (Cork & Purugganan 2004; Wray 2007),  
Along similar, yet independent, lines it has been proposed that there are four, not just one, systems of inheritance affecting the evolu- tion of biological organisms (Jablonka & Lamb 2005): the standard genetic one, an epigenetic component (based on the inheritance of epi- genetic markers, e.g., methylation patterns), a behavioral one (e.g., imitation in some species of animals), and a symbolic one (limited, as far as we know, to humans). This has prompted a rethinking of previously basic concepts in evo- lutionary theory, beginning with the idea of a “replicator” (Szathma ́ry 2006), as well as re- newed efforts at empirical research exploring the extent and importance of heritable epige- netic effects (Chandler & Alleman 2008).

Gene-Culture Boundaries?
The incorporation of culture into evolutionary thinking muddies biological boundaries. This is why critiques of multi-level selection theory and other dual or multi-path inheritance models should not be discarded out of hand. The value gained by dealing with fuzzy edges doesn't necessarily compensate the lack of rigour it costs. Faulty logic may indeed create insidious stumbling blocks which are hard to remove.

On the other hand, reality seems to be all about fuzzy boundaries.

Part of the issue comes from the way people understand (or misunderstand) statistics.  For instance, is anything other than a 1-to-1 match for genes to "racial" group acceptable? I doubt it.  There are issues going from population level descriptions to individual level assumptions. Geneticists know not to do this. The public and many non-mathematically educated, humanity oriented, types may not. Further than this, many activists purposefully misconstrue this boundary so as to fire up righteous resistance. After all, if objective facts can be used nefariously.  In some people's minds, better to create taboos to ensure this can never happen.

In many ways this is reminiscent of academic purity arguments around fuzzy boundary contagion....

This is not to say that "objective scientism" on topics such as "race" / ancestors can't be offensive. It certainly can be extremely offensive. My own Sami / Lap heritage was definitely subject to this (albeit with the addition of "white dis-privilege").

Definite things can still be probabilistic. Anyone who has taken a quantum course knows this. Reconstructing probabilistically determined entities is never going to be a 1-to-1 enterprise. Perhaps the statistical socio-physics literature has produced some work here. I'm not sure, and to me, engaging Luddites on this front tends to boorishness.  The two sides have different utility functions. Both are justifiable. They just represent different Haidt teloses.  Neither should be universally mandated.

While one may be more "real" than the other, they need to exist in tension. Without this, you tend to generate some rather nasty secondary effects (hyper-rationalism which increases the chance of eugenic like perspectives emerging or taboo based anti-scientism / Ludditism / socially approved "facts").  This is partly why I support learning how to live with and work with "religious" ways of knowing. Societal coherence (& survival) requires it.

Here is one physical analogy of the situation. You have an individual item you want to test (cultural/ethnic ancestry, religiousness, group level). It produces some of the same signals as the category you are to test. Let's say you notice a -1 charge. Is it an electron? What about a Tau lepton? (Both have this charge)

You test some properties. It has a half integer spin. What is it guaranteed to be?  (Both have this spin)

At this point you can't conclude. Let's assume other measures are unavailable. You might guess which one it is based upon probabilities. Electrons are more plentiful than Tau's. Has the particle's reality changed?

I think arguments boil down to a couple of scenarios:

  1. Treating the "particle" as set of probabilistically composed options (i.e. a X% chance of an e- and (1-X)% chance of a T-.
  2. Treating them an a single indistinguishable entity that has an inescapable chance of error. (i.e. its always an electron, we're just wrong X% of the time)
  3. Treating them an an indistinguishable entity that, if used, produces an inescapable chance catastrophe.
  4. Treating the system as a single entity (which has the average properties of its entities, say a mass which is the average of the e- & T-)

My own naivete tends to see the anthropological critique of "race" / statistical ancestry as an example of case 4 thinking. I suspect genetic evolutionists see things as a case 1 scenario.

I suspect another major issue with fuzzy boundaries in social science work is the issue of scale.

Scale is rather arbitrary. For example, what is the ideal scale for "race" / statistical ancestry? While it is easy to assume anthropologists are naive of quantitative methods for phylogeny, I doubt that is really the case. I suspect they mainly reject it because of error concerns, utility calculations, and the secondary effects this might have in how they and their systems value people.

And so, while regression can optimize the scale of sub-population groupings, it is always going to be somewhat arbitrary. This is because the scale of distinct lineages varies across the world. People who were genetically isolated (to varying degrees) did not produce groupings of the same size. This makes scales rather arbitrary. Are you looking for distinguishable phenotypes or distinguishable markers? Migration genetics seems to look for anything that produces distinguishable populations so as to track movement. That does not necessarily correspond to distinguishable phenotypical differences. It, of course, may, but this is of course probabilistic.

The heritability and distinctiveness of culture is, I suspect, the nail that seals the fate of anthropological interpretation. If cultural difference is not significant and is so malleable so quickly, "race" can become as trite as assuming the colour of clothes you wear one day to another says anything about who you are. Of course, many people, like Amazon, Facebook, etc. would suggest the clothes you wear on any day enable them to probabilistically say a lot about you. But if you went from a goth to a cowboy to a prep, have you really changed?  Process philosophy starts rearing its complicating head...

However, if cultural difference is significant, and long-lasting enough, then the anthropological interpretation is sealed, albeit in a different direction.  I think gene-culture work, such as the classic lactose problem illustrates the value of this interpretational frame. Similarly, I think the evolutionary synthesis represented by Pigluicci's classic paper, heightens the role of cultural factor influence on genetic phenotypes enough to severely weaken the anthropological interpretation.  However, I don't think it destroys it.

I think both positions are needed for the tension they produce. But as Reich says, the balance is definitely shifting - as painful as that may be some. It is one more thing that seems to be forcing science and society to confront fuzzy boundary issues on sensitive topics.

Here's a sample of the sacralization of the topic. This suggests rational conversation is all but impossible. A reconciliation to Haidt's two teloses seems all but inevitable.

*This is a critique most germane to the MSL1 formulation. MLS2 posits collectives reproducing collectives.

Wednesday, March 28, 2018

Separation Of (Secular) Church & State

Now that more people are coming to see zealous intersectionality / Social Justice as a de facto new religion, the obvious question is, "what implication does this have for America's tradition of the separation between church and state."

See 1:39:09 in this video for a question

  1. Universities are supporting the promulgation of a specific religion.
  2. Human resource and Diversity offices should be very careful about whether their actions are de facto proselytization's of a specific religion.
  3. Government and private business are, in many cases, explicitly prioritizing a specific religion, albeit for "good ends".
  4. Some Critical Theory departments may best be integrated into Religious Studies departments.
  5. There should be clear distinctions between the study of certain topics and activism on those topics.
  6. How do you accommodate physical "safe spaces" (physical churches) into public post-secondary campuses?
  7. Can current Religious accommodation laws accommodate the needs / interests of this new religion.
  8. Religious and indigenous perspectives should be elevated in value.

I think the major issue is going to be how Universities use the insights from this class of de facto "religions". For instance, religious studies produce unique and valuable perspectives on ethical topics. Whitehead, one of the major proponents of this perspective was clearly influenced by religion. Modern process philosophy emerged.

Also, religious perspectives can, and often do, fertilize the contemplation of ethical questions about theory and practice.  

Similarly, arguments can be made that the quasi-factual nature of religious thinking can loosen system levels constraints which inhibit creative thinking (see Eric Weinstein's arguments in his discussion with Sam Harris). Basically, the allowance for crazy hypothetical holistically biased ideas ensures that systems don't become so oppressively rigid that they stifle idea generation & development.

This also relates to current foci on native knowledge traditions. Objective truth is objective truth, but different perspectives illuminate different aspects and questions. This process engenders greater creativity. It also has the potential to ground things differently. This is especially true around applicational aspects (which almost always intersect socially constructed considerations).

I can't see activism as being overly tenable in state sponsored post secondary institutions. To see this, ask yourself what level of Catholic activism you would be comfortable with from a Religious Studies department? Should these professors be encouraging students to protest Planned Parenthood? Should they be staging protests on campus which push people to follow Catholic specific teachings such as no artificial birth control?

While Critical Theory is fundamentally tied to action, I suspect religious categorization will force some hard exploration of what is and what is not acceptable for a religion to do when many of its priests/professors are directly supported by state funds.

Physical Accommodations
One sore spot with respect to intersectional religion is its racist tendencies. Safe spaces require both ideological purity (no offensive ideas or symbols) and racial/sexual purity (you should be of a non-offensive race, sex or gender construct).  Race and sex purity can, of course be mitigated by correct compensators: wokeness, virtue signalling and appropriate physical/behavioural markers (say the right clothes, piercings, hair colour etc.).  But, generally "safe spaces" seem slightly less publicly welcoming than most churches.  While churches can't discriminate based upon race, it seems safe spaces can.

To see how this might work in practice, imagine if an alpha looking male wanted to attend a "female survivors" of sex assault workshop. Many people would suggest this might not be appropriate. However, this is a clear case of sexual discrimination. Unless you carve out "religious" exemptions, it wouldn't stand fair application of law.

But in post-secondary space, religious exemptions for discrimination are few and far between. The space is public, not self-selected and private.  Thus I suspect safe spaces will not survive separation of (secular) church and state.

Personally, this is partly why I see one-directional oppression logic as all but inevitable. Without it, I suspect these nascent religious movements may find growth problematic. Opponents can easily challenge their dynamics by profaning their sacred tenets via free speech and physical inclusion rights. Thus I'm empathetic to these groups needs for protection (free speech limits, one-dimensional racism, safe spaces, etc.). I just don't think these stand up without purposeful state-sponsorship. The problem is that, from many angles, the state is sponsoring a de facto religion, not a simple social grouping.

Because many people consider the growth of these movements as inherently beneficial to historically marginalized groups, I think the state is willing to overlook the destructive & corrosive hypocrisy that comes from non-uniform rule application.  After all, the intentions are good.....

Unfortunately this is a good recipe for social disaster. As can be seen in the UK and Sweden, it requires increasing levels of "double downing". This inspires ever increasing levels of backlash.

Friday, March 9, 2018

The Supernatural Problem in Quasi-Religion

One of the critiques that occurs when applying a religious or quasi-religious lens to modern secular cult like groups is the absence of supernatural agents.  

But, as I've said before, this problem usually comes from trying to generate one-to-one superficial maps onto questions that are best addressed via dynamical similarities. For instance if you focus on modern shirts, what happens when you run into a toga? The superficial features don't match. But the functional features do.  From another perspective, the level of precision used in defining shirts was too great.


In his classic In Gods We Trust, Atran used the term Moral Big Brothers rather than Gods.  While religions often have supernatural Big Brothers, supernaturalism is a sub-set rather than supra-set. Norenzayan has expanded this idea more fully than Atran.

The basic idea is that what matters is what effect an imagined Big Brother has on people.  Embodiment, such as occurs in paganism, simply makes the Big Brother seem more real, facilitating guesses about what they may like or value in any given situation. Similarly, supernaturalism, simply serves to increase the potential punishment and rewards a Big Brother can provide. Plus, it adds a bit of counter-factuality to increase memetic fitness (see this post of mine)


List & Pettit (2011) have done some really good work on Group Agents.  Here's a quote:
Individuals may form a group agent in virtue of evolutionary selection or cleverly designed incentives to act as required for group agency, perhaps within independent cells.  here the individuals contribute to the group agent's performance, but do not explicitly authorize the group agent, the need not even be aware of its existence. (p. 36)
One of the challenges is how to make a Turing machine aggregator "rational".  They take a fairly generous approach here simply saying that the aggregate needs to :
  1. respond to its surroundings (be rational & responsive), and
  2. rationalize its positions (beliefs & desires)
They also add in the need for binary attitudes (but that is more to tie up details associated with a rigorous formal logical approach).

On a whole, this boils down to something like the Turing test.  The aggregator is rational if people ascribe intentionality to it.

While their work has tonnes of depth and fascinating detail,  I'll resist tangent-temptations and pull another quote.
The supervenient relation between the members' attitudes and actions and those of the group can be so complex that the group agent may sometimes think or do something that few, if any, members individually support.  And secondly, the supervenient of the group's attitudes and actions on those of its members is entirely consistent with some individuals being systematically overruled on issues that matter to them a lot.  Accordingly, the kind of control that individual members must be able to exercise in order to enjoy effective protection has to be stronger.  It is not enough for individuals to be able to contribute to what the group thinks or does on the issues that particularly matter to them.  They must be individually decisive on those issues.  Roughly speaking, we say that an individual is 'decisive' on a particular issue if he or she is able to determine fully -  and not merely in conjunction with other individuals - how this issue is to be settled. (p. 130)

This leads to a very interesting (and rigorously argued) conclusion: group agents 'control' individual actors via attitude biasing.  This is in stark contrast to usual definitions of control which assume the application or threat of application of formal power.  Here's another quote on this:

Since our definition of control has taken the group's attitudes, rather than its actions themselves, to be the targets of the individuals' control - the reason being that the group's actions are usually mediated by its attitudes - we can focus, once more on the part of the organizational structure that is easiest to model theoretically: its underlying aggregation function. (p. 136)
As mentioned the aggregation function is based in attitude biasing.  More specially it is a type of espoused, and complexly aggregated, morality.  Here are a few more quotes to take us to the end.
To be a person is to have the capacity to perform as a person.  An to perform as a person is to be party to a system of accepted conventions, such as a system of law, under which one contracts obligations to others... In particular it is to be a knowledgeable and competent party to such a system of obligations.  One knows what is owed to one, and what one owes to others, and one is able and willing to pay one's debts or to recognize that censure and sanction are reasonable in cases of failure... But non-persons cannot be moved by being made aware of obligations they owe to others. (p. 173)
To be sure, group agents are not flesh-and-blood persons.  They are pachydermic and inflexible in various ways, and lack the perceptions and emotions of human individuals.  But they nonetheless have the basic prerequisites of personhood.  Not only do they form and enact a single mind, displaying beliefs and acting on their basis.  They can speak for that mind in a way that enables them to function within the space of mutual recognized obligations. (p.176)


List & Petti's work make no requirement for the degree of bias a Group Agent has on an individual.  It just needs to have some effect.  An inference from this, based on Atran's later work in Identity Fusion, and from the literature on moral groups, is that the degree of identification with a group's morality strongly influences the degree of bias a Group Agent (Moral Big Brother) has on the individual.

For example, highly moral groups usually have more influential Group Agents (Moral Big Brothers) than weakly moral or a-moral groups. It is the dynamics that matter.

In terms of modern secular quasi religions this means its the dynamics of the feedback from the Group Agent to the individual that matter.  Groups that have significant Group Agent feedback combined with sacred values, ritual, costly commitment displays, and steep in-group out-group gradients are highly likely to be "religious".