When thinking about God/Religion/Spirituality “truth,” isn’t important

Recently, I posted this on my Facebook page:

“Does God exist?” is a bad question.

“Do people who believe in God behave better or worse than those who don’t?” is a far more useful question, isn’t it?

This was a relatively shallow take on a much deeper article I’d read a few days earlier. Very quickly, my friends started poking and prodding at it in the comments, which made me realize that I wasn’t going to get away with a shallow take, and I would have to dive deeper to support the point I wanted to make (which was basically my take-away from the article).

The article itself is a bit heavy for me; I don’t have the appropriate Liberal Arts background, and I was unfamiliar with many of the terms used there (hermeneutics, intersubjectivity). But, I think I got the overall gist of the argument, which I’m reproducing here. (Knowledgeable people, if you find places where I’m mistaken, please post corrections in the comments below.)

I see this as a rationalist atheist’s guide to thinking about God/Religion/Spirituality. The basic idea, I think, is this:

Let us assume that science is right and the universe is fully driven by the principles of science, and with enough knowledge of all the universal laws and enough computation power, we could predict the results of all actions and behaviors. However, we don’t know all the universal laws, and even if we did, we certainly don’t, and will not have enough computational power to do the computations.

Human beings are very complex. And human societies are even more complex. In the absence of our ability to perfectly model either of those, what kinds of rules of behavior should a “scientific” or “rational” person formulate? Specifically, if we formulate certain rules of behavior for a person in society, can we predict the effect of those rules across long time-frames—over generations? (Spoiler: No, we can’t.)

Let’s approach this from a different angle.

There’s a survival-of-the-fittest evolution happening at tribal/societal level. Tribes/groups/societies that have certain beliefs and hence follow certain rules of behavior survive and thrive, and those that follow other rules die out. This process has all the key characteristics required for evolution: natural selection, genetic drift, mutation and gene migration due to genetic admixture. Repeat this over long-enough time frames, and you can start thinking along these lines:

Old traditions that have survived long enough have important properties that are key to survival of the society as it exists today

This is true, even if you, as a rationalist thinker do not see the connection. Because, the connection is beyond your computation capabilities.

We can follow up that thought with this one:

Beliefs drive behavior. So, traditional beliefs, even if they’re objectively untrue, even if they’re provably false, have value in terms of the behaviors (rules) they’re driving, which can have important properties that are key to survival of the society as it exists today.

And thus, we reach

If a belief has survived in various different societies for thousands of years, it has value (in as much as it results in society as it exists today), even if the belief is provably false

Does this mean that we should uncritically accept all traditional beliefs and rules? Certainly not. There are things wrong with society as it exists today, which are driven by traditional beliefs and rules. But, these problems cannot be fixed by purely rational thought processes, because purely rational thought processes are not powerful enough to even model the problems, forget fix them.

There are lots of things wrong with lots of traditional beliefs. Also, many of them were responses to situations and problems that just don’t exist today because of modern science, medicine and technology. But I want us to acknowledge that there is a lot right with many of them in ways that are not obvious, and we need to re-view them with this new lens. For example, this thought process has helped me better appreciate the reason for homeopathy’s existence.

Anyway, here’s the original article that inspired this thought process. Good food for thought, if nothing else.

Planning your career after a bad JEE rank

JEE results are out today. 1% of all those who tried got a rank. 0.2% will probably get into a good IIT.

This is for the others, who did not. Remember these things:

  • A bad rank does not reflect on your capabilities or intellect. The system is screwed up. There is too much luck. Do not adjust your self-worth downwards just because you did not get into a top IIT
  • IIT isn’t the only path to success. The reason IITs have such a strong brand is because in the 70s/80s/90s, there were very limited options for smart-but-not-rich people in India. Today, the situation is different – we have other colleges that are also good; we have better jobs/roles/salaries in Indian industry; and it is now much easier to go abroad (for higher studies, or work) without an IIT-tag. Dheeraj Sanghi, who is arguably one of the most articulate experts on the state of IITs and engineering education in India, points out this list of alternatives to IITs.
  • Engineering isn’t the only way. Increasingly for students in India, non-engineering options are looking more and more interesting. Dheeraj Sanghi (same guy from the previous bullet point), has said that if he were to choose today, and had the choice of any college in India, including all the top IITs, he would choose to do liberal arts in Ashoka University. (Pune also has a couple of good liberal arts schools – FLAME and Symbiosis School of Liberal Arts.) See also this article of mine about “quitting engineering”.

Most importantly: Do not give up.

  • You worked hard for the last few years, and that hasn’t yielded the desired result. But don’t give up. Not succeeding in an entrance exam is just one play in a much, much larger game. Over the long-term (10+ years) continuous learning, continuous self-improvement, and hard work will beat ranking, college brand, and raw intellect¹ every time. Over the 25+ years in my career (in India and US; large companies and small; tech and non-tech) I have seen a number of IIT-ians go into mediocrity due to over-confidence and laziness, and a number of people from tier2/tier3 educational backgrounds succeed phenomenally (sometimes, this is in spite of not having the same raw intellect¹).

I also encourage 12th standard students to take a gap year, and consider going to the US for undergraduate studies (if you’re rich).


¹ Note when I say “raw intellect” here, I mean the specific kind of intellect that the JEE selects for – ability to quickly solve difficult math problems & puzzles, or speed of grasping complex math/engineering issues. There are of course many other types of intelligence, and even more types of capabilities that the JEE does not filter for; so I am definitely not implying that only people who clear the JEE are intelligent.

Uber Plays Psychological Tricks on its Drivers: What should you learn from that?

The New York Times has an interesting article about how ride-sharing company Uber plays psychological tricks on its drivers to manipulate them into doing things that are good for Uber, but not necessarily good for the drivers.

It’s a long article, but worth reading. Even if you don’t agree with the New York Times’ slant (that Uber is being evil), there are still enough interesting points in the article.

Here is one example of manipulation: when Uber wants more drivers in a particular area (to avoid surge pricing – so that customers get rides in that area without having to pay more), Uber’s managers send text messages to drivers encouraging them to go to that area. This doesn’t always work, so this is what the managers do:

Some local managers who were men went so far as to adopt a female persona for texting drivers, having found that the uptake was higher when they did.

“‘Laura’ would tell drivers: ‘Hey, the concert’s about to let out. You should head over there,’” said John P. Parker, a manager in Uber’s Dallas office in 2014 and 2015, referring to one of the personas. “We have an overwhelmingly male driver population.”

Uber acknowledged that it had experimented with female personas to increase engagement with drivers.

And there are many more in the article.

Here are some interesting takeaways for me:

  • If you aren’t aware of the findings of behavioral economics, how those techniques are used in gamification, how big companies are using these tricks to manipulate their customers (i.e. you), and in Uber’s case their contractors (i.e. the drivers), then you really need to read up.
  • This trend is going to increase. Everybody, from your social networks (e.g. Facebook) to your TV (e.g. Netflix) to your shop (e.g. Amazon) are trying hard to manipulate you, and it appears, soon your employer will start doing the same.
  • It appears to me that one of the most important things we need to teach our children is the ability to resist such manipulation. We teach them to avoid smoking and to drink in moderation via strong messaging. Maybe we need to do the same with apps.
  • Throughout the article, there is a mention of the fact that “Uber experimented with” some or the other (manipulation) feature. This is an extremely important aspect of modern software/app development. It is called A/B testing, and I am surprised that most people – including senior executives in the software industry are not aware of it. In the old days, if a company needed to decide whether to introduce some new feature in the software (e.g. give the driver a pop-up message indicating how close they’re to getting a bonus), and if yes, what should it’s configuration (at what percentage of completion should the driver get the pop-up message), the experienced people in the company would take a judgment call. However, modern software development prefers a more data driven approach: implement the feature, expose it to a subset of users, and compare these users’ behavior to that of others on various metrics. This helps you decide what features to implement in the software.
  • Overall, I do feel that the New York Times has taken a rather harsh anti-Uber stand in the article. I mean, the neither are the drivers babies, nor is Uber a monopoly, so it is unclear to me why Uber acting in its self-interest is so evil. However, there is a danger that if Uber continues to succeed and competitors like Lyft don’t, Uber will become a monopoly and that could be very dangerous.

The article is interesting for another reason – instead of generic photos or illustrations, the article actually has interactive simulations of the situations it is talking about (e.g. customer demand, driver availability, waiting times etc.), and you can actually modify the parameters and see their effect. I hope we see more of these kinds of intelligent interactive illustrations.