Pessimism and Emotional Hedging

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given a dual gift and curse: that she would accurately predict the future, but that nobody would believe her prophecies. She became a tragic figure when her prophecies of disaster went unheeded. In modern usage, a Cassandra is usually just a pessimist: somebody who predicts doom and gloom, whether people pay attention to them or not.

We know that people are generally rubbish at accurately predicting risk; they seem to constantly over-estimate just how often things will work out. This is usually due to either the planning fallacy or optimism bias (or both; they’re very closely related). However, while that is by far the most common mistake, and certainly the one that’s gotten all the attention, the opposite is also possible. Yesterday I caught myself doing just that.

I was considering an upcoming sports game and found myself instinctively betting against the team I typically cheer for (that is, I predicted they would lose the game). However when I took a step back I couldn’t immediately justify that prediction. The obvious prior probability was around 50/50 – both teams had been playing well, neither with strong advantage – and I am certainly not knowledgeable enough about that sport or about sports psychology in general to confidently move the needle far from that mark.

And yet, my brain was telling me that my team had only maybe a 25% chance of winning. After much contemplation, I realized that by lowering my prediction, I was actually hedging against my own emotions. By predicting a loss, I was guaranteed an emotional payout in either scenario: if my team won, then that was a happy occasion in itself, but if they lost then I could claim to have made an accurate prediction; it feels nice to be right.

With this new source of bias properly articulated I was able to pick out a few other past instances of it in my life. It’s obviously not applicable in every scenario, but in cases where you’re emotionally attached to a particular outcome (sports, politics, etc) it can definitely play a role, at least for me. I don’t know if it’s enough to cancel out the natural optimism bias in these scenarios, but it certainly helps.

The naming of biases is kind of confusing: I suppose it could just be lumped in with the existing pessimism bias, but I kind of like the idea of calling it the Cassandra bias.

Wrapping up on God – Final Notes and Errata on “An Atheist’s Flowchart”

Over the last six philosophy posts (my “Atheist’s Flowchart” series) I’ve wandered through a pretty thorough exploration of the arguments underlying my personal atheism. Now that they’ve had some time to settle, I’ve gone back and re-read them and noticed all sorts of random stuff that was confusing or I just forgot or whatever. This post is going to be a scattershot collection of random notes, clarifications, and errata for that series.

Here we go:

In The Many Faces of God, I wrote “[from] the whole pantheons found in many versions of Hinduism, to the more pantheistic view favoured by Spinoza and Einstein”, which in hindsight is kind of confusing. I blame the English language. A pantheon (apart from the specific temple in Rome) is a collection of many distinct gods. A pantheistic view, confusingly, does not involve a pantheon but is in fact (quoting Wikipedia): “the belief that all reality is identical with divinity, or that everything composes an all-encompassing, immanent god”. Beliefs that actually involve a pantheon are called polytheistic instead.


The first piece of my argument, in two parts, ended up being long and fairly convoluted and still didn’t do a great job of explaining the core idea. One of the things that I failed to explain was this key phrase from the Less Wrong page on Occam’s Razor: “just because we all know what it means doesn’t mean the concept is simple”. I gestured confusingly in the direction of the claim that “god is a super-complicated concept” but I suspect that, unless you’re already well-versed in formal information theory, I wasn’t very convincing. Allow me to gesture some more.

Science explains nearly everything we can observe in a beautiful system of interlocking formulas that, while scary and complex to a layman, are still simple enough to be run on a computer. God cannot be run on any computer I know of. Many gods are, by definition, ineffable – complex beyond any possible human understanding. Even those that are hypothetical effable [is this a word?] are not currently effed [this one definitely isn’t] in nearly the same way we understand gravity, or chemical reactions, or the human heart.


In the third part of my argument, I mentioned briefly without explanation that none of the common logical arguments for god derive from my core axioms. It would have been helpful if I’d given some examples. I did not, because I am lazy. I am still lazy, and after poking around for a while cannot find a good example of something that I can work through in a reasonable amount of space.

If anybody wants to construct a formal logical argument from my nine axioms to the existence of god, please send it to me and I promise I will give it an entire post all to itself.


At the end of my fourth part, I linked to a t-shirt design which has already been removed from the internet. It was a snippet of this comic from Dresden Codak, specifically the panel in the third row with the text “I will do science to it”. It’s not really related to anything, but Dresden Codak is well worth reading.


In my fifth part I actually made a mistake and made a weak version of the argument I was aiming for. The better version, in brief:

  1. Science explains why people believe in god.
  2. You believe in science, even if you think you don’t.
  3. If god’s existence was the reason that people believed in god, that would contradict #1.

Therefore either god doesn’t exist at all, or the fact that millions of people believe is a coincidence of mind-boggling proportions which defies Occam’s Razor.

Other Opinions #46 – There’s No Real Difference Between Online Espionage and Online Attack

This one is a couple of years old but still relevant, especially with the recent ransomware attacks. We’re used to thinking in terms of human actors, where an informant is a very different kind of asset from an undercover operative. The former is a passive conduit of information while the latter is an active force for change. In technological conflict there is no such difference. Both activities require the ability execute code on the remote machine and once that is achieved it can be used for any end, passive or active.

https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2014/03/theres-no-real-difference-between-online-espionage-and-online-attack/284233/

And of course any vulnerability, once discovered, can be used by whatever criminal claims it first.

Disclaimer: I don’t necessarily agree with or endorse everything that I link to. I link to things that are interesting and/or thought-provoking. Caveat lector.

An Atheist’s Flowchart, Part 5: The Psychology of Belief

The third and final pillar of my atheistic treatise is the one I called “via explanation” way back in January. Whereas the first two pillars were pretty explicitly philosophical, this one tends to feel a bit more scientific. It actually comes from a counter-argument that I heard once from a theist, which went (very briefly) something like this: If god doesn’t exist, then how do you explain the millions of people who believe in him?

Different theists have made a bunch of variations on this argument over the years, but this particular one struck me because it’s actually a fairly empirical argument. It is uncontroversial that there are millions (arguably billions) of believers in god. While the act of believing in and of itself does not prove anything, the fact of the belief itself requires explanation and “god actually exists” could potentially be the simplest explanation of that fact. This argument is weakened somewhat up front by the fact that god is a terrible explanation for things in general, but it’s at least plausible on its face.

The true counter, and the heart of my third pillar, is the fact that science does in fact have an excellent explanation for why people believe in god. And that linked book was published over fifteen years ago; science has continued to clarify more pieces of the puzzle since then.

So. How does this become not just a counter, but an actual self-supporting argument for atheism? The transformation happens because you pretty much have to believe in science, and when you believe in science you get this full explanation “for free”. With this explanation in hand then, it would be incredibly weird for god to actually exist, but for people to believe in him for unrelated reasons. That kind of coincidence boggles the mind, and not in a blind watchmaker sort of way.

By way of analogy, imagine, if you will, a mouse that has been placed into a totally isolated box and injected with a mysterious serum. The serum causes the mouse to develop human-level intelligence out of nowhere, but of course the mouse cannot see, smell, or hear anything outside of its special box. What are the odds that the mouse, through pure invention, manages to end up believing in an outside world even remotely similar to the real one? That of all the infinity of possible worlds imaginable by a mouse, it actually chooses the right one without any input whatsoever?

We are all the mouse, and we have every reason to believe that the gods we’ve constructed in our minds are nothing more than the spandrels of psychology.