The Belief Genome Project — Interview with Sidian M.S. Jones

Elections are decided by beliefs. But what do you believe and why? This is a question which has been fascinating to me for a long time.

The Belief Genome is a knowledge elicitation and mapping tool seeking funding via Kickstarter that hopes to find out the structure of our beliefs. The point here isn’t to promote specific beliefs, but rather to analyze and map the beliefs that people actually report having including both religious and other types of beliefs. Such a map might, for example, be quite useful to a machine intelligence that needs to interact with humans in the real world or seeks to understand very complex human social behaviors.

I interviewed founder Sidian M.S. Jones to learn more about the project.

H+: Sidian, for my readers, can you briefly describe the Belief Genome Project and your kickstarter effort?

Sidian: Belief Genome is an online app that aims to map all human beliefs and their connections by crowdsourcing information from the users.

Users will be given profiles in which they can list their beliefs, and can also subscribe to beliefs made by other users. Users will also have the ability to track, compare, and even analyze beliefs using Belief Analytics…basically Google Analytics for your head.

We’re going very lean by only asking for $20,000. Anyone involved with startups and development knows that can be spent very quickly, but I’m used to getting things done on a shoestring budget. More importantly, if we don’t raise at least 20k, the campaign fails and we will receive no funding.

H+: Can you tell me a bit about how you got the idea for this project? What is the history?

Sidian: The idea for Belief Genome traces back to a website I run, With Open Source Religion we propose that in this day and age there is a massive movement of people who are “modularizing” beliefs. What this means is that religions no longer have a strict homogeneity of beliefs, but rather are being treated as sources from which to draw ones beliefs, even across multiple religions.

Imagine 100 years ago someone saying that they are “Christian with Buddhist leanings.”; practically unheard of. There was strict boxing of what beliefs belong with what group. These days you are only a stones throw from anyone mixing beliefs like “Salvation Through Jesus” and “Karma”.

Having established this philosophy, I wanted to provide a platform for the Open Source Religion community to digitally interact with, and document all these beliefs and their relationships. I called it The Source Code at the time.

The endeavor proved very difficult and we tried many options. The community there deserves a lot of credit for bearing with me and attempting all these models. But in the end it became apparent that the project wasn’t going to go anywhere unless I spent my own cash getting a custom app built. The more I pursued this, the more the idea developed, and it became obvious that this wasn’t just a tool for the Open Source Religion community, it’s something everyone could use; and not only individually but for scientific and psychological research as well. So now we are raising funds to create the Belief Genome.

H+: Beyond religious beliefs, do you plan to map other complex systems of belief? I’m thinking specifically about scientific beliefs and beliefs related to news media reports of current events.

Sidian: Absolutely. “Religious” (I use this term loosely, as all beliefs are religious in a sense) beliefs are only part of the genome. In fact I’d argue that most beliefs are “non-religious”. Consider the mythology we have given colors for instance. Does red really represent power, lust, and danger? These are the beliefs we’ve been indoctrinated into, but they do not necessarily mirror reality. When you realize this you begin to see that, not only are our beliefs mostly “non-religious” (again, do not put much stock in that label), but they are incredibly flexible, changeable. That’s a powerful realization, and one I think people will begin to see by utilizing Belief Genome.

News and current events are also on our radar. What happens to people’s beliefs in national security after an event like 9/11? What do republicans believe about democrats? What do they believe about the poor? Obviously anyone could chime in with a number of well informed opinions on this, but with Belief Genome we can quantify it, track it, relate it. That’s exciting.

H+: Can you say a bit technically about the project? How does it work? How does your effort relate to belief algebras and efforts to build complex ontologies?

Sidian: We have some very interesting approaches to the construction of the map, and I’d have to say that one of the most interesting is the method in which beliefs cluster. I think this will be key to organization of the map.
As far as how the map works, it all comes down to A: User profile data like age, sex, location; and B: Beliefs users have subscribed to. By correlating these points and organizing them into the genome map, there is a vast amount of information a user could explore and learn from.

It is important to note that Belief Genome will not “create” ontologies in any sense. We believe the choice of religious label and categorization should rest solely on the user. That said, we can certainly use those labels as loose metrics. For instance, people will be able to list their religion, or lack of. This information could be used to show that “Love at First Sight” is believed in by 67% of Christians, 13% Scientologists, etc.

H+: I’ve done some research into the mechanisms of human beliefs specifically related to deception. For example in some nations individuals are subject to deceptive news media or media controlled by a state religion and/or filtered and censored by their governments. Can you say something about how the Belief Genome Project can help people to know the truth?

Sidian: That’s a deep question, and one I’m not entirely sure the Genome can help to answer, at least not in an objective sense. What it might do is help you see truth (and contradictions) in your own subjective views on life. It can be very difficult to see your own contradictions, but I could easily see situations in using Belief Genome where the user has noticed they are subscribed to both a violent belief and a belief in non-violence. I’m sure we’ve all had times where we had to try and reconcile two beliefs causing friction within us. Sometimes they aren’t so visible. Belief Genome can make them visible.

H+: A lot of my readers will self identify as atheists. What role to non-beleivers play in constructing the Belief Genome? How is it useful to them? For example even if I do not agree with the beliefs and practices of a specific religion I may want to understand what its adherents believe in in order to communicate more effectively with them.

Sidian:Non-believers are just as important to the Belief Genome as anyone else. Every person is absolutely teeming with beliefs, no matter how Atheist they are. This is largely because 99% of beliefs are not religious (per se) in nature. Rather they originate from society, relationships, celebrities, geography, and on, and on. Religion is only a fraction of the belief-o-sphere.
That said, everything a religious person might find useful in the Belief Genome, a non-believer will too. Religious or non-religious, our personalities and behavior are comprised of beliefs; we’re all in the same boat.

H+: Some people say Transhumanism is a religion. What do you think? How can Transhumanists participate to promote their ideas (religious or not) within the Belief Genome?

[Editor’s note: Transhumanism is NOT a religion, this is a mistaken understanding. Some people might confuse Transhuman ideas with religious ideas and there has been quite a bit written on this notion in the popular media. Of course one can both be religious and also a Transhumanist. However most Transhumanists self identify as atheists. I was curious what Sidian thought about this subject. ]

Sidian: In my opinion I would say that, strictly speaking, Transhumanism is a religion. It is a sort of “boxed set” of beliefs and beliefs are the building blocks of religion. Given, some of those beliefs may differ from Transhumanist to Transhumanist, but that same behavior can be found in other religions.

I would be fascinated to see what kind of belief commonalities we could track for Transhumanism in the genome. For instance, what is the Transhumanist consensus on how to treat AI? Are AI’s seen as slaves to man, or does Transhumanism promote equality among man and machine? There are other ties between Belief Genome and Transhumanism. I could imagine a comprehensive database of beliefs being very useful to future AI’s, even if only to be used to help them understand how we operate. Or human enhancement. Is it not an enhancement to have more control over your mental wet-ware? It seems easy to focus on human enhancement from a physical perspective, but our lives are perhaps even more so effected by our mental one.

H+: I know some people that are interested in creating their own religions and religious systems either as private tools for personal spiritual growth or as systems which they want to share with others. How can the Belief Genome Project help people design their own religions?

Sidian: Belief Genome is wonderful for people looking to build their own religious (or non-religious) belief systems. In fact Belief Genome might be the only dedicated software equipped to do so. When you consider how difficult it is to organize something so amorphous and abstract as beliefs, the ability to actually list, relate, and quantify them is incredibly useful. Plus, with Facebook integration and other sharing features, I foresee belief system sharing becoming a very smooth and enriching experience.

H+: A technical question, how do you deal with conflicting beliefs? Not all Christians believe the same things. Adherents to a given set of beliefs can apply them differently.

Sidian: Conflicting beliefs and belief variations are two different things. The team and I are very stringent about not allowing the software to interject its own “opinions”. So an issue in which a user has conflicting beliefs will not be addressed by the genome, only by the user. And then there is belief variations…the project is not without its challenges, and this is a big one on our radar. We’re up against giving quantitative data about a completely qualitative subject and it’s going to take some serious ingenuity. I have confidence in this team though. We’ve already tackled issues that, in the beginning, looked quite daunting.

H+: Robert Anton Wilson once stated that “Belief is the death of intelligence” What do you think?

Sidian: I think that belief would make a great entry at the Belief Genome. And this is the point we are looking to make: All of us are housing thousands of beliefs, often without even realizing it. What beliefs do you have about art? What about love? What makes Batman so great? What does it mean to be “a dog person”? Would you rather have a tiger or a bunny printed on your shirt? Why? So far as I can see, there is no escaping belief; not even as a desireless monk. We all have beliefs that govern us. I might say allowing beliefs to dictate our lives blindly is the death of intelligence.

H+: Anything else we ought to know?

Sidian: I want to stress that Belief Genome is for *everyone*. No matter your religion, lack of religion, or otherwise, the Belief Genome will not be complete without a rounded userbase from many varied walks of life.

Lastly, our Kickstarter funding won’t happen without you. Every dollar is a step toward making Belief Genome happen, so please consider taking that step with us…or going on a walk with us…or a good jog, you up for a jog?

2 Responses

  1. Depends how strict you adhere to definitions of religion. Personally “A religion is a set of beliefs.” works fine for me, as beliefs certainly operate as the building blocks of religion, and a religion need not include rituals or beliefs in anything supernatural.

    We, as a society, tend to have a very stereotyped view of religion and cults. For instance, there is technically nothing separating a religion from a cult except perhaps social perception of said religion/cult. Similarly, any set of beliefs can be perceived and/or utilized as a person’s religion.

    Notice company religions. Based upon a handful of beliefs such as “Only refund customers if you have to”, and “Only pay workers as much as is needed” you will seed a completely different culture than if you used belief modules opposite to these. In either case, the beliefs propagate throughout the workforce, company design elements, “rituals”, etc, and we have a company religion.

    I realize this all seems very broad given the current national perceptions on religion, but it is not only true, but incredibly useful. If you cannot even perceive the beliefs you have, how can you expect to control your personal “religion” (aka: your belief system)?

    The idea of Transhumanism could not exist without having a commonly held set of beliefs, even if those beliefs are more or less loosely held and vary from person to person. Because at its core there is a set of common Transhumanist beliefs about technology, humanity, ethics, artificial intelligence, human enhancement, etc. This is directly the reason the community is able to collectively deem themselves “Transhumanists”.

    Back-peddling for a moment: these are all just my opinions (and beliefs). Transhumanists will continue on one way or another. I only hope to give people a means of understanding and gaining power over their beliefs, and the first step to doing that is to realize you have thousands of them.

    Thanks for commenting, Tim. I hope to have more conversations on this.


  2. Tim says:

    intresting idea of being able to acess different beliefs (specifically for debates). But I would not call transhumanism a religeon. Firstly there are many other ideas that have certain beliefs or predictions such as communism and humanism but they are not called religeons. Secondly since most transhumanists are atheists (including me) so calling transhumanism a faith would not sit well anyway. Also I would say that transhumanist beliefs vary to much to be classed as a religeon as there is not set belief, for example a god created everything. But this is not a bad thing because it allows debate and alternative paths to be taken. Lastly there is very little to no belief in supernatural things which is needed in an other faith.

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