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Comment author: Lumifer 06 May 2016 02:35:40AM 0 points [-]

find that at least some of it reached us (in its role as Sacred Scripture, no less) by being treated as reliable history by people who had no good reason to think of it as more than a fable.

And..? So what? I am not sure I see the point.

Comment author: gjm 05 May 2016 11:04:09PM -1 points [-]

I agree with all of that. But there's a limit to how much effort you can reasonably be expected to put into considering whether something that seems absurd to you is really not-absurd. I suggest that that depends on what other evidence there is for its non-absurdity. E.g., in the case of evolution, it's highly relevant that it's endorsed by the great majority of biologists, including biologists belonging to religions whose traditions contain stories that prima facie conflict with evolution.

There are a lot of super-smart Christians too, which I think it's reasonable to take as evidence that Christianity can't rightly be dismissed simply because its tradition contains a story about a talking snake. On the other hand, there aren't so many super-smart talking-snake-believers -- even among Christians, most[1] of the cleverest and most educated don't take the story as indicating that there was ever a talking snake -- which suggests that treating a literal reading of the talking-snake story as absurd probably isn't unreasonable.

[1] Though certainly not all.

Comment author: gjm 05 May 2016 10:58:23PM -1 points [-]

Every base is base 10.

(There is no prime number ending with a 2 in binary. Other than that, you're fine.)

Comment author: CynicalOptimist 05 May 2016 10:00:37PM 0 points [-]

Incidentally, does this prime number have to be expressed in Base 10?

Comment author: CynicalOptimist 05 May 2016 09:59:31PM 0 points [-]

I think the original poster would have agreed to this even before they had the realisation. The point here is that, even when you do listen to an explanation, the absurdity bias can still mislead you.

The lady in the story had an entire conversation about evolution and still rejected it as absurd. Some ideas simply take more than 20 minutes to digest, understand and learn about. Therfore after 20 minutes of conversation, you cannot reasonably conclude that you've heard everything there is. You cannot reasonably conclude that you wouldn't be convinced by more evidence.

It's just like any bias really. Even when you know about it and you think you've adjusted sufficiently, you probably haven't.

Comment author: CynicalOptimist 05 May 2016 09:41:39PM *  2 points [-]

I think this just underscores the original post's point.

The lesson here isn't that Christians are probably right or that Christians are probably wrong. The lesson here is that you can go very wrong by relying on the absurdity heuristic. And that that's true even when the claim seems really absurd.

Let's take a hypothetical atheist who really does think that all Christians believe in the literal word of the Bible. This atheist might reject the whole of Christianity because of the absurdity of talking snakes. Having rejected the entire school of thought that all of Christianity represents, he never has the opportunity to find out that he was wrong (about all Christians taking the Bible literally). Therefore be never realises that he had flawed reasons for rejecting religion.

The woman in the story has a similarly inaccurate understanding of what (many) evolutionists believe. The flawed understanding is part of the issue.

This bias applies to people who reject an idea on the grounds that it seems absurd, but their assessment of 'absurdity' is based on their limited, probably inaccurate, understanding of the topic.

Comment author: CynicalOptimist 05 May 2016 09:35:57PM *  1 point [-]

I think you might be deflecting the main point here. Possibly without realising it.

You have a better opportunity to practice your skills as a rationalist if you respond to the [least convenient] (http://tinyurl.com/LWleastconvenient) possible interpretation of this comment.

I would propose that the "experts" being referred to are experts in debating the existence of God. ie of all the arguments that have ever been put forward for the existence of God, these are the people who know the most compelling ones. The most rationally compelling, logically coherent arguments.

Perhaps you mean to say that no such people exist, or no such arguments exist. It is possible that that's true. But it is almost certain that having brief conversations with garden-variety theists, won't expose us to these arguments.

If you happen to have gone looking for these arguments, with an open mind and a willingness to genuinely consider their merits, and you remain unconvinced, then that's fine. I'm pretty sure that if I were to go looking for the most compelling arguments, with a genuinely open mind, i would remain unconvinced too. But i think it's important to acknowledge that I haven't actually done so. I haven't done the research and I haven't given myself the best possible opportunity to change my mind. - There were other things that I was more interested in doing.

For those of us who haven't heard the most compelling arguments: I honestly think that's fine. But i think the original poster (and Psycho) are describing an important bias, that we should be aware of and careful about in our own thinking: the tendency to reason as if we have already seen the most compelling evidence for something, even when there's no reason to believe that you have.

When you realise that you've not yet seen the most convincing version of an argument, there's no reason to raise your probability estimates. But you also shouldn't lower them in the same way that you would if you were sure you'd seen all the evidence that there was.

Comment author: gjm 05 May 2016 09:13:26PM -1 points [-]

"Not an unthinkable thought" is a remarkably low bar

For sure. My point is that the culture Genesis 3 came out of was one that had at least some inclination to accept the idea of talking snakes, which makes it more plausible that the talking snake in Genesis 3 was intended to be understood as, well, an actual talking snake (which is how, at face value, the story describes it) rather than a puppet of the Devil, or a metaphor for human curiosity, or whatever.

Comment author: gjm 05 May 2016 09:08:11PM -1 points [-]

I don't know of any large populations with non-terrible epistemic hygiene.

The relevant issue is not the epistemic hygiene of the populations, but of (so to speak) the process by which any given body of ideas reaches us. In the case of the Bible, on entirelyuseless's (plausible) hypothesis we find that at least some of it reached us (in its role as Sacred Scripture, no less) by being treated as reliable history by people who had no good reason to think of it as more than a fable.

Not every body-of-ideas exhibits such crass indifference to truth in its history, though of course it's by no means only religious ones that do.

Comment author: CynicalOptimist 05 May 2016 08:52:05PM 0 points [-]

Exactly!

To demonstrate in this way that the absurdity heuristic is useful, you would have to claim something like:

The ratio of false absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter) to true absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter) is much higher than the ratio of false non-absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter) to true non-absurd claims (that you are likely to encounter).

EDIT wow. I'm the person who wrote that, and i still find it hard to read it. This is one of the reasons why rationality is hard. Even when you have a good intuition for the concepts, it's still hard to express the ideas in a concrete way.

Comment author: Vaniver 05 May 2016 07:05:05PM 2 points [-]

They're available here.

Comment author: Lumifer 05 May 2016 06:45:58PM 1 point [-]

why, then, that indicates that those subsequent readers or listeners had terrible epistemic hygiene

Translation: they were human.

I don't know of any large populations with non-terrible epistemic hygiene.

Comment author: Lumifer 05 May 2016 06:43:05PM *  1 point [-]

According to this, at least some ancient-ish Hebrew commentators thought

According to your own link, some commentators thought that the snake was an intelligent humanoid, some thought it was Satan in the flesh, and some thought that Genesis was... mistaken about the snake speaking.

All it shows is that the variety of interpretations is wide. "Not an unthinkable thought" is a remarkably low bar, at this level pretty much anything goes.

So that's exactly the point of people saying "ha ha, your religion has a talking snake in it"

That's a stupid point, of the same kind as "the Pope wears a silly hat, ha-ha, he must be really dumb". It's just agitprop. I don't see any reason to pay attention to such "points", do you?

Comment author: robirahman 05 May 2016 05:28:48PM 0 points [-]

When will the survey results be published?

In response to comment by devi on Lesswrong 2016 Survey
Comment author: robirahman 05 May 2016 05:28:30PM 0 points [-]

Someone said elsewhere in this thread that if you stop in the middle of the survey, it does record the answers you put in before quitting.

Comment author: hairyfigment 05 May 2016 05:11:48PM -1 points [-]

Yes, Lumifer's objections - based on a character who does not appear in Genesis at all - seem silly to me. On the other hand, if God made the world, he could have used unnecessary magic on any number of animals in the 'natural' course of creation. (As I'm sure we all know, a god of divine rank 16 could make a talking snake much more easily than he could make a planet!) So this is a weak argument.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 05 May 2016 02:21:24PM 0 points [-]

I agree about the case of deliberate fraud. For example it seems likely to me that Joseph Smith knew that he was inventing the Book of Mormon, and the fact that he knew that is not a defense of Mormonism; if anything it makes things worse.

Genesis and similar things seem a bit different to me, in at least two ways: 1) having no access to the origin in that case, I don't have any particular reason to suppose dishonest motives, and 2) there are many aspects of the accounts that look idealized, in a way that isn't terribly reasonable for someone who is trying to delude people. In other words, I suspect something like this: the author thinks, "Of course no one knows what really happened. But I'm guessing it was something like this. And of course everyone else knows that no one knows, so they'll know that this is a guess."

But if that's the case, historically those authors were mistaken. People didn't just know they didn't know, but assumed the accounts were accurate even in a detailed way, for the most part, even if there were exceptions to that kind of interpretation even e.g. in the early church.

I agree with the last point, that these facts are highly relevant. As I said e.g. about the resurrection, Christians definitely distinguished all along between beliefs about the interpretation of Genesis and actual creedal beliefs. But that doesn't change the fact that they were very certain about the Genesis story, for the most part, nor the fact that their certainty was religiously motivated. And that is prima facie a pretty good argument that the whole religion is false. I didn't say that there aren't arguments like that, just that this does not account for everything.

Comment author: gjm 05 May 2016 01:48:39PM -1 points [-]

I am skeptical that the original intention of the story is to make such claims.

I'm not sure the original intention is quite what matters.

Suppose a religion is made up by outright fraudsters. If someone says "look, this religion says X and Y and Z, which we know are not true", is it any refutation of that argument to say "well, sure, but the original authors of that story knew X and Y and Z weren't true"? Of course not.

If the story in Genesis 3 was deliberately made up by people who did not believe there had ever been a talking snake, with the intention that subsequent readers or listeners would take it as historical, then the situation is the same as in the previous paragraph.

If it was made up with the intention that readers or listeners would treat it as fiction (or perhaps I should say fable or myth), then indeed their epistemic situation was just fine and I have no particular objection to it -- at least not on these grounds. But if (as I think likely, and it sounds as if you agree) subsequent readers or listeners ended up treating it as history or something like history -- why, then, that indicates that those subsequent readers or listeners had terrible epistemic hygiene; isn't that highly relevant in evaluating other parts of the belief system those people have handed down to us?

Comment author: entirelyuseless 05 May 2016 12:28:04PM 0 points [-]

Josephus believed that there was a talking snake, and that this was merely an example of the fact that all animals could talk. I have a blog post about that here..

However, I am skeptical that the original intention of the story is to make such claims. I think that whoever first came up with the story, whether that was written or oral, and even if it was based on other accounts, must have known that they were creating a story. But given the lack of context that ancient accounts used to have, it was difficult for other people to know what was a story and what wasn't, when the account was received from hundreds of years ago.

Comment author: gjm 05 May 2016 09:59:58AM -1 points [-]

I see no reason to believe ancient Hebrews thought that long time ago animals talked -- or considered snakes to be the smartest animals.

I suggest that Genesis 3 is actually some (admittedly weak) reason to believe that. But, for the avoidance of doubt, my conjecture is not that they thought all animals talked, and I am not suggesting that they thought any non-human animals talked post-Eden.

According to this, at least some ancient-ish Hebrew commentators thought that "The snake from creation was an intelligent animal that talked, thought, and walked upright like a human". This is already long after when Genesis 3 was written, of course, but it does at minimum make it clear that this was by no means an unthinkable thought.

"indicates a deficiency in their understanding", so what?

So that's exactly the point of people saying "ha ha, your religion has a talking snake in it", and they need not be making an error in going from "this religion's holy book has a story with a talking snake in it" to "this religion is less likely to be right than if it didn't have that story". And the fact that magic or divine intervention could obviously (if either existed) make snakes talk doesn't invalidate that.

You misunderstand my position.

No, actually I wondered about saying "except that it's more like incarnation than possession" but decided that was unnecessary nitpicking. So yes, rather than "of my sample of three, one basically agrees with you and two flatly disagree" it would be more accurate to say "of my sample of three, one kinda agrees with you and two flatly disagree".

The sample, by the way, consisted of the books I happen to have on my shelves that I could tell from the titles were likely to express some opinion about the question. I looked in one other but it turned out not to. So no cherry-picking here.

(But I should add that I would not expect randomly chosen Christians to be much like random samples of those three, because most Christians are theologically unsophisticated; so some version of the serpent=Satan theory might well be more popular than that sample would suggest.)

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