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Theists are wrong; is theism?

5 Post author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 12:18AM

Many folk here on LW take the simulation argument (in its more general forms) seriously. Many others take Singularitarianism1 seriously. Still others take Tegmark cosmology (and related big universe hypotheses) seriously. But then I see them proceed to self-describe as atheist (instead of omnitheist, theist, deist, having a predictive distribution over states of religious belief, et cetera), and many tend to be overtly dismissive of theism. Is this signalling cultural affiliation, an attempt to communicate a point estimate, or what?

I am especially confused that the theism/atheism debate is considered a closed question on Less Wrong. Eliezer's reformulations of the Problem of Evil in terms of Fun Theory provided a fresh look at theodicy, but I do not find those arguments conclusive. A look at Luke Muehlhauser's blog surprised me; the arguments against theism are just not nearly as convincing as I'd been brought up to believe2, nor nearly convincing enough to cause what I saw as massive overconfidence on the part of most atheists, aspiring rationalists or no.

It may be that theism is in the class of hypotheses that we have yet to develop a strong enough practice of rationality to handle, even if the hypothesis has non-negligible probability given our best understanding of the evidence. We are becoming adept at wielding Occam's razor, but it may be that we are still too foolhardy to wield Solomonoff's lightsaber Tegmark's Black Blade of Disaster without chopping off our own arm. The literature on cognitive biases gives us every reason to believe we are poorly equipped to reason about infinite cosmology, decision theory, the motives of superintelligences, or our place in the universe.

Due to these considerations, it is unclear if we should go ahead doing the equivalent of philosoraptorizing amidst these poorly asked questions so far outside the realm of science. This is not the sort of domain where one should tread if one is feeling insecure in one's sanity, and it is possible that no one should tread here. Human philosophers are probably not as good at philosophy as hypothetical Friendly AI philosophers (though we've seen in the cases of decision theory and utility functions that not everything can be left for the AI to solve). I don't want to stress your epistemology too much, since it's not like your immortal soul3 matters very much. Does it?

Added: By theism I do not mean the hypothesis that Jehovah created the universe. (Well, mostly.) I am talking about the possibility of agenty processes in general creating this universe, as opposed to impersonal math-like processes like cosmological natural selection.

Added: The answer to the question raised by the post is "Yes, theism is wrong, and we don't have good words for the thing that looks a lot like theism but has less unfortunate connotations, but we do know that calling it theism would be stupid." As to whether this universe gets most of its reality fluid from agenty creators... perhaps we will come back to that argument on a day with less distracting terminology on the table.

 


 

1 Of either the 'AI-go-FOOM' or 'someday we'll be able to do lots of brain emulations' variety.

2 I was never a theist, and only recently began to question some old assumptions about the likelihood of various Creators. This perhaps either lends credibility to my interest, or lends credibility to the idea that I'm insane.

Or the set of things that would have been translated to Archimedes by the Chronophone as the equivalent of an immortal soul (id est, whatever concept ends up being actually significant).

Comments (533)

Comment author: ata 20 January 2011 01:51:03AM *  10 points [-]

The basic problem of specific agent-created-this-universe hypotheses is that of trying to explain complexity with greater complexity without a corresponding amount of evidence. Things like the Simulation Argument and other notions of "agenty processes in general creating this universe" are certainly not as preposterous as theistic religion, particularly in the absence of a good understanding of how existence works, but I think it confuses things to refer to this as theism. If our universe is a simulation developed by a computer science undergrad (from another reality) for a homework assignment, then that doesn't make them our God.

I recall a while ago that there was a brief thread where someone was arguing that phlogiston theory was actually correct, as long as you interpret it as identical to the modern scientific model of fire. I react to things like this similarly: theism/God were silly mistakes, let's move on and not get attached to old terminology. Rehabilitating the idea of "theism" to make it refer to things like the Simulation Hypothesis seems pointless; how does lumping those concepts together with Yahweh (as far as common usage is concerned) help us think about the more plausible ones?

Comment author: PhilGoetz 23 January 2011 08:24:39PM *  7 points [-]

I'm technically some kind of theist, because I believe this world is likely to be a simulation (although I don't believe it in my gut). I tell people I'm an atheist because telling them the more-accurate truth, that I am a theist, conveys negative information because of how they inevitably interpret it.

It's a reasonable thing to point out: Why do LWers criticize theism so heavily when they may be theists?

There's a confusion caused because our usage of the term doesn't distinguish between "theist re. this universe I'm in" and "theist for the root universe". Possibly because there may be no one in the latter category, who both believes in multiple levels of simulated universes, and that the original root universe was created by a deity.

Which definition is more usable (makes more distinctions about how you should act depending on whether you are a theist): Theist for this universe, or theist for root universe?

Considering whether your current universe was made by a god might seem to have more impact on your behavior. But considering whether the root universe was made by a god might have more impact on your philosophy and ethics.

Comment author: lukstafi 29 January 2011 12:01:44AM 0 points [-]

Considering whether your current universe was made by a god might seem to have more impact on your behavior. But considering whether the root universe was made by a god might have more impact on your philosophy and ethics.

Would you like to address your point of view on what the impact is in both cases, or link to relevant discussion? Is it "be on the lookout for miracles"? Why wouldn't we just do our business as usual being in a simulation as opposed to being in a "root universe"?

Comment author: Wei_Dai 20 January 2011 04:07:53AM *  6 points [-]

But then I see them proceed to self-describe as atheist (instead of omnitheist, theist, deist, having a predictive distribution over states of religious belief, et cetera), and many tend to be overtly dismissive of theism. Is this signalling cultural affiliation, an attempt to communicate a point estimate, or what?

To a non-scientifically-literate person, I might say that I think electrons exist as material objects, whereas to a physicist I would invoke Tegmark's idea that all that exist are mathematical structures.

One way to make sense of this is to think about humanity as a region in mind space, with yourself and your listener as points in that region. The atheist who hasn't heard about Bostrom/Tegmark yet is sitting between you and your listener, and you're just using atheism as a convenient landmark while trying to point your listener in your general direction.

It may be that theism is in the class of hypotheses that we have yet to develop a strong enough practice of rationality to handle, even if the hypothesis has non-negligible probability given our best understanding of the evidence.

Why do you say that? I don't think anyone has gone mad or otherwise suffered really bad consequences from thinking about Bostrom/Tegmark-like ideas... (Umm, I guess some people had nightmares after hearing about Roko's idea, but still, it doesn't seem that bad overall.)

Comment author: Document 20 January 2011 06:42:37AM *  2 points [-]

One way to make sense of this is to think about humanity as a region in mind space, with yourself and your listener as points in that region. The atheist who hasn't heard about Bostrom/Tegmark yet is sitting between you and your listener, and you're just using atheism as a convenient landmark while trying to point your listener in your general direction.

The listener in this case being a theist you're trying to explain your epistemic position to, I assume. (It took me a moment to figure out the context.)

I don't think anyone has gone mad or otherwise suffered really bad consequences from thinking about Bostrom/Tegmark-like ideas..

Possibly related: "(Hugh) Everett's daughter, Elizabeth, suffered from manic depression and committed suicide in 1996 (saying in her suicide note that she was going to a parallel universe to be with her father" (via rwallace).

Comment author: shokwave 20 January 2011 01:08:27PM 3 points [-]

Possibly related:

My gut feeling is the causal flow goes "manic depression -> suicide, alternate universes" rather than "alternate universes -> manic depression -> suicide".

Comment author: Vaniver 20 January 2011 06:26:00PM 4 points [-]

Honestly, I wouldn't be that sure. On this very site I've seen people say their reason for signing up for cryonics was their belief in MWI.

It would not surprise me if "suicide -> hell" decreases the overall number of suicides and "suicide -> anthropic principle leaves you in other universes" increases the overall number of suicides.

Comment author: ata 20 January 2011 06:45:15PM 1 point [-]

Honestly, I wouldn't be that sure. On this very site I've seen people say their reason for signing up for cryonics was their belief in MWI.

Really? What's the reasoning there (if you remember)?

Comment author: Vaniver 20 January 2011 07:13:28PM *  1 point [-]

The post is here. The reasoning as written is:

Cryonics is reasonable - Due to reading and understanding the quantum physics sequence, I ended up contacting Rudi Hoffman for a life insurance quote to fund cryonics. It’s only a few hundred dollars a year for me. It’s well within my budget for caring about myself and others... such as my future selves in forward branching multi-verses.

My comments on the subject (having cut out the tree debating MWI) can be found here.

Comment author: byrnema 24 January 2011 05:13:47AM *  5 points [-]

Theists are wrong; is theism?

I think this is an interesting question! If rationalists speculated about the origin of the universe, what would they come up with? What if 15 rationalists made up a think-tank and were charged to speculate about the origin of the universe and assign probabilities to speculations? It would be a grievous mistake to begin with the hypothesis of theism, but could they end up with it on their list, with some non-negligible probability?

I don't think so. The main premise of the theistic religions is that an entity (a person? a mind?) created us and that this entity is like a person and like a parent: it chose to create us (agency), wants the best for us, and authoritatively defines what is good behavior. This is too obviously an artifact of human psychology. Being children with parents is such an important part of our biology it's certainly going to be an important component of our psychology. (Don't various psychological theories claim that 'growing up' means internalizing the authority of parents as part of our psyche?)

The simulation hypothesis? This is also an anthropomorphic, privileged hypothesis, but with the advantage of being quite possible. So humans could do it or could have done it. (Being human, they could do something anthropomorphic like that.) But the rationalists in my think-tank aren't charged with the probability of the simulation hypothesis. Deciding we might be in a simulation only pushes the question further out -- what's the origin of the universe that's simulating the others?

Given how 'weird' it must be to create* the universe (to create everything), I think we must decide that this creator is outside our comprehension. This creator (agent or thing or mechanism) not only created everything, it contains the explanation for why there is anything at all rather than nothing, and what 'something' and 'nothing' even mean.

I think that the rationalists would come out of their conference with the conclusion that any adjectives that have ever been used to describe the creator -- omniscient, benevolent, omnipotent; or even 'agenty' don't make any sense in the context of such a thing.

In particular, it seems just silly to be concerned about whether this thing has a 'mind'. What would it do with this mind? Other than create the universe, exactly as it has done / been doing. It seems like a mind is useful thing humans have to think through stuff and make decisions. To make computations about causality given limited information. A mind would be irrelevant outside causality and information. Probably 'intention' would be too, so that challenges 'agency'.

... I can't think of anything interesting that the rationalists could even apply, speculatively, to the entity: creator that would make any sense.

* Even 'creation' doesn't make sense outside of time, but I mean the 'mechanism' at whatever level of abstraction that would explain the universe to a mind that could understand it.

Comment author: byrnema 24 January 2011 04:51:19PM *  3 points [-]

I'll develop my thoughts about not being able to sensibly apply the description 'agenty' to the creator because wondering why agency should be a key question is what originally motivated my above comment.

You can search 'agenty' and find many comments on this page that discuss whether we should speculate that the creator has agency. I found myself wondering throughout these comments what is specifically being meant by this. If the creator is 'agenty', what properties must it have and are those properties necessarily interesting?

I could probably look around and find a definition I would like better, but my definition of 'agenty' when I first start thinking about it is that this has meaning in a specifically human context.

Broadly, something 'agenty' is something that makes decisions according to a complex decision tree algorithm. This is a human-context-specific definition because "complex" means relative to what we consider complex. A mammal makes complex decisions and thus is 'agenty' while a simple process like water makes simple decisions (described by a small number of equations and the properties of the immediate physical space) and is not agenty. A complex inanimate thing (like 'evolution') and a simple animate thing (like a virus) would give us pause, straining our immediate, concrete conception of agency.

I'm willing to say that evolution has agency (it has goals -- long term stable solutions -- and complicated ways of achieving these goals) and water has simple agency. This because in my opinion what was really meant when we made the agency dichotomy between humans and water is that humans have free will and water doesn't. But finally with a deterministic world view, this distinction dissolves. Humans have as much agency as anything else, but our decision algorithm is very complex to us, whereas we can often reliably predict what water will do.

Then to apply this concept of agency to the mechanism of creation of the universe... All the rules and steady states of the universe could be interpreted as its 'intentions' and, as such, it would have very complex agency. Another person may have a different set of meanings that they associate with agency, intention, etc., and consider this a terrible anthropomorphism if my words were mapped to their meanings. However, I don't think it reflects an actual difference in beliefs about the territory.

If someone reading this has a different ontology, what would you specifically mean by the creator having agency, if it did?

Comment author: jimrandomh 20 January 2011 01:47:19AM *  5 points [-]

Tegmark cosmology implies not only that there is a universe which runs this one as a simulation, but that there are infinitely many such universes and infinitely many such simulations. In some fraction of those universes, the simulation will have been designed by an intelligent entity. In some smaller fraction, that entity has the ability to mess with the contents of the simulation (our universe) or copy data out of it (eg, upload minds and give them afterlives). My theism is equal to my estimate of this latter fraction, which is very small.

Comment author: Perplexed 20 January 2011 02:17:11AM 5 points [-]

Tegmark cosmology implies not only that there is a universe which runs this one as a simulation, but that there are infinitely many such simulations.

I'm not sure that this is true. My understanding is that IF a universe which runs this one as a simulation is possible, THEN Tegmark cosmology implies that such a universe exists. But I'm not sure that such a universe is possible. After all, a universe which contains a perfect simulation of this one would need to be larger (in duration and/or size) than this one. But there is a largest possible finite simple group, so why not a largest possible universe? I am not confident enough of my understanding of the constraints applicable to universes to be confident that we are not already in the biggest one possible.

There is a spooky similarity between the Tegmark-inspired argument that we may live in a simulation and the Godel/St. Anselm-inspired argument that we were created by a Deity. Both draw their plausibility by jumping from the assertion that something (rather poorly characterized) is conceivable to the claim that that thing is possible. That strikes me as too big of a jump.

Comment author: magfrump 20 January 2011 06:49:28AM 6 points [-]

There isn't a largest finite simple group. There's a largest exceptional finite simple group.

Z/pZ is finite and simple for all primes p, and if you think there is a largest prime I have some bad news...

Comment author: jimrandomh 20 January 2011 02:39:45AM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure that this is true. My understanding is that IF a universe which runs this one as a simulation is possible, THEN Tegmark cosmology implies that such a universe exists. But I'm not sure that such a universe is possible.

You're right, that is an additional requirement. Nevertheless, it seems very highly likely to me that such a universe is possible; for it to be otherwise would imply something very strange about the laws of physics. The most-existant universe simulating ours might exist to a degree 1/BB(100) times as much as our universe exists, though; in that case, they would "exist", but not for any practical purposes. This seems more likely than our universe having some property we don't know about that makes it impossible to simulate.

Comment author: JoshuaZ 20 January 2011 03:28:52AM 2 points [-]

If one accepts general Tegmark, is there any natural measure for describing how common different universes should be in any meaningful sense?

Comment author: jimrandomh 20 January 2011 04:00:47AM 2 points [-]

Yes, but unfortunately, there are many measures to choose from, and you can't possibly tell which is correct until you've visited Permutation City and at least a dozen of its suburbs.

Comment author: Perplexed 20 January 2011 03:47:21AM 1 point [-]

I agree with the question. It may make sense to attach "probabilities of existing" to universes arising in a chaotic inflation model, but not, I think, in an "ultimate ensemble" multiverse, which seems to be the one being examined here.

But, to be honest, I had never even considered the possibility that a particularly large bubble universe might contain a simulation of a much smaller bubble. Inflation, as I understand it, does make it possible for a simulation of one small piece of physical reality to encompass an entire isolated 'universe'.

Comment author: ata 20 January 2011 03:37:28AM *  1 point [-]

Not yet, as far as I know. Big World cosmology seems to be going in the right direction, but it's not yet understood well enough that we should be coming to any epistemological or ethical conclusions based on it.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 02:02:39AM 1 point [-]

Clarifying: I'm guessing that by 'ability' you mean 'ability and inclination'?

Comment author: jimrandomh 20 January 2011 02:15:11AM *  1 point [-]

Right. Actually, forget about both of those; all that matters is whether it actually does modify the simulation's contents or copy out data that includes a mind at least once. And, come to think of it, the intervention would also have to be inside our past or future light cone, which might lower the fraction pretty substantially (it means any outer universe which instantiates our entire infinite universe, but makes only finitely many interventions, doesn't count).

Although - there are some interpretations of consciousness under which, upon death, the fraction of enclosing universes which copy out minds doesn't matter, only the proportions of them with different qualities. In that case, the universe would act as though there were no gods or outer universes until you died or performed enough iterations of quantum suicide, after which you'd end up in a different universe. I'm not sure how much credence I give to those interpretations.

Comment author: Oligopsony 20 January 2011 09:00:54AM 1 point [-]

My theism is equal to my estimate of this latter fraction, which is very small.

What does "fraction" mean here?

Comment author: shokwave 20 January 2011 01:32:34PM 12 points [-]

I am interested in why you want to call simulation arguments, Tegmark cosmology, and Singularitarianism theism. I don't doubt there is a reference class that includes common-definition theistic beliefs as well as these beliefs; I do doubt whether that reference class is useful or desirable. At that point of broadness I feel like you're including certain competing theories of physics in the class 'theism'.

So I propose a hypothetical. Say LessWrong accepts this, and begins referring to these concepts as theistic, and renouncing their atheism if their Tegmarkian cosmological beliefs are stronger. What positive and what negative consequences do you expect from this?

Comment author: JoshuaZ 20 January 2011 03:04:06AM *  16 points [-]

How low a percentage does one need to assign a claim in order to declare it to be closed? I'd assign around a 5% chance that there exists something approximating God (using this liberally to include the large variety of entities which fall under that label). I suspect that my probability estimate is higher than many people on LW. (Tangent: I recently had a discussion with an Orthodox Jewish friend about issues related to Bayesianism, and he was surprised that I assigned the idea that high a probability. In his view, if he didn't have faith and had to assign a probability he said it might be orders of magnitude lower.) So how low a probability do we need to estimate before we consider something closed?

Moreover, how much attention should we pay to apologetics in general? We know that theology and apologetics are areas that have spent thousands of years of memetic evolution to be as dangerous as possible. They take almost every little opportunity to exploit the flaws in human cognition. Apologetic arguments aren't (generally) basilisk level, but they can take a large amount of cognitive resources to understand where they are wrong. After 10 or 15 of them, how much effort do we need to spend seeing if # 16 (variation of first cause argument number 8) is worth spending resources investigation? Also, given that there's a vibrant subset of the internet that is dedicated to handling just this question and related issues, why should LW be the forum for handling the issue?

There's a related issue: humans are overactive agent recognizers. We love to see patterns where none exist and see intelligence in random action. Theism fits with deep-seated human intuitions. In contrast, MWI, simulationism and full-scale Tegmark all clash strongly with human intuition. They may seem weird, but the weirdness may not be a product of evidential issues but rather that they clash with human intuitions. So putting them in the same category as religion may be misleading.

Incidentally, I'm curious, would you similarly object if LW said explicitly that homeopathy was a closed subject? What about evolution? Star formation? If these are different, why are they different?

Comment author: b1shop 20 January 2011 07:19:30PM 2 points [-]

Perhaps a question becomes a closed issue not when the probability of the belief reaches a certain point, but when our estimate of the probability of the belief changing reaches a certain threshold. A fair coin is heads 50% of the time, and my probability won't change. That's a closed question. I may be fairly confident about the modern theory of star formation, but I wouldn't be too surprised if a new theory added some new details. So it's not a closed subject.

I can imagine no evidence that would lead me to believe in something nonfalsifiable. Theism is a closed subject.

Comment author: lionhearted 20 January 2011 01:10:11PM 2 points [-]

This comment is brilliant. In particular, I'd really really love to see two top level posts covering:

Moreover, how much attention should we pay to apologetics in general? We know that theology and apologetics are areas that have spent thousands of years of memetic evolution to be as dangerous as possible. They take almost every little opportunity to exploit the flaws in human cognition. Apologetic arguments aren't (generally) basilisk level, but they can take a large amount of cognitive resources to understand where they are wrong.

...and...

There's a related issue: humans are overactive agent recognizers. We love to see patterns where none exist and see intelligence is random action. Theism fits with deep-seated human intuitions. In contrast, MWI, simulationism and full-scale Tegmark all clash strongly with human intuition. They may seem weird, but the weirdness may not be a product of evidential issues but rather that they clash with human intuitions. So putting them in the same category as religion may be misleading.

Both really fascinating insights, I'd love to read more. Especially the first one about memetic evolution to be dangerous - I wonder what various secular social and societal memes fit in similarly.

Comment author: grouchymusicologist 20 January 2011 01:57:24AM *  15 points [-]

This post could use a reminder of Less Wrong's working definition of the supernatural (of which theism, as virtually everyone uses the term, is surely a proper subset): it's something that involves an ontologically basic mental entity. We have no reason to suspect the existence of such things, and the simulation argument -- since it certainly does not appeal to such things -- doesn't change that a bit. Any resemblance to theism is superficial at most.

I'd also be curious to know what popular arguments for atheism you happen to think are so much weaker than you'd expected.

EDIT: ignore that last question if you like, I'm getting a sense for it elsewhere in the thread (though do not really agree).

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 06:56:09AM *  4 points [-]

Carrier's definition of supernaturalism as non-reductionist explanations involving ontologically basic mental entities is something of a strawman argument and makes the term somewhat useless. (ie it is not the definition many theists would even argue)

The more typical definition of supernaturalism usually refers to events that operate outside of the normal laws of physics. This definition is potentially relevant to simulationism, because a simulator would of course be free to occasionally intervene and violate normal physical 'law' if so desired. Of course, this entity itself would still be reducible to simpler physical processes in it's own universe.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 26 January 2011 08:36:02AM 1 point [-]

But what does that even mean? How are the "normal" laws of physics distinguished from the actual laws of physics?

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 09:10:00AM 1 point [-]

The normal laws of physics being those that predict the universe absent interventions from said external universe, which may include some extraneous special case code.

The same physics could describe the whole system of course at some deeper level, so perhaps 'normal' was not quite the right distinction. Limited?

Comment author: Desrtopa 20 January 2011 01:17:59AM 15 points [-]

I don't think the implications of accepting the simulation argument on one's worldview are that similar to believing in a supernatural omniscient creator of the universe and arbiter of morality. Absent a ready label for "one who accepts the simulation argument in a naturalistic framework," it's probably more convenient for such people to simply identify as "atheist." Conflating simulationism with theism is only liable to lead to confusion.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 02:08:36AM 0 points [-]

Voted up and agreed; I often forget that Less Wrong is rightly conscientious about keeping inferential distances imposed by terminological suboptimality to a minimum.

Comment author: Miller 20 January 2011 02:33:50AM 9 points [-]

Conflating simulationism with theism is only liable to lead to confusion.

This observation dissolves your post. If you agree with it then repent properly, o' sinner.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 02:37:05AM 1 point [-]

It doesn't really dissolve what I was actually trying to get at with my post, though; it just means I didn't do a good job at explaining what I was getting at. How do rationalists repent? I have karma to burn...

Comment author: Miller 20 January 2011 02:53:55AM 1 point [-]

How do rationalists repent? I have karma to burn...

I'd say they repent by updating their beliefs, and cleaning up the debris left by their old ones. This is rather similar for rationalists and non-rationalists alike really. Kind of like apologizing for stealing the candy from the drugstore and promising to pay it back..

Comment author: TobyBartels 20 January 2011 01:43:01AM *  3 points [-]

Part of the problem here is that there's no clear meaning of the word ‘god’ (taking for granted that ‘theism’ and ‘atheism’ are defined in terms of it). I usually identify as ‘secular humanist’ rather than ‘atheist’, mostly because it's more precise, but also because I have seen people define ‘god’ in such a way that I believe that one might well exist. These have all been very vague definitions (more along pantheistic than monotheistic lines), but they're not gratuitous (like defining ‘god’ to mean, say, my nose), and by these lights I'm merely a (weak) agnostic.

In particular, if one defines ‘god’ as a person who created the world, then (depending on exactly what ‘person’ and ‘world’ mean) the simulation hypothesis would indeed imply the existence of a god. You seem to be hinting at this, while other respondents deny it. You all may just be talking about different things. (I will sometimes say, if pressed, that I do not believe in a person who created the world, using precisely those words, but then I don't buy the simulation argument.)

Of course, one can argue over what ‘god’ or ‘atheist’ ought to mean, in order to communicate most effectively with other people. For my part, unless I'm speaking with (or about) a theist whose beliefs I more or less understand, I don't usually use them at all.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 20 January 2011 02:39:19PM *  15 points [-]

Didn't we have this conversation already? Words can be wrong. You can't easily divorce an existing word from its connotations, not by creating a new definition, certainly not by expecting the new definition to be inferred by the reader. There is no good reason to misuse words in this way, just state clearly what you intended to say (e.g. as komponisto suggested).

As it is, you are initiating an argument about definitions, activity without substance, controversy for the sake of controversy as opposed to controversy demanded by evidence.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 06:48:29PM 4 points [-]

Didn't we have this conversation already?

That was a different conversation, though the same theme of using words incorrectly also came up, if that's what you mean.

There is no good reason to misuse words in this way, just state clearly what you intended to say (e.g. as komponisto suggested).

There are good reasons to do so among people who share the same language, like me and some SIAI folk. It makes communication faster, and makes it easier to see single step implications. Being precise has large consequences for brains that run largely on single step insights from cached knowledge. I agree that in the case of this post my choice of language was flat out wrong, though.

As it is, you are initiating an argument about definitions,

Arguments about definitions are very important! Choosing a language where it's easier to see implications is important for bounded agents. That said, it wasn't what I was trying to do with this post, and you're right that it would have been a totally lost cause if that's what I was trying to do.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 January 2011 09:11:14PM 1 point [-]

Being precise has large consequences for brains that run largely on single step insights from cached knowledge.

To take advantage of this one might want to compress cached knowledge as much as possible; the resulting single step insights would then have correspondingly greater generality. Using structured personal knowledge databases along with spaced repetition would be one way of accomplishing this.

Comment author: komponisto 20 January 2011 01:24:28AM *  11 points [-]

Many folk here on LW take the simulation argument (in its more general forms) seriously. Many others take Singularitarianism1 seriously. Still others take Tegmark cosmology (and related big universe hypotheses) seriously. But then I see them proceed to self-describe as atheist (instead of omnitheist, theist, deist, having a predictive distribution over states of religious belief, et cetera), and many tend to be overtly dismissive of theism.

The word "but" in the last sentence is a non-sequitur if there ever were one. Tegmark cosmology is not theism. Theism means Jehovah (etc). Yes, there are people who deny this, but those people are just trying to spread confusion in the hope of preventing unpleasant social conflicts. There is no legitimate sense in which Bostromian simulation arguments or Tegmarkian cosmological speculations could be said to be even vaguely memetically related to Jehovah-worship.

The plausibility of simulations or multiverses might be an open question, but the existence of Jehovah isn't. There's a big, giant, huge difference. If we think Tegmark may be correct, then we can just say "I think Tegmark may be correct". There is no need to pay any lip-service to ancient mistakes whose superficial resemblance to Tegmark (etc) is so slight that you would never notice it unless you were motivated to do so, or heard it from someone who was.

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 20 January 2011 09:09:22AM 7 points [-]

The word "but" in the last sentence is a non-sequitur if there ever were one. Tegmark cosmology is not theism. Theism means Jehovah (etc). Yes, there are people who deny this, but those people are just trying to spread confusion in the hope of preventing unpleasant social conflicts. There is no legitimate sense in which Bostromian simulation arguments or Tegmarkian cosmological speculations could be said to be even vaguely memetically related to Jehovah-worship.

Isn't this - I'm sorry if that sounds harsh - arguing by a forceful say-so? Sure, if you constrain theism rhetorically to "Jehovah-worship", that practice doesn't sound very similar to the Bostromian arguments. But "Bostromian arguments/Tegmarkian speculations" and "the claim that a god created the universe" sound pretty much memetically related to me.

There is no need to pay any lip-service to ancient mistakes whose superficial resemblance to Tegmark (etc) is so slight that you would never notice it unless you were motivated to do so, or heard it from someone who was.

You're saying that e.g. "we are living in a simulation run by sentient beings" and "we are living in a universe created by a sentient being" are such wildly different ideas that there's only superficial resemblance between them, and even that resemblance is unlikely to be noticed by anyone just thinking about the issue, and is rather spread as a kind of a perverse meme.

Methinks thou dost protest too much.

The earliest time I can remember that anyone drew a very explicit connection between simulations and theism is in Stanislaw Lem's short story about Professor Corcoran. The book was originally published in 1971, when Bostrom was -2 years old. It's in the second volume of his Star Diaries; see "Further Reminiscences of Ijon Tichy: I" in this (probably pirated) scribd doc. I'd recommend it to anyone. Of course, it's very much possible that Lem wasn't the first to write up the idea.

Comment author: komponisto 20 January 2011 09:55:56AM *  1 point [-]

Isn't this - I'm sorry if that sounds harsh - arguing by a forceful say-so? Sure, if you constrain theism rhetorically to "Jehovah-worship", that practice doesn't sound very similar to the Bostromian arguments. But "Bostromian arguments/Tegmarkian speculations" and "the claim that a god created the universe" sound pretty much memetically related to me.

See Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable for discussion of what religion is and how it arose. By "memetically related" I do not mean "memetically similar" (although I don't think there's much similarity either); I mean "related" in the sense of ancestry/inheritance. Bostrom's and Tegmark's arguments are not a branch of religion; they do not belong in that cluster.

You're saying that e.g. "we are living in a simulation run by sentient beings" and "we are living in a universe created by a sentient being" are such wildly different ideas that there's only superficial resemblance between them,

No. The implication of the post, as I perceived it (have a look at its first paragraph) was "you guys shouldn't be so confident in your dismissal-of-religion ('atheism'); after all, you (perhaps rightly) are willing to entertain the ideas of Tegmark!"

Surely you understand what is wrong with this.

Methinks thou dost protest too much.

You think I don't believe what I'm writing?

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 20 January 2011 11:39:26AM *  6 points [-]

By "memetically related" I do not mean "memetically similar" (although I don't think there's much similarity either); I mean "related" in the sense of ancestry/inheritance. Bostrom's and Tegmark's arguments are not a branch of religion; they do not belong in that cluster.

I think you're wrong on similarity [1] and irrelevant on ancestry/inheritance. Only some among currently active religions are clearly "related" in the sense you employ (e.g. Judaism and Christianity); there's no strong evidence that most or all are so related. Since you presumably have no problem lumping them together under "religion", the claim that BTanism (grouped and named so purely for convenience) has no common ancestry with these religions is irrelevant to whether it should be judged a religion.

Also, I don't read the post as claiming "you guys are so dismissive of religion, but you're big on BTanism which is just as much a religion, so there!". Instead, I read the post as claiming "you guys are unreasonable in your overt dismissal of theism and your forceful insistence on it being a closed question, considering many of you are big on BTanism which has similar epistemological status to some varieties of theism". So it doesn't matter much whether BTanism is a religion or not; if that bothers you too much, just employ Taboo and talk about something like "a sentient being responsible for the creation of the observable universe" instead.

I don't fully agree with this idea (the post's argument as I read it), but I find myself somewhat sympathetic to it. It is indeed true in my opinion that the overt and insistent dismissal of theism on LW is a community-cohesiveness driven phenomenon. There's illuminating prior discussion at The uniquely awful example of theism.

You think I don't believe what I'm writing?

No, I have no doubt that you believe what you're writing. Rather, I think that the strongly dismissive claims in your first comment in the thread, unbacked by any convincing argument or evidence, cause me to think that a strong cognitive bias is at work.

[1] Really, the similarity is so strong that I see no need for a detailed argument; but if one is desired, I think Lem's story, to which I linked earlier, serves admirably as one.

Comment author: jwhendy 06 March 2012 02:29:24AM 2 points [-]

Instead, I read the post as claiming "you guys are unreasonable in your overt dismissal of theism and your forceful insistence on it being a closed question, considering many of you are big on BTanism which has similar epistemological status to some varieties of theism".

That. I think after all the comments I've scanned in this post, this was the first one where I really felt like I understood what the post was even really about. Thank you.

Comment author: komponisto 21 January 2011 01:36:31AM 3 points [-]

I think you're wrong on similarity [1] and irrelevant on ancestry/inheritance. Only some among currently active religions are clearly "related" in the sense you employ (e.g. Judaism and Christianity); there's no strong evidence that most or all are so related. Since you presumably have no problem lumping them together under "religion", the claim that BTanism (grouped and named so purely for convenience) has no common ancestry with these religions is irrelevant to whether it should be judged a religion.

This does not follow. It is not necessary for my argument that different religions all be related to each other; it is only necessary that BTanism not be related to any of them, and (this part I asserted implicitly by linking to Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable) that it not have been generated by a similar process.

Also, I don't read the post as claiming "you guys are so dismissive of religion, but you're big on BTanism which is just as much a religion, so there!". Instead, I read the post as claiming "you guys are unreasonable in your overt dismissal of theism and your forceful insistence on it being a closed question, considering many of you are big on BTanism which has similar epistemological status to some varieties of theism"

Varieties of "theism" which have similar epistemological status to BTanism are not subject on LW to the same kind of dismissal as religion, to the best of my knowledge. Nor should they be. But for the sake of avoiding confusion and undesirable connotations, they certainly shouldn't be called "theism".

It is indeed true in my opinion that the overt and insistent dismissal of theism on LW is a community-cohesiveness driven phenomenon.

If what you mean here is "merely community-cohesiveness driven phenomenon", then I disagree entirely. You might have been right if this were RichardDawkins.net or another specifically atheism-themed community, but it isn't. This is Less Wrong. Our starting point here is epistemology. Rejection of religion ("theism") is a consequence of that; the rejection may be strong but it is still incidental.

For my part, I see "open-mindedness" toward theism mostly as manifesting an inability to come to gut-level terms with the fact that large segments of the human population can be completely, totally wrong. The next biggest source after that is Will's problem, which is the pleasure that smart people derive from being contrarian and playing verbal and conceptual games. (If you like that, for goodness' sake be an artist! But keep your map-territory considerations pure.)

I have no doubt that you believe what you're writing. Rather, I think that the strongly dismissive claims in your first comment in the thread, unbacked by any convincing argument or evidence, cause me to think that a strong cognitive bias is at work.

Which?

Again, this is Less Wrong, not a random internet forum. It is not possible to recapitulate the Sequences in every comment; that doesn't mean that strong opinions whose justifications lie therein are inadequately supported.

Comment author: prase 20 January 2011 01:30:44PM 3 points [-]

Since you presumably have no problem lumping them together under "religion", the claim that BTanism (grouped and named so purely for convenience) has no common ancestry with these religions is irrelevant to whether it should be judged a religion.

The lumping together of religions under the category of "religion" isn't based on common ancestry, and neither it is based solely on "universe was created by god(s)". Religions have much more in common, e.g. reliance on tradition, sacred texts, sacred places, worship, prayer, belief in afterlife, claims about morality, self-declared unfalsifiability, anthropomorphism, anthropocentrism. Saying that simulation arguments belong to the same class as Judaism, Hinduism or Buddhism because they all claim that the world was created by intelligent agents is like putting atheism to the same category because it is also a belief about gods.

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 20 January 2011 02:04:20PM *  6 points [-]

You're making good points, with which I largely agree, with some reservations (see below). I'd just point out that this wasn't the argument Komponisto was making - he was talking only about relatedness in the ancestry sense.

Your list of attributes is probably good enough to distinguish e.g. a simulation argument from "religions" and justify not calling it one. There are two difficulties, however. One is that adherence to these attributes isn't nearly as uniform among religions as it's often rhetorically assumed on LW to be. There's a tendency to: start talking about theism; assume in your argument that you're dealing with something like an omnipresent, omniscient monotheistic God of Judaism/Christianity whose believers are all Bible literalists; draw the desired conclusion and henceforth consider it applying to "theism" or "religion" in general. I find this fallacious tendency to be frequent in discussions of theism on LW. This comment from the earlier discussion is relevant, as are some other comments there. In this post, Eliezer comments that believing in simulation/the Matrix means you're believing in powerful aliens, not deities. Well, consider ancient Greek gods; they are not omniscient, not omnipresent, they can die... they're not more powerful than the simulation runners, and arguably not very ontologically different; are they not deities, but aliens? Was that not religion? [1]

It's kind of understandable that one thinks of the concept of God and Jehovah pops into view. But if you stick with Jehovah - and not even any Jehovah, but a particular, highly literally interpreted kind - it's no good pretending afterwards that you've dealt a blow to religion or to theism.

So proper account of what religions are actually out there makes your list of attribute much less universal, and the dividing line between religions and something like BTanism much less sharp. But, to be clear, I still think this line can be usefully drawn.

The second difficulty is something I've already written to Komponisto above: OK, it's not a religion, so what? The really important thing is whether it's like a religion in those things that ought to make a rationalist not glibly and gleefully dismiss one if they're psyched about another. And among those things worship and sacred texts are arguably less important than e.g. falsifiability. Have you seen a good way to falsify a simulation claim recently?

[1] I just remembered that Dan Simmons develops this theme in Ilium/Olympos. The second book is much worse than the first one.

Comment author: CronoDAS 24 January 2011 04:27:44AM 3 points [-]

The Greek gods were, in fact, immortal. Other gods could wound or imprison them, but they couldn't be killed. The Norse gods, on the other hand, could indeed die, and were fated to be destroyed in the Ragnarok.

Comment author: Anatoly_Vorobey 24 January 2011 09:27:19AM 1 point [-]

Thanks! I'm not sure how come I was confused about this, but it's great to be corrected.

Comment author: prase 20 January 2011 02:42:23PM *  3 points [-]

I'd just point out that this wasn't the argument Komponisto was making - he was talking only about relatedness in the ancestry sense.

I know, nevertheless still I wanted to stress that we don't define religion by a single criterion.

Well, consider ancient Greek gods; they are not omniscient, not omnipresent, they can die... they're not more powerful than the simulation runners, and arguably not very ontologically different; are they not deities, but aliens? Was that not religion?

Therefore I haven't listed omni-qualities, immortality and ontological distinctiveness among my criteria for religion. If you look at those criteria, the Greek religion satisfied almost all, save perhaps sacred texts and claims of unfalsifiability (seems that they have not enough time to develop the former and no reason for the latter). Religion usually surpasses the question of existence and identity of gods.

(Now we can make distinction between religion and theism, with the latter being defined solely in terms of god's existence and qualities. I am not sure yet what to think about that possibility.)

So proper account of what religions are actually out there makes your list of attribute much less universal, and the dividing line between religions and something like BTanism much less sharp.

The line is not sharp, of course. Many people argue that Marxism is a religion, even if it explicitly denies god, and may have based that opinion on good arguments. It is also not enough clear what to think about Scientology. Religion, or simply cult? I don't think the classification is important at all.

OK, it's not a religion, so what? The really important thing is whether it's like a religion in those things that ought to make a rationalist not glibly and gleefully dismiss one if they're psyched about another. ... Have you seen a good way to falsify a simulation claim recently?

No, I haven't. Actually my approach to simulation arguments is not much different from my approach to modern vague forms of theism: I notice it, but don't take it seriously.

And among those things worship and sacred texts are arguably less important than e.g. falsifiability.

It depends. Belief in importance, hidden message, or even literal truth of ancient texts is generally more reliable indicator of practical irrationality than having an opinion about some undecidable propositions is.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 06:01:58AM 1 point [-]

The implication of the post, as I perceived it (have a look at its first paragraph) was "you guys shouldn't be so confident in your dismissal-of-religion ('atheism'); after all, you (perhaps rightly) are willing to entertain the ideas of Tegmark!

The OP does not make mention of the term 'religion'. Part of the confusion seems to stem from the conflation of theism and religion.

Theism is a philosophical belief about the nature of reality. The truthfulness of this belief as a map of reality is not somehow dependent or connected in belief space to magic rituals, prayers, voodo dolls or the memes of organized religion, even if they historically co-occur.

Comment author: komponisto 26 January 2011 06:50:25AM 1 point [-]

Part of the confusion seems to stem from the conflation of theism and religion.

I beg to differ. In my view, the conflation is of theism with simulationism.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 01:59:29AM 1 point [-]

I didn't mean to talk about Jehovah specifically; I thought that using 'theism' would imply enough generality that I could get away without clarification, but I was obviously very mistaken. I added a sentence to the end of the post.

Your second paragraph seems to correctly point out a problem with my terminology. Nonetheless perhaps we could also have discussion on what I was (admittedly poorly) trying to start a discussion about, that is, the apparent contradiction between believing strong optimization processes outside the observable universe are possible and believing that such an optimization process didn't create the observable universe?

Comment author: komponisto 20 January 2011 02:17:04AM 2 points [-]

I didn't mean to talk about Jehovah specifically

Nor, for that matter, did I: Zeus, Thor, and their innumerable counterparts should be considered included in the reference.

Nonetheless perhaps we could also have discussion on what I was (admittedly poorly) trying to start a discussion about, that is, the apparent contradiction between believing strong optimization processes outside the observable universe are possible and believing that such an optimization process didn't create the observable universe?

The way to have done that, in my opinion, would have been to title the post "Simulation/creator arguments" or something similar, and to avoid any mention of theism, atheism, or religion in the body of the post.

Comment author: wedrifid 20 January 2011 02:10:40AM *  1 point [-]

I didn't mean to talk about Jehovah specifically; I thought that using 'theism' would imply enough generality that I could get away without clarification, but I was obviously very mistaken. I added a sentence to the end of the post.

It was brave to even consider using a concept within a few inferential leaps from Jehovah here. :)

Comment author: BecomingMyself 20 January 2011 01:39:28AM *  1 point [-]

Tegmark cosmology is not theism. Theism means Jehovah (etc).

The way I read it, it seems like Will_Newsome is not using the word in this way. It may be a case of two concepts being mistakenly filed into the same basket -- certainly some people might, when they hear "Theism-in-general is a mistaken and sometimes harmful way of thinking about the world", understand "theism-in-general" to mean "any mode of thought that acknowledges the possibility of some intelligent mind that is outside and in control of our universe". Under this interpretation, the assertion is quite obviously false (or at least, not obviously true).

I wonder if there is still a disagreement if we Taboo "theism"? (Though your point in the last paragraph is a good one, I think.)

Comment author: komponisto 20 January 2011 01:46:29AM *  4 points [-]

Tegmark cosmology is not theism. Theism means Jehovah (etc).

The way I read it, it seems like Will_Newsome is not using the word in this way

Indeed not; hence my criticism!

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 12:51:26AM 0 points [-]

For some reason you seem to be categorizing the belief-space such that there is a little pocket called Jehovah-ism over here and then simulationism is another distinct island far far away.

The way I see it, theism is a whole vast space of belief-space, roughly dividing from the split based on the question: was the observable universe created by an agenty-process?

The SA leads us into that side of the belief-space, but the type of Jehova-ism you mention is just a little slice of a large territory.

Comment author: Desrtopa 26 January 2011 01:31:54AM 1 point [-]

The two may branch in the same direction from that question, but that doesn't mean that their consequences are remotely similar. You seem to be substituting in cached thoughts from religion as the consequences of simulationism when they really don't follow from it.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 05:05:40AM 0 points [-]

Such as?

Comment author: Desrtopa 26 January 2011 05:46:41AM 0 points [-]

Such as the morality of the simulators having any relation to our own. It would be much easier to simulate a universe from big bang conditions starting with a few basic rules and allow it to evolve from on its own than to deliberately engineer any sort of life forms within it, and the basic rules of our universe do not dictate that any intelligent life form needs a utility function that closely resembles our own.

Assuming it would even be practical for the simulators to single us out for observation, as such a miniscule part of the simulation, and they judge us according to their own utility function, it's a big leap to suppose that they would do anything about it with repercussions inside our own universe, so for our purposes it probably wouldn't matter.

Additionally, it's not established that the simulators would have practical control over the simulation. Given JoshuaZ's arguments, I concede that it's theoretically possible that the simulators could predict the output of the simulation in advance without running it, but that doesn't mean it's probable, let alone given.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 06:24:17AM 0 points [-]

I suspect that a full universe simulation of all of space-time, fifteen billion years of an entire universe, may have a cost complexity such that it could never be realized in any currently conceivable computer due to speed of light limitations. Even a galaxy sized black hole may not be sufficient. You are talking about a Tipler-like scenario that would probably require some massive re-engineering of the entire universe. I can't rule this out, but from what I've read of astrophysicist's reactions, it is questionable whether it is possible even in principle to collapse the universe in the fashion required. (Tipler figures it requires tachyons in his later response writings)

So no, that would not be much easier to simulate - it would be vastly more difficult, and may not even be possible in principle.

The more likely simulation is one run by our posthuman ancestors after a local Singularity on earth, where they have a massive amount of computation, enough to simulate perhaps a galaxy or galaxies full of virtual humans, but not the entire history of our universe. We must remember that they will want to simulate many possible samples as well. They will also probably simulate hypothetical aliens and hypothetical contact scenarios. Basically they will simulate future important sample time-slices.

Today humanity as a whole spends a large amount of time thinking about the present, slightly alternate versions of the present, historical time heavily weighted based on importance, and projected futures. We already are engaging in the limited creation of simulated realities. The phenomenon has already begun, it started with dreams, language, thought and is more recently amplified with computer simulation and graphics, and just chart that trajectory out into the future and amplify it by an exponential vastening . . . .

Comment author: Desrtopa 26 January 2011 06:34:14AM 0 points [-]

This is not the ordinary simulation argument, or even closely related to it. The proposition that you reject, that our universe is simulable in its entirety, is one of the premises of that argument.

I for one strongly predict that our future ancestors will never create a galaxy or multiple galaxies of virtual humans from their own past. It's ethically dubious, and far, far from being one of the most useful things they could do with that computing power if they simply want to determine the likely outcome of various contact scenarios or the what hypothetical aliens would be like. By the time we're capable of it, it simply wouldn't have much to recommend it as an idea.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 January 2011 09:49:39AM 20 points [-]

"Gods are ontologically distinct from creatures, or they're not worth the paper they're written on." -- Damien Broderick

If you believe in a Matrix or in the Simulation Hypothesis, you believe in powerful aliens, not deities. Next!

There's also no hint of worship which everyone else on the planet thinks is a key part of the definition of a religion; if you believe that Cthulhu exists but not Jehovah, and you hate and fear Cthulhu and don't engage in any Elder Rituals, you may be superstitious but you're not yet religious.

This is mere distortion of both the common informal use and advanced formal definitions of the word "atheism", which is not only unhelpful but such a common religious tactic that you should not be surprised to be downvoted.

Also http://www.smbc-comics.com/index.php?db=comics&id=1817

Comment author: steven0461 20 January 2011 07:37:23PM 8 points [-]

"Powerful aliens" has connotations that may be even more inaccurate; it makes me think of Klingon warlords or something.

Comment author: Jack 20 January 2011 07:22:50PM 24 points [-]

A Simulator would be ontologically distinct from creatures like us-- for any definition of ontologically distinct I can imagine wanting use. The Simulation Hypothesis is a metaphysical hypothesis in the most literal sense- it's a hypothesis about what our physical universe really is, beyond the wave function.

Yeah, Will's theism in this post isn't the theism of believers, priests or academic theologians. And with certain audiences confusion would likely result and so this language should be avoided with those audiences. But I think we're somewhat more sophisticated than that- and if there are reasons to use theistic vocabulary then I don't see why we shouldn't. I'm assuming Will has these reasons, of course.

Keep in mind, the divine hasn't always been supernatural. Greek gods were part of natural explanations of phenomena, Aristotle's god was just there to provide a causal stopping place, Hobbes's god was physical, etc. We don't have to cow-tow to the usage of present religious authorities. God has always been a flexible word, there is no particular reason to take modern science to be falsifying God instead of telling us what a god, if one exists, must be like.

I feel like we lose out on interesting discussions here where someone says something that pattern matches to something an evangelical apologist might say. It's like we're all of a sudden worried about losing a debate with a Christian instead of entertaining and discussing interesting ideas. We're among friends here, we don't need to worry about how we frame a discussion so much.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 27 January 2011 01:55:10AM *  0 points [-]

I wish this viewpoint were more common, but judging from the OP's score, it is still in minority.

I just picked up Sam Harris's latest book - the Moral Landscape, which is all about the idea that it is high time science invaded religion's turf and claimed objective morality as a scientific inquiry.

Perhaps the time is also come when science reclaims theism and the related set of questions and cosmologies. The future (or perhaps even the present) is rather clearly a place where there are super-powerful beings that create beings like us and generally have total control over their created realities. It's time we discussed this rationally.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 27 January 2011 02:50:34AM 1 point [-]

Sam Harris is misguided at best in the major conclusions he draws about objective morality. See this blog post by Sean Carroll, which links to his previous posts on the subject.

My views on "reclaiming" theism are summed up by ata's previous comment:

I recall a while ago that there was a brief thread where someone was arguing that phlogiston theory was actually correct, as long as you interpret it as identical to the modern scientific model of fire. I react to things like this similarly: theism/God were silly mistakes, let's move on and not get attached to old terminology. Rehabilitating the idea of "theism" to make it refer to things like the Simulation Hypothesis seems pointless; how does lumping those concepts together with Yahweh (as far as common usage is concerned) help us think about the more plausible ones?

Comment author: Furcas 27 January 2011 03:08:26AM 1 point [-]

Sam Harris is misguided at best in the major conclusions he draws about objective morality. See this blog post by Sean Carroll, which links to his previous posts on the subject.

Have you read Less Wrong's metaethics sequence? It and The Moral Landscape reach pretty much the same conclusions, except about the true nature of terminal values, which is a major conclusion, but only one among many.

Sean Carroll, on the other hand, gets absolutely everything wrong.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 27 January 2011 04:48:53AM 3 points [-]

Given that the full title of the book is "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values," I think that conclusion is the major one, and certainly the controversial one. "Science can help us judge things that involve facts" and similar ideas aren't really news to anyone who understands science. Values aren't a certain kind of fact.

I don't see where Sean's conclusions are functionally different from those in the metaethics sequence. They're presented in a much less philosophically rigorous form, because Sean is a physicist, not a philosopher (and so am I). For example, this statement of Sean's:

But there’s no reason why we can’t be judgmental and firm in our personal convictions, even if we are honest that those convictions don’t have the same status as objective laws of nature.

and this one of Eliezer's:

Yes, I really truly do believe that humanity is better than the Pebblesorters! I am not being sarcastic, I really do believe that.

seem to express the same sentiment, to me.

If you really object to Sean's writing, take a look at Russell Blackford's review of the book. (He is a philosopher, and a transhumanist one at that.)

Comment author: Furcas 27 January 2011 05:12:59AM *  1 point [-]

Given that the full title of the book is "The Moral Landscape: How Science Can Determine Human Values," I think that conclusion is the major one, and certainly the controversial one. "Science can help us judge things that involve facts" and similar ideas aren't really news to anyone who understands science. Values aren't a certain kind of fact.

To be accurate Harris should have inserted the word "Instrumental" before "Values" in his book's title, and left out the paragraphs where he argues that the well-being of conscious minds is the basis of morality for reasons other than that the well-being of conscious minds is the basis of morality. There would still be at least two thirds of the book left, and there would still be a huge amount of people who would find it controversial, and I'm not just talking about religious fundamentalists.

I don't see where Sean's conclusions are functionally different from those in the metaethics sequence. They're presented in a much less philosophically rigorous form, because Sean is a physicist, not a philosopher (and so am I). For example, this statement of Sean's:

[...]

and this one of Eliezer's:

[...]

seem to express the same sentiment, to me.

The difference is huge. Eliezer and I do believe that our 'convictions' have the same status as objective laws of nature (although we assign lower probability to some of them, obviously).

Comment author: byrnema 27 January 2011 04:11:02AM 0 points [-]

except about the true nature of terminal values, which is a major conclusion

In quick approximation, what was this conclusion?

Comment author: Furcas 27 January 2011 04:55:55AM *  2 points [-]

That terminal values are like axioms, not like theorems. That is, they're the things without which you cannot actually ask the question, "Is this true?"

You can say or write the words "Is", "this", and "true" without having axioms related to that question somewhere in your mind, of course, but you can't mean anything coherent by the sentence. Someone who asks, "Why terminal value A rather than terminal value B?" and expects (or gives) an answer other than "Because of terminal value A, obviously!"* is confused.

*That's assuming that A really is a terminal value of the person's moral system. It could be an instrumental value; people have been known to hold false beliefs about their own minds.

Comment author: Perplexed 20 January 2011 04:31:06PM 14 points [-]

You seem to be dictating that theist beliefs and simulationist beliefs should not be collected together into the same reference class. (The reason for this dictat seems to be that you disrespect the one and are intrigued by the other - but never mind that.)

However, this does not seem to address the point which I think the OP was making. Which seems to be that arguments for (against) theism and arguments for (against) simulationism should be collected together in the same reference class. That if we do so, we discover that many of the counter-arguments that we advance against theist apologetics are (objectively speaking) equally effective against simulationist speculation. Yet (subjectively speaking) we don't feel they have the same force.

Contempt for those with whom you disagree is one of the most dangerous traps facing an aspiring rationalist. I think that it would be a very good idea if the OP were to produce that posting on charity-in-interpretation which he mentioned.

Next!

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 20 January 2011 07:00:26PM 7 points [-]

we discover that many of the counter-arguments that we advance against theist apologetics are (objectively speaking) equally effective against simulationist speculation

I've argued rather extensively against religion on this website. Name a single one of those arguments which is equally effective against simulationism.

Comment author: Perplexed 22 January 2011 12:53:02AM *  8 points [-]

I've argued rather extensively against religion on this website.

That was my impression as well, but when I went looking for those arguments, they were very difficult to find. Perhaps my Google-fu is weak. Help from LW readers is welcome.

I found plenty of places where you spoke disrespectfully about religion, and quite a few places where you cast theists as the villains in your negative examples of rationality (a few arguably straw-men, but mostly fair). But I was surprised that I found very few places where you were actually arguing against religion.

Name a single one of those arguments which is equally effective against simulationism.

Well, the only really clear-cut example of a posting-length argument against religion is based on the "argument from evil". As such, it is clearly not equally effective against simulationism.

You did make a posting attempting to define the term "supernatural" in a way that struck me as a kind of special pleading tailored to exclude simulationism from the criticism that theism receives as a result of that definition.

This posting rejects the supernatural by defining it as 'a belief in an explanatory entity which is fundamentally, ontologically mental'. And why is that definition so damning to the supernaturalist program? Well, as I understand it, it is because, by this definition, to believe in the supernatural is anti-reductionist, and a failure of reductionism is simply inconceivable.

I wonder why there is not such a visceral negative reaction to explanatory entities which are fundamentally, ontologically computational? Certainly it is not because we know of at least one reduction of computation. We also know of (or expect to someday know of) at least one reduction of mind.

But even though we can reduce computation, that doesn't mean we have to reduce it. Respectable people have proposed to explain this universe as fundamentally a computational entity. Tegmark does something similar, speculating that the entire multiverse is essentially a Platonic mathematical structure. So, what justification exists to deprecate a cosmology based on a fundamental mental entity?

...

I only found one small item clearly supporting my claim. Eliezer, in a comment, makes this argument against creationists who invoke the Omphalos hypothesis

Never mind usefulness, it seems to me that "Evolution by natural selection occurs" and "God made the world and everything in it, but did so in such a way as to make it look exactly as if evolution by natural selection occured" are not the same hypothesis, that one of them is true and one of them is false, that it is simplicity that leads us to say which is which, and that we do, indeed, prefer the simpler of two theories that make the same predictions, rather than calling them the same theory.

I agree. But take a look at this famous paper by Bostrom. It cleverly sidesteps the objection that simulating an entire universe might be impossibly difficult by instead postulating a simulation of just enough physical detail so as to make it look exactly as if there were a real universe out there. "Are you living in a computer simulation?" "Are we living in a world which only looks like it evolved?" Eliezer chose to post a comment answering the latter question with a no. He has not, so far as I know, done the same with Bostrom's simulationist speculation.

Comment author: byrnema 22 January 2011 03:49:23AM *  8 points [-]

Help from LW readers is welcome.

I'll chime in that Eliezer provided me with the single, most personally powerful argument that I have against religion. (I'm not as convinced by razor and low-prior arguments, perhaps because I don't understand them.)

The argument not only pummels religion it identifies it: religion is the pattern matching that results when you feel around for the best (most satisfying) answer. To paraphrase Eliezer's argument (if someone knows the post, I'll link to it, there's at least this); while you're in the process of inventing things, there's nothing preventing you from making your theory as grand as you want. Once you have your maybe-they're-believing-this-because-that-would-be-a-cool-thing-to-believe lenses on, it all seems very transparent. Especially the vigorous head-nodding in the congregation.

I don't have so much against pattern matching. I think it has it's uses, and religion provides many of them (to feel connected and integrated and purposeful, etc). But it's an absurd means of epistemology. I think it's amazing that religions go from 'whoever made us must love us and want us to love the world' --which is a very natural pattern for humans to match -- to this great detailed web of fabrication. In my opinion, the religions hang themselves with the details. We might speculate about what our creator would be like, but religions make up way too much stuff in way too much detail and then make it dogma. (I already knew the details were wrong, but I learned to recognize the made-up details as the symptom of lacking epistemology to begin with.)

Now that I recognize this pattern (the pattern of finding patterns that feel right, but which have no reason to be true) I see it other places too. It seems pattern matching will occur wherever there is a vacuum of the scientific method. Whenever we don't know, we guess. I think it takes a lot of discipline to not feel compelled by guesses that resonate with your brain. (It seems it would help if your brain was wired a little differently so that the pattern didn't resonate as well -- but this is just a theory that sounds good.)

Comment author: Perplexed 22 January 2011 04:22:11AM 4 points [-]

I also would like to see a link to that post, if anyone recognizes it.

I'll agree that to (atheist) me, it certainly seems that one big support for religious belief is the natural human tendency toward wishful thinking. However, it doesn't do much good to provide convincing arguments against religion as atheists picture it. You need convincing arguments against religion as its practitioners see it.

Once you have your maybe-they're-believing-this-because-that-would-be-a-cool-thing-to-believe lenses on, it all seems very transparent.

Yeah, I know what you mean. Pity I can't turn that around and use it against simulationism. :)

Comment author: byrnema 22 January 2011 03:48:29PM *  1 point [-]

I found it: this is the post I meant. But it wasn't written by Eliezer, sorry. (The comment I linked to in the grandparent that was resonates with this idea for me, and I might have seen more resonance in older posts.)

You need convincing arguments against religion as its practitioners see it.

I'm confused. I just want to understand religion, and the world in general, better. Are you interested in deconversion?

Pity I can't turn that around and use it against simulationism. :)

Ha ha. Simulationism is of course a way cool idea. I think the compelling meme behind it though is that we're being tricked or fooled by something playful. When you deviate from this pattern, the idea is less culturally compelling.

In particular, the word 'simulation' doesn't convey much. If you just mean something that evolves according to rules, then our universe is apparently a simulation already anyway.

Comment author: Perplexed 22 January 2011 04:53:40PM 1 point [-]

I found it: this is the post I meant.

Thx. That is a good posting. As was the posting to which it responded

You need convincing arguments against religion as its practitioners see it.

I'm confused. I just want to understand religion, and the world in general, better. Are you interested in deconversion?

Whoops! Bad assumption on my part. Sorry. No, I am not particularly interested in turning theists into atheists either, though I am interested in rational persuasion techniques more generally.

Comment author: timtyler 22 January 2011 09:09:51AM *  3 points [-]

Dennett tells a similar "agentification" story:

"I think we can discern religion’s origins in superstition, which grew out of an overactive adoption of the intentional stance,” he says. “This is a mammalian feature that we share with, say, dogs. If your dog hears the thud of snow falling off the roof and jumps up and barks, the dog is in effect asking, ‘Who’s there?’ not, ‘What’s that?’ The dog is assuming there’s an agent causing the thud. It might be a dangerous agent. The assumption is that when something surprising, unexpected, puzzling happens, treat it as an agent until you learn otherwise. That’s the intentional stance. It’s instinctive.” The intentional stance is appropriate for self-protection, Dennett explains, and “it’s on a hair trigger. You can’t afford to wait around. You want to have a lot of false positive, a lot of false alarms [...]” He continues: “Now, the dog just goes back to sleep after a minute. But we, because we have language, we mull it over in our heads and pretty soon we’ve conjured up a hallucinated agent, say, a little forest god or a talking tree or an elf or something ghostly that made that noise. Generally, those are just harmless little quirks that we soon forget. But every now and then, one comes along that has a little bit more staying power. It’s sort of unforgettable. And so it grows. And we share it with a neighbor. And the neighbor says, ‘What do you mean, a talking tree? There’s no talking trees.’ And you say, ‘I could have sworn that tree was talking.’ Pretty soon, the whole village is talking about the talking tree.

Comment author: Eliezer_Yudkowsky 22 January 2011 10:37:17AM 6 points [-]

In lieu of an extended digression about how to adjust Solomonoff induction for making anthropic predictions, I'll simply note that having God create the world 5,000 years ago but fake the details of evolution is more burdensome than having a simulator approximate all of physics to an indistinguishable level of detail. Why? Because "God" is more burdensome than "simulator", God is antireductionist and "simulator" is not, and faking the details of evolution in particular in order to save a hypothesis invented by illiterate shepherds is a more complex specification in the theory than "the laws of physics in general are being approximated".

To me it seems nakedly obvious that "God faked the details of evolution" is a far more outre and improbable theory than "our universe is a simulation and the simulation is approximate". I should've been able to leave filling in the details as an exercise to the reader.

Comment author: Kevin 22 January 2011 10:49:10AM 18 points [-]

Extended digression about how to adjust Solomonoff induction for making anthropic predictions plz

Comment author: Perplexed 22 January 2011 05:30:39PM 5 points [-]

To me it seems nakedly obvious that "God faked the details of evolution" is a far more outre and improbable theory than "our universe is a simulation and the simulation is approximate". I should've been able to leave filling in the details as an exercise to the reader.

Trusting ones 'gut' impressions of the "nakedly obvious" like that and 'leaving the details as an exercise' is a perfectly reasonable thing to do when you have a well-tuned engine of rationality in your possession and you just need to get some intellectual work done.

But my impression of the thrust of the OP was that he was suggesting a bit of time-consuming calibration work so as to improve the tuning of our engines. Looking at our heuristics and biases with a bit of skepticism. Isn't that what this community is all about?

But enough of this navel gazing! I also would like to see that digression on Solomonoff induction in an anthropic situation.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 29 January 2011 01:01:26AM 5 points [-]

This just means you have a very narrow (Abrahamic) conception of God that not even most Christians have. (At least, most Christians I talk to have super-fuzzy-abstract ideas about Him, and most Jews think of God as ineffable and not personal these days AFAIK.) Otherwise your distinction makes little sense. (This may very well be an argument against ever using the word 'God' without additional modifiers (liberal Christian, fundamentalist Christian, Orthodox Jewish, deistic, alien, et cetera), but it's not an argument that what people sometimes mean by 'God' is a wrong idea. Saying 'simulator' is just appealing to an audience interested in a different literary genre. Turing equivalence, man!)

Of note is that the less memetically viral religions tend to be saner (because missionary religions mostly appealed to the lowest common denominator of epistemic satisfiability). Buddhism as Buddha taught it is just flat out correct about nearly everything (even if you disagree with his perhaps-not-Good but also not-Superhappy goal of eliminating imperfection/suffering/off-kilteredness). Many Hindu and Jain philosophers were good rationalists (in the sense that Epicurus was a good rationalist), for instance. To a first and third and fifth approximation, every smart person was right about everything they were trying to be right about. Alas, humans are not automatically predisposed to want to be right about the super far mode considerations modern rationalists think to be important.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 29 January 2011 01:21:31AM -1 points [-]

For many people the word "God" appears to just describe one's highest conception of good, the north pole of morality. Such as: "God is Love" in Christianity.

From that perspective, I guess God is Rationality for many people here.

Comment author: Furcas 29 January 2011 01:29:37AM 6 points [-]

For many people the word "God" appears to just describe one's highest conception of good, the north pole of morality.

People might say that, but they don't actually believe it. They're just trying to obfuscate the fact that they believe something insane.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 29 January 2011 01:28:35AM *  -1 points [-]

This conception lets you do a lot of fun associations. Since morality seems pretty tied up with good epistemology (preferences and beliefs are both types of knowledge, after all), and since knowledge is power (see Eliezer's posts on engines of cognition), then you would expect this conception of God to not only be the most moral (omnibenevolent) but the most knowledgeable (omniscient) and powerful (omnipotent). Because God embodies correctness He is thus convergent for minds approximating Bayesianism (like math) and has a universally very short description length (omnipresent), and is accessible from many different computations (arguably personal).

Delicious delicious metacontrarianism...

Comment author: NihilCredo 16 February 2011 07:23:20AM 1 point [-]

It's like Scholastic mad-libs!

Comment author: wnoise 29 January 2011 02:16:08AM 1 point [-]

Preferences are entangled with beliefs, certainly, but I don't see why I would consder them to be knowledge.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 29 January 2011 03:00:16AM 1 point [-]

What is your operational definition of knowledge?

Comment author: cousin_it 22 January 2011 01:56:47PM *  1 point [-]

Seconding Kevin's request. Seeing a sentence like that with no followup is very frustrating.

Comment author: CronoDAS 24 January 2011 03:58:27AM 2 points [-]

I found plenty of places where you spoke disrespectfully about religion, and quite a few places where you cast theists as the villains in your negative examples of rationality (a few arguably straw-men, but mostly fair). But I was surprised that I found very few places where you were actually arguing against religion.

The post you are looking for is Religion's Claim to be Non-Disprovable

Comment author: Perplexed 24 January 2011 09:03:08PM *  4 points [-]

Thx. But I don't read that as arguing against religion. Instead it seems to be an argument against one feature of modern religion - its claim to unfalsifiability (since it deals with a Non-Overlapping MAgisterium, 'NOMA' using the common acronym). Eliezer thinks this is pretty wimpy. He seems to have more respect for old-time religion, like those priests of Baal who stuck their necks out, so to speak, and submitted their claims to empirical testing.

Can this attitude of critical rationalism be redeployed against simulationist claims? Or at least against the claims of those modern simulationists who keep their simulations unfalsifiable and don't permit interaction between levels of reality? Against people like Bostrom who stipulate that the simulations that they multiply (without necessity) should all be indistinguishable from the real thing - at least to any simulated observer? I will leave that question to the reader. But I don't think that it qualifies as a posting in which Eliezer argues against religion in toto. He is only arguing against one feature of modern apologetics.

Comment author: CronoDAS 25 January 2011 09:22:31PM *  5 points [-]

The other part of the argument in that post is that existing religions are not only falsifiable, but have already been falsified by empirical evidence.

Comment author: timtyler 22 January 2011 10:56:38AM 2 points [-]

It cleverly sidesteps the objection that simulating an entire universe might be impossibly difficult by instead postulating a simulation of just enough physical detail so as to make it look exactly as if there were a real universe out there.

A "Truman Show"-style simulation. Less burdensome on the details - but their main application seems likely to be entertainment. How entertaining are you?

Comment author: Perplexed 21 January 2011 12:07:30AM 5 points [-]

I'll have to review your arguments to provide a really well informed response. Please allow me roughly 24 hours. But in the meantime, I know I have seen arguments invoking Occam's razor and "locating the hypothesis" here. I was under the impression that some of those were yours. As I understand those arguments, they apply equally well to theism and simulationism. That is, they don't completely rule out those hypotheses, but they do suggest that they deserve vanishingly low priors.

Comment author: timtyler 21 January 2011 06:59:50PM 1 point [-]

Occam's razor weighs heavily against theism and simulism - for very similar reasons.

Probably a bit more heavily against theism, though. That has a bunch of additional razor-violating nonsense associated with it. It does not seem too unreasonable to claim that the razor weighs more heavily against theism.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 23 January 2011 10:51:18PM 2 points [-]

we discover that many of the counter-arguments that we advance against theist apologetics are (objectively speaking) equally effective against simulationist speculation.

From what I've seen, the primary argument for simulationism is anthropic: if simulating a whole universe is possible, then some entity would do it a lot, so there are probably a lot more simulations out there than "basement realities", so we're probably in a simulation. What effect MWI has on this, and what other arguments are out there, I don't know.

Typical atheist arguments focus on it not being necessary for god to exist to explain what we see, and this coupled with a low prior makes theism unjustified--basically the "argument from no good evidence in favor". This is fine, because the burden of proof is on the theists. But if you find the anthropic argument for the simulation hypothesis good, then that's one more good argument than theism has.

Comment author: Perplexed 23 January 2011 11:05:42PM 0 points [-]

If creating a whole universe is possible, then some entity would do it a lot, so there are probably a lot more creations out there than "basement realities", so we're probably in a creation.

This is fine, because the burden of proof is on the theists. But if you find the anthropic argument for the simulation hypothesis good, then that's one more good argument than theism has.

Luckily for the preservation of my atheism, I don't find the 'anthropic argument' for the simulation good. And I put the scare quotes there, because I don't think this is what is usually known as an anthropic argument.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 08:16:13PM 5 points [-]

This is mere distortion of both the common informal use and advanced formal definitions of the word "atheism", which is not only unhelpful but such a common religious tactic that you should not be surprised to be downvoted.

What I think of as the informal definition of atheism is something like "the state of not believing in God or gods". I believe in gods and God, and I take this into account in my human approximation of a decision theory. I'm not yet sure what their intentions are, and I'm not inclined to worship them yet, but by my standards I'm definitely not an atheist. What is your definition of atheism such that it is meaningfully different from 'not religious'? Why are we throwing a good word like 'theism' into the heap of wrong ideas? It's like throwing out 'singularity' because most people pattern match it to Kurzweil, despite the smartest people having perfectly legitimate beliefs about it.

It doesn't really matter, I just think that it's sad that so many rationalists consider themselves atheists when by reasonable definition it seems they definitely are not, even if atheism has more correct connotations than the alternatives (though I call myself a Buddhist, which makes the problem way easier). Perhaps I am not seeing the better definition?

Comment author: Document 20 January 2011 08:33:53PM *  1 point [-]

It's like throwing out 'singularity' because most people pattern match it to Kurzweil

Possibly a bad example, since a number of people here advocate that. I remember a comment somewhere that people at SIAI were considering renaming it for related reasons.

Comment author: ata 20 January 2011 08:38:17PM *  2 points [-]

Possibly a bad example, since a number of people here advocate that. I remember a comment somewhere that SIAI was considering a name change for related reasons.

Here's the one I remembered (there may have been a couple of other mentions):

Hollerith, if by that you're referring to the mutant alternate versions of the "Singularity" that have taken over public mindshare, then we can be glad that despite the millions of dollars being poured into them by certain parties, the public has been reluctant to uptake. Still, the Singularity Institute may have to change its name at some point - we just haven't come up with a really good alternative.

(I agree with this, but do not have a better name to propose.)

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 08:39:44PM 1 point [-]

I think they're going to drop the 'for Artificial Intelligence' part, but I think they're keeping the 'Singularity' part, since they're interested in other things besides seed AI that are traditionally 'Singularitarian'. (Side note: I'm not sure if I should use 'we' or 'they'. I think 'they'. Nobody at SIAI wants to speak for SIAI, since SIAI is very heterogenous. And anyway I'm just a Visiting Fellow.) The social engineering aspects of the problem are complicated. Accuracy, or memorability? Rationalists should win, after all...

Comment author: TheOtherDave 20 January 2011 08:55:36PM 2 points [-]

Side note: I'm not sure if I should use 'we' or 'they'.

You could go with "it" and sidestep the problem.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 06:34:24PM 1 point [-]

"Gods are ontologically distinct from creatures, or they're not worth the paper they're written on." -- Damien Broderick

Most upper ontologies allow no such ontological distinction. E.g. my default ontology is algorithmic information theory, which allows for tons of things that look like gods.

I agree with the rest of your comment, though. I don't know what 'worship' means yet (is it just having lots of positive affect towards something?), but it makes for a good distinction between religion and not-quite-religion.

Time for me to reread A Human's Guide to Words, I suppose. But in my head and with Visiting Fellows folk I think I will continue to use an ontological language stolen from theism.

Comment author: Jack 20 January 2011 07:23:31PM 1 point [-]

But in my head and with Visiting Fellows folk I think I will continue to use an ontological language stolen from theism.

I'm curious to know why you prefer this language. I kind of like it too, but can't really put a finger on why.

Comment author: ata 20 January 2011 07:44:47PM 7 points [-]

I think Ben from TakeOnIt put it well:

P.P.G. Bateson said:

Say what you mean, even if it takes longer, rather than use a word that carries so many different connotations.

Interestingly, I can't actually think of a word with more connotations than "God". Perhaps this is a function of the fact that:

  1. All definitions of "God" agree that "God" is the most important thing.
  2. There is nothing more disagreeable than what is the most important thing.

There's definitely something deeply appealing about theistic language. That's what makes it so dangerous.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 07:40:24PM *  9 points [-]

Primarily because I get a lot of glee out of meta-contrarianism and talking in a way that would make stereotypical aspiring rationalists think I was crazy. Secondarily because the language is culturally rich. Tertiarily because I figure out what smart people actually mean when they talk about faith, charkras, souls, et cetera, and it's fun to rediscover those concepts and find their naturalistic basis. Quaternarily it allows me to practice charity in interpretation and steel-manning of bad arguments. Zerothly (I forgot the most important reason!) it is easier to speak in such a way, which makes it easier to see implications and decompartmentalize knowledge. Senarily it is more aesthetic than rationalistic jargon.

Comment author: Zack_M_Davis 20 January 2011 08:22:10PM 9 points [-]

I get a lot of glee out of meta-contrarianism and talking in a way that would make stereotypical aspiring rationalists think I was crazy

I agree that verbal masturbation is fun, but it's not helpful when you're tying to actually communicate with people. Consider purchasing contrarian glee and communication separately.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 08:26:32PM 1 point [-]

I agree, though I was describing the case where I can do both simultaneously (when I'm talking to people who either don't mind or join in on the fun). This post was more an example of just not realizing that the use of the word 'theism' would have such negative and distracting connotations.

Comment author: steven0461 20 January 2011 09:05:47PM *  1 point [-]

That's a good point, but where do you recommend getting contrarian glee separate from communication?

Comment author: Document 20 January 2011 09:36:11PM *  2 points [-]
Comment author: steven0461 20 January 2011 10:31:03PM 8 points [-]

I wish crackpot theories were considered a legitimate form of art. They're like fantasy worldbuilding but better.

Comment author: anon895 24 January 2011 12:06:26AM 2 points [-]

Here, of course.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 21 January 2011 04:14:34AM 1 point [-]

Tertiarily because I figure out what smart people actually mean when they talk about faith, charkras, souls, et cetera, and it's fun to rediscover those concepts and find their naturalistic basis.

Except I think it's safe to say this sort of thing typically isn't what they mean, merely what they perhaps might mean if they were thinking more clearly. And it's not at all clear how you could find analogs to the more concrete religious ideas (e.g. chakras or the holy trinity).

Quaternarily it allows me to practice charity in interpretation and steel-manning of bad arguments.

If the person would violently disagree that this is in fact what they intended to say, I'm not sure it can be called "charity of interpretation" anymore. And while I agree steel-manning of bad arguments is important, to do it to such an extent seems to be essentially allowing your attention to be hijacked by anyone with a hypothesis to privilege.

Comment author: steven0461 20 January 2011 07:56:52PM 5 points [-]

There's a buttload of thinking that's been done in this language in earlier times, and if we use the language, that suggests we can reuse the thinking, which is pretty exciting if true. But mostly I don't think it is.

(For any discredited theory along the lines of gods or astrology, you want to focus on its advocates from the past more than from the present, because the past is when the world's best minds were unironically into these things.)

Comment author: Miller 20 January 2011 10:08:12AM *  -1 points [-]

Yes. Next. I think this post demonstrates the need for downvotes to be a a greater than 1.0 multiple of upvotes. What argument is there otherwise other than the status quo?

Comment author: shokwave 20 January 2011 03:00:02PM 1 point [-]

What argument is there otherwise other than the status quo?

To the extent that positive karma is a reward for the poster and an indication of what people desire to see (both very true), we should not expect a distribution about the mean of zero. If the average comment is desirable and deserving of reward, then the average comment will be upvoted.

Comment author: Miller 20 January 2011 11:21:37PM 1 point [-]

I didn't say anything about centering on zero, and agree that would be incorrect. However, modification to the current method is likely challenging and no one's actually going to do any novel karma engineering here so it was a silly comment for me to make.

Comment author: [deleted] 28 November 2014 10:52:42PM *  1 point [-]

If you believe in a Matrix or in the Simulation Hypothesis, you believe in powerful aliens, not deities. Next! ... This is mere distortion of both the common informal use and advanced formal definitions of the word "atheism", which is not only unhelpful but such a common religious tactic that you should not be surprised to be downvoted.

It bothers me when an easily researched, factually incorrect statement is upvoted so many times. There are many different definitions of atheism, but one good one might be:

An atheist is one who denies the existence of a personal, transcendent creator of the universe, rather than one who simply lives life without reference to such a being. A theist is one who asserts the existence of such a creator. Robin Le Poidevin. Arguing for Atheism: An Introduction to the Philosophy of Religion

The book does not define personal or transcendent, but it is unlikely that either would exclude "god is an extradimensional being who created us using a simulation" as a theistic argument. For example, one likely definition of transcendent is:

transcendent: the realm of thought which lies beyond the boundary of pos­sible knowledge, because it consists of objects which cannot be presented to us in intuition-i.e., objects which we can never experience with our senses (sometimes called noumena). The closest we can get to gaining knowledge of the transcendent realm is to think about it by means of ideas. (The opposite of 'transcendent' is 'immanent'.) [http://staffweb.hkbu.edu.hk/ppp/ksp1/KSPglos.html]

Beings living outside the simulation would definitely qualify as transcendent since we have no way of experiencing their universe. To be clear, I am not saying this is the only possible definition of atheism. I am only saying that it is one reasonable definition of atheism, and to claim that it is not a definition, as Eliezer's post has done, is factually incorrect.

Comment author: Alex_Altair 20 January 2011 12:58:58AM 8 points [-]

The only fact necessary to rationally be an atheist is that there is no evidence for a god. We don't need any arguments -- evolutionary or historical or logical -- against a hypothesis with no evidence.

The reason I don't spend a cent of my time on it is because of this, and because all arguments for a god are dishonest, that is, they are motivated by something other than truth. It's only slightly more interesting than the hypothesis that there's a teapot around venus. And there are plenty of other things to spend time on.

As a side note, I have spent time on learning about the issue, because it's one of the most damaging beliefs people have, and any decrease in it is valuable.

Comment author: Jack 20 January 2011 07:33:39PM *  4 points [-]

The existence of the universe is actually very strong evidence in favor of theism. It just isn't nearly strong enough to overcome the insanely low prior that is appropriate.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 01:54:08AM 8 points [-]

The only fact necessary to rationally be an atheist is that there is no evidence for a god. We don't need any arguments -- evolutionary or historical or logical -- against a hypothesis with no evidence.

I contend that there is evidence for a god. Observation: Things tend to have causes. Observation: Agenty things are better at causing interesting things than non-agenty things. Observation: We find ourselves in a very interesting universe.

Those considerations are Bayesian evidence. The fact that many, many smart people have been theistic is Bayesian evidence. So now you have to start listing the evidence for the alternate hypothesis, no?

The reason I don't spend a cent of my time on it is because of this, and because all arguments for a god are dishonest, that is, they are motivated by something other than truth.

Do you mean all arguments on Christian internet fora, or what? There's a vast amount of theology written by people dedicated to finding truth. They might not be good at finding truth, but it is nonetheless what is motivating them.

I should really write a post on the principle of charity...

It's only slightly more interesting than the hypothesis that there's a teapot around venus.

I realize this is rhetoric, but still... seriously? The question of whether the universe came into being via an agenty optimization process is only slightly more interesting than teapots orbiting planets?

As a side note, I have spent time on learning about the issue, because it's one of the most damaging beliefs people have, and any decrease in it is valuable.

I agree that theism tends to be a very damaging belief in many contexts, and I think it is good that you are fighting against its more insipid/irrational forms.

Comment author: Alex_Altair 20 January 2011 02:45:43AM 5 points [-]

It's only slightly more interesting than the hypothesis that there's a teapot around venus.

I realize this is rhetoric, but still... seriously? The question of whether the universe came into being via an agenty optimization process is only slightly more interesting than teapots orbiting planets?

I suppose that their ratio is very high, but that their difference is still extremely small.

As for your evidence that there is a god, I think you're making some fundamentally baseless assumptions about how the universe should be "expected" to be. The universe is the given. We should not expect it to be disordered any more than we should expect it to be ordered. And I'd say that the uninteresting things in the universe vastly outnumber the interesting things, whereas for humans they do not.

Also, I must mention the anthropic principle. A universe with humans much be sufficiently interesting to cause humans in the first place.

But I do agree that many honest rational people, even without the bias of existent religion, would at least notice the analogy between the order humans create and the universe itself, and form the wild but neat hypothesis that it was created by an agent. I'm not sure if that analogy is really evidence, anymore than the ability of a person to visualize anything is evidence for it.

Comment author: Jack 20 January 2011 07:47:42PM 1 point [-]

We should not expect it to be disordered any more than we should expect it to be ordered.

You can't just not have a prior. There is certainly no reason to assume the the universe as we have found has the default entropy. And we actually have tools that allow us to estimate this stuff- the complexity of the universe we find ourselves in is dependent on a very narrow range values in our physics. Yes I'm making the fine-tuning argument and of course knowing this stuff should increase our p estimate for theism. That doesn't mean P(Jehovah) is anything but minuscule-- the prior for an uncreated, omnipotent, omniscient and omni-benevolent God is too low for any of this to justify confident theism.

Comment author: shokwave 20 January 2011 03:13:25PM 4 points [-]

Observation: Agenty things are better at causing interesting things than non-agenty things.

I can't help but feel that this sentence pervasively redefines 'interesting things' as 'appears agent-caused'.

Comment author: DSimon 23 January 2011 09:24:41PM 0 points [-]

As curious agents ourselves, we're pre-tuned to find apparently-agent-caused things interesting. So, I don't think a redefinition necessarily took place.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 January 2011 02:02:55AM 4 points [-]

I should really write a post on the principle of charity...

Yes!

Comment author: Document 20 January 2011 04:19:05AM 2 points [-]

Possible prior work: Why and how to debate charitably, by User:pdf23ds.

Comment author: Perplexed 20 January 2011 04:06:43AM 3 points [-]

I contend that there is evidence for a god. Observation: Things tend to have causes. Observation: Agenty things are better at causing interesting things than non-agenty things. Observation: We find ourselves in a very interesting universe.

Those considerations are Bayesian evidence.

Your choice of wording here makes it obvious that you are aware of the counter-argument based on the Anthropic Principle. (Observation: uninteresting venues tend not to be populated by observers.) So, what is your real point?

Comment author: magfrump 20 January 2011 06:46:33AM 1 point [-]

I would think "Observers who find their surroundings interesting duplicate their observer-ness better" is an even-less-mind-bending anthropic-style argument.

Also this keeps clear that "interesting" is more a property of observers than of places.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 20 January 2011 01:52:28PM 1 point [-]

(nods) Yeah, I would expect life forms that fail to be interested in the aspects of their surroundings that pertain to their ability to produce successful offspring to die out pretty quickly.

That said, once you're talking about life forms with sufficiently general intelligences that they become interested in things not directly related to that, it starts being meaningful to talk about phenomena of more general interest.

Of course, "general" does not mean "universal."

Comment author: Will_Sawin 23 January 2011 10:48:11PM 0 points [-]

If we have a prior of 100 to 1 against agent-caused universes, and .1% of non-agent universes have observers observing interestingness while 50% of agent-caused universes have it, what is the posterior probability of being in an agent-caused universe?

Comment author: Perplexed 24 January 2011 01:09:12AM 0 points [-]

I make it about 83% if you ignore the anthropic issues (by assuming that all universes have observers, or that having observers is independent of being interesting, for example). But if you want to take anthropic issues into account, you are only allowed to take the interestingness of this universe as evidence, not its observer-ladenness. So the answer would have to be "not enough data".

Comment author: Will_Sawin 24 January 2011 02:32:05AM 0 points [-]

You can't not be allowed to take the observer-ladenness of a universe as evidence.

Limiting case: Property X is true of a universe if and only if it has observers. May we take the fact that observers exist in our universe as evidence that observers exist there?

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 23 January 2011 11:30:24PM 0 points [-]

I have no idea what probability should be assigned to non-agent universes having observers observing interesting things (though for agent universes, 50% seems too low), but I also think your prior is too high.

I think there is some probability that there are no substantial universe simulations, and some probability that the vast majority of universes are simulations, but even if we live in a multiverse where simulated universes are commonplace, our particular universe seems like a very odd choice to simulate unless the basement universe is very similar to our own. I also assign a (very) small probability to the proposition that our universe is computationally capable of simulating universes like itself (even with extreme time dilation), so that also seems unlikely.

Comment author: Will_Sawin 24 January 2011 02:33:20AM 1 point [-]

Probabilities were for example purposes only. I made them up because they were nice to calculate with and sounded halfway reasonable. I will not defend them. If you request that I come up with my real probability estimates, I will have to think harder.

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 24 January 2011 02:50:48AM 0 points [-]

Ah, well your more general point was well-made. I don't think better numbers are really important. It's all too fuzzy for me to be at all confident about.

I still retain my belief that it is implausible that we are in a universe simulation. If I am in a simulation, I expect that it is more likely that I am by myself (and that conscious or not, you are part of the simulation created in response to me), moderately more likely that there are a small group of humans being simulated with other humans and their environment dynamically generated, and overall very unlikely that the creators have bothered to simulate any part of physical reality that we aren't directly observing (including other people). Ultimately, none of these seem likely enough for me to bother considering for very long.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 05:47:45AM 0 points [-]

The first part of your belief that "it is implausible that we are in a universe simulation" appears to be based on the argument:

If simulationism, then solipsism is likely.

Solipsism is unlikely, so . . .

Chain of logic aside, simulationism does not imply solipsism. Simulating N localized space-time patterns in one large simulation can be significantly cheaper than simulating N individual human simulations. So some simulated individuals may exist in small solipsist sims, but the great majority of conscious sims will find themselves in larger shared simulations.

Presumably a posthuman intelligence on earth would be interested in earth as a whole system, and would simulate this entire system. Simulating full human-mind equivalents is something of a sweet spot in the space of approximations.

There is a massive sweet spot, an extremely effecient method, of simulating a modern computer - which is to simulate it at the level of it's turing equivalent circuit. Simulating it at a level below this - say at the molecular level, is just a massive waste of resources, while any simulation above this loses accuracy completely.

It is postulated that a similar simulation scale separation exists for human minds, which naturally relates to uploads and AI.

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 26 January 2011 07:54:39AM 1 point [-]

Simulating full human-mind equivalents is something of a sweet spot in the space of approximations.

I don't understand why human-mind equivalents are special in this regard. This seems very anthropocentric, but I could certainly be misinterpreting what you said.

Simulating N localized space-time patterns in one large simulation can be significantly cheaper than simulating N individual human simulations.

Cheaper, but not necessarily more efficient. It matters which answers one is looking for, or which goals one is after. It seems unlikely to me that my life is directed well enough to achieve interesting goals or answer interesting questions that a superintelligence might pose, but it seems even more unlikely that simulating 6 billion humans, in the particular way they appear (to me) to exist is an efficient way to answer most questions either.

I'd like to stay away from telling God what to be interested in, but out of the infinite space of possibilities, Earth seems too banal and languorous to be the one in N that have been chosen for the purpose of simulation, especially if the basement universe has a different physics.

If the basement universe matches our physics, I'm betting on the side that says simulating all the minds on Earth and enough other stuff to make the simulation consistent is an expensive enough proposition that it won't be worthwhile to do it many times. Maybe I'm wrong; there's no particular reason why simulating all of humanity in the year of 2011 needs to take more than 10^18 J, so maybe there's a "real" milky way that's currently running 10^18 planet-scale sims. Even that doesn't seem like a big enough number to convince me that we are likely to be one of those.

Comment author: jacob_cannell 26 January 2011 09:00:52AM *  1 point [-]

Simulating full human-mind equivalents is something of a sweet spot in the space of approximations.

I don't understand why human-mind equivalents are special in this regard. This seems very anthropocentric, but I could certainly be misinterpreting what you said.

I meant there is probably some sweet spot in the space of [human-mind] approximations, because of scale separation, which I elaborated on a little later with the computer analogy.

Simulating N localized space-time patterns in one large simulation can be significantly cheaper than simulating N individual human simulations.

Cheaper, but not necessarily more efficient.

Cheaper implies more efficient, unless the individual human simulations somehow have a dramatically higher per capita utility.

A solipsist universe has extraneous patchwork complexity. Even assuming that all of the non-biological physical processes are grossly approximated (not unreasonable given current simulation theory in graphics), they still may add up to a cost exceeding that of one human mind.

But of course a world with just one mind is not an accurate simulation, so you now you need to populate it with a huge number of pseudo-minds which functionally are indistinguishable from the perspective of our sole real observer but somehow use much less computational resources.

Now imagine a graph of simulation accuracy vs computational cost of a pseudo-mind. Rather than being linear, I believe it is sharply exponential, or J-shaped with a single large spike near the scale separation point.

The jumping point is where the pseudo-mind becomes a real actual conscious observer of it's own.

The rationale for this cost model and the scale separation point can be derived from what we know about simulating computers.

It seems unlikely to me that my life is directed well enough to achieve interesting goals or answer interesting questions that a superintelligence might pose, but it seems even more unlikely that simulating 6 billion humans, in the particular way they appear (to me) to exist is an efficient way to answer most questions either.

Perhaps not your life in particular, but human life on earth today?

Simulating 6 billion humans will probably be the only way to truly understand what happened today from the perspective of our future posthuman descendants. The alternatives are . . . creating new physical planets? Simulation will be vastly more efficient than that.

Earth seems too banal and languorous to be the one in N that have been chosen for the purpose of simulation, especially if the basement universe has a different physics.

The basement reality is highly unlikely to have different physics. The vast majority of simulations we create today are based on approximations of currently understood physics, and I don't expect this to every change - simulations have utility for simulators.

so maybe there's a "real" milky way that's currently running 10^18 planet-scale sims. Even that doesn't seem like a big enough number to convince me that we are likely to be one of those.

I'm a little confused about the 10^18 number.

From what I recall, at the limits of computation one kg of matter can hold roughly 10^30 bits, and a human mind is in the vicinity of 10^15 bits or less. So at the molecular limits a kg of matter could hold around a quadrillion souls - an entire human galactic civilization. A skyscraper of such matter could give you 10^8 kg .. and so on. Long before reaching physical limits, posthumans would be able to simulate many billions of entire earth histories. At the physical molecular limits, they could turn each of the moon's roughly 10^22 kg into an entire human civilization, for a total of 10^37 minds.

The potential time scale compression are nearly as vast - with estimated speed limits at around 10^15 ops/bit/sec in ordinary matter at ordinary temperatures, vs at most 10^4 ops/bit/sec in human brains, although not dramatically higher than the 10^9 ops/bit/sec of today's circuits. The potential speedup of more than 10^10 over biological brains allows for about one hundred years per second of sidereal time.

Comment author: Desrtopa 02 February 2011 05:54:35AM *  0 points [-]

To uploads, yes, but a faithful simulation of the universe, or even a small portion of it. would have to track a lot more variables than the processes of the human minds within it.

Comment author: steven0461 20 January 2011 02:15:15AM 3 points [-]

We find ourselves in a very interesting universe.

Some of it anyway.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 02:17:40AM -1 points [-]

Isn't it interesting how there's so much raw material that the interesting things can use to make more interesting things?

Comment author: [deleted] 24 January 2011 04:26:51AM 3 points [-]

Really? Your explanation for why there's lots of stuff is that an incredibly powerful benevolent agent made it that way? What does that explanation buy you over just saying that there's lots of stuff?

Comment author: DSimon 23 January 2011 09:28:16PM 2 points [-]

Again, some of it. The vast vast majority of raw material in the universe is not used, and has never been used, for making interesting things.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 24 January 2011 04:25:43PM 1 point [-]

Why are you ignoring the future?

Comment author: Perplexed 26 January 2011 11:36:16PM 3 points [-]

Back when I used to hang around over at talk.origins, one of the scientist/atheists there seemed to think that the sheer size of the universe was the best argument against the theist idea of a universe created for man. He thought it absurd that a dramatic production starring H. sapiens would have such a large budget for stage decoration and backdrops when it begins with such a small budget for costumes - at least in the first act.

Your apparent argument is that a big universe is evidence that Someone has big plans for us. The outstanding merit of your suggestion, to my mind, is that his argument and your anti-argument, if brought into contact, will mutually annihilate leaving nothing but a puff of smoke.

Comment author: DSimon 26 January 2011 01:13:45PM 0 points [-]

Are you proposing that in the future we will necessarily end up using some large proportion of the universe's material for making interesting things? I mean, I agree that that's possible, but it hardly seems inevitable.

Comment author: timtyler 27 January 2011 09:30:36AM *  2 points [-]

I think that is more-or-less the idea, yes - though you can drop the "necessarily ".

Don't judge the play by the first few seconds.

Comment author: DSimon 28 January 2011 01:49:00PM *  2 points [-]

The reason I put in "necessarily" is because it seems like Will Newsome's anthropic argument requires that the universe was designed specifically for interesting stuff to happen. If it's not close to inevitable, why didn't the designer do a better job?

Comment author: timtyler 28 January 2011 09:36:43PM *  2 points [-]

Maybe there's no designer. Will doesn't say he's 100% certain - just that he thinks interestingness is "Bayesian evidence" for a designer.

I think this is a fairly common sentiment - e.g. see Hanson.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 29 January 2011 01:21:45AM 0 points [-]

Necessarily? Er... no. But I find the arguments for a decent chance of a technological singularity to be pretty persuasive. This isn't much evidence in favor of us being primarily computed by other mind-like processes (as opposed to getting most of our reality fluid from some intuitively simpler more physics-like computation in the universal prior specification), but it's something. Especially so if a speed prior is a more realistic approximation of optimal induction over really large hypothesis spaces than a universal prior is, which I hope is true since I think it'd be annoying to have to get our decision theories to be able to reason about hypercomputation...

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 20 January 2011 02:06:09AM 2 points [-]

I contend that there is evidence for a god. Observation: Things tend to have causes. Observation: Agenty things are better at causing interesting things than non-agenty things. Observation: We find ourselves in a very interesting universe.

"Interesting" is subjective, and further, I think you overestimate how many interesting things we actually know to be caused by "agenty things." Phenomena with non-agenty origins include: any evolved trait or life form (as far as we have seen), any stellar/astronomical/geological body/formation/event...

Comment author: mkehrt 20 January 2011 02:50:19AM 2 points [-]

Phenomena with non-agenty origins include: any evolved trait or life form (as far as we have seen), any stellar/astronomical/geological body/formation/event...

It is pretty likely you are correct, but this is probably the best example of question-begging I have ever seen.

Comment author: gjm 20 January 2011 03:12:32PM 1 point [-]

All Dreaded_Anomaly needs for the argument I take him or her to be making is that those things are not known to be caused by "agenty things". More precisely: Will Newsome is arguing "interesting things tend to be caused by agents", which is a claim he isn't entitled to make before presenting some (other) evidence that (e.g.) trees and clouds and planets and elephants and waterfalls and galaxies are caused by agents.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 02:14:31AM *  0 points [-]

Interestingness is objective enough to argue about. (Interestingly enough, that is the very paper that eventually led me to apply for Visiting Fellowship at SIAI.) I think that the phenomena you listed are not nearly as interesting as macroeconomics, nuclear bombs, genetically engineered corn, supercomputers, or the singularity.

Edit: I misunderstood the point of your argument. Going back to responding to your actual argument...

I still contend that we live in a very improbably interesting time, i.e. on the verge of a technological singularity. Nonetheless this is contentious and I haven't done the back of the envelope probability calculations yet. I will try to unpack my intuitions via arithmetic after I have slept. Unfortunately we run into anthropic reference class problems and reality fluid ambiguities where it'll be hard to justify my intuitions. That happens a lot.

Comment author: topynate 20 January 2011 02:25:31AM 6 points [-]

All of those phenomena are caused by human action! Once you know humans exist, the existence of macroeconomics is causally screened off from any other agentic processes. All of those phenomena, collectively, aren't any more evidence for the existence of an intelligent cause of the universe than the existence of humans: the existence of such a cause and the existence of macroeconomics are conditionally independent events, given the existence of humans.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 02:32:13AM *  0 points [-]

Right, I was responding to Dreaded_Anomaly's argument that interesting things tend not to be caused by agenty things, which was intended as a counterargument to my observation that interesting things tend to be caused by agenty things. The exchange was unrelated to the argument about the relatively (ab)normal interestingness of this universe. I think that is probably the reason for the downvotes on my comment, since without that misinterpretation it seems overwhelmingly correct.

Edit: Actually, I misinterpreted the point of Dreaded_Anomaly's argument, see above.

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 20 January 2011 03:38:14AM 3 points [-]

I'm not sure how an especially interesting time (improbable or otherwise) occurring ~13.7 billion years after the universe began implies the existence of God.

Comment author: DSimon 23 January 2011 09:30:53PM 2 points [-]

I still contend that we live in a very improbably interesting time, i.e. on the verge of a technological singularity. Nonetheless this is contentious and I haven't done the back of the envelope probability calculations yet.

Ack! Watch out for that most classic of statistical mistakes: seeing something interesting happen, going back and calculating the probability of that specific thing (rather than interesting things in general!) having happened, seeing that that probability is small, and going "Ahah, this is hardly likely to have happened by chance, therefore there's probably something else involved."

Comment author: datadataeverywhere 23 January 2011 11:41:40PM 0 points [-]

In this case, I think Fun Theory specifies that there are an enormous number of really interesting things, each of minuscule individual probability, but highly likely as an aggregate.

Comment author: prase 20 January 2011 01:18:48PM 1 point [-]

The question of whether the universe came into being via an agenty optimization process is only slightly more interesting than teapots orbiting planets?

Depends on personal standards of interest. I may be more interested in questions which I can imagine answering than ones whose anwer is a matter of speculation, even if the first class refers to small unimportant objects while the second speaks about the whole universe. Practically, finding out teapots orbiting Venus would have more tangible consequences than realising that "universe was caused by an agenty process" is true (when further properties of the agent remain unspecified). The feeling of grandness associated with learning the truth about the very beginning of the universe, when the truth is so vague that all anticipated expectations remain the same as before, doesn't count in my eyes.

Even if you forget heaven, hell, souls, miracles, prayer, religious morality and plethora of other things normally associated with theism (which I don't approve because confusion inevitably appears when words are redefined), and leave only "universe was created by an agenty process" (accepting that "universe" has some narrower meaning than "everything which exists"), you have to point out how can we, at least theoretically, test it. Else, it may not be closed for being definitely false, but still would be closed for being uninteresting.

Comment author: [deleted] 20 January 2011 12:59:12AM 3 points [-]

Agreed. I think this is a cultural thing rather than a truly rational thing. I was brought up as an atheist, and would still describe myself as such, but I wouldn't give a zero probability to the simulation argument, or to Tipler's Omega Point, or whatever (I wouldn't give a high probability to either - and Tipler's work post about 1994 has been obvious ravings) and I can imagine other scenarios in which something we might call God might exist. I don't see myself changing my mind on the theism question, but I don't consider it a closed one.

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 23 January 2011 08:40:53PM 2 points [-]

When I abandoned religion, a friend of mine did the same at about the same time. We spoke recently and it turned out that he self-labeled as agnostic, me - "atheist". We discussed this a bit and I said something to the extent that "I do not see a shred of justice in the world that would indicated a working of a personal god; if there is something like a god that runs the universe amorally, we may as well call it physics and get on with it".

It seems that you want to draw the additional distinction of "agenty" things vs. dumb gears, but as long as they only "care" about persons as atmos, vs. moral agents, who cares? It admittedly tickles curiosity, but will hardly change the program...

Comment author: Jack 23 January 2011 08:45:56PM 3 points [-]

What makes you think an agenty, simulator-type god wouldn't care about persons as moral agents?

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 23 January 2011 08:48:39PM 4 points [-]

An agenty simulator type god that actually did care about persons as moral agents would have created a very different universe than this one (assuming they were competent).

Comment author: Jack 23 January 2011 09:06:21PM 4 points [-]

Well if it were chiefly concerned with us having a lot of fun, or not experiencing pain or fulfilling more of our preferences then yes. But maybe the simulator is trying to evolve companions. Or maybe it is chiefly concerned with answering counter-factual questions and so we have to suffer for it to get the right answers... but that doesn't mean the simulator doesn't care about us at all. Maybe it saves us when we die and are no longer needed for the simulation. Or maybe the simulator just has weird values and this is their version of a eutopia.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 04 March 2012 10:24:21AM 2 points [-]

"Companions, the creator seeketh, and not corpses--and not herds or believers either. Fellow-creators the creator seeketh--those who grave new values on new tables."

Comment author: Dr_Manhattan 23 January 2011 09:14:31PM 2 points [-]

Not wouldn't, doesn't. And I think it doesn't due to lack of evidence.

Comment author: Normal_Anomaly 20 January 2011 01:16:10AM *  2 points [-]

There's not enough evidence to locate the hypothesis, so while I technically give it a non-zero probability, that probability is not high enough for me to consider it worth significant time to investigate.

As for arguing against it in public: at most one human religion can be true. All the others must be false. So decreasing the amount of religion in the world improves net accuracy. Also and perhaps more importantly, religion is a major source of Dark Side Epistemology. So on the meta-level, minimizing the influence of religion will help people become more rational.

Comment author: wedrifid 20 January 2011 01:46:41AM 5 points [-]

There's not enough evidence to locate the hypothesis

That line works a lot better for 'Jehovah' than 'theism', especially if you apply the latter term liberally.

Comment author: rosyatrandom 20 January 2011 01:22:04AM 1 point [-]

I'm in the 'everything that can exist does so; we're a fixed point in a cloud of possibilities' camp. I'm also an atheist because I see theism as an extra-ordinarily arbitrary and restrictive constraint on what should or must be true in order for us to exist.

It's simply too narrow and unjustified for me to take seriously, and the fact that its trappings are naive and full of wishful thinking and ulterior motives means I certainly don't.

Comment author: Will_Newsome 20 January 2011 01:41:47AM -1 points [-]

I'm also an atheist because I see theism as an extra-ordinarily arbitrary and restrictive constraint on what should or must be true in order for us to exist.

The way I've been envisioning theism is as a pretty broad class of hypotheses that is basically described as 'this patch of the universe we find ourselves in is being computed by something agenty'. What is your conception of theism that makes it more arbitrary and restrictive than this?

Comment author: Dreaded_Anomaly 20 January 2011 01:06:38AM 1 point [-]

I think the theism/atheism debate is considered closed in the following sense: no one currently has any good reasons in support of theism (direct evidence, or rational/Bayesian arguments). We can't say that such a reason won't show up in the future, but from what we know right now, theism just isn't worth considering. The territory, from all indications, is Godless (and soulless, for that matter), so the map should reflect that.

Comment author: Psy-Kosh 20 January 2011 06:12:50PM 1 point [-]

Well, agents pretty much tend to be complicated things that need to be explained in terms of more basic things. So if some sort of agent in some sense deliberately created our world... that agent still wouldn't be the most fundamental thing, it would need to be explained in terms of more basic principles. Somewhere along the line there'd have to be "simple math" or such. (Even if somehow you could have an infinite hierarchy of agents, then the basic math type explanation would have to explain/predict the hierarchy of agents.)

As far as "whatever translates to immortal soul", we pretty much mostly know that. We don't know the details of how it works, but we know that it amounts to physical/computational processes in the brain". (Less immortal than we'd like, but that's what we need to do something about.)

Even if an agenty process created our world, how does that alter this fact? It may influence some details (like if there is such an agenty process, we need to work out just how much of a threat that process/being is (and various other details) and thus deal with it accordingly, of course).

However, does our world ultimately look like it's primarily generated via agenty processes or by mindless processes?

Comment author: Bugmaster 05 March 2012 04:59:49PM 0 points [-]

What about those few of us who don't believe that the Simulation Argument is most probably true ? Don't get me wrong, it could be true, I just don't see any evidence to suppose that it is.

On that note, I always understood the word "theism" to mean "gods exist, and they interfere in the workings of our Universe in detectable ways". Isn't someone who believes in entirely unfalsifiable gods functionally equivalent to an atheist ?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 05 March 2012 05:40:48PM 0 points [-]

Isn't someone who believes in entirely unfalsifiable gods functionally equivalent to an atheist ?

If I believe in unfalsifiable gods who prefer that I behave in certain ways (though they do not provide me with any evidence of that preference), and I value the preferences of those gods enough to change my behavior accordingly, then I will behave differently than if I do not believe in those gods or do not value their preferences.

That alone would make Dave-the-atheist not functionally equivalent to Dave-the-theist-without-evidence, wouldn't it?

Comment author: Bugmaster 05 March 2012 06:31:32PM 0 points [-]

Technically, yes, but atheists also behave differently from each other, for all kinds of reasons. If Dave-the-theist truly believes that his gods are unfalsifiable, then he probably won't be seeking to convert others to his faith (since attempting to do so would be futile by definition). At that point, he's just like any atheist with an opinion.

Comment author: TimS 05 March 2012 07:06:28PM 0 points [-]

(since attempting to do so would be futile by definition)

Why does the unfalsifiability of god show that believers won't proselytize?

Tim-theist says "There is a god, but I can't detect god's interventions. Still, I'm going to spread the good news!"

Comment author: Bugmaster 05 March 2012 09:40:57PM 0 points [-]

Why does the unfalsifiability of god show that believers won't proselytize?

A truly unfalsifiable god does not, by definition, provide any evidence of its existence. Thus, there's no "good news" to be spread, since a world with the god in it looks exactly the same as a world with the god.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 05 March 2012 10:11:42PM 0 points [-]

Sure there is. For example, the Good News might be "God will reward those who worship him as follows: {blah blah blah} after they die." Unfalsifiable, but certainly good to know if true.

The fact that you demand evidence before adopting such a belief is of no particular interest to Dave-the-theist-without-evidence.

Comment author: Bugmaster 06 March 2012 04:57:51AM 0 points [-]

"God will reward those who worship him as follows: {blah blah blah} after they die."

This is a falsifiable claim, assuming that we have some evidence of the afterlife. If we have no such evidence, then, in order for this to count as good news, the theist would first have to convince me that there's an afterlife.

The fact that you demand evidence before adopting such a belief is of no particular interest to Dave-the-theist-without-evidence.

In the absence of evidence, how is he going to convince anyone that his unfalsifiable belief is true ?

Comment author: TheOtherDave 06 March 2012 05:12:12PM 0 points [-]

Agreed that given evidence of the afterlife, it's a falsifiable claim, and lacking such evidence it's unfalsifiable.
I know of no such evidence, so I conclude it's unfalsifiable.
Do you know of any such evidence?
If not, do you also conclude that it's unfalsifiable?

If we have no such evidence, then, in order for this to count as good news, the theist would first have to convince me that there's an afterlife. [..] In the absence of evidence, how is he going to convince anyone that his unfalsifiable belief is true ?

What you seem to be implying is that there exist no (or negligible numbers of) people in the real world who can be convinced of claims for which there is no evidence, which is demonstrably false. Are you in fact asserting that, or am I completely misunderstanding you?

Comment author: Bugmaster 06 March 2012 06:22:42PM 1 point [-]

Do you know of any such evidence? If not, do you also conclude that it's unfalsifiable?

Yes, I conclude that most kinds of afterlife are unfalsifiable. Some are falsifiable, but they are in the minority: for example, if your religion claims that the dead occasionally haunt the living from beyound the grave, that's a falsifiable claim.

What you seem to be implying is that there exist no (or negligible numbers of) people in the real world who can be convinced of claims for which there is no evidence, which is demonstrably false.

Sort of. I would agree with this sentence as it is stated, with the caveat that what most people see as "evidence", and what you and I see as "evidence", are probably two different things. To use a crude example, most Creationists believe that the complexity of the natural world is evidence for God's involvement in its creation. Many theists believe that the feelings and emotions they experience after (or during) prayer are caused by their gods' explicit response to the prayer, which is also a kind of evidence.

Sure, you and I would probably discount these things as cognitive biases (well, I know I would), but that's beside the point; what matters here is that the theist thinks that the evidence is there, and thus his gods are falsifiable. When theists proselytize, they often use these kinds of evidence to convert people.

By contrast, someone who believes in an explicitly unfalsifiable god would not attribute any effects (mental or physical) to its existence, and thus does not have a workable way to convince others. The best he could say is, "you should believe as I do because it's a neat self-improvement technique", or something to that extent.

Comment author: TheOtherDave 06 March 2012 11:41:25PM 0 points [-]

(shrug) Sure, if we expand the meaning of "evidence" to include things we don't consider evidence, then I agree that my earlier statement becomes false.