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  • noahchonlee

How I Chose My Religion - An Intro to Pragmatic Mythicalism

Updated: Apr 17, 2023

Pragmatic Mythicalism in one chart


The SIB chart establishes a framework for identifying belief decision criteria for a claim based upon the classification of whether or not a claim is testable.


Within this framework, Pragmatic Mythicalism focuses on evaluating whether or not to believe claims, models, and myths within the "no" category.


Pragmatic Mythicalism in one sentence

Pragmatic Mythicalism is the process of evaluating whether or not it is useful to believe in an untestable claim.


Why does this matter?

Upon losing my original religion, I found myself lost in a world of nihilistic despair. I felt desperate to believe in something but far too cynical to trust in morals and myths that have zero scientific backing. I spent hours every day staring at the wall trying to come up with a reason to live. On weekends I visited various religious centers and debated an elder in my church in weekly sessions discussing universalism. I rated my contentment levels at a 2 out of 10.

Life sucked.


So, at age seventeen I began backpacking solo across East Asia and hung out with Buddhist monks and random people from around the world. I experienced what many people dream about with wild adventures and romances. But by the time my head hit the pillow of whatever hostel or couch I crashed in that night, it all felt like a dream and that might as well have never happened. I had no consistent relationships and felt disconnected from everyone. I did find it intriguing how the Hindus I spent time with celebrated diversity and how the Buddhists I talked with openly discussed the historical interbreeding of their beliefs with other religions.


Next, I wandered around street performing juggling in Latin America and found some healing through the kindness, welcomeness, and sacrificial sharing among hippies on the streets of Chile. But every time I slowed down enough to be alone with my thoughts, I still felt that inexorable, creeping doubt about whether or not anything mattered. Life felt like nothing more than a succession of attempts to distract myself from the reality of the massive void I felt inside.


After wandering the world in search of spirituality, I finally found it while binging YouTube. I watched this video called "The Egg" and this video called "Sonder" and decided to make those my de facto religion until I found something better. The Egg presented me with the metaphysical myth of Oneism and Sonder reminded me that others feel the way I do.


When I found the questions resurfacing, "does anything matter? Do I disappear when I die? If everything will end then why should we care?" then I would meditate on these stories. I would try to envision being other people and try to feel what their experience is like. As well as this, I would answer the question "do I disappear when I die?" with the statement that, "No, instead I will merge with everyone else and will become more myself as I/we unlock all of our memories. Once I/we have experienced every life of every person who has, is, or will ever exist in this universe, then we will actualize into a greater being and join with other actualized beings."


Here's the thing, I didn't really believe any of that woo woo BS. But I desperately needed a healthier mental loop. By meditating on those stories, my brain was being trained to respond to despair with a story that feels hopeful. I found myself becoming more empathetic and more able to connect with others. I felt less alone, more motivated to be a part of groups, contribute in meaningful ways that affect others' experiences, and share in the ups and downs of life with the people around me.


I soon found that I didn't need to believe in the myths. I only needed to recognize the impact of believing in the myths. Belief is more than stating "yes" or "no" to whether or not you think something is true. Belief is a habit of remembering a claim or a story and then altering one's actions because of that act of remembering. Beliefs may be practiced and grow more or less ingrained. We cannot choose our beliefs, but we may choose our path of inquiry and we may influence which thoughts we focus on.


You Can't Choose Your Beliefs

If I offered you one million dollars to believe that splashing you with magic water heals your arthritis, you may state that you think it is true. However, whether or not you actually believe it is true will be unaffected. Alternatively, we may use classical conditioning and associate some sort of ceremony with healing such as by giving you ibuprofen every time before pretending to bless some magic water and then splashing you with it. Eventually, we remove the ibuprofen but continue the splashing treatments and by that point your mind will already have a trained association with pain reduction. Whether or not you claim to believe in the magic, your real and measurable pain levels manifesting on brain scans will change due to the placebo effect. Beliefs make physical alterations in the neurochemistry of the brain which alters how your body operates.

There have even been studies where people take pills explicitly labeled "placebo" and yet as one Harvard researcher discovered, "People associate the ritual of taking medicine as a positive healing effect... Even if they know it's not medicine, the action itself can stimulate the brain into thinking the body is being healed."


Clearly, it would be irrational to disregard the power of belief, and the power of belief is a scientifically measurable phenomenon which we may harness in order to alter our health.


Therefore, the rational choice is to evaluate which beliefs are the most pragmatic.

Which beliefs help me accomplish my goals?

Which beliefs make a community healthiest as measured through the Cantril Ladder/self-reported contentment levels, life expectancy, suicide rates, GDP PPP per capita, QALYs (quality adjusted life years) or a holistic metric encapsulating some mix of these metrics such as The World Happiness Report?

How may we experimentally iterate through adaptations of these beliefs using evolutionary design practices in order to find healthier beliefs?

Which beliefs help me be the sort of person who I want to be? Which beliefs match my desired identity?


I blocked myself off from all of these practical considerations and questions listed above because I considered myself a cynic and a rationalist. However, upon developing the SIB chart I now had a model that permitted me to know when it made sense to engage with Pragmatic Mythicalism.


If I could confidently place a claim within the "no" category, then I was free to engage in Pragmatic Mythicalism.


You can choose your mantras

You can't choose your beliefs. However, you can choose your path of inquiry, you can prioritize certain information sources, and you can repeat certain messages and strengthen those pathways in your brain. You can engage in cognitive behavioral therapy and classical conditioning to strengthen or weaken certain idea associations, and you may meditate on certain stories and ingrain them as mental loops/mantras that function as reminders of one's identity, values, and hopes.


What I discovered is that mantras are incredibly powerful and practical. For example, when I went on rucking hikes carrying 60 pound packs with the Marine Corps and I felt absolutely exhausted, I asked myself "why am I doing this?" If I had no ready-made mental response and came up blank, then my motivation would falter. However, if I made the identity statement "I am a Marine Corps Midshipman," then it offered me the mental fortitude and a flood of trained associations, visuals, memories, and stories that are all encapsulated in that self-injected message.


A belief/mantra is like a tool/function which may be inserted into a mental log.


Conversation 1


My brain: "why am I doing this?

Response: "..."

Result: -5 motivation


Conversation 2


My brain: "why am I doing this?

Response: "I am a(n) [insert identity statement]"

Result: +5 motivation


Formulating ready-made answers that you may self-inject during moments of doubt is immensely practical. These are like motivation potions so that when your mind throws a doubt at you, you have something to throw back.


Explaining the SIB Chart


Example claims and categorizations

Yes Testable

Maybe Testable

Not Testable

​Scientifically verifiable statements

​Subjective statements

Moral statements

​"People who believe that life matters tend to make more pro-social choices."

​"I will enjoy eating spaghetti tonight."

"If I splash water on my girlfriend, she will be mad."

​"A majority of individuals in my friend group will rank Mongolian throat singing as their favorite type of music."

"Mongolian throat singing is the best type of music."

Yes testable

If a statement is testable, then rely on veracity to decide whether or not to believe it.


Example:

If someone claims to have supernatural powers, perhaps ask for a demonstration before believing them. And even then, apply some tests to check if the results of their demonstration actually derive from spiritual abilities or the myriad of methodologies that magicians use for performances, and even then maintain a certain level of skepticism. I believe it was Hobbes who said something along the lines of, "the greater the claim, the greater the weight of evidence required to prove it." In other words, evidence for a claim ought to be commensurate to how radical the claim is.


Methodologies:

  • The scientific method - Keeping in mind science is not a collection of claims, it is a methodology for testing hypothesis.

  • Cross-referencing - For example, in order to achieve "proof of personhood/humanity," Gitcoin Passport checks for a person's prior crypto transactions and their various social media accounts and assigns them a score signifying the confidence in whether or not they are a real person. The more points of reference, the higher the score.

  • Experimentation - "F**k around and find out" such as splashing your girlfriend with water to see if she becomes mad. Do double-blind studies if possible, make sure to have a control group and isolate your variables, and avoid P-hacking by publishing all results.


Maybe testable

Statements often fall in the "maybe testable" category in which case we rely on simplicity to decide whether or not to believe it.


Many claims fall into this category simply because we do not have the time, ability, or resources to test them. Some claims may be a testable statement, but we often need to decide whether or not it is something that we personally can test. Many statements of comparison and every day decisions fall into this category.


Also, some statements may be untestable with the current level of science and technology but may convert to testable statements in the future. The earth being spherical used to not be easily testable but today it is clearly verifiable using a variety of different information sources and measurement/observation techniques (ie: cross-referencing to increase confidence.)


Example:

This friend will give me a more insightful/entertaining tarot reading than any of my other friends.

Maybe this is testable, but I'm just gonna go with the simplest answer which consists of, "someone recommended them recently and so their name is easiest to think of in association with tarot readings."


Methodologies:

  • Inductive reasoning - We frequently rely on the simplest answer using inductive reasoning basically saying, "if this occurred before it will likely occur in the same way again." ie: "Is this the best doctor in my area?" Rather than testing that statement directly, I will often use the reasoning, "I went to this doctor last time and I felt better, so I will go to that doctor again."

  • Occam's Razor - Pick whichever option requires the fewest number of assumptions. For example, the claim that God is a flying spaghetti monster may be just as testable as any other claim about the nature of God, but it sure does require a lot of assumptions and thus you may wish to eliminate that model using Occam's Razor.

  • Heuristics - The mental shortcuts we utilize to pick most of our beliefs.

  • First principles and deductive reasoning - Outline your logic including your premises/assumptions/priors. However, I would weight this lower if it is pure deduction without any empiricism or tests.


Not testable

If we may confidently state that a claim may not be tested, then our decision-making criteria of whether or not to believe in it may consist of asking whether or not it would be useful to believe.


Example: Reincarnation of the soul.


Maybe one day we will be able to test the claim that reincarnation is real, but for now this statement falls squarely in the "not testable" category.


Methodologies:

  • Self-reflection - Just think about it. Maybe journal and see how you feel.

  • Health Metrics - phq9 for depression, gad7 or gad11 for anxiety, the Pittsburgh Sleep Quality index, etc.

  • Cantril Ladder - Within health metrics, this is one of the most common ways of measuring self-reported subjective well-being. It basically consists of asking how content are you on a scale from 1-10 with one being less content and ten being more content. You can use apps such as Daylio to track this really easily though the default granularity in that app has only 5 options (terrible, bad, meh, good, rad)


The Future of Pragmatic Mythicalism

The process of Pragmatic Mythicalism consists of identifying an untestable statement and then formulating a proxy claim that is testable in order to decide whether or not to believe in the original untestable statement.


In other words, I convert a claim "x statement" from the "not testable" category into the adjacent claim "I should believe in x statement," in a way that falls within the "yes" category.


Whether or not a statement is true is often untestable. Whether or not it would be useful to believe in a statement is often testable.


Untestable claim: Human life is morally relevant.


We cannot test this statement. But we may evaluate whether or not we should believe this statement.


Testable proxy claim: People who believe human life is morally relevant tend to make more prosocial choices.


We find proxy statements in order to answer questions constantly as described in Ch. 9 "Answering an Easier Question" in Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. However, we generally do this unconsciously such as when we are asked "what is the best restaurant in the area?" Instead of checking for top reviewed restaurants we often switch to an easier question such as, "what is a restaurant that I have enjoyed eating at recently?" and then answer that without even realizing we switched to a different question.


We may harness the power of switching to proxy questions with intention. Through this recognition of which tools are at our disposal, we may be engineers of our beliefs rather than victims of them. We may choose our information environment, the tools we use, and the questions we ask to a certain extent even if we may not directly choose our beliefs.


Pragmatic Mythicalism opens up the floodgates for a massive subcategory of cultural design that involve finding the healthiest myths to believe in.


I think including the word "myth" is useful in order to remind us not to take the beliefs too seriously and instead focus on the practical considerations behind which myths make sense to focus on.


Imagine a religion where people do not need to believe in the religion itself, they simply need to believe in the impact of the beliefs. Indeed, this already exists. Many people remain in their religious community not because they would make the intellectual statement that "yes, I think this religious story is true," but instead because they benefit from the culture and connections, and it offers a useful model for navigating decisions, dilemmas, and lifestyle choices.


Engaging in Pragmatic Mythicalism is not radical at all. In fact, most people do so already.

How may we expand upon this concept to develop methodologies, frameworks, models, and research that allows us to do what we already do but with more intention?


How might a network of research organizations, religious institutions, and polities develop a body of research implemented in a network of communities iterating towards healthier beliefs?


How might an individual recognize which beliefs are testable vs. untestable and redirect their untestable beliefs with intention towards patterns of thought that help them achieve their goals?


And will you be one of the individuals attempting to answer these questions?

3 Comments


noahchonlee
noahchonlee
Apr 16, 2023

"The Will to Believe" by William James seems to discuss similar concepts as Pragmatic Mythicalism though I have not had time to read through it. I hope to read more pragmatist philosophers/sociologists. Indeed, I think of pragmatism as the bridge between philosophy and sociology. In other words, take some thoughts and then actually do something about it, try it out, implement something, be an empiricist and an entrepreneur, be social rather than sitting in an armchair.

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noahchonlee
noahchonlee
Apr 16, 2023

Myths as a meaning-making coordination mechanism and pragmatically evolved series of models that are most useful for navigating an environment and a society is described in Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari. The Myth of Sobek the crocodile god helped the Egyptians coordinate to build temples. The myth of the country of the USA existing helped coordinate to build the Hoover Dam. The myth of a certain currency being a valuable method of exchange for many different types of good is useful in coordinating commerce.

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noahchonlee
noahchonlee
Apr 16, 2023
Replying to

A myth is simply an untestable model of the world. A myth is a story that may be told and believed or disbelieved but not verified or falsified. A myth is unverifiable/untestable/falsifiable. If it is proven or disproven, it is no longer a myth. It is either a discredited model or a verified claim. Oftentimes such as for historical stories, our confidence ought to be scalular rather than binary and rely on primary sources and a body of evidence from various sources that we may cross-reference. In other words, we search out a web of information from sources with sufficient overlap in content yet enough distance in social density in order to look trustworthy.

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