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SilasBarta comments on Anticipation vs. Faith: At What Cost Rationality? - Less Wrong

8 Post author: Wei_Dai 13 October 2009 12:10AM

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Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 02:30:24AM 1 point [-]

Suppose you ask a religious friend why he doesn’t give up religion, he might say something like “Having faith in God comforts me and I think it is a central part of the human experience. Intellectually I know it’s irrational, but I want to keep my faith anyway. My friends and the government will protect me from making any truly serious mistakes as a result of having too much faith (like falling into dangerous cults or refusing to give medical treatment to my children)."

Um, no. If you were close with that friend, and he proved himself to be pretty intelligent, and he downed a few beers and you kept prying, his answer would be something more like,

"Yeah, I know all that God stuff is a load of garbage, but the public profession of faith in 'God' provides the social glue that allows a welfare-maximizing mutualist group to form, involving people of varying intelligence levels who take this stuff literally and not literally, which grants me access to a large social network with enforcement mechanisms for the prisoner's dilemma, and the ability to trade labor for labor, such as for babysitting, at more favorable rates than cash purchases would allow. Also, it uses psychological mechanisms that allow me to believe strongly enough in my healing to invoke the placebo effect in the body, which gives me real healing. Finally, my price for joining was low enough.

"Show me an atheist group that does all that, and I'm in. *hic* [passes out]."

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 October 2009 03:22:13PM *  9 points [-]

No, that isn't what they would say. I was a Christian for many years. Most of them sincerely believe everything they're supposed to believe - at least in conservative churches, which I think comprise a large majority of US churches.

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 03:36:04PM 0 points [-]

No, they don't really believe it; their actions are severely suboptimal for that belief set. They might have a greater belief that they believe it, however.

Comment author: Peter_de_Blanc 13 October 2009 08:28:20PM 8 points [-]

Oh, come on. Show me a human whose actions aren't severely suboptimal for their belief set.

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 08:52:03PM 2 points [-]

Fair point, but here the difference is the most obvious, if the professed beliefs accurately represent their internal predictive model of reality, which I claim it doesn't.

Comment author: GuySrinivasan 13 October 2009 04:10:09PM 5 points [-]

In the past I believed it, and was sad when "the flesh was weak" and I took actions severely suboptimal for that belief set. I wish I had only believed I believed it. I guess it's possible I only now believe I believed it and in fact in the past I merely believed I believed it, but I'm guessing no.

Humans are well known to be terrible at taking actions that aren't severely suboptimal for their beliefs, and for holding contradictory beliefs, and for holding beliefs which imply actions which are suboptimal for their other, contradictory beliefs.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 14 October 2009 01:43:56AM 4 points [-]

I understand the point about how people can "only believe they believe something," but the way you phrased it sounded like they are consciously faking it, and I think that is in most cases not true.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 13 October 2009 05:25:31PM 3 points [-]

Unless you are a person to whom faith ever came naturally, you should be very skeptical that your mind contains an accurate model of "that belief set" or of the minds that profess it.

Faith never came naturally to me. After long interaction with "faithful" people, I've developed some tentative hypotheses about how some of them think on some things. Cautious though these hypotheses are, they are enough to rule out the applicability of your characterization to most cases.

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 05:43:52PM *  0 points [-]

If I'm right and they're just cynically going through the motions, do you think they're going to tell you that? Do you think they're even going to give evidence consistent with that? Of course not! They'll just keep up the charade. They'd only admit it if you were a close friend, and they were drunk at the time, like in my example.

The social benefits break down when you make your genuine beliefs become public knowledge.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 13 October 2009 05:45:59PM *  4 points [-]

If I'm right and they're just cynically going through the motions, do you think they're going to tell you that? Do you think they're even going to give evidence consistent with that? Of course not! They'll just keep up the charade.

If it's as hard to gather evidence as you claim, then you should be all the more skeptical of your own conclusions.

ETA: And if it's so crucial to avoid letting the slightest hint of doubt creep out, then we should expect evolution to find the simplest way to keep that from happening: Make a mind with the capacity to genuinely believe this stuff.

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 06:15:44PM 1 point [-]

When anthropologists study religion, they focus mostly on the rituals, the social cohesion, the punishment of defectors (in the PD sense), and formation of authority structures, and not so much on the factual content of the adherents' purported beliefs.

My position is just: do that.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 13 October 2009 07:34:53PM 3 points [-]

When anthropologists study religion, they focus mostly on the rituals, the social >cohesion, the punishment of defectors (in the PD sense), and formation of authority >structures, and not so much on the factual content of the adherents' purported beliefs.

My position is just: do that.

I'm not suggesting that you rely only on their portrayal of their own beliefs. On the contrary, I'm suggesting long and careful observation of their behavior (including professions of belief) before you reach any confident conclusion.

And even after you've gathered many such observations, you will still be misled if you use the wrong approach in incorporating those observations into a model. Many natural-born atheists use the following fallacious approach to understanding the religious: They think to themselves, "What would it take to make me act like that and say those things? Well, for that to happen, I'd need to have the following things going on inside my mind: <...>. Therefore, those things must also be going on in the minds of theists (or at least of the intelligent ones)."

The flaw with this approach is that you're modeling the mind of a theists using the mind of a natural-born atheist, a mind which almost certainly works differently from a theist's mind when it comes to theological issues, almost by definition. That is why you should be skeptical that your mind contains an accurate model of a theist's mind.

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 08:58:59PM 0 points [-]

I'm not suggesting that you rely only on their portrayal of their own beliefs. On the contrary, I'm suggesting long and careful observation of their behavior (including professions of belief) before you reach any confident conclusion.

...And even after you've gathered many such observations, you will still be misled if you use the wrong approach in incorporating those observations into a model. Many natural-born atheists use the following fallacious approach to understanding the religious: They think to themselves, "What would it take to make me act like that and say those things? ...

Well, I'm already relying on a large data set, and I was born into a Catholic family. My theory still makes more sense. Here are some more data points:

-The parallels between religion and politics: how they force people into teams, say whatever it takes to defend the team, look for cues about whether you're on their team when they ask about your beliefs,

-The history of religious warfare. It makes no sense to view these people as going out to die for inscrutable theological doctrines, but complete sense to view their motives the same as they would be if you replaced the religion with some other memetic group.

Comment author: Tyrrell_McAllister 13 October 2009 10:50:22PM *  5 points [-]

My theory still makes more sense. Here are some more data points:

-The parallels between religion and politics: how they force people into teams, say whatever it takes to defend the team, look for cues about whether you're on their team when they ask about your beliefs,

I'd say that this data point supports my position. Get an extreme left-winger or right-winger drunk and you're not going to hear them say, "yeah, those extreme political positions I espouse, I don't really think they're true. I just pretend to because of the social benefits I reap." On the contrary, you're going to hear them spout even more extreme views, views that they'd realize they ought to keep to themselves had they been sober.

-The history of religious warfare. It makes no sense to view these people as going out to die for inscrutable theological doctrines, but complete sense to view their motives the same as they would be if you replaced the religion with some other memetic group.

I agree. I'm not saying that every action ostensibly justified by religious beliefs is really done because of those beliefs. But that says nothing about whether those beliefs are sincerely held.

Comment author: PhilGoetz 13 October 2009 08:36:42PM *  2 points [-]

No; then you would have done that, rather than making an assertion about what they believed.

Perhaps you only believe that you believe that. :)

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 09:00:32PM 1 point [-]

Well, I am doing that in the sense of judging religions by the factors anthropologists study rather than focusing on how I can well I can disprove the claim that the earth is 6000 years old.

Comment author: bogus 13 October 2009 06:27:40PM 1 point [-]

Yes. Confucianism is the prototypical example of a "religion" which has no cosmological beliefs per se, but still provides for community cohesion (i.e. protection from perceived threats), an ethical code (the analects of Confucius are often quoted as proverbs/dogmas), a focus on authority figures and so forth.

Comment author: UnholySmoke 15 October 2009 01:07:37PM 3 points [-]

Beware of generalising across people you haven't spent much time around, however tempting the hypothesis. Drawing a map of the city from your living room etc.

My first 18 years were spent attending a Catholic church once a week. To the extent that we can ever know what other people actually believe (whatever that means), most of them have genuinely internalised the bits they understand. Like, really.

We can call into question what we mean by 'believe', but I can't agree that a majority of the world population is just cynically going with the flow. Finally, my parish priest is one of the most intelligent people I've ever met, and he believed in his god harder/faster/whatever than I currently believe anything. Scary thought, right?

Comment author: Jack 13 October 2009 05:00:51PM 0 points [-]

their actions are severely suboptimal for that belief set.

I agree that this is the case. However, that they don't really believe in the tenets from Christianity only follows from this if we have a strictly behaviorist definition of "belief". I doubt many people hold that view and I'm not sure why anyone should.

Comment author: thomblake 13 October 2009 03:04:11PM 3 points [-]

I've invoked similar arguments in favor of organized religion. While atheists could in principle get together every week and sing together, I don't know any who actually do, and I think we're worse off for it. Probably part of the appeal of humanistic churches.

Comment author: LauraABJ 13 October 2009 03:13:16PM 4 points [-]

I recommend the Unitarian Universalist church. I went to one as a child, and the focus was on humanism and morality and not god and faith. The sunday school taught a different religion every weekend, making it nearly impossible to believe any of them were true. Most of the people there didn't really believe in god anyway, but were there for the reasons you so name.

Comment author: Alicorn 13 October 2009 03:16:02PM 4 points [-]

And there's the less ubiquitous Ethical Culture Society, which is even less religious than Unitarianism.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 October 2009 03:35:56PM 2 points [-]

I wonder, though, if an x-rationalist would get a feeling of belonging there.

Comment author: Alicorn 13 October 2009 03:41:28PM 2 points [-]

What are the circumstances under which an x-rationalist would get a feeling of belonging? If there are no such circumstances, this is hardly a critique of Ethical Culture in particular.

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 03:38:36PM 1 point [-]

Note the functions that I listed: the singing isn't strictly necessary; any bonding/reinforcement mechanism would work, but singing is very effective. If you could get the general mutualist functions down, then you'd have a competitive option.

Comment author: AllanCrossman 13 October 2009 04:41:43PM 0 points [-]

Ugh. The horrible music is the worst thing about church. Give me sermons about fire and brimstone any day.

Comment author: komponisto 13 October 2009 04:50:24PM 1 point [-]

Well, we would have better music, of course!

Comment author: CronoDAS 13 October 2009 06:55:02PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: Furcas 13 October 2009 06:44:56AM 3 points [-]

You seem to think that intelligent religious people are less crazy than dumb religious people. They're not.

Comment author: LauraABJ 13 October 2009 12:16:59PM 10 points [-]

Yes, and I would say actual faith is a cognitive error more akin to deja-vu than double think, in that it is a feeling of knowledge for which adequate logical justification may not exist. A friend of mine once said, "I'm sorry that I'm so bad at explaining this [the existence of God], but I just know it, and once you do too, you'll understand."

People can have experiences of faith in non-religious contexts, such as having faith (a sense of certainty or foreknowledge) that a critically ill loved-one will pull through. Intuition and gut-feelings maybe considered faith-light, but I think certainty is part of the faith experience, and just because that certainty is false, doesn't make the feeling any less real.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 October 2009 03:37:57PM 2 points [-]

I would say actual faith is a cognitive error more akin to deja-vu than double think, in that it is a feeling of knowledge for which adequate logical justification may not exist.

It looks to me like greater intelligence pulls people away from deja-vu faith and toward doublethink faith, but this is a generalization based on little data. Still, that little data seems to show that smart people who think about their religions end up with Escher-painting minds.

Comment author: LauraABJ 13 October 2009 04:13:46PM 2 points [-]

I don't have a large enough sample either, but I think what you interpret as doublethink and 'Escher-painting minds' may be the result of rationalizing a faith that at its core is an emotional attachment to a cognitive error. The friend I mentioned probably doesn't have an IQ much below the median for the readers of this blog-- double major in biochem and philosophy at an ivy-league school, head of a libertarian club (would probably agree with Robin Hanson on almost everything).

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 October 2009 05:46:31PM 2 points [-]

Well, yes, lots of rationalization is exactly how you end up with an Escher-painting mind. Even human beings aren't born that twisted.

See also: Occam's Imaginary Razor.

Comment author: SilasBarta 13 October 2009 03:56:43PM 1 point [-]

How is it crazy to cynically go along with rituals for the social benefits? Risky, maybe, but crazy?

Comment author: Furcas 13 October 2009 05:10:43PM 4 points [-]

It isn't crazy at all. I was saying that your intelligent, religious, and very drunk friend would never say those words, because there's no religious person who believes them. All these reasons may be the ultimate cause of religious beliefs, but that doesn't mean religious believers are aware of them, consciously or even subconsciously.

Comment author: SilasBarta 14 October 2009 10:28:24PM 1 point [-]

and very drunk friend would never say those words, because there's no religious person who believes them.

Just to clarify, what do you mean by "religious" here? Do you define it by whether they're active in a church?

If so, how much money would you bet I can't find you a counterexample?

Comment author: Furcas 15 October 2009 12:22:43AM *  2 points [-]

I mean a person who holds self-deceptive beliefs that serve as the basis for a moral code of some sort. Church attendance is irrelevant.

I know there are some people who act religious and call themselves religious but aren't religious at all, but I don't think that's the kind of person you were talking about, since such a person couldn't benefit from the placebo effect. You're talking about the kind of person who has successfully fooled himself into holding religious beliefs, and yet is still so fully aware that it's all self-deception that he calls it "a load of garbage".

There may be real religious believers who would say something like what you've written, but I'm certain that it would just be a rationalization for them, a way to hide the ridiculousness of their beliefs behind a veneer of fake instrumental rationality.

Considering I'm currently unemployed and have very little money left in my bank account, I would bet a thousand Canadian dollars that you can't find a real religious believer who will say those words and honestly mean them.

EDIT:

And if you were talking about people who completely fake being religious, well, in my experience most of them don't ever admit to themselves that they're really atheists in their heart of hearts. I suppose there must be exceptions, though.

Comment author: Alicorn 15 October 2009 12:29:45AM 2 points [-]

You can benefit from the placebo effect even if you know you're taking a placebo.

Comment author: thomblake 15 October 2009 01:30:00PM 1 point [-]

Relevant article in Wired: Placebos are getting stronger - researchers are starting to study the placebo response to see how it can be better utilized to aid in healing.

Comment author: Furcas 15 October 2009 12:40:24AM *  0 points [-]

I'm guessing that by the word "know" you mean "acknowledge that the evidence is strongly in favor of", which doesn't necessarily entail belief, as many religious believers have demonstrated.

If that isn't what you mean, I have no clue what you're talking about

Comment author: Alicorn 15 October 2009 01:08:16AM 4 points [-]

No. I mean you can swallow a sugar pill, in full knowledge of, belief in, and acknowledgment-of-evidence-for the fact that it is a sugar pill, and still improve relative to not taking a sugar pill. It's not obvious to me why psychological "sugar pills" wouldn't work the same way.

Comment author: Furcas 15 October 2009 01:13:44AM 0 points [-]

I mean you can swallow a sugar pill, in full knowledge of, belief in, and acknowledgment-of-evidence-for the fact that it is a sugar pill,

... and belief that sugar pills don't cure diseases / alleviate symptoms?

and still improve relative to not taking a sugar pill.

I thought the placebo effect had to do with belief.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 October 2009 03:05:27AM 1 point [-]

Considering I'm currently unemployed and have very little money left in my bank account, I would bet a thousand Canadian dollars that you can't find a real religious believer who will say those words and honestly mean them.

Okay, see, we're going in circles here: I'm trying to ask about the existence of someone who knows "it's all a load of garbage", heck, maybe even contributes to this very board, but cynically joins a church to get the social benefits.

And then you keep saying, no, such people don't exist, if you mean people who are also really religious. But that's the very point under discussion: how many people go through the motions of formal religions for the benefits, say the right applause lights, etc. for the social benefits while holding the conscious belief that there's no literally God in the sense the people there espouse, etc. ?

And if you were talking about people who completely fake being religious, well, in my experience most of them don't ever admit to themselves that they're really atheists in their heart of hearts. I suppose there must be exceptions, though.

I don't see the difference. If you take the LW rationalist position on God, doesn't that mean you're an atheist? So what does it matter if you admit it to yourself. Is there some internal psychological ritual now? If you believe you're a duck, you're a duck...self-believer.

Comment author: Furcas 15 October 2009 03:26:56AM *  1 point [-]

Okay, see, we're going in circles here: I'm trying to ask about the existence of someone who knows "it's all a load of garbage", heck, maybe even contributes to this very board, but cynically joins a church to get the social benefits.

All right. I was misled by the fact that your first commend was a reply to Wei Dai, who was talking about real religious people. I thought you believed that (most?) intelligent people who say they're religious aren't really religious.

I don't see the difference. If you take the LW rationalist position on God, doesn't that mean you're an atheist? So what does it matter if you admit it to yourself.

It's the difference between your average forthright atheist and someone like Karen Armstrong, who believes that God "is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence". If you look past the flowery language she's no more a theist than Richard Dawkins is. However, she likes to think of herself as a religious believer, so you'll never get her to admit the true reasons for her profession of belief, no matter how much alcohol she drinks, because she doesn't even admit it to herself.

Comment author: SilasBarta 15 October 2009 03:31:56AM 2 points [-]

All right. I was misled by the fact that your first commend was a reply to Wei Dai, who was talking about real religious people. I thought you believed that (most?) intelligent people who say they're religious aren't really religious.

Aren't religious in the sense of consciously taking it all literally, correct, that's my position.

It's the difference between your average forthright atheist and someone like Karen Armstrong, who believes that God "is merely a symbol that points beyond itself to an indescribable transcendence".

So, let's see, she gets benefit of approval from the numerous religious groups by saying all of the applause lights, while maintaining rationality about the literal God hypothesis.

Does that count as intelligent or foolish? I'll leave that as an exercise for the reader.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 14 October 2009 06:17:41PM 1 point [-]

I still feel the occasional temptation to start believing, and it has nothing to do with social benefits or a desire to heal my body.