Wednesday, April 23, 2008

God is just a type I error!

Yes, believe me God is an error and that too a type I error. But before we appreciate the subtleties of that argument, we have to first learn a bit about error management theory ( not to be confused with the TMT or terror management theory about which too I have blogged previously). EMT in simple terms is an evolutionary theory that posits that we do not minimize the number of errors that are possible when we are faced with ambiguous situations and corresponding ambiguous decisions to make; but that we minimize the total costs associated with making the errors. To simplify, whenever we make a decision about reality that is based on our inferences then we can make two types of errors : in type I errors we assume/ infer something to be real, while the phenomenon is itself unreal (this is a false positive);l while in type II errors we assume/infer something to be unreal while the phenomenon is real.

To take by the way of an example , if we are in a jungle and hear a sound in a bush ; then if the sound was from a lion and we inferred that it was not from a lion we make a type II error; if the sound was not from a lion, but we infer that it was from a lion we make a type I error. Obviously in this case it is best to make a type I error as a type II error can mean death. Evolution would thus select for a behavior that is biased towards the flase positive inferences in this case.

I'll now let Haselton define the theory and give examples:

Error management theory proposes that the direction of a bias in social judgment is tied to how costly different kinds of errors are. For example, consider how smoke alarms are designed. Failures to detect fires (false negative errors) are extremely costly, whereas false alarms (false positives) are usually just inconvenient. So, when engineers make smoke alarms, they tend design them to be biased away from the more costly false negative error by setting a low threshold for fire detection. As a consequence, smoke alarms will tend to be systematically biased toward false positive errors (false alarms). A low threshold for fire detection will cause smoke alarms to make more errors overall, but it will minimize the cost of errors when they inevitably occur (i.e., the errors will tend to be false alarms rather than missed fires).

Error management theory proposes that the same principle of design applies to the evolution of judgment mechanisms in the human mind. Ancestrally, in many areas of social judgment, the costs of false positive and false negative errors differed. When the costs of false negatives are greater, error management theory predicts a bias toward false positives (as in the smoke alarm example); when the costs of false positives are greater, error management theory predicts a bias toward false negatives.

One example of a false-positive bias is in men’s estimations of women’s sexual interest. For an ancestral man, failing to detect sexual interest in a woman resulted in a missed reproductive opportunity, which was highly costly to his reproductive success. The opposite error (believing that a woman was interested when she was not) was perhaps a bit embarrassing, but probably was less costly overall. Thus, error management theory predicts that natural selection designed a bias in men toward slightly overestimating a woman’s sexual interest in order to reduce the likelihood of a missed sexual opportunity; this leads modern men to “overpercieve” women’s sexual interest.

Satoshi Kanazawa, who has applied the error management theory to the above men-think-women-are-attracted-to-them behavior has a two part post over at his psychology today blog that is worth reading in entirety. There he argues that we believe in god, because of an inbuilt bias to detect agency. He says that detecting agency when none is there can only lead to paranoia in the worst case, while not detecting agency when there was one could lead to death. He has a beautiful figure illustrating the same and I post it here.



Different theorists call this innate human tendency to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors (and as a consequence be a bit paranoid) “animistic bias” or “the agency-detector mechanism.” These theorists argue that the evolutionary origins of religious beliefs in supernatural forces may have come from such an innate cognitive bias to commit false-positive errors rather than false-negative errors, and thus overinfer personal, intentional, and animate forces behind otherwise perfectly natural phenomena.

You see a bush on fire. It could have been caused by an impersonal, inanimate, and unintentional force (lightning striking the bush and setting it on fire), or it could have been caused by a personal, animate, and intentional force (God trying to communicate with you). The “animistic bias” or “agency-detector mechanism” predisposes you to opt for the latter explanation rather than the former. It predisposes you to see the hands of God at work behind natural, physical phenomena whose exact causes are unknown.

In this view, religiosity (the human capacity for belief in supernatural beings) is not an evolved tendency per se; after all, religion in itself is not adaptive. It is instead a byproduct of animistic bias or the agency-detector mechanism, the tendency to be paranoid, which is adaptive because it can save your life. Humans did not evolve to be religious; they evolved to be paranoid. And humans are religious because they are paranoid

It is interesting to note that Kanazawa mentions the research of Nettle as I am myself a big fan of his work, but never knew that he had contributed to the EMT too. I myself have speculated on the close association of religiosity with psychosis and the Kanzawa post just bolsters the arguments there.

To sum up, it is perhaps better to be paranoid and suffer from the God delusion! You would at least survive to pass your genes along!!

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5 comments:

Larry said...

Great summary post, Sandy! This is my first visit, but I'll be back.

Tom W said...

This is just Pascal's wager in evolutionary form, isn't it?

sailor ted said...

Would it be more accurate to say that "Hell" is a Type I?

Barnabas Rael Pub said...

Being that people only react to fear more so than anything else; God is wise; to have programmed man to have a type 1 error; although I think some still have a type 2 error and may be deadly later on; as you example with (coincidently) a lion in the bush.

frenzy said...

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