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Reason as memetic immune disorder

207 Post author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 09:05PM

A prophet is without dishonor in his hometown

I'm reading the book "The Year of Living Biblically," by A.J. Acobs.  He tried to follow all of the commandments in the Bible (Old and New Testaments) for one year.  He quickly found that

  • a lot of the rules in the Bible are impossible, illegal, or embarassing to follow nowadays; like wearing tassels, tying your money to yourself, stoning adulterers, not eating fruit from a tree less than 5 years old, and not touching anything that a menstruating woman has touched; and
  • this didn't seem to bother more than a handful of the one-third to one-half of Americans who claim the Bible is the word of God.

You may have noticed that people who convert to religion after the age of 20 or so are generally more zealous than people who grew up with the same religion.  People who grow up with a religion learn how to cope with its more inconvenient parts by partitioning them off, rationalizing them away, or forgetting about them.  Religious communities actually protect their members from religion in one sense - they develop an unspoken consensus on which parts of their religion members can legitimately ignore.  New converts sometimes try to actually do what their religion tells them to do.

I remember many times growing up when missionaries described the crazy things their new converts in remote areas did on reading the Bible for the first time - they refused to be taught by female missionaries; they insisted on following Old Testament commandments; they decided that everyone in the village had to confess all of their sins against everyone else in the village; they prayed to God and assumed He would do what they asked; they believed the Christian God would cure their diseases.  We would always laugh a little at the naivete of these new converts; I could barely hear the tiny voice in my head saying but they're just believing that the Bible means what it says...

How do we explain the blindness of people to a religion they grew up with?

Cultural immunity

Europe has lived with Christianity for nearly 2000 years.  European culture has co-evolved with Christianity.  Culturally, memetically, it's developed a tolerance for Christianity.  These new Christian converts, in Uganda, Papua New Guinea, and other remote parts of the world, were being exposed to Christian memes for the first time, and had no immunity to them.

The history of religions sometimes resembles the history of viruses.  Judaism and Islam were both highly virulent when they first broke out, driving the first generations of their people to conquer (Islam) or just slaughter (Judaism) everyone around them for the sin of not being them.  They both grew more sedate over time.  (Christianity was pacifist at the start, as it arose in a conquered people.  When the Romans adopted it, it didn't make them any more militaristic than they already were.)

The mechanism isn't the same as for diseases, which can't be too virulent or they kill their hosts.  Religions don't generally kill their hosts.  I suspect that, over time, individual selection favors those who are less zealous.  The point is that a culture develops antibodies for the particular religions it co-exists with - attitudes and practices that make them less virulent.

I have a theory that "radical Islam" is not native Islam, but Westernized Islam.  Over half of 75 Muslim terrorists studied by Bergen & Pandey 2005 in the New York Times had gone to a Western college.  (Only 9% had attended madrassas.)  A very small percentage of all Muslims have received a Western college education.   When someone lives all their life in a Muslim country, they're not likely to be hit with the urge to travel abroad and blow something up.  But when someone from an Islamic nation goes to Europe for college, and comes back with Enlightenment ideas about reason and seeking logical closure over beliefs, and applies them to the Koran, then you have troubles.  They have lost their cultural immunity.

I'm also reminded of a talk I attended by one of the Dalai Lama's assistants.  This was not slick, Westernized Buddhism; this was saffron-robed fresh-off-the-plane-from-Tibet Buddhism.  He spoke about his beliefs, and then took questions.  People began asking him about some of the implications of his belief that life, love, feelings, and the universe as a whole are inherently bad and undesirable.  He had great difficulty comprehending the questions - not because of his English, I think; but because the notion of taking a belief expressed in one context, and applying it in another, seemed completely new to him.  To him, knowledge came in units; each unit of knowledge was a story with a conclusion and a specific application.  (No wonder they think understanding Buddhism takes decades.)  He seemed not to have the idea that these units could interact; that you could take an idea from one setting, and explore its implications in completely different settings.  This may have been an extreme form of cultural immunity.

We think of Buddhism as a peaceful, caring religion.  A religion that teaches that striving and status are useless is probably going to be more peaceful than one that teaches that the whole world must be brought under its dominion; and religions that lack the power of the state (e.g., the early Christians) are usually gentler than those with the power of life and death.  But much of Buddhism's kind public face may be due to cultural norms that prevent Buddhists from connecting all of their dots.  Today, we worry about Islamic terrorists.  A hundred years from now, we'll worry about Buddhist physicists.

Reason as immune suppression

The reason I bring this up is that intelligent people sometimes do things more stupid than stupid people are capable of.  There are a variety of reasons for this; but one has to do with the fact that all cultures have dangerous memes circulating in them, and cultural antibodies to those memes.  The trouble is that these antibodies are not logical.  On the contrary; these antibodies are often highly illogical.  They are the blind spots that let us live with a dangerous meme without being impelled to action by it.  The dangerous effects of these memes are most obvious with religion; but I think there is an element of this in many social norms.  We have a powerful cultural norm in America that says that all people are equal (whatever that means); originally, this powerful and ambiguous belief was counterbalanced by a set of blind spots so large that this belief did not even impel us to free slaves or let women or non-property-owners vote.  We have another cultural norm that says that hard work reliably and exclusively leads to success; and another set of blind spots that prevent this belief from turning us all into Objectivists.

A little reason can be a dangerous thing.  The landscape of rationality is not smooth; there is no guarantee that removing one false belief will improve your reasoning instead of degrading it.  Sometimes, reason lets us see the dangerous aspects of our memes, but not the blind spots that protect us from them.  Sometimes, it lets us see the blind spots, but not the dangerous memes.  Either of these ways, reason can lead an individual to be unbalanced, no longer adapted to their memetic environment, and free to follow previously-dormant memes through to their logical conclusions.    (To paraphrase Steve Weinberg, "For a smart person to do something truly stupid, they need a theory."  Actually, I could have quoted him directly - "stupid" is just a lighter shade of "evil".  Communism and fascism both begin by exercising complete control over the memetic environment, in order to create a new man stripped of cultural immunity, who will do whatever they tell him to.)

The vaccines: Updating and emotions

How can you tell when you have removed one set of blind spots from your reasoning without removing its counterbalances?  One heuristic to counter this loss of immunity, is to be very careful when you find yourself deviating from everyone around you.  I deviate from those around me all the time, so I admit I haven't found this heuristic to be very helpful.

Another heuristic is to listen to your feelings.  If your conclusions seem repulsive to you, you may have stripped yourself of cognitive immunity to something dangerous.

Comments (162)

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 19 September 2009 10:39:40PM 30 points [-]

On the whole a very good post. But here --

The reason I bring this up is that intelligent people sometimes do things more stupid than stupid people are capable of. (For example, quite recently, several respected geneticists declared that there was no such thing as race - an idea that not even the dimmest kid I knew back in Detroit would have fallen for.)

-- you misunderstand the position that you're criticizing. The claim of the geneticists is not that race does not exist, but rather that it doesn't map to the joints at which geneticists, qua geneticists, find it particularly useful to carve reality. But when trying to understand the social world, within which your kid in Detroit is steeped, Race is certainly a useful way to carve reality. And this is all that people mean when they say that Race is a social concept, not a genetic one.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 11:07:12PM *  16 points [-]

You're right.

Some of the people making the claim probably have a more nuanced interpretation in mind. Many people repeating the claim have the simple interpretation in mind; or may have the nuanced interpretation, but are stating it in a way that they hope will be misinterpreted, yet give them plausible deniability.

I don't remember now what the original "respectable geneticists" said. I have seen a summary of their work in Science magazine that used the simple interpretation. Does anyone have a link to some of the original publications?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 11:46:47PM *  -2 points [-]

While looking for this info, I came across this tidbit: James Watson, who claimed blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, is 1/6 black. Wonder how he felt on finding that out, especially since he's the guy who said, "I didn't win a Nobel prize. I won the [meaning most important ever] Nobel prize."

I know a woman who I think had negative feelings about blacks, who learned, as an adult, that her father was black. She'd always thought he was Hispanic. She was a little upset by it, but mostly thought it was a funny story to tell people.

One original publication is in the Feb. 8 2008 Nature Genetics. I don't have it. Articles citing it here. None of the titles mention race.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 20 September 2009 03:50:16AM *  6 points [-]

While looking for this info, I came across this awesome tidbit: James Watson, who claimed blacks are intellectually inferior to whites, is 1/6 black. Wonder how he felt on finding that out, especially since he's the guy who said, "I didn't win a Nobel prize. I won the [meaning most important ever] Nobel prize."

Probably not terribly affected, as he has plenty of information about his intelligence screening off (EDIT: as steven says, this is not the correct term) his ancestry, and he AFAIK never claimed black people to be 'inferior' in any sense other than lower average IQ.

Comment author: steven0461 20 September 2009 02:16:53PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Douglas_Knight 20 September 2009 04:11:16AM *  0 points [-]

One original publication is in the Feb. 8 2008 Nature Genetics.

Is this it? many ungated versions.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 03 November 2010 03:27:40AM 0 points [-]

This seems more the opposite. It says,

For example, we observed a missense mutation in the CR1 gene, the derived state of which has a frequency of 85% in Africans, but which is absent elsewhere. As this gene modulates the severity of malarial attacks in Papua New Guineans,our analysis strongly suggests that this particular CR1 mutation has been positively selected for in Africans because it modifies host susceptibility to malaria. Another important selective pressure that has confronted modern humans is adaptation to variable nutritional resources. ... ENPP1 harbors a mutation with a derived state known to protect against obesity and type II diabetes that is present in B90% of non-Africans but virtually absent in Africans.

Comment author: michaelkeenan 20 September 2009 08:00:46AM 31 points [-]

I don't think you understand Watson's point of view.

If I understand Watson correctly, he thinks the evidence suggests that the average IQ of native Africans is below 100. He didn't say that all Africans have IQs below 100. I don't know why you think he'd care that he's descended from a black person. Presumably he thinks a substantial minority of Africans still have higher IQs than 100, so if he really cares about the IQ of his black ancestor, it's still plausible that s/he had a high IQ.

But why would anyone care about the IQ of their ancestors? Even if you do think there are racial cognitive differences, there are better ways to measure your own IQ than to guess based on the race of your ancestors.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 20 September 2009 08:34:48AM *  8 points [-]

True, we should have more faith in our own demonstrated intelligence. But humans place values on things, and then make associations, and then have feelings. Under the circumstances, I would not expect him to have the level of detachment you suggest.

Anyway, I didn't mean to sound gleeful. (I'll edit my original statement a bit to try to fix that.) Or, rather, what glee I had was motivated not by my liberal, forward-looking views on race, but by my impression that Watson is full of himself. I approve of scientists making politically-unpopular statements when based on evidence.

I suspect that the same people who want to say there is no such thing as race, also would enjoy saying that Watson is 1/6 "black".

Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 09:26:55AM *  14 points [-]

Are you suggesting that Watson's statements were not based on evidence?

In the controversial comments that led to his retirement, Watson claimed of those in Africa:

‘‘all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours – whereas all the testing says not really.''

The lower average test scores of Africans is surely an undisputed scientific fact.

Whatever you think about Watson, in this case, he had the scientific evidence firmly on his side - as far as any scientific issue was concerned.

Comment author: MineCanary 21 September 2009 05:35:32AM 7 points [-]

But it's fact that "all our social policies are based on the fact that their intelligence is the same as ours"? That is, not only is there a difference in IQ distribution, that difference is so significant that "all our social policies" are not going to help them.

I remember reading something by Flynn explaining that people with IQs below 70 today still have problems functioning even though they might score in the average range if given an IQ test normed on a population from the same country decades ago. From this I gather that the correlation between IQ and how well someone can function breaks down when you compare different populations.

In order to conclude that Watson's quoted remark is scientific fact, you must not only prove that Africans have lower average IQ test scores, but you must prove that:

  1. This interferes with our social policies towards Africa in some way.

  2. Any evidence we draw about the capabilities of Africans with a certain IQ must be based on studies on the same population, not on Americans or Europeans or whatnot with the same IQ.

It's unlikely that such a broad sweeping statement like "all our social policies", applied to the whole of Africa, is correct, considering the considerable variation both of social policies and across the continent.

Additionally, I find it interesting that people see the backlash against these remarks as merely "politically correct" anti-racism. It seems clear that this is a challenge to an entrenched way of thinking about a wide range of problems including international relations and poverty. Watson is claiming (in a rather nonspecific and unsupported way from what I've heard, which is only second hand) that the status quo for trying to help or otherwise influence Africa isn't working because we make bad assumptions about their intelligence. Now, I'm sure we make many, many bad assumptions about Africans that influence our social policies and that may break many or make them less efficient or keep us from hitting on something that really works. Intelligence is the most controversial candidate, of course, for historical reasons. But some of the backlash is embedded in our very lack of practice in treating any such assumptions as malleable.

Comment author: timtyler 21 September 2009 06:24:32AM 5 points [-]

Check with what happened: Watson was castigated for his views on the lower intelligence of Africans - not because of his other views about social policies.

Comment author: MineCanary 21 September 2009 04:41:11PM 7 points [-]

I know. I knew when I was writing that. The ideas in that paragraph were just forming as I typed them out, which is why I attributed cause where I didn't mean to.

Something closer to what I mean: It's fine to discuss intelligence differences between race. My intro psych textbook has a long discussion about it. People have an uproar when, instead of saying, oh, here's what the test results are, here's what the results of experiments that shed some insight into the cause of the differences (ie environment vs. genetic), and leaving it at that, someone says that there's a difference in IQ and that that explains social inequity.

So, yeah, they're objecting because it's racist, not because it challenges institutions or policies (other than the institution of denying racial difference, which to me seems relatively rational considering all the sources of bias that would cause people to make too much of racial difference). But it's not racist just because he says Africans have done poorly on IQ tests but because he defaults to assuming that that's enough to be "gloomy about the prospects of Africa".

Furthermore, his quote in this piece of the interview:

. His hope is that everyone is equal, but he counters that “people who have to deal with black employees find this not true”.

is pretty much as racist as you can get. His piece of evidence here is the anecdotal observations non-specific employers that fit right into a really old stereotype. Additionally, it seems odd--employers recruit who they employ, and you wouldn't hire someone who had insufficient intelligence to do what you were hiring them for--the job selects for people of a certain intelligence range (which may be offset by, say, an intelligent person with a disability or who just didn't get an education, or an average person who's outperforming expectations of her intelligence due to hard work and a certain cultural background)--so race shouldn't matter because you can only hire someone from a certain race for a job given they have adequate intelligence for the job.

All the press I've read so far on the topic stresses general racism, his tendency to make claims without scientific evidence, and his intentional offensiveness and doesn't focus entirely on the issue of "lower intelligence of Africans", which you seem to think. Maybe you're talking about official reprimands or such that I haven't read, but the public kinda objected to a lot more than just that. So I think you're misguided in asserting that the only part of what he said that was controversial is low average African IQ and thereby claiming that he was on firm scientific ground.

Another part of the problem is intelligence = IQ. There's evidence (from the Flynn effect and cross-cultural examination of answers given to standard IQ test type questions) that environment and culture strengthen specific cognitive abilities and predispose one to reason in certain ways or interpret questions in certain ways. So even if IQ scores show that average African IQ is whatever, that's not indisputably the same as showing lower intelligence, because you could usefully define intelligence to include cognitive abilities/reasoning that Africans are stronger at than Westerners. And here I'll mention that I don't want to get in an argument over whether defining intelligence that way is good or not--I'm just saying it in response to this:

The lower average test scores of Africans is surely an undisputed scientific fact.

Because while that sentence can be true, it is not sufficient evidence to conclude, as Watson does, that the testing is adequate to say Africans have lower intelligence. That depends on how you define intelligence. (Although his actual words just say that their intelligence is different, which does seem clear, but from other remarks he seems to think that Africans have lower intelligence due to genes, which is not scientifically undisputed at all.)

I am bothered by the fact that I know the discussions on race and intelligence that I have read are heavily biased in the information they present--for instance, in the US, racial intelligence differences correlating better with degree of pigmentation than with amount of African genes--because this information seems like it's picked in order to prove the politically correct point, whereas the other side likes to ignore all the evidence for the politically correct point and just simplify things because it seems obvious to them that the bigoted view is true. Point me to a transparent, relatively unbiased discussion of all available experimental evidence and I'll thank you.

I lean toward the politically correct side because it's the side that presents a lot of evidence and then says, "It's kinda inconclusive and we don't really know what causes group intelligence difference, although we do know a lot of it isn't genetic." Whereas the non-politically-correct side attempts to explain away a lot of the evils of the world by saying inequity is genetically based just because there are differences in the way groups perform on a psychometric instrument. But it seems like history and other social forces can greatly affect the conditions of one group: a few generations ago, when my ancestors were impoverished farmers in Europe, I have little doubt they would've failed modern IQ tests, but my race's genes haven't change since then, and the genes weren't responsible for our economic, social, and political problems.

It's both reasonable and humane to assume that, given Westerners spent a century gaining IQ points due to the Flynn effect, and given that the low quality of life in the West changed radically over spans of centuries or decades, one group currently doing poorly on IQ tests and living in poverty has the potential to change just as drastically. Any pessimism about their prospects can surely be more strongly justified by citing current and historical economic, political, social, and environmental trends, as well as unprecedented possible events like existential threats.

Comment author: timtyler 21 September 2009 06:41:24PM 2 points [-]

Briefly - since this is getting off topic - if anyone is interested, my views on the matter are here: http://timtyler.org/political_correctness/

Comment author: Z_M_Davis 21 September 2009 07:27:07PM 19 points [-]

I lean toward the politically correct side because it's the side that [...]

Taboo side. Complex empirical issues do not have sides. Humans, for their own non-truth-tracking reasons, group into sides, but it's not Bayesian, and it has never been Bayesian.

Or we think we group up into sides, but I'm not even sure that's true. You write that the egalitarians are nuanced and present evidence, whereas the human biodiversity crowd (or whatever words you want to use) are just apologists for their favorite narrative, but there are a lot of people who have the exact opposite perspective: that the hbd-ers are honest and nuanced and the egalitarians are blinded by ideology. But in fact, there are no sides physically out there: rather, there are only various people who have studied various facets of the topic to various degrees and who believe and profess various things for various reasons. And this question of what various people believe is distinct from the question of what's actually true.

I realize that this kind of aggressive reductionism isn't very predictively useful---that indeed, I'm probably just a few steps above saying, "Well it's all just quarks and leptons anyway." But sometimes it is worth saying just that, if only to wrench ourselves free of this adversarial framing so that we can actually look at the data.

It's [...] humane to assume

Humaneness is central to policy, but it should have nothing to do with our beliefs.

Comment author: timtyler 21 September 2009 06:30:52AM 6 points [-]

It was political correctness - and transparently so - just as it was for Lawrence Summers, Chris Brand and Frank Ellis before him.

"'What is ethically wrong is the hounding, by what can only be described as an illiberal and intolerant "thought police", of one of the most distinguished scientists of our time, out of the Science Museum, and maybe out of the laboratory that he has devoted much of his life to, building up a world-class reputation"

  • Richard Dawkins.
Comment author: Johnicholas 21 September 2009 12:26:24PM 5 points [-]

I have a proposed explanation for "backlash": personal investment.

Some of us may have done well in IQ tests, and focused on intelligence (and the associated notion of rationality) as personal strengths. Accepting the notion that IQ tests don't measure anything "real" (except in the sense that they measure "the real ability to perform well on IQ tests"), would also mean downgrading estimation of one's personal worth.

Explaining away evidence against IQ tests as "merely politically correct anti-racism" allows retaining that sense of worth.

Comment author: Nameless 21 September 2009 06:13:50PM 23 points [-]

Can we please not have this discussion here? Posters here are posting under their real names or lasting pseudonyms, so they can't defend the un-PC arguments without making numerous crimethink statements that could rebound against them in real life. So those who advance the PC arguments will wind up shadowboxing with those who don't fear retaliation or reputational costs, and we won't get a real honest discussion.

Questions of race and intelligence will be settled decisively within 5 or 10 years when large scale whole-genome sequencing studies are done.

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 September 2009 06:23:52PM 14 points [-]

Questions of race and intelligence will be settled decisively within 5 or 10 years when large scale whole-genome sequencing studies are done.

Oh, look honey! It's someone who thinks zealots are willing to change their minds when presented with overwhelming evidence!

That's nice, dear.

Comment author: MarkusRamikin 23 October 2011 07:38:51AM *  6 points [-]

Is it just me misunderstanding the subtleties of a foreign language, or is this un-LW-ishly rude?

Comment author: wedrifid 21 September 2009 06:40:39PM 11 points [-]

Posters here are posting under their real names or lasting pseudonyms, so they can't defend the un-PC arguments without making numerous crimethink statements that could rebound against them in real life.

While I'm not sure if avoiding the discussion altogether is an optimal solution I do share your frustration. It took me a while to realise that using my real name here was a bad idea. We aren't all that much less wrong.

Comment author: itsunder9000 02 November 2010 09:39:06PM 3 points [-]

Yeah, rule numero uno of the internet is to remain ANON as much as possible.

Comment author: satt 02 November 2010 10:55:12PM 3 points [-]

But isn't it easy to make a temporary pseudonymous account on this website?

Comment author: MichaelBishop 22 September 2009 10:58:45PM 4 points [-]

|The lower average test scores of Africans is surely an undisputed scientific fact.

Yes, but most interpreted him to be claiming that their genes prevented them from attaining equal test scores. This is definitely disputed.

http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/494.html http://cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/weblog/495.html http://www.cscs.umich.edu/~crshalizi/reviews/flynn-beyond/

Comment author: timtyler 23 September 2009 07:57:47AM 2 points [-]

It was Watson - not those with reading comprehension problems among his audience - who wound up out of a job.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 01 October 2009 09:39:32PM 0 points [-]

I'm not expressing an opinion on whether Watson's statements were based on evidence.

Comment author: itsunder9000 02 November 2010 09:29:45PM 2 points [-]

Why? To have a reasonable measure for the intelligence of their children.

Heard of regression to the mean? An unusually smart person from a background of dumb hick proles, is not going to have kids nearly as smart as they are.

People understand this at a genetic level when picking out mates. "Meet the family" before you decide to keep the girl/guy.

Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 08:02:30AM *  1 point [-]
Comment author: itsunder9000 02 November 2010 09:27:43PM 3 points [-]

-wtf am i reading-

that "1/6" black came from a funky genetics test.

A reasonable test for percentage of blackness, is going back say, about 5 generations, and seeing how many black people are in his ancestry.

There were none, since his parents/grandparents,yada yada came from Europe.

Wonder how he felt about it? He understood it was a bullshit media piece.

Comment deleted 20 September 2009 02:03:32AM [-]
Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 09:02:41AM *  9 points [-]

I'm not sure if Phil got the details right - but there are definitely a whole bunch of otherwise well-educated people who happily spout politically-correct nonsense on the issues of race and equality as though it was actually scientific truth. They typically cite Lewontin - but they ignore Lewontin's fallacy.

Comment author: MatthewB 26 December 2009 02:27:55PM 4 points [-]

Thank you for the mention of Lewontin's Fallacy. I have been stuck trying to remember the name of that fallacy for half a year (although, to be fair, I had not looked very hard to find out its name), due to a discussion on the Forums at the Richard Dawkins' website.

I am amazed at the level of discourse that many discussions on that site fall to. There are a number of very bright people there, yet it seems that many commit all manner of fallacies in the name of either political correctness, or because they fear giving ground to irrational theists/theism. A great example is about the term belief. Many on the RDF state that they "Have no Beliefs," yet fail to realize that this statement itself is a belief.

They have had many discussions in which the issue of race has come up, and I remembered reading about Lewontin, yet could not recall his name... Thanks, again.

Comment author: timtyler 28 December 2009 04:12:07PM 5 points [-]

Don't be too hard on them for that!

"Belief" is an overloaded word. Some use it to mean a p=1 concept, while others use it to mean a p > 0.95 concept. Of course, p=1 ideas are crazy faith issues, but some people seem to sustain them. The "I have no beliefs" crowd just mean to say that they "have no p=1 beliefs that they hold with absolute faith" - which is a fair enough thing to observe.

Comment author: MatthewB 28 December 2009 05:45:33PM 5 points [-]

I wish that were the case, but it seems to me that the "I have no beliefs" crowd that I am familiar with means that they have no beliefs for which P<1.

In other words, they either know something with absolute certainty, or they give it no credence whatsoever.

I can't think of how many times I have told them that they need to both reclaim the word "Belief" and to understand that they have many things for which P≠1 (P<1, but greater than .5, or some other arbitrary number for which they will accept some information as being true).

Yet, sometimes the certainties of faith get assumed by those without faith (of the religious kind)

Comment author: PhilGoetz 20 September 2009 09:33:40AM 1 point [-]

I removed the not-very-good example, but I don't want to remove the final section. It is lower quality. What bothers me more is that it doesn't have a proper conclusive feeling about it; it doesn't tie the post together and wrap it up in a satisfying way.

Comment author: netsp 21 September 2009 03:43:11AM 0 points [-]

Phil,

If you are looking for others' thoughts that may be able to tie your post together, you might want to read the Douglas Adams Artificial god that I cite here: http://lesswrong.com/lw/18b/reason_as_memetic_immune_disorder/14az

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 September 2009 10:12:27PM 12 points [-]

For example, quite recently, several respected geneticists declared that there was no such thing as race - an idea that not even the dimmest kid I knew back in Detroit would have fallen for.

That struck me as a stunning nonsequitur. The kid in Detroit has no possible way of knowing how much of what they see is genetic versus environmental - unless they go online and read the scientific literature. Offering that sort of surface observation as evidence is on the level of "any kid in Detroit can see the Earth is flat".

Comment author: arfle 27 July 2010 12:21:35AM 1 point [-]

But the child has good evidence for the social concept, if not for the genetic one.

So he can disagree with "there is no such thing as race".

Is this another one of those blegg/rube questions?

Comment author: cabalamat 29 October 2010 03:05:53PM 10 points [-]

The kid in Detroit has no possible way of knowing how much of what they see is genetic versus environmental

Surely they could very easily observe that people with dark skin typically have parents with dark skin.

Comment author: AndyCossyleon 25 June 2013 12:09:46AM *  0 points [-]

And this is all that people mean when they say that Race is a social concept, not a genetic one.

That is what some people mean. Others truly believe there are literally no differences between human populations apart from skin color and bone structure, and of course culture.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 25 June 2013 02:15:08AM 0 points [-]

Yes, there are no doubt some people who believe that.

Comment author: cousin_it 19 September 2009 10:40:05PM *  4 points [-]

Great post, thanks, upvoted.

So most any value-core will go evil if allowed to unfold to its logical conclusions. This sounds correct to me, and also it sounds just like the motivation for FAI. Now your argument that humans solve this problem by balanced deterrence among value-cores (as opposed to weighing them together in one utility function) sounds to me like a novel intuition applicable to FAI. We have some researchers on the topic here, maybe they could speak up?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 11:22:55PM *  6 points [-]

An interesting observation! An objection to it is that this approach would require your AI to have inconsistent beliefs.

Personally, I believe that fast AI systems with inconsistencies, heuristics, and habits will beat verifiably-correct logic systems in most applications; and will achieve general AI long before any pure-logic systems. (This is one reason why I'm skeptical that coming up with the right decision logic is a workable approach to FAI. I wish that Eliezer had been at Ben Goertzel's last AGI conference, just to see what he would have said to Selmer Bringsjord's presentation claiming that the only safe AI would be a logic system using a consistent logic, so that we could verify that certain undesirable statements were false in that system. The AI practitioners present found the idea not just laughable, but insulting. I said that he was telling us to turn the clock back to 1960 and try again the things that we spent decades failing at. Richard Loosemore gave a long, rude, and devastating reply to Bringsjord, who remained blissfully ignorant of the drubbing he'd just received.)

Comment author: cousin_it 19 September 2009 11:36:44PM *  4 points [-]

That fellow Bringsjord seems to me an obvious kook, e.g. he claims to have proven that P=NP.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 11:55:42PM *  9 points [-]

He claims to have an argument that P=NP. He's a philosopher, so "argument" != proof. Although approaching P=NP as a philosophical argument does strike me as kooky.

Better proof of kookhood is that he was at AGI mainly to present his work on hypercomputing, which he claimed was a computational system with more power than a Turing machine. One element of his argument was that proofs using hyperset logic (which he said is an entire field of logic nowadays; I wouldn't know) use a notation that can not even theoretically be represented by a Turing machine. These proofs were published in two-dimensional journal articles, in black-and-white print. I did not notice any fractal fonts in the proofs.

Comment author: billswift 20 September 2009 02:25:44AM 0 points [-]

I came across a wikipedia article on hypercomputing a while back, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hypercomputation , the whole theory doesn't seem at all well supported to me.

Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 07:45:40AM *  2 points [-]

It is a field with an imaginary object of study.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 20 September 2009 03:28:42PM 2 points [-]

It would be nice though, if outsiders could show some respect by demonstrating, as is probably demonstrable but difficult, that its object of study is incoherent, not just imaginary.

I'm not really sure it makes sense to talk about mathematical objects as being imaginary but not incoherent.

Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 05:54:12PM 0 points [-]

It's not incoherent. There could be such a thing as Hypercomputation.

However, nobody has found any evidence that it exists so far - and maybe they never will.

Hypercomputation enthusiasts claim that its existence doesn't matter too much - and that it's a valuable concept regardless of whether it exists or not. Maybe.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 20 September 2009 06:47:14PM 2 points [-]

It's not incoherent. There could be such a thing as Hypercomputation.

I don't disagree (i.e., I don't see any positive reason to doubt the coherence of hypercomputation – though Michael sounds like he has one), but remember not to confuse subjective conceivability and actual coherence.

Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 09:11:42PM 0 points [-]

Respectful outsiders?

Is that a reference to the inner sanctum of the Hypercomputation sect? ;-)

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 December 2009 04:14:28PM 0 points [-]

I'd be very surprised if this Universe was super-Turing, but you think it's actually incoherent? I can definitely conceive of a hypercomputational cellular automata, what is it about the idea of our Universe being hypercomputational that seems incoherent to you?

Comment author: MichaelVassar 26 December 2009 07:36:49PM 2 points [-]

I think that it is very common for things that we casually think we can definitely conceive of to actually be incoherent. I also think that almost everyone else underestimates how common it is.

Comment author: ciphergoth 26 December 2009 10:21:07PM 1 point [-]

I think I'm correcting for that. Do you agree that the halting oracle function itself is well-defined? If so, what seems inconceivable about a cellular automaton whose rules depend on the output of that oracle? OK, you have to stretch the definition of a cellular automaton to allow it, perhaps by allowing cells to have unbounded state, but the result is a wholly defined and therefore surely in-principle-conceivable Universe which is super-Turing. No?

Comment author: MatthewB 26 December 2009 03:21:47PM 0 points [-]

And, now I see why I am skeptical of hypercomputation. It seems to all necessitate some form of computation over an infinite number of steps. This would require some severe bending of the rules or constraints of physics, wouldn't it?

timtyler's comment below mine seems to be appropriate:

It is a field with an imaginary object of study.

Comment author: arfle 27 July 2010 12:53:06AM 0 points [-]

Doesn't Newtonian gravity require computation over an infinite number of steps?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 20 September 2009 01:30:07PM *  10 points [-]

He claims to have an argument that P=NP. He's a philosopher, so "argument" != proof. Although approaching P=NP as a philosophical argument does strike me as kooky.

If it's this argument, it's wrong. It is based on the claim that soap films solve the Steiner problem, which they don't. I tried this myself for four pins; here is a report of six-pin soap-film configurations. The soap film, obviously, only finds a local minimum, not a global one. But finding a local minimum is computationally easy.

Elsewhere, in a paper that detracts from the credibility of the journal it appears in, he argues that people can perform hypercomputation, on the grounds that we can imagine people performing hypercomputation. (Yes, I read all 24 pages, and that's what it comes down to.)

One element of his argument was that proofs using hyperset logic (which he said is an entire field of logic nowadays; I wouldn't know)

Judging by Google, the only wide use of the word "hyperset" in mathematics is in non-well-founded set theory. If that is what he was talking about, it's equiconsistent with the usual sort of set theory and has no more significance for AI than the choice of programming language (which, in my view, has no significance for AI).

What is it with AI? Does it attract the insane, or does it drive them insane? ETA: Or attract the people that it can drive insane?

Comment author: MatthewB 26 December 2009 03:03:11PM 1 point [-]

Oh... This is sad work (Bringsjord). His argument for hypercomputation by people seems remarkably similar to Alvin Plantinga's Modal Ontological Argument for God.

I am also suspect of much of what Penrose has to say about Computationalism, although I am not yet sufficiently knowledgeable to be able to directly confront his work in any meaningful way (I am working to rectify that problem. I seem to have a knack for formal logic, and I am hoping that when I get to upper division logic classes that I will be able to more directly confront arguments like Penrose's and Bringsjord's)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 September 2009 03:01:01AM 1 point [-]

the only safe AI would be a logic system using a consistent logic, so that we could verify that certain undesirable statements were false in that system

Could be correct or wildly incorrect, depending on exactly what he meant by it. Of course you have to delete "the only", but I'd be pretty doubtful of any humans trying to do recursive self-modification in a way that didn't involve logical proof of correctness to start with.

Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 07:52:35AM *  1 point [-]

Companies are the self-improving systems of today - e.g. see Google.

They don't hack the human brain much - but they don't need to. Brains are not perfect - but they can have their inputs preprocessed, their outputs post-processed, and they can be replaced entirely by computers - via the well-known process of automation.

Do the folk at Google proceed without logical proofs? Of course they do! Only the slowest and most tentative programmer tries to prove the correctness of their programs before they deploy them. Instead most programmers extensively employ testing methodologies. Testing is the mantra of modern programmers. Test, test, test! That way they get their products to the market before the sun explodes.

Comment author: Technologos 20 September 2009 08:08:24PM 0 points [-]

As Eliezer has already showed, "test, test, test"ing AIs that aren't provably Friendly (their recursive self-modification leads to Friendly results) can have disastrous consequences.

I'd rather wait until the sun explodes rather than deploying an unFriendly AI by accident.

Comment author: timtyler 20 September 2009 08:52:27PM *  2 points [-]

The consequences of failing to adopt rapid development technologies when it comes to the development of intelligent machines should be pretty obvious - the effect is to pass the baton to another team with a different development philosophy.

Waiting until the sun explodes is not one of the realistic options.

The box experiments seem irrelevant to the case of testing machine intelligence. When testing prototypes in a harness, you would use powerful restraints - not human gatekeepers.

Comment author: Technologos 21 September 2009 02:30:28AM 3 points [-]

What powerful restraints would you suggest that would not require human judgment or human-designed decision algorithms to remove?

Comment author: timtyler 21 September 2009 06:46:26AM -3 points [-]

Want to restrain a man?

Use a facility designed by the government with multiple guards and built with vastly more resources than the imprisoned man can muster.

Want to restrain a machine?

You use the same strategy. Or you could use drugs, or build in a test harness. Whatever - but however you look at it, it doesn't seem like a problem.

We can restrain individuals pretty securely today - and there is no indication that future developments are going to change that.

What's with the question about removing restraints? That isn't a problem either. You are suggesting that the imprisoned agent contacts and manipulates humans "on the outside" - and they attempt a jail-break? That is a strategy available to other prisoners as well. It has a low success rate. Those few that do escape are typically hunted down and then imprisoned again.

If you are particularly paranoid about escaped prisoners, then build a higher security prison. Typically, you can have whatever security level you are prepared to pay for.

Comment author: CronoDAS 21 September 2009 07:09:46AM 5 points [-]

The hypothetical AI is assumed to be able to talk normal humans assigned to guard it into taking its side.

In other words, the safest way to restrain it is to simply not turn it on.

Comment author: timtyler 21 September 2009 07:25:23AM *  2 points [-]

You don't use a few humans to restrain an advanced machine intelligence. That would be really stupid.

Comment author: Technologos 21 September 2009 07:31:34AM 3 points [-]

And not just by persuading the guards--the kind of AIs we are talking about, transhuman-level AIs, could potentially do all kinds of mind-hacking things of which we haven't even yet conceived. Hell, they could do things that we will never be able to conceive unaided.

If we ever set up a system that relies on humans restraining a self-modifying AI, we had better be sure beforehand that the AI is Friendly. The only restraints that I can think of that would provably work involve limiting the AIs access to resources so that it never achieves a level of intelligence equal to or higher than human--but then, we haven't quite made an AI, have we? Not much benefit to a glorified expert system.

If you haven't read the AI Box experiment reports I linked above, I recommend them--apparently, it doesn't quite take a transhuman-level AI to get out of a "test harness."

Comment author: phob 29 October 2010 11:54:53AM -1 points [-]

Safest, but maybe not the only safe way?

Why not make a recursively improving AI in some strongly typed language who provably can only interact with the world through printing names of stocks to buy?

How about one that can only make blueprints for star ships?

Comment author: RichardKennaway 21 September 2009 09:09:22AM 8 points [-]

Turn it off, encase it in nanofabricated diamond, and bury it in a deep pit. Destroy the experimental records, retaining only enough information to help future, wiser generations to one day take up again the challenge of building a Friendly AI. Scatter the knowledge in fragments, hidden in durable artifacts, scatter even the knowledge of how to find the knowledge likewise, and arrange a secret brotherhood to pass down through the centuries the ultimate keys to the Book That Does Not Permit Itself To Be Read.

Tens of thousands of years later, when civilisation has (alas) fallen and risen several times over, a collect-all-the-plot-coupons fantasy novel takes place.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 20 September 2009 09:30:00AM *  6 points [-]

One of the big problems is that he was trying to talk about the logical correctness of human-level symbolic statements about the world. Even if the logic is correct, there is no correct, consistent mapping from the analog world, to symbolic descriptions, and back. A mapping that's close enough to work 99.99% of the time isn't good enough when you're talking about proof.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 20 September 2009 03:26:18PM 1 point [-]

Will beat equals be developed first or be more capable than.

Selmer doesn't understand LOTS of things that Eliezer understood at age 12, he's superficially similar, but it's a very superficial similarity.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 20 September 2009 08:41:55PM 2 points [-]

An AI doesn't have to have a purely logical structure (let alone a stupid one, e.g. structureless predicates for tables and chairs) in order to be able to logically prove important things about it. It seems to me that criticism of formally proving FAI by analogy to failed logical AI equivocates between these things.

Comment author: MatthewB 26 December 2009 02:41:16PM 0 points [-]

Steve Omhundro has given several talks that talk about the consequences of a purely logical or rationally exact AI system.

His talk at the Sing. Summit 2007 The Nature of Self-Improving AI discussed what would happen if such an Agent were to have the wrong rules constraining its behavior. I saw a purely logical system as being one such possible agent type to which he referred.

Comment author: Richard_Loosemore 26 January 2013 12:19:14AM 5 points [-]

Hah! I just came across your comment, Phil :-) I was "Rude"?

Hey, you were sitting next to me, and egging me on by saying "No it isn't" quietly to yourself every time Bringsjord tried to assert his (nonsensical) claim.

But anyway. I'd claim that I was not rude, really. Bringsjord kept interrupting my attempts to ask my question with loud, almost shouted comments like "If you really think that, I feel sorry for you: you really need to go back and try to get a grasp of elementary logic before you ask me questions like this!!"

So I got a little .... testy. :-) :-)

I really wish someone had recorded that exchange.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 20 September 2009 03:24:36PM 9 points [-]

When you make every part of a balanced system more powerful without an overseeing process maintaining balance you don't get a more powerful balanced system, you get an algae bloom.

Comment author: cousin_it 20 September 2009 04:06:53PM *  3 points [-]

Why without? We can put an overseeing process in. It probably doesn't have to be very smart - after all, the overseeing process for humans is pretty stupid compared to a human.

Comment author: Larks 19 September 2009 11:16:51PM *  5 points [-]

This sounds like Burke for the 21st Century,

"prejudices and prescriptions and presumptions are the instruments which the wisdom of the species employs to safeguard man against his own passions and appetites."

I suppose this can also explain why new cults, from Born-again Christians to the Scientologists and extreme environmentalists, seem so much more harmful than the boring old Church of England and the like. How fast do we think these counter-beliefs can arise?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 19 September 2009 11:28:27PM *  4 points [-]

I don't know; but we should factor in historical context when examining the record. I mentioned that religions of subjugated people are kinder; on the flip side, religions that have political power are often harmful, even if old. You can't look at Catholicism in the middle ages as being just a memetic system. Politics produces results that memetic theory wouldn't predict.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 20 September 2009 01:21:06AM 1 point [-]

I agree with everything you say, but you vascillate between somewhat contradictory positions: that the default is to have disconnected beliefs; or that the default is to have particular "antibodies" preventing action on particular "beliefs." Could you elaborate on this?

I do agree that both are important phenomena. I think the default is disconnected beliefs. I'm not clear on the prevalence and role of "antibodies." Maybe they're just for over-verbal nerds infected with the Enlightenment. But I think they're more general.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 20 September 2009 08:08:15AM 8 points [-]

"Antibodies" is a vague metaphor, by which I meant any aspect of your decision process that blocks or sidetracks a dangerous chain of reasoning. I didn't think about whether these blocks were active responses, or passive omission of a justified inference (eg., disconnected beliefs).

It operates as a metaphor by suggesting co-evolutionary dynamics as a way of looking at the problem. It's not a valid metaphor for trying to figure out the exact mechanism.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 20 September 2009 05:15:41PM 0 points [-]

I didn't think about whether these blocks were active responses, or passive omission of a justified inference (eg., disconnected beliefs).

It operates as a metaphor by suggesting co-evolutionary dynamics as a way of looking at the problem. It's not a valid metaphor for trying to figure out the exact mechanism.

As it stands now, it's all omitted inference. But I think the monk is the default--almost all inferences are omitted. If that's the default, I think drawing attention to them and calling them "antibodies" is a figure-ground error. (But maybe you don't think it's the default.)

I might talk about co-evolution, not between beliefs and blind spots, but between actions and excuses. The excuses can't be too incoherent, because some people pay some attention to them. What I took to be "antibodies" were elaborate excuses, excuses for not drawing inferences between the first-order excuses, but I think the race example was the only example you gave of this. Maybe these are rare and most people just use first-order excuses for what they do, not excuses for why they don't actually follow the first-order excuses.

Comment author: ChrisHibbert 20 September 2009 05:22:12PM 5 points [-]

voted up for backing away from the details of the metaphor rather than trying to justify them. Not always an easy choice.

Comment author: MichaelVassar 20 September 2009 03:31:33PM 3 points [-]

Maybe the default is disconnected beliefs and actions driven by imitation. New religions tell people that they shouldn't base their actions on imitation of their local authorities, forcing them back on nominal beliefs and forcing them to make inferences.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 20 September 2009 04:47:43PM *  0 points [-]

Maybe the default is disconnected beliefs and actions driven by imitation. New religions tell people that they shouldn't base their actions on imitation of their local authorities, forcing them back on nominal beliefs and forcing them to make inferences.

Why don't they just imitate the missionary? Surely, the missionary communicates "be like me," not "be different from them"? I guess it could be only the over-verbal converts who notice that menstruating women have cooties. They might make good stories without being representative. But there is the general principle that converts are more observant; are they radically more observant, or do they merely find more observant people to imitate? (if the latter, why?)

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 20 September 2009 06:52:03PM 4 points [-]

Surely, the missionary communicates "be like me," not "be different from them"?

Or maybe (just speculating) "I too am a sinner; I am merely a bringer of good news; look to God, not to me".

Comment author: Jack 09 June 2010 07:17:02AM 0 points [-]

A better metaphor than antibodies is probably vectors. The degree of compartmentalization in a person's belief network is a feature of the memetic environment- equivalent to the concentration of population or prevalence of vermin in the context of microbes. When people have a low degree of compartmentalization mimetic schema take over lots domains of thought just has urban living (pre-sanitation) increased the spread of disease. I don't think there is an obvious sense in which the degree of vectorization has a 'default' though, unless you just want to make it zero because that is convenient.

Comment author: Zvi 20 September 2009 02:02:23AM 3 points [-]

I've found being very careful when you find yourself deviating from everyone around you to be excellent advice, and I do so whenever I can - the first time I deviate in a certain way, after which it gets filed under confirmed ways in which I act differently. That seems to keep the cost of doing so manageable even for the quite abnormal.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 September 2009 03:03:57AM 32 points [-]

I've come at this from a similar angle that is, I think, different in the details; and that is rationality as a failure of compartmentalization - the attempt to take everything you hear seriously.

Michael Vassar, again, has a similar angle which is different in the details: nerds result from failing to learn the nonverbal rules of adulthood that are different from the verbal rules.

Comment author: Nick_Tarleton 20 September 2009 03:51:19AM 12 points [-]

Michael Vassar also has Memes and Rational Decisions, which seems very close to the original post.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 20 September 2009 10:10:53AM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the link, excellent reading. I really must read more of Michael's stuff.

Comment author: SforSingularity 20 September 2009 01:35:11PM *  29 points [-]

is rationality as a failure of compartmentalization - the attempt to take everything you hear seriously.

Many people enjoy reading books and watching films where the lead characters form a small group, pitted against all the odds to try to save the world. Many people - secular people - pay lip-service to the idea that every person in the world is equally important, and that we should value the life of an African peasant farmer as equal to our own.

It seems, however, that most people don't actually take these notions seriously, because their actions seem to have little to do with such beliefs.

One day, a bunch of nerds got together and started a project called the Singularity Institute, and they actually took seriously the notion that they should try to save the world if it really was threatened, and that the lives of others should be assigned equal weigh to their own. Almost everyone else though they were really weird when they started to try to act on these beliefs.

Comment author: SforSingularity 20 September 2009 02:59:29PM 9 points [-]

See, e.g. Eliezer writing in 2000:

"There is no abused child, no oppressed peasant, no starving beggar, no crack-addicted infant, nocancer patient, literally no one that I cannot look squarely in the eye. I'm working to save everybody, heal the planet, solve all the problems of the world."

Comment author: Jack 09 June 2010 06:09:09AM 23 points [-]

Almost everyone else though they were really weird when they started to try to act on these beliefs.

This is a terribly counter-productive attitude to have. I don't think trying to save the world is what people found weird. Lots of people, especially young people, have aspirations of saving the world. People think the Singularity Institute is weird because SIAI's chosen method of saving the world is really unconventional, not marketable, and pattern matches with bizarre sci-fi fantasies (and some of the promoters of these fantasies are actually connected to the institute). If you think the pool of potential donors are all hypocrites you make it really difficult to bring them in.

Comment author: SforSingularity 14 July 2010 10:42:31PM 3 points [-]

Look, maybe it does sound kooky, but people who really genuinely cared might at least invest more time in finding out how good its pedigree was. On the other hand, people who just wanted an excuse to ignore it would say "it's kooky, I'm going to ignore it".

But one could look at other cases, for example direct donation of money to the future (Robin has done this).

Or the relative lack of attention to more scientifically respectable existential risks, or even existential risks in general. (Human extinction risk, etc).

Comment author: SforSingularity 14 July 2010 11:06:33PM *  9 points [-]

There is a point I am trying to make with this: the human race is a collective where the individual parts pretend to care about the whole, but actually don't care, and we (mostly) do this the insidious way, i.e. using lots of biased thinking. In fact most people even have themselves fooled, and this is an illusion that they're not keen on being disabused of.

The results... well, we'll see.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 18 August 2010 01:14:38PM 2 points [-]

Oh, hm. I wish I had started taking these hypotheses seriously back in September 2009. /sigh. We need rationalist dojos so bad. It sucks that there's no one qualified to teach them, yet.

Comment author: play_therapist 28 August 2011 04:36:42PM 2 points [-]

I realize this is almost 2 years after your original posting, I'm going through Jimmy's top 100 articles now.

I just wanted to say that failing to learn the nonverbal rules of adulthood that are different from the verbal rules pretty much describes Aspies. Yes, there is a big overlap between Aspies and nerds- but I think you can be an Aspie and not a nerd and vice versa.

Comment author: teageegeepea 20 September 2009 03:05:18AM *  2 points [-]

Your point about educated fundamentalists has been made elsewhere.

Its possible that some of the geneticists merely think it is good to perform (to steal Hopefully Anonymous' favorite word) such a belief, perhaps for Straussian reasons. Hence the popularity of the replacement term among many scientists "population".

Comment author: jackelq 20 September 2009 05:40:17PM -3 points [-]

Regarding religious belief as viral suggests a larger pattern expressed in the physical world as a whole, does it not? Do our beliefs reflect that pattern or is our perception of the pattern inate to our humanity?

Comment author: RobinHanson 20 September 2009 06:31:56PM 16 points [-]

Rather than refusing to try to be consistent in my own beliefs, I find it far more useful to notice what kinds of beliefs most people don't really take seriously enough to be clear about what they mean, to bother to follow through with the most simple sorts of implications, and so on.

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 20 September 2009 07:04:18PM *  6 points [-]

The mechanism isn't the same as for diseases[. . .] I suspect that, over time, individual selection favors those who are less zealous. The point is that a culture develops antibodies for the particular religions it co-exists with - attitudes and practices that make them less virulent.

Sometimes, reason [. . .] lets us see the blind spots, but not the dangerous memes. Either of these ways, reason can lead an individual to be unbalanced, no longer adapted to their memetic environment, and free to follow previously-dormant memes through to their logical conclusions.

This also has another side. If individual or cultural selection favors those who don't try to actually do what a religion or cultural norm tells them to do, what happens next depends on which variables are held constant. If the culture is constrained to hold constant the religion or cultural norms, then the resulting selection will cause the culture to develop blind spots, and also develop an unspoken (because unspeakable) but viciously enforced meta-norm of not seeing the blind spots. But if the culture is constrained to hold opposite meta-norms constant, such as a norm of seeing the blind spots or a norm of actually doing what one's religion or cultural norms tell one do do, then the resulting selection will act against the dangerous memes instead. This would make the culture safer for truth-seeking, and make the dividends of truth-seeking easier to pursue.

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 20 September 2009 07:06:05PM 2 points [-]

But if the culture is constrained to hold opposite meta-norms constant, such as a norm of seeing the blind spots or a norm of actually doing what one's religion or cultural norms tell one do do, then the resulting selection will act against the dangerous memes instead.

(Sometimes I worry about the problem of how to extend the principle of charity to memes that cannot be safely taken literally.)

Comment author: SilasBarta 21 September 2009 03:14:48PM 2 points [-]

My answer is to judge them by the success of the actions they lead their practioners to do, not the falsifiable (or deliberately unfalsifiable) claims about reality they espouse.

Comment author: Steve_Rayhawk 20 September 2009 07:19:55PM *  0 points [-]

It is because of the potential in posts like this that I wish that Less Wrong had an edit queue, or that the wiki were used as an edit queue. Do you have plans to write a longer version?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 29 September 2009 10:35:30PM 0 points [-]

I wasn't planning on it. Perhaps, if I knew an appropriate place to publish it.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 20 September 2009 10:18:15PM 2 points [-]

Interesting. So I guess the idea is we have immunities that 'wrap' memes so toxic that our incomplete rationality might be subverted by them and instead ensure that those ideas simply don't interact with the rest of it? So that neither is rational thinking allowed to attack them, but neither are they 'allowed' to extend their influence?

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 20 September 2009 11:01:50PM *  12 points [-]

So, there is a hidden component in levels of belief: together with stated level of certainty, bland "truthiness" of a statement, there is also a procedural perspective, with the statement applying with different power in different contexts. This more nuanced level of belief is harder to see and harder to influence: take "belief in belief" as a special case; on one hand there is certainty, on the other it refuses to speak of the real world.

Compartmentalization seems to be the default method for managing "quoted" beliefs: instead of keeping track of what evidence there is for what, just start directly believing everything, but in narrow contexts. If the facts check out, collections of new pieces of knowledge pass coherence checks and gain influence. Insanity remains in the quarantine indefinitely, and even if within its crib it calls the shots, it is a mistake to interpret it as accepted by the person as a whole. When an aspect of most people is insane, it is so by design, part of the never-ending process of reevaluation.

This mechanism is also probably what's responsible for people not even caring to distinguish positive assertions from the negative ones. The natural mode is to just amass impressions of facts, by adherence to each other rather than in their original forms, with levels of certainty simply reporting how well the new statement fits in.

Comment author: netsp 21 September 2009 02:56:19AM *  10 points [-]

Phil,

Well written and thought provoking. Reading this, I was reminded of a Douglas Adams essay/speech abut Balinese rice farmers and the way their religion is highly suitable to growing rice. The gods that they cite as reasons for this or that aren't necessarily real and some of the practices may actually be useless, but the end product is a very successful harvest. You might ask a rice farmer why he decided to plant this plant here. His answer could involve some custom that if the moon does this and the chickens do that, I need to put a plant here. That's obviously silly, but it doesn't mean the plant shouldn't be there. The customs and beliefs are the basis for how they do things and how they do things is good for growing rice.

I went back and reread the essay and noticed that I remembered it a little wrong. I also noticed that this isn't some interesting overlap between what you and he are thinking about. What you call the memetic immune system he calls an "artificial god". Actually, I think that your concept is a subset of the artificial god. You seem to assume his position of the artificial god and use it to construct this immune system idea. I think that you would enjoy the piece: http://www.biota.org/people/douglasadams/

Comment author: CronoDAS 21 September 2009 03:26:18AM 14 points [-]

IIRC, the position of the Catholic Church is that the death and resurrection of Jesus fulfilled the Covenant and freed humans from the obligation to live according to the Jewish law of the Old Testament. In other words, sometimes the blind spots are explicitly acknowledged and handwaved away instead of being overlooked.

Comment author: Johnicholas 21 September 2009 12:28:22PM 6 points [-]

Is this an example of Lampshade Hanging?

http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/LampshadeHanging

Comment author: DSimon 15 October 2010 09:38:49PM 2 points [-]

Maybe closer to an attempted conversion from Fridge Logic into Fridge Brilliance.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 29 September 2009 10:32:27PM *  7 points [-]

Good point. Protestants also say that. Although note that Christians sometimes cite Old Testament commandments as if they still applied today. Even "Be fruitful and multiply", which was just for Adam & Eve. Also note that for many years the Catholic Church demanded obedience to the commandment not to charge interest on loans, which is an Old Testament commandment. Ironically, primarily (only?) Jews charged interest on loans.

Comment author: AldgarOmk 26 March 2012 02:37:36PM 8 points [-]

Well, the command not to charge interest on loans in the Old testament was only within your own people: e.g. a Jew shouldn't charge interest from a fellow Jew, but he could charge interest from non-Jews as much as he liked.

Now, the Christians view themselves as the "new chosen people", so they couldn't charge interest from each other, so the banking system had to be performed by Jews, who could - in clean conscience and following their religious beliefs - loan/charge interest from non-Jews(Christians).

In short, the whole "irony" is lost once you actually study the specific commandments and the historical context of the described situation.

Comment author: CronoDAS 21 September 2009 07:23:53AM 9 points [-]
Comment author: cousin_it 21 September 2009 11:10:52AM *  0 points [-]

Thanks for that link. Razib is very impressive as usual.

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 September 2009 07:53:40PM 13 points [-]

I have a theory that "radical Islam" is not native Islam, but Westernized Islam. Over half of 75 Muslim terrorists studied by Bergen & Pandey 2005 in the New York Times had gone to a Western college. (Only 9% had attended madrassas.) A very small percentage of all Muslims have received a Western college education. When someone lives all their life in a Muslim country, they're not likely to be hit with the urge to travel abroad and blow something up. But when someone from an Islamic nation goes to Europe for college, and comes back with Enlightenment ideas about reason and seeking logical closure over beliefs, and applies them to the Koran, then you have troubles. They have lost their cultural immunity.

Another relevant fact is that, for most of Islam's history, Islamic nations were militarily equal or superior to anyone that they were likely to come into contact with. Islam was a religion founded by conquerers, not by the conquered, and being in a position of profound weakness compared to Western (Christian/Jewish/secular) civilization is something that's simply never happened to them before. Radical Islam could very well be simply the Islam of the fourteenth century faithfully reproduced in the modern era, and the fact that it tends to involve suicide bombings instead of conquering armies is a matter of circumstance rather than ideology. I suspect that, if the Christianity of the fourteenth century, or the Judaism of the first century, were to be faithfully reproduced today, it would be equally horrifying.

Comment author: SilasBarta 22 September 2009 08:06:16PM 9 points [-]

I'm not so sure. One point Sam Harris has made (can't find the source atm) is that the Lebanese are in roughly the same position with respect to Israel as the Palestinians, but the Lebanese are predominately Christian rather than Muslim, and commit almost no terrorist acts. Harris argues that it's like a lab experiment where you put two oppressed peoples next to each other, but with different religions and watch what happens.

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 September 2009 08:10:29PM *  9 points [-]

Sam Harris actually specifically cites Palestinian Christians. (Who do exist.)

Comment author: CronoDAS 22 September 2009 08:13:45PM *  3 points [-]

Well, maybe not equally horrifying, but still horrifying. You might not be aware of this, but the infamous "Spanish Inquisition" was a relatively humane law enforcement organization when compared to standard practices in the the rest of Europe.

Comment author: jhuffman 27 October 2011 09:31:32PM 1 point [-]

Is there any reason to think Lebanese Christians are more similar to 14th century christians than to modern western christians?

Comment author: waveman 01 January 2011 02:12:19AM 0 points [-]

I suspect that, if the Christianity of the fourteenth century, or the Judaism of the first century, were to be faithfully reproduced today, it would be equally horrifying.

Yes. The original poster's statements about the benign nature and gentleness of early Christianity do not reflect its history eg death penalty for those who refuse to convert, burned all the books they could find, later on the slaughter of tens of thousands in Jerusalem during the crusades.

Comment author: wedrifid 01 January 2011 05:49:48AM *  -1 points [-]

On the other hand Judaism of the first century was hardly at its peak of its power or horror. I seem to recall a penalty of death being declared for those who didn't follow the command to genocide those they conquered, elderly, women, children and babies alike. Come to think of it lifestock may well have been included as well. I don't think they had the power or inclination for that sort of thing in the first century.

Comment author: lunchbox 26 December 2009 11:43:04AM 47 points [-]

Another reason converts are more zealous than people who grew up with a religion is that conversion is a voluntary act, whereas being born into a religious family is not. Converting to a religion late in life is a radical move, one that generally requires a certain amount of zeal and motivation to begin with, so converts are pre-selected to be zealous.

Comment author: MatthewB 26 December 2009 03:52:49PM 1 point [-]

I have read something very similar to this someplace else before reading this article (on a side-note. This is the very first article I ever read completely on Less Wrong, and had I not contracted H1N1 at the end of September I would have joined Less Wrong at that time).

I too have read A Year Living Biblically. Mostly so that I would have ready material should I ever have to talk to my Evangelical Aunt and Uncle who are busy preparing a huge number of people in Texas for the Rapture and Second Coming of Christ (Hoo boy?!?).

I seem to recall in the article that I read about Toxic Memes (I am almost positive that is the Title of the article) in second and third world countries that they too mentioned that we have developed memetic anti-bodies in the west to things such as pornography and free-speech, where people living, say in Muslim countries do not have the cultural antibodies that are necessary for defense against the memes in question. This causes a pathological relationship with the meme, resulting in things like blaming a woman for why a man would rape her - to him, it was the pornography's fault for suggesting to him that women are all sex objects.

Obviously, this is wrong, yet those who have been infected by a toxic meme are not going to understand why their understanding of the situation is wrong, any more than we would not understand why an extraterrestrial culture might thought it is wrong for humanity to be playing with their hyperdimensional fecal matter (from another post I made where I discuss that it might be the case that some alien race has feces that is capable of opening up wormholes in space-time). The simple fact of the matter is that the memetic resistance is non-existent.

Duh! It was an article by Jamais Cascio (Toxic Memes. Strangely, it is also a supplement for a game published by a friend of mine in Texas)

Comment author: markrkrebs 26 February 2010 09:42:54AM 7 points [-]

"The conservatism of a religion - it's orthodoxy - is the inert coagulum of a once highly reactive sap." -Eric Hoffer, <i>the True Believer </i>

Love your post: religion as virulent namb-shub. See also Snow Crash by Stephenson.

Comment author: RobinZ 26 February 2010 12:48:29PM 7 points [-]

Quick tip: HTML doesn't work in the comments, but you can make italics by putting asterisks (*) around the thing to be italicized. There should be a "Help" link below the comment window that will unfold a list of markups.

Comment author: wedrifid 26 February 2010 02:22:09PM 2 points [-]

There should be a "Help" link below the comment window that will unfold a list of markups.

So there is. You know I had never noticed that!

Comment author: RobinZ 26 February 2010 02:38:59PM 3 points [-]

It's not a complete guide - longer tutorials are available elsewhere - but it has the things you usually need.

Comment author: play_therapist 28 August 2011 05:00:06PM 0 points [-]

You said, "The history of religions sometimes resembles the history of viruses. Judaism and Islam were both highly virulent when they first broke out, driving the first generations of their people to conquer (Islam) or just slaughter (Judaism) everyone around them for the sin of not being them. "

I am not familiar with that history of early Judaism. Can you cite any references I can read about it? (I do admit I have not read the entire old testament, perhaps it's in there?) By the way, I have heard that Roman Catholics are actively discouraged from reading either testament directly.

Comment author: gwern 22 September 2011 10:05:38PM 5 points [-]

I am not familiar with that history of early Judaism. Can you cite any references I can read about it? (I do admit I have not read the entire old testament, perhaps it's in there?)

Have you read even the early books? The constant warfare and near-genocides engaged in until they built up an empire? Then you have, even much later, all the rebellions which prompted the Romans to raze the Temple and exile most of the Jews.

(An oddity I always found to be an example is that one of the lost books of the bible is titled 'The Book of the Wars of the Lord'.)

Comment author: play_therapist 22 September 2011 10:28:50PM *  0 points [-]

Thanks. Whatever reading I did of the old testament was back when I was a teenager- which was long ago.I don't remember how far I got, not very. I was reading the commentary along with it, and it was tedious. Perhaps I'll get back to it when I get a chance. That's certainly not the spin that was put on the history we were taught in Hebrew school.

Comment author: Jiro 24 February 2014 11:32:14PM 0 points [-]

In order for the Old Testament to be evidence of Jews acting genocidal, the Old Testament would have to be true to a sufficient extent. If it's not, you don't have Jews being genocidal, you have Jews telling stories about their ancestors being genocidal.

It was my impression that non-religious historians do not believe that the genocides described in the Old Testament as being done by Jews actually happened.

Comment author: polymathwannabe 24 February 2014 11:53:12PM 0 points [-]

Those stories most likely didn't happen. Still, the fact that their religion is entirely dependent on those bloody stories says a lot about the ancient Hebrews' priorities.

Comment author: Jiro 25 February 2014 12:50:52AM 3 points [-]

It seems fundamentally unfair to compare cases of religions whose people actually committed genocide to religions whose people tell stories about committing genocide.

This is especially so considering the original post here, which points out that people don't actually follow all the commands of their religions and have blind spots about the religions not saying what they say. That applies to stories about genocide just as much as it applies to direct commands--you can reason all you want that someone who believes that fictional genocides were real and justified is as vicious as someone who actually commits genocide, but people's minds don't work that way. It's entirely possible to think Biblical genocides are justified and have blind spots which would lead you not to commit genocide in any real-life situation.

(In fact, I'm not erven sure I could call all the possibilities blind spots. If you believe genocide is only justified when commanded in person by God, is it really a blind spot to say "God doesn't directly speak to anyone nowadays, so I won't commit any genocide"?)

Comment author: gwern 26 February 2014 04:10:23PM *  0 points [-]

It was my impression that non-religious historians do not believe that the genocides described in the Old Testament as being done by Jews actually happened.

It was my impression that non-religious historians do not believe all the little stories and miracles, but I had not noticed that they entirely disbelieved accounts like conquering Canaan and believed that there was evidence indicating they were pacifists and did not exterminate any local populations or engage in warfare, and the archaeological evidence, to the extent that it can speak on the matter (since it's going to be very difficult to investigate genocides from millennia ago when you are excluding all available written evidence as possibly untrue), supported it (the example that comes to mind is the burning of Jericho, although it's disputed how well the observed destruction layer fits into the chronology).

Comment author: Macaulay 25 April 2012 04:38:22PM 2 points [-]

This article seems relevant: "Clever sillies: Why high IQ people tend to be deficient in common sense."

The author argues that high IQ people solve problems by using abstract reasoning instead of evolved common sense. Moreover, general intelligence is mainly useful for solving evolutionarily novel problems, and can actually be a hindrance for problems which were a regular part of the evolutionary environment (for example, social situations). Hence, when facing problems where humans have evolved behavioral responses, smart people who apply abstract reasoning and override common sense often end up doing silly things.

Comment author: gwern 25 April 2012 05:03:25PM 7 points [-]

Unfortunately, it's by Bruce Charlton. I've noticed that whenever this hypothesis comes up, it seems to be solely used as a political cudgel to attack liberals - which means I trust the paper as far as I can throw it.

(Why is the 'clever silly' idea always used to attack things like diversity, and not equally abstract and historically unprecedented shibboleths of the right like untrammeled free markets?)

Comment author: Macaulay 25 April 2012 05:28:58PM 0 points [-]

I would recommend skipping the section on political correctness. I do think the first two sections give a good lesson on how a little reason can be a dangerous thing.

Comment author: ikrase 06 February 2013 04:31:21PM 2 points [-]

Looks like he got hoist by his own petard.

Comment author: adamzerner 28 November 2013 07:33:21PM 0 points [-]

I think your main point - that selective application of rationality could be dangerous - is true. But the question then is how often is it dangerous? And in what way should we apply rationality? Should we not apply rationality because it could be dangerous? I think the article would have been much better if these questions were brought up, and addressed.

I get the sense that applying rationality is usually more good than bad. Although I don't really know enough about radical religions to say if it's true for them too.

Comment author: MondSemmel 24 January 2014 12:19:29PM *  3 points [-]

Christianity was pacifist at the start, as it arose in a conquered people. When the Romans adopted it, it didn't make them any more militaristic than they already were.

But conversely, Christianity became a lot more militaristic when it became the state religion. Listen e.g. to Dan Carlin's Hardcore History podcast Thor's Angels (free as of 01/2014; 4h long).

I have a theory that "radical Islam" is not native Islam, but Westernized Islam.

-> What about e.g. the fatwa over Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, or blasphemy laws, or whatever? This theory doesn't seem consistent with already known facts.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 January 2014 03:34:34PM 2 points [-]

I have a theory that "radical Islam" is not native Islam, but Westernized Islam.

Depends on what do you call "radical Islam", but I think that a bit of study of Islam's early history should disabuse you of that notion.

Comment author: Lumifer 24 January 2014 03:35:28PM *  2 points [-]

a lot of the rules in the Bible are impossible, illegal, or embarassing to follow nowadays; like wearing tassels, tying your money to yourself, stoning adulterers, not eating fruit from a tree less than 5 years old, and not touching anything that a menstruating woman has touched;

I take it, the author doesn't know many Orthodox Jews..?

Comment author: Jiro 13 April 2014 06:19:09PM 2 points [-]

Not only does this work when someone is trying to follow his religion rationality, it also works when someone is trying to follow rationality rationally.

In other words, not only can becoming more rational lead you to discard the cultural antibodies to religion without discarding the religion, becoming more rational can lead you to discard the cultural antibodies to all sorts of crazy ideas without discarding the crazy ideas. It works for non-religious crazy ideas as well as for religious ones. It even works when the crazy ideas are themselves "rational".

(Of course, if you're perfectly rational you would have no crazy ideas, unlike being perfectly religious, where you'd have lots of them, but human beings aren't perfect. And imperfectly-but-more than-you-were-before rational can lead to crazy ideas.)

I'll leave it as an exercise to the reader to decide which ideas that are popular here and are considered crazy by average people fall into this category--I'm sure everyone has a different list.