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Talking Snakes: A Cautionary Tale

93 Post author: Yvain 13 March 2009 01:41AM

I particularly remember one scene from Bill Maher's "Religulous". I can't find the exact quote, but I will try to sum up his argument as best I remember.

Christians believe that sin is caused by a talking snake. They may have billions of believers, thousands of years of tradition behind them, and a vast literature of apologetics justifying their faith - but when all is said and done, they're adults who believe in a talking snake.

I have read of the absurdity heuristic. I know that it is not carte blanche to go around rejecting beliefs that seem silly. But I was still sympathetic to the talking snake argument. After all...a talking snake?

I changed my mind in a Cairo cafe, talking to a young Muslim woman. I let it slip during the conversation that I was an atheist, and she seemed genuinely curious why. You've all probably been in such a situation, and you probably know how hard it is to choose just one reason, but I'd been reading about Biblical contradictions at the time and I mentioned the myriad errors and atrocities and contradictions in all the Holy Books.

Her response? "Oh, thank goodness it's that. I was afraid you were one of those crazies who believed that monkeys transformed into humans."

I admitted that um, well, maybe I sorta kinda might in fact believe that.

It is hard for me to describe exactly the look of shock on her face, but I have no doubt that her horror was genuine. I may have been the first flesh-and-blood evolutionist she ever met. "But..." she looked at me as if I was an idiot. "Monkeys don't change into humans. What on Earth makes you think monkeys can change into humans?"

I admitted that the whole process was rather complicated. I suggested that it wasn't exactly a Optimus Prime-style transformation so much as a gradual change over eons and eons. I recommended a few books on evolution that might explain it better than I could.

She said that she respected me as a person but that quite frankly I could save my breath because there was no way any book could possibly convince her that monkeys have human babies or whatever sort of balderdash I was preaching. She accused me and other evolution believers of being too willing to accept absurdities, motivated by our atheism and our fear of the self-esteem hit we'd take by accepting Allah was greater than ourselves.

It is not clear to me that this woman did anything differently than Bill Maher. Both heard statements that sounded so crazy as to not even merit further argument. Both recognized that there was a large group of people who found these statements plausible and had written extensive literature justifying them. Both decided that the statements were so absurd as to not merit examining that literature more closely. Both came up with reasons why they could discount the large number of believers because those believers must be biased.

I post this as a cautionary tale as we discuss the logic or illogic of theism. I propose taking from it the following lessons:

- The absurdity heuristic doesn't work very well.

- Even on things that sound really, really absurd.

- If a large number of intelligent people believe something, it deserves your attention. After you've studied it on its own terms, then you have a right to reject it. You could still be wrong, though.

- Even if you can think of a good reason why people might be biased towards the silly idea, thus explaining it away, your good reason may still be false.

- If someone cannot explain why something is not stupid to you over twenty minutes at a cafe, that doesn't mean it's stupid. It just means it's complicated, or they're not very good at explaining things.

- There is no royal road.

(special note to those prone to fundamental attribution errors: I do not accept theism. I think theism is wrong. I think it can be demonstrated to be wrong on logical grounds. I think the nonexistence of talking snakes is evidence against theism and can be worked into a general argument against theism. I just don't think it's as easy as saying "talking snakes are silly, therefore theism is false." And I find it embarrassing when atheists say things like that, and then get called on it by intelligent religious people.)

Comments (110)

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 05:17:25AM 50 points [-]

Consider: If all the rest of the religious framework were granted, would the talking snake be an additional problem? No. The talking snake is only absurd if you refuse to grant the rest of the religious framework. The fact that a snake is talking is not, of itself, the source of any additional problem - unless you were to argue that it fits the mode of a classic bias like minimal counterintuitiveness or thinking that "talking" is a simple feature that can easily be grafted on, etc. But the point is, the part where a talking snake is in this story, is, presuming the story's other premises, not the proper subject of the dispute.

The problem is the other premises, and notions like sin passed down through generations, or that the sin was contained in an easily accessible tree put right there in the Garden (trap much?), or the fact that a supernatural God is in the story - and so on and so on.

When you look at it from that perspective, then indeed, saying "Ha ha, a talking snake" is the exact mirror image of saying "Ha ha, a monkey birthed a human", because it takes refuge in absurdity instead of addressing the most important part of an argument as a whole.

Comment author: pwno 13 March 2009 06:38:19AM *  4 points [-]

Don't you think it's still useful to find contradictions within the religious framework in order to convince theists they are wrong? I know some converts who converted because the bible just "didn't make sense" and contained too many contradictions. Some people even convert to religion because the bible (or whatever holy text) "made so much sense." They think, "Well, I agree with Y, and since X implies Y, I will now believe X."

Comment author: Liron 13 March 2009 07:51:43AM 3 points [-]

You should attack the bad links in the causal chain that lead to absurd conclusions, not the conclusions themselves.

So yes, it's worth attacking the bible's nonchalance about contradictions -- but don't bother dwelling on the contradictions themselves.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 05:09:02PM 18 points [-]

The contradictions are a proper point of attack, but only if they would be really, genuinely troublesome even granting the rest of the premises.

Comment author: jimmy 14 March 2009 09:30:25AM 2 points [-]

Absolutely.

The main premise of 'magic' may be the ultimate root of the problem- the one that once you kill it, the problem completely dies- but if it is believed very strongly, it may be very hard to get someone to just change their mind.

As Eliezer mentions in "no universally compelling arguments", the best reason not to believe something won't necessarily be the most compelling. We should pick arguments that are more likely to be compelling, and only attack the main issue once it's doable.

Most people aren't ok with real contradictions in their beliefs. Trivial contradictions that don't change the main idea might be dismissed (eg "the bible is just a book of stories, but god actually exists"), but If someone thinks a>b>c>a, and the ordering is essential to the main point, they'll see this as an obvious problem, which can cause them to rethink things. Once you have them thinking, you've done the hard part (confident to unsure takes many bits of evidence. It only takes a few more until they're pretty sure in the other direction).

If you want to win, attack first where they're most weak, not where they're most wrong.

Comment author: christopherj 14 October 2013 06:52:41AM 1 point [-]

Funny you should mention magic. According to at least one study, "traditional Christian religion greatly decreases credulity, as measured by beliefs in such things as dreams, Bigfoot, UFOs, haunted houses, communicating with the dead and astrology" and I'm pretty sure the same goes for magic. Now here's the funny thing:magic is attested in the Bible, eg in Exodus 7-8 where Egyptian magicians perform almost on par with Moses; and communicating with the dead is attested to in 1 Samuel 28, where King Saul talks to the spirit of Samuel; and prophetic dreams in almost every book in the Old Testament and some of the New; and fighting demonic possession played a key role in Jesus' ministry and also of His disciples after Him. But the people who most proclaim the Bible's truth, usually don't believe in these (especially the first two). Some of these people also claim that if any part of the Bible wasn't true, then the whole thing is worthless.

Comment author: zaph 13 March 2009 11:47:56AM 14 points [-]

The use of absurdity seems more like a tool to enforce group norms than a means of conversion. That doesn't mean the beliefs aren't absurd, just that pointing out the absurdity of outsiders is common practice by in-group members. Most creationist-minded believers would use some similarly absurd way of describing evolution, with the group benefit of passing along "evolution is stupid" meme. That said, it is important to start to tease apart just how many other enforcement strategies are out there, as they are going to need to be dealt with one by one.

Comment author: Omegaile 21 March 2012 12:52:10PM -1 points [-]

The truth is that neither cristians believe in a talking snake nor evolutionists believe in humans coming from monkeys. That's just a straw man falacy. Cristians believe that's a metaphor and evolutionists believe they have common ancestors.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 21 March 2012 02:05:49PM 6 points [-]

I assure you that many Christians do believe the snake really talked.

Whatever Christians you are personally familiar with don't comprise the entirety or even the majority of the Christian population of the world.

Comment author: Thomas 21 March 2012 03:12:31PM 1 point [-]

It is not an ordinary talking snake, it is a snake which was enabled to talk by God or Satan to transmit a message or something. Everything is very "spiritual" in this stories as seen by a believer.

It is not a "common reality" it is an "elevated reality, when God still walked the Earth".

Nobody believes that an ordinary snake could talk. But into a snake disguised Satan, could talk eloquently.

Comment author: VAuroch 30 December 2013 12:16:17AM 0 points [-]

In the context of the Bible, without later interpretation, neither God nor Satan was directly involved with the snake.

Comment author: wedrifid 21 March 2012 12:59:25PM *  5 points [-]

The truth is that neither cristians believe in a talking snake nor evolutionists believe in humans coming from monkeys. That's just a straw man falacy. Cristians believe that's a metaphor and evolutionists believe they have common ancestors.

Don't overgeneralise. Many Christians do believe Satan appeared in the form of a human snake. I know many of them. I also don't consider this to be an inferior epistemic position than pulling out 'metaphors' wherever it is convenient.

For that matter many evolutionists do believe we came from monkeys, but only due to ignorance of the details history that they don't care enough to learn.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 06 January 2013 03:18:41PM 2 points [-]

A human snake? Is there an oxymoron heuristic?

Also, surely the common ancestor of man and monkey must be something that could be reasonably described as a monkey. I can't imagine you can find many people who believe that humans are descended from the actual monkeys alive today.

Comment author: RobbBB 07 January 2013 08:03:50AM *  0 points [-]

The surface problem isn't that naive evolutionists think humans descended from (time-traveling?) extant monkeys. The surface problem is that they don't understand the difference between apes and monkeys, even though this is very easy to understand; and they don't understand that there has never been a common ancestor of all and only the monkeys, or that the common ancestor of monkeys and apes was neither a monkey nor an ape.

But these are all, as you rightly note, nitpicky taxonomic details. Given the folk-blurriness between 'ape' and 'monkey,' and closely related groups, it's not a particularly serious error to misidentify the common ancestor of humans and monkeys as a monkey (or as an ape). The deep problem here is not an error of fact, but an error of strategy; the ignorance of the evolutionist is not only weakening his/her case should the creationist spend 5 minutes on Google, but also is causing him/her to sacrifice a prime teaching moment. This common misconception about monkeys/apes is a fantastic opportunity to correct a misconception (thus undermining the creationist's easy confidence in the most frequent soundbites) and springboard into an explanation of what evolution actually is, of the mechanisms and scope of common descent.

There's also the very closely related error of presuming that evolution is 'directional,' thus that humans are 'more advanced' than their cousins, who have 'evolved less' and thus surely resemble the common ancestor more. In most respects and in most cases, this is misleading.

Comment author: FiftyTwo 16 December 2011 04:15:47AM 0 points [-]

While it could have a social function a larger benefit to having an absurdity bias is in limiting the hypothesis space when considering a question to those worth investing cognitive energy in investigating. (Example: when considering the question 'who ate the cake' the hypothesises 'Alice,' 'Bob,' or 'Carol' would likely be worth investigating but 'The president of the united states' wouldn't be, and so shouldn't be investigated.)

Comment author: Furcas 13 March 2009 02:34:18AM *  8 points [-]

I agree with your point about the absurdity heuristic.

However, I'm not sure that the three following points are relevant to the case of theism:

  • If a large number of intelligent people believe something, it deserves your attention. After you've studied it on its own terms, then you have a right to reject it. You could still be wrong, though.

  • Even if you can think of a good reason why people might be biased towards the silly idea, thus explaining it away, your good reason may still be false.

  • If someone cannot explain why something is not stupid to you over twenty minutes at a cafe, that doesn't mean it's stupid. It just means it's complicated, or they're not very good at explaining things.

What if we have strong evidence that the people who hold the seemingly absurd belief all have similar biases? More, what if a very large fraction of these people admit that they're biased, and are even proud of it?

That's exactly what the situation is with regard to theism, of course. Most theists admit that their religious beliefs are based only, or mostly, on faith. Some state it outright, others hide it behind circumlocutions and nebulous metaphors, and yet others need to be pushed a bit before they'll admit it, but the result is the same.

Does it still matter, then, that many of these people are intelligent, or that some of these religious beliefs may be very complex, or that I haven't studied some of them with great attention?

Comment author: jimmy 13 March 2009 04:42:49AM 4 points [-]

In general, I think taking Yvain's advice is probably better than not.

If the group of (otherwise) intelligent people is a group of anosognosiacs that tell you that they aren't disabled, then their common bias is probably sufficient to dismiss them. In most cases, however, we don't have the line by line code that produces bad answers.

If you can't look under the hood and say "The car doesn't work because part x is doing y instead of z", but rather "I'm not sure exactly how this thing is supposed to work, but something is leaking", then you can't be sure it isn't going to do something right, even if its performance is suboptimal. There could be a hint of rationality buried in the muck, and in that case, they might manage to get it right.

One example of this is the "magical collapse" deal in QM. It may sound absurd (because it is), but the physicists talking about it aren't stupid, and will still manage to give correct predictions. If you dismissed it as "entirely irrational" before looking at the evidence, you'd be stuck with classical physics.

If you then consider the fact that people tend to exaggerate other peoples biases (it's always the other guy that is biased, right?), the case for at least putting some thought into it gets stronger.

Comment author: MichaelHoward 13 March 2009 09:57:44PM *  3 points [-]

One example of this is the "magical collapse" deal in QM. It may sound absurd (because it is)

Which alternative seems more absurd to you can depend a lot on what else you know or think you know. Many worlds seemed far more absurd to me than collapse until someone properly explained it to me.

Comment author: RobinZ 15 November 2009 04:35:22AM 0 points [-]

(months later...)

Another point is that you won't actually encounter all that many obviously-false beliefs widely held by intelligent people. Taking the effort to check out the ones you do encounter shouldn't be an onerous effort.

Comment author: vizikahn 13 March 2009 10:16:52AM 21 points [-]

If I were talking to a Muslim (on this level) about evolution, my next questions would probably be: "Are you aware that humans give birth to deformed babies?" and "Do you think a monkey could give birth to a deformed baby that looks like a human baby?"

Do I think that a snake could produce sounds that can be interpreted as words? Well, yeah. "Can I eat this apple?" "Sssss..." "Sounded like yessss to me, let's eat."

Comment deleted 13 March 2009 11:52:28AM *  [-]
Comment author: prase 19 March 2009 10:05:50AM *  1 point [-]

I don't see the inconsistency. You obtain the conjunction fallacy only if omnipotent God is less absurd than talking snake. I think that such position is absurd.

Comment author: SeanMCoincon 31 July 2014 02:02:15AM 3 points [-]

"What on Earth makes you think monkeys can change into humans?"

It seems - based upon personal experience - that the difference between the rational and the irrational is that the rational at least attempts to present a cogent answer to such questions in a way that actually answers the question; the irrational just gets mad at you for asking.

Comment author: EphemeralNight 31 July 2014 07:05:39AM 2 points [-]

I'm wondering if this is the kind of confusion that can be cleared up by tabooing the right words.

I believe it can be taken as obvious that the image in the muslim woman's head upon hearing the phrase "monkey's transformed into humans" isn't at all similar to the image in the mind of someone who understands evolution, as even to my ear it comes across as, at best, misleading.

Thus my response would be more along the lines of:

I don't believe monkeys can change into humans. I believe that both monkeys and humans belong to a larger category of creatures called apes, and it seems very suspicious to me that if a hypothetical omnipotent being created humans in His image, that the image would be just another species of ape rather than anything unique.

With greater time and preparation, I don't think it would be too hard to demonstrate how a human body and a chimp body are almost the same machine, just shaped a little different. In the 'explain in twenty minutes' scenario, I think the critical insight is scope insensitivity. It is legitimately difficult to imagine the number of generations involved. You'd have to describe a family tree, point out how the less distance up you need to go to find a common ancestor, the more similar any two individuals will look, and then... zoom out, massively.

Even if your non-evolutionist then believes that family tree will eventually lead back to Adam and Eve or whoever, rather than connecting to the animal kindgom once you go far enough back, it moves the competing suppositions out of the realm of absurdity and creates an actual disagreement rather than merely a confusion.

It is hard to argue that magic was not involved in the origin of the human species when the other person cannot conceive of the possibility that humans could even exist or function without magic being involved. And that is not a trivial thing. Even many of today's educated people, who pay lip-service to the idea that humans are biology and nothing else, still believe in souls-and-elanvital-by-another-name. There are modern martial arts that still believe in Ki. You can't trip over your own feet without stumbling on "science" fiction that treats sentient thought as something ontologically fundamental. Likewise, "science" fiction where things like age can be disconnected from people and moved around. And just try to ask the Worm fandom what the difference between telepathy and precise telekinesis acting on the brain, is.

Comment author: army1987 31 July 2014 08:43:17PM *  0 points [-]

I believe that both monkeys and humans belong to a larger category of creatures called apes

Nitpick: humans are a subgroup of apes, apes are a subgroup of EDIT simians, and simians are a subgroup of primates; “monkey” refers to non-ape simians specifically and “ape” is often colloquially used to refer to non-human apes specifically, whereas I can't remember anyone using “primate” to exclude humans (and BTW, I can't recall “mammal” nor “vertebrate” ever being used to exclude humans either whereas “animal” often is; colloquial English¹ is weird).


  1. BTW, in Italian there's no common single word for apes EDIT nor one for monkeys, the word for “simian” basically never includes humans, whereas the same things I've said about English words for “primate”, “mammal”, “vertebrate” and “animal” apply.
Comment author: Nornagest 31 July 2014 10:15:22PM *  0 points [-]

apes are a subgroup of monkeys [...] colloquially “monkey” is often used to refer to non-ape monkeys specifically

That's not how I learned it, nor how Wikipedia describes it. I understand "monkey" as a term describing a polyphyletic grouping consisting of the Old World monkeys (a family-level group, the Cercopithecidae) and the New World monkeys (five families), but not including the apes. Originally I expect the presence of a tail would have been the distinguishing factor.

"Simian" is the word for both, while "primate" also includes lemurs, tarsiers, and so forth. (Colloquially, "ape" is often taken to exclude humans, but that's understood to be technically wrong by anyone that accepts evolution.)

Comment author: army1987 01 August 2014 12:08:58PM *  0 points [-]

OK. I was under the impression that in serious contexts everyone used monophyletic definitions of nearly everything by now, but it looks like “monkey” has retained the traditional meaning because there already is an unambiguous non-unwieldy word “simian” for the monophyletic meaning. I'm editing the grandparent accordingly. So, humans are descended from monkeys but are not themselves monkeys (and they are descended from fish but are not themselves fish, for that matter), but “both monkeys and humans belong to a larger category of creatures called apes” is still wrong (and even if you s/apes/simians/ it's still irrelevant unless you also say that said category is monophyletic or otherwise carves reality at some relevant joint, both chickens and humans belong to a larger category of creatures called bipeds, yadda yadda yadda).

Comment author: Jiro 31 July 2014 10:28:46PM 0 points [-]

Whatever.

If you reply "well, humans aren't really descended from monkeys, they're descended from _", you're just being pedantic. To an average person, being descended from "apes" or "non-human apes" or "non-human monkeys", or "monkey-like creatures not exactly like any existing monkey", or any other "correction" will have pretty much the same connotations as and be objectionable in exactly the same way as and to exactly the same extent as, being descended from monkeys.

It's like someone complaining that all the computers in his house were stolen, and replying "well, in fact, your microwave oven contains a computer, so it's not really true that all the computers in your house were stolen".

Comment author: Nornagest 31 July 2014 10:32:02PM *  0 points [-]

Sure. Outside of a biology class I wouldn't nitpick someone saying "humans are descended from monkeys"; it might be wrong by the formal definitions of those groups, but it's not wrong in any way that the Muslim woman in the ancestor will care about, and if the last common ancestor of H. sapiens and, say, a spider monkey were alive today it'd probably be called a monkey in English.

(Not my downvote, by the way.)

Comment author: SeanMCoincon 31 July 2014 06:18:40PM 0 points [-]

Agreed on all points; I've found it interesting in my conversations with anti-evolutionists that even doing the work of dispelling the straw man argument - "monkeys turning into humans", "why are there still monkeys", etc. - doesn't seem to change even their conception of the evolution argument; they STILL think all the science and reason in the world can be summarized as "monkeys turned into humans". Their degree of investment in opposing that argument may be too great for additional rationality to crack. When/if that becomes apparent, I've found the more-effective-yet-less-satisfying counter to be something along the lines of: "America grew out of England, yet England's still a country.". Not the most accurate metaphor, granted... but it seems to back their confidence level down from outright absoluteness.

Plus, it's kinda fun to see their faces turn red. Whoever coined "Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me." must not have been a rationalist amongst children.

Comment author: Caspian 07 January 2013 12:58:09AM 3 points [-]

Making up absurd explanations for the talking snake goes against the direction of your post, but I wanted to share this one: a remote control snake the owner can talk through is the sort of thing that could be a children's toy. Santa Claus gave one to Satan, who used it for mischief.

Comment author: sjs 13 March 2009 05:44:14AM 3 points [-]

She sounds like someone who has never seen a monkey.

But more seriously, given that she's never met a creationist, it's unlikely that she's ever actually read anything at all about it, or heard a cogent argument. On the contrary, you (and probably a lot of other atheists in the world) are comparatively very knowledgeable about religions, have probably read about as much of the Bible/Koran/Torah/etc. as most believers, and likely even have parents who believe in a god. Being an atheist in many societies requires a sort of active choice – one that most children of believers don't take.

If there were books on the science (or even theology) of talking snakes, I'd be glad to read them.

Comment author: anonym 13 March 2009 02:20:15AM *  14 points [-]

What the lady in Cairo regarded as absurd (a monkey having a human baby) has almost no relation to what educated people who believe in evolution actually believe. What Bill Mahers regarded as absurd (a talking snake) is exactly what many Christians actually believe. The two assertions of absurdity are therefore not alike in the way that you suggest they are.

I agree with your underlying point about the absurdity heuristic not working well, but do any of us not realize this already given what modern physics tells us of the universe we live in?

Comment author: AspiringRationalist 19 March 2012 12:46:54AM 5 points [-]

This suggests an improved absurdity heuristic: if somebody expresses a belief that seems absurd, first check whether they actually believe what you think they do. It might not be as absurd once you know what they actually believe.

They might really believe in a literal talking snake, but have you really lost much by giving the (temporary) benefit of the doubt?

Comment author: Yvain 13 March 2009 02:25:44AM 26 points [-]

Many (most? all?) Christians believe the snake was really Satan, who took the form of a snake to trick Eve. Treating it as an ordinary snake that happened to be able to talk is probably as gross a misrepresentation as the lady's misrepresentation of evolution.

Comment author: bentarm 13 March 2009 04:09:26AM *  8 points [-]

"Many (most? all?) Christians believe the snake was really Satan,"

Without meaning to nitpick, what percentage of people who call themselves Christians do you think actually believe this? I'm pretty sure most of my Christian friends don't believe that any of Genesis is literally true. They probably also don't believe that a man can survive for 3 days in the belly of a whale, or that donkeys talk (Numbers 22: 26-30). I'm not really sure how this is relevant here, except that maybe I'm trying to say that a talking snake is just so damned absurd that even people who say they believe it don't actually believe it.

Comment author: botogol 13 March 2009 08:32:44AM 8 points [-]

"I'm pretty sure most of my Christian friends don't believe that any of Genesis is literally true"

Have you asked them? Probably not, it's considered rude to ask christians questions like that, isn't it? (which is no doubt one reason why religious beliefs are able persist)

But if you did ask them you might be surprised by the answer.

Actually I suspect you are probably somewhat right: they don't beleive genesis literally. However I suspect they don't disbelieve it, either.

I actually don't think religious belief has much to to with doctrine, and I don't thmink many western christians ever actually sit down to assess exactly 'what' they believe, and what they don't. Religion isn't about believing silly things, it's primarily about belonging. Belinging to a group that at a social everyday level is mostly harmless, and normally well intentioned.

Comment author: Zubon 06 January 2013 01:05:42AM *  3 points [-]

I'm pretty sure most of my Christian friends don't believe that any of Genesis is literally true.

About a third of Americans believe "the Bible is the actual word of God and is to be taken literally," explicitly contrasted with "the Bible is the inspired word of God but not everything in it should be taken literally." Your friends are probably not a representative sample of Americans, and even then, a third is a minority, but it is a rather large minority. I know people in this category.

The next question is whether they really believe it or just believe in belief. If you press those people, will they bite the bullet and accept talking serpents and donkeys, surviving in whales, and trumpet blasts knocking down city walls? Yes, some of them really will, and there are certainly communities where this remains a majority belief.

Comment author: taryneast 19 June 2011 11:49:22AM -2 points [-]

Even if they don't believe in all that, they all still believe in a giant, invisible person that watches them when they do naughty things and talks to them telepathically in their head...

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 06 January 2013 03:10:50PM 0 points [-]

who lives on a cloud, and loves them so much that he will set fire to them for all time if the things are too naughty, and whose chosen people (a) are someone else, and (b) haven't had the best couple of millennia.

Comment author: MugaSofer 06 January 2013 11:21:08PM 0 points [-]

who lives on a cloud

,':-\

Comment author: FeepingCreature 06 January 2013 01:30:52PM *  4 points [-]

There is of course zero evidence in the Bible for that point of view, and it contradicts itself internally, even beyond what would be normal given the source.

Going strictly by Genesis, the talking snake is really, honestly, just a talking snake. Satan isn't even mentioned until much later.

Comment author: johnlawrenceaspden 06 January 2013 03:12:42PM 3 points [-]

A talking snake that isn't Satan? Don't be absurd.

Comment author: Kawoomba 06 January 2013 03:15:14PM 1 point [-]

Since Satan does not exist, any talking snake you come across cannot be Satan. Q.E.D. and also, Q.E.F.

Comment author: MugaSofer 06 January 2013 11:31:24PM 0 points [-]

Pretty sure that was sarcasm.

Comment author: deathpigeon 06 January 2013 01:45:03PM 2 points [-]

It's not actually important for the purposes of this discussion what the Bible says or not. What's important is what people believe. If many Christians believe the snake was Satan, then it doesn't matter what the Bible actually says when we discuss whether or not their beliefs are true, absurd, or, in some way, ridiculous.

In the same way, it doesn't actually matter, for the purposes of this discussion, what evolution actually says, but, rather, what people who believe in evolution believe it says.

Comment author: BerryPick6 06 January 2013 01:47:34PM 0 points [-]

It does matter what the Bible says or not iff the same people who claim to believe the snake was Satan also believe the Bible is truth, since this would entail a contradiction.

Comment author: deathpigeon 06 January 2013 01:51:42PM 1 point [-]

That's a good point, but, in that case, we should be making the judgement that they're holding contradictory beliefs for believing the snake is Satan and the Bible is true, rather than make the judgement that they're believing the ridiculous claim that there once was a talking snake.

Comment author: anonym 13 March 2009 02:43:33AM *  4 points [-]

I didn't mean to imply that the snake wasn't Satan or that it was an ordinary snake. Obviously that is what probably all Christians believe, and that's what Mahers believes Christians believe.

But it doesn't make it any less absurd to say a snake talked by explaining that it was actually a supernatural personification of evil that temporarily became a snake. That's just piling absurdity on top of absurdity.

And like I said, the relation between what Christians believe and a snake talking is very direct, regardless of whether the snake was Satan, while the Cairo lady's beliefs have almost no relation to what people who believe in evolution believe.

All I'm saying is that you could make your point much better by finding a stronger parallel.

Comment author: brainoil 05 January 2014 06:03:40AM *  0 points [-]

I don't know what actual Christians believe, but how could this be when god cursed that the snake would have to crawl on its belly for the rest of its days ("on your belly you shall go"), and yet later in the New Testament Satan walks with Jesus on earth to tempt him to idolatry with the offer of the kingdoms?

Besides, if it's Satan, why punish snakes instead?

I haven't talked about this with an actual Christian, but it seems to me that an erudite Christian won't hold this view that the snake was Satan, especially when you can get rid of the contradiction by saying the snake was not Satan.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 05 January 2014 06:15:34AM *  1 point [-]

Actual response I got as a child in Sunday school, when I pointed out this and various other weirdnesses:

"God is more powerful than human logic. Just because something seems like a contradiction to you, doesn't mean it's a contradiction if God does it."

Comment author: Nornagest 05 January 2014 07:42:35AM *  1 point [-]

That brings up some interesting questions about other biblical statements that might be considered important from a religious perspective... within the scope of our flawed, human logic, of course.

Comment author: brainoil 05 January 2014 12:15:54PM 0 points [-]

Didn't think about that. But this actually makes a lot of sense. This is the only way you can believe in those things. You completely ignore reason and take it all on faith.

Comment author: ialdabaoth 06 January 2014 04:14:14AM 1 point [-]

You completely ignore reason and take it all on faith.

For me, though, it was worse than that - how do you "take on faith" a concept that isn't even rationally coherent? That was always my question - what exactly is it that I'm supposed to be believing? Because if something doesn't make sense, then I don't understand it; and if I don't understand it, how am I supposed to really "believe" it? And when people respond with "well you just have to have faith", my response was always "yes, but faith in WHAT?" / "Faith in God." / "Yes, but what do you mean by God?"

"You don't have to understand to believe" never, ever, ever made coherent sense to me.

Comment author: Pentashagon 08 January 2014 08:30:13AM 0 points [-]

"You don't have to understand to believe" never, ever, ever made coherent sense to me.

Do you believe in both general relativity and QCD? Do you understand the Universe? Until the map is indistinguishable from the territory we will have incoherent beliefs about things that we don't fully understand. It's the degree of confidence in our beliefs that matters. GR and QCD are incoherent, but we can have extremely high confidence in our beliefs about practical things using those theories. Black holes and dark energy less so.

Comment author: ArisKatsaris 06 January 2014 05:20:04AM *  0 points [-]

I haven't talked about this with an actual Christian, but it seems to me that an erudite Christian won't hold this view that the snake was Satan, especially when you can get rid of the contradiction by saying the snake was not Satan.

My highschool theologist said that "a demon" (not necessarily Lucifer or any demon whose name is known) spoke through the snake. So I imagine there are a lot of open ways to resolve the contradiction:
- Perhaps the snake is punished for allowing the demon to control it in some manner.
- Perhaps only the particular demon is punished in this manner, not the whole of demonkind including the one that later tempted Jesus.
- Perhaps the description of the curse/prediction is metaphorical, so "on your belly you shall go" is a metaphor of the demon living a filthy existence or something. After all "And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and hers; he will crush your head, and you will strike his heel" is supposed to be metaphorical of the Crucifixion and Resurrection.

etc, etc.

Comment author: Annoyance 13 March 2009 02:22:02PM 4 points [-]

Anything sufficiently beyond the bounds of what you've accepted as normal is 'absurd'. Rejecting a point, an argument, or a conclusion on the grounds that it's absurd is unreasonable. It is, in essence, refusing to consider the possibility of something on the grounds that you don't already affirm it.

Comment author: mark_spottswood 13 March 2009 07:58:35PM 6 points [-]

Not necessarily. The vast majority of propositions are false. Most of them are obviously false; we don't need to spend much mental energy to reject the hypothesis that "Barack Obama is a wooly mammoth," or "the moon is made of butternut squash." "Absurd" is a useful label for statements that we can reject with minimal mental effort. And it makes sense that we refuse to consider most such statements; our mental time and energy is very limited, and if we want to live productive lives, we have to focus on things that have some decent probability of being true.

The problem is not denominating certain things as absurd, it is rejecting claims that we have reason to take more seriously. Both evolution and Christianity are believed by large enough communities that we should not reject either claim as "absurd." Rather, when many people believe something, we should attend to the best arguments in favor of those beliefs before we decide whether we disagree.

Comment author: thomblake 13 March 2009 08:11:30PM 3 points [-]

But you don't reject the hypothesis that "Barack Obama is a wooly mammoth" because it's absurd - nobody has seriously presented it. If someone had a reason to seriously present it, then I'd not dismiss it out of hand - if only because I was interested enough to hear it in the first place, so would want to see if the speaker was making a clever joke, or perhaps needed immediate medical care. As EY might say, noticing a hypothesis is unlikely enough in the first place that you should probably pay some attention to it, if the speaker was one of the people you listen to. cf. Einstein's Arrogance

Comment author: brainoil 05 January 2014 10:43:09PM *  1 point [-]

David Icke thinks Barack Obama and many other prominent politicians are reptiles and that there's a reptilian conspiracy going on. He has written many books about this, and seems to take all of that pretty seriously. Should I be reading his books, instead of something that is more likely to be true?

Comment author: mark_spottswood 16 March 2009 05:16:31PM 1 point [-]

Imagining that someone "had a reason to seriously present" to Obama-Mammoth hypothesis is to make the hypothesis non-absurd. If there is real evidence in favor of the hypothesis, than it is obviously worth considering. But that is just to fight the example; it doesn't tell us much about the actual line between absurd claims and claims that are worth considering.

In the world we actually inhabit, an individual who believed that they had good reasons to think that the president was an extinct quadruped would obviously be suffering from a thought disorder. It might be interesting to listen to such a person talk (or to hear a joke that begins with the O-M Hypo), but that doesn't mean that the claim is worth considering seriously.

Comment author: jimmy 14 March 2009 09:49:21AM 1 point [-]

"If someone had a reason to seriously present it, then I'd not dismiss it out of hand"

It's important to not that no one has. You can't update on fictitious evidence.

In the (unlikely) case that something unprobable ends up with strong evidence backing it, then it becomes probable whether or not it was called "absurd". Until then, we dismiss it because it's absurd.

Comment author: jimmy 14 March 2009 09:39:08AM 1 point [-]

I agree, and think that you explained it well, but I would personally go back to calling christianity absurd after looking into it and finding no evidence.

If you look, and find no evidence, what seperates christianity from "Barack Obama is a wooly mammoth"?

Comment author: mark_spottswood 16 March 2009 04:57:38PM 7 points [-]

Christianity is false, but it is harder to falsify it then it is to show that Barrack Obama is not a non-sapient extinct mammal. I can prove the second false to a five-year-old of average intelligence by showing a picture of Obama and an artist's rendition of a mammoth. It would take some time to explain to the same five-year-old child why Christianity does not make sense as a description of the world.

This difference—that while both claims are false, one claim is much more obviously false than the other—explains why Christianity has many adherents but the Obama-Mammoth hypothesis does not. And we can usually infer from the fact that many people believe a proposition that it is not transparently false, making it more reasonable to investigate a bit before rejecting it.

Comment author: cleonid 13 March 2009 02:09:47AM 3 points [-]

" I think theism is wrong. "

I believe you are likely to be right.

"I think it can be demonstrated to be wrong on logical grounds."

I'm really intrigued. How?

Comment author: Yvain 13 March 2009 02:30:05AM *  7 points [-]

Uh oh.

http://www.overcomingbias.com/2007/08/religions-claim.html and http://yudkowsky.net/rational/technical , but a full argument would probably take forever, be inappropriate for this site, and have me answering religious objections until the cows came home.

Logical was probably not as good a word as "rational" here. If saying "on rational grounds" makes more sense than "on logical grounds", feel free to replace it.

If you're really really really interested, send me your email and I'll try to sketch out some thoughts, but beyond what's in the two links above I doubt anything I say will be that much more exciting than anything you've heard atheists say before.

Comment author: billswift 13 March 2009 04:37:45AM *  2 points [-]

There is literally no way anyone is going to be able to do this in the limitations of a blog - if you can get through Michael Martin's "Atheism: A Philosophical Justification" you'll know the answer. Dawkin's "The God Belief" is shorter and easier because he uses evidence to shorten the strictly logical disproofs philosophers use. An older and less complete, but more readable, philosophical disproof is George H Smith's "Atheism: The Case Against God". There are others, but of the ones I've read these two are the best and the most accessible, respectively.

Comment author: Nick_Novitski 13 March 2009 05:48:06PM 2 points [-]

"The God Belief"? Is that a freudian slip?

Comment author: sonic 13 March 2009 09:27:10AM 3 points [-]

Not all theists believe in 'talking snakes'.
The non-existence of 'talking snakes' as an argument against theism would be a 'strawman'.

Comment author: psycho 13 March 2009 06:46:07PM 3 points [-]

To be clear I am not promoting religon here, but have any of you who are bashing Christianity ever actually talked to a real theologian? Or are all of your views of Christianity based on TV preachers and the common mob who don't know anything when it comes to defending what they believe? Just as with any other area there is a barrier to admission like in physics you have to know the math otherwise you have really nothing to contribute. If you want to contribute to Christianity you have to understand the belief system and its reasoning and the average person probably doesn't. The same goes for physics how many average people do think can actually solve the field equations? In Christianity how many of the people who claim to believe have gone to Seminary? Unless you are arguing with scholars of Christianity this bashing seems to me to be like finding some person who claims to be a physicist but can't do basic algebra and then discounting physics because of that persons opinion.

Comment author: Furcas 13 March 2009 09:21:09PM *  11 points [-]

From what I've seen, most theologians don't even believe that they know how to defend what they believe. The most common sentiment among them seems to be that the part of theology that seeks to demonstrate the existence of God is the crudest and least interesting part. Those theologians who do bother to try and support their belief with arguments, like Swinburne and Plantinga, rarely agree with one another.

In any case, comparing theologians to physicists as you do is silly. Physicists are the experts of physics because they know about the most accurate theories and the evidence that supports them. What do theologians know about? The evidence for the existence of God? Most of them admit there isn't any. The most accurate version of Christianity? There's no way to judge accuracy without evidence.

Some people who call themselves theologians may be experts on the history of Christianity, and a precious few might even be experts on what Christians actually believe these days, but none of them are experts about the actual claims of Christianity: That God loves us, that he sent his son to Earth, that he's got a blissful afterlife set up for good people, and so forth. Without evidence to know about, theologians have no more expertise on this subject than average Christians. Therefore, the theologian's version of Christianity is no more valid than the average Christian's version of it, and is no more deserving of our attention. In fact, because theologians represent such a tiny fraction of Christians, it deserves less.

Comment author: thomblake 13 March 2009 07:36:22PM 1 point [-]

Indeed. Ignorant atheists piss me off. No, you don't have to go along with everything your culture does just because everybody else thinks it's a good idea... but you'd better have a damn good reason for rejecting it.. But there really are a lot of atheists for whom it comes down to something like "talking snake? C'mon!". It's worse than being religious.

What's worse is a lot of these folks love being polemical - they don't have good reasons for being atheists but want to be loud jerks about it, so religious folk get the idea that atheists are just uninformed rude jerks.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 13 March 2009 07:50:58PM 8 points [-]

Although I agree with the general thrust of your statement, I cannot forgive the incorrect subargument, "It's worse than being religious."

But yes, definitely: atheists should aspire to be skillful, competent, elegant, logical rude jerks. Those of our kind with the rare talent not to be rude jerks could aspire to that part too.

Comment author: Swimmer963 31 October 2011 10:49:01PM 2 points [-]

Why exactly is it rare for atheists not to be rude jerks? This isn't something I've observed strong evidence for.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 01 November 2011 01:47:27PM 13 points [-]

Opinions of rude jerks are more known to strangers.

If your friends are atheists, then you see that atheists come with any temperament. But when you hear about atheism from a stranger, there is a big chance he is a jerk, because other people usually don't impose their opinions on strangers.

It works the same if you replace "atheism" by many other things. The most visible people are usually the most annoying ones.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 01 November 2011 02:44:28PM 3 points [-]

Thank you for writing this. I started to write something similar, got bogged down in too many layers of qualification, and ultimately scrapped it; you expressed what I wanted to, far more succinctly than I would have.

Comment author: thomblake 01 November 2011 02:37:07PM 0 points [-]

Atheists are generally self-selected intellectual people, therefore generally nerds, therefore generally lacking in social skills.

Also, religion is harming and killing a lot of people, so a lot of atheists get up in arms about that and come off as jerky.

Comment author: kilobug 01 November 2011 02:51:58PM 0 points [-]

Hum, depends of where you live. Here in France, atheists are common, recent surveys show almost an even three thirds split between atheists, agnostics and religious. A significant part of many social professions (teachers, nurses, social helpers, journalists, ...) are atheists, for example.

But that still holds true for vocal atheists : they tend to be intellectual and nerdy, even if vocal atheists also include a part of the traditional working-class (factory workers, construction workers, transport drivers, ...) due to still strong anarcho-syndicalist and marxist currents in French unions.

Comment author: thomblake 01 November 2011 03:09:17PM 0 points [-]

Indeed, I was speaking US-centrically, and I don't doubt Eliezer was too at the time.

Though even here, atheists of some sort or another are more common than people think. Almost a quarter of Americans answered "no religion" on the 2004 census. Of course, a BBC poll from the same time suggested that North Americans were about 9% atheist, and those categories might mean different things.

Comment author: thomblake 13 March 2009 08:03:34PM 0 points [-]

I cannot forgive the incorrect subargument, "It's worse than being religious."

I'm not sure how you could misconstrue that as an argument - it's a single proposition!

If it's not obvious, consider that they're rejecting a commonly-held belief for a really bad reason. That's practically insane. Much better to go along with the crowd until you have an actual reason not to.

And I think being neither rude nor a jerk is vital to being a complete person. You're setting the bar way too low.

Comment author: jimmy 14 March 2009 08:44:41AM 2 points [-]

Just because they say "the idea of a talking snake is ridiculous!" does not mean that they rely solely on the absurdity heuristic. After all, they got the correct answer.

"Do not criticize people when they turn out to be right! Wait for an occasion where they are wrong! Otherwise you are missing the chance to see when someone is thinking smarter than you"

If you suspect someone is relying too heavily on the absurdity heuristic, there are absurd things that are true that you can test them on. If you're talking about "the average atheist" and don't have time to test a representitive sample, I would not assume that the absurdity heuristic is all they got going for them.

I'd think the majority, if not nearly all atheists see (some of) the biases that lead to religious beliefs. "All your stated reasons for belief are worthless and shared with the majority, and your claim is absurd" is probably enough to discount the majority.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 14 March 2009 08:49:55AM 2 points [-]

There's also such a thing as being fair - epistemic justice. That plea can only be made by showing a poor criticism of Them and comparing it to a poor criticism of Us.

Comment author: Rings_of_Saturn 14 March 2009 02:03:35AM 0 points [-]

thomblake:

I also agree with the post's assertion that relying on the absurdity heuristic alone is dangerous ground, it is still an excellent tool for at least calling in to question a set of beliefs which, upon further and more rigorous examination, may or may not merit rejection.

But, I must protest, a talking snake is not "a really bad reason" to reject that set of common beliefs. It is an EXCELLENT reason.

Snakes do not talk.

Comment author: bentarm 13 March 2009 03:48:46AM 2 points [-]

As a previous poster has said, the absurdity heuristic works very well indeed - if something seems absurd to me, I need a lot of evidence before I'll believe it. As Hume said:

"no testimony is sufficient to establish a miracle, unless the testimony be of such a kind, that its falsehood would be more miraculous than the fact which it endeavors to establish."

If someone claims that a talking snake is the reason for every bad thing that anyone has ever done, they're going to have to provide some evidence that this is the case. If they claim that people are related to monkeys (which seems inherently less absurd to me, but I'm probably biased by the fact that it's true), then they're also going to have to provide some evidence, and whatever the extraordinary claim, the evidence is going to have to be enough to shift my belief from "that's absurd" to "oh, I guess that's true then".

On the other hand, having written that I guess it's more likely that the Absurdity Heuristic is more specific, and is the tendency to stick our fingers in our ears, say "that's absurd, la la la", and refuse to listen to any evidence to the contrary. I suppose this is a heuristic that people might use, and might be useful (in ruling out hypotheses which aren't worth spending time falsifying), but as you say, does have its dangers. It's not clear how to avoid the danger of ruling out an hypothesis which is absurd but true while getting the benefits of ruling out hypotheses which are simply absurd, but the heuristic still has its uses (perhaps some threshold of absurdity, some "suspension of absurdity" for certain types of proposition?)

Comment author: Nick_Novitski 13 March 2009 06:02:38PM 2 points [-]

I think that my bias towards our being related to monkeys is due to the meanings I invest in "monkey" and "human" as not being greatly dissimilar.

On the other hand, if I had already accepted the existence and human-exclusiveness of a soul, and/or a supernatural account of the world's origin that afforded special primacy to humans as distinct from animals, then clearly I would think relations that crossed these distinct boundaries of type were too absurd to consider.

Also, another limitation on the heuristic might be, as you suggest, weighing the value of the time that it would take to investigate the proposition being examined; I'm more likely to pause and engage in a discussion of my beliefs when I'm relaxing in my leather armchair with a snifter of brandy than while I'm changing trains on the way to work.

Comment author: Nominull 13 March 2009 02:41:13AM 0 points [-]

The absurdity heuristic does work well. Almost every possible absurd claim is false. Like most heuristics, it only becomes a problem when you continue using it outside its realm of usefulness.

Comment author: Swimmy 13 March 2009 06:00:49AM 17 points [-]

Almost every possible non-absurd claim is also false. I think this is Occam's Razor, not the absurdity heuristic, in effect and working great.

Comment author: Annoyance 13 March 2009 02:24:05PM 3 points [-]

"Almost every possible absurd claim is false."

Ah, I see you have adopted Douglas Adams' argument which demonstrates that the population of the universe is zero.

Comment author: thomblake 13 March 2009 03:13:45PM *  8 points [-]

Aha - I knew this sounded familiar. For those not familiar with it, here it is:

Although you might see people from time to time, they are most likely products of your imagination. Simple mathematics tells us that the population of the Universe must be zero. Why? Well given that the volume of the universe is infinite there must be an infinite number of worlds. But not all of them are populated; therefore only a finite number are. Any finite number divided by infinity is zero, therefore the average population of the Universe is zero, and so the total population must be zero.

Retrieved from http://hitchhikers.wikia.com/wiki/Universe

EDIT: note that this doesn't work, for several obvious reasons, notably that a subset of an infinite set can be infinite.

Comment author: TraderJoe 22 March 2012 01:29:19PM *  0 points [-]

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