Is it bad to fear the unknown?
Why do people tend to extol or fear the unknown?
I enjoy discussing these ideas and will share my thoughts here. But I don't know if this is really appropriate for what this page was intended for, based on the "warnings" I see above. The editors should feel free to delete my comments if they are too speculative for the intent of this website. These are all speculation despite my common writing style as if it were a fact.
I approach these questions from the idea that the human brain is a reinforcement learning machine. It's pretty easy to make comprehensive explanations for these type of questions by linking everything up with this idea. I use a reinforcement learning machine in the sense of using the term AI machine learning, which depends pretty directly on the behavioral ideas of classical and operant conditioning. I am an engineer and computer scientist and I speak from this perspective.
In this sense, fear is only (at the broadest level) avoidance behavior. We learn to employ any behavior that enables us to stay away from the things that punish us - resulting in lower expectations of future rewards. Thoughts are just behaviors of the brain that are subject to the same conditioning effects of our external actions. We will, of course, be conditioned to avoid thoughts that create lower expectations of future rewards.
Let me stand in the sidebar for a moment, pointing out something that many people who are not involved in reinforcement learning don't understand. These types of machines don't just learn when a "bad" event occurs. They don't just learn when hit with a stick. There is indirect learning at work that makes the process far more complex. They are reward prediction machines at their core. They constantly predict expected future rewards. (Basic TD learning). The "stick" events train your prediction system. It collects statistics based on each time something bad or good happens and uses that to predict expected future rewards. So behaviors are not conditioned by the whips and carrots, but by the prediction system. Any behavior that leads to a decrease in expected future rewards through the internal prediction system will be punished (there is a likelihood that it will be repeated in the future tees).
The behaviors that result from such indirect learning are about getting the prediction system to do it , a better future for the agent to predict . The complexity of the behaviors that will occur depends directly on how well the prediction system can predict the future. AI programs that try to take advantage of reinforcement learning often don't look very smart because they have failed to implement a high quality reward prediction system that is itself trained through reinforcement.
So back to fear. People understand and use cause and effect. This is a direct result of a brain conditioning behaviors based on predictions of future rewards. The behaviors that emerge from such training will use cause and effect to their advantage to control our perceived view of the future based on the things we can change now to affect the future through this chain of causality.
We don't like to be hurt. So we learn the signs in the environment that predict something bad is about to happen and change our behavior to prevent it. We see our hand move towards a fire, and the brain can predict that a hand near a fire is a predictor of future pain (from burning). We move our hand away from the fire and our "predictor" creates a decreased expectation of a burn so the action of moving the hand away from the fire is intensified even though we (this time) have not been burned. We learn behaviors in order to stay away from fires in this way. Of course, there are other conflicting rewards for being close to fires (like the food that comes from cooking) so we end up balancing our behavior and just being careful with fire rather than running away in fear.
But in life we are often unprepared. We are hurt by something that we hadn't seen before or that we just didn't predict. We learn that we can use cause and effect to avoid most of these bad things in life. If we keep our hand away from the wire, we cannot get burned. However, if we encounter a new situation in which the stimulus signals are very different from those in the past, the likelihood of being injured increases. When we deal with a new environment that we have not yet experienced, we still don't know how to use the causality of the environment to prevent the bad things or to acquire the good things.
Our prediction system knows that if we wander into something we are not familiar with, or the chance of getting hurt, it increases. It can use this as a cause and effect prediction. That is, the less we know about our current environment, the higher the chance that something will hurt us. Because our reward prediction system can predict this correlation between an unknown environment and higher rewards, the system can learn behaviors to avoid the unknown.
We will be conditioned to stay in the "safe and familiar environment" and to stay out of the "new and unknown". This attraction to the familiar becomes, on the one hand, a behavior to avoid the unknown on the other. This leads to a simple "fear" of the unknown.
This all works well now, as our internal prediction systems are able to pick up the sensory cues from the environment to guide our actions. But we can just as easily learn to fool our prediction system. When the brain senses something dangerous like fire, it increases its predictions of being burned in the future. But we can also learn to close our eyes and prevent the brain from recognizing the danger. However, the brain is smart enough not to fall for this trick. As soon as it sees the fire, it understands the danger. And it goes without saying that when we close our eyes, the fire and danger are "still there" even though we cannot see it. It's not a prefect, however, and this type of trick works at some . So when we see something really bad, we have a learned reaction to just look away, close our eyes, or turn our head, precisely because this "trick" works. This frees up our reward prediction hardware and makes the future look a little better than before.
So the system can learn behaviors to outsmart its prediction system, which is only harmful in the long run, but the low-level system is not advanced enough to understand this. This is where intelligence shows its limits. The reward prediction system is not always smart enough to recognize that it is being "tricked". If it can see the trick, it won't fall for it. It will likely bring back higher expectations of bad things in the future because it will be fooled so that it cannot do its job well. But if the trick is good enough that he does not realize that it is a trick, then such "tricks" will show up in our learned behaviors.
All of this adds up to the simple result that we learn to fear the unknown because we have learned that the more unknown there is in the world, the higher the chance of being hurt in the future.
But then we find the tricks. Speech behavior is a big part of what people do. We don't just learn to deal with the environment by using our hands and body to manipulate our environment. We also learn to talk about our environment. The better we understand an aspect of our environment, the more words and languages we need to speak about it. We use our language to guide our actions, and the more we can talk about our environment, the more likely it is that we can direct our actions in a "safe" direction.
When we are confronted with an unknown and only talk about it, we can better determine how to act in the situation. But it also triggers our prediction system to reduce the likelihood of future threats. We just talk, "trick" our forecasting system so that we "feel better" about the future. Our conversation may be nonsense (for a specific situation), but if the conversation is good enough to fool the prediction system, we will still feel better.
That's why we develop these behaviors of rationalizing an acquaintance just because it makes our internal reward prediction system make the future look better for us. The better the "story" we put together in our random conversations, the better the trick works.
Superstition, mythology and rationalization arise from such a behavioral learning system just because the internal reward system can predict it.
The learning system can tell the difference between a learned behavior that deals with the real danger (like learning to move our hand away from a fire) and the tricks that will only make the prediction system predict a bright future instead of doing it , not realizing what it takes to actually create a really better future.
Humans have a very advanced prediction system. It can pick up very subtle and complex cues from the sensory environment and provide a highly accurate prediction of the rewards and dangers we are likely to encounter. But it's just a learning machine with finite limits. It can be tricked. And where it can be tricked, behaviors will automatically emerge to outsmart the prediction system instead of actually addressing the truth about why it predicted something bad.
The mythologies of religions are just learned behaviors that lead our own inner brain to predict a better future for us. Just finding a name for something unknown like "God" is a trick in itself. When we have a name for something like this, we feel like we've mastered an important aspect of the unknown. That we "know the cause". But making up just a name is nothing more than a language trick to fool our internal reward prediction system.
Our behavior selection system and our prediction system are one and the same. They work hand in hand to both predict the future and decide how to respond to it (what behaviors we should create second to second in our lives). The more advanced our behavior becomes, the more advanced our prediction system becomes.
As we learn more advanced language behavior, we get an improved prediction system that is harder to "trick" with our own language behavior. The better we understand that we are "cheating" ourselves in order to feel better, the less the tricks work to actually make us feel better. As we learn that these are just tricks, our prediction system learns at the same time to reduce the likelihood of a better future every time such a trick is detected.
So we have a natural and obvious reason to fear the unknown. What we don't understand is more likely to hurt us. We explore and study and experiment in life to reduce the dangers of the unknown (also known as increasing the rewards). But we also play a trick on ourselves so that the unknown appears less unknown than it really is. But the better we understand that they are tricks, the less they work and the less we tend to use them.
Why do we "praise" the unknown? Well, we don't praise the unknown. We praise God, not just "the unknown". Again, it's just a trick that makes us feel better. When we were children we learned to trust our parents and carers. They were much wiser than us, and the best way to protect yourself was to obey them - to face their wishes. When they tell us not to play with fire and we ignore them, we have burned ourselves and learned to follow the wishes of a "higher power" - the more experienced adults in our lives.
As we grow up, we gather our own experiences and learn that the other adults are no longer a "higher power". We learn that we have to face the world ourselves and make our own decisions. But we still long for this simpler time when there was always a much smarter force in our lives to tell us what needed to be done. Praising God is only part of this trick to believing that we still have wise parents in our lives to protect us from the dangers. It is a ploy to make our prediction system feel like we are more secure than we really are.
Well, that is, religions have evolved over thousands of years. The customs, rules and beliefs in a religion have an "intelligence" that stems from 1,000 years of experience. They carry with them an evolved wisdom of the ages. When a religion says not to kill someone, it is a belief that has stood the test of time for thousands of years. The beliefs that weren't working as well were removed from the religion and new beliefs were added or changed over time. So the beliefs and customs that make up a religion are a real type of higher intelligence. So when all of these beliefs are mixed, there is a "praising God" behavior, we can also understand what is really being praised is the traditions of religion itself. Religion asks people to devote themselves to the traditions of religion, just as we surrendered to the wisdom of our parents as children. But they form this mythological figure they call "God" and assign him as the root cause of everything just because it's a great trick to make us feel more secure when we don't know the cause of so many things while we are At the same time, this mythical "god" is given the honor of creating the tried and tested customs of religion himself (the Bible is the word of God and all that).
The "God" who works there is only the development of religious memes. It's just another process of evolution. The development of time tested learned behaviors. But it is a higher power, and there are compelling reasons for people to respect (act upon) the traditions of such a time-tested set of memes. It is in our best interest not to kill, steal, or lie, etc.
So I can't think of any examples where we praise the unknown. But there are standard religious memes to extol the proven wisdom of religion, but indirectly with a "trick" of making people believe that there is a "God" who made the rules.
It's all a very complex set of learned behaviors that help people maximize their future rewards. So the behaviors actually work to make the future better (by not killing people we decrease the likelihood that others will kill us), but other parts of them are just tricks we've learned to manipulate our own reward prediction system, that is, commonly spoken of as "our feelings". They are tricks that make us feel better.
Now, don't get me wrong about the importance of feeling better. It's what we find difficult to do. It is our only purpose in life - it is what we are. We are machines built to feel better. Our low innate rewards are wired into us through the process of evolution, so what makes us feel better is likely to help our species survive. At the higher, bolder abstract level, we can be viewed as a survival machine (although I would argue that this exists more at the species level than the individual level). At the individual level, we have actually only given the "job" of feeling better and not cared about the bigger picture of whether that will help us not survive. This is beyond our pay grade. It is the job of the evolutionary process to "wire us right" so that the things that make us feel better work well and help us survive. And because evolution has generally done a good job, most human behaviors tend to maximize our chances of survival.
But evolution is not perfect and it is constantly looking for alternatives, which is why we find so many human behaviors that seem vital.
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