Monday, March 30, 2015

The Thermodynamics of Religious Conversion

Back in November, I wrote an answer on Quora (which I'll link to later) that made me think even more about the subject afterwards. An outspoken atheist there had posed the following challenge:
Can anyone offer one serious, credible reason why I should consider a belief in your god? I'm not asking for empirical evidence. Just one credible reason we should discuss this further.
Even though the OP had a vanishing chance of changing his mind about anything because of this question, I found a certain elegance and importance to how it was posed. So much conversation about beliefs hinges on whether this particular piece of evidence or line of argument is convincing or not convincing, but only rarely do you ask why you should be taking up the case in the court of your mind in the first place.

And it's an important question. The vast majority of our lives, we don't make significant changes to our mindset, thought processes, worldview. We might pick up a habit from a friend, find the wisdom in our parents' advice, or learn another useful lifehack from Buzzfeed here and there. But it's only in rare moments that we take a moment to step back and reexamine whether we want to entertain a much more dramatic shift.

Monday, March 16, 2015

The Best of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality

This weekend, the wildly popular fanfiction Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, written by Eliezer Yudkowsky, finally completed. With 122 chapters and around 650,000 words or 2,000 pages (over half as long as all seven of the original Harry Potter books combined), it's no walk in the park.

While I've encouraged many of my friends to pick up the series, the time involved should not be taken lightly. With that in mind, I thought I'd put together a highlight reel containing, in my opinion, the best stand-alone chapters and/or passages, without spoiling too much of the plot.

Thanks to my friends and fellow readers Ben Gunby, Megan Jackson and Timothy Johnson for some of the recommendations, as well as countless conversations about the chapters as we read them.

Monday, March 9, 2015

Feeling intimidated by math

If you knew me in high school or undergrad, this wouldn't have been something you’d expect that I’d talk about. You might even have tried to explain to me how you had felt intimidated in some math class, and thought that I couldn't possibly understand. Well, I think I've met my match here in grad school, at the research level.

Monday, March 2, 2015

Mindless Replicators

In thinking about my discussion last week based on the movie Selma, one question struck me later as obviously the natural question that I didn't ask:

Why is activism dead?

In fact, the movie gives a striking example of activism working as it's supposed to, and it isn't far off from reality, insofar as the Selma marches did change the national consciousness and put political pressure on President Johnson.

And yet, as I wrote about last week, it doesn't seem to be accomplishing as much today. This should be a bit puzzling: Surely it would be even more possible to organize protests with today's social media. It's easier than ever for great orators to put out content to attract others to their cause. In another part of the world, ISIS is literally taking over territory with recruits from all over the world. Take a moment to think about it, to notice your confusion (at least, if you're as confused as I was): Why is protesting so ineffective?